Time keeps on slipping, and I’m content to slide, skidding sideways into the uncertainty of tomorrow and tomorrow, but sometimes the rituals and obligations of presumptive adulthood grate on me as I hit the rough surfaces along the way. Circumstance has dictated that I need a semi-formal outfit of clothes, and so, after a few frustrating weeks of trying on countless sport coats, slacks, and ensembles in realms from the lowest thrift stores to the loftiest of fine retailers of menswear, I finally found a basic, serviceable suit for slightly less than I’ll be getting back in my tax return this year.
This ought to be a satisfying purchase, but in all honesty, I feel cross and resentful that I’m caught up in adulthood’s grotesque pageantry. It’s not the responsibility, as I have been a legitimate, self-sustaining, reasonably functioning adult since I put down the princely sum of one hundred five dollars for my room in a grim basement apartment on the shaggy side of a college down and emancipated myself forcefully from the comfort of youth. It’s not the nuance, either, as I’m all for a level of subtlety in my affectations, as evidenced by my continual evolution in the realm of facial topiary and my music-making efforts, which have become so detailed in their studied stillness as to be practically indistinguishable from near-silence.
I don’t mind looking older than I am, or manifesting the scars and marks and bristling late-life hairy patches that come from a life of bumps and scrapes, and I don’t mind that I look to the news and can’t, for the life of me, identify celebrities that the talking heads indicate is an A-list VIP. Music in genres that ring no bells comes and goes, and that’s okay, as I’ve got a lifetime of organized sound in my collection. I haven’t read the hot new author, or watched the exciting new film, or followed the thrilling new series on the television, and that’s okay, too.
I’m insulated from one of the key elements of supposed maturation in that I do not have, and never will have, children, and that, too, is fine. I enjoy the energy and presence of my nieces and nephews and the children of friends, and enjoy being able to bid them a fond adieu and return to my small apartment and my dogs. The ugly conservatives of the world would be only to happy to point out that I’m somehow more prone to the excesses of narcissistic selfishness in this regard, but I’m secure in my knowledge that I am no more likely to live exclusively for myself than anyone else by virtue of who and what I am. How I relate to the world is my own responsibility and it is a chore that I take seriously.
So I stood in the focal range of five mirrors, caught up in a funhouse view of myself as I struggled to seem remotely comfortable in a perfectly handsome charcoal grey suit that appeared to fit properly, even as it did what suits always do, limiting the range and expressiveness of my moves and gestures.
“What if I need to do this?” I asked the saleswoman, raising both hands in the air and waving them like I just didn’t care.
“Will you be doing that very often?” she asked in response.
“Probably not, but knowing I can’t will make me want to even more.”
She smiled a very solicitous smile, but couldn’t come up with a response. I know, on some level, that she was making a mental note, but I get a lot of that, and it, too, is okay. It’s just—well, I hate these damn things. I don’t mind formality, but I chafe against the reality that puts a formal woman into what can be a lovely, flowing, comfortable thing and puts a formal man into a restraint.
I have worn formalwear a handful of times in the past twenty years. For my twentieth high school reunion, I bought a lovely suit at a thrift store and tailored it myself to make me look to be in far better shape than nudity would reveal. Having put on a few pounds, I hurriedly bought a sport coat for the memorial service for my uncle, but the sleeves were too long and I attempted to cover this by engineering reasons to extend my arms, thus bringing the cuffs to a more appropriate position on my forearm, though in retrospect, I think I ended up looking more like a questing Frankenstein’s monster or a sleepwalker than a formal funerarian.
In a way, it’s down to some of the things I reject about adulthood, which leaves me with few places to tread the boards in my fancypants. As a wayward thirteen year-old, I reveled in my peculiar friendship with the composer Gian Carlo Menotti by wearing the jacket from the navy blue doubleknit suit, purchased so I could attend my best friend’s bar mitzvah without embarrassing myself, over my shoulders, Italian-style, like a cape. I did my best to gesture appropriately and to affect a throughly continental manner until my stylish excesses got me sent to the vice principal’s office.
“Mrs. Wall, Joe’s come up with a new one,” my beleaguered sparring partner in the office said, speaking to my mother on the telephone. “He’s been wearing a blazer to school over his shoulders, claiming to know the composer Gian Carlo Menotti and otherwise acting all Italian.”
“Well, Joe does know Gian Carlo Menotti,” my mother said to a rather surprised middle school vice principal, and I think it may have been one of her few pleasantly smug moments in three years of difficult parent-teacher relations. “I’ll ask him to tone it down, though.”
The rest of the time, I just don’t get it. I could probably be more secure and more solvent if I surrendered to the middle-age middle-class office world, where the foot soldiers of the mundane clomp around in formation in service to the almighty fear of difference, but those clothes and those roles make me feel panicky and sick, and the tension builds until I want to roll around the floor of the cubicle farms clawing at my straightjacket.
I don’t go to weddings, and I’ve pretended that it’s because I’m protesting the lack of equal treatment for all of us in marriage, but to be fair, I have to admit that I just hate them. I hate the rituals, the showy repetition of stupid cutesy little obligations that are part and parcel of the event, and the horrid ridiculousness of a big show that exists partly to shut our parents up and partly because we’re all brainwashed into believing that a relationship that’s rooted in our love and trust and adoration for another person requires validation by the masses. More than all that, I think you have to be a complete and utter imbecile to spend the absurd amounts of money that people flush down the toilet at the start of their couplehood instead of putting it into a down payment for a house, a certificate of deposit, or—god forbid—something more charitable, like having a well dug for a village in Africa.
Throughout my life, I have often felt like an anthropologist from another planet, largely because a lot of givens get lost on me. I don’t get sports, particularly in the sense that we start off in our youth in the wild, joyous hurly-burly of actual play and end up in our constrained adulthood perched in front of television sets, cheering as someone else plays, and then fuss about how out of shape we are. I don’t get hypercharged regionalism, nationalism, or yellow dog partisanship, complete with all the pomp and circumstance of lifeless repetition that goes along with these things. What’s wrong with a player of one, on the team of the whole planet?
We doll ourselves up for church, too, and like the airy cookie-cutter splendor of weddings, I’m just confused by it all. I don’t wonder why I’m here, and the meaning of life isn’t a mystery to me. We’re here to make meaningful lives, and lives are meaningful when we give back more to the world than we’re given. When we can see ourselves in others, it becomes harder and harder to be selfish. I don’t need to sit in a pew to know this, trapped in an itchy suit. Where I need to change is in holding myself to a higher standard each day, and my history recounts that I’ve done this, and continue to do so. I suspect I’d understand it all better if I believed I was a wicked sinner in need of special redemption, but alas, I don’t believe that. When I need insight, I can read the Tao Te Ching or the Bible or the Dhammapada, or better yet, I can look to the people that I know who live lives of virtue and ask myself how I can better follow their example. No jacket required for any of that.
Still, I’m not completely insulated from the instincts and strictures of fashion. The sight of a grown man in flip-flops always makes me wrinkle my nose a bit, and public appearances of home horrors like sweatpants, droopy drawers, and outfits that function more like billboards for a product you already paid for just make me sneer. I think in a way, given my druthers, I’d turn into a bit of an iconoclastic dandy like my late poet friend, David Franks, who was generally someone you could describe as “dapper” without exaggeration, but when you price out the admission fee for dapper—sheeeeeeeesh. Who can manage that without already being wealthy?
Maybe I’m just annoyed that I’ve embraced so much of what is great about adulthood for so long that I don’t feel like I should have to play the signs and symbols game. If I ever get married, it’s going to be in a courthouse. If I feel compelled to flaunt my couplehood, I’ll rent a pavilion in the state park and have a pot luck with all my friends and loved ones. If I die, I want no ridiculous funeral of weeping folks in scratchy formalwear—I just want my ashes scattered somewhere nice. The moon would be a good place, come to think of it.
The rest of the time, I’m content with the way that age and maturity make things better every day, even as I find it harder and harder to deny the uglier sides of being human. There’s a richness to things I’ve treasured for as long as I can remember that just expands with experience. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a piece of music I’ve loved since I was a freshly minted teen, just gets broader and more amazing with every passing year. The films The Red Balloon meant so much to me as a kid, and means more now. Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory? Oh my. I don’t understand why the uniform of our latter years is so restrictive, though, other than the conservatism of the grand old gestalt, but I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to keep my arms down because adulthood is supposed to be a sober, taciturn time in our lives.
Maybe I just need to wave my arms in that perfect flail that Kermit the Frog taught me so very, very long ago, and maybe a fitted suit jacket is going to make that moment even more ridiculous, but a frog’s gotta do what a frog’s gotta do.
Time keeps on slipping, and I’m content to slide, skidding sideways into the uncertainty of tomorrow and tomorrow, but sometimes the rituals and obligations of presumptive adulthood grate on me as I hit the rough surfaces along the way. Circumstance has dictated that I need a semi-formal outfit of clothes, and so, after a few frustrating weeks of trying on countless sport coats, slacks, and ensembles in realms from the lowest thrift stores to the loftiest of fine retailers of menswear, I finally found a basic, serviceable suit for slightly less than I’ll be getting back in my tax return this year.
I never warmed to Catcher in the Rye. I'm definitely among the category of kids who rankled against our assigned work, and my god, but the school system of Howard County, Maryland assigned some epics of dull American writing in my day. It's funny, but I can reread some of those assignments now and think ah—I get it, and that's quite a decent book, but there was this joylessness in repetition that just did me in. How many times can a teacher walk through Steinbeck and still be electrified by what he did well? How many times can you drone through the delights of Gatsby to distracted suburbanites and make it alive for them?
Catcher never came to me. Gatsby did, but only twenty-five years later, when I had lived long enough and hard enough that that final, crushing series of lines at the end became something I felt in the marrow of my bones.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
If you'd told me in the first of what would eventually be three successive sophomore years truncated neatly by my expulsion from school that it would one day become a comfort to me to drive nineteen miles to sit quietly on Fitzgerald's grave, trace out the recesses of those engraved words, and remember, I'd have laughed at you, and said something arch and sarcastic. Back then, I was safe in the embrace of my family, protected from the future by pretense and ignorance, and isolated from things like death and failure.
I wish, in my way, that they taught things the way I taught myself, but I'm being a grotesque egotist to think it might be universal, I suppose. In my day, I dodged the assignments to read Bradbury instead, to work and rework well-trodden ways through huge, expository fictional dream worlds saturated with adjectives in florid, bleeding, syrupy clusters of wordlust. I shivered to the arch excesses of Lovecraft, and wrapped up tightly in my bed at night, imagining the mice skittering through the lathwork of my walls and his rats in the walls. I didn't get Shakespeare, beyond the productions I saw played out on the satisfying tiny stage of the old Folger theater, and didn't get the things that too many adult teachers cherish because they, too, had come to know the future, death, and failure.
By high school, it may well be too late, unless you had a teacher like I had had years before.
I'd been personally rescued from special education by one of the most important women I will ever know, Mrs. Noreen Brastow, of Hammond Elementary School, who watched me in the school library long before I was meant to be in her grade and paid notice as I was put into special ed as a clumsy mid-seventies way of dealing with my learning disability and my relationship with an abusive teacher, brewing on the sidelines until she couldn't take it anymore, storming into my classroom in the apex where Pod B and Pod C met at the science room and bringing me into her class for the rest of the semester a grade early.
Pod C, in the parlance of our miserably engineered modern "open space" schools of the seventies, was the final destination in elementary school, and a clangorous hangar of distraction made perfect by the inclusion of three boisterous classes with no divisions beyond the low, orange-furred movable partitions that loosely marked out our home territories. Three teachers taught against the background roar of ninety simultaneous voices and the exposed overhead ductwork, and in that Pod, the demoralization of forces formed the majority view.
Mrs. Brastow, on the other hand, was still alive and electric—more Sook than Ben Stein—and she shared that magical interest with the thrilling enthusiasm of a combined Mrs Who, Which, and Whatsit. She read to us, not because it was in the curriculum, but because it was right, and would accelerate the rote portions of the class to allow space to tell us a story in a chapter each day.
She read us The Yearling over the course of a year, and it was the perfect book for the perfect year, a volume appropriate to our age, but which didn't shy away from the devastating wealth of human experience, and when I cried, I didn't have to hide my face, because we all did, watched from across the Pod by the less-lucky classes.
"Y'all were crying today," sneered the squinty young provocateur, Joey Decker, clearly pointing out that our class had been seen red-faced by the other two classes as we made our way to the cafeteria.
"He shot Flag," said Sarah Morris, wiping away a fresh tear. "You wouldn't understand." I always had a crush on that girl, never more so than that moment.
"Yeah, I understand a class of crybabies."
At forty-four, I understand Joey Decker, too.
In high school, there's too often a misunderstanding of our maturity, coupled with the committeethink standardization of what constitutes great literature, and so they toss us into this sea of good and bad work, armed with not nearly enough experience to grasp some of it, and too much of it to not be cynical about the rest. You can get something from Of Mice and Men over a broad range of age and experience if it's taught right, but give a teacher the arch dryness of Shakespeare's "funny" writing and it's all just words, hanging in space, full of sound and fury and signifying not a fucking thing to some teenager caught up in the struggle for second base.
If the groundwork is there, kids don't need to be forced to read, making that sorrowful Pavlovian connection between reading and the march to Gulag.
In the first grade, my teacher called home repeatedly.
"Mrs. Wall, Joseph has read beyond the assigned section of his language arts book again. I've gone as far as rubber-banding off the rest of the book, and he's clearly removed the rubber band and read the next section. He thinks I don't know that he's removed and replaced the rubber band, but I know."
"What's wrong with him reading ahead?"
"We have to work at the same pace in these classes. It doesn't do us any good for some of our students to leapfrog ahead of the rest of the class."
If you had had this wretched, mean-spirited woman as your teacher, you'd understand. Class was boring, empty, and ritualistic. The rubber band, on the other hand, was the boundary between now and the mysteries of the future. In retrospect, I plead guilty, Mrs. Marcellus, but I have thirty-eight years of experience under my belt since then, and you were wrong.
By high school, my dogged, frustrating resistance had beaten down some of my teachers and they shook their heads and said, "Okay, Ford [I was known as "Ford" for my first year of high school in a clever attempt to redefine my uncoolness by embracing my fanatical love of Adams], I gather that you don't want to read the assigned book, so why don't you pick out a book for this report and do that one instead. I will insist, in exchange, that you present yours for the class, so you can make a case for reading outside the assigned list of books."
I read, I reread, I scribbled notes in the margins, frantically assembled my thoughts and impressions, sat for one long, long weekend at the keys of my Royal Royalite portable manual typewriter with a genuine leatherette carrying case and tassels on the zipper pulls and turned my drafts into a final case for the wonders of the book I selected, which I'd found in my older sister's room and adopted based on the titillating promise of its title. I tucked four pages of erasable linen typewriter bond with a watermark into my doodle-encrusted canvas binder, caught the bus in, and sat there like a cobra waiting to strike.
"Mr. Wall, would you like to give your report now?"
I was following Karen Wassman's less-than-engaging take on Johnny Tremain, so I was pretty sure I was golden, and that my report could well change the world.
"Yes, Mrs. Beurlen," I said, and walked to the front of the class. "The book I have selected for my report is Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs."
Her drawn-in eyebrows went up, then down, and she mumbled, "Oh, for Christ's sake" just loud enough for me to hear. I went into the concept of the cut-up, the background of Burroughs, complete with the lurid tale of what happened to his wife, and some of the history of the publication of the book.
"If I might read a passage here—" I started, and was about to read a bit about two boys under a train trestle that would have almost certainly have shut the school down for the rest of the day, but Mrs. Beurlen stopped me, thanked me for my work, and asked me to return to my seat.
When the report came back, it was marked with an A, as well as a little note that said "Perhaps we should reconsider the assigned reading list for the next one," coupled with a desperate little smiley face. I followed that advice, but never got another A until I put myself through college.
If my high school reading had been the main effort of getting me to read, I would be a different person today, and the problems that sent me to special ed in the third grade would by now have put me in a very, very different place. Instead, I had a teacher early enough who caught me at exactly the right time, and who made me cry in a way so much harder than our legions of overprotective adults will ever allow now.
Jody shot Flag. I—
"Mrs. Brastow, I said. I don't like that he did that. That's not how it's supposed to go. Why did the author make us love Flag if that was going to happen?"
"Oh, Joe—too much of life is not how it's supposed to go, but we can't hide from that."
Except now, I do.
And one fine morning—
I've been in a deep blue funk of late and have turned to Janelle Monáe in the way I once turned to The B-52's when I was coming out, when hearing someone sing "If you're in outer space, don't feel out of place, because there are thousands of others like you [others like you]" was a magnificent bulwark against the desolation of loneliness. When Ms. Monae sings "I'm trying to find my peace - I was made to believe there's something wrong with me," it is like divine brain chemistry, with the right molecules on the right receptors at the right moment to make it all right that things are not all right, and may not be so for some time.
I was a robot as a child.
I was meant to be a team player, and my guidance counselor would sit me down and look at me with a grave, thoughtful look, and say "Look, Joe—maybe you should think of school, or life, even, as a game. There are rules you can play by that will make things easier and you can set goals and accomplishments as a part of the play."
I thought this was stupid, largely because I have always thought sports metaphors are as stupid as a gym teacher's most shambling, hackneyed wisdom, but primarily because accepting the sports metaphor meant accepting the possibility that life, too, picked me last, and only then because I was the lone gangly kid standing in the line of humiliation to the bitter end.
"Well, I'll give you guys a bonus point 'cause you're stuck with Wall," said beloved gym teacher Kevin Kelly of Hammond Middle School, not to be specific or anything, and that was that.
As for me, I was not going to think of life as a game. I'd read far too much glorious alienating golden age science fiction by then, and I had an even better idea.
I am not like you. I am an adventurous robot, sent by unseen forces to observe.
It didn't improve my grades, or my academic outlook. I was still the last one picked for any team. I was still bullied, often with particular brutality and cruelty, but being a robot has advantages.
You cannot hurt me. I do not feel. I cannot be shamed.
Sticks and stones merely clang against my duralumin substructure.
One day, everyone like you will be moldering in the earth, and I will abide.
Asimov taught me well.
I had a Craig model 2603 cassette recorder with a stickshift control and a genuine leatherette carrying case, and I cultivated my love of the cold and the robotic. I transcribed Wendy Carlos and Kraftwerk from my sister's record collection, holding the recorder to a big Advent speaker to make primitive mix tapes, and added in tweedly space music from Klaus Schulze and the repeating mathematics of Glass. Oddly, I also lurched into the territory of funk in this way, too, listening to WOOK FM -Your OKAY 100 and finding science fiction wonderlands almost incomprehensible to a small town white kid in the trippy blowouts of Parliament/Funkadelic. Synthesizers were the future, and were the music of well-informed robots, and guitars were the tools of the laughably old fashioned.
I'd tune into the future on my Craig, with a little white cord tied into the little white nipple of a malaise-era earphone. Around this time, the world of the original Hitchhiker's Guide opened up around me like a gateway twisted out of nothingness by my radio, and as much as I thought maybe I was Arthur Dent, or styled myself as Ford Prefect (to the point of telling my classmates that my name was Ford, not Joe, in my first day in high school, but that's a whole other tale), I felt like Marvin—colossally sad, put-upon, and hopeless.
As luck would have it, I had one of the few surviving flying buildings in Ringworld at my disposal, too. I'd sling my Craig over my shoulder with its accessory leatherette strap, tuck a Bradbury in my back pocket, climb onto the railing of the back porch, then scrabble onto the low roof over the utility room, climb on top of the cast iron pipe for the sewer vent, then carefully sling myself up into the V where gables met. The real world would fade, and the jumble of gables and angles would become a floating refuge, watched over by the sentries of chimneys topped with swiveling galvanized helmets that kept the rain out of the Franklin stove and furnace and directed the smoke into the easy flow of the wind.
The ground around me would recede, the troubles would drift off, and I would be there, alone—a robot perched in the rooftops over a strange, old world, with the tinny soundtrack of my tapes and all that Bradbury could accomplish with his lurid and sensual use of adjectives.
I may be the last of my kind, or maybe one day a spaceship will bring another lowercase n.
Everything is so far away. I need nothing more than what I am, my music, and my stories.
My mission is to watch, to learn, and to keep notes. This is my program. I do it well.
In the same way superheroes live, with a twinkle in the eye, unnoticed by all, that sums up their otherness, being a robot was my secret identity. I knew, on one level, that it was not real, and that it was just a game to keep the mind sharp whilst one is imprisoned in the same way that I survived church by staring into the overhead lights until a blue afterimage was seared into my retinas, then guiding it around the sanctuary to touch every head and jab at the groin of the choir director.
It's just—well, the sports metaphor doesn't work for me because sports metaphors are as stupid as a gym teacher's most shambling, hackneyed wisdom, but making my life into a B-movie with rockets dangling from strings, with exhaust going up despite our being in space, and screeching rubber Japanese monsters terrorizing space stations and the cool wonderland of our lost moon starring Catherine Schell as me seemed to fill the void. In the future, I can be as calm and flat as the acting of Barbara Bain. I can be a robot. Robots don't hurt and robots don't cry. Robots outlive their tormentors with patience.
"Now look, Joebie—your books are on the floor! Aren't you gonna pick 'em up?"
OBSERVE: SUBJECT IS USING SIMULATED CONCERN TO PROVOKE THIS UNIT
ACTION: GATHER BOOKS
OBSERVE: SUBJECT IS KICKING BOOKS AWAY
"Oh, you can't pick 'em up? Why can't you pick 'em up?"
OBSERVE: SUBJECT HAS KICKED SOCIAL STUDIES BOOK TO END OF CORRIDOR
ACTION: SHUT DOWN. NO ACTION POSSIBLE
I stood there, still as a statue, with eyes as dead and empty as the eyes of a porcelain doll. Joey Decker pranced around me, looking for a larger audience, and kicked my books around the corridor. He sneered and laughed at his dime store grand guignol, casting out his net.
"You're not funny, Joey Decker," said Tracy Day, my usual savior in these moments. She was my best classmate in Special Education, and the lone one who seemed to get me. Not that I was fond, or anything, because robots don't have feelings. We don't have time for your human emotions.
"Look, Joebie, your retarded girlfriend is here to save you! Nice job, 'tard."
OBSERVE: SUBJECT HAS LOST INTEREST. SHUT DOWN SUCCESSFUL
ACTION: RETURN TO ACTION. GATHER BOOKS. WALK WITH TRACY DAY
"That boy's 'flicted," Tracy said, handing me the last book.
On days like those, once the school bus had lumbered back to Scaggsville, I would climb onto the roof with my talisman in my pocket, an R5-D4 action figure with a sticker worn away until he looked like a trash can with a robot head, put my best robot music into my Craig, and dance wildly on the roof to "Jocko Homo" until my father's silver and purple Suburban would turn into our driveway.
Back on Earth, familiar conversations would unfold.
"The boy's on the roof again, Jane."
"Oh, I know. He must have had a good day—he's been thumping around up there for hours. I wish his batteries would run down, though. Jenny's nowhere to be found and I need him to go check on the nest boxes."
"Your kid's a piece of work."
"He's my kid now? Should I get him down from there before he falls off?"
"Let him work it out. He's like a damn mountain goat up there."
This, of course, was not true. I was a robot. Robots are naturally dextrous.
As it happened, just when robot music was getting really, really good, my sister brought home a new album, and my days as an observational automaton were pretty much over, because all I was ever looking for was another open door.
I did get to live in the future, though, and here I am.
I studied Swedish in college.
I studied Swedish partly because I like to take the road less traveled, partly because I had a beloved hunchbacked Saab 96 sedan at the time, but mostly because in my major, you had to take either a math track or a language track as a way of "supplementing" your arts and humanities degree. Despite the fact that my SATs were ten points shy of getting me out of math altogether, I took and failed MATH 001 five times (and had to pay extra for the "remedial" class, to boot) and would have had to take it at a community college had I not gone to my faculty advisor and bawled my eyes out about how I was working a full-time job, a part-time job, and moonlighting as a stripper to pay for college. Had almost the same experience in MATH 110, so the math track was out.
Flopped in Latin, experienced serious schadenfreude in Deutsch, couldn't even make out the words in Spanish, but Swedish—well, that was a truly wonderful thing. Swedish is grammatically as simple as languages that aren't Esperanto get, but most people couldn't handle the pronunciation. The most elemental Swedish tongue-twisters, little ditties about seven sick nurses and such, would kill most mortals, but I spent my teen years phonetically learning to sing Zarah Leander and impersonate Kraftwerk singing about calculators in Japanese, so my tongue was already relatively twisted.
It helped that my Swedish professor was an absolute gem. She was onto me and how, when I couldn't remember a word, I'd svenskafy English or Latin root words into Swedish because that would work, astonishingly enough, at least five percent of the time. Still, even though she knew I was hopeless, she enjoyed my company and enthusiasm, and would be extra patient.
Where I was less than I could be with language, I made up by getting obsessed with Swedish culture, politics, and of course, cars cars cars. I'm a gearhead, and Sweden was a country of eight million people with two world-class automakers. Besides, I love clean, simple, elegant design, and the Swedes concur.
My professor also had the funniest mouth I have ever seen on a living human, and I've been to The Black Eagle with Scott Thompson. That lady—usch usch usch. I think I went out of my way to rile her because Swedish expressions of despair and frustration are just...stunning spectacles of off-kilter vowels and impossible combinations of S, W, H, and the way a dolphin arcs its spine in mid-leap, as rendered in unvoiced sound.
"Can you go over the vowels again?"
I knew them. She sort of knew I knew them, but oh my, how I loved to watch her say them. So many vowels, so similar, and so alien—sigh.
I'd make her laugh all the time, and a laughing Swede manages to go through a hell of a lot of vowel sounds if one's just lip-reading. I don't know how deaf people manage in Sweden, to be honest. I offered her a neatly wrapped gift one Christmas, and explained that I intended to put poison in her vagina.
"You want to put poison in my vagina!?" she exclaimed, and it was a natural mistake. Svenskafying "gift" into Swedish does not equal "present." It equals "poison," and the worst part is that the Swedish for "present" is "present," not "gift." I was on the right track, but so very, very wrong. I don't even know how "fitta" got in there, but my teacher was kind to say "vagina" instead of a more literal translation.
She corrected me, I blushed, and she laughed and laughed. I was content.
I nearly killed her later that Christmas, though. Where I sucked at scholarship, I excelled in going native, and I was going to Swede the hell out of myself in place of always having the right word. For Christmas, I made Lucia buns and made myself a kick-ass candle hat to do the Lucia procession. Learned the song, albeit the simplified kids' version, and even though it was gender-bending for me to wear the candle hat, I didn't want to be a dumb stjernespill, because star boys are lame. Excused myself from the classroom, lit my candle hat, got into gear, prepared my sack of candy and buns, and reached around to extinguish the classroom lights so I could burst in, all gloriously lit in the spirit of the holidays—
Sadly, the end result of a homemade candle hat and the physical action of leaping into a room was not good. Real candle hats have little wells that catch the extra wax, but my candle hat did not. Real Swedish children wearing official Lucia candle hats also don't tend to jump around, because of the obvious potential for disaster. I was instantly covered in a cascade of burning hot wax for the second time in my life, which abruptly halted my Lucia song and set me into a frenetic dance of agony. This had the effect of sharing my agony with the rest of my very small class, because when one dances in agony in a homemade candle hat, one is shockingly effective at dousing the rest of the class in burning hot wax. The viking obsessed bisexual hippie in the front lurched backwards and fell out of his chair, and I managed to dislodge the homemade candle hat.
My professor was absolutely silent, but her eyes were clenched tight, as if she was having a heart attack, and her perfectly amazing lips acted out the silent death cries of every fish on Alderaan in those last reverberating seconds. I stood there, surrounded by wax and irritated classmates, and watched tears roll as she doubled over in sweet agony.
When her composure returned, all she could say was "usch, usch, usch," but that pretty much said it all. I passed Swedish, and for a while, I could read it fairly well, could write like a grade school kid, and could watch Mitt Liv som Hund with a piece of masking tape over the subtitles, but it's slipped away from me. I last spoke it with confidence in a diner on the Taconic State Parkway in the mid-nineties, and then it just faded. I'd learned a language, though, which made me right proud.
On my last day, knowing I probably wouldn't see her again, I brought her a little present.
"I have some poison for you, though I'll just put it in your hand if that's okay."
"Tack. Det är mycket vänlig."
These days, the residue of a language learned is mainly used annoying people by pronouncing the names of things in Ikea properly.
"It's smOHlahnd, not 'small' land."
"Only you would learn a language to annoy people at a department store, Joe."
"Hey, I learned it so I could yell at my car."
"Sure you did. Doof."
"I believe the word you're looking for is 'knasboll'."
I'm not a fan of hospitals. Even worse, I'm not a fan of hospital waiting rooms. More even than that, I'm not a fan of hospital waiting room small talk in response to the "news" channel television that's blaring there because my fellow countrymen are all so addicted to distraction that they can't go five minutes without some day-glo idiotalk to keep 'em entertained into grumbling self-righteous complacency.
"Yeah," said the walleyed Baltimore lady with big hair and a misconception that I, as another white person in a Baltimore hospital waiting room, would be on her side. "I think that's whut they should do."
I didn't acknowledge. I was reading a book, trying to stave off a headache from a week's worth of powerless fretting, and hoping that my mom was not expiring on a gurney somewhere.
"Yeah," the walleyed commentator repeated, with emphasis. "Don't you think so?"
It was made impossible for me to stay in my bubble of private space. I peered furtively around the room. Just me, just you, and a TV set loudly being fair and balanced at me like a frantic street corner preacher with a megaphone down in the gay neighborhood of a big city.
"Ah wuz sayin' that the soldiers ought to go there when they come back here."
Go where? Why am I so often the target of middles of paragraphs?
"Go where?" I asked, hoping that the mask of please-stop-talking-to-me I was trying to present would be clear. It wasn't.
"Put 'em on the borders at Mexico and Canada, so we can keep them from floodin' in."
"Nah. Mexicans. Immigrunts."
I narrowed my eyes. I briefly thought that my mother could be at death's door, and my instinct to stand up and bellow "WOULD YOU PLEASE SHUT THE HELL UP, YOU WALLEYED IGNORANT IMBECILE!" at the walleyed ignorant imbecile could be indulged without regret, with the excuse of grief and all that, but I decided to be positive, to project my best self in that space, and let it go...after a fashion.
"Well, that's a thing, I suppose."
An answer devoid of content for a meaningless question.
The walleyed ignorant imbecile furrowed her brow. Like so many of the people who want to incorporate you into their army of the disgruntled, she'd met an unwilling recruit. Just like the groaning complainers in supermarket lines, looking back to me with rolling eyes to lament that the cash register wasn't working properly and therefore aren't we all united in our distaste for these ignorant people who are not like us— Just like the folks who moan about how stupid everyone else is, quoting long-debunked conspiracy theories to support their rants about the "sheeple"— Just like those church ladies who used to knock on my door and open with the question "isn't it just terrible the way the world is going down the tubes?" because that's supposed to be the thing we all agree on these days—
—Except the world isn't going down the tubes. We live in the world of the future compared to the "good ol' days." We are smarter, faster, stronger, more compassionate, more informed, more thoughtful, more able to filter the chaff, more concerned over the stuff we used to pretend not to see. The world of my childhood was a world where neighbors would tut-tut about mixed-couples and still think Jewish people were discernably different and we drove monstrous cars that guzzled fuel by the barrel and would still kill you in a low-speed accident. We had leftover John Birchers stinking up politics, Uncle Ronnie threatening to push the button, and an epidemic that we let run wild because those people aren't like us, dear. In the world of the future, science stands a good chance of fixing my mother's unexpected calamity, whereas in the good ol' days, ol' white-haired Doctor Nelson would come in shaking his head.
I'm not nostalgic for that sun-kissed Thomas Kincade painting of our supposedly illustrious past, and of a world of happy caucasians being productive little John Galts for the shining city on the hill that's surrounded by the slums where the people who built that shining city live.
We are strong because we are many, and diverse, and distinct, despite our common goals.
"A thing?" asked the walleyed ignorant imbecile, and I could tell she wanted more, but when my mom is in trouble, the last thing I want to talk about is why, dear lady I've never met before, but who feels like we're old buddies united against the flood, there's so much wrong with everything she thinks, says, and feels. I made a little sketch in my head of the moment, smiled a clearly insincere smile, and looked back down to the little electronic book in my hand.
My sister stepped back into the doorway.
"Found her, she's on the fifth floor," she said, and I followed her out.
My storytelling hero, Jean Shepherd, is an interesting case in the concept of empirical truth versus story truth, in that his long career as a radio novelist had him telling stories over and over, with details emerging and fading, connections made and broken and refashioned, and by the end of his career, it was hard to know what was fact, what was fiction, what sort of happened and what didn't. Because there are literally thousands of hours of tape, carefully made and archived by the people who got Shepherd, one can go back and trace out the way the tales changed, but it's all beside the point. I don't care if Flick was a real person or an evolving composite. If Shepherd was reporting on human rights abuses in Sweden, it would matter, but stories are stories, and the truth only becomes an issue because jittery legalistic types, feeling burned by the fact that James Frey and Augusten Xon Burroughs's wild tales were called "memoir" to compensate for lousy storytelling. Good lies don't evoke doubt, and good stories are good lies, almost to a letter.
Thing is, if someone's recounting a story from their childhood that includes dialogue and they're not Marilu Henner—they're writing fiction. It's not a deceptive fiction, which is the key point, but rather a reconstructive falsehood, because as clear and bold as childhood memories can be, you're always working to recreate the moment, not justifying the accuracy of the Scriptures.
People used to always ask me if the stories I tell are true, and the fact is that they are, moreso when I tell them well, because I've managed to cram a hell of a lot of awkward circumstances and random occurrences into forty-four years of my schlubby existence. In telling, though, I leave things out, and I pick the best possible phrasing to make the story feel like I want it to feel.
When showing off the clock tower where I work, I describe an incident where I had to call my boss to tell her that falcons broke the elevator, I'm creating a feeling by reducing what happened to its most ridiculous essence. It's a bit of metafiction I use to set up the backstory, in which peregrine falcons in Baltimore hunt pigeons, eat them on the roof of my clock tower, and leave the heads behind to wash into the roof drain. Drain clogs with heads, big storm floods the roof up to a spot that lets water pour right down, through three floors, until it drips into the 1922 control mechanism of the 1911 Otis elevator and renders the elevator inoperative.
It's true to say "falcons broke the elevator," too, and that's a funnier line.
Leaving stuff out isn't true, but it's true.
"Joe, seriously," my friends have asked. "Are those stories about your old girlfriend true?"
That's a lie, of course. No one's asked me that question quite like that, and I phrased it thusly because I have some grasp on writing dialogue in a way that makes it read true, and I'm not perpetrating a fraud by doing so, except in framing, but framing is the vile necessity of a world without telepathy—if I want you to feel what I felt in the moment I'm describing, I need to use the tools of telling the story to make that happen.
In the same way I think all people who write struggle with this issue, I struggle sometimes to figure out if I'm just fooling myself, and if I'm just a huge liar and a pathological blowhard, but I already know that that's true. Writing about truth is awkward because any good storyteller has to play the game language and convention imposes on us, and you wonder, like a magician with a bloody oversized saw, if copping to the fact that we live in worlds that are true to us and to others only as much as craft and trust can open that permeable boundary between speaker and listener will discredit us, and break that suspension of belief that we need in order to tell our stories.
I used to take the hard line, insisting that everything is exactly true, hand-on-the-good-book, scout's three raised fingers and all, but it's just such an ugly, cold place, that realm of the always-true. It's not even always-true, the always-true, because every chosen word and every carefully selected adjective is a moment where a story can turn from a sketch to a living thing, fleshed-out and breathing and full of fun and fury and fire, even in the precise region we call journalism. What's the camera angle saying? Who's the author? Who's the listener? What's the inspiration for why we're telling this.
My stories are all fictional, but then so is my life. When this moment passes, the one just ahead of the cursor in this little open window to a common daydream we share here, there's the written history and what I remember, and even the written history is subject to how open and how fair I felt as I opened my mouth to speak or flexed my fingers to type. You lie by exclusion, by leaving out details, or by writing dialogue that omits the "umm" and "uh" and stammering and random crap you say, or by flattering yourself by pretending you're not the kind of guy who's always interrupting. The world becomes slightly brighter, or lit in a golden glow, or harder, more complicated, more amusing, and more...whatever.
Still, sometimes, you have a moment of clarity, and you remember it perfectly, but it's not made of language. It's just a place and a time when you were there, right there, just in the instant and not immersed in the chatter of your inner monologue, and it is when something about the world changed for you, something raw and wonderful and full of genuine 24 carat awe.
I went for a walk one night because it was foggy out and I love the fog, and the way it brings the ceiling of the world so close that you don't have to worry about the unbearable infiniteness of things. My dog was relaxed on her lead, leaving the perfect little arc of braided nylon between us, and I paused at the corner by the Armory as a sedan rumbled by. On the front walk of the Armory, a little tree stood, and it was early enough in the season that its leaves hadn't come in yet, making it look like a huge, tangled sculpture of lines.
Behind the tree, a buzzing mercury lamp lit the fog in a cold blue-grey light, and the way the light came through the branches on the tree made the hair bristle on the back of my neck. Every gap, and every branch, interrupted the light like blades slicing up a fuzzy ball of cotton, so that the tree just radiated this glorious mass of rays, fading into the haze. I stood for a moment, noticing how every breath I took seemed to make the rays move, almost like the tree was breathing in perfect sync with me, then stepped forward.
The light changed like a kaleidoscope turned impossibly inside-out, and every move made it different and then different and then different, a three dimensional canvas of protons fleeing their electrochemical source, and as I marveled at what a beautiful thing it was, this moving work of intangible art, something occurred to me—it wasn't moving at all. My perspective on that cool, still evening was the movement, and I was seeing something in slices like frames of a film as if it was in motion, but every form and shape and contour and hard-edged cut to those rays of blue-grey light was already there, all at once, visible from any angle, but translated into something else by nothing more complicated than a step in any direction.
How you look at a thing makes the thing become what you see.
That walk, and that stopping point, are a fixed part of my memory, one of the ones that I can recount with more accuracy than most, because it's a point where a paradigm changed. Sometimes, it's a moment where your heart's being broken, or when you figure out how something works, or when you get an insight into another person that makes all the difference.
I don't relate, generally, that my dog, in the middle of my blissful moment there, arched her back and started shitting while I was having this epiphany, and that the light also made a dark tunnel of her shadow, with the little bits of motion as the crap fell and as her tail cranked like a pump handle in that hard floodlight as it always did in such incidents. I didn't incorporate that fact that there was an unusual amount of farting and spluttering involved, too, which would later make the bit with the plastic bag unusually nauseating, leading to me ending up doubled over as I kept the bile down. I leave out the sounds of the squeaky sneakers on polished wood coming from the basketball court inside the Armory, or the number of cars that actually passed by along the way, or that I was listening to Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66 on my earphones and not something more meditative.
Sometimes, I relate this story with the dog excised altogether, or change the year, the season, the way I felt, or the reason I was out there, though those things change because they're less present for me, and even less so as time passes.
"Did that really happen?" asks the rhetorical device, and I have to nod.
Yes. I was there. How you look at a thing makes the thing become what you see.
When I'm successful, truthful, and when I let myself truly revisit the moment, the story is true, even when I get the details wrong. When I'm too loose with the corroboration, or a little full of myself, it loses resolution, drifting into that blowhard realm of pompous philosophical object lessons, and the reader loses a little faith in what I have to say. In everything, you have to ponder why a tale is being told. When it's just showmanship and novelty, anything can be true if the skill is there. When it's something to share because I was there, and felt those feelings, and learned something, the requirement of craftsmanship is a bit less demanding, but it's always there. The most perfectly empirical, exactly precise, overwhelmingly accurate event ever described is always subject to translation from moment into strings of sounds and marks on pages that convey some rendition of what went on.
The older I get, the truer my stories become, even when I'm recounting the ones swiftly receding into the past. When you're young and inexperienced, there's a crutch in the gory detail or the absurd circumstance, but the more you learn, the more you hurt, the more you lose, and the more you find patience trumping arrogance, the less you need to draw people in with the old Grand Guignol stage show, artlessly drawing up that raconteur's chair to hold court. When I was young, I lied and fortified and embellished because I never felt like my life was worth sharing, and the real and the surreal competed for attention, but I've had my heart broken, lost whole lifetimes of friendship, and failed on scales so grotesque as to require no elaboration. These days, I delete, I trim, I edit, and leave out the farting and the nausea for the most part, but even the best story is just a few rays radiating from a tree on a foggy night, destined to catch just enough of what made it worth telling without lapsing into physics and phenomenology.
So this thing happened to me the other day—
Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.
For me, it was always ruined, in some measure, by my astonishing ability to get my toy unwrapped, explored, paraded around the room, and either broken or dismantled in what seemed like a single blur of activity, so I am pictured in hysterical tears in most of our holiday morning photos for a decade, generally holding up a toy missing a leg or other major piece.
Still, there was this month of anticipation, and our home was the best place in the world to anticipate Christmas. I grew up in an actual log cabin, a relatively modest two hundred year-old farmhouse in Scaggsville, Maryland with foot-thick walls, exposed in our family room to reveal enormous hand-hewn logs and mortar chinking bristling with horse hair. We always had a real, and usually live, tree that filled the house with the glorious pine perfume of the season, as a plastic or aluminum tree was so far out of the realm of decency to my parents that one was never even suggested. We decorated outside with a single large wreath of real pine cut from one of our trees, mounted on a large plywood circle my father had cut, and lit with white lights, and would sometimes light the two small pines in the front as well.
Inside, we lit the tree with those big colored bulbs that ran so hot that they sort of baked the tree, releasing even more of that unbearably gorgeous scent, and it was hung with a mixture of our own handmade ornaments, the ornaments from my mother's childhood tree, and an otherwise chaotic mish-mash of decorations, to be topped with our gold foil angel with a real porcelain head, who stood waiting on our old Victorian pump organ until the night of Christmas Eve, when she'd fly to the top of the tree under her own steam, at least if you took my parents' word for it.
My mother took Advent seriously, and we had had a proper wreath and she would studiously enforce the weekly tradition of a short reading and lighting of the next candle on the wreath. We'd hit the date on the Advent calendar each morning at breakfast, too, invariably fighting over who got to open the next little cardboard window on the calendar.
All was not idyllic, of course. There's something to the season that brings up feelings of inadequacy and of being incomplete, and there was an undercurrent of that, too, at times. There were family spats, and frustrations about why we couldn't get wildly expensive gifts like some of the other kids in our school that neatly highlighted what we didn't know then, which was that we really didn't have that much money, with so much going into starting the family's fledgling business and paying the mortgage on a house that cost an astonishing twenty thousand dollars.
My mother, I think, was most sensitive to all this, and she was the most strident critic of the commercialization of the holiday. It hadn't been this way in her youth, she'd maintain, and it was getting worse by the year. We all knew it, sort of, in that way that you see a train rumbling down the tracks and know exactly how little you can do to stop it or change its course. We were different, though, and knew it.
What can you do, right?
"You know," my mother said, brightly, at dinner one night well in advance of Christmas. "I was thinking that we should have a wooden Christmas this year."
Three sets of utensils clinked on plates. My father kept eating.
"What?" asked my sister.
"I was thinking we should go back and have a Christmas like they used to, where everyone made gifts for each other and it was a real holiday, like in the olden days."
Three throats tightened. My father took a sip of tea, searched out and removed a bit of thickened sauce that had made it onto a loop of his handlebar mustache, and my sister spoke up.
"Wait, you mean we're all going get wooden toys? That sort of thing?"
"I don't want a wooden toy," I added, stepping in to voice my horror. "What am I going to do? Just pull a little wooden duck around by a string or something?"
"I just think it would be nice if we got back to basics on Christmas, since it's such a special day," my mother said, and we all just goggled, because she'd clearly finally gone completely insane.
We didn't have a wooden Christmas that year. That year, I got what I still regard as the best present I ever received, an Lloyd's combination clock radio and cassette recorder with which I discovered the joy of radio drama, the pleasure of recording The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series so I could memorize and rehearse every single moment of it for five years, the solace of going to sleep with Brian Eno's Discreet Music playing, and the occasional thrill of waking to "Good Morning," by the Beatles. I've gotten other wonderful gifts since, but that year, well—
It became a sort of mean joke at my mother's expense, the wooden Christmas. She raised the subject a few more times in earnest, then ended up sulking about it for a few years after that. We, of course, found it to be great fun over the years, laughing over anything so preposterous, so stomach-churningly outrageous as forcing kids to accept lousy wooden presents made by hand.
What horrible lives we'd have led.
The only thing is, well, it's not quite so funny anymore. I'm not ten anymore, and this year—this year in which the country I thought I knew really started to go bug nuts, with tea parties and rage and panic and endless, unfathomable stupidity, calmed with the opium surge of singing contests on television and the unlimited cultural mania over dumb women with spray-on tans doing dumb things and cheap electronics from China and...well, this is the fucking year for me.
I've had it. This is when wooden Christmas happens.
See, I'm not a Christian anymore, and it's been thirteen years since I stopped being a middle-class (by birth, not income, alas) white guy with a degree in poetry dabbling in eastern religion and realized that I was, in fact, an actual taoist, albeit one practicing a home-grown flavor of the philosophy that would almost certainly evoke a smirk in the Chinese observer. I don't believe in a historical Jesus, I don't believe in Him as the son of God, I don't believe that what we say happened on Christmas actually happened. It's not my holiday anymore, except by familial and cultural convention.
When all the old celebrants of the day in my family either died or moved with their jobs and families to places elsewhere, and when the old house in Timonium where we'd celebrate the second half of Christmas with my lovely aunt and uncle and my cousins and my grandmother and step-grandfather finally went away, leaving a void, I lost interest in the day.
For years, I had a tree. Later, running late, I started decorating the vacuum cleaner, and I've done that, off and on, for a decade, feeling linguistically smug about the social commentary hidden in what I call "the vacuum of Christmas," but I've missed the celebration and the joy of it. I get together with my mother, my sister, and my nieces, but it's lost most of that magic for me. Thanksgiving was always my true center anyway, with my beloved annual drive to Georgia, the magical family homestead there, and all my wonderful family, so who needs it, right?
I've reached that annoying age when I start to find out, more and more, that my parents were right. I worry sometimes that I'm just getting crankier and more conservative, and that I'm on the verge of obnoxiously declaring myself a libertarian and affirming all those little nagging rake-shaking doubts about the world of the future, but I think it's actually possible that my mother had it right on this one.
This is the year for a wooden Christmas.
I'd already narrowed it down, telling friends and family to please, please not get me anything, because I'm tired of stuff. I'm swimming in stuff, drowning in stuff, stomping around in a rage because I have nowhere to put all this goddamned stuff and it's falling off shelves and tripping me.
Don't get me stuff, please.
I'd narrowed it down to my nieces and nephew, setting a rule that Christmas is for children, but even that, well, I just reduced to gift cards. Gift cards to a bookstore, mind you, but gift cards, given because I feel like society makes it obligatory, unless I want to cross the Rubicon and become the cranky old duff I sound like a lot of the time.
This year feels different. It feels desperate, like those neighborhood parents back in my day who really hated Christmas, and hated their lives, and hated their failures, and hated the choices they'd made, but damn it if we all aren't going to be HAPPY this year. Just spike up the eggnog a bit and shut the hell up, okay?
If you don't shop, the economy will crash.
There's just this ugly, panicked thing out there, this monstrous mutant of the Christmas Spirit™ on the loose, metastasizing like a glittery, green plastic wad of cancer, and you can't turn on the TV, you can't go to a department store, and you just can't set foot in the media-saturated cultural landscape without being washed over by the whole thing, by the whole clownish grinning hypercolored sparkling LED-struing inflated novelty Santa bursting out of an inflatable novelty chimney giggling magical wonderland maniacal desolation of it.
For me, it should be academic. I'm not a Christian anymore. I'm Christian-adjacent, and I've seen and known many people for whom the faith produces wonderful change and magnificent humility, but I don't need it.
This year, though, I've had it. I've had it with the gloss and the empowerment of endless entitled whining from all the little kids who've been genetically mutated into the shock troops of corporate sales forces, their little dye-reddened cry holes yapping out orders to the adult world, lest they unleash the ruinous forces of disappointment. I've had it with Best Buy's CEO claiming that he feels "terrible" to force his employees to shelve their Thanksgiving nights to go in and open those wretched stores at midnight so that wage slaves can march in and fist fight over chattering dolls because nothing else will do, MOMMY. I've had it with packaged cheer, bottled Christmas tree scent to spray on lousy plastic trees, cutesy Christmas cookies stamped out by machines in the billions.
I could let it all go, and be that guy.
I've been that guy for a decade. No skin off my nose.
I could also clean up my table saw and make something. I can sew, I can knit, I can make things. I am the kind of man Thoreau wanted me to be, largely because I read Thoreau and made it so. The thing is, I like to make things and give them away. I like to celebrate, even when it's not my holiday. I like to cook and bake and prepare fine meals.
This year, I think, may be the right time for that wooden Christmas.
The old log house is gone, in the hands of people who I hope treasure it at least half as much as I did. All my uncles are gone, and my grandparents, as well. My father last picked a crumb out of his mustache fourteen years ago.
The country where I grew up is gone, too, gone away into divisions of Red and Blue, with us and against us, I'm right and you're wrong and everyone's just dug in and set to fight.
Like someone watching a train, I can't put my hand out and stop the juggernaut, but I sure as hell can step off the tracks, find my own way, and share what I learn in the process. When I was a kid, it was all about the anticipation, and the desire, the way it burned and the way is made me feel like my whole life would change if I just got the right thing. Sometimes it was true, and my clock radio with a cassette recorder changed things, and my Commodore 64 with a Datasette changed things, but mostly, the gifts are just more details in the day.
If I think back on how it was, I don't miss and often don't even remember the presents I got, unless I managed to break them in some spectacular way. I think back and I remember my family, all of us, back when all those wonderful people were still with us. I remember the drive across Baltimore and running across the lawn of my aunt and uncle's house, and I remember sitting on the hearth talking, and fleeing when their old Dalmatian would break wind. I remember playing in the gully behind the house with my cousins, and having long conversations with my aunt's mother, who I flattered shamelessly and who flattered me in return by speaking with me with the same attention and reverence she would accord another adult.
The gifts were always just the excuse to let us feel special, but you never know that when you're young and you still believe that what television tells you is real, and that what your friends tell you is real, and what the internet and the billboards and the itchy underlying buzz of insatiable need says is real. Christmas is the gonzo season for Americans, and lots of other Westerners, but it's only as real as we make it.
If I had my way, Black Friday would be the day for everyone else that it is for me.
This year, I'm going down early to Georgia. I'll pack my tiny red roadster like a piece of luggage, check the oil and clean my windows, have a lovely two-day drive down my favorite road in the world, Route 301 from Maryland to Sylvania, Georgia, and I'm going to unpack in the back bedroom of the house down there, charge up my netbook, and sit on the porch swing writing and watching the cars go by. I'll be out in the back with the roller harvesting windfall pecans, and I may drive into Savannah for an afternoon. I'll prepare the congealed salads, set up the tables, brine and cook the turkey, polish all the good silver, and otherwise work my fingers to the bone in the best possible way.
At midnight on Black Friday, I will be asleep. At eight AM on Black Friday I will be asleep. Around nine, I'll get up, convene in the kitchen with all my Georgia cousins who I only see twice a year, and we'll assemble some kind of breakfast from the mountains of leftovers, and eat scrambled eggs, venison, pecan pie, turkey, cranberry sauce, congealed salad, dried apple cake, snowflake rolls, cereal, and whatever else is there, and talk and talk and talk and tell stories and share our adventures and just be there, right there, in that moment, far from the crowds clamoring for one stupid piece of plastic crap after another.
Come December 1st, I'm going to start putting together the details of the best wooden Christmas ever, but before then, I will be damned if anything's going to stop me from telling my cousins lurid stories about the street people I meet at work. 'Round noon, I'm going to lock myself in the big bathroom with a book, fill that enormous seven foot clawfoot tub with scalding hot water right up to the rim, and float there, reading, until I'm one big pink raisin.
The way most people live mystifies me, but I was very lucky. I can't stop a rolling train, but I can share my own story, and point out that giving your children a wooden Christmas will be hell for about thirty years, but they'll get over it, and find that they've been living better all along because of what's behind that absurd suggestion.
Maybe there's another way.
And I'm here to tell you it ain't half bad.
The internet calls us, distracts us, lulls us into functional abeyance as we listlessly paddle down the endless streams and by-ways as we wonder about something that tickles the curiosity, then draws us deeper in, and deeper in, and deeper in until we've forgotten what we set out to accomplish. For a writer, in particular, this can be a compelling trap. We start out strong, beating words into submission, then wonder about a word or a fact or something else, and step outside our work to check the consensus, and then we're lost in the wash, dazed and digital, and the hours pick up speed and leave us behind.
The typewriter is a splendid focusing tool, because it can't pick up four strong bars of unlimited information, and, in the manual varieties that I most adore, doesn't hum, doesn't get hot, and doesn't occasionally fail to save my work. It's just there, just an interpreter of crystallizing dreams, and it's the tool with which virtually all the most accomplished novels in our language were realized. At the same time, typewriters are a dwindling resource, with the last manufacturer of manual typewriters finally shutting down their production lines, and they fall prey to facile self-taught craftspersons, who cut them to pieces to make cheap jewelry for literary dilettantes and hangers-on. It's a true shame, but one that won't be recognized until long after it's too late.
The Alphasmart 3000, on the other hand, is a refugee of a more recent era, an almost laughably limited machine that stores about a hundred pages in eight files selected with dedicated keys, revealing your writing through a digital letterbox of four lines of forty characters each. It has no apps, no distinct software or capacity for installing any, and can't connect to the internet, retrieve email, or browse anything beyond those fixed eight files. Even the means by which it connects to a computer is idiosyncratic—one either plugs a USB cable from the 3000 to one's host computer or uses a now quite rare infrared connection, fires up a word processor on the host computer, and presses a key on the 3000 to send the contents of the currently open file to the host computer by simulating a keyboard typing the file in. Seriously.
You plug it in, tell it to go, and it dutifully types your work into the computer to which it's attached. That's it. There's no communications software, no hardware specific plug-ins, widgets, or drivers, just clever hardware that tells the host computer that a keyboard is attached. A more sophisticated user might call it absurd, a clunky workaround, but it's designed to be robust, and it is robust.
It's also physically robust, because the original Alphasmart and Alphasmart 2000, which evolved into the 3000, the somewhat awkward mid-level Dana, and the current Neo, was designed for children, and reflects their wild, destructive nature with sturdy, simplified construction. I've demonstrated mine with enough waist-level drops onto a variety of surfaces to have smashed far more sophisticated machines, and it doesn't show a mark from the effort. It's been frozen and broiled, sitting in the trunk of my car as my be-anywhere writing machine, and it's still here, still stalwart. The slightly dated translucent blue-green plastic of the case seems almost surreally impervious to anything but a targeted assault.
It runs on standard AA batteries, and runs nearly forever at that—I wrote the bulk of the book manuscript I'm currently editing in fits and starts on my 3000, watching the battery indicator stay stubbornly in one place because of its odd operating mode where it's really only consuming power when keys are being pressed. I've carried it with me on cross-country trains, on planes, on the bus, at work and at play, writing whenever there's a free moment of clarity, and it just works. It just works, which is more than can be said for more sophisticated machines sold to us as perfect do-it-all multi-tools, and it just does one thing, and does it very well.
The keys aren't the most satisfying, and my single longstanding complaint about the 3000 is that the spacebar needs a firm tap in a direction perpendicular to the keybed and will stick if struck near the edges, but they work, and in the last seven years, I haven't worn them out. The display isn't backlit, so you have to use it in lighting conditions comparable to the conditions in which one would read a book, and there's no font—just a 1980-vintage 5x7 dot matrix character against LCD grey. None of these flaws do more than cause an occasional and fleeing wrinkle at the bridge of my nose, and for the price, the 3000 is a bargain. I carry it everywhere, never worrying about the risks of losing a thousand dollar (or more) laptop, and if I leave it in the trunk of my car for months, a backup for those moments when inspiration strikes, it's always alive when I dig it out and fire it up.
When the Dana came out, I picked up one of those as well, and while the keyboard on the Dana is absolutely fantastic, the screen's not quite as nice, and the stylus-based interface (the Dana is essentially a Palm device) and attendant complexity of having multiple apps and files and storage media (with a dependance on using the Palm software to move data in and out) disturbs the simple surface tension of the original 3000 enough that it's never gotten as much use. The newer Neo model, which looks for all the world like a hybrid of the 3000 and the Dana, with the 3000's simplicity and the Dana's lovely keyboard, would likely be an even more perfect companion, though I can't speak to its virtues, having never found myself needing more than my old reliable 3000.
Brand new, the Neo is $169 at the time of this writing, which is a bargain for a latter-day manual typewriter with all the attendant virtues of being able to directly dump one's writing to a full-featured computer for editing, and used 3000s go for as little as $20 on ebay or Amazon, with the Neo running about $75 or thereabouts.
As a tool, they are unmatched. Simple, robust, long-lived, and economical, I can't think of anything remotely comparable in this day and age, and if you're the kind of writer I am, who's a little too prone to the easy surrender to distraction, I can't recommend them highly enough.
"Mr. Wall," said Mrs. Marcellus, a particularly cruel and thoughtless first grade teacher in my school, "Am I to take it that we're going to be blessed with another of your fine performances?"
I was standing there, humiliated, having been dressed down for slipping ahead in my reader in front of the whole class, and the jeering, giggling, lurching masses of those ugly, awful grins of twenty kids who also failed to understand a thing about how I worked, and who I was meant to be in this world, were hot enough to feel like the late afternoon sun in a Maryland summer.
I stood, and burned in the glare.
"No, I am not," I said, jutting my jaw out defiantly, and proved myself wrong almost immediately, dissolving into the choking gales of desperate tears.
"Well here we go," said my horrid teacher, rolling her jaundiced eyes. "Bring on those big fat crocodile tears, Joseph, and show the whole class what a great big baby you can be."
Even then, even lost in a moment where I felt like I was the only one of me there'd ever be, and the only one who'd ever know, I knew she was wrong.
In my household, my father cried. My father cried, and cried over things as simple and overt as the lilting, tragic melodies of Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé suite, and he was a strong, limitless man who shared those tears easily, and shared why we cry, too.
"Son, if you listen right here," he said, counting out the measures as we sat in front of a pair of tweed Advent speakers, "this part is about the romance of a man who never existed, but if you listen to the way the composer wrote the music, he carries us along, so we feel what we're meant to feel."
"If it's a romance, why does it sound sad?"
"It's Russian. Russian music always sounds a little sad."
"But if he's in love, why is it sad?"
"There's sadness in everything, Joe-B. Sometimes you can be happier than you've ever been and still feel a little sad. Sometimes, you can feel sad because something is so beautiful it's just too much to bear."
"Things can be like that?" I asked. It was all a mystery to me.
"You'll know better when you've seen more of the world."
He was right, of course. I have seen so much more, and it's easier to make me cry than ever. These days, though, when I reflect on the running commentary of a foolish, mean-spirited teacher, I feel sad, too, but for her.
"How long shall we expect to enjoy these great big gales of tears, Mr. Wall? The entire class is waiting for your interruption to end, so that we can continue on the assigned lesson in our readers."
"You big baby," whispered the nearest, meanest kid, with a snicker, and even then, I knew that I was anything but. I'd seen my father cry in his headphones, silently conducting his Kijé , and there was no one stronger in the world, no one smarter, no onebetter. Even then, even when I was just a kid, I knew who I was, even if I couldn't explain how I got that way.
When my niece was coming up, my sister once commented, finding that she was crying frequently, how like me she was. "She's just...tuned in, like you always were," she said, and I nodded.
"An eleven, yep."
It's my own little code for that sort of hair trigger heart, being the kind of person who's always turned up past the ten on the easy feeling scale.
Of course, I didn't always want it. When it was a movie day, on those special days, I always sort of wanted them to run Pete's Dragon for the hundredth time, rather than spool up my favorite film, The Red Balloon, a film I loved so much I never wanted to see it again, because it was just so playful, and magical, and terribly, terribly hard when it took the turns that were most familiar to me.
The film would chatter along in the projector and I'd recognize the familiar streets of a Parisian neighborhood that no longer exists, and barely did even then, and I'd feel that electric static of familiar twinges up my spine, because I loved that film, loved that boy, loved those streets, loved that balloon, and I knew what would happen, because it always happened.
I'd see myself as a quiet French boy, see myself finding the balloon, find myself in the kind of chaste love with the balloon, and the chase, the charging, terrifying chase, and the moment when the bad kids stoned the balloon, finishing it off with a stamping foot, and all the air would leave the room. I'd sob very, very quietly, a skill you learn when you cry easily, and try to look away, but then...well, then, all the balloons in Paris would come flying, and it was too much to bear, too beautiful and sad and wonderful and everything, and I'd desperately wave to the teacher to ask to be excused to use the lavatory, because if I opened my mouth—
If all the balloons in Paris came to me, why would that be sad?
You just don't understand such things until you've seen the world. Sometimes the things that make you cry the hardest, even when you've seen them again and again, are the ones that most remind you that life is a kind of glorious agony, where nothing is either good or bad, but some impossible mixture of things. I cry when the dogs die, when love's not enough, when I see myself up there, living out some parallel of my own life, even though it's all just a story, told for the purpose of entertainment and enlightenment.
It's all just a story, so why am I crying?
It was just so confusing. Sitting in a movie theater in the city, with my parents flanking me, I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, annoyed by the damned mimes in ape costumes, enraptured by the futuristic space station and the moon and the giant space ship, so lovingly rendered, and when Dave Bowman pulled the little glass blocks out of Hal's brain, accompanied by that steadily slowing monologue, I caught myself at it again. Distracted by the baffling remainder of the film, I wiped my tears and sat through it, until the lights came up in the theater.
"Dad? Did Hal die?"
"I think so, though it's hard to know what happened in that movie."
"That was sad, but I don't know why I was sad because Hal was mean."
"It's sad when any thinking being dies, Joe," my father said, and he was right.
"Why was the computer mean?"
"I can't say."
Still, when I sing "Daisy," I tend to slow down at the end.
I took a decade off, though, after my father died, because I'd cried enough, and I watched movies that didn't take me to those places. I can say with some certainty that I have probably seen Romy and Michele's High School Reunion more frequently than the film's editors. Sometimes you just don't want to be sad anymore, and there's a world out there dedicated to dampening those lonesome feelings so you won't have to hurt. There's always Ernest Goes To Camp, Ernest Goes To Jail, and Ernest Scared Stupid, and hell, didn't I watch enough depressing subtitled French films in the nineties? Can't I just escape it all for a moment?
Until you fall in love with someone who's lost someone, and who wears it on their sleeve as raw and open as a wound, and then it all comes flooding back, the rush and roar and heat of it, and you find that you've finally grown up enough that it's not unbearable, the other side of that boundary between life and death, love and loss, and kindness and cruelty. You sit in a packed theater with the guy who opened the floodgates, even as you feel, deep down, that it's almost over, both in the film and there, in the world, watching Ennis and Jack and thinking, "why the fuck did I have to see this movie with him, of all the fucking people in the world?"
"Jack, I swear," Ennis says, smoothing out the shirt that's wrapped around Jack's shirt in the closet in his trailer, and you sob, audibly, and go completely salt-blind as the tears come, knowing that the guy next to you is crying over someone else, someone who came before you and who you'll never be, and that's how things are, being grown up in a complex, impossible world.
Here comes eleven, you think, and it's not so bad now that you're a grown, middle-aged man. Here comes eleven. How lucky am I to know this feeling? How lucky to know this world.
In the mercury lamp glare of the parking lot to the movie theater, you don't say a word, but even though you know it's all just a fantasy, you half expect to see all the balloons in Paris coming your way, to carry you away from it all, and let out a laugh that's not entirely a laugh.
"Nothing. Thought I saw all the balloons in Paris for a second."
He rolls his eyes. You find the car, and your taillights disappear in the night, where the credits ought to be, if life were really like that.
© 2011 Joe Belknap Wall
I'm feeling somewhat more comfortable with The Beastly Conveyance and its insistence on affecting a mortifying cloud of musky swagger with every move and gesture, as subtle a presence on the road as one might cultivate on the sidewalk by allowing penis and scrotum to dangle gloriously from one's fly at all times, but it's best in modest portions served as fresh and bloody as a well-turned prime rib. Nevertheless, when the mood's right, there is a certain appeal.
"Go 'round for another strafing run, mate?" asks the throaty crackle from the rust-pitted pipes.
Sure, I think, and tuck in my knees to make the deep bend onto the highway. I'm still a bit uncertain on the machine, and after last week's urban cut and run on the Vespa, I can't forget that this is a very large, very heavy, and very, very old contraption, with brakes moved by rusty metal rods instead of sensible hydraulics. I lean in, and the weight of the thing is clear, but it's surefooted at the same time, so I rally myself to manifest a bit of trust in the endeavour and throw a bit of extra fuel into the effort.
On the highway, I can meet and beat the cars at their game, if I choose, though I hardly do. The appeal of racing up the superslab in full obeisance to The Thunderous Cacophony is lost on me, with the sensory thrill of the wind tearing at the finer hairs on my corpus wearing thin as that pull turns to a yank, and then to a repetitive, unwelcome caress. My riding mate, Old Bean, is more of that ilk, a genial and battle-trained survivor of the New Jersey Turnpike hurricane, but it'll take me some convincing to ever truly enjoy that exhausting pursuit.
Worse still, at a certain speed, it becomes horribly obvious to me that it is not just my shirt flapping in the gale.
In my own particular way, I am a lifelong subject of the glories of two-wheeled transit, but I prefer my pleasures in smaller portions, like creamy sips of Irish coffee or a fine stemmed glass of Lillet after an elegant meal, meant to savor more than to swill.
On this ride, though, I'm taking a palliative, a consolation rendered on the road, for that moment, just a day prior, when my attempt to find an altogether more appropriate stablemate for The Beastly Conveyance in the form of a civilized and almost dispassionate R60/5 ended with the definitive counteroffer from some tiresome hipster drawn to the quirky, campy style of the old boxers. It is no matter, in the long scheme of things, but it's a bit more bitter seasoning to a bitter season, and so I twist the throttle hard, overtake a lumbering monstrosity of Milwaukee chrome, and duck off the highway again for the rolling green ways around the reservoir.
The Beastly Conveyance is not happy; crackling, popping, and otherwise demonstrating a piquant dissatisfaction with my lack of urgency, but I am the master and the Beast is the ass that bears me on this brief sojourn before the sun destroys the day. We roll together, up and over the cresting hills, down into the dips and valleys, where the water below sparkles like champagne, and through the endless, embracing green woods.
"It's a good run, mate! I can almost see the cliffs of Dover looming over the Channel!"
I haven't the heart to place a hand on the worn burgundy steel of the tank and explain that, well, the Germans won the war after all, decades later, when all The Thunderous Cacophony from our old Lionheart went silent, replaced by Continental efficiency, oft-lamented lost marques, and deserted factories in lifeless towns. For now, though the Beast is shaking the meat from my bones like a chicken boiled into complete surrender, we're going to carry on—my late father's Triumph, this swiftly warming morning, and me.
"I just worry about you on that thing," say the people who care about me, and I know the risks, and manage the dangers, but the far worse of all of those threats is the one that's killing us all—the disconnection from this mighty, wild, and unkempt world.
I pull into to the penultimate light on the way home, and faces turn to me, because the rumbling shout of The Thunderous Cacophony shall not be ignored, not for a moment, and though they are more comfortable, cooler, more composed, and almost certainly less unsettled than I am at that instant, they are penitents to the deadness that's destroying the world. Think smaller, be safer, dream sensible, artificial dreams, and all will be well with us, and overhead, the stars are fading into the jaundiced yellow skies at night, lost in the glare of the cancerous suburban sprawl.
"What did my father ever see in this goddamned thing?" I mutter to myself, because it really isn't me at all, but still I handle The Beastly Conveyance with a certain delicacy of touch as I roll it down the ramp into its familiar place in the basement, knowing full well that it's one of his last living daydreams, left for the future in a shed, lest we forget.
Give me one kiss in apple-blossom.
Give me one wish, and I'd be wassailing
In the orchard, my English rose,
As I'm extracting the worn-out brass screw at the bottom of this door hinge,
applying just enough pressure to force the blade to engage
with the distant memory of the pattern left in the screw,
I am already favoring my other arm, which hurts for no reason at all,
and the electric hum of something starting to fail is spreading.
It starts in the palm as a delicate itch, like a beetle walking there,
and becomes the patter of falling rain,
then a rush,
then a roar.
I am old enough to remember television static,
back in the days when nothingness meant exactly that—
a roaring snowstorm of prickly light and the sound of flat nothing,
lighting up the room with a cool blue-white light.
"I was watching that," my father says,
only stirring when I reach out to switch off the set
and silence the empty rush of noise.
In those days, I'd laugh. Ridiculous,
to hang onto such a thing,
to hang onto nothingness.
Still, I knew the static well, from when a friend explained
how you could find your way to sleep in all that noise.
"It's simple," she said. "You let the static fall out of the set,
just let it start to pour through the screen
and fill up the room."
You let it fill up the room, wherever you happen to be
when sleep abandons you,
and you let it rise like a tide against the rocks.
You let it rise, feeling the cool, empty sensation of emptiness
that tickles the fine hairs on the legs and forearms,
let it rise till it's rippling around your nose and mouth,
until you're under, breathing it in,
breathing it out.
The patterns go away, the shapes, the colors, the unlimited
collections of aimless, consuming thoughts,
the unanswered questions, the unfinished arguments,
the unresolved loves and losses and uncertainties,
and you dissolve into the static,
The screwdriver in my hand is buzzing,
then it's my palm, then my fingertips, then a sensation
that climbs my forearm, and I can carry on or stop,
and there is so much more work to do.
There is so much more work to do.
The screwdriver clatters to the floor and I curse,
leaning into the doorframe to rub the life back into my arm.
In the worst of it, I have been resilient, adaptable,
and strong as an ox,
lifting things that make nearby eyes widen, just a bit,
to see what I can do.
Even now, I could rear up in rage
and kick that door right off its hinges,
rousing my strength where it lies,
and I'm beaten by a single worn-out screw
and the fuzzy wash of nerves firing at random.
It's just so tedious, this increasing awareness
of being on the other side of a long, long slope,
where it's all just going to get harder, and fuzzier,
and more difficult by the day.
The static rises in the lowlands where I used to play,
an unstoppable flood clawing at the coastline,
and I pick up my screwdriver and run for other high points,
because I'm not ready to sleep just yet.
just crumpling slowly and folding up sideways under the clothesline tree,
scattering a handful of clothespins and one wet sock,
one wet pair of boxer shorts, and one wet washcloth,
this might just turn out all right.
If I was to wake up here, but elsewhere, still under the clothesline tree,
I would get up, shake the grass and dust off of my one wet sock,
my one wet pair of boxer shorts, and my one wet washcloth,
gather up my clothespins, and carry on with my work.
The birds would carry on singing,
even though I know that they are not singing, at least
not as I do, nor as badly as I do,
but rather, they are crying out for attention, for territory, and for sex.
The traffic would carry on, over on the next street,
in an endless chain of other people going to other places.
The cicadas would carry on, that sharp, coppery buzz
while the world goes on without me,
and the pile of dishes crusted with a week's worth of neglect,
I get the water just right, soap up my dishrag, and turn each dish, each bowl,
that's dried on a line instead of being seared lifeless in a machine,
it is all just enough.
extracting sweetness you'd never know was there,
and carrying it home.
and so I clip them to the line, one after another, and the only regret
is when I see the bottom of my laundry bag
and carry it back to the house.
keeping up with their chores, because this is where the good things are.
I get that this is a fantasia, just as I get that all the balloons in Paris aren't going to come and carry me away from a world of bullies, and yet, it really does capture a certain feeling that dog people, by which I mean incorrigible, incurable, stuck-right-in-it dog people like me know only too well.
When my dog Rose, my faithful companion of fourteen years, was on the floor at my feet, paddling in a whole body seizure that left her still, not breathing as I pressed my ear to her chest and cried like I have not cried over another person in my life, only to stir to life again for another moment, I said I'd never do it again. I'd never go through another full lifespan of a creature like that. It was a beautiful sunny morning, and she perked up from the seizure while my ex ran for his car, and we sat on the porch together and watched the traffic going by until it was time for me to scoop her up and carry her out to the car so we could race to the vet.
When she arched back in my lap and started paddling again as the scenery flew by, I said I'd never do it again. I'll never do this again. It's just too much. With the next revival, I slung her in my arms and leapt out of the car, crossing miles with the longest strides I've ever made, and I rushed in, through the office, calling for help which came from people who'd known her as long as I have, and we sat her on the stainless surface in an exam room and watched her stir again, struggling to sit up.
My ex and I came back together over years of separate lives, just for the moment, just there, to make the hardest decision one can make, and she sat up and watched us, and nothing was ever going to be right again. How do you tell someone to kill your friend, even when it's the only thing left?
The poison came and the breath went and went and went and went away forever.
I can't ever do this again.
When things really fell apart, when the family business crashed and the money went and everybody just seemed to die all at once, she was there. She'd wake up in the night, when I'd stagger out of bed, mumbling nonsense and sleepwalking in that curious, helpless sort of dance I do when things get really bad. I'd stumble out of bed, in a clumsy simulation of life, dress, and roam the house, chasing away the demons, and she'd stay at my side, watching out, shepherding my unconscious self throughout the night. When I'd wake myself up in the midst of some fruitless lower-brain ritual of trying to solve problems insoluble by my waking self, she'd be there, standing by, waiting.
Everything was noticed. Every noise, every movement, every activity. You'd find her at the window, eyes narrowed, standing by—waiting. Her breed was a sturdy, irascible lot, with genes combined through careful husbandry to produce a perfect machine for the protection of Chinese princesses, and here I was, the worst Chinese princess of them all, but you can't really pick your assignments.
I can't ever do this again.
Every dog was a taunt, a reminder.
Sure, you're lean and strong and amazing now, but I know where it's all going to end.
Fortunately, my willpower and my penchant for self-deception are powerful. I lasted five months. In five months, I did not sleep through a single night, cursing the fact that I'd never thought to set up a recorder to capture the symphony of snoring that an absurdly wrinkled snout can generate. You get so dependent on cacophony as a sedative that you can't help but feel its absence as a yawning, impossible void. The sleepwalker returned, and I'd find the house rearranged every morning. I started listlessly browsing the rescue sites, finding a face here or there, framed in preposterous ears, that just speaks, but I wasn't going to do anything, because I couldn't.
Even now, one of the clearest memories I have is of Rose, and that razor thin division in my history where she was breathing, and strong, and there, and when she wasn't anymore. I think of all the moments when she kept me company, put up with my ravings, and patiently followed me around the house through the night, to see me into the next day, and it's just why I'm here, writing this down, as a dog person.
"Dog," I said, standing in a parking lot in suburban Rockville with my quarry on a borrowed leash, wearing the little bandanna around her neck that they make the dogs wear at adoption fairs because it makes them 72% more lovable, "I am aware that you're going to break my heart in fourteen or fifteen years, so you owe me big time now, okay?"
Dog, as she was known on that day, as I refused to call her "Tammy," the shelter name she'd picked up in South Carolina, just sort of sniffed around, not fully invested in the notion of being my friend, because she'd been locked in a too-small crate and starved down to thirteen pounds for her whole puppyhood and knew big pink monkey people to be mean, complicated creatures. I dug a knuckle into her ridiculous radar dish ear and she made that little sound that Rose used to make when I'd dig a knuckle into her ridiculous backwards Dorito African Violet leaf ear, and that was just fine.
I will be 56 when I have to go through it all again, if statistics hold. Dog #2, following a year later, probably won't make it quite so long, as he's an older gentleman. With luck, I'll be wiser then, armed with poetry and history and all the things that make us so much more with every passing year, and this time, it won't catch me unaware or in the depths of denial.
These dogs save me every day, rushing to the door when I come home from another endless, frustrating day, and I can't help but laugh when Daisy jumps on me with some random object in her mouth, showing me the amazing thing she's found, or feel the tension in my head and heart subside when Lou, the smallest beagle in the world, leaps nearly to my chin, over and over, baying a full-throated hunting howl that's as a high and exuberant as a Japanese pop song played on a piccolo, despite his oversized dignity and gentlemanly bearing.
These damn dogs will never fend off a mugger, catch a burglar, or come up with a cure for cancer, but they save me from the storms and hazes of doubt and rage and hopelessness that catch me when I'm wandering down the daily dead-end lanes. When I'm most unsure of whether I'm up to the task of being human, when I've spent a day on the phone, unraveling one bureaucratic mess after another, wondering if I'm as smart as I think I am, or when I think that I'm destined to settle into a self-imposed hermit existence, comfortable with nothing more than my happy routines, they beg to differ.
I clump up the front steps, dig out my keys, step through the door, and they are waiting to tell me that I am, right there and right then, the single most important person in the entire world.
One day, they will each break my heart, but they earn the right to do so, in the way that dogs do, by rewriting the fabric of space and time with something as simple as the inscrutable mathematics of a well-timed tip of the head, and so it all goes on, day after day, as it should.
I get this fantasia, as sentimental, imprecise, and overwrought as it may be, because I am a dog person, now and forever—incorrigible, incurable, and stuck-right-in-it. Mine won't flip a car, but they can still carry me away from the worst of things, just when I need it most, and so I can't watch this video with a critical eye, because it touches my history, sparking the fuses like grey tendrils tangled in my head that set the old fireworks blazing.
We're a mess, we dog people, but that's okay.
Lou's a persistent, but highly specific, sleeper. He hops up into the futon, leaping a whole body length to get his stubby little legs up there, then roams and circles, making his little oink oink oink grunting monologue as he digs and searches for that perfectly zen spot, his absurd, velvet ears a ragged blur in the air. Finally, he'll find a spot, dig at it, then circle several times to let the tricolor pudding of fur settle into that just-so niche in the bedlinens like a puddle after a beagle rain. Usually, it's all quiet from there.
I squeezed him out like the pit of a grape, he charged out, jumped on me, then went looking for a new ditch in which to lie, finding that ideal point where the snoring started in under a minute.
Me, however—I've been awake ever since, as goes the noble tradition.
Daisy came nosing in, with that little tentative whine that I believe is dog for "breakfast? breakfast now?" but I'm not having it.
"Little girl, it's hours before that time. Just get up here."
I hold up the edge of the blanket, she steps up and into the fabric cave, and it's just a moment before she, too, is deep in sleep.
Everyone but me. Damn dogs.
I've been accumulating materials as I could afford them to renovate the place, but it's just too much. It's literally five times as much space as I need, as the throngs of visiting associates never materialized (partly because the place is admittedly not much fun unless you're outside), and I don't have the budget, the truck, or the access my father had when this was his rural fever dream.
Last year, I started rethinking. I inventoried the materials I'd accumulated, did mountains of research, and dusted off my drawing board. As it turned out, I'd accumulated about half the materials I'd need to do a cursory renovation on the cabin, but more than enough to build a fresh one in a tiny house mode. Sometimes, given a choice between the endless, impossible project and the reset button, you gotta reach for the reset.
The Blue Moon, as it's known in the area, is setting. It was my father's dream, or one of them, but it's too much for me. Mine's considerably more modest, and within reach now.
All night, trains rumbling through. All day, reading, swimming, hiking, writing, breathing. I'm daring myself to fail at this, really, but I don't aim to do so. I've got all I need, but for the time and the last few materials. It means doing little else for the rest of the year, but after that, there's somewhere to go. I've always been a daydreamer, and sometimes I do what I mean to do.
The trouble with that oft-mentioned "catastrophe" is that no one died. Seriously—no one. Not then, not since, not in any study performed by anyone using actual science. There's no increase in cancers or in any other health indicator in the region among the people there, or in the animals, the plant life, or anything, but the crowd that won't be swayed from their religious faith that all nuclear is all bad all the time just don't care, and stay stuck in this weird middle-of-the-cold-war pattern of fixations even though the rest of the world has moved on. Even worse, even suggesting that science may not support their view just tells them that you've been duped, or that you've bought into bad ideas. Sometimes, they won't even bother to debate with you, because you're just not worth the effort.
In this, I feel a little repentant about all the years I was too damned snobbish and sure of myself to have discussions with people who held ideas and beliefs with which I didn't agree. Aside from faith, which is essentially inarguable because it's not grounded in the empirical, everything should be up for discussion, assuming people have the time and the energy to do so. You live and you learn, though.
I remember going to bed in the early eighties with my stomach in knots because I was afraid that the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant was going to melt down or blow up or leak, and I'd daydream about ways to escape, but then I was a good little soldier of the bad side of the environmental movement, the people who would say things like "it'd be better if the human race died out," or "nothing people do is any good," and who don't think that we're as amazing and natural as all the rest of the biosphere. I'd lay in bed, up late and jittery, wondering if we'd be able to get away if the sirens started blaring, except, well, they never did.
"Well, we just dodged a bullet," the anti-nukes all say. "It's only a matter of luck that we didn't all get radiated."
They say that, but it wasn't luck that saved us from "catastrophe" at Three Mile Island—it was skilled people, doing their jobs, dealing with a stuck valve and some procedural issues, and the world did not end. The anti-nukes are scoffing at the successes at Fukushima, too, saying that it's only luck that they haven't blown, and doubting every bit of news, science, or information.
Meanwhile, they've all succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. When the artists all descended on Three Mile Island, saving the world with live triple albums and an organization of musicians for "safe energy" like coal, natural gas, and habitat-destroying hydroelectricity, they beat the message into us. We've got The Simpsons and their oh-so-comical nuclear plant spreading the word that nukes are evil, run by evil people, and in terrible conditions excused only by bribery of the officials involved. Heck, when we put something in the microwave, we "nuke" it. Of all the things the hippies were able to pull off, it seems like the only lasting one has been maintaining this nearly-global panic about nuclear energy.
That is, until Greenpeace and everyone in "the movement" started to flip out about the Cassini-Huygens mission that was getting ready to launch in 1997. People I'd previously accepted as hip advocates for "my" side, like Jello Biafra, started railing and shrieking about the "inexcusable" threat to the human race of the plutonium-based RTG that powered the probe, claiming that it would poison the whole world. Insane, screeching websites, resplendent in their 1997 HTML, warned that the end was nigh. It's apparently still nigh, but nigh is such a vague thing, you know?
This time around, though, I had an inside track. I was an alumnus of the Goddard Spaceflight Center's Explorer Post 1275 (of the late, lamented Explorer Scout program), and Goddard is where they build these things. If you're on the outside, you see spooky skunkworks filled with scary scientists. Inside, it's just folks—physicists, engineers, scientists, planners, and other smart people, and I knew about how an RTG worked, and what would happen if the rocket blew up, or the probe only made a low orbit and reentered the atmosphere. The anti-nukes all claimed to know better, but they'd quote lies, made-up worst case scenarios, and outright fruit loop tinfoil hat theories, and I started getting into arguments where I'd be branded a "right-winger."
We could be clear and see nuclear power as a step as we transition from the Victorian coal smoke world to one powered by renewables and sustained with efficiency and good engineering, but we're just going to dig in, take our factless hysteria to heart, and preserve that void, that yawning gap between the coal mine and solar panels on every roof, more or less guaranteeing that we'll never make that step. Fortunately, we're not the only country in the world, so someone else will lead the way.
In the meantime, I'll be arguing. People will call me "right-winger" in spite of all evidence to the contrary, and I'll just be what I've learned to be after falsely trusting one "wing" to keep me safe against the other "wing." The thing is, you can only fly when you employ both, but arguing that gets me nothing but grief. It's a knee-jerk world out there, and I've jerked my share, so I know.
At night, though, with 20% of the light I use to read coming from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, I can tuck in my bookmark, set my book aside, curl up in the blankets with the dogs at my feet, and sleep an untroubled sleep.
There's a key incident in my childhood that's fondly remembered by everyone in the family and many of the people who have come to know me well understand it as a telling moment in where I come from. I was maybe nine or ten, it was the family meal, which we enjoyed around a table, all together, just like a scene out of some kind of nostalgic propaganda.
I reached for a poppy seed roll, but it was tantalizingly just out of the way, in a basket over the seam where the leaf slotted into the old oak table with lion feet.
"Son," my father said, "do you want a roll?"
"That one," I said, pointing with the prepubescent tension of a Diane Arbus model. My dad's hand hovered over the rolls, annoyingly close, and I hoped he wouldn't touch them all with his big hairy mitt.
"This one?" he asked. I nodded. "You want Jerome?"
"That's Jerome Roll."
"It's a Jerome roll? What's a Jerome roll?" I asked. My mother, knowing, rolled her eyes and smiled a Mona Lisa smile.
"It's not a Jerome roll. It's Jerome Roll. That's it's name."
He picked up the roll, and handed it over. Of course, I couldn't eat the damn thing.
It had a name.
Jerome sat there, on my placemat, throughout the meal, and I fussily picked my way through the freshly steamed vegetables from our garden that were a kind of healthy torture for me, making sure nothing touched anything else on the plate in an inappropriate manner. At the end of the meal, I picked up Jerome and started up the stairs.
"You're not going to eat that?" my mother asked. I furrowed my brow and shook my head, because sometimes, grownups just didn't have a clue.
I carried Jerome around for a few weeks. He lost most of his poppy seeds, but otherwise survived my patronage in remarkable condition. I put him in the captain's chair in homemade spaceships, had him trekking through the brambles in the backyard or sitting guard as I broke the rules and climbed into our stone-lined well, and took him spelunking through the Chlordane-saturated dust of the crawlspace under the log section of our house. The dog was unusually interested in me for much of this time, but I kept her at bay.
At night, I'd tuck Jerome under the edge of my pillow and go to sleep, listening to the house creaking and groaning the way it would, punctuated by the occasional muffled scrabbling of a mouse running in the walls. It seemed like the noises of the mice were increasing, but I didn't think much of it.
One morning, though, Jerome was gone. There were crumbs and a few poppy seeds, but that was it.
"Jerome!" I screamed the way you scream when a pet's died or run away.
My family made a good faith effort of looking for him, but he was never seen again. My mother pointed out that mice probably came out and ate him in the night, which just added a new and more realistic fear to my terror that a Zuni fetish doll was going to cut up my ankles in the darkness. I took to keeping the broom next to my bed so I could use it to reach over and turn on the light from the bed before I'd step down to the floor.
It's always possible I ate him myself. I did do a lot of sleepwalking then.
We all still call a poppy seed roll a Jerome roll. When I was a contractor to the DEA, and the only one in my company who'd never so much as tried pot and therefore was the guy with the highest clearance available, I was instructed to play it safe and stay away from poppy seeds. When that contract ended, I had a toasted poppy seed bagel, drowning in butter, and relished the gritty greasy happy chewy experience of it without the slightest regret.
Of course, bagels don't have names. Who would name a bagel?
You suck. Seriously, you suck with a capital uck. God forbid you let Caprica have a little breathing room to find its feet. God forbid you let a story unfold and grow. I guess you need all that bandwidth to regale us with more Ghost Hunters, to keep dumb people on the edge of their seat, or more spectrum space for cheesy made-for-TV disaster movies with CGI effects straight out of a high school computer class. Ah, and don't forget about wrestling and "ultimate" fighting. We need lots more of that. You know, because you're not just about "sci" (ence) "fi" (ction) anymore—you're a brash modern network on the go, ready to give us cutting edge programming like...umm, like another grim outing in the tired Stargate franchise, or maybe another rerun of Ghost Ship. At least you're not broadcasting endless repeats of the worn-out Star Trek franchisees or making loathsome versions of beloved multicultural books where you make everyone white. I mean, that would be terrible! Heck, y'all should hire Marina Sirtis to do a Southern accent and make a movie about blowing up France and then the world. That would be awesome, right?
It's okay, though. The last five hours of Caprica, which you inexplicably pulled, and then belched out in a wad tonight, were riveting. I was actually riveted, which is unusual for me. Ends with a bang and a great big teaser to something we'll never see, but hey, at least I can watch some more crappy Japanamation afterward (and yeah, I know you're supposed to say "anime" or some such noble-sounding thing, but it's all just endless rehashed Marine Boy to me. So sorry.). Couldn't be bothered to wrap it up, or give us an inch. Thanks, SyFy. You truly suck.
Let's see, let me just edit the channel listing on my TiVo and...bye bye SyFy. Say "hi" to TLC in TiVoblivion while I'm ignoring you.