How the Heart Works: On Whatever the Hell that Was, from an Irrelevant American

The afternoon after I’m at my desk staring out the window.

There are newspapers spread in front of me, from which I should be clipping ads and articles relevant to the arts nonprofit that pays me to do such things.

I’ve draped my profile picture with the French flag filter, and my cover photo now depicts the Eiffel Tower’s stages of construction. I don’t feel any better, but that’s not really what it’s about. I don’t know what any of that is about.

A plane halves the clear sky, right to left, disappearing beyond the frame of the office window, silent the whole way. A white line blooms behind it, then it too disappears. I am left to bloom or not, sitting next to my office plant, the one I’ve managed to keep alive so far.

Just a few days ago I had a conversation about whether people are good or bad, at the root of things. Why do they have to be one or the other? we decided. Now I think maybe they have to be one or the other because knowing would help.

Something has to help.

The Little Prince Stands Alone on a Planet

The Little Prince

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The Next Thing

I messed up at work today.

Not a big deal, but yes a big deal because all the deals are big when you care about doing a good job at your job. I suspect a lot of us do care, despite our viciously pretending otherwise.

Maybe the worst part was that it snuck up on me, like a bad Dean Koontz metaphor. I had rolled our Smart TV into the room–to be used for projection at the workshop that was due to start in about twenty minutes–and was arranging tables and chairs when the presenter asked where The Cord was, capital T capital C. These capitals were not the result of her way of asking, but of the immediate suspicion on my part that something was very wrong. And I wasn’t wrong; the TV was sans not one but two crucial elements that until now had been its faithful companions – remote and cord-thingy-that-connects-laptop-to-TV.*

*While I am the token “tech-savvy millennial” at work, this is a good indication of the extent of my IT legit-ness.

Cue cold rush of blood from the fingers and toes directly to the guts.

I found neither cord nor remote, despite searching with thinly veiled franticism every drawer and windowsill and potted plant I could think of in the next quarter of an hour, the regret simultaneously stretching and condensing these fifteen minutes into an agonizing wasteland that had me wishing I would have ______(done literally anything with a shred of foresight).

God knows where the lost parts are; the chaos that often engulfs the arts nonprofit world must have deigned to confiscate them for reasons I will forever fail to understand. The presenter went on to deliver her piece without adequate technology, and the entire hour I felt the weight of guilt and fought to herd those childish excuses that are wont to surface in the throes of failure. These thoughts are not pretty. You know them. We’ll skip them.

In the quiet that followed, I rearranged the furniture with a vengeance. I wrote my column. I prepared for tomorrow, which will come and which will happen whether I or you or anyone likes it or not.

You know what? Sometimes the remote just doesn’t want to be found. And sometimes you screw up. And sometimes you don’t. Either way, there’s still furniture to rearrange. And there’s still tomorrow. And there’s still love for you here.

When There Was Bill

When I was small and it was the weekend, my folks would put records on, and Olivia would dance with me in the living room. I remember Stevie Ray Vaughan and Van Morrison and the Beatles. Mostly I remember The White Album. I thought “Bungalow Bill” was “Buffalo Bill,” and O and I would argue about what was right. I imagine Louise, the youngest, propped up on the couch and watching us in bewilderment, too brand new to know who the hell Buffalo/Bungalow Bill was, or the Beatles. We’d keep at it until Dad called for one of us to ride with him and help pick up the pizza–George’s, probably–and now I wonder how much we actually helped with this particular errand. What I remember, and miss, is how his truck reeked of steel and iron and copper, of tools well-used.

Sitting alone in the office on a Tuesday night, not having done enough at my comfortable desk that does not reek of anything, I think to get up and close the window, but don’t; the George’s supper rush drifts through, suddenly redolent in the waning light, and Main is quiet after a day full up with the din of construction. They’re building a new SPAM Museum, which will fill the gap left by a January fire that burned in the middle of a subzero night several years ago. Sometimes it’s hard to know where there is less mercy, I guess. It’s cool with the sun setting behind the brick of the high school, where there was a fight not long enough ago over nothing, or something, or not enough or too much.

The cops light out again and again from the station across the street, bound for someplace, their sirens going and going and somehow not ever gone. I dig up The White Album on Youtube and hit play, seeking nothing more than a moment of what’s gone, just one split second from those forever Friday nights.

Tonight I am the victim of my own nostalgia, which is probably another one of those awful millennial traits you’ve all been warned about. But when you grow up dancing to Blackbird and Rocky Raccoon and you spend Friday nights driving home with a George’s Pizza warm in your lap and your dad driving the truck back home where there will be music and dancing until bedtime and where the only fights you will have are over what to call this Bill, whoever the hell he is, that’s something to be nostalgic over. And I’m not sorry.

Supermoon (For Vincent)

A stubborn distance – having to do with geography but even more than that with navigating humanhood – has, these last three days and nights, weighed on the pillow fort I’ve built in the crook of this supposedly grown-up heart. Prone to childish silences and questions, the supposedly grown-up heart thumped up at last night’s eclipsing, reddening moon, wondering all the time why humans don’t howl. While we have more sophisticated ways of expressing distance and full moons and whatever else can’t sit still in us, there’s something to be said for throwing out one long, guileless cry of concern for whoever is out there into real, actual, non-virtual space, and for the fact that the sound would live and carry not because you had carefully crafted a progression of sentiment that rings just right but because it’s in you and has to come out, and damn the stars if they don’t want to hear it.

How Long It Will Last

When I was on the rowing team in college, we drove a half hour south to San Pedro for practice six mornings a week. One day, as we rumbled under the overpass and pulled onto the freeway, those of us who had fought the sleep off saw a man sitting under a cardboard teepee. Outside of a few curious looks, we failed to react; LA is full of homeless men and women, and if you don’t get callous about it quick, you’re a goner.

The next morning, the same man was there, under the same cardboard. You don’t see this, usually, as the homeless learn to shift from haven to hovel to shelter to foxhole and back, never staying long enough to be remembered.

But the morning after that, the man was not only still there, but had also added a piece of cardboard to his hut. One of my teammates waved to him. And maybe it was the grim camaraderie that had set into our bones and callouses, the shared resignation to scheduled pain that we all clung to, that caused us to adopt him into our morning routine. Or maybe it was that a good three-quarters of the team was from Eastern Europe and most of the rest of us were not as far but far enough from home that we found the cardboard familiar. But he belonged, suddenly, with us.

The cardboard home grew daily. Even on days when we went out to the boathouse twice, it seemed that in the few hours between our first and second practices he had added to and refined his place.

One day he got a puppy, and the puppy became a part of our mornings, too.

On it went, into the spring, into the longer days and the earlier sunrises. The deeper into our season we dug, the bigger the man’s home became.

One morning he’d gotten a rug, and was sweeping outside his makeshift doorway as we passed. Our east-facing windows were open and we waved and offered him the sign to “fight on” – an otherwise tepid symbol meant to spur on school spirit. Two fingers up and palm facing out, what most people would see as “peace,” but we knew he knew what we meant. He returned it with a fierce and weary smile.

And then, the following morning, he was gone. Along with the cardboard, the dog, and the rug.

Just like that, it was all gone.

He came to mind tonight, and I didn’t know what to do other than tell you, here, now. I guess because I don’t know what his name is or where he is or what happened to him. And because it’s crazy that none of us ever knows how long the cardboard will last. And because it feels important to remember people even without knowing their names, without knowing anything other than that they keep a clean house and are nice to their dog.

I’m Caving to The List Strategy (Shut Up): 14 Movies I Would Watch in the Next 14 Days, If I Had a TV

Don’t look at me like that.

These are not ranked. They are alphabetical apples and oranges and blueberries.

1. American Beauty

Because we all need to be reminded that what we should want first and foremost is our significant other’s happiness.

2. Beginners 

Damnit if we don’t love our parents and their scathing advice.

3. Company

Because karate and triangle and “children you destroy together.”

4. Crazy, Stupid Love

Rain + heels + YOU + holding hands

5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Because second chances. Because speeches you remember really well. Because you still think they’re going to save your life, even after they tell you they won’t.

6. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang 

Nothing sexier than grammar lessons at the bar.

7. Lost In Translation

Elevator cheek kisses. #isthatit #seriously

8. Manhattan 

Because I’d like to walk around New York in black and white sometime.

9. Moulin Rouge!

The tango. That’s pretty much it.

10. Moonstruck

“You’re late.”

11. Ocean’s Eleven

We all love a good reunion. With George Clooney.

12. Out of Sight

I’d kill to be that lighter, though.

13. Stranger than Fiction

Find that person who forces you to eat the cookies (s)he baked you after (s)he makes sure you have an awful day. That sentence is a mess but I don’t really care.

14. Up in the Air

I’m with Vera Farmiga: “Not an asshole would be nice.”

Cross, baby.

In 1960, scientists conducted a study called “The Visual Cliff” in which a piece of plexiglass was placed over a high-contrast checkered cloth. The cloth lay just underneath the glass on one end and on the other dropped to 4 feet beneath it. Then there was a baby and there was her mother. Mom stood on the other side of the glass, Baby placed on the opaque end of the platform, just before the earth seemed to fall out from underneath her. It was the mother’s job to call to her child, coaxing her across what appeared to be thin air. The scientists decided that if the infant refused to cross, or displayed any hesitation in crawling to Mom, it meant that she perceived the apparent cliff. I’m tired of paraphrasing, so here’s a Wiki cut-and-paste of the results:

The researchers found that 27 of the infants crawled over to their mother on the “shallow” side without any problems. A few of the infants crawled but were extremely hesitant. Some infants refused to crawl because they were confused about the perceived drop between them and their mothers. The infants knew the glass was solid by patting it, but still did not cross. In this experiment, all of the babies relied on their vision in order to navigate across the apparatus. This shows that when healthy infants are able to crawl, they can perceive depth. However, results do not indicate that avoidance of cliffs and fear of heights is innate.[1]

So: God knows whether we’re born with a hell-no-I-ain’t-crossing-that-shit switch, but we’ve at least figured out that it doesn’t take long to get one. Whether we cross or not, we know the fact of a cliff.

How this has dug itself into my days: 

The bulk of stories, be they on screen or on paper, have something to do with the crossing of a wobbly surface to a person who is on the other side, smiling and waving and perhaps blowing air kisses. You know how the tragedies end, and you know how the comedies end, and the dramas you sit through and hope end in a way you can stand and with not too much yelling.

And then there are the stories you wake up to, and fall asleep thinking about, and you hope the same for those only more so because there’s no walking out of the theatre on these ones. No putting the book down for a cigarette break. What happens is you hope so hard that it scares you so much that you tell yourself you don’t care at all. These wobbly surfaces do not come with soundtracks or archetypes or perfectly timed taxis. There are just the false starts and the fizzles—the development hell you hear about, that place stories fall into and don’t come back from. But the humans around you tell you to believe in the Until. And despite all the not caring, you do.

And you don’t care and you don’t care and you don’t care. Until until until. Cross, baby, they say. So you cross, baby, every time. Knowing the fact of a cliff, you cross.

You Get Out While You Can

Sundays there’s nowhere to be, thank goodness, and when it’s not too mean outside I roll around this small town on one or another of my bicycles.

This town, they say, is a town you gotta leave. I left, was good as gone, and then I came back. Now I’m trying to get gone all over again, am waiting to hear back from powers higher than I’m used to depending on.

The snow packed itself into corners and fields and drifted up against anything it could find these past five months. We were inmates in bars and buildings, driven in by a relentless succession of cold snaps and confined to dark spaces.

Rolling out with the wind at my back and clouds gathering, I head out for nowhere in particular. My right knee aches from its hibernation, or from its late-season shinny session with the guys earlier today, or both. But the small revolutions turning out from my hips to my thighs to the right foot, the left foot, the right foot again tell the knee to keep quiet because this is important.

Spring up here doesn’t come around just because the calendar says so; we’re all still tucked away and planning on staying that way for a while longer when daylight savings hits, and you learn to keep your head down until the sun makes you squint and the wind stops hurting. Things like hope and dread are too impractical when it comes to the weather around here; you learn to wait.

Today the wind doesn’t quite hurt. There are the smells of wet clouds and burning wood, and grills burning off the residue of last summer. The bike below me is new, bright and shiny and wanting to go like hell, but I hold back and breathe on purpose, and keep my cadence deliberate.

In town there are people out gingerly walking around—they’re stunned at the return of warmth and not wanting to scare it off. To a couple of them I wave, almost stop to talk just to talk, just to be nice, just to be a smalltowner, but my knee wants to keep going now and so I roll on, not wanting to discourage it. The wind picks up just in time for me to turn back into it, but it doesn’t hurt and so I’m patient with it. The bike wants to play—I go looking for alleys.

Going south, west, south again, the wind making my knee work a little harder, but my cadence stays even. Something is on my mind, a lot of things; they always have been. My legs churn something more particular, more pressing, up to my throat, something wanting to be said to someone, anyone. But I can’t parse it out from the other threads running, fluttering behind me. My knee releases another crack. I leave it unparsed.

All I want to think is that it’s spring, and that the wind doesn’t hurt.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – On Managing Failure, Depression, the Future, and this Blog

Please know that the following is nothing more than an account of those recent events which led me to conclude that this particular post might, in a very small way, help set a precedent for openness about mental illnessor just bummed-outness—and of support for those who suffer from it. I humbly request that you do nothing more than read on and go about your day, letting whatever sticks stick, and knowing that talking and listening and being vulnerable are only a matter of being brave. Read and be brave. 

Joseph stepped off a chair and into thin air fifteen days before Christmas.

joe

While I don’t know specifics, my brain cannot help but imagine the scene. To speed the process of understanding what the hell happened and why, I stay up late and read about his final neurological signals, about how exactly they fired and where they ended up. What I come up with strikes me as Joe Strommer’s last miracle:

The part of Joe’s brain called the frontal lobe told its fellow brain parts to get on with it, firing the signal from dendrite of the first neuron on down the axon (spurred on by that handy myelin sheath) and across to the dendrite of the second neuron, so on and so forth, leaping across synapses until it hit the other necessary brain parts, which executed the following admirably:

The spinal cord bowed and yessired, sending the signal down the highway faster than you or I or Joe could stop itOn its way down, the cord bumped past the cerebellum, growling along the way that it ought to make itself useful and make sure those limbs know where they’re going for once.

The occipital lobe pointed the way to the line between before and after. The parietal lobe, the part that says over and over, you are here, told the rest of Joe one more time you are here, and there is where you want to be.

On my screen I see him exhale and step off the chair, but at the last second he knows he made a mistake. Too late: the world goes from Joseph is to Joseph was. That simple switch: what a sucker-punch. 

It should not have been this way. It shouldn’t be that life makes you not want to live it.

When I realize just how big a waste of time researching Joe’s hypothetical neurobiological chain of events is, I switch to staring at the ceiling. The clock reads 1:23, then 3:48, and next I am waking up to the same ceiling and the same everything.

In the nights since, I have often lost groundthe soul slipping, struggling for purchase on the slick surfaces of hours and minutes. My bicycle tugs from the garage, says to take a ride, to pedal hard until I believe that one hard steady breath will find my friend and breathe him back from the dead. But outside it snows. It’s cold.

Joe loved to ride.

I’m sad sometimes. I don’t know if it’s more or less often than your average human, but I suspect that lately it’s been more, and worse. There are more bad days than good ones, and it’s not just because of what happened to Joe, or because my writing isn’t where it should be. It’s everything, it’s nothingmy family history of depression and anxiety and other flavors of mental illness, my not having experienced any form of physical intimacy pretty much ever, the gap between where I am and where I want to be in my professional and home lives, etc. It all leads to a vague, lack-ish ache somewhere between my eyes and my knees. It burns and itches and pinches like a skinned knee, only there is no Band-Aid, and if I go crying to someone, they will not see how it bleeds, how it runs in rivulets into my relationships, my work, and my writing.

At least this is what I suspected, and so I have kept quiet even on those occasions where I think, albeit obliquely, of leaving like Joe did.

That is, until the other day when I very nearly posted the following in the middle of a particularly suffocating crisis:

For two hours yesterday, I mapped a different life for myself, the one I sacrificed for writing six or so years ago because I was convinced of the romance in words.

Now each word—nothing more complicated than a small packet of marks which we’ve given significance to and ordered into a neat arrangement of meaning—is only another struggle, so many fights heaped on top of one another, Conrad’s “crop of unextinguishable regrets.” How convenient that the selfsame quote which marked the cliff I went over in high school—the one that led into a lovely drop, a deeper love affair with fiction, a conviction in who I was supposed to be—marks a different freefall.

My words feel like spider-webbed glass— useless, but without the decency to shatter and by doing so offer the grim satisfaction of finality. They let threads of wind through, and an incessant whistling that must be distracting for you. It is maddening to me.

It’s not the arranging of words that I am having trouble with, but the arrangement of meaning. The words are there, and too many of them. But the stories have gone away. I am afraid they are never coming back.

I feel I’ve committed the worst sort of treason by wanting to duck out of this now. Now, when there is no going back without admitting to the waste of four years and more, years which were supposed to be the good ones, which were instead filled with my burning bridge after bridge without thought of myself, without mercy on my future.

And yet: I think I’ll stop writing now.

“Very nearly” of course means I did publish it, but soon after made it a private post, thinking (perhaps correctly) that it was self-indulgent and lugubrious. Especially since I titled it This Winter Has Teeth and Is Out for Your Bones. Really? Ugh.

It was a mistake that I’m now glad I madea friend, and a clutch cheerleader since my rowing days in college, sent me an email saying 1) she had read my post and 2) she hoped it wasn’t the truth.

It was and is, though I wish I knew how to make it a lie. While I am endeavoring to change all of the above, publishing that post and reading my friend’s letter proved that admitting to chronic blues will notor at least should notbe met with apathy or scorn. So here is what I have been trying to say this whole damn time: being sad does not equal weakness, and should not equal silence.

Having lost a friend, spent three years post-college living with my parents, published nothing, and having had two three six of my six MFA applications rejected, it’s been hard to avoid the truth that I may very well be depressed, and harder still to admit it. But now that I have, I can get on with trying to believe that things will change, that they will get better, that (ohpleaseohplease) I will be admitted into a program and will publish and will make a living with words, that maybe I won’t always be single and living with my folks.

The soul slips, retrenches.

bike

What You Do Is You Buy a Toy Poodle and You Name It “Baby”

He tells me he killed the son of a bitch.

photo courtesy Gavin White

photo courtesy Gavin White

“Emptied the magazine of my gook gun into him, just like that,” he says.

There is the intake of breath from my thought to correct him, and then me closing my mouth and instead retrenching. This is a story you just shut up and listen to, the bar told me. It was in the maple and the neon and the empty booths. Listening the old fashioned way, I thought. No corrections, no requests for confirmation or qualification.

The man called himself Lee, and before he said anything I already knew he was an import– the way he carried himself showed that the smell from the slaughterhouse was only beginning to weigh upon him.

My shift had started with him going on about his toy poodle, “Baby,” and pets in general, how good they are for human beings.

We talk sports, even though this isn’t a sports bar. Maybe I bring it up because I’m new to this whole behind-the-bar thing and sports is a safely banal subject.

He likes football.

I ask him if he likes anything else. He shakes his head.

Football it is.

I ask him if he’s always been into football. He says no, he started when he was trying to impress the father of his then-future wife, Patty. Superbowl II was playing in a bar in San Diego, January of 1968. Her father’s eyes were glued to the screen. Lee mimicked him, and fell in love with her over lowballs of bourbon, which he says he’d drunk a lot of in ‘Nam.

He says they had big bottles of it over there, which you could buy for eight bucks, no tax. He says his CO lined the bottles up on the floor of his hut at base, and one time just after Lee had been flown in with his buddies and the green of that place still saturated their insides, before they’d seen any action, the CO brought them out behind his hut and beat the shit out of them one at a time.

He told his buddies after coming to, his CO having cold-cocked him in the back of the head, his CO with three purple hearts and a scar down one cheek, he told his buddies if the guy ever touched him again he was a dead man.

“A dead man,” he said.

A few months later, he says, they were in serious trouble with Charlie. Surrounded, “fucked,” and here he makes a gesture, two-handed, forming a “T” with the stem of it a middle finger. That, I guess, was their sign for that.

Lee turns and sees the CO with the three purple hearts and the scar down his cheek pointing an M16 right at him.

“Right at me,” he says. He holds an invisible rifle in his hands.

The guy actually pulls the trigger and nicks Lee in the shoulder. Lee looks over my head, straight into the neon, and says,

“I emptied my magazine into the son of a bitch. Killed him right then and there.”

I smile at first. He’s kidding.

He stares.

I smother the stupid grin on my face and keep listening the old fashioned way.

They got back to base and he tells his buddies, who saw the whole thing, that they have two choices: watch him eat his gun right there, or never mention it again. They’re quiet for awhile, he says. How long “awhile” is, I don’t know. Time was a weird thing over there, probably. Briefly I wonder if time ever goes the way it should after a thing like that, or what. Anyway, Lee says a buddy–a Native American named Kyle–hands him one of those big bottles of bourbon and tells him to forget about it.

Kyle was killed a week later, he adds.

He says that’s how he started drinking bourbon. And that’s how he met Patty, and meeting Patty was how he started watching football. And watching football, I think, is all he has left, because shortly after this he says Patty left him.

He starts to cry a little, but takes a swig from his beer and recovers.

“I went to Patty’s parents and told them straight, told them I didn’t want to hurt her anymore.”

He’d become an alcoholic. He drank too much bourbon, and he had too many night terrors, and woke up screaming too many times. He tells me it scared her. He tells me it scared him, too.

I probably shouldn’t, but I buy him his next drink.

Later, my friend tells me the guy must have been full of shit. “No CO earned three purple hearts and was allowed to go back for more,” he says.

You’re right, I say. What I don’t say is that I still believe that there was something true in it, outside of the details and the chest-thumping and all the bullshit that comes from mouths that are propped up on bars, held there by greasy elbows. You don’t name a toy poodle Baby without some kind of damage.