a. raymond johnson

gadabout | bon vivant | writer

The September Happiness Project

Rewire your brain in 30 days (with help from friends). Cross-posted from Medium.

Earlier this week my dear friend Randy Hyde announced his plan for the month of September — Filling My Soul Hole: An Experiment in Happiness. For 30 days, starting on Sunday, September 1st, he’s committing to do “5 things every day would train the mind to see the world differently.” He was inspired by Shawn Achor’s Ted talk “The Happy Secret To Better Work,” where Achor lays out the reason for why these 5 things work, and says after 21 days most humans will see results. Randy is doing him one better and extending the challenge to 30 days. He’s also inspiring dozens of others to participate, including myself. Continue Reading…

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May the Forest Be With You.

May the Forest Be With You.

I see this bumper sticker a lot now. The first time I just thought “oh, Asheville” but now I’ve been here long enough, I kinda get it – didn’t take too long to get hippified in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Five months. It’s been 5 months plus a week or so since we drove all night from Chicago to the Black Mountains and arrived at our rented round house in the trees, a wooden mushroom popping out of the side of the mountain. I haven’t written much, I thought briefly of keeping a better diary, either privately or online of the process, but frankly I was too tired, too shell-shocked, too overwhelmed by it all. 2012 was a pretty intense year, with doing shiatsu school, getting married, moving cross-country (which involved, essentially, moving twice – once at the end of August out of our Chicago apartment down to Berwyn, again in January from the midwest to the south). Lots of change, and when we finally landed, I slept a lot, a LOT. I slowly put together all the things I needed to apply for my license to start a shiatsu practice, which involved studying for and taking the MBLEx, then completing a giant packet of paperwork. Now I sit and wait all summer for the Board to get back to me, the time estimated is 60 business days (which means 3 months, not two, as it might seem at first glance). Continue Reading…

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The Art of Leaving

I’ve often thought that I’m pretty skilled at goodbyes, mostly because they involve locating words for descriptions of emotions and those are kinda my thing as a writer, as far as what tends to interest me most. I’m also not one to shy away from positive encouraging phrases and stories, especially ones that land a right note of sweetness but not cloying, without too much self-help lingo. But what I’ve learned in the past month is that my goodbye expertise is solely within the realm of the one staying behind. I’m quite good at sending someone off and letting them go with complete love and encouragement, but I don’t know what the hell to do when I’m the one leaving. I’m the one who’s stayed behind and held down the fort. I have changed apartments over a dozen times, but as far as dropping anchor in a community, a city, a regional life, I’ve been steady in the same port since 1995. That suddenly is a long time ago. How did that happen? 17 years? And yet I’ve found that once you open certain doors, it’s possible to remember every single one of them, every day, every adventure, all simultaneously sitting in your heart. All those emotions get you dizzy, drunk to the point of full and worrying that I might need to empty, I can’t hold them all, where is the closest toilet and how terrible would it be to kneel in front of it for a moment? (Luckily that hasn’t happened yet, the worst is only a mildly dry heaving cough that doesn’t leave any damage.)

I have loved Chicago for a long time. A long, long time. Longer than anything or anyone else (save for biological family/childhood friends). I didn’t expect to stay this long exactly, though I did want to stay long enough to really know Chicago, I remember that. I thought it would be a few years. I thought a lot of things at the age of 22 when I was graduating college and presented with the first option to head out of town. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready. That was the answer to the question every time it came up, in conversation or in my head. Not yet. I’d go to other places, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC, New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle, Portland, I’d stay a week, 10 days, 2 weeks. I loved it. Arriving back at Chicago always felt like coming home. “I wasn’t ready,” I’d answer.

Then things ended, lots of things Continue Reading…

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Screw the officials.

It’s officially morning, the grey light of a rising sun behind clouds is permeating the living room windows. It’s still night, says the cat, squawking around and wondering why I’m awake during her prime hours but refusing to play. I usually take herbs for anxiety, for insomnia, but sometimes I don’t, because they cost money and that is tight these days, between school and bills and a wedding, so I take breaks for a week or two, until a minor windfall happens and I can take them again. It’s been almost a week. It’s good to take breaks, except I don’t know if that’s true, but they are mandatory, I just say that to help get through the nights when I’m wide awake with no discernible reason. It is most likely stress, but I’m so good at hiding, my body keeps those signs from myself. No, there’s no racing thoughts. No, there’s no concrete worry, no heart palpitations, there’s just my eyes open, and no motivation to work, no interest in reading, no concentration, but my body refuses sleep. I’m awake and unsure of what to do with myself in these states, except to sit and wish I was wasn’t.

Yesterday I couldn’t shake a stupid comment by a stranger about celebrities and suicide, the lack of compassion is not new on the internet, but neither is that coffee table or bookcase, it’s been there all along, so why did I turn the corner this time and run into it so hard it bruises? I could only think of Freya, who killed herself three years ago last month, she could no longer bear the pain she kept hidden from most everyone, and how afterwards when I shared the news and showed video or pictures, people would say, “oh, she was so pretty” like that has anything to do with it. They say the same thing about murdered transwomen in the news this week. Will they say the same thing about CeCe McDonald while she’s incarcerated for at least two more years, serving a manslaughter sentence for defending herself from a neonazi attacker? One shouldn’t be pretty in prison, you keep your head down and blend in whenever possible to stay safe. We freaks don’t blend so well. That’s not true, I blend in remarkably well, and I feel shame at how it helps keep me safe and sane. Anyone can scratch the surface and find out the truth of my history on the internet without the need of hiring a detective, but that is not where I’m in danger, the risks are out in the world in person, on trains and sidewalks, bars and parks. There I am an average white guy of average build and average looks and average strength. I blend in just fine. Even if I try not to use it as an advantage, it is there for me to benefit without effort, whether it’s escaping the notice of train conductors collecting fares or the attention of drunken assholes making demeaning remarks against someone different and physically weaker than them. I am physically weaker than them too, but they don’t know it. I have never thrown a punch. I think I would pull out scissors to defend myself in a confrontation too, but would I? I will probably never know. I pray I will never know, I pray that no will ever have to know ever again, but that is an exercise in futility. At other times I would pray that every threat to us would know the piercing stab of self-reliance, that their rage and ignorance would finally dissipate at the sight of their own blood running out of their body. I do not advocate violence, but I accept it is in our nature, regardless of whether we act on it, regardless of whether we know what to do it. The only people who know what to do with it are noble warriors in stories and song, but I’m not sure they really exist. Even they require the ritual of coming down, of water poured on their fiery heads to keep from burning down their own castle, and even they have to live a heavy life with their burdens.

It’s officially morning. Screw the officials. My body is going back to sleep.

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I Shouldn’t Have Left You.

It’s been a long time. I always stop writing when big life changes happen, and such has been the case with: moving into a new home over the summer, adjusting to living with someone new, dealing with dying pets, being very broke and demoralized about work for many, many months, and then deciding to go back to school and several work opportunities pop up simultaneously and suddenly I have work, a vision, a plan, and the balls are rolling and I’m running on top of them. And it feels pretty good.

For a few months I was a weekly karaoke host at a neighborhood bar. I met some great strangers, learned a great deal, and it was fun. I’ll miss it, but I’m also planning to do it again, so I don’t feel too sad about it either. I’m working 4 other part-time jobs, and the unifying factor in them all is that I’m working for small businesses/entrepreneurs, and I think this is something I really like about it, I’m learning so much behind-the-scenes in that capacity, which is good since at some point in the near future after moving to Asheville (oh yeah, I’m moving to North Carolina at the end of 2012) I will mostly likely be opening my own shop, as a shiatsuist. Oh yeah, I’m in shiatsu school now.

So what about writing? I write every day, mostly e-mail correspondence between business parties and marketing copy, but I dig it, because of who I’m working for. Despite having a lot of time when underemployed, I was too stressed and depressed to make much good use of it. I am prone to inertia in both forms – once in motion, I like remaining in that state, so I tend to like alternating busy-busy times with resting times.  As for my personal writing, I hope to find my way back to it soon, now that I’m working again. There is a novel I’m ready to revisit, a poem I’ve had in my head for weeks, and a book proposal to draft. But I must say, I don’t especially miss pop culture blogging. It is so luxurious to watch TV and movies solely for my pleasure. But for the record, over the summer I fell in love with Suits, I’m a little obsessed with American Horror Story (I’ll never quit you, Connie Britton), and after getting taken in by Mentalist reruns, I’ve started watching that show from the beginning. And of course, my long time friend, Dancing With the Stars, which is starting shortly, as a matter of fact.


Scenes from Childhood, Ep #08325


I get this song stuck in my head a LOT. Today was so bad, I decided to actually look it up on youtube. I haven’t heard this song in over 15, nearly 20 years, and turns out the imprint burned in brain was pretty right on, note for note. I wish I still owned the record, I’d play it when I DJ with FLOF next week for our Michael McDonald tribute night.

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Wake Up Wake Up Wake Up Wake Up: It’s 3 O’Clock Somewhere #2

Summer has finally arrived here in Chicago, and it’s that time of the month:

I’m in dress/tech rehearsals for a play that opens next week, I’m DJing on Sunday and performing in a cabaret on Monday, and sometime in the next few weeks I’m moving into a new apartment – but I still want to write more this month. Continue Reading…

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Obligatory FTM-In-the-News Response

Chaz Bono is making waves in my social media feeds, and I can’t look directly at it. First off, I stopped reading New York Times articles on trans people 5 years ago once I realized they were always being published in the “Style” section. Second, enough of what Bono is saying has trickled out to know it would give me a headache from all the eye-rolling. I’m having a busy week with stressful deadlines, I don’t need to get involved with correcting someone else’s ignorance right this minute, especially when most of what’s been said is boring and oft-repeated. Despite the temptation to jump into the fray and correct the annoying bits, it would mostly just be me yelling at my friends and family. (Incidentally, if you are one of my friends and family and you have been paying attention and you find yourself wondering what to think of Chaz Bono’s declarations about what trans people are or what they do, I will assure you that all the things he’s saying are true for him, but I wouldn’t extend any of his ‘insights’ to anyone else without asking first.) Continue Reading…

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I’m So Excited, I’m Shutting My Mouth

Ever since watching this mini-TED Talk awhile back, I’ve been very aware of the phenomenon of choosing to tell or not tell people my ideas, plans, and goals. But it can be hard when I’m excited about new projects! Since I’m not wanting to dissipate the energy or motivation, instead I’ll watch the video again.


These Are The Breaks: It’s 3 O’Clock Somewhere #1

Damon Brown forwarded me a story from the LA Times about one of the sampling mysteries in hip-hop finally getting solved: the bass line of Mobb Deep’s Shook Ones, Pt. II. While listening to the original Herbie Hancock song Jessica, I got chills when I heard . I love these moments. I dabbled for a second in producing my own music, but decided to stay on the side of being a nerd about it. Here are a few of DJ BoyWonder’s favorite sampled songs, with the song that used them (and sometimes a story of how I found them). Continue Reading…


A Letter to M.J. Hyland, Regarding This Is How

Dear MJ,

I have not written a fan letter in a very long time, which I just realized this is what I am writing, a fan letter. I just put down your book This Is How and it recharged my heart in the way novels should, the way writing should, I think of what Frank O’Hara said, the ecstasy of always bursting forth. I stumbled upon your book mostly from luck (wandering the aisles of the library haphazardly looking for something new to catch my eye) with a bit of help from it also being a well-designed book (the cover, the font, the heft, the type). I read the book in two big bursts this week, and I find myself wishing instead of writing to you, I could write to Patrick in prison, which you hopefully will take to be the larger compliment, as that how it is intended. Continue Reading…


I like the part about no meetings.

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It’s a Shame About Ray: Seeing My Own Name In Pop Culture

[cross-posted from IFMiB]

While I don’t mind people calling me “Ray” informally, I always introduce myself and write out my full name as Raymond, a habit I wonder if is in part because most of the Rays I’ve seen on television, movies, and books were, to be honest, low life jerks.  Frequently they are the drunk ex who shows up in a dingy a-frame t-shirt that some colloquially refer to as a “wifebeater” – a term I don’t use, though in the case of a Ray, chances are, they do indeed beat up on their wife or girlfriend or kids.

Ok, not all Rays are violent addicts.  Continue Reading…

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The Colony

The month of September was spent at the Millay Colony, doing a writing residence.  For those who aren’t familiar with “writing camp”, there are residencies all over the place where you submit an application — generally a writing sample and a one-page proposal for what you want to work on — and then if the committee happens to like your stuff, you are picked to come to live and work, usually for free (though some cost a modest amount and a few others give small stipends).  All I had to pay for was a plane ticket, then I got to spend a month up on a small mountain, living and eating for free while I wrote everyday.  You don’t have to attend any lectures, there are no presentations or readings, it’s just time and space to do your thing.  It is, in a word, a privilege.  One that I soaked up and enjoyed every second of, even as it wore me the hell out at other times.

At the Colony, I had a bedroom and a studio.  The tradition is that artists and writers who’ve stayed and worked there carve their name and date into the doorframe, and one of the first names I noticed on my studio door was a friend from a residency stay at Ragdale last year (hi Nora!).  I started to make my way around the etchings, looking for other familiar names and contemplating where I would leave my own mark, when I noticed off to the side, by the hinge, was another name I knew:  Peter Hedges.  In 1991, I checked out What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? from the library because of a profile on Hedges I read in Sassy magazine.  I loved it and checked it out from the library two or three more times throughout high school to re-read (it was the only way I knew to get it, the book was absent from the shelves of Waldenbooks and B. Dalton in the mall, my only other source of reading material).  One of the greatest gifts I received during a courtship several years ago was a hardcover copy with the same familiar cover I knew and loved, tracked down on ebay for me.

The date on his name is 1992, so I imagine him working on his second novel, An Ocean in Iowa, which I also enjoyed.  He quit novels for a while to go have a wildly successful screenwriting career in Hollywood, but turns out he just released a new novel this year, which I’m now really looking forward to picking up.  Most of the measures of success in writing have to do with publication, but last month, I got to enjoy a small marker of progress: writing my name in the doorframe next to an author I adore.


Harvest Moon dances in Sparkle Motion

Today, the first day of autumn, was a hot one.  At noon, the hilltop was steamy, gnats out in full force as we squinted into the camera for the colony group photo.  Too hot for me, I retreated to my studio after lunch, and by the mid afternoon, the mugginess had gone grey with cloud cover and threats of rain that never materialized.  I napped too long and missed dinner, walked up to the mainhouse and unwrapped the saran wrap off the plate thoughtfully left behind for me.  After I was done eating and internetting, it was fully night, the temperature eased down and the thicker clouds erased – the harvest moon was fully bright and visible.  I went in and convinced the painter and the playwright to come stand outside and see it with me, and the former pointed out Jupiter, the untwinkling dot, shining a few inches below the moon and said tonight was the closest the planet has come to us in fifty years.  I tried to feel as Jupiter as I could.  A dark cloud threatened to steal all the light, so I didn’t linger long at the top of the hill, I retreated to the barnhouse while there was still bright streams casting long shadows.  Once I got back to the studio, I immediately wanted to be outside again and the sky seemed to be clearing up, despite that one patch that tricked me.

I dropped off my laptop, grabbed a hoodie and my cell phone, then marched across the dirt road and up into the meadow on the opposite hilltop, the old grass tennis court of Edna St. Vincent Millay, where you have an amazing view of the entire valley – including the cell tower in the distance, which means I actually have service.  (There’s nothing like having to walk outside 500 yards away from your home just to send a text to curb you of that habit.)  On the way up the path, I saw a tiny glint in the grass, a glow.  A tiny firefly?  I got closer, no that wasn’t it.  It dimmed a little as I leaned in, I didn’t have a flashlight on me to look closer, but it reminded me of spider hunting – looking in the woods at night with a flashlight held up to your temple, right next to your eyes.  As you look around slowly, patiently, within a minute or two, you should spot a reflecting glow on a leaf or a branch.  If you freeze your vision on that speck and follow the light to the object, two tiny specks you realize, you will find a spider – their eyes cause the reflecting twinkle.  I thought about this while squinting into the grass, but I wasn’t using a flashlight, so I couldn’t imagine that was the answer.  I kept walking.

After sufficiently mooning over the moon, sending a few texts and a quick phone call, I turned to head back and glints of light caught my periphery vision.  I looked and saw more glowing in the grass, not just one, but dozens, hundreds, of them twinkling.  I walked slowly, tilting my head to see how my movement made them blink back and forth.  My hand instinctively reached down and touched the grass:  dew.  The hot humid day had dropped twenty degrees in a couple hours, and there was late night dew on the grass.  The harvest moon was so full and so bright, the drops sparkled as I walked, a phenomenon I see every fresh snowstorm in Chicago, but never on worn grassy paths at nighttime.  Walking back to my room, I ignored the moon itself and focused on the indirect magic it created, a glittery path to home.

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