I don’t know how to howl. I have lost that. I might suddenly start. But no cheap scheme can save me now.
Have you ever used a hacksaw? The harsh sound of metal rending, the hard push, vibration, thin blade, tiny hard teeth, little bits slicing through steel.
Have you ever used a circular saw? The whir of the blade, the smell of sawdust, little bits of wood glancing off of goggles, pure power.
Have you ever used a power drill? Long orange extension cord, the turn of the little key, forty-five degree gears, tightening, then turning, twisting, little spirals of wood coming out of the hole.
Do you own sawhorses? Old two by fours, turned gray by the sun, metal brackets, galvanized screws, homebuilt, leans up against the house, waiting faithfully ’til they are needed.
Have you ever used a power screwdriver? Torque, a twist into the wrist, whirring slowing into a deeper sound, Phillips bit into the screwhead, flights bite into the wood, around and down, tight, grinds to a halt.
Have you ever used a sabre saw? Razor toothed tongue jabs in and out, head shaking vibration, bite a bit, then move on.
Do you use a tape measure? Yellow stripe, black marks, little silver ear to hang on, a familiar rumble in the palm when the tape plays out, slight curve to hold horizontal for awhile, little lever on the bottom pulls the tape back in with a quick whiz.
Have you hammered a nail? Pull back, fingers hold the nail, be careful, a mistake can hurt, first tentative strike, then pull back and pow pow pow.
Have you held a square? A carpenter’s square, big hunk of steel, or a try square for things that need right angles, a combination square for forty-fives, an adjustable square for angles in-between, all are connections to geometry, to perfection, to things that fit.
Do you own a level? That little bubble in the yellow liquid, the two black lines, the tube that knows where the earth is, which way it points.
These are his days, days of building, of sweat, of sawdust on his clothes, grease spots on his legs, that odd soreness that comes from real work.
“I think computer viruses should count as life … I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.” ― Stephen Hawking
One of the tasks that Craig was assigned while he was back in his hometown for his father’s funeral was to “clean out” the old man’s computer – make sure there wasn’t anything important there. Before they threw it in the trash (although the ancient thing had cost a fortune new – it was beyond useless now).
The work was easy, nothing was password protected. Craig gave the digital collection a cursory once-over – it was obvious from the start there was nothing there that would be of any use or interest to anyone other than the now-forever-absent father.
Still, curiosity had him opening a few files, mostly plain text, just to see.
One small file was labeled mysearchterms.txt and was twenty years old.
Hanging Chad Tura Satana Monkey’s Paw Power Washer Leonid Shower Apple Pectin Bilbo Baggins Power Forward Daily Inventory Letter of Intent Echinacea and Goldenseal Temperature Sensitive Disodium Inosinate Glycol Ethers Alanna Urbach Parker Posey Anchovy Paste New Yorker Thyroid Diary Corkscrew Willow Bonded Filling Alberti Bass Oxford Comma Reverse Calenture Marfa Lights Rigid PVC
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.” ― Joseph Heller, Catch-22
From my old online journal The Daily Epiphany – Wednesday, February 12, 1997
Cold, hard, rain
Rain. Cold Rain. H2O, Dihydrogen Monoxide. Two little spheres stuck on a big one, not on opposite sides, but in a V shape, lopsided. Untold numbers of little tiny 3D Mickey Mouse heads, only Avogadro knows how many. Mickey and his two little ears, sharing electrons. The uneven charge, the Mickeys want to stick together in crystalline order and sure enough, lumps of ice are falling, mixed in.
The clouds disgorge their burden, called up from where? Where did this water pick up its heat? Its half a thousand or so calories for every little gram, leaving the warm languid sea to travel on the tradewinds. Cuba? The Caymans? Key West? The water vapor rising from the tropical ocean, born aloft in Barnard cells of air, driven by the sun’s starry furnace. Riding north only to meet a frigid army of the north. Air chilled in Minnesota, maybe in Fargo, moving south. The two clash over Texas, right over my head, and the tropical steam gives its borrowed heat back to the icy northern air. The moisture congeals and falls, falls and falls.
The streets are full, flowing rivers of muddy water. To my left there’s a waterfall, a torrent of muck flooding out of a lumberyard. The sky is gray, the mud is gray, all color sucked out, washed away, flowing downstream. The water is stealing the colors, it’ll all flow down the Trinity, down to Louisiana where it’ll slink between the cypress knees, between the mangrove roots out into the gulf, back to the tropics, where the colors will be traded for warmth, for heat, for another trip on the convection express.
Leaving work, I carry my possessions protected from the deluge in a plastic bag. Two and a half boxes of Girl Scout cookies and a quart of tequila. In school I remember napping on my cot on a male section of the dormitory. “Bill, get up!” someone cried, “Go buy some Girl Scout cookies.” “Waaaa?” “Don’t ask why, go downstairs and buy some.” I stumbled down the stairs to the lobby, only to find a long, snaking line of male undergraduates. At the head of the line was the oldest, most developed Girl Scout I’d ever seen, stuffed into a uniform about three sizes too small. She was selling a lot of cookies.
Nowadays, of course, I buy them from coworkers, hawking stuff for their kids. A couple days ago a fellow chemist announced he had to go see a customer in Harlingen. “Hop over the border and get me some tequila”, I joked. Days later he came back and said, “Got your tequila!” I didn’t think he’d really do it, but five bucks for a quart of Jose Cuervo Oro, I won’t complain. So I leave work with a bottle and two and a half boxes of cookies. Why two and a half? I have no willpower.
The family goes out for dinner. We run from the van through the icy deluge. Cars dart around the dark parking lot, no safe place for a little one so Lee rides on my shoulders. “I’ll keep you dry, daddy,” he says, and cradles my head in his firm little arms, covering me up, protecting me from the wet and the cold. and the darkness.
They’re dead to us. They kill each other in the streets. They wander comatose in shopping malls. They’re paralyzed in front of televisions. Something terrible has happened that’s taken our children away. It’s too late. They’re gone.
—-from The Sweet Hereafter
The Emperor Has No Clothes
The meeting room is windowless, situated deep in the bowels of the workplace (it is a designated tornado shelter). Long, narrow, glossy wood meeting table. TV/VCR at one end. A computer hooked up to an overhead projector and LCD panel at the other. A scanner is connected to this PC also, this is where he comes to after hours to scan pictures. Of the most interest to him in this room is a small refrigerator, kept stocked with soft drinks. His rule – you make him sit through a meeting, he gets a Diet Dr. Pepper.
Eight men, all with identical Franklin Planners in front of them. They are going over some of next year’s plans, each looking at a sheaf of papers with projects and responsibilities listed, due dates, key items. Four pages of this. He can feel it in the air, nobody thinks they can get all this stuff done, in addition to their own daily duties. There are simply too few people and too much bullshit. Everybody thinks it, knows it, sighs almost inaudibly, but nobody says anything. That would be pointing out the emperor has no clothes.
“Past certain ages or certain wisdoms it is very difficult to look with wonder; it is best done when one is a child; after that, and if you are lucky, you will find a bridge of childhood and walk across it.” ― Truman Capote, Local Color
From my old online journal The Daily Epiphany – Sunday, November 15, 1998
I spent the morning by going on into work. It is especially odd when I’m the only person at the huge factory. The parking lot empty except for my gold Taurus.
Tons and piles of paperwork I wanted to attack undisturbed, but I only chewed off a fraction of what I wanted to accomplish. Ambition and motivation were hard to find today.
Then I drove on down to meet Candy and the kids. Today was the Wildcat’s end-of-the-outdoor-season soccer party. We decided to hold it at a somewhat rundown bowling alley not too far from my work. We chose it because it was cheap.
I drive by this place often, you probably don’t. It has seen better days, the street it is on has seen better too. Displaced by newer roads it is now a backwater, a byway, only frequented by folks like myself that are constantly seeking back ways, shortcuts around the nearby railroad tracks.
The entrance to the lanes is flanked by two large plaster lions. They are often repainted in garish colors; today they were a tawny beige and shit brown. Between their outstretched paws each cradles a bowling ball, these were painted a bright blue. I rubbed one cerulean orb for luck as I passed by.
When I pushed the door open and entered the alley I was assaulted by the stench of cigarette smoke, some fresh, some echoes of ancient puffing. It didn’t take long to get used to it though, and the place was clean and well-run. And it was cheap. The neighborhood must be run down more than I thought, one feature was public surveillance cameras trained on the parking lot so you could keep an eye on your car while you bowled. The kids liked watching their friends arrive on the monitors.
Everyone seemed to have a good time. We rented four lanes for two hours. The kids played on three lanes and the adults on one. For those of you that don’t hang out in such places, there has been a big change in bowling to accommodate small children and recapture the family bowling market. There is a selection of lightweight balls for kids, with no holes in them. The kids simply heave these down the lane the best way they can. There are folding bumpers that are extended out to fill the gutters, so the kids will almost always be able to hit at least a few pins.
Lee really bowled well and had a blast. Nick did too, though he whined and griped the whole time. “I’ll never get the hang of this!” “I’ll never get a strike!” He had his premature teenager disease bad today; which is frustrating for everybody around him.
The adults had fun too. Candy bowled on one of the bumper lanes and ended up with a respectable score. For me, of course, the primary attraction of bowling is the thrill of wearing rented shoes.
We bowled, handed out trophies, ate cupcakes, the usual stuff. We found out that the team the Wildcats beat yesterday in indoor had never lost a game before.
As I was standing around I noticed a glass covered, framed letter mounted on the wall. It was from some bowling consulting firm congratulating the bowling alley owner on his modern, impressive facility. It went on gushing for several paragraphs before concluding with the sentence, “And we are confident in saying that your bowling facility is one of the top one or two percent of all bowling centers in the entire country.”
I looked closer and the yellowed letter was dated 1985.
“Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.” ― Yasunari Kawabata
From my old online journal The Daily Epiphany – Saturday, November 28, 1998
Thank goodness, you forget
Nick and I were hiking, we were somewhere along a trail between here and there. I wasn’t sure how much farther we had to go. “I’m tired, Dad!” he’d complain. I’d carry Nick on my shoulders for awhile, then he’d want down. He’d walk and say, “My feet hurt! My legs are tired!”
Not too far along after that we popped out where the trail crosses a road, we knew where we were, found it on the map. Nick said, “Now it doesn’t seem so far.” I told him that was always how it was. When you’re in the middle of it, it seems so difficult, so long, so far. But after you’ve done it, you forget how hard it was.
That’s it isn’t it? How many times every day do we get to the point where we don’t know if we can take it any more, if we can take another step. But we do, we stick it out. Later, we forget how bad it was. Thank goodness.
It can be anything. For me it’s usually screaming, misbehaving kids. The constant din, the whining, the griping, the demanding grates and wears ’til I simply don’t know if I can stand another second. I do stand it though. Later when they’re asleep they look so calm, beatific, I forget how tired and angry I was earlier.
Or people asking me to fix stuff. I get to the point that if one more person comes to me with their busted doo-dad or gizmo, confident that I can fix it, I’m afraid I’ll flop on the floor screaming. Their TV’s won’t get the channels they want, their computers won’t do what they want them to, the reports (written by someone else) don’t print in the right order. I have to drop my own work, time that is precious to me, and supplicate myself to their problems. When the solution isn’t as simple as they want, they blame me, as if it was me that put them in the predicament in the first place. The worst is, they insist that I act like I care.
I get through it somehow, then I forget.
When I was younger, I used to dream that someday this would drop away, that the way would suddenly become clear and the daily struggles would become easier. Now I know that this is life, this is what it is. Every day, every hour, something difficult, frustrating, humiliating, presents itself, demands to be attended to. Again and again, all the time, worn out, tired, bored, struggling.
When you get through it, when you reach the road you forget the pain, only remember the little victories.
“We live as we dream–alone….” ― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
My Friends Dream and I Just Sleep
I dream of winning the lottery and spending the rest of my life traveling the world, going to exotic locations. I will send postcards. A reliable, discrete research company supplies me with lists of names – some random, others carefully chosen as perfectly ordinary, lonely folks from forgotten towns. I go forth each day and buy local postcards full of beautiful sunsets, mountain ranges, masterpiece-filled museums, famous tourist landmarks, castles, palaces, or a tableau of local fishermen or washerwomen toiling under the tropical sun.
Sitting in the office corner of my expensive hotel suite, or possibly a table by the pool, or even an overstuffed booth in a smoky bar I write the postcards. Something carefully simple and familiar, a message that carries an implied sequence, like a bit of daily conversation between close friends.
“Hi, we ate fish with mangoes today, the sea here is like a turquoise table.”
“The skiing is rough this year, the snow thin and icy.”
“Pierre sends his love, he has been bedridden – I believe it was some bad clams.”
Then I sign the postcards with a scribble I have carefully practiced. It is obviously a name – but one of ambiguous nature. Is it Barton?, or Charles? or is it Deborah? or Denise?
The address and the salutation (Dearest Sue… Henry, old friend) are printed very carefully, though. I don’t want the card to be misdelivered; even though its recipient is someone I don’t know.
Sometimes the messages are a little more personal, something beyond, “Wish you were here.”
“I sill think of the look in your eyes the moment we parted every day of my life.”
“No beautiful sunset will replace the ache in my heart when we are apart.”
Maybe a hint of a physical relationship; a small treat for the postal workers, delivery men, or local snoops to read as the card passes by, uncovered for public knowledge.
“As I stretch out on the sun-drenched sand I can feel the warmth of your body as if still pressed against mine.”
I imagine the postcards being delivered – puzzled looks, tossing and turning, forgotten corners of memory relit and poured over, the consulting of an Atlas. My hope is that in a certain small percentage of recipients the card will root and grow – flower into a fully imagined memory… false, yes, but strong too. After all – there is the postcard; there is the evidence.
Maybe, with time, the exotic imagination will become truth, a cherished memory, a wonderful story for the Grandkids.
“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” ― Cormac McCarthy, The Road
The Last Sunset
Oscar and Matt were neighbors and had been for five years. Their wives had made friends with each other right from the start – meeting every morninh walking their dogs while their husbands were at work – but the two men hardly knew each other.
When the news came in, both wives were out of town – they had gone to Vegas for a girl’s weekend, leaving the husbands on their own. Oscar and Matt met out in the front yard, talking calmly while the world came apart around them. They could hear gunshots all around the neighborhood, cars were screaching around the corners, and so many people were simply standing in their yards screaming obscenities or nonsense wails. Neither of the two men were prone to panic or losing their minds – so they both wandered outside and said hello to each other.
“Sara said Mary talked to you,” said Oscar.
“Yeah, I called before the cell service went down. They both want to come home, but there is no way they can make it until tonight. We said goodbye as best we could.”
“Same thing here. She was losing it when the system went down. I feel awful, but can’t think of anything I can do.”
The two men looked out over their neighborhood. Columns of smoke were rising from burning homes and the volume of gunfire and screaming was increasing.
“Well, what do we do now?”
“It looks like we’d both better get the hell out of here, I don’t want to get shot in my own yard. Why don’t we head out, up to the mountains. I know a fire road out of here that won’t have anyone one it – we head up there all the time for overnight camping trips. We can take my four by.”
“That sound good. I’ve got a casserole Mary made before she left, it’s pretty good. We can get out and have something to eat.”
“I’ve got a bag of weed and a bottle of good single malt. Take your pick.”
“Shit, both. Why not?”
“Yeah. Well, I’ll bring the truck around. What else do we need?
“Nothing, nothing. What did they say… four hours left?”
“Yeah that’s about it. Let’s get going.”
Oscar brought the truck around while Matt went in to get the casserole, plates, and forks. He climbed in as Oscar drove by and looked over the whisky and weed in the console.
“You got papers?”
“There’s a little pipe and a lighter in the glove box. Go ahead and light up if you want?”
“Is that a good idea?”
“What the hell? You think anyone gives a shit?”
“Nah. Don’t know what I was thinking.”
They smoked in silence as Oscar drove through the neighborhood and then turned onto a gravel fire road that Matt had never noticed in all the years he had driven past that part of town. The road rapidly began to gain altitude, winding past the creek that tumbles down from the high country above. After only two hours of driving they turned again and powered through a mountain meadow and a rocky clearing that opened up with a view of the city below framed with the tall forest trees.
“Jesus, what a beautiful spot,” said Matt. “I never knew this was up here.”
“Nobody does,” replied Oscar. “Sara and I stumbled on this spot a few years ago, my company surveyed the new fire road and I came out and explored it. We kept it as secret as we can. It’s been a great getaway for us. Only two hours of driving and you might as well be on the moon.”
“Well, I sure as hell am glad we’re not down there any more.” Matt gestured out at the city. The sun was getting close to the horizon but the fading light illuminated huge clouds of smoke rising from the city.”
“The whole thing is burning down. Shame,” said Oscar.
“Doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“Nope. Unless they are wrong.”
“Could they be wrong?”
“Well, I guess anything is possible. But I don’t think so.”
“Now how are they sure? The radiation beam? They call it a gamma ray burst.”
“The tacheons. I read all about it online before the ‘net went down. Those are tiny particles, very hard to detect, they go through everything like nothing was there. But there are huge detectors, some down in mines, one under the ice in Antarctica, under the ice. This morning they detected this huge, mammoth tacheon pulse. Every detector, everywhere. The only explanation was an oncoming gamma-ray burst from a nearby star. A burst powerful enough to end all life on earth.”
“But how to the… tacheons? Get here before the gamma rays? Don’t those move at the speed of light?”
“Yeah, but the tacheons go out first. When the star supernovas they send out the tacheons right before, like 12 hours ahead of the gammas. That gives us… maybe and hour left.”
“Shit, how are they so sure? They could be wrong?”
“They don’t seem to be. At any rate we’ll know in an hour or so. Hey, lets break out that bottle.”
“Ok. Shit, I forgot to grab glasses.”
“No matter, we can drink out of the bottle.”
Matt picked the bottle up, spun off the cap, and threw it off into the woods.
“Well, I lost the cap, now we’ll have to drink the whole thing.”
The two men sat there watching the last sunset, passing the whisky bottle back and forth. As the sky went from orange to dark purple, a single star began to glow, brighter and brighter, until it was light again, as light as a gray day. The atmosphere far above them began to ionize, spreading waves of color, all colors of the rainbow, including some that the two men had never seen.
“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” said one of the men.
“The daily hummingbird assaults existence with improbability.” ― Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters
The smell of a mountain stream, pines, water gurgling over rocks – his feet are wet and cold. The sun is already hot – peeking around thousands of feet of granite. Overhead strips of snow – that’s where all this water is coming from. There is a humming in the air – swarms of tiny hummingbirds flying in what seem to be patterned waves. Coming and going. It’s almost like something unseen in controlling them – something sent them. He begins to walk upstream and the tiny birds follow – he wonders if he is controlling them, if he called the swarm.
Hours of walking, ever upward and the stream has narrowed and deepened. He can’t walk in it anymore. It now tumbles steeply in a series of waterfalls. The trees are now gone – replaced by scrubby low shrubs – looking ahead, far above, he sees bare rock.
The hummingbirds disappeared with the trees – now there are rodents and farther off large mammals – bears and deer – walking along. Sometimes visible, usually not – they are watching him. He is breathing hard, the air is thin. He should be tired but he is driven upward and the pain in his legs feels like it is happening to someone else, someone far away.
The scrub drops away and he is left on bare rock, scrambling higher and higher. All the animals have given up except for a small herd of mountain goats moving ahead – lightly jumping up the rocks and then waiting for him to catch up. His progress is slow, the rocks are loose and slide down and away – sometimes rolling, tumbling, booming, down into the green valley far below. The headwaters of the stream are all around – tiny rivulets of water tumbling over sharp-edged rocks. He looks up and sees the blinding white snowfield where the water is coming from.
For hours he struggles up and across the field of stones – loose rock tilted at that horribly steep angle. But he keeps moving with excruciating slowness – still putting one foot in front of the other – the scree so steep now that he has to put one hand in front on the ground, crawling, to climb up at that angle.
Then, without realizing it, he is on the snowfield. It is easier climbing that across the rocks even though every few steps he breaks through the crust and sinks up to his waist in the soft, rotten, wet ice beneath.
The slope was less and he realizes he was nearing the summit. By now, all the animals had given up following him and his only companions were two huge buzzards slowing circling high overhead. He wonders at how that much bulk could be supported by this thin air and look so free and graceful.
The world opens up around him as he reaches the apex – hundreds of miles of snow-capped peaks arranged in rough rows above hidden valleys stretching to the impossibly distant horizon.
Beyond the mountains, towering high over them were the mushroom clouds. Some were still rising, their orange hearts still glowing. Others were now gray and drifting in the high altitude jet stream – ragged – dissipating.
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
Walking the Dogs
Craig was out for his daily constitutional, walking a figure-eight through the park a few blocks from his apartment. As he came across the little bridge he saw a woman walking two pit bulls on the path before him.
Because of recency bias he couldn’t admit to himself that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, but he was sure he had never a woman more beautiful. It was a hot day and she was wearing shorts and an old-fashioned halter top – Craig didn’t think he had seen one of those in a decade. She wore it well.
Her dogs were friendly and as he bent of to pet them he decided to say something.
“What are your dog’s names?”
“Neetzy and Young,” she said.
“Do you mean Nietzsche and Jung?”
“Yeah, that’s sounds right. My ex-boyfriend named them.”
“Are they his dogs?”
“They were ours. Now their mine.”
“So the two of you picked out two dogs?”
“Yeah, he had a cat when we met.”
“A male cat?”
“Let me guess, it was named Murr. Tomcat Murr.”
“How did you know? That’s what he called it too, Tomcat Mur. What a weird-shit name.”
“A lucky guess. I was going to say Shrodinger for a second.”
“Shrow-dinger… he would talk about a cat named that. But I never saw it.”
“Did he have a box?”
“Yeah, he said Shrow-dinger was in the box but he was afraid to look in it.”
“He didn’t know if it was alive or dead?”
“That’s right, how did you know?”
“Technically, it was both alive or dead, at the same time, until you open the box.”
“You are as crazy as he was… as he is…. I don’t think there was a cat in there at all. I threw the box out, but I never looked inside. It felt light.”
“You said ex-boyfriend. What happened?” The woman was so beautiful… but he found himself wishing he could meet her ex-boyfriend.
“Oh, I said he was crazy. And it wasn’t just the cat thing. They took him away. He’s in this big hospital… out in the country.”
“Is it on the top of a mountain?”
“Yeah… have you been there?”
“No, never heard of it until now.”
“Well, you sound a lot like him. The doctors told me he would probably never come home from there. You remind me of him a lot.”