isaac black

isaac black writes

Taking a year off

The germ of the idea came when I realized how many books I need to read. It would be really nice to be able to read full time, I thought. Six days from today I will put in my notice at work and that will become my reality.

I have a cushy tech job with minimal expenses. Where most people my age might have made a down payment on a house, bought a nice car, or traveled across Europe, I have been saving for my exit. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, but I’ve had it for 4 1/2 years. With the end in sight I’m slumping across the finish line, scarcely able to muster the amount of energy required to keep my ass from getting fired before my stock options vest.

The plan is, by sticking to a budget, to live a year of my life beholden to no one. I will scrape together a little extra cash here and there, but day to day I will have no schedule and no obligations.

I realize what an enormous privilege this is, and I’ve included a small amount of money in my monthly budget to give away. But I’m careful to not lie to myself about who this is for: myself. I will have more time to involve myself in organizing efforts and I will educate myself more on history and political economy (Capital is on my steadily lengthening to-read list), but this is a selfish, decadent luxury I’m affording myself. I hope I emerge with something valuable to give to the cause of dismantling structural inequality. I hope I can establish myself as a writer. But these are ancillary goals.

I will blog periodically because I’m interested in what this will do to my routine, my sense of self, and my set of skills. I assume the like-minded will be interested as well. I predict, as more and more work becomes automated, that our society will either move toward income becoming separated from work (as in universal basic income, which I support) or toward even more wealth inequality, effectively thrusting the working class into peonage for the benefit of a few wealthy royals. If the former tack prevails, what will it mean for people to simply exist without the constant threat of poverty? I can’t answer that, but I can begin to answer it for me.

Despite my political convictions about wage labor, landing a secure, lucrative job helped me snap out of depression by giving me a sense of purpose, a disposable income, and the ability to learn in an environment where I felt needed. To be fair though, the depression came from a year-long search in a bad job market, as well as being part of a society where one’s status is linked to income and position. On top of that, I grew up Mormon, in a culture and religion in which rigid gender roles made my inability to make money feel like a serious failing to romantic prospects.

I haven’t told my parents yet. I once quit a job because the tedium of it was making it difficult to drag myself out of bed. I was living at home at the time, and the conversation with my dad was uncomfortable, to say the least. “You can’t just not work,” I remember him saying. Now, the circumstances are different, where I can just not work, using the money that I “earned” and saved. But to his mind, not liking a job was not a sufficient reason to freeload for a couple of months in his home. Not working a respectable 40 hours a week, like he had to do to support me and his three other children, is a moral failing in his eyes.

There seems to be a generational shift in ideals–as I and others of my generation have never had to worry about money in the way that those affected by the Great Depression (like my dad, in his 70s) have. We are moving up the hierarchy of needs, chasing self-actualization instead of just security. Except I have been poor, too. During the year plus that I was unemployed, with an English degree and about a year’s worth experience in community organizing, I did medical studies, temp work and substitute teaching to come up with enough cash to make rent and the minimum payment on my credit card, which I used for all my other expenses. I lived in a basement laundry room so I wouldn’t have to pay much in rent. Of course, even then–I could always get food, I had a car and a cell phone, and I had family half an hour away if I ever needed, god forbid, to move back in. I still had white, cishet, male privileges, a college education, and middle class institutional skills.

I’m very fortunate. But I’m tired. Part of that comes from feeling driven to spend my free time writing or making music. Self expression doesn’t seem to be something that I’ll grow out of, as I used to suppose, or that I can turn off. Also, as long as I can remember I’ve maintained a desperate hope that I can exit the office world by establishing an artistic career. The last thing I’ve ever wanted for myself is to watch a clock for the majority of my day.

To that point–while I’m sure my dad thinks my lack of desire to sit at a desk stems from laziness, half the time I’m at work I’m thinking about the cool things I could get done if I weren’t milking the clock. I’m excited for my time off, not for the TV shows that I’ll get to watch (though I do have a lot of movies to catch up on) but for the projects that I’ll get to work on. I want to fix up bikes, build guitar pedals, learn Spanish, write and try to get my writing published. I want to cook my own meals, work on my garden, go hiking and camping, volunteer at the local bicycle collective and get involved in activism again. Will all that add up to 40 hours each week? We’ll see, but I doubt it.

While I’m considering this upcoming year a huge gift I’m giving to myself, I am also running some risks. The lack of structure and urgency may trigger a slide into depression, especially now that winter is coming on. If I get hurt I could blow months’ worth of budgets on medical care; I will have only a catastrophe Obamacare health insurance plan. If I find myself in a serious relationship (doubtful, as I’m struggling to get over the breakup of my most recent one), my lack of income could complicate future plans. Future plans in general will become more complicated, as I may need to sell my car at the end of the year. And I’ll be out of money, a year behind the times in my field and with a gap in my resume as I look for work.

But a year is a long time. Plenty of time to worry about that stuff. In the meantime I get to plan my weeklong trip to Jackson and Glacier National Park. And after that, a trip to Moab. And after that, I’ll have all day to read.

last in the series

To Lex (7/27)

My memories feel like items

In a room you stopped visiting.

I’m embarrassed by how much

I treasured them, half of them

Now ordinary and gross

Like the drool stains you left

On my pillow.

The other half feel like

Gifts you never touched.

to lex (6/6)

When you were
napping in the passenger
seat I looked
past you and
past the shadowy
valley floor to
the ridge where
a thunderstorm for one
was forming.

The latest issue of the MacGuffin, containing my story “Eternity,” is now available at their website.


i set out to make goulash. what happened next will astound you

I didn’t know exactly what goulash is, but I knew I wanted to make it. Probably my only encounter with goulash was in some city in China whose name I can’t remember where everyone on the street tried to sell us weed. We stayed at some hostel owned by a guy named Tibetan Dave or something, and we had dinner that night at the restaurant. We all had goulash, my friends opting for the yak goulash while I got the veggie. They got food poisoning, while I got a pleasant memory of a warming comfort food that I tried to find a recipe for several times in the years after. Turns out goulash isn’t a traditional Tibetan food (unless there’s another name for it); it was specific to Tibetan Dave’s hostel or something.

Anyway, last night I was googling veggie goulash recipes and wasn’t happy with what I found, so I winged it. And it turned out delicious. So without further ado–while it’s fresh in my mind–here’s the approximate recipe:

Friday Night Goulash

1 tbsp olive oil

1/2 medium red onion, chopped

1 large potato, chopped

1 large parsnip, diced

1 medium carrot, diced

1 package baby portabella mushrooms, sliced

1 can black eyed peas

3 c. water

4 medium roma tomatoes, chopped

1 parmesan rind

3 sprigs fresh rosemary

1/2 tsp thyme

1/2 tsp smoked paprika


Chop the red onion and sautee in the olive oil in a stock pot. When the onions begin to get soft, deglaze the pot with a splash of cooking wine (I used sherry, because why not). Add the vegetables, minus the tomatoes, and stir for a minute to coat with the oil. Add the water, tomatoes, cheese rind, herbs, and a generous amount of salt. Turn up the heat to medium high until the water is just beginning to boil. Turn the heat to medium low and let simmer for 30 to 45 minutes until the parsnips are soft. Salt to taste.

I had added 3 1/2 cups water because the vegetables were piled so high, but they cooked down quickly. Don’t be alarmed if your water doesn’t cover the veggies. I ended up simmering with the lid off to try to cook it down for more of a stew texture, but if you are running low on water, feel free to leave the lid on.


“I love you mercilessly, the way a predator loves prey.”

Ryan saw the text as one of his friends was getting to the punchline of a story.

“We hear this singing coming from his room, so I creep up the stairway as far as I can without being seen, and it’s Ben, singing the ‘Oompa Loompa’ song. Doing different voices and everything. I call the rest of the guys over, and we listen to him sing a whole Willy Wonka medley for like ten minutes.”

The group chuckled heartily.

“And then he went out on his date,” Chris added as denouement.

“I love you senselessly. I want to stab out my eyes like Oedipus,” came the next text.

He texted back. “You must really miss me.”

“I miss you ravenously. I miss you like saturday morning cartoons.”

“You must be drunk,” he replied. “Also, thanks for reminding me how much I miss saturday morning cartoons.”

“That’s why I love you. Not the only reason, because I love you horrifically.”

The group of friends was having a fire behind Chris’ house, though in all honesty it was still too hot for a fire, being only the first week of September. A breeze wafted down the canyon. The fire flickered.

“Get me another beer if you’re going inside,” Kurt said.

“Yes, your highness,” Chris said. Chris was a natural host. He could be superficial at times but he put people at ease. That was what he was good at. Each of Ryan’s friends was good at something different, he mused contentedly. He sat in a folding char, the old kind with a tubed aluminum frame and nylon straps, but he was comfortable. Each of his friends was good at something different, he thought again, rolling the idea over in his mind. It was obvious, had only face value, but the setting seemed to lend it profundity. He rolled it around in his mind again before letting it go.

Ryan’s girlfriend had gone home to Washington for a week before she started the second year of her graduate program in Social Work at the U. She was clever, well-read, charismatic. Probably the smartest girl in her program, Ryan had once decided after meeting a few of the others. People underestimated her intellect. She had a preference for lowbrow humor, which didn’t help; nor did her natural beauty. Geniuses are supposed to be eccentric, muttering to themselves, forgetting to comb their hair.

He was savoring her text messages, silly as they were. He unbuttoned the second button of his flannel. It was really too warm for a fire.

“When does Sloan get back?” Peter asked, waking him from his reverie.

“Two days,” he said. 27 hours is what he meant.

“Have you ever met a girl named Sloan who was not hot?” Chris observed, handing Kurt a bottle. “As a parent, you have to be pretty confident in your baby daughter to go with Sloan as her name.”

“Every Sloan is a babe, I agree,” Peter said.

“If you find me a volleyball player named Sloan, that’s all I need. I will marry her, sight unseen,” Chris promised. He had a thing for tall women.

“Why aren’t there are any girls here now?” Kurt asked.

“It’s a waste, isn’t it?” Chris said. “I mean, look at us, we look like a damn Eddie Bauer ad,” he joked sardonically.

They had settled into their seats: log benches or camp chairs. Chris’ house in Emigration Canyon was far enough from the light pollution of downtown that stars were visible in the gaps in silhouetted foliage even with a waxing gibbous about to crown over the Wasatch ridge. Chris’ house was on the edge of a national forest but a straight shot into the city; Salt Lake City had an enchanted proximity to wilderness.

Kurt poked at the embers. Sparks drifted upward and were extinguished. The air was rich and full: when a breeze blew the smoke away he found a landscape in its scent: loam carpeted with pine needles, lichens on granite, sagebrush from farther up the canyon, streams fed with snowmelt into Autumn.

“I am hysterically in love with you.”

Talk of wishing girls were there turned into talk of first girlfriends. First kisses. Fumbling, excited moments, rendered in soft focus by a fond remembering of adolescence. Histories inscribed in the act of recounting to their friends at slumber parties. Neighborhood sidewalks exuberant with teenage discoveries, brimming with memory–when returned from odysseys they slept contented in dens together as miniature men.

The fire burned down to black coals glowing neon at the edges. Sent faint rays of light out of the perforations in the rusted iron basin.

Sloan was a revelation. She was unlike any woman he had ever dated, and he had no idea how or why she had fallen for him. Sloan was a miracle. He wanted to cry, but that was probably mostly the beers. He silently thanked the universe for being so kind. He sent Sloan a text:

“I love you.”

And then came the reply.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

there are a lot of ways to stifle your fear of death
like compulsively finding the humor in everything—
everything, including abuse, war, anger, anxiety.
you could also use your imagination to visualize
the spectacular, excoriating finale to your galaxy,
something sublime regardless of whether the God
you’ve lost touch with presides over it.
you could contemplate the origins of your soul but
beginnings have a lot to do with endings, so don’t.
or, think of the inertia that propelled your life force
from the axes of space-time, a quantum, paisley
burst of poetic, foolish, heroic futility.
you could busy yourself with creating, and pretend
that creating is in some way a choice for you, that
it’s not a proxy for the children you’re beginning to
doubt that you’ll have. you could aggrieve yourself
with the suffering of the world and try with the full,
frail weight of your body to help the moral arc of the
universe bend faster. you could travel, you could
camp, you could take pictures of your friends jumping
from towering red cliffs into clear, chilly water and
then saddle up to get milkshakes. you could stuff
your senses with media all hours of the day, some
of it cultural, most mindless, until you can’t suffer
a single conversation without jumping at your
goddamn phone for notifications.
or you could pursue your own self-destruction at
the altar of commence, if hubris and irony are more
your speed. who am i to judge.
if you feel like facing your mortality on your own,
without talking, without vulnerability, without intimacy,
without family, seems like a hollow, paranoid project,
then i’m out of my depth. but i


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