Monday, February 07, 2011


Episodes: 3

Palm trees in the triangle of green space outside Eastwood Public Library, literally hundreds of red/green streaks of sound--rainbow lorikeets--darting among the fronds, curved shrieking paths testament to the otherwise hidden profusion of life tucked up under those thick green leaves. Inside the library free internet access, thirty minutes a day, reservations necessary unless you're willing to brave the queue, first come, first served. A corner to the left of the lobby door houses two electric typewriters--in ten short years, & in spite of memory enough to house five double-spaced pages, acquiring nearly the same patina as an Underwood--where the queue is shorter. Cross the threshold of the inner doors & one is plunged into a world separated from that outside in three immediately notable aspects: the unrelenting light damped behind tinted glass, a fifteen-degree Celsius drop in temperature, & the sudden silencing of what cannot possibly be less than a thousand rainbow lorikeets infesting each of the thousands of palm trees outside. Change enough to make a bibliophile out of the most entrenched illiterate.

Lorikeets everywhere. Also everywhere: Acacia longifolia--widely cultivated in subtropical regions, useful in preventing soil erosion, yellow and green dyes, as foodstuff, for wood. Bark of limited utility in tanning sheepskin. Referred to as "wattle," a sprig is traditionally worn on the first day of spring in Australia. It is widely believed to trigger allergies--common belief cites up to fifty percent of the population being adversely affected. Medical literature cites a far lower percentage--five percent--far lower than allergies caused by grasses.

Whatever the cause, after a full year's toughing it out here, I've fallen into a dangerous space in which the lorikeet is defined less by its plumage than by its voice. Pleasure is no longer pleasure, but the far more dubious form of pleasure defined, primarily, by the cessation of pain. The pleasure of dropping a heavy backpack after a long hike. Of elevating your feet after standing for a full eight-hour shift. Coupled with hope, itself an intense form of pleasure--the rich blue of the sky as seen by a prisoner upon release--but rendered far less vivid should the element of hope be absent. The certain knowledge that one must return to one's cell squelches that vibrant blue into the dullest of grays.

The word godforsaken is a bitter word that suffers in its utility for being both superstitious & lacking in charity, but in a land where over half of my energy is spent attempting to battle back headaches that are barely less than crippling, I find myself swallowing this word as regularly as I do ibuprofen. It goes down less smoothly, and its rough surface is prone to catching on the walls of my intestines--it does not pass easily, would, perhaps, serve me better if spoken. It defines the cycle I'm trying to break, in which the context I work in determines the shades of the world around me, which in turn determine the context in which I work. Impossible to extricate: are these headaches symptomatic of my unhappiness, or my unhappiness the result of my headaches? The two are locked in an embrace as intractable and unrelenting as time itself, and no amount of theorizing about the elasticity of perception serves to unbind them from each other.

I am not, today, within the confines of the library, but in the brief triangle of green just outside. My daughter, now in her third year of existence, is busily traversing the jungle gym there provided for citizens going about their daily chores. Making her careful way up the ladder, waiting at the top of a plastic slide for my hands, hands she trusts implicitly, to position themselves near the bottom to be ready to catch her should she falter in her joyous descent, or perched on one of two wooden ledges the height of my chest, bending clumsily at her knees, still slightly dimpled with baby fat, laughing & calling me to help her across the chasm between the two ledges. She grips a small triangular bar affixed to a sliding track, &, holding her around her recently undiapered waist, I pull her across, where she turns & awaits my aid once more. Her eyes suggest nothing of tediousness in this exercise, nor does she evince the least annoyance at the birds that screech & squawk above.

We attract attention for our oddity: our accents indistinguishable to the local ear from those promulgated by Hollywood fare, our identities careening off the contours of Americans before us, myself wedged into that sliver of the male population that might be found, midday on a work day, trusted aid to a toddler's regular odyssey through & around the local park. I cannot say I lack for human contact: on the contrary, there are days I find it difficult to handle the groceries precisely b/c I fear that contact. But the contact is brief, general, unquestioning. There is no Chris, no one person who would commit to those late-night, drunken, heady explorations of the central language we use to describe our minds, our selves, perhaps even our souls. All social, no intimacy. I could not even imagine explaining, much less actually explain, to any of these neighbors how, in my worst moments, even as I am handling my daughter, the phrase "murderous fathers", culled years before from some volume by Kerouac, reverberates within the confines of my uncertain mind. How each time I catch my infant daughter at the bottom of the slide, my primal & civilized selves wrestle with each other. How, each time I walk her back to the ladder to repeat this exercise, I have to both nod to the civilized & deeply question the validity of that nod. I believe I am a good father because I have more restraint than a supplicant to those bestial forefathers who, we imagined, would devour their children on a whim. The dizzying thinness of my self-esteem enough to send another pulse of pain ratcheting through my skull. If I'd birthed the child myself, if I'd been physically subjected to that set of chemicals, I'd feel less indulgent in my trolls through medical literature about the matter. As it is, I've spoken to no one, vaguely fearing ridicule, & daily weighing that fear against much less present, much more menacing concerns.

Those eyes. How to even begin to communicate those adoring eyes, the god-worship there, the startling absence of any question of my reliability I encounter there. How to begin to communicate to anyone, much less this one, where I've arrived from, what my own journey to the foot of my gods revealed. How to nurture that first essential question without shattering that trust. How to direct the point of that question towards myself at a time when I do not trust my strength enough to withstand its barb. Here, the din of Lorikeets, bright plumage rendered the brown of vermin in my pain-dulled mind, punctuating the blinding air that surrounds my daughter as she reaches the top of the slide's ladder, turns her head slightly to look at me over her left shoulder, and says, "Papa, catch me."

In the course of one day, how many times does the average human swallow? I swallow now, walk the ten feet to the foot of the slide, & wait, there, for my daughter to come hurtling down.


Episodes: 2

"You clearly don't want to work with us today."

"No, I just don't want to work with you."

Big hands, la-la lolling away from the man, being me, being the suit that hangs off me like the dead-alive bureaucrat I always feared becoming, pulling a 35% average if I don't count zeros, and there are plenty of zeros I could record in the gradebook under your name. No. No, I don't know the details of what you have to live with, only the details of the life I bring to this role. & maybe I know the difference better than you, but to fully entertain this reality, I'm asking that you imagine you don't care what I know.

Could be that's not much of a stretch. I keep trying to remember the name of the man who played this role for me, the man who guided & guarded the half-year that was sixth grade for me, & I keep failing. I can tell you what he looked like. He had good hair. Short hair, but a full head, unlike mine, shorn clean so I get the jokes about polishing. Young to my middle-aged. Wore a tie every day, same as me now. Handsome. He got me for the second half of the year, the first half taken up, over a thousand miles away, by an extended truancy brought on by necessity, & although I can claim no knowledge of the specifics he received about his new charge, my guess is he didn't know much more than that he had another student. I'm curious, because I have no way--short time-intensive & ultimately unreliable reflection--of knowing, if I ever gave him cause to clench his lips, as I do now, against a tide of remembrance, knowing that I was not ready for the lesson he felt prepared to give.

I admire, grudgingly, your intelligence, the laser point of your instinctual grasp of what will best bring on those minute tremblings of rage, & the self-castigation that a forty-year-old should feel at being reduced to mute anger by a twelve-year-old. I submit b/c I know my culture well enough to know that this is the barest beginning of a long tragi-comedic journey, half Falstaff, half Prospero, one hundred percent Grandpa Simpson. Should I have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? All unspoken. Also unspoken: among the many things the poets were wrong about, this habit of erecting monuments to self contains nothing of discipline. It is among the most basic of instincts. It occurs far too naturally, & while I may be new to the context particular to our exchange, I have taught long enough to know that the skill of disappearing, of stepping out of the path of learning, of not only claiming no credit, but actively denying that it was the product of anything but diligence on the part of the student, is a skill crucial to success. Really. Where will you aim your laser should your teacher have stealth enough to simply vanish?

You're laughing. I couldn't be more serious. Which is precisely why you are right to laugh. My reaction to your pointed words is proof enough that I've yet to master my own lesson. & I would presume to teach you?

I honestly can't remember his name. It wasn't a priority then. By the time I thought it important, his name was so buried away in events that I couldn't retrieve it. Nor, really, can I remember anything--anything--he taught me in that half year. I can, however, tell you the name of the boy who sat next to me. His name was William. He had black, unkempt hair, usually greasy. No friends. A steady stream of jokes, pop references to shows and music that I, fed a steady Mormon diet of country, gospel, & Elvis, had yet to encounter. Mr. Bill. Cheech and Chong. Came in every Monday with a news spoof, probably much more aligned to Weekend Update than I could possibly have known, having been forbidden from watching SNL. Ever, as my mother had it. "Funny news brought to you by funny cigarettes." Naive first peeks into a world I'd soon be fully immersed in, within two years a ward of the state, shuttled through juvie and the box of Zane Grey's they maintained for just such an event. At Risk. In Transit. There's a potential home in Taylorsville, but we haven't confirmed yet. "What's a funny cigarette?"

I remember both the surname & given name of the student who won the 6th grade spelling bee. Andy Draper, clean cut, crisp, ironed clothes, future elder of the church. Would fly into a blind rage when we teased him by calling him Andy Paper, from Puff the Magic Dragon. Even remember the exact word that made him champion.

Ptarmigan. P-t-a-r-m-i-g-a-n. Ptarmigan. As indelible in my mind as chiseled rock. I will likely utter it breathlessly, cryptically, on my deathbed.

But I cannot, no matter how much I point my mind toward it, remember my teacher's name.

The only thing I remember is this: that nameless man maintained, in his classroom, a store of paper, heavier stock than mere copy paper, cut into neat halves to approximate the right size, upon which we were to write our own books. I wrote three in the course of half a year. Highly derivative, all: an admixture of the sci-fi fare then popular, blending Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars. A trilogy. Premise: a deadly plague has broken out on the planet Earth, endangering not only humans, but all life, & threatening to render Earth uninhabitable. Fortunately, the American government, with unprecedented foresight, had built a giant spaceship, capable of housing half of the world's population. The first book was devoted to The Trauma of Deciding Who Got Left Behind. The second, A Chronicle of the Perils Our Pioneers Encounter in Deep Space. The third, The Discovery & Establishment of a New Home. In short, space dreck. But space dreck that was beloved not only by myself, but by a man who took those penciled pages home, punched careful holes in the left-hand margin, and bound those books together with brass brads.

His name? No clue. Did I follow procedures? Did I raise my hand for permission to speak? Did I ask permission to leave my desk? Did I refrain from eating in the classroom?

I don't know.

I will, in remembrance of him, shoulder this disrespect--is it disrespect? But in light of your deft amendment to my original statement, may I offer, silently, my own amendment to yours?

You just don't want to work with me today.


Episodes: 1

"I put people on the map that never seen a map" M.I.A.

Crunch time, bafflement, Chicago we cooked & ate & would have been happy as characters in someone else's story, Bulls' first three-peat still in the future but underway, books beginning to collect the dust of relics & the barest sense of fundamental change looming, still clinging to a romantic notion of what it meant to write our own stories. Impoverished bon vivants, really, taking up work in kitchens both for the work & access to prime cuts we wouldn't have been able to afford any other way. Time at home on homemade pasta, sauce, bread. Chris, tongue rolling around a mouthful of stolen red, "The trick to good black-eyed peas is molasses." Nobody made Thanksgiving sing like Chris, chestnut stuffing, gravies 40 hours in the preparation, mashed pots unpeeled w/ roasted garlic, but he couldn't bake a loaf of bread to save his life. 3 a.m., the rest of the party dismissed to their quarters dotted around the city, north-siders, Wrigleyville, Bucktown, Wicker Park, our flat 3 city blocks from the Belmont stop, walks to transport dotted with broadsides & tabloids, their readership a clear gauge on the splinters of the city's population, burrito joints wedged into the tangle of iron under the El station advertising "Burritos tan grande como tu cabeza," interiors brown with framed Spanish gastronomic jokes involving flatulence & a cork, Chris & I talking about choice, is it fundamental to being human or illusion, or both, as we try to decide if we're going to make the final slide into dawn cracking the last remaining bottle of wine, both cognizant, inebriatedly disciplined against the temptation to give into the maudlin, of time-sick days to come when we will refer to these slow pre-dawn hours, dusted over with the sepia of memory, as our glory days.

They will make fun of my ampersands, my abbreviations & run-ons, but I'm finished caring. Yes to those old tomes, yes to Wolfean inventories of grandmother's pantry, yes to Kerouacian name-dropping, to the glittering shards of beat poems smashed against the spaghetti of concrete we've erected, marked like cats, named, yes to Dostoyevski's innumerable Russian nicknames, Hamsun's hunger, Algren's court reports filled with broad-nosed Poles given to drink, the ignominy of not enough money an antidote to beat nostalgia for slums, yes to admiring ridicule at Hemingway's file clerk ways & to the picaresque in this age of plane travel. What's been offered as replacement is speed, fragmented, like the channels on TV, 150 where 4 once did, that sliver of the human population that makes any sense of this burnt out ignored b/c to really reflect & amplify that gestalt requires a mental state indistinguishable from schizophrenia. The post-mods should be having a field day, an absence/presence with no center, the only accurate representation of which must be pastiche. Bricolage my ass: I miss my electric typewriter and the dog-eared, highlighted to hell pages of my copy of "Visions of Cody," and that's all.

"The trouble you have here," Chris tells me, "is that you hold onto your ghosts. I never did. I only got into writing for one reason: I had something to say. That's why I don't write any more. I said what I had to say. But, I think, you're doing this for some other reason. I'm switching media. I'm moving to cooking, because it's an art that understands its own transience. It's meant to be consumed."

Glass raised. There is no beginning but the beginning we choose.

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