Letter to You
Meagen and I used to walk around the neighborhood a lot more, back when we had a dog, and before that, when we lived a street over, both of us crammed into one shitty bedroom at a friend’s house. We would walk around in the middle of Autumn, just trying to escape the stress of surviving work, life, and a relationship that had claimed more parts of our psyche than either of us could have known. It was a dumb thing to do, walk around our own temporary neighborhood hoping to find a home (we were both as it turns out, much younger and inexperienced than we thought at the time).
Hope can look a lot like madness.
We moved in a street over after a month of searching. She came home to our shitty bedroom for the last night ever, and I walked her over to our new life, in a place that was so big (compared to a bedroom), we found ourselves overwhelmed with it all.
And like I said, we don’t really walk those roads together anymore. Not since Ellie The Dog died last June. Meagen goes running down the street all the time, but I still don’t like walking without the dog, or turning down what we once called “poop alley”.
But we were walking the other day, almost half a decade since we were twenty-eight and searching for a new place to live. We were talking about prose and narration. She’s a poet, and I’m a weirdo, so I often try to pick apart our brains, and see how they fire differently. Part of that is an unconscious desire to be safe (something she realized early on in our relationship) but it’s also because the idea that minds work differently in every person is very exciting for me. I think it makes me feel okay that I’m weird, and also special. I have ideas that other people don’t And some people like them. That’s the sort of revelation a kid like me needed growing up.
Here’s what we talked about:
When I’m writing a story, it’s because I see things. It comes in flashes of sound and vision. It’s a lot like watching a movie trailer. But since it’s a movie that no one can see except me, I end up trying to pull it out and show it to people, inevitably spending a decade trying to piece it all together and force it into a presentable package.
That’s what writing is for me. Figuring out what I saw that first time, and then letting my brain find the rest of the story, one agonizing thought at a time.
The problem is, once I figure out what the story is, I have to believe that deep down, somewhere else, all the stuff I saw truly happened. Because if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be able to spend a decade writing about it. It would sound bad, like I was making shit up.
This method of make-believe/make-real becomes a problem when you have to change something in the story. And that shit happens all the time. It is necessary for thing to change while writing. A story needs certain things in it’s plotting, and what those things might be grow and change as I rush (for ten years) toward the end of the work.
Part of my growth as a writer has been learning how to believe the moments of the story occured in real life (just someplace else, in the unknown universe inside my head), while learning how to bend or even ignore the truth of them happening. It is nothing less than controlled madness.
I’ve had to do this several different ways, like pretending I didn’t “see” part of the story correctly (ie the events happened but I was squinting, or looking in the wrong direction), or pretending there are many alternate realities, and I was only looking at one of them (ie the thing happened just as I saw it, but the universe of my imagination has infinite realities, and I need to zoom out in my consciousness and dive into another).
It happens all the time.
Recently I was writing about this in middle school, and I had to change it to a kid in high school. That is not a huge leap to make.Surely I myself was not so different between seventh and ninth grade. But to change the story, even by that little flick of a memory, was excruciating.
Doing something like this always causes a slight panic in my head; the same primal warning that reality has shifted, and that true madness might occur if I can’t remember what is real or not real.
I’m getting better at it though. The novel is one of several gods in my life. My time and thoughts are a welcome sacrifice.
It has been unexpectedly hard to write about this kid in high school. After all, he is, for all intents and purposes, very much like me when I was his age. And that was not a fun age for me to be.
For me, good writing means I gotta delve on down, and pull up some real emotions to work with. But it also means knowing when not to go that deep; when to hold back the barrage of truthful thoughts, and make sure the vibrational energies of my theme and style are coming through correctly.
Make it fun to read. Simple. Some days it’s impossible, but it’s simple, really.
Writing about this kid means I’ve had to do a subconscious dive into my childhood, a place that for me still very much exists. It may be the past, but that world is just as real as the ones I make up. That means I can go there again, if I want to. I can walk those halls and be in that place. I can smell the vinyl seats of the bus and hear the noises of the road and the other kids who were excited to be in a place I considered a warzone. I carry that world in me wherever I go.
Those thoughts are part of the weight of Who I Am, the roots of my life which almost destroyed me.
When I look back at school, at the kid I was, I see trauma.
I see a child from an emotionally unstable family, forced to swim through the burgeoning expanse of his own mental illness, all while learning how to navigate a jungle-like prison filled with other kids who hated him for seeing it as such a place. And if I were to try and write about the things that happened to me, even just for one day, you would think it was fiction.
So that’s just what I did.
It was surprising to be in that world again. The daily repetition of constant fear and hatred eventually formed something out of me. It was a bomb-drop which caused the rest of my life to explode outward just the way it did; unliked and unloved, until i was good at something.
Damn, that’s almost too much to write, even for me. Too deep.
But I spent a week inside that world. Living a past life while forcing myself to pull up and stitch what I saw together into a cohesive plot, to shape it all just correctly to fit into the story I first saw flash before me eleven years ago. And one day, while I’m stuck in this other, painful world, time-travelling by myself in a library, my phone buzzed on the table next to me. It was my mother. The message was unexpected, for a thousand reasons. But she just wanted to tell me that she had seen all the things I’ve been doing with my life, the music, the writing, the games and whatever, and she thought that I was courageous for just putting myself out there and doing things that I wanted to do.
It’s hard to write that down and not go into some wikipedia length explanation of how my family does or does not work, depending on the definition of the word. Or to not explain how we don’t talk really all that much, that I wasn’t understood growing up and it led to years of unnecessary medication, public fallouts, and painful memories that will never be healed. But they are there for me when I least expect it, and I’ve spent years trying to rebuild the damage caused by the echoes of two stunted family trees crashing into one another.
But to hear those words from her, just at that moment, when I was trapped in the painful world of my childhood, meant a lot to me.
Three years ago my brother Asher sent me an email saying we weren’t brothers anymore. It was in the midst of a flurry of text messages. I had called him out on something, harshly, and he reacted about the way I expected. He was living in an asbestos lined closet of a bar he worked at in NYC. And he was mad as hell that Summer.
It got to the point where I would have a small panic attack every time he texted me. It was like his texts had the ability to explode in my hand if I wasn’t careful in my reply. And since it was the same Summer I had started writing songs for a band that would eventually become EFFORTS, I wrote a song about it all, and I played it, every time he texted me, before I responded. I would play the whole thing through by myself on the couch, quick and angry-like. You can play the whole thing while sticking your middle finger up. So it’s helpful.
Asher’s been in town the last month. We got better. Mostly. But I still have the song. He asked if he and a friend might stay at our tiny place. But I said no.
Addiction is a word that I don’t like. It brings up the wrong color. It used to mean blue–and blue was bad. Blue was a way of explaining or condemning the stark raving mad among our lot.
Addiction could mean the color green, if you let it. And green would be shared among many words. It would be a normal human function. Like intelligence or charisma.
Addiction should be a character trait in Dungeons & Dragons. Because the human mind, everyone’s palace of thought, is partially constructed upon a solid and necessary foundation of addiction. In some people, that trait is higher than others, sure. But the word addiction just sounds wrong. It sounds like junkie.
Now, I’m not someone who fears words. My youngest brother Ben used to be really afraid of certain words, and it would worry me. We grew up in a family where thinking or doing certain things would inevitably start the paved path to Hell. So I’m not sittin’ here, typin’ on a wobbly table in a coffee shop preachin’ that we should not Use This Word. I just don’t like it as a descriptor.
(Some words are wrong. They should not be said. Some are universal and some are just based on if you belong to the culture that spawned or adopted said words. That’s how I feel).
I love my family. We don’t talk. I have no idea what’s going with their lives, and I love them.
“Addiction Green” runs pretty hard in my ancestry, probably more so after the Michaud’s (ma’s family) and the Rogers (Dad’s family, originally Roge´, till my French ancestor changed it) met down in Florida and created me and five other chitlins.
Dad was the first to figure it out. He traded Christianity for AA meetings, but he was just as addicted to the circle and bad coffee as he was the alcohol and Thy Lord. It took me years to pull myself out of a tailspin of OCD, panic attacks and substance abuse–to figure out that my mind is many things, but it’s mostly an underwater minefield of addition-based behaviors.
It’s hard to be around my siblings. I think about them all the time, and I miss them a lot. Or maybe just the way it cold, or should be, based on traditional thinking of How Families Should Be.
I’ve seen a family work, once, in the wild. They galloped away before I could take a picture.
Everything is an addiction for me. Writing. Coffee. Going to the same places. Talking about myself. If it can be repeated, it would consume me. Complaining. Skittles. Cheesecake. Ice Cream. Airplane bottles of alcohol. Celadon American Spirits. That one good Murder Jerk of my dick at 1:00 am each night.
I have done my best to control it. To force it like some addiction-based Waterbender, to turn the tide of horror into something useful, productive, and beautiful.
I make projects and try to finish them. A decade is a long time for a thing to take to be finished, but I’m getting faster. I make plans and say I can’t do tham until I finish the things I started. I cut out the things that are harming me and try my best to learn from my mistakes.
(I’m six or seven weeks without sugar, as of this writing. And those first two weeks were so bad I ended up shaving my head like some sort of monastic living-room-rehab monk.)
So it is scary for me, and emotionally treacherous, to stay in a constant communication with my siblings. And I’m not saying it’s because I’m fighting my own wars and their not. I’m sure they are. They would have to be. But it’s painful because when they get what they want–when the younger kids I once held in my hands are happy, surrounded by the substance, people, or lifestyle they crave, they are so wonderful, and loving to be around. They tell me they love me. They hug me. They engage with me and ask questions about my life…
It’s like seeing someone come back from the dead.
But when that thing goes way…the substance, the people, the lifestyle, the high of getting whatever it was they wanted at that moment, the mood comes crashing down. And I’m nothing to them. They’re dead again, and I’m dead TO them.
And it is debilitating.
I was a very late bloomer. I assume it will be the same for them. So I reach out every once in awhile, try to remain safe but available in the distance.
It is possible I am a coward. And I don’t like that thought. But certainly if addiction has different hues, than cowardice does too.
The plan is to finish the EFFORTS album and self-release it in October (it’s a very Octoberish album). So Zach and I have been getting together most every week, trying to mix the album down so it’s ready for us to master. It’s the tail-end of three years of work.
Mixing for us means more recording though, whether it’s vocals (“I can do that better, punch me in”), or adding strings from a $3000 keyboard owned by some guy in New Zealand neither of us have met. (Zach has a lot of weird stuff in the studio. It’s great).
But it’s been just the two of us, really. Geoffrey might have been the bassist but he sort of disappeared from the project sometime last year, if he was ever really part of it to begin with. It was equal parts him being busy, a possible midlife crisis, and a partial and partly imagined falling out.
That was a hard thing to go through, for me. I think of my friends as siblings, in an effort to create the safe and similar family I always needed. Which isn’t to say that’s far to the parties involved. You can’t make someone be your brother, a lesson I never took to.
Abandonment issue smake for great songs but not a great band dynamic.
It was a welcome surprise when Geoffrey showed up in the studio to help us finish mixing the song I had written about my brother all those years ago. Between the three of us we make music that I find truly astonishing, and by the time we reached the end of the night (now technically morning) we had a finished track that I never could have expected. It’s called Ash to Dust.
I don’t know what will happen with EFFORTS. It would be nice to play out again. But I know that we will finish this album, and print up vinyl copies, and give the digital version away for free.
Music business is a joke. It doesn’t work, at least not for the type of music I want to make. Hanging all my hopes on the “Big I” industry is something I learned the hard way with my game, Spell Saga. And so it only makes sense to do things my own way with the music.
I have, as of right now, five various bands/projects/endeavors.
I have EFFORTS with Zach and Geoffrey, the side project DAMNSEL & THE EUTH GROUP with Geoffrey, I have Beset. with The Weapon, Noah (and more?), DEATH.GIF (just me), and possibly a new thing called Gender Scouts with my buddy Carminati.
We’ll see on that last one. I have a album cover and we’ve been sending each other demos. It could be great, so fingers crossed.
But the plan is, so far, pretty simple: send all my music to everyone who purchases the game, and film music videos when we have the time and money. Same goes for physical printings of albums. Who cares when the songs hit the internet? There’s no rules anymore. I’m just trying to make shit and do things my own way. And I’m very grateful to have people who want to do this with me.
The day after EFFORTS reunification, I had to wake up early (for me anyway) and drive down to the same multi-million dollar studio Beset. tried it’s best to record in.
It is a damn shame to be given such an opportunity (for free mind you!), and have it fall to pieces under the weight of a band who was not ready to be there to begin with. I cannot fathom a world where such a band would get a second chance. But we did. Thanks to The Weapon, our guitar player, who interns at the studio.
I was nervous. And I had every right to be. The last time we didn’t know the songs and had to play the same one twenty-one times just to get something unusable. Our violinist walked out and quit during a take and we all left feeling mildly concerned that our haphazard music was perhaps a sin against some unknown religion.
As I drove to the studio (a quite literal wooden castle hidden out in the country) I was forced to take a different route than I expected, which brought me past not one, but two familiar places. The first was the very school I had been writing about. The middle school building where I had been punished for being born. I craned my head as I passed, tryin to soak up as much of the horror as I could.
After that I ended up down a road I had not been on in many years, it was the back entrance to the first home we ever had in Tennessee. This was where we had arrived after driving cross country to a house we rented sight unseen in 1995. It was the place where I first turned twelve. Where my father spent his nights in the living room, trying to make music in a homemade studio, trying to make it in music city. It was also the place I discovered (but was forbidden to play) magic: the gathering, if I’m not mistaken. (though that might have been a news report in Spokane Washington, warning of the dangers of cards and modern witchcraft (“see!” I showed my parents excitedly, “It’s evil! Can I play?!”)) It’s also the place we got our first Super Nintendo (I’m listening to the Donkey Kong Country OST as I type this) and where my brother Asher ran away from home for a day.
But the most surprising thing about driving down that old road, and I must have known this at some point, but the name of the neighborhood we lived in was The Highlands. And not only that, but as I look at a map, it seems we lived on Highland Rd.
How could I not have known that? I must have.
For those of you wondering why that would matter to me, Spell Saga (my one player game/bane of my life, available now!) is split up into several decks of playing cards. The first the one I Kickstarted at least twice, the one that people around the world hae translated and played, is called The Highlands.
When I got to the studio I was no less nervous. Last time we didn’t know our songs, but The Weapon, Noah and I had been practicing almost every week for two months and we had two down real solid. It should have been a easy thing to knock both out in a day’s time. But we decided to do it the hard way, and had invited four other musicians to come and join us that day. None of them knew the songs.
I wasn’t worried about the bassist. Zach and I have been doing music together as EFFORTS for a solid couple of years. I was surprised when he agreed to join us, but I had not reservations he could pick up and play with any weird thing we might do.
For strings we had Evan on cello (he had played with us once before, and we practiced quickly upon a wooden turret so he would know the songs. But the violinist was new. He was young, and kind of like if Peter Pettigrew was a feminine festival kid. He was also technically proficient with an omega-level of ADD that put the rest of us to shame. But he was very gifted.
The last piece of the puzzle with this kid named Trey. Noah and The Weapon insisted on bringing him in for a second guitarist. I told them no, but he showed up and plugged in anyway. He was real nervous. But man, he was the find of the day.
It takes a long time to set up a recording session. We were very lucky to have Gavin the Engineer with us once more. Brave kid to go at it again with us. Gavin looks like a Viking and constantly vapes clouds of grape bubblegum scented chemicals throughout the room. He feels like part of the band now.
I drew out some reallllly crude “song maps” of where the changes were in the first song, and then Evan left (it takes a REALLY long time to set up) and then we went at it.
The main room o the studio is huge. It’s wooden, and it feels like some sort of Norwegian travelodge. Gavin sits in the middle, between a thousand cables and operates the machinery. At the far end of the lodge is a windowed drum room. Noah and The Weapon play in there, the amps for both guitars down somewhere in a room on the floor below us.Just outside the room sat Zach with his bass and a bemused look on his face. And beside him stood Trey, nervous and staring at me like a deer caught in a band’s headlights. The room behind him was windowed, and the violin player set up in there, moving so quickly he looked like a spider trying to wrap up a meal. And at the far end of the room was me, by myself, watching everyone, including my wife Meagen, and Noah’s girlfriend Corri, who sat together on a leather couch, supportive but unimpressed.
We could talk to each other through a confusing machine that sat next to each of us, and hear ourselves through headphones. “Play more like the lower deck passengers of the Titanic, but while it’s sinking” I said, trying to slow the violinist down and encourage him. “I can’t hear Todd.” said The Weapon. “You control the mix for your own headphones!” we reminded him after every take. “God Damn it!” I yelled when Noah dropped his sticks after the best intro I’ve ever heard in my life. “Keep that one.” Zach told us.
In the end we left with both songs recorded in about two and half hours. Which is insane. While they cleared the gear at the end I commandeered the speakers (imagine the soundsystem a billionaire might have in the seventies, only nicer) and Zach and I listened to the EFFORTS song we had recorded just the night before. It sounded good. Real good. And everyone seemed to notice. The Weapon walked up to me and stood in the center of the room (best place to listen to the monitors). “Todd, in a few years, I think you’re gonna be underground famous.”
“Thanks man.” I said to him, real stern-like, just the same as when my family talks to one another. The way someone does when they just want to stay safe.
I pieced together some of the takes a few days later. We sound good. Real good. Even without effects or mixing, and with rough “sang like this just for tracking” vocals. I played it for Zach in his studio, and I think he likes it too. Noah concurs, and Trey has joined the band. It turned out his guitar parts on the second song were my favorite part of the whole thing.
Spell Saga should be here, at my doorstep, in about two months. That gives me roughly enough time to finish half a dozen projects, so they can all be ready to launch at the same time.
It will be the Summer of Subheathen. A year long feast to celebrate the culmination of so many years of hard work. The Beset. double-single of “Where is Your Ocean” and “Psychic Loan” should be out this July, EFFORTS in October. The first DEATH.GIF single “Peasant Water” sometime between them.
Even The Novel should have it’s second draft finished by the end of December. And throughout every month, more Spell Saga news and packages then you could ever imagine.
I’m just relieved to have plans, for the repetition of familiar things to work on for a set period of time.
A of this writing I have been sober from alcohol for one year.