Brains Are Bullshit

I didn’t recognize the waitress when I walked in; she was tall, and her curly hair was gray. She was close to the door. She smiled at me and welcomed me in.

“You’ll have to settle for a table,” she said when she spotted me eyeballing the lack of seats at the counter.

Everything is close to the door at Bertie Lou’s. The place is tiny. As you enter, you’re at one end of the counter: the kitchen right behind the bar in a space maybe 20′ long and 10′ wide. To the left is a doorway to the dining room, the same shape as the counter space/kitchen, except it had two four-tops and five two-tops, only one of which was a window seat.

On more beautiful days, there were seats outside. Today was not a more beautiful day. Even under the umbrellas, you’d be soaked and chilly.

I had wanted company, but if there were no seats where I could chat with the cook and other customers, I would, indeed, settle for a table. “Well, alright, if you insist,” I said.

“Brian!” E.’s voice came from behind the taller, older waitress. “It’s good to see you!” She was short, shorter than me. Her eyes lit up behind her glasses, and she tucked a strand of dark brown hair behind her ear. She smiled.

“Oh, I was hoping you’d be here.” I smiled, too, but I felt the social pressure to move from the cramped area right by the cash register and move into the back, following Tall Waitress, so through the doorway, I walked.

I picked the two-top against the back wall because I had brought my laptop and didn’t want to disturb anyone if I had to use it. Tall Waitress asked me if I wanted coffee. “And cream, please,” I agreed.

I sat, she brought coffee but no cream. I sipped the coffee and pretended to look at the menu. E. came back shortly after, asking me how I’m doing. I don’t get to come in here very often when E. is working. It had been a while.

“I’m leaving,” she admitted, suddenly.

“Leaving… Bertie Lou’s? Portland? Sellwood?”

“Oh, no, I’m not leaving Sellwood. I’m going to stay here for as long as I can. No, my last day is in November. I’m… I’m not really sure what I’m doing, honestly.”

“Do you have something else lined up?”

“Yes! Yes. I have a job—”

“There’s a space at the counter if you want to move!” Tall Waitress interrupted genially.

“Uh, sure, that’d be great, thanks.”

E. stepped back, allowing me to grab my laptop bag. “Here, I’ll carry your coffee for you.” Tall Waitress chuckled. “See, it’s good I haven’t brought your cream yet.”

The open seat was back against the wall, not near the register. I had a great view of the cook, a bald wiry guy with a wry sense of humor. E. tried to take my order, but I had already given it to Tall Waitress.

I got my breakfast—chicken-fried pork chop with gravy, scrambled eggs, a biscuit, home fries—and ate it, while surfing on my phone, trying to keep my elbows tucked in as others sat down on either side of me, trying to chew with my mouth closed (a complaint an ex had with me, and one I’ve internalized with shame). I listened to the chatter around me, took in the faint sounds of country-western music, and felt at home.

Both E. and Tall Waitress kept my coffee mug filled. Another regular, D., came in and got a conversation going about horoscopes and astrology, which gave me an idea for a short story.

I love this place.

When I’d cleaned my plate, and had my fill of coffee (and cream), I gathered my bag and my coat and slid down to the register. E. and I smiled at each other, and I handed over my card. “I’m going to save my cash.”

I felt the urge to say… something. Something. Anything. I remembered a lovely summer afternoon, sharing tacos with E. and her doggo, on an outside table at another favorite haunt of mine.

Abruptly, she said, “Do you have my number?”

I sighed and smiled. “I was just about to ask you for that.”

I pulled out my phone and typed in her number, tapped out a text message: “Hi! It’s Brian.” Hit Send.

“I am sure I will be back in here before the end of November,” I said, “but just in case, maybe we can hang out and have tacos again sometime.”

Pokémon With People

Swiping right

Of course, I’ve been on the various dating apps for a long time. Bumble, Tinder, and OK Cupid, primarily. I don’t know of many others. Match? Plenty of Fish (which I can’t help but see as “Plenty Offish” for reasons that should be obvious)? Hinge is a new one, too, but that requires far more interaction than I’m comfortable with. Actually commenting and sending a message with the first response? I’d much rather just swipe, right or left, yes or no, in or out.

Of the swipey-swipey apps, I call them “Pokémon with people”. When I have that hit of boredom that makes me want to get a quick hit of dopamine, I’ll open up the folder on my phone where I keep all the dating apps, and go through them, swiping until I’ve swiped everyone in my area that meets my requirements. I do it just to see a parade of faces and names and pithy descriptions. For a long time now, several years at the very least, I have done it with no expectations of matching with anyone. It’s just a simple game. The app developers have gamified dating and I am falling for the hook.

I don’t fall for it enough to pay money to increase my odds. Deep down, I don’t want to increase my odds of matching at all, if I’m honest with myself. Just the rare match is enough to keep me going.

Even when I do match, I rarely initiate conversation. I just keep swiping. That’s why it feels like an empty, pointless, game.

(There’s a word or phrase for that kind of game, right? The ones that just keep you coming back without any overall achievement? The Farmville kinds of games. Why am I blanking on that word? Maybe it’ll come to me if I keep typing.)

Swiping Left

I don’t think my requirements are very strict, so in theory, I should match with a lot of potential partners. Being 54 and male, I set the age range between 40 and 60, which, as I understand it, goes up much higher than other men my age. Of course, I could see myself dating a woman older than myself. There are plenty of women in my age bracket that I find attractive. The question in the back of my mind (oh, hello, Inner Negative Voice) is: would they find me attractive?

I have the usual dealbreakers, or what feels like a standard set. I swipe left (left is “No”, in case you didn’t know) on people who describe themselves as conservative. I’m very left-wing, politically, and I don’t think I would get much empathy or feel much connection with someone whose politics exclude all empathy and connection, which is what American conservatism is focused on these days.

I’m also not interested in folks who describe themselves as moderates, or, shudder, “apolitical”. That, to me, is just giving up, or giving aid to the conservatives. It’s not enough in our polarized times to claim neutrality against fascism, authoritarianism, or cults of personality; in my view, we need to stand against those ideologies. When I see “centrist” in a dating profile, I send them to the left. Best of luck but you are not for me.

Self-described Christians are also generally a turn-off. I’m an atheist, largely because American Christianity has become so strongly associated, politically, with conservative radicals, so I’m wary. I will, however, give more consideration to potential matches who claim liberal Christianity—though to be fair, those are few and far between.

One last dealbreaker for me, and it might be a touchy one. This is not meant as a judgment of someone’s character, it’s just that it’s not something I see myself as being capable of enjoying without a lot of angst and anxiety on my part. I swipe left if I see someone describe themselves as poly or in an “open” relationship. I understand that many people are communicative and honest and inclusive. I would love to be all of those things. In practice, I fear that I am not. I would have to have built up a level of trust with someone before I would be willing to try it, and the thought of starting off a relationship, even in the very beginning stages, while also including others I may or may not know about, is daunting in the extreme. So I decline to match with those folks. Maybe I could build up to it, approach it cautiously over time.

Whoops, We Matched?

All of this is rambling is because, for some magical reason, I currently have, not one, not two, but three matches in a couple of apps. I’m confused by this. I haven’t done anything differently. I haven’t really updated my profile, although I did add a couple of recent pics from last weekend from the comic convention—do I look happier in those pictures, and therefore might seem a better match?

Regardless, having three matches seems like an embarrassment of riches. How could it possibly be that there are three people out there who would want to talk to me, want to get to know me better, want to maybe meet up and share thoughts and all that? Not possible says my Inner Negative Voice. That can’t be right. It must be a mistake.

Do I find them attractive, my matches? Yes, I do. They’re all in my age range, they all seem politically left, they all have profiles with lots of words of description and thought put into them, indicating lively and creative minds. All these things are plusses. What do I do?

Well, if I had to tell a friend in this situation some advice, I’d say: just respond and see what happens. Try not to overthink it. Just go with it. I know you feel like matching is anxiety-inducing because you’re not used to it, and your self-esteem has been beaten down over the years, but communicating is not nearly as big a risk as your Inner Negative Voice is telling you. Just respond.

It’ll be OK, no matter what. It’ll be OK. You’re going to be OK.

That Big Gap in the Middle

That old novel idea has been bubbling around in my brain again. The idea has been with me for a long time, years now. I’ve made at least two attempts at it but I’ve never been able to write it all down, start to finish, so I hesitate to call my previous attempts “drafts”. I have spent a lot of effort on it, though, and I have tons of notes and character ideas and themes… but when I try to think of the actual plot, as in the series of events that happen over the course of the story, my brain just kind of fuzzes out.

I spent some time in the last couple of weeks stuffing clever people’s ideas about premise vs. plot into my head, and I came to the decision that I will write down everything I think needs to happen, and then see if that will tell me what I need to work on still.

So I did.

That big gap in the middle… that’s the problem.

Each color represents a different main character, although I have a couple of other characters I still need to add. But seeing it all laid out like that… you see that big gap in the middle-ish? That’s the part I’m struggling with. I don’t really know what happens there.

Turns out it was helpful to write it all down. I can spend some time thinking about that gap and figuring out what needs to happen to connect the beginning and end.

And, honestly… maybe it’s OK for the protagonist (in blue) to be simply reactive to what the antagonist is doing in the early part of the story. Maybe that leads to a breaking point where they have to push through their weakness, the one that keeps holding them back, and be more proactive.

I really identify with them right now. Time to be more proactive…

Interactions of the Slow Decay of Physical Objects and Stress-induced Depression

Months ago, during the cold rainy late winter/early spring, my driver’s side window stopped going up just after I had gotten to work and shown the guard my badge. Having no time to deal with it on a cold rainy morning, I covered the window with a handy piece of cardboard and went to work.

That evening after work I drove my car over to my dad’s house, where he helped me with the initial diagnosis: the window switch for the power windows. I bolted the window closed, left the inside door panel off because I figured I’d put it all back once I had the part, and drove it that way for a couple of days.

But when the switch arrived, it turned out to not be the faulty part. Nope, it was the motor and regulator. Once more to search online for a cheap replacement, and another few days driving my car with the guts of the door exposed until the motor showed up.

But at the time I was going through a wearying game of not being able to pay my rent, and fighting with my landlord about it, and all my mental energy went towards two things: trying to keep my job so I’d at least have some money, and hoping I could land a better paying job so I could keep the apartment I had lived in for 19 years. I had no more energy for fixing a functional but decaying car.

I limped by with the window still bolted in place for another couple of weeks. The car’s state matched my mental state: just holding on but clearly falling apart. I couldn’t roll down the window, and with the inside door panel still not replaced, I had to pull a lever to open the door. But it was OK for now. And I thought I was OK for the moment, too.

Weeks later I did get the motor installed, and for now, the window went up and down. I was dismayed to find out, however, that the window still got stuck sometimes about halfway closed. I had to pull at it, or push it up from underneath, to get it to close completely sometimes. Not always, but often enough that I just stopped rolling down my window unless I absolutely had to.

I stopped rolling down the window when it was nice out; I’d just run the a/c. I didn’t roll it down for the security guards at work; just pressed my badge against the window. At gas stations, I’d open the door to give my credit card to the attendant unless I felt really lucky. I noticed that the window got jammed less frequently on warmer days, more on colder or wetter days.

But my stress and depression kept increasing, which led to me taking at least a day off every week, which meant I didn’t get paid (I’d long since used up my paid sick time), which meant it was harder and harder to pay my rent. A classic downward spiral.

Letters from lawyers began to arrive, and I had to do something, so I admitted defeat, packed up most of my stuff, and found a room with family I could stay in temporarily until I could find cheaper living quarters.

One day, I was getting out of my car, and the metal rod that opened the door got caught on a pocket of my pants. It tore my pants and snapped the rod out of place. I tried to see how it went back in but was too frustrated to really try.

Again, rather than fixing the mechanical problem, I just adapted to the new normal. I’d roll my window down to reach outside and unlatch the door that way. But I wouldn’t roll it all the way down; just to the point where it wouldn’t jam. And even then, sometimes the window needed a little push or pull to go all the way back up.

There I was, driving around with the guts of my door in my peripheral vision. It reminded me every time I drove that I was failing. Was my mental state causing me to give up? Or was I giving up and causing things to fail? I knew that the window jamming in the channels was causing strain on the motor, and it would all eventually fail. But for now…

It all worked… just barely. I could live with it. I had to work on finding a more permanent place to live. I had to keep my job. I had to focus on other things.

This past week, the window stopped going up and down again.  It made nasty grinding sounds. It happened when I was on my way to a drug test I had to pass to get a potential raise at work (long story made short: I would still be a contractor but there would be one less middleman taking a cut of my pay). I climbed over the center console and out the passenger door and realized I had let things slide too far.

I told no one about this until Saturday morning. I knew I had to repair this car. And I had the mental energy to do it because I had gotten the raise. I was fixing my financial life. I could fix my transportation, too.

I texted my friend Ken to ask him if he had any time soon to help me fix the window and the door latch and put it all back together. I needed help.

His reply:

Bring it over.

No questions asked. Just bring it over. I knew he had his kids this weekend and he loves his kids very much. I felt a bit of panic. Right now?! I asked him if I was interrupting any plans he had.

Meh. It’s fine. I miss my friend and need some normal interaction time.

I drove it over there and we disassembled the window again and found the broken part. A drive out to the U-Pull-It junkyard on a pleasant summer day, a hunt for the part, and then back to his garage. When we got it assembled, I pointed out it still was slow or sluggish at the same point and felt resigned to defeat.

Ken messed with the window a bit and pointed out that there was a way to adjust how the regulator was angled, and just like that, the window went up and down as smooth as butter.

Then he dug around in the door and got the metal rod back in place to open the door from the inside. All I had to do was replace the inside door panel, and it would be back to the normal level of old car, and not Millennium Falcon level of open panels and exposed wiring. I didn’t do that there, at Ken’s house, because the parts were all back at my house. But I instantly felt better.

Tonight, I got the door panel back on and took the car for a little spin before bedtime. I actually enjoyed driving it, instead of the dread and regret I felt for having neglected it for so long. It’s working now just as designed.

Did I fix my car because I am fixing my life? Or is fixing my life helping me get the things around me fixed, too? I had to ask Ken for help, something that has been very difficult for me, and I assumed he wouldn’t be able to. He, however, like most of my friends and family, was immediately ready to assist.

I didn’t have the capacity to ask for help these last several months; in fact, none of my friends even knew my car wasn’t working right. But now, knowing I’m getting paid more for the same work, I could ask.

Which part is cause, and which, effect?

a figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity

I’m 5 years old, maybe younger, definitely preschool. I’m wearing my hooded blue cordoroy coat, zipped in snug, wearing ice skates and standing on the edge of the rink.

Near the railing.

In fact, I’m hanging on to the railing for dear life, watching the other kids skate and laugh and fall down and get back up again.

I look at my hands, knuckles white, death grip on the rail.

Every time I move my feet, I feel the blade cutting into the ice and slip. Each foot seems to want to go in different directions. But if I hang on to the rail, hard, as hard as I’ve ever gripped anything in my entire life… my feet can’t go far.

One finger starts to loosen… knuckles slowly turn flesh-colored again… One finger slowly moves itself away from the others, twitching from the release of tension, but ready in an instant to resume clutching the rail.

I slip. I grip harder.

The sounds of yelling and happy voices are muffled by the thick warm material of the coat, somewhere behind me. Out on the rink. The volume of their joyful noise rises and falls as they circle the rink.

The cold slowly penetrates my protective coat.

I manage to let go, briefly, nanoseconds’ worth, my palm separated by bare milimeters of air.

True story. For several certain values of True.