Sunday, September 11, 2016

15 Years On: 9/11 in Two Parts

Where were you on the morning of September 11th, 2001?
If you live in the states, it's a question you've no doubt heard several times over the last 14 years. That's because the attacks of 9/11 stand as the defining moment of this American generation. I remember where I was all too well, and I remember the days and months that followed because it changed me incalculably, as it did so many people. The events of 9/11 became the focal point of the book I wrote, Dead Star Twilight, and, in a way that even now seems utterly surreal and ironic, may very well have wound up saving me from absolute self-destruction.
A decade ago, I wrote two pieces for this newly minted site to mark the anniversary of the single most epochal event in modern American history. Looking back on them now, it's still shocking to see how much has changed even since that first posting -- in our country and in my own life. But it's a tradition on this day each year that I republish those two pieces back-to-back, in their entirety. And today, given that it's the 15th anniversary of the tragedy that ended so many lives and changed so many others, it seems especially important. 
Never forget?
It would be impossible to -- no matter who you are.

Part I: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
I miss the days and months immediately following September 11th, 2001.
Although it may seem incomprehensible to make such a statement, it's a fact that I have no choice but to own up to. In spite of my belief in man's unparalleled ability to consistently make bad situations worse, I honestly never thought that I'd look back on the initial aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in history and quietly pine for that time. Years later, however -- as we mark the anniversary of 9/11 -- I realize with more certainty than ever before that the violence which claimed so many lives on that day, unwittingly and for a short time, created a city, country and world of which I could say that I was proud to be a part.
I admit that I had an often overwhelming front-row seat for the constant display of pain and perseverance by being in New York City following the attack. Covering the story from the area which would in short order become universally known as "Ground Zero," and from the Armory at 25th and Lexington -- the area where families of the victims were sent in an often futile and heartbreaking search for answers about their lost loved ones -- gave me a perspective not everyone else may have had. Still, I'm certain that you didn't need to wade knee-deep in the indescribable human suffering to see that an equally indescribable human spirit was also asserting itself -- and proving to be far more powerful than many believed possible.
In those first months after the attack, a wounded America found its heart and its soul.
We put aside the trivial concerns that divided us -- the inane distractions that casually connected us. We were shown in an excruciating way the true meaning and value of words which up until that point had only been used as disposable ad-campaign hyperbole: heroism, compassion, sacrifice, family, strength, unity -- even love. We saw constant displays of these because after all that we witnessed on that day -- after the hideous destruction caused by a few, and the selfless response of so many -- after the bar for human emotion was raised so high, it was almost as if it was our responsibility to act in kind. To follow the example set by those who were no longer with us.
We were stripped down to our raw nerve, and in spite of the chaos and terror that caused it, what we found there was beautiful.
The world seemed to follow suit. On September 12th, 2001 -- the morning after the attack -- the headline of France's Le Monde newspaper read "We Are All Americans Now." The crew of a German ship manned the rails when it came alongside an American destroyer -- a show of respect and solidarity. Billions across the planet felt our anguish, believed in the dream that was America, and stood with us.
When we struck back with a mighty fury at those who killed our innocents, our indignation was indeed righteous. Our cause truly was just. We stood together as a country -- political affiliations and personal concerns be damned -- and understood with one mind that this was the way it had to be. We shouted with one voice, "You have unleashed this."
We felt lost, but were comforted in holding on to each other. We were both terrified and fearless. We were powerful in our vulnerability.
It's true that all things are relative, and if the current condition of our country and our world is the yardstick by which we measure the past, then maybe my effusion is somewhat prejudiced. Maybe the past has an unfair advantage. Maybe any past would.
I'm not sure that's the case, though.
Years ago on this day, the world changed -- not forever, as was first forecast, but for a short time.
It's that short time that continues to give me faith in us.
It was during that time, when things were at their worst, that we were at our best.

Part II: The Revelation Will Be Televised
At 8:46:40am, 87 people are killed instantly.
They are the passengers and crew of American Airlines Flight 11, which departed out of Boston's Logan International Airport a little more than an hour ago -- at 7:59am to be exact -- only to be hijacked and turned into a flying bomb.
An unknown number of people in the North Tower of the World Trade Center likely die as well, at that same moment -- 8:46:40 -- as they would be unlucky enough to find themselves at the point of impact of this flying bomb.
At 8:46:40am, almost no one outside of the affected area has any idea that the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history has just come to fruition in New York City, and that it's only the beginning.
At that same moment, in a small two-bedroom condo fifteen-hundred miles away, I'm sitting up in bed, thinking about -- well, nothing really.
I stare in silence at the TV set in the corner of my parents' guest bedroom -- maybe not at it so much as through it -- while the Today show drones on and on. This is in no way an endorsement of that program, as anything on the television would provide the same focal-point of worthless distraction, and in fact has for most of the early morning and previous night. MTV2 has supplied me with enough colors and sounds to hold my attention and replace the sleep I've desperately desired, but which has refused to come.
I watched videos throughout the night, while taking in none of them. I listened to the occasional passing car or two outside my window slowly multiply until becoming the steady din of morning traffic. I saw the curtain over that same tiny window begin to glow as the sun came up.
I did anything but sleep.
Heroin addicts fresh out of rehab don't sleep. They can't sleep.
Where I am at 8:46:40am on the morning of September 11th, 2001, is the culmination of a ten-month-long spiral into oblivion. It began in Los Angeles, where I lived with my wife in an impressive two-story apartment on the edge of Beverly Hills. I worked as a television executive. I made six figures. I drove a fast car. I had a life few could complain about -- which made it all the more sadly ironic that in truth, I was frightened, insecure and more than likely clinically depressed. At some point, I began to feel my wife pulling away from me. I began to feel my life ripping apart, even though no one could see the straining in the fabric or the tearing at the seams.
I felt like I was being abanoned by her -- like I was being left behind. I felt completely alone.
So I found something to help me feel warm, comfortable and safe from harm.
What began as an occasional means of self-medication quickly turned into a constant hallucinatory nightmare of homemade pipes, scorched tin-foil, lies, cover-ups, broken promises and the terrified realization that I couldn't wake up, no matter how hard I tried. It drained me of every penny I had. It crushed my already tenuous relationship with my wife. It ate my soul alive.
Finally, at the beginning of August, 2001 -- realizing that I had almost nowhere left to turn and no one left to turn to -- I asked my wife to drive me to the airport, allowed one last painful kiss between us, and got on a plane and came home to Miami. When I arrived, my heartbroken parents picked up their damaged, dying son and drove him to a public rehab facility.
I spent four days in gut-wrenching detox, having my insides liquify and try to escape my body through any and every possible route -- like rats abandoning a sinking ship.
I spent the next month trying to recover from what I'd spent the past nine months doing to my body, mind and soul.
During that time, my wife moved out of our apartment -- leaving me without so much as a glance over her shoulder. During that time I gave up my job -- leaving it without so much as a glance over my shoulder.
The day after I left rehab, my father and I flew back to a haunted Los Angeles. We packed up what little was left of my life, put it into storage and drove my car back to Miami -- back to my parents' small two-bedroom condo.
We arrived five days ago.
I haven't moved since.
Five days ago marked the first day of the rest of my life -- the rest of my life doing absolutely nothing.
I don't eat. I don't sleep. I don't speak. I exist only within the tiny confines of this guest bedroom. I watch TV. I walk a few steps to the bathroom. I don't even think about what to do next. I don't even know where to begin. It's as if I'm nothing but empty space.
I'm not even aware of what Matt Lauer is talking about at 8:46:40am, because I'm not paying the least bit of attention. It's four minutes later, though, at 8:50am, that something breaks my reverie. I blink -- my brain finally seeming to activate as if cued by some mysterious force. Lauer says something about a very big story; he says something about an accident at the World Trade Center. The Today show goes to commercial. In a daze I pick up the remote and switch over one channel to ABC. That's when I see for the first time what happened at 8:46:40am, fifteen-hundred miles away.
I slowly get out of bed and stand, my jaw going slack. I'm moving before I know it, throwing open the bedroom door and storming out into the living room. There my mother is staring at the TV; her face is a mask of awe and horror. We begin talking about what's happened; my voice is dry and scratchy from not having been used in days. There's confusion and fascination, a sense of amazement at what's surely a tragic accident. This thought is still firmly entrenched in my brain when a jet -- United Flight 175 out of Boston -- screams into the live picture for only the briefest moment before disappearing into the other tower. For a split-second there's nothing -- then a massive fireball erupts which splits the building in half in a blossom of orange and black, and a shower of debris.
My brain can't process the image fast enough, and my first thought is, "How could that kind of mistake happen twice?"
After only one more breath -- one more second to allow it all to sink in -- do I realize what's happened.
The next few hours are spent as one with millions across the nation and around the world. I watch in absolute horror as my country is attacked, as people are killed, and as indescribable chaos reigns. I pace maniacally back and forth in front of the TV. I feel like a caged animal. I want to do something. I feel utterly helpless and I want to do something. I want to work. I want to help. I want to get the hell out of here. I want to live. People are dying, and I'm wasting away here. I want to live. I want to make a difference somehow. My life isn't over.
And that's when it hits me.
I have no job. I have no wife. I have nothing.
I have nothing holding me back.
If I stay here, I'll be worse than dead. I'll watch the world fall apart on television. I'll watch the destruction and the sadness -- the heroism and heartbreak -- and I'll feel sorry for myself for my pathetic little losses while so many others try to fight their way back from losses greater than I can ever imagine. I'll sit quietly and helplessly by while an entire country mourns.
It's at that moment that I walk to the phone and place one call -- to a friend of mine who's now an executive producer for NBC in New York. I let him know that I'm going to be in New York and that I'll be available to work if he needs extra help, which I'm almost certain he will. Then I run back to the guest room and begin packing a suitcase.
I'll work if they'll let me. I'll hand out water and food if not. I'll do something. I have no idea where I'm going to stay or how I'll pay for anything, but I have to go. I have to see this for myself.
The next morning I leave before dawn, driving across the new America -- a land eerily quiet, where the shock of what's happened seems to show on the face of each person I meet. I drive through sun and rain, into the night -- occasionally scanning the empty skies with the realization that at no point in my life have I lived in a country where all public air travel was prohibited.
Years ago, I read a book from Clive Barker called The Great and Secret Show. In it, the forces of good and evil battle for supremacy as they always seem to do in fantasy novels. However, one moment in the story now comes back to me and seems to have an astonishing relevance. When the character of Jaffe finally masters the ability to control time and space -- what Barker calls "The Art" -- he grabs reality and literally tears a hole in it. At the moment this happens, Barker explains that all around the world people stop; they get out of their cars or they wake up or they generally freeze in their tracks. They do this because, no matter where they are, they know that something has changed. They know that something is wrong, even if they can't explain what it is.
This is what it feels like in the days following September 11th, 2001: Something is wrong. Everything is wrong.
A hole has been torn in the fabric of reality.
That hole -- the largest of three anyway -- is in New York City.
At some point, as I speed up the highway to this destination, my cell phone rings. I answer it and am told by the woman on the other end of the line that she's from NBC, and that my friend needs me to report to work as quickly as possible.
She explains where I need to go. She sets me up with a hotel room. She wishes me luck and says goodbye.
I pull over and close my eyes -- taking deep breaths.
I made a leap of faith, and found a place to land.
There isn't a writer or a poet alive who could properly describe or explain the next few months. I lived out of a hotel. I worked inhuman hours at the center of the most agonizing single event in American history. I held a woman in my arms as she realized her husband was dead -- and I cried with her because although my own marriage was over and I missed my wife terribly, I couldn't even begin to imagine her suffering -- and through that I was helped to heal. I was reborn as a person I didn't even recognize -- a stranger in a strange land, in a larger world which seemed alien to everyone. I shook my head at the utterly surreal and tragic series of events that led me to be at the one place I never expected or intended to be -- but through unbelievable circumstances became the one place I was supposed to be. I found strength in those who were stronger than I could ever have hoped to be. In the shadow of death, I learned to live again.
And in time I fell in love again.
I met her through a friend of mine. He was supposed to be working at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, but called in sick at the last minute.
But that's his story.
Photo Credits: 1. QT Luong, 2. Patrick Witty, 3. Larry Towell

Thursday, April 28, 2016

My Chemical Romance

"When All I Want To Do Is Wrong"

I want to fuck. Right now. This is a problem.

Technically, it shouldn't be a problem that I want sex, given that I'm a 46-year-old man and not, say, a 76-year-old man. Despite my best efforts and some of the most powerful recreational chemicals created by man or nature, I'm not exactly in the ground just yet. So with that in mind, there's nothing wrong with still having a healthy appreciation for that unique thrill of being inside someone, making her feel good, making myself feel good. Sex is one of those profound experiences that not only reminds you that you're alive no matter your age, but, if you're older, has the ability to put you in touch on a primal level with the person you were in that glorious nascence of your experience. If you can vanish into that rare headspace where you completely let go and allow the passion and bliss to just wash over you, the feeling is nothing short of miraculous. It's spiritual, lovely, so abundantly human.

But that's not what I'm talking about here. What I'm referring to -- what I want with every fiber of my being more and more these days -- is something else entirely. It goes beyond the flowery language or the clear-headed, rational explanation of what sex is and what it means. No, I want to fuck. I don't want to drift away on shit. I want to have the kind of sex where it feels like your very soul is shooting out of you when you come. I want insane. I want dangerous. I want the kind of fucking I remember from my early 20s. And here's why: Because chemically, I am in my early 20s. From a biological standpoint, I may as well be 22 all over again -- and this is only a recent development in my life. For years I wasn't simply my advancing age; I was in fact much, much older than that. Most men in their 40s see their vitality begin to slip away -- noticeably so. But I had something else working against me that a lot of men didn't. And it had effectively closed the door on who I was: who I used to be and even who I was meant to develop into in middle-age.

Put simply, I wasn't who I was supposed to be in my 40s. Until a single shot changed all of that.

"Don't You Know How Sweet and Wonderful Life Can Be?"

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the surgery that removed a tumor the size of a pinball from my head. I was diagnosed with it in early April of 2006 after spending five days in the unshakable grip of a headache that felt like something was eating its way out of my skull from the inside. I remember laying there in my apartment in Brooklyn with a cold washcloth over my face, literally in tears as I pleaded with some higher power for just a few hours of sleep -- a tiny slice of time away from the torment. I had made the mistake of telling my doctor at the outset of our relationship that I was a former heroin addict, which meant that under almost no circumstances would she prescribe me painkillers that actually work, certainly not for a supposedly excruciating pain that she couldn't confirm was the real deal. So that's how it went for days: me moaning and groaning in anguish with nothing but naproxen and a some codeine to supposedly -- but not really -- take the edge off and no idea what the hell was going on inside my head. It took three days of this before my doctor, suitably concerned, finally scheduled an MRI.

I was led to believe that it wasn't the job of the MRI technician to tell you what he or she saw during the procedure, only to whisk the findings back to the doctors and let them break the bad news. My MRI technician, however, decided to take the initiative and met me in the dressing room as I slowly, painfully put my clothes back on. "I can tell you what's wrong with you," he said. I didn't respond, since speaking made my head pound so hard it had, on several occasions, nearly made me pass out from the agony. "You've got a tumor underneath your brain that's about that big," he continued, holding his fingers maybe an inch-and-a-quarter apart. "And it's bleeding." I just stared at him blankly for a second, then asked the obvious: "Am I gonna die?" "Probably not," came his response. "It's likely benign, but you still need call your doctor and tell her you're going to Cornell Medical Center immediately." I had been in so much agony for so long that I'd almost reached a place of peaceful Zen, where every waking moment felt like a surreal pain-hallucination, so I didn't really process what he was saying. It came through in fragments. Brain. Tumor. Hospital. Now.

A little while later, there I was -- curled up on a bed in an ER room, the lights kindly switched off so that my brain didn't feel like the white beams coming through my eyes were burning it like a magnifying glass incinerating ants. The actual diagnosis as a result of my MRI was "giant pituitary adenoma" -- a large tumor wrapped around my pituitary gland. It had been there for years, growing, secreting its own hormones and screwing with my pituitary's own hormonal output. It was likely the driving force behind the mood swings I'd been experiencing for some time and the night blindness I seemed to be developing at the ripe old age of 36. Who knows what caused it to begin bleeding -- something called "pituitary apoplexy" -- but it was the blood pooling around it that created the excruciating pain I was in, which meant that the tumor and everything near it had to come out. Hearing this didn't send me into a tearful frenzy simply because, well, at that time I could think of nothing other than my own suffering. But when the nice, young doctor told me they were going to have to cut open my head to get it out, that registered. That turned my blood ice cold.

That was the plan. It wasn't, however, what happened. Because at the last minute, as the procedure was being discussed with me and I was being prepped for surgery, a doctor dressed in a perfectly appointed suit -- minus a lab coat of any kind -- strode in and declared that he was going to take my case and that my tumor would be removed through a noninvasive resection technique that involved going in through my nose and pulling everything bad out. He gave me platelets to stop the bleeding, steroids to shrink the tumor and, finally, some decent fucking painkillers. And just like that he sent me home. I would come back in three weeks, after a series of consultations with an ear, nose and throat specialist, and have the tumor removed. It came out on April 25th of 2006. Certainly the procedure I had done was far better than having my head opened, closed with a row of grisly staples, then left permanently scarred, but anyone who tells you that endoscopic resection is "noninvasive" can go fuck himself. They still go into your head. They still pull something that was there out. You still deal with the aftermath.    

About that aftermath. Despite a hellish first night in recovery, I somehow felt shockingly decent in the days following my surgery. I was only in the hospital for five days and upon leaving immediately walked across the street and got myself a hot dog from one of the carts on the sidewalk near the hospital. It tasted good, better than any I had ever had. I was feeling so upbeat, in fact, that I placed on the mental back-burner the parting words of my neurosurgeon -- the warning he gave me about what was almost surely to come. "There's going to come a time when you'll wish we'd taken your arm off," were his ominous words. "Because there's going to come a time when people won't believe there's something wrong with you, but you'll know there is. You'll know you're not who you used to be." I was told a large part of my pituitary gland had been removed and that it meant I'd have to be on hormone replacements -- and I was told that the situation could counterintuitively get worse as the years pass -- but at the time I was too busy marveling at all the ways I was a walking miracle of modern science. Sure, I got shingles in the immediate wake of the surgery -- the one thing that finally made my doctor break down and prescribe a 100-count bottle of Vicodin, my addictive past be damned -- and there were the odd, confusing scents my nose suddenly picked up, but overall I was in pretty good shape.

But that did in fact change. It changed drastically. I began to recognize the constant upheaval in my body and the impact it had on my depression. (I would cry often and for no reason.) I was put on thyroid medication as well as hydrocortisone and Androgel, the lattermost for my suddenly unstable testosterone level. And that became the biggest problem for me. That right there. Because my sex drive dropped, then increased, then leveled off, then plummeted. The hair on my legs vanished seemingly overnight. The hair under my arms disappeared over time. My facial hair thinned. As I got older I wondered how much of that testosterone drop could be attributed finally pushing past 40 and how much was a direct result of the surgery. It seemed like my prescriptions for everything I was on had to be adjusted monthly to compensate for whatever the hell was happening inside me and what hormones were or weren't coming from my almost nonexistent pituitary gland. I was under the care of an endocrinologist and that person's job was to constantly monitor my system and compensate for whatever wasn't there anymore. The result was that it was difficult to ever truly feel like me. Ever. And when I explained to people that there were certain things I had trouble doing anymore and that when I said I was sick I really was sick, they sometimes reacted incredulously. It was always then that I'd remember my neurosurgeon's warning. I knew there was something wrong with me -- even if no one else could see it.

In the past few years, I saw my sex drive once again nosedive. It was holding steady, obviously meaning that my testosterone level was holding, but at some point it bottomed out. I liked to come, sure, but to be honest it and everything done to achieve it just wasn't a priority. It's a strange thing when you simply stop caring about sex. It's difficult to put into words what it feels like because it quite frankly doesn't feel like anything. It's negative space. The desire just isn't there anymore: the desire to go through the motions; the desire to feel, touch, taste and smell all those things sex represents; the desire even to masturbate. It just doesn't matter. I was aware of how much I had changed, transitioning from a guy who spent most of his life pursuing every hedonistic impulse on the planet to someone for whom none of that holds the least bit of interest, but in the end that awareness meant nothing. I didn't care that I didn't care. I knew it was a problem for my girlfriend because we'd sometimes go for weeks at a time without sex and I had heard on more than one occasion how we were turning into barely-there roommates and nothing more, but not giving a damn about getting laid was just who I was. You can't miss what you don't have -- and I had no sex drive, so I couldn't miss it.

Why did my once maddeningly powerful need for that feeling slip away? Because my testosterone dropped. And why did my testosterone drop? Because, for a time, I couldn't afford health insurance. All of that changed, though, last year.

"My Whole Existence Is Flawed"

After the results of my first blood test came back, my new, no-bullshit endocrinologist here in Los Angeles gave it to me straight: "You have the testosterone level of an 11-year-old girl. You're an idiot for letting it get this way." There it was, the confirmation I didn't really need: It wasn't age that had sapped me of all that manly testosterone, it was the surgery that had long ago removed a pituitary tumor from my head and part of my pituitary with it. And yes, I was an idiot. I was a constantly exhausted, listless, sexless idiot. I figured she'd be putting me back on Androgel, which had worked somewhat in the past. She shot that down in a heartbeat. "No, gel won't do you any good. You need injections to kickstart your system," she said. And that's how I wound up on a regimen of HGH and testosterone shots. I was vaguely aware of what that combination of chemicals might do to me and for me, but really whatever description I had heard about the benefits of HGH and injected testosterone, I'd soon learn, didn't even begin to scratch the surface of the actual result. The first time they injected me, it felt like someone had shot me up with rocket fuel. The impact was instantaneous and profound. I laughed uncontrollably at the sudden feeling that I could walk outside and stop traffic with my bare hands. I'd been bitten by a radioactive spider or maybe showered with gamma rays. I was a fucking superhero. I was BrundleChez. I had liquid fire coursing through my veins.

Oh, and I wanted to fuck. Immediately. In a series of waves washing over my body it became clear what had been missing. Me, someone who had once treated women's bodies the way Native Americans treat buffalos -- let nothing ever go to waste as everything deserves to be honored and devoured -- had basically given up. I had stopped caring about something that most of my life had been hallowed and passionate and insane and glorious to me: sex. That perfect, wondrous, feeling of fucking. My doctor was right -- what had I allowed myself to become? No matter. I was back. That feeling was back. I wanted it. I wanted it now. So I went home, woke up my girlfriend -- now fiancee -- and we went at it in a way we hadn't in a very, very long time. I was present -- completely. I felt every little movement, every little sight, sound and scent: I took it all in. And when I came it was more intense than anything I had felt in years, maybe going all the way back to my 20s. That was it: I felt like I was in my early-20s again. All thanks to a single syringe full of synthetic hormones. Better living through motherfucking chemistry. The fountain of youth in a needle. My strength would come back. The hair under my arms would come back. I'd be normal. Better than normal, actually. Far better.

But there's a strange downside to all of that and, like those days when I barely wanted sex, it's difficult to put into words. Not having a sex drive is strangely, well, calming. I'm not sure whether it was simply a bottomed-out testosterone level or what stemmed from it -- the lack of desire to get myself or another person off -- but when you remove the primary driver that for centuries has made men do stupid, stupid things in pursuit of, it makes you more clear-headed. Even when I was younger I believed it would be undignified to be, say, a 40- or 50-something horn-dog still obsessed with his penis. I never wanted to be an older man who still chased women around like some pathetic latter-day lothario. I looked down on people like that and so when the need for sex evaporated I sometimes found myself reveling in all the ways I wasn't in danger of becoming that sort of tragic figure. True, my fiancee and I argued more than once about the fact that I had been so passionate as a younger man that I'd committed my exploits to paper and internet space -- and now here I was, with her but not in the way I once was years ago with others. But I had always argued that I was a better person now. That I was saner, more centered, less able to be victimized by my own dumb passion. Because that was always the thing with me: I allowed myself to become a slave to my most primal desires.

Now, though, I'm back. A regular series of injections has made me a young man again in many ways, but with increased testosterone and all that it brings I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by my hunger the same way I did when I was a young man. The slavery comes not when there's a desire but when there's a need -- and thanks to the flood of chemicals in my body, sex feels more like a need than it has at any point in years. Maybe decades. Granted, this is indeed balanced out somewhat by my maturity and experience, by the knowledge of what can happen when I allow something I crave to dictate the terms of my life. I may not feel like 46 most days, but I'm still 46 and I have a lifetime of shitty mistakes made chasing highs of every kind. But it's staggering on a personal level just how different things are these days thanks to the shots. It's not just that I have an occasionally overpowering sexual appetite, it's the way that appetite has changed me at a fundamental level. For so long I wondered when I talked to women whether they felt any sensuality at all coming from me given that I didn't feel it from myself. I wondered if anyone -- besides my gorgeous and endlessly patient fiancee -- was attracted to me, only because I knew I wasn't interested and therefore wasn't giving off anything in the way of "vibes."

But what about now? Can anyone actually feel my sexuality? Should I even want that as a 46-year-old man? Think of how balls-out fucking ridiculous that sounds to even say at my age. Remember, I never wanted to be that asshole and I still don't. But can a human animal read the changes in someone when they suddenly are a sexual being again after so long? And other than the person I've dedicated myself to, is it even important that anyone still see me as attractive or sexual or seductive? Doesn't not-being-that-asshole mean that by middle-age it just shouldn't matter to me anymore? Isn't nature sapping you of testosterone and the sex drive that goes with it in your 40s simply its way of telling you your time as a young man is up?

But it's not. Not anymore. Like so much, modern medicine has found a way to subvert nature's designs on us -- and it's turned me into a silly, horny teenager again. It's wonderful. And terrifying. And more than a little embarrassing. While I'm certainly supposed to have more testosterone coursing through my body than I did just a few months ago, I'm not sure I'm supposed to be -- this. I worry about the hunger that once led me to some truly dark places years ago. I'm old and experienced enough now to keep it all under control -- I think. But it's surreal to suddenly be here again. I thought I was past all of this. I thought that for my many sins of the flesh, ten years ago the universe had seen fit to relieve me of that which led me to commit them.

But chemistry has brought it all roaring back.        

I want to fuck. All the time. This is a problem.

Cross-posted at Banter M, The Daily Banter's online magazine, where you can read more long-form work like this every week

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Adventures in Selling Out

I may not be doing much more than keeping the lights on here, but I'm glad this little home of mine exists on the internet so that I can still retreat here when I need to. Like, say, now.

Since the days when I used to write here full-time a lot has happened. I made the decision to burn my proverbial ships and make a life in L.A. after driving out in late 2011. I got involved with someone and, even after all I'd gone through previously, gave in to the desire for human interaction with a woman I loved. Maybe most importantly in terms of my output here, I finally started getting paid to write full-time thanks to The Daily Banter. Being a professional writer was what I had been working toward since May of 2006, when I started this little experiment of mine and began cranking out material for it, so when the Banter offer came along I jumped at it. In some ways, even though it was the chance I'd waited for, I still felt like some kind of sell-out because I had always promised my readers that I would be completely independent. That's what DXM was. That's what I was so proud of.

Over the past few years, Banter has done something extraordinary. With just a few regular columnists working their asses off and creating only as much as a few columnists could, the site grew to the point where even though it wasn't a household name, it was still pulling in upwards of five-million hits a month at one point. We broke stories, went to Ferguson, did some genuine good, and took absolutely no prisoners. It was and is the best job I've ever had and I have no doubt my fellow contributors would say the same thing. But running a website is a herculean task financially, especially if you've made a promise to readers not to talk down to them or inundate them with clickbait. Investors want a concept -- and no, creating decent content and making it your mission to slap down those who deserve it doesn't really count as one -- and in lieu of venture capital the best you can hope for is to pummel readers with ads and pray it's enough to keep the lights on and the writers paid. It's been a struggle and, as any regular reader has noticed, it's one that's had a drastic impact on output at the site lately and the roster of writers on the payroll.

I don't write at Banter as much as I used to, but I still have to write. I want to write. But here's the thing: I can't come back here and do it for free anymore and I can't see this site, even with options like Patreon or GoFundMe, bringing in enough money for me to live off of. I need to keep myself out there both in terms of making a living and to keep my name in the conversation so that I'm helping to draw traffic to the Bob & Chez Show podcast I do with Bob Cesca. So in addition to the few pieces I post at Banter, I'm going to be branching out and pitching to other publications from this point forward. Which brings me to the thing I feel kind of shitty about. Thanks to a recommendation by my good friend Mary Beth Williams -- and with the knowledge that Cesca has taken to writing for them regularly -- I'm probably going to start writing for Salon. I feel like a hypocritical asshole for this considering the amount of criticism I've heaped upon Salon over the past couple of years, but the fact remains that the site pays shockingly well and has already agreed to accept my contributions. There will likely be other outlets where you'll be able to read me, but branching out to Salon is the immediate path of least resistance toward continuing to write and continuing to get paid for doing so. Maybe it seems like an odd choice considering, but really it's no choice at all: the pay is great, they're still a site that hosts a lot of really good writing, and they've even toned down the lunacy quite a bit as of late.

As I sit here and type out these words at DXM, I think to myself how great it would be to just come back here full-time. To try to make this site into something that pays me well enough to be able to abandon almost everything else. I have no idea if that would even be possible but I know that it's the future I would choose over any other. Maybe that's what's really left my head spinning. I owe no apologies or explanations to anyone when it comes to where I write, considering that nobody's paying my bills but me, and yet I've always known that nothing makes me happier or prouder than simply working for the people who read this site for so long. The best stuff I've ever written was published here because this was something I took more pride in than almost anything I've ever done in my life. DXM was and is my home, even if it's largely abandoned these days. I can't afford to come back here and put in a lot of effort when my day is so busy as it is and when I'm now in a position where literally everything I do that's work has to come with a paycheck. I can't do anything for free anymore. That's the reality.

So, I get to move on and push further out into the world yet again, which I guess is a good thing. Maybe the words I write won't be quite as meaningful as the ones I published here or even at Banter, but who knows. This is the life I chose nine years ago. I guess I'm stuck with it now.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Listening Post: Band of Horses

Just really feeling this song right now.

Here's Band of Horses -- Laredo.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It Goes On and On and On and On

In an extraordinary extended essay for the Directors Guild of America, David Chase is now dissecting, shot by shot, the masterful final scene he created for The Sopranos. After eight years, the ending of The Sopranos is still controversial and wildly disputed and while Chase explains the mechanics of creating the tremendous suspense that led up to the final cut-to-black, the one question he doesn't answer is the one question everyone wants to know: did Tony die? Actually, Chase does answer it, alluding quite a bit to the possibility of Tony being killed, but still acknowledging that in the end it didn't matter. Regardless, the amount of skill and detail that went into that final scene is almost breathtaking. To hear Chase walk you through it, it becomes clear just what a master tactician he was as a director.

In June of 2013, I wrote a lengthy piece pegged off of the ending of The Sopranos. I had been pondering it and the recent death of James Gandolfini, maybe to an unsettling degree given that both felt like they were saying something to me during a very dark period within my own head. Today I'm bringing that column back, possibly with the knowledge that even though I'm in a better place now the questions I raised within it are always there in the background, lurking. The knowledge of my relationship with the inevitability of death never goes away. As Chase says in the DGA piece, "The big moment is always out there waiting."

"The Grand Finale" (Originally Published, 6.26.13)

Act 1: "Try To Remember the Times That Were Good"

Lately I've found myself obsessed with the ending of The Sopranos.

Surely you remember it: Tony and two-thirds of his family, sitting in Holsten's diner, casually munching on onion rings while the tabletop jukebox played Journey's anthemic Don't Stop Believin', a song which suddenly seemed to take on an odd menace given the setting. Tony had just made an uneasy peace with the New York mob, but both he and we understood that threats to him still lurked in every shadow simply by virtue of the life he'd chosen, what had already killed off almost everyone around him, turning him, maybe through sheer good luck, into the Jersey crew's last man standing. So there he sat, grabbing a bite with the people he truly loved, the blood family he'd tried to protect but whom he had inadvertently poisoned via the same cycle of ruthless violence that created him. Only one person was missing at the table: his daughter, the one whose voice he had come back to at the beginning of the year after being shot by his uncle and put into a coma. She was trying to parallel park outside and once she finished she'd come in and sit next to her father and the Sopranos would be together again as it had always been. We watch her finally pull into the space after three tries, watch her stride across the street to the front door of Holsten's. Tony hears the bell ring on the front door and looks up. Then an abrupt cut-to-black. Nothing.

At the time, the way The Sopranos ended felt like a cheap parlor trick, the final triumph of creator David Chase's more cynical tendencies and a big "fuck you" to the audience. At the time, the sudden cut-to-black felt like Chase telling us that life would go on for Tony; we simply wouldn't be around to see it. Of course, the reality of that ending was that nothing could be further from the truth because the reality was that Tony was killed at the end of The Sopranos, he simply wasn't around to see it and therefore neither were we. If you doubt this interpretation of what's gone on to be perhaps the most controversial finale in TV series history, go back and watch it again -- and this time, look closer. As Chase would say in a later interview, all you need to know about what really happened at the end of that iconic scene is there in the minutes, hour, and weeks that came before it. In the end, he practically spells it out on the walls.

Watch the man in the gray Members Only jacket get up from his seat at the bar and walk into the bathroom behind and to the right of Tony just before Meadow presumably walks in. Remember that the title of the final season opener was "Members Only," and in it Tony was shot by Junior and Eugene Pontecorvo carries out a hit in a restaurant wearing the same jacket. Think back on the conversation Tony has with the recently murdered Bobby Bacala on the lake, when Bobby muses on being whacked that "you probably don't even hear it when it happens" and how Silvio didn't hear the initial shots that killed Gerry Torciano right in front of him. Notice the split-second that Jay and the Americans' This Magic Moment is shown on the jukebox at Tony's table, the same song that played after Bobby made his first kill. The woman who walks in who bears an uncanny resemblance to Janice. The two black men who look strangely like the guys who once tried unsuccessfully to kill Tony. The scout leader who looks and dresses like Phil Leotardo and who makes his finger into a gun. Remember Paulie's comment about the orange cat -- the one that seems to stare intently at a picture of Christopher -- being a bad omen. Now look over Tony's right shoulder at the giant painting of the orange tiger on Holsten's wall and remember Adriana's affinity for orange tiger print. Also on the wall, the inescapable image of the Inn at the Oaks, which represented the final acceptance of death -- what Tony Blundetto called "home" -- in Tony's dream-state after he was shot. As Chase said, it's all there. Everyone is in place at Holsten's for Tony's final reckoning, his life truly flashing before his eyes just before the end comes.

Then there's the pattern. Tony hears the bell, looks up, the shot reverses and we see what he sees, his family coming one-by-one through the door. First Carmela. Then A.J. Then Tony hears the bell, looks up, and sees -- nothing -- because there's nothing to see. Tony is dead, shot in the head in front of his family by the man in the Members Only jacket. Rather than show us Tony being killed Chase does something far more diabolical and powerful: he makes us experience it. This choice represents perhaps the truest stroke of genius in a show that was full of them from beginning to end. It makes you understand that almost nothing you saw up to that point was by accident. Every single little detail mattered and it was all leading you to the same place -- to the death of Tony Soprano. That's what this extended tragedy was always about: his rise, attempt and failure at moral redemption, and ultimate fall.

In the very first episode of the show, Tony panicked over the ducks leaving his pool and understood that it represented his fear of losing his family. In the end, he lost them by being killed right in front of their faces.

Tony never heard it coming. And neither did we.

Act 2: "You're Going Home"

It's been so long since I've written.

Yes, technically I write almost every weekday, upwards of 4,800 words a week, for The Daily Banter, but for me it's not the same as writing. I bang out polemics which I sometimes feel very strongly about but which can, I admit, occasionally be little more than the fulfillment of a job requirement. This doesn't in any way mean that I don't care and don't take pride in the work I do for Banter, only that I miss the comfort of expressing the parts of my personality that don't want anything at all to do with politics or media or generally being a smart-ass, and those parts are many. I always wrote because I needed to, not for anyone else but for myself; I don't do that anymore. I don't do it for reasons purely practical and for reasons I try to convince myself are purely practical: because I simply don't have the time or don't have the will. There are so many days that I just do not give a shit about the Republicans in Congress, or Barack Obama, or the latest scandal, or who's outraged over whose crude joke, or what insufferable thing Glenn Greenwald said this week. There are so many days when I spit fiery opinions into the ether that I barely believe and hate myself for pretending to hold to ferociously. You can typically spot these instances by way of a counterintuitive and yet incredibly obvious tell: they're the ones I defend with the most egregious amount of venom. I fight back the hardest and in the most personal manner when I believe my own bullshit the least. This is the unnatural order of things. And I'm beginning to think that it's literally killing me.

Ironically, all the poison I regularly unleash is nothing compared to the poison I keep inside. It churns constantly, feeling at all times like it's threatening to eat a hole through my sometimes fragile psyche. When things were at their worst in my life a few years ago, it was my ability to express what I was going through -- the release of putting it down and pushing it far away from me -- that saved me from going completely crazy. But I don't do that anymore. No, at face value things are nowhere near as relentlessly punishing as they were from mid-2009 through the next couple of years, when a combination of pain and paralysis caused by the collapse of my marriage and being removed from my child left me floating adrift and alone: no real home to speak of and no real sense of who I was as a person, what beliefs I still had to cling to, or where to turn to make the almost constant anguish stop. But something is still wrong -- naggingly, achingly wrong -- and I'm finally having to truly come to terms with the fact that it isn't something being generated from without but from within. I have a beautiful and caring girlfriend, whom I love (dearly). I live in sunny Los Angeles (again). I don't do drugs or drink too much (they don't work in the end). I have major financial considerations that I at all times feel like I'm being crushed by and they cause me to work almost inhuman hours just to keep my head above water (but it's not as if it's the first time in my life that I've been in this position). Like everyone else, I deal with good and bad and try to navigate the world as best I can. And yet I don't sleep most nights. I often wake up crying. I rarely want to get out of bed. I sometimes dread leaving my home. Even when I'm laughing, I can feel desperate and broken inside. And always present at the front of my mind is that the older I get, the more hopeless my future is going to seem.

Here's something I've been longing to say for quite a while because I always felt like it was important: My divorce taught me something that I desperately needed to learn. It taught me something I was supposed to learn twelve long years ago, when I was in rehab for a devastating heroin addiction. Put simply, it taught me the truth of the Serenity Prayer. Anyone who's read my book, Dead Star Twilight, knows that that seemingly trite nostrum is a common refrain for those who hold tightly to the wisdom of "The Program." While I always understood the idea of it, I never actually accepted it -- until I finally put my arms in the water and began to paddle after almost three years at sea in the wake of my break-up from my wife. It was then, at long last, that I "got it." You have to accept that there are some things you simply can't change or control, another person's actions being one of them. I couldn't do anything about what had happened to me. I was completely at the mercy of what someone else wanted for both her life and mine, with our daughter caught in the middle, and I had only two very clear choices when it came to how I dealt with it: in the immortal words of Andy Dufresne, I had to get busy living or get busy dying. So I made a choice to come back out west, to the Pacific, which, again according to Philosopher Dufresne, has no memory -- hopefully no memory of what happened to me the last time I was in L.A. My drive across the entire country was the metaphoric made literal, a sudden bolt of physical momentum that finally led me forward for the first time in a long time -- appreciating each new day rather than uselessly looking back on anything that had happened in the past, any of the immutable events of history that had led me to each precious new second in time. It was good. It was the lesson I needed.

But it's a difficult outlook to maintain when you realize that each time your child visits from her expensive three-story home in Dallas, you have to convert your bedroom into hers and play a personally heartbreaking game of pretend, hoping she doesn't notice or care about the difference. When you're struggling with the kinds of money issues that seem to have ceased being a problem for other people years ago. When you can't understand why anything can make you cry. When you truly come to believe, finally, at the age of 43, that there's a very good chance you're not going to live to see old age, nor would you much want to.

Yesterday, I was wandering a local Rite-Aid, looking for a bottle of water and a bottle of Tylenol. As I moved through the aisles, I noticed that the music playing on the overhead speaker system was Tears for Fears' Everybody Wants To Rule the World, a seminal song from my high school years. I try not to look back on those days too much because nostalgia gets you nowhere; again, the past is past and there's no changing it. But I do miss the optimism of that era, the knowledge that no matter what went wrong, there would always be time to fix it. Tears for Fears then segued into Bon Jovi's Who Says You Can't Go Home. A New Jersey band. Singing about going home.

Act 3: "Every Guy Who Ran That Crew..."

There aren't enough superlatives to fully and properly express the impact that James Gandolfini had on television as an art form and, as has been almost universally acknowledged, on those he came into contact with throughout his career. He died last week at the far-too-young age of 51 of a massive heart attack -- cut to black, likely didn't even hear it coming -- but by creating the most complex, indelible and influential character in dramatic television history, he ensured that his legacy will live on for a very long time indeed. Like his alter-ego Tony Soprano, he was taken from us so quickly that we barely had time to process it, each, some have argued, a victim of his own bad choices. In Tony's case it was a life of crime; in James's case, a potential lack of attention to the deterioration of his heart. Either way, the end result is the same: death, an abrupt nothingness. I'm left wondering, though, whether Gandolfini ever looked back on his work on The Sopranos and felt somewhat haunted by it, if he pondered whether he'd ever do something that good, create something that undeniably flawless, again. An artist, of course, isn't merely to be judged by his or her current output but is in reality the sum of it over a large swath of time; provided they've got real talent, people tend to judge artists by what they've done throughout their lives, not simply what they're doing at any one moment. But creative types themselves don't always see it that way; they can go completely fucking crazy, unleashing their own private hell, simply by doing nothing more than constantly asking if their best days as a painter, actor, musician, writer, and so on are behind them.

I don't claim by any means to be a great writer, but I admit that I now go back and look at the material I wrote for years on this site and in Dead Star Twilight and it's as if I'm reading the work of someone else. I remember the act of writing but I can't for the life of me explain how I came up with the words that I did. What I read from years ago feels fearless and passionate, far too fearless and passionate to come from the person I know now to be me, the person I live with every day and night. That person is timid, frightened almost all the time, aware maybe of the best way to proceed but once again too trapped under the weight of mid-life stasis to actually proceed that way. That person has proven time and time again that it all comes back to this: feeling despondent, feeling overwhelmed, absolutely sure that his best days are behind him. Only now it's worse because I'm finally willing to -- have no choice but to, really -- admit that a lot of the past wasn't all that great. So if the past was bad and it's the best it's going to get and there's no other way to live but for today, what the hell do you do? How do you continue to move forward?

In the last season of The Sopranos, David Chase put Tony Soprano on the final path toward his inescapable end. Tony was shot and awoke from a near-death experience to find that he'd been given a second chance to redeem himself and possibly live out his years in peace with his family. But it took almost no time at all for him to return to the life he'd come to know all too well and enjoy far too much. He cheated on Carmela, killed Christopher, arrogantly and ignominiously gave up on his treatment and was consequently dumped by Dr. Melfi, and with all of this, the wheels were set in motion for Tony's doom. Again, as Chase said, it was all there. Anyone could see it. In fact, if you go back and watch all of Season Six of the show from start to finish with the knowledge that Tony is killed at the very end of the final episode, it's impossible not to see just how obviously, meticulously, and brilliantly that outcome was set up.

Everything in his life led to what finally happened to him.

It'd be nice to believe that he could have changed it, could have averted his ultimate reckoning. But who can really say for sure? Maybe he hadn't, in fact, chosen it. Maybe it was something he couldn't change and something he therefore had to simply accept. Maybe his death, like his life, was inevitable. It was the only ending that made sense.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Listening Post: Genevieve

Genevieve Schatz used to sing in a band out of Chicago, which means that she knows big hooks and absolutely irresistible melodies since there's apparently something in the water in that town. Her old group, Company of Thieves, was a favorite of mine a few years back -- when they were active -- to the point where I chose their song Oscar Wilde as one of the best singles of 2009.

Well, Genevieve is back -- ditching her last name and going full-on pop queen. Normally, maybe this might be an unfortunate choice, but the thing is, not only does Genevieve display the same spectacular vocal authority she did in Company, but she's doing this as an independent so it's impossible not to feel good about supporting her. She moved out here to L.A. at some point, which for the love of all that's holy I hope doesn't ruin her -- but from what it looks like, so far, so good.

Here's her first single. Listen, share, that sort of thing.

Happy Friday -- this is Colors.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Listening Post: Fink

Fink is the stage name of British singer-songwriter-DJ-producer Fin Greenall. With that kind of hyphenate you'd think his music would be overly complex, but actually Fink's best stuff is stripped down and deeply personal. He's collaborated with John Legend, Banks and Amy Winehouse in the past, but his solo material is where it's really obvious what he's capable of.

His most recent album, Hard Believer, is a current favorite of mine and when you hear the first couple of singles from it you'll understand why.

First up, it's a song that could easily be a lost track from Radiohead's OK Computer. This is Pilgrim.

And here's Looking Too Closely.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Listening Post: Wolf Alice

You should be listening to Wolf Alice for a number of reasons. They're out of London and they sound like a plane full of Seattle musicians circa '91 plunged into the venue where My Bloody Valentine and Elastica were playing a show together. They're basically kids and yet in just two years they've managed to become one of the most buzzed-about bands overseas. It feels like their stuff just keep getting better and more assured with each new song you hear.

Wolf Alice's new record, My Love Is Cool is set to land in June. Right now none of their material is available on iTunes in the U.S. but it looks like you can get it at Amazon. I have to imagine, since they're all over iTunes U.K., they'll eventually get Apple distribution here. They're also touring the U.S. right now. (If you happen to live in L.A., they're playing the Roxy on May 18th.)

Here now, three from Wolf Alice. First up it's Giant Peach.

Next, Moaning Lisa Smile.

Finally, this is Storms.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Listening Post: Dead Sara

In 2012 I called Dead Sara's Weatherman the best single of the year. It was an absolutely ferocious track that heralded not only Dead Sara as maybe the next and potentially last great rock-and-roll band, but their single, Emily Armstrong, as the kind of voice that really does come only once in a generation.

I saw them live here in L.A. -- they're locals -- last year and it was sincerely one of the best shows I've ever seen: just an hour being smacked in the face by the raw fucking power of these guys.

Three years later, Dead Sara are back. Their new record's called Pleasure To Meet You and you can already download this first single from it on iTunes and so on.

Here's Mona Lisa.

And another track from the album, Something Good.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Listening Post: Ex Cops

Brooklyn indie-pop duo Ex Cops are in the news at the moment. The reason is that they're the latest to take up the fight for independent artists everywhere to get paid for their work.

It goes like this: Ex Cops were invited by McDonalds to play SXSW this year, but within the offer was this line, which should be very familiar to any up-and-coming musician, writer, filmmaker or artist these days: "There isn't a budget for an artist fee (unfortunately)." In other words, feel free to come out here and play, but you're not going to get paid for it. McDonalds did, however, assure them there would be free food, which sounds less like a promise than a threat.

Ex Cops responded with a scathing open letter to McDonalds on their Facebook page, pointing out that a company that made $90 billion in 2013 somehow couldn't afford a few bucks to pay an indie act to play on their behalf, an act the company would immediately brand and use for its own promotional purposes. McDonalds shot back saying that it was simply following protocol and tagged its response with "#slownewsday." "That's not true," says Ex Cops singer Amalie Bruun to Rolling Stone. "They're not following any guidelines because everyone else is offering money. They'll have to take that up with South by Southwest if they think they're following the guidelines...Other, much smaller corporations are offering us money."

The band also ridiculed McDonalds for being "an archaic company trying to be hip by putting a hashtag at the end of an e-mail."

Exposure and promotion are important. But when you're a struggling artist, exposure and promotion don't pay the rent. It's especially a problem when a mega-corporation is asking you to foot the bill for your own out-of-town gig.

And the thing is, Ex Cops are worth spending a little on.

Hear for yourself. This is Black Soap.

Read me at The Daily Banter