entry_152I look down at the clutter of objects in my hand and worry that I’ll be caught shoplifting this time. Some might call it nonsense, being that these are, after all, my own things. But only I know why the thought is so persistent.

Fwip. Twenty years ago to the day, not much more than a wean, I gathered the courage to enter the county store alone. I found myself, finally, standing before a rack of note pads, and scanned the selection one last time to ensure that I’d grabbed the finest specimen. Fwip. As my eyes flicked from cover to cover I worked off some of my spare adolescent energy by running my notepad of choice across the inner lining of my windbreaker. Fwip. The sound it made was soothing, right up until the store’s security guard lowered his immense hand down upon my right shoulder where it clamped like a jumper cable.

“It might be a good idea if you paid for that, mmm?” he said, his other hand going to the place where his gun holster had been when he was still on the force, back before the incident.

The specific flavor of guilt I felt is one that I imagine is unique to humans. Sure, there are higher mammals who are quite capable of guilt–you haven’t seen anything if you haven’t witnessed first hand a pod of remorseful dolphins. But the brand of guilt I prefer to wallow in is the guilt of the innocent. Intent doesn’t figure into the matter–if it’s something I’m physically capable of, then I may as well be guilty.

I immediately jerked the notepad from the inside of my jacket and held it out, away from me, away from any conceivable pocket or orifice. “I’m buying it,” I said. “I was planning on buying it, I mean. I wasn’t taking it, I was just…” I made an anemic sweeping motion with my hand, but I may as well have been waving a bloody knife over an eviscerated baby. The heat of the guard’s hand fused the joints of my shoulder into a heavy unmovable mass, and I was fixed under his gimlet gaze.

But the guard suddenly unhanded me and continued his stroll down the aisle, as if the implicit condemnation hadn’t melted me into slag. “Just make sure you do then,” he said over his shoulder.

“I will,” I croaked. “I am.” Even after I paid for that notepad though, even after I’d taken it home, I regarded it with dismay. It felt stolen to me.

And ever since that day I’ve harbored a deep-seated fear of putting anything near my pockets when I’m in a store. Today I can feel the cameras on me as I make my way down the aisles, and imagine the bank of monitors in the darkened room in the back, a compound eye fixed on my nervous hands. Possibly it’s because, in a fruitless search for my shopping list, I’m now holding in my hands a pen, my Palm, my car keys, and a wadded up scrap of paper, all while trying to steer my cart around the other patrons. Steering is difficult with full hands, but I don’t really have any choice in the matter. This is what it’s come to: I can only take things out of my pockets now, and then out they must stay, forever.


entry_151Dan Trout shakes the fish from the end of his crude spear into an ersatz sack made from an old teeshirt. “Originally they gave me the spear because of my name,” he says, his face a mask of concentration. As he peers down through the shallow water to the smooth rocks of the shore he spots another fish and freezes, his arm poised, spear steady. When he strikes he moves with a quickness belied by his considerable girth, and the fish doesn’t stand a chance. The Information Technologist from an Internet-based bank in Atlanta adds the fish to the day’s catch, and peers into his sack, counting them up. “That makes nine,” he says. “This was a joke at first, for them. But my dad used to take us spear fishing when I was a kid. I’ve gotten good at it.”

Three episodes into the Prime Time reality show “Overboard: Nowhere” the disparate cast has already used up the small store of food they scavenged from the ship that brought them here, now capsized. Today’s episode finds them forced to hunt and forage for sustenance, and viewers watch as the cast tests its mettle in one of the harshest environments yet encountered on such a show. The past four years have seen Reality Television explode in popularity in both national and international markets, in part because it provides viewers with a voyeuristic escape from their own problems, but also because the shows are enticingly cheap for networks to produce.

Unfortunately, but not unpredictably, the market has reached a saturation point that makes product differentiation a challenging prospect. “Overboard: Nowhere” Executive Producer at Twentyfour Media Jasraj Tasneem responds, “Failure to differentiate is death in this industry. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the content producers–that’s us–and the advertisers. Consumers need to be able to identify our product as something desirable so they know where to go when they want more. That’s how we keep advertisers, and so it becomes our primary challenge to build that association.”

As far as the programs go, this challenge translates directly into dramatic escalation. In an effort to keep viewers tuned in, the producers of “Overboard: Nowhere” devised a show that raises the stakes for their cast in several ways. Associate Producer Julien Krause: “First of all, unlike the other reality-style shows you may have seen, we haven’t told our guys where they are, and in fact, most of the production process is highly compartmentalized, so that no single individual staff member sees the entire picture.” Culture shock and dissociation foster alliances and rivalries, a mainstay of the format. But “Overboard: Nowhere” only begins there. Krause leans forward in his Aeron chair and rests his chin on his steepled fingers, “Some things are apparent about the island immediately, like that is has no trees. You could hear some of our guys commenting on that even as they were swimming to shore after we sunk their ship. But other things are less apparent, such as the fact that the small fish they’re eating are only there during mating season, which has just ended. And then there’s the cast itself.”

The nine people who make up the cast of “Overboard: Nowhere” include a white supremacist, the eccentric recluse and chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, a Taiwanese snuff pornographer, and former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Hardly the ideal candidates for life on a desolate tropical island, we watch as these individuals face very real trials and tribulations. The show foregoes the artificial competitions seen so often on other reality-based programs, favoring instead the very real goal of mental and physical survival.

“I can see my ribs,” says Sarah Bonner in episode 5, examining her bare, sun-reddened torso with concern. A hotel desk clerk from Baton Rouge, Bonner joined the cast based on the original premise, which concerned the relationships among the crew of a ship bound for the Caribbean. “I don’t even like fish, usually,” she says facing the mounted camera during her video diary segment. “But I’d sure kill for one now.” Indeed, the last fish was eaten during episode 4, but they’ve all but vanished since the weather changed. “We sent Dan out again though, so hopefully we’ll have something by supper. He’s a good guy, I think. Even though he’s, you know. Gee aye why? But I guess we’re all children of the Lord, even still.”

While Dan Trout hunts for fish on the other end of the island, Bobby Fischer seems to have retreated deep into a cave, pornographer Guy Chen is amassing a collection of succulent plant leaves, and Michael Dukakis, now a professor at Northeastern University, is arguing with Jessie Bearden about campfire maintenance. “If you stoke it like that, if you keep agitating it, you’re just going to burn through all of our fuel. I suggest you allow it to smoulder.” Dukakis is standing over her, his palms open in suggestion. But Bearden doesn’t hide her spite as she looks up and barks, “Why in hell should I listen to you for? You talk white but you ain’t even white.” Dukakis just rolls his eyes.

Episode 6 finds the company seriously emaciated, but worrying over a giant manta ray that Trout speared just off the coast, and then dragged for nearly a mile. Trout speaks in voiceover as we watch them saw through gristly flaps of flesh with sharpened rocks. “Yeah, they’re kind of reverential to me because I’ve been the only one who can use the spear to catch anything bigger than inchworms. I kinda dig that, but I’m getting tired of Sarah’s fawning. And I also know who the bad guy’s gonna be when I can’t find any more fish. There’s just nothing out there these days.”

Pam Morse is a yoga instructor, and she’s sniffing at a piece of the manta ray’s fin. “God, it’s so briny,” she says. “And aren’t rays intelligent? I heard they like to play with humans. That means they’re smart, right?”

Pornographer Guy Chen and Bobby Fischer have struck up an unlikely friendship, and merely laugh in response as they rib each other. “Whatever, guys!” Pam snorts. “I’m supposed to be vegan, okay?”

Executive Producer Jasraj Tasneem: “Look, it is more than just a vehicle for diet cola. We see this show as a lesson in social anthropology,” he says over video of Morse performing deep tissue massage on Dukakis’ hirsute back. “And the question is, how far will a person go? We have a controlled environment in which to explore that very question, and the fact is the FCC is far more lenient for documentaries, which, technically, this is. Meaning that–bonus–we can show full frontal.”

Stirring controversy, episode 8 finds Chen incapacitated by foot infection, and battle lines are drawn over how best to deal with the additional burden. As tempers flare, Trout appears from the south end of the beach hauling a blood-soaked sheet of canvas. Gasps are heard as the payload comes into view for the first time: a massive porpoise. “I think he musta been sick,” says Dan Trout in voiceover, “because he was a pretty easy catch. I just had to keep sticking him.” Dukakis looks horrified, and Pam Morse falls to her knees weeping, “Oh, how could you,” she sobs. “Dolphins are intelligent!” Dan says, “It’s a porpoise,” and Morse shoots him a black look. An hour later the sun is setting, and through gaunt cheeks we see jaw muscles working through porpoise steaks. Guy Chen addresses the camera, “Yeah, I see it as victory. Of course I never have eaten a porpoise out in the real world, but I need to keep up my strength now, because of my foot problem.”

Amid public outcry, episode 9 opened with the cast–save for Pam Morse and Guy Chen–feasting on chimpanzees. “I don’t know where Trout got these little guys,” says Dukakis, “but right now I don’t really care.” He wipes the blood from his chin and then sucks the tender marrow from the end of a femur. Morse has yelled herself hoarse, but continues to try to appeal to the morality of her comrades. “Monkeys are intelligent!” she screeches. “You know that! You don’t eat monkeys!” Sarah Bonner interrupts her pleas, “Hey! You need to shut the [beep] up, honey. You afraid we got one of your relatives or something?” Trout moves between them, “Ladies, come on. We don’t know how long we’re going to be here, so we just have to get along and make do with what we have.” Later, Trout confides to his video diary: “I don’t know how much longer we’re going to last. I think Guy killed Bobby Fischer, and that’s how he screwed up his feet. One thing’s for sure though: I haven’t seen any more dolphins, and I don’t think I could catch another chimp.” As the evening bonfire dims to a ring of glowing embers, Guy Chen pulls off one of his toes, and begins to weep.

Episode 10 was only seen on the east coast, before it was pulled off the air entirely. “I’m not touching him,” says Jessie Bearden, casting a wary eye on the corpse of the snuff pornographer. “Looks a little bloated,” Professor Dukakis says prodding Chen’s chest. “Most likely it’s deathgas.” As Trout looks on with visible relief, Morse’s eyes are fixed on the body. “He died from natural causes, right?” she asks quietly. “Hey, it was natural causes, am I right?” She rubs her stomach.

Jasraj Tasneem doesn’t seem disappointed at his series sudden cancellation. “‘Overboard’ was a success at the end of the day. Just getting the show on the air was a success, a milestone. And we only shot the ten episodes, so it basically aired to the end, which we couldn’t have choreographed better. As far as whether the experience benefited the cast, the jury’s out. How can you quantify that? It’s hard to say, this isn’t a gameshow.” And what of monetary prizes? “Like I’ve said, it was a documentary, so there are no prizes per se. We paid their air fare home though. And funeral arrangements, that was all on us. The real question is about mindshare. Our advertisers made a tidy profit, and I think our customers–or viewers, if you prefer–I think they got some food for thought too. The narrative tells us about the human condition, and opens it up to question. Conversation is good. Controversy is good. Win win win situation here, as far as we’re concerned.”

What’s next for Twentyfour Media? Associate Producer Julian Krause has a thought that he runs by his partner. “Two words,” he says. “Mars. Hillbillies.” Tasneem’s eyebrows raise as he considers the notion. Krause continues, “Rednecks on the Red Planet. If we work our connections we might be able to snag some sponsorship and tag along with Bush’s Mars deal.” Tasneem is nodding, “Perfect timing, maybe for the Fall 2015 run. I know some conservatives in the space thing, ex-military. Damn fine angle too,” he says. “Let’s send out some feelers. After lunch.”


entry_150There’s a chocolate kiss sitting on my keyboard this morning. An anonymous gift. Meaning that someone’s been in my cubicle. It’s hard for me to describe just how unsettling I find anonymous gifts such as this. It’s like finding a secret message written on the inside of your underwear–the questions are the same. How did it get there? When did it appear? Are those responsible still in the vicinity? Is there a steady red laser dot fixed on my lower spine? If I peer at my mirror real close can I see a surveillance room on the other side? Has someone installed a camera in my toilet?

It seems to me that anonymous gifts are a good way to drive someone insane, whether or not they have a predisposition toward such, on their father’s side of the family. Am I supposed to thank someone now? There’s no obvious target for me to be thankful toward, so am I supposed to be extra thankful to everyone I come across, just in case? If I’m not thankful then all of a sudden I come off as callous. “He doesn’t deserve that chocolate kiss after all.” Guilt then, and I find myself thanking people for the most trivial reasons. “Thanks for that smile.” “Thank you for adjusting your course so as not to walk into me.” “Thank you for not killing me every day since I’ve kind of known you from across the room.”

I envision myself horrified as I return to find my desk covered in chocolate kisses–the rewards for all of my kind deeds. But that’s just it: what have I done right? What am I being rewarded for? You can’t reward someone randomly like that, out of the blue. It’s like giving a serial killer a shiny certificate because they won the spelling bee when they were twelve. Non-specific rewards send mixed signals, and, more than that, stress our delicate social fabric to the absolute breaking point. Is there some behavior I should be continuing? Just what is being encouraged here? I am paralyzed, unable to remember how I usually behave. I am grown a stranger to myself. I die.

So my response is to avoid people as much as I possibly can. If I’d done this from the start then I wouldn’t be dealing with this chocolate kiss fiasco now. Of course I can’t avoid people entirely, so I regard them all with even suspicion, guarded. Thus is my happy little bubble existence violated, and it’s not even lunch time yet. I must be forever vigilant, coldly calculating the degree to which peoples’ mouths curl up at the edges, looking for that telltale smugness. I must watch for that knowing glimmer in their eyes, and that righteous bounce in their gaits. Everyone is so precious and self-satisfied, and I am left to ponder this little rape wrapped in tin foil on my keyboard. Or at least until the cleaning staff steals it tonight. Which they will.

Pooh Dream

entry_148I had a dream where I was Christopher Robin in a Winnie the Pooh tale. It was a traditional story in most respects, except for the fact that Eeyore was very large–quite a bit larger than in Milne’s imaginings. In fact, in my dream Eeyore was a Titan, and he seemed unshakably despondent about it. All of us, Kanga, Roo, Owl, Rabbit, Piglet, Pooh, and I, sat in the shade of one of Eeyore’s massive grey hooves. Eeyore lay on his side gasping for air, each strained breath sending twisters rolling across the meadow a few miles away. Our heads were hung in despair for Eeyore, whose structure would soon fail to support its own mass. Tigger, ever the oblivious optimist, suggested a game to lighten our spirits.

‘Hide and seek!’ Tigger exclaimed. Eeyore grunted a thunderous response that I was at a loss to interpret.

‘But Tigger,’ Pooh said, ‘Eeyore won’t be able to hide at all. He’s so big that we’d be able to find him for sure.’

‘He’s right,’ said Piglet. ‘Eeyore’s much too big ever to play any games ever, ever again.’

‘Nonsense!’ Tigger responded without hesitation. ‘We’ll make Eeyore “it,” and we’ll all hide!’

‘But where shall we hide?’ asked Kanga. ‘Eeyore is on top of all the best hiding spots,’ Roo added.

‘Oh dear,’ said Pooh.

Tigger bounced over to Pooh and threw a paw over his shoulder. ‘Not a problem, Pooh bear’ said he. ‘We’ll hide inside Eeyore! His left ear is draped over the glen. If we’re quick enough we can all make it there before he finishes counting!’

With an excited squeal, Piglet immediately ran off in the direction of Eeyore’s left ear. The rest of them looked at me in unison. ‘How high shall we tell Eeyore to count?’ Pooh asked in their behalf.

I didn’t know what to say, but heard myself answering nonetheless. ‘I’ll tell him to count to a million,’ I said. ‘That should give us time to find good hiding spots.’ The matter decided, we all headed off while Eeyore’s ragged croaks echoed over the countryside.

The rest of the dream is kind of a blur, but I do remember that Eeyore didn’t make it half way before going completely mad, I think because Piglet unwittingly burrowed into our gigantic friend’s brain. Eeyore brayed and brayed, and didn’t sound like his old self at all. In fact, we all wished he would just shut up, and had to leave the Hundred Acre Wood so that we could concentrate on our games. As for hide and go seek, we all decided that Piglet should be ‘it’ next, just as soon as he sponged the gore from his person.

Figuring It Out

Aunt Edna lived with us for several years while I was growing up. She was a forensics enthusiast before being a forensics enthusiast was cool, which it never was. While most kids had hopscotch squares in front of their houses, we had chalk outlines outside ours. The figures’ ghostly limbs were bent in all manners of unlikely angles, probably owing more to the fact of my aunt’s inability to draw than the diabolical nature of a given fictitious crime. Friends who came over were routinely subjected to lineups, and the doorknobs of our home were blackened with repeated fingerprint dustings. Photos in our family albums were interspersed with gruesome case study photos, details of gunshot wounds, and police sketches. Forensics became a way of life for my family, and after a time it became difficult to separate Aunt Edna’s hobby from our daily routines.

Most of the time Aunt Edna could be found measuring things: the arc of the door swing, the amount of milk left in the carton, which spectra tended to see more use in my crayon collection. Anything and everything was subject to quantification, because to her it all meant something, and that was especially important because she had lost so much. Dad tolerated her because it kept me occupied, and he even helped her to set up a lab in the basement in the area he’d always meant to set up his wet bar. Mom tolerated her because my Aunt Edna was her big sister, senior by nearly twenty years. Mom felt beholden to her because she didn’t really have anything else now but her forensics, and after her house burned down, and her husband along with it, she’d had nowhere else to go.

Of course, I was by her side whenever I wasn’t in school. We were inseparable, and she had use for the extra help. I assisted her in setting up cones around the refrigerator when she found its door ajar, and I drew circles around holes in the mortar to help her calculate projectile trajectories. I even got to go with her to the mortuary when she conducted psychological autopsies, and afterward we would eat sandwiches and pickles in cool rooms surrounded by quiet, reflective drawers.

I didn’t care if any of it was real or not, I just liked being a part of the mission. During school, my friends would return to class on Mondays with stories of parties they’d attended, or about their garage bands, or what video games they’d discovered at the arcade. In turn I would regale them with full and accurate accounts of the cases my Aunt Edna and I had closed during the weekend, and of the others that remained open. The rest of the time I found myself distracted by signs, clues, symptoms, and causes. I couldn’t help but see patterns in the bruises on the back of Donna P.’s neck during Geography, and could think of nothing else but precipitating factors and post-crime behaviors. Aunt Edna told me I had a knack for criminal profiling, but to me it was just a way to put off homework.

The day my parents phoned me at Junior Forensics Camp and told me that my Aunt had a pericardial tamponade I was excited, and said that I couldn’t wait to be home to see it. “No, sweetie,” my mother said, her sniffling turned to white noise by the phone, “it’s not… that’s not… I’m so sorry. Here’s Dad.”

I left camp early to attend Aunt Edna’s funeral. The doctors told me that she’d developed pericarditis caused by a sudden infection, and that she had not suffered long. I knew they were talking down to me, trying to console me, but I didn’t really care by then.

What I remember most about Aunt Edna’s funeral was the procession itself. Virginia winters still had a bite in those days, and that December was no exception. Dozens of slow-rolling tires packed the fresh snow, and bare branches hung low under the weight of the night’s accumulated ice. I sat in the back seat with my temple resting against the cool glass, and watched in disbelief as my Aunt’s hearse was suddenly swept away in an intersection by a big rig, which was itself traveling sideways. The hood of the long black vehicle became wedged under the trailer, and as the truck plowed into an old deli, snow began to drift down from the slate sky.

The fire that belched from the truck’s compromised fuel tank was almost fluorescent in the chill purple gloom of mid-morning. Snow melted in a circle around the accident, as if in reverence, and spectators formed a wide circle around that, just beyond the yellow crime scene tape. Friends and family looked on in horror as officers, shielding their eyes from the growing flames, tried to open the rear door of the hearse. But the vehicle’s frame had bent, and the door may as well have been welded shut.

A sense of desperation settled on the would-be funeral attendees as they witnessed the fire consuming the front of the hearse, but I felt surprisingly calm. My fingers were numb, but the pain was good. To me this all made sense in a way, not to sound morbid about it. In fact I was even able to summon a laugh as my mother, beyond hope, leaned to my father and said, “Well, cremation is noble too.” It was the look on dad’s face that made me laugh. My mother was the one with the macabre sense of humor.

For the first time I got to see the “jaws of life,” watched how firefighters applied it to the hearse, opening it like a tin can just to save the corpse of my Aunt. Meanwhile officers were setting up traffic cones, and, just beyond them, a small group of people were taking photos of the tracks in the snow, and marking key areas with flares. Crime scene investigators. My aunt would have loved it.

In the end we postponed the ceremony until the next day, and afterward I remember a crowded house, and food, and quiet words of consolation only barely slurred by spirits. Mom and Dad let me spend that night in Aunt Edna’s laboratory, bundled against the basement’s cold in a thick blanket. In the moon’s glow my eyes lit upon the instruments of my Aunt’s work, and stopped on a stick of chalk resting on a short stack of books. Later I dreamed in outlines, and of myself tracing around a world frozen into stillness so that I would remember it after it had moved on.

Office Dialogue (audio)

entry_139This infomercial offers hope for anyone dealing with the many travails of life in the world of fluroescent-washed cubicles. Talking heads deliver a script that was painstakingly strung together, often one syllable at a time, from much shorter bits of dialog, as spoken by AT&T’s Natural Voices personalities.

Listen to “Office Dialogue” [5 minutes, 13 seconds, mp3]