Tagged: essay

A Lonely Profession

I have a very small circle of friends.  I mean real friends, you shallow Facebook generation, people I’ve known for years and with whom I have a shared history.

It’s small…and getting smaller.

Part of it is natural attrition:  people grow away from each other or their lives becomes too busy or what have you.  Or they die.

I’ve lost good friends, men and women I’ve been closely associated with more than two decades, for all of the reasons just stated.

Others I’ve shed.  Deliberately, ruthlessly.  With knowledge aforethought.  What can I say?  You cross me and I can be a real bastard.

I’m the first to acknowledge that it ain’t no easy chore being my friend.  The long silences no doubt grate.  And you know I hate, hate, HATE talking on the phone.  The telephone is an infernal device, the only thing left that can really threaten my concentration.  If a phone rings anywhere in my house between 9:00 a.m. and 4:30 (when someone else will be home to answer it), I immediately explode into a string of expletives that would melt the ears off a plastic dashboard Jesus.  Interrupt my work and you run the risk of being murdered.  It’s that simple.  God help the poor fucking telephone solicitor who breaks my train of thought.  Perhaps that’s why so many calls are automated these days.  People like me were traumatizing employees.  Whose lousy pay offered poor compensation for the frequent tirades and threats they endured, their headsets smoking as they fumbled for “disconnect”…

I don’t do small talk, couldn’t give a fuck about the latest movie you’ve seen or book you’ve read or the gorgeous autumn walk you just enjoyed.  Dig?  I.  Don’t.  Care. If you got any thoughts or observations, stick ’em in a 100-word e-mail and zip it my way.  I’ll get back to you within 48 hours.  That’s a pledge.  E-mails allow me to keep in touch on my time and terms.  It is the perfect platform for a busy curmudgeon.  It is the only form of communication I welcome.

And, of course, when I do get together with my friends they have to put up with my admittedly caustic wit and, let’s be honest, rants on my new favorite pet peeve or a long lecture on Gnosticism and the novels of Philip K. Dick.  Amazing how, at once, a person can be both boring and a boor.  I manage it quite easily.

I have a natural compulsion to entertain, to be the center of attention.  I’m capable of saying almost anything, the most provocative and cringe-worthy statements, refusing to recognize the fine line between satire and offensiveness.  I despise political correctness; watching our tongues and minding our manners like good little Stalin-era proles.  Fuck that.

Nights out with me are rare but they’re usually memorable.  Just not for the right reasons…

For the most part I enjoy being alone.  Very comfortable with silence and solitude.  I don’t require company or diversion.  I’m doing something creative literally every single day of the year and I simply don’t have much time for other things.  When I’m not working, I’m with my family.  If I’m not doing either, I’m sleeping.  That’s pretty much the schedule around here.  The reality you have to adapt to if you’re going to remain in the picture longterm as a pal and confidante.

There’s one other thing and this is important:  you wanna be my friend, you gotta read my work.  Every single word of it.  Read it, listen to it, hold an informed opinion on it.  Having any conversation with me and not alluding, however briefly, to my raison d’etre, my entire purpose for existing on this planet, is like slapping me in a face with a sock full of canned ham.  You don’t recognize the central role writing plays in my life and respect the enormous amount of time and effort I expend on putting words on paper, you ain’t no friend.  You might be an acquaintance, a chum, but you sure as fuck ain’t part of the inner circle.  You’re somewhere out in the Oort Cloud, a distant signal, a far point of light.

I fully recognize that these are hard terms, entirely one-sided and solipsistic.  But the closer I get to fifty I’ve become less and less tolerant of superficial relationships and part-time pals.  And, unfortunately, I live in a pretty remote locale so there’s little chance of mingling with fellow writers and artists, who would have a better grasp of my obsessions and the demons that relentlessly drive me.  My wife and I have talked about moving to a larger center, where there are more opportunities to take in good movies, enjoy a cultural evening out.  With our boys getting older, a year or two from heading out on their own, it might be time to seriously ponder a change of address.  We’ll see.

Whatever happens and wherever I live, creativity and the compulsion to express myself will remain my primary focus.  Unless my brain is fully preoccupied with a project or artful experiment, I become bored, restless.  Dangerous.  If it’s frustrated or annoyed, a mind like mine can quickly turn on others…or itself.  It rages fearfully.  Vindictive and brutal, refusing to forgive the slightest fault.

Believe me, it’s a good thing I’m such a workaholic.  It’s better for everyone involved.  Those long silences mean I’m deeply and happily immersed in a book or story or short film.

Be sure to ask me about it the next time we run into each other.

I’m always happy to talk shop with a friend.


(Visuals by Cliff Burns)

The Writer, On His Own

My wife and sons have temporarily departed for more northerly climes, visiting family members who live right next to a lake near Thompson, Manitoba.  Idyllic spot, natural and picturesque.

Why didn’t I tag along (you ask, impudently)?

Because my mind isn’t ready for a vacation right now.  Matter of fact, for some reason summer is the time of year when my Muse really puts the pedal to the metal.  A good number of my novels and best short stories were drafted during the months of June-August.  Maybe a hormonal thing, who knows?  So, while everyone else is outside, barbequing or going to the lake, renting a cottage, enjoying yourselves, you’ll find me in my sweltering 10′ X 12′ home office, my door open, the fan on high to make the environment livable as I toil away on some literary project.

This year is no exception.  My western novel, The Last Hunt, devours much of my time.  I’m supposed to be taking a break from it at the moment but I can’t help poking my nose in, doing more research, scribbling notes, conceiving questions for some of the historians who have generously offered to lend a hand with the scenes set in Yellowstone Park. They’ll provide me with historical background, period detail and invaluable advice and input (and God bless ’em). I’ll be visiting that region of Montana later this summer, doing some on the spot scouting and location hunting.  It will be my first trip of any significance in a long time (I blush to say how long).  This borderline agoraphobic workaholic is trembling at the notion of being away from my desk for any length of time but I am utterly convinced of the necessity of this trip.  It will better establish the mood and setting of The Last Hunt and add some of the authenticity I think the present draft is lacking.

But I must confess I have another reason for remaining home.  It isn’t often I get the house to myself for days at a stretch and on those rare occasions that I do…well, I like to take full advantage of it.  I play loud music, from the time I get up to the wee hours of the morning.  I keep the windows shut, the drapes drawn and for one or two days I let myself go.  Stalk about in my bathrobe, unshaven, neglecting the laundry, neglecting to eat properly, neglecting to answer the phone or interact with the outside world.

It’s glorious and terrifying and, ultimately, beneficial.

I sit in my office, staring at my slippers while The Vandelles, A Place to Bury Strangers, The Replacements, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, etc. thunder from overhead speakers, loud enough to force me further back in my chair.  Lately, I like my music hard and dirty, a la the Vandelles’ “Lovely Weather” (crank it up!).

Meanwhile, I’m doing a good deal of scribbling—journaling and spontaneous or “automatic” writing like the Surrealists used to champion.  These writings represent Rorschach Tests and they give a pretty good idea of what’s on my mind, the preoccupations and fears dogging me.  Plenty of speculations on the spiritual front—I keep that up, I’m liable to end up with a gazillion page Exegesis, similar to Philip K. Dick.  And will likely be considered just as loony, should anyone happen to stumble across these errant, inexpert ramblings on God, the nature of reality and my own pitiful existence.

These writing exercises often trigger intervals of hellish introspection, long hours spent reviewing past sins and ruminating over the sorry state of my literary career, even after a quarter century of putting words on paper.  The mental boo birds come out and I subject myself to a great deal of vitriol before the nattering voices either subside, wear themselves out or are chastened by a very Bugs Bunny-like snarl originating from the depths of my id:

Aaaaaaaa, shaddap!”

I have trouble sleeping when my family’s away, find the nights hard to endure. I kill time by staying up and watching a double or triple header of movies.  Guy flicks and guilty pleasures; science fiction and thrillers given precedence.  This time around I’ve set aside flicks like “Michael Clayton”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Searchers”, “Shadow of the Vampire”,  “The Bad Lieutenant”.  Nothing too crazy, re: anything by Ken Russell or (shudder) “Eraserhead”.

And for reading material, Terence McKenna’s The Archaic Revival and Graham Hancock’s Supernatural.  Far-fetched stuff?  Pseudo-science?  To me, what these lads propose is nowhere near as crazy as some of the notions held by billions of people of all faiths around the world.  I am intrigued by what triggered that “monolith moment”, when our kind first opened their eyes to the possibility and mystery of the world and took a crucial evolutionary step, moving further away from their humble origins and toward a spectacular destiny.  This transformation coincided with the earliest cave art and the enactment of burial rituals, a species awakening to the existence of other realms and principalities.

Mebbe Bill Hicks is right and a certain humble fungus, naturally occurring, is responsible.  I guess we’d need a time machine to find out for sure.  Intriguing thought, though…

I suppose when all is said and done, my time alone is therapeutic, cathartic.  I miss out on a chance to hang out with good folks, do some boating and fishing in some of the most gorgeous scenery this country has to offer.  But the soul-searching, self-Inquisition and psychic ass-kicking blows off steam, relieves the accumulated pressures that accompany the creative life.  In my solitude, I can confront my demons and it’s a no-holds-barred, no quarter given bloodbath.  It’s not pleasant but it is necessary.  All part of the ongoing struggle to define myself as an artist, to better delineate the precepts and ideals I live by, requiring me to identify aspects within me that are working against those higher purposes and undermining my essential faith in the worthiness of my endeavors.  Demons, indeed, with hideous countenances, avid, savage expressions and appetites.  They are the worst parts of me and during the next few days I shall brawl, joust and treat with them, in the end probably settling for another draw, a few more months of relative peace on the emotional/spiritual front.

You say that’s not much of a bargain but, then, clearly your demons aren’t nearly as unreasonable, their intentions not as deliberately malign.

For that, count yourself lucky.

You are very fortunate indeed.

Photos by Sherron Burns

The Physics of Death

I want to tell you it will be all right.

There’s been a lot of bad news of late.  Friends and close acquaintances in dire straits.  A memorial service for a kid only a few years older than our boys.  Death seems to be hovering in the air around us, playing eeny-meeny-miney-mo with people we care about.  A cruel, arbitrary figure, a Shade with a mean streak.

We’ve reached middle age now and we have to expect losses.  Like the old Doors song goes:  no one here gets out alive.  But it’s not right when it’s kids who are afflicted and young mothers and devoted partners…blameless ones who shouldn’t be singled out for torment or earmarked for an early demise.  They deserve better.  That they should suffer is unfair and a universe that permits that to happen can’t possibly be caring or sentient or the slightest bit aware of our existence.  A cold, dead universe.  Endless and eternal and empty.

I know nothing of the physics of death.  I can’t tell you the weight of a human soul or confirm that such a thing even exists.  I’ve tried reading up on the science—the conversion of matter to energy and the possibility of alternate universes, hyper-realities—but, in the end, my intelligence and imagination just aren’t up to the task.

All I know is that I love you and these recent, grim reminders of mortality make me appreciate what we have and give thanks for every drawn breath.  These bedside vigils and funerals are rehearsals for a time that is bound to come and we lose one of ours.  That may sound selfish but it’s not.  Our grief is just as sincere and our sympathy for what those poor families must be enduring genuine and heartfelt.  We imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes and our souls quake.  When faced with such a horrifying spectacle, we avert our eyes.

To experience the death of a loved one is, to my mind, the ultimate test of faith.  Can your belief system withstand a loss so profound?  Can your theology and/or worldview accommodate an agony that rends your very being?  Can your God bear the heat of your anguish and rage?

We’ve been together a long time, you and I.  Not only in this lifetime but before that.  We’ve known each other and always recognize one another each time we meet.  As long as you are with me, I can survive anything.  I truly believe this.  Grief and despair may make me a shadow of my former self but as long as I am comforted by the knowledge of your existence, I will persist, I will struggle; against the odds, against the darkness, believing to my dying breath that being your lover and confidante ennobles me and gives me purpose, the will to go on.

You are all the proof I need.  There are terrible things afoot, a darkness creeping in from the edges.   Let’s treasure our time together, love, rather than allow fear to take from us all that is worth keeping and preserving.  We must refuse to allow mortal dread to defeat us and it is our shared strength that will save us.  In the face of death, affirm that we are alive and full of passion and joy and foolish dreams.  Confronted by the worst, we pledge to show a brave face, while clutching at each other for the companionship and comfort we know we will find there.

New post on my film blog

Check out the short essay I wrote on “Forbidden Planet” and other classic oldies—you’ll find it over at my film blog, Cinema Arete.