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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."

"I dunno."

Except now, I do.

And one fine morning—

joebelknapwall: (Default)

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?"



"Oh, you can't pick 'em up? Why can't you pick 'em up?"


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."


"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.


joebelknapwall: (Default)
 I've had a lifelong proclivity for personality pareidolia in objects that's almost on the level of my sleepwalking in explaining my curiously haunted life.

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?"


"Which 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?


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January 2013

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