Archive for July, 2013

The Man who didn’t Smell

Julia heard the slow knock at the door she had been waiting for and rushed to open it. Peter stood there, his fist still in the air, ready to knock again. It was the first time she saw him since his near-fatal bike crash. He looked like Frankenstein, but worse. A dozen bolts came out of his head, holding it together. One of arms resembled a used wad of toilet paper. Both his legs were missing, but he stood on prosthetic ones. Somehow, he was missing a nostril.  His hands, like his arms and face, were covered with scars from stiches, staples, and broken glass.

‘Peter!’ exclaimed Julia.
‘Julia. Hello’ said Peter.

Julia, ever the optimist, was able to see right past Peter’s disfigurement. She was shocked by his appearance, of course, but was able to accept it immediately. She leapt into the hallway and gave him a big hug. Peter labored to lift his good arm to hug her back. Julia, with her face close to Peter’s neck, got a whiff of him. Then, everything changed.

He smelled… what did he smell like!?… Julia wondered. She kept hugging, inhaling deeply, trying to determine the exact smell.

‘It’s so good to see you’, she said, buying herself some time.
‘You too’, said Peter, struggling to maintain the hug.

He was covered in sweat. It must have been hard for him to walk the two flights up to my apartment, she thought, I’m surprised he doesn’t smell like BO. Wait. !!! I got it. I know what Peter smells like. Nothing. He doesn’t smell at all. Like the internet or outer-space, Peter didn’t smell at all.  For the first time, Julia became nervous around Peter, wondering who he really was.

‘Come in’ she said ‘sit down’

She led him to the sofa, sat him down, and for the first time that she could see his skull through a patch of missing skin on the back of his head. Even that didn’t gross her out. Not like his utter lack of smell. It tantalized her. She tried to distract herself by being friendly.

‘How are you, Peter?
‘Good. Better than ever in my entire life.’
‘Are you sure?’ she asked ‘Are you sure I can’t get you anything to drink?’

Peter shrugged. She rushed to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. Then she took her time, waiting for the water to boil, reflecting on how Peter had changed. His physical appearance was an obvious difference, but she was thinking of the more subtle differences. His energy had changed. He used to be lithe and vivacious. He was warm, sweet, and sometimes unpredictable. He was very cordial but also edgy. In short, he was a mammal. Warm-blooded, passionate, hairy. Smelly. In all the time it took Julia to make tea Peter tried to lean back into the sofa, winced from pain, and then returned to his original, upright position. He looked like an abstract sculpture, a tortured human unable to relax. Julia returned with the tea and sat down.

‘I meant what I said, Julia’
‘What do you mean?’
‘That I’m better now than ever in my entire life.’
‘This body’ he said, not moving a finger, ‘is just that. A body. It’s not me, not the true me.’
‘I know what you’re thinking. That I’m broken. That I’m not Peter. But let me tell you, Jules, I am.’

Julia was unable to say a word. She still kept thinking of what Peter used to be and what he had become. He was calmer now, more sedate and sober. But he was missing his animal energy. And she missed, of course, his smell. Though she never gave it much thought before, she knew quite certainly it was gone.

‘In fact’ continued Peter, ‘I’m more me than I ever have been.’
‘But how?’ asked Julia.

Peter mistook her distance for the typical response to his condition: terror and pity. He took it in stride, as he had done throughout his entire recovery, explaining how his physical downfall had led to a spiritual awakening.

‘I’ll tell you. The real Peter isn’t a body at all, but a soul’
‘A soul…’
‘I know you don’t believe me but believe me. I am a soul inside of a body. This body is like a suit; it’s not the real me. The real me is an entirely different being that can’t be damaged by anything material, not even riding my bike through a four-way intersection and getting hit by a bus and flying through the air into another lane where an oncoming semi hits me catching me in its windshield before it brakes catapulting me into the air back into the intersection where I’m promptly run over by another two cars. Not even that can damage my soul.’

Julia started to cry. What happened to Peter was too much for her to think about. That was one of the reasons she never visited him in the hospital.

‘It’s OK Julia. Really’
‘Tell me what you are thinking’
‘Please, Julia. You can be honest, I-‘
‘No, I’m saying: No. You are different.’
‘Of course I am. But the damage is only physical I-‘
‘Peter. Please. Stop. You are different. I know what you went through was terrible, and I want to give you hope, but look at you. You’re in agony just sitting here. You’re like a statue. Rigid, dogmatic, certain. You used to be more… fluid. You loved riding your bike. You were fidgety- a good fidgety- like you were uncertain and curious about the world. But I’ll tell you the worst of it, and I know this will sound strange, but so what. You don’t smell.’
‘Smell? Well Julia, I only have one nostril and the other-‘
‘-No, Peter, YOU don’t smell. As in I can’t smell you. It’s weird. I never noticed that people have a smell. But you’re like, completely de-oderized, and not like Old Spice, but dead. And not like a corpse, but a skeleton.’

Peter thought about it for a minute. Julia’s tears dried up but she had a big lump in her throat.

‘You know what’ said Peter ‘that makes sense. Because my soul WOULDN’T smell’ ‘Goddamnt Peter you’re not better! You’re not! You’re not! You used to be alive but now you’re dead- you’re dead!’

Julia punched Peter where his heart would be and broke through his rib cage with her fist. She ripped her fist out and broke even more of his chest on the way out. A cloud of dust billowed from his chest. Peter looked down as the dust rose to his face.

‘Ah-ah-a-choo!’ sneezed Peter, ‘Ah-choo! Ah-choo! Ah-choo!’
‘God bless you!’ ‘Don’t say that!’
‘God bless you!’

Peter started to writhe in pain. Julia grabbed his shoulder but it dissolved in her hands, hurling another plume of dust into the air, causing Peter to sneeze even more.

‘Ah-choo ah-choo!’
‘Bless you!’
‘Stop! Ah-choo!’
‘Bless you!’

At that Peter, or whatever he was, shattered into a cloud of dust.

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Next Stop – Deva Station!

During my senior year of college, I went to a professor of mine, and asked him this question: what can I do with a philosophy degree after I graduate? This was a question a lot of people had asked me and I never knew the answer. He told me this

A) you go to graduate school and become a professional, academic philosophy professor
B) you make a small switch, apply to law school, and become a lawyer
C) you flounder

It’s been about two years since I graduated college, and I can say now that there’s a fourth option.

D) flourish

But I didn’t know that two years ago. I thought I had only three choices. To answer the question, I used the secret technique I learned long before when training for a standardized test, the key to multiple choice questions: process of elimination.

I knew I didn’t want B) become a lawyer. I wasn’t sure about A) Become a professor- but I did know I didn’t want to do it right away. So I chose C) flounder, with the option of erasing my mark, and changing it to A), later in the test.

It was a rough beginning after graduation. I was devastated. I know that having a college degree is a blessing, and I should consider myself lucky to have one. I do. and I know ‘devastated’ sounds a bit melodramatic. But that’s what I was, devastated. For one, I didn’t know about option D). Also, it might help to explain the special meaning ‘devastated’ has.

‘Devastate’ comes from the Medieval Latin vastus, which means vast. But not vast like a sacred mountain, vast like a barren desert. Incredibly empty, immense. A waste-land. Think of how a German would say the word ‘waste-land’ (vaste-land) and you start to hear the similarity between vast and waste, magnitude and nothingness. It’s no coincidence that the Grand Canyon is called grand, even though it’s essentially empty space. Vast has a lot of cousins: vapid, vain, vacuum, void. All of them mean the same thing: empty. Not full. Un-full-filled. That’s how I felt after graduation: Unfulfilled, devastated that everything from kindergarten to college was a waste of time. Because seventeen years of education gave me three hollow choices.

Become a professor
Become a lawyer

I didn’t attend my graduation ceremony. I didn’t believe in it, the public recognition of my “achievement”.

I was in a waste-land. But the truth was, I was in a waste-land for a long time before that. Almost all of public education is a waste. At a young age you’re given busy work which means nothing, it’s just meant to keep you busy. It’s a big vaste of time. Add to that standardized achievement tests, which are deVoid of any purpose other than to determine how much funding your school will or will not receive. And that’s when I was in school, it’s only gotten worse since Bush launched No Child Left Behind and Obama expanded it. Music and history classes are being eVACuated so that kids can focus on multiple choice exams. And yet, we wonder why there are so many dropouts or, if we’re lucky, graduates who come out not knowing what to do, that they have other options.

It’s taken me all of two years to feel like I am flourishing, despite the fact that my path is unprescribed. First, I went off the deep end and went on a Walk About, a long bike trip to the Ohio River, a long story for another day that was really me trying to avoid the void. Then I came back, hunkered down and did the basics: got a job, an apartment, some independence. It was tough for a while, because I felt like I was floundering. I was ashamed to tell people I’m a barista, yet another over-educated worker in the service industry. But now I know I’m much more than that. I realized it today when an acquaintance- not a friend mind you but a mere acquaintance- asked me to watch his cats while he went on VAcation.

This was my graduation ceremony. The public has recognized me as a responsible, useful, and trust-worthy adult.

*   *   *

Last week, I ran into that old college professor. He asked me if I was in graduate school. No, I said. Then what are you doing, he asked, a look of confusion on his face. I’m… my voice trailed off… I could tell him all the things I’m doing: the job I’m holding the hobby I’m exploring, the neighborhood I’m joining the people I’m loving, the garden I’m raising the compost I’m making, the blog I’m writing the open mic I’m MCing, the sobriety I’m maintaining the serenity I’m chasing… but I just said to him, D) flourishing.

I’m not ungrateful for my teachers. Playing with a word like I did with devastation, that I learned from them. But what I’ve learned in the last two years outside the education system is that learning how to manage your own life involves not only a whole lot of practical stuff, but also coming to a place where you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time, your life, or your day. And no one can tell you how to do that, or what it looks like.

But I have one hint. It’s a Jewish word, mitzvah, and it means ‘worthy deed’. And guess what- it doesn’t have to be vast.


Rainbows, Particle Accelerators, and Windshields: a short drive from Batavia to Manooka, IL

My uncle stared out the windshield driving 20 MPH. Outside a million pounds of rain poured on us. We couldn’t see the car in front of us, only it’s red brake lights blinking on and off. In less than five minutes the rain would stop, the sun would come out, and we would resume normal driving speed. In the mean time, my uncle struggled to keep driving and not rear-end the car in front of us. A minute ago it was sunny and we were talking about Fermi Lab, which used to be the largest particle accelerator in the world. Used to. Two years ago, Europe built one nearly three times its size. I was asking him what would happen to all the scientists at Fermi Lab, now that had been made obsolete. Then it started to rain. Hard. All day it was like that, raining on and off, in huge waves that clouded the sky and then all but disappeared.

“No” said my uncle “Fermi Lab’s not completely obsolete. But they will have to let some scientists go.”
“That’s a shame” I said.
“Not really” said my uncle “I mean, some scientists aren’t really that important. In fact, they’re useless. They spend their entire careers watching a few rays of light coming from one star a million of light years away. What’s the point?” he asked.
I didn’t say anything. He looked at me and asked a second time, “What’s the point?”
“Oh! You’re asking me?” I said “I don’t know…”
Then the rain came and my uncle had to focus on driving.

Five minutes later it stopped, the sun came out, and we started talking again.
“Thanks for driving me out here” I said.
“Really, it’s no problem” said my uncle.
“But it’s unnecessary. I shouldn’t have forgotten my phone.”

Earlier that day we (my cousins and I) were at my uncle’s. He lives in Batavia, IL. Batavia isn’t that interesting- just another place where Chicagoland meets rural Illinois- except for the fact that Fermi Lab, the (former) largest particle accelerator in the world, is located there. I had been in my cousin’s car and taken my phone out of my pocket and left it there because I was paranoid that it would send out radiation and give me testicular cancer. Funny, because beneath our feet were radioactive explosions on a subatomic level… anyway, my cousin left with his truck and my phone in it, driving about an hour away. I had to take the train back to Chicago that night, and instead of having my cousin ship the phone to me, my uncle said he’d drive me to my cousin’s to retrieve my phone. That’s why I felt guilty. But my uncle really didn’t mind.

“I was at a party” said my uncle “and everyone was on their cell phone. One woman was showing another woman pictures of her daughter. One guy was on his phone with work, another his daughter. I was the only one who left my phone at home, and I was the only one not having a good time”.
“What I hate” I told him “are the woman who take their babies on a walk in strollers, but don’t even pay any attention to the babies. Giving their babies none of that crucial one-on-one face-to-face time that is so crucial to the baby’s development, because they’re on their damned cell phones the whole time.”
My uncle nodded in agreement.
“Worse than that” I continued “are the people who walk their dogs while on their cell phones. Somehow it’s worse, even though it’s a dog instead of a human baby. Because the dog looks up wanting to know where it should go. It looks up still believing that its master is in fact a master. But they’re not. While the owner texts they slow down, taking shorter steps, less frequent steps, until they come to a complete standstill. And it’s completely unconscious! They didn’t even decide to stop walking. The dog shuffles its feet nervously, then the person looks up as if surprised to find themselves outside, and continues walking.”
My uncle was about to say something but it begins to rain again. Hard.

Two million pounds of rain come down and we have to drive 10 MPH. The car in front of us is dangerously invisible and the windshield on my uncle’s truck sounds like its being attacked with nailguns. He’s crouched over the steering wheel and I’m still trying to come up with an answer to his question- What’s the point? What’s the point of spending your entire career studying something useless? After about five minutes the rain stops and things become clear again.

The surroundings are familiar. Its not exactly where I grew up, but close. There’s a lot of corn and it’s flat. Its part rural part suburban. I start to think about the suburbs I grew up in. They used to be farm land. I took it for granted, at the time, that the suburbs came into being in real time. Cornfields and creeks were swept away for neatly organized subdivisions that forgot the local lore, or rather, never knew or cared.

My uncle fixes windshields for a living. I asked him about it.
“Some people think its odd” he said “when they see a fifty year old guy like me coming to fix their windshield. Work a twenty year old should do. But I’ve been doing it for thirty years.”
“You’re good at it” I said.
“Yeah but I miss working for a big company” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I used to be the guy who would get a call that such-and-such windshield is broken in such-and-such town. Then I would find a guy who lived in the proximity and send him out there to do the job. It was challenging. Involved a lot of mental work. Now…”
He trailed off.
“What do you do now?” I asked him.
“Now I’m one of those independent contractors. I get calls.”

Another titanic wave of rain came, sinking our conversation as my uncle strangled the steering wheel like it was a string of rosary beads praying he wouldn’t careen off the road into a ditch or telephone pole. My eyes were on the water drops flying off the windshield wondering if they recognized themselves in the glass for a brief second before splitting like an atom crashing in a particle accelerator. That same second, a train left Chicago on its way to Aurora. In two hours I would take the same train back to Chicago, after sitting in the Metra parking lot for 30 minutes chatting with my uncle who stayed even though he didn’t have to, telling me a few of his craziest windshield-fixing stories that usually began with “And then I called my wife to say I loved her, and went into the alley…”

The rain subsided, again, and every drop of rain on every stalk of fallow corn reproduced the sun’s glory in magnificent splendor. We pulled up to my cousin’s house, calling him (on my uncle’s cell phone, of course) to let him know we had arrived. He ran out with my cell-phone, I rolled down my window, he handed me the cell phone, said Hi, and then a rogue rain cloud dumped a torrent on us and my cousin ran back into his garage soaked after only three short steps. I rolled up my window, cell phone in hand.

We started our drive back after that short encounter. All that for a dinky phone. Then, to the east, a terrific rainbow appeared. Rainbows are cliché, but in the flesh they are really quite something. They make primitives who worship gods and fairies perfectly understood. This one was a double-rainbow, and each color was sharply drawn. Both my uncle and I were in awe.

Then my uncle said “I know the light goes through the water like a prism. That’s how you get the color. But why is it an arch?”
I didn’t say anything.
He looked at me and asked again “Why is it an arch?”
“Oh! You’re asking me?” I said “I don’t know…”
My uncle looked disappointed.
“But I bet the fellow who spent his whole life answering that question, was considered pretty useless in his time.”

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I like being liked (too much)

I was talking with a girl who is studying childhood development here in Chicago. She’s from South Korea. While she isn’t learning a whole lot at school, she is learning a lot at home with her host family who has a 17 month baby and a three year old boy. Lately, the three year old has been crying in the middle of the night for his momma. The parents think at his age the boy ought to have more fortitude, so they decided to leave him alone until he’s finished crying and goes to sleep. But the other night, says the girl, the boy- after failing to get his mother’s attention with ‘Momma! Momma!’- started to shout, ‘I pooped! I pooped!’ Of course, the mother rushed in to take care of her son but the toddler was as free of poop as a constipation convention.

This, the girl from South Korea tells me, just goes to show how intelligent three year olds can be. Intelligent? Try manipulative. Baby humans know how to lie like baby sea turtles know how to run to the sea. Instinct. Which, to the toddlers’ credit, isn’t a bad thing. In fact, in this context, it’s probably wrong to frame lying in moral terms. A three year old human being has absolutely no way of fending for itself; it can’t hunt it can’t gather it can’t do shit. The only way a three year old can ensure its survival is this: getting attention. From mom, dad, brothers and sisters, anyone who will take care of him.

Trust me. I’m speaking from experience as a youngest child. We’re prodigies; we make attention-getting an art-form before we can even lift up our heads. We grab undivided attention like a windowsill collects dust. Have you ever met a youngest child who wasn’t an entertainer? Exactly. They didn’t make it to their fourth birthday.

We lie. We cry. We tell you we pooped when really we didn’t. We see that makes you laugh and that when you laugh you stick around. So we make that our sole objective. Laughter.

During childhood development, manipulation in the form of lying or entertainment isn’t bad, it’s strategic. The problem arises when the three year old boy becomes a twenty three year old man-boy who still relies on telling people (now not only the caregiver but girlfriends, boyfriends, teachers, friends and even strangers) he pooped himself in order to get their attention. Only he doesn’t use literal ‘poop’. He acts troubled, like he has a heavy weight you couldn’t imagine carrying; he makes you worried for his survival; he emits cries of help without appearing to be intentionally doing so. Oh but I was.

This is when we can put on the lens of morality. When old justifiable behaviors from childhood are practiced unjustly as an adult. One of my biggest problems is people-pleasing. It’s so pernicious and indelible because it’s so innocuous and accepted. I’m nice. But not because I’m honestly motivated from within to do nice things, but I have a fear that if not- if not!? ‘Momma! Momma!’

I’ll die, alone and abandoned. Or be killed by the tribe for failing to be good.

OK, it’s not that extreme. Just because I’m nice, entertaining, or pleasing to you doesn’t mean I’m manipulating you. But sometimes it does. I’ve caught myself doing it with bosses (ass-kissing) landlords (more ass-kissing) and authority figures (smooch!). I don’t do it with people I don’t depend on. In fact, I can be haughty, if not an out-right bully with people I absolutely do not depend upon. That’s not the true me, but it’s a part of me, just as much as the adorable me.

Help me. Next time we’re talking ask, What are you really thinking, Ben? What is it you want?

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