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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Champs-Élysées

We met in Paris, and it was as romantic as it sounds. I took the night train from Budapest. He was coming in from Copenhagen. We hadn’t seen each other for two months, and had only two weeks before flying home and spending yet another summer apart.

I arrived at dawn to an empty city. It was some saint’s day. The Metro tunnels echoed with my solitary footsteps as I made my way through station after station, ever closer to our hostel. It was too early to check in; too early find my way to the station and wait for him. I made an adventure of finding a working ATM and then paced until I could go.
He came into Gare du Nord. It was like the movies — the man alights from the train, travel-weary, and she is there, waiting. They kiss. 

We kissed. 

From our little room at the hostel we could see the top of Sacré-Cœur. It felt symbolic. Together we visited the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, and the Eiffel Tower. We couldn’t afford to climb it, but we circled, staring upward together. He ate merguez sandwiches from street vendors. I gorged on tomatoes and cheese and fresh bread. We were in love.
The calendar was against us. Saint’s day. Bank holiday. Sunday. Everything was closed. It didn’t matter. None of that matters when you’re in love. We went to EuroDisney, laughing at the absurdity of visiting an American icon on the continent. We ran into schoolmates there, and it was even funnier.

On our last day in Paris the Louvre was open. The visitors were quieter than they’d been in Notre Dame -- until they reached the tide surrounding the Mona Lisa. There we were shoved in to the current of people and carried away. We left the museum and it was raining. We walked the Champs-Élysées until we were soaked, finally taking refuge in a McDonald’s. In the bathroom I removed my shirt, wrung it out, and stood over the hand dryer trying to warm up. The other women were scandalized. I didn’t care. I was in love. He laughed with me as we headed back into the rain.

We left Paris the next day to visit his cousins in Italy. The long tunnels through the Alps made me homesick. His cousins were gracious and kind. He begged me not to speak Spanish to his Italian family, for fear of insult. They took us for a mountaintop feast far above a lake. We were in love, and on an adventure.

We broke up the following year. There were spastic attempts at a friendship, but we didn’t know how. I said my last goodbye to him at a friend’s wedding where we danced one time, in honor of what had been. 

My memory is crazed and much has slipped through to obscurity. Still, the noise of a hand dryer always brings back the Champs Elysee in the rain.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Music of the Spheres

Joseph stepped from the faintly swinging gondola onto the polished scale and hesitated. The operator held up his hand silently, intent on the marker which sank, bobbed, and quickly settled on a figure which made no sense to Joseph.

“Boy, you’ve had a tough Turn.” The operator smiled sympathetically. “You’ll get a good rest just as soon as you’ve Washed.” Joseph didn’t move. “Still disoriented? No surprise. You’ve been through a lot. Over there – the bridge. Sit. Rest. Dangle your feet in the stream. You’ll feel better. Afterward, take the left-hand path to the inn. Folks there’ll give you some pointers.” Joseph started to step off; an ethereal chime caught his attention and he looked upward.

The Ferris wheel towered above, fading into brassy clouds which parted to reveal other machinery. “A clock!” Joseph thought, before his tilted head began to spin. He stumbled, and the operator grabbed his elbow.

“Watch it, kiddo!” he warned, then gently urged Joseph toward the bridge further down the path. “Go sit. I got work to do.” His smile was big and cheerful as he looked upward to the next gondola already swooping downward to the scale.

Joseph stumbled toward the bridge, ears ringing in a sudden cacophony of ratcheting gears and whirring springs. The sound faded as he sat on the edge of the rough wooden planks and dropped his tired feet into the creek. It was cold enough to make him flinch. He withdrew, then gently dipped his toes back in. The current curled around his ankles with a faint tickle. Joseph sighed. It had been a long day. Hadn’t it? He tried to remember, but the clockwork noise returned so loudly he collapsed backward to lie across the bridge.

Silence fell again. Joseph heard the creek grumbling along its bed, gurgling at the banks and dashing over a rock somewhere downstream. He was in a grotto. Ferns clung to niches in limestone walls, watered by tiny cascades that converged at the bottom. It was moist and felt cleaner than even the hospital where he’d spent the past weeks. Hospital. Joseph sat up, ignoring the clock sounds that tried to return. He’d been in the hospital. He had hurt. It was new pain on top of old familiar hurts. It had scraped him raw until his eyes leaked, and the morphine offered no respite. The nurses had occasionally graced him with a hand across the forehead, or a squeeze of the shoulder, but everything else was pain.

Joseph felt a pinch at the tip of his big toe. He looked down, half expecting to see a fish nibbling, and instead saw an ash-gray blob floating down the creek. A line of smaller blobs streamed from both feet. He lifted them in alarm. Darkness flowed from his heels into the water. He shook his legs and it shattered, refracting strangely with gold and emerald.

“You gotta put them back in.” A girl cheerfully plopped down next to him and dunked her feet without hesitation. “It’s the rules. You put your feet in, get washed up, then you go get something to eat. I’m gonna have some chicken piccata today. I love chicken piccata. I like saying it, too. Pih-KA-ta!” she pronounced joyfully, the colorful plastic barrettes at the ends of her many braids dancing with each syllable. She swished her feet around, watching as brilliant oranges, yellows, and greens swirled away. “You got a LOT of washing to do,” she observed as a stripe of navy joined the gray from Joseph’s feet. “Must be ‘cause you’re so old.” She cocked her head. “I’m eight.” Dark brown twined with turquoise flowed from her right foot, and she made a face.

“Are you all right?” Joseph asked.

“Yup. That one kinda stings. But it feels better when it’s gone. I did this before. I was old that time, and it took a while. I think I’m almost done now, though.” She giggled and said softly, “I like capers. Nobody expects a kid to like capers but I had them at this one restaurant and I liked ‘em even better than pickles. That’s the real reason I like chicken piccata. CHICKEN PICCATA!” she shouted and kicked her feet into the air as the final streamers tapered away. Joseph clung to his plank as the girl jumped up, bouncing him precariously close to the edge, and exclaimed “I’ll see you at supper!” before racing up the left-hand path.

The grotto echoed with the girl’s laughter for a long time. Joseph stared at his feet. Loops of gray and forest green and navy blue continued to wash downstream. Occasional flashes of crimson showed up, or cobalt. Time passed. Joseph surprised himself by not becoming impatient, or bored. He was content to watch the ferns bob as water fell on them, and to listen to the chatter of the busy little creek. Color drained from his feet. He remembered pieces of his life. He understood that it was over, and was grateful. The last weeks he had suffered alone, pain amplified and echoing in his solitude. The creek, the bridge, the laughter of the child, were soothing. He wanted nothing else.

Joseph closed his eyes and kicked his feet like the girl had done. The feeling was so delightful he laughed; that was so surprising he laughed again. He hadn’t laughed with joy in years. He kicked his feet again and the water caught rainbows in the sunlight. Joseph stared, realizing that the rainbows were coming from him. Like the girl, he had whorls of yellows and reds and bright blues swirling from his feet, upstream and down, spreading across the width of the stream in sheets of brilliant color. He stilled, mesmerized, and stared until the colors tapered away and all that was left was clear water. 

It was time. He was hungry for spaghetti with meatballs and buttered garlic bread and a huge salad. He wanted to see the girl enjoying her chicken piccata. “PICCATA!” he shouted, and laughed at his own silliness. Joseph turned to rise, bracing himself for the betrayal of age ravaged joints, but he stood easily, more graceful than ever in life. He hopped, twice, then sprinted up the left-hand path. The grotto echoed with his laughter for a long time.

The inn shivered and blurred at the edges of his vision as Joseph approached. The door was open and he could hear laughter and silverware clinking and a wall clock chiming the hour. He counted, but lost track when the little girl flung herself out the door. “Finally! I was waiting and waiting for you! Come on!” she tugged him past the lounge into the dining room, shoving him toward an empty chair as she thumped into the one next to it. “Oh, I almost forgot!” She lowered her head and mumbled some sort of a prayer over her meal, then tucked in even before Joseph could get his napkin spread. Joseph looked for guidance from his fellow diners, but they were all engaged elsewhere. His plate was full of noodles in fragrant red sauce, topped with five or six perfect meatballs. He didn’t hesitate.

Half a plate later, Joseph slowed enough to look up. The girl was bright and shiny next to him, loudly telling a story about riding her scooter to the park and getting a cupcake at the bakery. Across the table an elderly couple were sitting back and holding hands, plates still nearly full. They smiled at him and for a moment they – and the inn behind them -- multiplied into the distance like a reflection of mirrors.  His young friend grabbed his chin and yanked his head around. “Are you even listening to me?!” she exclaimed, and then rushed onward with her story. He smiled and patted her shoulder in time to the ticking of the clock.

“You finished, kiddo?” A woman leaned in from the right, reaching for his empty plate. 

“Me? Yes, ma’am, I am. It was very good. Thank you,” he replied, staring. She looked just like the operator at the Ferris wheel.

“Good. Let’s get this cleared away, and then we can have some tea and catch up. It’s been a long while since I saw you.” She stacked his dishes on her arm, deftly balancing everything as she turned. “I’ll meet you in the lounge. Won’t be long. I’ll make the kids do the washing up for once.”

Joseph rose. The girl was telling another story, this time to the woman on her right. She grabbed his wrist, holding him while she finished saying, “car was spinning – hold on a second, I have to tell my friend something.” She stood on her chair so her dark eyes were level with his. “I’ll see you again. I know it. We’re friends now.” Then her thin arms were around his neck, squeezing uncomfortably tight. He’d forgotten how children hugged with their whole bodies, generous with affection. He lightly patted her back. She leaned away, arms still around his neck, and gave him an impatient look. “Really? What was that? Gimme a real hug. We’re friends.” This time he gave in, holding her with desperation and gratitude until something eased inside. “Now that’s what I’m talking about. See ya!” The girl dropped abruptly back into her chair and continued telling the exciting, catastrophic, story of her death.

Joseph wiped a tear from his cheek as he sought the lounge. Big comfortable leather chairs were pulled close to the fireplace, the occupants resting their feet on the fender. In the corner a man curled in the corner of a couch, a book resting on a pillow in his lap. A pool of light from a table lamp encircled the man, his book, and a cup of tea steaming on the table. Joseph stood quietly, watching the man, watching the feet, waiting.

“Here you are!” the woman rolled a tea cart between them as she collapsed dramatically onto the other end of the couch. “Sit! Sit.” Joseph took the armchair opposite her. “Sorry that took so long. I spoil the kids so much, doing the dishes myself. Then when I need them to help out, I have to show them what to do.” She poured tea into a mug and handed it to him, then grabbed a cookie for herself. “Chocolate chip. So many kinds of cookie and I always choose chocolate chip. They’re just the best.” She took a bite and smiled as she chewed. “So. How are you? It’s been a good long while this Turn.”

Joseph blew on his tea and reached for a cookie. “I’m not sure. I really don’t know what’s going on.” He took a big bite and chewed for a moment. “I’m glad not to hurt anymore.” Joseph stared as he took a sip. “I have to ask, though. Where am I? What’s going on?” He bit again.

“Oh, my. You had a very difficult Turn, didn’t you!?” She sat forward. “I’ll give you the short version. I think that will be enough to remind you.” She sipped her tea. The whirring of a clock was loud in Joseph’s mind. “You hear the ticking?” He nodded. “That’s the music of the spheres. Have you ever seen one of those models that moves the planets around the sun, and the moons around the planets?”

“An orrery. Yes. I had one as a child.” She grimaced without comment. “I was fascinated by it.”

“That’s the one. I can never remember the word. I’m sure you were drawn to it because some part of it resonated in your memory. So.” She took a deep breath. “We are, right now, in the middle of the Universal Orrery. The mechanism that makes the universe spin.”

Joseph raised an eyebrow. “That’s not possible.”

The woman laughed. “Why not?”

“Because it’s impossible. The universe can’t run on clockwork. It would run down eventually.”

“Oh, Joseph. We do this every single time you come back.” She sighed. “Let’s see,” she stared down into her mug. “Ah, yes. Entropy! That helped you understand last time. Of course it will run down eventually – that’s entropy. In the meantime, we wind it back up the best we can.”

He stood, suddenly impatient. “Wind it up? With what? A giant key? And who turns the key? This is nonsense.”

She nibbled her cookie. A glob of chocolate was stuck in the corner of her mouth. Joseph relished how foolish she looked. “Sit down, please.” More tea, more cookie. “Humans are not the only beings, you know. What you see now? You’re constructing your own reality. You can see it. The shivering of things? The blurring around the edges? That’s other people’s reality brushing up against yours. Each of you is applying your perceptions because you’re unable to accept the greater reality around you.” She waved her arm in a wide circle. “At the Ferris wheel? When you got dizzy? What did you see?”

“I saw the Ferris wheel. It was very tall. And there were clouds. Well, mist. And,” his brow furrowed in remembrance, “mechanisms of some sort. I thought I saw the workings of a giant clock.” He stared accusingly at her. “How did you know that? What I saw?” He rocked impatiently on his feet. The tea cart blocked his urge to pace.

“My sibling shared the moment with me.” She put her mug on the tea cart and stood to face him. To look down on him. She was taller. He hadn’t noticed. “We are . . . connected.” She gestured at him to sit again. “We are all parts of the machine in one way or another.”

Joseph shoved the tea cart aside. “That’s your answer? That we’re part of a toy? And how does everything else fit in? Why were my feet leaking rainbows in a stream, and why did that little girl give me a hug and why did I have to spend the last five weeks dying in a hospital bed? Why have I been so damned lonely all these years? What does ANY of that have to do with a fucking children’s TOY?!” He wanted to storm off, but the man on the couch was staring. Joseph collapsed back into his chair in embarrassment. 

“Oh, sweetie. Damn. I hate this part!” The woman shrank back into her seat. “You saw it. Looking up you saw that there are millions of wheels. You’re right. It’s a giant clockwork mechanism. And all the Wheels must Turn for the Orrery to work.” She stood and spun around, arms wide. “We, I mean every soul in the universe, souls from all the systems and all the planets and every void between, are needed for that work. It’s the weight of the souls that makes the wheels Turn. Fresh souls get on, grow heavier with experience, and gravity pulls them down. Their Wheel Turns. That’s why you had to Wash. You were Washing away that weight. Don’t you feel better?”

Joseph stared between his knees and clenched his hands over and over again, marveling at how easy it was. They were cool, but his knuckles moved easily. He remembered trying to grasp a pencil only to have it drop from stiff fingers that wouldn’t close. He remembered the grinding ache of arthritis pulsing down his bones until he was afraid to move, knowing that every step until eternity would flare with pain. That nothing he did would ever not hurt. He clenched his fists and looked at her.

“Yes.” He glanced at his knees, no longer swollen straight. “Yes, I feel better. But I am not a cog in a machine!”

She sighed. “We all are.” She reached for yet another cookie. “Joseph, you are an old soul. You’ve made many Turns on many Wheels.” The chocolate crumb fell from her face to her lap. Joseph was relieved. “Sorrow is the burden of an old soul,” she said. “It sticks to you, somehow. We can Wash you clean a dozen times, but the next trip around the Wheel is just as bad, if not worse. You,” she glanced up, “are a very, very old soul.”

They filled the silence with sips of tea, and more cookies. The man reading a book turned the pages. Joseph closed his eyes and listened to the rasp of paper on paper. The fire crackled and a log fell. 

“Do you know why?” He stared at the fire, afraid to look at the woman.

“No. Everyone asks that. You’d be surprised how universal the theories are. Ancient Earth philosophers had the same answers as the Jovians, and they said the same thing as the beings of the Horsehead Nebula.” She laughed. “Not at the same time, of course. So many beings have come and gone.” Her voice faltered. “I sometimes wonder if you,” she looked straight at him, holding his gaze, “came from an even earlier time and place.” She took a deep, wobbly breath. “You are a very old soul.”

He felt it, then. The weight of billions of years. The sorrow he had collected and Washed away, and collected again. He was crushed under the memory of untold Turns. The papery softness of her hand sliding into his brought him back.

“I’m sorry.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. He felt a tear splat on his shoulder and dampen his shirt.

“Does anyone ever escape?” he rasped.

“No. But, if they’re lucky, they have you.” She nodded toward the dining room. “She has you. Your young friend.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Sorrow is drawn to old souls. The pain, the loneliness. It’s awful for you. But she’ll be on the Wheel next to you, and it will miss her. She will live a long and charmed life. Good things will come to her.”

The reading man watched Joseph for a moment, face full of pity. He closed his book and left the room. 

“I have to go back, don’t I?” his whisper was just louder than the flames in the fire.

“You can rest. I have a room for you, special. I have your favorite meals, and good books and all the movies you missed. You don’t have to go right away. You can rest.” She squeezed his hand.

“But I can’t stay, can I?” He took a deep breath. “That girl, if I don’t go. What happens to her?” he stared at the empty dining room, listening for an echo of her laughter.

“It falls on her. And others. The longer you wait, the more they collect.” She rifled through her pocket and brought out a wrinkled kerchief. She fussed at it, folding it just so before wiping her eyes. “It’s not all bad. You have great joy as a child, and deep love later. You saw that, in the stream. That is part of why you hurt so very, very much.”

Joseph closed his eyes and remembered iridescent rainbows on top of the oily darkness in the stream. He saw again the brilliance of the last few moments as they Washed away. The woman stood. She leaned over, smoothed his hair back from his forehead and gently kissed him there. “I’m sorry.” Her shoulders slumped as she moved to the doorway and, with a glance over her shoulder, left the room.

Joseph sat until the fire died. He watched each ember fade. He remembered losing everyone he loved. He remembered being beaten on the playground and crying into the gravel. He remembered all the awful things that had weighed him down senselessly, and hating others for their effortless joy. And he remembered the girl on the bridge, laughing as her rainbow slipped into the stream. 

“Chicken piccata!” he said, softly, to himself. Then he walked slowly away from the cottage, headed for the right-hand path. The one that led back to the Wheel.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Catacomb

Hallowed chapel glimmering
gold in the light of a hundred
candles shining on a thousand
years of coded messages
Chi Ro anchored frescoes
of incorruptible peacocks
bright symbols of resurrection
as the flesh of faithful
decayed, despite the lime

Deeper in ash
grey dormitorios where
corpses slept on laddered
shelves carved to exact size
as if faith were a winding cloth
that clung to the dead
and needed no extra room

hale bodies shrunken
in death pressed
flat enough to slot
into custom beds

babies tucked lengthwise
into corners and edges

some few niches scraped
just wide enough for two
and sealed with terra cotta tiles

until the breath of Jesus
could inflate their shells
like balloons rising to the sky

The graves are empty
now. Selected martyrs
were carted to sanctified ground
when Rome converted

Barbarians sacked
the rest, found marble-boxed treasure
leaving shelves as empty
as their heathen hearts

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Janu-ennui

It is a season of hunger
Of pacing cabinet to fridge nibbling
edges of things
dust on restless tongues

It is a time for prowling 
Discontented stillness
impatient curses thrown
against unappeased dark

Refugees seek golden
light stories of far away 
nestled beds puddled high
with blankets to keep out
the seeping cold

Crave the bright salvation of seed
catalogs, bulbs
bought too early piled
high on porches until
the thaw
as we wait for the sun

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Unwelcome Visitor

We have a mouse. Not a welcome mouse. Not a cheerful friend who squeaks adorably and nibbles cheese in a charming fashion. This one gnaws at the corners of things and leaves droppings in the cabinets. I am not pleased. I am, in fact, embarrassed. As if my house is unclean. Which it is, but not pest-level unclean. Or so I thought.

Our guest is a lovely shade of brown. I know this because last night when I returned home it was on the counter; I watched as it scurried into an oven vent. Not long after, the oven was on for several very, very hot hours. Coincidence? You decide.
The turkey was delicious. There was no mousearoma in our supper. I was a tad disappointed.

Demon Dog remains aloof from the excitement of mouse hunting. I am disappointed. He has terrier blood; he should be intent on defeating this unwelcome addition to our family. Instead he drapes himself before the kitchen's heating vent, or claims the entire floor in front of the woodstove, basking in warmth. I need a cat. Bonus? A cat would leave room for me to warm my toes.

The rodent -- or, more realistically, rodents, because they multiply and scrabble inside walls and the noises, oh, the noises and imaginings of wee beasts test-tasting the niblet-like toes of my children -- has thus far ignored the peanut-butter baited traps. I've escalated to raisin bread. Who can resist raisin bread?

In the meantime I wash and wipe and sweep the neglected corners of my home. The children are being trained ever more enthusiastically how to clean up spills and put food away. I check the traps and sweep again. I obsessively empty the crumb tray of the toaster, denying cruel and sinister thoughts that liken a simple household appliance to the electric chair.

Scrubbing and fuming gives me time to ponder boundaries. The summer place in Vermont is rife with mice, but I do not mind them so much. We visit only every other summer, while they make it their home year-round. We are the invaders there. They disappear at our noisesome tromping. Some nights they take advantage of my carelessness -- striated tooth marks in an apple on the counter, a missing corner from the loaf of bread atop the refrigerator. They cannot be excluded, anyway. There are gaps and openings in walls and at corners. It is a camp, a transitory place. Here, in this house? The presence of a mouse disrupts the sense of solidity and security of my home. It is an unwelcome reminder that I do not truly control my little world. Perhaps I should be grateful. Maybe I will -- after the traps do their vile work, and I claim my home again.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Day In the Life of a Handyman

Rise early. Sometimes you gotta get to a person's house before they leave for work; if you're lucky, they trusted you enough to give you a key last time. You’ve been there twice already. The first time was officially so they could tell you what needs done, but really so they could size you up. “Is this a guy we want in our home?” You went back a week later — on the weekend, or maybe after supper, ’cause that’s easiest for them — to go over the estimate line-by-line. You had to justify why it costs so damn much to do something so simple.

It’s on that second visit that you size them up. Can you work with the wife? (Always the wife. Stereotypes exist for a reason.) Sometimes, talking to the customer, you just know they’re gonna lose it in the middle of the project and nothing is worth that particular headache. If they’re picky but not real bad you might tack on a fifteen percent PITA charge to cover all the change-orders or “little things” you know are coming. Thing is, nobody ever knows what they really want. “Fix the bathroom doorknob” could mean the toilet's running and the light fixture flickers and the door sometimes sticks. It's a mystery. But you'll do your best. It’s their home, after all. And if it's a little old lady, you might do a little bit more because hell, you're there, and her kids aren't doing it for her.

Quick breakfast while you make phone calls to line up subs and your crew, then load tools for the day. They're in the basement or the garage, locked up because some punks like to steal tools -- they're easy to pawn -- and tool insurance gives shit compared to what they’re worth. Make sure you get everything, especially if the job's across town. Work close to home is best ‘cause of that. If there's more than one job, make sure you cover ’em all. Time is money, and you can't be coming home every time you need a different tool. This is why you spend hours every night figuring out the scheduling. It's a jigsaw puzzle, fitting when this customer is going to be home with when that other customer is available, and if you’re doing wiring it sure is nice to get all those jobs done in the same week because it's easier to leave the electrical toolbox in the van instead of switching it out for plumbing every other day. If some other company’s involved? Make sure you get the timing right. You can't tile if the mud is wet. Two puzzles glancing off each other. You make it work, though. Gotta keep all the balls in the air.

Before you head to the job you need to run to Home Depot, or maybe Lowe's if they've got a better price. Your probably have most of what you need somewhere in the garage or the basement, or that storage place you rent. Hard to keep it all straight. You get your tools at yard sales and from friends who go out of business, and even pawn shops sometimes. Same for materials. Sometimes you find a treasure trove of custom moulding at a dead guy’s garage sale. Like gold, because there's only one lumber yard in town that can get that anymore. Maybe you have a custom jig and can make your own, but it's not usually worth it. The customer doesn't know the difference, anyway. So you stop by the home improvement store for this and that, and hope the customer already called in the order for the special tile they wanted. You'll buy it at contractor pricing and charge them retail, and that mark up right there might be the margin that gets you through the holiday season when folks have visitors and don't want the house all torn up, or strangers tromping through.

At the house you're friendly, respectful. There are specific demands -- don't use this doorway, make sure the cats stay locked in the basement. The worst are the women who don't really want you in the house. Those ones ask you not to use their bathrooms. Like you're dirty. Well, you are — sawdust and plaster dust, drywall mud and paint on you — but what the hell are you supposed to do? The neighbors get twitchy when you pee in the alley. Forget about taking a shit. So you take a break, hoping they don't raise an eyebrow at your slacking, and run to the corner store to use the bathroom. Sometimes you come back with a cup of coffee, but not always.

The work. Oh, you sing if it goes well. The pride of craftsmanship. The best are the unusual jobs, the ones that take a little thinking, some good planning. Hanging curtains and repairing ceiling fans is all well and good, and it pays the bills, but the big ones? The one where you had to tuck a bathroom somewhere on the main floor so the old lady didn't have to climb up and down the stairs all day? That was fun. You like making window boxes. Driving past the house a couple months later, seeing the geraniums all in bloom? That's good. That's making a house into a home. You did that.

At lunch you and the crew take a strange pride in walking into a sandwich shop together, catching the glances from the white-collar types who look sour at you, like they need to wash after you pass. Maybe you step back outside to dust off the fiberglass or plaster or whatever shit is all over. You're never really clean, even after a shower. Your calloused hands snag your worn t-shirt, grate across the canvas of your work pants. The guys inside are laughing, ordering huge meals justified by hard work. You join them. After some storytelling there’s figuring out who does what next: maybe some guys are gonna move on to the next job while you wrap up, or somebody’s making a quick run to the hardware store. There's a camaraderie that comes from physical labor that you don't see in the suits.
You're glad you don't have to wear one of those every day.


Back to work. Hope to get it done by the end of the day. Maybe stay an hour late, just to finish. There's a sweet satisfaction in the completion of a project, no matter how small. If you're good you might finish early and have time for a beer before heading home. That’s if you're charging by the project. Time and materials it doesn't make such a difference. 

Clean up really well. Better than you'd do at home. Dust all vacuumed up, everything put back just so, make it look like you were never there. That's the goal. You're meant to be invisible the second you leave. Even if it's a two day job you clean up, no matter that you'll be making a mess again. It's respectful. Takes a little extra time, but when you live by word-of-mouth, your reputation is on the line. Keep ’em happy and you might be able to send the kids to college. One bad customer and you might not work for a year. It's all about salesmanship. 

At home you unload the tools and start the phone calls. Think your way through all the jobs you’re managing: mind the customer's vacation; track who wanted you next; shoehorn in that emergency plumbing job that came up today and just has to be done tomorrow. Talk to that other contractor, see if his crew will be working at the house tomorrow — can you overlap? Fit another piece into the jigsaw puzzle. Say hi to the kids and check their homework. Maybe a quick hug for the wife, then sit down and write up bills. If you focus you might have time to sit on your ass and watch an hour of TV before bed. Not that you’ll see any of it. Exhaustion will have your head back on the sofa pillow and you’ll doze your way to the credits.

It's a living. A good one. You might even like it. But you're dirty and tired at the end of the day, boots heavy and hair filled with crap. As you get older you ache a little more. The ladders get a little steeper, the lumber more awkward. Still, a hundred years from now people won't know your name, but they'll love that house. The one with the window boxes full of flowers. The one you made into a home.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Intimacy

I’ve been thinking about intimacy, lately. Not sex. They are not the same thing. 
My pondering did start with musings about sex and intimacy and power and relationships, but in my usual tangential way I wound up also considering something entirely else: social media.

Recently a number of people I know joined the new social media site Ello and exclaimed with joy: “It’s so different!” and “There’s so much interaction!” I’ve been told they feel less restricted in what they say. They wondered why exactly, Ello feels so special? I joined, too, in part to see what all the hoopla is about.

After a couple of days of dabbling, my take is that the structure and presentation of Ello isn’t really different. It’s a social network, just like Facebook and G+ and Tumblr and Twitter. I have a theory about Ello, but honestly? I see them all as dating sites where the users seek some sort of match. Not looking for sex. Seeking connection. Validation. A response to barbaric yawps and howls in the wilderness. 

You disagree? A riddle for you: what do Facebook, a church basement, and the sidelines of a children’s soccer game have in common? 

My answer: they are places where communities form. If you think about it, that’s all social media is – an online substitute for the in-person interaction that used to come naturally (if not voluntarily) in church-basement suppers and sideline commiseration. Human beings have a primal need to create social groups. Some of us aren’t church or soccer types. Instead we find electronic contacts who share our experiences or have common interests. 

I’m not judging. Hell, my “virtual” relationships have restored my sanity, propped up my marriage, and probably saved my life once when I was in a really desperate place. I spent years feeling alone and isolated, until I built my tribe online. Here I share fandoms and post my real writing as well as drivel about my day, and people respond with care. They are my friends.

The question of why Ello feels so different is linked to all of this.

In the real world, we advertise our personalities externally: we choose how we dress, style our hair, even how we smell. Online we cannot put on our best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes; instead we carefully select avatars and make sure the wallpaper on the "about" page is meant to convey something about ourselves. I used the term “dating site,” but we’re not here to hook up. We want longer term. We want friendship. We want shared experience. We seek connection. That doesn’t come easily, though, either in person or online. We stand in our own way with first impressions and crafted personas. Moreover, we cannot interact online without words, which means everything we do online is a calculated reveal. Some people are deliberately provocative and even obnoxious. Others lurk. Some people might never mention a spouse – the electronic equivalent of removing a wedding ring in a bar. Others (like me) say far too much.

But if we do find our place, our tribe, our online community – then we can share our quirky humor. Announce our triumphs. And sometimes, if we trust enough, if we have enough commonalities and interactions, if we feel safe, we share our bad days or our wretched pasts. That? That is intimacy.

The thing is, it’s just as easy to get lost in a sea of bits as it is in a sea of faces. I’m unusual in that my Facebook friends list is fewer than 175 and although I’ve circled just under 500 people on G+ my “important people” list has 28. That’s not very much. Many folks with whom I interact regularly have followers in the tens of thousands. When they “share privately” the message may go out to a thousand people. On just one site. Some people have different identities on Tumblr and Instagram than they do on Facebook and Twitter. I get that. I wonder, though, how one can have any intimacy with one's contacts at that volume. My approach has been to keep my list of connections small and my posts similar (if not the same) across platforms. This saves me from feeling the need to switch hats depending on my audience, and to recognize the people who, by being responsive, fulfill my need for emotional connection – what I consider the intimacy of friendship. 

Circling once again to the question of why Ello feels different, I posit that the difference is simply a matter of size. Small towns are curious places. When you run into someone on the street, familiarity allows you to bypass the pleasantries and jump to the more intimate inquiries of health and wellbeing. In a small online community the same thing happens. Ello is young and has relatively few users. People who bounce to that platform have an opportunity to build a fresh persona and develop intimate connections with folks who share common experiences and interests. Ello is doing exactly what users want in a social media network – providing a space where people can build a community. 

I’ll keep my profile, although I probably won’t shift to Ello as my primary online home. I am very fortunate to already have thought-provoking, supportive, amusing, intimate communities already both on Facebook and G+. I have shouted over the rooftops and my voice has been heard. I just hope Ello becomes a place where those who seek the same can find it.