Proxy Voice

entry_224Agent of torment Fred Brookbank is recounting a conversation we shared earlier. As I spin interest from revulsion–a latter day Rumpelstiltskin, I am–Kelly will listen attentively to anything the man says, because she’s not really listening to anything. I know this because whenever Fred looks at me, I glance at Kelly and see her take advantage of Fred’s redirected attention to adjust something on her person. Straightening her blouse, shifting in her seat, or brushing her hair behind her ear–she wants to impress Fred. She’s doing it slowly, the way a lioness creeps forward only when her prey isn’t looking.

Meanwhile–and I need to get back to this point–Fred’s reciting words two octaves above his normal register.

And that’s the thing, see. It’s not his own voice, but his proxy voice; that dumbed down caricature of a voice that people use to fill what would otherwise be gaps in recounted dialogue. Most people use a proxy voice of some kind, typically to mock their siblings:

Victim: “Ow! Stop touching my neck!”

Assailant: “Dop duching by neck, yuh yuh yuh!

That’s a good example of the hapless wean. There’s also the huffy voice of authority, the whine of the disinclined, and the dullard’s babble. Interpretations of these archetypical anti-heroes are present across cultures. I first realized that the proxy voice was universal on a trip to the Songam Art Gallery on an Incheon city bus a few years back. I passed the time listening to a conversation between two Korean women who were, by all outward appearances, well-adjusted and mature. Yet it was clear to me that they were talking about someone else–a third party who was not present–because their dialogue was punctuated in that very distinct way:

“Boeeo jeff sahm, ‘Chawn mahn yawng kyeh!‘ sum nee, dah kaseyo.”
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entry_223I’ve never seen anything like it: Dale jogs with his arms by his sides, not unlike an Irish step dancer. So, as much as I enjoy spending time with him otherwise, the time came when I had to tell him that our jogging relationship was over. I don’t think I’m being frivolously judgmental in severing a doomed partnership because Dale won’t assume the appropriate jogging form. Whether or not my decision is a good one is immaterial–every innate instinct tells me this is the right decision. There’s a right way to jog and there’s a wrong way to jog. If Dale isn’t interested in investing the effort required to put up his jogging dukes, who is he fooling?

“You’re not kidding?” he asked after I’d made my announcement. “What’s the deal?”

I shrugged. “I told you why, and I’m sorry, but… it’s just not right for me, the way you jog. It’s just wrong.”

Dale stood stock still, his head cocked to the side as if that might make it easier for my words to penetrate. Then, “So… it’s about vanity? I don’t get it. Assuming I’m not moving my arms the right way, you’re worried that people will think we’re… what, deviants?”

“It’s not vanity at all. The way you run is conspicuous the same way that someone chewing without removing the fork from their mouth would be conspicuous. Naturally, it draws the attention of onlookers, and, frankly, I’d rather not be noticed like that. That’s not vanity.”

“But your base concern is superficial, isn’t it?”

“This isn’t about wearing the wrong color shorts or not having the coolest haircut,” I said.

“No, I mean, isn’t this like… casting out a friend because they’re knock-kneed?”

I shook my head. “I’m talking about a choice here, an indefensible choice. You and I are no different physically, yet you’re running with your arms pinned to your sides, why? Is it because you’d be flung off balance into a ditch otherwise? No, it’s because that’s how you choose to conduct yourself. I mean, if you smoked a pipe while we were jogging, or… if you insisted on wearing a feathered headdress, then I’d have to take the same considerations, wouldn’t I?”

“But where do you draw the line?”

“Well, here is one place where I draw the line,” I said. “The line is drawn.”

Determining interpersonal relationships based upon unreasonable criteria is a recipe for a solitary existence. I know that. I merely expect a modicum of social propriety. This is a long-standing principle of mine, and it’s always stood me in good stead.

I was only 10 when our father moved to a new house in the suburbs, and my younger brother and I took the opportunity to creature around the neighborhood to get the lay of the land. Before long we were approached by a boy around my age who invited us into his home to see his dad’s piranha–a promising start to a provisional friendship.

After some friendly chat the three of us headed back out into the summer heat so the boy could show us his favorite spots, including an impressive rope swing over a deep creek, and a nicely-appointed fort in the crook of a dead tree. “Do you guys climb?” the boy asked. My brother and I glanced at each other, then shook our heads. “Trees,” he clarified, indicating the branches above. “I climb all the time. I never wear shoes.”

Indeed, the soles of his feet were like dried leather. As he scaled the tree the bark stripped away to reveal spiky pulp, but his feet were so tough that the splinters bent back like dry grass. I winced with amazement: my own tender feet would have been instantly impaled.

My brother and I craned our heads back to follow the boy’s progress, and that’s when things took an unfortunate turn. Like a wee baby gerbil emerging from its bed of cedar, a single pink testicle greeted us both from the boy’s red shorts. To my horror I found myself unable to turn away for a moment, standing agape as the boy’s vertical thrusts all but assured the wayward scrotum’s imminent and glorious freedom. The boy’s utter obliviousness to this anatomical travesty only made it that much worse.

When I looked over at my brother he was already looking back at me, and there was suddenly no need for communication. A primal need for survival had kicked in and we were of a single mind. When we turned to leave it was perfunctory, the way you leave the theatre when the curtain slides closed and the lights come up.

“Hey! Guys?” The boy was fifteen feet from the ground, and straddling the trunk of the tree like a koala. I turned around without breaking from our retreat. “Where are you going? You wanna do something else?”

“No, that’s okay,” I said, realizing only then that we would never know the boy’s name. “We have another thing we have to go to now, so, we’re gonna-”

“Okay, I’ll see you next time, okay?”

You have to draw the line somewhere though. Even a child knows that.


entry_221Listen to each commercial closely and you’ll hear them. There: the rin tinn fuckulation of the ever-fucking bells. You’re not meant to listen to commercials like that, not with your full attention. They’re supposed to wash over you, to leave you with that unique feeling of chipper inadequacy. But sometime after Labor Day the marketeers start slipping in the bells, subtle at first, like global warming. Until, by mid December, they’re all you can hear. Ad agencies believe that December bells in commercial soundtracks are as potent as Barry White music on a third date.

Come on, baby,
Keep shopping it, right on.
You know I got what you need,
At bargain prices…

Seductive, possibly–there’s a time and place for everything. But why do the bells start before jack-o-lanterns have even had a chance to rot into orange sludge on your front deck? It was never like that in the old days, and there’s a hint of desperation to it now. Premature bells is like someone dropping Barry White on you when you’re not even dressed for the date yet, before you’ve plucked the encroaching monobrow or un-boxed the good underwear. No, worse: it’s like an interested party playing Barry White in the background when he calls you up for a first date.
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entry_220I went with L. to check out the new neighborhood café. Ten minutes later our clever banter had reached a natural pause over antipasti, and I took advantage of the fermata to enjoy the bistro’s ambience of carefully-orchestrated comfort. Candles glowed, glasses tinked, and tendrils of conversation wafted over from satellite tables. Lapses in conversation are inevitable, like rests in music. And, inasmuch as they afford one the opportunity to listen, I welcome the lapses. When they come, the other senses can reach outward to compensate, and it’s important not to overlook these moments as opportunities for future conversation.

However, there are certain risks involved with even the most harmless of pursuits, as my experience with my partner this evening perfectly illustrates. The group of four adjacent to us was a spirited lot, and I found myself following their conversational thread for a few minutes before something the eldest woman said caught my attention. She said, “Well she didn’t know his father was a cop, you know, so when she saw his motorcycle…”

That brief snippet of dialogue conjured up a memory of my own, so I wasted no time. “L., I told you my father was a cop?”

She sipped her wine, then nodded. “You’d mentioned it, yes.”

“I was just thinking about the time my first childhood girlfriend visited our house. I guess I’d never mentioned the fact that my dad was a cop, so when she saw all the guns lying on the table one day, she assumed-”

I stopped short just then, the way you do when you see four people glaring at you from the adjacent table.

L. caught my gaze and looked over her shoulder, then straightened in surprise as she received the full brunt of their collective scorn. I spread my hands and mouthed “What?”

“Like you don’t know,” said the patriarch, in an impressive show of suburban bistro chivalry, and then turned back to his clan.

I most certainly didn’t know; not exactly. Did they think I was mocking them because our stories both featured father cops? Or perhaps they considered the subject of father cops reserved until they left the premises. How presumptive! But still better than the third alternative, which was that there was some arcane statute of limitations concerning any topic broached by those in one’s proximity.

What a hellish world of accounting that would be, and I for one refuse to subject myself to such esoteric mores. That’s a choice one makes. If anything, they should have been flattered that I found inspiration in something they had been discussing. But to take offense? It’s not like I got up and danced around their table singing the chantey of the father cop.

daddy was a COPPER [a kick to their table leg]
who suprised my GIRL [kick]
when she spied his CHOPPER [kick]
with blue lights a-TWIRL! [kick]
Twirl twirl twirl twirl
sound your siren and storm your TROOPS [kick]
twirl twirl twirl twirl
you can spy her knickers with your shiny BOOTS! [kick]

See, then I might understand their disdain–even welcome it. But in this case… I should have chalked it up to mere oversensitivity, as L. recommended I should. But I was just so unsettled by the episode that further conversation was killed for the time being.

I might have used synonyms to camouflage the thematic similarities. “My elder who was a gendarme…” Or perhaps if I had spoken in another language entirely! That is, unless the bone of their contention was in the theme rather than the specific words I’d used. Who could know? Had anyone ever bothered to codify the etiquette around the use of conversational themes overheard?

As it happened, there would be no convenient resolution to these questions tonight. So instead I sat in uneasy silence as we awaited our entrees. The sounds of the bistro crept back to the fore, and before I knew it I was listening in to the dialogue held by our rival quartet again, helplessly. Once I had become sensitized to their signature timbre, it was difficult not to hear it to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

The younger male was talking about his experience writing a novel, much to the edification of the elders. Now there’s a meaty topic, I thought, biding my time.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALiz breezes in and catches the edge of my office door as if fighting the hall tide. “Hey, you have those photos ready from yesterday’s shoot?”

From where I’m standing I can just see the photos, poking out from under my portfolio on the desk. I discreetly tuck them under without drawing her attention. “Oh… no,” I say, feigning concern. “You know, I left them at home? I feel like such an idiot!”

My coworker is no longer breezing. “Hold on,” she says. “You do know we need those photos for the review, Jeff. We need the photos, or there is no review!”

“Of course I know,” I say, holding up my hands in concession. “I just… maybe I can run home and get them.”

Liz looks at her watch. “If you can get home and back in a half-”

“Oh, wait, but I took the bus this morning,” I say. “So that’s probably out.”

There is a place in my mind where I can discriminate between truth and utter fabrication, but that place is not unlike an art gallery. Some items are closer to reality, certainly, but does that make the impressionist pieces any less valid from an artistic standpoint? There is beauty in deceit, without question. I lie just to see the resultant frustration bloom–it’s the same satisfaction a gardener feels standing ankle deep in loam, his bag of seed empty. People lie to cover their asses, to make themselves look good, or to evade punishment. But any half-rate actor could tell you that drama is only interesting when obstacles are overcome, when the stakes are high. When people are happy and satisfied, well, that can hardly be called living.
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entry_218“I talked to him about the loan and he said he’d call me back.”

I know every single detail about Fritz’s life, because he is a man without propriety. He is not a practitioner of “polite phone volume.” His intonation is the same whether he’s speaking with his boss at his desk or on his cell phone with Dr. Nathan Baldwin, who is his gastroenterologist. I wouldn’t even mind so much if his life’s minutiae were interesting–I’m a sucker for a good story. But the fact is that since his house burned to the ground and his daughter perished in the blaze, Fritz has become the most annoying coworker I’ve ever worked with.

Everything in his life is about logistics now. “Our insurance guy is staying late, so tell Amy I need the car back before tonight,” he says. The request is particularly unnerving because he’s looking directly at me when he makes it, and I feel compelled to tell Amy that Fritz needs his car. Except I don’t know an Amy, and Fritz isn’t looking at me so much as he’s staring through me. He tends to stare in my direction when he’s on the phone the way a grocery store fish stares up at you from its bed of ice.
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entry_217I’m just home from the airport, and the living room where I grew up still smells of cigars and mildew. It’s not my home anymore, but fragments of my family still live here. Cousin Jacob regards me over the rim of his glasses without lifting his head from his bible. “Come on in, mug, take a load off.” Jacob calls everyone by the informal, “mug.” I think it’s a contraction of “man” and… I’m not sure. Possibly “thug.”

I don’t think I’m better than Jacob is. I don’t. But to be honest, I do suffer from the fear that I’ll think I’m better than he is. To some degree I’ve been plagued by this paranoid-superiority complex since I was was old enough to think I might be different from anyone I didn’t make up in my head. Under the burden of these thoughts I endure countless circular arguments with myself on the topic of superiority, particularly when I’m conversing with one of my rural-bred relatives.

You think you’re better than he is.

No I don’t.
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Silent Shoes

entry_216Walking does not come naturally to me.

Many years ago I was that kid with the weird clothes. My attire was completely out of tune with that of my peers, owing to the fact that my mother refused to buy clothes from clothing stores. “A fancy logo got nothin’ to do with keeping your butt covered,” she’d tell me. But it has a lot to do with me getting my butt kicked, I thought. I wasn’t asking for much. I would have settled for jeans that didn’t feature a yarn and studs depiction of that weeping Indian from the “Keep America Beautiful” TV campaign. But try telling my mother that retirement home craft fairs were not bastions of haute couture.

I had no say in matters of wardrobe. I could only wait for my clothing to deteriorate and hope the replacement would be less of a fist magnet. Needless to say that I helped this process along where I could, scraping along the school’s cinderblock halls, or packing my pockets full of rocks until the seams were strained to the breaking point. But despite the cardiovascular benefits of hauling around ten extra pounds every day, my behavior was viewed as eccentric, and it won me no friends.

Neither was I safe in my own home. Money was tight, and we were living with my step-grandparents at the time, a cynical couple with whom I’d developed an adversarial relationship. My grandfather in particular was a balloon-bellied orangutan-like man with arms like the proverbial ten foot pole. One of his most cherished pastimes was cuffing me across the back of the head whenever I passed by his recliner on the way to my room. Regardless of my pace or bearing, his hand always seemed to land its mark. He could be in a gin stupor and fully reclined, and still catch me upside the head as I tried to sneak by.

Where apparel was concerned, shoes became a particularly touchy subject. With my mother perusing church flea markets every weekend there was simply no predicting what would end up on my feet–half the time I was lucky if I got a matching pair. For my birthday I got obligatory new shoes, logo-free as expected, which turned out to be moccasin / saddle-shoe hybrids with a “stars and stripes” bicentennial theme. They were straight out of a playground bully’s wet dream.
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entry_215The path from my office to the microwave bank in the kitchenette takes me through each of my office’s departments like the “It’s a Small World” conveyor at Disney World. Every tribe is huddled into its respective cluster, each with its own unique culture. For the hapless isolationist this trip affords a greater than ideal opportunity for engagement, but as I’ve been treading the same route for nigh on a decade, I’ve come to rely on my instincts to see me through. In fact there are times when I don’t realize I’ve made the trip until I’m back at my desk, hunched over my gruel.

Living an automated life puts me at a disadvantage, insofar as it sacrifices flexibility for routine. To wit, my near encounter with Gerald earlier this week. Just feet away from my goal, I was forced to break my steady pace to dance around Gerald, who was staring down at his tray as he walked. The grace of my pirouette was such that he took no notice of me. Even so, my momentum had been compromised, and where I normally arrived at the microwave on my left foot, I now arrived on my right, and had to make an additional half-step on my left just to be positioned appropriately. It’s a small matter, but I only realized the consequences as I went to enter the cooking information into the keypad. My mind was a complete blank.
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entry_214My friend Julia is so slight, so unassuming, that meeting her is like having a premonition that you’ll meet her. It’s not so much that she doesn’t leave an impression, but rather that it’s difficult to interpret it. “Let me show you something,” she was saying to me.

Her office isn’t far from mine, so, weather allowing, we meet in the park for lunch once or twice a week to mull over anthropological observations, or to make conspiratorial plans. The latter has become a rather long-standing tradition between us. Before we part ways we exchange details regarding corporate espionage, ranging from the cleverest way to take out a stairwell, to the smaller matters of psychological warfare, such as using up 98% of the ink in every pen on her manager’s desk. Of course we never go through with any of it, but it’s not in the accomplishment, but in the planning.

Julia rummaged through her backpack, and I tossed a cookie crumb at a pigeon. Looking at Julia, you’d never know these thoughts were going on in her head. That was the beauty of it. In fact you’d only remember seeing her a few moments after she’d gone. She would make a great spy–a fact underlined by the object she held out to me.

I read the nameplate: “Chris Berkovsky.”

“My boss,” she said.

“You have his desk plaque thing.”

She hugged it to her chest, “I do, and for an hour it’s mine to do with as I please.”

This was new. “You stole his name,” I said, laughing.

“Borrowed it,” Julia corrected. “I have to return it after lunch without being caught. That’s the challenge.”

“Of course,” I said. “This is the guy who pissed you off about a month ago, right? About… something about micromanaging a project you were working on?”

She returned the nameplate to her bag with some satisfaction, and brought out a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. “Oh, he’s always doing that. He’s on me constantly for the tiniest of details, but his criticism is baseless. I know he’s making it all up because after he’s barfed all over a project, I’ll take it back to my desk for a half hour, make a new printout, and take it to him. Then he’s fine with it. As long as he’s had his moment to press his thumb to my spine he’s okay.”
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