The Hum of the Chimes

I feel it’s my time to tell part of a story I’ve been holding next to my chest for years. I will not tell you all of it, as there’s to it than I can name, but I will tell you a length of it, a length that felt like a conclusion at the time, but was in fact in media res. It’s about the hum and family and terror. It’s about laughter and faith and Mr. Pickering.

College was not an easy time for my family. There were the usual horrors of a humming life: my grandma’s death, my mom’s cancer, family mental illness. However, there was something extra, a certain kind of surprise my brother and I had to face together and alone.  At the time this thing we faced, hand in hand, this thing born of mental illness and fear and anger, was insurmountable. I couldn’t even really name it for a good while. It was just that bad thing. I won’t tell you too much more now about the bad thing.

Before and during and after this insufferably unnameable thing happened I was taking a class about American nature writing. This tall, spindly, silver-haired, bouncy, gibbounous old man taught the course: Samuel Pickering (he hated when I used too many adjectives). Sam is Huck Finn if Huck sublimated all that trauma into pure life essence. Sam is a glittering smile shining despite the gray day. Sam is one of the few men I’ve met that could walk through a hall of horror and find the humor in it, and like, the real life giving humor, not the cynical washed out kind. I always ended up describing him as the character Robin Williams was based on in Dead Poet Society, because he was and is the character the late Robin was based on; except Robin couldn’t come close to Sam’s energy. Sam (he preferred Mr. Pickering, but my memory of him has seemed fit to let me be casual) illuminated the lines of a world I felt weary of in ways I could not expect. Most of the class was him telling stories (that he probably spit shined up a little). He did not give a single shit about polite social convention no matter who got embarrassed (he of course was gleefully shameless). I was once walking in a hermitted shoulder shrugging way across a UCONN quad when I heard some daft, southern accented voice yell, with increasing fervor, “It’s a Banana! No! It’s an APPLE! NO! IT’S MR. MANGOOOO.” I loved Sam. He could find that film that covered everyday absurdity in conventional wisdom and he’d rip it off every time he did. I brought my brother to meet Sam. Both my brother and I loved talking to him, about the woods, books, stories; we each forced him to reluctantly watch some YouTube videos he’d then yell about in the hall (search for the Turtle Man to see a favorite). Sam showed me and my brother why someone like Thoreau was worth reading, worth coveting even. Not because Henry was some dynamo of personality, but because he was so tenacious in his desire to feel what life might be if we let ourselves imagine it such. One of the small good things of being an American is the fact that wanting more, when put modestly and imaginatively can yield bushels of fecund life if we open ourselves to it.

After the bad thing I decided to keep a promise that my brother and I had made. I decided to drive up to Walden Pond while reminiscing about Sam Pickering. It was a cold February day. Sleet and gray slate skies. And I’d kept the promise in that I was heading to Walden. The kind of driving that covers the windshield in spray. I broke it too, the promise. I was going without my brother. For a few months now, after the bad thing, I’d felt cut off from what I’ve discussed as the hum, or rather, I forgot about it, or maybe it was never alive in me, ever. I was in the car alone in some ways. My chest and stomach had been opened and filled with fine cement and left to set. As I drove, feeling the distance from my house and my brother growing, I felt a new kind of emptiness. One in which nothing in the world meant much at all. My homegrown nihilism, that feeling state, had a real place to roost after the bad thing left much of me and our relationship deeply complicated. I did not stop to question why I still wanted to keep that promise to head to Walden.

Sam didn’t put up with my know-it-all shit in his class. I might act bored or sullen or both (it’s easy to do when you’re depressed) and I remember once, after Sam read out a journal entry from Emerson in which Emerson said he’d discovered a new instrument by bouncing a rock off a block of ice in the woods I commented—with the knowing air of any buffoon–something like, “it sounds like he’s making light of it as if he’s better than everything around him” to which Sam, quite appropriately responded, “Mr. Mango you didn’t understand a damn lick of this.” I hadn’t. I think what Sam never quite realized that while he might have put himself in a Romantic or Transcendentalist tradition, there might have been more Nietzsche there than anything else. I think at the time I’d failed to realize this. When Nietzsche said  “The maturity of man—that means, to have reacquired the seriousness that one had as a child at play” he could have simply been describing Sam. That play was in some way essential to moving through the world, that it was in fact simultaneously a very serious silly business. I think this is what my brother and I loved about Sam the most especially because I thought everything was oh so stupid or oh so serious at the time, the twain never meeting. Or maybe this if you’re inclined (like I was) to melancholy “Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” Sam was always fond of telling me something his friend had written, that Sam was the only man that could come out a pile of shit riding a silver horse, something of the like. For Sam near senseless embrace of the moment was kind of self-overcoming, Sam was indeed a man who loved his fate.

I wanted to love my fate too. But at the time it had seemed to me as if I’d gotten in the shit too deep and I’d lost that held hand from a person I love dearly. I couldn’t hear their hum or any hum any more. All movement lead to static and all stillness forced me to listen to it. Then I opened the door of my 2000 silver Honda civic after I pulled to a stop in the near empty parking lot of Walden pond. I was already sniffling. I didn’t quite know what I was doing there. I was in between serious and silly, or both of them, or nothing. It was cold and my cheeks were read and my nose and eyes were runny and the coal in my throat was thick and chalky. When I saw Walden Pond I had the delightfully dull thought, “Why didn’t they call it Walden lake” The almost iron drab sky pressed on my head with the kind of pressure only deep ennui and buried fear can bring. The pond was big. It had sandy beaches, I was almost talking to myself beneath the sound of pond waves crashing and shushing onto land. The sand was cemented frozen. And in that moment that place of pure cement in me that could not pick up the feel of any hum at all (some much so that there was a kind of screaming sound in my head [and it was almost like the inner killer chorus calling out, bleating out the name of my brother so he might return to me somehow]) and I heard music. It was rhythmic, but not on time, not in step. And it was as if someone had laced the sky about the clouds with chimes and with the kind of gentleness you’d use to touch the face of a child, let the chimes sing. And I looked up, up from my trudge on the cement inside myself and under my feet and I saw on the pond that I’d come to a place where the ice had started to break up into little icicles, as if the edge of the ice on the lake there was a jigsaw of intimately close chandelier pieces, and I saw as they wafted out and in and the chimes were in fact the water and the ice, and that the hum of nature here was one of delicacy, the insides of the cold water a place of play and I collapsed and I wept with delight at how serious it was and how soulfully silly. I missed my brother, but he was here now in these sounds. I knew the kind of joy this would bring him and believed I’d need to see this alone to remember my connection to him  transcended any confusion of the bad thing. The hum is always there.

You see, I forget that a lot. When I wrote about the hum earlier, and written about it in a much more dejected manner, I’d forgotten something so important. I’d forgotten Wallace’s reminder to remember the water. More importantly, I’d forgotten any thought that the water always changes no matter how stolid or thick it seems or for how long it stays that way. I’d forgotten that that deep seriousness of play and laughter was so important because it was and is an invocation of the fact that all things change. That in playing, singing, we make that change human.

It’s been years since the bad thing. My brother and I care about each other as much as any brothers could and I often think of how far we’ve come, and Samuel Pickering, and Thoreau, and Nietzsche, and the chimes in the pond, and when I do I am forced to remember something that would be gross to say in polite company because it demands I talk of faith. My faith, in ever changing waters, demands I believe in an impossible God. My God lives in contradiction and nonsense and perhaps the greatest nonsense of all is that there should be such a thing as kindly laughter and mature play and unprovoked selfless kindness. I am forced through having lived long enough, to believe that actual faith has much more to do with living on the very edge of time, open and undefensive to each moment, and much less to do with finding pure tranquility; that, in fact, to be able to have the negative capability to hold two different feelings simultaneously–there is no hum and I hear the sky’s chimes–my brother is not here and yet he is here–this is all so very silly and very serious—has much more to do with faith than any actual certainty of belief.  That is the story I want to tell you now. That is the story I hope I always tell you, in a thousand different ways with different words and changing meanings but the same single soul. I know I will forget again and again the sound of the chimes and the buzz of the hum, but they will always be there for me to return to when I remember I can and I trust enough to do so. All things I need are both effervescent and eternal. And I am silly enough to believe so.

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Tears in the Rain

This might seem overly simplistic by the time we’re done.
I have a good life. I have both my parents. We talk and we love each other. I have a brother and a sister that I’m proud of and I love wholeheartedly. I have a dog back in CT that loses are mind whenever I come home to visit. I have friends as far as 20 years back. I have a dynamic life that is challenging and engaging and provides meaning. I have multiple different communities that provide support and understanding and an overall gentle assurance against those creeping pressures in life. I have easy access to food and health care and shelter and water. I am not routinely discriminated against for my color or sex or sexual orientation and gender identification. I am lucky in countless unthinkable ways that my basic situation is one in which my particular biological fragility is allowed to exist at all as any change to any vector that makes up this reality that seems so impenetrable could obliterate all of this at any moment.

Despite all of these things that I try to be actively grateful for and humbled by I want more. It is that simple. I always, always want more. And please understand me, I’m not now chastising myself for this basic fact. Perhaps I could do more to discourage my gluttonous, lustful, wrathful want of things. Maybe less time on Ebay, but I have to acknowledge too that I am a thing that wants.
And that’s helpful. I need to want food. I need to want shelter. And I need to want water and love and intimacy and all of these other things. Want is a good motivator. But it’s not my intention to waste your time about the virtue of asceticism, the salvation of acceptance of the Quixotic project of fulfilling desire (though, you know as well as I do, you get what you want and it’s never really what you needed), but rather a particular kind of pressure that is born out of this strange opposition between how good things seem and how twisted up I can get.

Forgive my self-effacement. So much of this stuff I talk about can so easily fall into cliché, bromide, banality. I feel like certain important conversations can kind of be like navigating an elephant boneyard of Happy Meal toys, any step off the path delivers unto us the bones of images and items drained of any authenticity or use. And I think this particular feeling, while pungent with a weird liveliness, has been cast into this land of misfit toys of late capitalism. So lemme try starting with a question. Have you ever cried in the shower? Even as I ask that I get weirdly defensive, a simultaneous sense of guilt and fear of vulnerability and defensiveness, like my fur is standing on end to ward of judgement from some beastly predator. I mean, of course I have. That’s why I’m writing this. I did it today. And I think these a strange and particular flavor to tears in cleansing bathroom rain. The womb like reverberations of porcelain and plastic, the ritual and aforementioned ridding of impurities, a vulnerable spot of self care mixed with something sorrowful and maybe desperate in a seemingly safe place. There’s a reason Janet Leigh’s attack in Psycho is so horrifying. No one and nothing should touch me there. But, let’s not toss off that pop culture link right away. This scene happens a lot. So much so that it’s become the butt of a very unfunny and weirdly cruel joke. I mean, just to list a few: the aforementioned Pyscho technically counts, an upsetting cynical peak of the day jeer by Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, there’s one in Blue Valentine (but to be fair most of that movie, is crying, well acting crying, but still), a bizarre one in Starship Troopers, MASH, Carrie, Heathers, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Leaving Las Vegas, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Hurt Locker…. There’s a lot. And in everyone there’s this bizarre feeling of ‘man, this person is at the end of their rope, like psychologically not all there.’ It’s an easy way to cast a character as being in a vulnerable and dangerous kind of distress.

And that makes sense. Especially because whenever I end up in a shower and find myself crying something is telling me that I’m doing it wrong, and I am not grateful enough and I am too entitled and if I could just do something different then I wouldn’t be failing in this moment and maybe would feel so much pain and maybe then things would finally be wonderful and I could finally breath without pressure on my chest or pain behind my eyes or a slight sense of doom.  How did I get to be so afraid of a little vulnerability?

I remember what made me love with one of my old friends. Or at least solidified what was there. We really liked each other and we really made each other laugh and she was always cheery and kind, but none of that is what concretized it, concretized that immense sense of connection. She told me a story where she was desperate. She told me about a time way, way back in middle school when a boy she liked said something venomously cruel. And when she told me she was shaking and stuttering and I felt that same exact fear of what it would be like to be confused and afraid. Because the cruel boy said she was too fat to date. And when she told me that I felt the immense trust she’d placed in me to let her see her as she did not want to be seen. There was no better way of saying, “I am like you.”

So many of these movies are instructive in that they show me exactly what I’m getting wrong about that initial defensiveness around crying and showers and all that stuff. I have to practice being vulnerable with myself to be vulnerable with others. And part of that practice is embracing the emotional paradox that it is entirely healthy to feel like the world is going to end while your bathing, that brief moments of despair or not signs of failure, but livelihood, and to fully feel them, to embrace them and expel them is actually in incredible sign of wholeness as it is a sign of willing vulnerability. So much of emotional healthy is being okay with just not being okay. Because eventually you will be, okay that is. I always am. Most folk are.

And, okay, goddamnit, I fear I’ve lapsed into a kind of purely positive pop psych self help. So let me add in one bone of cynical contention. If I’m going to live, I’m going to do it as thoroughly as possible. So many of my internalized messages demand I want to feel good at all times. Any yet, the perversity of being a thinking thing in some ways is this: transcending those initial impulses about what I want to feel and don’t want to feel so as to sit fully with everything I feel. My life is only good when I let myself hurt because if I refuse it I suffer. And for some reason that thought makes me feel pretty good.

My Birthday Gift

Most birthdays don’t mean much. This one feels  different. It’s a milestone, especially because it signals the normal move from post-post-adolescence to responsibility filled adulthood. I have that one “joke” from Friends seared in my head when the camera captures Joey praying to God saying “We had a deal. It could happen to them, just not me.” There’s that good old fear of death even though I’m still quite young.

But I think birthdays do what most holidays do; they magnify the theme the holiday wraps itself in and they ask us to reflect on that magnified theme. This time the theme is life itself (the fact I still have it, the fact it marches on, the fact it’s different, the fact it’s too much the same, the fact that—you get it). It’s a lot to think about.

Even though today’s been calm, internally and externally, I’ve heard a weird low rumble–more felt than heard–of two subconscious wolves pulling at my brain stuff. One wolf has kind eyes and thick fur, it has the scars that are due from taking care of itself and the pack, the other is spindly and hungry and slobbering in a knowing, mocking way. One wolf is warm, it saddles up with me when I’m scared or feel small. The other convinces me I’m small. One wolf is acceptance, the other is desire.
I have wanted intensely. My mind is an Iago when it comes to the machinations of desire, a Loki of seduction and deception. I have wanted women and recognition and talent and money and success and love and wisdom and painlessness and ecstasy and rapture and intoxication and drunkenness. I spent so much of my younger youth wanting to be dead because I felt so thoroughly hurt from not getting all the other things I wanted. And when that want of death became too frighteningly real I wanted to escape in the bottom of a bottle and I wanted that relief to keep happening and when this too was snubbed I found myself with that same terrifying want.

But, I also wouldn’t be sitting here writing to you, trying to weave love into linguistics if I did not want. I wanted to get better. I wanted to grow. I just… needed other people’s help. And I needed to accept that that help had always been there and eventually I needed to want to be grateful that that help was always there and always will be.

Look, sitting here now, I want things. I want a relationship with a woman I’ve yet to meet. I want more money. I want to feel less lonely. I want to be seen. These are not bad things, but it is so easy for them to shift into the creepy smiling face of the wiry wolf that wants even more.

In some ways, here at thirty, I want my life to be different. I also want to no longer feel this want. This is one hungry wolf. I’m sure Fenrir is its father.

There’s that parable about these two wolves (it may be Cherokee or Inuit or possibly take by good ole-Billy Graham; it’s hard to find a hard source for the thing) and go ahead and stop me if you know this one, but I need to tell it anyways: old man and a young boy, boy says “old man there are two wolves in me, one is bad and one is good” The old man, being old and wise says back, “That’s right young boy, that’s ego vs. selflessness, love vs. hate, courage vs. fear, every moment and possibility of transcendence vs. all things vile, shameful, twisted” and the young boy, with a scared look says, “but old man which one is gonna win?” and the old man smiles at the boy and says, “which ever one you feed the most.”

I fucking hated that story when I first heard it. Smarmy, reductive, school-marm pap. Couldn’t tangle with the complexity of life, couldn’t fuck with the intricate dance of beauty and filth in everything. Then life humbled me hard and now that story makes a lot of sense.

I have to practice petting that first wolf. Even though it’s always there, waiting for me to return, I can forget about it when I’m hunting. And when I get back it’s gotten weaker.

I can’t state this enough. If you’ve been in my life I am better for it. No matter what. This may seem Pollyannaish, but I need to keep this perspective of gratitude, otherwise I leave pieces of my life out to rot. If you’ve showed me kindness in any small way I am bone deep thankful for you. And if I love you (and that, thankfully enough, is a whole helluva lot of you) well, need I say more? … Yeah I’m gonna say more. I owe my ever-bleating moment being here and being alive to you: all thirty years.

I guess I’m saying I don’t really care how these thirty years have been. I’m just really happy to have you in them. I hope I remember to feed that wolf for the next ninety.

Thank you,
I love you,

This birthday couldn’t be better.

Please and Thanks for Reads

I never expected this blog to happen this way. Or, I never expected this blog to be paired with these last few years; because, they’ve been weird years. Don’t get me wrong, they’re by and large on the up and up, but still. It seems like this thing has three or so phases. I started it 2 and 1/2 or 3 years ago. I was still pretty damn depressed. Like, depression was still the pressure behind my eyes. And then I hit a bottom. Maybe sometime I’ll tell you that story if you want to hear it. It changed my life. That first phase was me in the shit. I’d been in it for a while and in a lot of ways I was trying to write myself out of depression. Like the entomologist who wishes to capture all the slimy things of the word in order to understand and own that very world, I thought defining the shape of my depression down to its most minute details might impart a kind of mastery. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a fully conscious impulse, but the shape, structure and content or those earlier posts beget my psychological place. I would usually lay around or walk, just thinking until I was hit by enough anxiety or discomfort or libidinal oomph to sit down and smash an entry out. They were usually one and done deals and it felt good to wrong in that spasmodic, even orgasmic way. I could write them fast enough that my anxiety couldn’t catch up and I’d publish them (with piss poor proofreading) before I collapsed back into my miasmatic mind.

And like I said, then I got sober. And boy did that help. For some reason I never put together the idea that my depression had something to do with my drinking. I wasn’t the heaviest drinker out there, but I was pretty consistent and I couldn’t control it and now I do not have that same struggle. And so the second phase started. One predicated on, I think, hope and, I say this reservedly, faith. Something changed in me and I wanted to share it because it actually felt sacred. I don’t want to get all preachy or God mouthed, but this part of me I’d left alone for a while woke up a bit. It’s hard to ignore my ability to start trusting Life again. And there’s some stuff in that vein.

I think either the FYE essay marks a third phase; one I plan to explore more. While it’s not a perfect essay and I think I rush a lot of points, it felt better to take my time exploring various facets and moods and seeing how they clashed rather than ejecting a single feeling or moment. Because I think the orginal aim of this blog, to find the subtle moments of depression, can actually really only be done in this long(er) form essay, one that gives me space to explore and breath a little. Also hopefully laugh once or twice (looking back on some essays, goddamn I wished I’d added some levity).

So my plan is this: at least one longer essay a month, with maybe a few small things stuck in there. They’re going to vary widely in tone and topic, but will all somehow wrap around to that thing of “what does it feel like”, you know, basic phenomenology (and so of course a tinge of melancholy).

In its 2 ½ to 3 year life, almost 2000 people have visited this blog. For being a thing I do on the side I think that’s really fucking cool. I am earnestly grateful if you’ve read one or all of this stuff. Really, the website keeps track and its nice to know folks are reading (and if you only read half, or just browse, that’s fine too, you’re doing me a solid of inflating a bit of my ego).

I think one thing I’d like to see more of, besides my own increased effort in the essays is more interaction. I think the format (wordpress) can make this difficult because you have to log in, but I really want to talk to you about this. If you have criticism, just thoughts in general, please send them to me. It means more than anything. You can tweet me or message me on twitter @callmejohnmango or send me an e-mail johnmango0@gmail.com. I’ll add these at the end again. I really do want to hear from you, please consider it a favor to me. I’d prefer this as an entry way to discussion rather than some writing that sits here at stolid wait for passive eyes.

I promised myself one thing when I started this: I would be rigorously honest. I think this is still my ethos, but honesty, it turns out, is a process like anything else. I can only be honest about what I’m aware of and there’s so much my conscious mind is not partial to… right now. I want to carry that promise into future work.

Thanks for reading and I do hope to hear from you.

Twitter: @callmejohnmango

Email: johnmango0@gmail.com

My voice is always on this blog if you miss it,

John

Unpacking My Merch

There’s a thing that looks like a wet dog in the corner of the store I work at. You can buy it if you want. It’s on clearance. It looks like a teddy bear, a pretty big one, hip to head in height. Its fur is smooth, but tangled like hair of an over-washed cashmere throw. The fur is mostly bright pink with a belly that should be white. It has one eye. It should have another but it’s burned. Actually, that’s not true. The teddy appears burned and was designed to have one eye, a lopsided cyclops. Apparently it’s from Breaking Bad (the episode where that plane crashes and things fall from it, the bear among them [I had to look this up, the bear’s a repeating image]). I love that show and I had no idea that thing was in it. But someone somewhere said to themselves, or to a team, “merchandise that.” It is incredibly uncomfortable to look at the bear. The first time I saw it I was cleaning up the store and saw this thing, this wet like glistening pink cushion lying face down and I bent and picked it up and turned it over, its fur almost squeaky with polyester strands, and I uttered a full grunt of revulsion. The damn thing was made to look ruined.

Usually there’s something comforting about a worn bear. A worn teddy bear’s been loved, its bright brown fur worn down to a grayish corduroy, an eye hanging out (that eye having seem a lot before deciding to retire). But this bear was pristine, just had a bunch of black patches like dead skin, dead frostbitten skin. This bear looked dirty and dead, anything but actually burnt. And, the thing is, it won’t even get to be loved by some kid somewhere. It will not collect a single story except its unknown life before it was eaten by the trash. Who would make this? Do people actually buy this? What the fuck is this uncanny piece of pop culture flotsam that haunts the back of FYE, waiting for a consumer that probably isn’t coming?

The store is in the mall. It’s a little mall and the cafeteria (right across from the store) manages to be mostly empty, even on a Saturday. Some of the food booths are closed down to stainless steel counters and brick walls. By comparison FYE seems overstuffed with items.  The store, like most mall stores, doesn’t have an entrance, but an opening, two of them, hoping customers drifting along the main corridor might wriggle off to the side and find themselves amongst the merchandise, like a river eel into a trap. The store seems to be two stores combined. It is divided, roughly in the middle, by a wall that goes most of the way up the store’s depth. Facing from the front, the store contains 4 double shelving units for cds, they reach about shoulder height, and on the right about 3 double shelving units for Video reaching above average height level. Despite the great allocation of space to DVDs and CDs these (dying) formats actually seem like an insignificant piece of the store itself. Most of FYE’s pop is upfront, displayed with a calculated ostentatiousness on rolling tables that are often rearranged according to what is new or hot.

This last part is, I think, key. You see FYE traffics mostly in merchandise. This merchandise is remarkably homogeneous and always new. What I mean here is this: the same few products are rebranded again and again and again with the most recent company FYE has a deal with. Right now there are three main tables. One hosts Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (a little to the back as it’s a few months old, which is to say ancient–old news) a Wonder Woman table (right up front, proud of its self imposed consumer feminist identity) and the third is WWE (which, if nothing else, never fails to be impressive at generating new merch that people really like, and buy. For example there are shelves of boxes of a cereal called Booty O’s, which we stock enough of to be considered a grocery store). They sell T-Shirts, Jewlery, Hats, Hoodies, Action Figures, Funko Pops, Candy, Coloring Books, Soundtrack CD’s. Every table. Some have a Wonder Woman symbol, some have Groot. None attempt to be anything but immediately recognizable and consumable. And this stuff is overwhelming, but I’m not trying to get on my pedestal and decry this as the end of western culture. Because I can’t. Because I like this stuff. I own this stuff. Not any of the above in particular, but stuff just like it. And all of it, smushed together, crowded for space and views, begging to be bought before it’s irrelevant (a deadline that comes surprisingly quickly) is shit. It is shit commodified. Which is a rather repetitive statement.

The first day I came home from work it was dark out. The apartment was dark, I was that sort of uncomfortable dirty from light sweat and dust and grunge that makes your skin sort of squeak with filth. I opened my bedroom door and flipped on a light and saw shelves upon shelves of shit. A juggernaut action figure, an Apatosaurus model, a recreation of the bust of a horse from  the Terracotta Army, a James Joyce bobblehead, a Legend of Zelda Link figure, a Batman notebook, a dinosaur notebook, reems of hardbound comic collections, piles of books, lamps, lights, clothes, branded shirts. I didn’t need to worry about bringing home shit from work, I’d been collecting and storing it this whole fucking time.

But there’s a few things here. I like this shit. I actually fully like it. And it’s hard to reconcile my revulsion at the shit in FYE with the shit in my room. It was hard because the dynamic here, is I think, complex. It is not simply that all merch is actually inherently good. In many ways, merch’s default state is shit. Nor is it that I failed to appreciate what I had. No. This is false gratitude; gratitude being a sacred feeling reserved for vaunted and fragile things like connection and grace and faith, the things that are hard to really ever put into words. But, so what the fuck is it?

The Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin has many lovely essays, but one is rather instructive here: “Unpacking my Library.” Benjamin write it as if he’s sitting amongst piles of tomes he’s in the process of sorting and shelving. Maybe even 20 crates of his own literary shit. And he’s dealing with a similar frustration. If I live in a capitalist society that prizes commodity fetishism, what does it mean for me, a person who ostensibly wishes to resist or subvert these impulses, to be a collector? Is it simply hypocrisy? Well, yes, some of it is, but not all of it, and not the most important impulses of it. Benjamin lays out the dialectic of order vs. chaos. His meaning here, as with every great essay, leaves a bit of interpretation, but chaos is quickly associated with passion, liveliness, continuing existence. He tells us, “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” For me, this line reveals the actual true and good function of merch, what it can be or what it really is, a conduit to memory. “More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” What else indeed. It is through habit, an encounter that occurs again and again, that the madness of collecting and, for our purposes, acquiring becomes greased over as order.

Because I can imagine someone unfamiliar with conspicuous consumption or retail, some delightful alien unaccustomed to late capitalism’s feverous engagement with materialism walking into my FYE and looking out on waves of CDs that rise and fall, the head of Raekwon and Tyler the Creator, near Marvin Gay and Mastodon, and the glowing ghouls eating human flesh on a Cannibal Corpse album threatening to eclipse the smooth dayglow buzz of seven different Katy Perry CDs, each a world of music unto itself that might not be very good or different or interesting, but at least seems so in this visual moment; and there’s a big banner is strung overhead reading “Bingeworthy” (A banner that has been placed over old luminescent wall installations showing Eminem and Carrie Underwood and Justin Timberlake: in other words, old news), and I can imagine that very moment in front of this great bounty to the gods of Neoliberalism as one that is nearly rapturous. In fact, I have felt it, as I was asked to stand and watch for thieves (all customers are possible thieves) and for some reason Goodbye Horses was playing and, for a moment I felt the rhythm of the percussion and the high pinging over the crooning, only to be out done by a more enlightened falsetto, all wrapping my mind and heart in a notion that this was now, and everything in here could be mine to hear and devour and savor in the saliva of my mouth and I might never be bored or sad or alone again. That was the promise. And just as quickly, these items of entertainment turned leaf and felt sad, and dull, and lifeless. I can imagine someone feeling that drug-like ecstasy only to crash into the nihilism of it all. All of it, shit.

And this crash is important and particular to commodities. It is one that Benjamin addresses. Benjamin understands that the books he owns, as pure physical items, mean very little. They have little utility. They are not often shared, but they contain something that cannot be commodified. And as crazy as this idea might be, I fully agree with it, that there is something in and around us that cannot be commodified. For Benjamin, this is history. The history of the particular book. The personal history of the item in front of him. The experiences that become associated with our shit that turns it into our shit, that we can then tell others about.

The items in FYE are tricky. There’s a reason they’re all associated with a property and a brand. Nothing in the store can be allowed to exist on its own; nothing can be its own art object or self-referential thing of enjoyment. It comes preloaded with a kind of meaning. Let’s take Lucille. Lucille belongs to Negan, a Big Bad on the immensely popular comic and TV Show the Walking Dead (Negan’s played by a delightfully smarmy Henry Dead Stanton, all swagger and leather jacket and joyful death). Negan smashes in heads of both the dead and living with Lucille. Lucille is not a woman, but a wooden baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. It is a destructive thing whose only appetite is blood. And in the comic and TV show both, makes for a menacing image. Except of course this bat in FYE is not actually Lucille. It’s a replica made of dense plastic. The barbed wire? Plastic. The wood? Plastic. The grip? You guessed it. Everything dangerous about Lucille is neutered. This limp Lucille stands in like a sad ghost of a prop that never existed except on TV (which is really to say, solely in our imaginations). There is something tragic about the bat that is not a bat. It might have to do with the fact it’s in a cardboard box that has curved edges so as not to give customers paper cuts, or the fact that there are five Lucilles or the fact the bat’s ostensible story is one of murder and violence, tapping into our ugly atavistic selves in a near-thrilling manner, and yet it has been so thoroughly sanitized of any uses of violence that they had to draw on the blood with what looks like red sharpie. The bat is preloaded with a history and at every turn the very physicality of the bat betrays that story, shows us its falseness. And yet, it is specific enough to The Walking Dead that thinking of it as anything but Lucille takes real effort. It does not attract its own new stories, stories personal to us. It is neither dead nor alive as an item; stymied from growing by associations we might give it, and useless in action due to its neutered status. In many ways, it is the purest of commodities, because once bought, if we wish to have more stories we must buy some other equally stymied item. The commodity demands we own more commodities to fill out our imagination. Lucille was made to sit nicely on some dreadful frat mantelpiece and for people who pretend to be dangerous. It is poseur made object.

And Lucille isn’t the worst of it and doesn’t quite hit on something I suggested early: the sublime, rapturous, disgusting fecundity of all this stuff. Even though there are five full sized Lucille bats in the store, there are only two forms Lucille comes in (the other being a finger length version included with a McFarlane designed Negan action figure, also complete with blood splattering). Even though Lucille itself is preloaded with story, it does not overload the consumer, it seems almost unique—unlike Deadpool. If you are not familiar, Deadpool is a character created by Rob Liefeld for the Marvel Comic book X-Force in the early nineties. Deadpool, with his normal red and black color scheme, looks like the eyes of Spider-Man put on the body of Deathstroke the Terminator (a DC character that Liefeld kind of straight up ripped off, especially considering Deathstroke’s civvie name is Slade Wilson while Deadpool’s is Wade Wilson [you know, good artists copy, great artists steal—or some godawful thing like that]) Deadpool went from straight forward mercenary to unpredictable, insane, fourth wall aware, trying-to-do-the-right-thing-in-an-almost-absurdist-take-on-the Marvel-universe sensation. And I think there’s something to the character, and so did Fox as they recently released the smashing blockbuster success: Deadpool (staring a spot on Ryan Reynolds who nails the cynical, meme side of Deadpool, and seems to forget the character has a deep well of pathos). There are, upon my last (and only) count, exactly 46 unique forms of items depicting Deadpool in the store, if you leave out the weird jigsaw puzzle of all the Marvel Vinyl Pops (seriously, who would buy this stuff?). This did not include keychains, jewelry, or candy because I was, frankly, nearly bleeding from the eyes by the time I remembered that stuff exists, and it all seemed too inconsequential to matter. Oh, also there were, in most cases, many copies of each type of item. It’s a lot of Deadpool.[1]  I could wax here about Deadpool as simulacra or the death of originality or something, but mostly this overwhelming amount of stuff is exhausting. Physical space also takes up mental space and I get really flustered when I find out I’ve been renting rooms in my head to tenants that just want me to spend more (I’m not sure this metaphor works, but I’m frankly tired of thinking about Deadpool… even though I still like the character’s stories).

But my previous analysis doesn’t sit totally right. Because imagination is all consuming. As I alluded, Lucille and Deadpool can become something else, something more, but they have the trouble of working against its preloaded associations or general fecundity of presence. Here, Benjamin is again instructive. You see, Benjamin finds great energy in his unkempt crates of books, books that are not yet stultified by the great yawn of order that rolls over them when placed on his bookshelf. For Benjamin chaos is possibility and this possibility is enlivening. So you might be wondering just how the hell a book can be chaotic. Well, its ability to collect stories around it along side the story inside it. Remember Benjamin’s claim that the book collector’s chaos is that of memory and what is memory if not a story that haunts us, constantly claiming to live in real relation to our past worlds. Benjamin intones, “The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition that passes over them” But this isn’t the sterile Patrick Bateman, mergers and acquisitions kind of acquiring, it is not the bored dilettante (male or female) buying Versace and Prada, no, there is real intention here. He incants, “Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership—for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.” This is what is at stake, the way of seeing the world in all its sorcery and history, to pick up a mere thing and have it reach out its gentle or violent or sad or lovely tendrils so it can tell you what it is and what it was and what it might be. I do not believe myself hyperbolic when I say that Benjamin is offering us the keys to a life through things that take us beyond our own mind as they live and they throb with the infinite possibility of new stories and closely kept collection of memories. These items ask us to help them fulfill their possibilities of liveliness. This is the beautiful chaos of a storied object.

I’m about to be thirty. Sometimes, when I’m insecure, I look around my room with disgust and understand why it’s been a while since I’ve had a significant other; It could easily pass as a ten year old’s room. Of course, I also realize what an unnecessarily stupid and judgmental thought this is, especially because everything in my room is enchanted with runes of memory. Take of example my Apatosaurus. It is gray and plastic, has no points of articulation. It is roughly 16” long. I kept my mom from tossing it about seven years ago. I’ve had it since I was five and had a lisp and loved every dinosaur. When I look at I feel a complex comfort. I can remember a warm Thursday, setting a throng of much smaller plastic ankylosaurs and parasaurolophus and dienonycus and pterodactyl etc. etc. of various colors, standing around the Apatosaurus like they were in awe of its massive stature and the Apatosaurus cried out in its sousaphone voice to all the dinosaur denizens of the jungle on my living room floor, its boom cutting through the muggy greenish air as they all cried in awe and joy. And I can remember the time I left my triceratops of similar make and color on the lawn and was forced to confront mortality and guilt when my dad brought its thrashed and dying body in side after riding over it with the lawn mower. And I can remember holding it when I was depressed and wondering what I would tell little John Mango with his Apatosaurus about some things we’d have to face in the future. And all of that sits on a shelf next to so many others with so much more.

So why is Lucille any different from the Apatosaurus? If objects are just objects, why not declare them all the same. I think–and you may disagree–but I think that FYE and its merch is troubling in that it invites us into the idea that by buying these preloaded items we are buying something fresh and new and in doing so are claiming a part of the cultural zeitgeist by owning an object that functions as a referent to something popular and recognizable. Merch is there to be recognized for its media association in a hope you will consume it. It has otherwise failed and is nothing more.

And so this is the core dialectic at the center of FYE Fresh vs. Foul, New vs. Not New. Every item of merch, though not new in its form, is tied to a property that is in fact new… or rather, masquerades as new. In fact when the main merch tables are tied to Wonder Woman (a 75 year old comic) Professional wrestling (alive well before the cold war ended) and Guardians of the Galaxy (another comic property that’s seen a whole lot of decades and iterations) what the fuck is exactly new here? New (without getting too dry in the mouth on a threateningly abstruse subject) could signal something original. And in fact this is the First Woman Woman movie to hit the big time, the first female lead DC motion film, a whole bunch of firsts that might contain significance depending on whether you care about the subject in hand. But new also tends to mean of the current moment. In fact I think this is the key to the commodified new: it promises us that we’ll be tied to the zeitgeist NOW. By being caught up in the whirligig of stuff happening we get to own a little bit of the now and we get to feel alive inside that now.

But like most generous seeming gestures of capitalism, this is hollow as a subprime mortgage bundle. The cultural now feels like being swept away, swept off your feet, kissed by your former lover for the first time again, riding an old Indian motorcycle on the open highway, the red white and blue, feels like freedom in that we engage with the promise of something bubbling with possibility, but it is nothing but that: promise of possibility never made good. Once we have seen Wonder Woman or Guardians of the Galaxy 2—no, even before the trailers begin rolling—we’ve lost the promise as the experience is happening and when it happens it will then have happened and it will no longer be new. It will no longer contain mystery and possibility, two sexy elements that tantalize us enough to return to the new again. And so we must return to another new, or start buying stuff that reminds us of the new. And this is our well known and well worn friend nostalgia: the attempt to make new what is old. To make present what has happened.

The most intense experiences of our life, good or bad, horrid or lovely, are so all encompassing that they force us to forget ourselves as we enter something bigger. People are lost to love and death and drugs. Imagine if you could bottle that? And bottle it not as a pure bald-faced narcotic, but as promise of more life with only slightly narcotizing effects? It would look like something that made you feel young, something you recognized had always been with you and yet was appearing again in an original form. Maybe it was Batman or Barbies or Disney or Star Wars or the X-Men or John Hughes films. None of these things are bad on their own, in fact one might argue there’s some good to be had from each of them, as slight as that good might be, but now imagine a store that sold only reminders of these items, promises you belong to NOW time and not then. Imagine this store is packed as a Japanese Subway and as chrome-escent as the rainbow glaze of gasoline. That is FYE. Now imagine standing there for hours on end sometimes helping someone find a particular thing that ties them to their now. That is working at FYE. It makes more than your feet hurt.

But, again, I don’t want to start prattling about the fall of Western Civ or the Arrested Development of Man, because all of these impulses are human, they make sense. They can absolutely run amok. Being an addict I can tell you about running amok, and being someone that owns Funko Pops I can attest to it again. I do see a way the very impulses, the impulse to be enthralled so as to forget ourselves, can be taught that they begin to self-regulate. I still believe the imagination is powerful and endless in possibility, but it is stuck to the same rules that govern all life: it is limited by time. That imaginary person standing in that FYE is not enthralled the entire time, maybe there’s a blip or two of it, but mostly they’re bored. You see, we can’t always be having epiphanies or meeting the godhead. We aren’t built that way. We’re built to do a lot of mundane shit (I would argue a kind of sacred mundanity, but that’s another whole essay) and so our capacity to add memories and moments to whatever items we collect becomes limited by the amount of time we have. Some of us forget that time itself is tricky and none of us are promised a set amount of it. This means I can own way more than I can ever attach meaning to (and I most certainly do) and it demands I listen to that pulse inside that lets me know when I’m duping myself into the intoxication of NOW and when an item has really started to collect stores. If I look at a thing, let’s say an action figure of Doc Samson (the green haired therapist of the Hulk) and I immediately start remembering it was a touching gift from a dear friend who I miss, and I can feel essence of that friendship when I hold the toy, and I can think of the moments Doc Samson smashed bad dudes and I can feel the weird symbiotic dance these memories/imaginings do with this little place man in my hands, I’ll probably hang on to it. Then there’s a Funko Godzilla. He looks fine, kinda cute. I like the idea of Godzilla, like I like the idea of this toy, but it feels kind of dead in my hands and the chitinous beetle shell black eyes shine in a dulled manner and I feel a confused sense as to why I bought the thing at all, I should probably donate it, or exorcise it through ritual burning… not that I’m going to.

When I stand in the FYE with its beige walls and yellowy lights and rows of mini blu tooth speakers, it seems to tell this entire story itself. It feels as if the store tilts towards the center-back, everything gently rolling into the entropy of clearance, no matter how popular or NOW it may have been. That fake burned Breaking Bad teddy bear probably carried the NOW for just a bit, before it failed to deliver on a promise that couldn’t be made. And so now, it sits on the drain itself (Buy 1 Get 3 FREE) like a shimmery purple lump of coagulated hair, wait for the day someone buys it (probably out of irony) or, more likely, trashes it. Which… has me thinking. I wrote all this stuff about the goddamn thing… couldn’t that be it’s new story? What if I just snag that teddy the next time I work? Would I be saving it from doom? Or is my overactive imagination supplely manipulating an sort of ethical sense I’ve set up here? I honest to god don’t know.

Benjamin, sitting amongst his mostly empty crates, books sorted, moving towards midnight finds himself somewhere similar; not wanted to buy a fucked up teddy bear, but among memories, “Now I am on the last half-emptied case and it is way past midnight. Other thoughts fill me than the ones I am talking about—not thoughts but images, memories. Memories of the cities in which I found so many things: Riga, Naples, Munich, Danzig, Moscow, Florence, Basel, Paris… Memories of the rooms where these books had been house… O bliss of the collector… For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.” I believe Benjamin creates something beautiful in talking about his things. I believe our common knowledge of living in the NOW is off, or at least not well understood, as the now is filled with memories, some painful, some pleasant. To demand we go and live in the now, whether it is simply through the senses, or buying it up, we cut ourselves off from that immense thing that is both within and without us: this tapestry of stories woven of words and concepts and pictures and sounds and records in time only we know. I do not wish to shut the door on these, but to learn how to live with them and love them. Some of my things, some of them, help me do that. And for now, that is enough.

[1] The most notable Deadpool is a 6’7” plaster statue that stands in the cornered window of the store. It’s kind of cool for a minute or two (his eyes are wide and skeptical), until you remember it takes up a lot of space and really can’t do anything and it’s pretty fragile (which seems all the more bizarre given how bulbous his muscles are), also there’s seven different types of Deadpool t-shirts, most of which show him eating some kind of Mexican food (and I’d originally planned to write about how odd it was people staked a piece of their identity in liking Mexican food out of all foods in particular until I remembered that staking a piece of your identity in something you physically consume on a possibly daily basis makes a whole lot more sense than the entire bizarre business of representing yourself through choices in media consumption as if those choices somehow speak to your true fiber or value or anything weighty at all [but of course I then remembered also that I have a Deadpool t-shirt somewhere along with a batman t-shirt, a Star Wars t-shirt, a Stalker t-shirt, a Solaris t-shirt, a Silver Surfer t-shirt etc. etc.]) the rest of the t-shirts just show Deadpool’s face with as much an expression as his mask allows; then there are the movies themselves (in dvd, bluray, and 4ktv, dvd special edition, bluray special edition [the special and regular being released simultaneously with little notable difference beyond the covers] the amount of choice here really pokes holes in the big American idea that choice is freedom, especially if you’re drowning in choice, it begs the question is anything at stake when I choose something here? And to be honest you don’t even need to read on to the rest of all the Deadpool stuff I’m gonna list, I just really need to list it all so I can get it the fuck out of my brain) and there was actually one actual Deadpool comic in FYE: Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe (perhaps one of the most banal and exploitative stories written about a character that’s already easy to fuckup. He just kills everyone. It’s terrible, but still at least there’s some comic stuff in there) the rest of the 47 items all being various figurines and action figures of Deadpool (interestingly enough, the larger the actual figure the the more defined and filled out his crotch area is. I don’t know why this is or what to do with it. I honestly don’t. Go ahead and speculate [oh, but, the 6’7” statue seems immune. I’m guessing it’s crotchless so as not to upset children) and the rest of the figurines are some form of Funko Pop. Fucking Goddamn Funko Pops. The gentrification of figurines laid bare. Funko makes all sorts of kinds of vinyl figurines of varying offensiveness in their blandness (there is a line called Dorbz for example that makes all figures ovoid and smiling like some hellish combination of Joan Miro and It’s a Small World [one of those things already being terrible, the other wonderful and now sullied in its modern consumer incarnation]). In fact the whole Funko ethos and aesthetic might simply be this: swallow every pop culture character and shit it out as a big headed, black-eyed, chibi, kawii figure. Ghost Rider? Big head and eyes with cute flames. Agent Scully? Big head and eyes with read hair? DALE COOPER (one of the best characters to every exist), guess what? Big head. Big Eyes. Cup of Coffee (at least the fucking coffee applies). Funko reduces everything interesting or unique about design into one highly profitable pile of steaming plastic and dead black eyes. Also, I may have ended up with over ten of them. I don’t know how or how to reconcile this with my hatred of them. Oh, there’s also a Deadpool coloring book. The part of me that liked Deadpool is now withering and coughing and just all around on its last legs after conducting this research and writing it. And yet, a part of me still wants that ¼ scale highly detailed, becrotched, Deadpool action figure whenever I see it. I’m human, and therefore insatiable left to myself.

Indented Upon the Body: Sex, Pleasure, Repulsion, and Reclamation

I have a dented front, like a beat up Honda. Where many men’s pectorals rest adjacent (sometimes flat, sometimes as hardy, risen plateaus) I instead have a slope and a concave valley, like the very tip of the inside of a skull. With my shirt off, it seems as if I have no heart, or God as taken an ice cream scoop to my chest, or I was dealt a punch to the sternum by Atlas. Sometimes it’s the remnants of a woodpecker’s bird’s nest

I’ve taken to calling attention to it, even when my shirt is on. Explaining that this defect was in fact the result of the very dream stuff I’ve listed above. In fact, I like to tell myself that I enjoy saying these things, as if I don’t sometimes catching myself in the mirror, slowly stroking my caved in chest like the curled up corpse of a dead pet. It can be hard to admit self-deprecation obviously what it is: a defense of sorts.

I don’t love my body, but I’ve never really hated it either. I’ve had the enjoyment, despite the death’s head on my chest, to exist in it without seriously interrogating it beyond the usual anxieties born of pituitary changes. For a good while, I just never thought of my body as a thing to hate, as anything but what it was: a body, which, as a kid, not yet understanding the fecundity of social data and anxiety that spills and flows between and around us all, I knew my body as it physically felt. It was warm. It glowed. Sometimes I could feel my pulse in my fingertips.

I don’t really know when I started looking into the mirror and seeing the hole in my chest as a perverse embodiment of lack, but I do know that at some point I would run and swim and sit and laugh, clothed and shirtless without being beholden to how others might be seeing the way I was presenting myself (which, to be clear, is just about physicality and not other deeply embedded interpersonal anxieties that had more to do with popularity or status. I’d, maybe as soon as I was conscious enough to be around other kids and to care about being around other kids, wondered what they thought of me on like a soul like level, what they thought of my essence. Listen, nothing is out of target range when it comes to self conscious anxiety).

 

This is not to say I don’t feel a presence of body. I do, however, remember a point in time when my body was present and I existed without necessarily being seen. I didn’t have to imagine how other’s would react to my physicality when seeing me. It was a kind of freedom, but an innocent and inevitably doomed one.

The moments that brought me to the surface, like an errant octopus poking its orb like eyes up over the break of the ocean water for the first time to be met with flashes of a hard grey sky, were direct comments (almost always benign) that I had a divot in my chest. Or a peanut butter cup. Or a big opening. Or twisty ribs. Or lacked a heart or looked funny or had bow ribs. Once it was a weird holey thing. And again, none of these were immediately cruel, but it was enough for me, a much younger (and while equally anxious, less refined in my ability to deal) less socially developed me. I took to thinking that this different bend in my chest was bad or unsightly, or even wrong.

So often it happened by the water.  Water, like anything efficiently malleable and massive, is a fine metaphor for nearly anything: Life, death, change (of moods, seasons [of life or nature], of sex) sex, rapture, emptiness, the void, every living thing and its connection. It seems fitting to me then that the beach or the pool or the lake or pond or river or wherever you first find yourself acceptably naked for the first time in public is a source of anxiety and arousal (two emotions that are far from mutually exclusive). It’s weird to learn to cover ourselves at all times, except for when we want to enter water, whether it be the purifying process of a shower, the amniotic bathtub, or in some place more public. And that we must carefully and discretely guard pieces of our skin from the sight of others lest we offend, are offended, get too worked up, work someone else up (there seem to be as many reasons as there are waves on the face of the sea). These public self-displays only really start to highlight how naked we are (beyond physicality) when those previously mentioned pituitary changes start to break through the levees and threaten to wash us away.

I can remember a very specific kind of stance us pre/teens of every sex used to take when near water. We’d wrap ourselves just so, clutch each elbow in the opposite hand and keep our arms close to our bellies to simultaneously obscure and highlight. Sometimes someone brave or foolish would verbally march their way across another person’s body and deploy a descriptive comment, laying out a landmark on this newly realized maps. For me, the one that really stuck was “What’s that hole in your chest?” as if I was supposed to have a ready explanation as to why my chest curved the way it did, like a physicist describing the current of a wave. I don’t think I retorted with anything but an uncomfortable look. Because it’s uncanny to realize that others see things that supposedly belong to us we never thought were there. Before it had been a chest. It was a warm smooth thing that attached my arms to and sometimes I washed with soap. It was warm, and I liked how it felt on my fingers. Now it was as if I was responsible for it, to explain why it existed at all.

John Berger, in his Docu-series, “Ways of Seeing” brings an excellent critical reading to the tradition of the female nude in painting. While this is no new knowledge, women are objectified more than men. Their body parts are chopped up and wrapped in gazes of various strength and intention. From a woman’s start, her body never really belongs to her and if it does, she is decried as vain, or conceited, or the worst thing, an aberrant sexual creature, a whore. Berger explains that the female nude reproduces this phenomenon. Think of the very few emotions women express in the nude. It is often a coy look, vacillating between innocent and empty, head turned as if to reject and invite. When Botticelli Painted Venus, the Goddess of love, even she seemed locked into a perfect limbo between nudity and modesty, never too cold so as to be unwelcoming (and a cold bitch) or to hot lest what we demanded of her was made too easily available and vulgar (an easy slut). Berger asserts that the socially acceptable woman is one who can constantly maintain this decorum of modesty, which requires her to constantly view herself as if someone else is viewing her, constantly monitor her body to make sure it presents itself in that middle space of (false) safety, constantly monitor her monitoring to keep from appearing self-absorbed. She must always keep up appearances and never be exhausted. The results of these mostly quiet and present demands are devastating. All I started with was an extra lumpy chest and it was too much for me in part because most of us men, far removed from the same psychic weight of self-consideration are the ones who watch and wait. Or at least, this is a part of the story.

One of the beautifully twisted results of modern equality is some perverse notion that, to free us all, everyone of every gender should be more objectified. In a turn so self destructive it might have been designed by Oedipus himself, the fitness industry, which has connections to the philosophy that a healthy body makes for a healthy life (and also benefits from the unrelenting brutality of our hungry cultural gaze), decided that women as bodily self moderators weren’t consumer enough, weren’t sweating the treadmills enough, and so men began escalating their physiques to cartoonish levels (though to be fair my chronology is pretty off here, but the point that women have always been objectified then taught to objectify themselves still stands). Understandably then, eating disorders in both men and women are at an all-time high (of course there’s probably more here to uncover, but that’s for another time).

What started for me as preteen moment of horror, a seed of self conscious embarrassment, like a teen soap version of Lady Macbeth’s stain, grew and grew until my skinniness itself was an extension of the void in my chest. I looked in the mirror, a horny, self-loathing teenager and only saw lack. I was not muscly enough and so not man enough or attractive enough or good enough. It was the usual nightmare each of us has faced in the harsh yellow lights of the locked bathroom, letting the male gaze of millions see through our own eyes until its pitiless stare has left nothing unturned, nothing private or loved.

And my impulse here is to make a nostalgic rallying cry where we might all, all of us of all sexes, return to that Edenic state of letting our bodies exist as physical things that need not be gazed at to constitute us as people. But this is misguided, and, more importantly, impossible. Like Pandora’s Box or toothpaste, what is loosed cannot be recaptured. This does not mean we’re doomed to forever salaciously drooling over chopped up bits of body parts that we’ve been trained to find arousing.

I think this is one of those places where the conventional, the cliché, the boring answer is the true one. Intimacy is a thing that transforms bodies in private.

I was alone with a woman I, at the time, loved deeply. Every time she scrunched her nose and looked in my eyes she made so many things in me glow. She was and still is beautiful. She did not think so. She’d shared with me how an earlier boyfriend had referred to her as that most damning word (fat) like a petulant child throwing a tantrum, just trying to hurt her. How her mother had grown up scrutinizing her diet and reprimanding her for anything sweet or fat or greasy or too heavy in calories or empty of nutrients etc. etc. It was many moments of petty viciousness that were absorbed in her body and redirected against it. It was devastating to see someone so alluring look on herself and shiver with disgust. Through long and torturous treatments by men and (some) women, her body had become abject. This, naturally, made our first forays into physical intimacy hard (I of course had my own hang ups and fears). And this one evening, in the earth tones of her bedroom, with a kind of luminescent glow to the room, I asked her if I could hug her while she undressed. Her eyes were soft and scared. She was scared. I was too. I didn’t know if I was forcing some demand on her that was unfair, or uncouth, but we both wanted to be with each other. And so, I hugged her and kissed her skin as she pulled of her shirt. And she had to stop. She asked me to help, and so she hugged me as I slowly undressed her. And I told her to hug me harder the more nervous she was. And she did, hug me. And we were both still scared, but she didn’t let go until we were both unclothed. And she let go so she could take her hand and gently rub the lack in my chest. And when she did, it was not to say she loved me despite this lack, but because she didn’t even recognize its existence as a lack. It was my chest and I wanted her to touch me, especially there, in that moment, more than ever. This missing spot became apart of me again, just as her body had started to become hers. And in those moments we were with each other as each other, with each other as we wanted the other to see themselves.

You see, the body is mutable. It is no one thing, but so often we’re left to experience it as insufficient or ugly or wrong. But it can change and I don’t mean a kind of vulgar physical change, but rather, all of use alchemists with our intents and attentions, can be infuse it with new moments, moments that, I believe, let us carry love in and on our skin. This is a hard thing to remember when looking in the mirror, and an even harder thing to find. But there is a kind of revolution of mutual understanding that happens in moments of deep and vulnerable intimacy, where we are reminded that our spirit is clay and it can be remade in the hands of someone close to us.

This doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes see my indent and wonder why God fucked with my ribs so much (after all, he just took one of Adam’s he didn’t remold his whole chest) but it does give me some sense that there is and always will be a possibility of transmutation of the body from pure object to a keeper of secrets: loving, silly, gentle, kind, warm, sexy, real, private moments all.

I think that maybe, like most things, we must remember to recall those moments we’ve been remade in, remade in the trust of a mutual intimacy, a thing that is, perhaps, always beyond objectification.

A True Story That is Not a True Story

I got on my bike because I was anxious. I wore a thick navy blue sweatshirt, jeans, a wool cap, and sun glasses because it was cool but sunny. Was self-conscious about the sunglasses because they were new and had weird green and blue camo print on the wings and I always felt self-conscious when I wore something new. Because what would happen if someone thought something bad about it? And I was biking on the bike path towards the shore because it was lush and verdant and pacifying and I thought about women and work and money and worry, I usually think about that stuff. As I passed people, they seemed like bits of blur, they were blobs in the peripheral; I didn’t want to make eye contact even though I knew the glasses would hide my eyes. Somedays something hurts because it just does. It was one of those days. But also I was thinking about “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, and how I used to sing it with an ex-girlfriend of mine because it made me feel warm when we did. Except now I felt colder because she hadn’t been there for a long time and no one else had either because. After a good twenty minutes of huffing and pedaling the lush, verdant woods broke out, opened into a big aired path on the side of the lake that lead into a nicely maintained park because sometimes Burlington is beautiful. I didn’t feel cool, but I didn’t not feel cool. I was relaxed, looking with new, maybe kickass sun glasses and a big ole beard and was about to go sit on a swinging bench on the dock of the bay here because that’s how I wanted to enjoy a day and as I hopped off my bike and my feet hit the wood of the pier and I walked over to the bench I saw two women looking past me. I looked behind me because I wanted to see what they were looking at. There was nothing. There was the park and some people play Frisbee and some other walking the paths and there was a dirt parking lot up farther, adjacent to two nicely kept brick buildings and in the parking lot were a man and another man and they looked like deer darting through the woods as they moved through the bushes because they were messing around. And then I looked and everyone else in the park was looking because maybe the men weren’t messing around. And I thought, don’t make a big deal out of it because no one likes a panicky bitch. I thought that because when I used to think things about myself I thought in a cruel way. Then I was running towards the men. I was walking fast towards the men and I was running towards the men. I was walking fast across the verdant park. I was thinking about how it takes two people, not one, to make real change. That if you ever see folks cross the street during a dicey moment it takes one to pave the way and the second to subconsciously prove to the rest of the crowd that it’s safe. I was walking fast towards the men because it wasn’t safe. I remembered a time someone I loved was in trouble and something in me made a promise to another part and it said “now you turn and do what’s right. Now you do this.” I think I did. The right thing, I don’t know if I did it.

As I fast walked towards the men the world around me seemed to be filtered through a porch screen, there was a fuzz, a film grain, or haze, and a smell of ozone and the faces of those I passed were blank and they weren’t walking. I was walking because it wasn’t safe. And there was a pop sound because one of the men was shouting “Motha F*cka’s shootin’ at me.” I saw both men and they were both black or Hispanic and they were each on one side of a black Nissan Altima that was trying to get around a big white SUV and one man was in black and the shouting man was in a teal button down shirt because they were. And as I heard the shots they were pops because I don’t know if it was a real gun. Or there was muffling, but the man in teal was dodging and weaving like it was a real gun, but I didn’t feel scared like there was a real gun there, not even as scared as I had been firing a .22 rifle at Boy Scout Camp when I was little because maybe it wasn’t a real gun. And no one was moving besides me and the men because it wasn’t safe. And I didn’t know why I was going towards them because, like people told me after, that was dumb to do, one shouldn’t do that. But I did. And the man in teal was putting his hand on the Altima to keep it from leaving and shouting, “You stupid motha f*cka! You high on pills, dude! You f*cked” and the stupid motha f*cka was still, like, thrusting his gun, or, cap gun, or pellet gun, at the other man and it was popping, but I didn’t see any bullets landing and because I was talking to emergency services and then the police and describing it all and I wondered if the cops could hear the men yelling because one of them was yelling so loud. I have been useful before. I think I have saved a life before. I have felt powerless. Entirely, totally powerless. Agency has been stripped from me. I know what it’s like to be an object.

I was describing the men to the police and they were using the phrase dark-skinned and that made sense and I kept saying Hispanic or black and then the cars took off, ripped away, right up towards North St. and when I told the cops this I was about to ask if I should stay here and wait and then they hung up. I kept waiting to hear their voice on the phone because I thought they told you what to do.

I looked around. There was no one there now. People were walking with their heads down. Despite the general noise and bustle, the afternoon was silent and still. All of it was empty. Some folks stared at me as they walked past. I don’t know why. I felt live and empty. I don’t know why. I felt homesick for something that didn’t exist.

I was going to invoke the film Blow Up as a comparison point for this bizarre mime show I unknowingly took part in, but to do so would insist I was comparing fiction to reality. I can’t do that because I don’t know that anything I saw was real. Its’ not as if it didn’t all happen, I just have no place to put it.

Some people said, “well it’s because they were probably into drugs.” “Well are their gangs there? Because that can happen” And besides the obviously ugly racist tones there, it fails to touch on the real pulse of those moments that throb outside of reality: in many ways I carry myself through the day because I have a set of assumptions that things work in specific ways. Because I do. Why? Because I do.

I biked back up to my apartment because I thought I needed to be alone. I called a friend because I needed comfort. I sat on my bed shaking because I have seen moments like this before. Or because I have been stripped of all agency by moments like this before. Or maybe because my PTSD flared up. Or because it was funny to see two men playing violent mimes in the park. Or just because. Because I haven’t learned that somethings can’t be explained. Like the madness of a moment, or the quiet lament of loneliness, or the abject misery of objectification. Just because.

I’m writing this to you because I want you to believe me that it was real enough. That it was real enough to matter.

Ghosts that Haunt the Sun

Quick heads up: There is a graphic depiction of suicide. While I don’t think it’s gratuitous, don’t read this if you’re suicidal. Call a friend, or a family member or the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. This will pass. Calling will help (if I made it through you sure as hell can).

 

I’m young, but I don’t know how old I am. I think I’m on a beach, but I can’t find the shore. I’m not looking for the shore. It’s low tide and I can tell by the stink. I’m running, my little body is running (I don’t think of it as little, but it is) and my watershoes, the blister-making kind with the mesh and purple neoprene that hold in liquid until it pickles your toes, are shouting with squelches as they land in the muddy beach dirt. I will run forward and I do not want to stop. There is no sun, no rosy fingers reach through the dark wool fog that seems shaped like an igloo. I’m running after my brother, or towards him. He may have cut his foot, sawed it even, on broken shell. He’s tubby with curly hair and I think he is bleeding and I need to find him, but as soon as I get to the edge of the igloo, into the dark wool, it just moves its walls. I repeat the same again and again. I am terrified he will be gone by the time I see him.

I’m older, but not much older. I’m on my back in a dark room. It’s our bed room. My brother is on the bottom bunk. I can’t see anything because it’s night time. I am furious. I am brimming with rage. And I take it out on Tom by refusing to say a word. He has his feet on the back of my mattress and is thrusting up and down like it’s a bucking sheep. I think I have been cruel to him. I think I stomped on his Legos and told my parents he did it himself. I think I hate this ride and want the morning to break and think I deserve ever moment of discomfort. I want to be alone.

I’m older still. We’re on Block Island, a little New England island. I’m away from the troop. It’s breakfast time and I’ve biked off by myself to buy a pastry, real early, just to feel independent. And I do and then I get the idea to bike up to the bluffs, because I’ve come in my early teens, to think of nature as my own private sanctuary. It belongs to me. And I am right about something: moments like these belong to me. And as I’m biking up to the bluffs I feel the fog on my skin, not wool this time but cotton cobwebs that give way to the slightest break, constant finish lines inviting one further. And I am in the fog and don’t see the sun, but I bike high enough that the fog is at my feet. And I drop by bike and walk on the sand to the edge of the bluff and realize that this is what the titans, first on earth, came and saw. The bluffs don’t give way to a drop, but to pillowed tufts of clouds just as the sun rises, prismatically, over the edge of the horizon, its beams singular, skipping of white like rocks on a pond, breaking and bending into different colors. I am in so much light I am no longer there and I am not alone. Still, I am not with others.

I’m now done with college and I’m reading a book and my protagonist is walking, with gloomy brooding, along the beach. It is hard to parse that this is the case, the words themselves are the fog I’ve felt in the past. But there are moments of color, recognition, there’s a dog, two lovers kissing, he takes a piss, he thinks of women, and then, like light itself, recognition breaks through the story. He reflects, “Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me.” And even though I know and have known that my solitude was not peace, but sadness, it only lights its way through my cortex now, brighter than ever. And it tells me the word known to all men: love. I think I do not know it. I think knowing love is like measuring the shape of mercury.

And here, now, before, I am in my dorm room. I have closed all the doors and put a chair against the wall. I know love now, or have decided to forget it. The only exhilaration is that all this ends. I am out of my wits, soppy and high. I think I’m committed mortal embarrassment. My friend is playing Batman in the next room. A small voice shouts the faces of my family and a louder voice is resigned, saying, they too will go, all will be fine, they too will go. The small voice knows this is not right. I am too tired to care. I drag a pair of Rubbermaid safety scissors across my forearm; the skin splits the lips of an embryo for the first time. Why doesn’t it hurt? Where is the terror? Where is my brother? The sun is gone. I am lucky to wake up.

I am home and I talk with my father. He’s telling me that was the worst day of his life. I tell him I wish it was the worst of mine. I ask him to tell me a good memory. He says, and I don’t remember this, he says once we just sat on the stoop, watching the front yard and the rabbits stop and start, sniffing. We ate lime green popsicles and he rubbed my back. We didn’t even talk, he says, because we didn’t need to, he says, the sun, how it shimmered and winked as it set said it all. I didn’t remember that, except now I do. I think of it all the time. I measure the shape of mercury by how far away I hold that moment in myself from myself.

I am visited by ten thousand nightmares: cruel, perverted, callous, and worst, lonely. I am reminded that I am running after my brother as I watch the sun come over the clouded horizon as I pull the knife over my arm as my father tells me he loves me and love is the word known to all men and knowing love is like measuring the shape of mercury and I have done just that as I remember the slow strokes of my father’s hand down my back as the sun sets again and it all tastes of green popsicles. I am reminded that all these exist and I am okay. I see the sun and I know this. I don’t see the sun and I know this. It took a long time to get here, but its been here all along.

I have found my brother. In that person born next to me and at times in all things. Maybe this too is known to all men.

And Finally, One About Dating

I have scars on my forearms. Both forearms. They stitch their way to my wrists like sloppy zippers or flesh frozen centipedes. They were once open and bleeding. Now they’re tattoos I sometimes forget about, but can find myself unthinkingly stroking when anxious. I was really scared to explain that I did this to myself to my first girlfriend after that bad night. I thought I’d be as ugly to her as the action itself was. Instead, she held both my arms in her hands like one would a sacred item and she started to kiss my forearms. Even though the scars are thick and I couldn’t feel her lips, she filled me with something both simultaneously soothing and enlivening. I think it was a little bit like love.

She hasn’t been my only girlfriend since that night, and she has been the only girl to kiss my forearms. I thought, cynically, that it would only feel good or be special that first time, but that’s not true. Every woman that’s put her lips to my arms has made me love her and myself in that moment. It doesn’t fade with repetition.

I have this starved attitude when I date, like, if I don’t make it work with whatever girl I’m on a date with then the jig is up, the apocalypse is in, she was the last person on the planet and I’m going home alone for good. I don’t really fully get why I think that way because, frankly, it just doesn’t jive with those intimate moments that refuse to be anything but life giving, the ones that never get old.

Dating is fucking weird for everyone involved. You take two people, each with their own labyrinth of neuroses and turn ons and hang ups and histories and funny bones and then expect them, with in a couple hours, to navigate the odd turns of some stranger (not to mention their own unexplored alleys) in hopes that there’s some kind of “chemistry” (a word that denotes a strict science, but might better be understood as alchemy).

But there’s something else. When Nietzsche lamented that God was Dead, it was the lament that some great spiritual dearth had descended on us. Who was to know that, at least in popular culture, and many of our own private wishes, another single human was supposed to pick up the slack (if you doubt me just think about the implications of the phrase “You complete me” and how easily G-D might fit in there).

And also, of course, if you guessed I’m intellectualizing to delay some inevitable tale of hope and woe, you would be right, but there’s been a bunch of them so lay off while I get my playlist ready.

There was that time I met a woman for coffee and we talked for four hours and towards the end of the date had nothing to say so just furtively glanced at each other and looked down and beamed then laughed about how awkward and non-awkward it was and both just kind of glowed. And, in a burst of enthusiasm I’ve come to fear and expect from myself, I wrote a journal entry that was just a wedding speech I’d give to our eventual marriage audience (they weren’t vows, and I don’t think grooms give speeches themselves… so I don’t know what I was thinking there). And I was so sure it would work because she’s smart and beautiful and sensitive. Until it turned out she had some stuff she felt she needed to work on and I probably definitely texted her too much.

Or that other time when I finally got to go on a date with this woman I just knew I liked (from her online profile) and the date was great. We sat on the lake shore in the budding spring and laughed and talked about serious stuff and she was playfully touching my leg when I teased her and I asked her what she looked for in a guy and she described basically me (I thought) and said she’d go on a second date when she vibed with someone and said we should definitely do that and when I texted her “So what do you think? Did we vibe?” She just said, “No, sorry we didn’t vibe.” OH, and I had already written another wedding speech about how my first one was dumb and this one maybe I was being foolish but I was pretty sure this was the right person. That was a shot to the ole ego. Lots of long bike rides in the rain and Sufjan Stevens after that one.

Oh! Or that time when I went out with that woman who was smart and funny and pretty and we went to a movie, then a restaurant. Then we did the same another night. And another. Then finally she brought me back to her apartment… Actually I’m gonna keep that one for myself. If I’m being piggish it both did and didn’t work out.

Look, there are plenty of other stories despite the fact I’m about as much of a Lothario as George Castanza. The point is, there is a kind of rinse wash and repeat cycle to all this that in some ways seems to directly contradict that sterling label of LOVE and INTIMACY, both of which sit so high up. And frankly it’s hard not to get downright cynical about the whole fucking thing, all of it: dating, women, society, humans, existence. I do not want to become some jaded misogynistic prick that’s too scared to get hurt again so he arms himself with the kind of dehumanizing attitudes that all this is just a game instead a really intricate dance no one knows the moves to (except we know a bad dancer when we see one). Because that’s what this is about. Can I be open enough to let myself be hurt in a very real way again and again until I’m not? It’s easy to say yes, it’s harder to live yes and in a lot of ways yes does not make sense, especially as an overly sensitive dude that used to drink a lot when things when wrong.

I’m not a person that believes I need someone else to become happy. In fact, I don’t really believe in happy, at least not as a consistent state of elation that last years. And yes we are in the land of clichés, but this is an important one. I would not want that. Can you imagine how out of touch someone has to be to live that way? What a drag it might be to be around them? If at every moment they were so emotionally frozen so to be incapable to reaching out to you when you were having a rough day. That’s what you might lose with that idea of happy: connection. Happy doesn’t keep me sober, connection does.

And really, I have to think that’s all any of us are looking for, really, when it comes to dating. That might look entirely different for different people, but isn’t that the goal? Not to find happiness in another person, but to be less alone in a tangible, consistent, and fluid manner? If that is the case, then no wonder dating is so Goddamn weird. How can any of us be expected to take such a huge leap of faith that some stranger might receive our weird labyrinth with grace and understand? A labyrinth (remember) we probably don’t full get ourselves.

I had this one date that was kind of a game changer for me. It was actually our last date, but at the time I didn’t want to believe that was the case. Because, she finally opened up to me. I thought we were connecting. She was beautiful and smart and successful, and we were talking as we walked down towards the setting sun (an orange and pink that evening) at Lake Champlain’s picturesque shore. And she told me that she was afraid to tell me what she was about to tell me. But I wanted her to. And she told me that she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years back and she fought hard to get her arms around it and would have to be on meds for the rest of her life and assured me she had a handle on it now and that things were so good and as she was telling me this her eyes started to drift out towards the lake itself and she stopped looking at me, or really even talking to me. She was just talking. And I tried to assure her I was entirely comfortable with it, there was probably little she could scare me away with when it came to mental illness, and I was so involved in my own effort in sincerity it took me a moment to realize how distant her gaze was. And I asked her why she was so distant. She said, “Sometimes you’re used to getting a certain response and when you don’t get it you don’t know how to handle it” a kind of monotone flattening the pitch of her otherwise lively voice. And when I asked her what she meant she said that her ex had belittled her for her disorder. Called her crazy. I tried to tell her I’d never do that. She broke up with me the next day. And what stands out to me her is the real core of dating. That, whether we want to or not, we are putting some of our essence up for grabs, and have no idea really how others will react to us or us to others. And that, every date, as buffoonish as it might seem, as bull-in-a-china-shop-awkward, there is some gentle element we must treat in kind, even if it just means we feel hurt, especially because we know what its like to feel hurt.

But look, I’m not trying to give dating advice. What I’m saying, if only to myself, is this: what if my first girlfriend had seen the scars on my arms and recoiled. I’d probably be wearing long sleeves as we speak. Instead the best I can do is continue putting my arms out hoping that eventually someone might hold them again and kiss them again. That it is important that I hurt when I date, and I understand everyone else has and will too. And I try to be as amenable as possible. Trite? Maybe. But the scars on my arms and her long gaze into the distance, a gaze away from me, one seeking comfort from itself we encouraged by someone who refused to realize what kind of hurt they could inflict.

It occurs to me that there’s something really bizarre in approaching dating as a kind of duty to another person, but I don’t know how else to see it, how else to deal with my own hurt and the confusion of it all, how else to remember the delicate balance of these oddly intimate moments, but with a kind of diligence about some (possible) importance to it all. Could be I’m heavy handed, which would explain why I don’t vibe to much with others. Who knows.

Band

Sometimes, when I would drink by myself til I was bleary eyed, I’d try and make myself feel right by searching for the perfect song. This was always in the depths of the night and I would always be hunched at the computer, alone, an inebriated embryo in the yolk of the opalescent glow of the screen. It might be Pink Anderson or The Beatles, but it was usually Philip Glass, specifically Philip glass as performed on piano by Aleck Karis. Glasses’ looping movements in minor keys that opened up a theme only to close it by repeating it back felt exactly like the dark center at the core of this conveyor belt of addiction I’d grown into. The music and thus the effort simultaneously worked (I felt that emptiness in me from somewhere outside myself and was a smidge less alone) and didn’t work (I would always end up drunk again). Sometimes though, part way through the search I’d just pass out.

In many ways, he was a small town savior. He came in after the previous band director, who was well loved, was caught engaged in some seedy behavior and thus resigned. There was a fill in year where the interim director, an understandably unconfident young woman who, knowing her Sisyphean task, before stomping up the stairs for our first concert, shouted to the confused parents, “it will sound better when the new auditorium get’s built!” Under her guidance, it never really sounded better because high school boys can be assholes and assholes don’t easily make wonderful high school musicians. And in many ways his arrival was a kind of second coming for our high school music program. A talented director with an admirable pedigree, a degree of professionalism that only barely held back his burning love for music and his desire to get the best out of us. We played simple classics (I remember him wisely explaining he’d let us play the usual Christmas tripe because, he explained in his baritone voice, “you don’t mess with tradition.”) to truly avant garde contemporary pieces that made use of 5:14 time signatures and, unfortunately, prominent Euphonium sections. He was, as I would later say in a passive aggressive rap about him, given to the senior class on a tired bus ride on our Disney trip “big and he’s bald, but he’s got the plan.” He was rotund in a Falstaffian manner. He was the kind of man who twisted his wedding ring when he was talking. He was good to many students. I was not one of them. And so when he died under circumspect conditions, I was not sad and I was not happy and I was disgusted with my ambivalence. But in coming to understand my own drinking, I’ve come to love this man in a way I do not know how to explain. But, I’m going to try anyways.

This is the part where the writer usually I casually, but dramatically drops the subject’s name in an understated, but powerful fashion. I’m not going to do that. Partly because this blog goes out to people that knew him, and partly because I have no right to insist the story I’m about to tell is really his story. It is not his namesake. It is the ghostly shimmer of memories I’ve been left to make sense of and that is what I want to do. Because he was many things to many people. He did plenty veritable capital “G” Good. He convinced students who were unconfident that they should attend college, he nurtured talented musicians to be something even more, he demanded excellence and from many (some of whom now make their living as musicians) got it.

To be fair I probably shouldn’t have been in “Wind Ensemble”, the “good” band. I didn’t belong. In a way I only got in on a technicality. Under the interim band director’s whim I switch from trumpet (which I was passable at) to the Euphonium (or Baritone, mini tuba looking thing) because we were going to play the Jurassic Park Theme Song for the summer concert and it required a euphonium. The instrument’s keys were the same as the trumpet’s, the notes were the same and I happened to know that song really well (I was a dinosaur kid). She put me in wind ensemble. There weren’t any other people in the school who played euphonium. Except me, I did now. I was the one playing the euphonium in wind ensemble.

Of all the team sports I had to play baseball was my favorite sport. In baseball I got three tries. My first strike I’d be too nervous to even understand I was supposed to swing at the damn ball. The pitcher could lob a fat meatball over the plate and I’d watch it like it was a UFO. My second strike I’d be getting used to the feel of the creeping neurosis throughout my body, maybe look downfield, squint, start feeling like this was something I could do. I felt determined and nervous. And so, usually I did okay the third time around. Most of which is to say I’ve always had near crippling performance anxiety for everything and I did not have a handle on it as a sophomore in the good band in high school. So when he went around, with a matter of fact demeanor that seemed to invoke coattails and black bowties, on our first day of class I started wondering whether I should piss myself before or after I ran to the bathroom. But instead, while tuning, he got to me and asked to play a G (just the bread and butter of a horn) and my shaking lips on the damp cold mouthpiece managed to eek out something that sounded like a leaking balloon. He said “that’s okay, again” and was dismayed when I did little more. I’m not entirely positive, but I might have asked him to pass me. By the end he went to the piano and, with his pointer finger slammed the G key over and over until he agreed to pass. Some of the older students looked dismayed. And honestly, I didn’t blame them because I didn’t know what I was doing there. And from that moment forward I would dread band class for the next two years. And from that moment forward his dislike for me, or what I was, or what I represented, or what I meant to him, only increased. As did the humiliation.

I remember once, much later, in college, I was home from school with a debilitating depression. I was in my bedroom and it was sunny, but I couldn’t feel anything but a weird sort of numb fire that made life throb with a queasy feel. And I had music playing. It wasa the blues. Pink Anderson. And Anderson’s nearly anti-musical moaning over his deliberate repetitive guitar as he sang, “Baby please don’t go” started to settle something in me “Oh baby please don’t go” and I was watching this great hot weight simply dissipate “back to new Orleans” and for a moment, no, two, no, an entire minute “Baby please don’t go back to new Orleans I know you man done gone, baby please don’t go” my depression was gone. That moment was a jewel I did not know how to handle, I didn’t want to move and have it crack or have the owner come and demand it back. The blues seemed to cure me. But on the car ride to the record shop I felt the old wet wool ghost dripping with fire as my fathers face turned from elation back to a resigned concern.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about this. It’s not as if he constantly verbally harassed me or threw things at me or even really raised his voice to me. It was often mild disdain in the face of adulation for others. In many ways I wonder if I was a different, less sensitive (or touchy if I’m being unkind) person, if all of this would have simply passed me by, not been a big deal, if I wasn’t already predisposed to self-loathing and fear of punishment, if this might have been a laugh in some ways. What it did lead to was a measure of time every weekday I could count on being thoroughly disappointing. I could count on hating myself for my inability to perform. I soon learned how to make a joke of myself after he stopped the band for the fourth time and asked me in that frustrated, growl, “Mr. Mango… again?!” to which I’d yell, shamefully, “Oh God, this is why we can’t have nice things!” or something just as obviously desperate in its design to cover my hurt. He was not a bad man, but to him I guessed I was an impediment to the success and esteem of the band. At that time, with that neurotic frame of mind, I hated him as thoroughly and deeply as any teenager has hated any authority figure. I became a kind of joke with some of my friends. Never a joke that really came to prominence or was passed around with joy, but we joked about how much him and I hated each other. And still I don’t know why I was there, why I didn’t leave.

There was one day in particular, we were getting ready for some nationwide competition that I still don’t really understand the details of, and we were playing a particular (and lovely) piece that required one full measure of unadulterated Euphonium melody. At home I played the part feverishly. Again, again, this floating, dulcimer measure, that propped one small moment of a beautiful song, I would play it until my fingerprints knew it better than my thoughts. Like if I could outrun my head with sheer digit speed, I might be free from that damn demon neurosis that seemed to choke me so often. And so we were in practice and the feel of the band room was heavy, as if everyone was sweating, including the walls. And he was certainly sweating. And it was in fact raining out, the large wall that was just a window in this lovely spacious place colored a burgundy and complementary grape-like purple, and he stood on the podium and his sleeves were rolled up. He lifted his wand (and he was so wide that it was like watching the continents of the globe carry themselves of the face of the Earth only to smash back down, it was silly and powerful), made swift eye contact with the room and we began. And percussion was thumping as the clarinets ran and the flutes drifted in to the sound of rising horns and they dimmed to the sound of beating thunder in my ears, my own heartbeat breaking my feel for the music and he looked, and up went the wand, and down, and a flubbed sad note, a schlemiel of a thing tumbling into a pool at a party where no one was swimming. And from the top and yet again. And the thunder was so loud that I couldn’t even hear my own anxious self-hatred, and I felt the sweat on my back and the eyes of the room and looked up in diminutive stature and great contrition, as if apologizing for my existence, to see a furrowed brow staring straight down. And I looked around the room and caught some quizzical glances, some gentle looks of concern, but mostly unreactions, refusing to engage or comment. And he began to say, in that baritone, he didn’t know what to do, this was turning into a failure, all a failure. He looked me in the eyes and said, with a kind of gravity I cannot myself muster, “Mr. Mango, you’re bringing the band down.” And then I was the black hole in the room that sucked in all attention only to destroy it. And part of me now wants to laugh, because this scene is so fucking ludicrous. It was just band. And yet, even as I think of it now it hurts. It was not the first time I was humiliated, nor the last, but it was the most notable time in front of a group of peers, some of whom Ioved, or admired, or crushed on, or wanted their approval and all I heard was my own inner voice telling myself I’d been rendered into a paste under the thumb of his words. But this of course is not the entire truth of the situation. Because, you see, I also sat there with a straight face, and kept my internal hatred internal and this is what is so difficult about this memory, to me at least, is that compared to so much I’ve lived through that moment is a goddamn cake walk, but it hurt like hell. Sometimes it still does. I even got nightmares. Does that make me weak? I don’t know. I don’t think so, but how are we supposed to process humiliation? For a long time I didn’t know what to do with that question.

He was kind to my brother and sister. My brother is a superb drummer, my sister was a good flutist, it was weird being the oldest and a disappointment to a man that was not my parent. And after we’d made some uneasy peace (finally one day when he stopped me I just yelled at him “what the hell do you expect from me! It’s always the same” and he did lighten up) and after I left for college I’d come home to the local gossip. Most of which suggested that things were not as professional as I’d thought. That .he’d shown up to the parade reeking. That his wife was leaving. That he couldn’t function well in the morning. You know, that kind of nasty hearsay that’s as ugly in content as it is in intent. And part way through college my mom called me and told me that he’d died. Just, he’d died. And at that moment I was callous enough to say I didn’t care. And like any early death, the gossip didn’t stop. It stank of booze. I do not know how much or in what way, but it reeked of hushed whispers passing around the idea he’d died of alcohol poisoning. I didn’t want to care. I wanted to drink and get laid. I sure did drink.

Maybe the strangest thing about grace is not only the experience of it, but where you find it. Two months into sobriety, I had a dream where he stood at the podium again. The seats were black folding chairs with lush burgundy cushions, he was dressed in a smart looking suit, the lights seemed to follow us as if we were on stage and everything else was soft shadow. But this time, instead of playing music he came down and sat next to me and told me very earnestly he was an alcoholic. And I said that I knew. And his big round face and bald head, all colored an kind of light crimson changed without changing. The colors remained the same, but instead of some indication of a buffoonish bully I should eject from my mind, it was the hue of someone who was struggling with a drink, someone who could be warm and creative that was as riddled with demons just as I was and doing his best just like I was. And his best didn’t work. And in the dream he told me that. And when I got of from the chair and left, feeling lighter, I was thankful for that solidarity. And when I woke up I didn’t hate him anymore. I just, I didn’t. He made sense.

But here’s the hard thing and the true thing. I have no idea if any of that is true. That moment of closeness that I never felt with him in real waking life was my dream, my illusion, my fantasy. Even the evidence it was based on was gossip. I didn’t know the man or his insides. His cruelty was the realest thing I knew, the most confirmable. When I remembered him I remembered bringing the band down. But that particular not knowing is the exactly loveliness to this all. My subconscious did me a favor my conscious mind never could have. It forgave him. Those moments still hurt yes, but I don’t begrudge him. I feel a kind of cool sadness, a resting sadness, like the still water of a moonlit pool. And the thing is, that forgiveness ends up being more real than the gossip or the perceived cruelty. Forgiveness gets to exist where total ignorance and fear hovel up, because forgiveness wants me to loosen my grip on all this shitty stuff I thought was happening. He may have been an alcoholic, he may not have, but he definitely suffered and for that, some part of me better than my waking mind could forgive him.

It’s strange to realize that an internal act that reorients the way we might see the world is in some ways more real than the way we received said world.

And I have a special new freedom now. It’s this: I get to see him as just a man. A man I didn’t know a whole lot about, a man who I felt hurt by, a man who did good things, a man who struggled, and whether imagined or not, I get some sense of closeness to him.

Perhaps this is all deeply solipsistic, and in fact I’m only waxing poetic about how great I think my inside world is, but I think something else is going on. I think that, this was the kind of internal violence each of us experiences every moment of every day, just in this case it came to a tragic end. I do wish I’d known the good side of him like others did, but at the very least I can appreciate it was there. It is always there.

His favorite band is The Beatles. I know this from one strange mid-morning I shared with him. I was about to be a senior and he had asked to come in and meet with him. That morning he talked to me like I did matter and I was good. He even took an interest in me and when I told him I’d been really into the Beatles he said he shared that interest. I remember wanting to feel connected, so I asked him why he thought they were so good and he said something along these lines, “They were revolutionary right from the start. Right in Love Me Do you’ve got that thumping country drum line with a pop melody resting on top, but it’s so seamless you don’t even realize the blending is there. And they never stopped writing music that way.” It’s usually the first thing I tell a person when I want to sound smart about the Beatles brilliance. And part of me wishes I’d had more moments like that with him, where I felt appreciated, listened to and informed, but I also know that that part is misguided. That moment lives in me forever, just like the forgiveness, like the alcoholism. It is uncoupled from time. Now, while I might still remember I brought the band down and feel hurt I also know I was always and still am listened to. The really weird part is that now I wish I could tell him how much he means to me, how much I appreciate him, even if that ‘him’ is some facsimile of my own imagined solidarity. I hope somehow he knows that. I hope it’s not impossible.