After getting soaked at the end of my afternoon excursion on Birchmore Trail, I stopped in for a set of clean, dry clothes and figured, what the heck? Why not check out Lake Herrick at sunset? It’s only a few miles from my place. The lake is part of Oconee Forest Park, and both are adjacent to a huge recreation complex for University of Georgia’s intramural sports. Woven into the landscape are several tennis courts, a mini football field for the marching band to practice on, and much more. I didn’t get a chance to explore the forest trails of Oconee, but it looks to be a beautiful place to return to for a stroll sometime when dusk is not swiftly surrendering to night’s advances.
Only unpowered boats are allowed on the lake, so it’s really a lovely, peaceful spot on a spring evening. Magnolias were blooming. A pair of geese tended to their fuzzy gosling between the shore and the trail, and people were stopping to hang out with them. My pictures of the birds did not turn out well enough to share, but I was glad to get some shots of the pretty sunset clouds reflected in water. At times, there was the kind of softly colored haze you might see in a classic landscape painting due to the recent storm and humidity. I hope to visit again soon.
The afternoon was 90 degrees Fahrenheit and oppressively humid, but since it was my last full day with my rental car from the weekend’s travels, I wasn’t going to let the weather stop me from exploring Birchmore Trail, which is part of Memorial Park. It’s only a few miles from my new place, but there’s no bus from here to there, and the roads aren’t pedestrian-friendly. I took the trail head from a dead-end residential street and was happy to find such a pretty, green place to walk nestled in the city. It starts at “The Great Wall of Happy Hollow” and winds alongside and across some creeks, and at least one of the many magnolia trees was in bloom with big white flowers.
I hoped to walk the entire trail and maybe stop at Bear Hollow Zoo, which is about halfway through the entire trail’s loop from where I started. But the humidity was insane, and the sandwich I’d taken didn’t agree with me. I did not regret my decision for long, because a couple of minutes after heading back the way I came, massive thunder rolled in. Rain began a few minutes later, and although I got quite wet, I would have been absolutely drenched in the ensuing thunderstorm. The rain was hitting my car so hard that it sounded like hail! Then after a torrential twenty minutes, the rain stopped and the big fluffy clouds looked gorgeous in the sunshine.
It was a good walk, and I look forward to visiting the rest of the trail in the future.
It’s the morning of my third full day as a resident of Athens, GA, so I am going to take a little break from unpacking and assembling shit, put on the kettle for a second coffee in my brand-new, one-of-a-kind Meteor Mags mug, and recap how I got here.
It begins with Fugazi. In 1996, I drove from Ann Arbor, MI to Georgia to catch as many concerts as I could by my favorite band: Fugazi from D.C. I’ve told the tale many times, and it now appears in the book Two Hundred, my published scrapbook of drawings, memoirs, poems, and song lyric from the 1990s and early 2000s. The first concert on that journey was at the Masquerade in Atlanta. So in January 2023, when I was staying at my sister’s house north of Atlanta and looking for a place of my own, I checked out the Masquerade’s concert schedule.
I was thrilled to see on the calendar one of my favorite heavy rock bands. King Buffalo has been rocking hard for a decade and recorded a trilogy of brilliant albums during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. But despite appearing on the Masquerade’s calendar, the concert was actually at a smaller venue called Hendershot’s in Athens. I bought a ticket anyway. Compared to the absolutely bonkers road trips I took in the name of music in my twenties, renting a car for a 2.5-hour trek east seemed both like small potatoes and an opportunity to re-connect with the more adventurous guy I used to be before spending my forties mostly isolated indoors bashing out the world’s awesomest fiction series.
I left Arizona and moved to Georgia to be closer to my mother and sister, but I was having zero luck finding affordable housing in their neighborhoods or in any location where public transportation could get me there. My search began broadening in ever-widening circles. And I thought, “As long as I am not going to get the location I want, why don’t I consider Macon and Athens as possibilities?” They both have universities, which tends to make for a more progressive and artistic local vibe compared to other areas of any state. Macon must not be a total hillbilly hellhole if Adam Ragusea can enjoy living there, and Athens has a relatively hip reputation compared to the rest of Georgia. I’d been to Athens once before in the early 2000s but only for a couple of hours and wasn’t impressed, but times change and maybe it deserved a second look. I’d be there anyway for King frickin’ Buffaloooooo! So what the hell.
Mom graciously offered to pay for a rental car and hotel if I took the opportunity to scout for my own place to live, so I reserved a compact car through Enterprise. A compact is the smallest size you can get at Enterprise, even smaller than “economy” size. But on the day I picked it up, no compacts were ready for me. So for the same price, I got a goddamn beast.
The Toyota 4Runner SR5 is a bit too much car for my taste. I prefer something smaller that gets great mileage and can easily get in and out of tight spaces. And I certainly don’t need six bloody seats. But the beast ran great, rode smoothly, handled well, had serious pickup, and was overall pretty fun to drive. Plus, it was my favorite color and went with everything I wear, and its voluminous interior came in handy for moving my stuff. 9/10, would destroy civilization again with this gas-guzzling monster.
The King Buffalo concert was good. I was disappointed that I didn’t have much of a view of the band — just the tops of their heads, mostly — but I got the last available seat at the bar, enjoyed a pint of a great local ale and one of my old favorites from Michigan, and was blown away by how the band sounded even more awesome in person than on album. Hendershot’s clearly wasn’t built with the acoustics of a loud rock performance in mind, but the sound guy did an amazing job with the rhythm section. The bass guitar and bass drum were vibrating my barstool, and the snare-drum hits cracked like lightning. The audience and staff were friendly and mellow despite the place being fully packed, and everyone seemed to be having a groovy time. I’m sure I will be visiting Hendershot’s for more entertainment and hanging out.
I spent the rest of my days and nights that week scouting Athens and applying for apartments from the comfort of the Howard Johnson hotel, and on my final day got approved for a place within easy walking distance to the county library, public transportation for getting to downtown, and a Kroger to get food and supplies.
The stuff that looks like weed in the picture above is Urb, and it is legal in Georgia for two reasons. One, it has a mild chemical called Delta-8 THC, not the Delta-9 TetraHydroCannibinol responsible for the “high” of marijuana. Two, the THC content is 0.24 percent, well below the legal limit for Georgia. By comparison, in states such as Arizona that have legalized weed for both medical and recreational purposes, you can walk into a dispensary any day of the week and buy stuff that is one hundred times stronger at twenty-four percent THC. When I saw Urb for sale at the local Hop-In convenience store in Kennesaw, I figured what the hell. You could probably get just as much of a buzz from smoking cooking sage: a mild relaxation that goes great with a pint or two. You can read all about this wacky product and why it is legal in all fifty states in a 2021 RollingStone article.
While waiting for my move-in day, I returned to my sister’s place and spent the next two weeks taking nature walks. The walks were a confluence of many things. I had wheels and time. I needed exercise after medical problems rendered me mostly immobile for three months last year. I had just bought my first pair of prescription eyeglasses for distance viewing, which meant I could see mother nature in high definition again after several years of deteriorating eyesight. And much like my decision to travel 2.5 hours to see one of my favorite bands, I needed to reconnect with a sense of spontaneous adventure and exploration I kind of lost in my forties.
Now my second cup of coffee is done, and I guess I should get some more things sorted in my new place before my virtual storytime group meets this afternoon to begin celebrating its fifteenth anniversary. After three months, my scanner is now unpacked, and in its absence I’ve accumulated so many recent additions to the big box of comics to share with you in upcoming weeks. Plus, I need to call an author to wrap up my editing of his third novel and move forward with producing it for print and ebook.
Huge thanks to my mother and sister for all their love and support during this transition.
In 2009, my sister visited me in Arizona, and we went to the Dale Chihuly exhibit at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix. I used to have a lot more photos at higher resolution, but many of my photos from the early 2000s were victims of a transitional period where I made some mistakes with photo storage. So, here are the seven survivors from that amazing exhibit of glassworks in a desert environment that was in full bloom for spring. The glasswork was gorgeous during the day but also impressive when it was lit up after sunset.
Smith-Gilbert Gardens features a network of walking trails that wind their way through all kinds of plants and various sculptures — some abstract, some representational, and some a bit of both. It’s an easy walk, and if you have a couple of free hours, you can see just about everything. If the weather’s nice, you could sit on one of many benches and just enjoy the serenity of this lovely place in Cobb County.
Mom and I didn’t do a lot of sitting on the day we went, because after several weeks of glorious mid-seventies temperatures for my recent nature walks, we had to brave chilly winds at barely fifty degrees. Still, the day was sunny and pleasant, and I swear we were the only two people in the park who weren’t employees. Although the gardens were not yet in the full bloom of spring and summer, we enjoyed many splashes of color and greenery, the gentle sound of water splashing over rocks, and being serenaded by a cardinal.
And what better song for gardens and flowers than the live version of Gardenia by Kyuss?
The Sope Creek Paper Mill Ruins are the remains of an industrial complex that was large enough to be a military target in the American Civil War. The mill produced, among other things, paper for the Confederacy’s currency, and Union troops pretty well destroyed it. The walls that stand today are a historic feature in a maze of walking and biking trails of various difficulty that offer scenic views of the creek and plunge you into the forest despite never being far from civilization.
I say “maze” because although the trails have many markers and maps posted, it can be challenging to get a sense of scale and direction if you haven’t been there before, and many trails intersect at weird angles. There is an easy way to get from the Sope Creek Parking Lot to the ruins, but there is also an easy way to miss it and make the journey much longer than it needs to be.
Plus, although Google Maps shows exactly where the ruins are, my portable Garmin GPS unit for driving had no clue. But hey, I don’t mind a little wandering and getting lost on the way to something scenic, or musical, or fun. It’s part of the adventure, and I was driving to random places all across the States for years before we had global digital mapping conveniences. I used to get so damn lost in states I’d never been to before that I’d have to stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and buy a paper map, and maybe ask some locals for help. Taking a wrong turn in the forest when I can still hear cars in the distance is nothing.
Anyway, I would rate this mini-hike as moderate, not easy, due to the fact that it requires some moderately steep uphill walking, and portions of the path are rocky or muddy (or both). Traipsing around the ruins and the surrounding creek rocks could be dangerous for the less sure-footed. I was here in the fall about eighteen years ago, and this time was the cusp of spring. I’d like to return someday when all the greenery is in full bloom.
Today’s tune from the psychedelic woodlands is Ruins by Wooden Shijps, performed live in the studios of Seattle’s KEXP.
For an hour-long, paper-themed musical adventure, crank this up:
PBN 118: Paper and Fire. January 2023. Listen or Download the MP3. 56 minutes. 128 Kbps. View or Download the playlist.
Getting to Toonigh Creek Falls involves taking trails in the opposite direction of the ones I took the previous time I visited Olde Rope Mill Park. But the specific trails to the waterfall aren’t marked at all, and it’s easy to take a wrong turn, get spooked by No Trespassing signs, or just walk right past the correct path entirely. Unlike some other nature walks I’ve taken recently, this was a fairly strenuous trek where the path was often covered with rocks, or roots, or mud, and it involved climbing over fallen trees and jumping over small streams with muddy banks. The trail also resembles the proverbial path my grandfather took to school during the Great Depression: It’s uphill both ways.
You need to walk under the bridge that supports highway 575, then through a mining area that is ugly and stinky. But just past the mine, you will be rewarded with a gorgeous forest path alongside the Little River. You might, like me, see some fish in the muddy water, a crane or heron, and a couple of deer. One of my wrong turns took me to a mud flat where I found mollusc shells, flowers, and deer tracks. Eventually, exhausted, I found the Falls, and though they are not the most spectacular falls in Georgia — an honor that belongs to Amicalola Falls — they were well worth the journey. I could have laid back on a rock and just listened to them for an hour, but I’d started out late, and both the temperature and the sun were dropping quickly. I’d like to visit again when I can spend more time with this lovely little waterfall.
Today’s musical waterfall appears in a gorgeous interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s May This be Love by Emmylou Harris, with guitar layers by Daniel Lanois, and U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. on drums.
The weather forecast for the afternoon said “100 percent chance of rain”, but I wasn’t about to sit at home feeling bad that I missed a chance to see some scenery. Etowah River Park turned out to be a lovely place to walk for a couple miles despite the moderate rain that made good on the forecasted promise about 1/3 of the way through my excursion. The park has a pretty awesome playground for kids and also a built in ping-pong table and chess table near a wide expanse of grass encircled by a paved path. Take the path to a wooden bridge to cross the Etowah River and enjoy the view, and keep an eye out for little unpaved side paths that get you down to the riverbank. The paved path ends eventually at another lot which, if I read the map correctly, is called Heritage Park. It’s a mellow, level path suitable for a leisurely afternoon jaunt, and though you are never far from civilization, it’s quite scenic with an abundance of greenery. It also features a place to launch a canoe, complete with life jackets you can borrow.
It was a pleasant but overcast day at Blankets Creek Mountain-Bike Trails, and the forest is not yet in full bloom. Still, it was a nice place to take a 1.375-mile stroll along the Mosquito Flats trail. It’s a mellow, level, unpaved path alongside the creek and through the forest. Cyclists have the right-of-way, but respectful pedestrians are welcome — even if, like me, they brought a cheeseburger and a large basket of french fries to fuel the journey. Mosquito Flats starts at the parking lot and is a beginner-level trail for cyclists. At several points along the way, you can access much longer trails and presumably more challenging terrain.
For today’s woodsy soundtrack, enjoy the retro-psychedelic Secret Enchanted Broccoli Forest by the Babe Rainbow.
By the time I met Spider-man, I’d walked about three miles over some rather intense mountain-biking trails at a lovely little park in Georgia called Olde Rope Mill Park. It’s named after a mill whose ruins you can still see and walk on in stone and concrete where a small town of about 500 workers once toiled in apparently inhuman conditions to harness the power of the Little River to create rope. Near the entrance to the Avalanche Loop trail, the park also includes a memorial to a competitive cyclist who died in a “freak accident”.
Despite its morbid history, this park is a gem. The forest trails are gorgeous, and the much more mellow, level, paved pathway along the river is quite scenic. Below is a gallery of a few other photos from my excursion.
No post about walking in the forest would be complete without my favorite forest song by the Screaming Trees.
This is the last day of my acquaintance with the state of Arizona. Tomorrow morning, I will be on an airplane traveling thousands of miles away.
I thought about writing out the complex series of events that led to my relocating to the southwest two decades ago, and all that happened since. About the epic thunderstorms and the thirty-three-hour hellride that kicked off this chapter of my life in brutal fashion. About all the wonderful adventures, musical collaborations, friendships, and romances I enjoyed in Arizona. About the losses and disappointments and tragedies. About the unexpected successes and abject failures.
Then I realized we’d be here all damn month before I even got properly started, and I have a plane to catch! So instead, I commemorate this day with Sinéad O’Connor’s hauntingly beautiful song about her divorce, because she says more about how I feel right now in a handful of verses than I could express in a hundred thousand words of written history.
Goodbye, Arizona. I enjoyed the best years of my life with you. I loved your weather, the friends you brought me, and the opportunities to achieve and experience more in my thirties and forties than I thought possible after my chaotic twenties. I’m sorry it got so shitty at the end. We both deserved better.
Today, I got the sad news that my artist and poet friend Ktahdn passed away last week. If you don’t know how to say his name, don’t feel bad; hardly anyone ever got it right. Most of us just called him by his preferred nickname: “KT”. He was a softspoken, gentle guy who never had a harsh word to say about anyone, and he was always exploring different avenues for his creativity.
I met KT at an audiovisual presentation where he read original poems and short, reflective pieces about his favorite art form: building abstract sand sculptures on the beach. He displayed gorgeous photos of these ephemeral works and interspersed his readings with soothing yet evocative piano pieces by artists such as Philip Aaberg. The presentation was a hit with the storytelling group we were both part of, and he returned several times with follow-up presentations and lengthier pieces about all the work that went into his sand sculptures. For the past couple of years, he had delved into writing fantasy stories and taking part in various multimedia collaborations.
KT and I weren’t super close, but I enjoyed our conversations about art, sand, stones, and poetry. He recommended a few great books to me, including The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History by Jan Zalasiewicz. I’ve mentioned it before, and it’s a fascinating read.
It starts with observations about an apparently simple, ordinary stone on a beach, then quickly expands into a history of the universe that made such a stone possible: from the formation of the first stars where hydrogen was fused into heavier elements disbursed when those stars exploded, to the collision of the Mars-sized planet that struck Earth billions of years ago and resulted in the formation of our Moon. The book continues with a history of Earth where geologic dramas created different kinds of rocks, and how those rocks were distributed across the planet through continental drift, erosion, and other natural forces.
That’s how I will remember KT. He was a man who could look at something ordinary and see the extraordinary. He appreciated how even the smallest things most of us take for granted are the result of complex, elaborate histories, and he knew those histories would continue long into the future after those things had gone from our lives. Like his sand sculptures that stood as beautiful monuments until the tides rolled in and washed them away, everything exists in cycles of creation and destruction, which are really just two sides of the same coin: transformation.
The tides have taken KT away. But I will remember that even the smallest grain of sand returning to the ocean will become a part of something else, something with an intricate future that dwarfs even the history that brought it onto the beach in the first place.
I don’t think KT would want us to mourn his passing any more than he ever shed a tear for one of his sculptures. Instead, he would want us to return to the beach and, once again, create something beautiful. Whether it lasts for an hour or a lifetime doesn’t really matter. What matters is the experience.
August 30 Update: After meeting with mutual friends last night to remember KT, it hit me that my first art adventure with him wasn’t in the storytelling group but many years earlier in a weekly gathering to musically explore the old trade routes known as the Silk Road. Following the path of the Silk Road from Europe to China, KT played music from the regions and talked a bit about the various cultures. I picked up several albums he sampled for us, though I would have liked to get them all.
While going through my music library, I also found an hour-long recording I made of one of his reading sessions. Click here to have a listen.
I don’t recall what injury I’d suffered when my girlfriend at the time gave me her Hello Kitty Ice Pack, because it must have been about fifteen years ago now. It’s been so long that no one even manufactures the ice pack anymore—and that is tragic, because my Kitty was taken from me this year.
Let’s take a moment to memorialize the world’s cutest healthcare item.
Hello Kitty was always there for me when I burned myself cooking, or when I jammed a finger or toe like some kind of clueless monkey. She was there for me around 2015 when I pulled out a kitchen drawer too quickly and it fell on my toe. The corner of the wooden drawer just about crushed my toe, and the pain was so awful that I couldn’t even sleep for a week unless I kept my toe entirely encased in ice like Captain America. The toenail turned black from all the blood gathering under it, and the damage to the cuticle was so severe that for a while I actually had a second toenail growing out on top of the old, dead nail. It took nearly a year before my toe was right again.
Another agonizing time Hello Kitty helped me survive was in 2016 when I had some inexplicably excruciating pain in my mouth and jaw that was so intense I gave serious consideration to going out like Kurt Cobain just to make it stop.
It turns out the pain was most likely caused by a sinus infection which also laid me low for months and was impinging on the roots of one of my molars. The mystery wasn’t solved until a dentist removed that molar for unrelated reasons and we saw the root of the tooth was covered with infection.
Let that be a lesson to you.
Last year, Hello Kitty came to the rescue for one of my neighbors. I was outside smoking on the balcony of the apartment complex when the neighbor’s daughter fell through their front window. She had been playing all rowdy and fell against a screen that couldn’t support her, and out she tumbled. I saw it happen.
The poor girl’s head hit the pavement so hard that I heard the sickening crunch from the other side of the complex. I hope I never hear that sound again. I grabbed Hello Kitty and a second ice pack from my freezer and ran down to their apartment.
The girl went to the hospital that night, and it turns out she had fractured her skull. I find that particularly horrifying because one of my earliest memories is from when I was about five and staying with my grandparents during the summer. This neighborhood kid I played with all the time fell off a wall and cracked open his head on the concrete below. Blood spilled everywhere. Years later, because the scene kept popping up in my dreams until I wasn’t sure if it was a real memory or not, I asked my grandmother about it. She was surprised I remembered it, but she said the boy survived.
So did the neighbor girl. Kids are so resilient sometimes. Not long afterward, she was back to raising hell on the property, running around and shouting and banging on the metal fence around the pool like it was a percussion instrument. She’ll probably grow up to become a drummer. Anyway, her mom eventually stopped by to return Hello Kitty and fill me in on the saga.
A few months later, an adult neighbor injured herself, so I let her borrow Hello Kitty and my backup ice pack. Sadly, that was the last I ever saw of Kitty. That neighbor moved out this year, and she took my bloody ice pack with her. Bitch, give me back my Kitty!
I can’t find anywhere that sells Hello Kitty Ice Pack anymore, so I’d be grateful if you can find one for me. Kitty and I survived the depths of hell together many times, and she was the cutest thing who always made me smile regardless of the horrors we confronted. I have since replaced her with other ice packs, but Kitty can never truly be replaced.
One of the unaddressed, human problems for atheists is the concept of irrationality. While I feel that Richard Dawkins and his Foundation for Reason and Science are a good example of the intellectual trend that needs to become more widespread in America and across the globe, an appeal to humans to be completely rational faces an intractable problem. Despite our capacity for reason and rationality, we also experience life in non-rational ways.
While the scientific method often reveals an underlying order to the chaos we experience, we cannot say the universe itself is rational. Everyone knows what it is like to confront events in life that seem totally absurd. Entire movements in the world of art have sprung up to address this. No matter how much we want to believe that we could be completely rational beings, the human mind is a playground for irrational thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.
My observations of the behaviors of others and myself in my five decades on this planet lead me to conclude that a purely rational approach to life leaves out some important aspects of human experience. I believe this contributes to the persistence of religion, even in eras such as ours where organized religion, zealotry, and extremist fundamentalism produce or justify violence, suffering, misogyny, racism, and abuse. The evils committed in the name of religious good or faith remain unshakable to this day, and those of us who have opted out of our religious backgrounds find this both sad and perplexing. How, we ask, can people continue to cling to primitive, Bronze-Age ideas that breed hate and intolerance and prevent society from progressing towards more humane and inclusive goals?
Many before me have attempted to answer this question, so let’s consider the four most common evaluations. First, humans fear death. Religion offers comfort in the face of a universe that in no way cares about any individual, by creating deities who do care. Religion offers comfort in a universe where everything we are is guaranteed to end, by creating an artificial afterlife where we can live on.
This afterlife is often posited as a form of justice which is absent from the actual universe, an afterlife where “good” people are rewarded and “bad” people are punished. In real life, horrible people get away with horrible things while kind and decent people suffer. Imaginary concepts such as heaven and hell give comfort that there is a form of cosmic justice that exists beyond this world.
Second, humans crave order. Disorder is frightening. The unpredictability of life is frightening, and humans are not alone in this fear. Consider how stressed a pet dog or cat can become if their routine is disrupted, or if forces beyond their comprehension appear to threaten them. If you’ve ever seen a pet hide under a bed during a thunderstorm, or develop oddly unhealthy habits around grooming and eating to deal with stress, then you know what I mean.
In the face of this fear of the disorderly and unknown, religion grants the illusion of cosmic order and also creates an imaginary ruler of that order, one who can set things right or who has a master plan in which we can place our trust. This non-existent cosmic ruler also imposes a moral authority that sweeps away the supremely challenging ethical task of deciding for oneself what is right and wrong—a task plagued by the same disorder and incomprehensible complexity of the world we experience. Deciding for oneself is hard. Having an authority hand you the answers is easy.
Third, humans look for agency. Part of progressing from an infant to a socially mature adult is the realization that other humans and even animals are like oneself in that they have agency. Others can make decisions and choices, have feelings and thoughts, and presumably have some kind of experience of life that is conscious in the same way that we are conscious. Empathy is when we come to consider that the experience of others is something to be respected, understood, and treated with kindness, because we can imagine that we know what that other person or animal feels. Their pain is like our pain. Their hopes are like our hopes. Their joy is like our joy. Their problems are like our problems.
But as important as this empathy toward other agents is to social cohesion in groups—from the smallest tribe to the largest nation—the human mind also seeks to find conscious agency in objects and events which simply have none. A rock or a bolt of lightning or a gust of wind has no agency, but the human mind naturally wants to believe it does. On one end of the religious spectrum, this results in pantheism where every object possesses some form of consciousness. At the other end of the spectrum, it results in monotheism where every action of every object is guided by the conscious choices of some cosmic ruler.
In the middle of the spectrum lie various gradients of these ideas. Though none of them are true or even remotely provable, their allure is the comfort that we do not live in an unfeeling and unconscious universe, but one where we might affect the outcomes of events by supplicating these non-existent agents through prayer, sacrifice, good deeds, wars against non-believers, and many other actions which do not affect the physical behavior of the universe.
Our attempts to appease the gods might make us feel better, or they might lead to atrocities, or both. They might lead us to create monuments or overcome addictions. But they do not at all affect the underpinnings of the universe. We have been fooled by our own propensity to seek out agency in all things.
The fourth and final most common reason given for the continuation of religion is that humans seek power. The first three reasons all deal with feeling powerless against the workings of the universe and circumstance: death, impermanence, disorder, moral doubt, and non-conscious objects and events. But the fourth reason deals specifically with obtaining power over other humans.
There is no greater threat to man than man himself, and no greater source of fear. Religion offers a means to control those others whom we fear, and a means to mobilize or enslave others so that we might gain more power over them and pursue more power for ourselves. Religion empowers us to tell other people what they should be doing and justifies our violence against them when they do not comply. It empowers people in leadership positions to consolidate their social power not only by telling people what to do but by setting themselves up as the authority on what constitutes right behavior for all other people—usually in some bid to expand their personal or political empire.
In other words, because the first three reasons for religion meet basic emotional needs that cannot be met by a purely rational approach to life, the fourth reason allows those needs to be exploited for personal gain and a feeling of control in a universe over which we truly have no control.
While I respect and empathize with intellectual movements that embrace rationality, I doubt we can move forward as a species until we admit that a purely rational approach will never completely meet our psychological and emotional needs. Not until we accept that some kinds of non-rational experience are necessary to our well-being will we reach a more holistic, all-encompassing way of dealing with the lives we are born into.
Fortunately, we have those means within our grasp. In my life since abandoning the religious indoctrination I endured as a child, I have found ways to give free rein to the non-rational parts of my mind through various forms of art. Through poetry, music, and painting, I have found ways to express, confront, and integrate my irrational thoughts and feelings and the absurdity of human experience so I could feel like a complete human being. I often make art more through intuition and emotion than some kind of logical process.
But I have also found there is a balance between the rational and irrational. Music involves the study of scales and chords and rhythms, and it can often resemble mathematics. Painting involves analysis of techniques and the relationships between colors. Poetry involves studying language and what it takes to convey emotional meaning through words. Every art form has some rational component.
But there are stages in the process of creating art and appreciating art where you need to get into a non-verbal state of mind and allow yourself to be swept up in and overcome by the feeling. A mathematical analysis of a concerto will never completely capture the subjective experience of being moved to tears by hearing the music.
For the past eight years, I have also been writing fiction, and it is much the same. I have spent countless hours as a writer and editor analyzing things such as character arcs, story arcs, prose style, post-modern approaches to storytelling, nuances of punctuation and paragraphs, and how to say the most in the fewest words. But at some point, you need to stop analyzing and just write, to tap into some indefinable place in your imagination and go with the feeling so that the reader can also get swept up in that feeling and experience a story from the inside.
Of all the art forms I’ve explored, fiction might be the one most like religion because it makes order out of a disorderly universe. In fiction, unlike life, everything on the page should happen for a reason. In fiction, every detail matters and is relevant. In fiction, we can create a world in which justice prevails, death is overcome, and everything that happens is imbued with meaning—a world that is not at all like the one we were born into.
Granted, many authors like to subvert those goals to make a point about reality, and I appreciate why they do it. I often do it myself. A dose of reality and unexpected tragedy still makes for a compelling story that says something meaningful about our lives. But overall, I see fiction as imposing a meaningful order on life. Life itself is often pointless beyond the biological imperative to reproduce more life. But fiction can advance any point it wants to communicate. Like religion, it takes the incomprehensibly complex unknown and makes it knowable.
And unless we admit that not everything we humans need is met by rationality and find ways to meet those needs through art, the social progress desired by the rationalism movements will not be achieved.
This weekend, I got the sad news that a friend of mine took her life. I don’t want to bare the details of her life, but she was struggling with some heavy shit. You’d probably never guess that if you casually hung out with her, because she was sassy and took great pleasure in putting obnoxious jerks in their place, and she was quite creative.
Despite her boisterous persona, she was often bullied, and I suspect her tough-girl attitude was a shield, a way to cope with how people can be so cruel to those who are different. She was transgender, and American society has become increasingly cruel in recent years toward people like her. But like all of the people in my life who fall somewhere on the LGBT spectrum—from casual friends, colleagues, and clients, to people I have loved and artists I admire—she deserved none of the hate.
She didn’t deserve to be treated as less than a person or targeted by mean-spirited politicians and state legislatures who are passing laws to further marginalize a group that already has enough problems to deal with. Rates of clinical depression and suicide are significantly higher among trans people. It’s no wonder, given how much hate they must deal with just to get through their lives on a daily basis.
I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people, and being a part of a marginalized group doesn’t make a person a saint. But what the fascist right-wing in America refuses to understand is that LGBT people are people—just like anyone else. They have feelings, and hopes, and dreams—just like anyone else. They aren’t trying to deprive anyone of a way of life, or bring America to its knees. They’re just trying to get through the day, and our country’s treating them like punching bags isn’t helping anyone except for groups that thrive on hate.
As I rapidly approach age 50, I’ve had the misfortune to see much of the social progress our nation has made become undone. I was born on the day the Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe Vs. Wade, and I never thought I would live to see it trashed. The only thing that gives me hope is when I see young people standing up for social progress and working for a future where simple human decency and respect is given to women, people of color, and all the people whose sexuality or gender orientation falls outside of our cultural norms.
Maybe it’s too late for America. I don’t know. But it is certainly too late for my friend.
On the last night of Gramma’s life, Mags takes her drinking at a west-coast bar to shoot pool and have fun. Between games of billiards, they discuss the future of the solar system and reminisce about their past, revealing details about Gramma’s childhood, her relationship with her piratical mother, and the development of GravGen technology.
July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions. The ebook is also available on Smashwords and other major retailers.
About seven years ago, I started compiling notes for a Meteor Mags story that would take place on the last night of Gramma’s life and, through flashbacks, fill in a lot of details about Gramma’s history and how they relate to the main narrative in the series. While the series is ostensibly science-fiction, this tale was more like historical fiction.
If you’ve ever written historical fiction, you know it takes an incredible amount of research into historical fact. Otherwise, you end up with unintended anachronisms, inaccuracies, and all kinds of things any expert in your chosen time period will absolutely tear apart.
This problem almost killed my story.
Since it involves the history of billiards, I got involved in the history of France and a man named Francois Mingaud. He invented the leather tip we all now take for granted on a cue stick.
The first indication that I had serious problems was that my research turned out to be contradictory about when and where Mingaud was held prisoner, and the inaccuracy of him being imprisoned at the Bastille years after it was demolished was repeated in dozens of billiards-related websites where I sought information about his life.
I solved the discrepancy by emailing Mike Shamos, author of The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards (an excellent resource rivaled only by the work of his friends Victor Stein and Paul Rubino in the massive Billiard Encyclopedia). Dr. Shamos was kind enough to provide historical documents that set the record straight about Mingaud’s imprisonment. I am such a Wikipedia nerd that I corrected the mistakes in Mingaud’s article and included a note about why the widespread inaccuracy about his imprisonment was impossible.
That’s just one of the complications of the history I was trying to construct. Eventually, it all became so overwhelming that I relegated my story to being one of those ideas I would never get around to writing.
But last month, one of the authors from my old workshop group was kind enough to listen for a few minutes to all the reasons I had never written the story I wanted to. In the days that followed, I thought about those reasons; the chief of which was that I simply did not want to invest another year of my life researching the time period to write the novella I had planned.
As I have said many times before, being able to articulate our problems often leads to them solving themselves. I’m indebted to the author who took a few minutes to listen, because thinking about my so-called “reasons” led me to trying some narrative solutions to those problems.
I played with a few ideas, cut some scenes that were too involved and slowed the pacing, engaged a few characters to summarize events that could have filled a novel, and ended up with a short, fast-paced tale that accomplished damn near everything I ever wanted from the “sweeping historical epic” I would never get around to writing.
You can judge for yourself whether it succeeds or not.
I’ve written before about my love for various games of pool, so I have only one more thing to say about the title of this story. Years ago, I saw an infographic about the most-used words in book titles. People online ripped this thing apart as an example of the most cliché and crappy book titles.
But to me, they looked like damn good words, so I came up with several fun titles based on that silly infographic and decided to use “One Last Night on Death World” as the name of a pinball/videogame Mags would have distributed on the west coast of the USA in the 1990s as a cover for her smuggling operations. (It’s introduced in a flashback in the previous story, Farewell Tour, which fills in the early years of the friendship between Mags and Alonso.) The name also fit the idea of Gramma Margareta’s last night on Earth, so I ran with it.
What did I learn from all this? First, it helps to have other writers to talk to when you are having problems with a story. Second, you can get a lot of mileage from emailing an expert on a subject. Third, the problems you encounter when telling a story can often be solved by taking a different approach to narration and engaging the characters to solve your problems for you.
I’m tempted to add a fourth lesson about “Stop making excuses and write the damn thing”, but I can’t help but feel that compiling notes for all these years until I had a chance to bend a sympathetic ear was the right decision. It was like I had been dissolving minerals in a solution for seven years and then all of a sudden—Boom! All it took was one little grain for them to gather around and become a crystal.
In addition to borrowing Francois Mingaud from real life, this tale guest-stars Scott Safran, a young man history also remembers for his accomplishments in a game. Both of their lives play out a bit differently due to meeting Mags and her ancestors. The hotelier Jonathan Hathaway is a complete fabrication.
Spidey was my jam as a young Martian. I must have crafted this masterpiece near the end of the 1970s, when I was five to seven years old. Clearly, I had a lot to learn about architecture and anatomy. Feel free to mock me now for those ridiculous hands!
Well into my early adolescence, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said, “A comic-book artist.” I designed different characters and drew them poorly, no matter how many drawing tutorials I attempted to follow. Eventually, I became reasonably okay-ish in various visual, musical, and literary art forms, but I still can’t draw sequential art to save my life — unless it’s stick figures!
Someone on Reddit suggested this could be a super-rare variant cover, so I ordered a five-dollar copy of the blank version of Non-Stop Spider-man #1 using some of the store credit I earned at MyComicShop in the last couple of months thanks to this blog’s readers. I’ll see if I can get this image printed on it.
In other news, I finished drafting episode 34 in the ongoing Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches this week, and I had a blast writing it. It’s really two stories in one. In the “present day” of February 2032, the interspecies telepathic band Small Flowers performs their final concert in the asteroid belt. That story is spliced with flashbacks about the musical friendship between Mags and Alonso, who is the only human in Small Flowers and one of the people Mags loves most in all the solar system.
July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions.The ebook is also available on Smashwords and coming soon to other major retailers.
Bonus points to anyone who gets my silly Spider-man drawing printed on a t-shirt before I do. Until then, Cadet Stimpy and I remain stranded on the planet Ballknob. We had to eat what was left of the ship.
If you were to ask me, as many people have in the past three decades, if I believe in god, I would say, “No.” When I was a little younger and edgier, I would have said, “Which one?” But if you followed up with, “So you’re an atheist?” I would again say, “No.”
That contradiction might lead you to assume I am agnostic. That would miss the point, because there are all sorts of things I don’t believe in. I do not believe in leprechauns, Santa Claus, or werewolves. But it would be ridiculous to label myself an aleprechaunist, an asantaclausist, or an awerewolfist.
Why would I define and label myself by one singular thing I do not believe? What matters to me is what people do stand for, or believe, or are simply interested in. Classifying myself as an atheist would be defining myself in negative terms, but it would give zero information about what I find important.
I am uninterested in defining people in negative ways about things that are irrelevant to them. I’m interested in knowing what does matter to them, in a positive sense. Telling me you don’t believe in Santa Claus would establish there is one form of nonsense neither of us has an interest in. But it does nothing to identify what common interests we share.
Most people over the age of seven agree with me that Santa Claus does not exist, but many disagree with me on everything from what makes good prose to what makes good government and a good society. The fact that we are all asantaclausists doesn’t matter.
The term “atheist” might do non-believers a disservice. It assumes that a belief in a god is so important that we need to identify those who do not have it. But from my perspective, it is no more important than not believing in the tooth fairy. No fully grown, sane adults define themselves and form social groups based on the fact that they share a disbelief in the tooth fairy. That would be silly and fail to establish any meaningful common ground.
In recent years, I have noticed a tendency among atheists—especially in the younger ones who have only recently liberated themselves from whatever mythology they were indoctrinated with as children—to make two tragic mistakes I often made in my early twenties.
The first mistake is to become as evangelical about atheism as the obnoxious and often dangerously fanatical christians who think they have been tasked with a holy mission to convert other people to their way of thinking. Some people cannot keep their beliefs to themselves and need to wedge them into every conversation. They are often so judgmental about everyone else that only other zealots can enjoy their company. But many young atheists become just as abrasive as the “christian soldiers, marching as to war” that they quite rightly want no part of.
The second and more insidious mistake happens when people who have been raised as devoutly religious abandon their religious beliefs but not their religious way of thinking. I struggled with this in my late teens and early twenties, much to my regret, and I see it all too often in other people. When you are indoctrinated from childhood to be religious, you will often behave in religious ways about new concepts and ideologies you discover, even when the external trappings of your original religion have been discarded.
It’s like the religion has disappeared, but the religious way of being has not. In that state of mind, one can easily get attached to all sorts of other nonsense such as healing crystals or extremist political causes, magical nonsense such as the Carlos Castaneda novels or the Law of Attraction, or even zealotry about certain lifestyle choices.
When a person is raised in extremely religious circumstances but makes the intellectual and moral leap to reject that upbringing, they are left with a void. A significant part of their identity has been erased. What will fill that empty space? Nature abhors a vacuum, so other nonsensical ideas often rush to fill that space. I know it from firsthand experience, and I have no easy solution to overcome it. All I can do is offer a word of caution to those who abandon any religion: You can take the boy out of the church, but it is much more difficult to take the church out of the boy.
I advise young atheists to consider how their popular role models will be remembered in a positive way. Richard Dawkins? An accomplished scientist, brilliant author, and public speaker. Penn Jillette? A stellar magician, speaker, and entertainer. John Cleese and Douglas Adams? Outstanding humorists and writers. Neil deGrasse Tyson? An influential astrophysicist and lecturer. The list goes on. But it’s a positive list, defined not by things these people did not believe in, but by the legacies of their contributions to our lives and culture.
If someone else wants to call themselves an atheist, I don’t mind. But I’ve never felt the label was a good fit for me. Remember me as a writer, editor, poet, musician, or painter. Remember me as the party animal who stripped down to his Jack Daniels boxers and a feathered mask for Mardi Gras. Remember me as a massive geek for comic books and dinosaurs. I don’t care, just so long as my life is defined more by what I cared about and found meaningful, fun, and interesting instead of by things I found irrelevant.
This week, I got the sad news that an author I worked with two years ago passed away. I helped her edit, design, and publish her memoir about how she transitioned out of a life of prostitution, domestic violence, and incarceration to create a non-profit organization that supports women in similar circumstances to make the same transition and build new lives for themselves.
At times, the memoir was absolutely heartbreaking to work on due to the severity of the abuse and trauma it described. But it was also an amazingly hopeful and positive book due to what she and her organization eventually accomplished in terms of helping other women in the community.
The author was also a joy to work with. I always enjoyed our conversations, and she had an unconquerable sense of humor. Even when we discussed the saddest topics or events, she always found a way to make us both laugh.
I am sad to hear of her passing, but I am glad I had the chance to help preserve her story in a book. I don’t know if other artists, authors, and musicians think about this as much as I do, but there is something satisfying about the idea that what we create will outlive us. Whether we have an important message to share with the world, or we are just making something entertaining to enjoy, we leave our mark on our society and culture. It isn’t necessarily immortality, but it is a kind of afterlife.
Years ago, another author I work with included a piece of advice in one of her books: “Focus on what you want to create.” That idea has carried me through many times of difficulty and doubt. Obstacles pile up, and it can be easy to lose sight of long-term goals when you get bogged down in dealing with the challenges of the day. But if you can raise your head above the floodwaters and focus on the legacy you want to leave behind, it puts today in a different perspective.
So, I intend to keep on writing, editing, and helping others make books. Those legacies will last long after we pass, and I am proud to have played a part in them.
Collector’s Guide:It’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It: From the Streets to Survival by Kathleen Mitchell is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Kathleen founded DIGNITY House in Phoenix, Arizona.
Mags faces double trouble when an alien menace and an ex-mercenary converge on Ceres to end the pirate’s life and steal her secret technology.
July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions.The ebook is also available on Smashwords and other major retailers.
Episode 32 in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches was intended to be 33, but I got bogged down in the original story for 32 and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. As you probably know, I don’t believe in writer’s block, because you can always write something. So, I re-directed my energy into what was speaking to me at the time, and I also worked to articulate exactly what my problem was.
My recent post on why Finishing Matters resulted from gathering my thoughts on why it is important to power through completing a draft. My post on the difference between Active Versus Passive Characters arose from trying to articulate why I wasn’t happy with the original thirty-second episode.
I realized that the episode’s problem was, at its root, that I had originally conceived the middle of the story as a plot that needed to happen to my characters, instead of a plot driven by character choices. I knew where the story started and ended, but I felt like I was enforcing a plot on my characters in the middle, and that was causing friction.
So, I set it aside and focused on something that’s been simmering on the back burner for a couple of years: introducing a new rival for Mags. It’s an idea I kept returning to despite numerous attempts and thousands of words that failed to excite me. But gathering my thoughts on active characters proved to be the key. Last month, I added to my massive pile of notes on this rival by asking questions and answering them, then dropping her into situations and letting her choose the outcome. I let go of the idea that I needed her to fit into some mold, and I let her choose her own adventure.
Several scenes I wrote for her ended up on the cutting-room floor. You will never read them. But the process of going beyond notes and writing actual scenes for her revealed what really captured my imagination about her, and I enjoyed getting to know her and anticipating what kind of choices she would make. She stopped being a thing I wanted to force into a plot and became a person who could drive a plot through active choices.
Once I began letting her choices take an active role in determining the plot, she became not just easy to write but an absolute joy. In the end, it only took me about a month to write the episode featuring her, even though defining who she was had been frustrating me for a couple of years. The breakthrough came when I started treating her the way I do Mags: not as someone who life happens to, but someone who happens to life.
Also, I wrote thousands of words you will never see about her childhood, her appearance, and her motivations. We might explore those things later in the text of the series, but the important thing was that I really needed to get to know her.
I don’t need to necessarily publish words about those things, but I needed to be able to confidently write from those things. The difference between the two is the subtext an author needs to have a firm grasp on a character. Not every detail about a character’s history needs to be explained through exposition to a reader, but the author needs to know those unpublished details to create someone who feels real, consistent, and grounded. You can judge for yourself how well I did.
On a more personal note, the episode briefly includes a billiards game called nine-ball. The game will always be dear to my heart because in 2006, I joined a nine-ball league at a local pub/pool hall. I had always enjoyed shooting pool, but I was terrible at it. When I joined the league, I started practicing regularly, using an amazing book called Byrne’s New Standard Book of Pool and Billiards. It had great, practical exercises and showed how to make shots from the most simple to the increasingly complex.
But learning pool from a book can only do so much, and it was through the generous instruction from other people on the league that I advanced enough to not be awesome but to at least not embarrass myself, and to win enough matches to feel a sense of accomplishment. When I played against casual players at other bars outside of league, I won more often than I lost.
The people in my league who guided me and showed me how to correct what I was doing wrong were not just my teammates but sometimes my competition from other teams I played against in matches. Despite our friendly rivalry, we were not enemies but people who enjoyed the same game and wanted to help each other improve, have fun together, and generally raise the quality of every player’s ability. For years, nine-ball league was my primary social group where I formed many friendships, some of which remain to this day. We often gathered for house parties, bar crawls, road trips, concerts, and other events.
In many ways, it was like the writer’s workshop I founded in 2017: a somewhat random assortment of people gathering around a shared enthusiasm with the aims of both helping each other improve and having some fun along the way. In both cases, my years with the groups helped me grow in ways that would not have been possible on my own.
These days, my billiards game is rusty from a lack of practice, but I still love to play. The same is true of my guitar skills. But if you ever wonder why I write so many billiards and concert or jam scenes into my stories, it’s because they are hobbies I have loved for many years, and I can’t imagine writing about a fictional world where they don’t play a role.
My high-school buddy Brian turned me on to Screaming Trees. I didn’t get them at first. They sounded unlike any of the hair-metal, teeny-bopper bands I was into in the mid-1980s, or the more straight-forward punk bands I was beginning to appreciate, such as Minor Threat. In hindsight, I realize that opening my ears to the Trees was the beginning of my love for genres such as garage, psychedelia, and a lot of what gets called shoegaze or stoner rock these days, and maybe even jazz, jazz-rock fusion, and music from around the world.
I caught the Trees in concert twice. On the Buzz Factory tour, they played the club Mississippi Nights on the waterfront in downtown St. Louis. I loved that album and still do, but hearing songs from it in-person blew me away. The sound quality of Trees albums was pretty bad in the early years, like they had been recorded on a wax cylinder or something. The songs were energetic, fun, and brilliant, but something got lost in the low-budget recordings. In concert, the Trees sounded MASSIVE.
At Mississippi Nights, guitarist and main songwriter Gary Lee Conner launched into one of his wah-pedal-drenched solos then apparently lost his mind. He rolled around on the stage with his SG, then tumbled off the elevated stage to land on the floor. He writhed on the floor and kept shredding. The guy was like a force of nature that fell into the crowd.
This venue was all-ages, with a rule that underage kids like me could be in the general area right in front of the stage, but not in the areas that served alcohol. It’s the same place I caught Nirvana and lots of other great acts when the so-called Seattle sound was on the cusp of becoming a nationwide phenomenon.
The all-ages venue meant my buddies Dan, Brian, Dave, Chris, Amy, and many more could rock the hell out and be right up in the action. I stood in a circle of teenagers who were absolutely stunned by Gary’s electric performance on the floor in front of us.
A few years later, when singer Mark Lanegan released his first solo album, The Winding Sheet, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. By that point, I’d been learning to play guitar for a few years and was attempting to write and sing my own songs. To say The Winding Sheet influenced me is an understatement. It was everything I aspired to.
So in 2020, when I read Mark’s brutal memoir Sing Backwards and Weep, it came as a shock to me that he basically hated the Screaming Trees and hated his first album. That’s an oversimplification, so let me expand that thought.
Mark’s version of his life with the Trees begins with being blown away by the young Gary Lee Conner’s songwriting and demo recordings. It wasn’t until later that he came to feel the lyrics of the composer’s neo-psychedelic songs were hippy-dippy nonsense Mark just couldn’t feel. I think more mature adults would have realized they simply had creative differences and went their separate ways. But I say that now at age forty-nine, and I remember what my twenties were like.
In Mark’s recollections of early Trees tours, personality conflicts replaced their initial camaraderie. We’re talking about a bunch of kids here. If you pack a van with any group of guys barely into their twenties, you’ll get conflict. Hell, I’m sure anyone who knew me when I was that age would tell you I was an abrasive jerk. Creative? Absolutely. Easy to get along with? Fuck no. It’s just part of being young, artistic, broke, and stupid.
Mark was right about one thing about the early records: The sound quality was crap. It’s easy to understand his frustration with albums that changed the way I heard music, such as Even If and Especially When, Invisible Lantern, and Buzz Factory. (You can hear twenty-one of their best songs from this era in the collection, SST Years.) The Change Has Come EP is awesome—one of my all-time musical favorites—and almost captured the live intensity of the Trees’ sound. But it wasn’t until Sweet Oblivion that the recordings started to sound as killer as the concerts.
The second time I caught the Trees in concert was at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit around the time Sweet Oblivion came out and the single Shadow of the Season was getting airplay on corporate alt-rock stations across the nation. They opened with Before We Arise from Uncle Anesthesia, an album produced by another of my musical heroes, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, with a better recording budget and sound quality than previous albums.
But from the first dark, droning notes of the tune at St. Andrew’s, it was once again clear that no album had quite captured how HUGE the Trees sounded in concert. If I were to rank the top-ten sonic experiences of my life, that concert undoubtedly would be on the list. And I’ve been at shows from Swans, Crash Worship, and Kodo. The album version of Before We Arise is a pale shadow of what I experienced in Detroit. In that brilliant set, they also performed Julie Paradise, an awesome song that came close to capturing in the studio just how stellar the Trees sounded in concert.
In Mark’s memoir, he was notably happier with how Sweet Oblivion turned out, and also its successor, Dust. Besides improved sound quality, Mark felt the songs were more of something he could believe in—songs that more closely matched his personal vision of the music he wanted to create. Dust sounds amazing, and the first thing I did after buying it on cassette the day it came out and listening to it was listen to it three more times in a row. The raw, noisy solos of Gary Lee Conner’s youthful recordings had become melodic masterpieces, and the entire band sounded tighter, more focused, and more in control of the same youthful energy that made them one of my favorite bands in the first place.
But I warn you to proceed into Marks’ memoir with caution. Sing Backwards and Weep is one of the most crushing stories of misery I have ever read, only equaled perhaps byAngela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, a tale of growing up in starvation, neglect, and dehumanizing poverty in twentieth-century Ireland. Sing Backwards and Weep includes graphic scenes of drug abuse and self-abuse, such as when Mark is simultaneously shooting heroin, choking himself, and smoking crack. It’s clear that he went way beyond partying and “getting high” for fun or inspiration. He had devolved into an extremely dark state of self-loathing where no one should ever venture.
Reading that book broke my heart. There was one of my rock’n’roll heroes who had made so much music that was meaningful to me and influenced my musical development, but he spent those decades miserable and, by his own admission, being a horrible person.
The light at the end of the tunnel is that Courtney Love, wife of one of Mark’s best friends, Kurt Cobain, helped get him into rehab. Mark maintained his sobriety until his death this year in 2022. Along the way, he recorded brilliant solo albums and contributed to great recordings by his friends in Queens of the Stone Age. My favorite Lanegan solo albums are Blues Funeral and Bubblegum, but they are all worth a listen.
I don’t think a cause of his death has yet been released, but Mark almost died of COVID-19 a couple years ago and published a book about it, and the disease is known to cause lasting health problems even if you are lucky enough to survive.
Recently, Gary Lee Conner released a video of a solo performance of his song Low Life, which never appeared on a Trees album until Last Words: The Final Recordings, after the band had broken up. It is basically the Trees’ next full album, and I enjoy hearing Gary belt this one out. It reminds me of the rebellious joy I found in early Trees recordings and their concerts, and that despite whatever internal conflicts the band struggled though, their music has been rocking my world for more than three decades.
Gary Lee Conner has released several albums under his own name. They hearken back to the psychedelic garage vibe of early Trees, and I love them. Ether Trippers, The Microdot Gnome, and Unicorn Curry are like what early Trees albums would have been if they had a bigger recording budget.
Another member of the Screaming Trees, drummer Barrett Martin, has released a number of albums that go beyond rock into a more jazz-influenced and world-music vein. Trading with the Enemy by Tuatara showcases his drumming in a band whose influences span cultures across the globe.
More recently, The Barrett Martin Group has expanded this global influence on albums such as Scattered Diamonds.
The many musical guests on Scattered Diamonds include an amazing Iraqi oud player named Rahim Al Haj, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at a solo concert in Phoenix about a decade ago. My saxophone player and I chatted with him at length after the incredible performance.
Rahim was a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, and he has since released many incredible albums of oud music. My favorite is When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq, a collection of taqsims based on Arabic musical modes, sort of like Indian raga where soloists perform within a limited collection of notes and basic melodic ideas, but have the freedom to improvise.
So much of my love for music can be traced back to Screaming Trees and related projects. From garage rock to jazz fusion, from psychedelia to musical cultures around the world, the Trees are at the nexus of many things I love.
I don’t think those kids from Washington were on a mission to change the world. But they sure as hell rocked mine.
One night, around sixteen years ago in Phoenix, I was walking home from a local bar called Shady’s, which was a nice place to meet friendly people and strike up casual conversations or a game of pool on the single bar-box table by the booths. Shady’s also had a cute fireplace filled with candles, a fun jukebox with loads of alt-rock, and a cozy outdoor patio for smokers. The bar had closed, and I had more than a few pints in me, but the house my girlfriend and I were renting at the time was only a leisurely twenty- or thirty-minute walk away.
I was just north of Los Olivos Park when I encountered a kittycat wandering the suburban streets. She was quite talkative but seemed to be in good health: no apparent injuries, no visible infestations or wounds, a shiny coat, and a friendly, perky attitude. I pet her for a bit and chatted with her, assuming she was someone’s cat who had gotten outside and was exploring the hood. Then I said good-bye.
She followed me.
Normally, I would have waved her off and told her to go home, but I was feeling super relaxed, and she was cute. So, I just talked to her as we went on our merry way. I figured any cat who meowed to the high heavens like she was doing must be hungry, and my girlfriend and I had plenty of cat food at home. (We had two male cats at the time.)
The house was on the corner of the rather busy 32nd Street, and as I approached home, the cat wandered into the middle of the street. I admonished her with thoughtful, drunken guidance such as, “What the fuck are you doing, kitty?! Get the hell out of the street!” She didn’t seem to care.
That turned out to be a bit of foreshadowing about what a reckless, rowdy hell-beast was following me. Eventually, I made it home, and the cat was right behind me. I went inside and got a bowl and some food for her, accidentally waking up my girlfriend who was like, “What are you doing?”
When I told her a kitten had followed me home and I was going to feed it, she was totally on board. The cat continued to meow at the top of her lungs until she shoved her face in the food bowl and chowed down. We all hung out for a bit until kitty seemed to have eaten her fill. I went inside and went to bed.
This all happened the night before I left for the weekend on a solo trip up to Flagstaff with my acoustic guitar in search of some nature inspiration for new compositions. I had a great weekend and was happy with many of the ideas I came up with while jamming in scenic areas such as Midgely Bridge. I eventually recorded the songs Midgely Bridge and Tadpoles based on that trip.
But when I came home, I discovered the lost kittycat had, in the span of a few short days, moved into our attic, been coaxed out by my girlfriend and one of her friends, and was now living in the house! Despite being well-fed, she still meowed as loudly as an air-raid siren, and my girlfriend had named her Piper—due to having quite a set of pipes on her.
I was, at first, unhappy about adding a third cat to our household, but what could I say about it? It was my drunk ass who picked her up in the streets in the first place!
So, Piper joined our feline family and proceeded to raise almighty hell. Don’t get me wrong: Piper was an absolutely adorable kitty who loved to snuggle and cuddle and play. But she was also apparently unaware of her mortality and her volume. Sometimes I had to shut her in one of the bedrooms for my own sanity when she would not be quiet, and sometimes she created absolute chaos with zero regard for her own safety.
I think if Piper had been born human, she would have been a stunt woman and put the illustrious Zoë Bell to shame. One of her more memorable stunts in recent years was jumping on a dinner table to attack a cooked turkey. She didn’t land on the table. She landed in a bowl of mashed potatoes, freaked out, grabbed a huge portion of turkey, and launched her potato-covered self off the table to feast on her prize.
Other times, she would just go into total destruction mode and maul a piece of art or furniture. But it was hard to stay mad at Piper for long, because she was just trying to have fun, and she was so damn cute. She was, in her own way, a little hell-raising anarchist with a punk-rock attitude, but she was also incredibly loving and apparently unaware of the damage she inflicted. Piper wasn’t trying to be a bad kitty; she just had a rowdy fire that could not be quenched.
Piper Kitty passed away last week. In her final days, she refused to take food or water and was quite disoriented. But she took a sedative that calmed her down, and she died comfortably cradled in the arms of the woman who loved her and adopted her.
I don’t believe in the afterlife, but if there was one, Piper would be there right now tearing the ever-loving shit out of it and raising all kinds of unholy hell. Then she would act like nothing had ever happened and come looking for a snuggle. And who could resist?
Big hugs and cuddles go out to the cat who followed me home one night and screamed her way into our hearts. Long may she run.
In February 2020, I was chatting with some people about the recent outbreak of a new virus, and someone raised the question of whether we might be freaking out a little too much. Having been a teenager in the 1980s, my perspective was, “Maybe people are going a little overboard, but I think it’s good that it’s being taken seriously. HIV was not taken seriously enough when it hit the U.S. and, as a result, it got way worse than it needed to be.”
I figured the latest virus would be a bit like the outbreaks of Bird Flu and Swine Flu in the scope of its damage: it would be a serious and life-threatening disease if contracted, but incidents would be relatively rare.
I knew someone who almost died from Bird Flu—a supply vendor for a tech company I worked for in 2005. She was great to work with, very conscientious, but suddenly stopped calling or dropping by and became unreachable. About a month later, after I’d given up and was shopping around for a new vendor, she called me. It turns out that she was hit so hard that she became non-functional and passed out, and only survived because her five-year-old daughter called 911. Fortunately, she returned to good health after being hospitalized, and we continued to work together.
So, I knew these things could be serious and potentially fatal, but they also seemed relatively rare and didn’t threaten the functioning of our entire society.
Around March 2020, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey implemented some lockdown restrictions that limited gatherings in restaurants, and that affected my writers workshop group. We had been meeting at a local restaurant that served affordable yet gourmet sandwiches and damn good draft beers, but our meetings of anywhere from five to fifteen people got shut down.
Ducey, an often useless Republican whose claim to fame was running a chain of ice-cream shops, at least did a few things right to try to stem the tide of disease in those early months. But I still saw the viral outbreak as something we didn’t need to freak out about, because just keeping level heads and taking precautions would see us through in a short time. When I sent out a message to my entire workshop group about the change, I jokingly referred to the situation as “the zombie apocalypse”. I was completely in favor of the restrictions, but I just didn’t have any sense of worry about what I saw as a temporary measure to stop the contagion.
I still went to the grocery store without a mask, even when the staff started masking, because let’s face it: I was at a super low risk of getting a contagious disease. I worked from home, I took my university classes online from home, I was single and not dating, and my only social life was my workshop meetings. I hadn’t had so much as a cold in years due to my low level of in-person contact.
Then Ducey issued a state-wide mask mandate. I bought a pack of fifty cheap surgical-style masks and started masking for my trips to the store for food and beer. I wasn’t really worried about myself, but it was easy enough to comply with a sensible measure to protect public health and keep other people from getting sick.
I used to wear way more intense masks when I painted houses for a living. My crew would spend all day in a newly constructed house spraying primer and then two coats of paint on all the drywall. We’d spend hours in these full-face, two-filter masks in 98-degree temperatures in an empty building with no air conditioning. And yes, that did truly suck, but it also gave me an awareness of just how simple and easy it was to wear a little cloth mask to the store for ten minutes or half an hour.
My first inkling that something had gone horribly wrong was when I went to the store and learned that earlier that day, a group of people had barged into the store without any masks to stage an anti-mask protest. That was when I first began to worry—not so much about the virus, but about my fellow Arizonans and countrymen being capable of such a wildly stupid, irrational, shit-for-brains response to simple public-health measures. People were getting sick, yet here was a group of malevolent, dangerously delusional assholes throwing a tantrum about an easy way for us all, as a society, to look out for each other and try to keep things moving along as best as we can.
After that, I never made another “zombie apocalypse” joke or downplayed the outbreak and its spread. My initial attitude of “Maybe we are taking this a little too seriously” changed to “We will be royally fucked if people don’t take this more seriously.”
Around the same time, I learned that one of my workshoppers’ coworkers had died from COVID-19. I have since learned that another had a family member who died. And I have heard rumors that even within my own family, some people might be buying into the anti-vaccine nonsense. I have also seen a friend who I think of as rather smart start posting crap about Ivermectin and the ineffectiveness of masks.
I even had an old friend I considered one of the smarter and more progressive persons I have ever known call me to tell me that all we need to do is take some vitamins and listen to good music, because enjoying music boosts the immune system, and that we just need to carry on like nothing is wrong. That way, a bunch of people will die, and the survivors will be the ones who have healthy immune systems.
This approach might sound appealing at first to the simpleminded, but it completely ignores the strain such a plan puts on the nation’s hospitals and healthcare workers. It ignores the reality of running out of places to put the dead bodies quickly enough. It ignores the massive toll this wave of illness and death would extract from our country and its ability to function. But I still see and hear this kind of idiocy all the time.
And I think to myself, “What in the actual hell is happening?” These are people I have liked, loved, and respected, and that’s a damn short list of people. It’s like the stressful enormity of the situation has driven even typically sane, rational people into some sort of mental illness, some state of extreme denial about the whole thing where they concoct these fantasies to make themselves feel better, or tell themselves they are smarter than a bundle of viral DNA that doesn’t care what they believe, just so long as it can invade their cells and use them to make more copies of itself.
Viruses don’t care about your political or religious affiliation, who you vote for, or what biased news media you get your information from. They don’t care about how smart or dumb you are. They don’t care if you are scared of needles. They don’t care if this prolonged national and global epidemic stresses you out, and they don’t give one single damn about how much you wish it wasn’t happening.
Viruses are incapable of caring about anything. To them, you and I are nothing but warm meat full of living cells that can be conquered and forced to churn out even more viruses until the meat is dead or has infected other meat—or both. Even that much anthropomorphizing of a virus is too much; they are tiny machines made from proteins whose only inherent function is to make more of themselves—and to use your body as an unwilling slave to do it.
The fact that attempts to stop the wave of infection have become tangled up in arguments influenced by political and religious identities is nothing short of madness. It is a traumatic mental illness in the U.S. that is nearly as tragic and worrisome as the death toll approaching one million Americans in two years.
A public-health emergency like this should be something that unites us around a common cause: a concern for the wellbeing of all our countrymen that motivates us to do what we can to help each other and protect each other. Instead, it has become ridiculously divisive, to the point where the doctors and nurses dealing with it every day are being labeled “murderers” in “death camps” and being assaulted by dangerously ignorant jack-asses. From local school-board meetings to state governments and our national Congress, too many people are seeking to undermine or outright obstruct any efforts to curtail the spread of this virus.
That’s what really worries me. We are two years into this, and more and more of my friends are being directly affected by either being infected or losing people they love. And despite that, a public-health problem continues to be politicized and treated like a “wedge issue” that divides rather than unites us.
I want this to be over as much as anyone. But wishful, magical, misinformed thinking is not getting us any closer to that eventuality. In fact, that’s making it worse and only prolonging the agony. The virus does not give a damn about any of us. But we’d get a lot a farther if we all realized what sort of implacable foe we are up against and started giving a damn about each other.
That’s where I am after two years of COVID-19, and I hope that despite the massive amounts of misinformation, mental stress, and mis-management, that we as a nation can pull our heads out of our collective ass and find it in our hearts to do what it takes to keep everyone as healthy as possible. We have an opportunity to pull together and beat this thing. Let’s not waste it.
The Moon is about to die, and it’s all Mags’ fault. Join a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat as they confront a lunar death cult whose alien leader plans to take his revenge on humanity by destroying Earth’s ancient satellite.
July 2022 Update: The story is now collected in Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales. For sale on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and hardback editions.The ebook is also available on Smashwords and other major retailers.
Permanent Crescent was the story I worked on while also putting together The Second Omnibus, so it bears the responsibility of setting the tone for what comes next. It was fun to write and took about three months based on notes I’d compiled throughout the year.
The first scene I wrote was a nice way to open the floodgates for writing, but it ended up on the cutting-room floor. You will never read it! I also drafted scenes which got heavily revised in terms of their points of view, tenses, and even which characters were involved. Hardly any scene survived in its original version.
As you probably know, I don’t believe in writer’s block. Even when I felt unsure about what direction to take for the story, I figured, “What the hell? Let’s wing it and see what happens!” Eventually, the results of that “anything goes” approach got ironed out into a single story.
After trying things a few different ways, I settled on three points of view to tell the story: the hero, her nemesis, and my standard third-person omniscient narrator for the series. I felt multiple POVs were necessary to convey the ways in which the hero and the villain are similar in their general attitudes but intractably opposed.
By letting both the protagonist and antagonist tell parts of the story from their unique perspectives, I hoped to draw parallels between the ways they perceive their world and their situation. Some hints are obvious, such as the way they both refer to “vermin”, but with each considering the other to be the vermin. Similarly identical phrases and judgments are woven into their narratives.
Several scenes are written in first-person present tense, which I rarely use. In Permanent Crescent, my intent was to use that POV to create a sense of immediacy, to put the reader in a moment where anything might come next. In Mags’ first-person scenes, she mostly abandons her conventions from the first two omnibuses where she wrote in a journal or a letter. This time around, she speaks more directly to the reader, and her only epistolary contribution is a journal entry from 1966 where she gives relevant background about developing artificial gravity.
Getting all that sorted was a world of fun, but writing the story took me to dark places involving crime, cults, and the human (and feline) condition in general. At some point, I realized I wanted Mags to narrate a few scenes in a pulpy crime/detective style. So, I re-read the entire Criminal series to get that flavor and tone in my mind.
Permanent Crescent also reflects my feelings about the kind of urban decay I’ve lived in or visited many times in my life. The descriptive scenes about lunar cities are basically me writing about neighborhoods I’ve had the misfortune to experience. If I had to pick one song that sums up everything about that, it would be Spinal Tap’s Hell Hole.
I was a bit disheartened to discover an anime series has already blasted the Moon into a permanent crescent. It’s getting so that you can’t even blow up the Moon without someone else having done it first!
Finally, I should mention how hard I tried to do the actual math for launching Patches out of a space cannon. I read a ridiculous amount of articles and papers about the problem, most of which were beyond my grasp. I tried multiple times to get scientists to help me, to no avail. I even created a spreadsheet full of formulas to do the math. At last, I needed to admit I had no idea what the hell I was doing.
But one way or another, we were launching Patches from a space cannon, and we damn well did it. If anyone wants to email the solution to me, I’d be thrilled.
A few years ago, I read a draft of a scene from the Meteor Mags stories to my workshop group. In the scene, our space-faring criminals turn on the ship’s radio in time to hear the DJ back-announce a few songs and say what comes next.
During the feedback session, one of my workshoppers asked, “How do you come up with all these crazy song titles and band names?”
I’m rarely stunned into silence on matters of writing, but that question hit me like the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs. It took me a moment to realize that when it comes to music, I might as well be from another planet than some of my writing comrades.
My answer? “I didn’t make them up. Those are all real songs and real bands! And they kick ass!”
You can find a list of all the real songs the characters in the series have broadcast, performed, or just plain argued about on the unofficial soundtrack page of Mags’ website.
I like to think those songs might be played if Mags and Patches ever get made into a film or a cartoon. Nothing could make me happier than seeing and hearing Mags perform Porcupine Tree’s Trains as a solo piano piece in the dead of night by candlelight from Red Metal at Dawn, or her brilliant, butt-naked rendition of the Hoodoo Gurus’ Down on Me with a tribe of space monkeys and telepathic space octopuses in Small Flowers.
I have always felt that when the end credits roll on Mags’ first film, the song that must destroy the theater’s speakers is Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl.
It’s a fuckin’ barnburner.
I don’t know if Kathleen Hanna and the gang in Bikini Kill had in mind an even older song to which Rebel Girl traces its roots: a pro-labor, feminist acoustic jam by Hazel Dickens called The Rebel Girl.
Decades before Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter became a country-music hit in the States, multi-instrumentalist Hazel Dickens was singing pro-union, pro-people, and pro-women bluegrass songs in a folk-music vein, advocating through music and direct activism for America’s miners. She also eulogized her brother in song after he died of black lung disease.
Born into a coal-mining family, Hazel died in 2011, and you don’t hear about her very often these days. But she loved rebel girls, and I love her for that. The social problems she fearlessly addressed nearly a century ago have not yet been solved in our country, and maybe they will never be. But music gives me hope.
Most songs on the unofficial soundtrack page have a similar bit of history behind them and a thematic or emotional relevance to the stories. They appear in the text for a reason—even if the only reason is because Patches is obsessed with gangsta rap.
But my workshoppers were right to suspect that I have been making up a hell of a lot of other songs for my imaginary bands: the Psycho 78s (named after a line in the Misfits song Horror Business), the teenage Dumpster Kittens (who are some of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet despite singing about suicide, murder, interplanetary death armies, and nuclear infernos), and the Sterile Skins (a ska-punk crossover band that filled its choruses with the British “Oi!” despite being mostly Chicanos from SoCal).
But what I’ve never told my workshoppers (or anyone else, until now) is that for every imaginary song whose lyrics appear in the series, I put together real music.
And for that, I blame Greg.
Greg was the awesomest drummer I ever had the good fortune to share a house with, and it was a unique pleasure to hear him bashing away for hours in the basement. He was in a number of ass-kicking bands whose shows I enjoyed, and we’ve kept in touch over the years despite being thousands of miles apart now.
I miss that guy.
Back in 2015 or so, I sent him a message about how I wanted my characters to have their own unique songs, not just other people’s material they referred to. He told me, “Then you need to write those songs.”
He always had a way of cutting through my apparently complex problems with straight-forward advice.
That evening, I picked up an acoustic guitar and bashed out chords for the song that appears in the episode Whipping Boy. Ever since, I have done the same for every absolutely bonkers “imaginary” song that gets its lyrics printed in the series. It’s now a fundamental part of the creative process.
Whipping boy! What’s your name? Whipping boy! A life of pain! Maybe you should take the cash and run. Maybe you should get yourself a gun, before they kill your soul. Alright!
Most of the earlier songs can be played on a standard-issue acoustic guitar using basic power chords. After all, despite teaching several aspiring musicians about music theory and performing in small jazz combos, I still enjoy a straight-forward, punk-rock approach to songs you could perform drunk around a campfire.
But a few years ago, I got a baritone electric guitar from ESP. With its longer neck length and scale, and a weight that’s somewhere between a guitar and a bass, the baritone is designed to be tuned a fourth below standard guitar tuning, with a low A instead of a low E.
I tried that tuning, but after Wo Fat convinced me that C minor is the heaviest key in all eternity—and considering my love for Jimmy Page’s open-C tuning from Poor Tom on Led Zeppelin’s Coda—I tried a low C instead, keeping the standard string intervals from a normal tuning.
As far as C minor goes, one of my favorite heavy pieces in that key is Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Ukrainian pianist Anna Federova brings even more life to it than my concert recording of the composer performing it.
When I ran my C-tuned baritone guitar through a Logan Square Destroyer distortion pedal, ultimate heaviness resulted: crisp treble and gut-punching bass. I bought this pedal because I am a raving maniac for the first four or five Queens of the Stone Age albums (and their predecessor, Kyuss), so I thought it might help me get closer to that sound.
It did not disappoint.
To push heaviness a little further, I sometimes keep the C-based tuning but drop the low string to B flat—just like how you would tune to Drop D on a standard guitar. That gives me a power chord on the low three strings, and if I throw on a capo, I get some stupidly heavy sounds from the ESP in a variety of keys.
I am all about truly stupid levels of heaviness. If your riffs don’t give me permanent brain damage, then you’re wasting my time!
Maybe someday I’ll produce an album of these imaginary songs. But as much as I love to sing them, we need Mags or her teenage friend Sarah on the mic—not me.
I’m no brilliant singer, though I’ve never let that stop me from performing or recording. But I often fantasize about hammering the hell out of my baritone axe while someone more talented than me takes over on vocals. I like to think we’d give Alice in Chains a run for their money.
Happy Thanksgiving, Martians! This year I am thankful for ripping riffs and brutally heavy jams, for that annoying pain I get while building up my guitar callouses again, and for music in general. It remains one of the great joys of my life.