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Candy and Cigarettes

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Monday, January 31, 2011

If You Told Me about All This When I Was Fifteen I Never Would've Believed It

My best friend these days is my personal trainer, Adam, a man whom I pay to hang out with me.  That isn't a knock on Adam.  He'd probably hang out with for free, except that he's a poor pre-med student, with a beater car, and needs the money. Adam is twenty-four.

Working out with Adam is the highlight of my day, something that extends far beyond the mere homoerotic bent of two buff men pumping iron together.  He's an interesting guy to talk to--well read, up on pop culture, sharp sense of humor.   But what I find most fascinating is that, at his age, I was falling apart, slipping into dark corners that would hold me hostage for years to come.

Adam struggles with a lot of the same conventional crap I struggled with then--no money, job cutting into social life and other passions, a lack of personal space.  Plus he's got the added pressure of being pre-med.  And then there are the women who drive him nuts, the "Please Call Me, Baby" women you can't get off your mind at two a.m., walking in the San Francisco rain, down a median on the Great Highway, because you just saw her leave with some other guy...

I'll come into the gym and find Adam, who may or may not have slept, with some crazy story about his car getting stolen, or some ex-girlfriend emptying his bank account, and there will be desperation, urgency in his voice; and every minute seems to matter to him.  And it's crazy.  And it's hectic.  And it'll keep you up at night and has you pulling out your hair.  But you feel it.  And I miss that.  Wounds heal but the nerves don't always come back.  My days are a sleepwalk.

And it pretty much all has to do with getting older, I know.  Nothing profound. Finally at an age where I have my shit together (or as much as a guy such as I ever gets his shit together), I am not hanging on somebody else's every word, not waiting for the phone to ring.  Left.  Right.  Doesn't much matter to me.  Two sides, same coin.  At forty, things are just...different.  And this is the part I struggle with.

I remember overhearing my mother say to a friend once, "You couldn't pay me to live through my 20s again."  In my 20s at the time, I thought she was nuts.  "This is fucking great!" I thought.  "The 20s are awesome.  I'm young, I'm strong, I don't compromise...."  Yeah.  Like so many other things, I eventually saw my mother was right about this too.  Not only couldn't you pay me, I would've be able to survive them again.

Working out with Adam, hearing about whatever madcap adventure or heartbreak is commanding his attention, I try to impart sage advice, or at least try to explain the things you can't quite see at 24.  Why?  Who the fuck knows.  Maybe in a weird way I am trying to talk to myself at that age, not that Adam is a fucked up mess like I was.  He's just a normal kid, a good guy with a bright future.  But 24 is a bitch of an age.  And you can't explain what is going to change, other than to say "You'll feel much differently when you are older."  Which people used to say when I was 24.  And I wanted to punch them in the fucking head.  Like Against Me! sings at the end of "Tonight We Give It 35%," "If you told me about all this when I was 15 I never would've believed it."

You want to do so many things, see your path so clearly; you're a bull being held back, so you buck and snort, and just want your chance to get out of the gate, because there is so much to do.  But all this shit stands in your way.  You've got asshole roommates (but one day you'll have your own place).  You have no money (but one day you'll be set).  You have no time to do what you want.  But one day you will.  And when that happens you see nothing has changed.  And it would be devastating.  Except you don't feel so passionately about anything anymore.  That desperation, that yearning, that urgency is gone.  Heart broken too many times, too many near misses and letdowns, too many times getting knocked down and getting back up and getting knocked back down, and now you're just used to it, who knows.  Yet, the weird part is, this isn't a bad thing.  Rolling with the punches, life on life's terms, whatever you want to call it, you've found a way to survive.  Just "surviving" isn't sexy, but it's a helluva lot safer, and it leaves you time to the focus on the things that really matter, the wife (to be), the kid, working hard to leave your mark.

Don't get me wrong.  I still have more than my share of panic attacks and tragedies and moments that feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders, and I sometimes I wish I could disappear.  Not saying that goes away.  Only that dealing with those moments is a fucklot easier now than it was then.  Of course now, your body is falling apart.  Mind's stronger, figured some shit out, but your back is going, hamstrings pull more easily, you need your fucking hip replaced, you have to get up five times a night to take a piss and you're tired all the time.

If you would've told me about all this...

My First (Unsuccessful) Query to an Agent

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Manuscript Question
From: Joseph Clifford <>
Date: Sat, April 05, 2008 4:07 pm
To: <>

Dear Whomever,

  I understand your agency's reticence to read unsolicited/un-referred manuscripts.  I've edited enough literary magazines and have endured enough insufferable graduate writing workshops to know most writing is shit, most ideas stupid, and the thought of your having to read 279-odd pages of some random MFA's jackoff-existential rant or plot-less serial killer opus probably seems as appealing as repeatedly jamming a fork in your eye.  Still, you are a literary agency, and I'm guessing you don't mind representing talent.  So my question to you--and this is assuming the "you" isn't some rejected MA volunteer and somebody who actually matters--is this: how do I get the David Hale Literary Agency to read my manuscript?  It's fucking good, I can write, and all that.  I just finished Swierczynski's The WheelMan, and while the novel I'm pitching isn't in remotely the same style, it is in the same very, very broad ballpark.  (Or to use a ten-cent word I acquired from my waste-of-time Master's program: it's in the same milieu.)  I had a former professor [query an agent] on my behalf, and she's agreed to look at my manuscript, but she's taking a goddamn long time getting back to me, and I want to cast my net as widely as possible anyway, because I have the attention span of a gnat, and if I don't get a bite on this thing soon, I'll probably just go back to doing what I do best: being a thug/criminal/malcontent on the Left Coast and getting fucked over by hot chicks.  So who do I have to get to blow so you'll take a look at this thing?  Thanks.


PS If this is some "reject MA volunteer," I apologize.  Good luck with the Derrida.

Dear Joe:

Only because you wrote such a sweet note... Please email a brief synopsis and the first 100 pages of the manuscript as Word or PDF attachments.

If you need anything else, feel free to contact me.


Shauyi Tai
Assistant to David Hale Smith

DHS Literary, Inc.
10711 Preston Road, Suite 100
Dallas, TX 75230
214-363-4422, x100
214-363-4423 FAX

* Ultimately they passed, but they read it, and they were very nice about it.  (I wrote a similar letter, though slightly less abrasive to my current agent, who gently explained that before they'd agree to look at anything, first I needed to learn how to write a proper proposal.  Which I did.  Like Vonnegut, I have a disease with the telephone and alcohol late at night, though in my case you can replace "telephone" with "Internet" and "alcohol" with "desperate insanity.")

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Another Correspondence I Had with Netflix Regarding Not Receiving Breaking Bad in a Timely Fashion

Date: Wed, 15 Apr 2009 03:32:40 +0000

Dear Customer Service Representative,

   I have been reticent to write, since up until now, I have been a huge fan of Netflix (and your most outspoken vocal proponent).  Your wide array of movie choices, convenient (and affordable) payment options, and they fact that you are not those soulless bastards at Blockbuster are just a few of the reasons I have championed your services to friends, family, and co-workers alike.  But all that is about to change.
  For THREE WEEKS I have had at the top of my cue Breaking Bad, Season 1, Disc 1, and what comes today?  Fucking "Legally Blonde II."  A stupid movie my girlfriend put on our cue, without my knowledge.  And Breaking Bad?  Still "a very long wait."  This is unacceptable.  You are Netflix!  You have, like, a bazillion dollars.  What?  You can't afford extra copies?
  I'd threaten with a return to Blockbuster, but truth is I'd rather burn out my eyes than every give those soulless creeps a penny of my hard-earned money.  But I don't think threats are necessary.  I think you are going to do the right thing here and send me my Breaking Bad, Season 1, Disc 1, for this one simple reason.  Once upon a time, in the land before Netflix, Blockbuster ruled the movie-renting world, and they did so with an iron fist.  And there was no room to negotiate.  Didn't like the fact that Bad Lieutenant only came in big brother edited format?  Try complaining, and you'd get a kick to the pants out the door and an extra large box of Goobers to the back of the head.  And now here we stand at the precipice, and, Netflix, you about to make the same mistake.
  I hope this isn't true.  Because we don't need a return to those Dark Ages.  But your indifference to my movie-watching needs--the needs of a LOYAL, LONG-STANDING CUSTOMER--makes me wonder.  Which is awful.  Because this is bigger than I.  And it is bigger than you.  This is bigger than the needs of one man who is going to have to suffer through another night of the "will they or won't they end up together" romantic comedy.  This is about choice.  It is about right and wrong.  This is about America.  Blockbuster paid for its hubris.  I pray you don't go down that same road.  

                                                                         Joe Clifford

PS Don't try coddling me with movie vouchers.  I have enough movies.  And don't waste both our time with apologies and excuses.  Losers do that.  Save that weak-ass shit for the Communist Bloc.  This is America.  Where results matter more than wishy-washy intentions.  Send me Breaking Bad, Season 1, Disc 1, and keep your good name just that, or incur my wrath.

*Ed Note: Netlix did not respond to this e-mail.  Shortly thereafter I cancelled my subscription.

The Ghost of Ricky Smith

Jesus, Ricky, forgive me.  I've started a blog.

Ricky Smith was sort of a jackass, minus the "sort of" part, a thorough pain in the ass to be around, never shut up, and rarely did he comment on anything not directly involving himself and his own brand of personal pain.  Ricky once did an excruciatingly uncomfortable hour-long spoken word performance in a coffee shop, in which he, among other things, sodomized a blowup doll with a flashlight while simultaneously simulating injecting her with heroin and railing against the press and government.  This was part of a talent show, in which everyone else read a poem for about five minutes.  That was the kind of guy Ricky was.

I met Ricky in grad school in Miami, 2005.  Pushing fifty, he was an old New York junkie, withered, weathered, wretched and ragged, who could make my oft surly disposition downright pleasant to be around by comparison.  You never conversed "with" Ricky as much as you were talked at.  Ricky was like that Kristin Wig character on Saturday Night Live, the one who can always outdo any tragedy.  If you knew someone who caught swine flu while fishing in the Keys, Ricky knew someone who contracted Ebola in a Turkish prison.  But I liked the guy.

I didn't get to know Ricky that well until my second wife pulled the proverbial rug out from under, leaving me on Easter Sunday to stay behind and fuck one of my oldest friends in Houston.  We shared a similar background, Ricky and I, and when I was at the breaking point, couldn't take it anymore, he was a sympathetic shoulder.

Ricky hated a lot of things, including, among others, Miles Davis, Catcher in the Rye, sunny days, rainbows, and laughing children.  But above all, perhaps, Ricky hated blogs.

"Everyone with fucking fingers has a fucking blog these days," Ricky said one night in class, dragging out the word "blog" to mimic retching.  "Fucking pissing out their mouths, like everyone needs to hear their every thought.  It's not writing; it's blogging.  Don't talk to me about blogging.  I don't want to hear it.  I fucking hate it, makes writing seem easy.  And writing's not easy.  It's fucking hard work."

Ricky died the next year, complications from a hard life, found dead on his bed, in front of his computer, post rigor mortis fingers curled on the keyboard, working on his still unfinished life's story.  We included an excerpt in my final issues as editor of the grad school's lit magazine.

But I still see him around.  Not in the "oh, his soul lives on" kind of way, or the hippy "we're part of the wind" crap.  I mean, I see him, or rather guys who look just like him, the beaten down, the broken, the angry-pushing-50-something-wasted-life guys, with the same lachrymose soul bleeding dread and despair, sloughing down dirty city streets, in search of a fix or a fuck or whatever temporary relief they can find, in their ragtag flannels and unwashed jeans, pulling up lame outside some residential hotel, faces carrying more years than can be measured by calendars, and to look in their eyes, it's like Bruce says: they're the ones who hate for just being born.  And every time I see one of these guys, I'll text my buddy from grad school, C-Love, and say, "I just saw the ghost of Ricky Smith..."  And a couple days later I'll get a text or e-mail back, saying, "Me too."  Which isn't a surprise, because once you start looking, you see guys like that everywhere.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Correspondence with Netflix When They Sent Me a Damaged Disc in 2007

Sent: Tuesday, May 15, 2007 7:50:25 PM
Subject: Other [NFC15]

Listen, I don't mean to be a jerk or anything. I understand discs get damaged and sometimes get shipped out. That’s life. OK. Fine. But you have to understand something: I don't have much in my life right now besides “Scrubs” (and, in particular, Sarah Chalke). I am a miserable, miserable person. I have one friend in Miami (equally miserable) and a girlfriend 3,000 miles away (who will certainly leave me when she gets to know me better; they all do). My professional life—professional life? Ha! What a joke. All I have is “Scrubs.” I look forward to new discs arriving. It allows me a fleeting, momentary escape from my miserable existence. So image how I felt to day: A new disc arrives. I sit on my couch. Dr. Elliot is looking even sassier than usual. All is good. Then my player freezes. I check the disc. Cracked! The whole thing. Cracked. No more “Scrubs” for Joe. I don’t smoke anymore. I don’t drink anymore. I don’t even eat cheese anymore. I mean, I know you are sending out a new disc, but I lost this day. You robbed me of my Tuesday. Tuesday, May 15, 2007, lost to me forever. Whoever is
answering this, I know you aren't personally responsible. Still, I am hurt. I'm not even sure what I want. Yes, I do. I want “Scrubs,” Season 2, Disc 2 here now. But you can’t give that to me, can you? Tomorrow or Friday is not today. Can you give me back my Tuesday?


Hi Joe,

Thanks for your message.

I am sorry to hear that this has caused you distress, and I’d be happy to help. I can definitely address your concerns with Netflix. With regard to everything else in your life, I do hope that perhaps with the (hopeful) improvement in your Netflix service, everything else will take a turn for the best as well.

I certainly apologize for any difficulties you may have experienced with the quality of our discs or the shipments you have received. I can assure you our warehouse staff performs an inspection on each and every DVD before it leaves our warehouse, and will scrap those that cannot be cleaned or repaired. We do rely heavily on our customers to notify us of any defects or damages experienced, so we thank you for your feedback. If a movie is not visibly damaged and there have not been any previous reports of problems, we will ship the copy to the next customer. Our compensation for damaged DVDs is to ship replacement copies as soon as it is possible.

In an attempt to compensate you for any troubles you’ve had, I am issuing you a bonus disc voucher for you to use at your convenience.

Please let us know if there is anything else we can do to ensure you get the most out of your Netflix Membership.

If you have any further questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us.

Netflix Customer Service


An Open Letter to Joe

Today my friend Joe said to me: “I’d like to see you use your blog as a conversation with your son Holden, like, if you were to die when he was nine, what would you want to say to him, y’know, in terms of the man you’d like to see him be, and knowing what a monstrous bastard your father was to you, all the macho bullshit, how do you explain that to your son, that you want something better for him, for him to see you in a better light.  That I’d want to read.”  I’m paraphrasing, of course.  Good fucking question, Joe.

This is from an earlier conversation Joe and I had had.  I’d expressed how my father wouldn’t be sitting around crying over not getting published; he’d go out and punch someone in the head.  And I’m guessing Joe found this a little disturbing since he knows about the kind of man my father was, and now that I have a son, it sounded as if I was validating my father’s propensity toward violence, caving in to that “locker room, prison tier” mentality.  And I was.  To a point.

I think about this a lot.  I’ve started a second memoir.  If the heart of the first one was my mother, certainly the stone cold soul this time will be my father, a man whom I both despise and aspire to be.  Figure that shit out.

I am forty years old.  And having a kid is overwhelming at times, stifling, confusing, fucking hard.  My father was twenty-two when I was born.  I can only imagine…

He’s your answer, Joe, best I can, after one of the worst days of my fucking life.

One of the truest things I’ve learned having survived forty long winters, my friend, is that kindness is mistaken for weakness in this world.  Maybe I don’t know much.  But I know this: my father wouldn’t have left his wife in Houston so she could fuck one of his friends.  My father would’ve thrown her ass on the plane, probably punched the guy in the head on mere suspicion; and no that is not something I want to instill in my child, don’t plan on teaching him that punching people in the head is OK, don’t want him to be abusive, and especially not toward women.  I am merely using the example, exaggerated, to make a point.  Because, conversely, by leaving my wife there, I became a victim; I was the one standing on the seventh floor of my apartment complex, alone, helpless, looking at the long way down, waiting for the phone to ring; and there is more than a good chance that the last part of me that could really love with abandon died that night.

I wrote in my noir novel, the Lone Palm, “If you want it, take it.  If you’re big enough and strong enough who’s to say it didn’t belong to you anyway?”  The Lone Palm is a comic book, a graphic novel, characters stretched out grotesque.  But I’d be lying if I said just a little of my dad didn’t go into that line.  And, yeah, I admire that.  Mostly because you need a bit of that if you are going to survive this place, and I’ve always been short of that, for a long time I didn’t stand up for myself, and I used my wanting to be nothing like my father to my detriment.  I’d like to spare my son that.

I plan on teaching Holden to be kind, generous, compassionate and humble, but that is going to be tempered with the reality that the world can be a cold and mean place, that like it or not, there are certain scenarios where it’s hammer vs. nail, and people are always looking to take advantage when they can, that the “locker room/prison tier” mentality is fucking real and reigns in a lot of corners, no matter how much we wish it wouldn’t.  I don’t want my boy to be the angry monster my father was, and I don’t want him to be the pushover I was in Houston.  I suppose I could play him “Coward of the County,” but I think that sends the wrong message, that it’s OK to be a pussy until your girlfriend is getting gang raped.  There is a level of proactive I’d like him to learn.  Not bullying.  But not getting his milk money stolen either.

I guess, Joe, what I’d like to leave Holden with, should that big ol’ bus come barreling down the boulevard to take his daddy away, is this: try to acquiesce and do his best to accommodate others, exercise restraint whenever possible, with the internal comfort of knowing that he doesn’t have to if someone is threatening his well being, that if push comes to shove, he should stand up for himself, erring ever-so-slightly against caution; draw lines, establish boundaries that adhere to his own personal belief system, etch these in the concrete of his soul, and don’t let anybody cross that.

Not sure if that is the answer you wanted, Joe, but Holden is only five months old, and I’m new at this dad thing, and I’m still pissed about the publisher rejection my book today, so now might not be the time to answer that.  Or maybe it is.