A Hero on the Brooklyn Bound J Train at 4:17 AM

The two greatest fallacies that the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe teach us is that achieving a physique even remotely resembling their cast members is possible without unlimited resources and extreme dehydration, and that superheroes only exist in comic books or on screen. They are real. They are all around you. You merely need to take notice. While it’s true that none of them can fly, become invisible, or move objects with their minds (no matter what the person who just sold you DMT may claim), they may still use their latent powers hidden in their personality to come to your aid at your most dire time of need.

                  A closing bar shift in New York City is an arduous, spiritually crippling series of tasks. As if the evening itself hasn’t been enough of a struggle: preparing and serving drink upon drink to Wall Street ne’er do wells in the making, tourists on a rampaging bar crawl, and everyone in between and beyond, combined with the added bonus of coworkers, it is a lesson in physical and emotional exhaustion that is bested only by night shift medical staffs. It should be stated that I would certainly lump myself into the begrudgingly referenced coworkers category. When I bartended in smaller towns, I was the nonpareil. An absolute rock star. A valedictorian. In a major city? The most major of cities in these increasingly inaccurately named United States? On my best night I was a solid B. Being from Oregon, I have never been able to stomach ludicrous formalities, interpersonal competition, and the egregious touting of one’s social resume. At times it seemed like everyone was trying to make sure that their online persona matched with how they saw themselves in real life. Millions of performers playing the part of the silent aristocracy/swimsuit model they see themselves as on Facebook or Instagram. It got to me. I was often irritable. Angry. Easily annoyed. Cacophony in particular makes me feral, and when everyone is talking at the same time both literally and spiritually, I become a teeth gnashing lightning rod for all of the worlds stress and bitterness that would certainly make me a less than desirable coworker. To my coworkers in the past, and, hell, to everyone I know, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for not killing me yet.

                  Finally, mercifully, all of the weary, disgusting tasks are done. The bar is wiped down. The trashes and recycling are taken out to be nibbled on by the rats. The till is settled, and the staff has locked the doors and gone next door for the quick three to five shots of whiskey before heading to their train stop. Mine was the Essex street station at the gateway to the East Village: an unnecessarily complicated labyrinthian braiding of staircases that in a city that demands that things make sense and serve their function is incongruous at best. I somehow managed to get lost no matter how many times I had utilized this malcontented station’s alleged services.  Yes, yes, a hot take, isn’t it? A New Yorker with a complaint about the MTA.

                  Awaiting the J train heading back towards the border of Bushwick and Bed Stuy before the break of dawn was one of the better chances that I had to do some of the best people watching in the world. There are innumerable energies swirling in the air at that time of night on the border of Brooklyn and Manhattan. There are couples fighting. Vermin on dawn patrol for abandoned or discarded French fries to bring back to their young. Potentially new couples flagrantly touching each other’s genitals without a single care to be found in this universe or the next for onlookers judgment. Hell, it may be helping them both on. There are confused tourists. Impatient riders that are foolish enough to believe that this is their fastest ride to JFK. Beggars. Drunkards puffing their chests and instigating any onlookers to test their mettle. And many, like me, who are simply deliriously tired and looking to get home to reunite with our first and only love: our bed.

                  4:13 in the morning now. The gold tinted cataracts on the eyes of the train are coming through the oil drenched pipeline. My midnight special is shining it’s ever loving light on me. The train comes to a halt and gives any potential passengers a comparatively cruel twenty seconds maximum (when weighed against the thirty-minute wait between trains at this time of night) to board the train before the doors shut. Inevitably a half dozen or so people can be seen sprinting towards the departing train, literally running a fool’s errand as the steel chariot exits the station. If you’re being honest with yourself, a sick part of you takes a small but unignorable amount of pleasure in watching their reaction to their failure. Other than labor, dollar slices, electricity, and fossil fuel, a large part of New York City runs of schadenfreude.

                  And so, the train departs. The horizon over Atlantic Ocean has the beginnings of a navy-blue wash promising the arrival of dawn. A welcome sight to some, a grisly light shined on the efficacy of their decisions made that night to others. The trip over the innocent East River that through no fault of its own is little more of a raging torrent of sludge, corruption, and centuries worth of corpses is somehow oddly pastoral. However, then you arrive at the Marcy street station, the first stop to service Brooklyn and much like the train you’re on, the aforementioned tranquility comes to a grinding halt.

                  It is necessary to mention that along with superheroes, supervillains are also real. They are all around you. However, unlike heroes that one must actively choose to see, villains have a tendency, a compulsion to make their presence very well known. In a sense, they’re what make it harder to see the heroes around you. Their weapon of choice? Noise. Bombast. Hot air. Their cries, like a banshee haunting an oft warned of bog in Irish folklore can so effectively drown out all of the other sounds of the earth that without proper training and fortitude, one can become convinced it’s the only thing that exists; that the only people that surround you are cage rattling ghouls sent to bring fourth their relentless bounties of disharmony and bluster. They are not surrounding you. They’re just extremely loud.

                  So, it came to pass that the archnemesis of the throngs of exhausted night laborers heading home to sleep boarded my train in the form of a bucket drumming busker. Bedaubed in their shabby, plaid regalia, he began his villainous monologue as so many are prone to do. Goldfinger, and seemingly all of the elites (with the exception of Oddjob) in 007’s rogues gallery simply had to pinch out a descriptive monologue before commencing with their evil plan. We are informed that though it is late, this man is driven by his love for music and of this city to play for us and he hopes that we like what we hear. The detonator is set. There are seconds left. Millions (figuratively and emotionally) could perish in the wake of what this gruesome malefactor has in store for us.

                  It was then that a hero arose. The radioactive spider bite kicked in. The dormant mutant powers were awakened by the trauma. And I saw it happen in real time. A tall man in a hay colored pea coat, a thick scarf and tattered jeans with a small chin and enormous eyes lifted his head off of his chest and let out his heroic call.

                  “NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT,” our avenger dauntlessly bellowed. “Everyone here is just tryin’ to fuckin’ chill. I will personally give you five fuckin’ dollars to not play that shit.”

                  “Yeah?” The cretin inquired.

                  “YES. HERE!” My knight followed up. He then reached into his pocket, grabbed a five-dollar bill and handed it to the dastardly busker who thanked him and slinked off into the depths of less fortunate train cars to the back. I realize in this moment that this might be the closest thing I’ll ever experience to what the allies must have felt when news reached them that the Third Reich had finally been toppled.

                  After a momentary pause, the rest of the train car, in a flash of gratitude began to applaud this person’s deeds. It was then that he truly became a legend to me.

                  “No! Stop clapping! Everyone shut the fuck up.” He roared.

                  I have never been so impressed by another human being in my entire life. My inner child wanted to introduce myself so I would know where to send letter after letter of sketches I intended to draw of him in various capes and form fitting spandex uniforms, however, I knew to honor my champions request for silence. It was, after all, the gift that he bought us. Peace amongst chaos. Quiet amongst pandemonium. It would have been disrespectful at best to shirk the boon at the end of this hero’s journey.

                  And thus, the remaining six or so minutes that I had on the train were exquisitely hushed. A takeaway that I will keep with me from this life altering experience is ultimately something I knew all along. Gift of Gab, the unparalleled wordsmith MC of Blackalicious once astutely mused that, “Everything you learn you’re only remembering.”  That being, you can both be and find the heroes you need in your life, you merely need to take notice, and rise to that occasion when you feel the knowing call in your soul.

                  The other takeaway is that it’d be just great if everyone shut the complete and total fuck up more often.

The Reality of Cauliflower Rice

Review: Zero out of 9 whole grains



Photographer Victor Protasio, Food Stylist Anna Hampton, Prop Stylist Claire Spollen

We appear to have become so aggressively bereft of the powers of insight as to passively accept the ever further egregious commodification of our own insecurities in conjunction with our diets, in spite of its easily spotted nature. Nutri-system, health shakes, calorie counting, paleo, keto, Atkins, intermittent fasting, liquid diets, detoxes, etcetera and ad nauseum- there is no diet fad that year after year and decade upon decade we increasingly physically unfit and mentally malleable apes will not succumb to.

This is all of the diet information you will ever need. I’m about to save you potentially thousands of dollars and hours for free. Here it is: show restraint, try not to eat late at night, eat less carbs, drink alcohol sparingly and if you do then gravitate towards wine or spirits instead of beer, eat plenty of vegetables, whole, clean foods and proteins, indulge in junk only every so often, hydrate well, exercise regularly, purposefully and diligently, and lastly and most importantly: make it a lifestyle, not a phase.

That’s it. I just told you every piece of dieting information you’ll require for the rest of yours or anyone else’s life. Heed it or not. Do it or don’t. I really don’t care. You can be miserable with the body of a Greek demigod; you can experience endless joy with the body mass of a Hungarian basilica. It doesn’t matter what shape you take, all that matters is that you’re happy, and ideally healthy. The rest is just bullshit and snake oil pitched to you by interchangeable sets of abs that can speak to you through social media or your dumbass friends.

What I DO care about is something at play that I find not only insulting, but sinister. An insidious tumor that must be surgically removed before it metastasizes into something that we can no longer control. I am referring, of course, to cauliflower rice.

I take umbrage with a dizzying array of insignificant things, I’m aware of this. At times I’m even more passionate about the aforementioned than the full-blown atrocities of the world. Perhaps it’s because I feel that while I am largely powerless to halt the systemic ills of existence, I do feel that the infinitesimal is something I can change. I have a long, storied history with pesto and how if it’s made with anything other than a basil base, then it ceases to be pesto. Is that correct? No? Well not with that attitude.

I think that people who vocally don’t like Game of Thrones are much more annoying than people who do; and though I haven’t watched the series in years, I was genuinely upset that so many people were so disappointed by its final season. Why? Because it’s heartbreaking when a story you’re invested in is massacred, and as someone who saw what was done to The Hobbit, my compassionate heart bleeds for Game of Thrones fans. That said I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was hit with a deluge of indescribable schadenfreude upon hearing about all of the parents who named their daughters Khaleesi, only to be absolutely devasted at the long projected plot “twist” where the woman whose thing  is owning flying iguanas that can set everything on fire went right ahead and set everyone on fire. I’ve found myself more surprised by a watermelon meeting its demise at the hands of Gallagher.

This brings me to cauliflower rice.

First of all: how dare we? Yes, we consume far too much carbs in America, but that’s hardly the fault of rice. It’s our fault. It’s our fault that we’ve run afoul of the staple grain that has sustained us a human race for tens of thousands of years; suddenly made a villain because a small group of horrible (likely) blonde people (likely) from Los Angeles deciding that this ancient fuel was now your enemy. To think of all of the incredible dishes that rice can and has given us over the years. Its powers are employed by people the world over in kaleidoscopically diverse usages. Can cauliflower do even a percentage of a percentage of what rice can, and this is how we treat rice? For shame. Cauliflower deserves better.

Secondly, putting cauliflower into a blender does not change the very plant that it is. You don’t put corn into a blender and get quinoa. When you blend cauliflower, all that you’ve done is butcher an ear of cauliflower and are now branding it as rice because it’s a familiar name that’s a far more attractive substitute than calling it, say, mush.

Yes, I have tried using blended cauliflower as a pizza crust; and then I realized something profound: what if instead of having a pizza with depression just about as often as I’d like, how about I have an actually delicious pizza every once in a while? Then, like a spore on a dewy morning my mind expanded and bloomed into a veritable pasture of sensible ideas. It was a clarity the likes of which had always seemed so distant as an American that, culturally, can only see things in terms of whatever Michael Bay project is coming out next.

Show restraint.

This review is a plea, ladies and gentlemen. Not just for the preservation of the dignity of rice, but for sanity to win the day whereas it pertains to our diets.

Don’t hate the grain. Hate the player.

Food Poisoning

Rating: Zero out of 10 Modern Families

Many lament the mistakes and sins of their youth, and I am no different. For example, there was a brief period in my late teens where I felt that capri pants were quite fetching on me and complimented the front pulled miniature bangs I sported for a summer. We all make mistakes. Some of them are more misguided than others. In hindsight, the most noteworthy of my less than stellar choices I’ve made was a two-pronged error.

  1. After having lived in Oregon for my entire life, surrounded by trees and serenity, I moved to New York City and into East Harlem in the dead of winter at the tender age of 22.
  2. A few weeks after arriving, I got some seafood chow mien at 3:30 in the morning.

The worst errors are the ones where you have absolutely zero external forces guiding your mistake except your own stupidity. Where nobody did this to you but you. And there has never passed a day in my life where I, like Odysseus and his men, was unable to avoid crashing my ship into the rocks to heed the sirens song of easily accessible chow mien.

When I returned home, I shoveled this burbling mass of noodles, vegetables, and tainted seafood into my face with the joy that a child experiences when getting into the first of their Halloween candy haul. It was a euphoric experience. All of the flavors and carbohydrates sopped up the cheap whiskey in my stomach like a sponge as my taste buds danced on the rings of Saturn. While I drifted off to sleep watching some Netflix special with my eyes occasionally crossing, I finally knew peace.

That is until a few hours later at around 7 in the morning my body awoke me with the sensation of an ensnared beehive marauding in my stomach. I sat at the edge of my bed trying to ascertain and explain my way out of what I could tell in my heart what inevitable. For me, the lead up to food poisoning is exactly the same as the stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance.

Shock: “Oh fuck. Oh fuck I think I’m getting sick.”

Denial: “I can’t be getting sick. That’s not what’s happening. I just feel weird. I’ll go back to bed soon and be fine.”

Anger: “DAMMIT. DAMMIT I DON’T WANT TO BE SICK. FUCK. FUCK.”

Bargaining:” Okay, maybe I can just drink some water. If I have water and have vitamins, I can get out of this.”

Depression, typically done in the bathroom: “Oh no, this is happening. What have I done? I’m so stupid.. I’m gonna barf. I’m-“

Testing -or the first round of projectile vomiting- is far worse than vomiting from the flu or having too much to drink. This hurts. It’s as if your stomach, throat, skull, and even your teeth have been tied in knots and used to anchor an old stone hauling barge.

Acceptance, typically done shivering on the floor while sweating and wiping bile off of your cheek: “Okay, the moment I can get back to my bed, I’ll calculate how long I can stay in bed before I’m broke.”

Thus began by next week of abject uselessness. The first several says between non-stop fits of vomiting, I found myself so delirious that I began to marathon Modern Family, and dammit I thought that it was pointed and witty. That’s the level of malnutrition I was dealing with.

At night I laid awake watching snow fall from the night sky and on to the stone streets beneath my 7th story apartment wondering if this was how I died. Felled by my own hubris and love of greasy Americanized Chinese cuisine.

During the days I sweat while shivering, trying desperately to convince myself to get some kind of vitamins into my system. Like a young soldier trying to inch my way up the beach at Normandy on D-day I dredged downstairs and across the street to fetch some orange juice. I barely managed to return to my apartment whereupon which, after drinking one 6oz glass of juice, I spent the next two hours vomiting the aforementioned nutrients out of myself.

Around day four I spoke with parents in some kind of garbled infirmed patwa that gave even my father cause for concern. After all, what good was the cure all of ginger ale and rest if you couldn’t sleep or keep literally anything down?

On day five, two of my roommates finally came in to check on me. They informed me that they had been avoiding me because they didn’t want to catch what I had. Which was understandable. Until I realized shortly after they had left that that’s now how food poisoning works. They did however manage to compliment me on the recently acquired ab definition I was now sporting thanks to my severe illness, which although useless in my state, was admittedly a confidence booster. NOTE: Don’t get sick to lose weight. I shouldn’t have to say that, but here we are.

On day six the clouds parted, and my blood cells finally got back to work with such consternation and fortitude that I was able to eat a single packet of ramen noodles. A bit of a hair of the dog, all things considered. However, these noodles had been processed and gassed out of anything even close to nutritious so long ago that anything that could have possibly been living in them died a long time prior to getting my balmy hands on them.

Around the seventh day, I rose. Lazily I put on sneakers and made it two whole blocks to look at the river and have a peek at New Jersey through my bloodshot eyes. As I stared towards the south, I pondered how breathtaking it is that decades of life and experience can be chopped down like a sapling by a few microscopic particles stemming from poor refrigeration. Then I thought about all of those who have gone before us for the sin of simply being hungry. How many mountains of human bones there must be before we even knew which mushrooms were good or bad? I shudder to think.

Here at Critics Digest, I cannot possibly recommend that you get food poisoning, especially if you’re single, broke, in your early twenties, and need money. However, if you’re looking for a revamped perspective on the joys of being healthy, you’re only one helping of late-night seafood away from a master class in gratitude.

My Version of Heaven

Rating: Irrelevant, for all is perfect now.

                  According to many cultures, should you carry on a life that is less than stellar according to the laws of their respective arcane text, upon your death you will be denied paradise, reserved only for the worthy, and instead be cast into an endless well of suffering.

Both the idyllic and the abyssal plane are interpreted differently from faith to faith. However, all share a reductive verisimilitude in this: one is ecstatic, and one is torturous.

                  You might be underwhelmed, or at most, whelmed to know that I gravitate more towards the Pagan ideological and dogmatic constructs of bygone times. Certainly not in any kind of formal practice, mind you. I don’t have a garden, or a backyard, which sadly eliminates me automatically from personal participation in seventy percent of potential ceremonies I could engage in without being swiftly tossed in jail. It’s more in the loose and noncommittal sense that I believe most days would best be spent frolicking naked through the forest with your fellow man and woman while you’re all half blind off of questionably made wine; eventually leading to a bacchanal of revelry and so many intertwining limbs you genuinely forget for the duration of it all what sex organs you were born with. All you know is that you’ve never felt so much pleasure in your wildest imagination, and that the trinity of bodily fluids being secreted from all participants are beginning to stain the wolf pelts and fallen autumnal maple leaves upon which this is all taking place.

The way the Old Gods intended.

                  With that, a further tenant of Paganism that I have always been particularly drawn to is that according to some interpretations, upon your death, depending on the way you lived, you will be escorted to the aforementioned idyllic or abyssal plane- but with a caveat. Whichever realm you find yourself in will be tailored exactly to whatever your specific version of what heaven or hell would be for you. Which makes sense. After all, many families can scarcely agree on what they would all prefer for lunch much less what an entire human race’s idea of endless joy or terror would be. How horrible would it be to have lived a life of if not piety, than at least abject decency and goodness only to find yourself beamed up to a fully clothed kumbaya circle for all eternity when all you really wanted was limitless Taco Bell, an endless continuation of your favorite shows, and to never get bedsores again.

                  With that in mind, I cannot strongly recommend organized religion. Too many rules. Too little payoff, and a bit risky for my liking. I don’t go on waterslides if I don’t have extreme faith in its structural integrity, much less gambling with eternity.

                  That said, I have my own vision of the great beyond. The grand payoff for a life of holding doors, never once kicking a chihuahua, and resisting the urge without to set fire to old white Christian billionaires in suits lamenting how they’re under attack.

I deserve it.

Perhaps you do to.

And the more I consider it, you would almost certainly increase the joy in your present life imagining what would await you after the golden light grows brighter, your eyes begin to close for the final time on earth, and you rejoice that you’ll never have to talk to your fucking bank ever again.

I awake, panicked at first. Not because I’m scared, it’s just that I’ve never felt clothing so soft on my skin in all of my life. It’s a self-harvesting, self-weaving, and self-tailoring fabric that nobody had to struggle to forge, and somehow manages to be both practical and shiny, with splashy but tasteful nods to camp. I’m on an unimaginably soft bed, so soft in fact that I choose to save further inspection of heaven for a few hours later and go down for a nap; I’ve just been through a lot, after all, and will need my rest. There is no anxiety or guilt flowing through me as I lay back down, and instead of my earthly shrill and occasionally villainous self-speak, my inner monologue has taken on the buttery, sonorous voice of Peter O’Toole. “Dream sweetly,” my mind says to me as if it’s beginning to recite one of the Elizabethan sonnets, “All awaits you.”

When I awake, I see that my bed is on a mossy plateau, surrounded by the peaceful sounds of frogs and the sweet ambient light of fireflies that stay a respectful ten feet away from me at all times. The plateau is itself in the middle of a small lake that is illuminated by large fluorescent mushrooms that at a whim act as impossibly comfortable folding chairs for me and at my beck and call. The flora that surrounds me is enormous; it is a pantheon of indescribable purples, greens, ambers, silvers, and golds. I look up and see the entirety of the cosmos. I see stars being born, I see galaxies and nebulas hurtling across the vastness of space and I am assured by the new tone that my internal voice has taken that all I see is benevolent; that all of this is on it’s way to creating something beautiful, somewhere in the universe, and that I may go to any of these places any time I wish any time that I return to bed. However, it will be no dream; it will be real, I am told. For I no longer have need for what I used to call “sleep.” That was reserved for when I was exhausted, either physically, or emotionally, and that is an inconceivable concept where I am now.

I rise, and as I step out towards the edges of the mossy, fern covered plateau and move towards the edge of the water, I see that the shells of turtles appear underneath my feet with each step. “I’m so sorry!” I say as I step on one unintentionally.

“Oh not to worry! It feels like a back massage to us!”

“Really!?” I say with relief.

“Yes, and in case you were wondering, no, we don’t only wait here for you to step on us, you see we sleep in the waters under the lake, when you go bed.”

I pause.

“No, we don’t watch you do anything. You have infinite privacy.”

I walk across my footpath of sweet, accommodating turtles to the edge of the circular meadow, and I wander through the vast, glowing forest. There are all of the books that have been written and have yet to be written resting on various shelves off of the trees, and the rest of the forest is filled with peaceful string music and beautiful people of all kinds that invite me to rest, eat the finest foods, and engage in interesting conversation, hold each other closely, safely, and intimately, and drink with them whenever I wish. However, there’s no pressure. I can even ignore them if I want.

Heaven.

I reach an impasse and notice large oaken door with a brass handle in the shape of an owl.

“Are you ready, Sam?” the kind eyed owl says to me.

“For what? Is this it? Is this all” I say.

“Oh no, not even a little bit. This, all of this is just your bedroom! This is your space. This is your room in heaven; exactly how you would have always wanted it, just for you. The rest of it, the rest of everything, literally everything, is just beyond this door.”

With an inviting creaking the now unlatched door slowly opens, and I am suddenly standing at the edge of a vast hillside, with webs of rivers at the bottom of great flower covered valleys. There are lichen covered weeping willows blowing lazily in the wind, and the enormity of the landscape comes into clearer focus. There are fruit trees as far as the eye can see. There is music in the distance. There is music in front of me. It is stringed. The cello, most likely. There are smells of petrichor and yet no rain clouds. It is sunny but not oppressive. It is perfect. There are people dancing deep down in the valley.

“Ah, there you are, darling!” a man says to me.

“I KNEW you were God!” I blurt out to Freddie Mercury.

“HAH! Hardly. No. I just felt that you would like it best if I was the first person you saw.”

I’m stammering from joy. This is all more than I ever thought I could feel.

“Who…Where is God?” I ask.

“Well, love, the greatest misconception that we all had on Earth was that God was a person. But God was, is, this! It was the earth itself. It was our imaginations. It was barbecue and cocaine and mochas in autumn. It was great sex, it was sneaking out for cigarettes. It also was death, it was sickness, it was torment. That’s because God, I’ve come to know since being here, is the atom. And all God could do was simply exist after that. The Big Bang was God’s first and only action. The rest was up to the division of the atoms, the cells, the microcosms of the universe. So even this place, like all good things, is a miracle. God can only begin things, but, and probably for the best, can never finish them. It’s why you’re here. Because you aren’t really dead, darling. You’re just in your new home: the universe; the collective plane of joy you had always imagined- like everyone else has.”

“This is all my vision?”

“No, love, your bedroom is! That’s your heaven. Think of all of this as a giant house. I have a bedroom, too. Everyone here does! We each have a creature or mode of conveyance to take us to ours. This….What you see…Well, think of it as…the living room! This is the space we all share, and it is as boundless as our own quarters. All designed and agreed upon by the greatest imaginations of joy from the best places of our hearts. Because here, the rules are different, in that there hardly are any, except the ones that inspire joy, but not in a creepy way with a caveat like in all those depressing dystopian novels.”

“So I can see my mom?”

“Of course!” Freddie says sweetly.

“My cat Claire?”

“Naturally! I pet her a little on my way here! You know I love cats. She’s a doll.”

I fall over. I have never cried harder in my entire existence, ethereal or flesh. Freddie leans down and hugs me. I feel a few of his own tears on my shoulder.

“I did the same thing when I got here, too, darling.”

I look up and notice he’s smiling through his tears.

“Why are you smiling?”

“Well…I’m just so happy for you! You’re here! You’re finally here! We’ve been expecting you. You have a bunch of people to meet. Don’t worry, you have their name memorized immediately. You see everyone in that valley, and everyone in this plane of reality, is everyone that we ever loved on earth, and everyone throughout history that we would have loved if we had the chance to meet them. That’s the population of this place.”

I pause, stunned. My tears dry and all of a sudden I’m smiling uncontrollably.

I’m beginning to feel quite social.

“Shall we go and explore?” Freddie asks.

“I’d love to.” I say, “But you don’t have to, like, stay with me the whole time or-“

“Oh shut up, I know that! I WANT to show you around. And when you’ve seen at least a little bit, because, again, this is endless, we’ll get you to your mom and your cat. You remember how she loves talking about the same books you’ve read or shows you’ve seen. Well, she’ll definitely want you to have seen a bit of this as well before you both go out drinking tonight.”

A wave of calm rushes over me. Before I ask what my mode of conveyance is a giant multicolored eagle with a series of recliners strapped to its back appears in front of us beside one of the enormous willow trees, and before we climb on to explore the endless sea of joy, to explore the endlessness of happiness beyond our wildest imagination, Freddie says of my eagle…

“So elegant, and yet so damn ridiculous.” Freddie remarks, “I love it.”

Sonic’s Fried Crispy Chicken Tenders

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars. Alternatively, mach 5 out of 5 golden rings.

Unlike many of its competitors in the heaving monolith that is the global fast food industry, for a longer than I would care to admit I wasn’t entirely sure that Sonic restaurants even existed. Of course, I had seen advertisements for them since I was a child. Many of which featured a staggeringly asexual male proselytizing about the quality of their burgers, hotdogs, and fries to a person in the car with them that entered the equally non-threatening sedan a skeptic but would emerge a true believer. However, not unlike a tech or media company that you only just heard about that you’re surprised to learn is actually a financial juggernaut and is somehow the parent company of the bank that holds the deed to your home, Sonic had hitherto only existed as a concept. One as easily scattered to the wind like vapor and forgotten just as quickly. Yes, I knew of Sonic, however, until several weeks ago on the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, I hadn’t ever actually seen one for myself. Perhaps this was a metaphor for the tenants of faith in the Lord. Though you may not be able to see it (or Him) with your eyes, if you trust that it’s (or They’re) there long enough, you will eventually be rewarded with their presence in an eternal paradise. In this case, that idyllic plane of existence was made manifest in the form of Sonic’s Crispy Chicken Tenders.

                  The atmosphere of the restaurant’s environment is designed to be a loving nod to the halcyon days of yesteryear. A time when clashing pastels, point of order service, and huffing exhaust while idling in a parking lot as you hork down questionable meat brought to you by a stranger right to your car was seen as the wave of the future.

                  In that, this was not merely a meal. This was a lesson, and I, it’s willing student emerged with a lasting reaffirmation: everything we learn, perhaps, we’re only remembering. A long time ago, when we were happier, whom among us cannot recall being securely fastened like a Formula 1 racer into our child’s seat at the back of our mother’s Plymouth Grand Caravan while she begged us to eat chicken fingers so we would finally stop crying, and she could finally have a moment to think, and wonder why. Why.

                  Thus, as I parked in the drive through/parking lot/tables of this particular Sonic a tsunami of nostalgia crashed down upon me, and I was overcome with dormant emotions. All of which were carefully and purposefully shoved down into the abyss of social conditioning after I was fairly positive that the man about to take my order over the intercom heard me tearfully bemoan how much I miss my mother.

                  There was no hesitation. Like a man stranded in sub-Saharan Africa that finally sees an oasis, so was I at the comparably Brigadoon like elusiveness of Sonic. The scent of long since used vegetable oil dominated my olfactory senses as my heart rushed desperately towards the special kind of nourishment that can only be satiated with chicken.

                  “I’ll have the chicken tenders.” I said impishly into the intercom.

                  “Will that be all?” Said the plucky teenager.

                  “Oh,” I began, “That will be all.”

                  “Oh….kaaay……That’ll be 6.97.”

                  It was as simple as that. Within mere moments I was greeted by a young woman at my driver’s side window, who seemed amused at how much I was enjoying listening to Scandinavian death metal while awaiting my order. I informed her that this band in particular only sings songs about Norse mythology and other pillagesome Viking related exploits. She nodded with an accommodating but visibly put off smile and returned inside; our paths never to cross again unless I needed some extra ranch.

                   The first scintillating bite of the perfectly seasoned, explosively crispy, and somehow miraculously juicy chicken tender sent me into such ecstatic throes that I stabbed my right leg with my car keys to see if I could even still feel pain against the onslaught of such Dionysian pleasure, and I couldn’t. The chicken, if one can even still call it that. No, no, they can’t;  the Goddess Poultry, especially when paired with a little bit of Sonic’s buttermilk ranch, has such a transcendence of flavor that is so powerful it renders all religions even more useless than they are.

                  You have never seen God, and the promise that you will when you die is about as reliable as a political candidate that doesn’t tell you any of their plans, but assures you they will and that you’ll love them, so long as you make them the most powerful person on earth first.

                  But you have seen Goddess Poultry, and there is no greater example of the universe realizing it’s own benevolence than Sonic’s Crispy Chicken Tenders.

                  That night, driving towards North Carolina while periodically trying to wipe ranch off my denim shorts by dabbing them with soda dampened napkins, I was imbued with peace, clarity, and sustenance as I watched the sun set lingeringly behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yet as the sun set and a soupsánt of melancholy came with the darkness to follow, the stars in the sky reminded me that a new dawn was just around corner. A new day followed by all of the brand new days after that; a new day where I could take myself to Sonic and get Crispy Chicken Tenders.

A Hangover in Budapest. Courtesy of Pálinka.

Rating: 9 out of 5 Kill Me Now’s

                  There is a man underneath my bed.

                  It’s his own bed, as I am on the top bunk. Still, infantilized by my ailments, I wish that someone would come in to inspect under my bed, and tell me that he isn’t there. That these are only the predictable ramblings of my imagination assuming the worst.

                  Contrary to what college students in their junior year would have you believe, a hostel is no place for a hangover. Then again, twenty-year-old’s haven’t really experienced a hangover in its truest sense.

                  I was like them once. I used to boast about it at any number of the relentlessly festive and pleasurable theme parties I would attend with my throngs of friends in college. It’s one of the greatest perks of getting a degree in the performing arts. Yes, it’s a cold, harsh landscape upon graduating. Your studies have led you to (at least somewhat) believe that the whole world ahead of you is always going to be filled with joy, or even better, and endless rite in the name of Dionysus, and that you, his loyal follower, must conduct yourself in a manner befitting of the god of wine, sex, art, and madness.

                  So you do.

                  So you think.

                  Then, without warning, it’s your twenty first birthday. I was the baby of my crop of students at the University of Oregon, and as such, the last to reach legal drinking age.

                  “I just don’t get hangovers!” I would say sometimes the day after a party. As if my body and mine alone managed to bypass all biological comeuppance. As if Dionysus had selected me his chosen one from his grape filled gourd to carry on his message with impunity.

                  Then, newly minted with my fresh government sanctioned ID from the Oregon DMV, my girlfriend at the time organized a pre-gaming party at her house as a place for people to convene before we all went out to the murderer’s row of bars on 13th street. Over forty of my friends showed up to the initial soiree and an untold number joined us as the night progressed. It was a night fit for any antiquated Greek deity. There was copious amount of drinking, madness all around in the form of incessant revelry, art and discussions thereof in every direction, and a day filled with sex.

                  However, I learned the next morning that my hitherto long held belief in my immunity to the repercussions of alcohol was only as strong as my options.

                  When you’re underage, you can only have what you can afford and what your friend(s) might be willing to fetch you. Therefore, for the most part, you’re forced to stick to whatever particular poison you’ve bought. Consistency, you learn, along with hydration is the real trick to avoiding hangovers.

                  Yet when dozens and dozens of your beautiful friends are generously pummeling you with free shots and mixed drinks in every direction with such speed and intention it’s as if they’ve all combined to form the hundred handed beast Hecatoncheires, you find yourself in such a booze-soaked state that you wonder, even as your experiencing what’s happening, if this is all a dream.

                  Then you wake up, as I did, to the sounds of the veins on the sides of your skull performing a deconstructed cover of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Cannons and all. You’re both sweating and freezing at the same time. You stumble to breakfast at your local greasy spoon diner with your partner, who albeit understanding and kind, is getting a completely forgivable but intense kick out of seeing you like this after all you’ve bloviated about in the past. Her joy is increased tenfold by her thought that it would be a good idea to inform the server that it’s indeed your birthday, and they bring you the largest cinnamon roll you’ve ever seen that is soaked in an unwholesome amount of white soupy sludge they’re deciding to call icing. Then, the sight of said cinnamon roll demands that you sprint to the nearest bathroom to vomit so audibly the server’s entire section can hear you. Thankfully, the sounds of your endless bile-soaked heaving are drowned out by the thunderous laughter of your partner, who as an opera singer, could fill Wembley Stadium with the right belt.

                  That all said, I would relive that morning every morning as if it was a punishment dealt to me by a snide, heartless demon in purgatory if it meant that I didn’t have to ever have to endure one more morning dealing with the side effects of a night spent with the Hungarian brandy Pálinka again.

                  There have been dictators with more heart than this liquor.

                  There have been plagues more forgiving.

                  There are neighboring planets more accommodating to human existence.

                  Pálinka, for the uninitiated, is a brandy that is distilled Hungary and Austria. If you don’t know why that fact alone should keep you away from it, I kindly invite you to close this tab, open a new one and type the word “History” in to your search bar.

                  The flavor profile is soft and tannic at first, but you are swiftly hit with a sensation that is reminiscent of chugging diesel gasoline with one lone apricot dunked into the tankard.

                  Paradoxically, by the time you reach the third shot, as I did for practice before I sauntered out into the balmy Hungarian summer night, it doesn’t taste that revolting anymore. It’s actually pleasant.

                  That’s exactly where Pálinka wants you.

                  It lulls you in to a false sense of security, and then after you’ve let your guard down, you realize that you can’t remember the last several hours of your life, and that the kebab you ordered has exited your body the same way it came in and landed exclusively on your lap outside of a strip club.

                  Then the morning comes, but your mind is left in the dust of last night. It’s unfair.

                  It is also exactly what you deserve for daring to trifle with this spirit; inaccurately named, in so far as that we tend to think of the word ‘spirit’ in the same breath as we would a benevolent force.

                  But there is no benevolence. There is no bliss. There is only a tangible layer of sweat covering every inch of your skin, a deluge of horrible memories, and a man underneath your bed.