Tag Archives: empathy

Unfinished vignettes

I’m exhausted after a beautiful and fun-packed weekend in NYC. Right now (@12:23AM), I’m riding the MegaBus back to Boston. Thank you Jerry and Esther for the hospitality, food, and company, and contratulations Sadi on your book release! 🙂

That’s all the intro I can come up with before I pass out. Seeking guest authors. Remember Theme Thursday.

**

You get up from the pew in church. For a moment, the briefest moment, you wonder whether all of the people around you have a better grasp on what worship is, on what love is, on what God is. You tell yourself that you’ll get to it later, and without realizing it, without saying the truth to yourself out in your mind, you know that you’ll never get around to it, that the question is one that you’ll never try to find an answer to, much less succeed at answering. But you know that without me telling you, and you think that I hate you because of your seeming apathy. But I know that despair hibernates in the darkness of your heart, stays in the bowels of your soul, coaxing you with lies that he is your best friend, that he is you, that he has been with you since the beginning. Why bother him in his slumber? He’s so peaceful there, like he has been all of your conscious life. And you think that I hate you for hiding your despair, in that one flash where you wonder whether people have a better grip on religion, on truth, on the light in their souls and you realize truly, loudly, that you are protecting your despair, that the darkness inside you is your despair, not your self. But I’ll tell you: No one has it better than you do in that one moment of questioning, that one moment of self-doubt. And then you put it away, like the other times in your life, so few, where despair had to be recognized as despair and could not be disguised as the self. You hide it, and your life goes on as if nothing ever happened. And you think these moments are unique, and that they’re yours alone, and that if you forget them then they have no significance. I’ll tell you: that’s our special struggle; that’s what it means to be a human in despair.

You feel yourself impelled towards crisis. You are a creature of habit: you prefer your side of the bed; you prefer a select group of restaurants; you think within the boundaries of a specific paradigm and refuse to consider others. You know this about yourself, and yet you feel impelled towards crisis. But that’s what your college years were for, those times dripping with the epiphanic. You’ve defined yourself. You have a self. Why, then, the impellation? You grab a beer, but you’ve been here before, drinking away the dull ache of recognized meaninglessness. Still, you grab a beer, and another. You want to fuck, but only to fuck. You want to engage in the animalistic. You masturbate, but it’s not enough. Still, you’re a creature of habit.

Frustration slides into your mind. Repetition loses its significance, becomes insignificant; the constant degradation of existing things from near-perfection to gross imperfection grates on your mind. You sweep the floors, you wash your dishes, you iron your shirts, and still they become filthy, dirty, wrinkled. For the briefest moment, you wonder whether your cathartic journaling practice is enough to keep your soul clean. You do it as cyclically as you clean your house, and yet your home always seems in at least mild disrepair tending towards its own undoing. Is there a parallel between the way your house and your soul tend towards realized imperfection? Is it inescapably natural, an irresistible and universal pull, like falling into your natural place in the world? Keep sweeping; that conviction will fade soon.

You find again, though you’d forgotten, that you’re unaware how much you’re worth in material value. You’ve received a job offer, and they want to know how much you think you’re worth so that they can gauge a reasonable offer that’s hopefully less than the maximum they’ve already agreed upon. You know that they’re out to screw you without letting you see how hard they’ve done it, and you’ve done your research for the median price of a person with your skill set and experience, and now it’s down to the moment. You have to give a number that’s high enough to be negotiated down to the price you want but low enough that they’ll take your offer seriously. You wonder why companies don’t just offer a salary anymore. HR departments do the research on how much a person in your position should be paid; why do you have to haggle with them based on research you’ve gathered from bureaus who research statistics generated by HR departments? You ask yourself why they have to ask you what you think you’re worth. But you know the answer to that question; you’re frustrated that you have to equate your worth in material value. Just utter a number; it’s not that big of a deal. Whatever they offer you in return, you can survive on. You need the job—you wouldn’t have gone through all of the hooplah to get it if you didn’t—and the salary will tell you your worth without you having to know. It will at least compare with your old paycheck. Tell yourself that it’s just money; it’s only indirectly a reflection of you. HR departments are much more objective about this decision anyway.

You lost your job. Don’t cry. You’re ashamed, and you know it. You’ve lost a key affirmation for your character. Don’t cry. Wonder how you lost it. Should you have seen it coming? Were you really the worst employee around, the least significant, the most unworthy of your paycheck? Was it a matter of expediency? Does your work ethic reflect your inefficiency, and is that a lack of manliness? Don’t cry. Put that idealistic bullshit away. Find another job. You’ve got money saved up, at least three months. You haven’t asked your parents for anything in years. Your friends will understand; they’ll pity you, which will make it worse, but they’ll understand. Don’t cry. You’ve been independent for years. You haven’t required another person’s help for years. Charity comes in small doses through life, and you haven’t used your reserve. You’ve let it accumulate, and now you can call upon it, draw the account if need be. Find another job. Everything will be alright.

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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

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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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