Now Comes the Black Horse

There’s a cream cheese shortage.  No, I’m not kidding, there is an actual, honest-to-God cream cheese crisis happening in the US at this very moment!

For the love of all that’s holy, how have we not mobilized FEMA?  How have we not started a milk-based Apollo Program to get out of this misery?  God forbid we have to take truly severe steps; when the rationing starts, so do the riots!

Does Washington not understand just how strategically vital is that crucial spread?  The only thing that would be worse of course is a coffee shortage, and not even in the depths of my embittered, cynical soul do I care to examine the consequences of something that horrifying…

I knew we were in trouble when I couldn’t find the real stuff on the store shelves.  I knew it, but I managed to lie well enough to myself to ignore the problem.  I’m good at lying to myself, by the way.  I’m good at pretending disaster is not impending, and that the world can and will keep going just the same as it ever has.

So, no real stuff.  No big tubs of the dense, smooth wonder with a recognized, trusted label.  Just small containers from some generic manufacturer.  Just insignificant containers of some strange, clearly artificial paste described as “whipped”….

Whipped?!

Whipped, you say?!?!

What is this nonsense?  Is this how you fool the shortsighted and placate the desperate?  Is this how you keep the world from ending?  Is there even so much as one real cow anywhere in the supply chain for this?  If I were French, I would spit on your “whipped” nonsense.

Err…actually…if I were French, there almost certainly would be very real riots happening over a such a travesty as this.  You can say what you want about the French, but Gallic pride and intransigence would never allow their world to descend into the misery of a cream-goddamned-cheese crisis!

Why do I write of such things, I hear you ask.  Why remind others of the miseries and pain to come?  Why focus on the naked bagel that so ruined your morning?  Because, well…

Because the Broncos suck, and I don’t want to write about that.  Because 2021, which once promised so much, has delivered so little.  Because there are still masks and vaccines and viruses exacerbating the differences between that need no more exacerbation.  Because everything else is falling apart, so why not the goddamned food chain, too?

And, no, I was neither kidding nor lying about the cream cheese shortage, nor about the travesty of finding only the generic “whipped” version.  All of that is the all-too-painful truth.

*sigh*

It really is a sign of the coming apocalypse.  Remember, while Death rides the pale horse, and War the red, Famine himself rides the black…

Crap, if I can turn cream cheese into freaking Armageddon, just what will I do if — or, sadly, when — coffee starts to become short, too!  I’m adopted, so I have no idea if I have French blood or not, but I know the language and the history and the culture — when the coffee runs out, it definitely will be time to go all Gallic and take to the streets.  I wouldn’t go and riot over much, but my daily pot of dark roast Ethiopian is worth fighting for!

{Musical Note — okay, so obviously not a terribly serious day. Let’s go with something that evokes, well, something else. Let’s just go with youth, and days of thoughts and worries very different, shall we?}

Other Things

I was about to close this blog down.

I was about to end the WordPress subscription and let the domain fall idle.

I was far too busy to write, I said.  I had far too many other things on my mind.

The world had its demands, I said.  All of those other things were more important.

And what did it matter, anyway?  This blog, this little seat at the bar I’ve occupied for the last five years, has never been anything more than a place for me to write in a personal, intimate style I would never use anywhere else.  It started as an experiment, morphed through a stage where it was “practice” and training, and in the end became…something else, something I can’t define.

Now, my father likes to talk about optimism.  He likes to remind me — the cynic of the family — that how we choose to view things is important in how we react to them.  Why I don’t share that same outlook is something we could debate for a very long time, but it is not germane to these words.  I understand the outlook.  More than that, I can even sometimes manage it…

So, when a technical trial and some serious process changes turned to a layoff notice months before I expected it, I decided to play the optimist.

Err…well…I decided to get drunk, actually.  Then I decided to play the optimist.

I haven’t written a creative word in months.  I haven’t explored a character, conceived a scene, or even so much as contemplated something so diabolical as subtext and socio-political commentary.

*sigh*

I couldn’t figure out why I was so unsatisfied.  I couldn’t figure out why my temper had so frayed, nor why energy and enthusiasm had fled.  That black dog, he was beginning to howl, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Two days ago I started thinking that I needed to write something…

…and I didn’t know where to start.  Hell, I didn’t even know how to start.

The blank page on my screen was no longer an invitation, it had become a barrier.  It made me feel small and insignificant.  It reminded me of better days, and I think we all know just how poorly I handle nostalgia and memory.

You have a choice at that point, you know.  The obstacle can be too much; the mountain too high; the price too steep…

Or you can just shut the fuck up and go back to the basics.  That was advice I gave four or five years ago, by the way.  When the writing suffers, when the words won’t come, just shut up and go back to the basics.  Just write.  Just be you.  Be who you are, whether you chose to be that person who lives through the words, or were born that way, doesn’t matter.  For good or for ill, it is who you are…so be that person. Be that writer.

For me that means sitting down in a pub with a beer at my elbow, music blaring in my ears, and an intentional pushing back of the cacophony of mental noise that has so drowned that little voice at the back of my mind…

Welcome back, little voice.

{Note — Yep, I’m re-using a song from a Christmas post I wrote a few years ago.  I love the song, and the sentiment still works, so here you go…}

Adopted Characters

I haven’t done much freelance writing lately.  Honestly, my focus has pretty much been 100% on getting the new brewery up and going.  That focus, by the way, is not gonna slow for at least a year. With everything I have to do, I do not expect to even open the doors until next fall, and even that will take an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears.

Some opportunities, however, still come up…

Even when I don’t seek them out, I have enough friends and contacts who know what I can do to feed me “snacks” from time to time. Look, when you’re known in certain circles for certain emotional things, the work kinda finds you.

I sometimes wish it didn’t.

A snack came my way recently…one I wish I had refused.  I certainly thought about doing so, but the money…

I was asked to rework an ending for a video game.  It was the “bad” ending, yes, but it still was a prominent part of the game…and one that needed attention.  The money wasn’t great, but it was better than what I get in my only-the-healthcare-matters “real” job, so of course I said yes…

All I needed to do was craft some character notes, and write a suicide note and eulogy.

Fuck.

I did it, of course.  I did it because I always do.  I don’t make promises that I don’t keep.  I wish sometimes that that was not the case, but I always deliver*…

*Not always on time, but I always deliver in the end.

So, I finished it…then I called out from work today and opened a new bottle of scotch.

I also cranked up the music.  A lot of music.  An amount — and volume — of music that I’m fairly certain had my neighbors calling the landlord.

Whatever.

I needed it, both the booze and the music.  They weren’t “my” characters, but I adopted them, and that means I built some feeling for them. They weren’t ”my” characters, but still I broke myself to turn out material that mattered…

Then I went and reminded myself of courage, and what it all really means.

Look, I like blues and rock and a certain amount of folk inspired music.  What I can’t stand is complete country.  I hate “hillbilly” music almost a much as I hate sell-out, commercial shit.  Which means I can’t stand 90% of what is called “country” today…

But, well, sometimes the meaning of the song transcends any categorization.  I’ve mentioned it before, but, well…this particular tune has a story that bears repeating:

I can think of no greater sign of courage, nor of love, than what Steve Earle did with the song below.  He took a song from his son, one that he never saw or heard until after his son’s suicide, and he recorded it.

Dear God, I can’t imagine the kind of strength that took.  When I need to remember courage and devotion and love…yeah, this song is all I really need.

More importantly, when I need to remember just how much art can heal and inspire, all I have to do is think about the story, and listen to this song:

Life, in Short

A dad, using a wadded gum wrapper to play tabletop hockey with his young son…

The mom playing a game with that boy’s toddler sister about using a “real” cup rather than the normal sippy one…

A grandmother, at the next table over, embarrassing her middle school grandkid with stories from her younger, wilder days…

Two guys, both in Lions gear, up at the bar arguing Michigan versus Michigan State — just when it gets heated, they remember they are both Lions fans and the commiseration starts…

A young boy and an old man, both doing the same pee-dance on their way to the restroom…

One observation.  A few words.  That’s where the characters — and their stories — start.  That’s it, one simple observation.  You take that observation and build from there:

That dad, he remembers his own father.  He remembers the distance — the distance not of neglect, but of absence due to work and need.  He won’t let that happen, not to his son.  His wife?  As she plays, she remembers the miscarriage, and the tears they shared for her lost child…

The grandmother wants to connect, wants to build something real with her granddaughter, but the distance is so vast.  Was it really so long ago that she herself was twelve and embarrassed and confused by her grandmother?  Death came before that gap was bridged, and she had long ago promised herself to be more than a memory, distant and faint, to her family…

The boy worships his grandfather.  The boy wants to be his grandfather.  He copies everything the old man does, every move and mannerism.  He can even mimic his voice.  He knows nothing of the pills and medical bills.  He knows nothing — not yet — of the memories, either.  Nothing of the nightmares that still haunt from time to time.  Nothing of the sound of the guns, nor the loss of platoon-mates…

There is something to be said for a “scenes of life” story.  For a story that uses the protagonist as a sort of voyeur to follow — and get sucked into — the lives and dramas of those around her or him.  An old shared-universe fantasy series had the Vulgar Unicorn; sci-fi had Quark’s Place; the good ol’ days of style and mystery had Rick’s Cafe…

The temptation to build a story out of vignettes has a lot of power, to be honest.  Look, you all know that I love characters.  Stories, to me — good stories, stories of meaning and power — are about characters, rather than plots.  As a writer I believe firmly that the plot is there to move things along, yes, but in service to the development of the characters,  The plot provides the conflict and stress, the climax and resolution, that our characters need to grow and change and become more than they are.  When the plot is the be-all, end-all — when the plot determines everything — well, then you have…nothing.

That grandmother I mentioned above?  She doesn’t have to save the entire freaking world to have a story to tell.  No, she just has to have a story that resonates.

I freely admit that I much prefer to write about characters because it lets me focus on the flawed and the broken.  And, look, we are all flawed and broken in one way or another — some just happen to be more so than others.

Arguably, the characters in the tiny vignettes I posted above are all broken in their own way…and that is what we writers need to both understand, and work with.

I hated him in high school, when I was forced to red his stuff, but the more I read and learn, the more I appreciate the insights of a certain “staple” writer:

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”

Oh…that writer?  Charles Dickens, in Great Expectations.

{Musical Note — a bit of old school becuuse, well…hell…why not?}