Monday, March 30, 2020

Requiem for a Tiny Dog

On August 13th, 2008, Carlisle was born.  On March 1st, 2020, he died.

As is the case of most lives, Carlisle's is bracketed by two dates, quantifiable markers of the time he occupied.  On a gravestone, the life itself would be represented by a small line.  A single dash that cannot communicate the life lived and doesn't try to.  It accepts its impotence and rushes away from itself to offer the date of death.  Birthdates and deathdates can be contained by themselves.  Lives are too many (but also not enough) days, and no inscription can do them justice, so we put a mark of inadequacy instead and leave the rest up to the memory of those who remember, and the imagination of those who don't.

It's been a month and I have a lot of memories, some of which I'll try to put down here.  Like the dash, they won't be enough.  They can't capture the essence of life.  They're a pale imitation.  But they're all I have left, aside from still photos, and so they're what I'll use.

Carlisle was a beloved pet.  He was my companion and confidant for over a decade.  He was also - and I say this with a lot of love - an objectively terrible dog.  He was severely mentally challenged.  He suffered from epilepsy, and a heart murmur, and thrombocytopenia.  He had only three teeth left, and the lower left canine was wiggly.  He was deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, and he was never truly house-trained.  He had a jagged scar down his front left leg where it had been broken, and a crooked tail that had also been broken, and when he blinked he did it out of sync: first one eye, and then the other.

Carlisle had a string of strange behaviors.  He liked to drink from glasses, though he wasn't very good at it.  He liked to dig on the couch, though he wasn't very good at that, either; he never quite got the hang of using his forepaws in sequence, and instead would dig both of his long-clawed, skeletal paws into the fabric and then yank back, often rearing onto his haunches and looking surprised every time that he almost fell backwards.  He needed to be tucked in to sleep; he would dig at the covers with a tense, curled, gnarled hand until the sheet was lifted for him to crawl under.  At the slightest inconvenience, such as a partially-closed door, he would bark, and his bark was shrill and questioning, like he wasn't really sure it was his.  At night, he would get up frequently and wander around in a haze, presumably to pee, but seeming to forget this even after he'd relieved himself on the floor.  He wore sweaters (an embarrassing thing for a dog) and never quite entirely understood the purpose of a toy.  He was gentle to a degree that was faulty; he would let the other dogs take food right out of his mouth, and when confronted, would roll over immediately with a series of piercing, bird-like shrieks.  He enjoyed human company more than any other and would aggressively seek it out, wedging himself under elbows or in laps, his joints jabbing uncomfortably.  He demanded to be loved, and so help us, we did, even though he was one of the worst and dumbest dogs I've ever met and probably ever will meet.

Carlisle was loved and in turn he was himself a deeply loving and forgiving dog.  He defied all veterinary suggestions that he was on his last legs, right up until the end; he always seemed to have one more day in him, until he didn't.

Carlisle was a little dog in a big world.  In life, he took up very little space.  In death, his absence is much greater than the space he left behind: a loud absence, piercing, jabbing, as sharp as his claws, his elbows, and his high-pitched, helpless yips.  Unlike him, the absence he left is cold, and it lacks the distinctive, heady smell he had: one of contentment and sunshine and peaceful sleep, something warm and rich, the width and breadth and weight and value of a living thing. 

The best things about Carlisle were ethereal qualities that defy and resist translation into words.  It's easy to list his defects, because there were many, and they took up pages and pages and pages within manila folders that the vet stored in heavy metal filing cabinets.  But the things we'll miss, the things that had passed, like his warmth, and his smell, and his gaze, cannot be defined.  They could only be experienced.  Like life itself, they were small, and constant, and then once they weren't, they were suddenly weighty and enormous, shadows you could drown in.

The paradoxical nature of those things we love in life, things that are small yet big, immaterial when they exist and suddenly heavy when they cease to be, are, in the end, maybe best represented by the dash between dates.  The dash is aware of its own ineptitude in communicating what was, and gives no pretense that it can capture the uncapturable.  It leaves the life that was lost up to the grieving to remember, and doesn't impose anything to soil or alter the memory; it knows that the memory is as fragile and unknowable as the thing that is life (what some call the "soul"), and lets the life be at rest, knowing that any effort to emulate, capture, or recount it will be at best a pale imitation and at worst a disrespectful caricature.

Carlisle lived his life in a dash (as befits a sight hound), in a small place that meant more than it was.  Carlisle's was a little life, no less loved.

Monday, March 23, 2020

[Review] Umbrella Academy: An Artful Adaption

In a golden age of comic book adaptations, Netflix’s 2019 original series “The Umbrella Academy” manages to hold its own - and then some. It’s not just passably good, but surprisingly good, especially when one considers all of the various factors it was up against. First of all, it’s the product of the red-haired stepchild of comic book publishing houses: Dark Horse. While Marvel and D.C. have become household names, Dark Horse has struggled to adapt most of its properties, with the exception of Hellboy, due to their complex, hyper-violent, and often bizarre storylines. The Umbrella Academy comic was an unlikely candidate for a screen adaptation; the story is wildly, extravagantly complicated, and includes space travel, time travel, and a battle against the Eiffel Tower. (Yes, really.) It also has no less than seven main characters with complex interpersonal relationships. But Netflix managed not only to produce a thoroughly enjoyable and coherent homage to the original work, but to improve upon its failings.

The secret to Umbrella Academy’s success is that it focuses on its characters, not its story. In only ten hour-long episodes, every one of the seven main characters is fleshed out into a fully realized human being, and the empathy the audience feels toward them is the driving force of this series. The dialogue is air-tight, and the actors’ delivery is loaded with nuance, so every second manages to heap on personality. There’s nothing shallow or one-dimensional about the central protagonists; it’s a credit to the writers as well as the actors that all seven are relatable explorations of human trauma. Amid the backdrop of time paradoxes and upcoming apocalypses, the heroes of the story feel like real people whose responses to their nonsensical world, and to each other, are incredibly accessible. Even better, there’s little overlap between them; presented with the same situation, each character responds in a different but understandable way, giving the situation the full spectrum of human reaction.

The Umbrella Academy occupies a unique place among superhero adaptations; in a Venn Diagram of Marvel and D.C., it would plant itself firmly in the middle. It manages to serve the dark, gritty, brooding atmosphere of D.C.’s Batman franchise and then chase it with the free-spirited fun of Marvel’s dialogue, resulting in a smooth cocktail of nihilistic entertainment. As the series moves forward, the separation between these two circles breaks down: at one point, for example, two hitmen battle each other over a tied-up damsel-in-distress inside of a brightly colored honeymoon suite to the chorus of “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows."

Incidentally, the soundtrack is painstakingly, lovingly selected. It runs the gamut from Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” to a rock cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter.” Nearly every episode features a scene set to music that feels more like a music video than a plot point, yet each one of these scenes is seamlessly integrated into the story and provides critical plot structure. With only ten episodes to prove itself, the series manages to trim away all the fat and leave the viewer with the only most critical material. Sometimes, that material is a character smashing a snowglobe against his own face, or a haggard waitress explaining the simple pleasure of crafting a perfectly-made donut. But it never feels extraneous. At any moment, music cues and subtle body language from the actors are communicating and advancing the story; at times, it may crawl, but it never stalls.

Ultimately this series was never about the superheroes or about the bizarre world they inhabit (which features a talking chimp, a time-traveling assassin, and a flamboyantly fabulous drug addict who communes with the dead). It was always about the people, who are raw, flawed, and eminently empathetic. The characters are real, and relatable, and tragically lovely. With seven of them, nearly any viewer can establish some semblance of personal and intuitive rapport. The characters are distinctive, and their personalities shine. The actors convey the multi-dimensional experiences of their characters with finesse.

This show was never about superheroes. It was about people, who happen to be (reluctant) superheroes. Its single biggest strength is that it leads the viewer by the hand to the edge of an abyss. The viewer identifies with the characters, and the characters pull back at the last moment, substituting stylized comedy for any extensive discomfort. The result is that, while the show examines dark themes, it never places the viewer in an emotionally inescapable situation, and instead leaves them with a backdrop to explore traumatic themes within a comfortable scaffold, and go as far as they are able in examining the inevitable and dire consequences of a traumatic upbringing and a maladjusted adulthood.

For all of its zany and cartoonish aestheticism, The Umbrella Academy is outstandingly binge-worthy. Its superhero setting belies its critical lessons about the human experience: that suffering is inevitable, that endurance is triumph, and that, ultimately, there’s an artistic beauty in the existential absurdity that is life.


Below is a breakdown of character flaws, with spoilers.  An attractive symmetry emerges.  Luther accepts, while Five resists.  Diego rages while Klaus laughs.  Allison is active, while Vanya is passive.  None of them escape, and it's the least flawed, Ben, who dies first.  The only real lesson to be taken from the lives of these character is that trauma suffered in childhood amplifies itself in adulthood, and that flawed coping mechanisms don't work, regardless of what they are.

Luther #1: Unquestioning conformity.  For a character who gets a lot of hate due to his actions in episodes 9 and 10, Luther is a character I find surprisingly sympathetic.  Unlike the other six siblings, he lived under his father's rule for his whole life.  Luther is someone who thrived on a sense of order and stability, who has all that crash down around him in the span of a few days.  Not only does Reginald die, but Luther's discovery that Reginald is not all-powerful and all-knowing, and that his moon mission was a complete farce, is devastating.  Luther is forced into a position of leadership; he is both a victim and perpetrator of Reginald's abuse.  Nearly all of Luther's actions are a direct result of Luther living a stunted, isolated adult life.

Diego #2: Rage and Inadequacy.  Diego is one of the best depictions of toxic masculinity I've ever seen.  His feelings of inadequacy are perfectly captured in four words, uttered in episode 1.  When Luther instructs the others to "get behind me," Diego replies with, "Yeah, get behind us!"  His tough-guy image, contrasted with his struggle to exist in the outside world, paints a vivid portrait of what unprocessed anger looks like when it's allowed to ferment.  Diego and Luther's rivalry is two sides of the same coin; both are still suffering from Reginald's abuse but are doing so in different ways.  While Luther embraces it, Diego does everything to distance himself from it, even if it means hurting himself in the process.  Diego's rage is painfully raw, and in his softer moments, we see glimpses of a person not wholly realized, which makes him all the more tragic.  His affections (calling his siblings "brother" and "sister") are laced with acerbic sarcasm, and there are a few moments of irredeemable cruelty, like when he mocks Allison for her ongoing divorce proceedings for no discernible reason.

Allison #3: Good Intentions, Bad Actions.  In my opinion, Allison is one of the only truly redeemable characters.  With the power of influence, her entire life has been a lie.  Yet she's also the only one who demonstrates any growth before Reginald's death.  Having realized the monkey-paw curse of her power, she's vowed never to use it again.  Now she's relearning how to live an honest life and discovering just how hard that is.  Allison's attempts to connect with and protect Vanya are too little, too late, and she stumbles more than a few times, demonstrating the lamentable outcome of good intentions.  Allison does so many things right only to have them fall apart at the last minute; she's a personification of how life sometimes doesn't go the way it's meant to, of the fallacy of the "fair world" philosophy.

Klaus #4: Addiction.  Klaus is, hands-down, my favorite character.  His irreverent humor and casual disdain for the world is beautiful.  His rejection of gender norms is refreshing; he's someone who doesn't have anything to prove and doesn't bother to try.  He's also an excellent portrayal of an addict.  His family is clearly fed up with his shit and is trying not to enable him; his laid-back attitude toward lying, stealing, and taking advantage of others is often played up for laughs, but it's an accurate representation of how a drug addict lives.  His comic relief is tempered by the seriousness of his trauma and the occasional reminder that his powers are a living nightmare.

Five: Over-confidence.  Five is among my least favorite characters because of his smugness.  His belief that he doesn't need help and of his brilliance is his undoing.  It's hubris in a nutshell.  Five is among the best-acted characters and the cracks in his confidence are seamlessly integrated, from his drinking to his love affair with a mannequin.  Five is as brittle as glass; his refusal to compromise and his insistence on his own intelligence are unbending character flaws that ultimately lead to the precise thing he was trying to prevent.  It's irony at its finest, a tip of the hat to classical Greek mythology.

Ben #6: Ironic Consequences.  What can we say about Ben except that he's wholesome?  The one character without massive, visible flaws, Ben died young.  Described by Vanya as the one who held them all together, Ben's death feels unfair.  It's just another absurd and depressing facet of the show as a whole.  Ben's presence in flashbacks shows a reluctant cooperation that ended in Ben's death.  Compared with Five's resistance, it makes the abuse Reginald inflicted on the siblings feel inescapable.  Ben is a foil for Klaus, a voice of reason, but because he's dead, he's rendered unable to actually do anything.  Ben represents what could have been.  Ben is one of the few undamaged characters, but he's also peripheral to the rest.  Ben is less of a character and more of a concept, and I love Ben because he offers a tiny glimpse of hope from beyond the veil.

Vanya  #7: Passivity.  I had some difficulty relating to Vanya because her whole attitude felt so passive. She didn't deserve how she was treated (none of them did), but her total lack of dealing with it really frustrated me. She does not appear to have developed ANY emotional maturity whatsoever. Her interactions with others are stunted and pathetic. I understand it's not her fault she's like that, but I still loathed her on a personal level.  As for her post-power actions, now, I can excuse what she did to Allison as self-defense (after all, she was about to be rumored). I can also sort of excuse killing Leonard as a reactionary moment of passion.  However, killing Pogo was straight-up first-degree pre-meditated murder. (Remember, she literally asks Pogo, multiple times, whether or not he knew about her powers. She was looking for a reason to kill him. She wanted to kill him.)  The worst part is that the majority of the fandom shits all over Luther, who has a similar meltdown. I don't see why one character gets more sympathy than the other. Both were abused by their father, and both are completely incapable of handling adult trauma.  People say, "Why didn't Luther ask Vanya what happened?" To that, I say, why did Vanya ask Pogo to give her a reason before she killed him in cold blood? Pogo was as much under Reginald's thumb as the rest of them. Pogo's death was the moment I lost any sympathy toward Vanya at all.  Being hurt or being angry doesn't give anyone the right to be cruel. Vanya deserves as much hatred as Luther gets. In all honestly, I'm more sympathetic toward Luther, because Luther was under Reginald's rule until he died. Vanya got out years ago, and didn't grow at all.  That's on her. 100% on her.

With seven characters, it would be easy for the show to feel cluttered, but it maintains a delicate balance between the protagonists, and offers a rich and relatable portrayal of humanity that doesn't pull any punches.  If I have a single criticism, it's that the final episode ended on a cliff-hanger, leaving me desperate for more.  The writers of this show took some risks, and those risks paid off.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Advice to my 17-yr-old Self

Every parent wants their child’s life to be better than theirs. My son is a baby, but someday, he won’t be. Someday, he will be on the verge of adulthood, and I will be in a position to offer him the advice I wish I had been offered, advice to improve his circumstances and avoid regret.

What advice is it that I wish someone had given me?

I imagine myself at seventeen years old, brimming with possibilities and as-yet-unfulfilled potential. At seventeen, I am on the cusp of greatness, standing on the precipice of adulthood. One step will send me plummeting forth into the unknown, and it’s with the extreme confidence of teenagedom that this ghost of my past self steps forward, blissfully unaware that he doesn't have a parachute.

I stretch out a hand, and open my mouth. I have a split second to dole out some grand counsel to slow his nosedive into adult life. What advice can I give him in this singular moment, with one foot already poised to step down into the chasm below? There are an infinite number of parachutes I could scramble for, each one a piece of wisdom or guidance that will make his descent a much easier journey.

When the human mind turns to the “what ifs,” it invents a series of scenarios designed to correct its regrets. I regret, for example, that I gave up acceptance to an Ivy League school in favor of State, all in a bone-headed attempt to rescue an already-doomed relationship. Should I advise myself to go to the superior college? If I had done that, I would have missed out on meeting my future spouse in my senior year. Every piece of advice, every parachute, that I can conceive, is designed to prevent some catastrophe from my own past. But every regrettable catastrophe led, in turn, to something better, something I don’t want to give up.

As my seventeen-year-old self waits impatiently for his release, I realized that all the instructions I have for him share one thing in common. They are self-focused. Each is an attempt to rectify a personal past regret, because the feeling of regret is such a negative one. Yet, regret serves a purpose. Regret is the emotion that a mistake distills into, a bitter medicine that is remarkably effective at shaping our future selves. Fundamentally, regret is the advice our past selves give to our future selves. Every piece of advice I have is an attempt to alter a bad decision, but by doing so, I will rob myself of the experience of the consequences.

As I look back at myself at seventeen, I realize that, somehow, all of my past mistakes have resolved, and what I am left with is a present I can appreciate all the more because of the arduous journey it took to arrive here. Would I want to change my seventeen-year-old self then, at the risk of sacrificing myself now? I would not. I have already made peace with my regrets.

Perhaps the best counsel I have to offer this seventeen-year-old specter is to try to find that peace sooner. When faced with adversity, I have always dug my heels in. There is no confidence like the confidence of the righteously indignant, and I learned early on that anger was an empowering emotion. I displaced fear, sadness, and discomfort with it, and for years, I was a stubborn skeptic, jaded, convinced that this was what maturity looked like: the chain-smoking cynicism of a cop in a Noir film. Now, I see the next step, past aggression, is a fierce compassion rooted in self-control. A refusal to be made cruel. Compassion need not be synonymous with passivity; forgiveness can be as empowering as anger when wielded correctly. To be a kinder and more forgiving person is to be vulnerable, but that vulnerability itself can be worn as a sort of armor.

I don’t want to change my past as it affected me, but I want to change my past as it affected others. I wish I had not mistaken antagonism for strength.

How can I summarize this complex truth to a seventeen-year-old, when it’s one I only arrived at after years of hardship, and one whose applicability relies heavily on the context and mechanics of experience? Even if I could dispense a single piece of perfectly crafted, succinct, and overarching advice to myself, I doubt I’d follow it. In fact, I know I won’t. I will dismiss it with a cocksure attitude of teenage smugness. Part of the process of growing up is discovering certain truths for oneself, and doing it the hard way.

My seventeen-year-old self has waited long enough. He turns. I lower my outstretched hand. I have no advice to offer, only encouragement. Someday, I’ll watch my son take this plunge, and my job as a parent will be to let him. As I watch my teenage self step off the dizzying cliff of adolescence into the abyss of adulthood, I extend no parachute. Because the truth is, he’s going to land, eventually, and when he does, he’ll be just fine.

Where the sidewalk ends is where adulthood begins.  
And what a beginning it is...

Monday, March 9, 2020

In Defense of Normalcy

"I survived a shark attack."

Those were the five words that kept me off of a game show.

Let me back up here.  The reason I was trying to get on a game show is because it would make a good story and seemed like a neat thing to do.  You know how every week, Homer gets a new job?  Astronaut, carnival barker, restaurant critic, Olympic athlete, professional Easter Bunny, whatever?  I like that.  I like the idea of living my life in a wildly non-linear but always fascinating way, and that's why I've taken many of the jobs I have (including, and this is all true, horse jockey, wildlife rehabilitator, and orderly at an insane asylum).  I like to imagine my life as a cheeky sitcom, and I strive to live up to cheeky sitcom standards.

You know, living a life free of consequence where everything wraps itself up neatly within 30 minutes.

So when I saw there was an open call for game show contestants, my immediate thought was, "This will make a nice episode."

I don't remember the name of the show but that doesn't really matter.  It was a word-guessing game, similar to Taboo, a game where you had to use a short number of words to parse out a phrase.  I'm generally great at such games.  I felt like this was an easy, easy sell.
I'm a very stable genius.

I arrived to a studio among about a hundred people, all game show contestants hopefuls living out their own personal sitcommy fantasies.  We were told that the first step was simply a round of introductions, designed to narrow down the candidates.  This was a chance for us to demonstrate that we were personable, screen-ready, and most importantly, interesting.

I have my whole life been interesting, if not downright weird, and have taken pride in this.  In fact, when I was three or four, I was "interesting" for Halloween.  (The costume for "interesting" was, frustratingly, often confused for a clown.  In fairness I was wearing a lot of mismatched and brightly colored clothes and had done my own makeup.)

Beetlejuice was unironically one of my FAVORITE movies as a kid.

We were separated into groups of about ten and told that we had to, in ten words or less, say the most interesting thing about ourselves.  This isn't a small task, even if you're an interesting person.  Distilling your interesting-ness into ten words is a hell of a task.  But still, I wasn't worried.

Not until the jackass who went first said those five fateful words.

"I survived a shark attack."

Panic hit me, like a hammerhead assailing a life raft floating alone in the ocean.  It was over, and I knew it.  How do you beat that?

 By staying on land, where the only thing you have to worry about are bears, serial killers, and Africanized bees.

The guy who had been attacked by a shark was an incredibly affable guy, and the lady interviewing our group of ten took immediate interest in him.  She wanted to know the details of his shark attack story, and he was more than happy to oblige.  As he told us about the shark biting his leg, he ate up the group's time, like a shark eating up the flesh from his tender, unarmed leg.  But it didn't matter; we knew we were beat.  The rest of us had mere seconds and we mumbled out our pathetic items of interest, hyper-aware that nothing was as interesting as surviving a shark attack.

I was so angry at this man for surviving a shark attack, and it haunts me to this day.  I keep replaying it in my head.  Is there something I could say something as interesting and succinctly as "I survived a shark attack?"  No.  This guy nailed it.

This all came back to me recently when a friend of mine stepped on a jellyfish.  My immediate reaction was disappointment.  Why couldn't I be so lucky as to step on a jellyfish?  It was the aftershock of the shark attack disappointment, a moment in my life that I realize affected me on a deep and personal level.  It shook me and challenged me and, frankly, worried me.  Not unlike a goddamn shark attack.

Since that day I've found myself periodically circling back to the topic of being interesting, like a group of sharks circling a future game show contestant.

Am I interesting?  I like to think so, but doesn't everyone?

Recently I found myself strolling through a residential neighborhood in Los Angeles on a beautiful spring day, pushing a baby stroller, on my way to the post office.  I had an out-of-body experience, looking at myself.  I was normal.  I was possibly even boring.  When had that happened?  Yet - and this is key - I was happy.

All too often, normalcy is equating with stagnation.  People who are normal and boring are people who aren't growing, who are pathetic because of what feels like complacency for a mediocre life.

 Exhibit A.

In fact, I recently told this shark story to someone in one of my classes, and it prompted a second existential crisis in my classmate, who, like me, immediately began grabbing wildly for a response.  The statement "I survived a shark attack" begs the question: has anything so interesting ever happened to me?  If not, why not?  Is there something wrong with me?  Am I not good enough to be attacked by a shark?  Even if something remarkable has happened to me, is it something I am capable of distilling into five titillating words?

Hearing someone else announce that they have survived a shark attack creates a terrible anguish in people like me, people who want to be interesting.  It makes you feel small, and normal, like your best shark-attack years are behind you.  Like you've peaked.

But does normalcy have to be mutually exclusive with growth?  I feel that I have, in my life of weirdness, subscribed to a false binary: that one is either normal and tedious and dull, or they are wild and interesting.  But perhaps there are other options here, ones less common but nonetheless accessible: to be normal while also being interesting, to be grounded without stagnation, to be mature without ending up in a rut.

And isn't it a terrible burden to suggest that one must either live their life hard and fast and unrestrained, or fall into dull, depressing obscurity?

People are complex and so are our lives.  Perhaps not everything need be interesting to be worthwhile.  Perhaps there's a balance, and in the course of our lifetimes, a fully realized human being can take some enjoyment both from strolling to the post office on a fine spring day and also from getting attacked by a shark.  Perhaps we should be less disparaging of the people who live quiet lives, people who may never be attacked by sharks or get on game shows, but who still manage not to make the world a worse place.  There's something there, something good, if not necessarily bold or remarkable.  "Normal" need not be "shallow," and we shouldn't be so dismissive of it.

I didn't get on the game show.  And... that's okay.  I still might be attacked by a shark some day, Inshallah, but if I don't, I'm not going to lose sleep over it.  What I am is enough.

Monday, March 2, 2020

On Fear: Part 2

Today is the sequel to last week's writing prompt on fear.

It is unedited and I have to say that I feel with some more attention it could be a bit cleaner.  There's a mixed metaphor in there about applying brakes while sliding backwards on a ladder and I'm almost positive that's not how ladders work.

In any case, I think it makes its point decently, and I'm disinclined to revisit the topic any time soon.


The first time I felt anger about living in a van, it was when someone complimented me on it.

I was at a friend’s house in a pleasant, suburban neighborhood. It was autumn and the leaves were turning. It would have been something you could call beautiful, if you lived in a house with heating and insulation. For me, it was foreboding, because it signaled the upcoming Pennsylvanian winter. Every fallen leaf, and gust of wind, and bright orange jack-o-lantern meant one less second until the world would ice over into an unforgiving, blistering cold. The nights would grow longer, and during those nights, I would sit up shivering in a silent eternity of solitary stillness, waiting for the sun to arrive again.

The person who complimented my van was my friend’s neighbor. She was a middle-aged woman who wore too much makeup and a lot of costume jewelry. When she discovered that the rust-red 1979 Chevy Vandura on the curb was mine, she squealed with delight and asked to see it. I obliged; opening the back doors revealed my entire home to her, less than a hundred square feet containing a futon to sleep on and a few meager possessions.

“It’s so Bohemian!” she said.

My experience living in a van was that other people generally felt positively about it. Or at least, they convinced themselves that they did. The difference between being homeless and being an intrepid adventurer who chooses to live in a van is that there’s no safety net if you’re homeless. But when you look down and realize that there’s no net, you get vertigo. And so you learn not to examine your predicament too closely. You learn to romanticize it.

The raw fear of being trapped, of moving along the chute to the slaughterhouse floor because of your inability to do anything else, is what it feels like in the moments before you become homeless. The desperation to solve an unsolvable equation builds; eventually, you are forced to give up. And when I gave up, I took control the only way I could: by reframing the circumstances by thinking of myself as an thrill-seeker, instead of a desperate person rolling backwards on the socioeconomic ladder without any brakes.

It was rare for me to examine my predicament too closely, but when my friend’s neighbor complimented me, I felt a rare surge of irritation at her lack of empathy. This was not “Bohemian.” It was a goddamn tragedy. Sure, I never called it that myself, but couldn’t she see how wrong this was?

I had no electricity, running water, or heat. I did, however, have two jobs. Whenever people found out I was living in my van, I tended to throw out this qualifier as quickly as possible. People make assumptions about how you ended up in your van.

There’s an emotional dishonesty that occurs when people try to justify the unjustifiable. It’s understandable, of course. There’s a reassurance in the lies people tell themselves. Lies such as, “It could never happen to me, because…” Ultimately, everyone wants to believe in a fair world, one where tragedies such as homelessness only befall those who have earned it, or at least, failed to prevent it.

The stark reality is that it can happen to anyone. Some people may have more or fewer crises between themselves and abject poverty, but sometimes, circumstances collide and the result is something inconceivably terrible. I am not the only person in the world who has been facing homelessness while gainfully employed.

But to guard myself, I never admitted to the fear I felt. I made jokes. I showed off my van. I was an intrepid adventurer, not a homeless person. So long as I didn’t look down, I could lie to myself and pretend there was a net. And that was what my friend’s neighbor was doing, too, when she exclaimed how “Bohemian” my lifestyle was.

Even as someone who experienced homelessness firsthand, I find myself distancing myself from the emotions I felt, because of how unpleasant they were. The metallic, tangy taste of anxiety whenever the wind blew and I sensed the upcoming winter. The heart-pounding terror of late night noises, when some atavistic, fight-or-flight part of my brain activated, and I sat on the back bumper of my van with a crowbar, the hair on the back of my neck up, my eyes straining into a prehistoric darkness for any threat that might lurk.

Lacking safe or adequate shelter is something few people have to experience physically. However, in order to address the dehumanizing reality of the situation, it is necessary to experience it empathically. When we distance ourselves from it, when we lie to ourselves about it by downplaying, justifying, or romanticizing it, then it becomes a less pressing issue, on par with a kitchen remodel. Something that ought to be done, eventually, but that lacks the human component and can be put off indefinitely. To deal with homelessness, we first need to allow ourselves to feel the full force of the fear, discomfort, and injustice of it. Only then will it get the attention it deserves.

If you want to know how you can help the homeless, click here for proactive ways to get involved.  If you live in Los Angeles, check out the hashtags #ABridgeHome and #EveryoneIn for more information.