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_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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Beautiful Malady

entry_213My friend returned from her vacation with skin the color of apricot honey. “Wow,” I said, and proceeded to ignore her recounting of exotic locales and leisure pursuits. The change in her complexion was profound, but more than that, her countenance glowed with a vitality that made her seem more real. She was transformed, and I couldn’t help but to comment again. “I can’t get over how healthy you look. I guess that’s it.”

She said, “You’re talking about my skin, aren’t you?”

“Hard not to notice,” I said. “I’d gotten used to you being a pasty pale thing, and even though I’ve never been one to equate tans with health–I’m proud of my ghost-flesh–I can’t deny that… it complements you. If I may be so bold.”

She laughed, “You are the saucy one. But in my case it actually isn’t healthy. When I’m in the sun too long–on those rare occasions–I get these really weird blotches. You can’t normally see them, but my face is actually one big blotch. I swear, it ends around my neck.”

Was this modesty? I wasn’t sure.

“Really,” she said, and leaned forward, tugging her collar down so I could see her right shoulder. “See there, where it ends? It’s red where my shoulder meets my neck, and there’s this ragged intersection that goes all the way down my back.”
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entry_208At a family reunion dinner, my great grandfather–a man who was, to me, as noble as a silverback gorilla–ground his molars mercilessly. Our relationship at the time was such that he would occasionally drop tidbits of age-old wisdom on me, and I would not let on that my pockets were stuffed full of colorful summer beetles that I had collected from his garden. It’s fair to say that we weren’t exactly on the same wavelength. But as inscrutable as the old man was, when it came down to such basics as the feeding process, any mystique he’d cultivated just went out the window. Whether he was processing steak gristle or apple sauce, I endured the sound of rhythmic pulverization for the length of the dinner. It seemed impossible that this had been going on for eight decades. No, more likely he had simply reached a point where he knew just how long he needed to last, so why not use it up? To end on zero, there’s nobility in that, surely.

In response, I decided on the spot never again to allow my teeth to touch. My reaction might sound extreme, and I would agree that some lifelong habits can only take root during childhood’s idealism. But the mere thought of enamel on enamel was so offensive that I spent the rest of that day slack-jawed, for which I paid dearly when I failed to heed the portrait photographer’s increasingly vehement pleas.

Gradually, my ability to avoid closing my jaw became second-nature, and it was undetectable to the outside world. A strategic, if unnatural, placement of tongue provided cushion enough to ensure that enamel never touched enamel, and my resolve to this end became an obsession, not to mention a source of vanity. I could smile without raising undue attention, and took great pride when people complimented my extraordinarily intact teeth. I was not shy about brandishing them. Soon after my 25th birthday a friend remarked, “You still have those darling little bumps on the tops of your incisors, like they just came in.”

If there was a price for perfect teeth, it was in the denial in the satisfaction of a solid bite, which I experienced only in reverie. At night I would dream about grinding my molars against each other, and the pain of it was sweet. The clenching pressure was so great that my teeth would squeak like styrofoam, and fracture lines would creep over their contours until they splintered, until gum pressed against gum. Often I would awaken in a panic, though probing never revealed anything more serious than a bloody tongue.

My teeth are worthy of remark not because they’ve changed, but because they’re exactly the same as they were when they first thrust themselves through my gums. Thus, it’s not change in itself that is remarkable, but some measure of contrast between perception and expectation. It’s fair to say that I have some concerns about my teeth, but to illustrate why this is specifically, I need to tell you another story.
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entry_203How many individual things are we able to remember at once–without resorting to unholy trickery, that is? At any given time, the experts will tell you, we can keep between five and nine things in mind, on average. That’s another interesting piece of trivia to tuck away, but it’s actually not what I’m talking about. I mean what is the sum total of things that we can know? Is there an end to it? We must assume there is an upper limit, owing to the brain’s finite mass. And if a brain is like my attic then we must also assume that, as it reaches maximum capacity, it’s not so much the size of the object you’re trying to stuff up there, but the shape of it as well. Any new thought, in other words, would have to be able to fit in among the other notions, in form as well as size. It follows then that at some point you can only accept certain types of information, which, considering my elders, is just about as accurate a theory as any other I’ve been able to devise.

Regardless, the reason this thought is occupying so much of my mind is due to a list that I can’t forget. Because I am a slothful creature by nature, I’ve always clustered tasks–those things that must get done–into as short a time as possible, the better to have done with them. As I run my internal audit, which usually happens while I’m in the shower, I string together an unwieldy list of activities that I’ll try to maintain by repeating them like a mantra. “Marinate the tempeh, add memory to the Palm, necklace for sister… Marinate the tempeh,” and so on. Invariably, when the list grows too long, errors begin to creep in. Words cannibalize themselves, and I am subject to involuntary spoonerism episodes. This must be what dementia is like.

The sheer bulk of information necessitates that I pare back to bare essentials. “Marinate, memory, necklace,” et cetera. These optimized lists are much more manageable, and sometimes they’re even catchy. But that’s the problem, see. If they’re too catchy then the lists can bridge the gap between short term memory and long term memory, and suddenly I find myself weaving these one-time lists–agendas shortly to become obsolete–into the very tapestry that makes me who I am.
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entry_201The first time we visited the progressive suburban creperie, we’d allowed ourselves just enough time to eat before the late evening movie. Nestled in the crook between the faux rusticana post-antique used junk store and the self-consciously over-exotic soap and bong shop, the restaurant was the most convenient place to grab a bite, since it was right across the street.

The front of the restaurant was so completely open as to seem abandoned, and indeed, there were no staff to greet us. Such lack of structure tends to give me a kind of social vertigo, which can result in extreme bouts of self-doubt, leading to panic attacks if not promptly seen to. “Should we sit down, or do we stand? Where should we stand? Is there a queue? Do we order up at the front, or is that just for paying? Should we ring something? Are they even open?”

I stumbled about like a lummox, and nearly knocked over the beverage machine before a waiter finally intervened. Maybe my lack of coordination endeared me to the staff, but our anonymity was compromised either way. Still, after we were seated the evening progressed in a manageable enough fashion.

Partially owing to our first positive experience, we called on the creperie again the following weekend, at the same time as our first visit. We had the same waiter, who said we looked familiar. “Yes, we came last week too.” Ah, that’s right. Same table? Sure, why not.
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Agent of Change

entry_197The Physics professor takes his place at my side five minutes later than usual. If the rest of the crew at the metro stop notices Nathaniel Whippingposte’s tardiness you could never gauge it from their outward appearances. Acknowledgement would be crossing that delicate social boundary that keeps a morning commuter safe from commitment. In all honesty, I can’t be certain that the man next to me is a physics professor at all, nor even that his name is “Nathaniel Whippingposte,” because I’ve never actually spoken to him. It’s not to say that we live in a society of strangers. In fact, I call this motley collection of characters “the crew” because we’re that tight-knit. We’re the regulars. Sure, there are the travellers through, the one-time companions, the sight-seers, but the core group remains. More than that, we all tend to stand in exactly the same spots from morning to morning, scattered, and equidistant from one another. Physics professor might call that a stochastic diffusion.

The social burden of engagement is a real threat, and I’ve seen it destroy otherwise stable communities. This is how it has to be, because breaching the wall means an ever-lasting commitment to intimacy that no single member of our crew could hope to shoulder. Me, I’m a pocket fidgeter–a fidgeteer–which affords me some flexibility as far as observing my fellow crew mates. I while away the morning minutes by constructing intricate fantasies about them, notions based on the most frivolous of details, the most sweeping assumptions.

Take Mlinzi Majji-giza, a man whom I’ve never seen in anything but a colorful dashiki. He’s the haunted man who stands back by the wall nursing some foul tea concoction and muttering to himself at length, often to the point of self-argument. I’ve seen him miss the train on more than one occasion simply from being so lost in thought. Dierdre Scruggs, standing by the station map, is a reader of prurient romance tomes, their spines invariably broken by her little sausage fingers. She’s a whale of a woman, with frayed orange hair like old yarn, and she looks comfortable as an old sofa. Dierdre is the housekeeper for a dreadfully aged statesman who lies affixed to his bed like a barnacle, and is forgotten to the outside world, save for his bank account. Meanwhile, off to my right is Phineas Boyd, who stares at the concrete sound baffling of the tunnel wall, and doesn’t shift his stance until the flash of the train’s approach lights. But he does listen, I know that. I’ve seen the corners of his mouth twitch reflexively in response to the wails of a tantrum-racked tyke. In fact, he loathes children with such a passion that it’s caused him to be wary of women. As for Nathaniel Whippingposte, he has an unmistakable professorial air, and his hair… well if you saw him you would understand.
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Knee Pads

entry_195“Come on, we need a fourth man!” That’s funny. Man. We were no older than eight, and already my friends had appropriated the language of their fathers. But, much as I hated to, I was going to disappoint them on this day. There was no way I was going to run around the playground in the miasma of high-noon, not when I was wearing my Toughskins jeans. I just stared at my feet and remained against the schoolhouse wall in the shade of the eaves.

If you don’t remember the unique bondage inflicted by this particular brand of apparel, then let me take a moment to explain. Toughskins resembled normal jeans in most ways, only they were designed especially for children. The assumption was that the average child, full of energy and free of inhibition, was prone to such daily activities as scooting across gravel, falling from rooftops, swinging from branches, and the like. Thus, the Toughskins were made of an extra-durable polyester, nylon, cotton blend, the end result of which was not so very different from chain mail. Additionally, the inner lining of each knee was fortified with a rubbery patch to forestall holes forming in the most obvious place.

Unfortunately, it was this latter–the diabolical rubberized patch–that was the bane of my stunted existence. For, in the humid southern summer, the atmosphere as thick as broth, the pads would affix themselves to my perspiring knees, bonding at the molecular level, which made the possibility of normal walking nigh impossible. Throughout the day I would pluck at my knee pads, and pull my pant legs straight when they bunched up as I stood. For hours on end I would pinch the material at my knees and tug it out to create twin tents, just to keep my knees from suffocating. Needless to say I could not, so burdened, participate in normal recess activities. This was the real reason that Toughskins lasted until one outgrew them, not because they were well-crafted. I believe that Toughskins were responsible for my stunted socialization. I didn’t feel fully free until I graduated to a private school uniform many years later, but by then we were all too sophisticated to bend our knees anyway.
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entry_191I wave at my coworker from across the busy car park, and she takes it as an invite and makes a beeline for me. Wait, why is she carrying a motorcycle helmet? Because this girl isn’t who I thought she was. It’s that new girl who, admittedly, bears a slight resemblance to my coworker. But only from twenty yards. My bloody nearsightedness has betrayed me on more than one occasion, which is why I’ve gotten into the habit of not making eye contact with anyone. Generally I try to look like I’m lost in thought–better safe than sorry. For the eccentric artist there are many things to ponder, after all. But this time I was so… sure.

“Oh,” I say. “I thought you were someone else.” My feet carry me forward, compelled by convention, until we are standing between a row of cars and the bicycle rack.

“Your’re scamper, right? Allison.”

Allison the new girl. “I’m scared and I don’t want to talk to new people,” I explain to her.

“Everyone says, ‘you’ve got to meet scamper!’ Ha ha.”

I grimace. “You’re pretty,” I say. “I feel scared and creepy.”

She sets her motorcycle helmet down on the bed of a pickup truck so she can tug her riding gloves off. When she proffers her hand my heart stops beating for a moment, and then doubles its rate in order to catch up. “I don’t like to touch people,” I say.

She takes my hand and pumps it. “I’m going to be working with Rob,” she tells me. Rob is my supervisor. “So we’ll probably end up working together on one of these projects they’ve been talking about.”

“You’re happy and nice, and I don’t like people,” I say.

“You heading out for the day?” she asks.

“I don’t have any more words,” I say.
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