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Kap-Dwa

Though it might seem sometimes like you’ve nothing to write, of course you do.

There are countless moments of your day. You could catalogue them via Instagram, Facebook, or what have you, and to you those social transmissions will conjure pleasant memories of the recorded moment when you later review your own profile. All this quiets the desire one might have to write and to laboriously render experience into words. It is easier to passively consume experiences than to engage with them and question why they seemed significant to you in the first place.

Last Sunday I walked through Fells Point, Baltimore’s historic waterfront area. Parking was scarce, but I finally found a spot in front of the garish red and yellow Antique Man storefront.

An older couple, evicted from their house last fall, left all of their possessions behind. “Floor to ceiling with old crap,” declared a friend who’d walked through the place before it was auctioned off. Classic Baltimore, in other words, this city laden with kitsch, tacky folk art and pop remainders everywhere masking dead rats, poverty, and abandonment. A two-story tall pink poodle on wheels, a giant flamingo on a storefront, a life-size Santa Clause staring at you from a screen door, the latter being what greeted visitors to that old house around the corner.

It’s not too hard to get yourself a rambling house to yourself here, but keeping it is. And when those women’s possessions had nowhere to go, they probably went to The Antique Man’s store, a cavernous garage jammed with carnival relics and yard art. Safe scares abound. A leering, over-sized plaster Marilyn Monroe, a stuffed bear next to dead-eyed porcelain dolls, and a twelve-foot, two-headed mummy encased in glass beside a cheap fake sunflower arrangement and beneath a stuffed bird preserved in flight. The mummy is black-brown and battered, carrying a rough shield and clad in a yellowed loincloth, retired to collectible status after a career as a sideshow attraction. “He started at Barnum and Bailey’s,” the woman at the store told me, “Then made it down to smaller and smaller carnivals. Got stuck in Baltimore at some point, I guess.” Standing near the cash register placed directly across from him, she admitted to forgetting he was there, most of the time.

Leaving the store, I felt like a kid stumbling out of a haunted house. Why did the mummy, a likely forgery,* upset me more than any other experience that week? I imagined him living, if he ever had, a thyroidal anomaly that might have been more like two people, brains functioning independently, than one. Felled as a trophy and traded for profit to a freak show manager, who himself was probably a marginal individual, scraping by on ever-less as the years passed. Even if this mummy wasn’t real, there must have been a prototype, a tall man who had seemed a novelty to an opportunistic English colonist, perhaps brought to the Americas to be exhibited at the World’s Fair. Maybe it was anger I felt, directed toward the shop owner displaying this cultural fetish without any context of apology. Toward Victorian fair-goers for patronizing such spectacles, and for later telling friends about them and hence perpetuating the mythology of frightening, primitive, “other” bodies. It could even be that too much Twitter reading has made my “offense” reflex way more sensitive than it needs to be.

But instead of dwelling on any of this, I chose to take a surreptitious photo, apply a filter, post it on Instagram and caption it with the words, “In a strange place.”

* Like any good sideshow hawker, the owner of The Antique Man will not admit directly that the mummy, supposedly a slain ancient warrior named Kap-Dwa, is fake. You are welcome to pretend for a little that he is real, or at least that he is a copy of a real thing. Imagine The Fortean Times is an actual newspaper and you will be well on your way.

youarehere

Five days ago, I put on my headphones, turned on some new music, and set out for a walk in the hour before sunset in Cambridge. It was chilly, and I wore no coat, but I walked slowly nevertheless, reveling in the city’s every detail. The next day, Marathon Monday, my evening walk felt differently. I’d avoided tragedy, but only by chance. My mother reassured me that she had been “half a football field” from the second bomb, a fact that cheered her but sounded too close to dumb luck to console me.

Terrorism does not scare me. I would still walk the streets of Boston, and of Cambridge, any day. I’m sure that there are hardly any who feel otherwise; Bostonians are rational, Cantabrigians, too, and they know the odds are in their favor. How do we unpack this feeling, then, the one that robs us of sleep after an attack?

As much as you want to feel when these things happen, there’s a limit you reach, shattered only when you see SWAT teams lined along the street which you drunkenly walked while too broke to pay for a cab some Saturday night. The streets where you smiled at your landlord through his shop’s floor-to-ceiling glass window, entranced by his fingers weaving patches into torn rugs late into the night. Where you walked for hours with friends, exploring the patchwork of public housing and mansions, dingy convenience stores lined next to bookshops for mystics, dissidents, artists, and scholars. And in June, where you danced outdoors with all types at the foot of city hall, not really noticing the diversity until an out-of-towner remarked on it.

Everyone is staring where you once were, and the cops are poised to blow up other bombs found two blocks from your old apartment. An MIT cop, the kind of guy who never expected this sort of thing, gets shot outside of the building where you spent the first three days of your week. Living now, as I do, in Baltimore, one expects a certain amount of crime. You do not wish to be mugged, but you know that the probability of the crime is high.

I never could understand how New Yorkers felt about 9/11. That strange mix of pride and violation, removed from fear and hate. A desire for vengeance, sure, but directed toward individuals not groups. I’ll never be able to process events like this the same way again. It’s selfish, maybe, but that’s a limitation of humans. You can only fully empathize with feelings echoing those you’ve had before, and so maybe we can at least say that acts of terrorism enhance our humanity and community.

photo (5)

Hold the cat like you did a baby the first time you picked one up, cradled belly-up between your arms. All four of the cat’s sherbet-striped paws will wave in the air, and he will twist his snaggle-toothed face upward, looking directly into your eyes. A perfect tabby, maybe obese, with green eyes and a smile. The sun itself on a winter day.

If someone like Zadie Smith, the one speaking in “Joy”, can talk like a dog with her husband and then write about it, then surely I can write unabashedly about the cats we keep. The one above, and two females, one tiny and black, the other fluffy and fast.

The black one, Boots, finds dark corners in which to disappear. She’ll stay there for hours watching you with a scornful look. It’s not that she’s shy, but rather that she demands privacy. She swishes her tail, a bony instrument, and meows loudly to announce her entry into a room, as though to warn you to clear a path. Boots never sprawls out on her side. A wound coil even when resting, hind legs tensed and prepared to launch her at the slightest disturbance.

A window chain snapped one day, releasing its pane like a guillotine rushing down on Dusty’s front paw. The window only caught her, and she dangled like that for three hours. By the time she was found, it was too late; the leg had to go. Now Dusty runs from room to room, proving she’s still nimble, impossible to catch, even with only three legs. Often she’ll dash toward one of the other cat’s food bowls, where she’ll nip up a quick bite before exiting the scene. When caught, her cloud of brown fur puffs out. She hisses, but just for show, since she doesn’t have standing to swat away her foe.

If you’re loud, you might never see Copernicus, the third cat. He’s skittish, and will only let himself be seen if the crowd seems right. Sharp noises and heavy steps send him skittering beneath the nearest bed frame, where he will sit until hours after the perceived threat has gone away. Those determined to make his acquaintance, however, will find the attentions of this cat worth waiting. When he finally decides that you’re safe, the tabby’s love will exceed all other felines’. Once he climbs your legs and flops over on your lap, you’re stuck. There’s no escaping his heft once he’s settled in: You will pet him. What do you want to touch? His fur is velvety behind the ears, soft and feathery on his belly. His purr grows as you stroke him, from a quiet gurgle toward a deep, gravelly grind. Sometimes, when he really wants to feel good, he’ll hold out his two arms in front of him until he catches them on your hand. Without opening his eyes, he’ll rub your hand against his nose til the urge is sated. Petting him, if you want to do it right, takes at least twenty minutes.

Cats only ever seem to have one or two personality traits, bundled alongside a handful of predictable behaviors. If you touch him there, he will bite your finger; if you move the string this way, he will bat at it; shake the treat jar just so, and he’ll run to you. Until I had three in my house, I never could sympathize with cat collectors. But if it’s so easy to understand a trio of them, why wouldn’t one want to add more to the brood? Five, six, ten padded-foot housemates, I can imagine, lining shelves like books and lazy-licking their paws or chasing clods of dirt, as it may go.

Jean-Luc Picard Reads Shakespeare

My dad never quite looked the part. Twelve years my mother’s senior, he was thin and leathery, his skin hardened by a tanning regimen that not even the bright orange blondes of my high school could have rivaled. Every summer day he sat oiled and stretched over a thatched vinyl beach chair, the radio playing classic rock while my brother and I splashed nearby in a kiddie pool. I’ve yet to see anyone match the deep brown-red skin color, a strange one outside of easy racial classification, he attained in August and kept until the sun returned in the spring. Somewhere hidden on that darkened canvas lay a few tattoos and scattered scars. A parachute, I remember, a few shrapnel bumps, and other skinbound souvenirs from his Vietnam service. Around his neck he wore a gold chain, one just thick enough to suggest that he, the wearer, had purchased it as a status symbol. A thick gold ring with a heavy onyx stone and another chain, wrist-sized, rounded out his jewelry collection when they weren’t under pawn shop glass. My father’s real achievement, of course, was his glossy black hair and matching black handlebar mustache. Everyday after his shower, he waxed the long, thin ends of the mustache into two perfect curls centered between his deep dimples. I wasn’t allowed to touch his face while the wax set; if I did, even just to plant one kiss on him, dad said his whole mustache would fall off. So surely did I believe him, it wasn’t until last year that I realized he was probably lying about that.

It is easy for me to revisit my father’s physical appearance. My Daddy, the kicky eccentric self-parodying Italian, whose cartoonish appearance may have influenced my own flamboyant style. Those details well-captured and recited, the ones that mask any hint of my father’s behavior. I’ve always tried to gloss over the dark days he authored, pushing them aside to skulk off and wither in my memory’s forgotten corners. From the time I was little, my relationship to my father depended upon forgiveness and forgetting, and an understanding that he was not to blame for his moods. Before having my brother and I, my father served three Vietnam tours as a paramedic. His military career ended with a spray of shrapnel into his legs, a perfect injury severe enough for him to be listed as 100% disabled, but mild enough that he could still walk alone to the VA hospital when his pain meds needed a refill.

Nearly two decades passed between that injury and my birth, a surprise for a man who thought himself infertile. Dad played his part well, sometimes. He did best on pay day, when his government-issued check gave him enough money to take my brother and I on a small spree. We’d go see an age-inappropriate movie, eat chicken nuggets at McDonald’s, and, when times were good, take a run through KB Toys before picking out a present. “Ain’t I a good Dad?” he’d ask, before listing all of the things he’d bought us in the last year. Other respectable moments of fatherhood include the times we’d curl on the couch and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, the booming, paternal voice of Captain Jean-Luc Picard encircling those memories of my father with unearned warmth.

Only scraps of sound and tears remain of my father’s worst days, the one’s I trained myself to forget almost as soon as they happened. Trying my hardest, I still cannot recall too many details. My parents’ fighting peaked in the house we had, briefly, after fleeing the city for the suburbs. To think of it now sets my heart racing still; even to hear the mildest arguing triggers a recall of the anxiety I felt in those days, hiding in the corner of my tiny pink bedroom waiting for it to end. Sometimes I’d duck into my brother’s spare bunkbed just so we wouldn’t have to be alone during it. We heard my mother, yelling desperately “Don’t Go!” while my father berated her and threatened to leave. Not empty threats, but ones he delivered with absences lasting a night, a few days, a week. Me always hoping to soothe things over, not understanding the why of their words, stretching myself across the hood of our car, the one my mother used to get to work, while he drove it from our house. That is, until one day I learned how to not-feel during those incidents, to bury myself in books and wait for it all to be over. And even when it ended, when my father left for the last time, the not-feeling stayed with me, left me hovering ten yards above my emotional vicissitudes, watching myself go through them as though they were biological functions that I could rationalize and will to leave.

When I was old enough to realize what it meant when my father said he was a Veteran, I wanted to know more about what he had seen. Couldn’t there be some logical explanation for everything he had done to my mother, my brother, and I? My mother’s self-esteem depleted, my brother left thinking all of the pain was her fault, and me numbed to everything. Did he see his best friend die, did he kill a child there? Am I not old enough to know? Movies, books, tell the stories of Vietnam, but never my father.

Ten years ago he took ill, and he has not left his bed since. It’s a good time to forgive him, but I have a hard time doing it without understanding what’s been driving him these last twenty-five years. It’s selfish, it’s irrational, and forgiveness should not require a condition like that. But when I ask my father about the war, I still feel disappointed when he shrugs and says “It was bad.” He makes light of it, showing me pictures of himself, young and clean-shaven, playing with the pet monkey he kept over there; only the happy memories, only the shallow ones.

When My Mother gets excited she goes, goes, goes and spits out her words until they fall into some kind of sentence that probably will not reflect what she meant to say.

“I…decided—Oop, excuse me!—that lobstah I ate last week, oof, wow! Anyway, so. I was walking yesterday and I saw Scott—Ashley, did you know that Scott, from high school, remember?, got married?—but this was a different one, Scott Towley, and he said—Oops, burp again!—well, it was something about what you were supposed to do with your health insurance? Aughhh, now I can’t remembah! What was that song we heard earlier? ‘He said! She said!’, I like that one!”

And you can imagine what it’s like to have this happening in the midst of a crab feast in sultry Maryland, humidity layered over the open water by which we sit and flies orbiting the spice-crusted red shells stubbornly holding on to our dinner meat. Twenty four once blue, now red of the steamed seaborn creatures cover the crisp brown paper set over our picnic table. You pay highly for these guys, but that’s nothing compared to the full day’s work it takes to actually render them edible once they are dumped unceremoniously from a metal bucket onto your table. Shell shards fly everywhere as seven of us smack crab backs with wooden mallets and jab their soft spots with painted-blue metal knives, using our fingers when the tools, as they often do, fail us and that’s when any illusion of civility really suffers. Toss aside their black lungs, try not to make contact with their still open eyes, and suck on their claws ’til they’re empty of edible stuff. All for a tablespoon or two of meat from each one, which you pinch in pieces between your thumb and index finger before rubbing it into the crab’s spiced shell and dropping into your waiting gob.

It’s the fourth day My Mother and I have spent together and I’m wearing thin, but I can always forgive my mother for spitting because she’s had an ill-fit bridge of false teeth in the front of her mouth for as long as I can remember. The teeth do not come down as far as her others do, but they are just as yellow as her natural teeth. When I’m tired after a tense work day, I daydream about slipping into my home, unclipping my bra, and letting that thing fall to the floor. My Mother experiences similar pleasure upon removing her bridge each night, and when I was young she’d wait til it was late enough and then dance a high step about the house to the tune of her well-loved classic rock wearing no teeth, no bra, and no pants, just underwear and a thin tanktop. I always hated interrupting her obvious glee at this point of the night, but sometimes your friends did come over after 8:00 in the evening, meaning you’d have to shuffle her into her bedroom, where nothing changed except that the music transferred from loudspeaker to headphones.

My Mother speaks more words than I even think, but she only says what she skims off the top of her thoughts, letting the darker stuff settle to the bottom where it bubbles, already dead, to the top only for fleeting moments. “Oh, well your cousin got kicked out of rehab and the baby’s back in the hospital–Look at the water out there! It’s GREAT! Man, I’ve got to get sailing this summer.” She lost her father, her mother, and two sisters that I know of by the time she was 32, and had already been divorced once (soon to be twice). I don’t think she grasps how incredible each of her smiles is, and I know she isn’t aware of how much I worry about her. When she has her sixth beer of the night, I develop a cartoon image of her organs failing in revolt, and I want to tell her to stop. But I won’t do that, because ladening her with worries heretofore not heeded wouldn’t be any better for her.

Delicious Centipedes

It is hot. Last week, we came home from vacation to find a lazy fly half-dead on our bed. It’s been 100 degrees for days, and the flies aren’t having it. Few flap, and the ones that do will happily land on the first body or table in their path. Their reflexes have quit; It’s too damn hot.

The flies aren’t the only ones. The pedestrians of Baltimore have given up on waiting for walk lights. If you’re walking, then you’re trying to get to wherever you’re going, which will probably be cooler than it is outside, as quick as you can. Those guys in cars have air-conditioning; they’ll stop to let you pass. Anyway, with heat like this, it gets hard to see. Maybe you don’t notice the traffic oncoming, or your eyes are fixed down to the pavement, not up toward the sun. The air moves in dishwater hued waves. It gets to you.

Last night I saw a mouse in our kitchen. He didn’t dash away, but lazily wiggled behind our stove. So vulnerable, his tiny tail waving around as he took a whole minute to ease into hiding. The cat, an extravagant furball, is too hot to chase him away.

None of this matters, though, when you spend most of your time in an air-conditioned oasis, your twelve by seven foot bedroom, at home. Or, that would be the case, at least, if the cold’s contrast to heat didn’t bring out other intruders.

A three-inch centipede crawls from a crevice between our crooked walls. It pauses, adjusting to the room’s dim light, then dashes across the floor. Upon countless legs it ascends wooden paneling, until it is at eye level across from where I sit. It is a deep brown-black the color of my hair.

I turn to science for comfort. Do centipedes bite? Surely not (in fact, they do). Are they short-lived? Of course, and they’ll die off quickly (again, false; they live five to seven years). Being as large as they are, they have to be solitary creatures, right? Lonely, singular, indepedent (Untrue, they nest in hundred strong hoards). As I learn about the creature in front of me, my resolve to kill it grows. Before I find a weapon to do it, he’s outside of my reach. Racing to and fro across my room’s ceiling, directly over the bed in which I sit, he seems to consciously taunt me.

It was late, and I couldn’t help but project malicious intent upon This Thing. When I’m the last one awake, I fall to paranoia. This single specimen stands for a swirling nest of centipedal filth, each member of which must be bent on disturbing my peace. For now, they have been appearing one at time, every night at about the same hour. If this is not a sign of a carefully planned attack, then it is at least a disturbing coincidence. I fear that some night I’ll wake to find my walls alive with them. In a nightmare, my roommate and I hop barefoot across our living room as giant centipedes nip at our toes. We can not escape them. When I wake to find my floor squirming with tiny white larva, it seems my dream has come true.

“Unlocking creativity”

Guilt paralysis

Myths of creativity, what you should do in your twenties, urging youth to create early and often.

There are so many social media gurus sharing trite aphorisms as though they were hard-fought wisdom. I’ve seen friends recycle their words on Facebook and on Twitter. Embrace your day and what it brings you, then ask for more the next day. Dance free of your inhibitions, be the you that is most you. Don’t listen to naysayers; Follow your heart and spring toward the future. Et cetera.

I guess I’d hoped we’d be past self-help by now. All of these phrases assume that each of us can see the light from where we sit. Is what you want in view? A friend recently told me that she can’t wait to make her final career change. She’s twenty-five, but she is set to settle. Not that I can blame her. We are taught from an early age that once you find it, your chosen career will be fulfilling and, if you’d like, creative. We. The ones who were taught that through education one can be free, the ones who succeed, the ones who try. You’ll get what you deserve. After 2008 and the job market decimation it brought, fewer buy that. Confidence shattered for years until the recent resurgence of “sieze your life” evangelism.

But whom does that creativity serve? The ones I knowing buying in to this wisdom run start-ups or are freelancers. Though the work ethos might be the same, self-employed or bust, the outcome is very different. Is a young, highly-trained (or self-taught) programmer really on par with a freelance graphic designer fresh from a lower tier art school? Well, no, of course not. But this new language of creativity dare not warn anyone that, perhaps, his talent might be subpar. Don’t listen to critics, this language urges. Maybe a start-up founder knows when her project isn’t working. The money just won’t be there. But for a struggling artist, I think these words are toxic. They encourage uncompromising creation, an unwavering aesthetic impenetrable to critique. Anyone who’s worked with clients (or a boss of any type, for that matter) knows how difficult standing one’s ground can be. Kudos to those who do not collapse under criticism, I say. But those who do not even consider it, those who categorize it as negativity and do not engage with it? Well, sometimes you’re wrong, and it’s right to compromise.

If you’ve been following enough dispensers of internet-age, creativity-liberating Tweeps, you might start to feel guilty if you’re not as successful as they are. You might not think that the successful ones you try to emulate are actually just barely eking out an existence, and that they’re typing their collected (not earned) wisdom from a cafe with free internet, or perhaps a parent’s house. You might, actually, start to lose confidence in yourself as you begin to feel that you pale in comparison to the liberated, elite creatives who seem to dominate the internet. Worst of all, you could easily forget that every person you know who is solely employed in their creative pursuit of choice is poor, overworked, and envious of your health insurance. That said, they’re probably happier than you are. You shouldn’t be jealous. Envy is a toxin to which their is no antidote.

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