Wednesday, March 13, 2013

for zach: or, traction

You’re Not Forgotten, Zach; or: Traction
(As read at Guts & Glory 1/16/13)

Pretty much whenever I eat cereal, I think of my friend Zach Dunlap.  

And sometimes, on cold January Saturdays, as I sit cross-legged, hungover on the couch my brother gave me three years ago, it’s good to know he’ll never be forgotten.
Because these days?  These days, daddy’s pretty poor.  And eats a whole lot of cereal.  


I grew up in a college town in Northeastern Ohio.  I think I’ll be forever grateful for having grown up there.  I had a truly terrific childhood, and friendships that have lasted over decades.  Knowing what I know now, I realize I had a pretty insulated existence.  I was not yet awake to the frailty of life.

I had a super Nintendo. 
I went to vacation bible school. 
Most of my close friends owned bb guns.
I would collect call my parents to have them pick me up after junior high play practice, cramming a full sentence on my whereabouts in the 3 seconds offered to say a name.

It was the kind of fancy-free lifestyle young men can only dream of.

Growing up, I was in a Saturday morning bowling league with a few friends.  As we grew older, we always were adding and losing teammates, so one year my friend Porter invited a guy named Zach to our team.  Two guys named Zach, to be specific, but you’ll hear more about the other one later.

The league operated as such: every Saturday you would go in, bowl three games, spend $20 of your parents’ money on bowling and soda, cautiously eye the condom machine in the restroom, and then have your parents pick you all up after only a few hours - everyone smelling like someone dumped an ashtray directly on top of them.   

Zach and I became fast friends, bonding over sports, movies, music, and not really giving a shit about bowling.  But our friendship was truly forged in the disgustingly hot flames of internet connectivity. 

In the glory days of AOL instant messaging, he was one of those people that was always available, a maestro of conversation between a symphony of friends.  Soccer players.  Car dudes.  Buddies.  Babes.  Young babes.  Questionably young babes, and scores of other friends.  He was a gregarious, outgoing, compassionate person. 

He was a great person to talk to.

Since my father grew up on a farm, I was living in a dial-up world, and Zach was spending his days in the dream-like state that is high speed internet.
We were teenagers, it was the late nineties. 
Technology, internet piracy, and our hormones were all advancing at an exponential pace, and we emerged like delicate butterflies from an online boner chrysalis.

Zach had internet power.
Naturally, Zach used this power for a collection of pirated music and pornography that was, to a God-fearing boy like myself, simply unbelievable in its breadth and scope.
I remember watching one video with Zach, and afterwards recall being almost frightened by what two human beings can do with just a few ice cubes.
We sat in creaky desk chairs together, fully clothed, watching pretty much the exact videos our parents hold told us not to.   At 16, this was pretty much bliss.

We continued to bond over things like listening to Outkast and working shitty summer jobs.

I would drive home from working at the now closed Six Flags Ohio Worlds of Adventure, and Zach was working at Arby’s.  I’d pay about $5 and receive what I estimated to be three and a half pounds of food.  Roast almost beef,  jalapeno somethings, and just so, so many curly fries. 
Zach filled me in on the behind the scenes type stuff at my local Arby’s.  

He explained they use something called a 'sham,' which is just a metal ham-shaped mold they fill with liquid roast beef.  They bake that, and slice it up hot.
It’s good mood food!
Being a year older, I eventually left to Cincinnati for college.  Zach and I kept in touch, but periods of silence grew longer with this new distance. 
His mom and stepfather moved into the house next to my parents.  When I’d drive home from Cincinnati, arriving late on a Friday, sometimes I’d walk over to Zach’s and hang late into the night.  

Moving chronologically, Mark Zuckerberg then signed a blood oath with Satan in a cornfield in the deep south, or something, and Facebook became a thing.

I’m 22.

One afternoon, in a dirty room in a dirty house just off the dirty campus of the dirty University of Cincinnati, I saw that a mutual friend was posting about an accident.  Or something. 
She was distressed, trying to communicate information to others that had obviously been asking her questions. 

I burrowed through posts from friends and eventually discovered the situation.
Zach, who I naively thought had  digestive problems that gave him occasional issues, was in the hospital.  More specifically, in intensive care.  I was told some of his internal organs had stopped working days before.   
Days before, he was at home and could barely move, and just stayed there.  After a few days of nobody hearing from him, our other friend Zach burst into his apartment to find him.  

Fading in and out of consciousness, Zach struggled to wake up.  He was alive, but barely.  We could do nothing more but wait for his organs to wake up and start functioning again. 


It’s March of 2006. 

I wake up.  I’m surprised, as this means I was actually able to fall asleep.  
I look at my phone to see it’s only been a few hours. 
My eyes sting from lack of sleep.  I was up late speaking with my friend Martha. She lets me know that Zach coded last night, for several minutes.  I search online to learn what this means.  
His brain wasn’t receiving oxygen. 

Martha and I have been talking regularly with updates on Zach.  She lives in Dayton, just an hour away from me.  From there, it’s maybe an hour and half to Columbus, to the University hospital where Zach lays, alive only because of machines.

Martha calls to tell me today will be the day.

I start driving to her apartment. 
I stop at Burger King to get a spicy chicken sandwich.  I hate the fact that even through pain, I’m still a human that needs food, and that I’ve stopped at Burger King to get a fucking spicy chicken sandwich.

I go in and out of tears.

Martha and I meet.  I still remember how tightly we hugged.  We drove to Columbus, fading in and out of silence.  I remember staring into the late-winter nothingness that is the geographic center of Ohio. 

We pace the hospital’s intensive care waiting room after stopping in to see Zach.  His hands and body are swollen.  Machines fire and beep in a cacophony around him.

Then, they stop.

Zach’s mom walks out to us all, a smattering of friends and family gathered in this hospital waiting room because we’re not sure where else to be.  She tells us all that we didn’t win this one. 

There is…hollowness. 


Later that night, I drive back to Cincinnati, headlights on 75 south blurring through tears.

I drift through days, wanting so badly for everything to just slow down.  Stop. 

I drink too much some nights. 

I cry on the phone with old friends.

I learn about Crohn’s and Colitis. 

My mom goes with me to buy my first suit.  It’s black and ill-fitting.  I remember thinking I should be wearing this as a groomsman instead of a pallbearer.  

I make a promise to myself that for the next one of these things, I’ll be one of the people that gets up to say something. 

I try filling the space he left.

I realize, soon, that you just…can’t.

Death is inescapable, and that's what makes it a real son of a bitch. 
It forces perspective, whether you’re prepared for it or not. 


Right now, I’m 29. I think.  
 I’ve lived almost four years in Chicago.  I’ve journeyed through crummy jobs. 

Parking cars and selling Nalgenes to the affluent, all while holding on hopes to a faint glimmer of hope.  A writing opportunity through editors I randomly met during a year of service with Americorps.  After sending initial writing, they wanted to see more, and even offered a contract. 
I would write, revise, write again, revise again, and wait, wait, wait.

My job now?  Crummy as ever.  I work customer service, and speak with people named Gayle that literally fear the internet.   With Floridians named Marisela ready to provide details on just where, when and how their coupon for genital waxing ‘let them down as a customer.’ 

My friend Casey likens it to ‘golden handcuffs’.  The comfort that money and benefits can provide, coupled with the gnawing feeling that I’m just spinning my wheels – marking time as I assist rude, frustrated rich people with their business transactions.

My friend Greg says we’re in something called tideland.

Lately I find myself in this conversational groove, speaking with all types of friends feeling similarly stuck, wherever they are.  Jobs they’re holding to chase after passions. Dogs they’re walking while they figure out exactly what it is they want. 

Jobs like this make me miss my friend Zach. 

It’s October of 2012, four years since I met that group of editors in a high school in the south Bronx.  
One day, at my desk, I receive an email from my editor.  It started with ‘While most publishers have said no thanks, they’ve heard back from one.’


And that brings me to tonight. 
The timing of tonight seemed serendipitous. 
I so badly wanted to talk about these shitty jobs.  The importance of not letting them control you.  All ending in a reading of a composed email to my boss, detailing just what pieces of my soul this job has trampled, with a minimum of expletives peppered throughout.   I would click send, we would all get drunk.

But, that’s not how it’s happening.

I still have to wait, patiently, for the difficult, probably evil inner-workings  of children's literature contracts to be ironed out.  My wheels spinning, faster than ever, but still only whirring in place. 

And in this marked time, in the days where these golden handcuffs tether me to my fake desk, I contemplate importance.  Ultimately, I come back to that forced perspective.

It’s no longer an emptiness, what I feel for my friend Zach.  For years I’ve carried the hollowness with me, and it’s not to say the void has been filled.  On the contrary - too many other voids have joined his. 

But I’ve learned that the best thing I can do, the best thing  to do, is to leave the space death has created.  To remember it’s imprint, and fill the rest of your life remembering potential that once occupied it.

So I’m hopeful that my wheels won’t be spinning much longer.  These handcuffs will rust and crumble at my feet, that the tides will do whatever it is that tides do.

But I’m also grateful.   That for now, this time before I find whatever traction it is, this time is for the more simple things - like making sure a friend is not forgotten.   

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

old thoughts

lately i've been thinking a lot about the wisdom, power and special privileges that come with age.
and i'm talking octogenarian status.
i mean, you can tell when someone slips into 'grandfather mode.' certain tendencies start to show up that are basically unavoidable. for men, it's things like eating bob evans whenever you please and playfully harassing anyone that is paid in the field of customer service. anyone. wherever, whenever, and especially in front of loved ones.
conversations will go way too in depth. full names and number of offspring will be spoken of. bad jokes will weave through the air and eventually fall on deaf ears. this is just what comes with the age territory.
and ladies, well i think that the superpower of old women is the ability to touch anyone's baby, whenever or wherever, and nobody really seems to care. old women can touch baby's FACES on the bus. you know what would happen if a guy who looked like me just reached over and touched your baby's face? it either involves mace, night class defense moves or some sort of newscenter 800 hotline - and all of them end with all parties crying.
so, old ladies are untouchable when it comes to touching anybody. just look for it.

old people thoughts.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

how i ruined someone's saturday

about three weeks ago, my friend erin invited me to a wedding. it's been a while since i've been to one, and, truth be told, i haven't been to very many altogether. i have a lot of friends that have streaks of 7 or 8 weddings in one calendar year. considering the friends i keep, this idea of so much matrimony is completely foreign to me. i recently coached a good friend on how to approach the most likely 19 year old radio dj he listens to every monday. it was the week before he turned 27. if the conversation had been recorded one of us would most certainly be under some kind of investigation.

so, yeah, i haven't had a great deal of friends tie the knot.

but i got excited for it. weddings pretty much guarantee free food, free booze and most likely an opportunity to meet new people at their most carefree and sunny. i pretty much love all of those things, so i got ready to throw caution to the extroverted wind.
erin picked me up, my pants clamoring for a lint roller as i ducked between rain drops to her car. we talked the whole way to the ceremony, a charming church in a small suburb of the city named after coal. i took mental notes for what i wanted to make sure to avoid during megan and andy's wedding.

oh, yeah. two friends, who most likely comprise 40% of this blog's reading population, are allowing me to officiate their wedding. i'm really excited for it. not just in that i get to see friends pledge devotion to one another, but moreso in the fact that i'm going to completely lose all credibility as a registered officiant as i drink beer from my untied shoe during the reception. it will really be something else. i'm asking for the ceremony to be conducted somewhere suitable for setting off about eight or nine thousand dollars worth of fireworks. true love isn't true unless everyone leaves with some amount of hearing damage.

but anyways, after experiencing the lengthy catholic ceremony, erin and i found our way to the hotel, the nearest wendy's, and a sports bar with seven dollar pints of guinness. in that order.
fry salt still on our fingertips, we headed into champps sports grill, a place where every employee dressed like referees and all the signs were misspelled.
we met up with some of erin's friends, everyone dressed up nice drinking a cold mid-afternoon beer. there was about three hours of down time from ceremony to reception, so naturally everyone began drinking, drinking, drinking.

we got there a little late, and after about an hour, everyone decided it was time to head to the reception. i forgot what living in sprawling, highway-ed towns was like. you have to take a car everywhere, and the only way to know which direction you're heading is measured on your proximity to a barnes and noble.

erin and i were going to take a shuttle the newlyweds were providing for the guests staying in the hotel. as we got up to leave a charming young married couple offered to drive us. they were headed to the ceremony but weren't staying the night, as they were having an eight-wedding calendar year themselves. they said it really cuts costs. so does not giving gifts to the couple. duh.

so we followed them out to their car, a sparkling new black camry shimmering in the overcast illinois sky. i stood to the side of the car as the husband took his jacket and an umbrella from the back seat and popped open the trunk, tucking things away to leave space. the car was one of those spotless cars, that you could tell they took great care of it. it smelled like my worst nightmare.

so as the husband put his jacket in the trunk, my eyes caught hold of a colorful, donkey-shaped explosion happening in the trunk. i cocked my head to see a bright pinata, smack dab in the middle of the trunk. nothing else in the trunk. everything clean as a whistle. except this pinata. he shut the trunk and we all climbed in the car, our pants sliding across the new leather.

as the doors shut, i tried to start conversation. i felt that pinata had a great story as to how it wound up in a completely clean trunk. i did my best to lay on the charm.

'so, i don't mean to pry, but you guys totally have a pinata in your trunk.'
my face was in a half smile, ready to hear the laughter and subsequent funny party story to follow.

but it didn't happen. i felt my face get red as silence loomed in the car, my words hanging in the middle of this pristine interior.

'umm...i wasn't supposed to know about that...' said the wife.

ho. ly. shit.

'yeah...that was a surprise' said the husband, his face grimacing as his eyes just looked out above the steering wheel in front of him. it was eating him up.
it was her 30th birthday, and the next week she was to have a party. she knew that the trunk held her surprise, but was avoiding seeing it.
lucky for her, some asshole that doesn't know anyone at this wedding grabs a seat in her car and COMPLETELY RUINS HER BIRTHDAY. perfect.

my face turned a deep red as erin avoided eye contact with me to keep herself from laughing. i tried to scramble and cover it up.

'umm...there was also a baby, some frisbees and...'
i trailed off. i was in a tailspin. there was no way of getting out of this. no way to charm my way out. no way to make a joke. just me, a nice married couple and secret pinata driving in silence through the middle of nowhere.

after i experienced the longest 14 minutes of my life, we got out and walked to the reception hall. i apologized again, trying to convey how sad i was that i just ruined something special for them. they were nice and tried to play it off, but i could tell it was sort of a big deal.
like a pinata meant something seismic. like on their wedding day, he promised her he was ready to have children the day he gave her a pinata. or it meant they were moving to mexico. or it was just full of cocaine and they were going to stay up for eleven days straight. whatever it was or meant, i fully ruined it.

so, as you can imagine, i began DRINKING. there's only one way to recover from something like that, and that's to drink gin after gin and sing along to taylor swift on the dance floor.

after a few drinks i found the couple, they were waiting in line at the bar.

'listen, i decided i'm going to just keep ruining every surprise you got for each other. so for the rest of the night, i'm ruining your lives.'

they laughed and i walked away, not giving the moment enough time to grow awkward.
the next time i saw them i started my project, which continued all night.

'hey, just so you know, she got you a hot air balloon ride for thanksgiving.'


the next day, as erin and i looked around at all the wendy's wrappers littering the hotel floor, we talked about the surreal pinata experience. it almost seemed like a dream.

i thought about what i want to do for megan and andy's wedding. the mental notes i was taking. i added one more, just for good measure. it may not even come up, but if i see a secret pinata, i'm just going to keep it to myself.

Monday, April 26, 2010

MORE forgotten acceptance speeches

so an idea of forgotten acceptance speeches is something i found very funny some time ago. with most things like that, i tire of them so quickly and leave them for dead. to cite examples, let us look back at wearing very short, poorly hemmed jean shirts and the phrase "sickening."
so yes, i tend to leave things i find funny behind. not intentionally, but as a snake sheds it's skin, so do i leave behind things like leaving voicemails for my friends from nameless pimps looking to bolster their lineups (megan murphy, you've probably received too many.) but sometimes it's good to revisit, and recently i've been thinking about a speech i think is already in its formative stages as we speak.

forgotten acceptance speeches: the james cameron memorial greenhouse/vault

"thank you, thank all of you. please, you can all sit. no, please, everyone take a seat! (five minutes of uninterrupted applause, then everyone sits) wow, i really did not expect that at all. (manager off the stage writes checks for applause. doors lock.) it is so great to be here tonight in front of a group of performers, writers, visual designers and friends that have all meant so much to me. (pure unfiltered oxygen begins pumping through ventillation system)
now as you all know, this has not been an easy ride for me. i've gone from directing scenes in piranha 2 to literally spitting in the face of jesus himself after films like 'avatar,' 'avatar 2' and the forthcoming third installment 'avatar tres: los unobtainios'. none of my success would be possible without me torturing you one and all. being so demanding that all of you at one point questioned whether you still had a love for your craft. watching the last shred of confidence bleed out of you in some studio in burbank has been an honor for me. it's shells of people like you that make me want to keep working in this town, returning every night to my hover-boat docked safely off of the misty cliffs of malibu.
to receive a greenhouse *slash* fortified money shelter in my honor is something i am humbled to accept. it has always been my dream to foster growth and germination like the kind seen on pandora, the planet i dreamed up and have legal proprietary rights to. and that includes that piece of shit internet radio station. so to get a greenhouse in my honor, it is a beautiful thing. hopefully i can grow a tree as tall and beautiful as the tree of souls. or whatever that thing was called, i can't really think of it right now. again, thank you!
(two minutes of uninterrupted standing ovations)
but i am not only thankful for the greenhouse, but thankful for the james cameron memorial vault as well. having earned more many than any of you could possibly comprehend, you all must find it silly to want a vault dedicated solely to you and your next of kin, which will indefinitely be small, lifelike clones of myself with two times the brain capacity and devoid of all emotion.
this donation to my honor is going to help make great strides in medical research. as we speak i have a team of elite physicians, surgeons and emt's working round the clock to find a way to liquify money, keep it at a suitable core temperature and then inject it directly into my bloodstream. with only a few more injections, i will have reached a minimal percentage of lifeblood, where i will cease to be james cameron and henceforth be known only as cameron, director, writer and ruler of all breathing life.
so it is now i ask all of you - everyone of you from sigourney weaver to my bizarre, waifish wife who has the cold touch of an iguana - to gather close. step around by my side, drop to one knee and wash my feet. lay your hands upon me. for today is not only a day of celebration for the james cameron memorial greenhouse/vault, but it is a portal to the future. touch me, my children, and let me lead you with a quivering lip and steely cold stare. my name is james cameron, now watch me levitate."

Monday, November 16, 2009


if i had to list the things i worry about on a day to day basis, where lebron james plays basketball next year is easily in the top five. soon after is low-lying sidewalk branches poking my eyes out.