Saturday, December 08, 2007

Knowing Fancy

I am reviving this blog with a story about something about which I have hardly ever written: my horse, Fancy. Anyone who knows me knows how important Fancy has been in my life. I’ve owned him almost 15 years, and I owe much of my personality development to the time I’ve spent with horses. This makes it all the stranger that I’ve never really written about them.

But why haven‘t I? I’ve written about my car, about Hawthorne, about irony and all the ideas that I consider so central to my life. But Fancy, who is equally central, has never appeared in my work. Part of the reason I’ve never addressed the topic is that my horse-life has been quite apart from the rest of my life. Every time I go out to the barn, it is like walking into parallel life. Even my personality is different. I am all-business, serious, and often silent. When I ride, I am so focused that I don’t have a single off topic thought. Taciturn, focused, workaholic--these are not terms normally used to describe me! In my other life, I espouse on the benefits of idleness (and experience those benefits often enough), procrastinate, and my thoughts are like a string of xmass lights (to use a seasonal metaphor): hopelessly tangled, flickering and if one idea goes bad the whole mess might click off.

Compartmentalizing--keeping aspects of one’s life apart from each other--is the prerequisite to having a double life. It would be a useful ability if I had any plans to be an adulterer or a embezzler. In general, I don’t think it’s a good thing which why I am glad that my horse life and my artistic life have begun to converge. The catalyst has been the discipline Fancy and I now do. Dressage (“horse ballet” for the uninitiated) has a strong interpretive and aesthetic element, so I have had to begin thinking like an artist when riding. The terms used to describe the horse’s performance are even poetic: impulsion, expression, lightness, trueness, suspension, loft… The way I think about riding and the way I think about writing are suddenly not so alien to each other.

Dressage itself might be a topic for another post. But I wanted to write about Fancy because of something that happened the other day. Last Monday, I took Fancy to Michigan State University’s Veterinary Hospital because he keeps losing weight. Normally, vets make farm calls, and taking a horse to a veterinary hospital is only necessary if the horse's problems or diagnosis are beyond local vets. Veterinary hospitals can offer better care to horses because they are actual facilities--with X-Ray machines, surgical equipment, and exam rooms.

When I first unloaded Fancy and led into the hospital, he was put into a "holding stall," a normal looking affair without any bedding. But once his number was up, we walked into an exam area that looked eerily like an actual hospital. There was no hay or shavings on the floor, no buckets, and very few of the trappings one associates with a barn. The exam room had a stainless steel table, a sink and cabinetry just like a human doctor's office. There were a few computers hooked to machines, carts, and on the wall, a wipe board, used for teaching veterinary students. The total effect was like walking Fancy into a completely human realm. The only thing that gave indication that this was a place for animals was the exam platform--a metal chute that contained the horse for examination.

Fancy was surprisingly willing to walk into this world, and stepped right into the chute. The veterinary students attached a rope in front of him and behind him, wholly containing him. When I looked at him so trapped, in this place so sterile and human, I began to feel afraid for him. What did he make of his surroundings? He was looking around, touching everything with his nose, occasionally whinnying and though he was behaving well during his exam, I couldn’t believe that he wasn't deeply unsettled by the space. I was holding his lead-rope and watching him as he looked around and I began to see the room as I imagined he saw it. In a horse barn, there are few hard edges or bright colors. Everything is muted--old wood with the angles chewed off, dark stalls, leather tack, dirt aisles. But this room was all crisp lines, bright white, and edges. I watched Fancy looking over a stainless steel metal cabinet and I, too, started to see it as if it were a cause of wonder and fear

The exam was exhaustive, and Fancy was subjected to a full ultrasound of all his organs, which involved a probe digging into his side while a machine was wheeled around him. At one point, the vet used the wipe board to draw a diagram of a horse's heart murmur, and Fancy insisted on craning his head to join the circle of students watching the board. They all cooed and petted him and said he was so sweet, but I found the whole scene disconcerting. No one can really know an animal's mind, but he seemed to be constantly touching everything and demanding attention (if a student was within his reach, he would nuzzle them until he was acknowledged) as if he was trying to confirm the reality of what was around him. He even looked up once, noticed a hanging cord and pushed that with his nose in a way that could only be described as contemplative, as if it might contain some clue as to his fate. Did he wonder what happened to his life as a horse? Did he wonder what happened to fields and sky and other horses? Being in the presence of Fancy in a place so out of context made me acutely and suddenly aware of his consciousness in a way I am normally not.

I've owned Fancy for almost fifteen years, and I've ridden him nearly every week of that time. Our familiar and complicated interactions as horse and rider are so absorbing that I have rarely considered the great and immense mystery of the difference between us. Fancy and I communicate with each other in a way that has become second nature--I can predict his reactions, I can tell when he's feeling good, or frustrated, or playful, and I have no doubt he can read the same from me. But knowing how to communicate with Fancy is entirely different from knowing Fancy.

In this exam room, so divorced from the familiar context where we interact, the mystery of how Fancy experiences the world was suddenly overwhelming. He was so dissonant against his surroundings that his presence seemed particularly vivid. I look at Fancy's eyes often to determine what he needs from me, whether it be comfort or discipline. But now I looked into those eyes and saw how inaccessible he was and will always be to me.

People who own animals are often accused of anthropomorphizing them, giving them human feelings and thoughts. Scientists who study animals tend to classify their behavior as a series of automated instincts and responses to stimulus. The truth of what animals experience, think and feel is probably neither of those poles. No matter how logically we try to infer the mind of an animal from an animal's behavior, it will always remain a mystery as great and wonderful as death. Sometimes, I think about the mystery of death and I wonder how there can be any other topic of conversation. How can people act so casual in the midst of such an immense and terrifying unkown? Shouldn't people be grabbing each other by the lapels and demanding answers? I had the same feeling in the exam room with Fancy. How could we stand in the presence of that alien consciousness and speculate about anything but the universe that exists in him?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

New Site

I have a new website, , that I encourage my few readers to visit. Its lofty vision is to provide a forum to discuss all the humanites.

In the meantime, this blog will probably be on hiatus for a while. However, I may eventually serialize a longer work of fiction here, so be on the lookout for that in the coming months.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Excerpt from "A Catalogue of Rare Movements"--a Collabrative Project On Brief Art Movements

Formal Creationism

In the beginning, there was only Dot. Dot sliced itself into two Half-Dots, one of whom
began the race of Line. Half-Dot halved and halved itself and laid the thin layers side by side.
Then he told his creation, Line, to do the same forever. But Line was defiant and didn't stay on the straight
and narrow. Line wanted to curve and curl and overlap itself, which begot Form.
But Form, for Line, was closure and closure for Line begot Death.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


The old professor had been out of the country, so I had to wait a few days before I was officially allowed to proceed. The realtor had left me with the a code to open the house, so I drove back and planted myself there with my cell phone the day the old professor was due back. That way, I figured, I could get started the moment he uttered the first sound of approval. Before I called, I ran-through a few different ways to explain, tactfully, that his home décor was so violently abominable that no potential buyer would make it past the "unique four-season entry room" before rearing back all the way to his car as if struck. As I paced around waiting to call I found myself rearing back mentally from nearly every stimuli--I wrenched my head away from a green wooden figurine of a Christmas tree only to land my sights on a pastel-colored poster of flowers advertising a women's poetry series, only to pull back to a dun-colored velveteen-clad sliding rocker…The experience was comparable to being attacked by a circle of thugs--every time you leapt back either in response to or to avoid a blow, you inevitably landed within striking distance of another attacker. Finally, I found myself immobile in the center of the room, looking down at my cell phone and trying to temper my adrenalin enough to sound sane.


"People aren't coming because the house looks outdated. And it's too cluttered. "

The best way to say it, I figured, was with brutal objectivity. People were less offended, I reasoned, by a firm blurting of something rather than a delicately phrased and re-phrased delivery. The latter would make it appear as if I knew I was delivering hurtful news, while the former would make it appear as if I were stating a elemental fact, beyond the range of what tact can temper. The weatherman doesn't try to soften the blow of a bad forecast.

"A homebuyer wants to be able to envision himself living here but your décor is simply too distinct. It gives such a distinct impression that no one can imagine living here. We need to deal with that first. "

"Really? I guess I could see that…I know I love books but I guess I need to acknowledge that not everyone does."

"It's not that" I began, emboldened by his pliability, "it's that the books are too chaotic to the eye. They overwhelm the rooms."

I tried not to get into the specifics of my criticism, knowing that all I needed was to secure permission and hammering home my disgust was unnecessary. There was, however, a part of me that wanted more than just a passive agreement. I wanted to see if he understood. Did he see the problem and had simply been too overwhelmed to cope with it? Or did he truly not see--could it be this was news to him?

"The place looks old. The T.V., the clocks…" I said, choking myself back from elaborating, hoping against hope that he would interrupt with a statement or a confession that he got it, something like "yeah, I hear you. I hit some hard times and I guess I let those old and ugly things just ride roughshod over me ."

Instead, he responded with "Do you want that TV? It works great. Maybe you'd want it for your place?"

After I demurred, probably too forcefully, he asked what I proposed.

"Well, there's three levels. Level one is I merely rearrange your belongings . Level two, I rearrange your belongings and get a small budget--200 or 300 dollars--and buy a few key items to update it. Level three, we move out the books and bookshelves and perhaps repaint."

I went on to explain the sublevels of these levels, and with every murmur of attentiveness, I'd elaborate more and more, far beyond what was needed to make such a simple proposal. But I was so certain of the helpfulness of my advice--and so certain of the benefit of carrying out the "levels"--that I simply wanted to luxuriate in explaining as long as I could. Finally, he broke in with "I think we should try a combination between level two and level one."

"Excellent choice."

I was particularly pleased that he referenced the levels in his response. My mind's eye was becoming so powerful that not only could I envision the house revived, but I apparently could also create "levels" solid enough to which another person could refer.

Driving back, after an intense shopping trip to Target and Big Lots, it seemed that I had lost all concept of my original goal. As I drove towards the house, $200 dollars poorer but with the promise of reimbursement, the 3K check that should have been looming in my mind had been replaced by the thought of the serene and contemporary space I was going to create out of sheer will. No longer was I thinking about actual buyers, or real estate websites, or being three thousand dollars richer. All I could think of was shoving figurines out of site, removing books from the shelves to create accent nooks, and rolling out the new bamboo rug over a discolored patch of wall-to-wall carpeting.

When I arrived, I typed in the code and bolted into the foyer to do a quick reassessment before bringing in my bounty from the car. I looked on approvingly at the changes I had already made, and felt my ire rising as I looked at objects that had gone untouched in the first round. An arm chair looked as if it had hunkered more deeply down into its dent in the carpet, as if smug at being spared. A photograph of an overstuffed library (a postmodern touch--the place was an overstuffed library!) had permitted another day of sun to bleach the wall around it. Hopefully they didn't get the false impression that they could look forward to another thirty years of uninterrupted existence.

Anxious as I was to assert myself on each of these blithe and noxious objects, I felt myself hesitate. I had such a firm image in mind of what I wanted to create, that I almost felt offended that I had to go through the legwork to make it happen. Wasn't the vision powerful enough? Did I really have to deign to touch these items? A fatigue came over me--suddenly the supreme rightness of my vision seemed like a burden. Maybe all visionaries feel the same impatience with living through the present to get to a future of which they're already sure. As I began the dull labor of hoisting up objects, of carefully walking down the basement stairs, of yanking books off shelves, it seemed like I was fulfilling an obligation to time. The past of the décor was set, and its future was just as certain. But to satisfy time and its stubborn insistence on continuity, I had to go through the motions of creating the link between past and future with my own sweat. I resented that.

I was also getting nervous. I kept peering out the windows, expecting to be interrupted. Though I had permission to be there, the realtor had asked me to call him and tell him when I was going to be working so he wouldn't interrupt me. I purposely ignored this courtesy. Any moment now the realtor could appear, the neighbors could appear asking who I was, some serviceman might appear thinking I owned the place. I became more and more agitated at each car I heard out the window. I could not be interrupted at this critical time. It was as if I created the threat of interruption just to add another level of gravity and intensity to my task. At the same time, I felt a kind of exhilaration each time a car went by and didn’t turn in. I had the breathless feeling I was getting away with something.

There was certainly a criminal air to my redecorating. I was doing it quickly--scuttling here and there as if loading up on booty in a department store after hours. I was also handling objects like a breaker-and-enterer. It took every ounce of my will not to shove things aside too violently, not to slam plastic clocks into the drawer so hard their gears flew out, not to hear the "ding" of agony from an ancient phone dropped from a great height. Occasionally, I gave into whatever monstrous part of my nature had taken over, and felt a thrill when I "accidentally" banged a rocking chair into a doorjamb.

The more closely I became involved in moving tiny objects, the more daunting things became. Walking into the place, I experienced an intuitive recoil from the interior as a whole. But by trying to fix it, I had to become painfully intimate with every little thing that was wrong. The figurines themselves were not the only ones to blame for their ugliness. The way they were angled, the shadows that fell on them, how badly they played against other objects…I saw it all. It was like looking at a lesion or a sore, wincing, and then being forced to look at it under a microscope. The close-up of swarming bacteria, though smaller than the lesion itself, seems an infinite vista of infliction. Insurmountable in its dominion over the tiny and unseen. So it was with the details of the décor. The more nooks and crannies I tried to fix, the more aware I was of just how deep the ugliness ran. Behind every figurine there was a rich context to support its tackiness--a room that seconded it with plaid pillows, mini-blinds, blotchy carpet, a place in the weak yellow spotlight of a kindred floorlamp.

Order and beauty--two things my mind never had an excess of--now depended on me as their sole representative. It was like being the ambassador of a country from which you are an exile. Even so, the place was coming together. So much had been moved, shoved aside, hidden from sight, that the things that remained began to reach a kind of visual truce, much like a few castoffs on an island would eventually break down and work together. The couch, once so oppressively leathern and heavy, had become more neutral without the support of the five rocking and lounge chairs that once circled it. Now, it pitched in to create a pleasing relationship with the only chair left. Other objects--like two red vases--seemed to eagerly pick up on the new spirit of the place. They shed their past as citizens of hideousness and assimilated into the new order as if they had never been anything but tasteful accents.

Though the place was much improved, I couldn't enjoy it. I became obsessed with the tiny deviations from what was in my mind's eye. It was like overlaying a transparency on an image and the two not quite lining up. It was like a cap that seemed to fit but never quite stayed down. It was like a phrase that begged for a word you didn't know and thought you did. It was a representative of everything that wasn’t quite right and the grand frustration those "almosts" seemed to revel in producing. Great ugliness, mediocrity, wrong--those things never bothered me as much as that which stubbornly sets up shop on the verge of beauty, right, the sublime…Why is it that everything falls short so close to the mark?

(A favorite touch.)

But surely, with another's day time, I could get close enough. Some of those books still needed rearranging, There was finishing flourishes that would create an ultimate coherence, and an ultimate break with the décor's past…It was with these idealistic thoughts that I finally packed up and headed off to teach.

When I got to school,. I checked my email to wind down from the intensity of the day. I was surprised to see the address of the house in a subject line of an email from the old professor.
"Great news!" The email began obliviously, "There's been an offer on the house! I think I'm going to take it!"

I felt suddenly flushed--panicked--the house was going to sell out from under me! While my horror should have been due to the fact that now my compensation was unclear, the heat and panic came from the certainty I would never finish. Never would I get the chance to clear the bookshelf in the study and set up the bowls and candles I had set aside. Never would I get to freshen up the bathroom sinks with minimalist stacks of soap, like mini Donald Judd installments. The could've beens, should've beens were followed by a rush of possessiveness.

It seems there were visits to the house over the last couple days. People had been there, and walked through the house in this most vulnerable period of transition. Who the hell did they think they were? The thought of that blustery realtor and a stampede of interested buyers stomping through the house disturbed me. Did they have any idea what they could have been clomping through, the might-have-been the old realtor was so absurdly talking up?

From this point on, the absurdities and ironies piled up and up until they were about as overdone and ornate as the décor once was. The money situation worked out okay--I offered to help the professor move out for a fair price. However, this put me in the heartbreaking situation of having to see the new owners' response to my handiwork. As they strolled through what would soon be theirs, I was horrified to hear them comment fondly on the carpet that was now gone:

"There was a beautiful red carpet in this room in the photo," the women remarked as she looked out at the new living room--the very room I had got closest to the ideal. Nothing about her expression registered the slightest pleasure at the space I created. Instead, she merely looked puzzled and slightly disappointed that room was so bereft of ugliness.

The old professor made some mention of my redecorating. "Oh…" She looked at me with a gentle pity, as if my "redecorating" was cute only in that it was so amusingly misguided.

"Well, it looks nice."

The new owners went on to offer to buy half the stuff in the house, even going so far as to search down the now banished figurines to comment on how adorable they were and to ask if they too could be bought.

From then on, my job was to systematically dismantle my own unfinished creation. Now and then, as I was packing up books , I would pause and arrange them just so, just for its own sake. I tried to tell myself that what I had done was a triumph of art for art's sake, that my whole effort was made more pure by the fact it was never appreciated. The problem was, though, that I had enough experience with private, pointless obsessions that I justified as art-for-art's-sake. This was supposed to be my big chance to break from all that and become the calculating--perhaps even slightly shady--deal-maker I knew I could be. I had tried faking being a decorator, but quickly found myself in the obscure, outermost reaches of the redecorating experience. I had become intimate with the decorator's world of miniscule triumphs against the oppressiveness of objects. If this is fakery, it is the useless kind--I seem to be capable of faking the private passions and petty obsessions of other fields, but none of their practical purposes.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


* Part I of a two part series.
I've always imagined that I would excel at many jobs I would never try. Most jobs, I figure, can be boiled down to rhetoric anyways. Of course, I imagine that I'd excel in the language-driven worlds of attorneys and politicians, of CEOs and advertisers. But sometimes I challenge myself to imagine doing a job I would have no affinity for, like a financial analyst. Knowing nothing about finance, and lacking the desire to learn, I would be forced to rely wholly on my persuasive verbal skills. "Everyone says all this stuff about diversifying portfolios" I'd begin. "But let me tell you a little secret" This would be my big gun--pretending to have exclusive against-the-grain insight--"it's bullshit. Put your money on one horse, that's what I say. And I think Big Lots is that horse." It’s the thought of faking and swindling that I like so much, the challenge of getting by on charm and coined phrases alone. Perhaps I'll get the opportunity to do that someday. Unfortunately, however, when I did have the chance to try a new job I was anything but a smooth and removed rogue. Instead, I threw myself into it with a surprising and somewhat reckless sincerity.

It all began when I was still in Tucson. Because I still receive emails from my old school in Michigan, I got an email that was sent to the whole department from a professor emeritus living in California offering $3,000 to anyone that could "find a buyer" for his house in Michigan. He had a real estate agent that wasn't having much luck, and all you had to do to get the prize was direct the future buyer to the agent who would deal with everything else. Knowing I'd be back in winter, I responded to the call with an email. I went on about how savvy I was in all matters regarding real estate, how I had sold my old house in town, how I was aware of all sorts of insider resources even a realtor wouldn’t know about and basically put on the typical show of expertise I put on whether or not I know anything.

What an easy three grand, I thought to myself. I'd simply slap the house all over the internet, take a few calls, refer the buyer to the realtor and collect what would take me at least a class of teaching to earn. When I got back to Michigan, I called the owner and followed up on the bravado of my email with more of the same.

But once I actually saw a picture of the house, that's when the project became far more complicated. The photographs on the internet were awful. There was a hideous red area rug covering wall-to-wall carpet in a living room filled with oppressive, ancient leather furniture. Several walls were covered with 1970's style wood paneling and heavy ceiling fans on every ceiling. Dusty mini-blinds obscured every window, and shelves over packed with books dominated a third of the walls.

Before I had actually seen the house, I figured these were just unflattering photographs of an decent looking place. If I went there myself, I thought, I could take better photographs that showed it to its best advantage, post those in my ads on the internet and be home free. I could angle the camera away from the unsightly bits and capture only its best side. With this in mind, I took up the owner's offer to communicate with the realtor and see the place for myself.

As I drove up, the house was fairly nondescript from the outside. It was a good sized ranch house painted a ugly--but not aggressively ugly--green. When I got to what was described as a "unique four-season entry way," John, the realtor, opened the door. "Nice to meet you!" he said in the calculatedly hardy way that old-fashioned businessmen believe makes a difference. His handshake--firm, dry, boisterous--furthered the impression that this was a Willy Loman character, a man from another time hoping to make that big sale that would finally root him in the present, and give him claim to this life. I would have perhaps enjoyed engaging with him to hear just how much he matched this impression, but I was instantly distracted by my surroundings. The entry way was a horror. Nothing in it was newer than thirty-five or forty years old. A lamp fashioned from a gnarled branch and decorated with rust, goldenrod, and maroon fake flowers drew the eye against its will, and two metal wall hangings, meant to depict some kind of crawling vine, sparkled with pink and bright green metallic buds. One an all-season end table, a ceramic donkey leaned into his load of a candle holder, absent of the candle.

The tour continued and it was soon apparent that the photographs I had seen were actually miraculously flattering. The living room--merely too busy in the photographs--was a deadening chaos of textures and colors in real life. There were knickknacks in every nook and multicolored embroidered pillows nestled next to their plaid boucle counterparts on sliding rocking chairs. Cheap tables represented the range of styles of home décor in the late sixties and seventies, and the rug in person radiated with the visual version of a sulfuric smell. The ceiling fan hung ominously low, as if it were a busy-body god of tastelessness, ready to intervene should the hideousness be jeopardized.

But it was the kitchen that I found most disturbing. The internet listing said little about the kitchen--only that it had "custom cabinets" and that the appliances "were available"--so I figured that it might be a bit outdated not to warrant more glowing copy. This kitchen, however, would have been outdated in 1980. This was an avocado kitchen, complete with an avocado stove. The avocado colored kitchen, popular only for a moment in the mid-seventies, is the quintessential example of bad, instantly dated décor--even the layman knows that. There is a part of me that appreciates the outdated, the forgotten, the victims of the tiller of time. But that part of me was silenced when I thought of someone actually living with this kitchen. Someone, I thought, cooked meals on this green stove. For years. Someone watched that television (there was an ancient, bulky television on the countertop, wedged under the "custom cabinets"). Someone started his day with the color. For years. Every object in the house seemed to echo that sentiment. For years, the discolored plastic phones seemed to say, we rang. For years, the profusion of cheap battery powered wall clocks chimed in, we ticked. For years, the vacuum added, I sucked.

Previous to this, I had little opinion of the old prof that had lived here. He seemed like a pleasant guy, enthused about his retirement, gracious enough. But after touring his home, I started to wonder. What kind of mind could tolerate a house that had offered not a single scrap of visual pleasure? It wasn't that I had different tastes; it was that there seemed to be no taste at work here whatsoever. Even bad taste involves discernment: The person with bad taste picks out ugly things, arranges them in jarring formations, chooses overwrought, fanciful shit over clean lines and pleasing shapes . There is an aesthetic--albeit a tacky and outdated one--in the majority of unattractive homes. But here, there was no sense of choice behind anything. The only logic that was at work here was the blind logic of accumulation. Stuff had appeared over the years, perhaps from dead parents, perhaps from ex-wives, perhaps from old apartments, and apparently had the run of the place. The furniture, the area rugs, the tiny pictures of assorted nothings had an unchecked, cocky object-hood that comes from never being truly subject to human will.

All this implied a sense of being so diminished that even homely objects and their coincidental arrangement had become too daunting to set right. I imagined the old professor subconsciously wincing at the dourness of an ancient leather arm chair, but sinking into it nonetheless, much like a victim, after enough abuse, might sag into the arms of the torturer. That, or the old professor suffered from a madness of omission and was able to move through the house as if it were some kind of neutral, featureless cloudbank where his corporal self just happened to be.

Normally, I might have gone on thinking about how someone gets to that point in one's mind and homemaking, but I was instead overcome by adrenalin. I could fix this! I could come in, redecorate, take new pictures, and fix this! At first, I didn't think my contribution in trying to sell the house would be much. I'd be sort of an extraneous figure, in it for the money and mostly working on the internet. Now, I realized, I could answer a great need. And I knew what to do. For me, so often a doubter and a skeptic, the feeling of certainty hit me like a mania. My purpose was clear! The path was laid before me, as if it has been laid for me! The realtor was standing there, waiting on my reaction, and it was with great effort that I pulled myself down from these new, and pretty much foreign heights.

"This place" I motioned around me, "is obviously an older home. I mean, it has wood paneling, this avocado kitchen and these…" I was suddenly concerned that the realtor, being a pretty musty figure himself, might be offended by proxy if I laid into the age of the home too much--"these decorations don't really downplay the fact this house is older. We need to downplay that as much as possible, I think."

"Huh." He looked around as if the thought had never crossed his mind.

"And this rug" I said, slipping back into an aggressive mode of certainty. "Has got to go."

I stared down at the rug itself, thinking "Get ready buddy. Say goodbye to your unspoiled paradise of rug-dom." I projected myself so fully to the moment I would yank up that rug that I could feel every detail of that moment, right down to the rush of knowing I was doing right. The fantasy was heady and transporting; the porn of perfect conviction.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Seven-Forty Story

Any time I talk about my car, I talk about the car it's not. My original Volvo was a 1986 240 that I owned from about 1997-2001. That car had 152,000 miles when I bought it, and I drove it an additional 100,000 miles before I had to get rid of it. I loved that car. Every time you turned the key, it would roar to life but instantly stall if you didn’t put it into gear right away, as if doubting your intentions. I found that charming. It was heavy, slow, unresponsive, and had a slew of mysterious, intermittent problems. Once it took thirty tries to get it to start. The windshield wipers died during a rain storm only to come back to life when it was over. The warning lights on the dash constantly indicated grave problems that the car somehow kept at bay. "Service Engine" the dash would implore along with an image of an oil can (indicating a leak?), an old fashioned icon of a light bulb (one light, somewhere, was always out), a green upward pointing arrow that meant that overdrive was engaged or disengaged, and other indecipherable flickerings. The dreaded "Check Engine" (the difference between "service" and "check" can be equated to with "curable" and "terminal") would sometimes light up, only to fade when you drove over a bump or turned a car. Apparently, the car too grappled with its own mortality, facing it head on one moment only to suppress it again when the everyday road conditions proved too distracting.

"These are no ordinary malfunctions." I'd think to myself with admiration. Problems take on a certain grandeur when their causes are unknown. Who knows? The lights, the stalls and the sputters might a manifestation of anything--sacred, mystical, demonic, forth-dimensional, mechanical (I grudgingly concede). People with untraceable hang-ups delight me in the same way. Their dysfunction, though probably just a childhood holdover they're incapable of recognizing, is fodder for endless speculation: what in the world are they reacting to? Do they see something in the world I can't? Do they have some inside info gleaned from another realm? Is that why they refuse to talk on the phone, avoid bleached flour, retreat into hiding and so on?

I won't go on and chronicle the wonderful life I had with that car. I won't recall with dog-eared fondness the day I got it up to 100 MPH in about 10 minutes, I wont tell you about this certain rise in a certain part of a certain road that I love to drive because it made the car creak in the most comforting way (just like the handles of my childhood bike), I won't dramatically restage the time the back window was shot out and how I turned on the back wiper thinking the cracks in the glass were ice. Nor will I describe the circumstances of the loss of that car, because this is not the story of my old Volvo. This is the story of the Volvo 740--the car of the present.

The 740 of course was at a disadvantaged from the get-go. I left the old Volvo with the dealer the day I got the 740, so of course whatever I saw when I was wrenched away from my old car was going to look insufficient. It didn't help that the 740 was in excellent shape. With less than 100,000 miles and a pristine exterior, this was a car that had clearly been treated right. While most car owners would appreciate such I thing, I saw it as evidence of the car's lack of mettle. Untested, and free of battle scars, I saw no reason to respect it. 90 odd miles of road experience was nothing compared to the 250,00+ miles the 240 had put in. The comparisons were beginning already. And though I didn’t want to admit it, I probably sensed I was unfit for a"nice" car. Knowing what I demand of cars (both emotionally and mechanically), I knew this Volvo would only degrade with me at the helm. Perhaps I wanted it pre-degraded, like the 240, so I wouldn't have to blame myself for its decline.

Like some sort of sentimental story of love, loss and rebirth, the early days with the 740 matched very closely the story line of emotionally closed-off widow unresponsive to the love of a plucky young orphan in her charge. The car's icy cool air conditioning, clean interior and willing start all left me impassive and doubtful. "Sure it starts okay now" I'd think, with the typical skepticism of those afraid to love again. "But how soon with it start stalling? Probably any day now." No matter how low-maintenance and pleasant the car seemed, I remained impervious to its charm. When I spoke of it, I always had some sort of subjective complaint. "The 240's just feel more solid," I'd say. "These 740's seem more plasticy. And the shifting seems jerkier. My old car…" and of course I'd use this as an opportunity to revisit the golden days and golden flaws of the old 240.

The years passed and the car did degrade but rather than interpret its problems as the long-awaited emergence of its charm, I saw them as just flaws. When the car began leaking oil, it was a perfect opportunity to say "The 240 never leaked oil. It barely even used any oil!" I dutifully fed the car a quart of oil every week, but, like an adult child taking care of a invalid parent with whom she never got along, within my very caretaking there was an element of disregard. I never used a funnel when pouring oil, nor did I make any heroic effort to keep it from spilling. Once, the spilled oil ran down the engine casing and caught on fire. I remember looking down at the flames with a complete, even sociopathic, disinterest in what this might mean for the car's survival. "So it burns." I thought, without making a move to stop it.

The interior of the car began to resemble the old 240. Since Volvos in the old days had no cup holders, my center counsel served as stand-in. Coffee after coffee fell over, eventually producing a layer of loose change fixed and suspended in the hardened spill. It was a little like those fossilized bugs preserved in amber. But while the interior was taking on all the mystery and history and artifacts of my existence, the outside of the car remained as nice as ever. No rust, and a perfect paint job. Occasionally, I'd draw attention to how perfect it was, as if that was the only reason I tolerated it. "Well, its okay" I'd say, with a purposeful lack of conviction. "At least it looks good from the outside."

Not for long. On the way back from school one day, a Gordon Food Service truck hit the car, crushing the left fender, shattering the side mirror, crumpling in the passenger side door and ripping off the trim. Because of insurance nonsense, all I got was $500 to fix it, far below what it would have taken. So now the car was officially, in the eyes of all seeing Kelly Blue Book, worthless. Rather than embracing the car because it was now, really and truly as shitty as the 240, I used this as an opportunity to sound the death toll. It seemed it had nothing going for it now. By all accounts, this should have been the end.

And it seemed it was. By some miracle, I had a job that was high paying for a few months. I bought a new Ford Focus and gave the Volvo to my parents to deal with. Perhaps it would have been sold or junked, but the title was lost, so it languished. During this time, I was experiencing the joys of a non-Volvo, new car. No mysterious problems. No uninterruptible warning lights. No counter-intuitive controls. My relationship with this car was all-business. But I wasn't happy. The car pinched a nerve when I tried to cross my legs during my long commutes and I missed having a feeling towards a car. I was truly indifferent to the Focus--a contrast to the showy indifference I had towards the 740. Maybe indifference so strenuously displayed deserves another term. I suppose I missed whatever you'd call that feeling.

Months passed, and the title of the 740 was never found. My mother, with her typical impulsivity, fixed some of the its internal problems. I no longer had my high-paying job. So when my mom offered to take over the Focus and give me the 740 back, I said I had to think about it. A few more drives with the Focus--so dull a car it didn't ever rise my ire for its dullness--I decided to take the 740 back.

The whole situation with my car reminded me of a young adult book called "The Witches of Worm." The plot goes like so: a young, troubled girl finds an ugly wormy black kitten whom she dubs "Worm". She bottle raises it seemingly just to kill the time. It grows up to be a mean-spirited creature that incites her to do bad things. She half-seriously speculates that it's possessed. She continues to feed and take care of it although it disgusts her. Eventually, she and another troubled youth try to exorcise the cat. The cat escaped, runs away, falls off some ledge outside and the main character thinks he's dead. But he isn't. That night, alone with the more subdued cat (who knows if this is from a successful exorcism or exhaustion) she says "I was really sorry you were dead." That line has risen unbidden in my mind over the last ten years. It’s the most couched and conservative of compliments, and what a strange tense! So few people would ever have the occasion to say it. And I love the grudging agreement she has with the cat. I love the notion of grudging agreements.

I suppose I was really sorry the 740 was dead. When I got it back, all the resentment came back to me, but this time with a kind of glory. How sublimely familiar it was! There's a line by Emerson that says something about how great writers show the "alienated majesty" of our rejected thoughts coming back to us. Is that what I experience when I sit down in that car with a combination of resentment and fellow-feeling? The great tiller of time should have dragged the 740 under by now but there it sits in the coffee-shop parking lot. Silently witnessing my days, it sees how so few are worth witnessing. In my favorite poem, "Days"--also by Emerson--he describes how unimpressive his affairs are in the lofty expectation of the days themselves. An alteration of his quote will serve:: "And under [the 740's] solemn [headlights] I saw the scorn."

The 740 and I have don't have a relationship. We have an arrangement. When I open the car door and sit down, I feel everything is acknowledged. "Yes, I'm a mess. Yes, I regress daily. Yes, my daily doings are nonsensical." I'm forthcoming because the car is now so saturated with my flaws that how could I do otherwise? The filth, the disrepair, the noble bearing--all my paradoxes made manifest. The 740 serves, if nothing else, as a holy place for my vices. For that reason, I grant it a grudging respect(although the 240 probably could have performed this role better, I have to say).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Venerable Personage

I am not a central player at the place where I'm now employed. No one looks to me for nuanced advice on handing the administration, no one turns to me for measured diplomacy when tensions run high among the faculty, no one breaths a sign of relief when I agree to take on the thorniest of thorny issues, no one ever makes the comment that "with McFawn at the helm, by god, I think we just might make it through." No, I am not a central player, and probably that's best: I would get too far into the role, be all things to all people, and then forget (or get too lazy) to hide that I was all things to all things to all people, and people like nothing less than when your all-thingness isn't exclusive. My cleverness doesn't backpedal well, so when my divided loyalties and two-facedness were outed, I'd have no recourse but to avoid eye-contact and halfway shrug.

I make up for my lack of this type of centrality by sitting smack dab in the middle of it all. I plop myself down right there in the main office, right in the hub of all the activity. All around me, copy machines, mail slots, computers, printers, secretaries and staff function and whir, while I sit still, only moving slightly to turn a page or find a pen. Sitting so quietly and so centrally, I might look, to an alien observer, as if I were the cause of all this scurrying, as if all these bustling people and machines were working so hard so that I, honored as I was, might remain unperturbed.

In my central spot, I see a lot of comings and goings, a lot of pleasantries exchanged, a lot of papers being gathered and disseminated: in short, there's not much to see. However, there is one venerable personage, as Hawthorne might say, who makes himself known several times a day when I'm there. He's probably in his sixties somewhere, maybe older, and uses one of those canes with the three pronged base. I say he "makes himself known" becomes every time he appears in the office, he does so with a strange air of purposeful conspicuousness.

Because he uses a cane, he is, maybe unfortunately, more conspicuous by nature. A cane and two feet, however well orchestrated their routine, make for a dissonant approach. At first, I speculated his conspicuous personality might be a response to the cane. Perhaps he's disgusted by the implications of trying to downplay the limp and the cane; perhaps he thinks that would smack of shame and meely-mouthed denial. In defiance of such a simpering response, he proudly doubles his conspicuousness by piling on the strange mannerisms. He always talks: sometimes he mutters to himself in mock-annoyance, just quiet enough to be out of earshot, just loud enough to wish you were closer to see if you were indeed making his words out right. He seems to find a lot of reasons to talk to office workers, and his end of the conversation always is loud and general enough to sound like an announcement.

There's also a lot of theatrical emphasis to his movements. He'll smack his hand down on the main desk, in the same manner as someone smacks the hood of prize car after calling it a "beauty." He'll tear his mail out of the mail-slot as if anticipating it might give him a fight, and when he talks to office workers over the counter, he puts his whole forearm up there and leans in--an overstated gesture of familiarity and heartiness. Sometimes he gets a look of dramatic puzzlement on his face, as if sending up the image of the befuddled old man who wandered into too-modern times. "What's a PDF file? Eh?" And when he can no longer maintain anyone's direct attention, he addresses himself in an amused tone, perhaps reminding himself of his next task, or admonishing himself for forgetting what his next task was.

The overall impression he gives is of someone who wants to be engaged. His out-loud observations seem to be beg to be put into play and bantered back from somewhere else . On the other hand, his way of speaking is addressed to everyone, and therefore to no one. Responding to him directly and personally would seem strange, like thanking the intercom at Meijer's for mentioning a sale in aisle C. But since I don't shrink from addressing the un-addressable, I've thought about responding to him in some way. Yet something about the look on his face pulls me up short. How is it that someone who seems to socialize with the world-as-a-whole would look so downright unsociable?

It might be that all his presentational joviality is not really social at all. In his actions and talk, he seems to acknowledge everything a passerby might think of him: "Sure I have a cane! And don't you forget it! Watch me bring it down with conviction!" or "You're damn right I'm from another time. And you're doubly right that I don't belong here one bit! See! I don't understand the way things work 'round here! " The function of his whole persona might be to preempt these perceptions of him. By displaying that he knows what he is, no one can think to themselves 'I've got the old guy pegged." Still, what's point of it? What is he preventing or encouraging by this showy self-knowledge?

I've seen this behavior in other old men, and in a recovering alcoholic. People who have a weakness that they believe they can't hide sometimes make a show of acknowledging it. The recovering alcoholic had what seemed to be a purposely unpolished manner, a way of saying "It would be absurd for me to act poised or in control of anything with my history." Old men get into playing old men to confirm they're in complete acceptance of their lot. This venerable personage might consider both his age and his cane a weakness, one with which (he tells himself) he's made a mirthful peace. And it is this he so forcefully displays. Still, displaying such a thing so strongly is actually off-putting. Imagine a conversation where two people excessively introduce themselves:

"Hi, I'm McFawn. I am in the marginalia of society. I make notations on what I see. I scrawl, but the world is in typeface. Does that make me an iconoclast? You're thinking I think that I am. But believe me, I am too skeptical to believe in iconoclasm as anything more than inverse conformity. And I know that has no inherent worth."

And so on. Nothing is more antisocial than trying to control someone else's perceptions past the point where they would even bother to perceive. But there's still something appealing in it. People who announce themselves tend to talk more freely, tend to be more amusing, and often have the delightful habit of speaking in confidence with strangers. It's as if they figure everyone already knows them because their introduction is built into their mannerisms. This is a charming misperception.