I woke up this morning in the popup and was cold. I hadn’t packed my sleeping bag or brought very many warm clothes- one pair of jeans and one flannel shirt, the rest shorts and T-shirts. Cold and apprehensive this might be a chilly vacation. But I shivered on down to the bathroom with my Barney-Bath Time Fun! towel for a shower. Meanwhile the Texas sun rose up into the trees and presto-change-o it was warm and all was right with the world.
We all decided on a hike for the day. We were camped in the Fort Sherman area, spot #2 and the trailhead was only a few spots down, between #5 and #6 and off we went. Not too far down the trail on a flat section between two creeks there was a stone marker:
Homesite of James (Jim) Francis & Ann Eliza Coston 1890 1924
It is hard to believe this thick woods, these tall trees were once a farm, not so long ago. It isn’t virgin forest, but at least it is a complete and varied habitat. No single species professional forest. I memorized the trees along the nature trail stretch, there were little poles with labels, Lee would carefully spell out each one.
Short Leaf Pine(tall and stately) Eastern Red Cedar(a beautiful tree with gorgeous stringy smooth bark) Sweetgum(Stunning red stars for leaves and spikey seed-balls for Lee to collect) White Oak (tall as the pines) Flowering Dogwood White Ash Winged Elm Mockernut Hickory Red Oak Tree Huckleberry Red Mulberry Willow Oak Possum Grapevine (not a tree, really) Red Maple American Elm (very few of these left) Blackjack Oak
At the end of the nature trail we crossed the road and went on down to the trout pond.
This is a little lake that the state stocks with trout every now and then. It is a calm spot, the water dyed a dark color from the leaves that fall in and steep like tea. The thick autumn woods, orange, yellow, brown, green reflected perfectly in the water; the twin forest disturbed only occasionally by the rings of wavelets as fish hit insects on the surface.
A little past the pond, Lee started to get tired (walking is tough on his short legs) so he, Candy, and the Giant Killer Dog turned back. Nick and I continued on, they would get the van and meet us at the playground by the fishing pier, at the other end of the trail. We wound our way through the deep dappled woods, the trail covered in a thick rich carpet of leaves. Crossing the road again, we pushed on to the Brim Pond, then turned off the trail to take a short cut to the road through a brushy field. It was tougher than it looked, I carried Nick on my shoulders so he wouldn’t have to walk through the brambles.
It won’t be long before he’s too big for that.
Next to the playground is an old cemetery. While Nick and Lee swing on the swings, climb on the bars, I can’t resist finding the gate in the fence and taking a look at the stones. There are only a handful.
Under an old oak in a patch of perennials, were two tiny rectangles of old limestone. Not enough room for dates, not enough even for names. Only the initials M.E.M. on one, T.H.M. on the other. I assume these were the original stones. A few feet in front were two more elaborate monuments – still old and worn, but newer looking than the small ones.
These new stones were square in cross section, about two feet in height, pointed, like tiny Philip Johnson skyscrapers. One had a design, a stylized lily and said:
Mary E Miller Born Mar 13,1834, Died Feb 3, 1907
T.H. Miller Born Feb 12, 1835, Died Apr 21, 1893
It also had a poem:
A loving husband, a father dear a faithful friend lies buried here
The top of this one had a stylized star and the legend LEAD KINDLY LIGHT
Nearby – a modern stone, no date.
Jesse Benson Grayrock Vols Texas Militia Confederate States Army
Finally, another simple stone,
J.F. Coston Texas CPL CO C5 REGT Texas INF Confederate States Army 1838 1903
People are strange when you’re a stranger Faces look ugly when you’re alone Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted Streets are uneven when you’re down
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Thursday, February 13, 2003
It had been a long, tiring day at work. A cold drizzle fell and the traffic was terrible. The hidden invisible sun set behind the darkening gray dusk so that it was night before I negotiated the endless streams of brakelights to reach my neighborhood. I had an errand to run, some item to buy (I don’t even remember what it was, now) and had little choice but to stop by the Albertson’s grocery in my neighborhood.
I don’t usually go to Albertson’s – it’s on my boycott list. In order to get their sales price on an item – you have to have a special discount card. That’s a bar-coded dohickey (most people carry a little teardrop-shaped fleck of plastic on their keychain instead of an actual rectangular wallet-card) that is issued to you once you fill out an invasive survey – sucking out all sorts of personal information. They use this to track your buying habits – and to target advertising (Spam? Telemarketing calls?) right at you.
This is something I don’t like and won’t do. Candy has filled this out and received her card – so I suppose I should too – the harm’s already been done. Or, better yet, I could fill one out with false information (Name – Dixie Normous, Address – 1600 Pennsylvania, Income – More than you can imagine…. that sort of thing) and then I’d have my barcode on my keychain and I could use the grocery closest to my house. But I won’t. It’s the principle of the thing.
At any rate, today I was too tired to drive an extra block and the item I needed wouldn’t be on sale (I remember that, though I don’t remember what it was) so I gave up my principles pulled in and shambled around the displays of peat moss, pass the giant entryway bulletin board covered with magazine come-ons and through the door into that odd stale produce, moldy ice, and sweat smell of a second-rate grocery store.
I hadn’t been in Albertson’s for a long time, but I didn’t remember how ugly everyone was. A grocery store at that time is a depressing place – people are all stopping off on their way home from work – yet it is late enough to only catch the people that work long hours. Most are buying cigarettes and microwaveable food. Unfortunately and unbelievably, it’s dry where I live and you can’t even pick up some wine or a six-pack. The best you can do is some frozen pizza-pockets, Marlborogh Lites, and maybe orange juice.
There is a resigned sullen shuffling quality to everybody. Their clothes are cheap and stained, faces fallen, wanting to get home. The Muzak is drowned by squeaking cart-wheels and crying children and the only words heard are, “Price check on vaginal anti-yeast cream” or the ubiquitous “Paper or plastic.”
The cash-only five-items-or-less line snaked way out but I knew it would be quicker than the other lines clogged with overflowing carts, food stamps, and bad checks. Still, the woman in front of me slowed everything down when the discount card on her keychain wouldn’t register on the barcode reader. The checkout clerk with bad skin huffed and carefully punched in the long list of numbers printed below the bars. It took him five tries to get it right.
“Although frowned upon by the Reverend Johnstone and his captains, these visits across the dunes served a useful purpose, introducing into their sterile lives, Ransom believed, those random elements, that awareness of chance and time, without which they would soon have lost all sense of identity.” ― J.G. Ballard, The Drought
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Sunday,June 11, 2000
Walking in the rain
North Texas has been in a drought for… actually, about the last three years. It’s been that long since we’ve had enough rain to saturate the ground. I’ve forgotten about what real rain is like and my children haven’t even really seen it. We have had rain almost every day for the last few weeks… that didn’t used to be unusual this time of year, but it’s something we haven’t seen in quite some time. Any rain we’ve had in the last three years has been instantly soaked up by the dry ground, adsorbed, removed, and used to swell shut the cracks that vein across the parched clay every summer.
Today, it was raining particularly hard. Not a thunderstorm, no deadly lightning, but the long, heavy soaking rain – the life-giving rain. We had plans to go to a friend’s for the afternoon and they don’t have children so Nick and Lee were collecting boxes of toys to take with them. That way they would have something to do other than careen around and tear our friend’s beautiful house and possessions to shreds. Lee was collecting games for the Nintendo 64 while I hunted down the appropriate adapters so we could hook it up to any sort of electronics our friends have at their place.
Lee couldn’t find some sort of addition… some add-on pack that is used to attach his Gameboy cartridge so he could use his hand-held collected Pokemon in the N64 Pokemon Stadium game. After looking for it all through the house I had him call his friends and luckily, it didn’t take long until we located the missing pack at another kid’s house down on the end of the block.
So Lee had to go down and get it and he asked if I would walk with him. We grabbed Candy’s new big umbrella and opened the front door. Lee saw the extent of the torrent out there and asked if we could drive. I said, “No Lee, it’s only to the end of the block, we can walk in the rain, we won’t melt.”
He has a fear of storms, not an entirely unhealthy one. Lee is at the age where he is being allowed now to do some of the things that he couldn’t when he was a little younger; such as walk to a friend’s house in the neighborhood by himself. Lee takes everything to heart and still wrestles with these things. He is afraid of a lot of stuff that was forbidden to him as a small child. He can’t understand how something can be so dangerous, so full of terror one day, and no big deal the next.
Part of that is a fear of storms. He has been warned so often to watch out for lightning, stay inside when there is thunder, don’t swim in threatening weather, that he doesn’t like going outside if it’s raining. I assured him that I’d stay with him, it wasn’t a thunderstorm, we would be perfectly safe simply walking down to the end of the block and back.
So we stepped out with the umbrella, Lee standing close to me so we could both take advantage of the portable shelter. The ground was finally saturated so the heavy rain was all running off; the streets, sidewalks, yards, all covered with flowing water. We live on a slight rise so flooding is not a concern. It has been so wet the fire ants are all building desperate chimneys of mud straight up from their mounds in an attempt to escape the deluge. Unfortunately for them, this makes their nests easy to spot and apply a tablespoon of white powder insecticide.
Lee quickly lost his fear of the storm. I caught him grinning as we walked side against side, both barefoot, wearing shorts and T-shirts. The water along the sidewalk was deep everywhere and deeper is some spots and Lee took great little boy joy in padding his feet through the rainwater pools.
And so did I.
Something about fresh rainwater, it feels good. Warm water, soft water, rushing between your toes, splashing. Some of the water on the ground was tinted an ever-so-slight brown, a weak tea steeped from last year’s dead grass clippings still concealed in the lawn. There was no wind at all and the drops came straight down, big and thick and warm. The rain made a constant pinging on the taught fabric of the umbrella and a faint rustle as it tumbled through the leaves of the trees… the only sounds. For once, the constant background rumble of eighteen wheelers on the nearby Interstates and cloverleaves was muffled by the sheets of falling water.
The neighborhood smelled clean, washed, fresh. Lee was really enjoying the walk. There is nothing like the thrill of a fear overcome. The surprise discovery that something dreaded turns out to be enjoyable. We reached the end of the block and knocked on the door; his friend produced the adapter and I shoved it down a deep pocket and rolled my shirt over it to protect the electronics from the damp.
Lee was impressed by the amount of water running down the street. I wanted to drive the kids to the spillway of the White Rock Lake dam. It becomes an incredible raging torrent – a big change from the usual laconic curtain of water flowing down the concrete – but we didn’t have time.
Lee and I had to satisfy ourselves with our one-block walk in the rain, hopping in puddles, ducking the umbrella below tree branches.
“I often stood in front of the mirror alone, wondering how ugly a person could get.” ― Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye
Cut While Shaving
Over the years, Andrew had learned to completely avoid looking at himself in the mirror. Even when he shaved, he would only wipe a little oval into the steamed-over mirror and place his chin and cheeks right into that area, cutting away the shaving cream without making eye contact with the person in the mirror.
It wasn’t that he was ashamed of the way he looked – he knew he was perfectly ordinary and about what was to be expected for his age – a little on the downside of middle… but he was disappointed. He wasn’t the person that he had hoped he would be and didn’t like being reminded of that. He avoided having pictures taken of himself and when he failed at that he wouldn’t look at them. Avoiding his reflection in the mirror had been going on for so long he didn’t even think about it any more.
The night before was difficult. He kept waking from horrible unremembered nightmares and would toss and turn with dull pain in parts of his body he never thought about. When his alarm went off he dragged himself into the shower and then, for some reason, there was no steam on the mirror.
Still, his habit stayed and he concentrated solely on the task at hand. He brought razor up and into its long-familar position. He immediately cut himself and dropped the razor into the sink.
For the first time in years he looked at himself full-face and saw a completely different person. It was a tremendous shock – he went weak-kneed and wobbly, grabbing the bathroom counter top until he could steady himself. He grabbed a towel and scrubbed off the shaving cream and then rubbed his face, pulled on his cheeks, and closed his eyes for as long as he could stand – but it made no difference. There was a different person staring back at him.
His hair and been thin, straight, and sandy-colored but the mirror had thick jet-black hair, tousled into a mop. This new face wasn’t handsome, but it wasn’t ugly. It was a little younger, a little thinner, but not young and not thin. It didn’t remind Andrew of anyone, or bring up any strong emotions – it was nondescript… but it was different.
He thought about shaving, but didn’t want to get close to this new face with a razor. Beside – the shadow of dark beard wasn’t altogether bad looking. He felt better as he dressed, and couldn’t see that stranger’s face, though his body felt thinner and more muscular. He was surprised that his clothes still seemed to fit perfectly.
He fearfully walked out into the kitchen – worried about the reaction of his wife to this stranger walking around in his house.
“Honey, get a grip, something odd…” he shouted ahead of himself as he walked into the kitchen, where his wife always stood in the mornings, making breakfast. The second shock of the day came when he entered and found it deserted. On the counter was a brown sack lunch and a note.
It said, “Honey, remember to pick up the kids after work, I have a late meeting tonight and can’t get there in time, Love, Katherine.”
Katherine had quit work when their daughter, their oldest child was born. His kids took the bus to and from school and had for years. He couldn’t think of anything else to do so he grabbed the lunch and drove to work. Nobody in the halls said a word to him and Andrew was thankful that his cube at work still looked exactly the same. He sat down and logged in his computer. His boss appeared at the entrance with a cup of coffee and a list of tasks – he never mentioned Andrew’s new appearance.
The workday settled in as always. Andrew began to feel normal again as the routine took over. Every now and then he would start at the strange dim new reflection in his computer monitor, but after a couple of hours, even that ceased to scare him. At about ten o’clock his phone rang.
“Hello?” he answered.
“Oh, Drew, this is Pen, I’m glad you’re at your desk, I’ve been thinking about you all morning.”
He recognized the voice as Penelope Smithers – the secretary to Johnson, the corporate vice president at their location. Every month he had to take a sheaf of papers to her, marked with little stickers where her boss had to sign them. She would call him back and he would pick them up, signed, and then mail them off to various agencies that required the periodic reports. This was his only interaction with Penelope Smithers – but this voice was heavy, breathless, excited, and personal. He could not imagine why she was talking this way. And why had she called him “Drew?” He had been Andrew since he was six years old.
“What can I do for you?” he answered.
“Oh, Drew, don’t be so cold! Wait, is somebody there? Oh, I see. Well, I wanted to tell you that Johnson is off site today and I can take a long lunch. Let’s meet, let’s get together. The usual place. I’ve missed you so much.”
Andrew almost choked on the phone. He didn’t know what to say.
“Drew! Are you there? I know you can’t talk, but give me a yes and we’ll meet.”
“Ummm, Mizz Smithers… I’m afraid I can’t…”
“Oh, is someone still there? Someone else in your cube? I understand. Well… if you can’t you can’t. You must have a lunch meeting scheduled. Call me back if something works out. I’ll be thinking of you.”
The line went dead. Andrew sat there sweating. What the hell was going on? Why did Penelope Smithers think that he would meet her… at the usual place. She thought they were having some sort of an affair. Sitting there, thinking back, he began to remember things about Penelope… about Pen – he was beginning to think of her as Pen, and he was feeling something… he wasn’t sure what, when the image of her came up in his mind.
Andrew was beginning to feel two parallel sets of memories. His old life was beginning to be overlaid with a dream life. Something new, shocking, different. Andrew began to cry. He felt his life slipping away. He was losing his mind. This dream life was getting more real by the minute.
“Get a grip on yourself,” he told himself in the voice of his father – who had told him this a million times. He looked at the corkboard beside his computer monitor and saw a scrap of paper that said, “Katherine – Work,” and a phone number. He picked up the receiver and dialed the number.
“Katherine Monroe, how can I help you?” Andrew breathed a sign of relief. The voice definitely that of his wife.
“Oh, Katherine, I’m having such a tough day. You wouldn’t believe it. I…”
“Drew, sorry,” Katherine interrupted, “I’m in the middle of something, we’ll talk tonight. Don’t forget to pick up the kids after work.”
“Umm, that’s one thing dear, I’m not sure where exactly to get them.”
“Jesus Drew! The same as always, just watch out for the Hartford private cops… they want everyone in the right lanes.”
So that was it. The Hartford School was on his drive home. There was always a huge mess with parent’s waiting to get their children. The private school didn’t have a fleet of yellow buses and all the cars waiting jammed up the streets and made Andrew’s commute home hell. Once there had been some sort of a fight and he had to creep by watching all the red and blue lights. It was on the news. And now, this is where his kids went. He had talked about this years ago with his wife, but they had decided it was too expensive. Actually, he had decided it was too expensive. And now…. He guessed he had no choice.
“Ok Katherine, I’ll get them.”
The line went dead.
Andrew had to ask the private police guard which lane to take and the guard had looked at him like he was crazy, then asked for an ID. Andrew had a moment of panic when he pulled out his wallet, but his Driver’s License matched his new face. Andrew moved into the proper lane and sat there waiting. He looked into the rear view mirror and for the first time that day wasn’t shocked by what he saw. He moved the mirror around, rubbing his chin, looking closely at the face that was getting more and more familiar by the second. With a shock he realized he was forgetting what he used to look like. That image was getting foggier every second – as if it was a bad dream.
While he was in this reverie the children had come pouring out of the school building. He looked around for his children, his daughter and son, but didn’t see them anywhere. He was beginning to think this was a big joke and thinking about driving home to where his kids would be getting off the bus right about now – when the back door opened and a young man and girl slid in.
“Hey, pops, what’s up?” the boy said. The girl was busy typing something into her phone.
Andrew looked back at the two strangers – they were the same age of his own kids, but they looked different, they looked… well, they looked more like his new face. He guessed it made sense – if he had changed his looks overnight, why not his kids.
“Umm, Jack, Samantha?” He tested. Had their names changed too?
“Yeah, Pops, are you OK?” Their names were the same. At that moment he realized they were his children. The memory of his old kids began to waver and fade.
“I’m fine kids. I just had a tough day at work,” he said.
“Hey Pops, my radio station please.”
Andrew reached forward and tuned the radio. He didn’t know how he knew the station, but he did.
“That good?” he asked.
“Perfect, Pops, like always.”
So Andrew started the car, and drove off into the complete unknown.
“Contrary to popular belief and hope, people don’t usually come running when they hear a scream. That’s not how humans work. Humans look at other humans and say, ‘Did you hear a scream?’ because the first scream might have been you screaming inside your head, or a horse backfiring.”
― Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals
Sam hadn’t been getting much sleep. With summer there, the kids were staying up later and later – keeping him up. In the mornings, Sam would try to get up and slip out of the house before they woke up. They always had friends over, often spending the night. When that happened, The kids went nuts, staying up past the wee hours, getting wilder and wilder as the nights grew longer.
Tonight, his wife was off somewhere, leaving him with a whole pack. He was barricaded in the extra bedroom, trying to get some work done, when there was a sudden pounding on the door.
“Dad! Dad! Come look! We want you to see this!” they all yelled in chorus.
They hauled him out to the computer in the garage room where one of the neighbor kids was seated. Sam could see he was logged into America Online as a guest, under his own account. He did some clicking and a web page appeared, it seemed to be a simple picture of a room.
“OK, now,” they all said at once, “Look at that picture and figure out what’s wrong with the room!”
Sam peered at the picture and could see nothing out of the ordinary. “You have to look close!” the kids yelled. He could hear a hiss from the computer speakers – they had the volume turned way up.
He turned his head to check out the kids and they all had an amazing look of combined terror and excitement. Several had their palms planted firmly over their ears and were jumping up and down. Another was so juiced he was actually pulling the skin on his head backwards – he looked like his face was melting and being blown back by a powerful wind.
What the hell were they up to? Sam was getting pretty nervous – that bunch is capable of about anything when they all get together. Was there a firecracker under his chair?
While he was looking at the kids Sam heard a terrific scream from the computer speakers and turned to see a horrific face superimposed on the monitor for a split second. Then it was back to the room again.
“Haw! Haw!” yelled all the kids.
He was disappointed. He had been expecting something a little more ornery out of them.
“Listen guys,” Sam said, “you’re going to have to act a little cooler than that if you want to scare somebody Y’all were so wired I thought there was a firecracker in my computer or something.”
“A firecracker! Haw! Haw!” they all yelled.
Sam went back to his room and tried to go to sleep – He needed to get up early Saturday. A while later he heard the dogs bark and front door open; his wife was home. After a few minutes Sam heard a double scream – one from the computer and a louder, more panicked on from his wife.
She must have been looking really close at that picture of the room.
“I come to a red light, tempted to go through it, then stop once I see a billboard sign that I don’t remember seeing and I look up at it. All it says is ‘Disappear Here’ and even though it’s probably an ad for some resort, it still freaks me out a little and I step on the gas really hard and the car screeches as I leave the light.”
― Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Sunday, December 16, 2001, Twenty Years ago today
Driving and cussing
The directions were bad.
I hate diving. I hate driving in North Texas. I hate driving in North Texas in the dark. I hate driving in North Texas in the dark and the rain. I hate driving in North Texas in the dark and the rain and at Christmas time….
…especially when I’m lost.
The rain poured down – making the dark streets slick and murky, smearing the windshield, making me run the defogger ’til the car heated up like a steam room.
The traffic was horrible – endless lines of cars reduced to smears of white lights on the right, red on the left. Who are these people? Where are they all going? How can they possibly all move so quickly, honking and passing – making high-speed lane changes a way of life, so aggressive – and still miss each other? How can they all miss me?
The panic and fear welled up – especially with my son in the back seat. Driving with a child in the car is different than driving alone, at least for me. Images of disaster have to be fought back and down. Nick started out whining ’cause I wouldn’t turn up the radio loud enough when his favorite songs came on the teeny-bopper station he insists on. As we descended the concentric rings of hell I began to curse, muttering, “Shit” or yelling “Cut it OUT, motherfucker” at some honking jerk in a pickup assholing his way into the stream. I don’t usually cuss like that and Nick picked up on it, even saying stuff like, “That’s all right Dad, it’s not your fault.”
We were lost along Highway 75 in Plano – the cold dark heart of consumer America – writhing in its pre-Christmas, last-minute, gift-giving, feeding frenzy. The roads are lined with massive strips of big-box retailers – suburban SUVs and giant pickup trucks swarming like ants on spilt honey. I had the name of the place and the address, but nothing along the highway even had numbers on it. I went inside a Party City store and asked for directions but nobody knew where the place we were going was exactly, though one guy thought is was on the other side of the freeway. Out we went, once more into the breach, with me muttering, “How he hell are we supposed to get over there?“
As I waited at a stop sign on a branch to the feeder to the frontage road leading to the freeway I watched a giant pickup truck whip out into a fast U-turn at the same time the car next to me shot into a daring left. Neither one was watching – neither one saw the other.
To me the amazing thing about a car crash is the sound. There’s the quick squeal of rubber on pavement – the prelude. At first impact there is a double whack of metal on metal with the concurrent crunch of panels caving in. Next comes the unholy whine of steel scraping against itself and the groan of heavy members deforming. In a second the cacophony is done, leaving only an echo in the mind and maybe a little tinkle of glass still showering the street.
The pickup and the sedan moved together off to my right and disappeared into the murk, leaving only a solitary hubcap rolling on its own, strangely peaceful in the yellow glow of my headlights.
I pulled out and continued on my quest – nobody else seemed to have even seen the accident.
I was behind in my work – the magazine needed some short fiction from me – so it was a good thing I was able to get in my usual Saturday morning two hours of writing at Starbucks.
The voyeurism of overheard conversations at that Starbucks on Saturday morning was fun, interesting, and sometimes a creativity starter. It seemed that there was a penchant for confession – people came to the coffee shop to own up to the sins they had committed on Friday night. Lately, the quality of the conversation overheard at nearby tables has been slack but today it was fairly good.
Behind me two guys were having a long one-sided discussion. When I first sat down one said in a clear voice, “I still love you, and I hope we can still be friends, but there are issues.” I thought this would be really juicy, but it turned out to be a discussion about friction within a local Baptist church.
I could not help it, I had to look. Twisting in my seat I pretended to gaze at the board that displayed the coffee selections but I was really glancing at the two guys talking – well, the one guy talking and the other taking the abuse. I noticed there was another coffee-drinker sitting close to them – she wasn’t pretending, she was staring.
While I wrote, I listened to this guy go on for over an hour. The other guy was leaving the church and the talker wanted him to stay, I guess. The talker was the kind of person I want to bitch-slap. He thought he was a good talker – but he was a terrible listener, which is very important for a church person. He never shut up; never let the other guy get a word in edgewise.
I was able to make out a list of all the people associated with the guy’s church and their failings, weaknesses, and shortcomings. He complained how nobody ever stuck to his or her course, nobody was “a stand-up guy,” and how people were leaving for the big Baptist churches in Rockwall and Garland. He kept saying how the “church world” is the same as “the business world,” and would expound at length on his ideas and theories for expansion and success. He kept using phrases like “fundamental commitment to leadership.” I thought about how he bloviated about a church for over an hour and never mentioned God, Christ, or Faith.
Then, suddenly, a loud screech of a weighted chair rudely scraped across a stained concrete Starbucks floor, a breeze of motion and a gap of very loud silence.
I whipped around to see what was going on. The woman that had been sitting near them had slid her chair back, jumped up, and advanced on the men. She was red as a beet. She began to yell.
“Hey! Dude! It’s you! It’s you! It’s you! They can’t stand you, you run the place, you tell everybody what to do; you don’t listen to what they need… what they want – what the hell do you expect!”
“Excuse me?” the guy creaked out.
“Excuse me? Excuse me! Excuse the fuck you! I’ve been listening to… No, no, I haven’t been listening, I’ve been sitting here trying to enjoy my coffee, the high point of my week, and your bile and self-serving crap has been pouring over me. You are ruining my day! People like you… Men like you are ruining my whole life!”
The man made some quiet clucking noises while the entire coffee shop broke out in applause. The woman stormed out while the two men sat in shoulder-hunched silence.
I clapped a bit myself – but I never said anything. I had a short story to write.
“I have never created anything in my life that did not make me feel, at some point or another, like I was the guy who just walked into a fancy ball wearing a homemade lobster costume.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Sunday, April 25 1999
Today was a day to be a tourist
I even went out for breakfast. A local southern-fried kind of place. Grits for breakfast with iced tea so sweet it makes your teeth ache. In Texas tea is served in big plastic tumblers, free refills, no sugar unless you put it in yourself and watch the crystals fall bouncing off mountains of ice cubes. Someone here asked our Carolina waitress if they had unsweetened tea and she looked like she’d been hit in the back of the head.
Then we were off to the area’s biggest attraction, the Battleship North Carolina . It was an interesting visit. The ship is very well preserved and a lot of work is done on the upkeep. A lot of the below deck areas are accessible and this might be the most interesting part; seeing how the daily life on the ship was done. We toured sleeping quarters, stacks of folding canvas bunks, giant kitchens, huge steam pots, dining rooms, post office, movie projector, convenience store, heads. An entire city below decks, behind armor plate.
Up above though, that illusion of a busy but tranquil life is destroyed. Crawl into a cramped gun turret and it isn’t hard to conjure the image of young men, still teenagers, fresh off the Iowa farms, crammed into the steel chambers. Humid air, hot South Pacific sun beating, heating the metal. Tremendous loud sound as the guns fire. Zeros drone overhead, dive suicide toward the ship. Anti-aircraft crews pray a shell will find its way as they stare straight into the onrushing enemy. Imagine the smell of fear sweat as every one goes about their job wondering if the bombs will hit the ship, if the armor will hold.
I’m thankful that I could simply walk off, over a gangplank and through the gift shop. Thankful I could sit for awhile on a bench. Thankful the most dangerous thing around was Charlie, the semi-tame local alligator trying to soak up some spring sun.
That evening we all went out to a regular dinner at the Marina’s Edge, a local seafood emporium. The food was excellent, I had Jerked Mahi Mahi, nice and spicy.
They did have something at the restaurant I hadn’t seen. You know those games where you put money in and a crane will move over and you try to get a piece of candy or a prize? They had one there, but it was mounted over a live lobster tank. It was called The Lobster Zone . Put in two dollars, use the crane to try and grab a live lobster. If you caught it, you eat it. Pretty weird .
“That which is dreamed can never be lost, can never be undreamed.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Wake
The Dream Screen
All his life, Sam could never remember his dreams – he would wake up with a vague feeling of frustration and discontent, but whatever was causing it would fade so fast he could never get his mind around it. For the last month, however, he had been having the same… or rather similar… dreams and they haunted him all day long. The dreams were especially bothering him because in the dream he was lying in his own bed, just like he was in real life. That made the line between dream and reality blurred and Sam was afraid that he would lose track on which side he was on.
When he was a child his parents had insisted he sleep on his back, arms at his sides, under a smoothly made sheet and comforter. They would pop into his room several times a night and if he had turned on his side or mussed his covers, they would wake him, berate him, and make him set everything back as it was.
“If you are to be organized and follow the rules while you are awake, you must follow them while you are asleep,” they would tell him.
And the training worked. For a half-century he slept on his back, with his arms at his sides, without tossing or turning.
But now, in his dream, he was on his side, with one hand extended holding a wireless track ball. In front of his face, glowing in the dark, was a screen – a tablet of some sort – with the internet on it. He couldn’t see what was holding the tablet up, but it stayed steady, almost filling his field of vision. He could use the trackball and its buttons to move around the internet, but he didn’t seem to be able to decide what to watch – his hands did if for him.
He told his grief counselor about the dreams.
“Is it disturbing to you?”
“Not during the dream itself. It bothers me when I wake up.”
“I don’t like not being under control. And now, I’ve been waking up in the same position, with my arm out, cradling an unseen object.”
“Why does that bother you.”
“It is so unorganized.”
His grief counselor was a doctor and he gave Sam a prescription to take before bed. Sam was certain that it was some sort of a placebo, but he took it anyway. It didn’t help.
When his counselor asked him what appeared on the screen, Sam obscured the reality and gave a deceitful answer.
In truth, the screen was showing, forcing him to choose, a very specific set of scenes. The screen was replaying moments from his life, some short, some longer. Some of these scenes were events in his past that he thought about often, but most were episodes that he didn’t consciously remember, until the dream screen showed them to him, and he they would arise from the depths of his memory, suddenly clear as day.
He remembered all these scenes after he woke. Even the ones he had previously forgotten, became a big part of his life, anew.
Sam finally decided to open up to his counselor. “Are these disturbing scenes, fearsome events, that you have subdued in your memory?” his grief counselor asked.
“No, quite the opposite. They are the little golden moments of my life. The happiest times. Most are not any big deal – as a matter of fact, when they happened I usually didn’t even understand their importance. It wasn’t until later, or even until the dream-screen brings them back, that I realize how happy and meaningful they are.”
“Well, Sam,” his grief counselor said, “I think your subconscious is simply bringing back the best memories of your past to give you some relief from the awful terror of the present. Maybe it is reminding you that things were better once, and maybe, they can be again.”
Sam nodded his head. He was being polite – he knew the grief counselor was wrong.
As time went by, Sam became used to the dreams. He bought an expensive pillow designed for people that slept on their sides so he would be less sore when he woke up. Sam began to sleep longer and longer until his day was made up of sleeping with only a quick meal and other necessities that he rushed through in order to lay back down and enter the world of his dream-screen as quickly as he could.
Sam was amazed at how many wonderful, tiny things had happened during his life. He knew that his supply had ended, however, there would be no new ones. Eventually, the scenes began to repeat. He realized he was watching something the dream screen had showed him before.
The second… and third… times through the memories were not as happy, they somehow faded with each showing. That was when Sam realized that his time was growing short.
“A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.”
― Jack London
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Monday, March 11, 2002
Driving back, I had a choice of several routes. Not really country but not city, the area is dominated by tony horse ranches (complete with billboards advertising the best quality of equine semen) interspersed with developments complete with gigantic Tudor-style mansions surrounded by acres of rolling lawn and artificial ponds. I saw one guy riding a four-wheel ATV down to his mailbox to get the afternoon missives.
Checking the radio reports, the traffic in the city sounded nasty – with rush hour building. The helicopter reporter called in a handful of accidents – all right along my route home. So I decided to keep moving outside the city, going east through McKinney on to Farmersville. It’s farther that way, but at least I was able to avoid the city traffic, which I didn’t really want to fight pulling the popup.
It really was a nice drive, getting a little tour of the countryside north of the Metroplex.