How To

When you age, every day brings indications that you are no longer young. Among the most recent of mine was the announcement that I am to be a grandfather.

After I adjusted to the surprise and remembered advice from one older than myself that it is far more fun to be a grandpop than a sleep-deprived, diaper fuddling, spoon feeding parent, a how-to-be-a-grandfather book from our son’s in-laws arrived at my birthday celebration. The birthday was a significant number; the book, more so.

I tend to be an impulsive person, more trusting of my ability to adapt creatively to a situation, than one who researches a problem and plans a response. The disadvantage of this tendency is that endeavors begin with mistakes, faux pas, awkward pauses and a rare but occasional pratfall that will dependably enrage those among the research and planning species.

That, and, for portion of my journalistic career, I wrote how-to articles on a variety of subjects whose intention wasn’t so much to show people how to do something as to create a need that would send them to the publication’s advertisers. I told eager readers how to upgrade their kitchens and bathrooms, buy a luxury vehicle, score well on college admissions tests and get into college (legally), and gamble in a casino. I reached a career peak when I wrote an exhaustive piece about buying a house. This article almost won an award, and I felt quite happy about it until I bought my first house. I was not prepared for the humiliation, frustration, mortgage lender bait-and-switch tactics and other travails, none of which I mentioned in my well researched and carefully planned how-to article.

I have asked myself often if I should open this grandpop how-to, turn a few pages, smile at the breezy generalizations, cautionary warnings and numerous promises of righteous effort leading to certain success. Every how-to writer employs these tropes, not because they are the actual way things happen, but because they organize the information and make a pleasant reading experience.

What stops me from opening the book is another element of grand parenting: the willful, occasionally charming but ultimately peculiar indulgence in superstition. Though my grandparents indulged me, spoiled me and, most importantly, showed me that there was far more to life than not doing things that annoyed my parents, they would become sharp and prickly about bad luck, evil eyes, the colors of clothes, the effect Saturday morning TV cartoons may have on my ability to get into a decent college, and whether or not I should sleep next to an open window on chilly nights. I learned that the path to good intentions had strange detours. One could jinx an outcome by speaking of it, or buying things like baby clothing and nursery furniture before a baby is born. Even the position of a crib could have consequence.

Having entered the ranks of the older and wiser, I know where these superstitious responses come from. Among the many things the years teach you is that, no matter how confident you are in your ability to improvise, no matter how much you research and plan, unreasonable things happen far more often than you’d like. As much as we pray our effort will result in the fortunate, serendipitous or just plain lucky, we become even more fearful of the opposite, and worse.  We come to realize that life isn’t about getting and spending, achieving a “level of success,” doing the right thing or even saving for a rainy day, but, rather, surviving the sucker punches, sideswipes and other stuff that you didn’t read about in how-to articles or self-help manuals.

It’s the fear that those odd, “folk” beliefs attempt to remedy. Despite centuries of rational, scientific endeavor, the ends and beginnings of life remain mysterious. Do we really chose the time, place and parents who will give us birth? Is there anything beyond that bright light that some near-death survivors glimpse before they are brought back to life?

Will scattering salt around an empty nursery, positioning the head of the bassinet toward the east and refraining from buying infant clothing until the birth, make any noticeable difference? Perhaps not, but we wish it would, and, as much as rationality has made this world, our irrational expectations, our hopes and dreams, our idle fantasies and active striving, seem to keep the world turning when everything else won’t.

So I’ll wait until the baby comes before I open the book.

 

 

 

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Antihabit

I read a Zen-flavored self-help book whose author advised me to watch what happens when I break a habit.

Habits, the author explained, are just one of a number of ways that we distract ourselves from the inexpressible, ineffable reality in which we all fit, whether we know it or not, like it or not, or are ready or not. Stop being habitual, I was told, and experience reality as it really is!

I made a list of my bad habits and immediately realized that making lists is another semi-automatic behavioral motif that kicks in when you don’t expect it.  In seconds, you have a ranked assortment of things you do that you’d rather not, for reasons that you can also list, from top to bottom, A to Z, alpha to omega, here to there and back again.

We have habits of the body. We scratch our heads when we want to show the world we’re thinking. We roll our eyes when we’re disgusted, annoyed, offended or merely contemptuous and we don’t want the world to know what we’re thinking. We do things our parents told us not to do: bite our nails, pick our noses, rub our hands together when we want to imitate a movie villain who is about to explain to Mr. Bond an evil plan that sounds a little bit like the previous villain’s evil plan, but not so much that we question whether the whole idea of making and seeing movie “franchises” based on wounded, socially misconstrued individuals with or without superpowers who never seem to make breakfast or take out the garbage but must, instead, choose between good or evil, might be a kind of habit we could do without.

We have habits when encountering other people, such as asking them how-they-are (“how you doon?” in New Jersey, where I was born and raised) when we really don’t want to know, but we feel a bit miffed if they don’t say, “Fine. How are you?”

And we have habits of the mind, nearly automatic reactions to what we read, see, hear, fear, smell, wish and absolutely will not put up with for another second! These are the infamous “buttons” that are pushed by other people, events or the Devil himself, and we eat a second donut, give the finger to the driver who cut us off, spend a half hour looking for something to watch on the streaming service and become so disgusted by all the junk the aggregator thought you like, buy a branded can of soup instead of the cheaper generic, tell the boss to perform a physically impossible stunt involving his head and one of his many unattractive bodily openings, or–worst of all– tell a joke and nobody laughs.

What about good habits? When I worked in restaurant kitchens, I was given a cloth dish rag with holes worn into it, and told to get in the habit of cleaning whenever I wasn’t washing, peeling, chopping, stirring, turning (one did not flip fried eggs, French toast or ground beef patties in this dining establishment, one turned them), panning (put things on a sheet pan), plating (arranging food on a plate so someone would want to eat it) and opening Number 10 cans of tomato sauce. After about a minute of wiping down counter tops and mopping up spills, the rag became so sodden with goo that…

Let’s say I didn’t get into that habit.

When I learned martial arts, my sensei showed how we all have habitual ways of attacking and defending. Deliver a few fakes, learn your opponent’s habits, wait for your opponent’s to begin his habitual reaching and then pop him where he isn’t expecting it.

What looked so easy for sensei was not easy for me, because I couldn’t get over my habitual aversion to physical violence of any kind. I had been a fat kid for most of my childhood and adolescence–an easy target for the bullying threats and insults. Though I wasn’t fat anymore (I could do 20 pull-ups!), I carried the fat kid’s fears with me and never quite shrugged them off.

One might argue that an aversion to violence in a society that supports the creation and distribution of violent franchise movies might transcend habit and become a survival skill. Not in karate class. I was more popped than not, and the aversion never left. To this day I prefer to end conflicts, with a goal of restoring peace, than popping my way to victory.

I know people who worked in retail clothing shops and have a habit of hanging and folding garments so they don’t crease. I put my wrinkle-free shirts and no-iron trousers in the closet and, a day later, they’re wrinkled! I was in the habit of assuming that reading, and adhering to those instructions printed on the labels would deliver the results I desired!

I have never been good at following instructions. I’m more of an intuitive improviser who aspires to learn from mistakes and get the “hang” of a new skill. This has worked with cooking. It hasn’t worked with driving a manual gear shift cars.

And it hasn’t worked with the habit that brings the most disappointment: I trust too much. When I can’t be intuitive, I tend to take people and institutions at their word. I expect them to be what they say they are.

When I’m squeezed into super-ultra economy airline seat, told I have to pay for everything I carry and consume except the air I breathe, and the cabin attendant recites that sing-song “on behalf of” speech that ends with me enjoying my flight, part of me trusts that some deep, inner essence within the collective hive-mind of the dynamic pricing algorithm fueled, nickle-‘n’-diming, profit-squeezing corporation running this airline that has turned the going from Point A to Point B into a series of slights, humiliations and cheap shots about how much money I didn’t spend for the upgrade–wants me to experience ineluctable bliss!

Well, I’m not THAT trusting. When people say, “trust me on this,” a warning light flashes in my brain. When any politician, from any political party, promises a tax cut, my taxes go up. When I call the help line, endure a half an hour of the obnoxiously unlistenable click-track music and am then told that my conversation “may” be recorded, I KNOW it’s recorded, and stored in that dank, virtual vault with every other thing I’ve ever done (and who knows what I’ve THOUGHT about doing but never did) waits to be exploited by an AI aggregator that wants me to put me in the habit of buying more stuff, especially the stuff that promises to never wear out, never grow old, never wrinkle, crease or becoming anything other than what it was when I bought it.

Maybe I should break the habit that makes me scan my clothes for wrinkles and odd spots that the washing machine didn’t remove. Instead of presuming my clothing should appear more-or-less new and unworn before I wear it, I should celebrate the wabi-sabi-ness of my wardrobe and let things age gracefully.

After all, wearing in, wearing out, wearing down–that happens to habits, too. After a while, we learn that something happens when we slow down and look closely at what is actually happening around us. You see things you never saw, that were always right in front of your face. Sometimes what you notice is disturbing, awful, terrifying–like death itself.

Other times, it can be so wonderful that–

you want to make a habit of it.

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We Need a Little Infinity

With my jacket zipped and buttoned, my muffler tight around my neck and my hat’s ear flaps pulled low enough to block the wind, my wife and I put our feet on the hard, wet sand and followed the path through over the dunes on to the beach. Our dog–also bundled in a coat and scarf, sniffed the cold briny air, paused and charged ahead.

The path opened out on to a broad, flat stretch of soggy brown sand that, if this had been summer, would have had a pale, almost golden hue.

But, according to the calendar, and the brutal March wind, winter had not left. Aside from some tire tracks, the beach was free of any sign of human contact. The tide had gone out. The water lapped gently near our shoes. My wife picked up some seashells for souvenirs.

The sunlight broke through the clouds and water suddenly glistened. I stared out at that line where the dark blue water meets the lighter gray of the sky. I saw none of the sails that would intrude in summer. No airplane buzzed overhead. I heard nothing but the sound of water racing up, and then retreating, from the land.

The landscape before me was not infinite, but it might as well be. I felt that humbling sense of awe that you get when you’re in the mountains or the desert on a clear night and see all those stars arrayed against the silvery jumble of the Milky Way. I imagine people feel the same way when they confront the Grand Canyon: you forget who you are, the long hours in the car checking the map and hoping you made the right turn, and all the stuff you left back home.

It’s all suddenly wonderful.

A few hours earlier, my wife looked out on to an overcast, drearily cold morning, and said she needed to stand on a beach and look at the ocean. I immediately understood why. We live in suburban sprawl, near an airport. Pull the shades away from the window, and you see the neighbors houses and people in cars and trucks, going places, doing things.

The neighborhood is well landscaped, with paved trails that dip into forested areas where the developers couldn’t build. When I walk our dog I hear airplanes zooming overhead, the rumble of pick-up trucks (our region is the capital of the luxury pick-up truck market), and a barking dog that a guy in a big house lets stay out on his deck for too long. Once my wife and I stood on our deck and saw the flare from an evening rocket launch on distant Wallops Island. I thought I could hear the rocket, too.

When I breathe in on a winter day I occasionally smell the aroma of logs burning in a fireplace. When the wind is coming from the north, I can catch the aroma of sizzling beef from the McDonalds about a quarter mile away. When the wind shifts, the fumes from the chicken fryers at the Royal Farms tumble by.  My dog pulls on the leash, then turns to me, her brown eyes begging: I’d really like a hamburger or some of that chicken. Follow me. The nose knows.

Most people who live here like it because the school system is good, crime is low, and you’re within a short drive of a dozen supermarkets, four Costcos, four Wal-Marts, four Targets, two Home Depots, three hospitals, ten gyms, a big mall where the anchor stores are closing, an outlet mall where smaller stores have already closed, a “town center” whose owner decided to charge for parking and thus reduced so much business that three major retail chains have left, ten movie theaters, and roads that will take you take you east to Washington, DC; north to Baltimore; south to Richmond and west to open areas where you can find wineries, farms, horse stables and other places that haven’t been torn down yet.

An extension of the Washington DC subway that was supposed to arrive four years ago is planned to open about two miles from where we live–soon. Until then, construction cranes tower above multi-story parking garages near the subway stops.

Our home owners association enforces covenants intended to make the place appear unchanging. But if you talk about changes, just about everyone has a story about how different things are since they moved here.  My wife remembers times when there were dirt roads, narrow highways and fewer traffic lights, more stars and planets visible at night. I recall large areas of open woodland that have been chopped down for houses, schools, shopping areas, office buildings and low, long, windowless buildings where something mysterious goes on that has to do with computers.

Don’t get me wrong: we live in an easily enjoyable sprawl. The property values remain high. We are thrilled when a highway improvement project finishes and we drive our cars over wide, multi-lane black asphalt with sharply painted lines where previously potholes and backed-up traffic slowed progress. There’s always something new opening up that’s worth a visit. We know two places that make pizza that is close to how it tasted when we were kids in New Jersey. When we shop, we have choices.

But sometimes, you want more than a choice. Or less. You want to touch the infinite, or what might as well be.

Ocean City, Maryland was the closest beach town with a decent pet-friendly hotel. The rate for an overnight stay was a fraction of what it would cost in the summer. We’d never been there. We booked a room, packed our bags, grabbed the dog, gassed up the car, and went. For me, it was like going home.

When you’re born and raised in New Jersey, the shore is “a different place entirely.” I’d As an journalist and novelist, I learned more about the 110 mile stretch of barrier islands than just about anywhere else.

Though the Jersey shore was an hour and fifteen-minute car ride away, my parents favored Europe, Canada and Miami Beach (Florida, not Miami Beach, NJ, on the Delaware Bay) for family vacations. One reason was that my father didn’t wasting time stuck in weekend shore traffic. He’d fuss and fume at a single traffic light in some small town on the one road down. But I remember a few magic moments.

Such as an overnight in an old Lakewood hotel followed by a morning getting grit all over my clothes on Bradley Beach. Or a day trip to Atlantic City, where I spent the money I earned mowing the lawn on Matchbox cars purchased at Rappaport’s, a toy shop located right off the Boardwalk in the lobby of the magnificent Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel. My father bought a bag of roasted peanuts for the ride back.

Or a trip to Cape May with my girlfriend (now my wife). The brightly painted American Victorian hotels and bed-and-breakfasts along Beach Drive became a dignified backdrop to an adventure that showed us that we traveled well together.

Or a nervous drive down the Atlantic City Expressway. Two casino hotels had just opened. I was to see shows at each, then drive back and write a review for a southern New Jersey newspaper.

The city that had once seemed filled with toys and the aroma of peanuts, arose against the night sky like a tumbled down ruin. Construction cranes sprouted from what had been the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, soon to become Bally’s Park Place Hotel and Casino. I found a place to park. I hadn’t brought enough money to afford a meal in any restaurant, but one casino had an oyster bar that sold an inexpensive bowl of turtle soup. I had the soup, saw the shows, came back, wrote the review and never wanted to go to Atlantic City again.

But I did a pretty good job on the review, and, unlike journalists other newspapers had sent, I had no urge to gamble. I found the gambling culture imported from Las Vegas repellent, obnoxious, cruel and crass. This, and the fact that every time I went to the city (and many more, after I lived near it), I stopped to look out at the ocean and feel that sense of wonder, made it possible for me to spend 25 years of my life writing about Atlantic City and the New Jersey shore.

The experience of looking at the ocean and feeling the tug of the infinite, is a reference point, a place to return to a sense of wonder that, for all its commonality, and universality, is exceedingly rare.

We all need a little bit of infinity in our lives. More than that, we must know when we need it, and permit ourselves the time, energy, and discounted room rate, to pursue it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Power Music

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, and when you hear it, you feel you can do anything.

Like most mystical experiences, the cause and effect are not related. We may not remember the music. We may forget how it feels. But, when the music finds us and, without effort or intention, the power fills us, a hopeless world shines with possibility.

1. I hadn’t planned on sitting in Bath Abbey and hearing an organ concert when I was sixteen and backpacking through Great Britain. My friend and I had wandered through the Pump Room, a sacred site for Jane Austen readers, and I wasn’t impressed because I had been forced to read Emma in high school and didn’t “get” it the way I thrilled to stories about space ships zooming through the future. I sipped some of the water that was sacred to the Romans and earlier folk. I got a mouthful of more water when we swam in an indoor pool.

The organ recital was something else to do. For a tourist on a limited budget, the interiors of religious buildings were usually free to explore (we didn’t see Westminster Abbey in London because of the admission fee). They also offered a change in atmosphere from the busy, sensory stimulation of the street.

Until someone cranks up the organ. I did not know any of the music played that night, but I felt the low notes reverberating in my gut and I GOT it. The organ music was a metaphor for the unseen divine spirit.  The organist took a bow at the beginning and the end of the recital, but, because I couldn’t see him performing, this wasn’t so much a concert as it was a feeling of the presence of the sacred.

I never forgot it (and, yes, dear reader, I “got” Jane Austen eventually).

2. I came back from a college class to the seedy off-campus house I shared with several conservatory-of-music students and followed the sounds of a beeping and bouncing into the room of a composition major. I sat down on a broken chair and smiled. No one can stop themselves from grinning when you hear Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air” for the first time.

About two-thirds of the way into the piece you hear an electric snake rattling its tail from one speaker to the next. The piece builds to a climax but continues for several more merry minutes.

If the creative power is the most important manifestation of the divine, then this music was God laughing, playing (without making a mess!) and having fun.

3. Dexter Gordon stood tall in the club and played his horn with a calmly assured magnificence.  As a music critic, I had plugged Gordon’s club date. One of the perks of the job is free admission to the event you plug. I had been told Gordon was a legend but what you read about a performer leaves too much out, until you attend the performance. I had no doubt: I was in the presence of greatness. When Gordon finished a tune, he held the saxophone high overhead, as if to say, when I have this, I have everything.

4. I was angry at Frank Zappa again. I grew up appreciating his wonderfully hilarious blend of brilliant musical complexity, grotesque humor and witty satire until this recording, where it seemed that the humor and satire fused into a nasty desire to offend.  The intricate sense of beauty I heard in his earlier work had been set aside for what the music industry calls novelty songs with implicitly obscene lyrics.

And then I heard the live recording on Zappa in New York of the Black Page 1 & 2, a percussion piece Zappa wrote for his drummer Terry Bozzio that is then put to a disco beat with melodies for the band. The tune is hard to follow when you hear it on the drums, but when the band comes in, you feel immediately how uproariously ingenious–and joyous–it is. This piece did not justify the disgusting, offensive stuff on that record, and subsequent recordings (even if it Zappa’s intention was to lampoon social hypocrisy, pretension, racial and ethnic stereotypes and the barely hidden perversions of those who claim to be holier than us), but it gleamed with the exuberance of a composer who was absolutely free (pun intended, Zappa fans) to write what he precisely what he wanted, with the assurance that it would be performed by musicians who respected him, recorded to his standards, packaged in accord with his wishes, and thereby preserved so many, many more may “get” it, and even enjoy it.

5. Pete Seeger singing simple songs with an honesty, warmth and intensity that made you believe that music could change the world, for the better.

The world has changed though the idealism that enthralled my generation died years ago.

But we still have those moments when music finds us, or, in the words of guitarist Robert Fripp, “takes us into its confidence,” and we feel a great rush that of a power that, if it isn’t purely divine, should be.

In music things are possible that are actually impossible.  –Alfred Brendel, pianist

 

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You Lucky Dog

Our dog is ill and I feel like a parent again.

We’ve been twice to veterinary physicians, and each time, I watched a kind, knowledgeable human being gently examine a living thing that is both more than, and not quite, our child.

Our dog is old enough to be middle-aged, but she can’t tell us how she feels or what might be wrong. We can only look at her eyes, watch her tremble, mop up the vomit, toss away the food she won’t eat, and pray that she doesn’t become any worse.

With both sons grown, educated, employed and debt-free, I never thought the disquieting, uneasy realization would return.

As my wife and I took turns holding her, we each revisited the truth that, no matter how many doctors you see, how many miracle drugs you have in your medicine cabinet, and how carefully and lovingly you’ve nurtured your child, all life is precious, fragile and prone to suffering for which there may be no identifiable cause, definitive explanation, or optimistic prognosis.

You hold this warm being that, just a few hours previously, seemed content, even happy, to be with you. You went on walks together. You stood patiently as she sniffed here and there. You held the leash and explained that we weren’t going to chase squirrels right now. When you saw another dog and heard no growls, you let them sniff each other. When she relieved herself, you picked up the solid matter with a special bag and put it in its special place and said to yourself that, despite the truly horrible stuff in your morning newspaper, the yammering “panel of experts” in your evening newscast, the vagaries of the stock market, how much you were charged to fix the car, and the predictably marvelous way tax cuts only make your taxes go up, all was right in your world.

I even joked about it. While other people bragged to us about fancy cruises, new kitchens, sons and daughters acquiring jobs, promotions, engagements and other rights of passage, I quietly told myself that today I had a nice walk with the dog. What could be better?

Now all that seems a wispy dream, a false innocence fashioned from a willingness to forget the fretful wisdom of parenthood.

I put the dog in her harness, carried her down the steps and placed her gently in one of her favorite sniffy places. She stood trembling, so weak she couldn’t move. I brought her back in, hoping that this was this a side effect of the medication the vet prescribed, or the illness’s nadir, after which her health and spirit would return so she could chase the squirrels off our deck and bark at neighborhood dogs that had the audacity to pass by.

She fell asleep and I didn’t hear her snore or flutter her paws as in her dreams. She does not move and her breath is shallow.

And I fret and worry, clinging to the discomforting fact that my wife and I have done everything right. We’ve been to two vets. Tests were taken, and two x-rays. We were giving medicine and showed how to administer it. We can only wait, knowing from experience that doing everything right is no protection against loss, illness, reversals and the bad luck that happens often enough so that it seems the only difference between a suffering dog and another running after a stick on an open field is–good luck.

And time, which doesn’t heal all wounds but can, occasionally, provide the space to make them go away.

Until we have to be lucky again.

 

 

 

 

 

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Printing Out

So you’re done and you hit the PRINT key.  The printer wakes up from hibernation and out comes your latest work of genius. You watch the paper roll out. You grope for metaphors–leaves falling in autumn, snow flakes in winter, you falling back on your bed, weary and purged and hoping to just let it all go when–

You see, in the middle of that paragraph you rewrote and revised and spellchecked–a mistake. A typo, a grammar flub, or, worse, a string of words that make you fall back in your chair with a butt-squishing thud and say, “I wrote that?”

Why is it that what we write on a screen looks so perfect until we print it out? Or, more accurately, why is it easier to see obvious flaws when we can hold our work in our hands?

A similar phenomenon occurs when you read the piece aloud. You not only learn that some things that happen on a page do not sound good when recited, but that you add, or subtract words as you read, as if your brain is going back to the moments of your original composition and improving on them.

Or not.

To what extent does the medium change the message? I won’t go so far as to invoke Marshall McLuhan’s famous book title “The Medium is the Message,” because, when media become most effective, we don’t feel as if we’re watching television or reading a newspaper–we’re immersed in the story almost as if it is more real than our current surroundings.

And yet television programs, as well as much of the “free” Internet, are punctuated meretricious, attention-grabbing advertisements that try to pull us away from our escapist pleasures and remind us that we are flawed, quietly despairing human beings who can only come to terms with our woeful inferiority by consuming this thing that will make us perfect, happy, healthy, functional, smiling, sensational! The message in that medium is that of aspirational consumption–we can be all we want to be if we keep acquiring stuff.

So what kind of product can I buy so that my polished, over-revised meticulously proof-read,  piece of writing flops out of the printer, I see only, merely and exclusively my piece, and not those sneaky little typos, flubs, and mistakes that anybody but me would fix?

Another writer I knew, who bragged to me about spending his summers living in cheap digs in Morocco, told me that all pious artists and craftspeople always include a flaw in their work because only God is perfect and to aspire to perfection is to blaspheme the Almighty.

So…in trying to rid my work of the errors that would, at least, distract from the story I want to tell (at worst, so disgust a reader as to make that reader toss my work aside), I am setting in motion a spiritual process that, if it doesn’t reveal booboos that I missed the first time, creates them for the second.

Now it has been said in other places, by other writers, that idealism–the relentless pursuit of perfect, flawless or drop-dead beautiful states of art, design, engineering or behavior–is just another path to perdition.

And yet, when we go on a job interview, appear in public or–in our outrage-fueled times–attain a degree of celebrity or notoriety, we don’t want spots on our clothing. The few guys left who still wear neckties want that knot to be a flawless inverted isosceles triangle, with the longer end in front of the shorter end, and no food stains or boogers on the fabric. This is doable, right?

Until we put on the tie, go to the job interview, or the party, or the event, do our thing, put up with the things other people are doing, and all goes well until we pass a mirror and we notice–

How did THAT get there?

Could this have something to do with philosophical idealism, which holds that there is stuff “out there” that we’ll never fully grasp or understand, but that by acknowledging this and striving to approach this stuff, we’ll comprehend reality better than we would if we depended on what we got from our senses?

Don’t know. My mother hated dirt. I have anxieties about spots on my clothing that I will never shake off. At a writers conference I heard a panel discussion in which editors and agents were snarking off about query letters and manuscripts they reject if they find more than a single error on the page. Such flubs, they claimed, indicated that the author was unprofessional, and, therefore, “not quite what we have in mind.”

I expect that one day science will rescue us, by doing a study that “proves” that errors in work are a better indication of all those character traits that make you a great partner, parent, employee and…writer of stuff worth reading, and those who pursue ideals of cleanliness, sartorial perfection and grammatical cool are precisely the kind who cannot deal with humiliation, embarrassment, chagrin and all those other intensely human emotions that never quite go away, but can leave the room, when you learn to love what you do.

 

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When Machines Cry

You can understand how I felt when, not long ago, I entered our small kitchen and heard an unusual tone. It was unlike any plaintive machine bleat I’d heard in that it wasn’t immediately irritating. It did not demand action, but, rather, attention.

I’m wary of such sounds, having had to put with car alarms that cry in the night, daytime or just about anytime we’d rather not hear them. Another car may have passed too close to the proximity detector, or the owner didn’t cut the alarm off before he opened a door. I once set off my car alarm from inside my house when pocket change depressed the panic button on the key.

Welcome to the era in which machines not merely cry, but inform us when they’re hungry (the intentionally annoying microshriek of a smoke alarm that wants a battery change), tell us where to go (GPS navigators, in a variety of dialects) and conduct humorlessly polite conversations as they provide us with music, turn our lights on and off, make a telephone call, order a pizza, tell us that someone is at the door and remind us of pending family birthdays and doctor appointments, all the while reporting back to some algorithmic overlord everything we have said and have had them do.

 

The tone I heard inside my house did not go away. It happened randomly, typically when I was in the kitchen. It wasn’t like other sounds I’d heard in the house. One of our toilets sings as it fills–don’t ask me how, or why. (Air in the pipes? Maybe.) The tune is oddly satisfying: it starts low and ends high, as if to say, just a friendly reminder of how grateful you should be that I’m ridding you of that which you want to disappear, and readying myself so that the next time you need me, I’ll be here!

Add to this sounds that originate outside the house. I hear the unearthly snarl of the motorized garage door opener, righteous, early-morning grumble of pick-up trucks (in our neighborhood, having a big pick-up truck earns you more curbside status than a luxury sedan or fancy sports car), the scrape of garbage cans dragged into position for the clunking, banging, devouring whine of the garbage truck, the patter of squirrels across the roof, the thunk of playing children colliding with the sides of unalarmed cars parked outside, the distant yowl of emergency sirens rushing to that one intersection that is so dangerous that you’d think something would have been done by now but no, and the glowing ambient chords from the wind chime we hung in the garden so long ago that we forget about it until the wind picks up.

But in the ten years this house has sheltered me, I have heard nothing like this sound. Like most people confronted with the inexplicable, I assumed that if I ignored it, it, too, would go away.

Until my wife heard it.

We considered all the machines in the house that could speak. The nearest was the smoke detector. We touched the TEST button and it immediately yelled at us–how dare we disturb its sleep but, now that we did, the battery was low and it was going to yell at us until we changed it.

We fumbled through the Strange Small Stuff drawer for a 9 volt battery. We found two. Both, according to our smoke detector, were insufficiently charged to meet its needs.

I was so annoyed at the damned thing that I disconnected it from the ceiling. It continued to beep. Worse than that, the beeps roused others from their beauty rest. Smoke detectors on the first and third floors began to shriek in sympathy. The machines scolded us: WE ARE NO LONGER SATISFIED WITH YOUR BATTERIES AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.

My wife and I have raised demanding children. We did not yell at the smoke detectors to shut up. We did not permit the slightest physical abuse. I went to the supermarket and spent too much money on batteries which, as everyone knows, are sold for full retail in January because in December every kid in the country has torn the wrapper off a toy that runs on batteries and, by the time the dreariest month comes around, he has drained the batteries that came with the toy.  Those battery makers know they have millions of perpetually panicking parents in their pocket, and they put on the squeeze.

I dutifully fed all my complaining smoke detectors and–the sound happened again. My wife went to the fireplace and adjusted the flue. We heard the sound again. We searched the kitchen for whatever device might have caused it, and found nothing. Could the sound have come from another room? A quick check of the room near the heater revealed that a carbon-monoxide detector was on the brink. We replaced the batteries and we still heard the sound. What did this mean? My wife went out and bought a new carbon-monoxide detector while I awaited the one heater repair guy with a carbon monoxide sniffer who was willing to make a same-day emergency visit.

The repair guy did not find any carbon monoxide, but a pipe leading to the hot water heater was letting a little bit of gas into the room. He tightened it. We thanked him and felt relieved. What if that leak had become leakier? One static electric spark from an acrylic sweater or a our polyester blend fleece jacket and ker-BOOM!

The heater guy left and I did the addition: $16 for new smoke alarm batteries, $40 for a new carbon monoxide detector, $199 for the emergency furnace inspection and…

We heard the sound again.

I turned to my wife with a where-have-we-failed expression that I never thought I’d wear again, considering that both children have graduated college, are free of student debt and have decent jobs. Eldest is married. Youngest is engaged.  We had searched the house, overspent on batteries and detectors, and even sought the assistance of a professional! What else could a concerned parent do?

The sound kept at us,  especially when we were in the kitchen, cooking, eating and cleaning up.

I have studied folk superstitions and confess to occasional acts of anthropomorphization. I even harbor a few irrational beliefs regarding the future and Why Bad Things Don’t Happen to People Who Deserve Them. Though we live less than 35 miles from Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood where novelist, screenwriter and Georgetown University alumnus William Peter Blatty set one of the most infamous horror novels (later made into five feature films and a TV series) of all time–I was not about to call the exorcist!

I resolved to endure the sound, live with it and ultimately ignore it until–

We were in the kitchen making dinner and I put my foot on a the lever that opened the lid of the stainless-steel-and-black-plastic euro style garbage can. I tossed in the skins from peeled onions (having learned NEVER to put onion skins down a garbage disposal) and took my foot off the lever. As the lid slowly closed it made a–

Sound.

I opened the lid again, removed my foot, and heard the sound again.

I brought my wife over. She’s a scientist who teaches. She believes in the scientific method and, like me, is impatient for the Twenty-First Century space-age awe and wonder promised by science fiction writers that NASA is no longer delivering.

I opened the lid and let it close. She told me to do it again. I did it again.

“Must be the hinge,” she decided.

I agreed. I opened the lid one more time and realized that this was more than two under lubricated surfaces creating a sympathetic vibration as they moved against each other.

This was not a crying machine demanding attention. It was something different, deeper, a cry from that very essence of the thing’s being.

Our garbage can, having heard the clarion call from the singing toilet, was talking to us, saying, you may not know me personally but I just want to remind you how appreciative you should be that I take in just about anything you put in me and keep your kitchen stink-free so you can savor all those fragrant fumes from that roasting chicken or the Bolognaise sauce whose onions you just peeled, and I will continue to do so, whether you listen to me or not, whether you consider the existential angst inherent in being a willing receptacle for the smelly, unwanted organic material that you so blithely discard, of your as long as you carry the trash down into the garage at regular intervals, replace my liner and rinse me out with soapy water when the liner breaks.

All in one heroic toot!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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