Monthly Archives: July 2009

A Brief History: A view of sexual ethics today

Does social media work for blogs? Yes. Yes, yes, and yes.

I started this blog with my Facebook network, mostly friends, some family, and a few acquaintances. The first week’s readership was small, the next doubled, and the next doubled again. I had about thirty or thirty-five readers consistently interested in my work. Some were close friends in Boston and family, others were friends with whom I am hardly connected any longer, hadn’t seen since high school, maybe longer.

None of them were vocal. Few comments, no real feedback. But they were there; the stats were there. Their presence pushed me onwards when I might have otherwise abandoned the attempt.

Then I joined Twitter, and in the first week I grew a network of around a thirty I followed and thirty who followed me, give or take after you deleted the spammers. Readership doubled again; Facebook readers remained and tweeps came and retweeted. The next week I had about a hundred following and a hundred followers (my ratios are good, huh?), and readership doubled again to over a hundred independent viewers.

That’s five weeks (six minus the foundation week), and my blog has grown by two to the fifth power. I don’t see any reason that the growth will stop until I run out of tweeps, and I feel convinced that I’m barely touching Facebook’s real potential at this point.

Even so, the differences, to me, go like this: dropping an ad into Facebook is like dropping a penny into a pool. A small splash, the water ripples for you, and the penny sinks. Dropping an ad into Twitter is like dropping a penny into Jell-o; it riggles along until you drop something else in it.

As for the following piece, I apologize only to Jennie. You asked me not to write about you; too bad.

**

Aside from porn, I in my youth never had a consistent form of sex in my life. The girls I knew were horny, and I knew how to push those buttons, but they were also smart, wily, and conflicted.

One time during college I took Justin to my friend Ashley’s house. I had just broken up with Christina and he was about to leave for Marine boot camp, so I worked out a little double date for us with Ashley and her friend Holly. I intended for Ashley to give Justin a thrill to remember Plano by before he went away, but he was too straight edge for an offer like that, or else he was just downright embarrassed by the straightforward nature of the scenario.

Justin said that he didn’t know what to do, wouldn’t know how to handle our dear Ashley. So I showed him: I walked up behind Ashley, pulled her chin to the side, and attacked her neck with gentle nibbles. She moaned, she shuddered, and she asked me incredulously, “How do you do that?”

The scene reminded me of the one time in high school when Ashley and I almost got together, the time that essentially guaranteed we never would. Younger, seventeen, I had invited her to my home in order to invite her to prom. She hesitated, and I told her to take her time. We laid down on a couch together and watched The Princess Bride. She had her back to me, pressed against me, and I cupped her breasts with my hands, ran them down her swimmer’s body. She turned hot, and then she got up and walked away. We didn’t go to prom together.

When I left Justin alone with Ashley in her living room, Holly acted in the same way as Ashley had. Young, virginal, she squirmed against the carpet of Ashley’s bedroom when I poured cold strawberry sauce on her neck. She let me ravish her with my hands and tongue, neither asking me to stop nor initiating anything herself. I could taste the heat of her blood under her skin; I had my hands down her pants, rubbing her as she panted. She told me not to stop, but I asked her if she wanted to go further. Eventually, still in each other’s arms, we fell asleep. She left in the morning, and nothing ever became of it.

Jennie had the same initiative to not-sex that Holly had, the same seemingly religious impulse that contradicted directly with her will to fleshy desires. Her motivational conflict resulted in sinusoidal sexual patterns. Three weeks on, three weeks off. My pillow talk verges on the ridiculous, so we’d have sex and then talk about religion, her relationship with God, the pursuit of truth in my life. Perhaps I cyclically inspired her religious fervor; perhaps she was fucking with me under the guise of religion. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where sincerity ends and emotional games begin.

And yet I’m a man who respects principles, never the one to force the issue of sex where it’s not mutual. Perhaps this lack of a will to power on my part is what leads to what seems like an inevitable disappointment in my relationships: that the girls I date, though educated, expect the male to take the sexual lead, to direct the sexual course. If so, how chauvinistic, and what a lack of interest in my desires.

I want the girl to be interested. I yearn to please her, no matter how shallow our relationship is. I want her to enjoy being pursued, to give remuneration. I’ll only go so far before they initiate a next step: there’s nothing I hate more than a cold fish.

Jennie and I eventually came to an end over this misfortune. One day after another three-week asexual stint, she came over to bed me again. By the time she left, I knew that I’d had enough.

And yet I’d put up with much the same treatment from my very next girlfriend, Christina. Our relationship really comes in two parts: sophomore year and senior year. The whole of our sophomore ride, though sexual, lacked sex. She spoke of respect and fear and how she was still a virgin, though I highly doubt whether that statement was true. Still, I respected her wishes, and we kissed and fondled and I went down on her without her going down on me. And we didn’t sex, contrary to my mother’s belief.

One day during that sophomore year I had come home with Christina to introduce her to my family. Of course my parents were aware that I had had a sexual adolescence, much to my mother’s annoyance. Christina and I were upstairs watching a movie in the main upstairs room, one open to anyone who walks up the stairs and where my father spent a good deal of his time during those years. Because of the projection TV, we had the lights off.

Mother called up the stairs, “Greg, turn those lights on!”

“We’re watchin’ a movie, ma!” I hollered back. Christina had fallen asleep; she lifted her head off my shoulder.

My mother yelled, “Turn them on, Greg! I know what you do with girls up there in the dark!”

I looked Christina in the face after my mother said this; she had turned ashen, mortified. I felt embarrassed on her behalf, stood up, and marched downstairs without pausing the movie. Mother retreated into the backyard, and I pursued her. Of course, the TV room was only separated from the backyard by a thin window, and I’m relatively sure Christina heard every word we shouted.

“Mom, I’m not having sex with her.”

“Oh, bullshit!” My mother using profanity was rare; though she allowed it from my sister, she had slapped me the one time I had used it around her.

“She’s a good girl, ma! She doesn’t want to do stuff like that.”

She snorted a laugh. “That’s what Elvis said about Marilyn Monroe, and no one believed him either!”

I balked. “What?”

My mother’s finger shot into the air and shook with the exaggerated tremble of her angered body: “Elvis and Marilyn Monroe!”

A lull entered our conversation. I asked, “Are you serious?” I gave her a few seconds to answer before I finished, “Well, I guess that’s it, then.”

Christina and I broke up not too much later though for an unrelated reason. At the time, the reasons had seemed plentiful and the complaints against one another could have doubled as a code of law, but I recognize after some distance from our relationship that the split basically resulted from a mutual dislike of having a long distance relationship over the summer; she’d return to Houston and I to Dallas. Officially she broke up with me while she had me trapped in her Chevrolet Malibu on a long car ride out of town through rural roads. But I didn’t fight too hard to keep her around, either.

That summer I worked a menial job, a temporary night-shift construction gig that paid fairly well and let me destroy things. I called Christina every few nights to let her know how much I missed her until one night I perhaps overdid it, singing her a song that was playing on the CD player of my truck. When the song was over, she told me that she didn’t miss me and that we were through. She hung up, and I went back to work.

Bryan, Michelle, and Sydney came to my house a week later, and we all got sloshed on spirits, playing drinking games with Irish cream and vanilla vodka. Sydney and I slipped off to my bedroom while Michelle and Bryan caught up and made out; it was my first actual sex since I had broken up with Jennie, the first time in my life that I had had sex drunk, and the only time I had sex drunk with someone I wasn’t having sex with regularly sober. Of course it was a mistake.

One of the reasons Christina had broken up with me was Sydney’s reintroduction to my life. She had asked me to promise her that I would never cheat on her, and in one of the more controversial moments of my life, I had refused. Very few friends of mine have agreed with my refusal or my reasons for giving it.

I don’t make promises I can’t keep. In one of the introductory moments of my relationship with Christina, she had asked me to promise that I would never make her cry. I refused that request as well. She had smiled then, pleased with my candor. On this occasion, though, my blunt honesty seemed to her a fault.

I’m a writer, defined in my terms mostly as a person with an over-active imagination coupled with the disposition to record his thoughts. As a child, my parents caught me in any number of obvious lies, since I let my imagination run away with me. I grew older, though, and as I did I tried to reel in my mind’s propensity for exaggeration. The method I underwent in this pursuit was an evaluation of the human condition, an amateur exploration into why humans do the silly things they do. In this vein—a path which included observing my friends, asking them to observe me, and any art with a psychological angle I could ingest—I discovered that humans are capable of quite a few very silly actions, not the least of which is unexpected infidelity; and by unexpected I don’t mean that his partner doesn’t suspect (most suspicion is unwarranted, and most warranted suspicion is put aside), but that the person himself does not suspect.

The most common argument against this analysis of the human scene is that there’s always choice. At some point in the inception of an affair, an attached lover has to choose to cheat on his significant other. In my opinion, such a view shows the thinker’s naiveté: to assume that any given person chooses before he acts generally gives that person too much credit; people act for any number of unconscious reasons—unconscious here implies a lack of choice, which must be conscious—and in an attempt to explain such actions attempt to insert their motivation, usually foolhardily and in direct contradiction to the actor’s situation. Therefore, unexpected infidelity occurs; not only does it occur, I believe (possibly through my own inexperience with infidelity) it is the norm.

For this promise Christina asked, and I refused not because Sydney herself, a drugged up pitiable slut approaching me primarily for my pity and presumably for my help, was a threat to our relationship but rather according the principle, perhaps silly and idealistic: I won’t make promises I can’t keep. Any married man will tell you that’s no way to make a relationship work, and it’s not. But I’m nothing if not idealistic.

Sad and drunk, I fucked Sydney and enjoyed through an alcoholic haze my first experience with sloppy, self-serving, and artificially extended drunken sex. She left, and I didn’t see her again for weeks. Sydney called me and asked if we could get together again, but I refused her offers. She’d ask me if we could just be friends, say that she needed my friendship. I would take her to a movie to find out; in the dark we’d hold hands, then the kissing started, and by the end I was so excited for the sex to come that I accidentally backed my truck into a light pole. So, no, I guess at that point that I, without other recourse for sex, and she willing to give sex, could not just be friends. I didn’t see her again before she left for the Air Force.

I did, however, have to call her again. Shortly after our sport fucks my urethra itched and urinating at first began to hurt and then to sear, to burn. When I examined my penis, I saw that the skin around the urethra had turned scaly and looked like the dried-out remains of a sunburn. I called my family doctor and made an appointment; when I arrived, he asked me to remove my shorts and lay down on his table. I did, and he shoved a cotton swap inside me; the sudden sharp pain caused my body to tense involuntarily, and my hands flinched. He laughed, saying, “I bet you’ll remember this before you go sleeping with loose girls again.” Later, when I told my first primary care physician in Boston about the experience, my doctor would tell me that painless screens for STDs have existed since the mid-nineties but that some doctors still prefer to use the swab just to reinforce sexual morality. Good for him, I guess, but as you’ll see soon, dear reader, it hardly worked.

I had Chlamydia, a bacterial infection easily cleared up by antibiotics within a week. I called Sydney to let her know that I had gotten it and that she might want to be screened herself, and she became indignant, told me that I couldn’t possibly have gotten it from her. I told her that it had been over a year since I’d had sex with anyone else, and she maintained that I was mistaken. I asked her who else she had currently been sleeping with, and she mentioned some guy I didn’t know out in Allen who could find out on his own just how painful the disease was. My friend Bryan told me, though, that she was having sex with his brother Jay as well, and I felt compelled to warn him; when Sydney found out why Jay had stopped having sex with her, she called me up, chewed me out for violating her privacy, and refused to speak to me ever again, a promise which lasted a few years and ended with little or no real effect since without a real need for my pity Sydney has little reason to keep in touch with me.

I’d have a few other sporadic sexual partners throughout the first semester of my junior year. The most significant of these were the two intellectual extremes, Emily the education major who never let the contradiction between her devout views on conservative Christianity and her open sexual policies bother her and Courtney the educated debater who evidenced a disparity between knowledge of books and of the world usually reserved for romantic novels.

I don’t remember how Emily and I found each other, only that the first time she approached me about sex she asked if we could get drunk first. I refused, and she said she’d drink before she came over. I told her that if she showed up drunk I wouldn’t have sex with her; if she couldn’t fuck me sober, she wouldn’t fuck me at all. She agreed, and so the affair started. Twice a week we’d get together, and she progressively climbed the kinky ladder until she went past where I was interested in going, which was where we stopped: Sex itself contents me for a long while, and I don’t need any spices added to it until the repeated flavor makes itself monotonous. She wanted to start off on the heavy side, and my lack of interest caused her to pull away.

Courtney was something altogether different, a student from one of the courses I was peer instructing, just the sort of relationship I had promised myself not to get into when I took the job. However, my responsibilities included entertaining the students and getting them involved with social groups on campus (Goal number one is student retention!), and I had invited a few of the students over to meet my friends and to attend various parties. The male students I invited declined, but the females came in a small pack of three: Sarah, Andrea, and Courtney.

One day during Thanksgiving break when most of our friends had left but she and I remained, she came over to watch a movie with me. It started friendly enough, sitting on my couch together. Then she leaned against my shoulder, and I tensed. Her head fell to my lap, and I didn’t push her off. She mentioned that she felt cold, asked me to lay down with her; I removed the back cushions of the couch and put my left arm under her head and my right hand on the flat of her stomach; even through her shirt I could tell that she had lied.

Courtney had fallen asleep by the time the movie was over, and she unconsciously nuzzled into my arm. I tried to get up without waking her, but she came two and yawned that she had better get going. I walked with her out my front door and down the cement steps to her car. She opened the door, and right when I was about to thank fate for letting me out of this pickle without too much drama, she turned and asked me for a hug. I put my arms over her shoulders and slid my hands down her back, pulling her in a soft and sensual hug. Her breasts pushed into the soft tissue of my stomach just under my ribs; the wire of her bra tinged the excitement with discomfort.

“What is this?” she asked me. “What are we?”

I sighed and looked away from her, loosening my arms.

“Couldn’t we be together?” She had heard my arguments against dating my students, but it wasn’t forbidden; it was just something I had decided not to do. Cheers to my moral stamina, since that was the only boundary between what she wanted and what I’d give her.

I still wasn’t looking at her when I said, “I’d rather not.”

She moved her arms in between us, placing her forearms vertically against my chest. When I turned my head to look down at her, I saw that she was searching my eyes for a tiny flicker of passion to kindle her hope, her slightly pouting lips complementing her expression. I kissed her suddenly and stepped past my qualms without much difficulty.

We dated for several months. She met my parents in the spring, and they liked her, a first in my young life. Around my friends and at parties, we would make out, falling asleep together on the carpet of my living room so as not to blur her strict Christian principles, which kept her from wanting to go further. We talked about her religion, which I was only beginning to move away from completely at the time, and about the affect of learning how to debate on children, which in my opinion is to stunt the process of forming a personality by means of restraining spiritual nutrition (that is, restraining the child’s ability to gestate opinions and information outside of his field of hand-me-down beliefs). Her opinion was somewhat different.

One day she came over and we went into my room together. The lights out, we kissed in my bed. My hands roamed and then she directed them; my teeth pinched and then she moaned, breathed heavily. For the first time, I put my hands under her shirt and felt her flesh, the studs of the aureole. Following my own desires, I reached down and unbuckled her pants, rubbed my hand over the top of her simple white cotton panties. She lifted her hips, pushing against my hand so that I could feel her rough pubic hair through the soft cloth.

I pulled my hand away, stopped kissing her, and sat up. I can only imagine the look on my face as strained and irritable.

“What’s wrong?” she asked me, her voice strained with more confusion than worry.

My hormones and the tease of the situation brought out my grumpiness, perhaps to an unjustifiable extent. “I shouldn’t have to stop myself for your sake,” I said. “You’re a smart girl and willful. You know that you don’t want to go this far.”

Now fear started to creep into her; she sounded a bit like a mouse: “I know. Thank you, though.”

“Don’t thank me for holding you to your morals. Stop yourself next time!”

She placed her left hand on my arm, but I stood up and walked away. “You should go.”

Courtney didn’t say much as she buttoned her pants and adjusted her bra. She asked me if I was sure, and I hugged her and kissed her cheek and told her I’d see her tomorrow.

Of course I didn’t. A couple of weeks went by before she finally sent me an email about how things wouldn’t have gone any farther than they did, which made me laugh a little to myself. It also said that she felt afraid because she knew she wouldn’t have been able to stop me if I had decided to continue. I let out a bark of a laugh and replied with something terse and nasty. For some reason, we’re awkward around each other every time we happen to see each other these days.

Sometime in this period, Jennie came back into the picture, our lack of serious relationship putting her religious qualms to bed, I suppose. She pinged me out of the blue one day, asked me whether I’d be willing to hook up with her if she just came over that evening, and that was the beginning of something casual and fun that ended when she began to date Mani.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Criticism, Humanistic, Writing

On mothers and teachers

This blog is still so young. There’s a whole world of information that I don’t know that I would like access to, but I’m about as willing to farm marketing types for the information as I am willing to write marketing copy, which, if you can’t tell by the style of this blog, is about as likely as willing stabbing myself in the eye with a rusty claw hammer.

The temptation here is to tell you all the things I want this blog to be and then ask for your help to make it that, but I’m not that silly (am I?). I’m also not going to sell out my writing or my guest-authors’ writing to satisfy your whims.

I know that there’s an intersection between what I want to give you and what you want. I also know that I’m not going to find on my own, except for a lifetime of trial and error, where those fields meet.

Therefore, this is what I ask of you my audience: take a second today before or after you read the post and go to the comment section below. Tell me what brings you here, what desires of yours I fill, and what you’d like to see that would bring you pride to share this site with your friends.

I’m not asking for essays on blog value or for you to do my market research for me. I’m asking for you to take an active role in the development of this blog as a seperate entity from me. You’re already the community, and I need to know what you want in order to best decide how I can give it to you.

Thank you in advance for any comments. For those of you still reading, Wednesdays will most likely be my experimental day. They bring more readers than Mondays, which means more people visit the site than my core readership, and yet are slower than Fridays, which I will try to focus on for my best work.

That said, here’s a guest post by new author Aaron Basinger.

**

If memory serves me right I was wearing red stretchy pants with a navy blue shirt emblazoned with a train on the front. It made me proud to wear primary colors with a symbol of engineering on my shirt. It reminded me of my grandfather.

My grey Velcro shoes hardly went with the outfit. My blonde hair was parted back then.

When I wasn’t playing outside pretending to be my dad, I was playing with blocks. Any sort of blocks would do but mostly Legos. I would make towers, airplanes, and spaceships. I created new vehicles and weapons, and invented things without names.

One day I decided to let a girl play blocks with me. She was wearing heavy bangs in the mid-eighties fashion. She wore a puffy white dress with thick shoulder pads. I don’t remember if we were friends. I don’t remember seeing her before or after the incident.

I ushered her to my corner and told her that we were building a skyscraper. She began help me build, a slab here, a brick there. Her hair was as blonde as the pine blocks.

Silence. Darkness.

Suddenly I am on my stomach on the floor. Red, pulsating heat between my eyes, I can feel my heart beating in my face. My nose feels stuffy.

Someone picks me up by my sides, carries me like a sack of mulch. I hear the click of the light switch. All is illuminated, the grimy yellow bathroom tiles that reach the ceiling, the mirror that inexplicably has rust on it, the ceramic washbasin in front of me.

I feel my body lean forward to the sink. I hear the fellow children squealing in the background as the aide murmurs something about my parents.

The teacher tilts me further to the sink as she begins to pinch my nose, white hot pain. A flash of heat. Something is moving from my right sinus cavity, something twisting and fluid, a murky taste of brine. Arterial warmth, a steady glow. I look down as she releases my nose.

Drip drop pluup.

A blood clot, carmine red mixed with the saltwater from my eyes slithers down the drain. A feeling of slight relief. It’s not unlike passing a crushed grape through your nose.

Hearing the quiet squeak of white Keds I grip the porcelain sink and push myself up to see three reflections in the mirror.

Great. My mom, who works night shifts at the neonatal ICU, will be here soon. She will be mad, I will look down and adjust the Velcro on my sneakers, put my left hand on my head, and drag it through my hair letting it rest on my crown. I’ll know that I can’t walk away.

The teacher sits me down. She is so kind to me. Her trimmed afro wouldn’t fit any other woman wearing a silk purple and pink scarf. It is tied to the right and resting on her shoulder pad. I feel at home as if my mother was not behind me.

Looking into the mirror, I see the pony tail, the thick black hair, the Aggie sweatshirt. She looks tired, concerned, loving. Anything but angry. This is first time I notice that my mother has white skin over her cheekbones.

She kneels and we are on the same level. Her hands delicately press the sinus cavities, gently pressing towards the nose searching for the piece of cartilage dangling. The non symmetry won’t work for buildings and it won’t work for noses.

A flare of white light and heat, an audible pop, and the bleeding almost completely stops. I squint my eyes s salt water runs out, pushing a valley between the dried blood. She tells me that I am a big boy, holds my hand, and walks me out the door. I am a big boy.

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Author: Aaron Basinger

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Features, Guest author, Writing

Starbucks: The third place

Dear readers, commentators, and friends,

I cannot begin to express my surprise and gratitude at the readership surge in this blog. I passed several important new-blog milestones Friday night, a claim followed by boring stats that you can skip past if not inerested: having more than a hundred visitors in one day and breaking a thousand views to the site total. Further, breaking one hundred in a day was itself a caveat: the highest day before had only seen ninety-seven viewers, and the day afterwards [sic] had seen just over sixty. Friday, though, I have one-hundred and sixteen views, followed by a Saturday of exactly one-hundred and sixteen views. Even on Sunday, with no new post for days and very little advertising from me, I reached what only a week ago would’ve been stupendous. Thank you, seriously, for supporting the effort.

I have spent so much more time developing this site than I thought I would, and I have so many plans now for the future, long before I ever thought that I would need them. Soon, though, you’ll see the first item on my to-do list, a Featured Fan story about Kate Barkhurst, an old friend from highschool and faithful Facebook friend. Thank you, everyone, and look forward to more stories from me, more guest posts, featured fans articles, and more… you know… as I get around to doing it.

My best,
Greg

**

They don’t understand, they haven’t listened to me. They called me arrogant. They’ve had all semester to see who I am, to see how I resent that label, and yet they called me arrogant. Not only said it, but spit it in my face, an accusation that seemed to say, “You can never succeed as a writer.” They read it, and they missed the point. All of them.

No, not all. There was Jenny. Jenny understood the torment of miscommunication; of course she knew what it was like to speak and yet not be heard. So sweet and so deep, she writes about moving from China to Boston as an experience of change, a flowing river of time and philosophy that soaks and bathes her mind. But writers as audience largely gloss over grammatical mistakes (as they should), and ink-on-paper doesn’t communicate in accents.

I think, and the other students notice it, too, that her writing is permeated by beauty over frustration. She writes so well, one might assume because of passion and integrity. But I have passion and integrity, too, and where does that get me? Labeled as arrogant is all, and alone. I suppose it’s about as lonely and isolating as not speaking the language of the land you’re in, but you hope in that other circumstance there remains the mysticism of discovery, or at least the obvious route of escape. For me there’s only years of letdowns, my adolescence into my waking life, of conversational successes mired by literary failures.

The cold wind of Boston winters blows through the Public Gardens and against my wool coat. I can feel its malevolence despite scientific objectivity having drowned out the world; the wind wants to bite my skin, wants to punish me for protecting myself from its harshness. Nature wants, like all life, love, to receive love as it exists, to receive without bending. My coat speaks for me my refusal of the unspoken request. My hands hide inside my pockets’ cashmere lining, helping the buttons to hold the coat in place. I had felt so sexy the day I bought this coat, had looked at myself in mirrors to memorize the way it weight and thickness complemented my girth rather than hid it, the day I thought there might be something to expensive designer labels after all. I remember the deflation upon coming home, of Sarah meh-ing her apathetic approval.

The wind cuts through my khakis instead since they’re exposed underneath the three-quarters coat. I’ve worn my Starbucks uniform to class for the last few weeks, thin-material long-sleeved block polo with dark khaki pants. Since money from Fidelity finally ran out and Sarah started asking me to pay her back for mostly legitimate expenses—to which I did not contributing but neither, really, did she—I had to get the job, and now I’m at class and at work, never at home. Sarah misses me, comes to Starbucks sometimes to sit with me, but I’ve had years to resent her attention, loath her presence. The absence of both in preference to her laptop drove me into romantic despair. World of Warcraft didn’t help on that topic, though it did relieve some of the years’ boredom.

The reading of my colleagues has broken my heart. I take criticism well—I write and people talk about the writing, and I love them for pointing out errors and paths I haven’t noticed—but like lay readers, my fellows decided to psychoanalyze me. They had done it before, when I wrote about my relationship with Sarah, talking about how sad I must be instead of the impact of the piece on the abstract reader and how that impact could be improved. The saying goes that these days everyone’s a critic, but that’s not quite the case in my experience; everyone is a psychologist, everyone thinks that they understand you by slapping their archetypes onto you, especially the ones who tell you (not ask you) not to judge. Not “Please don’t judge me until I’ve told you the whole story, or perhaps until you’ve researched it yourself,” but, “Don’t judge me, you don’t know me!” Of course, the latter ones are right; I don’t know them and never will.

I walk under the monument to ether, the world’s first anesthetic, used first at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. “We have conquered pain,” it reads. If only the words spoke truth. The wind blows again, cuts again at my shins savagely like a rusted and knocked razor.

I want to speak with someone about the disappointment. No one thought the writing was poor; the professor spoke its praises in that regard. The students merely wanted to ask me who the fuck I thought I was, in the nicest phrasing possible. But on that ground, I thought the piece stated rather clearly exactly who I claim to be.

I can’t talk to Sarah about this. She’d listen, but she’s cold, lacking in empathy. Or she has empathy and doesn’t show it. In four years, or in six if I count our friendship, I haven’t figured out which is the case.

I could go to Starbucks. It’s almost on the way home, less than a block from Sarah’s Back Bay condo, but I opened this morning and sat at a table once I got off shift until I had to leave for school at five. I literally sat there all day, and now I’d go back to do what, to stew? After all, who would I talk to? I’ve been there three months, but I’m not really friends with anyone. I go to work, I do homework, I play World of Warcraft; that’s me condensed. And when I got home, what? Sarah will already have gone to bed, not that I’ve joined her in months, and I’d stay up all night—til four, maybe five, maybe six—playing World of Warcraft, trying not to talk on the microphone so that I can relish in secret human contact in my home.

The churches at Berkeley Street, the Lutheran one with the homeless person (gender unidentifiable; I default to male) in the wool coat that I pass every night as I sing along to my iPod, so separate from his condition and just as vague a character to him as he is to me—but I’m not listening to music tonight, fuming instead; tonight, for the first time, he watches me, but I don’t mind—and the other one with the largely ignored cement hole. Clarendon, the rundown yard with the painted-black metal staircase and the door to the garden. The Newbury Street sidewalks, bricks that speak of old money, the townhomes broken into condos that lament the money’s loss. The plasma screens, shining vibrant blues and greens off beige walls, reflected off faux crystal chandeliers except that one home with the library, the dusty old tomes and the ladder on the right side; their crystal shines legit, reflecting white light off white walls.

But I have a friend at Starbucks, Ashley. But not quite a friend. She’s attracted to me, she told me so. Why would I call her? For an ego fest, so I can gain some pride off of how attractive she finds me? I don’t think so. I told her that rainy day that she walked me to Emerson that I wouldn’t turn her into a ’50s cliché, some girl hanging onto a man who says he’ll leave his wife (girlfriend) but never will, and I won’t. We had sat on the steps outside the piano shop, and she had told me that she couldn’t play the piano—not well, anyway. She had looked at me and told me she liked me, confessionally. She waited, seeing what I would do with it. I watched the automatic piano play a tune, and then I rubbed my hand down her cheek and told her that I wouldn’t abuse her. There she is; she is there.

She won’t be, though: she told me that the schedule marked her off at eight and it’s almost ten. She’ll have gone home, have left for the day, and I’ll be just as alone and just as forlorn as I feel now.

Call Mani instead. Call Steve. Call Justin and Mom and Dad. Consider calling Allison, and really feel like an asshole. Resent the way Murphy’s law applies to people answering their phones when you actually need human connection.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Hi, Ashley. I’ve got a strange question for you.”

“Yes?”

“You wouldn’t happen to still be at Starbucks, would you? I mean, I know you’ve probably left for the day.”

“No, actually. I’m here.” A thrill hits my spine between the shoulders and shivers its way down, the thrill of success; necessity or fortune falling into place I can’t tell, but it doesn’t matter and this is what I wanted, what I needed, to cut short the onslaught of despair. “Someone didn’t show up for their shift, and I stayed late to cover.”

Pause. Blink. Consider.

“I need—” But do I really want to do this to her, to rely on her when I don’t know how things are going to go with Sarah, when I can’t even pin down my feelings for a girl I just met at work, not to mention the girl I’ve loved for four years? Do I really want to be that asshole?

“I need someone to talk to.”

“I’m here.” She laughs, and weight falls away.

“Do you have anywhere you need to be? Do you need to go home?”

“No, I’m here, and I can stay. You should come. I want to listen.”

I turned left and walked down Dartmouth to Boylston, along the broad brick pathway of the private school, across the tree-lined Commonwealth Mall, and passed they dying Newbury Street. If I had gone to Exeter, Sarah might have seen me and asked where I was going. No, I turned left, kicking a pebble in the process.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Brody: A moment in anarchy

“I feel guilty,” I said. We laid in her bed on those soft gray jersey-knit sheets, and I nestled my chin against my chest as I ran my right pinky through her straight dark-brown hair. It rested on her face, so soft and silky that it fell back in her face even when she habitually pulled it behind her ear. My finger brushed against her cheek, soft and glowing even in the artificial twilight of her room. “We got him together, but we leave him at my apartment all day. I’m here, and he’s locked in my room. You know Justin and Gabe aren’t letting him out.”

Her voice held a note of concern that didn’t match the gravity in my chest: “What do you want me to do? I’m allergic to him.” Her hand rested on her pillow. Christina looked at me, but I didn’t meet her eyes. Instead I watched my hand retrace the dark strands.

I lifted my chin so I could meet her gaze before replying, “Let me bring him over from time to time. Let him play in the back yard. That would help a lot.”

She sighed, having heard this request before. “I can’t do that. My roommates don’t want him in the house—”

“Just from one door to the other.”

“—and I don’t want his fur in my home. I itch and I can’t breathe.” Her eyes rolled away from mine.

I deflated. “If only Justin and Gabe would help me out like they promised they would before I agreed to take him.” I let out a frustrated breath, anger at the whole situation filling me up, tying knots in my back. “I’m trying to balance his discomfort and yours. You asked me to get him, remember?”

“That’s because they were going to take him to the shelter!” Her exclamation came out soft but firm; I could almost hear a groan behind it. “I didn’t know that I was allergic to him, and I still don’t want him put to sleep.” Her hand moved from the pillow to my unshaven cheek, warm and light against the week-growth of down.

“Well, I can’t keep him like this. I can’t keep him locked in my room while I spend my time here. He’d be better off at a shelter than locked in my cell of a bedroom.”

“You don’t believe that, do you?” she asked quickly. “They’d kill him!”

I closed my eyes, inhaled, and exhaled, confused about how to proceed. Brody, my five-month old German Shepherd, had come from Christina’s upstairs neighbors when his owner, some sorority girl, had graduated in December and decided she didn’t want to take him home. I had Brody for a month before we found out that he triggered Christina’s allergies, and I left him alone in my bedroom when I went to class or to her place. In his boredom, he had started to chew up my book collection. Since I was a liberal arts student, I treasured my books more than for their usefulness in class and resented that he saw them as toys.

These thoughts went through my head when I considered giving him up: fully grown and energetic, it seemed unlikely that he would get adopted, but I was ignorant of Waco’s demographic for dog adoption and could only picture some young family seeing him and thinking that he wasn’t right to have around children. I feared that nobody would take him, that he would die there. Also, I enjoyed his company when we were together; he would curl up next to me with his head on one of my thighs and sleep peacefully or jump his upper body into my lap to show me his puppy smile. Brody’s playful personality inspired me to leave the house when I would’ve otherwise played computer games or read for leisure, and I wanted to work out a way to spend more time with him rather than sacrifice his love for Christina’s.

“Well, I need to go to him now,” I sighed. “He’s been alone almost fourteen hours today. I’m tired of leaving him alone all the time; it makes me like a dick.”

“Alright, but I’ll miss you,” she answered. Christina reached out and took my hand, pressing it softly against the soft cotton between her breasts.

“Stay with me just a little longer, won’t you?”

A small smile bent my lips. I rolled my eyes. I agreed.

**

Four hours later, near three in the morning, I stumbled into my loft apartment. I had fallen asleep in Christina’s arms and had to drag myself out of her warmth, her soft bed, to come home to Brody. He’s lucky that necessity trumps preference in my book: I would’ve preferred to stay.

I thought I knew the layout of my apartment by heart even in the dark, but I knocked my right leg into the loveseat on my way to my room. The couch scraped across the polished concrete, making a racket that seemed ungodly loud in the early morning silence. As I cursed under my breath, I heard Brody put his front paws against the wood door of my bedroom, waiting for me.

After I opened the door, he pranced for my attention. Brody jumped on the bed and turned in circles, smiling. A white bookshelf that held my uncared for books stood behind him against the brick wall, inlaid with one square glass window; Brody’s reflection danced there.

A carcass of a book lay on my floor. Purple paper like skin tossed aside littered the floor, marking the carrion feast at the foot of the dark wood bookshelf that held my personal favorites. Brody had learned how to get under the sliding glass shelf doors.

Get him over here, I told myself. Smack him once so that he knows not to do it, but don’t make it a big deal. He’s chewed books before.

I put a stern expression on my face and snapped my right middle finger and thumb, pointing at the book afterwards. Brody stopped prancing. His ears dropped, his butt hit the bed. He looked away from me ashamed.

I snapped my fingers again, waiting for him to obey. He moved away from me on the bed, curling up in a far corner. He knew that what he had done would anger me and he had done it anyway. My shoulders tensed, and I felt an angry heat on my cheeks.

Get him over here, I thought, and smack him once. Don’t draw this out.

I sighed, closing my eyes and turning my head to the right, forcibly relaxing my shoulder. I could still feel tension in them as I looked over a Brody and grudgingly made my way over to him.

He cowered, sinking his head down as if he were a turtle and my pillow his shell. I grabbed his collar with my index and middle fingers on my right hand. I made to pull, and he bolted.

The collar twisted on my fingers, and the joints at their base popped. I instinctively yanked my hand back, which pulled him by his throat off the bed. Urine, in a shifting arc, left him and landed on my bed, on my pillow and comforter.

Surprised, I yanked him by his collar off the bed, and he fell on the concrete with a yelp as one of his legs slid out from under him. He tried to run, but he didn’t have his footing; he only managed to pop my fingers again as the collar twisted.

I drug him across the bedroom floor to the ruined book, Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. I smacked Brody once on his right hind quarter. I expected that to be the end of it.

I yanked my hand back as if to strike him again. I tightened my body, knowing I didn’t want to. I turned to my bed and saw the small yellow pool sinking into the bedsheets. I thought of how frustrated I was with my roommates. I pictured Christina at her apartment, in her bed without me. With these supports knocked away, the weight of school and ownership collapsed.

My hand fell hard on Brody’s pelvis, and he howled. More urine escaped him, hitting the floor and scattering, smattering my khakis. I lifted my arm again and hit him solidly in the ribs. He yelped. He kicked against the ground, but his feet slipped in the puddle of urine and he fell to his stomach, pulling my left arm down with his collar. I struck his pelvis again. And again, and again. Brody didn’t howl anymore; he cried.

I heard Justin on the stairs, clunking heavily, metallic echoes. He opened the door to my room and grabbed my arm midthrust. How long had I been hitting Brody? Two minutes? Five, maybe, before Justin woke up and stopped me, screaming at me that I’d kill him, and a question, what the fuck I was doing.

“I can’t do this!” I shouted at him through tears as he forced me away from Brody. “I need help! You promised you would help!”

In a flat tone that showed him truly unimpressed, he said simply, “It’s your dog,” and walked out of the room.

**

I collected myself and wiped my face of tears. I threw a towel on the floor, changed my pants, and leashed Brody. In my shaken mind, I still wanted to take him outside, even if the purpose was no longer clear.

On the way out I grabbed my backpack, thinking maybe I would drive to Dallas. I radiated heat, even more than usual, and my mind fumed. Rather than to my car, I walked Brody to the apartment pool.

When I sat down on some steps outside the pool gate, Brody seemed genuinely unfazed by the incident. He nuzzled against my hand with his nose and sat down in the grass next to me. Maybe he could tell the crazy had left me. Maybe the isolation had driven him as crazy as me.

I wrote about betrayal. I wrote about how I had beaten Brody for things that were mostly my fault. I wrote about how I had never lost control of my emotions like that.

I wrote about expectations, about black and white morality how it applies to dogs: good, bad, no gray. He shouldn’t touch my books; he shouldn’t dig through the trash; he shouldn’t piss when I beat him. That is the amoral judgment.

I wrote about how I did it to him, how I had locked him in my bedroom without toys. I wrote about how Justin had been right. I wrote about betrayal through broken promises on his part, on our other roommates part. I wrote about responsibility, about our broken promises, mine and theirs.

I wrote, “As I see it, I have two choices: give him up (not preferred) or work out a deal with the roomies. I will talk with them before I surrender the dog. I am coming to love him.”

A few days later, I cried after handing him over to the SPCA. I lied to them, told them I had found him on the streets less than a week ago so that I could get out of owning him without having to pay a fee.

I remember feeling like a bastard. I remember the guilt.

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Author: Greg Freed

Pre-comments:

This is a conversation I had with @wattsnan_poetry about the piece via Twitter. I hope it’s easy enough to follow!

wattsnan_poetry OMG how horrible you were to that dog. I hope it wasn’t true. 😦
greg_freed it was true. i totally lost control. but its a story we need to reckon w/; to me this piece is connected to Garden and Controlling Passion.
wattsnan_poetry What kind of responses do you think you will get?
greg_freed i want people to talk about how much control they have over their emotions, pet ownership frustrations, etc.
wattsnan_poetry not with a dog 😦 actually, never…I think it’s the mom in me
wattsnan_poetry I have a dog..Joey/boarder collie-spitz. He chewed a $2000 Natuzi Chair when he was a puppy…
greg_freed the post may be dark but i still expect that it’s universal. it’s relies on whether readers will want to admit that they’ve been there, too.
wattsnan_poetry Mom’s may think it…but we also understand that children, and pets are reactive to the situations we put them in…
greg_freed one of the best stories i’ve heard at a public reading was from a mom talking about almost but not hitting her kid, similar to this post.
wattsnan_poetry I get the loosing your temper…I remember sleep deprivation when the kids were babies…
greg_freed i tried to imply that he had chewed books before but not bothered me, that it was a collision of factors, not just the book, that snapped me
wattsnan_poetry I don’t think you get that you treated the dog badly from the beginning…Couped up in your room for 18 hours?
wattsnan_poetry I can’t believe he didn’t pee all over the place…
greg_freed i opened the piece arguing with christina about treating him poorly, and i argued with myself about how to discipline him ‘cuz i knew
wattsnan_poetry you shouldn’t have disciplined him…you should have disciplined yourself…that’s what you don’t get…
wattsnan_poetry As long as you know the poor dog did nothing wrong at any point…Don’t have kids any time soon
greg_freed i get it. that’s why a statement of guilt opens and closes the piece. in the moment i got it, too, but i was confused. guess it didn’t work.

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Why William Gibson’s _The Gernsback Continuum_ was right

I empathize. Empathy is my core character trait. I strive to identify with people, to speak their language, to understand their ideals. Sometimes people react by leveling with me, by telling me that I’m wise beyond my years or that I’m easy to talk to, that I have an honesty not often seen in this world. Other times, most times, it gets me labeled as arrogant. People ask me who I think I am to act like I know their story, like it might be something comprehendable, comprehensible. I don’t know them or where they came from except insofar as they’ve told me, it’s true. And still I try to empathize, and even with those who pull away, even those who insult me to keep their fair distance, I try to understand.

Why do I hold empathy in such high esteem if it causes me more problems than simply letting people alone? I honestly believe that empathy makes one see the world more honestly and brings one closer to “the truth of things.” This drive empowers my writing, drives my editing, and supports nearly single-handedly my lifestyle and my worldview. To me, in ways immeasurable yet definable, empathy is everything.

This blog is my brainchild; it carries the most true expression of me outside of myself even in this experimental infancy. And nothing will explain me to you so well as explaining the connection between empathy and a frustration that stems from a failure to communicate how deeply the author understands the individual, especially when the audience isn’t aware that the work is the author’s attempt at understanding their audience. However, these frustrations generally inspire better and more honed arguments and writing, which is what I want to attract.

I want to create a steam-valve for authors who, like me, have spent their lives under the burden of miscommunication and misunderstandings. Empathy is something that gets far too little sympathy in this world. I don’t want to publish or to create a safe-haven; I want to vent frustrations that are similar to the ones I’ve carried with me all my life as a burden, when it should be anything else. For us, writing is catharsis, is release, but never is it a lightening of the load.

With that purpose in mind, let me introduce you to James Gregory.

**

I have a pointless story to tell you. I used to tell it to get people to go to Austin with me. It didn’t ever really work. People seemed to want to go to Dallas because Dallas was supposed to be a conservative city, unlike Austin. It’s an incorrect distinction.

Dallas is a really liberal city. They put up the veneer of a right wing dullard just so that people feel safe. It’s real liberalism at work. You know the classless society by making everyone equal; everyone in Dallas is equal by their lack of having any discernable differences.

The buildings are made of only the newest and cheapest of last year’s space aged materials and wrapped in glass so that all you see is a reflection. If you live in Dallas, you are probably older than most of the glass boxes we pass off as architecture. They are tall and that’s the only defining feature. They build tall to dwarf you. You’re insignificance in palatable next to an unnecessarily tall building with an army of suited creeps coming out of it.

He's talking Dallas. I'm showing New York. Make sense? Yeah, it does.

He's talking Dallas. I'm showing New York. Make sense? Yeah, it does.

Austin on the other hand talks a liberal game but really they can’t have real liberalism happen to them. Classes are heavily apparent in Austin. You got the trannies, the queens, emo kids, punks, hardcore kids, mall core, UT students, rich kids, poor kids, hot girls, skanks, virgins, fat chick skanks, redheads, and so many more. You can even move between them. At one point, I was probably mistaken for a high school emo kid. A bad hair cut was to blame. I’d probably be able to fit in pretty well as a UT student or given the right clothes a rich kid, queen, hardcore kid, or whatever. It’s much too democratic to be a one class society there.

I went to Austin to go see a movie a few years back. Election 2 was not playing in Dallas; it was foreign and involved gangsters. I drove four hours to Austin listening to Rilo Kiley ’cuz I think Jenny Lewis is hot. But I think all redheads are hot.

I got to Austin and we had time to kill before the movie. We went to go watch Slaughter House 5 while we waited. It was not the best movie, but I hadn’t expected much since the book wasn’t so good, either. America has a strong science fiction tradition with Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. We show our bad taste by holding up Vonnegut and Asimov as good examples.

The movie thankfully ended after two and a half hours. I got hungry. The paramount movie theater/play house is right by 6th Street in Austin, the fun part. In Austin, though, you see the gorgeous downtown buildings and can’t help noticing they put Dallas to shame. We wanted to get some pizza at one of those crappy places that sell less than stellar pizza. that still manages to taste amazing after you get a few in you.

We walked down the street and ran into Leslie the Tranny. Leslie is down there all the time. He has a head like Grizzly Adams. His body resembles a Frankenstein of Pamela Anderson with a steroid induced Larry King. I will never hold it against my friend for giggling. But the giggling was why Leslie started following us. He was frighteningly quiet outside of the other giggles he was eliciting due to a combination of stealthy sneakers and the loud and proud bikini. Thankfully, he ran into a hot woman and began to talk to her. It was at that point that I realized that even me and Leslie have something we agreed on. She was not a red head, though. Dark black hair is almost as good.

The pizza was not the best looking thing either me or my friend had seen so food was still not happening. Also, we suddenly realized we needed to get all the way across town to see the other movie. The movie I drove four hours to see. We started walking back to the car, back across 6th. But we’re being followed by a bunch of cute naughty school girls. A few of them were Asian, and I have to say wonder why they would play into their own stereotype. Probably, college kids trying to make dad Dad mad, or they were going to one of the many self declared modeling agencies around Austin.

All this is happening as I’m walking in front of a massage parlor with an ATM out front. The name of the business is Midnight Cowboys Massage Parlor. No, I did not make that up. I also see something named along the lines of Heavy Metal Pizza and half expect there to be a dungeon master in there with the way it looks from the outside. It probably had good pizza.

About as non-corporate as you get

About as non-corporate as you get

Eventually, we got across town, found a Chipotle, and saw the movie, which was amazing. Johnnie To is one of the best directors in the world, and thankfully I live in a country where you can see his movies.

The movie could’ve gotten him killed. It’s about the Chinese government’s involvement in the triads, the Hong Kong mafia. He had debuted the movie in France so that the Chinese censors couldn’t take all the flavor out of the movie. (They have a tendency to destroy the original footage of things they don’t like.)

We had a great time at the movie. When that one dude got turned into dog food, my friend said we had a winner. Afterwards we went to get snacks, since Austin has great food. Unfortunately, we didn’t go to some glorious hole in the wall but to a place my friend called the Shady Shell. It was appropriately named since it was a shady looking Shell gas station with a drug deal going on out front. Reason for the Shady Shell experience was for me to meet my clone, who turned out to be gay with too much make up and in possession of a crack nail that I could only label impressive. My clone was ready to be swept off it’s feet by once it noticed me, only I wasn’t willing. I think we parted on good terms, and I’ve certainly glimpsed the Andy Warhol version of myself.

The night went on. We watched another movie where Pierce Brosnan armed with a knife flew out of a dead horse screaming like a girl. It was fun and funny. I’m not making that one up either. Name of the movie is Seraphim Falls.

The next morning I woke up, said good bye to my friend, and drove back to Dallas. I listened to the same CD again. I kept thinking how hot redheads are.

Our country is becoming Dallas when it used to be Austin. We’ve always had a strong anti-democracy streak thanks to farmers and Southern landed-gentry types. The current problem began around FDR when he declared war on the free economy, which if anything is the ultimate freedom of a shark pit.

He was determined to make the nation controllable. He made a system where everyone answered to him. His pet project was communes that were made out of only white people that all had the same house. A few of these blights still stand in the south.

We’ve never recovered from it. You see a few gasps here and there at the sort of fun we used to have in this country. We had Woodstock. We had Orson Welles. Russ Meyer cranked out movies in the 60s and gang banging people into the theaters with promises of topless women. Drive ins showed movies with names like Kiss Me Deadly, which is an amazing movie (go see it!), and Mondo Topless (not so much).

Obama wants to make us more like Dallas. His plans always encompass everyone. He wants us all to be accountable only to him. He seems determined to make us a place where the old and established rule with an iron fist and any sort of freedom must be squelched in favor of the bland, Godless whole.

House of God, meet tower of phallus.

House of God, meet tower of phallus.

You won’t be able to drive four hours to see a movie because your gas will be too high to pay for cause they will have to tax gas to pay for the deficit that will be through the roof on universal healthcare. You will not get a single foreign movie because tariffs are soon going to have to come into play to keep corporations from leaving America in favor of out sourcing. Places like heavy metal pizza, Midnight Cowboys, the paramount theater, and the Shady Shell will go away to be replaced with faux European-style concrete blocks staffed with angry, entitled middle agers.

Everyone complains about the Me mentality of people. The problem is that we don’t have a Me mentality. We have a childish one. People elected Obama because he said he would be their daddy. No one likes living with their parents, trust me on that. The Me mentality produces movies like Election 2, 500 Days of Summer, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. It makes books like Brideshead Revisited and Pale Fire. It makes pizza like Heavy Metal Pizza. Obama’s universal this and that is an attack on the individual. It’s an attack on Me, and, as Austin proves time and time again, Me is the one you’d rather spend time with.

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Author: James Gregory

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Criticism, Features, Guest author, Humanistic, Statement of purpose, Writing

Pneumonia: Episode one

Writing nonfiction has always come easily to me; even the most mundane events have inspiration buried inside them, which is why I cherish challenges to make events like workdays inspiring. Sometimes, however, the scene cuts itself short, and there’s no “angry blob monster” strategy to negotiate a nonfiction author’s writer’s block.

With that, I give you a piece about my college years. Critique, comment; give me somewhere to go aside from the obvious, a path my brain seems adamant not to take.

**

I lay down on the cement, which feels warmer than my body. I breathe in deeply, as deeply as I can, and my lungs begin to itch terribly. I exhale quickly, fearfully, but I waited too long. The cough comes, horrible and fluid.

I bask in the sunlight in deep fall. It’s fall, isn’t it? I close my eyes because my head is spinning, taking the sky along with it. I breathe again. I avoid the cough, barely.

Baylor’s doctors told me I have pneumonia. How long ago was that? I open my eyes and look around; I’m at Baylor Student Learning Center, home of their medical team. I moan as my head swells. Tears well up in my eyes.

My head hurts so badly. I tried to break it on the cinder blocks of my dorm room. It woke me up, the pain. I coughed and coughed and coughed, my diaphragm yanking my body into a fetal position. And then I turned to look at the entrance of my dorm room with that damn two by one foot vent. The never ending blast of cold splashed right on me, blew onto my bed unavoidably. Damn it to hell, my nemesis.

Turning back to the window, I shivered under my comforter. My head never settled down, never stopped spinning, never stopped aching. I had class today, my last class before Thanksgiving Break, before going home to my family. I banged my head against the wall instead.

I wanted to fracture the skull, the see pieces of it sliding down the beige blocks. I wanted to see the cold, malevolent wall painted in my blood and bone. I didn’t even manage to bruise myself, didn’t even chafe the dry skin. I was too weak.

Colt had come in and asked me why I missed class. I groaned, got up, and vomited in our sink. Or did I dream about vomiting in the sink? He asked me if he could take me to the doctors at the SLC. That was after I said I couldn’t drive there, couldn’t even walk there.

He had dropped me off at the entrance, but he didn’t wait around. If he had stayed, he might’ve hit rush hour traffic in Houston, four hours away. I opened the door and climbed out and off he went like a bullet in his sporty silver Civic.

Oh, my fucking head. I grab it with my hands, I shut my eyes tightly, I rub my temples, but nothing helps. Athena. Zeus. Oh, God, I’m about to pass out.

A female voice speaks over me: “Do you need some help?” It seems all consuming. It pounds inside my fevered head. The cement is cold. The sun is weak.

I open my eyes. It’s the nurse who had me wait two hours to see a doctor. “Grandparents,” I mumble, “coming.”

“What?” she asks.

I cough, regaining some strength. “My grandparents are coming.”

“Do you need a ride to the hospital?”

They had told me in the doctors’ office that they couldn’t drive me to the hospital, that it made them liable if something happened on the way. I couldn’t drive, though, can’t drive now, passed out on the sidewalk.

I pull out my cell phone and call my grandparents. This confuses the nurse, but she stands there politely. My grandparents don’t answer; I get their machine. It’s been forty-five minutes since they said they were on their way, though. I’ve made the trip from the college to their house before; it’s fifteen minutes, tops.

I struggle to put the cell phone away, pushing it forcefully into my pocket, and lift my hand to the nurse, which induces more pounding in my head. My hand only lifted just over a foot off the ground before it flopped back, limp with exhaustion. What’s happening to me? Fear sets in, and adrenaline starts to pump.

With effort, I sit up. My coughing nearly topples me.

“Do you need help?” she asks me again.

“Oh, God, yes.” My voice shakes. I’m on the verge of tears.

“Do you remember what the doctor said you had?”

“Pneumonia.”

Just then, my grandparents pulled up in the driveway. The nurse pulled on my arm, trying to get me up.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Writing

Beginning blogging and WordPress.com tips and tricks

I’ve been pleasantly surprised that even though my readership is small, several readers have asked how to make a website like mine. I’m going to charitably assume you mean my blog, which is what you’re reading, and not my temporarily abandoned website. Therefore, here’s a post about choices I’ve made, research I’ve stumbled upon, and hacks I’ve created. I will start with the most rudimentary information, since it’s what has been requested, and move on to the more difficult work and choices.

Blogging services

The first question a embryonic blogger wants to ask is what service to use; there are several. WordPress, Blogger, and Squarespace are the most used sites among my friends, family, and colleagues.

WordPress

I chose WordPress for two reasons: I had professional experience with them through StyleFeeder, and I appreciate their dedication to open source communities. However, WordPress.com blogs do not get to see many of the benefits of WordPress’s open source community; if you want to revel in the programming aspect of it, visit WordPress.org, download their server software, and tinker with it. Not up for that game? Well then say goodbye to easy extra functionality via WordPress plugins; you can’t use them. Also, there’s no javascript support at all, so you can’t even hack code together. Everything that you accomplish has to come through their already-provided widgets, which was tricky for me but also enjoyable.

The site does have many useful background tools, some of which are shared with Blogger. However, the default viewer statistics seem to be much more advanced on WordPress than Blogger (unless you use Google Analytics, which WordPress.com blogs can’t do). Also, media storage and other functionality such as media sharing that looks equivalent between the two sites is actually, in my opinion, much more user-friendly on WordPress.com.

In my experience, WordPress is used mostly due to their open source software, which isn’t any good to me, and also mostly by companies. While I’m very happy with my choice of home, average Joes tend to avoid it in preference of Blogger.

Examples:
gregfreed.wordpress.com
ranyachantal.wordpress.com
writingcontests.wordpress.com

Examples of WordPress.org blogs:
www.hyperorg.com/blogger/
blog.futurestreetconsulting.com

Blogger

Very many of my friends from Emerson and back home and most of the people I’ve found through Twitter so far use blogger. In my opinion, the sites looks messier in design than WordPress equivalents, but content should drive most of your visitors, meaning that the cluttered Blogger look shouldn’t dissuade you in itself. Also, how clean or cluttered your site looks will depend mostly upon the amount of time and effort you’re willing to put into design.

Blogger, at first glance, has more functionality that a WordPress.com blog and is more user-friendly for simple tasks. For example, you can put javascript on Blogger, allowing you to automate “Twit This!” buttons and other sharing services, which will garner you free PR. WordPress.com does not have this functionality, and making a workaround (see below) via html has already cost me several hours and will cost me more time in aggregate hours in the future.

Examples:
steadyblue.blogspot.com
mundaneproject.blogspot.com
dallasdreamer.blogspot.com

Squarespace

I only know two people using Squarespace. Both of their sites show extreme customizability and are built for heavy traffic and easy use. I’m under the impression that their blogging and site building experience has been fairly intense, but they both have something to show for all of their time and effort. Paul Wesman has worked in communication for years, and his blog shows his dedication to corporate quality and readability. Sadi Ranson-Polizotti is a deaf friend and mentor who is renowned for her knowledge about Bob Dylan, Lewis Carroll, and the written word; she has a new book of poetry, For Goodness’ Sake, due in August through Twilight Times Books. (Boy, do I wish I had an affiliate program right now… lolz.)

Examples:
www.paulwesman.com
tantmieux.squarespace.com

Hacks, or making my WordPress.com blog work for me

I discovered Problogger early, which has been both helpful and not. On the one hand, they have very good advice; on the other hand, most of their advice seems to me like common sense, or rather, like the decision that I came to when I thought to myself for a second about what I was trying to do with my blog. Either that, or their advice was far in advance of where I happened to be.

New readers are hard to come by, and you want your blog to be ready to receive them when they arrive. Problogger posted an article recently about the nine first steps for new bloggers. I’ll try to cover what I think they missed below.

Design

Readers coming to your site will have a series of questions in mind, such as Who does this blog belong to and why am I reading it? or Where’s the good info at?! Not having readily available answers to these questions puts your new reader at risk of leaving the site and never thinking of you again.

From Tim Ferriss I learned several points, but one most crucial theory: Do not have an easy exit point for new viewers. Every link that a reader can see within seconds of entering the site should be directed back at your site. Yes, you want to plug other people’s blogs wherever possible, but you don’t want a reader to leave your blog before they’ve even seen one post, and they will if they have reason to believe that you’re leading them into more interesting content than they expect to find on your site.

The topmost section of your website should be dedicated to you. Have an About page so that potential readers can get to know you and feel like they belong with your content. Have a Contact page, letting people know that they can feel free to contact you. List your most recent or most viewed posts at the top of your sidebar so that readers can find the interesting content they’re looking for as quickly as possible. Just don’t provide an easy out or the viewer just might take it.

RSS widget

That said, making the RSS feed I have in my sidebar was a bit tricky; maybe it’s because I’m a nub, maybe it’s because I wanted a custom RSS feed where I could decide what content my blog would link to. In order to accomplish my task, I created a Google Reader account. In Google Reader I subscribed to all the blogs I wanted to keep up with, which included Facebook friends, actual friends, and family in addition to the helpful blogs like Problogger and the blogs that created material I was actually interested in. Start sharing posts you think your readers should see; they will be allocated into an RSS feed at http://www.google.com/reader/shared/YOURGOOGLEIDHERE, which can be accessed via the “Shared items” menu. Access that page, and you will see the link Atom Feed next to the universal feed icon: feed-icon-12x12-orange. Copy the link location.

At that point, go to My Dashboard->Appearance->Widgets and drag the RSS widget to your sidebar (I drug mine to the bottommost section). Copy the link location for the Atom Feed where the widget says “Enter the RSS feed URL here.” Name the widget if you want (mine is titled simply My Google Reader), change whatever settings you want, and click Save. If that doesn’t work, mash you head against the keyboard until you successfully spell out Head hit keyboard sequentially, and then contact me, and I’ll do my best to help.

Subscribe links

After a little research on this crazy web of ours, you’ll find that WordPress.com recommends Google’s FeedBurner for all your subscription uses. Though a little tinkering is required, I now recommend it, too.

After signing in with your Google account, a basic page will load that says Burn a feed right this instant. Type your blog or feed address here. So do it and follow the rest of the instructions.

Go to the Publicize tab once you’re set up with FeedBurner.

Click on the BuzzBoost tab on the left, change the settings as you see fit, and then click Activate at the bottom of the page. When the page reloads with the service activated, there will be a box with javascript that FeedBurner tells you to put on your site. Except you know that you can’t use javascript on a WordPress.com blog. Therefore, check on your own to make sure that your RSS feed is activated by pasting http://feeds.feedburner.com/XXXXX?format=xml where XXXXX is set as your FeedBurner profile name.

Next, go to the Email Subscriptions tab. Simply click Activate.

Now go to My Dashboard->Appearance->Widgets and drag the Text widget to where you would like it to appear. Input the following code:

Subscribe to this blog via <a href=”http://feedburner.google.com/fb/a/mailverify?uri=XXXXX”>email</a&gt;!<br>Subscribe via <a href=”http://feeds.feedburner.com/XXXXX?format=xml”><img src=”http://feedburner.google.com/fb/lib/images/icons/feed-icon-12×12-orange.gif”></a><a href=”http://feeds.feedburner.com/XXXXX?format=xml”>RSS</a&gt;!

Replace the XXXXXs with your FeedBurner profile ID, and the code should be ready to go! I coded the RSS image and the hypertext seperately so that the image would not share an underline with the hypertext.

If, like me, you would like to invite people to join your Facebook group, simply create a group and then use the following code:

<br>Also, join this blog’s <a href=”http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=XXXXX”>Facebook group</a>!

Replace the XXXXX with your group id and it should be good to go!

“Share This!” links

As I said before, WordPress.com does not support javascript, so there’s no way to have automatically updated buttons. However, these buttons are so useful in publicizing a blog that it just seems a horrible waste to not have them. Therefore, I developped a workable work-around, though it does take some effort to pull off for each blog.

After some research I discovered the basic submission links for some of the syndication sites I felt my blog might likely get plugged on: Del.icio.us, Digg, Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter. I also discovered, though I can’t remember to link from where, AddThis, which on one page covers all sites that anyone anywhere might ever possibly want to link your blog to. While AddThis has such powerful capabilities, I opted to keep the specific website buttons because the less you ask of your audience, the more likely they are to follow through.

A little HTML trick I picked up: in order to have the icons contain links without being underlined, you have to link them seperately from text. Because of this, the HTML looks redundant, but it’s not; it’s simply a little extra code to reflect a design choice. The code I use for the buttons is below, and instructions on how to use the code follows it.

<a href=”http://del.icio.us/post?url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”><img title=”del_icio_us” src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/del_icio_us.png&#8221; alt=”del_icio_us” width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://del.icio.us/post?url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”>Save to del.icio.us</a><a href=”http://digg.com/submit?phase=2&amp;url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”>
<img title=”digg” src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/digg.png&#8221; alt=”digg” width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://digg.com/submit?phase=2&amp;url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”>Digg it
</a><a href=”http://reddit.com/submit?url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”><img title=”reddit” src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/reddit.png&#8221; alt=”reddit” width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://reddit.com/submit?url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”>Save to Reddit
</a><a href=”http://www.facebook.com/share.php?u=XXXXX&#8221; target=”_blank”><img title=”n20531316728_2397″ src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/n20531316728_23971.jpg&#8221; alt=”n20531316728_2397″ width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://www.facebook.com/share.php?u=XXXXX&#8221; target=”_blank”>Share on Facebook
</a><a href=”http://twitter.com/home?status=Check+out+XXXXX”><img title=”twitter” src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/twitter.gif&#8221; alt=”twitter” width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://twitter.com/home?status=Check+out+XXXXX&#8221; target=”_blank”>Share on Twitter
</a><a href=”http://www.addthis.com/bookmark.php?pub=dvd&amp;url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”><img title=”aolfav” src=”https://gregfreed.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/aolfav.gif&#8221; alt=”aolfav” width=”16″ height=”16″ /></a><a href=”http://www.addthis.com/bookmark.php?pub=dvd&amp;url=XXXXX;title=YYYYY&#8221; target=”_blank”>Even more ways to bookmark</a>

Copy this code into a text editor with a replace function, such as Microsoft Word. Using the Replace All function, replace all XXXXXs with the exact web address of your post as you can copy it out of your browser’s address bar. Replace all YYYYYs with the title of your post. Select all of the updated code, put your WordPress post creator into the HTML tab, go to the part of the post you want the links to appear in, and paste the code. Click either Publish or Update Post and then check your links. If there are any errors, it’s probably user-generated, so look over your own HTML code before you come crying to me about how it’s broken. If it is legitimately broken, however, I would like to know and will help you resolve any issues. If you want submission links that are not included here, AddThis is a much better research tool than I am: I will not do your research for you.

Good Luck!

And with that, I’m outta here. I have that faint yet numb buzzing in my head that’s generated solely by technical writing, so it’s definitely time for a break!

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Technical