One of the most important things I’ve realized is that there is a sort of emptiness that thrives inside of adult human beings. It can hurt or feel like nothing at all. Where does it come from? I’ve often wondered. Maybe it’s a lack of personal fulfillment, or maybe it’s because of the fact that it’s just plain embarrassing to be human. Really, who knows. It’s a weird thing.

I myself have been dealing with this ravenous, black-hole emptiness since I started finding girls attractive. I sure wish it would go away.

I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I guess this emptiness is here to stay.

There are things people do to pretend that emptiness doesn’t exist. Sometimes people buy dumb bullshit, or they get into really bad relationships, or they have a baby, or they put psychotropic substances into their bodies, or they kill someone, or they kill themselves, or they jump out of an airplane wearing a parachute. Sometimes they pray to the Creator of the Universe.

As for me: I have several ways of dealing with it. I take hot baths, read books, ride my bicycle, take naps, eat cashews, drink tea, play my guitar and listen to rock and roll as loud as possible.

That last part—the part about rock and roll—that’s what matters to me the most. I can’t think of anything more important and life-affirming than rock and roll.

•     •     •

Sylvia Plath used to say a lot of poignant and beautiful things. One of the nicest things she ever said, out of a whole lifetime of saying nice things, was that, hey, there isn’t a whole lot a hot bath can’t fix. She was saying, in her own way, that hot baths make that emptiness subside for a little while—just long enough for one to say, “OK, well, I guess this is all worth it after all. I’m going to put this pistol down and go for a walk.”

Listen: I believe that. I want that on my tombstone—that thing about hot baths. Except I would add one more thing, so that my tombstone would look like this: “He genuinely believed hot baths and rock and roll could save his life.”

Rock and roll—what a thing. What a God damn spectacular thing.

Were it not for rock and roll, I don’t know that there would be any reason for me to do anything. I would shut down and collapse. I would wither and die.

Three cheers for rock and roll, I guess.

•     •     •

There’s a story here. It involves a band.

It started like this: I was at home reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I was feeling pretty rotten about everything, which is why I was reading in the first place. I took a break and read something else. I turned to the internet. I found out that good old rock and roll would be coming to my town. Rock and roll had a different name that day. It consisted of two words. This is what it was called: “Diamond Rugs”.

I gasped. “My God,” I thought, “Diamond Rugs—in Austin.”

They would be in town, I read, for South by Southwest, the music/film/technology festival that annually graces Austin with its chaos and spirited debauchery. So I searched for every possible show they were playing. I scribbled the dates and times down on a pad of paper. I went into my roommate’s room and shouted the words “Diamond” and “Rugs” and “we” and “have” and “to” and “go.”

He shrugged. “OK,” he said.

I was ecstatic, because I knew that I wouldn’t have to feel so empty for a little while. Free at last, I thought—free from the clutches of soul-sucking, life-consuming, happiness-eating emptiness. And then I returned to my book.

•     •     •

For the uninformed, Diamond Rugs are an “indie supergroup” comprised of members of Deer Tick and Dead Confederate and the Black Lips and Los Lobos and Six Finger Satellite.

Two of my favorite humans make up a third of the band: John McCauley and Rob Crowell of Deer Tick.

And I like Dead Confederate and the Black Lips. I think they’re a bunch of all right dudes.

Really, it’s a weirdly perfect amalgamation of musicians. It’s dropping an A-bomb on the minds and souls of everything with a heartbeat. It’s God picking up an megaphone and screaming, “Fuck you, creation!” at planet Earth.

It’s a good idea, is what it is.

•     •     •

I’m hesitant to make this comparison, because I’m certain just about every music website on Earth is going to say the same thing, but I’ll say it anyway: All of this reminds of Middle Brother, which is another another John McCauley side project—one which I assume came about because JM is the hardest working man in rock and roll, and because he was probably bored.

Middle Brother, as a band, is a brilliant thing.

Middle Brother, as an album, is just about the best thing to happen to music in a long time. It’s a flawless collection of songs. It was crafted by three frontmen who knew exactly what they wanted to do, and then did it—for all the world to hear.

As I said, Diamond Rugs’ origin story isn’t too far off. I don’t know the particulars, so I’ll add a few flourishes of my own.

•     •     •

John Joseph McCauley III, taking a break from his immense success as a traveling musician and songwriter, was sitting in his backyard in Nashville, Tennessee. He was having a few beers with the nicest person to ever exist and best keyboardist on the planet, Rob “The Crow” Crowell. Rob was in town because Nova Scotia was generally uninhabitable during that time of the year, due to the baseball-sized hail and fifteen feet of snow, and because Nikki Darlin was touring Europe and John needed someone to spoon at night.

After ruminating on the prospect of conquering the music world, John finally opened his mouth to speak. Rob, who had been sunbathing, sat up in anticipation. “Man,” said John, “let’s invite Ian over.”

“I’ll call him now,” said Rob, removing the cucumber slices from his eyes.

Fifteen minutes later, Ian Saint Pé of the Black Lips showed up, and without telling anyone beforehand, brought Steve Berlin of Los Lobos with him. “Sorry guys,” said Ian, “couldn’t get rid of him.”

“Shit,” said Rob. “I think I just pocket-dialed Hardy Morris of Dead Confederate.”

“Aw man,” said John. “If he comes, he’s going to bring Brian Dufresne of Six Finger Satellite, and that guy always eats all the hummus.”

“Too late now to back out now,” said Ian, pointing toward the driveway. “Looks like those fuckers were quick on the draw.” He smoothed out his mustache and sipped tequila out of a diamond-encrusted goblet. He burped. “Y’all wanna record an album or something?”

And so Diamond Rugs was born.

•     •     •

Yes, and Diamond Rugs came to Austin the middle of March, and they played a little over a half-dozen shows, and I dutifully attended five of them. I was front and center, just below either John McCauley or Hardy Morris or Ian Saint Pé, and I nodded at all the right times, and dug what I was hearing.

As luck would have it, I was able to attend their first SXSW show at the Lustre Pearl on Rainey Street, because the managing editor I was working for ran out of things for me to do. “You’re welcome to leave whenever you wish,” she told me. So I left work a little after one in hot anticipation of the three o’clock show. I biked down to Rainey Street and got in line.

“I don’t mean to be that guy,” I said to the gentlemen in front of me, “but what am I standing in line for?” A common, irritating thing that happens at SXSW is that people are always asking you what line they’re standing in, and I felt pretty bad about doing that.

“Uh, this is the line for Deerhoof,” said the man, adjusting his sunglasses.

“Deerhoof?”

“Yeah, and, uh, some band called Diamond Rugs.”

“Oh man, great,” I said. And so I stood in line patiently for a half hour, boiling in the sun. I watched people buy five-dollar snow cones from a school bus that was also a restaurant.

“Five dollars,” said a man behind me to his friend, “for ice and sugar.

•     •     •

Around two-thirty, in exchange for flashing my driver’s license to a bored man sitting on a stool, I was given a black wristband and told to walk around back—and to not, under any circumstances, enter the Lustre Pearl proper. I shrugged.

“OK,” I said. “Why not?”

“Just don’t,” said the man. He spit.

I walked around the side of the charming-if-shabby Lustre Pearl, which wasn’t anything more than an old converted house, much like the other bars on Rainey Street. I passed Hardy Morris as he was buying a hot dog from a food trailer. People were seated a tables, laughing and drinking without any visible cares. It was an all right place to be. It was the only place to be.

•     •     •

There, under an enormous white canopy tent, was the main stage. Almost no one was standing before the stage—just six or seven people waiting with their arms crossed, sipping beer and talking about how they didn’t really know what to expect.

I walked up a flight of stairs leading to the back porch of the Pearl, and saw Rob Crowell of Deer Tick, the nicest guy in rock and roll. He was with a young woman, and both of them were wearing white BluBlocker sunglasses.

When the woman he was with stepped away, I walked up to Rob. “I’m the guy who offered to pick you up from the airport,” I said. I had, yes, offered to pick Diamond Rugs up from the airport—but Rob had told me the day before that their flights were staggered over the course of twelve hours, and thus it would be a logistical nightmare.

“Oh, yeah!” he said. “You were at the New Year’s show—at Brooklyn Bowl.”

“That’s right, in New York,” I said.

We talked for a little while. He told me he had to get on stage in a few minutes. I told him we’d talk after the show.

The woman he was with a few minutes earlier approached me. “You know Rob?” she said.

“Yeah, we’ve met.”

“I’m Carrie,” she said. She shook my hand. “Rob’s a really nice guy.”

“The nicest,” I said. John McCauley walked by sipping a Lone Star tall boy.

“There’s John,” she said. “They’re about to go on.”

“Yeah,” I said. We stood together and faced the sun, awaiting the arrival of rock and roll.

•     •     •

A young woman with short red hair started walking up the stairs leading to the porch. I pointed at her. She gave me a look that communicated that she did not want to be spoken to as though she were an object. I subtly communicated that I was not about to do that.

“I know you,” I said. “You work at the Belmont.”

“That’s right,” she said. She smiled and let down her guard. She was relieved that I wasn’t trying to hit on her, since that’s the only sort of male attention she was accustomed to receiving. I had witnessed it personally at the Belmont.

“I remember seeing you at the Delta Spirit show a few days ago,” she said.

“Yeah, that was me. That was kind of a shitty show. The sound was really bad, and everyone there was a complete jerk. I don’t think anyone even knew who they were.”

“God, yeah,” she said. “Who are you here to see?”

I pointed at the stage. “I’m here to see them—Diamond Rugs.” The band was setting up.

“Oh, I’ve never heard of them. We’re here,” she said, pointing to her friend, “to see Deerhoof. Do you like them?”

“I have never in my life heard a single Deerhoof song.”

“I guess you will soon enough.” She smiled again and dashed into the Lustre Pearl—past the security guard, who was preoccupied with sipping a cup of Lone Star.

•     •     •

Diamond Rugs performed. I was one of a few dozen people standing before the stage. No one knew what to expect.

Ian announced each song as “Song One” and “Song Two” and “Song Three”, and so on. He was immediately likable. He was suave as hell. The way he talked gave me the impression that he was the kind of guy who could successfully flirt with your mother—and on the other hand, I felt he had enough charm to sell me a used car.

“What you’re witnessing is less a show,” he said, “and more of what I would call ‘band practice’.”

“Yeah,” said John, “I’m sorry that you guys won’t really recognize any of these songs.”

“Our record comes out April 24th,” said Ian, “which isn’t too far away.”

•     •     •

After the show ended, I stood dumbly by the gate near the stage, waiting to say hello to John McCauley. He was taking equipment off the stage, so I started talking to a girl who seemed over the moon that John was standing five feet in front of us. “Oh my God,” she said. “There he is!” She held her clasped hands up to her chest and grinned like a lunatic.

“Yeah,” I said. “He’s a pretty cool dude.”

“Have you met him before?”

“Get this,” I said, “I’ve kissed him before. Twice, even. It was a nice thing to have happen.”

She looked like she was about to faint. She grabbed my shoulders. “Shut up,” she said.

“No, really,” I said. I took my phone from my pocket and pulled up a picture photographer Sam Cornwall had graciously sent me from Deer Tick’s New Year’s show. In it, John McCauley is wearing blue adult-sized children’s pajamas. He’s bent over on the stage, holding his Fender Jag-Stang away from the crowd. I’ve got both hands around his head, and we’re sharing a passionate New Year’s kiss.

“Fuck you,” she said, smiling. “Seriously, fuck you.” As she said this, John came out from behind the stage.

“Yo, John,” said the girl. “This dude’s got a sick picture of you.”

John approached me and smiled. “What is it?”

“Man, it would be really lame if I showed you the picture,” I said.

“Nah, come on.”

“All right.” I handed him my phone. “From New Year’s in Brooklyn, remember?”

He turned to me. “Ah man,” he said, pulling me in for a hug. “Come here.”

•     •     •

John told me they were opening for Counting Crows later that night. He laughed as he lit a cigarette.

“How the hell did that happened?”

He shrugged. “No idea, but it’s funny as hell.”

“I’ll be there. See you later tonight,”

“Yeah,” said John, turning to the girl who was very angry that I had kissed the love of her life.

I had three hours to kill, so I walked across the street to see Delta Spirit play at Clive Bar. It ended up being the seventh and final Delta Spirit show I had seen in five days.

Just as I got in line to enter the bar, I heard another band take the stage at the Lustre Pearl.

“Hey everyone,” said a voice over the PA system. “We’re Deerhoof.”

•     •     •

Around six-thirty I biked downtown and across the bridge hanging over Lady Bird Lake. The show was at a huge outdoor pavilion called Auditorium Shores. There were tens of thousands of people sitting on a massive lawn—huddled together on blankets and beach towels. The fiery amber skyline of Austin shone in the distance as the planet turned, changing the sky from light blue to a deep murky blue. Everyone was excited to see Counting Crows. No one seemed to give a damn about Diamond Rugs.

I made my way up to front. I overheard two sassy older women say they missed Virginia, where they had lived, they said, for some time. They were swearing like sailors.

“Did you say you’re from Virginia?”

“Not from Virginia, but we lived there for a long time. In Ashburn.”

“Oh, I know Ashburn. I’m from Manassas,” I said, “near Fairfax—which is by Washington, D.C.” I threw in as many notable nearby cities as I could.

“You are!” they shouted in unison.

“We have friends there!” said one the ladies.

“Can you tell we’re sisters?” said the other one.

“Yes,” I said, “I definitely can.”

“Who the fuck do you think is older?” said one of the sisters—the shorter one. She smiled and put her hands on her hips.

“Yeah,” said the tall one, “who’s older?”

“Ladies,” I said, “there’s no way in hell I’m going to answer that question.”

•     •     •

“Are you here for Counting Crows?” said the tall sister.

“Oh, God no,” I said. “I’m here for the opening band—Diamond Rugs.”

“Who?” said the short sister, scrunching her face up. “Diamond what?”

“Rugs,” I said.

“You mean those guys?” said the tall sister. She pointed toward the stage. She pointed at John McCauley, who was wearing an oversized yellow-and-black plaid blazer.

“Yeah, those guys.”

“Oh,” said the sisters in unison.

The taller sister leaned in close to me. “They look kind of weird,” she said.

“They’re cool guys.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, maybe you should stand up front. Here, get in front of us.” The shorter sister grabbed me and gave me a friendly shove up to the front. I held on to the railing and waited patiently for the show to start.

“Who are these guys?” said a man behind me. “I wanna see Counting Crows.”

“They’re called ‘Diamond Rings’,” said one of the sisters. “This guy says they’re good.”

“Well, I wanna see Counting Crows.” The man booed at the stage.

At that moment I felt, just a little, that I wanted to be dead.

•     •     •

Ian Saint Pé approached a microphone on the left side of the stage and said a few pleasantly charming sentences to get the crowd excited. They didn’t buy it. Everyone was confused as hell.

The taller sister leaned forward and whispered in my ear: “Sweetie, I think you’re the only one here to see these guys.”

Adam Duritz, the lead singer of Counting Crows, walked out on stage and held a microphone up to his mouth. He announced that Diamond Rugs was about to play. He said he thoroughly enjoyed their album. He introduced John McCauley and Rob Crowell and Ian Saint Pé and Steve Berlin and Hardy Morris and Brian Dufresne.

Everyone clapped because they would clap no matter what Adam Duritz said or did. They were there to see Counting Crows, after all, and there stood their Lord and Savior, introducing a band they’d never heard of.

“Deer Tick, Los Lobos, the Black Lips, Six Finger Satellite and Dead Confederates,” he said. “Fucking fantastic group of guys.”

When Adam said “Dead Confederates” instead of “Dead Confederate,” Hardy Morris turned to John McCauley and stuck his tongue out as if to say, “This guy doesn’t even know the name of my band.”

•     •     •

Unsurprisingly, the crowd was unfazed by any of the music they heard. Occasionally they limply clapped and jeered, and sometimes booed, which I thought was an extremely rude gesture to aim at a group of hard-working performing artists trying their best to entertain a group of people who didn’t want to be entertained in that way.

The stage crew was just as hostile. One of Ian’s monitors was out, and he couldn’t hear anything he was playing. He turned to one of the sound guys and announced that he was playing blindly, so to speak. The sound guy shrugged.

“Really?” he said. “I mean, really?”

None of John’s usual stage tricks did it for the crowd, either. When he did that thing where he picks up a bottle or can of beer with his gold tooth and chugs the whole thing, people just shrugged and turned to their phones or children or cigarettes and tried their best to ignore what was happening in front of them.

They were a bunch of jerks is what they were.

•     •     •

After the set ended, someone announced that Counting Crows would be going on soon, and there was an enormous rush from the back of the crowd. Everyone wanted to be right up front. I was slammed into a steel blockade. I decided it was time to leave.

As I squirmed my way to the back of the crowd—which was the exact opposite direction everyone else was headed—Jason, my roommate, grabbed my shoulder and excitedly turned me around. “Awesome show,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “I mean, of course I liked it, but all of these people are dicks.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Wrong crowd for this type of thing.”

“Let’s just get the fuck out of here,” I said, turning away.

And we pushed and pushed our way out. It felt like swimming upstream. We said “pardon me” and “excuse me” and “coming through”, but no one listened. They stared at the stage before them, mute and listless and utterly stupefied.

Finally we were aborted from the sweaty palms of the madding crowd. We sped off to the parking lot, which was littered with more bored onlookers and their screaming children. Jason told me he had parked his motorcycle near a P. Terry’s, and that we should walk to get it.

“How far away is it?”

“Oh, not far.” We walked for a mile and a half.

After Jason retrieved his motorcycle and sped off into the night, I biked forty blocks home on a major road. It was the scariest twenty minutes of my entire life.

I had seen Diamond Rugs twice in the span of four hours. I was done for the night. I went home and collapsed into a fever dream.

•     •     •

Next day I went to two more Diamond Rugs shows. I biked downtown around noon to catch them at Empire Automotive, which was connected to a small bar. Before the show started, I went inside and sat down in a booth. Jason was with me. We read a newspaper together.

A bartender went around to every table offering spiced rum in black plastic cups with the bar’s name on it. She asked me if I wanted one. I said, “OK.”

“Now, this stuff is strong, all right? Like, really strong.”

“Sure, that’s fine,” I said. She handed me the cup, smiled, and walked away. When I held it up to my nose, I sneezed. It smelled like liquid sin. I took a small sip and sneezed again.

I went to the bathroom and poured the rum down the drain. I rinsed the neat little cup it came in and stuck it in my bag.

“God damn,” I said to Jason, walking towards the booth. “She wasn’t lying.”

“No kidding,” said Jason.

•     •     •

Outside I ran into Hardy Morris. I told him I’d seen Dead Confederate on New Year’s Eve—in Brooklyn. I told him they were great. He thanked me.

And I ran into Ian Saint Pé as he was buying two tallboys from an outdoor beer vendor. He said he was excited for Diamond Rugs to go on tour, and for the album to come out, and that he was happy to be in Austin. I told him Arabia Mountain was one of the best albums I’d ever heard, and that I’d really enjoyed the two Rugs shows I’d already seen. “Thanks, man,” he said, patting me on the back. “Thanks for liking my bands.”

After the show ended, I approached the stage and talked to John. I told him it was the best show they’d done so far.

“Good seeing you again, man,” he said as he unplugged his effects pedals.

“That show last night was kind of hilarious—and weird,” I said, referring to the Counting Crows debacle.

“Oh, man, they were awful to us. People were booing and shit, and the sound guys wouldn’t help us at all.” I felt a little bad for calling it “hilarious”.

“Do you want to get something to eat?”

“I can’t. I’ve got so much running around to do today. If I eat anything, it’ll be, like, a hot dog or something.” He put his arm around my shoulders and sipped a Lone Star.

“Well, I’ll see you again tonight at the Lustre Pearl.”

“All right, man,” said John McCauley.

•     •     •

I went home. I was drunk as hell. I’d had too many Lone Stars at Empire Automotive. I fell into a sort of drunk coma that lasted several hours.

When I woke up, it was time to go to the Lustre Pearl again. It took some real effort, but I convinced Chantal to come with me. Jason couldn’t be swayed. “I’m tired,” said Jason.

So Chantal and I biked to Rainey Street. Downtown Austin was insane. A bunch of drunk jerks littered every sidewalk and club and bar. There was excitement in the air because Jack White was playing at some shitty bar on 6th Street.

I didn’t give a damn about Jack White. I just wanted to see Diamond Rugs play one last time.

•     •     •

The Lustre Pearl was packed this time. Everyone was watching Johnny Corndawg perform when we showed up. People were dancing and singing and drinking and laughing and hugging and smiling. It was a wonderful place to be. The bar itself was open, so we walked through the breezy old house into its dimly lit rooms, looking for familiar faces. I wanted to introduce Chantal to Rob “Nicest Dude You’ll Ever Meet” Crowell, but he was busy talking to people way more interesting than us, so we didn’t want to disturb him.

We did see old John McCauley, though. He shook Chantal’s hand and said he had to get on stage.

And then he got on stage with the rest of the band. Ian announced they would be playing the entire album from start to finish. That’s exactly what they did.

There is a word that is usually attributed to Deer Tick’s live shows, and it’s “raucous”. That’s boring as hell. And anyway, Diamonds Rugs isn’t Deer Tick; they’re Diamond Rugs.

But this show—this last one—it was something way better than raucous. It was spirited and energetic and beer-fueled and funny and uplifting. It made me feel full. It made me feel the exact opposite of empty.

When John held his guitar out into the crowd, people lifted up their hands and strummed it wildly. Hardy handed some guy a tambourine and motioned for him to shake it during one of his songs. When John played “Gimme a Beer”, a tall guy smoking a cigarette approached the stage and gave all the band members cups of beer. People danced and sang along to songs they’d never heard before. People smiled and cheered and clapped and shouted words of encouragement.

There was something beautiful and human about the whole thing. We were all gathered at the center of the universe, as far as we were concerned, to see a band that didn’t even have an album out yet. We were there because we wanted to feel something, and because the men on stage, with their guitars and drumsticks and saxophones and trumpets and harmonicas—promised to deliver something raw and wonderful that would stir us from our ennui, and make us better creatures than we had been before. And we let them; we opened ourselves up and let them inside.

Eventually the night ended, and the band broke down their equipment and hopped off the stage. It was their final show. It was their very best one, too.

•     •     •

Today when I got home from work, a package was waiting for me outside my house. It was in a yellow padded envelope. I carefully peeled open the top and turned the envelope upside-down. I let the contents fall into my open hand. It was Diamond Rugs.

I went inside and opened the case. Six faces belonging to six fine musicians looked up at me. To the right was a blue CD containing music I knew I already loved.

I took the disc out of its case and slid it into my computer. First there was a steady drumbeat on the snare, and then the sound of a guitar—and Rob chugging along with a pleasant bass line. Ian Saint Pé began to speak. He said he’d had his down points and had gotten real nasty. He said his woman had left him.

I was feeling a little sick, and I wanted to hear some music. So I turned up the volume and walked across the room. I sat down on my bed and let the entire album play through twice. For an hour and a half, I didn’t sense the familiar burden of being alive. I could tell, in some strange way, that I was listening to songs written by men who didn’t want to feel like that either.

Diamond Rugs isn’t a cure, but it’s sure as hell close to one.

Thank you, gentlemen. Thank you.

Nicholas

“This poem made me think of you, our relationship.”

He spun the book around and pushed it across the table. I read it twice but I did not hear it. I pushed the book back with a look of cautious despair. He read it to me, something about love sitting out to spoil like rotten meat.

Trust me when I say that I have devoted more hours to looking for that damn poem than I have spent pining over any man I have ever loved. I wanted the poem to bring closure to a relationship that never began, but I never found it.

 •     •     •

Later in the semester we sat on the grass outside the English building and you understood why I loved Joyce and how Baldwin wrote about who I am. You let me read the German poet that made you write the strange poem you quoted to me. My hand touched your arm and I apologized, face flushed.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to touch you.”

“You can touch me anytime you want.”

“Nick.”

He laughed. I smiled, then laughed, then knew that this was too dangerous to enjoy, but I did not move from where my back was flattening the grass until the clock chimed three for my meeting.

“See you later, boy.” (Continued )

I do not know what God is, but I know all too well what it is to be haunted by God.  Strangely enough, I am perhaps best defined by that for which I do not have a word. ‘God’ is a present absence in my life. Or perhaps an absent presence. Oh I am haunted. I know not why nor by whom, nor from where, nor for what. People often speak of undertaking a ‘leap of faith.’ I did not so much take a leap of faith as I was caught unawares and pushed from a cliff and gravity has taken over. Say what you will, but when one has entered a state of freefall, however involuntarily, stopping and reversing directions does not seem like an option.

My predicament often leads me to wonder what it means to be religious. I have known a great many people who attend church every Sunday yet are not haunted by God in the same way that I am. For them, God is a familiar certainty. They know exactly what He, for it is almost always a he, wants and expects of them.  Similarly, I have known a great deal of supposed atheists who are unmistakably haunted as I am. Their every heartbeat seems to me an act of devotion. And yet they are not religious?

The modern notion of ‘spiritual but not religious’ is even more troubling. I am admittedly a heretic, but that does not bother me. The line between heretics and saints has always been delightfully blurred. But if a single tradition will not have me, should I claim instead to merely be spiritual? Is that what I am? It seems like such a cop out, a lazy abstention, a way of ignoring but not dismissing. I cannot call myself by such a name because God’s engagement with me is not casual; it is all consuming. I cannot devote a single day each week to God; God demands them all. (Continued )

A beautiful little doomsday simulator that fits in your pocket.
And the only instance in which I will say “iPhone” on this website.

 

★★★★ (out of four)

I have wanted Tim Rogers to be my best friend for probably four years now. We would be best friends, I wager, if I lived in Oakland, California. We would be, as he puts it, “spirit bros”. I’m moving to California at some point. It’s the next place I’ll go. Maybe then we’ll be best friends. I can hardly wait.

The last time I saw Tim was in August 2011. I was in California on business (I was sad). My long-term girlfriend had left me, and Baltimore was worse than ever, and I didn’t have any food in my apartment. I was participating in medical experiments to pay my rent. It was time to go to somewhere else. Somewhere else ended up being California.

I touched down at SFO and immediately called Tim. He explained where his house was, and how it wasn’t that hard to get to, but that it would seem like a lot of walking from the train station, even though it really wasn’t that far away. I said, “OK.” I got on the train. I rode it all the way out to Oakland. Tim’s apartment was the only place I really wanted to be.

One of the first things he did was hand me a white iPhone. The screen was black, but lit up, and was quickly filled with little white numbers. Something was loading. I looked up at Tim, who was grinning like a shark.

Then there was a little blond-haired man standing atop a truncated pyramid. Wind was blowing at the surface of the pyramid. The sun was high in the sky. Everything was beautifully pixelated. The little blond man was huffing and puffing and holding up a silver space-gun. A blue alien with an enormous cyclopian eye began moon-jumping up the left side of the screen. I put my finger over him. A pathetic slime-green orb dribbled out of my space-gun, and rolled down the side of the pyramid. I tapped again with the same result. There he was, jumping up and down, getting closer and closer. I swiped my finger across the screen and a bigger orb flung out of the gun and hit the target, which exploded into a ball of fire. I had been trying to make the character run, not shoot. I had no idea how to play the game.

“How do you run?” I said.

“You don’t. Everyone asks that question.”

“Is this blond guy you?”

“Everyone asks that, too. And no.”

And then I thought: Of course you can’t run. You’re at the top of a God damn ziggurat. It’s the end of the God damn world. Run? Run where? This was it. You were going to die no matter what. All you could do was charge your gun and shoot at fast-approaching aliens and try to make the most out of the situation. It was a very “If I’m on my way to hell, then I’m taking you with me” kind of feeling. It was exhilarating.

I played a few more games of what I knew was an early prototype of ZiGGURAT before giving Tim his phone back. I didn’t really think that I would ever be able to play it on my own phone. I just thought it was a neat little toy that he’d made.

And that was that.

•     •     •

Time flew the hell by. I forgot about ZiGGURAT for a long time. Occasionally Tim would mention it in an article, or he’d send me some pixel art or something, and I would nod and think, “OK, well, I guess he’s still working on it.” But it never surfaced as a playable thing I could intangibly own.

Then, in February 2012, it miraculously appeared on the App Store. It had a pinkish-red icon with a ziggurat in the background—and an enormous golden “Z” slapped in the center. I was giddy as hell. I downloaded it immediately.

I started it up. “Acition Button Entertainment” appeared on the screen in big orange letters. I was proud of my friend. By God, he’d made a videogame.

After a succinct and tasteful tutorial, in which the thumb-sliding, gun-charging controls were explained, I was back where I was six months before: I was back at the top of the ziggurat, and the whole world was ending.

I played a few games just before I went to sleep that night. I was better than I had been when I played the prototype, but still pretty bad. I thought about it a lot before I finally drifted off. I thought, hey, this is a swell thing to own. I felt I liked owning ZiGGURAT. It was a nice way to spend five minutes here and there. It didn’t catch me, though. It was a small diversion, and maybe that’s all it was ever intended to be. I went to sleep.

•     •     •

Next day it was all I could think about. I’d start it up and play ten games in a row, trying to hit that one hundred mark. I’d read somewhere, I can’t remember where, that if you weren’t killing at least one hundred alien freaks each time, you were probably playing it wrong. Tim had said it. I was using two thumbs to slide across the base of the ziggurat, and it wasn’t working as well as I wanted it to. I was a crack shot if the alien freaks were coming from the right—my right thumb never missed. But the controls were flipped for the left side, and down became up and up became down. I kept dying from the left.

So I switched to one thumb. I began alternating which side I used my right hand, and soon I was an unstoppable maybe-robotic one-eyed claw-footed alien-killing machine.

And really, I had only bought the damn thing because I was going to buy it no matter what. I bought it because I wanted my friend to be able to afford to go to a doctor’s office.

But it quickly became The New Thing To Do (When There’s Nothing Else To Do). I had been attempting to reread The Sun Also Rises, and it was going swimmingly until ZiGGURAT stole my heart. So I would read a chapter or two, and then reward myself with an equal number of ZiGGURAT plays. I quickly finished the book.

There you have it: “ZiGGURAT is marginally better than The Sun Also Rises.”

•     •     •

See, it’s just so clever and good. I’m not even embarrassed to play it in the presence of a woman.

And I’ve started telling everyone about it. Someone will whip out an iPhone, and I’ll say, you know, my friend made this game, and you should get it. “Oh?” they say. “That’s so interesting—I’ll check it out.” Maybe a few of them even have.

When they ask me what it’s about, I say, “The joy of shooting a gun that doesn’t exist.”

This is how I would explain it to someone who actually cared what I was saying: ZiGGURAT is a glimpse at the apocalypse according to Tim Rogers. It’s a game you can play on your phone. It’s all you need. It’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, which is to say it’s perfect.

Listen: You’re a little space dude. You are The Only One Left—and you’re exhausted and there’s nothing you can do but stand at the top of a ziggurat and deal with the onslaught of adorable one-eyed aliened invaders who want to jump on you and shoot you and make you die. You hold down your thumb for a few seconds to let your gun charge—about four seconds and it will be as big as it will ever get. Hold it too long and it shrinks back down and becomes less powerful. Aim for the eyes. If you hit the eyes, you’ll get bigger explosions. You can chain them together to clear the whole screen at once. The blue guys have pulsating, ballooning eyes that grow bigger and then smaller—and then bigger again. Shoot them when they’re big. There are big blue guys, too. They take three charged shots to dispatch. They explode and kill everything around them. Watch out for the yellow guys; they sneak up on you. And for God’s sake, listen in for the orange guys—they’re nasty as hell. They float around in little impenetrable bubbles and then make a little chime when they’re about to make a dash for you. When the alien mothership flies overhead, shoot it. If you keep shooting it, it will malfunction and lightning will strike below and kill a lot of the aliens around you. By this point you’ll need it.

If you stop shooting, you die. If anything touches you, you die. You’re going to die. But you might not, either—if you’re really good.

•     •     •

The first time I killed over two hundred alien freaks, I felt pretty darn good about myself. I thought, even, that this little game had the unique ability to make sadness go away for a little while. It’s better than antidepressants. See, there’s no dry-mouth or insomnia or loss of appetite. It’s a hell of a thing.

You play for a little while, and then you feel OK about everything. You grab your guitar and strum a few chords, or you get down on your knuckles and do a few push-ups. You pick up Ernest Hemingway’s first novel and read a few chapters. When you want to play ZiGGURAT again, all you do is hold your phone sideways and tap the “Z” icon, which launches the game. There it is. There you are.

•     •     •

I’m proud of you, Tim. Let’s be best friends someday.

OK?

★★★ (out of four)

Some days I feel pretty darn worthless. When I’m feeling worthless, I go to Torchy’s Tacos™.

That last part—that should be the official Torchy’s Tacos slogan. Instead their slogan is “Damn Good™.” It’s “damn”, of course, because Torchy’s whole thing is that they’re sinful. They love that. They love being sinful.

Their logo is a little devil-cherub with a pitchfork and horns and everything. He’s red. He’s got a wicked little baby face.

So maybe “When I’m feeling worthless, I go to Torchy’s Tacos” isn’t the best slogan. Still, I can’t think of single a time I’ve been to Torchy’s when I didn’t feel downright rotten. Their tacos make me feel happy again. That’s actually kind of depressing, but it’s also the truth.

It’s also a hell of a testimony, if you ask me.

•     •     •

The only store I ever go to is off Guadalupe St., here in beautiful Austin, Texas. It’s a pretty small place. They have food trailers/taco trucks, too, so maybe I shouldn’t complain about the size. Still, there’s never a place to sit in the damn place. If I had to guess, there are maybe six tables—and three or four of those seat two people at most. Those are always taken up by couples or guys talking about computers. It drives me nuts.

The interior is red. It’s fiery and nice. There are clippings from newspapers on the walls which explain, quite boldly, that Torchy’s Tacos is a well-loved establishment where a lot of people have eaten. They’ve won all kinds of awards. They deserve those awards, though. It’s okay if they boast.

•     •     •

Yes, and having eaten at Torchy’s Tacos a half-dozen times since I moved to Austin, I can tell you that they’ve got a fine thing going for them. As I do not eat meat, I can only comment on two things they have on their menu, which makes this is a piss-poor review. I don’t care. I love Torchy’s Tacos, and I’m going to review them anyway.

I usually get the fried avocado taco. I get two of them. At $3.25 a taco, Torchy’s isn’t the most affordable place in town. For God’s sake, what a mark-up! It comes with (vegetarian) refried beans, cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo and two fried avocados. The avocados are choice, if I may say so. (God, “choice”—did I really just say that?) I don’t know what they bread these things in, but they’re practically decadent. They’re brown, anyway, on account of their being fried. That’s OK with me. They give you this sort of spicy ranch dressing to dump all over the thing, and make sure you do that, because it’s almost necessary. Now, I’m not suggesting that the fried avocado taco doesn’t have legs of its own to stand on, but that sauce really hits the spot.

And for God’s sake, insist on a flour tortilla. They’ll ask you that at the register: “Corn or flour tortilla?” It’s usually some dude with a great haircut. Just say to him, “Brother, I’ll take flour,” and they’ll really take care of you.

Get two tacos. Pay the extra $3.25 to double the size of your meal. One taco will not be enough to satisfy even the smallest stomach. Though yeah, they really pack those things. But two—two makes it a full meal.

If you want your meal to be under $10, ask for a water cup. Don’t bother with fountain drinks. You shouldn’t be drinking all that sugar, anyway. Water is probably a better taco companion anyway. Can you imagine washing down a fried avocado taco with, say, a Dr. Pepper? Good God, no. That would make me feel pretty rotten about myself and my place in the world.

And hey, they also have burritos. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention these things. See, you can specify what you want on the burrito. That’s pretty standard. They give you a bunch of choices, and most of them are delicious as hell. They’re . . . scrumptious, even, which makes me nervous to say. (Why is my word choice so suspect—even to me?) But see, they don’t give you a non-meat option. I suppose you could say, “Just leave the meat out.” But what good is that going to do you? The guy behind the counter with the terrific haircut might scoff a little. (Maybe that’s not true—the employees tend to be friendly and laid-back. Even still.) Look: Even if you do eat meat, do yourself a favor and ask if you can replace meat with a bunch of fried avocados.

This idea came to me one day and I’ve never regretted it. When you do it, act like the idea just popped into your brain. Throw them a curve ball. Say something to the effect of, “Aha! May I replace meat with some fried avocados?” Don’t mention a specific number of fried avocados or they’ll probably think you’ve premeditated this (admittedly) genius move. The guy behind the counter, after stroking his gorgeous hair, will likely seem a little surprised. He’ll say, “Um, yeah! We can definitely do that, sure.”

“Great! Let’s do that, then.” (Say that.)

And then you just eat the damn thing.

•     •     •

When do normal people eat lunch? Noon? One? I don’t know. I eat lunch at three or four in the afternoon. See, I don’t operate during normal human being hours. I stay up late and wake up late. What I’m trying to say is eat when I do. That way you’ll avoid the usual crowd, which consists almost entirely of degenerate youths. Around lunchtime this place is crawling with undergraduate neanderthals and their girlfriends. Is that a mean thing to say? I don’t know. It’s the truth. These guys are real mouth-breathers, believe me.

Don’t eat when they eat. And if you do, for God’s sake, don’t look at them when they eat. You’ll lose your lunch, for sure.

That place gets pretty crowded. And as I mentioned, there’s no God damn place to sit. You’ll be forced to, I don’t know, sit outside or something. The thought of sitting outside Torchy’s Tacos literally makes my stomach turn. You’ll be forced to stare at a barbershop and a Whataburger and a busy road. Don’t do that to yourself.

•     •     •

Torchy’s Tacos is a pretty all right place. It’s great, even. Go eat there. Get two tacos. Get a water cup. If you’re feeling ballsy, get that custom-made fried avocado burrito. Or just eat whatever is on the rest of the menu, which my meat-eating friends tell me is wonderful. Get the “Trailer Park”. Everyone always orders that thing.

And if you see me sitting alone, sit down across the table from me. Lord knows I could use the company.

Phoebe

(Originally published 18 April 2010)

The man stood with the boy on a green, green stretch of land where trees and insects and furry animals and wonderful music resided. They surveyed the slope of the planet, and whispered between themselves on where to build a simple structure. The purpose of their labor—and indeed, their very presence in this place—was to create a permanent shadow on a small section of the green, green stretch of land they lived on. There meals might be eaten, and old stories might be told.

The big red star in the sky was gentle that day, and provided light without stinging pain. From the forest came gusts of wind, which delighted the trees and insects and furry animals. The man and the boy were just as happy to hear and feel the wind, were overjoyed to be wrapped in the cool, snaking pockets of air that whistled through the leaves and kept perspiration from developing above their brows. They worked and worked.

The man told old stories, much as he would when the construction of their shadow-maker reached its conclusion, and the boy listened and laughed and felt happy and sometimes sad. There were stories about the boy when he was a much smaller boy, and he’d heard them many times before. Even so, there was an unusual freshness to the storytelling, and he was happy to hear them in that place, feeling what he felt, busy with his work. Spring, of all seasons, he thought, is a timeless one; its warmth often commanded the dust that had settled on his mind to stir and shake around. He felt wonderful and a little glum and awake and enriched and worn down and dizzy. Spring, he thought also, can make one feel many different ways at the very same time. He listened and listened.

And there were stories about learning colors at an early age (“My, how young you were! Just eight months on this planet and already dark blue had become distinguishable from just plain blue!”), stories about the other boys and girls who had lived and now lived away someplace else (“I miss them, I miss them! Every day I miss them—I do!”), stories about old friends—good friends—who now slept in the ground beside where the man and the boy did their labor (“Do you remember how she lifted her head that day—her very last day—and felt the last thing she’d ever feel?”).

The man and the boy looked at each other with bubbling eyes from which long-gone sorrow still encircled from time to time. The two of them turned to the old gravestone, which they’d both neglected to remember, despite being so close, and felt terrible for having done so. That is where she slept and would sleep forever and ever, they thought, and moving pictures flashed on the surface of their eyelids and danced along dusky paths of their tired minds. They dreamed and dreamed.

A friendly tree had stretched out its tiny arms above the old bricks and upturned earth where the little girl slept peacefully in the brown box they’d wrapped and placed her in many years before that day. “There’s our little girl, our little girl . . .” the man had managed to say on the day that she’d gone off to dream, on the day they’d entrusted the earth to watch over her for as long as the earth should exist.

“You remember that day, don’t you?” the man said to the boy now.

“Of course I do, Dad.”

The man and the boy were silent again. They turned to look at tiny patch of earth where she lay. A statue of a kneeling angel watched over the spot, hands forever clasped in quiet prayer as a languid breeze sailed through the trees, bringing with it the smell of lilacs. The small winds patted at the tree that covered the grave, and the big red star in the sky allowed spots of warm yellow light to flicker on the surface of the ground.

The boy lifted his head to catch the breeze, just as she had done so many years before. She would have liked this day, he thought. The man looked at the boy and smiled a sad smile for a long moment. His eyes were fathomless and full of joy and sorrow at the very same time. It was, after all, the season to feel many different things all at once. The man and the boy turned to their labor, still remembering old stories, still absorbing the warmth of the big red star. From then on, when the breeze roused them from their work, it would mean something different than it had before. They promised themselves to never forget why that was.