19 September, 2016

The Fragile Collection

Where we lived in southern Wyandotte County, Kansas, was quiet without being too quiet. The suburban houses were widely spaced, constructed in a mishmash of styles, over multiple decades, an architectural grab bag. Most of our neighbors were older, and I was one of maybe five kids within a one-mile radius. A lot of the neighbors we knew by name but weren't close enough for block parties or borrowing cups of flour. What the neighborhood did have was an ample selection of nooks and semi-hidden passages that would've been irresistible to any free-range seven-year-old.

Mama and Papa's ease with their little boy's unsupervised traipsings wasn't negligent or crazy. The kid whose room was as organized as an entomologist's specimen drawer, who once laid a trash bag on the foyer floor before going tromping through backyard mud, and whose reaction to the "stranger danger" talk was a faintly irritated "I know" — he needs minimal minding.

I was forever picking up stuff while roving. Of the random rusty machine component half buried until my inquisitive fingers pried it free, I wondered what it did, then visualized some Rube Goldberg contraption it operated inside. If I found an out-of-place rock in a sand heap, I'd theorized about freak geological events that could've brought it there. Every child's curious about the whys and hows of things, and at least in this respect I was no different.

Lots of the objects I gathered got imaginatively repurposed. A seafoam-green glass insulator off a power pole became a bookend. Ball bearings found their way into my bag (which itself once sheathed a Crown Royal bottle) of marbles. A length of flex tubing made an arm for my robot costume. But not every object had practical potential. My "useless" finds usually gained a place of honor in the box.

If the box smelled weird because of what it held, I considered it a good weird. That scent: dry paper, soot, a hint of vinegar. Just sniffing the box could be gratifying. Careful not to tip it and disturb its contents, I liked lifting it from the shelf, bringing it near my nostrils, and taking in a deep breath. Maybe the box smelled the way Egyptian mummies do, the way ancient scrolls do, the way treasure buried on a desert island does. I fancied likening my stuff to priceless antiquities, since what I kept in the box was priceless — at least to me.

FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE, read the lid. Without measuring, I had concentrated very hard on making my letters big enough to span its width precisely. I also put permanent-marker cautions on the sides. Who might go into my room and rummage through its shelves of bric-a-brac, I hadn't the faintest idea, but wasn't safe better than sorry? Further insurance: a lining of cotton balls glued to the underside of the lid, and to the box's interior bottom and sides.

To open the box you pulled forward a fold on the front. Two tabs slid up, then the lid clamshelled open, revealing the trove within: my Fragile Collection.

My mental inventory of the box is still mostly intact, thirty years later:
  1. Ant, large unknown species
  2. Ash, volcanic (Mount Saint Helens)
  3. Butterflies/moths, various species
  4. Coral, fan
  5. Egg, robin
  6. Egg, quail
  7. Flowers, various species
  8. Honeybee, queen
  9. Honeybee, worker
  10. Honeycomb
  11. Nest, mud dauber
  12. Nest, unknown bird species
  13. Nest, wasp
  14. Oil, crude
  15. Poop, moose
  16. Quills, porcupine
  17. Skin, garter snake
  18. Skin, reticulated python (partial)
  19. Skull, mouse
Excessively keen of touch, smell, and hearing, my affinity for the delicate makes sense to me now. Saying that my sense of life's hardness developed prematurely, leading young Byron to marvel at how soft, brittle, gossamer, crepey, precariously formed things flaunted their easy destructability in our red-in-tooth-and-claw world, would be overstating it. But I had an inkling. When I weighed the robin's egg in my palm, feeling its tiny earthward pull, a kind of empathy was at work. We're all just barely here, flying through the void on this sphere, minuscule marvels of chemistry and physics. The blown-empty eggshell was a memorial to a life that might've been — except it, too, was doomed to destruction. The world couldn't let it last.

My Fragile Collection survived as long as I was its curator. Whatever happened to that box? Has the papery wasp nest crumbled to dust? Did the plastic bottle of Mount Saint Helens ash crack open and scatter its ultrafine contents with the wind? And what about me? Consigned to fire, I was somehow tempered, rather than charred. In the process I realized that the naive young collector's kinship with those fragile things was misplaced. He didn't consider the wide gulf, between existence and death, called living.

07 September, 2016

The Truth Will Set You Free: Will MTV's Unlocking the Truth Crack the Door for Me Tonight?

The last time a television series addressed the death of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen, the teenage friend I was wrongfully convicted of murdering, viewers got a sensationalistic crap-fest that On the Case with Paula Zahn titled "Betrayal and Regret." I was not impressed, and hammered out my response to Ms. Zahn's journalistic improbity, relying on numerous summaries from friends who actually watched. After getting those thoughts off my chest, the world looked bright and rosy again.

A year and a half earlier, Sharp Entertainment (a production company not affiliated with Scott Steinberg Productions, which excretes On the Case each week on Investigation Discovery) had contacted me by snail mail. They wanted me to submit to an on-camera interview for a new ID series that was in development. The producer who wrote was cagy about its title, though, which sent up a red flag. Following a bit of phoned-in googling, I learned what he'd been reluctant to reveal: the series was Dates from Hell. (David Randag, if you happen to be reading this, you're a shitheel.) I declined more respectfully than was deserved.

With two strikes against the TV weasels, a third production company reached out to my supporters last year. Their proposed series' format was pitched as "Serial for TV." We tentatively agreed to participate, but they were still shopping their concept around to various networks when a producer from Unlocking the Truth called.

The new MTV series wasn't called that yet, of course. It's working title was pretty meh, meaning that, unlike with Dates from Hell, there wasn't any way of knowing what might be in store if we signed on. Our only assurance was the producer's word that this investigative series would strive for an unbiased examination of the facts.

For years, my supporters and I have subscribed to the maxim that "Facts are our friends." As long as MTV hewed close to empirical truths, I felt at ease.

Multiple interviews followed. The familiar visiting room, cleared for cameras, light rigs, sound equipment, and coils on coils of wire, bore a slightly eerie resemblance to its usual bright, crowded self. But the interviews went well enough. The crews were professionally friendly to the point that I, having been duped more than a few times, began wondering when their line of questions would turn hostile.

It never did. Nor did they shy from asking the crucial questions (it was an investigation, after all). My lawyer turned over all sorts of information, but when it came to interpreting the evidence, they consulted their own experts, hired at MTV's expense. We don't know what all Unlocking the Truth learned, but we'll start finding out tonight, when the first of several episodes focusing on my case airs.

For the first time in a long time, I'm excited for the future.

Previous episodes of MTV's Unlocking the Truth can be seen on the network's website, while new ones live stream on the show's Facebook page and air Wednesdays at 10:00 PM Central Time.

31 August, 2016

Frisbee Goth

Springtime! The yellow sun smiled down from a sky as blue, blue, blue as a robin's egg. Little birds flitted to my neighbor's windowsill and peeped at each other, exhorting the beauty and promise of the season. High gentle breezes herded puffball clouds around like sheep in a field. But, peering through the slit my sleepy fingers found between the bedroom curtains, it wasn't a playful baaaaaah that I intoned but a Scroogelike bah!

No matter how well adapted I felt to living nocturnally, every so often there'd be a morning when, after my overnight shift at the hotel's front desk, my circadian rhythm dropped a beat and left me lying in bed, staring in the inky vicinity of the ceiling, curious to know what the hell was wrong with my brain that it wouldn't reliably shut down. This was one such morning. Hence the exploratory gander at the bright world of daywalkers.

"Experts" say that the best thing the sleepless can do for themselves is to just get up and go do something until they get tired. As much as it felt like acquiescing to the oppressive diurnal-normative agenda intended to marginalize us self-identified nyctophiliacs, I decided to get my ass out of bed. Slipping into my black kimono, I ventured from my Stygian hideaway to see if my roommate had brewed any coffee.

The Captain squatted in the hallway, elbows-deep in a cardboard box she'd pulled from the closet, and surrounded by books, electronics components, and geeky miscellanea. If the guys on The Big Bang Theory prepped for a rummage sale, it'd look a lot like this.

"The fuck?" she said at the sight of me. "No sleepies for owlie?"

Like creepy twins in a supernatural suspense movie, the Captain and I had our own special means of communicating. I answered, "Blarg."

She made sad-face, her small mouth curling down to the points of her jet black bob, empathizing with my pain. (Every ninety days, her job made her work a month of nights, and the insomnia was brutal.) She hitched her thumb kitchenward. "Fresh pot."

When you work overnight, you get a different perspective on the world, civilization, infrastructure, and even biology. You don't take for granted that anyone shares your lifestyle, too, because it's painfully obvious that most don't. I couldn't say how many accusations of laziness I got for not answering my phone during "normal" hours. Incredulous friends didn't get how I slept the days away, even after I pointed out the equivalence of my 2:30 PM to their 2:30 AM. Some people are stubborn in their ignorance of how the world works.

But coffee? Coffee is a universal. Coffee is critical for all late workers, all predawn risers — for burners of the midnight oil, and early birds alike. Coffee, we can all, I think, agree, is life.

I was on my way to loving life when I returned to the hallway with a mug of strong Guatamalan in one hand, a lit Turkish Special in the other, my cats doing synchronized figure-eights around my naked ankles. Everything would be okay, I thought, as long as I had the three Cs — coffee, cigarettes, and cats — close by.

I nudged kitties back to clear space for myself on the floor. Bast nuzzled my chin; Isis sniffed my bare toes; the Captain extended a Ziploc bag and shook it at me, the way you do when you're offering someone a potato chip: "Capacitor?"

"Thanks," I demurred. "I've got my power breakfast right here. What is all this stuff?"

"It's from Mom's basement. Old stuff from school, et cetera," she sighed, repositioning her wire-rimmed glasses. "I'm deciding what to keep and what goes to Defenbaugh."

I read the spines of a few books beside her. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Semiconductors. A Dame to Kill For. Eclectic selection the Captain had.

A black-and-silver plastic something in the box caught my eye. I pointed. "What's that?"

I'd seen Frisbees in all colors, plus a few knockoff "flying saucers" with gaudy decals (typically at Everything's $1-type places), but never in black, with faux-chrome accents. This one, which the Captain introduced as not just a Frisbee but her Frisbee was an actual brand-name Frisbee Frisbee with grooves on top and a metallic silver design in the center, in imitation of that little three-armed plastic device you snap into vinyl singles to play them on a standard turntable. The Captain's Frisbee looked like a record.

It was cool, so I said as much, then added, "We should go down to Loose Park and play sometime."

Since way before I stopped wearing clothes with color, keeping my complexion milky with mail ordered Japanese SPF 70 sunscreen, and dying my hair a shade or two darker than India ink, I'd been going to the Jacob L. Loose Memorial Park — a scenic parcel of nearby land offering leisure-seekers a one-mile loop of pavement to bike or jog or promenade or walk dogs or push strollers; herb and rose gardens for olfactory pleasures; tennis courts; a picnic pavilion, complete with public-use barbecue grills; swingsets; fountains; a placid, attractively landscaped duck pond; ample rolling green lawns; a clutch of shady, fragrant pines; and a memorial to the historic Battle of Westport, with an account of the conflict presented on a series of large brass plaques alongside an authentic Civil War cannon that reeked of ammonia throughout the summer until park officials decided to plug the barrel, thus curtailing after-dark revelers' drunken games of Let's Urinate in the Most Inexpedient and Socially Unacceptable Places We Can.

Loose Park was great. Just because you're goth doesn't mean you can't enjoy scattering bread crumbs for ducks. Frisbee, though? That might have been pushing it, which is precisely the message I read in the Captain's eyes before she said the words "Are you fucking kidding me?"

Sure, my manifestly common-sense sunblock use, not to mention my clunky waffle-soled leather footwear's suitability for any number of potentially rough-and-tumble environments (most of them clubby or mosh-pitty, it's true), could seem to be born of a desire to be prepared, but I was not what you'd call outdoorsy. The Captain and I spent our workdays in front of computer screens; when we came home, it was to our PCs and hours of Internet, lobbing instant messages back and forth to each other from adjoining bedrooms — with the connecting door open. I'm saying ours was a sedentary existence. Yet somehow my roommate and best friend, a young woman who refused to order anything more adventurous than spaghetti red at every Italian restaurant we ever went to, believed that my all-black wardrobe and eyeliner made me less inclined to do something out of character than she was. I was almost offended.

What I thought: I can be spontaneous! I can cast off my gothy mantle whenever I want — go ride the bumper cars at Worlds of Fun, be the only white guy in a sketchy neighborhood's fried-chicken place, sing along with some poppy ’90s hit playing over a store PA, catch a demolition derby, make snickerdoodles, I don't know. I'm not a slave to my subculture, dammit!

What I said: "Whatever," then took a nonchalant drag of my cigarette.

A half hour later we were cruising up Broadway in the Captain's car, windows down, Gary Numan yowling from the stereo:
Down in the park
Where the chant is
"Death, death, death"
Until the sun cries morning
Down in the park
With friends of mine
Was it stupid to soundtrack our lives by picking a song "for the moment"? Probably, but we did it all the same.

We waited in our parking spot while the track played through, then set out on calf-high booted feet for where dogs ran and picnickers picnicked on weekends, this midday abandoned but for us, a couple of oddballs in black, come to toss around a color-coordinated Frisbee.

It's the kind of skill that sticks with you, Frisbee-throwing. Like riding a bike. I was never especially good at that, either. My Frisbee flings banked right too often, crashing into the grass and rolling far afield of their intended target, but the Captain didn't complain about chasing them down, so long as I cast a few into her waiting hands. Don't let her long-sleeved Nine Inch Nails T-shirt fool you; over-the-shoulder slings, boomerang flicks, behind the back catches — the Captain's masterful discmanship exposed her secret teenage flirtation with hippiedom. (And I happened to know she also played a mean game of hacky-sack.)

Beneath my velvet pants, my skin was feeling a little dewy, to which the Captain responded, "Eew!" She was feeling the effects of our fun under the sun's cheerful beaming, too, so we retired to a concrete bench in the umbra of tall pines, blanketed all around by their shed needles. Light gusts of air stirred their fresh scent, and I yawned. So quiet, so dim. I could just lie down right....

"Hooman?" the Captain prodded my elbow. Translation: Are you ready to sleep yet? I nodded, suddenly feeling drained.

She drove us home. Without another word I shut my bedroom door, barely getting my laces undone and boots off before collapsing into bed like a corpse. I didn't even care that I was damp; more laundry for later, was all. The only thought in my head, just before I lost consciousness and plummeted through enough restful hours' sleep to get me through that night's work, was, Huh, the experts were right.