Author Archives: jph

Saying goodbye is hard

There’s a lot of pain and loss in the world right now, and this is a post about losing my dog — the late, the great Uli Mclovin Hodgkins aka Uli Bear aka Uli the Grey aka Uli Booli. So, yes, writing is my therapy, and this will undoubtedly involve some self-indulgent self-therapy, but if you stick with me, I will try to spin a story at least somewhat worthy of my incredible companion for the last 13 years.

On Love

Uli in summer 2020, on one of those days when I knew she wouldn’t be around much longer and was feeling emotional. As she got older, she got much more patient with human nonsense. I’d say she might have even liked the ridiculous songs I’d sing to her in moments like these.

I have a friend who recently became a father. I saw him for the first time in several years earlier this month and my first question was: “What does it feel like, being a dad?”

Predictably, he lit up with a smile. He’s Brazilian, and English is his second language, so he worked hard to find the words. He said, “I can’t describe it. It is love, but it is a totally different kind of love I didn’t know existed before.”

I understand completely. Though I don’t have a child and so don’t know that unique love, I think it is a perfect analogy for the strange, possibly irrational love many dog owners feel for their dogs. I loved Uli in a way I didn’t know love existed before having her in my life.

On Growth

Young Uli in 2008 looking entirely more innocent than she had any right to project. She was most likely tired after escaping and leading us on a merry chase for an hour.

Uli wasn’t easy. In fact, she’d be better described as many different stages of difficult. Perhaps with one exception where our roles reversed, but more on that in a minute.

There was young Uli, rescued from the Charlottesville SPCA in 2007 at two years old with virtually no training. Wild, with limitless energy, incredible speed and an insatiable love for running away. She barked at everything that moved. If a door was left open even a crack, she was out of it. She would probe fences for weaknesses, and so we dubbed her “The Velociraptor.” Escape, and the game would be afoot — chase me, get close, too slow, try again.

Then there was the growing separation anxiety as she got older. Suddenly, this dog you could leave out in the house for hours with no consequence (except the occassional loaf of bread pirated from a counter top … she LOVED bread!) turned into a tornado of destruction. At first, shoes and remote controls, then chunks of door and wall chewed and scratched out. She once bent a sturdy metal crate into a pretzel trying to escape because we put her in this usually safe space in someone else’s house. She snapped her canine tooth in Chicago and we had to schedule a root canal in Madison, Wisconsin. She once ate through an ENTIRE FRONT DOOR (glass panels and wood frame) when I left the house for an hour. Why? She just wanted to be in the front yard. I found her lying in the grass looking pleased as punch, somehow just a tiny bit of blood on her fur. Uli 1, Door 0.

Then there was old Uli. Very mellow. Very sage. I could even finally let her off leash to trot along beside me or, often, just behind. A place the young Uli would have NEVER accepted. But like all old things, age caught her. She dislocated her hip in November 2019 and staged a miraculous recovery… miraculous but requiring an immense amount of human effort to help pull off. There was Cushing’s Disease. Waking up in the middle of the night for emergency potty breaks. Pills. So many pills. Extra vet visits. Constant vigilance to make sure she didn’t slip and fall on our hardwood floors or try to take the stairs on her own. (Short aside…when she was still in a VERY precarious state after her hip injury, she somehow escaped out of her overnight kennel at the vet’s, made it down a staircase, helped herself to a vast store of prescription dog food, and made it back up the stairs. The vet staff told us they watched it all on video the next day. This, in a nutshell, was Uli. Both charming and vexing in her determination).

The point is, like all of us, she aged, and age is hard. Very hard. Both on those experiencing it and their caretakers.

But as I reflect on all these stages of Uli, it’s very clear to me how much credit she deserves in my personal growth as an adult.

Let’s just say I’m not perfect. I’m stubborn. I am not inclined to change. Where humans have failed to lead me to change they sought or needed from me, Uli’s will and very nature as a dog gave me no choice. When I wanted to be selfish and travel or do whatever I wanted to do, which I’m great at doing over human objections, Uli said, “Sorry. You have to take care of me. Figure something out. Because if you don’t, I’ll either destroy your house or I’ll die. Your choice. By the way, I love you no matter what.”

Young Uli taught me patience and how to better regulate my emotions (anger and frustration, usually, but others, too). Anxious Uli taught me how to change and adapt and problem solve, because sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you just have to figure it out. Old Uli taught me to give of myself in a way I wasn’t always sure I had in me. Selflessness over selfishness, and then the discovery that selflessness is actually a gift to yourself and your beneficiary.

To walk the trail with a dog through its life is to sign on for a series of very real life challenges. I’m so grateful for the growth. I never expected it.

On Companionship

I don’t think anyone needs a lesson on the value of a dog as a companion. It’s basically THE reason people choose to bring a dog into their life.

But Uli’s gift of companionship diverged from the usual at a very important time.

My ex-wife, Carrie, and I went through a very difficult period that really spanned a number of years, resulted in a yearlong separation and ultimately divorce. I don’t think Carrie or I realized it was happening at first, but when we began to become more distant in Scotland, Uli was my constant walking companion. I had not taken up hiking as a serious pastime at that point, but with no yard, her need to go out for walks was an entre. We started walking…further and further and further. I’d estimate we covered 2,000 miles in 14 months. Every inch of Edinburgh and more. She kept me occupied and fulfilled at what might have otherwise been a lonely time.

Uli settled into an unusual era of peace and tranquility when we moved into our new home in Charlottesville in 2015. She was 10. She had a wireless fence and could roam the yard all day, whether we were home or not. I call this her “Bilbo Baggins phase,” when she had come home to the Shire from life’s great adventures and contented herself ruminating upon them.

When Carrie moved out, Uli was, with no exaggeration, my rock. I chose to suffer that very difficult year of separation telling almost no one what was happening. I made the mistake of not calling on the people in my corner. But I never felt alone, because on my worst days, Uli with some supernatural instinct would insist on lying as close to me as possible. She was a constant companion at my side. She spent countless hours lounging in her bed on the porch next to me while I read books. On weekends that I dreaded for being alone and having nothing to do, she gave us something to do in the form of so many great walks in the mountains, over rocks, through streams. The Blue Ridge Mountains were our playground, and these were beautiful times of solitude within the healing power of nature that she loved as much as I had learned to.

Not long after our divorce and when I entered into a new relationship, Uli started to slow down. It was probably coincidence, of course, but it felt like she knew she could relax. Her work was done. She had given back and carried me at the only time in my life I’ve ever felt like I needed carrying.

On Saying Goodbye

Uli on her last day, resting peacefully outside during our last visit before saying goodbye.

Boy, this part’s hard. It feels too cliche to boil this part down into life lessons, but as I’ve gotten older and more cynical and the distractions of and weight of the world have led me to generally feel less, it was a rare gift to have a moment where I was so intensely present and so immensely overwhelmed with feeling.

Uli died on September 11, 2020, almost 13 years after she came into our lives. Though Carrie and I divorced, we remained civil through the process and emerged on friendly terms. Because of our mutual desire to co-parent Uli, she became a final fragment of family that reminded us to be as kind as we could to each other.

And so Carrie and I came together on a grassy patch under a big pine tree behind the wonderful Georgetown Veterinary Hospital for one last visit with her. She had developed pancreatitis and wasn’t responding well. She had stopped eating and drinking. She made it very clear it was time.

She was mildly sedated when she was brought out to us, and I wasn’t sure how aware she was that we were there. It didn’t matter. It felt good to touch her one last time and feel her breathing.

But Uli loved something so dearly in the years Carrie and I were together. She loved what we called “the double pet.” We would chant “double pet, double pet,” and she would wriggle and squirm up the bed to get within our reach and lavish in four hands scratching and petting her entire body. We remembered “the double pet,” and started to scratch her ears and neck, side and rump, together while singing “double pet, double pet.”

Uli opened her eyes. She looked at us both. She smiled. As if to confirm it wasn’t just some reaction of the muscles, she lifted her head a bit, set it back down, and smiled again, that silly pit bull grin. We broke. We laughed and cried and dripped snot and made strange noises with no volume control because it was just too much. Too perfect. A perfect goodbye. Uli closed her eyes and went back to sleep. We called the vet down. Dr. Donald Peppard isn’t just the guy who gives your dog medicine and sends her on her way. He’s the guy who knows your dog, who your dog is actually excited to come see, who tells you because he’s been her vet for years and knows how precocious she is that it’s really sad to see her like this, and he means it because there are tears in his eyes.

Dr. Peppard sat with us for a good while and talked, then he gave her the drugs that would stop her heart. As he injected the drugs and felt for her heartbeat, Uli’s eyes opened wide and she looked at me. Right in my eyes. I don’t know what she saw, or if she saw. But that moment will endure in my mind and it was another of her gifts.

Carrie and I lingered around for hours at the spot after Uli was taken away. Ever the planner, Carrie had bought a beer from Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont that was made in honor of their passed brewery dog, Damon. We got to stay in that moment, remembering her greatest adventures, without letting go of it too quickly. We could do that thanks to the work Uli had helped us do being OK around each other, and the act of unity itself honored her legacy.

Life has a sense of humor when you’re open to observing it. The first song on the radio as I drove home was George Michael’s “I’m Never Gonna Dance Again.” So cheesy, it deserved a laugh, but it felt wonderful to sing. The second song, the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” Possibly my favorite song about time and life marching forward.

I got home and reminisced with Desiree, who has been an incredible dog stepmom and bore much of the weight of caring for Uli in her old age. She let me stay in the moment a bit longer, because I wasn’t ready to start the process of “moving forward” yet. But time does that for us. A couple of whiskeys and fond memories later, I was falling asleep after an emotionally draining day. The morning came. There was Bella the dachshund to let out. Skye the weimaraner to take for his walk. All pushing me forward, out of that moment, because that is how our experience of time works.

In Closing

Uli enjoying the view from Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her energy and attitude always said, “All that I see, it is mine, and this pleases me.”

But is “forward, ever forward” how we experience time? Exclusively, anyway? I had the distinct, vivid impression in my last visit with Uli and into the night that I was everywhere with her at once. I had memories of her in moments I had completely forgotten ever happened. I relived acutely the hard work of caring for her these past few months. I remembered her first day with us in her forever home. The memories were literally rushing over me, like her life was flashing before my eyes. All I can say is that this felt very real to me, and I hope it’s a shred believable.

I felt, for at least a short while, that I existed in all of those moments with her, that they were happening now, all at the same time. If you’ve ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” or know the story of Dr. Manhattan from “The Watchmen,” I’m not the first person to have felt time at least could be experienced this way. It’s a theory rooted in Einstein and the concept of spacetime.

I remember a day in a lit criticism class while getting my master’s in Edinburgh where we were debating “Slaughterhouse Five.” The teacher argued vigorously that Vonnegut was being satirical in his depiction of a race of aliens experiencing time as one continuous spaghetti string of then, now, forever and always, in which they could look to and experience various points of their choosing. The conventional view is Vonnegut was poking at our human tendency for wishful thinking. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just look at the nice parts of time, and never look at the bad.”

I disagreed with the teacher just as vigorously. You’d have to ask Vonnegut, but I think he was commenting on the inevitability of good and bad in our existence and our ability to shrink the space and time of the bad or expand the space and time of the good through the one true element of control we have over reality … our perspective.

Either way, I went home after that class to be greeted, as I was nearly every day for 13 years, by an overjoyed Uli whose only conception of time was that any time I was gone was too long. And its end always worthy of celebration.

Thank you to everyone in my life who gave Uli so much love over the years, helped take care of her, watch her, let her crash their parties and get into their hearts.

Thank you, Uli. It’s hard to say goodbye.

Back at it

Jay Hodgkins
Me, in 2020

Six years. SIX! YEARS! That’s how long it’s been since I graduated from the University of Edinburgh with my master’s in creative writing and left Scotland to come home to Virginia. Time is a tricky thing. I’m incredulous that it’s been so long. It feels like almost no time at all has passed. Yet, enough has happened to prove plenty has.

I got divorced. That was less than fun, and a contributor to about two years disappearing in a blur. I’m in a “new” relationship that, lo and behold, is now two years old. My dog, a middle-aged sprite when I came home, is now in her sunset. It’s hard to deny the photographic evidence of friend’s kids growing up in front of my eyes. And all that is nothing to say of our shared experiences: a global pandemic rapidly coming up on its one-year mark, civil unrest in the U.S. over this country’s inability to support racial justice and equity (more on that in a moment), and the 24/7 anxiety storm of the attention-craving, oxygen-consuming Trump presidency.

It’s actually been quite an eventful six years, and perhaps that’s exactly why I’ve perceived it to go so fast. That, and work. Work is the great high-powered blender of time. Work in America claims the bulk of your productive hours and energy, and, in exchange, if you’re fortunate as I’ve been, it offers a level of personal security that is definitely nothing to sneeze at. If your work is well aligned with your purpose and passion, it can offer much more. And that’s why I’m making a change, because it’s been six years since my work (and time and energy) has been aligned with my purpose and passion.

After five-plus years in a full-time job that has compensated me well, provided me a wonderful work environment and allowed me to meet wonderful and extraordinary people, I’ve stepped back to work in the role at roughly half time. The other half? Creative writing (fiction, creative nonfiction and freelance work that tickles my fancy) and the tasks needed to grow my professional profile as an author. It’s what I love to do (the writing part, anyway).

Woe is us, dear writers. We could have chosen an easier path, but did we choose?

So, because I’m me, the first thing I did with my newfound — let’s not call it “free,” but rather unpaid professional — time was start writing a new novel manuscript. It’s my fifth bite at the apple. The last two bites were better, and to torture this analogy a little longer, I think my age, life experience and growing depth as a human being is taking my writing to a place where an agent or publisher might want a bite at the apple, too.

So what’s the new manuscript about?

It’s about the things I’ve always been interested in — systems, norms, power structures and ways of life in America that are unjust and the people who suffer at their feet yet keep fighting for better. That, with all the societal context that’s been broiling the last six years and coming to a head in 2020.

Let me stop being vague. It’s about Charlottesville. Monticello. A little place called Hogwaller. It’s about the legacies of racism, the throughline of history that shapes people, place and relationships. It’s about the guilt and shame we live with and the complexity of how blended groups of Black people and white people think — about themselves, each other and their realities. It’s about vultures and feral cats. It’s about reality what I see happening on the streets around me — and magic. Because I can’t resist a little magic.

Here’s an early excerpt (totally unedited because I am just churning out pages right now):

Hogwaller
The old stockyard in Hogwaller, which held livestock auctions every Saturday until it closed in 2012, with Monticello in the background. Photo by me.

Shelly Schifler

It was Saturday, September 21, 1968. I was 17 years old, a senior at Lane High School and I woke up knowing this would be the best day of my life.

I was mistaken.

It was the first time I had ever been invited to a social event outside of Hogwaller, and to a classmate’s party in Woolen Mills no less. A girl from Hogwaller getting an invitation from a boy who might have been a suitor who lived in one of the big, old Victorian houses was like … Well, I don’t know if there is a comparison, really. Like Jackie Robinson getting the call to join the Big Leagues, I reckon.

You might think that’s an odd comparison to choose, what with me being an old white lady of my generation. Oh, I know how you young folks like to pigeon hole us. My grandbabies tell me. Put us in a box. Or a meme. Whatever you do on the internet with your OK, Boomer smart aleck nonsense. I hope you believe me, I never had a problem with the integration at Lane High School. Neither did my parents, and neither did most of the white folks in Hogwaller. That’s because black and white folks all lived together in Hogwaller already, and we were the only place you could say that in the city of Charlottesville, especially after the blacks got run out of Vinegar Hill earlier in the ’60s and didn’t have their businesses to mingle with the downtown working white folks anymore.

We all got on alright together in Hogwaller, at least as well as colored folks and whites could in those days. Well, we called em colored back then. I know that’s not kosher anymore, but, Jesus, let’s leave the Israelites out of this. The point is, we was all poor, so nobody had anything to look down on the other for. As kids, we all had the same thing to play with – a thing called nothing – so we played with each other in the pastures and in the woods and swam in Moore’s Creek together. Put us under the sun all summer or cover us in mud from the bog out behind the stockyard where we used to torment the wallowing pigs, and the kids all looked pretty much the same anyways. Don’t get me wrong, there’d be scraps between white boys and colored boys in the neighborhood, and like as not the white boy would be one of my cousins and he’d call out n***** this and n***** that, but that’d just be because he was ignorant and not because he hated the boy whose lip he had just busted open.

It was the uppity white folks who come down to the county from up north to renovate the old plantations to be their fancy country estates who had a problem with the blacks. Just plain mean and ornery when they didn’t get their way, those ones. They just up and started a bunch of new private schools to keep the blacks from their kids when the public ones integrated. The middle class whites working in Charlottesville who couldn’t afford the new private schools felt like they had the most to lose. They were outright ugly to the blacks that whole cursed decade, and for some reason they made Lane High School the bullseye for their bull shit.

Forgive me, Lord. I need to wash my mouth with soap.

As I was saying, a girl from Hogwaller getting an invitation to a social event in Woolen Mills was no small thing. It was an even bigger occasion that John Tyler had invited me over to watch the University of Virginia Cavaliers football team take on the No. 1 ranked Purdue University Boilermakers on their brand new TV set. John’s dad was a big time player for UVA before World War II and his game day parties were legendary on the east side of Charlottesville. UVA had had a right decent season in 1967 and had Frank Quayle coming back at running back, one of the best to ever wear the Orange and Blue. Folks thought maybe the Wahoos could catch the Boilermakers napping before their big game against Notre Dame the next week. Here’s a spoiler alert before you check the history books: It wasn’t close. But even so, most folks were just looking forward to the college football season to get their mind off everything else in 1968.

In a proper little southern town in 1968, using drugs to ease the pain was not yet in the playbook like for folks in the big cities. College football was the next best salve. Everybody in town was looking forward to the Wahoos taking the field. Three hours of bliss on Saturday to forget about civil rights and integration and Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Oh, that Bobby Kennedy was so handsome. I always thought handsomer than his brother because he was real. Not the prince rode down from Camelot like John. My folks weren’t in love with Bobby Kennedy like I was, and neither was Charlottesville or Virginia. Ike with his kindly grandpa smile and military grit broke the blue wall in the 50s and the Kennedys were just too slick for southerners to abide. With those clam chowda accents, they never had a chance in Vuhginyuh. The point being, the political winds had already shifted in Virginia by 1968, but my little teen heart did love Bobby Kennedy true.

But if there was one thing that could heal my broken heart, it was the chance to be courted by John Tyler. To this day, I think the boy truly did take a liking to me. Whether he had a kind heart that pitied me or a fool heart that loved me, I don’t know. I’d never have the chance to find out. On that day, Saturday, September 21, 1968, I didn’t care. It just mattered that he invited me. It felt like he was holding a heavy door I was too weak to open and I could see a whole new world through it. My heart was flitting around like a hummingbird at the feeder and my head full of goose feathers that morning just thinking of marrying John Tyler. No, I wasn’t against the feminist movement that was coming into its own in those days. It’s just that a poor girl from Hogwaller didn’t have the luxury of prioritizing her fancy over her financial security. My family couldn’t afford a refrigerator, much less to send me to college, even a state school. And I didn’t have the grades for a scholarship. I wasn’t going to be nobody’s country bumpkin turned Madison Avenue ad copy girl success story. The route to security for me looked much safer the old fashioned way – through a man. And best do it while I was still young, my bosom still had all its perk and my legs were skinny. In the deep, dark soul of men, nothing fuzzies up their brains like a skinny pair of legs of the kind that usually belong to a little girl. And fuzzying is what I needed to do before any decent man recalled my parents didn’t have two nickels to rub together. If I waited too long, I wouldn’t be the first in my family to land right back in the Hogwaller toilet with a Shifler cousin, or worse yet a Shifflerr cousin, or worst of all a nice, handsome black boy from Hogwaller, which wasn’t really worst except I wouldn’t ever be able to talk to my daddy again. Ideally, I’d find a man with prospects. Not many in my little universe had better prospects than a Woolen Mills boy like John Tyler.

What I didn’t count on, though I should have, was what the other Lane High girls at the party from Woolen Mills were going to do to me. It wasn’t just the poor girls like me who were looking for a husband by the time they turned 18 in those days. Plenty of girls who could’ve done better if they had one lick of gumption just wanted to hitch their wagon to a man and carry around his babies barefoot in the kitchen as soon as they could. Little southern towns was full of girls with no imagination in 1968.

But for all they lacked in imagination, these little southern town girls of 1968 knew how to protect their turf. Wolves in miniskirts. Woolen Mills boys were for Woolen Mills girls. Or maybe Rugby girls or Fry’s Spring girls or Ivy girls, if they couldn’t help it. But certainly not Hogwaller girls.

Those girls did attack me like a pack of wolves, too. Like you wouldn’t believe.

The high point of my day came blushing at John when he invited me into his home. I flipped my long, dark hair – I kept it long then, but don’t have time for all that now so I keep it short and off my shoulders – as I walked past him into the living room, where I started to curtsy to every man in sight. I felt the radiance of John’s shy smile heat up the bare skin on my neck as I settled into the room, but no sooner did I sit down as prim and proper as I could in my white sundress that was years out of fashion than those girls swooped in. “Well, if it isn’t Smelly Shelly. Smells like you brought the sewage plant with you from Hogwaller. I bet she washes that filthy dress in sewage water.”

Never mind that the smell was actually from the Moore’s Creek wastewater treatment plant, and that Woolen Mills – especially homes like the Tyler’s on the Rivanna River – bore the brunt of the smell as bad as Hogwaller did. In their minds, the sewage plant was the perfect symbol for Hogwaller, a place to dump all the city’s stinking shit. In truth, that’s exactly what it was, which is why I had no zippy comeback for them girls even though I was twice as smart and twice as pretty. The fact is, that sewage plant disgraced the entire neighborhood when it got dropped on Hogwaller in the 1950s. Everyone knew the government only put the unsavory things needed to run society in the places where the people didn’t matter and had no power. The whites in Hogwaller had no idea they were regarded that low until that sewage plant got built in their backyard. As I recall, the blacks weren’t that surprised.

I have to admit, I did have a little problem with my temper back then. Maybe I still do, but I’ve learned patience and back then I had none. I started to jaw, them just baiting me along. Jesus, forgive me, it’s hard not to hold tight to your pride when that and a frayed sundress is all you got. See, Hogwaller girls used to grow up playing rough and tumble with Hogwaller boys, just like whites played with blacks. You could say there’s only one curriculum for growing up when you’re poorer than dirt. But playing with the boys teaches you to have an angry streak like the boys. Loud, in your face, don’t back down from nobody.

Before I know it, Mr. Tyler is shouting us down to stop all that noise while the game is on. We can either watch or get out. The Woolen Mills girls all point at me and say together, like they had rehearsed it, “Shelly started it, Mr. Tyler. She’s from Hogwaller.”

That’s all they had to say. They didn’t need to say what I said. What I did. There didn’t need to be no trial. No evidence. Being from Hogwaller was evidence enough for Mr. Tyler. He turned to John and said, “God dammit, boy, what are you doing dragging filth from Hogwaller over to my house? Your mother cleaned all night and day, and now she’s going to have to do it again. Girl, get on back to the other side of those train tracks and don’t let me see you over here again.”

I shattered to pieces looking at John’s red, shamed face.

Mr. Tyler turned back to the TV mumbling something about God dammit and biggest game of the year and what was he thinking. It felt like I was frozen for an eternity, John’s wet, sorry eyes on mine, the Woolen Mills girls’ eyes burning holes in my hot face while they smiled their wicked smiles waiting to see what would happen next.

I nearly jumped out of my flats when Mr. Tyler shouted, “God dammit, girl, I said GIT!” and pounded his table so hard the TV shorted out. It wasn’t even the end of the first quarter. I got up and ran out of the room crying. That was the worst part, I let those girls see me cry. Hogwaller girls might not have had much, but at Lane High, we at least had our reputation for being tough.

Mrs. Tyler caught me by the arm as I bust through the screen door to the front porch, and I had enough manners to slow up and listen. I tried to hide my face, but she lifted my chin and wiped my tears. Her hands were so soft. The softest touch I think I ever felt. The little I remember of her, she was a kind woman. After allowing me a moment to compose myself, she said to me, “I knew you were sweet on John; it’s written all over you. It was very brave of you to come here today. Don’t you ever lose that bravery. But Shelly, bravery has its place, and so do people. We’re all better off if we remember to stay in our place.”

I tell you all this because that day – Saturday, September 21, 1968 – wasn’t the best day of my life, but it did teach me the most valuable lesson of my life. A lesson I repeat to myself every morning when I wake up with Stan, the loving fool whom I have called my husband for 50 years after calling him cousin for 18, at my side in bed. That lesson is this:

If a person has to stay in their place, then you best make your place something you want it to be.

The Trail Hikers Guide to Going to Bat for Immigrants

Get in your car and drive. Drive for hours. Drive down the loneliest bi-way and the darkest backway. Drive so deep into the American back country that you’re sure the only non-native creatures around are you and the feral pigs.

If there’s a good hiking trail where you stop, I assure you there will be someone else: foreigners.

No matter where I’ve hiked in the United States, I’m always amazed by the number of foreign languages and accents I hear on the trail, offering friendly “hellos” in passing.

In the past few months, I’ve hiked Dragon’s Tooth and McAfee Knob near Roanoke, Va.; Old Rag Mountain and White Oak Canyon/Cedar Run near Sperryville, Va.; and Humpback Rock near Afton, Va; among others.

The thing that’s consistently amazed me on these very popular hikes, save Humpback Rock (the shortest hike and easiest to access), is that a clear majority of the people hiking them were not from the United States.

Today, I walked the 8-mile White Oak Canyon/Cedar Run loop on a beautiful 60-degree February day and I’d conservatively estimate that at least 75% were foreign-born hikers. And we’re talking Madison County, Va., here folks. There ain’t much more than white folk and flags preferred by certain types of white folk in those parts. So any non-‘Merican hiker there is probably driving at least an hour from Charlottesville or the Washington, D.C., area.

I’ve witnessed hundreds of foreign hikers on these walks, and their groups tend to fall into a few stereotypes that I always find entertaining:

  • The Chinese hiker: Travels in large groups of married couples; flashy, bright, shining new hiking gear and walking sticks.
  • The European hiker: Travels in small groups — couples or 2-3 women; high-quality, well worn gear. Often German, Northern European / Scandinavian or Eastern European. Usually, full metal hiking badasses. Occasionally, Gucci sunglasses-wearing glam Eastern European women.
  • The Indian/Pakistani/Middle Eastern hiker: Travels in family groups of mom, dad and kids. Often look totally out of place in “city clothes.” Travel without food, water or good hiking shoes.

The characteristics of these groups always give me a smile and spur my curiosity. But, look, the point here is not to point out stereotypes. It’s not even to wonder why, in a sea of white Americans in central Virginia, more aren’t out enjoying nature. Though I suspect there is something wrong with our cultural priorities when more of the few million Americans within an hour of the Skyline Drive aren’t out enjoying the bounty of natural splendor the Blue Ridge Mountains have to offer.

The point is to applaud the fact that, despite their incredible differences and diverse cultural backgrounds, all of those foreign-born groups are out enjoying nature in numbers that vastly over-represent their populations in the area.

And when we’re talking about hikes near Roanoke and Madison County, I think we can safely assume these people are, by and large, not tourists. They are green card holders and visa holders. They are students and professors and engineers and custodians. They are immigrants and refugees.

And they are lovers of nature.

Above all, the most important thing I need to know about them is that on an abnormally warm February day, they chose to spend their time driving for an hour or more just to spend their day walking in the woods.

Politically left or right, friend or family, the best people I know all share an appreciation, if not love, for nature.

Americans are engaged in a heated debate over who should be allowed into this country (and kicked out). The winds are blowing toward a nation isolated behind walls and locked doors. Beyond the studies that already prove how essential immigrants are to the U.S. economy, I wonder how much American culture would suffer without people who so clearly understand the value of a hallowed American tradition — love of the great outdoors.

American Anti-Intellectualism

Carl Sagan Cosmos

“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.” — Carl Sagan

Yes, President Obama brought this quote to the fore recently, but I lead with Sagan intentionally … it’s an apolitical point. American anti-intellectualism has been weighing heavy on me lately. When professors are scared to lead class discussions on gender or race because their college students demand a safe space free of emotional triggers, this is anti-intellectualism. When we reject solid science because the finding doesn’t fit with our belief system or is economically inconvenient, this is anti-intellectualism. When supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump start throwing fists because they can’t emotionally manage a challenge to their worldview, this is anti-intellectualism.

A post like this is not much better than shouting into the void, but the vast majority of my friends are well educated or smart people (sometimes both). I hope my conservative friends will insist that facts lead your issues, not bluster that feels good as an ends-justifies-the-means path to #winning despite the fact that it’s intellectually bankrupt. And to my liberal friends: I hope you wipe the smug, holier-than-thou looks off your faces, because our set is not exactly trending positive, even if it feels like liberal mob wisdom is on the good side of history while rationalizing another instance of muzzling free speech.

Mr. Sagan was right about the means by which we can judge progress. And by those measures, we’re going the opposite direction of progress. With the last 500 years more or less on the side of progress, I’ve always had the sense that it is inevitable. But the current tide against progress, rising from both sides, society acting like a stubborn family that insists on riding out a storm in their barrier island home while the sands shift away and the sea pinches in from east and west, is a black mark in the ledger that says inevitable progress is a myth. It reminds me that 1,000 years of medieval Europe came after the progress of Greece and Rome.

Anti-intellectualism is a frightening trend that any thinking person has a vested interest combating. President Obama is right: the rejection of facts, of reason and science, is the path to decline. If the fact President Obama made that statement causes you any desire to reject the sentiment out of hand, you need to think hard about who you are and what kind of person you want to be.

Mike Judge made a very silly movie about American anti-intellectualism in 2006 called Idiocracy. In what is truly sweet irony, the guy who created Beavis and Butthead satirically predicted that America would devolve into an unthinking society guided pliably by dumbed-down marketing and specious ideas within 500 years. Just 10 years later, what seems most silly is that Mr. Judge thought it would take that long.

giphy

Wankers published in The Legendary

Bernie

Of all the short stories I’ve written, “Wankers” is my absolute favorite. It’s also now published in one of my absolute favorite lit mags, The Legendary. The Legendary specializes in sharp, edgy writing and was set to publish “Wankers” back in June, but then took a break to do a complete relaunch of the site.

Well, now the site is live and I couldn’t be prouder to be part of the relaunch. The timing worked out pretty well, too. I wrote “Wankers” back in December 2013 when Occupy Wall Street was fresh in my mind, then “Wolf of Wall Street” came out and “Wankers” seemed derivative, even though it was written well before the movie came out. But now, with the U.S. presidential campaign in full swing and Bernie Sanders conjuring up a populist movement with his anti-Wall Street fervor — much of it based on the Street’s greed and arrogance — the story feels timely and relevant again.

“Wankers” at its core is a gross and intentional exaggeration, but it still says something (in my opinion). It speaks to the image problem these guys (and they are mostly guys) have created for themselves through years of indifference in their Ivory Towers, and why ordinary people harbor so much anger toward them.

Here’s the intro to “Wankers” and you can read it on The Legendary by clicking here. Caution: There is not one inch of this story that’s not ripe with awful, terrible things and horrible potty mouth. These characters are not good people, folks.

How we get down

Dickhead Pete’s ‘We Are the 1% Party’ got a little bit out of hand last night. Cristal Beirut. Belvedere Unfiltered Jello shots (for the ladies, natch). Johnny Walker Blue. Ice luge. Hot new interns (dude interns not invited, natch). Anorexic models. Spin the bottle. Fuck the bottle. Prude intern exit stage left. Anorexic transvestite model. Fist fight. Lines of coke. Eli Manning. Lines of coke with Eli Manning. Bad head: non-prude hot intern. Puke on non-prude hot intern. Exit stage left. Good head: anorexic transvestite model. 4:30 a.m.: pass out. 5:15 a.m.: alarm. 5:33 a.m.: break alarm. Shit-shower-shave. Visine. Advil. More Visine. Boot coked-up models (tranvestite and original recipe). Depart Tribeca bachelor pad. Red Bull. 5:59 a.m.: arrive at office.

Not bad for a Wednesday night.

DP lives for this shit. The last time he showed up at work this bombed, Ron Chancellor called him into his office. Ron was starting up a new division – Innovative Investments – and he wanted DP to be his lead dog, his general in the field.

Memory:

Ron: “So what do you say, DP? You game?”

DP: “Who are you talking to, boss? Fuck yeah I’m game.”

Ron was a legend at Goldlynch. You don’t turn that dude down when he comes calling. And Innovative Investments was like nothing the bank had ever done. No limitations. No asset classifications. Most important, no questions. Mission: max returns. The recession was over, investors were tired of conservative bullshit, asset-backed securities were dead. Goldlynch needed to invent a new game to keep their good name as the smartest guys in the room. Innovative Investments was it.

“DP, you are a tremendous dickhead,” Ron said. “But you’ve got the touch. You shit money. Pick your team. You get a blank check this quarter. Get me 15 percent-plus returns and you get another one next quarter. See how we play this game?”

Good times.

 

 

By Anonymous

Poem

I haven’t posted in a while — not since May, actually — but it hasn’t been for lack of time, content or want-to. I just decided my next post was going to share a short story that’s scheduled to be published … sometime. It was originally supposed to be published on June 20, but the issue was delayed. And delayed. And (I’ll give you one guess) delayed. It’s understandable. Most literary magazines these days are run on zero budget by people who receive no reward other than the good feeling in their bellies for helping bring new fiction to the world. So here I am three post-less months later when the subject of this post literally blew into my front yard. The wife and I were out doing yard work today when she found the two shreds of paper pictured above and discovered it was someone’s abandoned poem.

I have always been an awful poet. The only poetry I’ve ever written exists in a folder on my computer, and this folder is titled: Very Bad Poetry. The folder does not lie. If a digital file storage space could be burned, I would douse Very Bad Poetry in lighter fluid and watch those miserable words float back into the atmosphere. As it is, I just need to try that double delete thing. So, all that is to say, I understand this mystery poet’s frustration with her or his words. I don’t know the full content of this poem, whether it was bad or good or meaningful or trite. I only know what was left on two quarters of paper. But poems are pretty incomplete creatures by nature. To sound like more of a lit wonk than I am, their meaning is in the space between the words. Well, if that’s the case, then I thought maybe these shards of a poem are the poem.

And with that, I’d like to present:

A Poem

by Anonymous

Of this divine

Each born are the

Forever to love

Each born bare the

forever look often

To the heavens

endless thoughts of

describe

To the heavens I

endless thoughts of

divine Nature

I can only compare

‘The Swindler’ published in Pythia Journal

I’m incredibly psyched today that my short story, “The Swindler,” is appearing in the inaugural issue of the Pythia Journal. Pythia is a “journal of arts, literature and spirituality” featuring fiction, poetry, art, essays and interviews. It is housed at Bryn Athyn College near Philadelphia and put together by students.

Best of luck to Pythia, the current student staff and all those that will follow. It is very cool to be featured in a journal’s first issue. I look forward to seeing Pythia’s prestige grow, and hope to say I contributed in some small part to its success one day.

Here’s the intro to “The Swindler.” You can read the full story at Pythia by clicking here.

hold em

They walked into his old Cape Cod on Sycamore Court with their heads hung low, sullen, not a word spared between the lot of them. Perfect victims.

“They’re all yours, Mr. Ronson. Thank you so much for taking an interest in Syracuse’s homeless community. These gentlemen are really looking forward to learning how to play bridge. I’ll be back this evening. Just call me if you have any problems.”

“I doubt that will be necessary, Latisha. We’re going to have a great time.” He closed the door in her face. Jon Ronson didn’t want the fat pig driver from Syracuse Open Doors for the Destitute hanging around any longer than necessary. He only had three hours to rob the bums blind.

If there was one thing Ronson knew when he saw it, it was a bunch of dupes. SODD was one cherry-flavored gang of suckers. They never even asked why he wanted to help these four specifically. They were just happy someone would give them a warm place to stay once a week and pump them full of coffee during Syracuse’s brutal winter days. But SODD wasn’t the mark. The dirty, putrid, babbling whack jobs loitering under the yellow light in his hallway were the marks. They didn’t have much, but they had enough to make it worth taking. And all the better, even the people purporting to look after them didn’t really care what happened to them.

Click here to continue reading.

Oregon (and fiction) is weird (just how it should be)

Author’s note: Humor, satire, adventure, fantasy, crime, really weird shit — all genres of fiction I feel pretty comfortable swimming around in. On the other hand, the nebulous thing known as “literary fiction” (for which I don’t believe a single person on the planet has a firm definition  … it’s a know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing or a label earned if the writing/writer seem intelligent enough) is entirely alien to me. In my humble opinion, fiction intended to be literary feels unforgivably put on and obnoxiously pretentious. However, fiction that you know is “literary” when you read it tends to be very enjoyable. So I hesitate to say the manuscript from which the following passage was pinched is from my first crack at “literary fiction,” but I was trying to write a novel-length work that played in the worlds of theme and imagery and metaphor more than I’ve done before. The problem I’m having is that making writing more intelligent is REALLY DIFFICULT (It’s like you need to be smart to do it, or something)! Maybe I’ve discovered why so many works marketed as “literary fiction” feel like they’re trying too hard. Below, I’m sharing one scene from this particular manuscript that I feel good doesn’t try to be literary fiction at all, and yet in the grander scheme of the book does a lot of work advancing themes and character development (hopefully without the reader ever knowing because the last thing I ever want a reader thinking is, “Hey, nice character development bro!.”) As always, thanks for reading — Jay

Ninkasi

The folks in the capital of Texas like to say “Keep Austin Weird,” but they might blanche if they knew just how weird weird could get. The people of Eugene know the limitlessness of the thing. Eugenites embrace it with a colorful flourish.

It’s not that embracing weirdness and diversity is unique to Eugene. It’s a flavor of the Pacific Northwest as distinctive to the whole region as the hoppy bitterness of their pale ales. Similar cultures thrive in Portland, Seattle, and a good many of the seaside towns that dot the coast as far down as Humboldt Bay in California. They generally have many things in common. Passionate love of the environment, nature, trees you hug, trees you smoke. But the color of it is a slightly different tint of weird in each town.

Art and Amelia prided themselves on being open-minded. But amid the amazing dance of weirdness moving around them as they strolled down the street to Ninkasi Brewing Company’s downtown tasting room, they couldn’t help but judge. Dressed in their yuppie hiking duds, Eugene judged them right back.

Sitting outside having a pint together were two women: a neonblue-haired goth punk tattooed from neck to toe, dressed all in black and beetlejuice leggings, and a naturally bluegrey-haired hippie all in flannels and hemp. Like twins, their heads turned in tandem to take in Art and Amelia walking up the street. They turned back toward each other and passed mischievous grins. In unison, the goth and the hippie fought to stifle harmonic snorts of derision in their pints. Then they noticed Apple. They faced each other again, took mirroring sips of beer, and agreed that they must be OK if they owned a pitty without ever saying a word. Symbiotic weirdness telepathy. It’s science. They continued to eye the newcomers as they meandered onto the tasting room’s patio and sidled up to the outdoor tap bar.

“What do you have?” Art asked. “We’re just visiting, but we heard Ninkasi is great.”

She stared at Art a moment. Choked down a sigh. Then she recited the beer list in the exact order they were written in large pink and white chalk letters on a chalkboard over her shoulder. “Total Domination IPA, Tricerahops Double IPA, Quantum Pale Ale, Spring Reign American Pale Ale, Maiden The Shade IPA.”

“Folks really like their pale ales up here. Do you have anything that’s not super hoppy? My wife’s not a big fan of hoppy beers.”

“I’ll have the Tricerahops, please,” Amelia said.

“OK, never mind. My wife will have the Tricerahops. In that case, I’m not a big fan of hoppy beers.”

“Oatis.”

“What’s that?”

“Oatmeal stout.”

“Sure. Sounds great.”

“Vanilla?”

“What?”

“Vanilla Oatis or regular Oatis?”

Art asked her what the difference was, but the bartender had stopped paying attention. Her pale cheeks were suddenly flush and her eyes were sparkling as she asked a guy with a matching stocking cap and cascading dreadlocks if the dog was his. Apple was winning over more locals. She’d be ready to run for political office before the day was done. In a town like Eugene, she might could win.

When their beers were finally in hand, Art and Amelia slid in at a communal high top table next to the synthetic blue-hair goth punk and naturally bluegrey-hair hippie.

“Did you know we just met today at a coffee shop? We’re both lesbians and we both play the ukulele. You’re not a lesbian, are you?” the hippie said to Art as he sat down next to her.

Art stammered for a reply. “I’m a guy. I can’t be a lesbian.”

“Oh honey, you can be anything you want to be. We don’t believe in assigning gender classifications here,” the woman said. Her voice was cheerful.

“I, um, no then, unfortunately, I am not a lesbian. I appreciate and respect vaginas, though. I mean my wife’s vagina. I mean all vaginas, but I’m exclusive to my wife’s.”

“Oh God, you’re an idiot,” Amelia said.

The older woman laughed. “I’m just taking the piss out of you, young fella. Nothing’s more entertaining for an old dyke than a young straight guy. See what I mean, Jean?” Jean was the blue-haired goth.

“I guess you could consider it charming. But they’re so awkward about everything. That’s what turned me off about men. The awkwardness, not penises. Dicks are ok,” Jean said.

“I’m still sitting right here, you know.”

“Are we making you uncomfortable, honey? I’m sorry. Eugene restaurants don’t have special seating sections for discriminators.”

Amelia sat back and enjoyed the show as Art drowned himself in shallow water.

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Oh my, relax, honey. You’re too easy. I’m Betty and this beautiful angel is Jean. Like I said, we just met today, but we share the same twisted sense of humor. You’re just going to have to deal with it until you can down that sissy beer of yours. What is that, Oatis?”

“Vanilla Oatis.”

“May gays forgive me for calling you a sissy. I’ve insulted us all. So what brings you to Eugene, Mr. Man? You’re not from around here.”

“We’re on a road trip for a few weeks. I guess we’re going for sort of a reset in life, trying to focus on what’s important.”

“And what have you found out?”

“About what?”

“What’s important in life.”

“I’m not sure yet.”

Amelia reached out to touch Art’s hand. “We’re figuring things out as we go. It’s just hard to put in words.”

“Well,” Betty said. “Eugene is a good place to learn about what’s important in life. It’ll teach you a few things. Love Mother Nature, first. Materialism is a disease, second. Just look around. People are poor here, but we’re happy. We’ve got old shit cars and we live in old shit houses, but we take care of each other. We’ve got enough thrift stores to clothe us all. The cost of living is so low we can still afford an overpriced beer at Ninkasi. And all the entertainment is free. Just go for a hike in the woods. Nothing could be better.”

“What about you?” Art asked Jean. “What do you like to do?”

“Are you talking to me, uterus defiler?”

Art was stunned into silence. Jean burst out laughing.

“Oh my God, Betty, that is fun. Holy shit, dude, lighten up. I hike, too. You don’t think I like to hike because of how I look. I get it. You’re from someplace on the East Coast, right?”

“New Jersey. Near Princeton.”

“Exactly. It doesn’t matter what anybody looks like out here. We’re here to live the lifestyle. I spend a little more time fucking and Betty spends a little more time hiking, but I think we like them the same. The only people who don’t live the lifestyle are some of the yuppie sellouts. You’re not a sellout, are you?”

“I’m unemployed. We all are, even the dog.”

“Good for you,” Jean said. “Yuppie jobs are shackles. They weigh you down. It happened to my parents. Hey, are you going to drink that Tricerahops?”

Amelia shook her head no. It didn’t look like the beer had been touched. Art questioned her with a raised eyebrow. She shrugged her shoulders and his face transformed into patronizing ‘I-told-you-so’ mode.

“It’s all yours, Jean. My wife does not come with the beer.”

“What?”

Art stammered again, unable to crack the code of acceptable lesbian humor.

“You know what, Art, I’m actually pretty hungry,” Amelia said. “Why don’t we head out for dinner?”

Art wasn’t quite sure what the urgency was all about. They had virtually just gotten there, but the tone in her voice made his heart skip two beats and then squeeze through a painful murmur to get back on track. He made his apologies to Betty and Jean and was surprised by the warmth of their farewell.

Betty smothered Art with a musty hug when he stood up, her ancient flannel transmitting its peculiar scent of natural body odor and fresh herbs onto his shirt. In the town of Eugene, a shared beer and a little understanding is all it takes to earn a new friend.

Mythological Monster Madness: Breaking Down the Field

I wrote this little ditty last March in a shameless attempt to use March Madness to get published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and because, well, because I was in grad school and had nothing better to do. Ah, halcyon days. Since McSweeney’s didn’t want it, you get to read it on my blog every March from now until eternity! Enjoy this oldie but goldie!

The Mythological Monster Madness bracket is set, but not all competitors are created equal. We break down the field to separate the real contenders from the pretenders in this year’s edition of the greatest sporting competition in the mythological history of the world.

Asia Pacific Region

drop bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 China: Chinese Dragon

No. 4 Nepal: Yeti

Expect the imperial Chinese Dragon to wear down Nepal’s Yeti with waves of cultural hegemony and feigned friendly diplomatic overtures, setting up its famed “Maoist backdoor cut” all day long. China has to be seen as favorites to win the whole tournament as its greatest symbol of power is backed up by the deepest bench in the field, 1 billion-plus Chinese laborers.

No. 2 Japan: Pikachu

No. 3 Australia: Drop Bear

If Japan can get past Australia’s Drop Bear, it could be a tricky match up for the Chinese Dragon thanks to Pikachu’s electric conductivity making it highly flame retardant. That will be no easy feat, though, as Drop Bear – a giant, flesh eating koala – will look to down Pikachu like so much eucalyptus. The Selection Committee dealt a crucial blow to Japan’s hopes when it denied Pikachu’s appeal to evolve into Raichu, stating that Raichu did not appear on Japan’s official roster.

British Isles Region

unicorn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 Scotland: Unicorn

No. 4 England: Pixie

England once again brings a big reputation and little substance to the tournament as the Pixie relies exclusively on its strategy of leading opponents to the woods and leaving them there lost, which should pose no problems for Scotland’s Unicorn – a native of woodland habitats. The Unicorn is the only competitor that is not only its nation’s most prized mythological creature but also the actual national animal. Bald Eagle doesn’t seem so great anymore, does it? The only thing standing between Scotland and a title run is the Unicorn’s blood – instant immortality will make any opponent that drinks it a real challenge. A potential Final Four match up with Vladimir Putin could spell international disaster should the Russian Dictator, er, President get hold of the Unicorn’s horn.

No. 2 Wales: Welsh Dragon

No. 3 Ireland: Leprechaun

Lacking the wisdom and strategery of the Chinese Dragon and relying more on brute force, the Welsh Dragon boasts perhaps the best offense in the field. However, Ireland’s Leprechaun will look to exploit the Welsh Dragon’s uncontrollable gold lust with its own damnably-frustrating-to-steal pot o’ the shiny stuff. Should Ireland advance, it would surely fall to Scotland. The Unicorn’s ability to completely disorient the Leprechaun by farting a maze of rainbows would nullify its famous shiftiness.

Europe Region

Krampus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 Russia: Vladimir Putin

No. 4 Austria: Krampus

What, we ask, is more mythological than Vladimir Putin? This legend has hugged polar bears, rode horseback shirtless through the Siberian wilderness, shot whales with a crossbow, saved a TV crew from an escaped tiger, flown on a hang glider with migratory cranes and distracted the world from his impending invasion of Ukraine with a little event symbolizing world peace known as the Olympics. After an excellent season of terrorizing Alpine children, Austria’s lovable horned pseudo-Pagan-Christian Christmas demon Krampus stands little chance against the world’s greatest living myth left after the passing of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il.

No. 2 Greece: Minotaur

No. 3 Germany: Wolpertinger

What better creature to survive the labyrinth of the world’s most competitive conference tournament than the Minotaur? Besting such rivals as Cyclops, the Titans, Hydra and Cerberus to make it this far, the “Cretan Beacon” is a strong hope for perennial power Greece. However, the brutal Greek Conference left the Minotaur bloodied and vulnerable after Theseus beheaded it in the waning moments of the league championship game. Having no head with which to see should play right into the paws of Germany’s Wolpertinger, the deer antlered, bird winged rabbit-wolf creature whose main skill involves hiding from drunken Bavarian hunters.

Americas Region

elsombreron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 Argentina: Diego Maradona

No. 4 Guatemala: El Sombreron

The former child street urchin and cocaine addict is worshiped as a god by many in his soccer loving nation. The people call him Golden Boy and Hand of God, but his most famous nickname came from a radio commentator who wondered aloud on air after a Maradona goal, “Cosmic Kite, what planet have you come from?” The egomaniacal mighty mite’s greatest power is perhaps his unflinching hyperinflated belief in his own legend. Underdog El Sombreron from Guatemala is the feel good story of the tournament, a silver guitar-playing bogeyman in a big sombrero who stalks women by ceaselessly serenading them, trying to braid their hair, and putting dirt in their food so they’re always hungry and can’t sleep. Unfortunately, those skills mirror Maradona’s, and El Sombreron doesn’t kick a soccer ball nearly so well.

No. 2 Egypt: Mummy

No. 3 USA: Chupacabra

America’s best hope was squashed when the Selection Committee ruled that Chuck Norris was not eligible for mythological competition because all acts of greatness ascribed to him were, indeed, 100% factual. That opened the door for the upstart goat-eating Chupacabra out of Puerto Rico, the first tourney contestant to carry the flag for an imperial overlord. Egypt back-doored its way into the tournament by virtue of an American archaeologist’s early 20th century theft of a cursed mummy. The Committee ruled that the Mummy’s 100-year residence in the basement of a small New York college library qualified it to compete on behalf of its original nation in its new home region. The Mummy is coached by the legendary Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, and may be able to upset Maradona in the second round by convincing him of the benefits of embalmment.

Biggest tourney snubs

troll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Norwegian Troll

The struggles in recent years of Norway’s legendary Troll have led to a drastic drop in fuzzy-headed troll keychain sales as its stock falls faster than Duck Dynasty ratings, leading some to label it the Kentucky Wildcats UCLA Bruins1 of mythological sport.

2. Polite Frenchman

Perhaps the strongest mythological entity to be left out of the field in centuries. The Polite Frenchman is so rare that it is rumored the Committee extended him a bid, but he was never located to accept it.

3. Africa

Africa’s mythological sport leagues continue to languish under the Eurocentric Selection Committee bylaws excluding these nations from competing on the grandest stage. A history of racism and bias against oral folklore once again casts a shadow over this great tournament, and we expect more African nations will follow Egypt’s lead finding alternative routes into the field through gross cultural appropriation by Europe and the United States. To wit, former NBA star, Old Spice pitch man and Dikembe Mutumbo Saves the World hero Dikembe Mutumbo is rumored to be in training to compete on behalf of the Democratic Republic of Congo next season.

1 Boy, how times change fast. When I wrote this in March 2014, Kentucky was coming off a first round NIT exit and slipped into the 2014 NCAA Tournament as an 8 seed. One improbable run to the tournament final and an undefeated season later, I couldn’t pass on updating that out-of-date cheap shot. 

The Swindler and the dwindler

“The Swindler” is the name of a new short story I’ve managed to write since coming home to the U.S. from Edinburgh. “The dwindler” is me, the guy whose prolific production of fiction has dwindled a good bit since returning to the realities of the real world — bills, the need to do “real” work to pay said bills, a lack of access to low-interest student loans to pay for everything, and (gasp!) the need to pay…actually PAY…for healthcare. Oh blessed innocent days of Scottish grad school, how I miss thee.

Alas, despite getting back into the swing of hard workin’ American life, I actually have stayed fairly productive writing fiction. I just haven’t been able to share much here because fiction magazine editors don’t much appreciate when you post your work to your own blog before they have a chance to publish it. So most of my new short stories are in the dreaded “submission queue” waiting for their fates to be decided by the overwhelmed editors of the world’s bootstrapped lit fiction mags. Still, a little sample of one short story I’m rather fond of won’t hurt…

From “The Swindler:”

hold em

They walked into his old Cape Cod on Sycamore Court with their heads hung low, sullen, not a word spared between the lot of them. Perfect victims.

“They’re all yours, Mr. Ronson. Thank you so much for taking an interest in Syracuse’s homeless community. These gentlemen are really looking forward to learning how to play Bridge. I’ll be back this evening. Just call me if you have any problems.”

“I doubt that will be necessary, Latisha. We’re going to have a great time.” He closed the door in her face. Jon Ronson didn’t want the fat pig driver from Syracuse Open Doors for the Destitute hanging around any longer than necessary. He only had three hours to rob the bums blind.

If there was one thing Ronson knew when he saw it, it was a bunch of dupes. SODD was one cherry-flavored gang of suckers. They never even asked why he wanted to help these four specifically. They were just happy someone would give them a warm place to stay once a week and pump them full of coffee during Syracuse’s brutal winter days. But SODD wasn’t the mark. The dirty, putrid, babbling whack jobs loitering under the yellow light in his hallway were the marks. They didn’t have much, but they had enough to make it worth taking. And all the better, even the people purporting to look after them didn’t really care what happened to them.

Jon had scouted out these four on downtown street corners for weeks, studying their habits, their disabilities. They were all mentally ill. And they were all rolling in coins. It was disgusting how much people dropped in their battered paper cups each week; the savvy beggars always filling their pockets before the cup ever got more than a quarter full. They collected $100, $200 dollars a week, easy. They kept all of it on them. Where else would they put it? They were so predictable, stuffing it deep inside their ripped down jackets, the feathery guts orbiting around them like asteroids wherever they went.

They never took off those coats. Not even now, sitting around the table in Ronson’s uncomfortably warm kitchen. The room had an amber glow with the warm light from the incandescent bulbs reflecting off the cigarette tar-stained walls and coloring every last one of them like hepatitis victims with jaundiced eyes and skin.

What an impressive array of human misery. There was the bald white one, Mort, with a patchy beard of ginger and white, suffering major depression. He was too defeated by life to feed himself properly or shave or shower or probably wipe his own ass, given how much he stank like dry shit. There was Danny, the young white one with bloodshot eyes. He looked strung out, like a junky, always fidgeting, but it was a severe anxiety disorder. Danny looked over his shoulders constantly, like he expected someone to be there ready to take him away or worse. Then there was the fat man who went by Berg, some sort of Heinz 57 mixed from generations of poor and crazy irrespective of race. He was the perfect find, with an obsessive compulsive disorder that made him fixate on a desire to see everything. Ronson had seen it manifest a dozen times, but none worse than the time the man was digging through a box of oranges stacked outside a produce store. The owner tried to run him off, accusing him of trying to steal, but Berg fought back. It ended with Berg in the back of a police car having a full mental breakdown. Poor asshole wasn’t trying to steal anything, he just had to see the last oranges at the bottom of the box. Lastly, there was Tick, the dyed-in-the-wool alcoholic, always at the bottom of a bottle of the hard stuff. Fill him up with booze, and he’d be too stupid drunk to know he was getting taken.

That’s all Ronson knew about them. That’s all he needed to know.

Editor’s note: What is that scoundrel Ronson up to, eh?