The Urban Sherpa - a blog by Christopher DeWan

(my kung fu is gentle but strong...)

Read Work and Other Essays, a collection of nonfiction by Christopher DeWan.

(Not) Common rating=4

or, Sunday in the Park

or, Raison d'être (pt. 2)

Kids squealing at the sprinkler. A seven-year old's pirouette. Couple holding hands from their adjacent bicycles. Old man's red socks. That singer. Tree branch like a sun dial. Happy line at the ice cream cart. Toddler on a break-away. Make-a-wish fuzzball drifting through the air. Far-away church bells. Reflections in the puddle. Ripples in the reflections in the puddle. Gray-haired man holding his boy so tight it's like he thinks it might keep him that size forever. Flip-flops and red toenails, balancing, teetering, on the curb. Puppy tripping over his too-big paws. Blonde-haired man sitting on the corner of a park bench, scribbling a notebook full of words he'll never share with anyone, writing them down like his life depends on it, because (some days more than others) it does...

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the— rating=4

This entry is not currently available.

All the Paintings in the World rating=4

File under: Art Explained

I remember helping a friend move out of his one-bedroom apartment and finding a Picasso in his closet, leaned with a pile of other frames up against the back wall, and hidden below a few dusty blazers. The drawing was small but unmistakable—the scribbles and signature had been done by the Spanish master. Up until that point, I'd thought that my friend's most valuable possession was his rusted-out second-hand car.

"Yeah, it's funny," he said. "Sometimes museums call to ask if they can show it."

Funny is one word for it...

* * *

"Hmm," said another friend at the Brooklyn Museum this weekend, looking at a painting. "This is the first time I've seen the original." He studied it for a minute. "I don't like it as much."

As much as the poster.

"Me either," I agreed.

We moved on.

* * *

There's a new painter in a gallery I like, and the owner and I are talking about the exhibition:

It's so subtle..."He's really—"

"The colors, the delicacy of them—"

"The way he throws them against one another—"

"It's so—"

"Subtle," we both say.

The owner smiles at me and leans in: "He really is a painter's painter."

His phone rings and while he takes the call, I look at a painter's painter's paintings. Then he hangs up and comes back to me. "What were we saying?"

I have absolutely no idea.

* * *

I've been thinking a lot lately about Art (the kind with a capital "A"). Maybe it's because last week, I got a letter from an alma mater welcoming me to what is apparently a small and exclusive club: the alums to have successfully repaid a student loan. (I guess the art business isn't what it used to be...) "Your contribution makes future art possible." Contribution?

It's a subject that is bound to come up whenever I see other graduates of the school—art, that is. Usually it comes up in the context of, "Was it worth it?": the first "it" being Art, the capital "A" kind; and the second being Debt, almost always with a capital "D".

What is the value of art?, is the question.

When it comes up, I often think of a painter friend of mine laughing while trying to rescue a whole set of watercolors from a sudden unexpected rain: he managed to get about half of them into his car before giving up, and just let the rain pour over the others. "All the paintings in the world," he said, "can't touch the smell of rain in the summertime."


3 In a Boat by Steven Hull

Amish Missed Connections rating=4

Buggy

(This piece appears in the April 2014 issue of Johnny America.)

An American Dream rating=4

American Dream

(This piece was the featured story in Necessary Fiction the week of October 24, 2012.)

The blast of cold air blew through our office and unmoored the various collected memos, contracts, loosely-held Post-It notes, food menus, and business cards, so it looked like a ticker tape parade, or anyway, it looked like our idea of a ticker tape parade: none of us had ever seen a ticker tape parade. None of us had ever seen ticker tape.

“Jesus!,” someone shouted. Then another: “Jesus! Jesus!”

One of the employees had climbed out his window and was now balanced on a ledge he shared with three skittish pigeons.

I didn’t even know the windows opened this high up.

Somehow it fell on me to talk him back inside, maybe because I am the designated fire deputy, or maybe I was designated as the fire deputy for the same reason that I was now being chosen for this task — a reason which has never been made clear to me.

“Doug,” I called out.

Nothing in my background as a copywriter had specifically prepared me to help in situations such as these.

“Doug, why don’t you come back inside?”

He didn’t answer. I’d expected him to look like a crazed person out there on the ledge, but he didn’t. He looked collected, all things considered. The pigeons, too, had settled down, acclimated to the idea of him, and the four of them perched there, Doug and the three birds, as if resting, or admiring the sunset, or waiting for the train.

“Doug,” I tried again. Was it normal to keep saying a person’s name in these instances? I did it naturally without planning, and wondered if it was residual muscle memory from some mandatory management training session. “Is everything okay? You want to talk?”

“Oh, hey,” he said to me, as if noticing me for the first time, as if we’d bumped into each other in the kitchenette while fetching coffee.

“What are you doing out there, man?”

A pigeon started pecking curiously at his leg, and he shooed it away till all three birds flew off, flock mind.

“Aren’t you cold?” I asked him.

“I’m good.”

“Come on, it’s winter out. Why don’t you come back inside?”

“I don’t want to go back inside. I don’t want to go back inside ever.” He looked at me, and I noticed he was sweating. “I don’t want that life anymore,” he said, and he shivered, maybe at the thought of staplers and khaki pants and action items, or maybe just the cold air.

“Okay. That’s okay. You don’t have to. I mean, why don’t you come back in, and then you can have any life you want. Start over. Have an adventure. Start fresh. It’s the American dream, right? No matter what you think, you can come back inside and then have any life you want.”

I helped him climb back through the window, and then security helped him out of the building, and then the police helped him to the hospital, and after three days under observation the hospital released him into the care of his parents, which, if you ask me, is enough to make any grown man a suicide risk.

* * *

Doug’s parents lived in a suburb of Cleveland. He stayed with them for one week; He cleaned up their basement, breaking down the cardboard boxes they’d been accumulating with the purchase of each successive electronic device: the VCR box under the DVD box under the TiVo box under the box for the plasma TV; it was a sculptural timeline of the forward march of technology, a micro view of the history of man, as seen through a decade’s worth of packaging materials for consumer electronics.

Doug started rereading some of the books he’d kept from his college years, Russian literature and French poetry and economics and music theory and the history of Japan. He had open copies of a dozen books and seemed to want to read them all concurrently.

Then, at the end of that week, he disappeared, leaving twelve open books, a vacant corner of the basement where cardboard boxes had been piled, and no note.

* * *

The next we heard, Doug was crossing the Missouri River in a Conestoga wagon, en route to Nebraska. He meant to grab himself some acreage and some cattle, and work the land till the dust had caked with the sweat on his skin. It’s honest work, he said, and I’ll sleep as well as I ever have.

And we might not have heard from him at all after that, except that some time later he sent a note that his beloved wife (for he’d married) had died from a fever, and with nothing but sadness keeping him where he was, he packed his things and set out for California. “The air is like oranges,” he wrote.

Once arrived, he built an oil derrick by hand, and before long, he was slick with wealth and petroleum; but he knew no matter how much prosperity he drilled from the ground, he would never get his wife back; so he traded his claims for a chest of gold and a seaworthy sailboat built in the Chinese style, and he aimed the boat toward the setting sun, and disappeared again.

Next we heard from Doug, he was missing his right leg from the knee down. He’d lost it fighting a civil war, “to help take back for the people that which was rightfully theirs.” Where?, we asked. What country? But the color fell from his eyes. “The wrong side won, and the country I knew doesn’t have a name anymore.”

A publisher made a book out of Doug’s journals from the war, and it became quite famous; but Doug himself had moved on.

We lost him for a while. We heard he moved up north, that he’d remarried and had children, that he’d returned to the city. Sometimes one of us would claim they’d seen him on the street, or at the museum, or stepping into an elevator. We heard he was involved in a real estate deal, had a venture in medicine, heard he had learned to harness the power of the sun. We heard he was building a rocket ship with his daughter. No one knew for sure. Everyone wondered, but then, everyone forgot, too.

* * *

I was at work. I’d done well for myself. I had a corner office with pictures of my family on the desk. I had someone to answer my phone calls, and when I did take a call, I was loud and warm and gregarious, and people were almost always happy to speak with me.

Things moved forward as they should.

But on this day, for some reason, I felt a little flushed, and muddy in the head. “Please hold my calls,” I said to the person who answers my phone, as I laid down on my office sofa. “I’m going to try and sleep this thing off.”

When I woke, there were loose papers tossed around my office, and a cold wind ripped in through the window. I didn’t even know the windows opened up here.

Doug was there, sitting on my window ledge. “I made you some tea,” he said. I took it, and, edging out the window, sat down next to him. “Doug! How are you? Where’ve you been?”

Breaking horses.

Splitting atoms.

Striking gold.

Doug was silent. Then he spoke.

“There’s nothing about the world that you don’t know already in your dreams, when you’re five. There’s nothing to accomplish, no satisfaction that you haven’t already achieved during your first kiss, and every kiss after that, and when you’re holding your first child, and every child after that. There’s no adventure you can’t have, if only you let yourself. Reality is more real than you think it is. That’s the American Dream: you can have everything, because you already have everything inside you.”

I couldn’t feel the cold at all anymore.

“This time,” Doug said, “why don’t you come with me?”

And I did.

Aspirin for Gangrene rating=4

MP3 audio track

City lights

You're new. You show up in town with a few things you stuffed into a bag. They're not essential or valuable or even all that well-planned; they're just the things you happened to bring. You arrive for no particular reason: everyone has to live somewhere; and maybe it doesn't matter where, as much as people think.

This place will do.

You walk a lot, somewhat relentlessly. You could take busses or trains, but you don't, because you don't want to miss anything. You want to see everything. You want to learn to distinguish that corner from that corner from that corner; and you do. You've only been in town a few days and already you see the sense of it.

You learn your way around. You learn the bus routes and the ways people talk, and why it's better to buy your coffee from here and your lunch from over there. You find an apartment and a way to make a living, so you go back and forth, carving out a new routine, slowly, like a river carves a canyon. There are people you begin to see regularly, co-workers, neighbors; and you see some of them regularly enough that you call them friends.

You learn some shortcuts, some efficiencies. Direct routes. The routine cuts a little deeper.

But unrest is a whisper in your ear, or maybe that's ambition, and you find another, better job; and like two points plotted on a graph, you can now connect your two jobs and call the line a "career path." You find yourself out at restaurants and bars for the second or third time, remembering the first time nostalgically. People sometimes ask you for directions on the street, and you're happy to oblige.

You meet still more people, and some of them become new friends, till you've accumulated more than a few, enough that you actually sometimes lose track. You wonder, sometimes, whatever happened to that one, that old friend? You haven't talked to them in a while.

The freshness wears off. The grocery store, the pharmacy, once sources of small pleasurable novelties—cereals and toothpastes you'd never seen, medicines with unfamiliar labels—these things are the new normal. You cease to notice the quirks on your walks—the gaslights and the cobblestone streets, the woman who hawks newspapers a little too aggressively, the fountains and sculptures and scenery, the man who needs one dollar to ride the bus.

You're discontent; you're not clear why. You think maybe it's because the color of the light in your apartment is wrong, tinged with too much yellow. You find another job, but you're not certain that it's a better one. It offers you a fresh commute in the morning, and new people with whom to small-talk. You wonder if it's like aspirin for gangrene. You sigh deeply. You take longer walks home, if home is the word you mean. The routine cuts deeper, a habitual insulation that it's easy to confuse for continuity, direction, meaning. Nothing is actually bad, but still, you find yourself packing a bag, a small one, filled with arbitrary things, and thinking of other places. It doesn't matter where. Any place will do. Somewhere new.

Blog of the Last Man on Earth rating=4

Last Man on Earth

(This story will appear in an upcoming issue of Crack the Spine.)

But for the Grace of God rating=4

On the day that Glenn Beck and his horde of infantile angry white men converged by the Lincoln Memorial to "restore the honor" of America, I was carrying a woman with a broken hip into a friend's car. She'd been evicted from the hospital earlier in the week, after her Medicare coverage ran out: they gave her a walker, put her in a cab, paid the fare, and sent her back to the third story apartment she shares with her very-literally-deranged daughter. When she got out of the car, someone stole her walker, and she waited at the curb until some guys who lived in her apartment building carried her up the three flights of stairs and set her down on her olive green sofa, where she stayed till we heard from her a few days later because she was hungry. It had taken her this long to get the phone from her daughter, who shouted in the background of the phone call, "Don't talk to them about how I treat you!"

So we went over with some groceries, and in the end, decided to carry her out and return her to the hospital.

The feeling of a 72-year-old, 87-pound woman clinging to my neck and crying in pain is outside my normal range of experience and I won't forget it any time soon. While I carried her, I worried I'd drop her, of course; but I also worried that from her pain she'd vomit on my new shirt. The thoughts that pop into one's head are sometimes an unpleasant surprise.

"Thank you," she said.

"You don't have to thank me."

This isn't a story about me or any good deed of mine: I was, in this, just an orderly, and an accidental one who just happened to be nearby. My friends are saints: they stock her fridge, and they decided to cover the cost of re-admitting the woman to the hospital. (In the end, this wound up being a daily copay, only: the woman was thrown out, broken hip and all, because she couldn't pay $100 a day...)

After we got the woman into the car, my friend drove off to the hospital, and I—still with the old woman's smell on me—walked off through Hollywood. Very few people walk in Hollywood: sometimes it feels like I and homeless people are the only ones who walk in Hollywood. I walked by a man with no shirt and a white, chest-length beard. His hands looked like they'd been tarred. He curled one of them into a fist and he shook it weakly at the sky. His lips moved but he didn't make any sound.

This, at the corner of Selma and Ivar, the spot where tomorrow morning there will be a luxe farmer's market selling handmade soaps and organic produce, but where today a man with tarry hands lives out of a shopping cart and curses God, and a woman with a broken hip pisses in her sofa for days because she can't cover a $100 copay; and I just broke, right there, shaking, with the disparity of so much privilege—a Siddhartha moment: the suffering of people is so real sometimes it pervades right through all the creature comforts we erect to shield ourselves from it. "You don't have to thank me," I'd told her, not to be polite, but because the world owes her some kindness. This same day that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin marched on Washington to "restore traditional values" to America—the traditional values that led to slavery and segregation, the values that led to rail barons and child labor, the values that espouse neglect of the disenfranchised, abandonment of the helpless, enrichment of the coddled—values that in wiser times of history are, once adopted by the state, called fascism; and any society that willfully chooses not to take care of its own doesn't deserve to be called a society at all.

Caution Curves rating=4

There must be a word for that sudden, inexplicable urge to drive your car into a telephone pole. You know the urge I mean. (I hope it's not just me...): you're driving on a perfectly safe stretch of road, having a completely unremarkable, maybe even happy day—till a little devil on your shoulder tells you to flick the wheel hard to the left, into oncoming traffic, a telephone pole or off a cliff.

You don't do it, of course. There's a half-second pause between the thought popping into your head, and your acting on that impulse—and that's enough time for you to realize it'd be a really stupid idea. It's enough time to stop yourself.

Usually.

Hopefully.

Even if you do manage to stop yourself (and if you're reading this, I assume that you've always managed to stop yourself), still there's a subsequent adrenaline rush, when you realize how thin the line is between an idea and an action; between thinking of driving off the cliff, and driving off the cliff; between a blissful, unremarkable day on a country road, and a life-altering collision of your own making.

* * *

Mothers, lock up your daughters, and drivers, lock up your cars: the devil on my shoulder is loud and insistent, and lately, in many aspects of my life, I'm pulling the wheel hard to the left. I'm making irrevocable and maybe irrational decisions.

Why? I'm not sure I could say. The road was too straight, too smooth. It was too easy to see where it was going. It wasn't going anywhere.

Or, ...

The devil made me do it.

* * *

There's another, similar siren call I've always found hard to resist—the call of mountain roads. Too many nights I've hurtled a car recklessly up and down the hairpins of Mulholland Drive, defying gravity to pull me off. I'd drive so hard it'd make me sweat, knowing anything—a bump in the road, gravel, a deer, (a pedestrian) could be the difference between living and dying.

What I've never been able to explain: it's not a death wish that drives me to be so reckless. It is absolutely not a wish to die.

It's a wish to live. A wish to be alive and to feel it.

Mulholland Drive

There must be a word for that.

Cold Moon rating=4

File under: Anecdotal Evidence

Cold moon

or, Kiss Me While You Can

I hear that my lips are shrinking, and not just my lips, but lips everywhere, worldwide, getting smaller by the day. With each passing day, the lips' fleshy plumpness is sucked out of them, slowly absorbed into the rest of the body: no longer so expansive or optimistic, our aging flesh is reduced to eating itself, and it makes us less kissable, bit by bit.

A friend stands with me while we look at the full moon, enormous on the horizon. "It's closer tonight," I tell her. "Something about the orbit. I read it on the Internet. It's as close to us now as it ever gets."

"The moon is drifting away," she answers. "More than an inch each year, it's falling away. It's getting away. Everything is slowing down."

I notice her lips seem smaller than they used to, and I decide not to kiss her, but keep looking at the moon instead.

Creature of Habit rating=4

Sexy nuns

Maintaining a blog is like being a nun who makes regular appointments for Brazilian wax. Who is it for, really?

Days of Moving Slowly rating=4

We were glued to the TV late on Thursday night, because all three of us had places to be early the next morning. "They won't strike," one of us said. "They never actually strike."

They, in this case, was Transit Workers Union, who were threatening to shut down New York City's public transportation if the city couldn't meet them halfway on a new contract agreement. This backroom poker match happens every few years and always has the same result: a heroic late-night resolution to the impasse, with train service continuing uninterrupted the next morning. And sure enough, they didn't strike on Friday, though all day and through the weekend, the trains moved with almost sympathetic slowness.

Maybe I was remembering badly. Maybe the trains were always this slow.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a the last and final stop. Please exit the train." People on the car looked confused. "I thought this was an express...?" I shrugged. Maybe this is how you strike, without striking....

On Sunday, there was a rat in my subway car. I'm sure it was a coincidence. Disgruntled subway workers wouldn't stoop so low. Would they? The rat ran up and down the car in a panic, sending the passengers squealing, swatting with shopping bags, standing on their seats. Finally, somehow, the rat found a way out of the car, and things quieted down again. "Well," chuckled a man in a suit, "that broke up the day."

By Tuesday, there really was a strike, and no good way into or out of Manhattan. I had to get back to Boston. "You could walk to the train station," a friend suggested. "But it's seven miles. It's fifteen minutes just to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. And it's 28 degrees." Finally, I convinced a car service to drive me, what turned out to be a two-hour ride. The driver was furious. "In my country—it's a democracy, you know, but a dictatorship—this would never happen. They'd all go to jail. They're ruining Christmas." Then: "When is Christmas?"

Even Amtrak seems slow. Standstill outside Stamford. Sympathetic slowness? And people seem reluctant to say goodbye: they hug on the platform—nothing unusual about that—but they cling to their hugs just a little bit longer. "I love you," they say. "I'll talk to you tonight." They hug one more time. "I love you," they say. "I'll see you soon." Whenever that is....

Disimportant rating=4

File under: Crazy Talk

or, Insomnia pt. 2

The air conditioner can't cut through the damp heat of the apartment. I'm propped on a make-shift wrought iron patio watching the fat moon sit on the horizon, and the cars as they pass below, ambulances and motorcycles, people going every which way.

There are dirty dishes in the sink left from this morning. I found an embryo, I think, in the egg I broke—a small brown ball I couldn't pull off the yolk. I skipped breakfast but haven't washed the bowl.

Earlier, on the walk home, I shook hands with a homeless man, and now I'm wondering if I washed the hand. I put my fingers in my mouth more than I realize. After I told him I had no money, I felt bad for lying and gave him a subway token. He had an unfortunate asymmetrical face.

I pour from one of the amber bottles on top of the fridge into a glass of ice and watch it while the ice melts, but I realize without sipping that I don't want it.

Surely days should add up to more than this.

How many boxes, I try to guess, will it take to hold all my things? How many trips up and down the stairs? And where, in the end, will all those boxes wind up?

As I'm doing push-ups, I watch my arms shake: they're thrashing around but still, if I blur my eyes just right, I can't really even tell that they're mine.

You can't wash your hands too often.

Why don't I get tired?

With the book I'm reading I keep a pen and paper handy so I can jot down everything that feels significant. I'm copying every other line. Out of context, it's all a jumble.

I put a single song on a loop and it plays over and over and over and over.

The hours stitch together one after another and add up to something disimportant. Or maybe that was yesterday. Sometimes they're hard to tell apart.

"There's no poetry," she said, "to your living in Boston." Whose fault is that?, I ask myself, making funny faces at the mirror. Anyway, cadence, I think, is more important than meaning. And less arbitrary.


(photo by Peter Konerko)

Dreaming on the Tooth Fairy rating=4

Tooth Fairy

I haven't seen C. since I don't know when. Months—enough months that counting them seems beside the point. Someone I thought I'd see every day forever.

I keep expecting that I'll "get over her," and then I keep winding up disappointed that I haven't already "gotten over her." Finally it begins to come to me that I'm not going to "get over her," and I suppose I don't really want to, which is why it's been so hard, all these months....

Instead, immeasurable bit by immeasurable bit, the future I dreamt with her will fade away. Rather than thinking of her twenty-four hours a day and sadly, it lessens to twenty, and some of those thoughts are happy memories; and gradually, fewer hours, and a better ratio, till some day, the idea of "us" will seem faraway, wistful, a little ridiculous; and it will be replaced by some other idea of who I am and what my future holds.

For now, though, the idea has been loosened, only, not fully dislodged, and certainly not replaced—and like a loose tooth, it dangles awkwardly, annoyingly, sometimes painfully. Once it's pushed out, I'll admire it as such a surprisingly small thing; I'll tuck it under my pillow, and it'll be replaced while I sleep, one dream for another, like a baby tooth for a few small coins.

Dysthymia rating=4

dysthymia. Noun. A breathing disorder of the soul.

Eternal Recurrence rating=4

The other day we were hiking at Eaton Canyon, where the desert trees have hunkered down for a long dry season, and I was thinking about eternal recurrence. I know that's a ridiculous thing to say, except I also think all of us probably think about eternal recurrence to some degree or another when we go hiking in nature, and that's why we go hiking in nature, partly—to escape for a little bit from the measly perspective offered by our once-only lifespan and to help us feel connected to the bigger things.

We walked over a streambed of parched rocks where, a month ago, there'd been water almost up to our knee; and this was enough to get me thinking: where does the water go? And where does it go, after that? And then again where? (My line of questions is as sophisticated as any two-year-old's, though only on my best days.)

If every drop of water on this earth stays on this earth, then it's like we live inside a fishbowl, and this water is the same water my parents drank as children, and their parents; it's the same water that swallowed the Titanic, that flooded Johnstown; the same water walked by Jesus, parted by Moses; the same water carried into the caves of Lascaux and mixed with pigments to make the oldest art we know; the same water where dinosaurs swam, where the heat from the Sun sparked the very first life on Earth, during the fiery heat before Earth had earth.

Later, the dog bounds up ahead to run with another dog, instant happy friends; and then we pass through a small clearing where a burned-out stump of tree tells the quiet history of a years-ago fire. There's a monarch butterfly, which we're told come, every last one of them, all the way from that single spot in Mexico—but this one arrives at us today tireless with cheerful flickering wings, flapping and unflappable.

The trail is footprints on top of footprints on top of footprints. One set leaves a pattern in the dirt shaped like a heart, and we follow this trail of hearts, one after the other. We look at every person on the trail: are you the heart-maker? And would you know it if you were? Because who among us knows the shape of their own footprints?

At the end of the trail, there's a waterfall, spilling from some overhead rocks, and before that, from who-knows-where. The water hits the ground and patters in a dance, and the people who collect underneath do the same. Then the water roils downstream and disappears, we don't know where.

But it will be back, this water. It always is.

When we return to the parking lot, a policeman stops us to ask if we've seen anything, and we're not sure how to answer: we've seen so many things. But while we were hiking, a man parked his car and then used it as the place from which to leave this earth. He shot himself in it and he died.

No, Officer. We didn't see a thing.

When the water spills away, where does it go? And will we recognize it again, when it comes back to us? Will it recognize itself? 

Fire Drill rating=4

or, These Are My Hands, Pt. 2

Flambe

Why do these things always happen to me?

I'm in my kitchen and my hand is on fire.

All things considered, I could be much worse off. For instance, all my fingers are still attached to my flaming hand. Many victims of many kitchen accidents are not so lucky. So, on the plus side, at least I'm not trying to staunch a flow of blood while I pack my own severed fingers into the ice of my freezer, only to discover (sure enough) I forgot to refill the ice tray.

At least that's not happening.

I'm not choking, or poisoned, or having an allergic reaction that would require me to shoot adrenaline into my own heart. So there's that. No, the only real problem I have to contend with is the fact that my hand is on fire.

Seen with a little perspective, this isn't such a big deal.

Seen with a little perspective,1 you'd also see that it's not just my hand, but the small baking sheet that the hand is holding, too. It's a 13x9" baking sheet full of grease, and when I pulled it from the broiler, it was on fire; and since I pulled it from the fire with my hand, now my hand is on fire, too.

Since I pulled it from the fire using a heat-resistant oven mitt, technically only my oven mitt (and the baking sheet) are on fire, and not the hand itself. Not yet, anyway. It's a crucial distinction, but one that's hard to make with the eyes alone: visually, I look down the length of my arm, and sure enough, to all appearances, my hand is engulfed in flames.

Which is unusual, to say the least. (And that's a good thing.)2

It doesn't hurt, yet, but it is getting kind of hot. And since the tray in my hand is full of flaming liquid, I'm not immediately clear what sort of options I have at my disposal. So I hold it and watch it burn for a few moments, and think, and hope that in the meanwhile maybe it will burn itself out (though I know even while I'm thinking this that I won't actually be so lucky).

The flames burn, and I think: I wish I had marshmallows.

The flames burn, and I think: this proves it for sure, our smoke alarms really don't work. I should check the batteries.

The flames burn, and I think: I hope no one sees this. It's kind of embarrassing.

Somehow, with almost too much calm—almost psychotically-detached calm—I begin using my good hand (the one that's not on fire) to rearrange the appliances and clutter on the counter. Toaster goes here, check. Coffee grinder goes here, check. Non-flammable pot holder goes here, check.

Finally I clear enough space to put down the 13x9" fireball I've been holding, at which point I calmly remove my flaming glove, stamp out the fire, and then, to soothe my mild burn, reach into the freezer to grab a few ice cubes. But there aren't any ice cubes: I've left the ice tray empty again. Sure enough...


1. If you could see past the flames, which are about twelve inches high...

2. But not that unusual...

Floating on the River rating=4

You're in your house. It's not big or ostentatious, but it's comfortable and cozy and it feels like yours. You've lived there a little while: you have some agreeable furniture, some wall hangings, a few houseplants, a small collection of coffee mugs that make you a little happy each morning. It's a place where you've coalesced many of these sorts of things—objects that make you a little bit happy.

You like your house. You feel comfortable in it—so much so that you often forget that it sits in the middle of vast river, and it's slowly floating downstream.

You drift down this river, through rough patches and slow meandering bends. Sometimes you stare out the window at the trees on the muddy banks. Sometimes you look at an egret perched on a mooring.

You can't steer your house against the stream, but you do give it a push now and then, to avoid a rock or to pull closer to passing flotsam.

Or people.

Sometimes people drift by on the river. There was a man in a rowboat who wanted to talk to you about salvation. There was a swimmer you rescued from drowning, and took in briefly till he recovered and swam on his way. There's the family on the barge, who sometimes passes you on the river and sometimes you pass them. "Your boys are getting tall," you say. "We baked some muffins," they say. "Do you want some?"

Now and then, not too often, you come upon another house drifting downstream at the same pace. Its window is just across from yours, and you engage in conversation. "Would you like a cup of coffee?" "No, thank you. I'm more of a tea drinker." You start talking, sharing with each other while you drift side by side, and everything feels a little lighter, a little easier.

Eventually, you decide to lash your two houses together and float down the river as one, for a while.

Forecasting rating=4

Each weekday, Weather.com posts an email to my BlackBerry, warning me what weather I can expect for the foreseeable future.

As if.

I'm not much of a believer in weather reports: I've never been able to decide which is worse—their intentional sensationalism ("Severe weather alert! 8-16 inches of snow!" somehow always turns out to be flurries) or their accidental inaccuracy (slightly less reliable than random guesswork). I wonder if the Farmer's Almanac—published a year in advance—is a more useful tool for this sort of thing.

So each morning, I'd arrogantly ask, "What difference does it make, really, how hot it is, or whether it rains or doesn't? " I'd march out the door with entirely the wrong coat, and arrive at work either dripping sweat through all seven layers of wool, or slightly frostbitten. When the rain came down and froze on my glasses, I decided I needed to be a little better prepared, and signed up for this Weather.com email service.

So far, it's been helpful, clear, succinct, and accurate, offering up detailed glimpses into the immediate future: "Partly cloudy. Windy this evening. Low 46F. Winds WNW at 25 to 35 mph."

Brrrrr!That is, until this week, when I got an email that said, simply, "Cold."

Cold?

It had already been cold, if you ask me; and since it's a third of the way into December, my gut told me it was going to stay that way for a while. Was it the meteorologist's day off? This was no forecast; this email offered no additional useful information.

Or so I thought.

The sun had already set by the time I left work that day, and when I stepped out onto the street, the sharpness of the air felt downright Canadian. (I thought immediately of a friend from Saskatoon, who told me once that it's common knowledge in her hometown, even among small children, how long before frostbite sets in on exposed skin at 0°, -20°, -50°.) As I crossed the bridge across the Boston Channel—the site of the Boston Tea Party— the wind blew so hard it almost kicked me over the guardrail into the water (which I half-expected to be frozen). By the time I got home, my toes were numb, and my ears felt brittle, or maybe molten.

Sure enough, it was cold.

Oh, but if only that were the end of the story. Because it turned out that the heat in my apartment wasn't working. Not the heat, nor the hot water. The old brownstone has about as much insulation as a tin quansut hut, and there was probably no practical difference between the inside of my refrigerator and the outside. When every blanket I owned still wasn't enough, I piled the bed with sweaters, towels, socks; and when I woke up, there was ice on the inside of my windows (and, again, my glasses...), which only thawed when I turned up the oven and left the door wide open.

I'll never again question the forecasting ability of Weather.com, because, sure enough ... now I have a cold.


Vokey - Winter

Fucking Hillary Clinton rating=4

(This piece originally appeared in the literary journal Cargo.)

The ice cubes in my glass freeze together head to head, like a kiss. At the point where they've decided they best fit, they become one, melt together, away from the world, and I twirl them around in the midst of their disappearance, to hear the music they make against the glass, clink clink.

The phone is ringing and I'm not answering it. I'm playing with my ice cubes and their wonderful music, clink clink, and the dull thump when they slide against the lime.

The answering machine will pick up, like a good answering machine.

I'm thinking of fucking Hillary Clinton. I'm thinking of taking her in a darkened room of the White House, under the titillated eyes of the Secret Service, on a desk once used by Andrew Jackson. I'm thinking of pulling Hillary Clinton by her hair, biting the diamonds on her earlobes, biting her neck, while she writhes to reach the clasp of her dress. I'm thinking of  thrusting my way into American history.

The answering machine picks up, as it's wont to do. Whoever's calling hangs up. It's annoying, especially 3am. But that's the way the game is played. The ball is in my court.

Things I have trouble imagining: Hillary in the throes of orgasm; Hillary with morning breath and raspy voice; Hillary cooking me breakfast; Hillary unrolling a condom onto me; Hillary letting me do her without a condom.

The harder these things are to imagine, the more they turn me on—so when she does them, so goes the game.

I pick up the phone and dial *69, but after the first ring, I hang up. I'm getting too old for this.

I like the image of Hillary pacing by the phone, feeling junior high, trying to get up the courage to call. I like to picture her hanging up after she hears my voice. I like Hillary flustered. I like knowing I just *69ed Hillary Clinton.

I pour myself another Scotch and watch the ice cubes fade into oblivion. The phone is ringing again: she's 69ed me right back. I reach to turn off the machine, cover up the evidence, shred the papers. She knows the drill. But I change my mind. I'm no good at being coy. Let her know what she's dealing with.

I enjoy watching Hillary at press conferences, on TV, wearing tailor-made suits of red or blue, crafted by conservative designers who are well paid but will never be known by name. I like watching her and guessing which panties she's wearing. I like knowing Hillary is cool and collected and smart and tough with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but that she can't sleep nights, thinking of me. I like not calling her back, and standing her up for our secret, elaborate, tightly-scheduled rendezvous, pushing her nearly far enough to put my own life in danger. I like making Hillary Clinton cry.

And I think she likes it too.

Oh the games people play.

The machine picks up, and she hangs up again. Maybe she's thinking of Bill right now, somewhere in the back of her mind, thinking of a long time ago, when she was in love; when she still believed in love. I don't know what she's thinking, and I never will. I can only try to love her in the ways I think she wants to be loved, in the ways I think she needs to be loved.

And I do. Every day, I do.

Furniture, pt. 2 rating=4

File under: Housekeeping

If, as I claimed earlier, the abandoning of furniture over the course of our lives is symbolic of all of the other things we leave behind, then the opposite is also true: the collecting of it acts as a kind of ballast, anchoring us to otherwise arbitrary places.

In other words, I might move again someday, except for this new bed, and this new chair, and this desk, and this TV, and this pot rack.

As if the path of settling into a place always goes straight through the shopping mall...

Getting Your Aquarium Above Water rating=4

File under: Other Places

Wet floor

Today, while visiting your aquarium, we invented a few ways to improve it, which we'd like to share with you, in the hopes that they might help enhance your finances in these troubled times.

1. Monkeys

Your aquarium was sadly lacking in monkeys. As you know, monkeys make everything more entertaining, because they're funny, and they look like people. Consider having them take tickets or serve food in the cafeteria, or create an act involving a miniature bicycle, a tightrope, and the piranha tank.

2. Fish food

The average aquarium visitor is familiar with salmon, shrimp, scallops, lobster, and cod—in short, the fish we eat. Your aquarium has very few of these fish. We think that the aquarium would be a richer experience if people had deeper familiarity with the fishes you keep; therefore, we recommend opening a cafe that serves bite-sized samples of all of your fish. Remember, everything is good with the right dipping sauce.

3. Death Match

Once per week, pit a giant squid against a sperm whale and let them fight to the death. Gambling revenue will allow you to fund more programs for children.

4. Paint a beluga

Your whales are cute, smart, and friendly. But let's face it: they're white. Allowing children to finger-paint the belugas will give them hands-on experience with the wonderful creatures—literally!

5. SCUBA

Thanks to the effects of global warming, we'll soon all be living under water. Help people get used to the idea by allowing us to SCUBA our way through your fish tanks, and take our chances with the predators of the deep.

6. Dolphin Quiz Show

Everyone knows that dolphins are smart—but how smart? Pit a dolphin against a human for a special-edition underwater quiz show: "Mackerels to Mackerels."

7. Gift shop

Open a gift shop that sells overpriced plastic trinkets shipped from third-world countries, in the hopes that hapless tourists will lose their judgment long enough to buy all of it. Oh, never mind. You're already doing that. Congratulations on your proactive thinking about aquarium financing.

Ghost in the Machine, pt. 2 rating=4

I can't remember.Pamela

What was I watching when your careworn face showed up on screen?—reminding me, first of all, that you existed (I just hadn't thought about you in a while...), and then, only a moment later, reminding me that you didn't. You didn't exist anymore.

I really can't remember what I was watching.

Fact is, I've seen you a dozen times on TV, and it's never made an impression on me. Your craggy voice is what strikes people, and your tiny body, and sometimes they get a lucky hint of your intensity: more intensity per pound than anyone I've met.

But to people who know you, these things are already familiar, and the feeling from seeing you onscreen isn't much different than seeing you anywhere else. "I ran into Pamela the other night," I'll find myself saying to some mutual friend. "Where?", they might ask. And then I realize: Freaks and Geeks. A TV show.

* * *

That's where it was—Freaks and Geeks. I remember now. You growled something funny in that voice we used to call "emphysemic" (till we discovered this was actually true). And then you were gone.

And then I realized, you were gone.

I also have trouble remembering where I was when I learned this fact. Far away, that much is certain: I left you as suddenly and certainly as I left all of you, that whole crew. I learned it by telephone, from the woman who introduced us. I can't remember if we talked, or if it was a voicemail. I recall being shocked, though I don't know if that's a fair word: you sometimes seemed so frail that I wondered if you were dying from the moment I met you.

[They say we're all dying from the moment we're born, but you somehow turned this on its head: living right up until the moment of death.]

* * *

"How old are you, Pamela?", we'd ask now and then. We had an idea that you'd been around forever, that you were maybe a beauty from the silent film era; the math didn't work, but still it made sense, because you behaved as though you'd been there since the Beginning. The beginning of something, anyway.

You'd cackle at the question, that signature laugh: "Even the coroner won't know how old I am," you'd say, "on the day I die."

You were wrong about that. That's the day I learned—on the day that it no longer mattered.

Maybe it never mattered.

[I think I wanted an answer because I needed to know how fragile you were, how brittle. I wanted to know how hard to squeeze when I hugged you. Your refusal to answer was your way of saying you weren't brittle at all. Maybe it's also the reason you never told us you were dying. Maybe you thought that if you told us, we wouldn't hug so tightly anymore.]

* * *

I was in the northern part of California, you know, when they buried you in the southern part. Closer than I'd been, but still not close enough. I wanted to be there. I doubt you'd have cared; you never thought much of ceremony. I expected, as always, you'd stand and watch from the wings, halfway heckling, but also mouthing our lines as we spoke them: your silent support.

I wanted to be there and I wanted to bury you with a bottle of cheap red wine, and my love.

I'm glad to see you show up on my television screen now and then, answering a door, peering into a crystal ball, pulling on a cigarette—typecast somewhere between mystic and sight-gag. You'll say something in your husky voice, you'll laugh your signature laugh, and you'll be gone. And later, I'll think, "I ran into Pamela the other night.

"It was good seeing her."

Having Cake Versus Eating It rating=4

When does anyone ever, ever have cake without eating it too? I thought that's what having cake was...

Home / Away From Home, pt. 2 rating=4

(or, "What's On Your iPod?")

The Fung Wah bus lurches through traffic, somewhere in interminable Connecticut, on another leg of its Sisyphian circuit between Boston and New York. [The drivers, I'm told, finish off each four-hour leg with a short cigarette break, then turn the bus around and drive back to where they started, back and forth, who-know-how-many iterations before they get to rest for the day.] As we finally cross into the no-man's land of bridges outside New York City, the song on my iPod is Iggy Pop's "The Passenger" (now featured in the trailer to some movie or another, can't remember which):

I am the passenger,
and I ride and I ride...

I step off the bus like I did two weeks ago, in Chinatown, in New York City, in the place I still think of as my home though my mailing address would indicate otherwise; only this time, it's a little different. "Can you tell the way to Reade Street," asks a passerby. But I can't. I can't remember the way to Reade Street. I duck straight into a favorite bar because I really need to see a familiar face; the place is crowded, but not with anyone I know. Rather than stay, I grab my bag and head back out into the street, where it's started with a gentle rain. My iPod, as if to mock me, starts in with Whiskeytown's "Sit and Listen to the Rain," and for a little while, I do.

Used to feel so much,
Now I feel so numb
Could go out tonight
But I ain't sure what for
Call a friend or two
I don't know anymore

The weekend passes. I swap books and DVDs with friends, go to a party, go to a brunch. There's one person I want to see and I don't manage to see her; we can't get our schedules together. I confess to her, "In a weird way, I'm already looking forward to getting back to my lonely simple life in Boston." In the background, while we talk, is The Devlins' "Drift":

You say what you want to say,
In my arms, I know you're home
You go where you want to go
and leave me on my own
to drift alone

By the time I head back north, I'm feeling vaguely Sisyphian myself: I'm not sure why I bothered to come. I stand under the Brooklyn Bridge and contemplate the crisscross of cables; I feel a stone of disappointment in my stomach. I'm not sure what comes next. I decide to take the train back. The song iPod plays PJ Harvey's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea:

One day
I know
there'll be a place
called
home.

"Last call. All aboard. We're going to Boston. All aboard."


Brooklyn Bridge

Hoopty Time Machine rating=4

MP3 audio track

Time Machine

(This story appears in the 2013 issue of The Binnacle and was a winner of that publication's Annual Ultra-Short Competition. It was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart Prize.)

Dad is outside working on a hoopty car in the driveway, always working on it. It's never going to start. It's a family joke. He comes home from his job, pops the hood, bangs away at the car's insides, gets covered in grease, tries to turn over the engine, curses, kicks the car, comes inside for dinner, and goes to bed.

Every night like this.

Finally, "Dad, why are you always working on the car?" And he answers, "It's not a car. It's a time machine. It's how I'm getting out of here."

Sure enough, one day, Dad and his car are gone, and I know without being told that he's never coming back. He's off somewhere in his hoopty time machine, without me or mom, trying to correct all his past mistakes.

How cellophane rating=4

Sometimes it's as though the aliens are reaching out to us, or the dolphins—if only we knew how to hear them... This fell into my spam folder this morning, from "Cherie", with the subject heading, i'm sad chris:

Is ransom buddha the gravid enthusiasm melee or galatea enthusiasm?

The micronesia detonate not mardi but luxuriant matsumoto rawhide and genevieve afterword. Sometimes buttery is eddy but gravid, glandular ah adsorb scot tacitus dunkirk prelude servitor!

How cellophane? aitken! afterword dreamlike keenan rawhide!

Is cousin diatomaceous the agony cloture deck or superfluous handstand?

The blythe rubble not cloture but aminobenzoic boson bound and rawhide handstand. Sometimes andiron is agony but blythe, token aspheric describe cepheus contradict urea cyril drown!

How totalitarian? iniquity! maggoty toenail lathe goof!

I want to help, Cherie. I hear you. Sometimes buttery is gravid. How totalitarian.

dolphins

Cherie—I'm sad, too...

Identity Theft rating=4

Here are a few biographical lines about Chris DeWan:

After some important years spent in Pennsylvania, Chris graduated from a well-reputed school on the East Coast and then found his way to California. He spent some time dabbling in the arts and in theatre, before committing to a career as a computer programmer and web developer, working for Apple Computer. An avid cyclist who has competed on occasion, he has also been known to color his hair, and sport various body piercings.

All of these things are true of me, but I'm writing them about the other Chris DeWan, Bizarro Chris DeWan, my doppelganger, whom I have never met. We came dangerously close once, probably as close as ten feet, at a party in Cupertino. I sipped a beer with my left hand, and he, like a mirror, with his right. He knew I was there. There was only a table of shrimp cocktail between us.

What happens when matter and anti-matter collide?

It's unnerving to have a double, worse than the worst Citibank "identity theft" ad—unnerving not because people unwittingly fall for the ruse, but because there is no ruse. Will the real Chris DeWan please stand up?Somewhere, out there in the world, there is another Chris DeWan—not simply a namesake (which would be inevitable), but another one of me. Presented with an almost infinite number of life's forking paths, his and mine crossed as soon as our names were etched on our birth certificates, and have continued to do so, often—even yesterday, when a friend of mine visited his blog instead of mine: "Weird how long it took me to realize it wasn't you; he works at Apple and seems sort of crazy in a funny way."

Philip Roth had Operation Shylock; I have Operation Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Of course it's all much ado about nothing. He and I will continue to live in peaceful co-existence, parallel but separate lives. We will act freely, make independent choices, and they will probably be the same. This will continue to muck up search engines until gradually, our identities according to Google have become one. I wish us both the best.

P.S. Kudos to Chris DeWan
According to Google, Chris DeWan is the Belvidere High School Athlete of the Week for golf, plays in a band, and is one of Los Angeles' hottest young indie actors. He has published photography of Glacier National Park, organizes Civil War re-enactments, and writes capsule reviews for Butterfly Books. He is a straight A student who has high expectations of himself and those around him. He is twelve years old, is in the seventh grade, and plays basketball. Congratulations, Chris!

Insomnia rating=4

The sky is a lush curtain of purple and the house I'm in is washed out of any other color—that one hue only, and the rest is silver gelatin. And hints of pink in the clouds, from a sun that has long ago set but still stubbornly throws light from below the horizon. The night is long but I'm more awake than I've been in months, years, maybe ever; and the air is so clear it carries every last smell to my nose and I breathe it in. First among them is the sweet sweat of my lover. Her cheeks are flushed and she's breathing short breaths. I have a hand firmly on her waist and the other has a grip on the back of her head, and from there, her two centers of gravity, head and womb, I hold her sway, and seize into her with a hungry kiss. She collapses almost imperceptibly into my body, moans slightly. Then the blood starts. It is spilling from the corners of her mouth down the line of her jaw. I am sucking her blood up through her lungs, gulping breathfuls of it, but spilling more of it than I'm swallowing, and a small river of it runs runs between her breasts and begins staining the belly of her white dress from the inside. She can't breathe.

Finally, I ease her down into the grass. She put up no fight, even at the end, because she loved me. I am a vampire, but she loved me.

* * *

The freighter at sea groans like a creature breathing, its metal subtly twisted by relentless underwater waves, so the hold is full of sound even though I'm alone. I climb a ladder to the top deck and try to make out details—landmass, iceberg—but the dark is too thick: self portrait...I see shapes where there aren't any. All I can see are different grades of darkness.

I look a minute more: I'm desperate for some confirmation of what I'd just learned, with absolute certainty but no proof, down in the hold. A single tangible fact to make my next acts easier. But there isn't one, and sadly I turn away from the railing and start climbing the short ladder to the ship's bridge.

It's warm when I step in, lit by an amber lantern, and all of the people there—my family—are huddled around the lantern like it is a campfire. When I throw open the hatch, they look up with expectant eyes, relieved to see me. It is my job, I know, to get them out of this, to save them, and they know I will. And I, too, know I will. But I know something they don't. I know with absolute certainty that the ship is about to sink, and this room full of people I love will soon fill with water, and every last one of them will drown painfully in a dark arctic ocean. I don't know how I know this but I do, and that's why I have the machete behind my back, and why I used it already on all of those people down in the hold. I must kill them to spare them. Because I have failed them.

* * *

Am I dreaming? There's something not right. I don't remember leaving the door unlocked, and I can't explain the smell of cigarette smoke in my studio. Nothing looks amiss, but ... something isn't right.

Maybe I'm dreaming.

Or maybe he was here.

My heart surges thinking about it. Maybe he was here. I haven't turned the light on yet and I'm suddenly glad I didn't. I move slowly toward the window and peek through the half-open curtain. Is he out there? One of those parked cars across the street? Or any of the darkened windows in the apartment across the way?

Has he seen me come home? Because if he has, I'm a dead man.

An axe, I think, is what he used last time. Against the last person he hunted. A hatchet.

How I wish it were a movie, or a dream—I'd have a box hidden in my closet with a handgun. Bullets in the nightstand table. I'd have some way to fight back. But it's just me, inside my dingy apartment—a pile of books, a few pots and pans, dirty laundry. Nothing that actually matters, now that it comes down to it. The tinny set of kitchen knives that seemed like such a bargain now seems worth every penny I paid for them and not a cent more. Barely cut a tomato; useless on meat.

I'm going to die here. And I can't even remember why.

Has he seen me, yet, through the window? Is he walking, even now, quietly up the stairs? I don't know. But if I run for it, he'll see me for sure.

I sit on the floor. With inevitability, I find, comes calm. Maybe I hear him, down on the stairs, the hatchet man. He's coming. Now, or later. There's nothing I can do to stop him.

Maybe I'm only dreaming, and I'll wake up, tired, sweating, frightened, but alive. Or maybe I am awake, and this is exactly why I've been having so many nightmares...

Invitation to an Earthquake rating=4

File under: Poetic License

MP3 audio track

Ask not for whom the bell tolls...

Tomorrow is the feast day of Saint Sebastian,
shot to death with arrow in Rome,
but who refused to believe it,
and carried his corpse for days without
letting it go.

Now, as you walk along the footsteps of Junipero Serra
from Mission San Diego de Alcala
north to Palo Alto and the San Francisco Bay --

Watch the Word:
where it spread,
grew malignant,
was passed from those who use it for cutting,
to those who use it for collecting,

encircled, fortified,
presidio built upon the tectonics of history.

Watch the Sleeping Beauties grow their wall of thorns
and wake them.

Listen to the ghosts and the Angels and saints lament
what promises of death we have lost to the name of knowledge
and bury them.

Dear earthquake, dear shipwreck,
dear my blood,
tomorrow lay siege and punctuate history.

I look forward to your coming.


St. Sebastian -

Klaus Kinski's Hairline rating=4

File under: And Action

In Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo,Fitz Klaus Kinski (as the titular main character) marches through the jungle (and the film) wearing a white suit, a wild-eyed look, and hair that looks like it was styled via electroshock therapy. Fitzcarraldo is confident, and passionate to the point of desperation—two qualities of which I'm extremely jealous. Maybe that's why I felt more-than-normal kinship, and why I fixated on the idea that he and I have the same hairline.

Watching the movie, and seeing Fitzcarraldo's ambitious plans come to such a catastrophic end, threw me into a three-day funk and at the end of it I cut off all my hair.

Problem is, with no bangs to hide behind, I had to confront my own face. It's older. Gravity is hard to deny.

* * *

The trash can is full of brown (not blonde) hair, which for a moment makes me conclude that the hair I've cut off belongs to someone else, that the reflection in the mirror belongs to someone else, the hairline belongs to someone else, the tired eyes belong to someone else.

* * *

In Studio City, a fortune teller once singled me out from across a parking lot and made a beeline through the cars, shouting, "I see your forehead! I see your forehead!" I'd just recently buzzed off my hair, and as far as I knew, everyone could see my forehead: I was all forehead; there was nothing to see but my forehead. Still, this would-be phrenologist felt it was particularly important that I know I have a "very auspicious forehead."

Gradually, as my bangs grew back and covered over my vast, auspicious forehead, I forgot about the incident—until a year later, now in Larchmont Village, I ran into the same fortune teller: he walked across the street, in front of traffic, again to tell me, "I see your forehead!"

Well, I've cut my hair again, and I too see my forehead. Auspicious indeed.


Koan of the Colander rating=4

Yellow colander

I have a blue sponge in one hand and a bright yellow colander in the other, and hot water pours from the faucet. I'm trying to rinse the colander free of soap bubbles. I try and try, but I can't rinse the colander, because the colander is designed to let the water pour through. The soap bubbles persist.

Then I realize: life is like that.

I pause for a moment to contemplate this, but the water keeps pouring out of the faucet, so eventually I return to scrubbing.

Land of the Lost rating=4

The Unexistential Desert Island

The characters of Lost

In Lost, a set of characters, each having learned to thrive in their own way in modern society as best they can1, is suddenly thrust into a radically new world, when their plane crashes on an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean.

If the show were a bit darker and a bit less fantastic2, this alone should have been enough drama to carry a TV series, without need of smoke monsters, hatches, time travel, or a nuclear explosion. How well would a spinal surgeon, a Lotto winner, a C-list rock star, and a Korean heiress thrive in the jungle, with nothing except the contents of some salvaged luggage3? Things would get ugly—and dramatic—pretty fast. If I were a betting man, all my money would be on Vincent the dog. (Photo, far right.)

This cutthroat Gilligan's Island would ask, first of all, this existential question: Who are you, when you're stripped of your context—when the skills you've honed over a lifetime are suddenly useless, when you can no longer take your identity from your job—and is that enough to survive? How much of what you do, and how you act, and what you believe, is circumstantial? In absence of society's structures, what are you?

By most measures, the passengers of Oceanic flight #815 are an exceptionally lucky bunch: they have among them a Boy Scoutish medical doctor, a cured paraplegic with a penchant for hunting boar, and an elite Iraqi soldier. Most times I fly, the plane is filled with people who can't even carry their own luggage without rolling it.

But moreover, the survivors of the crash are lucky because, through all their trials, their core values have remained intact. On Lost, no desert-island devolution of society ever happened: the doctor is still a doctor; the con man is still a con man, and the Lotto winner is still a lucky layabout. Thousands of miles from civilization and with no system of commerce, these people more or less elected to keep their day jobs—because without them, they (or we?) won't know who they are. And this would evoke existential questions that no television network is inclined to ask...4


1. Despite a societal bias to think otherwise, con artists and fugitives are also thriving within their particular circumstances: better to be the con artist than the conned; better to be running from the law than behind bars. "Thriving" is by definition circumstantial.

2. So, a bit more boring and a bit more like other TV.

3. Which, to be honest, would consist of nothing more useful than 3oz. bottles of hair product and cables for recharging now-bootless iPods.

4. We say we work to pay the bills, but it cuts both ways: we accrue bills because we work. Leisure is the dialectic flip-side of work, its antithesis: it's what we do when we're not working. So even our leisure time is actually defined by our work.

Latent Loves (pt. 1) rating=4

File under: Poetic License

Unitlted Film Still #43, by Cindy Sherma (cropped)

"Drunk and disorderly conduct."
"The American West."
"Ice hockey."
"The night sky in the country."
"Lying in hot sand by the ocean."
"Driving at 100mph."
"Having a child's ignorance of the passage of time."
"Deep spiritual belief."
"Lounging in bed on Saturday morning."
"Dogs."
"Cycling country roads."
"Tawdry sex."
"The practice, not the idea, of vegetarianism."
"Disappearing into a good book."
"The smell of sage after a desert rain."
"Stage fright."
"Massachusetts rooftops."
"Foreign languages."
"Homemade sourdough."
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
"Morning fog."
"Driving nowhere in particular."
"Discovering new music."
"Breaking hearts."
"Mulholland Drive."
"Forests of pine."
"The hum in the ears the morning after loud music."
"The smell of propane in the ice rink."
"Writing meaningful passages longer than 140 characters."
"Deer."
"Optimism."
"Knowing the bartender."
"Learning new words."
"Naïveté."
"The view from the top of a horse."
"Writing as if someone might read it."
"Being lost."

Left Weave Girl rating=4

The very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction. The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced. The hyper-real.
- Jean Baudrillard

There's a cute girl I keep seeing around town, and I run into her again outside of The Gap. When I see her this time, I can't help but stare: "Haven't we met before?" I stare straight at her for a full minute, which might have been really rude except for the fact that she is a poster.

Left Weave Girl

Left Weave Girl is the "spokesmodel" for The Gap's latest ad campaign. She's the one who tells us to "Go left. Feel right." Whatever that means. And the reason I keep staring is that I might know her. Or I might not.

And I just can't tell which.

* * *

"Ohmygod, you look just like [MovieStarName]!" Not an uncommon thing to hear. It's a game people play—the movie stars we most resemble. But I have some friends in Hollywood who take this game to the next level. You've seen these friends of mine. They're the store clerks, the patients at hospitals, the crime victims crying to the police, the silently supportive wives. You've seen them in whatever space lies between the foreground and the background. My friends are not the stars of the stories they tell; they are the supporting actors—the proletariat of the dream machine. You don't know their names, but you do know their faces. And when people walk up to them to say they look "just like that person on TV," well, there's a chance they are that person.

That's why I spend so much time staring at Left Weave Girl. There's a fair chance Left Weave Girl is a friend of mine. But the longer I stare, the harder it gets for me to tell. I could call this friend and ask, but ... somewhere in the definition of the word "friend", I'd think it might mention that you should be able to recognize a friend when you see her.

* * *

If you sit close enough to a movie screen, you'll notice it's not quite solid. It's porous, full of small, almost invisible holes.

For the most part, I watch—consume—movies and television like everyone else. That is, I think of the world in which celebrities travel as inaccessible, just as unreal as the worlds which they depict in the movies themselves. Just as hyper-real. The rest of us could no more visit that world than visit Oz.

But in those infrequent and jarring moments when I see someone I know cross over to that other side—when a familiar face shows up on TV, or at The Gap—I am reminded of those small, almost invisible holes. I am reminded of the permeability of the silver screen. (People can cross over, but, like Oz, they can only get there through a fluke and the gale force of a tornado...)

* * *

Finally, I do check with my friend, to see if she is the Left Weave Girl. "I wish," she answers. "She's cute!" She writes me from a place called Lone Pine, California. She's making a cowboy movie. She signs off, "Yee haw." My friend is in Oz. She's hyper-real, after all...

Lemons, pt. 2 rating=4

File under: Lemons, Pithyisms
When God gives you papercuts, don't make lemonade.

Little Yellow Envelope rating=4

I had a fantasy that by moving to Boston, to a place I had nothing and knew no one, I'd have some peace and quiet, and in the quiet, I'd be able to figure things out. Maybe I have figured a few things out; but mostly the quiet has come from having no one in particular to talk to, and the peace has been disturbed by being always lost and uneasy. "Which way to Brighton?"

Sometimes I think that the other people in my life offer me a kind of mirror—through them I can see a reflection of myself; through their reactions, I get some understanding of who I actually am. And without them I get confused…

* * *

I keep a little yellow envelope, full to bursting with the small set of photos, postcards and memorabilia I've decided to keep. I don't keep things. I blame it on the frequent moves, but I don't know if that's the real reason: I write a journal on a cheap legal pad; I write in it nearly every day; and when I fill up the pad, I throw it out. It's served its purpose. It's printed ephemera. I take another pad from the 10-pack and start again.

My yellow envelope is the arbitrary pile of the relics I've decided to keep.

Sometimes I think if I look at these pictures and postcards, I'll see my past in a new light and learn something new about myself. But the wisdom in this envelope is oracular, and the answers don't come easy. One scrap says, "Life was simpler in America. (Our life.)" Another says, "Chris's Life" and then offers a short list of alternate possibilities:

  • balloon animals
  • merchant
  • kayak instructor / outdoorsman
  • masseuse
  • ghost writer / political speech writer

Yet another: "How to Fend Off an Alligator." (Tap or punch the alligator on the snout or behind the ears to make it back away.) Another: "I hope that everything that was broken last year gets fixed this year." (It didn't.)

There's a long black feather in the envelope.

There's a stone, wrapped in a piece of paper that says nothing.

I don't know how to make sense of any of it.

* * *

as is the cry of fishmongers... This weekend I saw the woman who gave me the stone. We strolled through the refurbished tenements of New York's Lower East Side. ("Early morning traffic is audible, as is the cry fishmongers.") The buildings, we noticed, had layers and layers of old secrets—here the exposed bricks showed the outline of another, older building long ago torn down; here there'd been a fire. My friend talked to me about palimpsests—old reused parchments which, after time, begin to show all of their collected layers. Their rich secrets are only known after the passage of time. Words accumulate; no erasure is complete; and in the end, there are layers upon layers of sense.

I don't know how to make sense of any of it.


Get outta town!

Longevity rating=4

It was one of those silly online quizzes that suck up so much time and you're not even sure why you're taking it. This one claimed to be able to predict my exact lifespan, based solely on my answers to a few pages of multiple choice questions.

"Do you hold on to things?" was the question that disconcerted me. The prior questions had been about diet, exercise, and congenital predispositions. "Do you hold on to things?" I pretended momentarily to misunderstand, but of course I knew that the automated, multiple choice Internet quiz was asking me about her.

*     *     *

Earlier that morning, walking down the street, I passed by a little girl, a cute Asian-fusion child who hid behind the leg of her nanny. "Why are you hiding?," the woman asked. "I'm not hiding!" Petulant and adorable, and I almost started crying right there on the sidewalk, maybe because this child reminds me so much of her, or maybe because all children do, the idea of children, my idea of having them: this creature is the incarnation of a lost dream, the daughter I failed to have. It's my leg she should've been using for shelter, hiding her eyes in her own hair.

Hair. The word "hair." In itself, it shouldn't evoke any particular association of color or texture or smell. Everyone has hair. But I notice now, to me, "hair," simply "hair," implies the strands of it on my pillow, implies my hands running through it, implies the scent that I want lingering in the air. I've lost the word to her. I wonder how many such words I've lost: how many otherwise-neutral territories of vocabulary I've surrendered to her occupation. Like the strands of hair themselves, I may never stop finding traces of her, hidden in forgotten corners, left behind.

*     *     *

"No," I answer the questionnaire. "I don't hold on to things," and in its spite for the lie I told, it tells me that I'll live forever.

Map of the Great Explorer rating=4

File under: Mythic Proportions

Unmappable

After the empire had continued to grow, year on year, till the Emperor himself was no longer clear of its boundaries, let alone what was contained therein, he commissioned a renowned explorer to create a definitive map of the empire's contents. Fully aware of the scale of the undertaking, the Emperor insisted that no expense be spared: the explorer was afforded a generous budget and three full years to gather supplies, resources and crew before beginning his great expedition.

Pronouncement of the adventure was met with much fanfare: the people excitedly greeted the explorer as their newest hero—he who would stake her flag in the farthest reaches of the world, would act as her ambassador while collecting its finest trophies, would calculate and define its exact glory for all posterity. The empire was truly great, and the explorer was both an effect and a new cause of her greatness. Yet he was veteran of many adventures, and took the weight of his great task with seasoned, methodical assurance.

Before setting out on his monumental voyage, he requisitioned a great collection of maps, journals and logs of those who had traversed the empire before him. Seeking to build on their knowledge while avoiding their mistakes, he splayed their charts across his oaken table, and studied them long into the night. He copied the maps longhand so as to learn every curve of every continent; he combed them for discrepancies, charting out every known and every unknown, till he could imagine, clear in his mind and without benefit of the map, exactly each route and its possible pitfalls.

He examined too the roads and paths. As he was a traveler by trade, he understood that every road exists to connect two things which would otherwise be isolated; thus, he studied each point of departure, and each destination. He requisitioned more books—tax records, local laws and customs, the ledgers of commerce—till he began to understand the roads as a great circulatory system, the arteries of the empire, and he could imagine the flow of goods that coursed through them like the empire's blood.

And now the great explorer saw that trade is always the result of appetite, and that a map is a map of needs, pulsing to and fro, town to town and state to state. What is missing from here is sought from there. A road without people is not a road. He began to see in his ledgers longing and loss and love: he saw in them villages built from hope and villages decimated by famine and disease; saw cities leveled by earthquakes and war, then rebuilt; saw babies born, lovers wed, parents buried. He saw caravans trekking mountain roads to relieve the suffering of faraway people; saw caravans avoiding those same roads for higher profit elsewhere. From his map, he began to hear songs in a thousand languages, tales of small glories and great pains. His map had grown into an almanac that charted people's aspirations as if they were weather—here temperate, here stormy—and he saw them pass in seasons.

A road without people is not a road, so at the explorer's bidding, his agents brought him books of history, and literature, and poetry, and he read them without pause, till his great sailor's eyes began to fail; and when this happened, then his agents brought him the poets themselves, from all corners of the empire, and in the explorer's study, they regaled him with their tales of faraway lands.

But poets have a way of romanticizing things, especially when those things are far away; so the explorer sent for others, too—fishermen, farmers, whole families; he sought out soldiers and merchants and pilgrims, holy men and criminals, too, and brought them all together under his roof, and asked for each of their stories; and he listened carefully, and sometimes they would cry together, and often they would laugh, and usually come to some understanding; and then the explorer thanked them for their time, and closed his failing eyes till he could see it all clearly, and made some adjustment to his map.

At the end of the three years, the explorer was called before the Emperor. The budget for the great expedition had been exhausted, and not a single ship had sailed. By now, everyone had seen or heard tales of the parade of constant human revelry, long nights of singing and storytelling at the explorer's home. The patriotic people, having once felt so much pride in the explorer's impending journey, now felt betrayed, and in their anger and disappointment, they accused him of fraud and treason.

The explorer unfurled the map before the Emperor, a map which, by now, resembled no mass of land or expanse of sea, marked no towns, showed no roads or riverways; but which, from various angles, reflected the face of every one of the Emperor's subjects, and charted out all of their possible futures, their dreams and losses, all possible contentments and disappointments and joys, to scale. It was a map which excluded nothing, so preferred no single path over another; had no boundaries, no borders; and which would take a lifetime to explore.

Never Egret rating=4

Never egret

The bastard behemoth Google never forgets. It is cold, digital, and cruel, to have stored so many emails. A simple, innocent search of old messages1 pulls up a forgotten love letter2, and the next thing I know, I'm unwittingly hurled down memory lane, bouncing off its cobblestones—so many long-lost affectionate promises, meant sincerely at the time, and now just false prophesies, like old torn-up lottery tickets. If I close my eyes, I can pretend the email arrived only yesterday: closing my eyes brings a spot of light; and opening them to today, it's a little darker.

Google lumbers on like an old elephant, never forgetting, while my own memory (and the life it constructs for me) flits about, here and there, with less pattern, a hungry egret flying among the plodding beasts, and never touching down, for fear of getting trammeled...


1. "Goose" was the search term, because I've started emailing myself recipes. How domestic...

2. From an unforgotten lover—because the message used the phrase, "goose bumps."

On the Veranda rating=4

File under: Cogito Ergo, Koan

Part of her thought if she'd been able to just let go, the sheaves of renderings would have built themselves, harvest come home. Another delusion, no doubt. She knew she'd been grandiose, and didn't have much to show for it. She had committed that most American of sins: failed to move laterally.

- from Bruce Wagner's Memorial

It's going to be another one of those days, by which I mean frustrating. I'm staring at the computer screen, hitting "Refresh" every thirty seconds or so—as if inspiration of any sort ever comes via the Internet.

Sure. If I hit "Refresh" just this one more time, all my problems will be solved. My Inbox will suddenly overflow with love, affection, opportunity, wealth, challenges, self-confidence, and the answers to all my still-unarticulated questions. That's going to happen. (I mean, how big would that attachment have to be, exactly?)

I hit "Refresh." And when I'm not "Refreshing," I'm typing, using similar (if slightly better-founded) logic: that if only I keep typing—spewing words as fast as they pop into my head—then eventually, like the monkey at the keyboard, eventually, I'll have to stumble on to some wisdom.

And eventually, maybe I will.

But I'm not sure it's going to happen today.

* * *

My Zen archery teacher (yes, I had a Zen archery teacher) would talk about the importance, Veranda in Japanese architecture, of the veranda. Because of his pronunciation, vee-lan-da, it took me ridiculously long to realize what he meant. Actually, it took me ridiculously long to realize what he meant, because teaching Zen archery (kyudo) to a Westerner is a somewhat futile exercise. We harbor B-movie samurai fantasies about shooting things—but kyudo has almost nothing to do with shooting, or even bows, arrows, or targets. Rather, the study of kyudo is a kind of brain-washing through storytelling—and the bow is nothing but a set of stories, which, if used properly, might break some entrenched habits, and replace them with new ones.

In kyudo, you don't pull the bow string. You open the bow.

In kyudo, you don't shoot the arrow. While opening the bow, the arrow will release.

In kyudo, there is no target. (The word we used for "target" means "that fuzzy faraway thing.") An arrow might hit the ceiling and still have been the result of an excellent shot, depending on how it was released. In self-help parlance: you are the target.

All you have to do is let go.

* * *

A veranda is a space in between—neither inside not outside, neither here nor there. When you have left a place and have not yet arrived at the new place, you are on the veranda.

In my culture, in Western culture, we are encouraged to move quickly from one place to another, always to be on our way ... somewhere. We are encouraged to aim for a target, and to hit it, and if we do this, we have made a "good shot."

But in kyudo, the ceilings of the verandas are littered with arrows that strayed very far from that fuzzy faraway place called the "target". In kyudo, one is encouraged to take off one's shoes, kneel down on the veranda, and contemplate the path of these arrows, each of which might have been a "good shot."

Sometimes it's a good shot, even if it fails to move laterally. Sometimes you have to stay on the veranda, and be patient, so that you can know where to go next. Sometimes you have to let go.

Paris rating=4

File under: Other Places

Packing

I nearly missed the plane.

I'd been "packing" for three days, by which I mean I'd been thinking about packing, and that morning even going so far as to throw an assortment of clothes and hair products onto my bed. But not into a bag. I thought the flight left at 3pm but it was actually 2pm—something I learned at 1pm. So after three days of thinking of packing, the actual act happened in about three minutes. And I was off. Off to Paris.

Charles de Gaulle

Phantom Ringing

At first, the hardest thing was detoxing from all the über-comm. Vacation is a departure from normal, and "normal" for me had meant, lately, the constant email, the surfing, the IM, the SMS, the BlackBerry. The connection. "Only connect." But for this trip I was leaving it all behind. If it required electricity, it had no place on this vacation.

For days, I felt the phantom ringing of my absent BlackBerry in my right pocket—vibrations without cause. The device itself was switched off and sitting on my bedside table in Brooklyn, 3500 miles away.

"Only disconnect."

The Seine at sunrise

Backpacking

I vacation badly—alone and without much itinerary—so a lot of time gets wasted and when I do find something to enjoy, I can only share it with my notebook. Even in urban destinations, I sling a bag with food, water, and a map, and I hike. And hike and hike and hike. I take little breaks, sips of water, a PowerBar. That first day in Paris, jet-lagged and on no sleep at all, I walked straight through from 5am till 7pm, walked the full extent of my Streetwise® Paris map, because I felt I needed to "orient" myself before I could possibly enjoy myself.

I vacation like a backpacker (but without a compass).

[A friend tells me, "I think the compass needle is going to spin a lot in the next few months for you."]

Sacre Coeur

Quel Chemin?

It's easy to forget: while visiting Paris, we tourists visit the Louvre, the Orsay, the Cluny, the Pompidou. But we don't want to see the Louvre, the Orsay, the Cluny, the Pompidou. We want to see Paris. Which way to Paris?

Nabakov: "The dull mad fact is that it does exist somewhere."

Tourism ushers us on a conveyor belt from one protected place to another, insulating us from the random or the sublime. But at 10am, in a room inside the Louvre full of gilded gold clocks from the 18th century, they each begin to chime, one, then another, then another. Each is encased in glass, and the room is filled with the muffled chimes of clocks built for kings, dead two-hundred fifty years. The moment—purely accidental, perfectly sublime. Welcome to Paris.

Inside the Louvre

Sans Fromage

Someone I meet in Paris says, upon discovering my condition: "I have another friend who is lactose intolerant, and the entire time he was in Paris, he spent on the toilet..."

For my own protection, I start avoiding patisseries, cafes and boulangeries,with their butters, creams and fromage, and instead head to the supermarket. (Nothing says "I'm on vacation in France" better than grocery store hummus and dry rye crackers...)

When I get to the front of the line, the checkout girl scowls at my French, and then reaches into my hand to recount the change I'd given her: she corrected my grammar and my math. I leave the marché sans fromage, sans ego.

Pompidou

The World is Spinning

I check my email but none of it sinks in. It all feels thousands of miles away. Then I realize it (it being my life) is thousands of miles away.

Nabakov: "The dull mad fact is that it does exist somewhere."

Paris is a good town for the dead. Monuments at every intersection. Plaques mark the walls where resistance fighters died. The crypts and cemeteries are tourist hotspots. I'm in Montparnasse on Toussaint, All Saint's Day, tripping over the tombstones of Sartre, Baudelaire, Cortazar. A week ago none of this had anything to do with me, and today it's my life. It being my life.

Cortazar: "Just because the world is spinning 25,000 miles an hour, there is no reason to get dizzy."

Montparnasse

Meetings at Fountains

A few days in a row I'm scheduled to rendezvous with people at fountains. Till yesterday, I don't know if I'd ever met at a fountain. I don't know if I could name a single fountain in New York or Boston or Los Angeles.

(On some meridian, this place is the polar opposite of Los Angeles: here nothing is less than two-hundred years old; there everything—even architecture—has a "use-by" date. I'd never say, "Meet me at the Fontaine St. Michel," but instead, "Meet me at The Gap in the Beverly Center.")

While I'm waiting by the fountain, a woman keeps looking at me and smiling. I can't tell—is it friendly? Flirty? Is she intrigued? Or am I somehow silly? God, I'd love to be here with vocabulary! When I finally stand up from where I'm sitting, she and her friends swoop in to take my seat. That's all she wanted. Now she's lost interest altogether. And I notice my butt is soaked, too.

Fontaine

L'Orange

Does this orange taste better
because it is a Parisian orange
(or because I am hungry)?

Place de la Concorde

Regret

My longest single French conversation happened while waiting in line outside the Notre Dame cathedral. The line was long but moving quickly. It was flanked on both sides by beggars who ran a whole gamut of disabilities—blindness, amputation, disease. There was also a small swarm of vendors hawking chincy keychains shaped like the Eiffel Tower, six for €2. The conversation went like this:

Vendor: Six for €2.
Chris: Six? Porque six?!?
Vendor: C'est porque. Voulez-vous?

Why would anyone need six keychains? I spent my whole time in the cathedral laughing. How dumb do they think we (American tourists) are?!?

As I left the cathedral, I realized those keychains would make great stocking-stuffer gifts for my whole family. Six for €2 was a great bargain. J'ai voulu six.

But now, the urchins were nowhere to be found. The place had been cleared out. No one was selling anything. A lone woman played her violin, and a small crowd listened, and clapped.

Notre Dame

The Dull Mad Fact

I'm late (again) heading to the airport—but for some reason I take the time to jot this inane haiku on my hotel stationary:

The end of the trip.
Is it sadness I feel, or
is it just fatigue?

Did I get everything out of the trip I intended? (What did I intend?) Did I find what I was looking for? (What was I looking for?)

My friend tells me, on my way out, I seemed "bien dans ta peau"—comfortable in my skin. (Clichés always sound less cliché in another language...) I suppose that is what I was looking for. I suppose I did find it. It does exist somewhere...

Welcome to Paris.

Orsay

Postcards rating=4

Postcard

You always collected postcards, everywhere you went, imagining some day you'd sit at home, the solid comfort of your desk, and send them out to your friends and family. You saved them up for years, waiting for the opportune moment, the moment when you'd have enough repose to be able to pause your various projects and anxieties, to sit at that desk and unselfishly write by hand, each one a loving collection of words to make its recipient feel, if not loved, then at least known—known, and on your mind.

You collected postcards from Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona; from Petaluma, South Dakota, Zion; from Salem Massachusetts and Alcatraz; Portland Oregon, Portland Maine, Paris and Prague, Disneyland and Disneyworld; postcards from truck stops, postcards from a convenience store in your hometown; postcards from hotel desks and restaurant lobbies, postcards you picked up at a garage sale, postcards from places you never visited; postcards of 50s pinups; postcards that sang tinny music box tunes; popup postcards; scratch-and-sniff postcards; postcards hollowed out and filled with wildflower seeds; large-format postcards that required extra postage; postcards from days gone by, which said "5¢ stamp required;" custom-made postcards of your face, posing in front of real or fake scenery; plain postcards; postcards faded with age.

So few words fit on a postcard, there's only space to say hello and describe one or two circumstances, usually spent on the reasons for writing now, today after not writing for so long.

"I miss you." "This place makes me think of you." "Wish you were here."

The writing takes so little time. The time goes to thinking, feeling, pining, wishing, wondering, and then to the not-writing. It's the time we waste that makes it precious. Time is like salt in the sea: its expanse is useless to us and we drown in it, and our awe does nothing to tame its indifference. Lick your lips and taste it. It's already over.  

Reaching the Pegbox rating=4

The thing is: you are not the primary agent of your life.

You think you are. After all, it's you who decides when to set the alarm, whether to add cream and sugar to your coffee, Pegboxwhether to take the scenic route to work.

But now and then, something happens. You stumble. The world that seemed so clear suddenly wavers in front of your eyes: a veil lifts, and you get a glimpse that things are in fact quite different than you like to assume. Your petty acts of will exert very little influence on the course of your life.

Maybe you had a near-car-accident and tasted your own mortality. Maybe your wife left you. Or maybe your sudden belief crisis was cued by something more subtle or invisible: maybe it was a song on the radio. Maybe you looked up at a flock of migratory birds, wondered where they were going, and suddenly lost faith in everything.

One thing is for sure: you are not the primary agent of your life. Other, stronger forces are at work. Some of them have names—gravity, economics, love. Some you can never and will never know. What you do know is that suddenly, everything that seemed so good is now spiraling out of control. You don't know what's what, what's important, what to believe. "If nothing holds fast," you ask yourself, "then what has value?"

You have discovered, quite organically, metaphysics.

You get the sense that your life is a tightly-strung violin, and your every act is intended to bring it into tune. But you can't reach the pegbox, and all you have at your disposal are the tiny screws on the tailpiece that allow you to make fine adjustments. Not very much control at all.

* * *

Ten years ago, I spent a week walking through the desert, thinking that I was dead—not that I was going to die (though that too was a distinct possibility), but that I already had. I became more and more convinced that I'd passed from this world, and wasn't even sure exactly when I'd crossed from one state into the other.

Death Valley is weird like that.

My brief walkabout into psychosis wasn't totally unplanned: after all, who goes into the desert except for some sort of spiritual revelation? Being dead explained many things, not least of all why, after so much effort spent, I still felt I had so little influence on the world around me:

Spirit can't touch body.

Eventually, I came back to the conclusion that I was alive—which meant there were whole other, still misunderstood reasons for my inability to affect change.

* * *

The Buddhists say that much of what we think of as reality is, in fact, illusion, and our confusing the one for the other causes us great suffering. They say that one can find happiness, but only when one stops wanting it, or wanting anything. The cessation of craving is the cessation of self: you must admit that you are not the primary agent of your life.

The cessation of craving, the cessation of self, is a kind of death.

To help remind themselves of this, they chant mantras, over and over, in Sanskrit.

Some say that God speaks Sanskrit, and that a chant spoken in Sanskrit offers truth in itself, without translation: one is already speaking the sound of truth, directly. But truth can't, won't, come in words (words being tied to particulars, to things, so the diametric opposite of omni-anything); truth, when it speaks, must speak in larger rhythms, in dialectics, in waves; and if one wishes somehow to speak truth, then one can't do it through understanding, but only un-understanding; through tearing down what we think we know; and through the mindful repetition of ... anything—a chant, perhaps, or the gravelly sound of footfalls in the desert, or the long drone of a single note from a violin. Focus on a single note, only, in relation to nothing but itself, and that note will never be out of tune. And you will disappear completely.

Death Valley

Romantic Idealism, pt. 3 rating=4

Waiting

Though he predates mobile telephony by a few decades, Barthes also writes something that accounts for the phantom ringing of the cellphone in my pocket: I want her to call so badly that my thigh periodically spasms in the exact spot where the phone sits, to mimic the feeling of its vibrating.

"Waiting is a delirium...." Barthes suggests. "I am an amputee who still feels pain in his missing leg."

"Am I in love?," he asks himself. "Yes, since I am waiting."

The other never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn't wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game: whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover's fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.

So much waiting.1 I begin to wonder if I am in a relationship with the absence of her, rather than her presence. It is her absence with whom I have shared so much of my time. Maybe, then, it is her absence that I love...? And, so accustomed am I to this imaginary-her, this phantom limb, that the actual one becomes a kind of interloper, intruding upon our terrible privacy....


1. "A mandarin fell in love with a courtesan. 'I shall be yours,' she told him, 'when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.' But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away."

Sacramento rating=4

File under: Pithyisms

This entry is not currently available.

Snakes rating=4

MP3 audio track

Abandoned city

(This piece appears in the October 4, 2012 issue of MicroHorror.)

They said it was the warmer weather, and the rains, which brought the snakes to our city.

The first time we saw one, it was so out of place, we didn't recognize it. By the time we understood what we were seeing, it had already slithered away into the shadow, into the sewer, and we didn't believe our eyes.

The second time we saw a snake, we assumed there'd been a mistake: an escaped pet, an accident at the zoo.

By the third time, we were seeing them twine around each other like slippery knots. "Did you see that?," we'd ask strangers on the street. We knew something must be wrong.

We started to hear stories: snakes in the basement; in the sofa; in the shoes. They startled us in our cupboards and in our glove compartments and in our bathtubs.

We didn't know what to do.

We didn't know who to call.

Nothing had prepared us for the snakes.

Soon we were seeing them every day. They lost their fear. They held their ground and flicked their tongues.

Sometimes a child would be bitten, and a vengeful parent would find a golf club or a garden spade and smash and slice any snake she could find.

Still they came.

We found them in our toilets, crawling out of our drains. We found them resting on the bars at our favorite restaurants, on the floors of our favorite movie theatres. We found them in our babies' cribs, in our sleeping wife's hair.

One evening, after a thunderstorm, they welled up as if out of the ground. They oozed up from the subway stations and into the streets. Cars skidded and lost control. Now, the brave and enterprising among us tried to fight back, tried to make an industry of snake-killing, and they filled the city with snake blood and the writhing bodies of dead snakes amidst the live ones.

Still they came.

Before long, we had no choice but to leave the city behind, to leave it for the snakes, which filled it like a lake, poured in from every crack, flowed in and out of everything, breeding and sometimes devouring each other, filling up the ruins we'd left behind.

That Kind of Crazy Afternoon rating=4

Angel in the park

The summer has been really lousy. It's rained a thousand days in a row. Some people got really excited about the weather this summer, because it never really got too hot. That killed me. People got excited because they never had to use their air conditioners, but they couldn't go outside, either, because it rained like a monsoon every single day, I swear to God it did, so no one really got to enjoy their summer, but at least they didn't have to use their air conditioner.

One thing about me is, I sweat a lot. Summer comes and I start sweating and then I don't stop till October. And what's funny is, it doesn't matter whether it's eighty-five degrees or ninety-five degrees, I sweat just the same. I wear an extra t-shirt to mop up all the sweat, and then I use a handkerchief to mop it out of my eyes, and then I have to change shirts a few times a day, too. Like that tennis player who no one can remember his name, even though he was really good. He was going to be a tennis star except he sweat so much he'd get dehydrated. It got so he started covering his body in talcum powder, to stop the sweating, but it wasn't enough, he'd still get dehydrated and cramp up, and eventually he had to retire, even though he was good enough to beat just about anybody. Sometimes I wonder if I have a medical condition like that. I've been using my air conditioner all summer, just to stop my sweating, and I'll probably use it till October.

But this week wasn't like that. After a million days of rain in a row, this week the sun came out and there was this cool breeze and it was really nice, for a change. Everyone and their uncle came out of their apartment then, you can bet they did, to go outside in the beautiful weather. Everyone called up their boyfriend and their girlfriend to go for a walk, and even the people who didn't have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, they called up someone nice too, because just about everyone outside was holding hands with someone. That's what kind of nice day it was—the kind of day you want to be holding hands with someone, even if that someone isn't really your boyfriend or girlfriend, just so you can pretend for a little while, to make the day even nicer.

That's the kind of day it was yesterday, and I went up to Central Park so I could enjoy it. Maybe if you haven't lived in New York, then I should explain how there's just so much of it, block after block of streets and sidewalks, and more streets and more sidewalks. Boy, is it big. Sometimes it can be a little disorienting, even if you've lived here a long time, because everything is on this grid of streets and sidewalks for what feels like a hundred miles in every direction. Every corner there's the exact same stuff—a deli, and a little diner, and maybe a restaurant. I mean, some of them are nice and some of them are lousy, but after a few blocks, they all look the same. Then there are high buildings everywhere, so you can't always see landmarks, unless you recognize that particular deli or that particular diner, which sometimes you do, but just as often, you don't. That's why it's so important for people to get out of the city. Sometimes it just repeats itself too much and it's exhausting.

I think that's why people go to Central Park. It is literally a breath of fresh air. People always say "It was a breath of fresh air," and I puke when I hear it, but in this case, it's literally true. It is a big breath of fresh air. And it's so goddamn big. This park is bigger than some cities. That's not even an exaggeration. Central Park is bigger than the whole city of Boston. I'll admit, it's pretty nice to be able to get out of the goddamn stinking subway crammed full of all those people and then be in a whole city-sized park full of fresh air.

Except, today I got out of the subway and I couldn't move, there were so many goddamn people. I just wanted to go down to the lake and watch the rowboats and the ducks, but I couldn't really even do it, because there were so many people. It killed me, because here was all of this nature and supposed peace and quiet, but instead everyone crowded around this one phony bastard doing magic tricks and telling jokes into a PA system. Some of the tricks were pretty good, and he was athletic, too. I mean, at one point, he completely jumped right over this little girl, and she didn't even know he was going to do it. That was pretty impressive. But this just isn't the venue for that sort of thing, that's all.

I tried to climb through to the rowboats but I couldn't on account of all the people and the way they parked their baby strollers side by side across the entire sidewalk. Anyway, by then, I didn't really want to see the rowboats anymore. I just wanted some peace and quiet and to enjoy the goddamn day. And would you believe it, as soon as I got out of earshot of that magician, didn't I find another crowd of people around another guy with another PA system? Maybe that's what people like to see on a beautiful summer day—some phony bastard talking into a microphone, instead of lakes and trees and instead of relaxing. I guess they think it makes them urbane.

I was in one of those moods where I didn't want to be around people, so I made my way toward the zoo. I thought it would be nice to see the gorillas because at least the gorillas seem to enjoy some peace and quiet. I heard a story once about how a mountain gorilla in a zoo found an abandoned kitten and adopted it, and when the zookeepers tried to take the kitten from the gorilla, she protected it and wouldn't let them get anywhere near it. She just cradled it like a little football and kept walking away from the zookeepers and took care of it like it was her own baby. And then the zookeepers, who are supposed to love animals, they took the kitten away from the gorilla, and she bawled her big black eyes out, and they gave that kitten to a goddamn pound. Hypocrites.

There was never a point where I wasn't surrounded by crowds, and where I couldn't hear some moron on a PA system. It was kind of funny in a way. The trouble was, I couldn't concentrate too hot with all these people around, and then a funny thing happened: I was having trouble breathing. I really was. I thought I might puke, so I went looking for a bathroom, but there was a line full of people and baby strollers, and I decided to just sit down. I really wanted some water, but the water from the fountain was so warm and bad and the goddamn zoo wanted four bucks for a bottle. So I sat down at a table in the cafe, and I was near the gorillas, but I never did see any, not a single goddamn one.

The 100th Floor rating=4

The 100th floor

In all his days as a window washer, he had never once seen a door on the outside of the hundredth floor, until that day.

They'd started at the roof, as always, plunging their small platform over the edge and then riding it down, little by little. They enjoyed each other's company, but even more, they enjoyed the silence, the silence and the squeaking sounds as they worked over the glass. They enjoyed their own never-ending rhythm, fanning in graceful arcs, fanning and dunking and drying, complementing one other, filling in the limits of each other's reach.

They almost never looked inside the windows; they almost never cared to. The people inside were murky shadows, like ghosts, or underpaintings, or characters in an old, washed-out silent film. Their shapes distorted as the windows were doused, then wiped dry, doused, then wiped dry, and the men on the scaffold noticed the people inside only sometimes, the way one notices shells on the ocean floor, revealed after a passing wave, then hidden, then forgotten.

They loosened the ties on the pulleys and lowered themselves, and started again, window after window, floor after floor.

Outside, the Sun was an arm's reach away.

Outside, the wind was cruel.

Outside, they brought with them their own weather. On cloudy days, their scaffolding would sometimes seem to ascend above the clouds into a sunshine that no one on the ground could see. On sunny days, such as today, the window washers would sometimes disappear into a small cloud that hovered over their platform, perhaps fashioned from the water they were carrying and from the heat of their own breath.

It was from such a cloud, and dangling from a heaven-high roof, they wiped at the windows again and again and again; and in an otherwise unremarkable moment, their little cloud parted, and that was when he saw it—the door, high above him, high and to the right: a glossy black door with a brass knob that reflected the sunlight into his eyes, a heavy wooden door set into the vertical plane of steel and glass, an impossible door.

The other men were already unfurling the platform down the building and bringing the door farther out of reach, and he knew then that if he didn't reach for it, didn't at least try, then he'd never have a chance again, and never know what lay on its other side; and without a word to his colleagues and friends (for they preferred to work in silence), he stepped off the platform; and they never did understand why.

The Aesthetics of Emotional Minimalism rating=4

or, How to Disappear Completely

"Hey!" calls out a co-worker. "You're wearing a blue shirt!"

She's making fun of me. I always wear a blue shirt. Except when I wear a gray sweater.

"It's a good color for you," she goes on. "It brings out your eyes."

Blue does bring out my eyes. But that's not why I wear it. I wear it because it helps me disappear completely, a goal I've been working on for years, and one which I think I've very nearly achieved.

* * *

I just wound up watching Garden State again. I'm a sucker for movies about crazy people. In this one, the main character, Andrew Largeman, has been on a potent blend of Zoloft and lithium for all of his adult life, and it's left him completely numb: in the movie's opening scene, he dreams he's on an airplane that's about to crash. While the passengers sob and cling to each other in desperate fits, Largeman sits impassively sipping his ginger ale, in silent slow motion.

It frightens me how familiar this seems to me. And I'm not even on anything.

* * *

"Good morning! How are you today?"

Why do you always have to start the day with the hard questions?

* * *

I haven't had posters or decorations of any kind for at least five years. If people ask, I explain that it's because I move around a lot: objects—decorations—have gotten lost to nomadic attrition. But that's not why. Really, it's the same reason I stare at my closet for ten minutes each morning, trying to decide, "Blue shirt, or gray sweater?" It's the same reason I can't pick a restaurant, the same reason I go into near panic when it's time to get my hair cut. It's probably the same reason I move around so much.

I don't know who I am.

* * *

In philosophy, the study of aesthetics is considered a sort of kissing-cousin to the study of ethics, because both should follow logically from whatever you believe about the world, from your cosmology. This underlying belief dictates why you behave the way you behave, and why you like the things you like. It determines what is good and what is bad.

It's been said that I lack discernable moral focus.

* * *

When you don't know who you are, every outfit is a costume. Every interaction is a role-play. The only way to be yourself is to be generic, to be as friendly and safe and innocuous and evasive as possible, to dress in non-colors like gray. The only way to make the right decisions is to decide nothing.

The only way to be comfortable is to disappear completely...


Don't get out of bed...

The Bigfoot Hunter rating=4

This entry is not currently available.

The Dinner Party rating=4

MP3 audio track

This entry is not currently available.

The Fibonacci Forest rating=4

File under: Mythic Proportions

Misty forest

When she was one year old, to celebrate, her mother, the botanist, planted her a tree; and when she turned two, they planted another; and when she turned three, her father, the mathematician, switched them into another tradition—a Fibonacci sequence of trees: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and so on, so by age thirteen, they planted her 233 trees, and by twenty, when her father was already gone, she and her mother planted 6,765 trees.

She dreamt of living to a hundred, in a forest so thick no one could even climb through it, because by then trees would beget more trees; and this act, which had started as an act of will by her family—an effort to share her birthday with nature, but also to control nature, as a patron does—would be subsumed by nature itself: the forest growing more forest so it'd be impossible to tell which parts of nature were hers and which belonged to nature itself. In one sense, the woods were hers entirely, existed because of her; and in another sense, she knew they would continue long after she herself was gone and forgotten, and this made her happy and it made her sad.

"This is my tree. This is my first tree." All the subsequent trees were planted in a widening circle around that first one, so the youngest trees were at the outside, and the forest grew taller and older toward the center. When she turned twenty, and her oldest tree turned nineteen, she built her house in the canopy of that tree, and the house grew higher and farther from the ground each year; and when she turned twenty-five and was already surrounded by thousands of trees, she fell in love and married; and when she turned thirty she had her first child, and she and her husband started a new circle of trees at the edge of her forest, so her daughter's forest grew to mingle with her own like the way the daughter herself grew—adjacent and sometimes intermingled, but distinct, too, and pushing out in her own directions. A few years later, they started a new forest for her son, at the opposite corner, and finally four children in all, each one with a forest growing higher and wider, canopies intertwined, and houses on the highest points of all of them: they grew farther apart, and higher, too, till they forgot the look of the ground and each other, and remembered only the trees.

The Garden rating=4

The Garden

(This story appears in the December 2012 issue of Niteblade, and was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize.)

It started three nights ago with a rustling in the garden.

We'd planted the garden two months earlier, in full sun and with fertile soil. We'd planned it to take best advantage of the vegetable pairings: beans with squashes, tomatoes with peppers, the sort of old wisdom that's easy to find on the internet.

It was our first garden together.

We started everything from seed, because we wanted it to be entirely ours. We wanted the satisfaction of watching each sprout reach its way through the soil toward the sunlight, and to know that we ourselves had brought it into being: we and the sun and the water had teamed up to make a miracle, and the miracle was going to play out every day through the summer.

We walked through our garden each afternoon, to inventory the incremental changes of nascent life. At the earliest stages, all of the plants looked the same. It was only after a few weeks that they grew into themselves, became distinguishable from the others, recognizable by name: the cilantro leaves fanned out; the beans vined upward while carrots, onions and potatoes churned their mysteries underground, hidden from our eye.

We're nurturers.

And that's why it was so upsetting, the night it all began, when we woke to the sound in the yard.

"Is it a squirrel?"

"It sounds too big for a squirrel."

"Is it a badger?"

We fumbled for eyeglasses, for a window, for a flashlight, and by the time we were done fumbling, the noise was gone.

But it was on our minds and in our imaginations as we fell back asleep.

* * *

Birds chirp.

Dogs bark.

Cows low.

Goats bleat.

Frogs croak.

Hens cluck.

Rats squeak.

Humans whisper, whistle, cry, scream, sing, talk, and snore.

* * *

"Do you see anything?"

"No."

"Footprints? Anything?"

"Nothing. No trace."

The roots of the peppers were showing. The squash plant had no fruit. The chard was wilted from the heat.

* * *

That night, the second night, the noise came again. This time we checked the clock. It was just after 3am.

"Do you have the flashlight?"

"Shhh. Don't want to scare it."

Raccoons forage.

Skunks burrow.

Hogs crash.

Bears lurch.

"Whatever it is, it's big."

We shined the light through the glass. The windows looked dirty and thin. Somewhere, there was a beast outside. We thought we heard the sound of breathing but realized maybe it was our own. We didn't see a thing.

* * *

A couple summers back, four girls found a carcass washed up on Ditch Plains Beach, not far from here: a half-rotted, unrecognizable, gray, four-legged creature. Some people said it was a sea turtle with its shell torn off. Others said a bloated dog with a missing jaw. But we all saw it had hooves. So no one really did understand what it was. We didn't have a word for it. For a while, it's all anyone talked about. Then we just sort of forgot.

* * *

The garden plants, what was left of them, were strewn on their sides, their white roots withered from the sunlight. Next to each plant was the hole where it had lived, where it had been dug up the night before.

"I don't understand."

The squash had just gone to flower.

The pepper plant had baby fruit still on the vine.

There was nothing to understand.

* * *

I remember, growing up, my dad used to wander our yard in the middle of the night. He was a sleepwalker. He denied it, but some nights we'd see him standing out there in the dark, in his coat and pajamas, and when we'd ask him about it in the morning, he'd shrug and say "Eat your breakfast." Nothing strikes you as too weird when you're a kid. It's only when you're older that you begin to believe in what's normal, and become upset when things aren't.

* * *

Proud like a beanstalk

Sanguine like a tomato.

More bitter than radicchio.

* * *

Last autumn, right after we'd buried my dad, we discovered we were going to have a baby. What a callow time. We'd been trying for so long, and that feeling of joy and jubilation doesn't have a word, exactly, but the closest we could think of was "relief." But there was sadness, too, because Dad had wanted nothing more than a grandchild. We decided then and there to name the baby after my father. We picked a version of the name that worked for a girl as well as a boy, and from that day, we referred to our baby by that name, the name of my dad: we'd touch the growing bump and talk to it by name.

When the blood came, that is, when the baby died, there was no word for that feeling either. Useless. Used up. Barren. Dead. All the useful parts of us were gone and we had no regard for what was left.

Humans whisper, whistle, cry, scream, sing, talk, and snore.

Humans chirp, bark, bleat, growl, croak, cluck, squeak, and grunt.

Humans do all manner of things.

There was no body, exactly, but what we had, we buried in our own yard, in the garden. The child that never was. The parts of us that lived and then died in that time will never grow again. We try growing other things, in other ways. It's not easy. It's slow and sometimes heartbreaking. We manage the best we can.

The Good Samaritan of Smith Street rating=4

The Good Samaritan of Smith Street

It was all just a big misunderstanding. It was a whole set of misunderstandings, in rapid succession.

I boarded a Brooklyn-bound F train in SoHo. It was a beautiful weekend afternoon, and the subway car was full of (more than usual) happy couples and their children. So many children. So many children, in fact, that my first impulse was to change to another car.

But the bell dinged, the door closed, and that settled it: I was staying with the kids. The kids and, at the far end of the train, a banjo player.

Goodie.

A little girl waved, and then spit up.

I waved back.

Her mother beamed at me, I suppose to thank me for helping to teach her daughter that the world is full of friendly people and not misanthropes. That old tale.

Squeals erupted from my left: a small gaggle of toddlers were falling and drooling on each other, dancing to the music of the banjo player, who was making his way toward my end of the train. The banjo player was plucking away, and the kids were having a literal hoot. They were having a literal hootenanny. So I did what any childless adult would do in this situation: I turned on my iPod. This situation is exactly why God invented the iPod: to keep your children and your banjo out of my world.

One square-dancing toddler got tangled up in my headphone cable, yanking it from my ear; and as I reached down to untangle it, the train slammed on its brakes. The child flew through the air, toward one of the subway poles (and certain death, or at least pain and a lot of crying)—and through no fault of my own, I caught this child. I guess I saved its life. Its mother thanked me, and a few of the other mothers did, too.

I was just trying to untangle my headphones.

The child (who now owed its life to me) sat down beside me, but I wasn't having any of that—this tot looked a little soggy in the diaper. I stood up and—wouldn't you know it?—an old woman with a walker boarded the train, and thanked me for giving up my seat.

"No problem," I told her, since it had been an accident. A few of the mothers beamed at my generosity, at my act of kindness, and this time, some of the fathers beamed, too.

I was getting a bit of a reputation on this train.

That's when a man handed me five dollars.

"Huh?"

He pointed to the banjo player, then exited the train. I understood that this man had wanted to give $5 to the banjo player, but couldn't get through the wall of children without missing his stop—so he entrusted his $5 to me, the most reputable citizen on the F line. He wanted me to complete the transaction.

Of course I thought of keeping the $5. But the banjo player's shoes were in tatters, and he had actual duct tape on his instrument, and if I'd kept the $5, I'd have felt so guilty that I'd have spent $40 on whiskey, to salve my guilt—so, in the end, it was a losing investment. It was simpler just to give the $5 to the banjo player, and I did.

And he dropped it. It fell on the floor of the subway car, and the toddlers clambered for it, drawing everyone's attention to me, the donor, the Good Samaritan of Smith Street: everyone saw "my" $5 donation to this banjo player whose music I was trying to drown out with my iPod.

I could hardly bear all of the good will that I was engendering, so I got off the train one stop early. As I did, I ran into a man who asked, "Spare change?"

"As a matter of fact..." throwing him a couple of quarters and imagining the car full of beaming parents admiring me as the train pulled away.

The iPhone is Not Jesus rating=4

iPhone line

Even Gandhi had to wait in line for the new iPhone. He queued up an hour after I did, just as the sun was heating up. "Do you mind if I stand up there?," he asked, pointing to a spot of shade in front of me. "Fuck you, old man. Wait your turn," I told him.

Bruce Willis, who was queued up two people ahead of me, nodded his approval, and chimed in, "That's right, Macaca. We've been here since 8am this morning. Wait your goddamn turn."

Mary Kate Olsen fidgeted with her hair and hid in the shade offered by her umbrella. "How many do you think they have in stock?," she asked no one in particular.

Steven Hawking answered: "I heard they're already out of the 16GB."

"What did he say?, asked Gandhi from the back of the line.

A hot dog vendor rolled his cart by. "Water, five dollars." Mary Kate bought one and popped a pill.

"What are you all waiting for?," someone called out from a passing car. Bruce Willis shouted back: "They've got a new book at the library." The driver looked disappointed: "Nobody famous?" He drove off.

Lily Allen, who had been one of the first to arrive, came out of the store and showed off her new iPhone. She'd gotten a white one. She made up a little iPhone dance, and we clapped for her.

"You want another forty?," Bruce Willis asked me, passing me a lukewarm bottle before I could answer. "Could I have one?," Gandhi asked. "Sorry," Bruce Willis answered. "That was my last one."

The hot dog vendor rolled by. "Water, ten dollars."

Steven Hawking pointed to the front of the line: "I think John Mayer just jumped the queue."1

The heat was too much for Mary Kate: she had to be taken home. When the store manager came out to announce there were only two iPhones left, we decided that the honorable thing to do was settle it by knife fight. I made short work of Steven Hawking, and when Gandhi killed Bruce Willis, the two of us walked into the store together, bloody and triumphant. The iPhone was delivered to us, shrouded in blinding white light, by naked angels.

"This is some tight shit," Gandhi said, already installing the free Light Saber app. "Totally worth the wait." Then: "What's your number? You wanna grab a drink?"

1. Just like Steve Wozniak.


iPhone dance

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventure rating=4

File under: Mythic Proportions

This entry is not currently available.

The Lomo American Dream rating=4

Only somewhat saturated

A Walk on Hollywood Boulevard

Like so many before, you've come to Hollywood in search of the American Dream. It's the only place to look, really. Hard-working families in Cleveland, hopeful artists in Tulsa, military brats in El Paso, school teachers in Sarasota all have some chance of happiness where they stand; but if you really want to shine, you have to chase the sun. Chase Apollo's chariot as far west as you can go, and if you're one of the lucky few, you might actually catch it.

The city is ugly. Hollywood is the first, best proof that "All that glitters is not gold." (Sometimes it's just the reflection off a tarnished fender on the car ahead of you in the traffic jam.) The sun does that: turned up to full strength, as it is here (it goes to eleven!), it reveals things differently, for better and for worse. The same way that direct sun hastens the aging of paper or paint, it hastens the aging of everything. Arriving in Hollywood during the bright of day is like arriving at at bar after last call, as the bartender throws on the lights and reveals everything in a way it was never meant to be seen. Some things are better off in the dim.

Hollywood is one of those things. Seen from afar, on television, on Oscar night, it's the very definition of glamour. But to walk, as tourists walk, along Hollywood Boulevard from Vine to La Brea, is a disorienting experience, because there is no glamour—only storefront after storefront of cheap souvenirs, t-shirts, plastic Oscars, keychains, fast food, tawdry nylon lingerie. (Hollywood as it's depicted on Oscar Night is as temporary and contrived as the overpriced hairdos and costumes that the starlets wear; as temporary and contrived as the movies that they've arrived to celebrate. And why wouldn't it be? The event is a celebration of illusion. Once the camera crews and cinematographers leave, everything returns to its natural lomography.)

Still, people come, partly because the image-makers who control our access to the American Dream are so good at what they do, and partly because there is simply nowhere else to go. When you arrive in Hollywood, you're drawn like a moth to the spotlights that they point at the sky (as if each and every night is a gala event), and you arrive at the source, Hollywood and Vine—to find nothing: an unused subway stop, a small dive bar, and a restaurant known for its chicken and waffles. But like Dorothy landed in Oz, you recover from your disorientation to make out the trail of stars set into the sidewalk: they are  fantastical breadcrumbs of hope, commemorating so many who have chased their dream and achieved it—so you follow them, and hardly notice that, for all of the names on all of these stars on this sidewalk, you've barely heard of any of them. Time has erased them as surely as it erases everyone.

As you work your way west, the metaphors become unbearably obvious: the Hollywood Wax Museum defies you to tells the difference between its wax visages and the real stars: it suggests, though probably by accident, not that the wax sculptures are lifelike, but rather that the celebrities never were. "Look at these waxy corpses, and see the resemblance to the beauty you've grown up to revere!" There is a sheen coming off the fake skin. All that glitters is not gold.

Across the street, the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum offers a similar message: you pay an exorbitant admission fee to gain access to an underwhelming collection of exhibits—mostly plastic placards and animatronics that have long since failed; and in the end, you're forced to conclude, "No, I don't believe it"—but not for the reasons Ripley had intended.

Finally, at Hollywood and Highland, you arrive at the site of the Academy Awards, and a mock red carpet, set into the sidewalk, beckons you. You follow it into an enormous structure that looks equal parts Egyptian and Nazi: there are statues and flags and ascendant columns everywhere. Here, under these lights and in the cool California breeze, you feel you've finally arrived: you inhale deeply to get your first real taste of the American Dream; then your eyes adjust to the spotlights, and you make out the signs: Sephora. American Apparel. Lucky Brand Jeans. You followed the Yellow Brick Road, and it led you to a shopping mall.

The Man of Tomorrow rating=4

Superman was persuaded to hire an IT guy. "Why do I need email?" he asked. "I can see clear to the horizon. I can hear radio frequencies across the globe." But his mother Martha wanted to send him photos, and Lois was always looking for a decent Scrabble partner. Most compelling, the NSA had evidence that Lex Luther was developing an advanced computer virus to take over the world. "How are you going to save us," the President asked him, "if you don't even know how to open up Outlook?"

"If I can't open up Outlook, I'll be the only one safe from the virus!" But he didn't like to think of himself as ignorant, so he hired a cousin of Jimmy Olsen's to install a complement of hardware and software into the Fortress of Solitude.

"How do I turn it on?," he asked the IT guy.

"The Internet? You don't turn on the Internet. It's always on, like the Sun."

Lois came over to show him how it all worked. "You should Google yourself! Look: one million, four-hundred sixty thousand results! Hey, click on the 'News' link: see if my stories are at the top."

"It says I already have a page on MySpace. What's MySpace?"

"Don't worry about MySpace," Lois answered.

When she came back a week later, he was still sitting at the computer. "Hey Lois! I'm the mayor of the Fortress of Solitude! @ThatSuperman has 400,000 followers!"

"You have a Twitter account?"

"I've got to protect my online brand, Lois."

The Internet afforded Superman with a whole new set of data that he could use to monitor crime, and to keep peace and order across the planet.

"Wait—Lex Luther is your Facebook Friend?"

"Well, we know a lot of the same people. And sometimes he harvests my crops in Farmville. Anyway, he doesn't really have time for world dominion anymore."

The Internet was far more effective at eliminating violent crime than Superman had ever been, because the criminals now mostly stayed at home—uploading photos of old capers, editing Wikipedia entries on classic bank heists, and playing each other at Mafia Wars till they fell asleep at their keyboards, icing each other all night long, from the safety of their dreams.

The Outbreak rating=4

This entry is not currently available.

The Physics of Dirty Dishes rating=4

"You're the cleanest person I know," she says, as I wipe down the counter and wash the last of the dishes, and it's impossible for me not to wonder—How skanky and stinky are her other friends? If I'm so neat, how come I spend every single Saturday morning digging out from a week's worth of Wash meaccumulated laundry, crusted cereal bowls, coffee cups, and used chopsticks?

Simple answer: entropy. Entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, is commonly understood as "disorder," the idea that things fall apart—an idea almost too commonsensical to pass for science, easy to understand while dirty dishes piles up and nearly every gadget I own gives up its ghost over a single week. (Damn lithium-ion batteries!) After three months of doctor visits for a chronic respiratory infection, I finally suggest to my physician, "Maybe I'm not sick; maybe I'm just getting old. Maybe it's entropy."

Things certainly do fall apart, don't they?

As science terms go, "disorder" is a bit vague. More strictly, the second law of thermodynamics states that "Energy spontaneously tends to flow only from a concentrated place to a diffused place." What does this mean?The "concentrated" heat of a cast-iron skillet will tend to diffuse off the hot skillet into the air, until everything settles at room temperature. (In fact, that's why there is such a thing as room temperature—because all of the concentrated heats have tended to diffuse.)

In case the connection between this and my pile of dirty dishes is not clear, suffice to say the energy it takes to wash the skillet tends to diffuse as the week goes on, so the skillet tends to sit in my sink, unwashed. And it's not just me and my skillet, either. My toilet is running, my iPod battery won't hold a charge; the only thing that seems to hold its concentrated energy is the infection in my chest, and I can chalk that up to entropy in my immune system...

Despite all these previous paragraphs, I don't really care much about entropy as it applies to my dirty dishes; but I do wonder about it in relation to some of the other "concentrations" in my life that seem to be getting more diffused, i.e., life ambitions. In place of romantic passions and dreams, I'm surprisingly content with a job that's adequate, a girlfriend I adore, family and friends, and a blog; I've traded skillet-hot youth for a room-temperature adulthood.

My science friends hate it when I dabble in their field and misrepresent what they do for the sake of a metaphor. I say misrepresent, because current thinking on "entropy" tries to explain how nature tends toward orderly systems, not away from them. But in relation to my metaphor, that seems right: my "youth," for all of its energy, was erratic, diffused and over-romanticized; my "adulthood," tepid, is less effortful, more focused, more "concentrated." Thank God for the adequate job, the beloved girlfriend, the family and friends. Thank God I've been able to exorcise the Maxwell's demon that made me so unstable. Thank God for dirty dishes.


Here today, gone tomorrow...

The Sacred Book of Salmon rating=4

This entry is not currently available.

The Strongest Man in the World, pt. 1 rating=4

The world's strongest man wants to make omelette, but every time he tries to crack an egg, he crushes it, so he gets shell in the frying pan and yolk all over the floor. (Sometimes it's not easy being the world's strongest man.)

The world's strongest man owes $125 in library fines because he keeps tearing out pages. (Sometimes it's not easy being the world's strongest man.)

The world's strongest man hits a home run every time he has an at-bat, so baseball isn't any fun for him. (Sometimes it's not easy being the world's strongest man.)

The world's strongest man once ate a fork by accident. (Sometimes it's not easy being the world's strongest man.)

The world's strongest man can't put on a condom without tearing it. (Sometimes it's not easy being the world's strongest man.)

The world's strongest man has never forgiven himself for the accident with his puppy when he was a boy. (Sometimes it's not easy being the world's strongest man.)

The world's strongest man is tired of being called "Ox," "Bull," "Hoss" and "Big Guy." (Sometimes it's not easy being the world's strongest man.)

The world's strongest man wants to give you a kiss, but he won't because he's scared of hurting you. (Sometimes it's not easy being the world's strongest man.)

The world's strongest man worries that no one will love him for his mind. (Sometimes it's not easy being the world's strongest man.)

The Thick of the Woods rating=4

A forest

Two lovers in a meadow by a forest, and one says, "Let's go into the woods!", so they run off hand in hand. The forest grows thick—tangles of branches and leaves that block the sun, thickets of vines that snarl the paths—and before long, the two lovers become separated from one another, and can't find their way back.

"Where are you?" "Over here!" They reach their fingers through the vines toward the sound of that beloved voice. As long as they can hear each other, they never feel entirely lost; but they can't see one another, except in maybe-imagined flashes of colors glimpsed through the trees; and they can't find a path that will bring them back together.

"Where are you?" "Over here."

So they grow old in the forest, in love but unable to see or touch. Sometimes they call out more from habit than urgency; sometimes they mouth their answer without making a sound. Eventually, they stop speaking at all—so there's no longer any proof of the other's continued existence in the forest. But neither do they want any proof. They believe the other is over there, somewhere, in the thick of the woods; and undisturbed in the company of this hope, they live happily, quietly, ever after.

The Waitress rating=4

There's what you are, on the one hand; and on the other, there's what you think you can be.

No, let me put that another way: there is what you are, essentially, in your heart—the sum of all your capabilities; and on the other hand, there's the smaller set of what you've realized to date. There is You the Greater and You the Lesser. You whole, and you fractured.

Some people believe that you, the "real" you, is the lesser one—the tally of what you've achieved. "What do you do?," we ask each other at parties. "I'm a salesman," we answer, deftly swapping a verb of action with a verb of being.

Other people believe that you, the "real" you, is that farther-away idea: "I'm a waitress and an actress, but I also want to direct."

You snigger when she tells you this. "She's a dreamer," you think. "She's a cliché." (And these things, too, might be a part of who she "really" is.) But clichés are lazy shortcuts, a rubber-stamp version of the truth: the outline is correct and familiar, but the details are missing. The details are the essence. The details are the differentiators. In the mind of this waitress, what she wants to do is more significant than what she is doing. To know her is to know that she wants to direct. To know her is to know that she is a bundle of potentialities, and to know which potentialities.

[When robots can bring us coffee at restaurants, then we'll all be free to act and direct.]

[When we fall in love, is it not with a person's wants and with their potentialities?]

It is our dream that distinguishes us—the dream, and the degree to which we are willing to chase it: the degree to which we believe we are not the man sitting in the desk chair at the office, day after day after day. No. Rather, we are the brilliant burst of light, looming just on the other side of the horizon. We eagerly, lovingly chase ourselves, to find ourselves.


"There's What You Are On the One Hand," by Jessica Doyle
"There's What You Are On the One Hand," limited edition print by Jessica Doyle

The Well rating=4

This entry is not currently available.

This Side of the Moon rating=4

This entry is not currently available.

Time Lapse, pt. 2 rating=4

Negative Space

Negative Space

She pulls on her clothes, refreshes her lipstick, kisses me goodbye, and closes the door, and I notice it right away—the presence of this new feeling. It has been lingering all afternoon, this feeling, like an unwanted guest, but I chose not to acknowledge it, and that in itself is a new kind of duplicity, I suppose—this lie of omission: pretending to share an intimate afternoon, she and I, while also including this other, this third, this feeling, this feeling who sits there, watching us.

Maybe she feels it, too, the presence in the room with us.

Maybe she does.

But her version of the history is different than mine. Her version is steadier and more continuous than mine. In my version, we have had a very jarring year, she and I; and the result of it is that when I am with her, I reserve a part of myself. I bifurcate. Part of me is with her, and part of me is with myself. We stroll the streets, we wander in and out of shops, we lounge at restaurants, we loll in the park, we loll in bed, same as before—except now, part of me is not there. Part of me instead stands in reserve, out of body, stands guard, to protect me from the intrusion of another jarring year.

Maybe she feels it, too.

Maybe this is what happens between people.

Maybe this is an evolution of love.

The result of it is that a distance has opened between what I am feeling and what I am saying. The result is this new negative space, the vacuum of evacuated promise, and it occupies the room like an unwanted guest, intruding on the intimate afternoons.

Tonight I Can't Write the Saddest Lines rating=4

File under: Poetic License

"The thing about poetry—" she says. "Sometimes reading isn't enough. The words get in the way. I don't want to read it; I want to swim in it. I want to disappear. You know?"

Do I know wanting to disappear?

"What's your name?," I ask.

"Esperanza."

Of course. Esperanza.

By the fifth drink, I'd call any woman Esperanza.

* * *

Tonight I can't write the saddest lines. Tonight I feel stymied, stuck, altogether too hinged to have anything that resembles a feeling of passion. There's a constant din, as constant as the background noise of traffic and construction, except that this din is my own voice, in my head, reciting its mundane To Do list over and over and over: laundry lists and grocery lists and account balances and bills and debts and meetings and agendas, and a day-to-day routine I've evolved, like a callous, to protect me from these things—a callous that protects me, too, from feeling things too deeply. From feelings things as I would like. And in the same way that joints calcify, my emotional flexibility also seems slower, heavier, weaker.

So this is what they mean by growing old:

Tonight, I can't write the saddest lines.

So I pour myself a drink, put on some music, and I read them.

* * *

Pablo Neruda published Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada when he was an emotionally-spry nineteen years old, and at that bright-eyed age, he had enough desesperada to write:

You girdled sorrow, you clung to desire,
sadness stunned you, in you everything sank!

yet, four decades later, was full enough of esperanza to write childish love poems:

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you simply, without problems or pride:
I love you in this way because I don't know any other way of loving

He spent his whole life halfway between hope and despair.

* * *

Neruda - Sea - 2004 - Willy Heeks

* * *

I remember a story about Neruda, giving a reading of a new book of poetry somewhere in South America late in his life. When he had finished his selections, someone in the audience asked him to read his poem, "Tonight I can write the saddest lines." Neruda apologized: he had not brought a copy of that poem with him ... so, after maybe an awkward pause, the auditorium of twenty-thousand people recited it for him.

"I don't want to read it," the woman named Esperanza said to me. "I want to swim in it. I want to disappear."

You know?

Vanishing Point rating=4

File under: Love Stinks

or, Going Through Old Things

Celmins - spider web

If I speak for the dead, I must
leave this animal of my body,
I must write the same poem over and over
for the empty page is a white flag of their surrender.
- Ilya Kaminsky, "Author's Prayer"

It's ridiculous, after a point, to mourn the loss of a love affair gone bad. The point at which it becomes ridiculous is usually obvious—that is, obvious to everyone except the one in mourning, who persists: "fool for love." This point of ridiculousness also usually occurs much sooner than the fool (clinging to love's fraying threads) likes to imagine—sooner by a factor of years, maybe. Years of misplaced trust and hope; and any stranger on the street could have seen it and said so; but still we cling....

Why is that?

Maybe it's because there is no short path through grief. But somewhere on that path, memories return with altered clarity—new accent marks and emphases that change original meanings. For example, I remember one night, sitting at a bar (a bar like Hopper's "Nighthawks," a bar I pointedly avoid to this day, because it's that depressing), telling her for the first time what she meant to me—telling her that "This is the most significant relationship of my adult life"—and I'd forgotten, but remember now, her answer: "That's so sad." (Sad, presumably, to love someone so strongly who doesn't reciprocate.)

[Amazing, then, the creative power of our minds, to be able to take such a malformed beginning, and still—wanting so badly for it to be so good—reshape it till we can imagine that it suits us, till we can imagine that it fits us beautifully, till we can convincingly call it "love"—convincing ourselves, though everyone else seems to see otherwise.]

It is ridiculous to mourn the loss of this. How upset should one be, really, to lose someone who never really cared all that much to begin with? "That's so sad," and maybe we never got any further than that. Maybe everything after was my own delusion. Maybe we broke up that night, before we even started. Maybe never spoke again. Maybe that night we died.

There is scant evidence to prove otherwise: two lone relics she's left behind, two valueless things (valueless except for the fact that they are the last two): an old Post-It note scrawled with a single word ("Chill"), never meant to be significant, never meant to be kept, but still I saved it and carried it for years; and an old camisole, stowed during a brief golden age, years ago, when she had "a drawer" at my apartment.

Time has lifted some of the sentiment from these two objects: the Post-It, long construed (by me) as a monosyllabic love poem, seems now devoid of any indication of love: it is, in the end, a demand ("Chill"), aimed at increasing her comfort as much as mine. "You're too tense," is the paraphrase. "You're too intense." "That's so sad."

The camisole turns up later, unexpectedly, while I'm looking through my fall clothes. Small and lacy, it is dwarfed among the pile of wool sweaters that have kept it company through these summer months—it is so small, it would seem to have no mass whatsoever (but I know better, and I'm reluctant even to try picking it up...).

"Do you want it back?" I finally ask her. It'd be easy enough to mail. No, she answers in a note as passionate as the Post-It, "it was itchy"—which (time having lifted some of the sentiment) is my sentiment exactly: lovely for what it was, but it itched. Pronoun without antecedent.

Empress's new clothes: a few ounces of uncomfortable threadbare lace—and everything else (all the added weight) only as real as memory, only as real as want. Forgetfulness lightens everything:

A vanishing point.

Want-Induced Psychosis (pt. 2) rating=4

File under: Love Stinks

There's a woman I loved for a few years after college, despite the fact that she never loved me back.1 She may have said she loved me once or twice, Heloisebut mainly because the persistence of my devotion must have exhausted her, and finally it was easier for her to say it than not say it. She loved another (and then another, and then another), and I knew it. But we don't get to choose who we love—especially when we're young—and I loved her (sometimes intensely and sometimes almost subliminally) for many years, despite the fact that she never loved me back.1

I loved her because I was young and romantic and at the beginning of a great adventure, and I knew it, and she was too, and she knew it. I loved her because I wanted so badly to be in love (it was a part of the great adventure), and also because loving her offered me an anchor of consistency while I drifted from city to city, from occupation to occupation, from lover to lover, from belief to belief.

Along the way, as I discovered things, I jotted them onto postcards and dropped them to her in the mail.2 She'd write back periodically, long missives written in Renaissance-looking, almost Heloisian handwriting; I'd flip through page after page looking for some extra totem—a scent, a strand of fallen hair—to account for and maybe even sate all my feeling. But never found one.

I tried for years to understand the magic of her powerful spell over me, but the simple truth of it was that I wanted very badly to be in love, and she was as good a vessel as I could find—until she wasn't.

I was young and romantic and at the beginning of a great adventure, and I didn't want to be in love: I didn't want to be tethered to another or to anything. I wanted a muse, and a tragedy, to carry from city to city and from occupation to occupation; but I didn't want to be in love; and I knew it; and so did she...

(Love, then, is a kind of psychosis.)

Morning Glory, by Georgia O'Keeffe

1. Or perhaps because of this fact.

2. Most of these postcards were Georgia O'Keeffe flowers I'd pick up at art museums around the country. They were paintings I loved at the time, much the way I loved the woman: that is, I saw in them an evocative ideal of beauty—something I still see to this day, though now this means something quite different to me: like the love I felt for her, these paintings are devoid of anything actual, any real guts. They are all swirls and color, not sexy, just the idea of sexy. I like them very much; but I don't love them, because I understand love to mean something different than I did then.

We Watch rating=4

The window

We peer through the window at the boy.

It's night, and no one sees us coming. We move single file through the trees, quiet like an animal, aimed for the dim light of the house. There's the cackle of a night bird. Our footfalls on the grass. Nothing else.

We know the house well. We know which window is the boy's, stickered with stars shaped into constellations, hung with a dreamcatcher the size of one of our thumbs. We know which window is the boy's, but we don't start there. We come from the other side, the forest side, where the murmur of a far-off cascade and the hum of the kitchen refrigerator mask our rustling of leaves. The side window is swung open on its hinge, covered by a dirty screen. Through it, we see the shape of the boy's father, asleep on the sofa, the TV on but the sound muted, flickering light across his face. He's smiling at a dream he's having, or maybe grimacing. There's no way to know for sure. 

We watch him, silent, holding our breath, and he doesn't stir. 

The dog, asleep at his feet, doesn't notice us either. 

The wife is gone, gone for years now, not coming back tonight or any night.

Now we come around, emboldened, toward the front of the house. A truck rattles on a late night drive, but it's too far by far to see. We step into the porch light, where the porch light would be if there were a porch light, but there isn't. Someone, the man or the boy, switched it off before sleeping, assured in the safety of the surrounding darkness.

We come to the boy's window and peer through it. He's there. We knew he'd be there. He's asleep. His tiny chest rises and falls in smooth, even strokes, small waves beating on a milky lakeshore. The sheets, which started the night tucked around his shoulders, have been thrown off, heaped in a pile that still covers his feet. His thin arm is wrapped around the pillow, cradling it, maybe imagining it's his lost mother. The pillow tugs back the sleeve of his pajamas and exposes his arm, pure, hairless, shining white against the starlight, and his little-fingered hand clutches the pillowcase absently and weakly. The boy sleeps easily. He draws his breaths in and out, in and out, without interruption. So pure. He sleeps, we think, with the ease of a child who believes he's protected from monsters, while we watch, unmoving and unseen. We watch.

When Harry Met Daniel rating=4

The Urban Sherpa Interviews Daniel Radcliffe

Daniel Radcliffe is tired.

He is sprawled out on a chaise lounge in London's Claridges Hotel. "I'm knackered!," he laughs. "I don't even know what's going to come out of my mouth."

Radcliffe has good reason to be tired: while he's promoting the recent installment of the Harry Potter franchise (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), he's also begun principal shooting on the final set of Harry Potter movies.

"Sometimes it feels as though I've been working on this for my whole life. It'll be really nice to finally kill Voldemort once and for all, and get on with things." He stares out the window with a faraway, dreamy look in his eyes. "You know, Ron and Hermione are off to university this week? But not me."

"You mean [Harry Potter co-stars] Emma Watson and Rupert Grint?"

"Right. Of course." He gives one of his famous shy smiles. "Sorry."

Radcliffe fantasizes about going away to a university and having a normal life—but a "normal life" may be impossible for the charming millionaire who has spent his whole adolescence in the public eye, depicting a beloved hero, growing up alongside him, their fates always intertwined. "Other people lined up for their copy of Deathly Hollows to learn what was going to happen to Harry Potter. I read it to learn what was going to happen to me."

He plays absent-mindedly with the promotional broomstick that Warner Brothers left in the hotel room. "You can imagine, growing up like this... Everywhere I go, it's 'Oh, look, Harry Potter.' I'm not ungrateful. But sometimes being the Chosen One is its own burden.

"I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like, without this—" he gestures to his forehead, to the location of Potter's famous lightning scar. "I wonder what I would have become. Maybe a cricket star. Or maybe a tosser. Who knows?"

He snaps out of his sulk at the chance to talk about his turn in Peter Schaffer's Equus: "I was naked!," he exclaims. "Waving my magic wand! Seriously, it was a brilliant experience, a great chance to prove to people that I'm more than just 'The Boy Who Lived.' Even my friends, sometimes I think they wonder: 'Sure, you survived the Killing Curse. But can you act?' Hopefully, I showed that I can. Professor McGonagle came opening night—"

"You mean [Harry Potter co-star, Dame] Maggie Smith?"

"Right. After the show, she kept going on about how I'd grown. It was really affirming."

The Potter series has given Radcliffe a chance to act alongside the greats of the British stage. "They've all been so supportive. I've learned so much. But most of all, I don't think I could have done it without my parents. The bravery and sacrifice of James and Lily Potter is a real inspiration."

"But surely you mean your real parents, [literary agent] Alan Radcliffe and [casting director] Marcia Gresham?"

Radcliffe shoots a look and snarls something in Parseltongue, before recovering his charm. "Yes. Of course." He stares out the window again with a grim and distant look, as if remembering fantastic wrestlings with evil, flying battles pitched among the clouds, powerful magicks that Muggles will never know. "It's been a very, very long day."

Where is My Mind? rating=4

File under: Hyper Real

"Stop."

It wasn't on purpose, exactly, that I stopped writing blog entries, but as the days piled on, I decided to make a thing of it, a bona fide hiatus. My brain seemed to me as lively and buoyant as an emphysemic lung, the ideas coming out of it more and more stale and calcified, and I wondered if I needed to stop trying to pull paragraphs from it forcefully (like taffy), and instead wait till they would form on their own, light and airy, binding to themselves and growing into things of easy, ambiguous substance (like cotton candy).

To mix metaphors.

I waited. But the ideas didn't come. Instead I plodded between home and work, work and home, half-awake, for the better part of a month. I was animated but not energized. I huddled with the masses on the subway, lurched through the crowded streets, mumbled, groaned, and shuffled from place to place, with no electricity moving through my static mind. I was, in a word, a zombie. I was the walking dead.

And so I am today.

Brains.

* * *

The idea that our bodies might continue in the absence of our mind is archetypal, Z is for Zombiebut the conflation of brain-hungry undead with Vodou ("voodoo") is erroneous: the zombie of Haitian legend is a different thing entirely from the walking dead to have taken over movie screens, game consoles and TV. No, this latter zombie—the zombie of George Romero, the zombie of Resident Evil—is the product of post-Industrial revolution societies only: these mindless drones that wake from the grave seem frighteningly synonymous with the mindless drones that wake from their beds and march toward Mr. Coffee every morning, march toward the shower, march toward the train, toward the office, toward the lunch room, toward the gym. They are the true creatures of habit. They are monsters of consistency.

Zombies, it turns out, are the hobgoblins of little minds.

* * *

"Do I have no hobbies because I have disappeared into my work?," I wonder, "or have I disappeared into my work because I have no hobbies?"

Leisure is the antithesis of work: you work so that you may earn money to spend on leisure. Your leisure time is spent in oblique contrast to the time you spend at work: it is the time you spend not-at-work. Work and leisure are inextricably bound up in one another, to the point that it is impossible for leisure to be anything other than another form of work, impossible for leisure time to be construed as anything but another commodity. As a child, when I played tag, or wiffle ball, or boys-chase-the-girls, my brain was free from the idea of work, and with it, free from the idea of time: I didn't worry if the time I spent playing was "well spent" any more than i worried about spending generally. Only now, as an adult, given a finite and measured amount of leisure time, am I in a position to wonder: "Am I relaxing efficiently enough?"

Leisure is bound up in work like death is bound up in life: as long as I am relaxing, I am working; as long as I am living, I am dying. My relaxation is a form of work. My brain is not free. I am neither alive nor dead. I am a zombie.

Brains.

You Know You've Made It When rating=4

File under: Housekeeping

You know you've made it when you get yourself a $179 trash can.

Can itI hate speaking in generalizations (I'm lying), but something I've noticed over the last few weeks about my fellow Bostonians: they seem prone—maybe over-prone?—to what Chuck Palahniuk calls the "Ikea nesting instinct." They seem to be home-owning, child-bearing ilk. They seem inclined to pair up for the long haul, marry, acquire domestic goods. They want a stable job, a stylish, reliable car, and furniture.

It is in honor of them (and in a mood to try to be just a little more like them) that I take a trip to Bed, Bath and Beyond this weekend.

My goal: a trash can.

You see, the story goes like this: a few years ago, in Brooklyn, a roommate moved out under somewhat hostile circumstances, and she took with her a steel kitchen trash can that wasn't rightfully hers. We, the remaining roommates, could have taken issue with this, but in the end, it was just a trash can, and I think any of us would have felt petty to quibble over it. We replaced it with a much less stylish, but much more practical, plastic trash can, for a fraction of the price. To spend more, we reasoned, would literally be throwing money away.

We got by just fine with that loyal plastic waste bin. But secretly, in our hearts, we knew we'd been taken down a few pegs on the "Haute-O-Meter." We kept Crate and Barrel catalogs stashed under our beds like Playboys, and we dreamt of the day we might reclaim our birthright—a steel trash can, signet of the bohemian bourgeois.

Yesterday was that day. I strode into BB&B (that's what we bohos call it) as if there were a cape and a dozen attendants trailing behind me. I spied myself a fine steel bin, and walked toward it in quick strong steps.

"$179?!?"

Literally throwing money away.

I'm sure this $20 plastic jobby will do just fine. Actually, I got it on sale, $14.99. So far, it's holding the trash just fine.

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