Misspent Youth


Pete. (Photo by JM)

I’ve been playing pool off and on (more off these days), since 1992… and played at every single pool hall in my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. And I still can’t play for shit.

I was introduced to the world of pool at age 18, by two brothers, Pete and Dan Backus. Pete was a greaser and punk rocker: oil-slicked hair, cuffed jeans, leather jacket, the whole bit. He was smooth. Dan… also had charisma, but of a totally different kind. He loved to con people. He could talk the shirt off of your back, and make you like him at the same time. The “Backus Boys” and I played pool several nights a week, usually with our friend Chris, who was in awe of the brothers as I was.

One night we decided to go to Hot Shots, a pool hall inside the Dimond Center, a suburban shopping mall in Anchorage. I think Dan was trying to get with some of the high-school honeys that worked there.  Although having a pool hall inside a mall is classic Anchorage, the atmosphere was entirely too wholesome. The place was well-lit, neon carpet, filled with nothing but high-school kids. But it was always fun to watch Dan hustle some poor sap in front of the sap’s girlfriend. Dan never bet money. He just loved to win. But the thought of betting for cash must have crossed his mind, once in a while…

We also frequented a place called Northern Lights Billiards, when our favorite pool hall was full. It too was inside a mall, a strip mall, on Northern Lights Boulevard, a stretch of road in Anchorage, known simply as, “The Strip”. Long-haired dudes cruised by in jacked up pickup trucks, painted in purple metal-flake, decked out with hydraulics and tinted windows, checking out the girls in the cars next to them, while idling at stoplights. Every so often, they would pull off the Strip, to shoot a few games.

Northern Lights had a menacing edge and was less clean-cut than Hot Shots. The crowd was a little older, with a little more money, and more to prove. They wore doo rags in the back pockets of their giant gansta jeans. Although it must be said, that the wood paneling and general lack of décor left something to be desired. They did, however, have pin-straight tables. One night we went there with Chris’s cousin, who, at the end of the night, expressed his disapproval with the place by putting in 5 dollars worth of “Revolution #9” by the Beatles in the jukebox before we left, dooming the patrons to hours of unlistenable noise.

Not too soon after that night, Northern Lights Billiards changed its name to Minnesota Billiards, and moved to another strip mall down the street. According to local pool guru Buddah, Minnesota Billiards is a pretty rough spot now. I went in there recently, and there was a sign on the door saying “No Guns”. That’s pretty bad when it needs to be said. Still, the place was pretty cool, with Ping Pong tournaments in the back, and strip-poker video games in the front.

I met Buddah while hanging out at Son of River City Billiards, by far the best pool hall in town, and my all-time favorite. I first went to Son of River City in ’92, with Pete, Dan, and Chris. The owner, Kent Andersson, was sitting behind the counter, chewing on a toothpick, looking like ’77 Elvis, with his bowling shirt, mutton-chop sideburns, and mirrored cop shades. Classic. He gave us our rack of balls, and we picked a table, making sure to roll our cues on it beforehand, to make sure they, and the table, were perfectly straight. Then Dan proceeded to show us the rules to 9-Ball, straight pool, and every other game he knew. Chris stuck his cue in the pocket as Dan shot, which pissed Dan off to no end.

I haven’t played pool with those guys in years, and when I went back to visit my friends and family in Anchorage a few years ago, I drove by Son of River City, just for old times sake, and saw it was shut down. You have to picture a den from the 1950s… walls adorned with old Coca-Cola memorabilia and cigarette and candy ads from the 1940s and 50s. Framed pictures of Marilyn, Elvis, James Dean hung everywhere—even on the ceiling! Old dentists chairs in the corners, with clunky seventies ashtrays sitting on the edge of the pool tables. And all of it is for sale. The jukebox was free, and packed with classic Motown tracks , old Country and Western, and tunes from Roy Orbison, Sinatra, Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs, just to name a few. But the coolest thing by far, about Son of River City, were the quotes, written in chalk, scattered throughout the place (well, that and the “Butts and Shafts” sign over the john). There were even quotes on the ceiling… by Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, and even the owner himself. My favorite one was from Lord Chesterfield, to his son:

“A certain skill at billiards is the mark of a gentleman, but to play too well is the sign of a misspent youth.”

Misspent youth? Not me.



(This originally appeared in slightly different form, as “Alaska Pool”, in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, August 2, 2000)


Memoir Prompts: Ten Years, Consolidated

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Courtesy of

This is from my old writing teacher, Ellen Hagan. Take a decade of your life and for every year, write 3 items that defined that year—in 3 words each. Here’s an example for the year 2013, when I was 40.

Adjunct of English/Applied at Staples/No Going Forward

Making the items compact will help you focus yourself before you even start composing. You can even treat each year as a line of poetry. As the years start piling up, it has a staccato haiku-type effect that’s kinda nice.  -JM

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Reading Writing

On Discipline (Or, My Summer of the Greeks)

socrates_1_mdWEEK ONE

I got crazy idea a few weeks ago. I decided to spend my summer reading the Greeks. I enjoy loafing on the couch watching Law and Order reruns as much as the next guy, but after 3 weeks of that, I knew I’d get burned out. I knew it was a good idea because I laughed when I had it and thought to myself, “god that is ridiculous”.

Socrates, Plato, Aristophanes and the other masters aren’t completely foreign to me. I had studied them in college for my ethics and theater classes, but that was over 20 years ago. And, as I was remarking to my old friend Mark, “It was a hard slog even then. Usually I’d skip class and sit on the couches at the student center with an iced mocha, waiting for you or Brendan to come by.” Do you sense a couch theme yet? My go-to plan then was to put off the work as long as I could, and rush around in the middle of the night, hacking out a sloppy rough draft. Mark laughed and suggested I take it slow and skip around to the parts I will enjoy, with the help of Cliffs Notes. As good as this advice was, I didn’t take it. I dove right into Plato’s Republic. I got about five pages in and my head started to swim. A self-proclaimed theater nerd pal (Hi Ginger!) advised me to “read [it] aloud, use different voices, or beg someone to read with [you].”

All of this advising and joking came from a Facebook post of mine the other day, when I was grousing about how dense this stuff was. About a dozen people weighed in, either as cheerleaders, or to make a funny comment. Siobhan Devaney, my poet friend from Medskerpedia (and one of my college mocha suppliers, coincidently) lol-ed that Plato liked pontificating “and also butts” and said that reading Plato was like masturbation, a sentiment that another old theater friend, Thomas, agreed with. He said that when he was studying this stuff, he “kept [his] thoughts in a journal… like [his] own kind of summary. Many of the old philosophers were unnecessarily verbose.” What had I gotten myself into?

A whole slew of other folks (including my friend, the poet Sarah Nichols) chimed in and lent their support when I revealed that I just signed up for an online class at Univ. of Pennsylvania on Greek Mythology, for background and context, so my head didn’t explode (“That is fantastic!”). I wasn’t fishing for support, only trying to be funny, but I will take it where I can get it. I’m just excited that other people besides me are getting stoked about this. Hoping some of them will join me!

My current travel-mates on this journey are my old friends Eric Johnston, and Amy Bridges (an L.A.-based playwright). All of this reading and thinking isn’t just intellectual wanking, however. I have a serious goal behind it.  The level of discourse in our society has sunk to perhaps an all-time-low. I often find myself sinking into that morass, and I’m sure you have too. Posting unsubstantiated articles on Facebook, or going off on someone I disagree with politically, and generally digging myself further into my ideological hole. Old Socrates would have a field day with the intellectual laziness and name-calling that’s abundant right now in America. So I’m going back to the beginning, with a flexible mind, in true Socratic form. If you are curious, the first couple of pages of Republic deal with the virtues of ageing. Quite appropriate, given how all of this studying has circled back around.

I have a week until the online class starts. I suppose that’s plenty of time to read the Cliffs Notes, cry, and reconsider. –JM


—If you liked what you read, why not make a comment below? All political rants will be disposed of unread. Thank you to Mark Fitz, Bob Acampora, Ginger Lyons, Thomas Kircher, Ina Roy-Faderman, Siobhan Devaney, Sarah Nichols, Amy Bridges, Eric “Outback” Johnston, Ed Bremson, Scotty Weeks, Carolyn Roesbery, and Moan Lisa for their support and input.—


On Creative Distraction

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Courtesy of

I’ve always wanted to be a writer since as far back as I can remember. I made up theme songs for my stuffed animals at age 5, so there you go. I’ve wanted to be other things too, at various times in my life. A computer programmer. A rock star. A wandering vagabond (I realized that it was hard to make a living at that one…) But I’ve always come back to writing, and poured everything I had into it. I feel fortunate to have this skill.

However, even with things you love, you do hit rough patches where the inspiration lags, or you are just plain stuck. It’s times like those I reach for a distraction to boost me up and over the wall. Here’s the key, though. The distraction has to fit these 3 criteria.

It has to be a purposeful distraction

You have to consciously stop your writing and set it aside (possibly with a set time to return) before starting your creative distraction. Flitting from thing to thing will likely leave you with unfinished work and will leave you unsatisfied. I speak from years of experience as a flitter.

It has to be something you are terrible at (but really enjoy doing)

Your creative distraction should not under any circumstances compete with your primary art form. I’ll use myself as an example. I enjoy drawing. But as anyone who has seen my drawing can attest to, it is truly horrifying. Like it was done by a child (“Oh, Josh. Good for you! You made a drawing. That’s adorable.”) That’s why it’s the perfect thing to do when I get stuck on a piece of writing. If I ever become a competent artist, I may need to find something else. I’m still terrible at the guitar, so there’s that…

It has to be creative

This is possibly the most important criterion, because it gets to the root of why you’re stuck, creatively, in the first place. If you are bored with a piece of writing, or are unsure of where to take it, you have a problem that needs solving. Don’t ignore the roadblock by doing the dishes or sweeping the floor (although I’m sure your housemate or spouse would appreciate that!). Use other art forms you enjoy practicing as ancillaries to help trigger new ideas and novel solutions to your writing problems.

I hope this helps you in your creative work! –JM

–If you thought this was interesting or have an example to add, post in the comments!–



On Failure

Between 1991-92 when I was in my first year of college, and 2002 when I settled down in Austin, I wrote a grand total of roughly 10 poems, 5 short stories, and notebook after notebook of abandoned ideas. We won’t count my journalism work, the thing I was actually competent at. I wasn’t going to be a journalist, I told myself. I was a tortured soul pouring his lifeblood onto the page. There were two years, in 2000 and 2001, where someone took a chance on my writing. Got 2 stories and two poems published. And it would be another 10 years before I got published again. My failures started early.

A few years into a theater degree, my folks convinced me to try something practical. I had been involved in theater for years, since I was 14. Trouble was, I had a head full of theater knowledge but no skill in it. This realization was pretty easy to handle. The fact that I was a rotten fiction writer, that was much harder to take.

Immediately after I graduated with my journalism degree, I began my years of rambling. And my years of writing awful short stories. I felt like I needed to turn my travels into thinly-veiled autobiography. Oy! Kerouac, what hadst thou wrought?

Fast forward to 2008. I was living in Queens, just finished grad school for teaching. The money had dried up with journalism, so I switched gears yet again. I never stopped writing, though. Far from it. I had a whole notebook full of pretty decent memoirs from an autobiography class. I also finished the god-awful novel I’d started in 2000. I filed it away and never looked back.

I realized that I was going through my writing apprenticeship. Thank you, Larry Brown, for the phrase and the concept. Essentially he said that a young writer spends years struggling and failing before he or she finds his or her voice (and genre!) And the length of time depends on the person. This may sound obvious, but when you are down in the thick of it trying to hack out a story, this notion of an apprenticeship is very comforting. I was glad to hear that the pain would end eventually. I just didn’t know when.

I don’t know when I turned the corner and came out of my apprenticeship, but I did. Not to say that I don’t have anything left to learn, just that I can feel confident in calling myself a writer. There are several things that brought me to this point, I think. Daily writing practice is definitely one of them. That is, actually composing something from beginning to end. Another piece of the puzzle was understanding and accepting my limitations, and my strengths. Let’s just say that now when I write a short story that isn’t groan-inducing, I take it as a major win.

Maybe a good analogy for all of this would be metabolism. Keep it stoked with new writing and you will burn mean and lean. How you get to that point… that’s your story to tell. —JM

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On Journaling

notebookLike many of you, I keep a journal. And like many of you, I’m sure, I am really bad at it. I never sat down and thought about why until very recently, and I came to a few conclusions.


I often have trouble journaling because the writing feels way too personal. I know that sounds strange, but it stops me dead in my tracks when I veer into confessional territory. I’m not one to get super emotional and need to talk every little thing out. If I am having a specific emotional issue, I’ll talk with my wife or my friends about it. Something about writing it down in a book feels masturbatory to me.


Going along that same “self-pleasuring” line of thinking… I have a hard time writing a journal because I have no audience. Except for myself. No one will ever see my journal and writing for no one seems pretty pointless. Maybe it’s a failing in me that I cannot treat my journal as a person I’m pouring my heart out to. Who knows?


If I’m not pouring out my guts to my imaginary friend, I have a hard time coming up with things to write about. I had ONE good year of journaling, in 2005. That year, I came up with a pretty ingenious plan. I gave myself broad topics to write about, like “School”, “Women”, “Drugs” and so on. Then I proceeded to fill up the journal book in a few weeks. It was pretty awesome. And really fun to re-read. But once that was over, I fell right back into writing about what I had for breakfast, and what clothes I was wearing that day… and other terribly boring topics. Yawn.


I think I came up with a good solution, though. I have decided to keep “notebooks” instead of “journals”. What is the difference, you may wonder? To me, a notebook can house story ideas, and poem ideas, and lists of books I’d like to buy, and stuff like that. It creates much more room to move around in than a diary/journal.

If any of you guys out on the interwebs have any thoughts on journaling, post them in the comments! I’d be very interested in hearing them!

Until next time, amigos and amigas…


On Writer’s Block, Titles, and Asemic Writing

imagesI recently joined a group on Facebook that does Asemic Exchanges. You create a piece of work and exchange it with another artist.

Asemic writing is writing without making recognizable letters. The idea is that even without inherent meaning in your writing, your brain will find a way to make its own. (If I got that wrong, please let me know in the comments!)

I created a piece by shutting my eyes and letting hand go where it wanted to. I got to the edge of the page and opened my eyes. I saw a bunch of squiggles, but I was intrigued. I made these marks all down the paper, until I’d filled up the whole page. I wanted to put a title on it, so I looked deeper into the work. Some of the squiggles looked like an EKG reading to me… so I titled it ISCHEMIC ASEMIC. The term “ischemic event” means that the blood flow to a body part (often the brain) is cut off. I grabbed up a reddish pink marker and filled in several spaces between the squiggles. It was perfect.

But then I started another asemic piece. My mind immediately went to EKGs, blood, medical ideas… and all of the squiggles looked too much like letters, like my brain wouldn’t let me be completely abstract. It was because of the title! The finality of the title forced me to manage the piece and perhaps declare it complete too soon? It certainly hampered my creative flow.