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What I Found in a Bookstore

A reflection on a new lease on life.

By J. Otis HaasPublished 8 months ago 10 min read
What I Found in a Bookstore
Photo by Norbert Tóth on Unsplash

In reflecting on the differences in my life after curing decades of major depression, I look for concrete evidence of real change. In early 2020 I entered a bookstore. While checking out, I saw a flier advertising a writing group that met monthly in the shop after hours. The old me would have wanted to attend, but would certainly have made up excuses and justifications not to, underpinned by low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy. It would have been just another missed opportunity tossed on the pile of regrets, but the new me took down the details and I promised myself I’d attend the next session.

A week or so later I arrived, unsure of what to expect. It felt familiar, in a first-day-of-class sense, but never having been a “joiner,” I assuaged my nervousness by telling myself it wasn’t that different from a first date, and the “just be yourself” rule applied. Part of the issue was that I’ve never quite known who I was. Though, looking inside, I found confidence that had never been there before.

Alice, the owner of the bookstore, a phenomenal writer in her own right, was there. Brilliant and level-headed, Alice reminds me of the type of character found in post-apocalyptic stories, whose natural leadership forms an aura of hope and relief around the survivors who inevitably gather around them. The small shop has a deliberately curated selection of books, with important tomes full of big ideas on display everywhere. I’ve hung around there enough by now to realize I’m not the only one who regards the place as an outpost of refuge in a world beset by zombie hordes.

Judith, who runs the group, was there, too. A firebrand full of childlike wonder, Judith is a real writer who understands the power of language. With a deep appreciation for the sensual, the visceral, the evocative turn of phrase, the half-buried reference to cement a connection, Judith gets it. She is a source of encouragement and inspiration unlike any I have encountered before.

There were maybe half-a-dozen of us there to write. The group is made up of a rotating cast of smart folks from all walks of life. Over three years later, I have become one of the nucleus members who almost never misses a meeting, and I do my best to regularly remind everyone that the writing group is cheaper and better than therapy. During those early sessions I detected an overwhelming sense of frustration among them.

The world the younger ones were told they were preparing for never materialized. They found themselves without the support they had been promised and the resulting necessity of self-reliance has taken a toll. Parents discover that the educational system we took for granted is ill-equipped to address their childrens’ needs, and the government’s empty promises offer false hope, but never relief. The older people present worked hard their whole lives to build a better place for future generations and for all they sowed, we have reaped man-made horrors beyond comprehension. They assuage the pain with nostalgia and ask us to dream of what could have been.

Those who have been hurt have discovered a world of hard edges and obstacles, with accessibility to basic needs turned into a daily struggle. Women, in particular, feel betrayed, naturally, but the sense that everyone had been conned pervaded the output during those early meetings, which met under the previous administration. This has abated some over the years, though I don’t know if the pandemic softened us or just wore us out.

The old me is a different person, so when asked to consider “the first thing I ever wrote,” what comes to mind is not anything from my pre-ketamine life, but rather what I put on the page the second time I attended the writing group. Before the session, I had resolved to truly give it my all. Based on my previous experience, it seemed like a safe place to truly be yourself, though, to this day I do not know what that means. When I looked at what I had written in response to the prompt “You have just eaten at one of the world's most famous and finest restaurants. You have tasted food, which you have never consumed before..Afterwards, you are asked to write about your experience. Write your review in the form of an essay.” I thought to myself “If I read this, they are going to ask me to leave.”

I tell people that my style, black t-shirt, black cargo pants, black boots, black hoodie, is “hacker chic,” but the truth is that, after decades as a stagehand, it is a deliberate, practiced tool to avoid notice. An innate desire to remain unseen can be cultivated in a professional capacity to the degree that it’s easy to feel invisible even in a crowd, and that’s just how I like it. I have stood mere feet from people who believe they are doing key bumps of cocaine in absolute privacy and realized they have no idea I’m there.

In the bookstore that day, I was required to expose myself, and waiting for my turn to read, I found myself terrified at the prospect. The story I wrote is posted on Vocal, currently with two reads. It is rough, but I am proud of it, and will include it at the end of this essay. In that moment, however, I regretted choosing to write about a restaurant that served the meat of children, especially since the story required familiarity with a piece of satire written in 1729 to be fully appreciated.

I will never forget the look Judith gave me after I finished reading. She was perceiving me in a way that I had convinced myself I never wanted, and, in that moment, I realized not just the misguided framework of my self-image, how it exists as a safety-mechanism I had convinced myself was some sort of superpower, but also how I had never thought to pursue an alternative way of proceeding through life.

The people there really liked what I had written, but more than that, they got it, and I was suffused with a sense of validation unlike anything I had ever known. We have normalized depravity and are eating ourselves alive. The power-structures in place are insidious and deliberately designed to convince certain people they are working against the system while they are actually reinforcing it. I had to wrap my silly ideas in a silly story, but I felt heard. The new me, who had been floating, untethered, without purpose or guidance in a post-depression world I could barely understand, felt accepted, and that felt good.

I credit this experience with being the confidence booster I needed to level-up. Things now are by no means perfect, but they are better than I ever thought they could be. I owe a lot to too many people to name, and include every member of the writing group on that list. I don’t know what writing means to them, but for me it’s a search for clarity, which is often fruitless or leads down dead-ends. They help me find my way, and for that I am eternally grateful.

A Modest Meal

by J. Otis Haas

It is said that Scientology was started after a wager made by Isaac Asimov to L. Ron Hubbard that the latter could not start a religion. It is said that a similar wager led to the creation of the restaurant I ate at tonight. It is uncertain whether it was Musk and Batali or Zuckerberg and Marco Pierre White, and one could never tell, for the kitchen was most certainly closed to prying eyes, but it was the same sort of combination of derring-do and disregard that led to the existence of Swift’s.

It was a modest proposal, you see, to serve the unthinkable at this thought experiment come to life, but there I sat just hours ago. Tim Curry never knew such anticipation. It’s said that the chef’s tasting menu at Swift’s was the last thing Tony Bourdain ate before he hanged himself.

Swift’s is on a boat, adrift in international waters. It flies no flag. It is likely armed. Guests are flown in on helicopters. The trip took two hours from Cape Town for me. Devices are politely confiscated before one departs. Two hours is a long time to anticipate, as you watch the sun go down on the endless ocean.

People talked on the ride, of course, the twelve of us seated among the rich mahogany and supple leather interior that lets you know you’re in for a real treat. No one was wearing a tuxedo, but it wouldn’t have been out of place. A lot of them drank. Some of them drank a lot. They talked about everything but the food.

It’s hard to say what the boat looks like, but it’s got a helipad and the dining room could comfortably seat at least two dozen. Plus the kitchen. It’s not small. It is exceedingly well appointed. The maitre’d is out of central casting, beyond knowledgeable about everyone’s preferences. Even me, who had done nothing more than accept an invitation from a man who had read a review I’d written. He thought I was the kind of guy who’d appreciate it. Was he right? Who knows? He wasn’t even coming. He just wanted to hear my take, voyeuristic fuck.

I visited the head immediately. It was larger than would be expected. The sink was a trough, a little incongruous, and there were two attendants. It all made sense. We’d all heard the rumors of tears and refusals and people getting sick. We heard they were escorted off to another part of the ship for vegetarian sushi. I guess a lot of the freakouts happened in here. The attendants looked like former Spetznaz.

The table settings clearly cost as much as a decent BMW. The napkins had the date on them. You were encouraged to take them home. The table is, of course, round, and the art on the walls is beyond impressive. Vermeer was conspicuously absent, and I thought it was evidence that some things are beyond reach no matter how much money you had. An ill-timed joke to that effect assured me that the Vermeer had merely been rotated out as the art on the walls was in a constant state of flux. Silly me.

The headwaiter was perfect. Some sort of French purebred designed to do nothing but fawn intelligently about every detail, somehow obsequious and condescending at once. It was quite a performance. He explained that the first course would be ceviche. We were all served at once.

You know going into it, obviously. You do your research. You know ahead of time that babies taste like fish, but I promise you that you will be wholly unprepared for the actual experience of eating one. He said they were bathed in limes from Madagascar, I think. Sea salt from some ancient Sicilian bay. There was cilantro on top. I can’t describe it, really. It truly is one of those things you have to do for yourself. It changes you, staring at the eclipse like that.

It was twelve courses. Starting with the little ones and getting progressively older. As they grow they get less tender, cooking methods need to be slower and wetter. Sous vide featured heavily at the end. They don’t tell you much about the meat. I’m not sure it matters. The real emphasis is on the other ingredients, as if the saffron picked by monkeys is the real exotica.

There was wine for every course. I don’t drink but I tasted each glass with a bite. It worked. The Sommelier made the headwaiter look like a simpleton. If you particularly liked a certain vintage he could show you on google maps which hillside it had grown on, how the wind from the sea to the west crested just so over the hills and brought forth those flavors in the grapes. It could almost make you forget. You weren’t encouraged to drink all twelve glasses of wine, but many did. It could almost make you forget.

It was sublime, all of it. The rib roast and the tender cuts and the stringy bits in the stew that showed up somewhere down the line. Every dish a miniature symphony of dedication to the craft. People didn’t talk much after the first course arrived, and they arrived quickly after that. It seemed that the staff didn’t want us spending too much time between courses thinking about things. We all made it through. Wasn’t that the challenge, though, after paying this much?

No dessert. How could there be? Maybe it would be funny to serve Neapolitan ice cream. Maybe it would be obscene. It was a joke, right? Swift’s modest proposal? He didn’t mean that? How did we get here? We were encouraged to enjoy cigars and brandy but by the end of the meal the mood had changed. A short discussion and we were able to get them to agree to take us back 20 minutes early. Two hours of silent flight followed.

I’m not going to write to the guy who paid for my meal. I won’t grant him the pornography he wants. I couldn’t anyway. I’m guessing you can’t really explain what a murder is like either. Maybe you can, I’m not that good a writer. I’m sending this to you, to you alone. Do with it what you will. I won’t be around to explain. My bedsheets are not nearly the threadcount of the napkins at Swift’s but they’ll do.


About the Creator

J. Otis Haas

Space Case

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