Ohio Portrait no. 51

She posted a link to a song she recorded in 2007 and published on Myspace.

She lives in an ornate, dilapidated house she bought for $5000 with her shifty-eyed boyfriend. They’ve been ‘restoring’ it since high school. She sells vintage wedding dresses and beaded purses on Etsy. She’s saving up for a child from Uganda. She only ever recorded the one song.  

"I could have won Grammys, but I’m too shy," she said. 

I met this woman whose husband was a retired surgeon. She was nothing but a surgeon’s wife, I think, plus some kind of modern-day, flyover state socialite. They were loaded. Their son was purchasing the bar we were in; he was an asshole. People were congratulating me on my degree. Sitting next to a real doctor, I felt ashamed. 

The surgeon’s wife said that when the kids were young and her husband was in medical school, things were ‘terrible’. She was trying to say it with humor, the way long-married couples can complain about each other with no ill will, but it wasn’t working. It was clear she was trying to buck herself up. Real pain was there, flinching out of her face in tortured microexpressions.

She rambled a bit about how much she had to do, back then. The kids were so young. Her husband was gone. Gone, he was gone, he was in med school, that meant he was gone. You just have to tough these moments out, she said. It was so hard, it was terrible, but she stayed with it. You have to. You can’t give up.

This lead her without prompting to the topic of divorce. The divorce rate was so high these days. It made her very sad. Kids weren’t willing to stick with marriage through all the rough and horrible parts. Didn’t they know that every marriage had those terrible parts? 

It is my mission to lower the divorce rate in this country, she said. If I could do one thing, prevent even one divorce, I would know my life was worthwhile. 

I almost told her  I didn’t think divorce was such a bad thing, really. That a divorce is endlessly better than a life spent with the wrong person. I wanted to say I didn’t think the rising divorce rate was a bad thing at all — it means people are finally free to correct their mistakes. And besides, if you want to prevent divorce, the way to do it is by preventing bad marriages. Not by forcing people to stick bad marriages out. 

But then her son came back from the bar counter, teetering, offering his mother a glass of wine. He filled everyone else’s glasses with Lone Star and settled in beside his beautiful and perfect new wife, who’d been sitting across the table from us, not saying a thing. 

I realize now that what I called the “Neurotic Selfish Female Character" already has a name. 

Chaotic Neutral

All the best characters are chaotic neutral. I love chaotic neutral so much that probably 80% of the characters I’ve written have that alignment. And like 95% of all the protagonists and narrators. Maybe I should recalibrate? Then again…it works for Tarantino. It worked for David Foster Wallace. It works for Franzen. It worked for John Barth and David Markson. Every literary douchebag protagonist is chaotic neutral, if you really think about it.

The only difference is I write a ton of unstable capricious ladieezzz. And they constantly feel bad about being assholes, unlikely the majority of literature’s great historical douchebags.

Of course, this is a well I return to again and again because my water’s already standing there. No matter how hard we try, we cannot simulate another person’s consciousness — not completely. So the gaps in our characters are composed from our own material. 

Anybody else have a character alignment they return to again and again? And is that character type an author analogue?

Tiangong Park

Ernestine made us a butternut squash soup with chunks of green apple and pear. She blended the ingredients with a hand mixer and simmered it while Sam and I cleared the table.

It was covered in old receipts, photographs, cords and clamps, playing cards, sheets of paper scrawled on with unsteady hands, and brown-ringed teacups. We asked her where it all went but she didn’t know anymore. She couldn’t remember much, but she remembered how to make the soup.

The produce came in a thick metal box with a clamp, and a button that defrosted the contents. Ernestine gets all her produce from an outpost near Ganymede, and her meat from a station on Io. Her freezer is all blocked up with maple sausage patties; she says they’re for me, that she remembers how much I like them. I’ve been allergic to the coloring agents for nearly a decade now.

Sam helps her take the pot off the stove and holds the bowls steady while she ladles them.

"Peachy, get us some bread why don’t you?" Ernestine asks. She does not look up at me.

I open the refrigerator. I see unopened mustard, a shampoo bottle, and two beers. “There’s nothing,” I tell her.

She shakes her head with grave disappointment. “Not there.” She takes a long time before speaking these days, gathering her wool and stitching it out. “There’s a lady down on Complex 5, by the fountain. She’s got a little bakery there. That’s where I get it.”

"What, you want me to go buy some now?"

Her head shakes when it nods. She has trouble holding it steady.

"My card’s on the coffee table," Sam says. He’s going into the dining room with the bowls.

"I have money, Samuel."

My hand is on the door. Complex 5 isn’t far, but it’s 16:30 UST, and everything closes early as shit on this station. It’s a glorified retirement community. I could go there and find out the sweet old lady who bakes the bread has been dead for a week. Our mom wouldn’t know.

I’m on the stoop when she says, “That’ll be fine, we’ll just need to get some bread later. To extend the leftovers.”

Ernestine locks her watery gaze on Sam, who smiles and taps the table with his fork. “Yes ma’am, we can’t have you slaving over a stove every time one of us wants to eat!”

His smile intensifies and pleads at me. So I sit down beside our mother. Her hand shakes the spoon through the surface of the soup and clinks all the way to the bottom of the bowl. But she makes it back up and takes a sip with no problem.

"The doctors have me on this nectar diet," she says, after she swallows. "Five days a week, just the nutrient juice. But I’m so pleased to have somebody to cook for."

"It’s wonderful, Mom."

And I’m not bullshitting her. I wouldn’t. The soup is delicious, tart and sweet like early fall on the surface of I-2367. They don’t grow apples like these so close to the sun. Not anymore. The old bird must’ve paid a small fortune for these, and then she went and pulped ‘em.

"Do they make lots of different flavors?" Sam asks.

My little brother is pale with seafoam green eyes. He’s not sturdy and tanned like my mother and me, like most of the people from the outer belt. His biological parents were energy farmers just outside of Sol, or so we heard. When he came to us, he was several months old and had been sleeping since his birth. When we woke him, he didn’t remember them.

Our mother is frowning. “No, they make about five or six flavors I think. Apple. Cran-Grape. Cinnamon Latte. Honey Peanut. Let’s see…Onion Chive.”

"Really?? Onion nectar?"

She waves her hand around. “Oh, and it’s this murky white color, it’s awful. And your piss looks like that, after you’ve had it.”

"Why would they make that?" Sam asks.

"They had to do a savory one," Ernestine says. "You can’t just have sweet all the time."

"Why not?"

I say, “It would make you a baby. Only babies live on sweet things all the time.”

"Breast milk is very sweet," Ernestine whispers at him, to clarify.

"Okay, okay. Mom. Gross."

We eat a while and then I bring out the jug of wine. I got it at the duty-free shop on the way here. I pour a little extra into Mom’s (stemless) glass, hoping to loosen her.

Sam proposes a toast. We’re not the toasting kind of family, but Mom doesn’t remember that. She’s pleased as punch and the glass nearly flies from her hand. I have to push it back into her palm with my own cup, clink clink. I sip for a long time and stare at her. She takes tiny hummingbird slurps.

"Mom," Sam says. "What else do the doctors say?"

Our mother wipes her mouth after every bite or drink she takes. This is a new development, born out of her illness. That along with the sterling silver jewelry, heavy makeup, and the new glasses. She knows she is dissolving and so she’s putting a ton of effort into looking presentable. If the trajectory keeps up she’ll be a camera-ready corpse.

"It’s not so good," she says finally. She focuses on the soup bowl as if the bay leaves will tell her future.

"What about the lab on north Mars?" I ask. "The one I sent you the hologram about? Mom, did you look into it?"

She says wearily, “It’s all so much trouble.”


"I sent them a blood sample. It’s the same, Abril. Your doctors saw the scans, same as everybody. It’s nothing you can fix."

"But Mom. If you got involved in a study, you could at least get free treatment, and then, if nothing else happened, you could at least know that you’re helping other people-"

"She doesn’t want it," Sam says. "Abril, leave it be."

“I don’t want to go all the way out to…Mars, or whatever,” our mom says. I’m too busy fuming at Sam to interject. “I know you kids came all the way out here for a reason..,”

Sam’s hand shoots across the table and caresses her on the wrist. I’m right next to her but I don’t know what to do. Wrap and arm around those frail shoulders? Cup her tiny white head in my hands? I could rend my garments and cry with the best of them, but that’s not what would help her. She has to think it’s her own decision.

I can tell Sam is about to say some shit about how all we want is for her to be happy. I stand up and button my sweater. “Mom, we all saw the test results. We all know where this is going.”

Ernestine looks at me, then at something in the corner, to the left of my head. “I just want to stay here. It took so long to get the house perfect.”

“There’s shampoo in the fridge, Mom.”

She nods. “I know. I mean. I know it’s not gonna be good…for very long.”

“I’m here,” Sam says. “Abril has six weeks, and I — I can be here as long as you want.”

She sighs. Her eyes dart back and forth, those dark, slow brown eyes, as if she’s calculating something. “I won’t be dead that soon.”

“What’s coming,” I begin, “is gonna be painful. We’ve looked, we talked to the doctors — Sam and I — and we know that you don’t want that. We could take care of you. I have a spare room, I could set you up-”

“I don’t want to leave here.”

Our mother lives in a huge condo inside Tiangong-4, an Earth-based space station. She’s owned the property since before we were born. Her father died on it. His father purchased the unit; he came here from Earth. Tiangong-4 was launched when people still lived on the surface, years before the Great Expansion. The condo is our family heirloom, intermittent vacation home, distant in-law’s suite, inner-Milky Way outpost, and now our mother’s home.

But, being nearly as old as the Earthen dirt and just as historical, it’s worth trillions. And it’s doing us no good, sitting and rusting away, days of travel from where Sam and I live and work. On Tiangong, there’s no schools and no central business park. There’s no university or teaching hospital where I could get a job. There are no art galleries for Sam. They don’t export anything. All they import is geezers who want to spend their final days staring into the craters of the mother planet.

I unbutton my sweater and button it again. “Mom, if something happened to you out here, what would we do? It would take us so long to get out here…we wouldn’t get to say goodbye. You know?”

“I know.”

“I can’t stay out here forever!” I’m spitting a little when I speak. I need to be more like Ernestine, and wipe my mouth every few seconds.

“Your brother just said he can stay with me,” Ernestine says. And she continues to eat, a napkin at the ready in her right hand.

I look at Sam. He isn’t picking up on my signals. I don’t know why he won’t say something. I think my desperation is clear.

“Abril and I were thinking,” he finally says, very slowly, “that maybe it would be best if you uploaded.”


Tiangong Park is a story in four parts. This is part one. 

SoundCloud / Paper Machete WBEZ

Hobby Lobby's Plan B, Gwyneth's "conscious uncoupling" & comic James Adomian gives gay straight talk

In women’s health news, local writer Erika Price says “it was a horrible week for those with vaginas and/or breasts,” and Hobby Lobby bringing it’s “we don’t want our health insurance to cover Plan B for women” lawsuit before the Supreme Court didn’t help. Then, comedians Tim Sniffen (Second City) and Brendan Dowling (The Improvise Shakespeare Company) weigh in on the “conscious uncoupling” of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. Plus, comic James Adomian talks about the evolutions of labels. Particularly, the gay ones… including former president George W. Bush infamous “homo-Americans.” All that, and the music of Jinx Titanic & the Ladykillers.

INTERPRETATION. Masculine words shall be applicable to females and corporations, and singular words shall be interpreted as plural, as the situation may require.

My lease is really postmodern 

Premonitions of Car Accidents and Heart Attacks

My family worries about me because I live in Chicago. They worry I will be shot. They worried I will be murdered. My family watches the news, especially my grandparents. They hear what kind of a city Chicago is. Hell, they worry a little when I’m home visiting and want to take a walk around the Ohio cul de sacs at 10 pm.

I tell them I walk up and down the Lake Shore Trail in Chicago at 11, at midnight, at 1 am. I tell them I’ve seen a drive by, but that no one was hurt. That a dead body washed ashore outside my office building. That another body, headless, appeared on the beach at 5 am one beautiful July morning. That a woman hung herself outside of a school building, but that they found the corpse and covered it up before the school buses arrived. That someone in my friend’s building had their throat cut so deep it qualified as decapitation.

I tell them these true things to back them off. They don’t want to hear it, they don’t want to know it, just be careful, okay? Every time my grandfather sees me he reminds me that he thinks about me living “out there” and worries. I promise him it’s fine.

Because, while I love to luxuriate in the gory details, I also remind my family that these crimes are to be expected at a certain population density. That we live all stacked up, with way more people per square mile than in Ohio. Of course there will be more crimes in a smaller space. It’s a mathematical reality, but it’s nothing to be scared of.

I hear the way the news and the Midwestern suburbanites talk about Chicago’s murder rate, and I hear misguided prejudice in dog whistles that are so low that everyone can hear them.

Even my attempts at calming my friends and family are couched in the implicit language of racism. I live on the north side, I say, and besides, most of the shootings are gang-on-gang. The unspoken major premise is that crime doesn’t effect people like me so we don’t have to worry about it. I don’t even have to worry about the police that are dispatched to “protect” us.

At least I’m not a gentrifier. At least I don’t belong to a neighborhood watch. At least I go out at night and don’t shrink away from people or avoid diverse neighborhoods.

Of course, the odds of anyone in Chicago being a victim of violent crime are incredibly small. My defenses — the crime only happens in X area, to X kind of people — are statistically true, if horrifically unjust.

There is crime in my neighborhood, but it’s mostly kids stealing phones from the richer, whiter kids who go to the university where I work. It happens at all hours of the day, from grey morning to orange night. Sometimes it happens at knife point; sometimes a kid gets bludgeoned.

The assailant is always described, in the university’s crime blotter, as African American with a dark colored hoodie. We are always told that to prevent crime, we should stay inside and not use our electronics in public. Even if the attack happened at 4 pm in front of a university dorm.

I’m not afraid to have my phone stolen by a desperate kid in the middle of the afternoon. I’m not afraid of being followed home, or getting accidentally shot. It’s all so unlikely. After five and a half years in the city, I’ve never had anything truly bad happen. If I was a victim of crime at this point, I would just be paying my dues. It would be a tax on my unchecked prosperity and good luck.

Strike that. I have been a victim. A few white guys have grabbed my tits on the El, and one flashed his dick at me on a peaceful, practically suburban side street. I told my family about those incidents, but those aren’t the kinds of crimes the news has taught them to worry about. They don’t seem to know what to make of them. My mom tells me to stop screaming at street harassers and chasing flashers down the street yelling at them that they’re fucking dead. 

For my area, the estimated odds of being a victim of crime in a one-year span is roughly 1 in 100. If I could calculate the chances for someone with my exact demographics and address, they’d probably be far slimmer. The odds for someone living in my home town are 1 in 2708. So I can understand the contrast. 

Even still, the odds are much greater I will be hit by a car. There, the odds are closer to 1 in 84, maybe more in a dense city with wide, bustling streets and sleep-deprived cab drivers. I tell my family they should actually fear that fate.

I have this premonition that I’m going to be hit by a car, and that maybe it will kill me. I don’t own a car. Walking is my primary mode of transportation and exercise; I average about 5 miles a day. I’m a wandering, vulnerable sack of flesh. Chicago drivers are awful.

Statistically, Chicago doesn’t have the worst traffic in the world, but its traffic patterns are the least predictable (shoutout to hotcrossfatbuns for this tidbit). People careen through red lights and blast through side street intersections and seem genuinely surprised every time a person is standing there. Cabs and buses will nearly clip your head with their mirrors and run over your foot. Everyone’s unpleasantly surprised and stressed and pissed off.

A guy in a black sedan swiveled across the ice this winter and ran up the curb when I had a walk signal; I jumped back and ripped my boots in half, slapped his bumper and yelled at him that yes, yes I was okay, but fucking be careful. I felt like the Ghost of Manslaughter Future. My heart raced for an hour.

This is how it’s going to happen. I’ve had plenty of near misses. Somebody is going to run past a stop sign and they’re gonna slam into my trunk and mutilate the right half of my face with glass and metal. It’s just a matter of time.

I have seen other bad things before they struck. My adviser had a scare last year. I always said he’d have a heart attack. He had the personality. He couldn’t let things go. He was, is, a worrier, like my grandfather, like my father. He survived. If he can change, maybe he won’t suffer another one.

In my family, on my father’s side, people have a habit of dropping dead suddenly. My grandfather had a heart attack and died in his fifties, in the middle of moving. My grandmother had a cold that turned out to be leukemia and killed her within two days. My dad died suddenly in his fifties from neglected diabetes.

That half of the family tree is more of a topiary. I will die at fifty, I sometimes think. My dad thought that too. Sometimes I don’t just think it; I know it. Like an errant taxi cab or a clogged artery in my advisor’s leg, I can sense it’s coming.

I Think I Have An Idea

Since I love how Welcome to Night Vale plays with the local radio form, I have been trying to think of other, primarily audio-based forms that have not been lampooned or exploited for fiction and humor yet. Really, I’ve been trying to think of an audio form that I could use to develop my own project, without being derivative of WTNV’s distinctive style. 

Some possibilities that I’ve considered making fictionalized/parodic versions of include: 

  • AM Talk Radio
  • Advice-based Call-in Shows (ala Savage Love, Dr. Ruth, etc)
  • This American Life-style storytelling 
  • Guided Meditation Tapes / Self-Help Tapes
  • Class Lectures
  • Crossfire-style News Debates
  • International News (PRI’s The World)
  • Prairie Home Companion style storytelling/variety shows
  • Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me style quiz shows 
  • Factual Podcasts (ala Stuff You Missed in History Class or Grammar Girl)
  • Local Morning Radio 
  • Etc

A lot of comedy/fiction podcasts currently on the market exploit the discussion/interview format. In fact, that format has pretty much been run into the ground. Every fucking stand-up comedian in existence has an interview-based podcast, some of which utilize improv or sketches, some of which are played straight.

But there are so many audio programming formats that haven’t been exploited for comedy or fiction yet! Sure, some people toy with old school radio drama, but that’s about it. Part of what makes Night Vale so revolutionary is the way it uses a familiar (if dying) audio programming style to create a narrative and build a fictional world.

So I’ve been thinking about this. And trying to find a programming format that would play to my own inspirations and strengths. And then it hit me. 

Narrated PowerPoints. 

PowerPoint is just about the least artistic medium a person could conjure. It is formulaic, banal, used to death, and is associated with the blandest, lamest situations imaginable. School. Work Meetings. Conferences. 

Think of the artistic potential. Tumblr has already started to use PowerPoint for creative ends, but always in the form of humorous, intentionally poorly-written photo sets of slides.

But I think there’s a way to toy with the medium further, and create a full on, balls out idiotic, parodic class lecture that also tells an ongoing story. The story of a fucked up neurotic adjunct professor, and the bullshitty, fictionalized academic field she works in. 

I’m an academic. I’m a course instructor. I’m a writer. This stupid project would be the perfect marriage of my different selves. I love academic satires, I love Night Vale’s innovation (but do not want to crib from it), I know how to make the most hilariously bad PowerPoint presentations possible and embarrass myself in front of students by disclosing too much personal information. 

So…here goes. 

Stop Admitting Ph.D. Students | Inside Higher Ed

In short, I think academia shares many of the classic elements of a social trap: It is in most faculty members’ and departments’ best interests to recruit a lot of graduate students. Churning out Ph.D.s is one of the major metrics of departmental “success.” Departments need graduate students to teach their classes, and faculty members need them to run their labs. Yet, as in any social trap, when everybody acts in their self-interest, a negative collective outcome ensues. I have served as chair or co-chair of 13 Ph.D. students in my career, a number I’m guessing is typical of most research faculty. Population growth of that magnitude is a Malthusian melt-down in the making and simply isn’t sustainable. We’re not creating enough academic jobs to absorb all those Ph.D.s, and in today’s economy, applied jobs are disappearing as well.

October 6, 2015

“Alright,” Ted croaked. “We’re ready, Surbhi.”

The young woman in the wheelchair was idly completing a crossword puzzle. Her university’s logo was soaked into the top of the page; hers was one of the few remaining schools that maintained a print edition of their local rag.

“Surbhi?” Ted tapped on her chair’s left armrest.

“Just a second,” she said. The cap was in her mouth, and the crossword was complete except for one long vertical line in the middle. Ted leaned over her.

“ ‘A Latin President, Similarly Germanic, Ends Up in Wild’,” Ted read. The girl buckled when she realized how close he was. “What in the sam-hill does that mean?”

Surbhi pulled the page up to her chest. “The theme is ‘News Clippings’. It’s from last Friday.”

“The hardest day! Well shit, why don’t you just look it up?”

He handed her his smartglass. It was LifeMedia’s newest model, a half centimeter thick, with pale pink displays running across an otherwise transparent surface. As soon as he spoke the words, an image materialized: LifeMedia’s search bar. Their search engine had never really taken off, but he tried to support it by making it the default on all their products. Even Milton had uninstalled it from his head.

Surbhi batted the phone away. “There’s no integrity in that. I can’t mess up my record.”

“No one would know,” Ted said in a quiet singsong. He had paternal feelings for the girl, especially when he was cutting her checks and giving her unasked-for advice.

“It’s not about that.”

Surbhi didn’t have a Tweeper account, a G-plus, or even an outdated Facebook. When Ted invited her to test out LifeMedia’s new social media site, she’d turned him down at first, despite the generous payment. Though she was a digital native, generation-wise, Surbhi cherished the analog.

Ted pulled the ExoSkel leg attachments into his arms and cradled them like a gawky, overlong baby. He checked the unit number printed inside the shin. His research assistant for the day, a local college grad named Tony, was hovering nearby with a tablet. He hadn’t said a word since Surbhi had come in. He just watched her from the corner of his eye, his lips curled.

“This is…let’s see…00022300661,” Ted reported, and Tony took the number down. “Where does that put us at?”

“Only two hundred and four to go,” Tony said.

Surbhi sighed noisily and held the paper up. “I just don’t get this clue. I really don’t.”

“It’ll still be here when this test is over,” Ted said.

“I feel like I’m close,” she pressed her temples. Ted was bent over, rolling her pants legs up. “I just need a minute.”

“Pfft, that’s not how remembering stuff works. You gotta forget.”

She threw the newspaper on the table and watched Ted work. He laid the attachments across her ankles, up the length of her shin, and affixed the second sensor to her knee. When he finished there, he handed the upper-thigh attachment to her, and she worked it up, insider her loose yoga pants, and attached it to her hip. The lights came on, and a warm, pleasant tingle shot up her legs. Her pupils dilated slightly.

Ted finished the other leg and went for the spinal attachments. “No,” Surbhi said.

“Why not?”

“It’s a sauna in here.”

Ted cocked an eyebrow at her and coughed. Tony squeaked across the room in his rubber shoes and adjusted the temperature. Cool air immediately started to billow from the overhead vent.

In the past few weeks, several LifeMedia testers had fallen by the wayside. No matter the amount Ted promised, they weren’t willing to try on ExoSkel after ExoSkel, and run the full test protocol, day after day, until all the units were done. Only a few remained, and they were being reimbursed at an overtime rate. Surbhi was missing class and architecture club for the day’s batch of tests. Her hair hung in a frazzled topknot and she was wearing the same baggy boat neck shirt as the day before.

The room cooled, and Surbhi relented, leaned forward, and allowed Ted to work the ExoSkel attachments up her spine. The hairlike fibers dug into her flesh and the lights clicked on. In these moments, Ted felt the least like Surbhi’s father. He felt more like one of her many doctors, or perhaps like an inhuman, mechanical arm himself. She focused on the knees of her yoga pants and said nothing as he pushed the device under her bra strap; Tony went to the computer and pretended to work, as he always did at these times.

“I do not want the skull part,” Surbhi complained.

“You’re going to put it on, or this whole test is worthless,” Ted said, a bit stern. Her shoulders relaxed in irritated assent.

He went over and grabbed the skull attachment. Its sensor was the size of a small smartphone, with two dark purple clamps that wrapped around the wearer’s neck. Ted had designed a few more elegant prototypes, but it would be another year or so before they were market-ready.

Surbhi accepted the sensor around her neck like a crown or a shackle.

“Just think of all the text books you’ll be able to buy when this is over,” Ted chuckled.

She leaned back and said, “No one pays for text books anymore. I think I’ll buy a car.”

“No one buys cars anymore,” Tony offered. When Surbhi tilted her head toward him, his eyes darted back to the tablet screen.

“A big, red car. A loud car. And a parking pass in the middle of campus.”

“But you’ll be able to walk,” Ted said. “Won’t you want to walk?”

She rolled her eyes.


Click here to read Synapse from the beginning. The prequel, Corpus Callosum, is available as a free ebook.