For almost ten years, I have been working on an illustrated memoir of my turbulent 20s called An American Comedy. It has a three-part structure, loosely based on Dante's Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. I have finished and published (in zine form) parts I and I. This summer, I have been dutifully working on the third and final part. I'm happy to say, I'm basically done. Over the next week, I will be posting one chapter a day. Here we go:
An American Comedy
Book 3: Paradise
“Now I pray you, by that virtue
which leads you to the top of the stair,
think of me in my time of pain.
Then he hid himself in the refining fire.”
Chapter 1: Wandering
“We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist.”
I remember, when I first began writing this book, I imagined the story’s arc would be something like this: religious young man has traumatic illness/existential crisis, loses faith, gets severely depressed, begins long struggle to re-build his mind and his faith, culminating in his re-affirming his faith, getting married, living happily after. A touching fantasy.
This, however, did not happen. The story goes more like this: young man has traumatic illness/existential crisis, loses faith, gets severely depressed, begins long struggle to re-build his mind and his faith, discovers art and literature, gets a Masters degree, stops going to church.
The crisis did not end. Here I am, 30 years old, and more uncertain than ever. If anything, this is a story about being okay with crisis, of using it. The sparks of this crisis are the words in this book.
I scan my bookshelves alone in my apartment on a Saturday night, looking for something to read that will give name and form to this particular constellation of feelings, but I can find nothing. So I will try to write it.
Lonely. Said goodnight to a girl so I could go home, drink a beer, smoke two cigarettes, and watch internet porn. It’s easier to do those things than try to navigate the more complicated waters of dealing with and relating to a real person. I will settle for substitutes. I know it will bring long-term emptiness and pain, but I lack the strength and will to work toward something real with a woman.
So I lay alone in my cum-wet boxers and write with a broken pen. It’s like Oscar Wilde said, “We are our own devils.”
I’m sorry for the man I’ve become. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But who can I apologize to? I embarrass myself. I want our lives to sing. I want to believe in God and not be afraid of dying all the time. I want to look my father in the eyes and say, “I believe.” Instead, I evade the issue and we both have sad eyes. I’m sorry, dad. I’m sorry, mom. I’m sorry, brother.
Remember when we all believed the same things and it made sense? Sometimes I want to be a child again, but I am an adult with all the accompanying pain and guilt and regret and difficulty saying what I really want to say.
How can I say it? 25 years of English study and I can’t even write it. Not all at once. I’ve gotta keep trying. The things that matter often take a long time to say.
TV or not TV. That is the question.
Whether it’s nobler in the mind to sit and passively, mindlessly receive sounds and images, or to take arms against a sea of passivity and fucking do something useful with your life, because your time is limited.
I refuse to waste my life.
A restless afternoon. I wander. I get in my truck and just drive, wasting gas, hurting the environment. But I feel this restless compulsion. I drive, looking for a place to read and draw. A place to get a cup of coffee that isn’t Starbucks or The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. I’m tired of Fullerton. I drive to La Habra, pull through the parking lot of an enormous shopping center. The line for Hometown Buffet is around the corner. Obese America. The first of at least four massive shopping centers I’ll pass on my little journey.
I am looking for a happiness that lies outside consumption. I consider stopping at A & W for a root beer float, but do not. I consider stopping at Tommy’s burgers for those chili cheese fries. But I do not stop at Tommy’s burgers.
Out of La Habra and into Whittier. Past a couple more massive shopping centers. Into Uptown Whittier. It’s older here. I could to to the Little Old Bookshop. But the Little Old Bookshop has moved and become the Large New Bookshop. I do not enter. I park on Greenleaf and wander, looking into store windows. Nothing looks good. Nothing feels right. I am looking for something I cannot find.
I feel like a fool sitting at a table alone in Mimo’s Café, writing. I miss the days where people would sit in cafes and write and draw and discuss politics and art. Like Paris in the 1920s. I was not around then. But I miss those days.
My parents suggested I buy a condo, that I “get in the market.” But that is not what I want. I like my old apartment downtown.
I’m at this breast cancer fundraiser tonight that my friend Nilo puts on every year at this super swanky club in Costa Mesa called Sutra. I feel totally uncomfortable, surrounded by very wealthy, fake-breasted, botoxed, bleach blonde manufactured people who inhabit South Orange County. I don’t mean to stereotype, but it seems as if all the Orange County stereotypes have gathered at this club.
I stand with my friends, filling up on the free appetizers and nursing my $7 bottle of beer. I want to get the fuck out of there. Fuckin phonies.
But something happens that changes my mind.
My friend Chuck has put together a short film for the fundraiser, and my mom is in the film because she is a breast cancer survivor. Seeing my mom in that film is like seeing her with new eyes.
She exudes this strength and vulnerability and genuine emotion that cuts through the bullshit of that club like a knife. It is beautiful. There is nothing contrived about her, only a disarming truthfulness. And I feel proud to be here.
I lay in bed and feel like falling asleep, like disappearing. I lay on my uncomfortable, cheap mattress in my shared room, surrounded by ungraded papers, dirty clothes, scraps of papers, and I feel incapable of doing anything. I think this would make an interesting photograph or painting: “Depressed Young Man in Ridiculously Cluttered Room.”
The first day of summer. I lay in bed and watch a movie. Afterward, I have a headache, and I don’t feel like doing anything. I want to just lay around, but I know that will only make me more depressed, and besides I don’t want to waste my life.
In my room, my eyes catch the book Easy Day Hikes in Orange County. It was an impulse buy at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago. An hour later, I am standing in the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, hiking through wetlands with seabirds flying overhead.
When I sit down to write, I notice that this area is surrounded by tract houses and oil wells. I bet the developers and oil companies were pissed when The Bolsa Chica Conservancy managed to preserve these 300 acres of prime coastal real estate.
I put in my earbuds, but quickly take them out because I realize—I would rather listen to the sounds of these birds.
I walk in and it smells of garbage. Instead of taking the trash out, my roommate has simply removed the old trash bag and leaned it against the stove, so now we have two bags of rotting garbage in our kitchen.
The kitchen floor is uncleanable. It used to be a yellowish linoleum but is now a blotchy brown. The refrigerator is a collage of random photos, clippings, magnets—family and friends and former roommates and places we’ve visited—Monterey, New York, San Diego. I have an extensive collection of American Express card magnets that they send me every month or so. I haven’t gotten any in a while. Maybe they realized I was just keeping the magnets and not opening an American Express account.
The living room is a mess of papers, books, loose change. There is a plate with the hardened residue of some food item. The floor is littered with little white pebbles that everyone tracks in from our rooftop patio. The dining room table has become a dumping ground for random stuff we’re too lazy to put away—computer speakers, old mail, a button maker.
We have no insulation and we are too cheap/poor to run the air conditioning or the heater, so in the winter it’s cold and in the summer it’s unbearably hot.
I have lived in this apartment for four years.
I stand at my dad’s bookshelf, looking at his books, which are mostly Christian books.
I’m here on a Sunday night, house-sitting for my parents because my aunt Becky died three days ago, on Thanksgiving, of cancer. She was 56 years old.
It’s like 1:30 am and I’m not tired, so I’m looking for a book on my dad’s shelf. Certain books carry with them the weight of memories.
Near the top are books by Chuck Swindoll, the megachurch pastor whose radio ministry my dad took a job with in 1986, which is why we left Wisconsin. Chuck Swindoll is the reason I ended up in California.
There’s a book called The Prophecy of Isaiah that I remember my dad reading at the same time I took a college course on Isaiah and textual criticism, which caused me to question the Bible as a reliable source of truth.
There’s another book called The Myth of Certainty, written by an English professor at a Christian college, that my dad gave to me when I left school and came back home and was in a deep and dark depression and I had lost my faith.
I stand at my dad’s bookshelf looking at these books that, in a way, tell the story of my life and my dad’s life and I think about the person I used to be and the person I am now and the sorrows my family has known and I wonder what my dad thinks of me, really, in his heart, and I wonder if my dad knows what I think of him, and I think about how our lives have not turned out like we thought they would, but I guess that’s okay. I think about these things, alone at 1:30 am in a house in Brea, CA, and I cry a little.
I pick up a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions, read a few lines which are translated from the Latin into a flowery King James-style English, and I wonder if the original language is as flowery as this translation. I doubt it. So I put it back and pick up a copy of The Story of Christianity, by Justo Gonzalez, which I’ve read before and actually liked. So that is the book I will read as I fall asleep.
In his introduction, Gonzales writes:
“If we are to break free from an undue weight of tradition, we must begin by understanding what that tradition is, how we came to be where we are, and how particular events in our past color our view of the present. It is then that we are free to choose which elements in the past—and in the present—we wish to reject, and which we will affirm.”
I feel depressed today. A certain lethargy which makes it difficult to do anything but lay around. A certain sickness in my stomach that I associate with depression. I drink beer and smoke cigarettes, thinking these things will make me feel better, but they make me feel worse. The beer tastes like battery acid. The smoke feels like poison going in my body.
I don’t know what to do so I grab a book (Either/Or by Kierkegaard) and my journal and walk to Starbucks and now I am drinking water and writing and I think I feel a little better.
I rush about, trying to occupy myself, trying to be in different places than I normally go. I heard that is how you break habits. I wander through Guitar Center, Mervyn’s, Video Dollar. I take pictures with my dad’s 1984 Minolta film camera. I wander suburban neighborhoods. I ride a blue beach cruiser.
I eavesdrop on a conversation between a man and a woman outside Starbucks. For some reason, her question, “Are you mad at me?” infuriates me.
I feel a hollowness in my chest, a need that is palpable. I want to tell someone about this, but I don’t know who to tell. So I write it down, because I honestly don’t know what else to do.
Tonight I played music with some friends and then I walked home at 2:45 am, past some kids toilet-papering a house, and it was like I remembered a part of who I used to be, a good part.
It was not a memory of concrete events, but more like an emotional memory.
My dad and I have a deal. I will read a Christian book with him if he will read a book of my choice with me. So we are reading “Everything that Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor together.
At some point, I tell my dad something I haven’t told him ever, “Dad, I need you to be okay with me not being a Christian right now.”
I drive home, listening to an interview with the writer T.C. Boyle on NPR. Boyle says that it was Flannery O’Connor who inspired him to start writing. He said, “She can make you laugh, and then she can make you squirm.” Amen.
I stop at Michaels to pick up some new brushes and there are all these women buying Christmas decorations—fake flowers and like wreaths and shit. No one seems to be buying actual art supplies. It makes me so goddamned depressed. I imagine blowing my brains out right here in Michaels so it covers the fake flowers with blood and brain matter.
It was probably a reactionary-type thing. Most of the decisions I make are, at core, a reaction to being hurt in some way. This applies to religious decisions too, if there is such a thing as religious decisions.
It was probably (though I hate to admit it) because of a girl. Girls tend to drive me either toward or away from church, depending on the situation. For example, I was once in a relationship with a girl when I was also suffering from a major clinical depression, and perhaps I put unrealistic expectations and hopes on the situation with this girl, like she could “save me” etc.
But what happened was this girl ended up falling for the music leader at church, and not exactly dumping me, but more like ignoring me (i.e. not returning calls), which is, of course, a crueler and more cowardly thing to do than actually dumping someone, in my opinion. So this girl left me for the music leader, and it was at that moment that I began to become hyper-aware of all the reasons why church is stupid and backward and hypocritical and retarded. Like, for example, how the aforementioned music leader seemed more like he was performing at a pop concert or musical, instead of leading churchgoers into some kind of “worship” or “praise” experience when he was “leading worship.”
And so shortly after being dumped/ignored/let down by aforementioned girl, I made a personal decision to never again set foot in that stupid fucking church again.
If you asked me why I stopped going to church, I would give you a laundry list of perfectly justified-seeming reasons: the conservative closed-minded ideology did not “gel” with my particular intellectual/artistic values, the Bible was a flawed and not too reliable basis for an entire worldview. I had studied textual criticism and often pointed out the fact that the so-called “messianic” prophecies in the Old Testament (a term I found offensive from a Jewish perspective) that Christians liked to point to as “proof” of the Bible’s divine authority actually referred to socio-political events from Israel’s history and therefore not to Jesus Christ. Plus there was the whole philosophical problem of knowing anything with certainty, especially non-physical spiritual things. It seemed to me that the appropriate response to the question “Is Christianity true in the capital-T True sense?” was a shrug of the shoulders.
These are some of the reasons I would give if you ever asked me why I stopped going to church. What I would not tell you was this: “My heart was broken.”
And so it was that seven years later, the night after a girl I may have loved (a different girl—the aforementioned girl from church was now married to aforementioned music leader and had a couple kids and lived in a house in Fullerton with a 30-year mortgage and a minivan) told me, “I don’t think we should date. I think we should just be friends” that I found myself waking up at 8am on a Sunday morning and walking to church--a time when I would normally be passed out after a night of moderate to heavy drinking, perhaps passed out semi-naked in the bed of a girl I did, or did not, really like. Another one of the reasons I did not go to church those days was because I’d been up very late the previous night drinking large amounts of alcohol and/or engaging in casual (as opposed to committed/serious) sex and was therefore so tired and hungover and demoralized that the possibility of waking up for church was not a possibility.
I was, in fact, a little hungover on that particular Sunday morning. The previous night I’d imbibed three cans of Budweiser beer and three vodka cocktails. But still, I awoke alone with a profound (albeit conflicted) desire to go to church.
What the girl had said to me was this: “I don’t think we should sleep together anymore.”
To which I replied, “Do you mean ‘sleep together’ as a euphemism for ‘have sex’ or that we should never literally sleep in the same bed?” The reason I required this clarification was because we had only slept together in the euphemistic sense one time (the previous night) whereas we had literally slept in the same bed together (a little cuddling, kissing, but no funny business) maybe five times.
To which she replied, “I don’t think we should literally sleep together,” and then added, “I think we should just be friends.”
To me this was a crippling blow, because I really did like (maybe love) her and since the night of our first and only “sleeping together” I had felt a slew of emotions ranging from guilt and sadness to excitement and anxiety, to other feelings I could not name—feelings I interpreted to mean, “I like this person in a more than casual/friendly way.”
There was also fear, because I had neglected to use a condom and had instead used the “pull-out” method, which at the time seemed like an okay idea, but in retrospect seemed like a really fucking stupid idea. And I’d spent a whole afternoon on the internet, reading about the ineffectiveness of the “pull-out” method, the sperm count of pre-ejaculate, etc, and basically convincing myself that the girl was pregnant, an occurrence I felt totally ill-equipped to deal with—emotionally, psychologically, financially. Would I want her to get an abortion? Is abortion wrong? What about adoption? Was it as fun and quirky as that movie “Juno” depicted it to be?
It was in the midst of this silent, internal, anxious worrying that I’d had an epiphany of sorts, which eventually led me to church.
The epiphany was this. I came to actually accept the idea of this girl being pregnant and having the child and me caring for the child and loving him/her. Maybe I would marry the girl and my life would change completely. I would be less free, but I actually began to be okay with and embrace the idea of having a family and real familial-type responsibilities and commitments and all that, like I almost wanted this to happen.
And one other thing happened. That very same week, the writer David Foster Wallace (my favorite writer) committed suicide, which really affected me, so much so that I’d written a eulogy for the man and read it to my parents and cried as I read it.
And but so all of these things: the (probably unfounded) pregnancy fears, the idea of family, the death of David Foster Wallace, all of these things created a matrix of thoughts in my mind that amounted to something of an existential crisis: Who am I? How do I relate to other people? Am I basically a selfish person? What does it mean to love someone? What is family? What is my purpose? These types of questions.
These questions, combined with the growing sense of emptiness I felt about living what was basically a self-centered, pleasure-seeking life, and the bankruptcy of such a life—all of this compelled me to wake up on this particular Sunday morning and walk to church, despite my long-held reservations.
I did not continue going to church for long. In a sentence: it was too cheesy for me. But I think all of this was the start of a new direction in my life, one it would take me a very long time to explain.
In Seattle, visiting my brother and his family. I walk downtown, feeling the weight of memory. These Seattle people with pale faces. The people of the rainy weather. This pale-faced guy on 3rd Avenue is playing a pretty depressing rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”
I sit on the ledge of the Fremont boat canal. The same ledge I sat ten years ago, when my life was basically falling apart. I am listening to hopeful music by Mason Jennings, smoking a cigarette. I have survived. I am here. I am okay.