This is how it happened. This is how a dog dies.

A year ago, Lilo got into the bony remains of the ribs I’d cooked for dinner. She unhasped the latch of the cupboard where we keep the trash basket with sheer doggy strength, and crunched them down while we were out shopping. Cooked pork bones can splinter in such a way the shards can tear gullet, intestines, other vital organs. When she passed blood–and not enough bone–we took her to the vet, who doped and fed her stuff to make her intestines glow on x-ray.

And everything worked out. She recovered, bounced back to full health, and we fitted the trash cupboard with a magnetic lock to ensure this never happened again.

A month ago, Lilo was diagnosed with a uterine tract infection. Ordinarily very careful to let us know when she had to go out, she’d wet herself a number of times leaving warm wet patches underfoot and in our bed. When she was young she’d often from suffered UTIs; now she was older, she was even more prone to them. The vet performed abdominal examinations, prescribed medication, and nearly three weeks later her bladder was completely under control.

She was fine, we thought.

A week ago, we celebrated ThanksGiftMas. It was the first and last of its kind, a sad sort of holiday cobbled together from what was in the cupboards and in the fridge, and a few things purchased from the supermarket, walking there and back again, in the cold and in the rain. We listened to festive music, for a while, and played a game in which Lilo’s special occasion toy, a plush raccoon with a squeaker in each paw and and tail that rustled, was stuffed with ham and turkey for her to tear from its guts.

I brined and honey-roasted a chicken, all in a matter of hours. We made her a plate with meat, gravy, broccoli, carrots, peas, potatoes–all her favourite things. She ate well, which was good. On ThanksGiftMas at least, she still had her appetite.

The Friday before ThanksGiftMas, our dog fell ill. It happened in the time it takes to brine and roast a chicken; though of course, that was only how it seemed to us. Her illness had seized hold long before Friday, because by Friday it was already too late.

On Friday morning she said goodbye to my wife. She held her head high and kept her tail in the air. She hated letting people leave, and did so only grudgingly once they’d petted her and told her to be a good girl. Friday morning was exceptional only in that it would be her last.

At midday she was fine. After the business with her UTI I took her out every two hours. The block in which our apartment is situated is one of the few in Madison to allow big dogs. Nearly every apartment here houses a dog, but during the day with their owners at work, it’s rare to encounter any of them.

So we had the estate to ourselves. Snow had fallen on-and-off since Halloween, and though I couldn’t smell the other dogs’ pee I could see the deep yellow wells they’d left. Lilo sniffed them, prodding her nose as deep as it’d go and withdrawing it sugared with snowflakes. She’s timid, but she likes other dogs. This was her way of discovering who’d been out while she’d been inside. My wife called it ‘checking her pee-mail.’

At midday she ate voraciously as always. At half-one, with cold and darkness drawing tighter with every passing day, I decided we should take our walk early rather than in twilight. I keep her leashed in a harness. She hated it at first, but after slipping her collar more than once it became a requirement, and she got used to it. She’d even lift her paws for me in the end, one at a time, not really understanding they had to go through the harness loops but knowing in some abstract way that paw-lifting preceded walkies.

The funny about walks: she only truly enjoyed going when it was all three of us. With my wife at her side and I behind (yet still holding the leash) she could out-walk us both. When it was just me, she would required a acclimation period. Walking to the elementary school and back, for a third of the way she’d strain at her leash, stubbornly refuse to move, try to trick me into retuning home by waddling in for a squatting poop, then crossing the road instead of delivering the goods.

But after that first third she’d get used to the idea, and enjoy the rest of our walk. She loved walks so much, we referred to them nonchalantly as ‘strolls’ so we could talk about them without overexciting her.

More than that, after reaching our half-way point, a yellow line marking the crossing guard’s patrol, she’d half-garrote herself trying to run home. It was as if she remembered that exciting as walks were there was every possibility my wife might have returned while we were gone. She didn’t want to miss family time.

My first sign she was sick was her lagging behind all the way to the school and back. She didn’t get used to our stroll, neither did she tear home at the half-way mark.

But even though she was such a happy dog, it wasn’t completely unknown for her mood to drop. Madison’s water is ridiculously hard. I’d know to change the Brita filter according to Lilo’s stool softening, and our dog seeming a little off-colour. Once changed I’d pour her a fresh bowl. Soon enough, she’d be fine.

She vomited while I prepared dinner. Headphones on, wrists deep in flour, and all the while she was trying to get onto the balcony so she wouldn’t make a mess. When I noticed, I let her out, cleaned up her sick, and out in the snow she vomited again, and again, and continued to vomit through the evening and into the night. Our year-old carpet washer, bought specifically to clean up her messes, died a death of its own, reeking of electrical fire under the strain of keeping up. When my wife came home Lilo didn’t lap our couch multiple times at high speed, but managed only two circuits, walked slowly and carefully.

By nightfall she wasn’t herself. She had lost her appetite, but also her wag, her penchant for licking. When presented with a friendly hand she’d turn her head with her tail between her legs. She trembled, first in her hind quarters, then throughout her body. Her teeth chattered. At times she removed herself, slinking under the table or staying away when we moved from one room to another. At others she clearly wanted to get away, but lacked the strength to do so.

At bedtime we managed to coax her to her customary position at the foot of our bed. She stayed there, lying still, barely breathing.

And yet in spite of her lethargy she was restless. She didn’t want to move but she couldn’t make herself comfortable comfortable. She wanted to lie somewhere soft, but anything softer than the carpet troubled her. We built an impromptu staircase so she could climb onto our bed, and moved the mattress into the living room so she wouldn’t have to. Neither was good enough. Neither felt comfortable.

On Saturday morning at half-past five we took Lilo to the emergency vet. She’d screamed when my wife had touched her stomach. Her stomach, my wife said, felt hard.

Hard stomach are death sentences for dogs. After rib incident I’d been careful not to let her eat anything that would disagree with her, and took even more care this spring, after Lilo snaffled a piece of a cheeseburger that had lain all winter in the snow. I hadn’t seen her eat anything untoward, I said, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t. Dogs can move more quickly than a clumsy human hand, and they’re always hungry for floor snacks.

But she hadn’t poisoned herseld. Her stomach felt hard because she’d been holding it taut. After asking questions the emergency vet took Lilo into a back room for x-rays. We held each other, hearing her screams as she was lifted onto a table and held in place. She’d been unnaturally calm on the ride there–this, the dog who squealed like a pterodactyl at the very prospect of going for a ride–but now she was panicking and in pain, and it hurt us to hear her.

When she returned the vet escorted us to another room. On a computer she showed us Lilo’s x-rays and told us there was a large mass throughout her liver.

How could this have happened? I asked. She’d been x-rayed a year ago and nothing had shown up then.

The vet loaded Lilo’s x-rays from 2013 and flicked between them.

Before. After. It started to sink in.

In the days that followed, I read an account of a dog who was diagnosed with lung cancer. His owner said it looked as if his lungs were filled with cotton balls.

Lilo’s cancer looked more like sheets of the stuff wadded up and crammed inside. It looked like the fibrous pink insulation my dad always warned me about, the stuff that was in our loft growing up, that he couldn’t touch without coming out in a terrible rash.

On Tuesday, when we took her to the non-emergency vet, we were told the mass was so large the vet couldn’t tell if it was in Lilo’s liver or in her pancreas. The mass was so large it had pushed her stomach further into her body; she couldn’t eat because there was no room for food. My wife’s favourite anecdote is the time Lilo ate half a loaf of bread from the counter, pooped, threw up, then went back for the rest. In the past, if she hadn’t room for food, she’d make it.

When we left the emergency vet she was on methadone, the same drug prescribed to heroin addicts. She’d been given painkillers, and nausea suppressants so she could eat while we decided what to do next. Our options were sparse; they would soon dwindle further. The chemotherapy the emergency vet recommended would likely be useless. The two months of pain and medication still ahead was certainly an overestimation.

Lilo–Lilo as she had been–returned to us partway through Sunday. It wasn’t much of her–and watching videos we took of her that day and the next it was easy to see we’d overlooked how much discomfort she was in. We couldn’t believe she was so sick–how could we? We still can’t, and she’s been gone six days.

Our baby. It’s obnoxious, perhaps, to call her that. But we loved her as much as we could, not nearly so much as she deserved. The happy good girl, who liked nothing better than to jump in bed between us, and be petted by both her parents at once. My wife often remarked: “I couldn’t love her any more if I’d pushed her out of my own crotch”, while I was the johnny-come-lately adoptive father, who’d missed her puppy years but made up for that by taking care of her every day thereafter. She was my constant companion, and my friend. Since moving to America I’ve spent more time in Lilo company than in anyone else’s, including my wife.

This small part of her returned after we struggled to get her pills down her neck. She wouldn’t take them straight, and as she wasn’t eating we couldn’t mix them with her food. Peanut butter had once been her favourite treat; now, she wouldn’t even sniff the spoon it was on let alone eat a pill slathered in it. Nor would she eat it slathered in butter, or swallow it once it had been pushed into her mouth and her muzzle held shut, her throat stroked. She’d only take her medication if was if it was pressed into chicken, so we bought a rotisserie roast just for her.

On Monday, the first and last ThanksGiftMas, I cooked another chicken. Her appetite hadn’t returned–she still avoided her usual food–but she’d eat chicken and bacon and anything meaty. Our neighbours, dog-owners themselves, came to say goodbye, and brought with them a pack of ham which she demolished over the next day. Her faeces was a bright reddy orange that came in small squirts that were hard fought for. Even squatting in the snow caused great pain, and it took longer and longer for her to find her spot. She wasn’t trying to trick us. She wasn’t trying to run home.

I made the call. On Tuesday we’d lose her forever.

Monday evening was magical. The clouds were low, the snow driving, and everything glittered, a secret world too cold for human beings but ideal for dogs. We went for our final walk. It wasn’t much; in truth, we simply let her potter around, plodding up to front doors, sniffing bushes, leading us wherever she wanted to go. The emergency vet had advised us to make her a bucket list, but as Lilo was too sick this would have to do.

Perhaps it was the that cold numbed her. Perhaps she was so excited by the heavy snowfall her pain was momentarily set aside. She was more energetic, more playful then than she had been since before she’d contracted her UTI. At twelve, she was old, but not particularly old. Seeing her in the snow, with cars inching along the icy roads, their high-beams turning all the world into a snow globe it was hard to believe there was anything wrong with her. She even got to play–albeit briefly, on veterinary advisement–with a fluffy west highland terrier also out for a walk.

But by morning her renewed appetite was waning. She ate breakfast, but wanted nothing more to do with food–not even the lunchmeat she’d enjoyed the day before.

Post-snowfall, the ride to the veterinary surgeon’s was stark, with sky and road and tree-branch in high contrast, the darkest, the lightest. I kept thinking, how could it be so beautiful? How can every tree be frosted and every path frozen? How can all the world be scenic, bright and delicate as snowflakes, as if decorated overnight?

How can this be, when our baby cannot?

She hid behind my wife’s legs in the examination room, and kept moving, restless. Recently we’d switched surgeries; the new vets knew only that we wanted to euthanise Lilo, and upon seeing her energy, wanted to know how we’d reached this decision.

I passed over her diagnosis. They looked at her x-rays.

An hour of unexpected but very much needed consultation preceded Lilo’s euthanasia. My wife had found reports online that surgery, not chemotherapy, was the best way to cure Lilo. The vet drew a table of our options, and went through them in heartbreaking detail. I’d gone in expecting alacrity; I didn’t want to draw this out. I’d already made the hardest decision of my life.

My wife needed to be convinced otherwise. She, too, had made her decision, but wasn’t there still hope? Wasn’t there a way for us to pay away the cancer?

Surgery was an option, but the vet did not recommend it. It would need to be imminent, the surgeon would need to be at the top of her field, and this was Thanksgiving week with little hope of finding either. Should we succeed the procedure would be extremely dangerous, especially given Lilo’s age; and besides, should the cancer prove to be in her pancreas there was nothing that could be done at all.

After surgery Lilo would have to have chemotherapy, with all the dangers and hardships that would accompany it. After chemo, there would be no promises. The vet stated that a month after chemo we may very well find ourselves in the same situation we were already in–worse, even, as during surgery and chemo Lilo would continue to get older, facing the same problems all dogs do in their teenaged years.

If everything went correctly, if all our coins came up heads, that would be our best hope.

It was no hope whatsoever.

Our second option was to wait. We didn’t have to euthanise her that day, the vet said. We could wait for condition her to deteriorate.

How long? we asked

“Oh, until tomorrow,” she said. “Maybe as long as Friday, though in all likelihood you’ll need to schedule an emergency session on Thanksgiving.”

I liked our vet. At first, when she started drawing up charts and explaining the situation we’d already researched in agonising, repetitive detail, I hated her. But she looked and sounded like Stephen King, and upon remembering she’d tended to this oh-so-sick dog three weeks before and hadn’t found a thing, a look passed over her face. She knew how fast the mass had appeared. She knew how fast it had grown. Our description of Lilo’s worsening lack of appetite, demeanour and range of motion only confirmed it.

Her explanations, tortuous as they were, only confirmed just how bad Lilo’s condition was. Given our wonderful Monday it was easy to forge that she was heavily medicated. Without the pills she would be in the same condition she had been in Friday night; or far worse, given that a weekend had since passed. Her refusal to lick our hands or stay in our company was, the vet said, her way of leaving our family. In the wild she would have wandered away and lain down, offering herself as prey. She didn’t want to draw predators’ attentions to us, that was all. She didn’t want her suffering to bring wolves upon her family.

It took until Thanksgiving for me to find some peace in our decision. While turkeys were trimmed and pies were baked we went to Starbucks, bought a frozen pizza, and watched the third Hunger Games in a cinema that was surprisingly full. Surrounded by people, and having no interest in the film I was victim to my own inner monologue for two hours, during which I replayed Lilo’s final moments, how she fought a triple dose of sedative to uncharacteristically snap at the vet techs; how she only calmed down when my wife and I sung her lullabies; how she became so tired she wanted to lie down, but the pain caused her to keep moving; how we had to lift her onto a blanket in case she urinated herself at the end; how we held her in the final moments as her chest slowed, and whatever made Lilo who she was, whatever was left of our happy good girl, left the vessel it had inhabited, the vessel which was no longer her. All these moments and more I replayed, feeling guilty, shameful, sure I’d killed my beloved girl when there had been no real need.

I’d forgotten Lilo had made her peace on Friday, and that if I was to feel guilt it should be for medicating her to bring her back. By Tuesday the effects of her meds were already running out. Barring bouts of vomiting I’d never known her not to eat. That morning she hadn’t been throwing up, but neither had she been eating, sniffing her bowl, looking at it balefully from across the dining room. It was uncharacteristic. It was unprecedented. For the first time in her life she’d decidedenough was enough.

She’d already made her peace.

If Monday hadn’t been as wonderful as it had been I’d feel guilty, but we had an entire day to say goodbye, and given how quickly the end came that’s far more than we should have had.

On our way to our baby’s death, escorting her down snowy steps she could barely manage, we ran into Eric, the custodian of these apartments. Every time he’s visited he’s played with Lilo, letting her lick his head while he fixed the garbage disposal or trimmed the ends from our blinds. We told him where we were going and what had happened. “That’s terrible,” he said. “She’s the best dog. I run into a lot of dogs here, everyone has dogs. But of all of them, she was my favourite. You guys were lucky to have such a great dog.”

I loved her. My wife always teased me, saying she was sorry she made me love a dog. I, in response, would lie and say I didn’t.

But I did, and it wasn’t she who made me love her, it was Lilo herself. She was the kind of dog–and can any dog be like her? I find it hard to believe–who was called ‘sweetheart’ by so many who met her, time and time again, even though we didn’t use the word ourselves. I’ve lost count of the number of times strangers have hollered “Say, that’s a good-looking dog!” or “What a beautiful dog! What breed is she?” as if, if they knew, they request one from a shelter, another just like her. At the start of the November a car pulled up beside us, the window rolled down, a woman stuck her arm out and waved at Lilo. “Hi!” she said to her, before pulling away.

For all the ill luck, as fast and as viciously as it came, we were lucky to have her. She made us a family, and we are less without her.

If videos still came on tape we’d have worn out the few we have. We didn’t know to take more; it wouldn’t have mattered if we had. Like pictures, memories, time, it would always be too little.

You already know to cherish your loved ones every day. We all do, yet whether the end comes fast or slow, all we have is never enough.

Of course I want more time with her. Of course I wish she was still in our lives. We, all of us, we always want one more day, don’t we? And my wife and I, the luckiest people in the world, were given one more day.

And so the most beautiful dog, our happy good girl, our baby, who loved green beans (whether or not they were actually green beans) and cuddles, and having the inside of her ear scratched (not too deeply) and also the place where her back met her tail; who liked walks well enough but loved family walks best of all; who still remembered coming with me when I took out the trash, even though, since moving to Wisconsin, she’d always stayed behind; who worked her way around a safety latch to gorge herself on ribs; who tolerated our nieces and nephew long after my own temper broke; who sought my protection from thunderstorms and snow plows; who had a love-hate relationship with our vacuum cleaner, and who sometimes mistook toes under the bed sheets for snakes; who barked at all men until I came into her life, whereupon barks were saved for strangers, and taunting assholes who deserved to get their bottoms bit; who, whenever we left her alone in our apartment, would make herself a nest from the doormat so that we couldn’t open the door when we got home, and who, even as we tried to force it open, would attempt to squeeze through the gap, simply happy to see us; who was so much a part of our lives, the reason I spent so much time in the cold, rain and snow, and at absurd times of the day and the night, and the reason why our apartment and my day alike feel so empty, is gone.

To say she will be missed seems redundant.

So instead I’ll say something the Daniel of ten years ago, who didn’t realise how much missing those early years would hurt, would be surprised to read.

I loved her, and I’ll love her always. She was ours, yes, both of ours, and we loved her.

But she was also my dog. I am better for having known her.

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Blame it on summer

Of late there’s been a unusual amount of discussion online regarding depression.

Blame it on summer. Blame it on hemlines rising and sleeves shortening. Blame it on barbecues and poolside get-togethers, on music and on laughter drifting lazily through open windows. Blame it on the banishment of colder days and a sunny heat that never quite warms the soul.

Just as there are many ways in which a leg can be injured, no two people’s depression is ever the same. I say this not as a psychologist but as a sufferer. I dwell beneath the dark umbrella from which rain pours even on the brightest of days. With depression it’s almost comical how fast clouds roll in and summer skies can darken. It’s the passing of a shadow that overstays its welcome. It’s the flick of a switch, the breaking of a bulb.

I know why these discussions exist, though God, I wish they didn’t. It’s a selfish wish: if one person can be helped by a video, article, podcast or tweet; if one life can be saved by being told that things can get better, that you aren’t alone, isn’t that worth it? If it wasn’t for people speaking of their nightmares we’d wake up screaming, believing something to be wrong with us; us and us alone.

It helps to share, and in sharing name the beast.

Or so I’m told.

But I never feel so isolated as I do when reading about the depression of others. Perhaps inadvertently, the game Depression Quest personified this feeling for me. It describes depression as ever-worsening condition, that allows the sufferer dwindling avenues of escape. It doesn’t take this to its dismal yet expected conclusion–the game doesn’t end with a screen reading “YOU ARE DEAD. PLAY AGAIN?”–but by its own admission it cuts off too soon, before an ignominious finale. For many sufferers, depression has no end and no beginning either; it simply is.

For those seeking comfort in knowing they’re not alone, it would be terrible to say suicide is an inexorable fact for which they must prepare. Games like Depression Quest exist primarily to inform–in the game’s preface players are warned not to play if they’re likely to be ‘triggered’–but if you wade in heedless and suffer dark thoughts accordingly they advise you, for God’s sake, get help. They suggest talking to doctors or other professionals who might be able to help. After all, for all the insight it offers Depression Quest is a game, not a form of therapy.

For many, sufferers and non-sufferers alike, I’m sure Depression Quest is a bleak experience.

For me? Well, how can I put this . . .

I was envious of the main character’s life. The day to day existence of the unnamed protagonist was fuller, more involved, and featured a much greater cast than my own. By that token Depression Quest offered a world as fantastical as Shenmue, Doom or Super Mario Bros. As far as I was concerned, in its attempt to inform players of the dire situations many sufferers through no fault of their own find themselves in it didn’t simulate despair, but a cartoony and colourful world where people are well-meaning and social lives exist.

Which in some ways is all I’ve ever wanted from a game. I’d jump at the chance of a truly social video gaming experience, containing AI characters who’ll laugh with and not at you, and won’t cast judgements the way flesh and blood people can and often do. I’d love sociable characters bereft of those aspects that make socialising so goddamned impossible. Even if they’re artificial, even if they don’t exist beyond the confines of a screen, at long last, I’d have friends.

Instead, what I have are well-meant attempts to further the awareness of depression. I can’t begrudge the makers, who I’m sure only have good intentions at heart. Like Depression Quest, Gamespot UK’s mini-documentary Video Games vs. Depression only brings out the worst in me. Liars, I cry at the snake-oiling salesmen peddling false hope.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t depressed. Games, movies, trips out, human contact–all these and more fail to alleviate my mood, as they should, as they must. I can’t play a game to get away from my problems. Most days I don’t have the strength to lift a joypad.

There’s a cartoon on the theme of depression that says it best: a man lays in bed, and over the course of twelve or so frames his smile turns to tears. It’s grief that can fell a man. It’s an affliction which has had me balled and rocking on the carpet because sometimes it hurts too much to do anything but. I used to look forward to sleep; now nightmares haunt my dreams.

Because depression, they say. Get help.

Blame it on summer. I used to weigh a lot more and wear a heavy coat everywhere I went. Now I’m slimmer, I try not to. When the sun shines, I wear summer clothes: I wear short-sleeved t-shirts, baseball caps and bluejeans.

And I feel so exposed, without my battlegear. I feel anxious and afraid, and I want very much to hide.

This has gone on for so long without wavering and there is no sign it will stop. That’s the very worst, I think: to read accounts of depression I identify with, only to find out this exhausting, debilitating stage in their life, which moves them to confer, to collaborate, to create, was short, spanning months. If a year and a half was too much, if it spurred them to suicidal thoughts then imagine how it might feel for those feelings to continue without end.

And to wish fervently that they would, and abruptly.

Some days I wonder if I’m human. The human experience–the majesty of life–speaks to me not. I see the world in paranoid colours, with little of worth to it, with little worthwhile. Expressing these feelings is seldom a good idea. At best, I sound mad, but usually I make people uncomfortable, angry or sad. Of course the world’s a good place. Of course people are essentially decent. You only pay attention to the most depressing news stories. You have to make the best of life; that’s just what you do.

But what if what’s best is to end it? What if that’s what’s best for me?

That’s the worst of it. If I have depression, if I am depressed, then I have succumbed and become. I am depression; I’m downtrodden feelings made ambulatory. Neither grand wealth nor infinite possibility would change my life in anything other than minor ways. I tried my utmost to change who I was, and yes, I’ve spoken with professionals, I’ve taken pills, I’ve dieted, exercised, moved to another country, left all my personal possessions behind. Next to who I was five years ago I’m unrecognisable to everyone.

Except myself. “Wherever you go, there you are.”

I may well be sick, but I’m sick of myself. And as in the worst cases of depression, for this sickness there is only one cure.

Allow me to be presumptuous: Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill myself.

But don’t dare tell me I have so much to live for. You can blame it on summer; I’ll blame it on myself.

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A Suburban Summer

There’s probably something to be said in favour of suburban domesticity.

As far as most are concerned it’s the cul de sac at life’s end, a burrow or borehole from which it’s difficult to escape. It means neighbours you neither know nor like, little snots on scooters and cycles, their voices piping, their tiny ticking minds forever engaged in mischief. It means lawn sprinklers and Sundays at the allotment, and buying bird feeders because, well, they’re not going to feed themselves, are they?

And it has a bad rep. The cooking, the cleaning, the floury hands Fairy Liquid raw beneath a dusting of glutinous white. The toys strewn on carpets hoovered only yesterday–how did they get dirty so fast? Collapsing on the couch after a long day maintaining balance in an uncaring home. Watching watercooler TV in the knowledge there will be no cooler around which to discuss your shows, only Internet forums pressed between grocery shopping and casserole preparation. Transporting kids to sports clubs, the beach, the playpark and back. You develop odd ways, unique to your family. You all sing the same songs in the car, together, in a pitch of your own devising, and hope you might find another familial unit whose harmony will compliment yours. Nobody wants to be the odd bunch on the block, shunned at suburban events, gossiped about, avoided.

And as intrinsic to the domestic experience as they are, none of these things are exactly ringing endorsements. However, I’d still quite like to be a house husband; let’s face it, I’m not good for much else.

I can cook and clean, and am frequently up to my elbows in some cake batter or another. I’m the only person in this house with an interest in cleaning it. I’ll pick up the vacuum, and tend to the sink, and when shopping, pick up Toilet Duck (or some version thereof) with a view to bleaching the bog. Toilets develop unsightly tide marks if left unwashed. If I can eradicate those with a squeeze of cleaning fluid once every fortnight, why wouldn’t I? I’m not saying our toilets should be clean enough to eat out of, but they should at least be clean enough to sit upon. That’s what separates the basin at home from public urinals, right?

There’s also something to be said for taking a breezy stroll about the suburb. Twilight, that dim sliver between night and day, when the sky still seems bright but the shadowed sidewalk says otherwise, is my favourite time to walk there and back again. The route’s a little more strenuous in summer, when mosquitos view my arms as an open bar and leathery crooked men sit on stoops wondering why the pale wonder in the Sennheisers keeps cruising past their property.

For the past three days squadrons of dragonflies so large they blot the waning sun have kept my pace up, zipping in geometric designs overhead with a sound like zeppellin motors. I rather fear what would happen if they dip too low and crash into my torso: I’d fall like the north tower.

Likewise, those fireflies, so unaccustomed to a boy from drizzly Plymouth, might be enchanting from a distance, but up close they’re whiskery clouds of bug parts best avoided. I love your bioluminescence, little buddies, but the thought of one of you landing on my face fills me with dread.

But there are wild rabbits that only turn tail when I’m inches away, and lingering trails of hickory smoke from spent barbecues that cause my nostrils to flare and my mouth to water, and even the kids shrieking in backyard pools aren’t so annoying when acting as backbeat for whatever mix I have on my iPod. The heat could be a little cooler, and the bugs could bite a little less, but even in our currently muggy storm climate, it’s still pleasant out.

I’m used to a more pastoral existence than this. For many years I woke to rolling farmland and the distant bleats of livestock. Though my current location is far from a concrete nightmare, New Jersey is strapped by major roads and airways; forever in the air is the rumbling hum of the turnpike, and of commercial jets spiralling toward Newark International.

But farms, neater and less wild than those back home, sideboard the endless blacktop, selling squash or white corn or pick-your-own-berries in a twisted reflection of the Devonshire fruit farms I was raised near. In the direction away from Shoprite and the ubiquitous Dunkin Donuts red-shouldered farmhands in dungarees, straw hats and little else drive tractors up and down fields, stalling traffic when crossing the thoroughfaire from one crop to another, smoking–always smoking–and soaking up the rays of an all-American sun.

And those supermarkets nearer civilisation sell summer faire–pies and watermelon–and orthodox Jewish women in long, dark dresses stand out, sweltering even in the ice cream aisle. Seasonal food is big here; Jersey has a seasonal culture I never encountered back home. The suburbs were built to cater to extreme swings of temperature, and while snow ploughs stand dormant at the roadside, sprinklers pop their heads from underlawn, and water, skittish, before being frightened back below. Billboards and home-scrawled signs advertise festivals, children’s day camps, and yard sales, and families flock to water playgrounds and bask in their fine, cool mists.

When summer storms come we retreat to the gazebo. Improbable hail dimples the pool’s waters; somewhere a power line goes down, falling across a road like an untied sneaker and we wonder how long it’ll take for the electricity to come back, and should we eat all the Ben & Jerry’s in case it doesn’t.

It isn’t adventurous, but it’s so nice. Bordering on twee, it’s spongecake and maypole dancing, American style. Lemonade isn’t pumped from a nozzle in a pub garden but squeezed fresh and mixed with sugar according to taste. Barbecues don’t sizzle with split sausages, but smoke slowly, glowering with the promise of pulled pork and crusted brisket. Lawns are cared for like favoured children. Doorsteps double as porch furniture.

And I wonder, baking and strolling and sweeping dry fir needles from the deck: who wouldn’t want this? For if these are the doldrums at life’s stagnant end, it’s an end truly worth reaching.

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99% Invisible

Apropos of nothing, at the start of last year I started thinking about things.

This was an important fork in the road for me, an important path to take. Up until then I’d been more concerned with stuff–that is, the stuff things compliment in their various ways.

For example, I enjoy music and take great interest in sound production, melody and the hows and whys of musical emotion. Why do certain sequences of notes make us feel jubilant? Why do certain chords sound sad?

I’ve always felt this way, I suppose, but now as I listen to a new mix I start thinking about the DJ and the artists whose music features in it. I wonder who they are and what prompted them to make these tracks. I wonder if they’ve been making music for a long time and how many ideas they have kicking around on hard drives or CDs, sketches of songs that might never be finished or released or heard.

More than that, I wonder what circumstances led them to create the songs exactly how they is. Why did they use this particular kick drum, for example–and for that matter, where did the kick drum come from? Was it played live on a drum set? Is it a sample from some CD library, its origins lost in the mists of recording history? Is it even a kick drum; perhaps its a biscuit box hit with a wooden spoon and pitched down. And if that’s the case, why did the musician buy these particular biscuits, who invented the recipe for them, who designed the art work for the box and what are their stories?

And it came to me, a fact so blatant like the air around us it was easily ignored: everything comes from somewhere.

It’s obvious isn’t it? I shouldn’t need to spell it out and now that I have you’re wondering why I find this so amazing.

I’ll tell you why: we live inside a never-ending story, a Mandelbrot fractal with turtles all the way down. It’s the kind of thing scientists regard with great enthusiasm. We are star stuff, they say, we began life as microbes who were themselves spun from matter flung across the universe. A single erroneous turn, a single diversion and nothing of our lives would exist. The Earth and everything we hold dear is a wonderful cosmic mistake, something that was never pre-destined but–given the the set variables that led to our existence–was nevertheless inevitable. We are the result of cause and effect that echoes throughout all time.

It’s pretty amazing looking at the night sky and thinking about it all. I live in the flightpath of a major international airport, in a state in which on five out of seven days the sky’s clear enough to see a smattering of stars after dusk. I walk the dog long after dark beneath constellations clear as diamond dust on a jeweller’s pillow; it’s humbling, walking through darkness with the heavens wheeling overhead, and when an aeroplane flies low enough to fill the neighbourhood with its distant rumbling it’s like I’m watching another constellation swim across space, one made by us, human beings, the cosmic mistake.

Those grand decisions formulated beyond our control by the galaxy have as much bearing on that plane existing as human decisions, human work, human art. We crafted that thing, wing to wing, rivet by rivet. The revisions for even the smallest part of that aircraft are innumerable. Just as those unthinkable detours the universe could have taken would have resulted in our unbeing so very deliberate human decisions would have resulted in the plane being different in some way–up to and including not existing at all.

Thinking in such a way, even the subtleties of its design seem terribly interesting. Why choose this particular colour for the chair coverings? Why use those particular bulbs for the landing lights? What kind of lives do the crew lead once the plane lands? What adventures await them at every airport?

The answers for these questions are almost definitely terribly mundane, but they go into making a rich tapestry that goes so unnoticed it might as well be invisible. I mean, when was the last time you wondered who chose the shade of blue upholstering your in-flight headrest?

I started seeing questions everywhere. It was especially bad when shopping for furniture. The materials, the patterns, the designs are one thing, but whose job is it to name these beds? Who writes the assembly instructions? Who designed the font stamped into the rim of the large screws holding everything together?

Somebody should find out who these people are, I thought to myself. Then I prided myself on this great idea, one surely no other human being had ever had.

Later–as with many great ideas–I discovered someone else had thought the same thing, and being a far less conceited person than myself rather than throwing it away he had chased after it and made it into a podcast. Driven by a passion for design Roman Mars created 99% Invisible–which incidentally has just about as perfect a name as you could hope for, given the subject at hand.

It’s a short podcast (which is no less wonderful for its brevity) that tells the stories of why items and buildings are the way they are. In the past it’s covered the sound design of iDevices (have you ever wondered why typing on a MacBook sounds so pleasant? Did you know that distinctive silvery patter was designed by a engineer?) US postage stamps (all of which are designed by a single brilliant woman.) and public fountains. The latest episode contains a piece of investigative journalism so simplistic, so brilliant, by the end of the show my mouth was aching where I had grinned so hard.

Check this: a couple of reporters go into the US Capitol Building–where Congress holds congress, don’t you know–and start opening doors. They snoop. They’re mischievous kids going where they shouldn’t go with only visitor’s badges standing between being sent home and–quite possibly–being shot for trespassing.

Mars calls this kind of stupendous devil-may-care curiosity moxie, professes his love for the woman reporter and his envy of the guy following with her down this federal rabbit hole. Listening, still grinning, I understand completely how he feels.

(And did you know that ‘moxie’ is named after one of the first carbonated beverages mass-produced in the United States, and that its usage stems from the drink’s early advertising slogan? Isn’t that just wonderful?)

On their adventure, giggling all the way, they find a door in the Capitol Building basement that leads into what turns out to be an antique marble bathroom. It’s dusty, faded and partially renovated, although hasn’t been used in some time. As a non-sequitor not just out of sync with modern society but with the building surrounding it, a building hallowed with power, upon which the fate of the world has been routinely determined, this bathroom is important. It has to have a story and of course, it does.

Let’s take a detour of our own here, to the world of television. A month or so ago TV’s hottest property was Alcatraz, a new action mystery series from–as screamed by the vast number adverts screened in the run-up to its debut–the makers of Lost. Like the marble baths in the basement of the Capitol Building Alcatraz has a mystery at its heart: in 1963 the criminals imprisoned in America’s most infamous jail vanished. Now, in 2012, they’re reappearing, and are up to their old tricks, seemingly without aging a day in the interim. It’s up to a cop, a comic nerd and a mysterious organisation to track the villains down and unravel the prison’s secret.

It’s not a bad show; it’s just not a particularly good show, either. Defying its premise it seems inordinately formulaic, as if created to tick boxes and little else. The female lead is tough, yet vulnerable. The comic nerd (played by Hurley from Lost) is fanboy wish-fulfillment: the lovable geek cracking wise while totally out of his depth. The plot is drip-fed to the audience the requisite amount per episode–it’s a slow poison designed to cause slow addiction.

But rather than being slowly enthralled I find I can’t be bothered with it. This by-the-numbers drama has obviously been made with somebody like me in mind (“From the makers of Lost!”) just like all TV is made to cater for a certain demographic, yet there’s more mystery to that marble bathroom buried under the nation’s capital than there is in this deliberately mysterious piece of hokum.

A long time ago the biggest mystery in my life was what lay over the other side of the hill opposite my childhood house. It was a big hill hemmed with trees at its bottom and coiffed with farmland at its top. A hedgerow fringed the crest, and though it was too far away to reach I imagined it to as a wall over which I, in my childlike reveries, was expressly forbidden from climbing.

One day when revisiting the area decades later I broke away from the road running around the foot of the hill, walked up past a farmhouse (from where an irate farmer later emerged to berate me for trespassing on private ground) and for the first time in my life saw what was on the other side. It was farmland of course, more fields rolling down and away, eventually ending at a fishing village so far distant as to be unreachable in half-a-day’s walk. Was I disappointed?

I was not. I’d snooped, and triumphed, and solved a mystery that had plagued me all my life–not one created by a TV executive and his team of trained writers but one that simply existed by dint of nature, the landscape and my view upon it. Had circumstances been minutely different this mystery would never have existed. In fact it’s possible despite living in such close proximity none of my neighbours had ever considered what might be on the other side of that hedge on the top of the hill.

But I wondered, and in wondering, snooped.

I love 99% Invisible. It has born anew within me a snooper’s soul. I can’t see a building fallen into disarray without wondering what its story was. I envy the limberness of urban explorers (and that important sub-branch: civic explorers) who delve into places ignored, forgotten and invisible. I want to stop people on the street and ask them their stories–I don’t, I’m far too timid for that, but with this new soul burning within me perhaps one day I might. There’s a car on my dog-walking route with the vanity plate ‘HOLYPOL’; I want to knock on the door it’s parked outside of and ask the owner: Why? The answer can only be unsatisfactory but it’s a question I want answered and only my timidity prevents me from finding that answer, investigating, and having my curiosity satisfied.

I urge you–whoever you may be–to listen to 99% Invisible. More than that, I urge you to start asking questions of your own. This godless world–an insignificant speck alone in all the universe–is often a dour and frightening place. But if you question, if you snoop, even those of us lacking in faith will discover a heartening fact: God needn’t be in the details; details are good enough by themselves.

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365 – The Table of Contents

001 – The Introduction
002 – The Father
003 – The Mother
004 – The Sister
005 – The Brothers
006 – The Silence
007 – The Uncle
008 – The Sight and Smell of a School
009 – The Month after Christmas
010 – The Snowy Road to PetSmart
011 – The Kitchen
012 – The War
013 – The Fear
014 – The Famine
015 – The Longest Road
016 – The Forum
017 – The Impending Death of a Harlot
018 – The Soundtrack of Our Time
019 – The Old Obsession
020 – The Immaturity Catalogue
021 – The B.L.O.G,G. #1
022 – The Summer of 1988
023 – The Mine
024 – The New Obsession
025 – The Podcast
026 – The Cheat Sheet
027 – The Great American Cook-Off Part One
028 – The Old House
029 – The Girl
030 – The Hug
031 – The Volcano
032 – The Other Perspective
033 – The Mistake
034 – The Name
035 – (redacted) The Writer’s Wife
036 – The Quiet Earth
037 – The Recipe For Success
038 – The New Review
039 – The Great American Cook-Off Part 2
040 – The Hero
041 – The First Story
042 – The Weekend Deal
043 – The Sense of a School
044 – The Writer
045 – The Valentine
046 – The Nature of Language
047 – The Sportsman
048 – The Curmudgeon
049 – The Trailer
050 – The Great American Cook-Off Part 3
051 – The Interviewer
052 – The Cinema
053 – The Scuttler
054 – The Cobweb
055 – The Inexplicable Tide
056 – The Dragonborn
057 – The Plague
058 – The Second-Hand Trade
059 – The Passage of Time
060 – The Arcade
061 – The Last Exam
062 – The Faraway Tree and other stories
063 – The Fairy Tale
064 – The Podcasting Epic
065 – The Podcasting Epic Continues
066 – The Hateful Geek
067 – The Renegade Option
068 – The ‘100 Minutes With’ Treatment
069 – The Estimable Mr. Campfire
070 – The Tumbledown Town
071 – The Second Story
072 – The Debate
073 – The Ballad of Joe Meek
074 – The Narcotic Influence
075 – The Suicidal Poet
076 – The Super-Powered Action Hour
077 – The Rainy Day Book
078 – The B.L.O.G.G. #2
079 – The Network
080 – The Script
081 – The Opinion Expected
082 – The Scare
083 – The Death
084 – The War on Technology
085 – The Real World
086 – The Music Man
087 – The Stickleback’s Nest
088 – The Haircut
089 – The Racist
090 – The List
091 – The April Fool
092 – The Early Bird
093 – The Things We Lose
094 – The Speech Impediment
095 – The Creative Urge
096 – The Fever
097 – The Sport
098 – The B.L.O.G.G. #3
099 – The Undreaming
100 – The Landmark
101 – The Sequential Art
102 – The Problem With Nerds
103 – The Need for Discourse
104 – The Jersey Shore
105 – The Cubs
106 – The Dream You Dream
107 – The Record Store
108 – The Imagination
109 – The Loneliness In Our Hearts
110 – The Soundwaves
111 – The Corruption of Language
112 – The Friday Family Feud
113 – The Commentator
114 – The Distraction
115 – The Great Egg Hunt
116 – The Walk
117 – The Bay
118 – The Ugly Duckling
119 – The Royal Knock-Out
120 – The Unfinished
121 – The Fantasy Trilogy
122 – The War on Terror
123 – The Emptiness
124 – The Referendum
125 – The Cult of Celebrity
126 – The Bookseller
127 – The May Carnival
128 – The Happy List
129 – The Mermaid
130 – The Irrationality of Fear
131 – The Unenthusiastic Enthusiast
132 – The Favourite Toy
133 – The Human Interest
134 – The Idea for a Podcast
135 – The Song Contest
136 – The Vampire
137 – The Answer to Everything
138 – The Pornographic Magazine
139 – The Beach
140 – The Rage
141 – The Rapture
142 – The Jaded Eye
143 – The Slimmer
144 – The Sweetest Poison
145 – The Gesture
146 – The Better Way to Start the Day
147 – The Commercial Break
148 – The Knife
149 – The Brevity
150 – The Eighth Day
151 – The Job
152 – The Thrill Ride
153 – The Pub
154 – The Sugar Rush
155 – The Channel Change
156 – The Expectation
157 – The Airport
158 – The Call of Dawn
159 – The Wife
160 – The Anniversary
161 – The Parent
162 – The Individual
163 – The Pool
164 – The Science of Femininity
165 – The Roadways of America
166 – The Home Electronics Experience
167 – The Snack Attack
168 – The Hike
169 – The Parcel
170 – The Drowning Heart
171 – The Beauty Contest
172 – The Community
173 – The Dog
174 – The Inner Child
175 – The Children’s Ward
176 – The Famous Friend
177 – The Direction
178 – The Laughing Stock
179 – The Award Ceremony
180 – The Others
181 – The Telephone
182 – The Identity
183 – The Sexy Stuff
184 – The Edit
185 – The Fourth of July
186 – The Worst Case Scenario
187 – The First Impression
188 – The Cheat Sheet Part Deux
189 – The Sunday Roast
190 – The Devaluation of Wonder
191 – The Last Ride Home
192 – The New Kid on the Block
193 – The Age of Dinosaurs
194 – The Slow Fall
195 – The Handle
196 – The Golden Age
197 – The Freebie
198 – The Inspiration
199 – The Baker
200 – The Reader’s Request Spectacular
201 – The Moor
202 – The Wastrel
203 – The Breakage
204 – The Death of a Star
205 – The Apology
206 – The Reject
207 – The Jurassic Coast
208 – The LED Storm
209 – The Lighter Side
210 – The Cat
211 – The Friend
212 – The Three Day Musical Challenge (Day One)
213 – The Three Day Musical Challenge (Day Two)
214 – The Three Day Musical Challenge (Day Three)
215 – The Compliment
216 – The New England
218 – The Rabbit
219 – The Riot
220 – The Collection
221 – The Spirit of Man
222 – The Malady
223 – The Meerkat
224 – The Bed
225 – The Maker
226 – The Offensive
227 – The Audience
228 – The Holiday
229 – The Traveler
230 – The A-Star Student
231 – The Restless Morning
232 – The Reclamation of Wonder
233 – The Big Bang Theory
234 – The Art of Conversation
235 – The Gender Agenda
236 – The Old Smoke – There . . .
237 – The Londoner
238 – The Medical
239 – The Old Smoke – . . . and back again.
240 – The Second Path
241 – The Musician
242 – The Signal
243 – The Like
244 – The Rock
245 – The Millionaire
246 – The Invalid
247 – The Defence
248 – The Easy Way
249 – The Bear
250 – The Personality
251 – The Condition
252 – The Brand
253 – The Littlest Hobo
254 – The Shadow
255 – The Death of a God
256 – The Alone
257 – The H-Word
258 – The Muscle
259 – The Tribe
260 – The Marriage
261 – The Enthusiast
262 – The Last Tale
263 – The Feedback
264 – The Other World
265 – The Corner
266 – The Opportunity
267 – The Lost Voice
268 – The Scientific Method
269 – The Generation Gap
270 – The Shop
271 – The Social Order
272 – The Meaning of Life
273 – The Classic
274 – The Supernature
275 – The World
276 – The Difficulty
277 – The Bucket List
278 – The Hospital
279 – The Fad
280 – The Fairground
281 – The Pet
282 – The Sweet Shop
283 – The Gossip
284 – The Ageing Rocker
285 – The Return
286 – The Afternoon
287 – The Birthday
288 – The Embassy – In . . .
289 – The Embassy – . . . and Out
290 – The Abyss
291 – The Rant
292 – The Influence
293 – The Last Autumn
294 – The Forest
295 – The Homeland
296 – The Mute
297 – The Rivalry
298 – The State of the Game
299 – The Game
300 – The Cemetery
301 – The Will
302 – The End of It All
303 – The Flight
304 – The Other Half
305 – The Great Pumpkin
306 – The Arrival
307 – The Engagement
308 – The Wedding in the Snow
309 – The Changes
310 – The Barking
311 – The Gunpowder Plot
312 – The Bubble
313 – The Freak
314 – The Parents
315 – The Supporting Cast
316 – The After Hours
317 – The Budget
318 – The Land of Make Believe
319 – The Letter
320 – The Oncology Ward
321 – The Meat Feast
322 – The Wheelchair
323 – The Charity
324 – The Human Male
325 – The Gun
326 – The Play
327 – The Ungrateful
328 – The First Thanksgiving
329 – The One-Eyed Babysitter
330 – The Carer
331 – The Build-Up
332 – The Teacher
333 – The First Month
334 – The Knock
335 – The Countdown
336 – The Damaged
337 – The Locked Box
338 – The Double Date
339 – The Theft
340 – The Myth
341 – The City
342 – The Guest
343 – The Loner
344 – The Dancer
345 – The Lantern
346 – The Decoration
347 – The Sex Appeal
348 – The Room
349 – The Alien
350 – The Grotto
351 – The Centre
352 – The Waning
353 – The Christmas Party
354 – The Christmas Feast
355 – The Tradition
356 – The Chocolate Fix
357 – The Doorbell
358 – The Ghost of Christmas Past
359 – The Ghost of Christmas Present
360 – The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
361 – The End of It
362 – The Banana Boat
363 – The Man
364 – The Blog
365 – The Table of Contents

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364 – The Blog

Hi. This is me. I’m Daniel. How do you do?

We’ve travelled far in one another’s company–too far, you might say–and we’ve seen a lot of strange things along the way. Who would have known that this blog would turn into such a mystifyingly wonderful place?

What’s that? It’s not wonderful at all? It’s a piece of shit?

No. For once I’m actually going to stand up for something I’ve done. While it’s no work of art parts of this blog are quite reasonable–perhaps even good. It was enough to catch the attention of someone willing to pay me for my writing and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

Oh, but the places we’ve been! Starting with a round-the-world tour of some of the people dearest to me, the tone was set for the rest of the year: this would be a poignant and whimsical journey through my life, through the people and places in it, my admittedly distorted world view, my feelings and emotions and the world in which we all. My take on things would be personal but, I hoped, anyone reading would find things moments they recognise from their own lives. As disparate as I feel from the rest of the world my was reasoning was that we weren’t so very different, you and I.

And so we visited places from a shared past and occasionally, places in our shared future. From a time when mankind huddled together for warmth, out into the distant galaxy millennia hence, we’ve seen everything there is together, holding hands and smiling and weeping as one. We’ve braved death and the afterlife, stared at the face of God, visited cities that stand as testament to what man can accomplish and seen them perish in nuclear fire. We’ve eaten a lot and our waistlines have expanded, then exercised and seen them shrink. We’ve drunk ourselves sick and caught stomach bugs; both times we’ve suffered excrutiating pain and spent the night vomiting as man has never vomited before.

We’ve fallen in love with women, with words, and married and moved to new lands and new lives. We’ve walked dogs and met cats, visited flamenco bars and diners, spent Easter and Christmas and the summer holidays together and tried our best to make friends despite being rather shy.

We’ve suffered bereavement and struggled to overcome it. We’ve felt unspeakably down and tried to overcome that, too. We spent perhaps a little too much time navel gazing, wondering how we came to be and what our purpose is in life.

And we’ve seen the world change about us, too. We’ve voted in elections and debated what’s to be done with the Internet. We’ve fretted over fanatical devotees with too-loud voices and seen the end of the United States space program. We’ve seen so much and come so far, and it’s only now at the end of the year that we can look back upon everything that’s happened and decide that yes, this journey was one making.

At least, I hope you feel that way, too.

Not tied to pop culture (though referencing it frequently) or media or style, this blog has been as much of an exploration for me as it has been for you. Anyone who’s read more than one of my posts (for which I thank you from both top and bottom of my heart) has had insight into a stranger’s thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams. When robbed of my usual fall-backs–it’s easy to write about TV and video games ad nauseum–I managed to travel further into my psyche than ever before. My style shifted like sand dunes in desert winds. Certain posts stand out more than others, but not all of my favourite posts are melancholic, not all of them concern fondly remembered relatives. I felt alive when tying a day trip to Lyme Regis to the life of Mary Anning. its most famous inhabitant; I felt alive when writing about the final voyage of the Space Shuttle. In this place, on this blog I was free to follow my imagination wherever it might lead, and so I followed, often along tunnels that took unexpected turns, weaving a complicated network that reflected not just my own thoughts and opinions but–to a degree–all of mankind’s.

Even though I believed I was writing from my own experience I was writing from a shared pool. When readers commented, they recognised events I’d been through from their own lives. These weren’t opinions I was scrawling down: they were universal truths.

Occasionally my subject matter moved too far in risqué directions. My post on the necessary nature of offensiveness proved so offensive for one reader that he refused to read past the picture that accompanied it, severing any connection between us. Another post–035 – The Writer’s Wife–was removed soon after posting, leaving a gap in the year’s writing that will never be filled.

But that’s the nature of life. Sometimes we say things we can never take back; other times we apologise too late to make a difference. 205 – The Apology illustrates this perfectly.

I suppose I’m giving myself too much credit. I’m hardly the first person to complete the One A Day challenge though those who’ve done so in such a, shall we say, loquacious manner are few and far between. While I never had any real problem making the word count a consistent 1,000-2,000 words per day takes it out of all but the most prolific of writers. Once I had a subject I was always good to go, but such subjects don’t always manifest themselves when they should.

Strangely, one of my favourite times writing this blog came when I had weeks of articles to catch up on. Returning home from the US this past summer I forced to write near constantly for days, pushing myself beyond previously established limits into a realm of altered consciousness where the world around me seemed as pliant as the words I typed. Language is a miraculous thing. My illustration for this–dotted about this blog–is that simply reading the word ‘dog’ is enough to put the image of a dog in your mind. At times I’ve played with the flexibility of my writing, making real people do imaginary things, flicking between time periods faster than paragraphs will allow, distorting punctuation, spelling and syntax, building and collapsing new worlds in the space of a sentence.

I’ve drawn other people into my posts, painting them by turns as caricatures and eerily present versions of themselves. This week I interviewed my father, letting him speak for himself in his own words. It is, perhaps, the closest I’ve come to real journalism thus far, and one of the posts I’m most proud of.

Those of you who’ve come with me might find my final post wanting. It is, after all, only a table of contents: a reference page for every other post I’ve written this year. I believe it to be the most important post of all: it maps the route we’ve travelled, charting sickness and sadness with equal precision. Long term readers have no doubt noticed certain story threads woven from post to post; though I didn’t have the aforethought to create a key, it’s here you’ll be able to chart their progress, unravel the lies I’ve told and–just as important–the truths.

I’ve shed many tears over the course of this blog. Now it’s done I find myself rather sad, as if this is another loss suffered, the least in a line that–though fortunately short–contains far too many of them. What happens now that I’m done? Where will I go once I’ve shut this door?

You, dear reader, know this isn’t the first time I’ve thought this in 2011. It’s been a year of great upheaval–perhaps greater than you imagine–and it’s echoes of this upheaval that plague me now as the year draws to a close. We’ve reached our destination, and as always, we’ve reached it too soon.

Regrets? I regret that I pulled a post–or more accurately, that I wrote a post I later had to pull. I regret recycling a few posts written last year for my private consumption, edited and spruced up for 2011. I regret that I wrote a placeholder for a post I later turned into one of my Tales from the Fireside columns and never replaced that placeholder–it’s still there, just another lie in a blog filled with them.

I regret not having the courage to deliver the final twist in this tale, the key that unlocks so much that comes before, but some stories are better told straight and I believe this is one of them.

It’s quiet and dark–as it often is here at My wife’s spending the afternoon visiting a friend I care little for. The dog’s on the floor, as is my sister-in-law, spending time with Lilo before she returns to upstate New York tomorrow. It’s an unremarkable scene but it’s the one we find ourselves in here at the end of the year.

I wish you a happy new year, my dear audience. May everything you hope for come to pass and so much more besides. May 2012 be a year full of fresh attempts–at new things and old things and everything in between–and may everything you attempt be an unmitigated success.

As for me, in 2012 I think I’ll try my hand at writing.

This is Campfire, signing off.

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363 – The Man

These are the moments that make a man.

Christmas and holidays, birthdays and bullying, friendships lost and loves found–and between them all the pervasive sense that something’s wrong here, a knot that can never be undone.

Yet there’s hope in every death (so I’ve heard) and sadness in every triumph. For me simply connecting has never been simple at all, but neither has thinking, nor loving, nor living.

Hardships abound: squalling seas where sailing should be easy. There are certain difficulties associated with being broken and though I’ve come further than most, they dog me still.

A coffin recedes. A phone is slammed angrily down. Hateful words spill forth too easily. Comfort is difficult to find, to give.

Violent tempers, sneering taunts, all a wave’s break away.

All now lost to the past.

I married young, to a girl in a playground, betrothing our love to one another with rings made from sandwich bag tags. I first kissed at a wedding, and didn’t kiss again until I was far too old for a first kiss. I fell in love with strife and drunkenly proposed; I was turned down but my words remain scrawled on a beach where the tide will never reach them.

All this seems too cryptic, I know. There are answers in this blog, if you search them out and if the answers you seek aren’t there then ask me some time.

Just . . . not now. Because this, too, is a moment that makes a man.

I delved so shallowly into life’s ocean that my snorkel was barely damped. I scrabbled for drift-treasure along the tide line, yet was stranded so far beyond my depth I could swim fathoms down and never touch the sand. I flew to meet destiny, travelled back and forth across an ocean, procrastinated, then settled, a stranger on stranger shores. When I look across the waves I never see home.

I ate and grew fat, then grew thin but never changed. The wax melts but the wick burns: the soul remains the same.

I never learned to drive but oh, the places I’ve seen. I never learned to socialise but oh, the people I’ve been.

Such stories I’ve told–to you and others, too. I built castles knowing they’d crumble, and fled before they fell. I always was a coward, scared of his own name.

Fears abide, not affected phobias of clowns but a very real terror intolerable in a world filled with souls. I wonder how trust travels in a sea of strange faces. Sometimes I don’t even recognise myself.

I get to be protective. I get to be a father. I get to be a brother and a husband and an uncle and more. I was always a son; now I’m a man marooned where I can’t speak the language. I wonder how much they care.

I wonder how much I care.

I wonder if there are other lives out there that I refuse to take. I wonder what would happen if I left and never came back. I wonder too much; I fear; I fear even more.

I’m afraid of everything. I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t.

I suppose you have questions regarding the holes in this net. Let me assure you that your worst suspicions are correct. When I say I’m evil, I never joke.

You’re not laughing.


Because these are the moments that make a man, and these are the words with which I describe them. They’re convoluted, cod-mysterious, pretentious prevarications because even now, even now I can’t admit the truths that led me here. Every excuse has worn thin: there’s little reason for my being.

Yet I want to be and be known and be loved. I want to be met with smiles and have my leaving met with frowns. I want adulation and commendation. I want Godhood. I want more.

Fleeing across a road begging cars to knock me over. Escaping hospital through the smallest broken window.

The frustrations of being left behind. The reluctant agreement that yes, it’s best if I’m ignored.

Yet what have I to complain about? An idyllic upbringing where love was never more than a staircase away. I lived too well and was never grateful enough. Not everyone has hands to hold, hands to hold them.

(Crying the day at the after-party, tears I’ll never know: those are the moments making women from girls and girls from women.)

Quiet frustration, tamped down, exploding later. Cleaning, ungrateful, thankless, undeserved.

And now I’m falling into poetry, for fuck’s sake. The self-loathing I feel is incredible, but when do I ever not hate myself? Sub-genius, changing the world, best of the bunch, worst of the lot.

There’s no specific hinge to which I can pin my sorrows. Bad times at playschool? Bad boy on the naughty chair?

Read my baby book and the change becomes clear: neat, lively and helpful one month, lazy and lost the next. I became unhappy so fast my parents never had time to wonder why.

Conceal it. Tamp it down. Explode later.

If I could choose my own ending I’d choose a blaze of glory. A superhero burned up in re-entry. A saviour, martyred for the world’s sins.

Moving too late. Growing old too soon.

My one choice is that the year doesn’t end like this. There are too many riddles, too few stories told. Everything else feels like posturing.

I’ve never said anything worth listening to.

Self hatred follows soon, snapping. That one moment, forever lost. Bus terrors, schoolboy crushes. Rows in cars, tempers silent. Being born, seeing death. A hospital bed. A slipped mask.

A year’s worth of words, so few worth typing.

It’s not my joy. It’s not my choice.

These are the moments that make a man.

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