Atheism: There And Back Again

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For one day, I was an atheist.

The rest of the time, I’m agnostic. The existence of God, of truth values and metaphysical/religious claims, are all ultimately unknown and probably unknowable. If God exists, He/She/It does not belong to a religion. I might even call myself ignotheistic, which, according to Wikipedia, is “the idea that every theological position assumes too much about the concept of God and other theological concepts.”

But several months ago, I had a rare case of the mischievous don’t-reach-into-the-cookie-jar-syndrome, and read an atheistic book that wasn’t fiction, my former Christian heritage having made me wary of such literature. I chose The End of Faith, by Sam Harris. For curiosity’s sake, I wanted to see what the most outspoken atheist had to say.

The author is in the mind of a particular strain of atheism known as New Atheism. It should probably be renamed anti-theism (hatred of theists), or misotheism (hatred of God or the gods) — because new atheism, instead of merely renouncing the existence of God through science and ethics, openly blames faith (not just religion, but faith in God or spirit) for all the ills of humanity. New atheists don’t just passively dismiss religion—they are activists holding rallies, signing petitions, and working in all methods to expose and decapitate religion’s influence from human thought. They wage war against superstition.

I’m intelligent, but I’m also impressionable. After I finished the book, I was atheism’s latest convert. My eyes were blank and swam with fervor not of my own soul. I was fueled with revolutionary rage against the stranglehold of Creationists and Evangelicals in the United States government, the support for suicide bombers in the Middle East, and at the complacency of all so-called “moderate” religious people who the book deemed simply less religious than their barbaric counterparts. I believed I saw evil for the first time. That evil was religion.

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Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

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“If I should wake
before I die
turn the kettle on, love,
and I’ll tell you everything.”
— “Nana’s Closing Breath,” Thomas Dean

One year, eight months, and 19 days ago, my friend died in his dorm room of lymphomatic myocarditis – a freak heart attack. He had just turned 21.

I have written nothing about it until now, and I do not know why I waited so long. It is an injustice to everyone, and myself. I am sorry.

I met the man early sophomore year at my first Writer’s Ring session. I brought in the first chapter of a short fantasy book I was writing. Coming in, I was quite tremulous and tight-throated – I’d never actually read any of my fiction aloud – and when I finished, he was the only one at that table to lend me a smidgen of useful criticism. “Needs more lore, man,” he said.

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Dust Off The Ribbon – Real Writers Use Typewriters

My Remington typewriterMy father arrived home from his rental properties and he handed me a dusty typewriter. He had stumbled upon it while rifling through junk in one of his apartments. It was utterly dilapidated: smothered in dust, sticky, half of the typebars didn’t punch, a broken paten, and the spool was missing. “Do whatever you want with it,” he said.

Oh, I did.

I scoured half of the county for someone who could fix it. Ironically, the man I finally found lives down the street from my parents. I forked over $160 to have it restored, polished up and given a new ribbon. They had to ship the typewriter to California, the only manufacturer who could find the missing parts. When I picked it up, I was informed that the typewriter was built in the late 1940’s, early ‘50s. I shudder with ecstasy, the thought that I possess the device upon which Ray Bradbury may have typed Fahrenheit 451.

It’s enormous. It’s heavy. It’s loud. And I absolutely love it.

When operating a typewriter, if you are “in the zone,” you will know it — your fingers will burn, your neck will strain, and your eardrums will be drowned by the machine gun assault of tiny key hammers battering ink onto the page. A rewarding “ding!” announces you have finished another line, and you rip the platen sidewise and start again. Line after line after line. Want to write a story and burn some calories at the same time? Buy a typewriter. You will actually break a sweat if you embark on a typing streak. I worried my neighbors would awaken. When you are writing with a typewriter, you know it, and everyone in the next room knows it.

When you finish, sit a moment. Smell the oil, the freshly polished metal. Feel the effort in your aching muscles. It doesn’t matter if nobody ever sees it. You’ll feel like a true, goddamn writer.

For a month I kept a typewriter journal. It would be my private archive of thoughts, the device through which I could blather ideas, or simply scream for joy and madness, and discover my true genius without the haunting specter of criticism. At first, it was thrilling. I fancied Sean Connery pacing behind me with a glass of whiskey in his hand, breaking the typewriter-filled silence shouting: “PUNCH THE KEYS, DAMMIT!”

There is something therapeutic, even liberating, about spilling ones thoughts onto a typewriter. It lies in the utterly unchangeable state of the page when it is finished, the permanency of the ink. I’m a rapid typist — I’ve scored around 80 words per minute — but I can’t write free hand well. The most use I have for a pen and journal is to jot down notes in the dead of night, after a dream.

Of all the keys on the keyboard, my favorite is the delete button. My self-esteem is so low, my perfectionism so obnoxiously meticulous, that every single word I write is certain to fall victim to the delete button, even if it is only to be typed again a moment later when I change my mind. A digital age child like myself will be startled to discover that, upon the typewriter, the delete button is conspicuously missing. Just like life, my friends.

That reality is terrifying. It’s also freedom. All self-doubt and self-criticism must vanish, if one is to ever finish a page upon the typewriter. When you start, you must not stop, or else the words will come out disjointed and impartial. Spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, even bad word choices must be humbly permitted if one is ever to move forward on a typewriter. If I say “Today was a bad day,” or if a character throws a coffee cup across the room, then today was a bad day and the character now has a mess to clean up. Upon the typewriter, thoughts and actions are forever printed onto the white sheet of history. Every thought, then, must be deliberate and polished.

Sadly, while writing upon a typewriter is a writing experience like no other, the device is (of course) utterly obsolete. There’s a glaringly obvious reason why they haven’t been manufactured since my parents typed their college essays. I can’t publish my thoughts — not unless I re-typed them on my computer. That’s a ton of trouble. What is its use if I’m blogging and all of my fiction submissions are electronic? My own secret fetish for the antiquated, I suppose.

I was the kid who begged his parents for gigantic, expensive lego sets and hot wheels tracks nine months before Christmas. When Christmas finally dawned and I unwrapped those toys from their ribbons, I played a half hour with them, then grew bored and forgot about them. When it came to gift-giving, I was the bane of my parents.

I’m ashamed. I don’t want my typewriter to be one of those toys. It dwells on my living room table, a symbol, a badge of honor. In the very least, while the computer is an opportunity to cruise the Internet, play games, or watch a movie, the typewriter serves a single function. When one sits before the typewriter, he has but one ambition …

To write.

**Here’s an excellent essay by another writer who prefers the typewriter, Brian Drake.**

Birthday Retrospective

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This guy knows how to party.

Wednesday, July 15, was my birthday. I’m 19 years old!

HAHAHA. Yeah…

So I’m actually 24. It’s a sturdy number, lots behind it, lots ahead of it, but enough bulwark to stand on its own. There are 24 hours in the day. Game Of Thrones just received 24 Emmy Award nominations. Twenty-four is a semiperfect number (^_^), since adding up all the proper divisors except 4 and 8 gives 24. Twenty-four is the atomic number of chromium. A tesseract has 24 two-dimensional faces. The Book of Revelation sums up the tribes of Israel and the apostolic churches as 24 factions. We’re dealing with a very special number here.

July 15, 1991, was an atypically hot and muggy day. My elder brother was infected with the flu and puking a storm. My grandparents moved into their new house. My uncle was hospitalized.

In 1099, during the First Crusade, Christian soldiers captured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem after a grueling siege.

In 1799, the Rosetta Stone was found in an Egyptian village during Napolean’s Egyptian campaign. Later, in 1815, Napolean surrendered abord HMS Bellerophon.

In 1834, after 356 years, the Spanish Inquisition was officially disbanded.

In 2006, Twitter was launched.

People typically dread aging. There was a time I believed that every year that ticked by further invalidated my identity of coming out as an author — most great writers prove their merit at a very young age (Terry Pratchett published his first short story when he was 15, Peter Beagle when he was 19). Now I relish every day tacked onto my life. Each one brings with it wisdom, and that improves my writing, or at least makes life more bearable. Hopefully.

It’s time for the obligatory “birthday list” popular among bloggers, a retrospective glance at everything this past year has taught me. Or should have taught me.

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The New New Ultra Weird

My accomplice Richard Schumacher and I read The New Weird, a genre incorporating fantastic elements set in an otherwise realistic world with no explanation. We agreed this anthology was ground-breaking, utterly mind-bending, a real page-turner, but that it was in dire need of a sequel. So we set out into the darkest corners of the Earth (and the internet) for new stories that were even weirder still.

Behold, The New New Ultra Weird was born!

Boy, did we find strange stories: a journey to the moon, a barbarian’s epic quest for revenge, feral environmentalists, man-eating porn stars, this book has it all! This anthology, the product of our toil and tears,The New New Ultra Weird has moved on to bigger and better things: strange and fantastic stories that defy the conventions of “proper” English grammar and scoff at the very idea of a narrative. We’ve featured some pretty big names in the publishing world, including: Dale M. Courtney, Jim Theis, Amanda McKrittick Ros, Ron Miller, as well as a whole host of writers who are fresh on the publishing scene. There’s also a ton of debate surrounding the genre—does it exist? Is it worth reading? How did it even start?—which we’ve included in its own section at the end of the book.

Let’s just say, when Gary Busey reviewed The New New Ultra Weird, he sent us thirty pages of dashes and asterisks, it was just that good. Now I am brainwashing you to read this book. Once you’ve read it from one cover to the other, all of your literary perceptions will be changed. Click here to order your copy! Do it. Hypno-Toad bids you.

Whet your literary appetite with this synopsis:

“BE PREPARED.

“You find yourself in a world of astronauts and aliens, of barbarians and fairies, of angels and teenage eldritch gods. Man-eating porn stars, feral environmentalists, color-shifters, cemented time-travelers, babies birthed from fish bowls. What is this strange and beautiful place?

“FEED YOUR FICTION ADDICTION.

“These stories are gritty, spicy, slightly neurotic. They’re hot and cold, black and white, soft and sharp. Witness fresh hot authors of fiction in their debut, but be careful–you might get burned! A genre descended from editorial slush piles, vanity presses, and scribbled napkins, this is the absolute best of the New New Ultra Weird. This canonic anthology chronicles the development of a legendary new genre from its humble origins to its great acclaim by Gary Busey himself. You don’t want to miss the New New Ultra Weird!”

Click here to order your copy! (Oh, did I say that already?)

House Cat Gone Wild

11714493_1000864889931915_829048184_n Over the weekend I read a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat.” The narrator is a man who adores pets and whose grew up solely in the company of his animals. He adopts a black cat, and enigmatically he starts to change. He develops an alcohol problem, beats the other animals and his wife. When the black cat playfully bites him, he stabs out one of the cat’s eyes. One day the cat breaks his sanity, and he ties a little kitty noose around its throat and hangs it. Legend has it that all black cats are witches in disguise; so as punishment, the protagonist goes mad and kills his wife.

In February, I adopted a black cat. His name is Jinx. I was later informed that Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, apparently owns a black (talking?) cat named Jinx.

Ah, and what an accurate appellation bestowed upon him. I believe I have accumulated enough bad luck to plague me for my next nine consecutive lifetimes.

According to his shelter documents, he was “shy and reserved.” I wonder if I got the paperwork for the wrong cat. He dragged down the table cloth. He torpedoes out of his litterbox. He knocked the books off my shelf. He rips apart my stuffed chair. So I siphoned a significant portion of my budget to purchasing mouse toys, a scratching post, a laser-pointer.

His mother, I learned, was feral. All that feral blood, the potential to be a world-class mouser, and instead he winds up in a four-room apartment for the rest of his life. Good thing lacks the cognitive faculties to realize how depraved and ironic the universe can be.

The nights were most excruciating. In the first months, Jinx would prowl around the bed, jump on my body and trample my toes. If he feared the winter cold affected me, he sacrificed his furry belly to warm my face. He crawled inside my bed-shelf, knocked out my retainers, books, and paperwork. He knocked around the loose cords. Crawled behind my computer. Hurled the trash bin. Dragged the broom, my ties, and the Christmas garlands out of the closet.

So I kept him in the bathroom. This only exacerbated his early-morning wakeup calls. I would find him calmly curled up, serenely slumbering, the bathroom around him devastated — toilet paper piled across the floor, contact case steeped inside the litter bag, razor and toothbrush on the floor, bathroom rugs shredded and possibly urinated upon.

One night, when I had been away for a significantly long time, he vomited in every room of the apartment. Perhaps he was that anxious to see me.

We have developed a system. I wake up and shower. I open the bathroom door, and he rubs and licks my legs to help me dry off. Through the day I read or write, and he’s usually within two feet of me. I leave for the library or work, and he’s in charge of fending off the ninjas.

I come home from work at midnight. As soon as the keys are jingling in my hand, I can hear him desperate mewling and pawing from behind the door. I give him pets, a game of laser-pointer, and maybe a treat. One day I’ll teach him to shake my hand.

Recently I collected cardboard and, with duct tape and ingenuity, assembled a wall for my bedroom. It’s a hassle to tape up every night, but it sure beats sleeping in two-hour intervals.

I have strictly set my bedtime recently to 1:30 a.m. Every Tuesday morning, which according to my biological clock is the dead of night, he remembers that I owe him a weekend’s worth of attention and he wakes me up with the song of his people. Not even earplugs stave it.

Last time I’m fairly certain the cardboard wall did not tear itself down. He was in my room, yowling as if he had caught on fire. I was infuriated — I’d had a very pleasant dream — and I threw him in his crate and I set him out in the foyer. Then I worried about pretty silly scenarios, such as his racket waking up the neighbors, they calling the landlord, the landlord calling animal rights activists, animal rights activists calling the police, the police battering down my door and demanding I release the cat and repent to the cat gods or else I’ll go to jail. So I brought him back in.11721938_1000864753265262_1857594879_n

It is an irresistible temptation to break the greatest rule of feline ownership: when a cat mewls, do not respond. Jinx was happy even if I disciplined him. That cat will keep waking me up, and my only possible reprieve is to bury my head in the pillow and pray to those cat gods for mercy. He might realize that mewling will never get me up. Oh, but that could be years.

(Just chased him away from the toilet. I think he was trying to open the lid and drink it.)

I did not expect a cat to present such a burden. Back home, my cats Esther and Peaches could barely stand it if so much as looked at them. We were also in house. We also had a yard. Yet this little black cat wanders the same four dull rooms day in, day out. I wish I could give him a meadow, a vast feline sanctuary frolicking with mice and laden with catnip.

But at least his food bowl is always full. His water is always to the brim (yet he prefers the bathtub water). Toys litter the apartment. Nonetheless, it is only I who can satisfy his primitive, animalistic loneliness. It is for that same reason I put up with him.

As I laid in bed, trying to fall back to sleep (nearly impossible thanks to delayed sleep syndrome), my dull thoughts made plans to take him back to the shelter. I was finally going to do it. But my mind, once set on a course, tends to continue rolling long after the conclusion. I imagined emptying his litterbox, throwing away the toy mice, dumping out his food and kitty treats — I realized I would be filled with regret, accompanied by the return of a total and depraved loneliness. I would have to tell my parents and my sister, who spent a whole day accompanying me to the shelter to select that cat. Giving him away would cast all that to waste. I could not forgive myself.

Strange, that a creature driven entirely by instinct, incapable of barely the most primitive expression of a thing we could feasibly deem “love,” could generate such pathological and self-sacrificing attachment within me.

There is a moment in the great comic series Y: The Last Man, when Dr. Mann says of the protagonist’s pet monkey (something along the lines of):

“We don’t say an animal loves us because we believe it is like us, we say it loves us because we don’t believe we are like it.”

Jinx and I, I’m loathe to admit, are a spirited pair.

11350347_1001263923225345_1598795913_nJinx latches to the window and looks out at the world, and I realize that I do the same thing. I gaze at the world. I wish for better things. Yet I am trapped here, immersed in my own toys and luxuries that are poor substitutes for something else that could be waiting for me somewhere. We are both where we are because of the irony of the universe.

I have instincts to roam. Yet a lifetime of conservative planning has left me like a crab in his shell. Were Jinx a wildcat, I don’t doubt he would quickly be the leader of a feline pack, prowling at the vanguard of every hunt. Yet here he is, stuck with me, the both of us burdened with boundless and useless energy.

Despite the burden he weighs upon me, I keep a cat because nothing else would be left for me out here. I wonder if grown-ups are driven into raising children for the same reason? Would humans rather endure the agony and sacrifice of nurturing grateless, inferior organisms than a placid, self-engrossed existence? When a man decides there is no other reward to be gained from his existence, I suppose that’s when he decides to rear children.

I suppose it’s worth it to have a furry body purring and nuzzling at your side. To care about you in its dim, animal way. Did you know that a cat’s purr resonates at the same frequency at which bones and muscle heal?

Forget children. This cat, this adorable witch’s son, is enough for me already.

Cabin Fever

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The Overlook Hotel. Iconic setting of insanity-inducing isolation.

Since I lived on my own, I have found myself not altogether able to cope with solitude. It’s been nine months of cabin fever. Writers are supposed to crave solitude–yearn for hours on end with no other obligation than to simply read a book or write in their pajamas. At least, this is the vision I have fashioned for myself. Either this is a stereotype, or this indicates that I should strongly reassess my identity.

Strange to me, that my weekends should potentially subsist of waking up, showering, eating breakfast, drinking coffee, and then sitting a chair either absorbing information or spewing information as the world turns, the sun sets outside my window, the moon rises, and I go to sleep not having taken more than twelve footsteps or burned a handful of calories. Many crave this lifestyle. Many live this way. They must be mind-bogglingly lazy.

I actually hate it, even the very thought of it. It would make me feel like a gigantic parasitic snail, leeching from the world from within my dark, dank lair. A nuclear warhead could wipe out San Fransisco and I would never know it. That’s why I usually set off to the library, or a coffee shop, or under a tree, just to give myself the illusion I’m “going somewhere” today.

But I manage to fail most often. I’ve explored a litany of dating sites. I’ve watched five seasons of Lost. I play Indie horror games. I play with my kitten. Oh, and I blog.

Every weekend (for me, Sunday and Monday), I pack my clothes, my blankets, and my toiletries, and I drive 45 minutes back to my parents house. Once there, I catch up with my parents and spend time with a friend, who is still an undergrad. We play video games, watch Netflix, drive to the lake–things every carefree college student indulges in on summer vacation. Somehow, Monday night arrives, and I do not read or write as much as I ever wish or planned. I am homesick. I have a stupid, futile urge to attain a semblance of my youth. An idealized childhood that did not exist.

Monday evening, on my drive back, I am haunted by guilt. Sometimes it is faint, sometimes it is overwhelming. The argument with my self usually sounds something like this:

“Damn you, a whole weekend, wasted! Again!”

“No, it was not wasted. I have a family, a friend, a job. I lived, as any human being lives. I do not hunger, or thirst, or want for shelter. Is that not enough for any man?”

“Oh, stop it. You’re not just “any human being.” You want more than the status quo. You can’t associate so closely with them. You’re losing focus. You’re miserable.”

“Seriously? I’m over the ‘gunna-be-a-best-selling-author’ phase.”

“Don’t lie. You either need to be around people who shoot astronomically above the status quo–scholars, writers, teachers–or you need to reach into yourself for that energy. Why spend your time with mediocre people?”

“You are a pretentious asshole.”

“You are a coward.”

“I don’t want that pressure anymore. I could die tomorrow, and what will I have done? Typed a dozen books nobody will ever read. And what if, through that whole weekend, I had no ideas? I just sat, stared at a blank screen, or read a book that I turned out to hate? Or wandered the streets? Or died? A week could go by before anybody knew I was dead and pried me out of that apartment in a body bag. People need people. I did the right thing.”

(Pause)

“Are you crying?”

“My contacts are just–“

“You’re pathetic. A person doesn’t “fail” in a single instant; it’s an agglutination of a million little choices. One weekend spending procrastinating turns into a month, a year, a decade. You’re going nowhere because you run away into people, you run away into the past. Keep giving yourself fluffly excuses to do absolutely nothing. We’ll see where you turn up in five years.”

“There’s a rainbow! Life is going to be OK!”

“IT ISN’T OK! AREN’T YOU LISTENING?! Ah, what’s the use?”

As I near that city, that argument pitches, and I’m left to reality; the isolation, the burden of pure self. Is this natural? What would change were I to have a roommate, or a wife? Someone else to distract me into comfort? Is that why people always start families?

For months, I have considered staying home, but every week I put off that decision. I convince myself that values such as family and friendship are natural, good, and keep me from driving myself into fruitless isolation. When I consider a weekend spent locked in my apartment, I pale and flee. Perhaps because they do matter more than my “success,” and my intuition knows it. Or perhaps I use people to hide, instead of facing my fear.

There is only so much that other people may provide for me, and I must stop seeking the final fulfillment from any source outside my self. So sayeth Gautama Buddha: “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”

There are billions of humans, and yet all of us dwell in our own silly little universes of perception. What we call our experience of empathy is a laughable counterfeit. So many of us, yet each one of us is alone. I wonder if this is why there are so many broken dreams. Every day, we choose to watch an episode on TV, instead of read a book. We choose to drink at a bar with other people, instead of practice our instrument. We choose to get married, instead of finish our education. We choose to teach people about books, instead of writing them ourselves. We start having children, instead of living the lives our parents sacrificed their own lives to give us. When does it stop? When does it end?

Yet could my ambition undo me? A seed which is fed on loneliness, and grows no stem or blossom, just an ugly, bitter, unseen root burrowing down into the core of the heart. Perhaps the layman is the happy man. “Whom the gods notice they destroy. Be small … and you will escape the jealousy of the great.” Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle.

Every American citizen would die from cabin fever, did they not indulge in the virtual world of screens. We invest so much into movies, shows, video games, books, that we forget what we really look like–drooling faces highlighted by shifting light from the screen. We work jobs, feed ourselves, merely to sustain worlds of fantasy and idealism.

I could admit myself permission to the same evil.

If it is mere loneliness that is my malaise, I can remember that a phenomenon occurs when one is focused on his task, all by himself–the physical world vanishes. I stop gazing at myself as an onlooker, which I have none except God, aware I appear as silent and inert as a vegetable. In my brain, there is the firework show of synapses. When I am alone, the tiers of reality shift places. Assurance that the mental world, the land of dreams, usurps the physical dimension, and becomes the new reality. Time itself has no place. Only then will I wake up from a book or story, and be amazed that twelve hours have passed. Only then will I no longer shun solitude, but crave it.

“A purely mental life may be destructive if it leads us to substitute thought for life and ideas for actions. The activity proper to man is purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind. Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.”  Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

How far should I reach into the physical? How far should I reach into the mental? After all, when I soon die, that is all there is left. I will travel forever through the world of dreams.

To be the genius in the high tower, or to be the family man. To be or not to be. That’s the question, all right.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Masturbation

XCBipAs a bachelor, that m-word is the limit of my sexual experiences. Just as anyone likely does not obsessively contemplate eating, sleeping, or urinating, I normally take this m-word for granted. And just as those former bodily functions are acceptable to publicly discuss, I see no reason why the m-word cannot be expressed in an unrestrained, unabashed manner. A conversation with a friend — a female friend — revealed that my opinion deviates quite far from the feminist, sexually-saturated attitude of most people. Here I shall convey honestly my history and wandering thoughts associated with that dirty m-word. Probably too honestly. Brace yourself.

I was fourteen years old the first time I ejaculated. I was alone in my bedroom, reading a copy of the Guiness Book of World Records when my eyes fell upon a full-page spread of a bikini-clad model. I realized that I was lying on an armchair pillow in a position that made me feel very strange and very stimulated. Shortly I discovered that if I pressed my waist against the pillow, wiggled, and focused on the image on the page, my whole abdomen and buttocks felt as if they were washed over in magical plasmic honey and my phallus torpedoed from my pelvis. I kept up a steady pace, until — surprise! — a little cartilege hammer was thrumming beneath my scrotum, and my hairless tummy and the pillow were a viscuous mess. Oops.

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