The Approach

From “Tools of Survival in the 21st Century,” Chapter 18.

Another possibly soul-decimating experience is seeing someone from some distance away. Assuming you know the person, how do you go about filling the time from the point you make eye contact to the point where you might engage them in a witty exchange without rupturing the eardrums of the people in your immediate vicinity?

There’s no escaping it now–your fate was sealed at the point of eye contact, when you unwittingly acknowledged them by meeting their gaze. This is tantamount to entrapment, of course, but the burden remains on you to maintain some semblance of social grace, even though you are quite aware that they’re watching how you walk even now.

Are you a loper? Do you swing to and fro like an orangutan when you walk? Do you bob your head like Gomer Pyle, or shuffle your feet? Or maybe you shuffle just one foot. Perhaps you’re completely lopsided. You can feel invisible forces of realization tugging you to the side even now, and this person is witness to the entire humiliating scene.

But these thoughts alone aren’t what keep you from maintaining eye contact throughout your journey. Rather, it’s because you don’t want to present yourself as predatory. No one maintains eye contact while they’re walking except for certain types of cats who weigh more than you do, so it’s an acceptable social behavior that you would look away as you continue. That’s well and good, but the burden remains to be addressed.

As you approach your comrade it is essential that you do not look at your surroundings, for the danger exists that you will make eye contact with yet another acquaintance, and that might very well destroy you. Instead, allow your face to go slack as if you are somewhat lost in thought, and look down at the ground in front of you.

Caveats: First, do not think too hard about anything. If your face is frozen in a wince, or if you cave in to the pressure and begin to weep, then why bother even trying to fit in? Why did you leave the house this morning? Why even clean the vomit from around the empty coffee can next to your bed? And second, be sure to tilt your head down when you engage in facial neutrality, and not just your eyes. You are aiming for contemplative, not besieged by inner voices. Only one type of person forgets to move their head: a psycho. So look down correctly.

Now, when to reengage? No peeking! A psycho peeks, because a psycho sees things that aren’t there. Your goal, in contrast, is to not see things that are there, and to do it in a way that seems natural even though you planned it all out weeks ago, and have been practicing in your basement using the trusty doll-head that you stole from your little sister in grade six.

You’re coming up on the person a little too quickly, so slow down. To convey a laissez faire demeanor, manufacture an itch, even if you don’t have one. Scratching an itch has been shown to be a social disarmer, as long as you’re not scratching incessantly at your eyes or tongue.

And at last you’re close enough to them that you can see them in your peripheral vision. Now it’s up to you: you are free to engage them in friendly conversation (as covered in Chapter 12). Remember that it is not always possible to come off as a “normal,” but you should always strive to keep the choking, gasping sobs at bay for as long as possible.

Good job! Later on, as you squeegee the last of the Crisco from the can with your tongue, you can look back on your encounter as a successful step in your ongoing, pathetic quest for social integration.


Tell me, did you see that brief light? It fell fast, but when I looked it was still there, farther away, but in the same place. Did you hear that there are children on Mars? They found them hiding among the rocks, and even though they smiled, they would not speak of their homes. Did you see the cow painted on the face of the moon? It was flat, but its eyes would blink and follow you as you danced. The houses, they were made of blocks, and everything fit together just so. Did you see that? And if you did, where did it go?

Did you ever find a music box behind a crate in the attic that still played the song your mother used to hum? It was sad to be moving away from there, I’ll bet. And did you notice the marks on the back of your hand? Do you remember the book with the pages ripped out? You could still see the stress creases on the ragged flaps that remained, and they brought back…

The refrigerator clicking on, and the crickets outside, and the door that no one else could see that was there, sometimes. The figurines. The lace, the ribbon, and the bell (kept from before). Did you ever wonder why they could only see you when you saw them? The whispering, the magnets in the walls, and the secret passage that you suddenly remembered forgetting? Did you find out who it was who was living in your room when you got back? Did you read about the elephants being born with no tusks? Green lollipops? Did you hear the ticks as the house settled? That’s normal, especially in the summertime.

But if you find out what to do, and about what happens next, let me know.

Joseph Cornell

entry_56“Sometimes the romance of the motion pictures seemed to spill over into Cornell’s own life. In what was perhaps the most poignant of his early attachments, he became interested in a young woman who worked as a cashier at the Bayside Motion Picture Theatre. Day after day she stood in a little booth in front of the theater selling tickets, and Cornell grew accustomed to admiring her from afar.

“It gave him pleasure just to walk by and see her encased in the quietude of the glass ticket booth, like a delicate instrument inside a bell jar. Did he ever talk to her beyond asking for a ticket? All that is known is that one afternoon Cornell showed up at the movie house with a bouquet of flowers, which he proceeded to present to her. But when he tried to say hello, he became tongue-tied, so he just hurled the flowers at her. Startled by his gesture as well as by his frightening intensity, the cashier mistook the flowers for a gun and screamed. The theater manager promptly rushed out and wrestled Cornell to the ground, holding him in place until he noticed the bouquet and realized that the suspected robber was merely the most hapless and awkward of suitors.”

from Utopia Parkway: the life and work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon

Open Letter to Tire Slasher

entry_55Oops, bad move. See, the way you know that someone else is already parking in the place that you just noticed is: you see them backing into it. It’s fair to call this behavior universal, and as such it’s hard to imagine how it could have taken you by surprise to such an extent that you would so brutally assassinate my tire when the coast was clear. And I certainly can’t imagine that the act was worth the diarrhea and impotence that you suffered once my voodoo curse on you took hold, let alone the nightmares, the high ringing sound, or the spider eggs that keep hatching from the large pores around your nose. Rest assured that the atrophy to your tongue will abate once you finally stop calling mommy to make the air-vipers go away. Just relax and enjoy the colors while your eyes can still perceive them, because the end of this ride is much darker indeed.

Arthur Crew Inman

entry_54David Lynch said, “Crew spent his life writing a diary from 1919 to the time of his eventual suicide in 1963. In that time, he lived confined to a dark room in Boston and, through newspaper ads, hired ‘talkers’ to tell him the stories of their lives. He then wove these histories into his own diary. Young women were a particular fascination. According to his brief bio, he bought them clothes, studied their moods, ‘fondled them,’ and gave them romantic advice. Inman’s edited diaries were published in 1985 by the Harvard University Press in two volumes. That’s where I first heard of him and his strange life’s work.” [read more]

The Design God

We’re down to the wire now. Tomorrow the review board will focus their arc lamps upon me and judge the efficacy of my labors.

My reaction? An impenetrable self-righteousness. My willful (and liberal) use of non-party propaganda during earlier presentations provoked much uneasy stirring among their ranks. To be precise, I referred to our earnest corps of workers as “[our] dedicated team of trained monkeys.”

Now I see my latest composition circulating much farther from my desk than I’ve intended, eventually finding itself among the true company troglodytes–those whose faces have never been blighted by even the hint of a genuine smile. And when these drones espy my wayward child, they look at one another with sparring-eyebrows cocked, yet say nothing.

I laugh in the face of their consternation. “Perhaps they have forgotten,” I bark with sudden irascibility, “that if they don’t enjoy the compositions then they’re free to bite me. In fact I invite them to bite me!”

Heads turn to where I was standing a moment before, but I’ve already left the room, bored with their puerile games.

Or maybe it would be more effective if I just pictured them naked.

America Has Gone Mad

entry_52The following are two of the most accurate, lucid accounts of this rogue nation that I’ve come across.

In The Times, John le Carré writes: “America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.” [read more] [alternate link – until timesonline gets its act together]

In Time, Brian Eno writes: “How is it that a country that prides itself on its economic success could have so many very poor people? How is it that a country so insistent on the rule of law should seek to exempt itself from international agreements? And how is it that the world’s beacon of democracy can have elections dominated by wealthy special interest groups?” [read more]

Midget Pickles?

entry_51Wait. No. Midget pickles? Is that what it said? There’s a whole shelf of Del Monte midget pickles (sweet sweet midget pickles!) at the Safeway, and… no one’s saying anything about it. Where I come from, calling a little person a “midget” is about as savory as calling them–or anyone–a “fuckhead.” It’s not the same species of word, of course–as different as “wop” and “retard,” say. But right along those same derogatory lines, you see. I like pickles, and I like little people–and together I’d call them irresistible–but maybe I’m just out of touch.

How I Met Her

Mine was an aged building that sweat under the pressure to remain standing. Mold had bruised its damp walls, like storm clouds from an artist’s brush. White awnings like sails webbed freshly-carved stone buttresses hewn long ago, and that once seemed to herald a new prosperity. But these too turned a uniform gray. The moon was keeping me awake. The moon and seventy three chinchillas that had made a nest for themselves in my pantry.

I was lying on a mattress I call “Sadie,” watching projections of the phosphenes frolicking in my eyes when I saw the tear. In truth, I’d noticed the flaw in the wallpaper before, but from this angle the curled ridge looked far more prominent–more inviting. I leapt up, danced a little dance, edging gracefully over to the tear in the wallpaper, and heard as tiny feet skittered across linoleum in response.

With a graceful but precise maneuver, similar to those I’d honed in Central American jungle dales, I swung my arm around and caught purchase of the torn edge, and then stepped away from the wall, tearing the damp paper down to the yellow, varmint-stained moulding. And then I stood still in spent victory.

The webs between my toes tingled and I realized that I’d been standing for hours, staring at the newspapers that lined the walls beneath the faded wallpaper, spongy and moist. I pressed my thumb into a block of text and it gave away almost immediately. I felt something cold, and there was a sucking sound as I pulled my thumb free. I don’t remember which came first, the high-pitched ring in my ears, or the uninvited tears. My sadness, though, was absolute, and I sought solace in the fuzzy words on the pages I lived in. I curled up by the warped floorboards with my hand against a column about a provocateur who arrived by rail in NOLA.

Blah Blah Blah

In 1996 Alan Sokal, a NYU professor of Physics, published the article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in Social Text, a leading a leading journal of cultural studies.

His article was 100% intentional jibberjabber.

After it was published as a legitimate article Sokal exposed it as a parody in Lingua Franca, where he talked about the troubling “decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities.”