Here Lies a Writer


A grave marker in a boneyard somewhere in the Tennessee mountains bears this engraving:


That very telling and all-too-common characterization is my favorite observation about writers. The truest quote I’ve heard attributed to a writer (don’t ask me who said it first) is this: “I hate writing—but I love having written.”

Therein resides the sum total of all obstacles to this craft—the writer’s own procrastination. Writer’s Block is a myth, an excuse bandied about by those who refuse to sit and do the work. You knock out the pages and you fix it later but you never, never, never stop writing. If you stop then you’re not a writer; you’re a slack jaw, an air biter, a bush-league bench warming bystander. In short, you’re a quitter. It ain’t tactful, what I’m saying here, and it sure ain’t kind. But it’s truthful and writers need a steady diet of truth.

It’s true that a writing life is a hard life and every time I sit down by my solitary lonesome to knock out a few paragraphs of any substance it’s a monumental struggle to come up with words that mean something to me. Every first draft is less than empty and I lean heavily on my talent and training to see me through to the deadline. I write every day, some days more than others. Using my creative muscles builds endurance and develops craft. When I finish a piece it’s not the result of a gift but rather the natural outcome of hard work.

Demanding of myself the regular output of essays is an exercise of endurance and creativity producing weekly posts and a good deal of knuckle cramping—just what I need to run my abilities through their paces. So, as regularly as I am able, I’ll be posting essays focusing on the human condition, which is my keenest area of interest.

“Here lies a writer” indeed. Lies—as in the telling of untruths. Perhaps.





Cosmic Forces

Someone asked me today what sign I was born under.

I used to make fun of people who gave serious consideration to astrology. It always struck me as somewhat naïve and juvenile that otherwise intelligent people would not only put stock in the movements of the stars and the planets, but also relate those movements to substantial goings on in their own lives. It seemed incredibly silly to me.sundial-8657-1920x1080

And yet, at the same time, I very much enjoyed being asked. Especially when an attractive woman was doing the asking.

It doesn’t have to mean anything in particular, but somehow the question itself delivers me back to a time when your position in the zodiac became an automatic symbol of sexual inclination. Kind of like a foreplay to foreplay. Those three simple words were rife with possibilities of free love. And in the post-hippy atmosphere of the late 70’s your astrological sign seemed to have real romantic currency. That’s the feeling that comes back to me when I hear someone ask, “What’s your sign?”

Any more in polite society, those words are little more than a conversation starter. For me, and for the longest time, astrology had lost its sex appeal, which isn’t really fair since I never gave it its due in the first place. Astrological stuff had always struck me as just plain gimmicky.

From 1983 to 1995 I worked in the space program. Twelve years of my life spent in close quarters with some of most levelheaded, pragmatic, and even-tempered thinkers on the planet. I was in my element. No frivolity, no specious reasoning, no whims of fancy. Everything was predicated on absolute logic. So I find it ironic that NASA is where I started to notice how the mathematics of orbital mechanics might actually affect my daily mood.

Putting mysticism aside, let’s take a look at the purely physical aspects of the question. Consider if you will how the moon’s relationship to the earth directly affects the ocean tides, which by extension affect atmospheric pressure. When the moon is full, the overall barometric pressure of the planet responds accordingly. And when pressure goes up, people’s fuses get shorter. That’s what people do best—respond to pressure. We can’t help ourselves, or our instincts. Statistically there really are more traffic accidents and crimes of passion during a full moon. These are physically demonstrable and proven phenomena.

We all know that a variety of people react in a variety of ways because of our distinctly unique makeups. And still there are unifying elements. For example different people operate best at different barometric pressures, which is probably why women’s menstrual cycles start on different days—but still most every woman’s cycle runs like clockwork every 28 days, which by the way is the exact cycle of the moon’s orbit of the earth—28 days.

No coincidence. Like it or not, as residents of this globe we are bound by its physical laws. But if we remain conscious of those laws and the cycles in which they run, then we have a bit of an advantage.

I firmly suspect—and if tested I believe it would prove out nicely—that if researchers were to track any number of male subjects over a period of several months, they would discover that men too have a 28-day cycle of their own. And for the exact same week every month, men probably exhibit their own PMS-type symptoms, although not in the physical way that women do. We men experience our own moodiness, short tempers, irritability, and so on—some weeks more so than others—and if you chart them, I am convinced they will map out perfectly in 28-day cycles.

In other words, yes, I do believe men have periods too. Scary, right?

No one can be constantly in top form. For instance, I know I am never at my best in extreme heat. I can’t abide it. My parents on the other hand were born in the Deep South and have always loved Florida weather. I however happened to be born in Ohio in the middle of winter and am convinced the climate into which I first arrived imprinted me with a distinct preference for cool air and a somewhat chilly geography. While my work has me in California for the time being, one day I dream of retiring well north of here.

So, considering the time of year you are born, as well as the physical and emotional environment into which you’re born, all these cosmic and atmospheric alignments may actually have a profound affect on your moods and inclinations. Then add to that mix the crazy cocktail of your own unique body chemistry, and you can really begin to see how the position of the moon, and perhaps the planets and stars, have a not insignificant bearing on how you feel and operate in this world. And perhaps, just perhaps, might it have some small impact on who is likely to gravitate to your personality, and to whom you may be attracted yourself?

A reasonable fellow like myself has to take pause at the prospect of such emotional alchemy.

These days when someone asks my sign, I have to think twice before dismissing its possible significance. After all, who can say when love may finally find me, wide-eyed and marveling at the stars? It’s one hell of a human circus we’re all part of. Why not enjoy the show until it’s your turn in the spotlight?

Somehow lately I’m feeling a little more interconnected with the world around me. Trying to keep an eye out for the rhythms and cyclical aspects of the physical world and how it relates to my moods and my life. And I’m trying to pay some small regard to my good days as well as my bad ones. But despite all this wary enlightenment, I still find myself amused when asked that leading question. Because that’s not the question they’re really asking, is it.




Play Time

(© 2013 by Michael J. Cahill)

Goin’ for a ride in a shopping cart
And I’m sure Mom will think it’s all right.
I’m goin’ for a ride in a shopping cart
And my brother, Chris, he’s gonna drive.

We’ll take some quick lefts and a last minute right
Then a screech and a spin and a slide.
Then, in the meat section, Chris’ll build up momentum
And hop on to join in the ride.

Now we’ll just miss the canned goods,
Zoom past the vegetables, bargains, and cash-saving deals.
When we get near the eggs, we’ll just hang out our legs
And ’round the corner we’ll go on two wheels.

What a wonderful rush as we pass the Orange Crush
And the Cracker Jacks, oatmeal, and Pop Tarts —
As the customers stare at and point at and glare at
Two grown men… riding aisles… in a shopping cart.



There’s nothing quite like bending the rules well beyond anything that was intended. I personally consider it a mortal sin to relegate to the realm of toddlers and pre-teens all our youthful, wide-eyed wonder about how the world around us works. When was the last time you saw a truly enthusiastic grown up behaving with truly enthusiastic enthusiasm?

I’m not suggesting you sacrifice your maturity. But some of the most mature grown ups I know are unabashedly blessed with a playful nature despite the strictures of many social standards.

I remember in 1989 when I was Christmas shopping and got thrown out of a Toys R Us in Houston. They had these miniature shopping carts for toddlers. One-third scale versions of the real thing and solid metal. Really cool. I couldn’t resist. I put one on each foot and started roller-skating up and down the aisles. The 9-year-olds who had watched me were grinning as I was escorted out. I could tell they liked the idea and, sure enough, a couple minutes later as I was getting in my car, these same kids were being strong-armed out the front door by security. I gave them a thumbs up and they smiled and fired back their own.

No laws were broken and no lives endangered. Yes, I realized the irresponsible nature of such a potentially dangerous example. But it was a calculated risk on my part. For instance, had my four-year-old daughter been with me at the time, I absolutely would not have set such an example. But adolescent boys — hell, yes. I had been one myself some 30 years before and I knew a fun idea when I saw one. Plus I always had extra energy and used to be a stunt man in my 20’s.

Something I’ve always recognized, especially early on, was that most people just need more genuine fun in their lives. I know everyone thinks they want it, but they truly don’t realize how much they absolutely need it.

To this day, whenever I’m in the furniture section of a department store, I still take a running start, jump as high as I can, and land butt first in the middle of a display bed. If a 20-year-old did that, people would just be annoyed. But I’m 58 and folks are actually impressed. It’s incredibly fun. And it never fails to turn heads. Those mattresses have to be checked out, you know. Who better to do it than a potential customer? If the bedding is soft and the point of impact provides suitable resistance, I might just ask them to wrap that sucker up for me. Hey, you don’t buy a car without test driving it. Furniture should be held to the same strict standards.

In 1983 when my wife and I moved to Houston, Hurricane Alisha had us trapped in our 2nd floor apartment for four days with heavy rains and flooding. Our front door faced the parking lot on the inside curve of a horseshoe shaped building and on the third day the wind had died down quite a bit. None of the plumbing or electricity worked and all the residents were out on their porches watching each other try to cool off in the sticky humidity. We were all miserable and sick of the rain.

That’s when I noticed that rainwater was just pouring out the holes in the gutters where the drain pipes had been blown out. I ran inside, stripped down to a pair of cutoffs, grabbed the soap and shampoo, and headed down the steps to the flooded parking lot. My wife at the time knew me well enough to be automatically mortified without any idea what I was up to.

I stepped into the nearest downspout deluge, lathered up and started scrubbing. My wife of course was utterly humiliated with all the neighbors watching me take a shower. She went inside and stayed there.

It wasn’t a full minute before a dozen other residents took my lead and lined up at the other downspout waterfalls to take their own showers. Hey, a good idea is a good idea and none of us had bathed in three days. It just made perfect sense to me. And, damn, that shower felt good!

I’m a pragmatist at heart and if something makes good, simple sense to me then I’m all over it. And if it happens to amuse and entertain the odd passer by, then all the better. One thing I’ve observed with some consistency in my life — people will never cease to be amused by their fellow man caught in the act of simply being their fellow man.

MORAL: Be an advocate of your own fun. Never leave it up to others.

When you get a chance to ride that shopping cart, just be safe, hold on tight, and make the management give you at least three warnings before you thank them with a polite smile and leave. Trust me, even the most humorless and overworked shift manager will be dying to tell everyone she knows about some idiot cart-surfing in the frozen foods section. Plus you’ll have brightened her day a bit as well. Everybody wins.

Or, at the very least,…….. you win.

And that’s all that really matters in the end.





Confidence acquired is an act of profound discipline. It is developed in the tiniest increments over years of concentrated effort in much the way an oyster builds impenetrable layers around a grain of sand to form a pearl. I have an earnest respect for anyone in possession of the brand of confidence that gives no heed to vanity.


Some years back I had a friend named Jerry Rasmussen. The first time he had me over to his house we were sitting in the living room when my eye caught a small shaggy figure stumble past the light at the end of the hall behind him. I didn’t see clearly who it was and I knew Jerry lived alone so it was a bit unnerving. In that brief glance the creature struck me as a fuzzy black pygmy or gremlin.

“WHAT is that?”

He didn’t bother to look. “My cat.”

“That’s not a cat. Someone’s here with us.”

“It’s my cat, man.”

“Cat’s don’t walk upright.”

Unfazed, he called out, “Williker!” The name prickled my spine.

The spindly figure reappeared with a stagger and began scuttling unsteadily up the hall in our direction, leaning here and there into the wall. The light behind him painted this diminutive, shaggy figure in stark silhouette. Long, uneven spikes of wildly matted hair and an incredibly twisted, arthritic frame some 20 inches in height made for an alarming visual.

“What the hell happened to him?”

“He doesn’t like to be touched, has a skin condition, and has trouble with grooming. Plus his front legs don’t work so he learned to walk on his hinds, one of which is giving him trouble.”

This poor creature’s shocking appearance brought me to my feet. What must have been a Persian mix of some kind accounted for the extra long fur and his inability to adequately groom himself. So naturally his greasy hair twisted and spiked in the most bizarre configurations. Two withered and useless front legs curled unevenly, one paw at his side and the other slightly raised, lending his manner something of a prissy affectation. This cat would have made a terrific James Bond villain.

Williker’s stance was never quite steady. Even when standing in one place, his balance on those two husky hind paws was in a continual dance of correction, hips constantly jerking one way or another while his ratty, mostly hairless tail snapped back and forth as a kind of counter balance. The effect was that of a rickety old man who desperately needed the use of a toilet.

A coat that might once have been black had devolved into a greasy gray-brown mass of knotted burrs and patches. His shoulders were bare and calloused from rubbing the walls for support. And sure enough, a glance around the house revealed a series of oily telltale streak marks rubbed into the paint, confirmation enough that no room or hall was off limits to Williker.

“Been this way since birth. Nobody wanted him but his eyes got me. Got great eyes, doesn’t he?”

Clearly, among the most shocking aspects of this creature were the eyes. Perhaps the unruly arrangement of all that matted fur made the skull appear too small relative to the girth of the rest of his knarled body. It would be easy to presume that the smallness of the face tended to exaggerate the size of the eyes, but I decided the eyes were much too buggy to begin with and still inordinately large. The face as a whole was remarkable, but the eyes were startling — intense, unblinking, and far too searching.

Those wide black orbs seared straight into your marrow as if to say, “Don’t move. I just want to memorize your soul.”

While his body forever quivered in a palsied act of two-footed balance, his head was eerily even-keeled and remained smooth and steady. It was almost as though someone had made a fuzzy faced bobble head figure but got the mechanism reversed — the body bobbled and the head kept an even gaze. When it did move, the head snapped to and fro in the manner of a bird of prey.

Williker was no doubt one crazy configuration of a cat. While his general appearance was at first shocking, giving the impression of a deadpan drunk, he managed to radiate a distinct sense of purpose that actually made him more creepy than hilarious. And still he was overpoweringly mesmerizing and smart as could be.

Williker’s gaze was so very intense that I was about to ask if he had been born without eyelids. But then he’d had his fill of me and turned back to Jerry with a blink.

“Is this why you don’t date?”

Jerry told me about the last woman he’d brought home. Of course he’d forgotten to warn her about Williker and, at a most inopportune moment of physical intimacy, Williker had wandered into the bedroom and walked right up to the poor girl’s face trying to make sense of her carnal grunts and facial contortions.

Apparently tempers flared and there was some hysterical name calling. After that episode Jerry had determined he would henceforth bide his time and wait for someone of a more delicate and tolerant temperament to come into his life before he would try again. Williker of course had remained unaffected by the incident and the girl had been nothing more than an oddity.

Yet, I actually kind of empathize with the devastated young woman who ran naked from his house that fateful night with only her purse and a bed sheet. She never even came back for her clothes and shoes. Williker was more than an acquired taste — a shock to the system and a blunt contradiction of everything expected in a pet. But Jerry adored Williker.

People love the ugliest things.

In my friend’s cat there was no gamesmanship and no pretending. In the absence of pretense, there is the essence of all that is beautiful. I saw in Williker a stubborn willfulness that frankly staggered me. It’s not that he overcame his shortcomings. This animal was wholly unaware that he was deficient in any way. His life in Jerry’s house was just the way things were and he made due admirably with what he had.

In the end, I went away with the knowledge I had looked directly into the face of dignity and found the most beautiful thing life could display — sheer, stainless steel confidence. Utter, unmitigated and unapologetic.

Every one of us admires the gentle geography of a beautiful creature. It’s the kind of appearance to which most people aspire. We all want to look our fittest. But somehow I still marvel at the kind of inner stamina and self-possessed dignity exhibited by that singular and profoundly hideous feline.

On days when I’m feeling less than stellar, I call to mind my hour with Williker and remind myself that most of us are little more than a jumble of mismatched spare parts. And yet, beyond the body, we are really so much more — a fine mind, soaring spirit, and sturdy heart that, despite our physical limits, always allow us to far exceed our reach.

As Williker, this admirable and beautiful creature, staggered his way back up the hall, my attention somehow gravitated to a spot just below his tail. There, matted in a straggle of long fur dangling between his legs, was a sizable pair of droppings that hadn’t quite found a point of departure. Suddenly I could only admire him more.

A human equivalent to this toilet-paper-on-the-shoe moment could only be a grown man hobbling along with an entire toilet stuck to his foot. And yet this poor, pathetic, twisted hair sack convulsing and twitching his way up the hall still struck me as the very definition of dignity. Even while dragging his muffler, he had more class than any number of grown ups I know.




Birthday Wish

When well wishers call out the popular greeting “Happy Birthday”, it seems so very common that we cannot help feeling its overuse has become a hallmark of insincerity.

I find it unfortunate that for many the phrase now carries a tone of obligation, when in fact most people want nothing more than to communicate a true and genuine gratitude that you were born. How small must be our self esteem to doubt there are those who gladly declare us a welcome and valuable part of their lives?

birthday-candleWhen we were still new, there was a wonderful novelty to birthdays. Since a kid is so easily enthused by the simplest of things, a day dedicated to an appreciation of you alone is quite the best thing imaginable.

I know more and more grown ups who, as they get on in years, insist they want no fuss, or even attention paid, at the marking of a birthday. And yet, notice how very put out these same people become if that oh-so-unimportant day is forgotten?

It’s a comical dichotomy that possesses more than a few of my friends.

When co-workers and casual acquaintances have been given a community greeting card to sign, the accompanying inscription often comes across as disingenuous. For the many years that I have been on my own, I’ve suffered the sticky ineptitude of those who toss off a quick “Happy Birthday” in the manner of an afterthought. I see the obligatory sentiment forming in the air and cringe. And then it lands with the graceless thud of obligation.

And what’s happy about being an obligation? Small wonder that we’ve become so blasé about it all.

Of late, however, I’ve been rethinking my position on this one day of the year that celebrates me. If I choose to join those who are sincere — or lacking such fans, if I decide to celebrate that I am indeed a delightful and marvelous person — then where is the harm in such good feelings? Taking a moment to appreciate one’s self is no sin. In fact I’m beginning to think it’s healthy.

I remember the light in the eyes of those distant faces in my home movies, both young and old, marveling at the dance of fire on frosting, and I am taken back to my childhood. There were many birthdays throughout the year in my house where ten of us fought and loved and lived together under one roof.

I lament just a little that we have evolved into a populace so easily dismissive of sentiment. And whether there is sincerity behind the words or not, I cannot be reminded enough what a miracle it is to be in this world and of this world.

Life, after all, is but a flicker. And then we are gone. Shouldn’t we allow ourselves to sparkle just a bit while we’re here?

Along those lines, I have set down this observation:

(© 2013 by Michael J. Cahill)

A darkened room, a spark alights
A wick is set ablaze
And so begins the best of sights
On this, the best of days 

The flicker dances all aglow
Far merrier than any
Illuminating lightly so
The merriment of many 

How brief is but the tiny flame
That reaches high above
To those who’ve come to sing your name
And shower you with love 

And in your eyes it’s plain to see
The candle reaches high
As all are waiting patiently
For you to draw a sigh 

There in that breath lives well and strong
A dream with light imbued
From out that breath is born a song
That sings to be pursued 

And in that moment, fleet and deft
After the prayer is spoke
Do not believe that all that’s left
Is but a breath of smoke 

A birthday candle gladly burns
A life that shortly lives
For all the happiness it earns
Is from the joy it gives 

Snuffed out to make a wish come true
A prayer for things to be
Alive for but a precious few —
And for eternity





This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 22nd week, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was young and studying to be an artist one of the most common training tactics was to draw still lifes. These static renditions in graphite and charcoal were merely academic and provided little more than a lesson in line and shadow, which is fine and necessary for any budding draftsman. But the term “still life” has always troubled me — at its very core it is the penultimate contradiction in terms.

Nothing in this world can remain breathless in one position and be considered truly alive.

In much the same way, I know too many valuable people who are living a still life. Most have been beaten down by experience, robbed of any sense of wonder or imagination. The hunger to remain curious is one of our most essential vitalities. Without it we are little more than a static plate of fruit — a mere lesson in line and shadow from which someone else may learn to draw.

So much of my life has been spent with both hands out in the dark, finding my way to a better place. I know many with a similar uncertainty in their footing, each step taken in trepidation and still knowing it will always be better than standing still.

Every day I draw a new road to follow on the map of my life. The path we each chart is unique to us alone and is well documented.

The permanence of my path is set down in ink on the landscape of my experience. The wonderful thing is that I am allowed to choose which way to go and chart an utterly original course to get there. In the corner is my legend — the key that tells me true north and the increments of my journey.

The cartography of a person’s life can be seen in their face with every mile laid out in stark relief for anyone to see. If you want to understand the kind of life you have lived do not use a mirror. Instead look into the eyes of someone who knows and respects you. That will always be your finest reflection and the truth of your experience.

When I express enthusiasm for anything, it is clear in both my gesture and expression. That behavior is a steadfast part of my countenance and anyone who sees my face reads my map clearly. The geography of my good and bad experience has led me straight to this point and no better guide is required than my own exuberance. When someone else’s face lights up, I see so many rushing rivers and thoroughfares of dynamic experience, either already lived or yet to come.

For many people, their smile is the biggest part of that enthusiasm. But a smile is no mere curl of the lips. For me the eyes are the smile. They project a magnificently subtle intensity and give tremendous context to a sparkling face. In much the same way we are drawn into the smile of the Mona Lisa.

The atlas of my life is neatly folded, kept close and well-worn from over use.  As tattered and stained as that map may be, it remains a beautifully rich and flawless portrait of a life well traveled.

In my darkest and most desolate times the cartography of my past experience has always been a guide, a reference for the positive direction in which I have been journeying and the roads I long to chart.

It is not now, nor will it ever be, a still life.





There is much in the world that horrifies.

Many people consciously seek out those things that frighten them most. It can be cathartic to face down these fears in order to work out the wrinkles in our emotional fabric. Witness the accelerated enthusiasm of late for the horror genre.

Still the most horrifying things are those outside the realm of fiction and film.

I know that in Japan there is a reverence for the elderly. This Asian culture relies on a deep and abiding respect for the mature and the aged.  Not so much here in the west.

I know any number of older people — energetic, vital, personable people — who have told me time and again that when they walk down the street they are invisible. People look right through them as though they didn’t exist. In the busy-ness of my own day, I have been guilty of this as well.

The same is especially true of the homeless and indigent who humbly implore us for help. Or food. Or work. Even a bit of acknowledgement or recognition. We have become quite practiced at avoiding these animated walkers, shufflers and stumblers — the breathing dead.

Many years back, my daughter was being annoyed at school by a boy who simply wouldn’t leave her alone. When she asked for my advice, I told her to ignore him. She said that wouldn’t work because he never stopped. And then I told her something I probably shouldn’t have.

“Sweetheart, there’s something you need to know about boys — and men, for that matter. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more humiliating and soul-crushing than to be utterly and completely ignored. Trust me, this boy is pestering you to get a reaction. Deny him that reaction, and there’s no payoff. No payoff, he’ll go elsewhere and annoy someone else.”

She took the advice to heart and it worked. She can be a fine actress and she simply behaved as though he truly was completely invisible. She looked right through him. Cut him off mid-sentence to laugh and talk with her friends. Total and complete blackout. The kid ended up feeling so foolish he avoided her for the rest of his school life.

The problem — once we realize we actually have the ability to make people invisible, it opens the door to abuse.

The saddest part is that we all possess the power to deny another human being the precious acknowledgement that they exist. As a socially-dependent culture, this crucial connection to other human beings is a lifeline. This fearsome power we hold over others is abused all too often.

The sluggish, dispirited shuffle of a homeless person reaching out to us on the street can feel zombie-ish and may be one of the reasons zombie films have become so outrageously popular in the last 40 years. Our secret, subliminal wish to do away with this broadly expanding portion of the populace could easily have manifested itself in a fever to erase a similarly unattractive group of creatures in horror stories and film.

Have we really become so disconnected with our fellow beings that our blank stares and dismissive behavior of them has turned us into some of the walking dead as well?

As we navigate our lives in the world each day, there are heartbeats and heartbreaks moving among us. A simple and inexpensive antidote to this epidemic of apathy is a bit of a smile to a face that clearly needs it. Lest we forget that the smile we force for another originates on a face that likely needs it most.

Zombies are real enough. I see them everywhere. And the best way to end the epidemic is to kill them with kindness.

I have always found genuine humanity to be quite infectious.