Posts tagged writing
Posts tagged writing
The canvassers stood rooted, facing each other on the sidewalk, male and female, identical blue t-shirts and clipboards. They were expressionless and silent and inert in the bright sunshine. No one else nearby but me, approaching the girl from behind as she mirrored her partner. I passed through the invisible membrane of their linked awareness and his stance solidified, noticeably but immeasurably, signaling to his partner that I had been sensorially acquired. Now I felt myself funneled toward him, even if I tacked left or right to avoid his immediate receptive space I knew my spine would involuntarily torsionate in sympathy to his inevitable locus. So I did not resist and walked straight, barely deviating to bypass his female partner’s left shoulder, mechanically correcting my path once circumnavigated so he was dead ahead once more. Thoroughly enmeshed in their bipolar envelope, a supercompressed interval ensued between transiting the female and the verbal acknowledgement of the male. We all knew, of course, that I saw them, and knew them, just as they saw me and knew me. But there was a pattern and a procedure to be incanted here, a pantomime of semiformal medieval hail, as if I was not seven feet away but half a league, an indistinct figure on the heather to be treated with genteel though insistent vocal regard. Rather than a simple salutation there would be a high wave, an expansive gesture, a theatrical and florid opening of expression, as if my attention flittered airily yet readily for his collection, when instead it lay imprisoned behind the stony indifference of an experienced pedestrian. But before that happened, this interval, as he readied his greeting and I readied the usual sublingual and negatory rejoinder to be muttered as I brushed by and away, and in this period discernible time expanded infinitely in all directions, and I was suddenly consumed with the conviction that if I simply stopped, ceased, took no further steps and said and did nothing, the pattern would freeze, seize up, and stroke out like a denatured engine. The canvasser’s greeting could never come and he and his partner behind me and even myself might collectively experience the first true surprise of destiny ever in our entire lives, and I would never move again and they would never speak, and the three of us would vanish from existence and live forever.
This Baudrillard quote reminds me of an incident from the darkest time of my early twennies, going to a sci-fi convention in Atlanta at the now-demolished Castlegate Hotel. Forget the convention part, I was there to get drunk and crunk with nerd girls (note: crunk had not been scientifically described by white people yet but we knew what we wanted). Anyways the Castlegate was already closing down, in fact I think that convention was meant to be its final throwdown pre-shuttering. As I recall the hotel was pentagon-shaped, hallways running down each side, but there was one face of the pentagon that had a hall of rooms a level above the rest, so it was hard to access. In fact we didn’t even know it was there till a friend and I discovered in our drunken wanderings an elevator with an extra top floor. So we went up there. It was just another hallway of closed hotel rooms, except … about midway down the hall there was an open door, with a man lying on his back on the threshhold. He has half-in/half-out, with his head and spread-eagled arms on the floor outside the room. Not moving. Flicking light and a blast of very loud static from the room indicated there was a detuned TV inside. We crept up to the guy. He was breathing, maybe asleep, didn’t seem distressed or contused or gut-shot. A middle-aged dude, in a rumpled suit, not likely part of the convention crowd. There was no one else in the room, nor any luggage. Except for the guy on the floor and the TV it appeared vacant and untouched. Eventually we continued down the hall, thoroughly creeped out. Went down a floor looking for someone to alert. At the next floor down we glimpsed somebody in a hotel shirt-and-vest uniform walking past at the other end of the hall. We called to him, hey, there’s a guy passed out upstairs, or something like that? This hotel-looking person paused and looked back at us for a few seconds, not responding, then slipped around the corner and disappeared. So then we took the elevator all the way back to the common areas and stayed around other people for the rest of the night, except when my friend and I got in a mock argument with another drunk friend and rolled him up in a carpet and stashed him on the elevator to the sinister floor, hitting the sinister floor’s button and abandoning him. He showed up about four hours later, still drunk, seemed fine, had no memory of anything recent.
The poet Jack Gilbert has died at 87. I have not seriously engaged with poetry in many years, but the best I ever did in that department was as a student of Jack’s. He was very good to me as a teacher despite the fact that I nearly killed him.
I was in grad school at Eastern Washington University in 1996 when Gilbert’s book The Great Fires came out. As a student of fiction, I was required to take at least one studio class in something other than fiction. I heard a famous poet was coming for the term, so I signed up for his class. Gilbert had nothing more to prove to anyone at that point in his life and career, so he did things his way and took no shit — despite being relentlessly generous with his time and intellect. Mostly. One of my favorite stories from that class took place after a reading of a student’s sex poem, which was decent enough; the poem had a section about rolling around in the woods with one’s lover, resulting in scratches on bare skin.
Another student, a humorless and pretentious artiste, launched into a reaction that was typically wrong-headed — she spoke at tedious length how the lovers were hurting nature by rolling around in it with their sexing, and nature was striking back at them with the scratching. I had been in several classes with this person already (she was also in fiction, alas), so I tuned out. Gilbert, for his part, listened attentively; one assumed he would gently redirect the point-missing tirade to ideas more helpful to the poet, while providing constructive critique of the criticism. That’s the way this scenario usually plays out in a university writing workshop. Instead, when the artiste had finally run out of steam, he fixed her with a baleful eye and stayed quiet for several beats.
"You," he finally declared, "are a freak."
And he moved on to the next poem. It was masterful. If you’ve never read Gilbert’s work and you are into poetry, his Collected Poems came out recently, so get that. Read this from the LAT about his last days.
As for how I almost killed him, I was giving Jack and some other grad students rides home after a workshop (these ran 7-10pm). It was a snowed-over night in Spokane, WA, but my little Chevy Cavalier had decent snow tires. Jack was the last person left in the car, in the back right-hand seat, so it was a little weird to chaffeur him around in that configuration. When we came to the grand subdivided house where his faculty apartment was, he told me to stop before the driveway because the snow was too deep there. So I pulled over to the curb.
Jack worked the door handle but it wouldn’t open. I had clipped the bumper on a delivery truck a couple weeks prior and dented that door, and now it stuck occasionally. I hopped out so I could come around and open the door for him, which I think he took amiss as a judgment about his manly competence (he was still a spry 70 or so then). So he began yanking the inside handle and throwing his shoulder into it. As I came around the fender I realized I had actually parked at the top of the slope above the banks of the frigid Spokane River, roaring in the gorge below. And that’s when Gilbert threw his full weight into the door and popped out of the car, his momentum carrying him out and hopping foot to foot in the snow, teetering on the edge of the slope.
Fortunately this did not turn into a Coen Brothers movie of wintry death, cover-ups, and grisly comeuppance. Instead, Jack regained his balance, laughed, and clomped off across the snow to his apartment. See you later, Jack. Here’s one of my favorite poems of his.
The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
Get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.
I have the usual complement of dream themes: danger, tedium, anxiety, repose, adventure, wish fulfillment, wish denial. But there’s one very specific genre of dream that I have … well, for all I know I have it all the time, but I only remember it about every six months, when I wake up in the middle and think about its plot, which makes me recall it fully on fully waking. And I don’t really know anyone else who dreams like this.
These dreams detail my involvement with or opposition to a conspiracy, or a tangled conspiratorial plot. Sometimes there are multiple conspiracies. One of the most vivid years ago cast me as part of an armed gang of paramilitaries assaulting a riverside restaurant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We had all been psychologically conditioned not to know anything but the next step in our plan; when we achieved an objective, we suddenly remembered the subsequent step. (This was a pretty neat trick of my subconscious, giving it versimilitudinous cover for making it up as we went along.) After we took over the restaurant and imprisoned the patrons and staff, some of us abruptly donned scuba gear and swam out to assault a passing luxury riverboat. Left back in the restaurant on guard duty, I remembered with satisfaction that the passing boat contained then-Vice President Al Gore, and we were going to kidnap him.
Last night I had one of these dreams for the first time in a long while. I believe it was partially influenced by Harry Potter mania but obviously ended up in a very different place. I lived in a world where magic operated in a very mechanistic way — used for power sources and machinery and personal convenience as opposed to spectacle — but there was still opportunity for magical deviltry. There was in fact an enormously powerful magical guy who was on the brink of achieving a horrific level of power and killing off a lot of people. Maybe all the people. He wasn’t a Voldemort type interested in taking over; he was more bestial and murderous.
Anyways, it was decided he could not be practically stopped because his only vulnerability required using a piece of his own body in a counter-weapon. But nobody was strong enough to chop off a piece of him. He was just too badass. But a way was discovered — a SCIENTIFIC way — to send an individual to an alternate world where maybe the bad guy wasn’t a badass, get a piece of him, and come back to defeat him. This scientific way involved (in awakened retrospect) a hilarious amalgam of sci-fi cliches. I had to activate a series of devices installed into a compact car, then do some stuff on a laptop while inside the car, and adjust a bunch of controls on a harness I always wore. Feels like elements of Back to the Future, Stargate, and some comic books in there. Problem was, this process took about fifteen minutes to complete, and starting it caused havoc in the local universe… stuff catching fire and exploding outside the car, gravity reversing, tsunamis appearing from nowhere. So I had to race through the whole SCIENCE without making a mistake and before external conditions destroyed my supercar.
After several tense jumps to different universes, I kept running into the bad guy, but he was still too powerful to take down. But then I jumped into a world where there was no magic! Perfect! And whoa, the bad guy version in this timeline was actually female, friendly, and attractive! We hit it off immediately and I felt very conflicted about trying to chop off a piece of her. But this conflict was rendered academic when it turned out the woman was a super-scientist and just as evil as her other versions! She figured out and duplicated my universe-jumping technology and planned to use it to become super-powerful! So now I’m fleeing through more universes fighting off magical badass guys while being pursued by scientific badass woman. I ended up in a universe where success seemed dimly possible because the local evil badass was not super powerful yet. But it turned out this was because, in this universe, he was only eight years old. Was I cold-blooded enough to chop a piece off an eight-year-old boy? We’ll never know, because I woke up, and wrote this post. I’m thinking a pilot on FX maybe? Spike?
Girl you should eat those gummi bears when you want to. Yes it may seem awkward when I get on the elevator you were formerly riding alone, eating those gummi bears out of a noisy cellophane packet. And girl I could tell you got all self-conscious about the crinkling of that packet in the otherwise silent elevator we now shared on the way to the street, because you paused in your eating. And though I do appreciate that respectful consideration, and though I do personally consider gummi bears straight up disgusting as food — girl, you got nothing to be ashamed of. I felt nothing but compaasion for you as we left the elevator and walked the same direction down the block, walking almost the same pace so we’re nearly shoulder to shoulder, so casual, and still you are conflicted about tearing into those gummi bears you so clearly desire. Do it girl. No one can tell you it’s wrong but you.
Today at 23rd Street & 9th Ave, heavy traffic required a cop to direct it. He was an older wiry guy with silver sunglasses and a fine bristle of gray moustache. He waved columns of cars hither and yon with his white-gloved hands, expressionless, and happened to be just ahead of my stopped cab as the last few cars trickled through the intersection before the light turned red. The cop did an about-face just as a delivery truck rumbled past his back, and thus now right past his nose. He didn’t recoil, just stood there placidly letting the truck go by. But before it did, he daintily extended one white-gloved finger, letting his fingertip trail across the side panel of the truck. When the truck was fully past, he looked at his fingertip closely, as if inspecting it for dust. Then he rubbed his fingers together to dispel the (imaginary?) grime, shaking his head in tiny disapproving nods, like he was tut-tutting about the shabby hygiene of delivery trucks in this day and age. Then he went on his way. Though it seemed such a tiny moment, and only for his own private amusement, the cop was performing this bit of stage business in front of a line of halted cars which had nothing else to do but idly observe him, and I think he was very aware of it. I bet he does that routine a dozen times per shift.
Some people in my family were killed more than ten years ago by a tornado in Alabama, and some survived. Those who died, died bad, and the repercussions resonated through three families and several generations of those families. That tragedy will continue to have consequences for the direct and indirect survivors well beyond my experience, and the particular, personal details of that story are not mine to tell. Cathartic as it might be for me, I don’t believe you get to own everything you encounter.
There are some things I can talk about. Growing up in the south gives you a fascination with tornadoes. They are evil in intent and mythic in scale, fickle beasts, revered and feared in an almost spiritual way. As kids, before you really know the destruction they cause, and if you are lucky enough to never really live through one, tornado warnings are exciting. We would huddle in the hallways in school, not-so-secretly thrilled about the electric suspense we imagined in the air. In almost all cases nothing came of it. A lot of time, resources, and attention are spent warning people in the south about severe weather in general and tornadoes in particular. Watching weather reports, interpreting weather radar — these are regional obsessions when a storm is lurking.
In that storm a decade ago, I was in Birmingham while it passed north. I remember looking out my window in that direction at the line of clouds in the distance, and even though I couldn’t see any funnels, there was a distinctive, disturbing characteristic of colossally severe weather: purple clouds. Not just some kind of very dark blue, but incandescent purple. Electric.
After, I went out with family and friends to deal with some of the damage, in a rural area. That tornado was a jumper. Unlike the massive, linear tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa, this tornado was erratic, changing direction and lifting back up into the sky, and coming down again like a hammer. It would tear through a stretch of woods or along a road, then jump, and re-descend a couple miles away.
I’m not sure that mattered much when it came to people escaping. Many had no idea a storm was coming. For some who did, it made no difference. One report I remember from the aftermath news came from a man in a very small town that was mostly erased by the tornado. He told the paper how his neighbor, an elderly man living alone, was always paranoid about tornadoes. The old man was partly disabled, so the neighbor would check on him whenever there was a storm. He did this as the tornado approached the town; the old man was terrified, inconsolable. When it became obvious that a real tornado was coming, the neighbor realized he had to get back to his house to see to his own family. He tried to bring the old man, but he wouldn’t come. Finally the neighbor got the old man into a closet for some protection. Even though he wouldn’t leave, the old man pleaded with the neighbor to stay. But the neighbor had to go. The tornado came and spared the neighbor’s house, but the old man’s was reduced to kindling, scraped down to the bare foundations. The old man was dead. The thing that frightened him most in the world had killed him.
Tornado winds are strong beyond anything we imagine air to be capable of. The Fujita Scale (and the newer Enhanced Fujita Scale) are levels that at first glance are based on increasing wind speed. But that’s just a guess — a symptom. The Fujita Scale is a scale of damage, a measure of destruction after the fact, with the wind speed just what we imagine might have done the destroying. Tornadoes at the F4 level and up are strong enough to peel pavement off highways. But it’s almost academic trying to classify tornadoes after a certain point, because the destruction is so total that it’s very hard to tell if, say, that car was just flipped over and crushed, or flipped over and thrown into a building, then thrown somewhere else. Try filling up a garbage bag with wineglasses and throwing it across the room, then dumping them out. Would someone who saw the broken glasses know if they’d been thrown, or just dropped on the floor? Or stepped on?
At those high levels of strength, you may not survive a tornado even if you’re not picked up or crushed, because everything becomes a bullet. The cliche of straws being punched through trees is not a joke. The winds drive walls of shrapnel as deadly as any IED. When I was cleaning up after that tornado, I saw a half-smashed cinderblock building with lots of irregular, broken bricks along one face. But they weren’t bricks — they were car batteries embedded in the wall.
It’s hard to wrap your head around storms like this because there is so little we can do about them. There is no such thing as a tornado-proof building, at least not aboveground. I think that’s why tornadoes are so strong and scary, psychologically. We’ve learned all we’re ever going to learn about surviving them. And for those who don’t survive, it wasn’t enough and never will be.
As a subway cruises down the underspine of Manhattan there are times when the doors open to starboard or the doors open to port, depending on the orientation of the receiving station. During heavy commutes this causes chaos among those of us, like myself, who generally prefer to stand with back to the closed doors, to minimize jockeying and disarray from the influx. (I rarely sit on the subway. I sit all day at work, I don’t need to sit more.) When thus engaged you need to be a considerate person and step off the train, momentarily, when the doors open behind you, to allow egress for others. And you should also, upon re-entering, proceed elsewhere in the car in order to clear the entry for ingress, rather than lingering by the door to preserve your tactical position, like a dick.
I get all that. But on the 7th Ave line you have a particular set of circumstances as the train, going downtown, passes through Times Square and then Penn Station, both heavily trafficked. A great many people tend to board at Times Square and immediately deboard at Penn Station to catch another train. Which means they come in one side of the train and exit the other at the next stop.
If it’s a heavy traffic day, the choreography I discussed above prevails, and all are grudgingly satisfied as long as the social contract is maintained. But sometimes, when a subway car is relatively underpopulated, some commuters making the Times Square + Penn Station connect will still behave as if they’re in a crush of people, or that they must, must be absolutely sure they get as close to the Penn Station exit door as possible, even though there’s no one in their way.
Except me. Because I, boarding uptown, will already be on the train at Times Square. Knowing the doors are about to open at Times Square, I will position myself as is my wont, with my back against the opposite door. And yet even when the car is barely full, certain commuters at Times Square will charge aboard and race up to me, planting themselves, practically nose to nose, because they are anticipating the doors behind me opening at the next stop.
Now I have no problem at all getting out of the way of such people. This is obviously their coping mechanism and I respect that. (Remember, I’m only up against these doors to avoid being an obstacle in the first place.) But their eagerness to get near these doors, even when there’s hardly anyone else around, puts both of is in an unusual personal proximity, face to face, when there’s no one else near enough to make this a requirement. In most cases I would barely have to lean forward to commence an episode of intense and mutually oral contact, assuming they did not recoil.
This territorial display is anxious for both of us. The other commuter is worried I’m not going to get out of the way, or worse, don’t realize that the doors behind me will open at Penn Station. I just want to accommodate the other commuter’s needs but all the methods I’ve tried seem to be interpreted as rudeness. Just brushing past makes it look like I’m repulsed by the other commuter’s person; saying “excuse me” to make the person step aside so I can get out of their way always seems, somehow, impertinent. I even once just said “Hey, how’s it going” when inadvertent (and very intimate) eye contact was made, a foray met with silence and a cold, reptilian staredown. Never has the distance from Times Square to Penn Station seemed so interminable.
Today a gentleman performed this maneuver with the new wrinkle that he was extremely tall — had to be 6’8”. At 6’1” it’s always weird to have a dude tower over me like that, especially in the claustrophobia of the subway. And given his nearness, and his generally kindly look, I though I could just maybe lean my head onto his substantial shoulder and lightly put my arms around him, pat his back reassuringly. He had a big soft fleecy pullover on, dark blue. It would have been comfortable, and we could have passed the time pleasantly. Then when we arrived at Penn Station I could simply pivot in a waltz and release him on his way, no harm done. But I’m not sure if this solution is for everyone, so attempt at your own risk.
I still don’t buy into the anti-St. Patrick’s Day drinking thing, because I just don’t see why it should ever be wrong to drink, really. However I was reminded recently of when I used to live on the UES adjacent to Brady’s which is a sad but acceptable old man bar most of the year, but on St. Patrick’s Day gets filled up with firemen drinking in uniform. This has a pro-alcohol ripple (or Ripple) effect on the immediate environs, I guess because drunk Irish firemen are as close as we’ll ever get to seeing a real live leprechaun, so other drinkers are drawn to surrounding bars by instinct. At about 3pm I glanced out my window to see two non-firemen fratboys staggering down the street. Woooooo, said one. Woooooo, affirmed the other. WOOOOOOO, returned the first, and he continued, WOOOOOuurrrgghghk! as he bent double and projectile vomited all over the pavement, calling to mind, appropriately enough, a firehose of puke. Despite his state the non-puker managed to dance out of the way of the spray, but he just double pointed jubilantly at his companion, howling WOOOOO WOOOO WOOOOO until he was out of breath. Spent, bowed, head down, the puker very very slowly rose to his feet, and slowly, slowly raised both hands high, then abruptly threw his head back and yawped a triumphant WOOOOOOOO! I mean, I hate those guys, but God bless ‘em.
A beating death leads to teenagers.
The men undergo a body shave; two are eliminated.
A man has 24 hours to find his kidnapped son.
African prince and royal sidekick come to Queens.
The city becomes a glittering wonderland for dreams.
The hunting and survival methods of the polar bear.
Charlotte; brooch; chest of drawers.
Fifty million people are plunged into total darkness.
Proposing; skydiving; flooded street.
A man seeks revenge against a bully.
A female party-goer claims self-defense after killing her attacker.
Un complot de intriga y secretos oscuros.
A herpetologist helps a detective track her flushed-away pet, now a king-size mutant called Ramone.
An escaped convict evades the police and a hit man who thinks he is someone else.
Yucatan lime soup; seviche; chicken; chocolate-banana desserts.
The bride wears stripes; the flower girls wear gorilla suits.
Groom’s sister thinks the bride is a killer.
New Yorkers look into a neighbor’s death.
A seductress blackmails a married salesman.
Detective exits coma, enters murder mystery.
A private eye cannot seem to get away from a gambler and his no-good girlfriend.
Adam’s disturbed friend abandons his family.
Behind the scenes; animals in rehearsal.
Deaths caused by spontaneous combustion.
The most notorious weather events in recent years.
A busy man’s wife has their porch renovated.
The weatherman tells of his gastric bypass surgery.
New Jersey Cardinals at Staten Island Yankees.
Pyramids of Egypt.
Latest news and action from the world of golf.
Adrenaline pumping sports.
A couple needs help with a large basement.
A boor causes trouble during Hanukkah.
Un hombre intenta vengarse de un asesino.
We’re so into each other and I just want to tease him a little bit. It’ll be hot.
Wonderful. Your naked pictures will end up on the internet.
Hah, no they won’t, he wouldn’t do that.
Yes, he would, and he will. Or someone else will.
In fact, it’s mandatory. Your naked body will be on the internet.
No, he’ll be the only one who sees them.
They will be on the internet.
He wouldn’t do that.
He will. He will show those photos to his friends. Or even send them. Maybe he’ll be drunk, who knows?
He wouldn’t do that.
He will. Maybe after you break up.
We’re not breaking up!
Then before you break up, or during. You will be nude on the internet. It is guaranteed to happen. Instantly.
I don’t think so. I don’t believe you.
The internet doesn’t care about your thoughts or beliefs. It just wants your nakedness, and the internet shall have your nakedness all over it.
How do you know?
Look on the internet. See all the millions of pictures of naked girls making sexy camera poses. Many posted these photos themselves. Many did not. The internet does not care, it takes them all. Even if just some small percentage of those girls did not want their pictures posted, think about about how many millions of naked photos there are online, and how many millions and billions of fapping pageviews those photos have generated. Try to imagine the exact facial expression on every single masturbating man on the internet, at the moment of orgasm, while squinting at your naked body on the internet.
Maybe I won’t send the sexy pictures.
Too late. You are already naked on the internet.
I didn’t even take the pictures yet.
Still too late.
Because when I was a kid, during very rare Alabama snowstorms or hard freezes that knocked out the power, the family would all condense into the living room around the fireplace. My mom would make “army soup,” i.e. a cauldron of all material that was due to spoil from the freezer/fridge. It was a delectable goulash of formerly frozen vegetables and whatever meats and other stuff we had at the time. After sundown, all we had were candles or flashlights, so you could read for a bit, shoot the breeze with the fam, but mostly you just kept ladling out this soup and noshing on it, getting more and more turgid and sleepy with food, till you nodded off about 9pm latest. Then if you woke up and it was getting chilly, you’d put some wood on the fire, and check the soup pot. Still warm? Why not have a couple more spoonfuls …
Also, we had an ancient woodpile that we rarely used much due to the infrequent need for a fire. Some of the logs had been in there ten years. Unbeknownst to us, one such massive piece of tinder hosted a colony of stag beetles inside its core. When it burned, the beetles all came staggering out, on fire, making a tiny high-pitched squeaking noise as they wandered around in the fireplace. I think it was the sound of their insides cooking. My folks and I shrieked half in horror and half in delight as we swatted the burning beetles back into the fireplace so they wouldn’t incinerate the carpet. Didn’t smell too good I have to say. Kind of put me off the army soup in fact, but only for awhile.
On New Year’s Day 2010, three o’clock in the afternoon, I was running down Tenth Avenue in freezing cold wearing only a t-shirt and jeans, untied sneakers, no socks, my year-old son Nate wrapped in a blanket in my arms, his head thrown back and eyes fixed sightlessly on the sky as he spasmed and seized uncontrollably, his spine arched, arms flopping, lips turning blue. The Roosevelt hospital emergency room is three blocks from our apartment, but it felt like running through waist-high swampwater. I couldn’t sprint full speed because that would risk god knows what neck injuries to the baby. So I ran in this crabbed, tormenting, half-restrained forced march-jog. It took forever, and my muscles cramped from the stress and panic which also squeezed breath out of my lungs. I was slowed even more by glancing down at Nate’s face, trying not to notice his shocked eyes staring up at nothing, checking to make sure he wasn’t choking or throwing up. “Stay with me, stay with me, stay with me, baby, stay with me,” a toneless litany I couldn’t stop chanting as I ran.
I charged into the ER, crashed through the security doors. I shouted about a baby with seizures and a clutch of nurses sprang up, directed me to the “resuscitation room.” We tumbled into a double-sized triage space with a stretcher surrounded by respirators and tanks and pneumatic apparatus. I laid Nate down on the stretcher and backed up as a wave of medics encircled him. I stepped back further and doubled over, gasping, coughing, hyperventilating so loudly that another wave of nurses coming in thought I was the afflicted — they took hold and started leading me toward a gurney. I waved them off, they saw Nate, and they went to help.
After about fifteen minutes of oxygen and rubbing and other medical ministrations, Nate stabilized and began to come back to himself. He cried weakly, then with more gusto, then struggled a little on the table. His color flushed into pink, he reacted to sight and sound, and to all intents and purposes was just loudly emotionally distressed. Still, when you have this kind of experience, the recommendation is to check under the hood for root causes like meningitis and other deadly codes. So I held my son’s arms while a surgeon inserted a probe into his spine to draw out fluid for testing. Nate jerked and tensed, then screamed, then ratcheted down to miserable, exhausted crying a few seconds later when the probe was withdrawn.
Nate had to stay in the hospital while the spinal test ran. His potential for an infection, however slight, meant he was isolated in his own room. Hospital cribs for crawling babies are basically metal cages raised up to waist level that can be opened or locked from any side, including the top. Very similar to what you see at cat and dog adoption events, really. Nate had to wear a splint on one arm to keep the IV leads in; he hadn’t started walking yet, and the splint meant he couldn’t crawl very well in his crib-cage. We still have the set of pajamas he wore, with the right arm cut off to allow for the splint.
He was pretty good for a kid stuck in the hospital. Mostly Nate was bored and tired, as were his parents. About nine o’clock on the first night there was a knock at the door: a middle-aged man and a group of a dozen kids. In halting English the man said this was a class who came to the hospital to give presents to sick babies. I said that’s very nice. The man looked at me expectantly while I looked at him and the kids. A girl of about eight came forward with a wrapped green package the size of a lemon. I reached out to take it, but she withdrew from my grasp, laughing uncertainly. The man said no, sorry, she would like to give it to the baby, ok? I was so mentally crashed that I just accepted this. No idea who these people were, why they were freely making the rounds in what I thought was supposed to be a quarantine ward, but sure, why not. The little girl crept into the room and gave Nate the package through the bars. He smiled and held onto it until they left, then dropped it out of his crib. I opened it up and inside was a puffy little toy like you’d get in a gumball machine. Some multicolored bug-eyed fuzzy monster-alien-rabbit with giant feet. It’s still sitting on his bookshelf among his toys.
For the two nights Nate spent in the hospital, only one parent was allowed to stay with him. So my wife remained and I went home. That first night, I was so very weary and spent, but I felt a spacey optimism. Everything was going to be fine. The doctors were very reassuring, they were just being thorough. We’d had quite a time, but it was amazing how many people told me they or their family members had also had febrile seizures as babies. Really common actually. Terrible to see but usually harmless. Not a great way to start the new year but the worst was over. I’d come through it and done all right, considering.
As I walked alone down the hall to our apartment, I glanced up at a light fixture next to our door. This mundane piece of hardware is nothing special, just a fake brass plate, two little candle-bulbs under a small yellow shade, probably fourteen bucks all in. I don’t know why, but seeing this familiar object broke me in half. Next thing I knew I was leaning against the door, without strength or thought, my keys dropping from nerveless fingers. I felt like my heart had been knocked out by a rock thrown into me with great force, and the rock was expanding, turning me numb. If it was an attack it was the opposite of panic, because I didn’t feel frantic at all. Instead I felt like I was being inexorably crushed from the inside out, and the feeling was so strange and impossible that I didn’t even understand it as something to fear or as anything that could be escaped.
But abruptly it vanished and I untensed, not sliding down the door or other dramatic maneuver, but it was like my whole body had been spun one turn toward release, unlocking in the process. I shook my head to clear it and bent to pick up my keys. I went inside and made myself a very strong drink, stared out the window and drank it, washed up and went to bed. Every normal act seemed outlandish for its normalcy, though that seeming was already receding, even before I slept that night. Nate came home after two days, and it was only a few days later that he started walking. What had hit me outside the door in the hallway wasn’t anything as easily concrete as relief or grief or the realization of parental vulnerability. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to articulate what that meant, but I think the message was: pay attention now.
A: So my scandalous and illegitimate girlfriend is coming to town.
B: Why is she scandalous?
A: Well, she’s married.
B: Oh, okay.
A: I’m not really “known about” on her side of the equation yet.
B: Then that means you’re the scandalous and illegitimate one.
B: Is she still with her husband?
A: Yeah, but they’re separating.
B: Separating, not separated.
A: No, they still live together. But he knows.
B: He knows about you?
A: Yeah, he knows my name. He’s dropping her off at the train station actually.
B: Wow. That’s not scandalous, it’s just really awkward.
A: Yeah. (mournfully) But I don’t think he likes me.