Ephemera

I come from a long line of collectors. I used to be one myself but now I’m almost the opposite. Is that a destroyer? Maybe. I might be a destroyer now. But, as I said, I come from a long line of collectors.

My mother collects Elvis LPs. My grandmother collected pens and my grandfather collected, of all things, postcards. I believe my great-grandfather collected stringed instruments until he was compelled to pawn them. I’ve collected comic books. Mrs. Blackwelder will tell you I currently collect board games but I don’t agree. Just because I buy them, play them once or twice, and shove them in a closet doesn’t mean I’m a collector. There’s no intent to preserve and I think that intent is necessary.

I find that urge to collect and preserve objects fascinating especially when it comes to those things that were never intended to last — like pens and postcards. Sure, there is some drive to profit from those things that jump from worthless to valuable. But there’s something deeper – an impulse to capture an emotion or a memory – that really push many of us to fill our attics and garages.

An unused ticket for the Titanic, think of the weight of emotion connected to that slip of paper.

How about JFK’s lip balm? Things touched by the famous take on magical properties.

What about the old slippers my grandmother used to wear? The thin soles still show the dusty gray impressions of her toes after all the years of being gone. Somehow, throwing those ratty things away feels disrespectful, like choosing to forget. I know many people embed physical objects with vivid memories – sights, sounds, smells, and emotions. They can re-live that moment just by holding the object. I’m not sure I can anymore. There’s a cost-both physical and emotional-to preservation. How long must one keep the slippers and the postcards and the pen? After I’m gone, do those slippers finally become trash?

I said at the beginning that I may be a destroyer. That’s an overstatement. As I’ve moved past some of the urge to collect, I discovered ephemeral art. When I first learned about Buddhist sand mandalas, I was dumbfounded and looked around to see what else I could find – Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculptures are a marvel. The most popular recent example of ephemeral art is probably Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon.” Which, I have to admit, gave me much joy on several levels.

That joy in seeing something beautiful that absolutely will not last… that has become precious to me. Something as simple as the curls of steam coming from my cup of morning coffee has become a kind of ephemeral art that reflects the Buddhist idea of impermanence. But…

There’s that damn urge to take a photo and put it up on some social site. Why? Do I want to brag about the excellent fair-trade Ethiopian beans? Do I want to preserve the idea of a great cup of coffee for all the ages? The simple joy of seeing a curl of steam turns into enough discontent that I decide to write a post about it.

And now I realize I’m writing a post about the ephemeral. Like every writer, I’m preserving my thoughts and feelings at this moment in time like a lexical photograph. The urge to preserve seems to be inescapable. I’d like to be able to say that, as a modern minimalist, I resist the urge to preserve stuff. But when I really look at it, it’s hard not to shout, “This stuff is mine. It’s important. Don’t throw it away.”

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

TL;DR

I participate in a few volunteer organizations. As those groups move away from email communication and into randomly chosen social apps, I’m seeing a degradation of our collective, global wellbeing. Groups that once proposed and resolved questions with email* now dither on some randomly selected app and require me to be…social. This is not a change in the proper direction.

I’m sure that the pandemic is changing the way adults interact digitally, but it feels like every GroupMe or Slack conversation devolves into the polite equivalent of the comments section on a YouTube video. If someone in a group asks, “who intends to work at the fund-raiser next weekend?”, instead of, ‘yep’ or ‘nope’, I have to pick my way through a half-dozen I-heard-the-notification-on-my-phone-and-wanted-to-let-you-all-know-that-I’m-here-and-I-should-probably-type-lots-of-words-to-show-you-how-engaged-I-am messages.

This isn’t efficient and I’m always late to (or completely miss) the party because:

  1. I don’t like my phone to buzz like a teenager’s with constant notifications.
  2. I scroll to the bottom of the chat, see lots of nonsense, and promptly forget about it.

I do recognize that this is completely my problem. If I took the time to read and/or be social, I wouldn’t be writing this particular screed. But, since we’re here, let me humbly propose a global standard for all further digital communication by all groups of more than two.

All posts must add relevant information to the topic at hand.

All posts must adhere to a standard length as detailed below

    • Email – less than 250 words
    • Text – 25 words or less
    • Socal app if asking a question or proposing topic – 25 words or less
    • Socal app if responding – 5 words or less but a single word and/or emoji preferred

There. Now that we’re all singing from the same wavelength, one significant global problem has been solved. Hooray!

*I’m somewhat overstating (and might be actively misrepresenting for dramatic effect) a volunteer group’s ability to propose and resolve issues by any method.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Coffee Tasting & Flavor Notes

As I threatened in my last post, I’ve done some more coffee pseudo-science. Using the cupping technique I learned by watching James Hoffmann, I tasted four different coffees. I must mention that the poor technique is mine and mine alone. Mr. Hoffmann would probably cringe if he knew I was connecting his well executed coffee science with my random sloshing about. If you’re interested at all in coffee, coffee science, or the coffee industry, you should check out his YouTube channel.

My intent with this tasting was to see if I could replicate the eye-opening experience I had during the World’s Largest Coffee Tasting. I did.

I also wanted to try my hand at documenting flavor notes in a way my brain can process. It’s not even close to the professional method, but I had fun. Here are the results.

Continue reading “Coffee Tasting & Flavor Notes”Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Coffee Tolerance

Indulge me here.

Coffee has been something I’ve had in my life for at least the past three decades. I enjoy it in all its forms from sweetened with milk to pure, unadulterated black. I’ve also ranged on the coffee-snob-scale from tolerant to pure, unadulterated asshat. I’d like to think that I’ve entered a new tolerant phase.

I have one person to thank for the coffee tolerance, James Hoffmann. I stumbled across his YouTube channel close to a year ago and I’ve joyfully followed him down the rabbit hole of the third wave coffee movement. Because of that, I was able to pick up a kit to participate in The World’s Largest Coffee Tasting earlier this month. It changed the way I think about coffee. The image heading this page is from my kitchen as I prepped to grind the beans.

Continue reading “Coffee Tolerance”Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Gotta Laugh

Mike Blackwelder Senior, my dad, is dying. Not in the general we’re-all-dying sense but in the specific stage-four-bone-cancer way. I’m just off the phone with my mother and it’s been confirmed with a second opinion. When mom told him the news, his response was, “Okay. Can you get me Tim Horton’s now?” When mom told me, I laughed.

Some explanation is required so you don’t think me cruel. For those not from Canada or the northern US, Tim Hortons is like Dunkin’ Donuts. Though making the comparison up north is grounds for being disowned, divorced, or excommunicated. The other thing I should probably explain is that my dad has been in a slow decline for about fifteen years.

When a loved one has dementia, it can be hard to tell the person you loved from the new person they’ve become. It’s probably nearly as disorienting for us as it is for them–to have someone you love slowly and involuntarily change their personality. Fifteen years ago, dad had an episode diagnosed as delirium. He walked away from the house he’s lived in for the past fifty years, went up the street, around the corner, and into a random house. He sat down on the couch and, to the strangers who lived there, insisted that he owned the place and they were trespassing. Eventually, the police had to remove him. They were professional enough to understand what was going on and since he wasn’t violent, they escorted him until the found the correct address and my mother. After a trip to the hospital and a lot of testing, the doctors found out that he had a urinary tract infection and a tumor on his kidney.

I had no idea that problems with the human renal system could affect the brain. Did you know that a urinary tract infection can cause delirium? I’ve come to learn that it happens more frequently with older people and it’s even more common when the person already has dementia. After a solid round of antibiotics, he wasn’t completely back to normal but was good enough to go about the process of addressing his kidney cancer.

Between the home invasion and kidney-ectomy, dad was in a doctor’s waiting room with my mother. He’s always been a pacer and this was a particularly long wait. The office was fairly upscale with modern decor and a big salt-water fish tank for patients to look at. Dad paced right over to the tank and shoved his arm into the cool water up to his elbow, coat and all. Mom rushed over like she must have when my brothers and I did something stupid, yanked his arm out, and reflexively asked, “What do you think you’re doing?!” Dad deadpanned. “Trying to catch a fish.” He’d always been a joker with a dry wit. He had a ready smile but wasn’t quick to laugh. When he did laugh, he sometimes had trouble stopping and I remember him rocking on the couch, holding his stomach with tears streaming down his face.

When mom told me the fish story later, we both laughed with something less than real humor. You know that feeling when you’re on a car trip to the Grand Canyon with your spouse and you both hear a loud bang under the hood? You look down, expecting rapid deceleration and lots of red warning lights on the dash but nothing happens so you look at each other, shrug, and laugh. It was that kind of laugh. Mom and I were mostly hoping that everything would eventually be okay.

After dad had his kidney removed, there were a lot of ups and downs culminating in the eventual diagnosis of a form of non-Alzheimers dementia. Like many families, we had a collective release of things-make-so-much-sense-now instead of sadness. I was able to look at the fish tank with a degree of real humor. I wanted to believe that he was still as silly and full of joy and that he’d just had his filter removed.

There were other incidents over the intervening years that supported the belief. My personal favorite is the career story. Some important background–for forty years, my dad worked in a grocery store as a butcher. A couple of years ago, he was in a rehab facility after a bad fall and his occupational therapist asked him what he used to do for a living. Without missing a beat, he said, “I was a ventriloquist.” and talked out of the corner of his mouth pretending to throw his voice. He must have been pretty convincing because the therapist asked mom if he really was a ventriloquist. When mom told me, I was nearly on the ground and may have even been rocking on the couch with tears streaming down my face.

Over the past year, he’s been on a steady decline. Very recently when mom was at a low point, she said. “He doesn’t even smile anymore. I miss his laugh.” More than any of the failing health conversations, this hit me hard. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

So, at this very moment, I need to believe that upon hearing of his terminal cancer diagnosis, dad’s request for coffee and donuts is that bright joker poking through the dark of his condition. I need to believe that he understands he’s going to die soon and that he’s choosing to make the rest of us laugh.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Notes on Optimism, Books on Writing Craft

There is a constant need for optimism when working in creative fields. I pick the word need intentionally. In my relatively long working life, I’ve never run into a field before in which there are so many people that are willing to tell you how shitty you are, how the odds are against you, and why should probably stop and just go back to whatever mindless job you were doing before.

Bear with me. I swear I’ll get to the optimism. Eventually.

My writing group, The Smug Buttholes (TSB), has been doing a book club of sorts where we read about the craft of writing. I won’t provide a list because A) you probably don’t care and B) I can’t remember all of them. Most have been both informative and inspirational and prose focused. The book we’re finishing up, Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, has been wonderfully informative. Knowing the vocabulary and mechanics of poetry has demystified it and helped me overcome an aversion I’ve held for years. When you can see how the wizard works the spell, it’s easier to release the fear and appreciate the magic.

But…

In the very opening lines of the introduction, Mary Oliver says, “Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.” She’s using no irony here and goes on to say, “Something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given or earned or formulated in a manner too mysterious to be picked apart and redesigned for the next person.” If you pick apart that second line (and I believe that poets expect you to pick apart everything) you can generously interpret it to say that you can learn the fundamentals, but that only helps to get you to the epiphany of understanding. One could also read it as saying, you’re going to be a shitty poet unless you’re born with certain qualities. At first, that made me furrow my brow but I dismissed it because I have no intention of writing poetry.

The next book TSB is taking on is the classic: John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I was pretty excited because I’ve been hearing great things so I dug in as soon as I picked up my copy. Jesus Christ, John Gardner! I won’t retch up the entirety of the first two paragraphs of the preface, but they contain gems like:

  • …the ability to write well is partly a gift…writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing
  • a smart chimp with a good creative-writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant [than most of what’s published]
  • The instruction here is not for every kind of writer–not for the writer of nurse books or thrillers or porno or the cheaper sort of sci-fi
  • Not everyone is capable of writing junk fiction: it requires an authentic junk mind.

I know that Gardner became well known later in his career for publishing inflammatory literary criticism and was shouted down by many big names in fiction. I also know he was loved by most of his students. But why Why WHY start this book with the aggrandizement of teachers and the disparagement of writers without an MFA?

Don’t get me wrong. I love teachers. Much of my extended family and many of my best friends are teachers. But do I really need a prick with Ph.D. to pull down his literary underpants and moon me from the grave? It’s an issue that I’m sure I’m sensitive about because I don’t have an MFA and never will. It bothers me that there are teachers out there that will intentionally discourage creative people because they haven’t sat in a lecture hall. Or if they have, they haven’t sat in the right lecture hall. There is an entire industry that preys on people who want to be writers. Statements made by figures like John Gardner help to fuel the fear that causes people to spend tens of thousands of dollars they don’t have to get talked at by people who aren’t qualified. It pisses me off.

But I’m optimistic. I will traditionally publish a novel and it will likely be the cheaper sort of sci-fi or thriller or porno (probably not porno). People I don’t know will read it and be entertained. Some will think it’s great and some will hate it. I encourage you to do the same. Take the good stuff from writers like Oliver and Gardner and leave the rest behind.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Gratitude

I’m in the process of editing a short story that I plan to send out to some pro speculative fiction markets and I want to take a moment to say thank you to the critiquers in my life.

My critique group, unofficially dubbed the Smug Buttholes, is … well…these four are … the words fail here. Irreplaceable? Compassionate? Astute? Supportive? Insightful? Entertaining? Complete dicks? A single word to sum up might be friends or family. But both words are, curiously, too much and too little.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have this group of writers in my life. Every single story I’ve given them to review has come out better because of their involvement. I learned more craft by sitting around a table with them than a hundred writing guides could impart. Of equal importance is the emotional support. As I’ve discussed in other posts, a full-time creative endeavor can be a dark and lonely path. With their help, I’ve stayed on track both creatively and emotionally.

I can’t possibly leave Mrs. Blackwelder out here. I understand, based on conversations with a lot of other writers, how lucky I am. Not only is she much more than friend and family but my wife gives me honest, direct feedback on my work. She usually has the unenviable job of being my alpha reader. Love is far too small of a word to express my feelings for her.

A thousand thank yous to all of you. My world is a better place with you in it.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

History & Endurance

I’ve been dipping my hand into the podcast cookie jar again. One of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent Revisionist History stories has gotten chocolate all over my … brain? Dammit. I hate when the metaphor falls apart. So, his Obscure Virus Club story is stuck in my head. That isn’t surprising since one of his stated objectives is for every episode to be thought-provoking.

Although I feel compelled to relay the entire story in as much detail as possible, the little angel on my shoulder with Mrs. Blackwelder’s face is giving me a look. The one that is usually accompanied by a covert stomp on my foot when we’re at a gathering and she knows that I’m about ready to launch into a thirty-minute monologue.

I’ll summarize. Two researchers have doubts about the science of viruses. Their peers patted them on the heads and told them to work on something different. They kept at it and we’re all alive right now because they did.

At its heart, the podcast is about science, persistence, and belief in one’s self. This, of course, hits me in all the right places.

Mrs. Blackwelder and I both have educational and professional backgrounds in science although she has been far more rigorous in her application of the scientific method than I have. The virologists in Gladwell’s story are really the embodiment of the proper use of science. Observable fact contradicts commonly held belief–research, gather data, present findings, and force the belief to change. In today’s world of populist thinking (I promised I wouldn’t say fake news) and dogmatic belief, it’s a relief to see the scientific method working as it should.

As a father, I want my kids to have the persistence and self-confidence displayed by these scientists. This is one of the things I worry about as a parent-probably because I perceive the lack of these characteristics in myself. The scientists in the story were called crazy by their colleagues for ten years until they were proven right and awarded the Nobel Prize. How does one give their kids the tools to say, “I’m right. Look at the data.” for a decade? More importantly, how do you give them the tools to know the difference between actually being correct and self-deception?

As a writer, I need to take these lessons to heart. I need to have faith in my projects and see them through. Self-confidence and persistence.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Just Like Me

Photo by Nick Jio on Unsplash
Photo by Nick Jio on Unsplash

I started listening to a new podcast based on the recommendation of a friend, Hey, Cool Life is a mini-pod from author Mary H.K. Choi that focuses on mental health and creativity. Those two things are front and center in my life right now and Mary (look at me using her first name like I know her) is incredibly thoughtful and measured in her self examination. I’ve been amazed at how she sits down after her struggles and peels off the mask to really look at herself.

Although there are many differences in our addiction recovery stories, the circles of our ven diagram overlap more than they don’t. Episode 80 touches on how, while in recovery, the addictive behaviors can creep in. We deal with them like hitting cockroaches with a hammer-you smash a lot, but the fast little ones escape sometimes. As she discusses in the episode, these little ones feel so unworthy. They’re somehow more shameful to recognize and deal with than the big ones we’re recovering from. Mary talks about how she’s been drinking too much diet Coke and how undeserving it feels to talk about her continuing struggles with addiction in relation to cola.

My unhealthy relationship with sugar is the same. It’s no less mentally taxing to deal with than alcohol but feels lessor and somehow, by its meagerness, more shameful.

“Oh. Sure, man. Your problem with eating chocolate chips is right up there on par with my opioid addiction.”

Mary helped me remember that these little compulsions are no less important for me to recognize and manage.

If you’re in the creative field and working through mental health issues, you really should give Mary’s podcast a listen.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Jesus Christ, really?

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

I’m not a religious person.

I don’t believe in god.

I’m an atheist.

I’ve heard myself say all of those things in the past two weeks and it’s caused me to raise a skeptical eyebrow the same way I do when someone prefaces a statement with ‘Truthfully’ or ‘Honestly’. It’s bugging the shit out me.

I’ve been a devout non-believer for quite some time. When my god-leaning family and friends have offered or asked for prayers I’ve ignored them with zeal. It’s been a matter of principle not to pray or be prayed over. Normally I can ignore the whole religious thing the same way my parents can neglect their crippling health problems. It’s easy to avoid at a distance of 947 mile.

Religion and health and all of the shit I’d rather ostrich away from has come up again recently. A funeral – one of my aunts. The unexpected loss yanked my head firmly out of the sand and the 947-mile distance was erased with an overly expensive plane ticket. The circle of mortality is starting to tighten in my extended family. All of my grandparents and their siblings are dead. With my father-in-law and now aunt gone the ablative layer that separates me from the great unknown is beginning to flake away.

And although I know that it’s common to confront one’s own mortality and question one’s spiritual shortcomings during times of loss, it hit me hard nonetheless. The fact that it still troubles me weeks later is unsettling and I imagine that this rambling is an attempt to get it out of my head. Dealing with the pain is so much more difficult than pushing it away.

It’s not as if a blog post is going to inspire an epiphany and a return to god any more than it will allow a definitive refutation of all that is divine. So I guess this is just about exploring the pain. As a disclaimer, I was raised Catholic. Mrs. Blackwelder has pointed out to me on several occasions that in her Methodist upbringing, the church celebrated life. It was a revelation when Mrs. Blackwelder shared this truth. I ate it like a summer cherry- the tart sweetness of the understanding. I sucked it down to the seed and, alas, it didn’t grow the orchard that I was hoping for. I still roll the pit around in my mouth from time to time to help remember the ghost of that taste. 

Unlike Mrs. Blackwelder, my religious instruction was mostly about death. I don’t know if all Catholics have the same experience, but much of what I learned was about the avoidance and absolution of sin to prepare my soul for the afterlife. The afterlife was the goal–to get to heaven and be with those that you’ve lost. Unless they were particularly bad, in which case they will be slightly delayed by limbo contest.

My aunt’s wake was held in the house that my she and my uncle built. Someone filled the dining room and living room with folding tables and chairs and there were heaps of food in the kitchen. Pretty standard wake. Since it was winter, I threw my coat in the bedroom. As I turned to head back to the crowd, I was overcome by her domestic debris – perfume, hair dryer, slippers. Those things filled me with a sense of loss far greater than seeing her in the coffin. I could only imagine how lonely my uncle would be after everyone left and he was in the house with all of my aunt’s things as if she had just stepped out to pick up the dry cleaning.

So why? Why do I keep looking? Why does a devout atheist think and read and discuss religion? I’ve made my choice, right?

The thought of walking by myself through an echoey house and seeing the artifacts of Mrs. Blackwelder all around me – scuffed brown boots that hold the mold of her feet, lip balm turned down in the tube, the stone box on her nightstand filled with hair ties and scrunchies. That horror, as bad as it is to imagine, is nothing compared to the possibility of eternal, unending loneliness. Even the celestial oneness of the agnostics chills me.

So I hope.

But that hope, the thinnest of wishes, draws me back again and again. If all I want from eternity is the loving touch of one other, if I pray for that, where does it leave me? With religion or without? If I’m right and there is nothing on the other side, that means I don’t believe. Right? I have no faith and no religion. Right? I hope I can hold Mrs. Blackwelder’s hand in the blackest of rooms.  (Thank you, Benjamin Gibbard, for making me ugly cry). That hope may be the closest I’ll ever come to the divine .

If you know me IRL and I squeeze your hand overly tight, now you’ll know why.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail