Tag Archives: reading

Cowboys and Astronauts

24 Jan

Antioch

I used to collect butterflies. It was just something I did for a couple of summers, when I was nine or ten years old. I had a blue butterfly net, a few dozen jars, a cork board, some pins. I’d go out early in the morning, when it was still foggy and cool, and catch not just butterflies but beetles, sawflies, grasshoppers, ladybugs, and even bees.

As far as I know or can tell, I was the last American child to collect butterflies as a hobby. It’s one of those things you hear about kids doing, or read about in books, but never actually see in real life. Like helping old ladies cross the street; or obtaining merit badges in archery. Or reading.

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When people tell me they don’t read books–better still, that they “hate reading”–I don’t understand what the fuck they are talking about. How can you hate reading? That’s like hating air.

For one thing, reading is one of the most relaxing things a person can do. In this age of nonstop stress and stimulation, when it seems like life is just a series of panic attacks, or one giant, prolonged panic attack, reading is one of the few activities you can engage in independent of family, work, or other horrific and loud distractions. It’s so relaxing, in fact, that it puts you to sleep. I know I can’t personally lay down on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book, even a great book, without winking off in less than an hour.

The other thing about reading is that it’s an aggressive, and even a competitive, activity. There are very few books that can keep your attention the whole way through. At some point–usually after the first 140 pages or so–there is always a temptation to put the book down and never pick it back up. The book may begin with an intriguing premise, but then the author makes a questionable decision, goes off on an ill-advised tangent, fails to properly braid the strands of his story into a cohesive, suspenseful whole–and then you have a decision to make. The author has challenged you; and now it’s you against the author. So you power through. The book will not defeat you. You finish the book, you put it on your bookshelf, and you say: “I read that.” It’s a mini-accomplishment. You did that shit. It’s hard to read a book. It takes time. Time–the one commodity that all of us have, and don’t have, in spades.

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More and more it occurs to me that people simply don’t give a fuck what I’m doing with my writing. I tell them about a conversation I had with my agent, or the revisions I’m making to a story, or an idea I have germinating in my head, or a magazine I am thinking of sending my work to, or this blog, and they politely nod their heads and try to think of a way to steer the conversation down a more fruitful, less conflicted path. They never know what to say. I might as well be talking about ET tubes and CVP waveforms and indwelling catheters and runs of v-tach. There are a few people who I would call friends who know, more or less, what it means to have a story accepted by a magazine; but from the rest, even from the most well-meaning of friends, the best you can hope for is that polite, uncomfortable head-bobbing, a kind of grim acknowledgement of semi-success.

Used to be, someone would introduce me to a group of people, and begin by saying: “This is Ernesto, he is a writer.” What it meant to them, I dare not say, but it would mean something. These days I’m almost embarrassed to tell people I write–and downright mortified to describe myself as a writer. I might as well say I’m a cowboy, or an astronaut; it’s a carved-out area of the American jobspace that doesn’t really exist anymore; at once too specific and too vague to count for anything. I’m sure there are people on this planet who earn their livings wrangling cattle, or getting shot into space, or dreaming up stories and poems and plays out of thin air, but I don’t know them, you don’t know them, and so, do they really exist? Are they real?

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There was this little weird guy who used to come into the Beehive, who I was always kind of afraid of. He was even shorter than me, and waifishly thin, and he always wore a three-piece suit with a pocket watch and a tie, and he had a pencil-thin mustache that looked like it was drawn on, and I think he would walk with a cane. I was afraid of him because it always seemed like one day he would walk into the Hive, with his beta-male rage, and instead of a cane he would have an automatic weapon, and just open fire on the place, just wipe us all out.

I mention this freak because, at the time when he was coming around, I had just gotten a story accepted by Morpheus Tales, a little UK horror magazine that is actually one of the bigger horror markets. He came in one day, I gave him his coffee, and he said, almost as an afterthought, “Congrats on Morpheus Tales, man, that’s really cool.” It was so out-of-the-blue that for a few seconds I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. I hadn’t told anyone about the acceptance, after all. (Adding an extra layer to my confusion is the fact that I write under a pen name.) Yet somehow he had seen my story–it was about a vampire masquerading as a tattoo artist, who uses a special tattoo gun to collect blood from his clients–and he’d kind of put two and two together and realized that the writer who worked behind the counter at his favorite coffee shop had published a story overseas; and we had a moment, him and me, a moment of understanding between readers. And the moment conveyed: I got you, man.

Few weeks later, I banned him from the Beehive. I had to. He was running around the back room, goosed on acid, hitting girls in the legs with his cane.

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One day I went out to the garage to retrieve my blue butterfly net and it wasn’t there. It was the first day of summer vacation, and I wanted to get a head start on all the glorious insects that had descended on our humid enclave of Philly. I asked my parents where my butterfly net was, and my mom handed me a brand new basketball, and my Dad said coldly: “You’re too old to be running around chasing butterflies like a fairy.”

And the thing is … he was right! I was too old to be prancing around in some meadow, swinging my faggy blue net around. He didn’t have to be such a giant dick about it, but even then, I knew what he meant. It was developmentally inappropriate.

Many years later I came home from San Francisco to announce my intention to write fiction for a living, and it was as if I was coming out of the closet to them. I am lucky my dad didn’t throw me out of a window. I think my mother cried. “You were always so happy running after bugs in the yard, with your little net,” she said into her tea. “You could have been an entomologist.”

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