Writer, Editor, Author, Teacher. New York based. Fiction and nonfiction. Refining the written word since 2017.

The other night I couldn't sleep, so on the advice of a friend I decided to count sheep, and this is what happened:

First I visualize where the sheep were. Where else but Sheep Meadow in Central Park. Returned to where they had once been driven from. It was once their meadow, after all.

I stand among the sheep trying to count them, feeling more awake than ever. I make it to 54 but so far counting sheep isn't working. I am still wide awake. There are still many sheep to count, before I have a chance to fall asleep. Adding hypnotic complication to my sheep counting is that sheep aren’t magically drowsy-making, say, as narcotic poppies are.

Some joke about young men having sex with sheep as a rite of sexual passage enters my consciousness, but I refrain from repeating it to my sleep-deprived brain. If I was such a young man, the sheep meadow would offer plenty of options. Too much information, I know. Blame my insomnia's bad taste in jokes.

Formerly grazing, the sheep, of which I have now counted 99, suddenly become riotously profane. Not some sheep of a dream, hovering above in the dark, like helium balloons or cotton candy, but real sheep with horns, mud-laden hoofs, bad breath, animal smells, and all. And the sheep fornicate, haphazardly mounting each trying to procreate more of their kind to foil the dreams or sleep of others, while forming a Bosch-style tableau—a sheepmare—ala that artist's Garden of Earthly Delights.

Some march around on their hind legs, swinging at each other with their front ones. Others bounce on their succulent fat asses, laughing them off. Soft gray-and-pink mottled sheep bellies bounce with mirth or scorn, in my state, I can't tell which), grabbed at by hooves. Sheep eyes roll back in sheep heads, as flailing sheep maws throw sheep spittle in the air. Some sheep butt their heads together or beat or trample one another over turf or potential mates. Lucky other sheep doze off, twitching in dreams (or perhaps counting themselves). I slouch with envy over these sheep who have found sleep, cozily wrapped in their own curly-and-thick, off-white wool. If only.

Imagine sheep engaging in all those “earthly delights” just above. Get the picture? I just want to fall asleep.

Post-sheep apocalypse, still lying awake, half in sheep meadow/half in bed, staring at what has become a Hell and helluva lot of sheep—151 to my raptly-awake, desperate and bleary-eyed count—I am deluged by quotes from the novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami:

“Most everything you think you know about me is nothing more than memories.”

“I get irritated, I get upset. Especially when I'm in a hurry. But I see it all as part of our training. To get irritated is to lose our way in life.”

“Body cells replace themselves every month. Even at this very moment. Most everything you think you know about me is nothing more than memories.”

“The light of morning decomposes everything.”

“I don't know, there's something about you. Say there's an hourglass: the sand's about to run out. Someone like you can always be counted on to turn the thing over.”

“Whether you take the doughnut hole as a blank space or as an entity unto itself is a purely metaphysical question and does not affect the taste of the doughnut one bit.”

“Some things are forgotten, some things disappear, some things die.”

—And the most true quote of all:

“Sometimes I get real lonely sleeping with you.”

With insomniacal thoughts like these, Haruki, you aren't helping at all.

(A great book, by the way.)

As I continue my count, something stirs the sheep (an overhead jet?), and now the flock starts to move and bah. Where is Little Bo Peep or Jesus when you need one or the other?


Bah. Bah. Bah.

Bah. Bah. Bah.

Bah. Bah. Bah.


Bah humbug is all I got to say. The sheep are now awake as I am.

And then a true miracle happens, as if to overturn Hell with Heaven. The sheep float up to form a dense cloud above. How peaceful, even restful . . .

...but not true. My eyes turn to they sky beyond my bedroom window, where storm clouds have gathered, waiting to clap thunder to prevent me from sleep.

Thunder claps come, driving the sheep into a panic as they circle around their former meadow then stampede out of the park to hoof and bleat it straight toward my apartment building, where they collect en masse on my street, as I give chase trying to count them from behind. 221, and not a wink to go with it.

More awake than ever.


Then who appears but his Holiness himself, the Dalai Lama, just in the nick of time before the morning rush-hour-stopping sheep riot of 2020. The Lama parts the restless flock like Moses parted the Red Sea, in his gold-and-maroon robes, to chant among the bah-ing sheep, in order to lull them. Instead of chanting along, the sheep look up at me standing naked and red-eyed in the window, and start counting me: “One . . . one . . . one . . . one . . . one . . . “

(yes, a bit XRPimental)

Later, Serge found himself staring dull-lidded into space still pressing the handset against his ear long after he had finished his series of answers and the sultry-voiced “woman” had long given up. Now the old phone emitted a static straight from the deepest reaches of Hell, a static Serge didn't mind at all, straight into his brain.

When Viv, Serge's roommate and ex-partner, unemployed sound engineer and member of a Dark Web, analog-worshipping cult known as the Analogians, arrived home and found him hovering atop his feet like an astronaut on a spacewalk, clutching the receiver and seemingly mesmerized by the Hell static, she was relentless in her tongue lashing:

“Didn't I tell you to never listen to what is officially known as permanent signal in US telephony jargon, or permanent loop in the British, a condition in which a POTS line is off-hook without connection for an extended period of time indicated in modern switches by the silent termination after the off-hook tone times out and the telephone exchange computer puts the line on its high and wet list? Huh? Look at me!”

Serge didn't, so Viv continued. “Otherwise your permanent signal will morph into a howler tone which would subsequently bleed into adjacent lines via crosstalk!”

Serge didn't budge. His open mouth flexed into a gaping smile. Viv wouldn't have any of it, and charged Serge to untangle him and save his ears, first trying to wrest the ancient headset from its stuck position glued against the side of the poor soul's head, before attempting to rouse him from his waking slumber of white noise dreams with a handful of well-placed slaps to the face. None of it worked.

Serge did proceed to wrap himself tighter in the tentacular spiral cord of his beige plastic block of a phone, slightly tighter around the neck, until the headset slipped from his hands and dangled off his shoulder, bouncing between his bony knees, until he managed to grab it again and place it back to his ear. Serge felt no pain while the incessant tone did cause him to nod out on his feet again, and that's when the howler tone kicked in:

“Howler again?” Viv rolled her eyes.* “Serge! This technological innovation was a miraculous innovation composed of the DTMF tones—* and # played alternately. The howler is only to be used as a telephony signal to alert a user that the telephone has been left disused for an extended period—not on purpose— which effectively disables the line, stopping the magnetic field caused by an incoming call from ricocheting a tiny, squared-off magnetized ball between two metal bells, which creates the ring most laymen take for granted.”

To all Viv said and did, Serge was oblivious, he just wanted his tone back.

*That tone of increasing intensity is intended to alert telephone users to the fact that the receiver has been left off the hook without being connected in a call. If you were in the UK, a warbling signal sounding rather like an alarm siren is played at steadily increasing volume down a telephone left off-hook and unused on telephone lines provided by BT and many PABX extensions. (from Wikipedia)

For Coilers' listening pleasure, and facts and trivia about analog phone signals, please read/listen on:


There is no failure quite like a failed novel. You put your heart and soul and hopes into your once-imagined tour de force, and discover that all roads have led nowhere. It sits there on your hard drive or your flash drive or in your brain or soul, fractured, incomplete, and unfinished, a maze you've created with no solution and no path out and it nags at you daily. You might feel like slapping yourself silly or succumb to nose-diving back in with fruitless passion like a secret daily tryst, or simply trying to get over it like you would the slow suffering of a doomed relationship. I can never really decide either, but none of it seems to work.

The difference between a maze and a prison is that the maze has a solution, but somehow in your novel attempt you've become doomed to the latter. And it lives in you, around you, haunts you, seems to drag you down forever, breaks your heart, corrodes your mind. Ultimately you invested in it, trusted it, whatever its state, but your failed novel has truly become a soul-eating “It,” like a monster can be an It, with a capital “I.”

But, shhh! Don't tell anyone you put months, maybe a year or two into your dead novel, though this It you might as well call Shit, as you remain in your chair, somehow alive amid the collapse . . .

. . . perhaps listening to the German experimental/industrial music group Einstürzende Neubauten, which translates as “collapsing new buildings. How cathartic and how fitting—

But it doesn't help. Because just as ultimately, you wrote Shit to share with readers in its entirety—but you can't do that anymore.

Before I worked on novels that became successful, this is the despairing way I always felt about literary duds. But no more. Why?

First, despair, as compared to hope, never helped me complete anything, it just shuts me down. Second, the great short-storyist/essayist and one of my heroes, Jorge Luis Borges, considered by even the most brilliant and successful of writers (even novelists!) the height and embodiment of their aspirations, never completed a novel (or not that we know of). Nor did he want to, apparently, for master Borges claimed he was too lazy (he was also going blind).

Third and finally, if you can't catch the marlin with the creative bait you've devised, you can still enjoy a slab of wild caught salmon or a tin of fine smoked sardines (perhaps with organic, homemade flax crackers and gruyere).

You've set your terms and vision high, deep, and far, it was supposed to be a novel after all (in a way it still is), and you've generated tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of words—they can't all be that bad, right?—so why not embrace hope and salvage what you can from the wreckage—you know, like stripping out the precious metals from the useless, polluting plastic shell of a defunct PC or Mac. And why not share at least some of that precious metal with someone. As I will do now with this excerpt for Coil members only, from one of my dead (for now) novels, The Day was Gray and Nice, from a chapter called “Blue on The Savanna”:


In today's Covid-addled gig economy, it may sound like a rosy platitude to say that unexpected change can be good. Rosy platitude or not, my experience as a self-employed person has shown me this is often true. Case in point, getting fired, the ultimate unexpected change.

It hasn't happened to me that much (I know how to pick my gig fights), but for whatever reason, I have always loved getting fired. What I love most about getting fired is the elation. Nothing elates me more. Why? Getting fired expedites leaving what was probably never meant to be anyway. Getting fired fires me up for change. This fired-up feeling is built into the word, and I love change.

The first time I felt this rush of fired elation happened after I was fired by my employee. You read that right. See, I spent a few months, okay, a few weeks, calling myself a commercial actor. I had been doing some acting, and I met an agent who thought they could sell me as an edgier, less heart-throbbish 90s Johnny Depp. I lasted exactly one audition.

The firing in question occurred after I was sent out for a commercial for a beer I hated. Worse, said audition was set on a beach, supposedly in Florida, but actually in a dingy Midwestern conference room. The only instructions were that we arrive in beachwear (no Speedo's) with a sunny, fun-loving attitude. The instructions alone filled me with dread.

The grinning, mullet-headed casting director, call him Irvling—patchy, bleached blond hair, with a serious, almost debilitating lisp made more debilitating by a repaired split upper lip, a real carnie of a casting director—called his “talent” in from the hallway in groups of three. There was beefcake Barry and tanned Tad, both preppy, toned, and modelesque in their renditions of pastel muscle shirts under flamingo-print or palm-treed beach shirts, stylish swim trunks cut high on the leg, and the requisite flip-flops. Then there was me, the stockier, dark-souled sucker with no beach clothing to speak of, in black fatigue shorts, t-shirt, and black, laceless Converse, as I have always despised “flip-flops,” a term that still makes me shudder.

I preferred black shirts, but for this sunny day at the beach, I allowed myself a medium blue color, making for a black-and-blue living bruise on the “beach,” ready for the fun under the sun required to put beer in bellies. Real beachy.

Irvling the casting director flung a striped beach blanket on the carpeted floor in front of the camera, then took out a few half-filled beach balls—pied yellow, blue, white, and red, with the beer's logo—which he then threw at us like chum to sharks, or jellyfish to dolphins, depending on your perspective.

“Okay, guyths, imagine you are at the beach having fun under the thun with some cold onesth,” said Irvling. “Letsth thee those thmiles! Thun, fun, beer, beach bawlths! Toth the ballth around, and I don't mean whatths thwinging between your legth! Thircle around each other and big thmiles at the camera as you path the lenth for the money shot! Tad, Barry, and, uh, you, pretend you are thirthty on a thandy beach on a hot thummer's day! Thtay upbeat!”

I was already blushing, adding blood to my bruised appearance, and pulling everything (and I mean everything) inward like a scared sand tortoise. Hesitant, resentful, not playing ball. Out of frustration and projection, I said, “Who really tosses a beach ball around like this at the beach? Five year olds? And where's the beer? It would be easier to get into the mood if we actually had some beer for a beer commercial.”

“No alcohol at auditionth. Thag rulesth. You have to pretend. Thenth memory.”

Sense memory, my ass.

Things at the audition room beach did not go well. I could already see Irvling was itching with displeasure as I proceeded to frustrate my beach partners. Whichever sagging ball found its way into my hands, I quickly ejected it at the other guys just to get rid of it.

Despite my 'tude, Tad and Barry seemed to be enjoying themselves, flitting and floating their balls around and easily mugging and grinning into the camera, each time flashing perfectly timed, big drunken bad beer grins with teeth that would have been better off selling toothpaste, while managing to flirt with each other and Irvling, too, while playing around with the balls. I was in the presence of true professionals.

When I stomped around to the camera, snatching a deflated beach ball out of Tad's hands at the last minute, I couldn’t even muster a smirk. I leered, sneered, and cast death stares. My eyes sparkled not with sunshine, but malice. I couldn’t wait to get it over with.

“Okay guyth!” Irvling said. “I've theen what I need to thee. Thank you! Great job Tad and Barry! I thee call back in your thtarth!”

I didn't mind that Irvling didn't compliment me, or maybe I did, but I just wanted to get out of there.

The way it works in the audition world is if they—casting director, director, producer—want you, you get a callback via your agent for a second audition. Which means you still have a chance of booking the commercial. Later that day, I did get a call but not a callback.

“What's with the attitude you gave the casting director today?”


“If you want to work with our agency, you need to go out with a better attitude. You know, upbeat.”

“It wasn't the right role for me. I'm dark and edgy, not the beach ball type.”

“You have one more chance.”


That chance came one morning a few days later. I had an audition call for another beer commercial that I heard on voicemail two hours too late. I was out the night before and didn’t even hear the phone ring. In fact, I forgot I was even trying to be an actor. The phone rang again, and I meekly answered. “Hullo?”

“Where are you?” said a seething voice.

“In futon. I overslept.”

“You can't do that. I'm putting you in the back of the files. This agency will no longer represent you. You're fired!”




Anyone who has ever had an agent knows they are supposed to work for you, but it usually feels like the other way around. In any case, that day I dressed and ran out elated into the streets to get a cup of coffee from my local cafe and afterward triumphantly paced the sidewalk, greeting people and grinning elatedly enough that people noticed.

“Look at that guy! He's on top of the world!” said one passerby to his girlfriend. “I want some of what he's on!” Both returned my shit-eating grin.

“It's called being fired!” I said, jumping up and clicking my heels before skipping off down the street with my morning brew.

Times are tough right now, it's true. The point is that as much as you might feel that being fired is terrible, the ultimate humiliation, it's also a chance for change. Don't let getting fired get you down, let it fire you up.

It was a late afternoon as I was staring out the glass patio door of my temporary apartment in Saigon when a rat fell from the sky.

The sky rat, unlike the average cat, made no attempt to right itself in the air to land on its feet. The rat fell on its head.

New York rats and Saigon rats look the same. Both are the “Norway rat,” but that's a misnomer, as this ilk of rat, puzzlingly, originated in Northern China and Mongolia. (In my mental globe, Mongolia is below China, but in truth it is north of China.) My visions of these rodents underplank or pilfering the food of hippy-haired Vikings in their ships have been dead wrong.

Charles Dickens acknowledged this speciel misnomer in his weekly journal, All the Year Round, writing: “Now there is a mystery about the native country of the best known species of rat, the common brown rat. It is frequently called, in books and otherwise, the 'Norway rat', and it is said to have been imported into this country in a ship-load of timber from Norway. Against this hypothesis stands the fact that when the brown rat had become common in this country, it was unknown in Norway, although there was a small animal like a rat, but really a lemming...”

(That lemming Chuck D. might have been referring to could be Homo sapien.)

I watched the sky rat, still wobbly from impact, tear at a piece of spicy chicken I had placed outside to keep its encroaching Earth-bound brethren at bay. For its hunger, it payed the price of an uncontrollable licking at the gums and lips. When it spied me through the glass wall and approached—species and species staring each other down, the rat from the sky and me, now a specimen in a humanarium, became glued together amid the Covid crisis. Our staredown was strangely comforting.

Rats have never revolted me and there is much to admire in the rat, no matter how surface dirty most believe them to be. Rats are highly capable—of learning, solving complex problems, detecting disease, retaining episodic memories, even empathetic rescue. The immune system of rats is strong, especially in sewer and street rats, moreso than their more bred and docile albino cousins in the lab or cage or aquarium. No wonder rats have special temples dedicated to them in India. Back in the day, I used to marvel while others fled from New York City's very own Ganges River of rats that would pour from trashcans or restaurant garbage heaps. Filet mignon, escargot, or foie gras, anyone?

Please read the remainder of this article to the tune of:

Friends male and female have kept rats as pets—one named, “Slayer,” after the band, the other named “Flower,” who would get drunk on grapes. One of my adolescent idols Henry Rollins' best early monologues was “Shed Reading (Rattus Norvegicus),” from Black Flag's Family Man LP, told the tale of a rat that dreamed of becoming a talk show host. It sort of happened.

The sky rat sat on his haunches, still a little shaky on his paws, against the intervening glass, chewing his cud of chicken and flicking his whiskers. Rats do not wag their tails like dogs. I wish they did. Nature, give me my wish.

Are we so good at solving mazes as the rat? Hardly. Surviving without luxury or benefits or mortgages or insurance? Hardly. Staving off disease? Hardly. Pure survival?

Across our international, interspecies mind meld, sky rat and I could have uttered the same charge: You clever, maze-solving, crumb-chasing polluter of terra, spreader of disease and chaos, individual and group member, Mother Earth-fucking rattus norvegiticus or homo sapiens, using mine to safeguard yours—good luck!

Rats sometimes emit short, ultrasonic, socially induced vocalizations during play, while mating, when tickled, or before receiving morphine (and who can blame them?). This “chirping” has been likened to laughter (in some cases, orgasm), interpreted as an expectation of something rewarding. Whether it expected some opiated reward from me, I didn't know, but the sky rat did just that, started to chirp. Soon enveloping both of us in voluminous, chirping song, some laughing serenade for the lost.

Currently, I am in Asia, so it being the Year of the Rat, it makes sense such a creature, a connector of here with there, East with West, would fall from the sky before the eyes of a displaced being from New York biding his time for a way home.

“You are super rat,” I said to the rat from the sky who refused to budge. With that, the rat scampered off the patio along a pipe.


i remember paul. he was a great houseguest. he kept the space clean. he was considerate of my schedule and work environment. he volunteered befriending my cat. we were both busy with work. sometimes our paths crossed at the apartment. paul was always happy to offer conversation and tell me about his work. it was exciting to hear.

paul was super clean, neat, and helpful—a pleasure to host. i enjoyed having him. i hope to welcome him back soon. he left my place spotless. that's what counts.

paul was an interesting and pleasant person and so nice to host. he stayed at my house four days and totally respected it and his hosters. have a nice travel, paul. enjoy your next trip.

extremely recommended, paul. he was a great guest, a very friendly guy and a real traveler. his communication was perfect and he left the apartment clean, instead of trashing it like most airbnb-ers. as we say in spanish:

fue muy educado ,simpático y agradable haber compartido con él en estos días. persona tranquila, agradable, amoroso y muy respetuoso

we enjoyed having paul with us and would welcome him back. what a great guest. he left the room in good condition. he is welcome back anytime.

mr paul.


very nice. he complied with all the house rules, and there were many. he left the room not only clean, but tidy.

paul was a polite guest. hosting him was a pleasure. if you see him, tell him thanks for staying with us.

paul is an amazing guy. he followed our house rules extremely well and left our place super clean. highly recommended.

paul was so easy to communicate with. he is a professional writer, always with his laptop. he kept our place very clean. he followed our house rules very well. he generously left me his leftover shrimp-flavored cheetos.

paul is a laugh riot.

*“A lively* travelogue Anthony Bourdain would have killed for . . .” —Leah Taylor, Flavorpill

(*Note: I am re-posting this in hopes Coilers and other readers will read the tale from the beginning so they can experience the whole immersive journey, a journey which has relevance for today's Covid19-afflicted world).

The eleven chapters and epilogue of One Night in Ürümqi (pronounced, “ur um chee”) were adapted from my self-published, novella-length travelogue, Drinking and Driving in Ürümqi (Strangers Gate Books, 2013), which was the first book I ever wrote. My written testament to the far-flung city and interesting characters of its inspiration also turned out to be a writing-and-editing career starter (hard copies still available).

I wrote the softcover printed book under a pseudonym, because at the time of my first visit to the city of the title, Ürümqi—the capital of Xinjiang, the far western, remotest province of the People's Republic of China—in 2009, cultural and racial politics there were fraught, which meant that any known Uyghur-friendly visitors' visas might be at risk. Since my first visits, the situation for the Uyghurs and their culture has become far worse. Uyghurs currently face increased discrimination, high-tech racial profiling, re-education, and mass incarcerations, as any present Google search will tell you.

As the title implies, as a new writer intent on actually completing something, I limited One Night in Ürümqi's scope, challenging myself to only write about my first night out there, one precarious night of many, in moment-to-moment detail—whether thoughts, feelings, experiences, facts, or memories—as I became the unmonitored, unofficial guest of a local Uyghur denizen and her Uyghur-minority Chinese Communist Party member cohorts.

The local denizen I was lucky to have guiding me into Ürümqi's largely obfuscated Uyghur culture was a spirited and liberated Uyghur woman whose name appears in One Night in Ürümqi as “Rihangül.” Rihangül had spent time in New York, the place I met her, and was somehow able to navigate both cultures—the traditional and the modern— with an admirable ease. A true badass, both there and here.

I hope my literary depiction of Rihangül and the troubled mood and textures of her riot-wounded hometown captivates readers as much as the actual experience captivated me. For your reading pleasure, here begins One Night in Ürümqi.

—Paul Assimacopoulos

Coil members, see below for a special curated Uyghur-inspired podcast.


1. The wearer will look foolish if they chew gum or food or tobacco or spew profanities while wearing the mask. Look in the mirror and try it. See what I mean? (See 7)

2. The mask gives immediate olfactory feedback (usually negative, especially for smokers, garlic-and-onion lovers, or those, like your tester, whose guilty pleasure is broccoli paired with coffee) regarding the state of the wearer's breath. Existential question: Does the nose have an odor or otherwise smell itself?

3. The straps of the mask can cause chafing and sometimes open sores in the upper groove of the wearer's ear flap (yes, that's what it's called, or the helix—and did you know the ear contains fat?). (See 1 and 4)

4. Worn during vigorous public exercise, the mask can defeat its own ultimate purpose by making the wearer's breathing almost impossible. Wearers can become short of breath, hypoxic or anoxic, causing the very symptoms of the virus the mask was intended to stave off. Not to mention that the wearer's labored breathing can cause any lip, jowl, nasal, or cheek sweat, pushed by a breeze or breath moisture, to reverse flow/steam upward into the eyes. This stings like shit. (Thank God the eyes don't have a sense of smell, as some wearers enjoy vigorous exercise immediately after eating).

5. Having masked sex with a masked partner, while protecting the wearer from any droplets, breath, or saliva, can be fun. Even prudes can become kinksters. First attempt social distancing and then take heed. (See 4 and 6)

6. The mask gives the wearer an immediate air of magnetism and mystery, and can, except in extreme cases, render the less attractive wearer beautiful. This rendering is more pronounced if the wearer is more attractive above the nostrils than below. With some wearers, some might hope they never take the mask off again, depending on if the wearer's face is more lower ugly/attractive or more upper ugly/attractive. (See 5)

7. The cheaply made, flexible metal bar meant to tighten the mask against the wearer's nose bridge is often the first component to give out, which causes the mask to flop down under the wearer's nostrils, rendering it ineffective. (See 4, 10, maybe 2)

8. Wearing the blue medical mask in particular initially makes the wearer appear more infectious. (See 6)

9. Attempting to be the proverbial “lampshade-wearer-at-a-party” dilettante comedian by pulling the mask up and over your nose and eyes pretending to be unaware and blind while seeking attention and uttering, “Now I'm off, now I'm on. Get it?!” is not funny, not now, not ever. Yet, this mask creep can happen to the wearer by accident. (See 4 and 7)

10. After wearing the mask for so many days, the wearer can forget and sometimes try to eat or drink while still wearing the mask. Most varieties of sauced noodles, or pizza with extra cheese, or liver pate-and-crackers, or ice cream bars make the biggest mess and cause the mask to become soiled and unsanitary. And what wearer would want to walk around with a used napkin on their face? (See 1 and 13)

11. The wearer will find themselves between a pat of rancid butter and the ass of death if they have to cough, or especially, sneez, while behind the mask, because, unless the wearer holds the mask against their face with their hands (remember, no touching) the mask will temporarily blast off from the face like an infectious exploding snot grenade, sending sputum and phlegm in all directions, including into the wearer's eyes. A big no-no for wearers.

12. A wearer can get high by hyperventilating while wearing the mask. DISCLAIMER: We in no way promote or condone this activity, though it can be stress-induced. (See 5)

13. If wearers don't change masks often enough, their masks can develop stains across the nostril and mouth areas, essentially transforming the mask into a used coffee or cigarette filter or mouth diaper. What can brown do for you? Not much. (See 5)

14. In a pinch or state of product failure, the male or intersex wearer can use the mask as a jockstrap. In the female or intersex case, the mask can be used as a petite halter top or half a bra or emergency panties, but never for feminine hygiene. These points cannot be emphasized enough. (See 4 and 7)

Summary: For wearers caught in these viral times, the benefits of wearing the mask far outweigh its minor perils.

Addendum: Suggestions for deluxe mask alteration: a vomit hatch, a straw attachment or hole, a WhipIt! or weed/vape/cbd attachment, a halitosis (sanitizing) deodorizing mechanism, a Breathalyzer-version with a blood alcohol indicator so a wearer can know who among other wearers is drunk without asking or getting too close. (See 2 and 9)

*For best effect, I suggest to read my related post first, The Alarm, Pull-ups, and Me: Or dive right in!—

A few weeks later, after I had put on a few pounds by repatriating back into the Western diet, The Alarm and I met for coffee. He assessed my appearance and determined his alarm was no longer necessary. Likely because no apparent crisis or transformation had occurred in me. Normal life had returned. No reason for headline news.


—until I returned to Vietnam again six months later, this time ill-timed with the currents of Covid19.

Dead molars extracted, I could finally enjoy all the foods I missed on the first run, not just pho or bún bò Huế, but huge sides of Texas beef (well, not quite, bio bit tet, is more like it) plus keep up the good health I had self-imported from there—swimming, trekking, running, occasional pull-ups. So far, so good, The Alarm seemed to be on snooze. Covid19 wasn't.

Early signs of the pandemic-to-be appeared when my departing flight out of New York was rescheduled for earlier (this had never happened to me across hundreds of thousands of air miles). Something was up, but there was no way, despite friends and family trying to dissuade me (curiously The Alarm was silent on the matter), that I was not going to go. That's just statistics-surfing me.

An eerily empty JFK airport greeted me when I arrived to board my flight to Hanoi. The Covid19 news started coming out. Soon there were no headlines that didn't shriek “coronavirus,” the media's generalizing buzzword du jour for Covid19 (better to scare the bajesus out of you, my pretty). Still, no Alarm.

When I arrived in Vietnam, everything went pretty smoothly. Being so close to China, Vietnam had responded early, sealing off access in a strong, early response. Quarantines were put into place, there was bad news, facts and stats and health checks, but not hysteria, just solemn action, reaction, measured responses, and flowers for the cured. Not stress and fear, but comfort and kindness. I made my way down the lush and beautiful country, learning to ride a motorbike along the way, enjoying the foods I couldn't enjoy the first time, as I motored around, hit the beach, ascended mountain, and sped by sea.

Full blown, hysterical reality really hit when I tried to fly back from Da Nang. One flight cancelled, then another, Chinese and Italians alike were dropping like flies, New Yorkers would be next. Vietnamese were being treated and receiving flowers for their trouble. Covid19 and all it meant was closing in, seemingly taking over the world.

My iPhone now vibrated off the hook. Self-proclaimed germaphobe Trump and pompous Pompeo had made their Level 4 global travel declarations to scare US citizens back home. At least that's the way I took it, hanging out in Da Nang. I hate when fear is deployed to motivate people, and I wasn't going to be price-gouged to maybe get back to the States, which would also mean taking part in the crushing bottleneck caused by the infectious, panicked, immuno-compromised herd flight back home, a flight that certainly led to more infections (see Fauci). Forget that!

I wavered, and despite the order home, decided to stay put. Hysteria and viruses love bottlenecks, and I can't even stand to wait in line for the “Best Bagel in New York.” The post office line is one exception, I don't know why.

As if he had been snoozing in wait for just such a moment, The Alarm sounded again. “You okay?” he said, with that urgent, ratings-tied, slightly malicious anchorman tone ala Wolf Blitzer or Jake Tapper, though The Alarm is web-only.

“Yeah, why?”

“I know you'll be in denial again but this novel coronavirus thing is serious. When are you planning to come back? I hope yesterday.”

“Hardly. I'll book a flight for after the hysteria curve flattens and the scary headlines go away.”



“That's nonsense. You don't get it. This is the novel coronavirus!” The Alarm sounded, before going off like never before. “Forget about how much it costs, if you want to come back to America, to New York, any time soon, you need to take action as soon as possible. Buy the next flight out. The State Department says so. If you don't get back soon, you may not see American soil indefinitely. With no way home. You will face fines every day you are illegal in Vietnam. They may even put you in a tiger trap with no one to help you. Prepare for the worst my friend, and don't say I didn't warn you. The novel coronavirus is the real deal.”


His signal became garbled. Did The Alarm really say that? Or was it his headline thinking? I couldn't tell anymore.

“The headlines aren't going away,” The Alarm said, and he was right:


The Alarm almost had me rattled.


I was nearing the end of my planned itinerary and finally booked another flight timed with what I deemed to be further past the panic curve. It cancelled, as did the rebooking. More and more countries were locking down, including New York (which I deem its own country), my beloved home that had just started to bounce with Spring before I left.

Now I was getting rattled. Maybe The Alarm was right to ring this time. Still, I wasn't going to be driven home by fear-mongering power structures, sensationalist headlines, or wannabe despots who offered the two bad choices of abandoning their citizens or threatening them home to face potential infection by novel coronavirus—there I go—Covid19.

Bad or good, the antidote to fear and panic I have development over time and travel is exhilaration. I needed a thrill. I rented a motorbike and rode off any panic or frustration in Da Nang traffic then headed straight to the Da Nang beach to go for a swim and crank off a few pull-ups at the beachside outdoor gym (my numbers were the same, twelve underhanded, eight overhanded, practicing social distancing and sanitizing my grip afterwards, of course).

When I got back to my room, The Alarm sounded again. “This is getting way beyond serious, this is the real deal, a global novel coronavirus pandemic. Get yourself home. I don't know why you are being so sanguine about it.”

Sanguine. I had to look the word up.*

Like Pompeo, The Alarm actually seemed to be threatening me. Friend or foe, concerned friend or CIA, I thought back to his first ringing that sent me panicked to the doctor for blood and stool (ick) samples.


Whether his was the voice or echo chamber of the government, or he wanted someone to remotely suffer with under New York lockdown rather than having to deal with his envy, I didn't know, but in The Alarm's mind I was not only deathly ill and becoming stateless, worse, I was sanguine about it.

“Better sanguine than panicked,” I retorted.

My words apparently caused The Alarm to lose focus. “Huh?”

“I said, 'better sanguine than panicked.' “

“What were we talking about again?” The Alarm said

“My sanguineness.”

“Oh yeah. Well good luck. Don't say I didn't warn you. I gotta take this call.”

With that, The Alarm hung up.


It was a slamming headline.

Coil members can read on for the denouement.


I have this friend who is a journalist. I call him The Alarm. I love the guy, but it seems like every time I go through a crisis or transformation, doesn't seem to matter which, positive or negative, he sounds the alarm, and in big bold headlines. The Alarm is a newsman. It's his job to create headlines, even if they are sometimes only in his head and only about me.

Case in point my improved health and conditioning after traveling to Japan and Vietnam with two dying molars (the dying and death of said molars [RIP] will be the subject of a future post).

Besides the molars, I arrived back from the trip in the best shape of my life. I was lean, I was mean, I had added long-distance biking to my running and lifting, had dropped about fifteen pounds of vague flab—and I could do pull-ups. The humbling pull-up has always been my barometer for best conditioning, especially the overhand kind. (Some call the underhand kind, “chin-ups,” but this distinction makes no sense to me.) In my prime, I could crank out about forty of these frustrating suckers. Before I left for the trip, I could rustily crank out only about four underhanded—usually considered easier than overhanded—not because I was overweight, just lately lazy in the lattisimus dorsi.

Part of pull-up success, like other things in life (such as completing a novel), is really wanting it. Really wanting to lift your entire body weight off the ground each time high enough to get your chin over the bar, and then wanting to do it again, until you can't do it anymore. The failure is an absolute one (kind of like failing to complete a novel). Humbling, because the want I described might only result in one rep. It's a long way up from there.

Another reason I had leaned out in Asia was due to the pain caused by eating solid food. I had existed on a soft diet mostly of sushi and noodles—ramen, bun, and pho—plus water and plenty of beer to numb the pain where Aleve couldn't. To be boastfully dramatic about it, six weeks of vigorous physical and intellectual (book project) activity, plus molars that finally fractured across the surface of hard Asian “cracker nut” peanuts at a bar are what left me a healthier “specimen.” Amazing what pain, exertion, and creativity can do.

Despite not doing one pull-up overseas, when I came back, I could crank off about twelve underhanded and eight overhanded. Not my prime numbers, but an improvement, seemingly out of thin air and despite still suffering serious pain in the mouth. Beyond the teeth, I felt physically and mentally amazing. Sharp and cut for the first time in a long time. But tell The Alarm that.

“You caught a parasite, a virus, rabies,” he said. “I am telling you, no one I know has gotten as skinny as you so fast. You look like you are about to drop dead!”

Up to then, I had always given The Alarm's opinion additional cred. He's one of my favorite people to converse with, say, about Russian politics or cat or dog adoption, or have dinner or coffee with. Like me, he's a bit of an internationalist, and a great writer, in fact, my writing mentor. Hence my puzzlement when as soon as he laid his eyes on my improved state, off he went, his headline for me instantly forming:


“You better go see a doctor,” The Alarm urged. “Don't wait. Don't fool yourself. You don't look healthy sick, you look sick sick. Take my advice, get checked out as soon as possible. You look like living death.”

At first I defended myself against his chicken little attitude that saw my elevated health as the falling sky by uttering, “Are you high?”, but The Alarm wasn't having it. Granted, he has suffered his own denial-induced health issues, so maybe he was concerned I was in a similar denial. But I didn't smoke, I hadn't been overweight, I could do pull-ups. Denial?

The Alarm's negative attitude was also suspect because Vietnam is one of his favorite countries to visit. He loves the food, the nature, the culture, and, little does he know that I know, the women. Maybe I had been unintentionally rubbing it in all along by sending him pictures of all the wonderful food I was eating, etc. Maybe The Alarm was jealous. He had asked for it by encouraging me to share my trip with him.

As I sat there staring at him, bewildered, “Look!” he said, nearly slapping my face with his tongue as he placed his hands on my shoulders and squared me up in his eyes. “You are not hearing me,” he said. “You need to take a a good honest look at yourself. You look like a POW, a cancer patient, not a guy at the top of his health. I don't know what you ate or did over there, but it looks like you have been eating for two, if you know what I mean. Go. See. A. Doctor. Get tested. Immediately. Don't risk your life out of denial.”



The Alarm was really going off. Maybe I was in denial. I mean, I had been carting my two dying teeth in my mouth around Asia, hoping they would survive till I got home. I had dropped enough weight that my pants kept falling off and my formerly “L” shirt size had shrunk to an “M” and even that was feeling loose. Cheekbones chiseled or gaunt, all relative, but I had heard somewhere how a tooth abscess could eventually reach your heart. Maybe The Alarm was right. Maybe I was about to drop dead. But what about the pull-ups! Could a person verging on death crank off so many?

Yet I took The Alarm's advice, if only to prove him wrong.

The next day I walked in to one of the new urgent care centers that are becoming ubiquitous in New York and sheepishly asked for a blood test.

“Why do you think you need a blood test?,” said the nurse, arching her eyebrows as she took my vitals and prepared my arm. Next, the attending physician walked with the same arched eyebrows at the obvious hypochondriac before her. “You look perfectly healthy. Why do you think you need all these tests? There are other people with real emergencies,” the doctor chided.

“I know. See, I was overseas with these two dying teeth, working remotely, carrying a backpack everywhere and working out everyday, and eating healthier—basically having the time of my life, but I dropped a lot of weight. My friend seems to think he knows my health better than me. I am not here for me, I am here for him. So he will turn his alarm off.”

“Okay,” the doctor said, sighing, as she wrote up a prescription for blood tests and stool sample (eww, maybe this was The Alarm's intent for me all along). I couldn't wait to get the results to show The Alarm who was really in denial.

A couple days later, after turning in my stool (pun intended), I logged on for the test results. All negative or in the normal range. Ah hah! No parasites, no infection nor virus (this was pre-Covid19) negative for parasites.

I couldn't wait to alarm The Alarm back and called him immediately.


“Real busy, what's up?” he said.

The Alarm seemed to have forgotten he had ever sounded. He didn't ask how I was or if I had seen a doctor. I put on my best glum and resolved “are you sitting down” voice.

“Got something to tell you. It's about my health.”

“Huh? I'm kinda in the middle of something.”

“Well you sounded the alarm remember?”


“I got my tests back.”


“I'm in tip top condition.”

“Oh really? Well if you saw the person I saw, you would have had the same reaction. You didn't look normal.”


To be continued . . .