Fancy Book Learnin’

In grade 3–that was 1977–I noticed a strip of seemingly random characters at the bottom of the test, small and already bleeding in that bluish ditto ink. I found these glyphs far more interesting than the test itself, and after staring at them for a bit I realized that there was in fact some correlation between them and the few answers I’d managed to figure out. It was like “A Beautiful Mind” where I suddenly understood the interconnectedness of all things, and I may even have heard a chorus of angels as I proceeded to decode the entire test.

Unfortunately, my enlightenment was soon doused by the girl next to me, who ratted me out to the teacher when she saw what I had been doing. I was horrified, but the disapproving look on the teacher’s face soon softened. “You shouldn’t have cheated,” she said, “but I’m impressed that you figured out how to do it.” And I was let off with a mere warning.

So my time as an unfettered genius was short, but I learned an important lesson that day. And I’ve been cheating ever since.

[Music swells.]

End Credits.

Falling Apart

You know the sound the lotto ball makes as it winds its way fatefully through the innards of the ball machine, thence into the waiting hand of the local “aspiring model”? It’s kind of a welling gurgle, rattle, thwop. Well that’s what my pipes sound like as they disintegrate. Did I mention that they’re disintegrating? Slowly but surely coughing themselves up, like a tuberculosis patient during her last moments.

The house where I live is old, and I’m pretty sure–if I have my history straight–that the druids who originally built it fashioned its plumbing from the hollowed out bones of their enemies. So really it was only a matter of time before the whole works began to give away. The pipe detritus gather like artifacts in the screen filters of my shower head, blocking the flow of water so as to cause random streams to go shooting up over the shower curtain like the frolicking water show at the Bellagio Hotel in Vegas, only less chintzy.

I know that this is something that I should deal with–and I don’t mean installing slot machines and charging admission. It can’t be good for me, regardless of my feelings for the welfare of my house. Maybe I’m just waiting for a sign that I should act. And if this is the sign, then I’m just waiting for a sign that this is the sign. Weeping boils might do the trick. Or actually, no, I’m calling to have this looked into first thing. After the holidays are over.

Commuter Notes II

In the City you have to keep up appearances. The only way that people in large groups can effectively cope is to maintain their invisibility by conforming the behavior of the larger group. This is why they are leery of individuals who refuse to walk at the established speed.

Those who amble at a slow pace are either homeless or on vacation. These types are best avoided because an engagement of either is likely to result in a distasteful confrontation. Do not walk too slowly lest you be labeled a social outcast.

Those who move too quickly have probably stolen something, and are best avoided if only because they are likely being chased by a gestapo detachment who, if you should land in their way, may indict you for willful complicity. Do not walk too quickly lest you be labeled a terrorist.

No, it’s best to make like a fallen leaf in the stream, by which I mean to become more pallid and bitter as you go, until the undercurrents suck you down.

Oh, I forgot to mention another pace, between that of the average City walk and the felon’s flight, and that is the hurried step of the business person. These besuited cell-claws are probably just shy of late for a meeting, and are best avoided if only so that they don’t see that you’re taking another two hour lunch.

Commuter Notes I

As a social experiment Caltrans have installed 7″ tall steel plates across all west-bound lanes of the Bay Bridge. The results of this experiment, so far, show that commuters love traffic. Even more than that, commuters love slowing down enough so that they can watch their cars drive over said plates in slow motion, like when Steve Austin was running. In their minds it’s happening really fast, but in real life I’m stuck in Berkeley behind eight thousand cars. It’s like standing in a carny line to see the sideshow freak–only you know that no one could quite compare to the person in front of you.

She is a wild-haired woman driving an old Chrysler K-Car. These cars were manufactured out of tin foil by Chrysler–another social experiment–in the early to mid-80s. People caught on after about five years, but not before bending down and becoming Lee Iacocca’s pony. To the wild-haired woman in front of you, the driving experience is something wonderful and new, and truly she drives like she’s entering heaven: slowly.

Even from my vantage point, wedged behind her, I can see her shiny knuckles jerking back and forth as she makes micro-adjustments to the steering wheel. Her windshield wipers are flailing on high 15 minutes after the last of the rain has abated, and her brake lights flicker on and off like a strobe light. And it occurs to me that she’s having a seizure. A grace seizure. A life seizure. If not, then she is surely practicing one of the more efficient isometric routines I’ve ever witnessed. I’ll bet she has not an ounce of fat on that twitchy, disheveled, slope-spined body.

I’m paying $2 for this show, and that’s $2 too much. The real problem here is that the Bay Bridge enjoys a monopoly, and any possible alternative you’re about to suggest ends up being costlier in one way or another. The real solution is to open up the market to competition. I think there should be a hundred bridges across the Bay, like strings of spittle across an old man’s mouth. Each one would present its own advantages, whether it be fun curves (you know, for kids), petting zoo oases, drink stands, girly bars, and one just for these 7″ plates that Caltrans is so enamored with.

And then there would be a single straight, featureless bridge that would lead directly from my house to the office where I work. And that bridge would be the last thing I saw before I woke up in the morning to get in line behind that spastic woman.


entry_37Last week I noticed someone’s mannerism. I can only write about it now, after the passage of several days has dulled the most viscerally horrifying aspects of it. Thing is, I didn’t realize it was a mannerism, and called the person on it. “Oh, that’s good,” I said, admiring their unusual facial behavior. The person looked at me quizzically, and that’s when I realized the wrong I had just done. In a movie I would be the one with the tall black hat and pointed moustache, and the audience would root against me. Refusing to allow an awkward moment to balloon up between us I quickly returned to the topic at hand, paving over my social disgrace with an equal measure of obliviousness.

But it wasn’t entirely my fault, because I believe that one must be clear when a mannerism is a mannerism, and not merely manner. That is, at least part of the burden for eccentric behavior must lie upon the twitching, spittle-stippled shoulders of the afflicted.

My elementary school librarian suffered from a symmetrical facial twinge that produced, on the order of every 30 seconds, a beastly grin. The laws of social etiquette as far as I understood them dictated that when someone smiled at you, it was polite to smile back. But though this was an ingrained behavior, after falling prey to the librarian’s mannerism one time too many–smiling in response to her facial tic, then quickly turning away as she frowned–I found myself avoiding her altogether. In fact I think that was the year that I finally stopped smiling at people.

Even worse, I worked for a time with a man who stood on his toes whenever he engaged with someone taller than he was. And he wasn’t very tall. It was an obvious enough behavior because you had to adjust your gaze as he rose up before you like a porpoise, and not back away instinctively or allow for a conversational lull. In that way it put the social burden on everyone around him, which is clearly not good form. Maybe it was through subconscious retaliation then that I eventually came to find myself participating in the same behavior.

What must he have thought on that fateful day as he approached me and, calves flexing in an attempt to compensate for childhood issues of stature inadequacy, achieved his brief and triumphant zenith… only to have me destroy his advantage by rearing up in turn. And my feet were bigger than his, so I could actually see his bald spot from my newly superior vantage point. Touché! Of course I realized what I’d done just as the look of shock and disappointment bloomed across his face, and I was so embarrassed that I actually knelt down to tie my shoes. While I was down there avoiding his face I thought of the danger I might be in, a level of taboo akin to waking a sleepwalker. I was tampering here with a short man’s deeply-seated issues of inferiority, and there was simply no telling what kind of barely-restrained madness I might unleash if I weren’t more careful. He might just launch into me as I regained my feet, sinking his incisors into my face as his eyes rolled back in his head.

I have to be extra careful, because I’m a mocker at heart, and I always have been.

In grade 7 I got in trouble for repeating what the teacher had just said using their own unique vocal inflection–a notably accurate depiction I might add–and before I knew what I had done the entire class was called in for interviews, one by one, to catch the culprit. I was so mortified that I convinced myself that I hadn’t committed the act, and the earnestness with which I lied to my teacher-cum-inquisitor was my own special brand of mannerism.

So the other day it dawned at me that I may never be over my propensity to point at things and hoot like a monkey. That’s a harsh reality, and it’s something that I’ll have to manage day by day. But if there’s a social balance to be struck then it’s surely a responsibility that is not mine alone. If you’re going to have a mannerism, it should be something that’s off-putting, and taxing enough to discourage any sympathetic tendencies toward social mirroring. It may even be vaguely sinister for good measure.

My stepfather used to snap his hands spastically as he walked, which was the subject of any number of derisive comments between my brother and myself. Yet I’ll always respect the fact that my stepfather looked just enough like a complete moron doing his rat-tat-tatty white man hand snap to discourage sympathy on any level.

The Bond

Of my many talents, the one shower-related talent of which I’m most proud is my uncanny ability to manually meld two unlike bars of soap at the molecular level. Even the tricky varieties–those with seaweed or coral or flecks of tea leaves or entire railroad spikes–are no match for my soap-bonding prowess.

It’s surely a terrible thing to let soap go to waste, yet it becomes a challenge to use each product to its last as its size quickly approaches that of an escaped droplet of pancake batter. The answer, then, is to fuse the diminished remains to the virgin body of a new soap cake–like a parasite to its hapless host. But if that’s the answer, the means may quickly prove beyond the meager abilities of the zealous shower attendant–my remarkable powers of digital dexterity have taken years to perfect.

Naturally I remain hesitant to share the details until the patents have cleared, but I’ll tell you this much: if I applied this much energy into other areas of my life, there’s no way I’d be paying frigging $2 to cross a bridge every day.

The Stroll

I think it’s fair to say that there’s more I don’t know than do know. But here’s one thing I do know: walking with your eyes closed for more than five seconds at a time is deceptively difficult. The first time I walked in the city with my eyes closed for five seconds I nearly poked my eye out on a wayward sapling branch.

While our natural tendency is to seek the security of rhyme and reason, sometimes we take the reins and do something just because we can. Most things can be explained away: a cat suddenly darting into the other room, or the song you were just thinking of being in the soundtrack to the old movie you’ve just rented. But at some point along the way a random factor establishes itself, and that random factor is ourselves.

That’s what I was thinking the first time I walked by the old power company gate just as it opened.

There’s a chain link fence, peeling and gray, that I pass on my way home. I’m familiar enough with my route to know that they spray paint it silver every six months or so. Like anyone cares. Topped with a coil of razor wire, the fence runs the periphery of the power company parking lot. The side I walk along has two sliding gates just wide enough to allow passage for the rust-eaten service trucks that still manage to trundle out on occasion. Thing is, when the driver buzzes one gate open, the other gate sometimes opens too. I guess they’re just too close together. And, I don’t know, I’ve been nursing a thought for a while now. It’s a thought about whim, and how easy it would be to step sideways, through the gate, into the lot without even breaking my stride.

The first time I walked with my eyes shut for ten seconds, I misjudged how far I’d gone and nearly stepped off the curb into traffic. There was a rush of adrenaline behind my ears, and when I smiled the man next to me smiled back because he thought I was smiling at him.

There’s a thing I’ve had my whole life, and I’ve never known if I was the only one who had it. It doesn’t just happen randomly, but rather it’s a feeling that I have just before I’m about to do something bad. It’s like reality being tugged backward for a second. It’s a momentary lapse, as though the world had shifted like a gift in its box. I barely have time to be dizzy, because suddenly everything is right again. Or have things changed slightly? One instance I remember clearly: The construction site that abutted my neighborhood was far too tempting for a little kid to ignore. I was around seven, and one of my favorite after school activities was to sneak around the site alone, occupying myself by sitting in bulldozers, and eating bits of stale discarded lunch bread from the ground. On one occasion I decided that I was going to enter one of the unfinished homes. Peeking through the still-taped panes I could see that the vertical beams had not yet been covered by drywall, and only suggested at the rooms that would be. The thought of prowling through some future family’s living room excited me, and without hesitation I slid the rear glass door to the side. Just as I stepped onto the concrete floor I had the mind shift – the tug, like the onset of a seizure. And I clearly remember thinking, “Is this my conscience?”

The first time I walked with my eyes closed for thirteen seconds – I counted – the thing that made me stop was myself. I’d lost my bearings as easily as one might lose track of time while dozing, and I stopped, really, because that feeling came back to me after too long an absence. “Is this my conscience?” That’s what I was feeling when I opened my eyes to find myself standing just inside the power company’s gate.

The Players

There are so few opportunities for me to hone my wall-eyed stare that I’m amazed how readily I’m able to pull it off. I can go from mild enthusiasm to ambivalent disinterest to near catatonic dissociation in the time it takes for a man in a suit to set up his PowerPoint presentation. And, while in many situations my behavior would be deemed dismissive at best, in a business meeting the ability to completely disengage from reality is a survival technique.

Of course, the achievement of such a state should not suggest the complete arrest of mental activity. To the contrary, I’ve had some of my most enlightening philosophical epiphanies while in a state of high inattention, not to mention anthropological, and socio-political insights. Take the matter of archetypes, for example. I’ve found that a good meeting will summon an impressively broad range of them. As a passive voyeur, I see them all.

Edward is at the helm, clearly the alpha specimen. “Look, guys,” he says, “we all know that this is what we’re trying to do. This here,” and he points to one of the schematics, “This can go. This can go. This can go. If we’re going to cut this shit, now’s the time to do it. I mean…” And he holds his hands out, and everyone else in the meeting room nods like the matter is obvious.

After a moment of silent consideration, Neal basically repeats what Edward just said, only twice as fast and while gesticulating and interspersing other random words into the spiel. If someone should attempt to clarify, Neal’s eyes will become unfocussed and his voice will raise in volume until said party returns to silence, thus establishing that he’s already clarifying.

Leighton makes a sardonic comment, and becomes aloof just in time to avoid responding emotionally to his own comment.

Pavel is all about the big picture, and starts with, “So what we’re all basically saying-” but then Edward says, “Look, guys, I mean I think it’s clear that we know this, and it’s obvious.” Everyone is silent.

Neal squints.

Edward points to the schematic, “This, no one knows what this means, so it goes. This too, and this too.” He then shrugs, and if you don’t get that then you just haven’t been paying attention.

Neal is interested in backing up and asking the meta question, only in a chipmunk-like rapid fire, so that he can counter Edward’s assertions while weaving them into newly-formed concessions.

Leighton chuffs and leans back in his chair–the top of his head is now very close to the wall behind him.

Pavel attempts to reiterate what Edward said, but Edward is shaking his head with a resignation final enough make HR issue him severance pay.

Neal shakes his head too, only twice as fast.

Belatedly they all reach a dramatic stall, and turn to regard me. I say, “Wasn’t Mitch supposed to be here too?” Because to me this just isn’t yet enough of a fucking circus.