We're nearing Labor Day weekend, which always fills me with a remote, distant dread. It's not the fear of school starting that thrashes deep down in me like a veteran's phantom limb itching in the night. It's something bigger than that, something ominous.
It secretes its own numbing agents and sneaks into the corners when I'm not looking, creeps into the fun in the sunshine I've had with friends these last few weeks. It's there, like John irving's Under Toad from 'Garp', its numbing agents working hard but not totally -- like an anesthetized surgical patient, I look unaware, but my body knows something fucked up is happening.
It's still hot and humid. People are still wearing shorts and tank tops. Summer's not over yet, but everyone is frantic. Life's been whizzing by all summer and now we're vigorously swimming and aggressively grilling to pack in the most fun we have before we all die this fall.
I saw a dead woodchuck on the trail the other day. It was purple and bloated -- and totally hairless. Ants and flies hadn't gotten there yet. It was a harbinger of autumn, a sign of a coming death, and even the maggots were staying away. For them to do their work would be disrespectful to whatever force left that dead woodchuck as an omen -- they'd be living off its dying, busily chewing away a reminder. I'll check on the way in tomorrow and see if their period of respect is over and there's a little skeleton trailside.
The air is thinner and more urgent now. It feels like summer and looks like summer, but it ain't summer. The air is no longer heavy with thundershowers and hazy afternoons. It's not pregnant with barbecues and swimming holes, with shows at Fort Reno and effects-laden air condition extravaganzas in Chinatown.
Science cannot tell about late summer air what the heart can: it is spring, with all the hope removed and desperate fun in its place.
It wasn't a glorious crumble and collapse like you see on the tv news sometimes, and it sure wasn't worth the wait. There was no glorious rumble, no shaking of the earth, and certainly no gigantic splash that comes from a million tons of concrete hitting the water.
We stood on the overpass in the hot humid night, surrounded by witty, effervescent rednecks singing na na na na na na na hey hey goodbye like they wrote it, all to see a series of orange firecrackers go off and a giant puff of dirt.
Anyone says they've got a good photo of this has the keys to Wonder Woman's invisible jet because there were no planes in the sky tonight either.
This, though -- this is some SERIOUS destruction: 16 buildings being felled simultaneously with 1,500 pounds of explosives. Apologies for the Fox news ...
Plop yourself down and let the jaws slacken a bit, kiddies -- it's retro-weirdo TV time at And I Am Not Lying, For Real again...
Do you ever get phrases stuck on endless repeat in your head, echoing around in there until you can't take it, and everything you hear or say sounds like that phrase? For days now, I've had "rodeo gangsterphone" bouncing around in there to the point that I have to consciously decide NOT to say it every time I open my mouth. When I hear sentences with similar sounds, or even a similar internal rhythm, my heart skips a beat . I am a man stranded on a weird little island, and whoever says "rodeo gangsterphone" is my instant long lost soul mate.
No fair pulling it on me after you read this post.
I have a point here, I swear.
Years ago, MTV ran a show called Liquid Television. It was this incredible mishmash of insane, arcane independent animation. It gave birth to "Beavis and Butthead" and "Aeon Flux" before dying a quiet, lonely death a few short seasons later. I used to tape the show at a friend's house who had cable, then watch the episodes religiously, repeatedly rubbing my hungry teen brain with every frame.
I loved the distinctly non-commercial art, the colors, the eerie music. My favorite series, though, was an odd little series of shorts by underground cartoonist Richard Sala called "Invisible Hands."
It's based on semi-supernatural detective stories like The Shadow, but has no real story of its own. Stuff kinda happens in a linear fashion, but there' very little in the way of discernible plot or characterization. It kind of floats along our expectations of what a supernatural detective story should be, triggering character types rather than actual characters. The whole thing is driven solely by style, there is no real substance.
But man, is "invisible Hands' ever awesome. I haven't seen it in years, although I have not stopped hearing the phrases "Ahh, SatisFACTION," and "Yow! A pair of human eyes!!" daily since oh, maybe 1988.
Here they go. Geek out, my nerd herd, and don't forget where you came from ...
We used to sit there in the living room on patio furniture, right there in the middle of Ellwood Avenue in Richmond, VA, right there in the middle of winter, 1999, just listening to the child abuse take place downstairs.
The Worm, as we called the head of the household below us, would savagely beat her preteen son and his two younger sisters after a long day of beatdowns handed out by the kid himself. Neither me or my roommate were exactly employed, so we were home to hear skulls thumping off the walls at midday. I swear I smelled that oldest kid burning a cat or something in the alleyway before lunchtime one day.
Once the kids set off a bunch of firecrackers in the living room and blew parts of the window out into the yard. The oldest girl -- no more than eleven, mind you -- would crank Metallica and stand on the porch in miniskirt and stare off in the distance through squinty, hardened eyes. Her older brother got in a fistfight with the kid from upstairs -- next door to me and my roommate - and threw him into the door to the upstairs of the building.
His fat little body cracked the rotten wood of what turned out to be a hollow door, and all these cereal boxes fell right out. Apparently our landlord put them in there for insulation or something. They didn't even make some of that cereal anymore. Remember Waffle-O's?
Although the kid whose body broke the door was headed down a rotten path, he wasn't a serial killer in training pants like our little buddy from downstairs. That little involuntary battering ram was a good kid going bad, raised by an earth-shakingly stupid single parent whose only contact with greens as a food involved a box of lime Jell-O. My roommate and I would take turns calling child welfare, the cops, anyone with the power to involve a social worker. Nobody ever made it. Our hearts went out to these people, and we tried like hell to help them out when we could and generally be good neighbors.
Then we got exhausted and real, real jaded.
There was this dog that belonged to our neighbors on the second floor. The dog was named Shadow. Shadow's owner, the dumb kid's dumb mom, would occasionally walk Shadow, but usually he stayed chained up out back, barking furiously at anything from black people in the alleyway to minor changes in barometric pressure. Shadow and his vocal cords rose at dawn. The kid's mom was leaning on her second-floor balcony one day when the rotten railing underneath fresh paint just snapped and she barrel-rolled out into space, hitting the ground and sustaining a compound fracture to her arm. No more walks for Shadow.
Nobody ever, EVER cleaned up after Shadow. The whole back yard was just dead branches and dog turds in various states of decomposition. We did the math one time, crunched the numbers and worked out that one dog times 30 square feet time three turds a day for 3 years -- it meant that the yard was more turds than dirt. A thick layer of turd dust was covering everything at the ground level in our backyard. The dust would rehydrate when it rained, releasing an unbearable stale stench.
People that walked their dogs in front of the building never cleaned up after their dogs either. The whole grassy strip between curb and sidewalk was an absolute slippery minefield. I almost got into a fistfight one day for shouting at a man that if he didn't pick up his dog's shit, I was gonna jam it back in there.
One night I snapped. I had been stepping over one pile of shit, and in doing so, stepped into an entirely different pile of shit. My roommate and I took to the street, circling every turd we saw with bright orange spray paint, the kind they use to mark sewer lines. It was a public service, and for a while it worked. You could step right over the slimy little land mines, and other people were hesitant to let their dogs stop for too long.
These guys have elevated that sense of furious fecal art-making into a whole new realm. When I saw this gallery today, I laughed so hard I started crying. See if you don't agree with me ... and if you've got a dog, see that you've got a plastic bag handy, too.
An old man and his wife are walking in the park. All of a sudden, a bird flies overhead and lets loose a gigantic, creamy white shit all over the old man's head. "For Christ's sake," the man shouts. "Honey, you got any Kleenex or toilet paper or something in your bag?"
"What on earth for," she asks. "That bird's got to be a mile away by now!"
I told that joke to Pop-Pop Saturday afternoon. His eyes crinkled tight and he laughed, long and hard. He needed a laugh pretty bad. When I lifted him up in his bed, the IV portal in his arm erupted with freshets of dark blood, streaming thin like rubbing alcohol down his pale, frail arm.
He's on blood thinners to prevent the pooling blood in his heart from clotting, letting the damaged heart do its work. The spray was completely normal, no big deal, but man, it's a shock seeing that much blood.
I helped Pop-Pop shift in bed, my armpits under his shoulders. I've been going to the gym for years now, but there is no weight like the body of your own grandfather. Wheezing, nervous and wide-eyed, he looked at me waiting for my three-count, steeling himself for battle against diabetic hospital cuisine and its nefarious general, chopped cooked carrots.
"This crap gets more like Army food every time they serve it," he swore. "At 4:30 this morning, two enormous colored women came into my room, surrounded me. 'Quick,' they said -- 'we can get some blood from this one', and they jabbed me in the arm. I thought we were having some kinda terrorist attack. Do what you want with your life, Jeffrey, but never, ever get old."
I helped Pop-pop navigate his lunch, coaxing, bargaining and wheedling with him to eat something, anything. He had two bites of the beef and noodles, part of a dinner roll, sucked down his iced tea and was ready to call it a day. Then he saw the Jell-O. I've never said it before, but I'm sure I'll say it again -- thank God for Jell-O.
We got him through lunch semi-okay, the process set to the soundtrack of the heart patient in the room next to crunching, and I shit you not, his way through a contraband sack of pork rinds.
Didja hear the one about the old couple walking in the park?" Pop-Pop asked me, just before we left for the night.
"No," I lied. "Tell me."
Today's lunchtime symphony was conducted by Daro, a master wrangler of Pop-Pop's moods and willpower.Once I got him upright, Daro was huddling over the lunch tray across from him, tasting, salting, mixing and coaxing. "Do you need your teeth in or out," she asked, holding their Tupperware home away from home. I wish I'd remembered that.
Daro stood there, all love and business, a 92-year old woman pushing the hard line on some crap chow, breathing deeply the smell of a sporadically sponge-bathed octogenarian who has seen the doorway of death. If she felt it, she didn't flinch. She was clucking and fussing with warm Christian cussing, and I'll be damned if she didn't get some more lunch in there.
You can read so much online about dating. Everyone wants not just a partner, but the perfect partner. We want flat abs and wit, we want money and initiative, frequent great sex AND fidelity, humor, business acumen and flawless manners. I think we're missing the boat.
That's the stuff of great beginnings. That's what we say we want, a beginning with sparks and crackle. This weekend, I spent a lot of time thinking about the end. And when the end comes, I want someone to stand there with me as my body fails, feeding me, hoping and praying that they can stand next to me for one more night, one more year while our bodies and minds gently give out together until the only thing left is our love for each other and the people that care for us.
You can keep your flowers and your nights on the town. Take all your dinners, all your dates, your designer jeans and your brand-consciousness, all your nights out at the club and cram 'em. Because unless you can give me -- and unless you're patient enough to let me give you -- what my grandparents give each other, all you got is special effects without a script -- high expectations and no substance to hold them up.
"Hey, Pop-Pop," I said after lunch, "Did you hear the one about the old couple in the park?" "No, I don't think so ... tell me!"
He's on the mend. They let him out of the hospital tonight. He'l be convalescing at my aunt and uncles' house until we figure out just what to do.
As a family, we have been granted a bittersweet reprieve. Pop-Pop's out of the hospital today, staying with my aunt and uncle until further notice. He needs a first-floor bathroom, and although I did not hear a doctor say this, I doubt there will be many more country ham sandwiches in his future.
He is back at my uncle's place, resting. He's been placed in front of the 24-hour Western channel, where he sleeps uninterrupted by anything other than fictional gunfire. While this is not the end of the road for Pop-Pop, it's been a glimpse of thing to come. Modern medicine, money and good old-fashioned love have been enough. This time.
The train left Union Station nearly two hours late, delayed from Boston by skittish freight trains made jumpy by terrorist threats. Those guys, they got everyone jumpy.
A man almost came to blows with a conductor in the waiting area by the tracks. "Don't you swear at me," he shouted. "Motherfucker, I'll quit swearin' at you when you stop trying' to put your got-damn hands on me," the conductor replied. Another conductor stepped between the two and placed his palm on his colleague's chest.
It looks like a movie theater after the lights have come up in here. The train is littered with the remnants of snacks consumed through sheer boredom. Cardboard trays contain the thick plastic space suits of alien sandwiches created in a laboratory high above earth, and overpriced bottles of Corona lean on those suits like toppled, forgotten statues.
People have settled comfortably among the debris. We are an adaptable species, and we nestle comfortably into our own refuse. I am esconced in cocoon of technology and crumbs, wires crossing my lap to recharge the cell phone, to power my laptop. A book sits next to me like a sandwich wrapper, evidence of an experienced gobbled hastily, out of boredom. I have made no friends on this trip.
Fat women with poorly behaved children occupy the seats by the doorway to each train car. The kids are antsy, tired of suckling the glowing rectangular teat and race in the aisles. I nearly decapitate a writhing toddler with my bag. It hurts me more.
Two women with delicate Zorro moustaches, swaddled in brilliant swaths of colored gore-tex chatter aimlessly about family with one another and over cell phones intermittently. A gargantuan man with a bald head, full beard and a belt buckle shaped like a wad of 50 dollar bills nods to me and says "'Sup playa, help a brother out with this big old cardboard box?"
Now it is dark and the train is sleeping and creaking. nobody walks, everyone sleeps except me and the train itself, banging its way through the night.
The man you see above is Beryl Abicht. He's my grandfather on my mother's side. He grew up on a farm in rural Ohio during the Depression and fought the Nazis and Japanese in India and China during World War II. He was a welder, faced with the task of sprinting out into the fieldsto salvage usable parts from downed fighter planes and resurrecting American fighter planes.
Every few days he would get a break from that task in order to weld dead soldiers -- many of them his friends -- into giant sardine-can coffins to ship back home for burial. Somewhere in there, this man with only a high school education and a 400-horsepower will managed to court my grandmother through letters home, and convinced her to marry him when he returned.
If I remember the story correctly, he was once walking through the forest to mess hall in China with a number of other men. They were ambushed by a sniper, and the whole party was killed, apart from my grandpa. He managed to survive by hiding in a ditch. When the shooting stopped, my grandpa took a service pistol from one of his friend's cooling body, found that Japanese sniper and shot that motherfucker right between the eyes. Then he walked to the mess hall and ate dinner with the rest of his company.
After the war, my grandparents settled in Newport News, Virginia. Pop-Pop, as I have always called him, took a job as a welder for NASA. He welded everything from the first moon lander to the first space shuttle. Some of his best work carried Buzz Aldrin to the moon, and it is there today. One day, hopefully within my artificially extended lifetime, my grandchildren will be able to go see it.
After retiring, Pop-Pop took up wood carving and watercolor painting. He was one of my earliest artistic influences. I can remember finishing blueberry pancakes at my grandparent's breakfast table, and my grandmother making another plateful for us to paint together as a still-life. I can still smell the bacon she cooked to grease the pan and see the syrup dripping off the sides. Pop-Pop is diabetic, and I can remember him gazing at those syrupy cakes very, very longingly.
For years, he worked at my uncle's antique shop and Christmas store, helping to ring up customers and unlock cases. Pop-pop is an endless well of incredibly weak jokes, and he loves to tell customers the exact same one hundreds of times. Every time I see him, I try to tell him a new joke, which usually lasts until the next visit. When my aunt and uncle had auctions at their antique shop, Pop-Pop and Daro (my grandmother) wore polo shirts with the Smithfield Antiques logos embroidered on the front and SECURITY stitched across both arms.
During the sixties both he and Daro fought passionately for integrated public schools. As Ohioans transplanted to the Bible Belt, they faced no small amount of opposition. But guess who won?
"Hey Jeff," you may be thinking, "that's awesome and all, but ... what's the point?"
Here's the point, in case you missed it. My grandparents are some tough customers. They're tough customers with giant expansive hearts and they pretty much love everyone they encounter. Pop-Pop's lived a rich, long, hard life and his heart has gotten a lot of exercise.
So my question is: why is he in the hospital right now? Why did he wake up in the middle of the night last night, gasping for breath, then tell Daro he thought he was crossing the great divide? Why, if he is so tough, noble, and strong, did he have to go to the hospital AGAIN tonight in an ambulance?
He's 86 years old, diabetic, and had a five-way bypass several years ago. They've paged a heart specialist to come see him, and you don't do that when there's GOOD news. So now we're all waiting, and hoping, and praying for each other, me, my parents, sister, and grandmother. But even if the news is good tonight, we're going to get some bad news one of these days soon.
I was really touched and amazed at you guys' comments the other day when I was bitching about my blog as though it were a real problem. It amazed me to find out how many of you really paid attention and seemed to care. So I figure if you guys are reading this, that's that many more people that know what an amazing, tough, loving man my grandpa is. And maybe one of you can give me some sort of help understanding how exactly this can be happening right now.
Believe it or not, DangerMouse and Cee-Lo weren't playing every instrument you heard on "Crazy." The song depends as heavily on a sampled bassline as it does on a drum machine and Cee-Lo's incredible voice.
The source song is called "Nel Cimitero la Tucson," a song from Gianfranco Reverberi's soundtrack to a 60's-era spaghetti western called "Preparati La Bara!" Before you go thinking I'm some kind of mystical genius, remember that I obsessively surf the web more than you do.
Prometheus may have brought fire to man, but he didn't invent it.
When I first started this blog, I really WROTE in it. I'd sit down each night and labor over a first-person essay that captured my thoughts and feelings, but tried to tie them into a bigger struggle that the world could relate to. I was a Writer, I thought, and the act of Writing was really, really, important. One day this blog was going to catapult me into fame if I just kept at it, I was sure.
Exactly. While I have a much better job than I had when I started this thing (not too tough to improve on part-time pizza cook), the rest has not exactly happened according to the hazy fantasy I mistook for a plan. I've learned that no matter how much heart and soul I pour into this blog, how tirelessly I craft my posts, some hot sorority type (an oxymoron if I ever wrote one) that posts pictures of her spilling Cosmos in Arlington and blabbing about her dates is going to get ten times the traffic.
Blogging isn't really about writing anymore. Maybe it never was. It's about flexing social muscle, selling something, sharing information -- but not really carving out a story or a series of thoughts and ideas. This blog, it entertains me, and I've met some great people through it, but it's actually taking me further from my dreams as a writer.
I wanted my blog to be like this guy's LiveJournal, except have people care about it. He's a local and he's brilliant. Check out his feelings about gentrification, temping, and hating America tell me -- is writing like this dead online?
God, I hope not. Dude, if you're the one that writes this stuff, please contact me...
So there was a DC Blogs "Happy Hour" on Friday. I put quotes around "Happy Hour" because that phrase usually connotes low drink prices and an hour or two, max... I guess "spend three hours getting tanked" doesn't really snap right off the tongue. Most of the key players in the DC Blogs clique were there -- you know who you are.
Velvet in Dupont did not appear to have completely blogged herself out of male attention. And I must say that her cleavage looks MUCH better in person than it does on her blog.
I had three favorite moments from the evening, which I'll relate quickly and then clear out:
I was standing there talking to DCCookie when some dude rolled up. She introduced me to him, saying,
"Hey (some dude), this is my friend Jeff. His blog is really ... interesting. It has a lot of ... personality."
To which he said,
"Well, personality goes a long way,"
to which I wittily replied
and then accidentally smashed my drink all over the floor, mostly, except for the healthy amount of vodka, tonic and broken glass spattering Cookie's legs, toes, and feet. Smooth. Smoooth operator, that's me. I think she had to take her shoes off and really get right between the toes with a cocktail napkin to repair the damage I'd wrought.
I ran into CircleV and we were crapping on about this and that, blog t-shirts and the Flaming Lips mostly, and she said something that ended with the phrase
"...anyway, I'm an alcoholic."
"Really, I'm sorry to hear that. Do you go to meetings regularly?"
thinking, well, I know a few recovering alcoholics, one of whom is no slouch as a blogger, either. Circle V sputtered and then laughed in my face, saying
"Well I'm not a QUITTER! I mean, I drink every day, but I'm not trying to stop or anything!"
Drew, Joe, and Alejandra and I were leaned against the bar having a well-informed and brilliant discussion about contemporary comic books -- as we are all just that cool. If it hadn't been for computers and comic book movies coming into the spotlight in the past few years, I'd be so screwed, socially. I think all would have been. Anyway, we're all crapping on about the Watchmen or something, and Martin rocks out shouting
"Comic books! You guys are talking about comics and nobody told me!? This is a conversation I can get INTO, man!!!"
It was at that moment that I think I fell in love, a little bit. Standing around tipsy and dorking out about a shared interest unrelated to blogging and blogging stats, just goofing hard with some folks that I never would have met without frequent forays into the sedentary Tron-world that is my new social life -- fantastic.
While it would have been nice to see Lonnie Bruner out, we managed to catch up at the swimming hole the following day. More on that later. For now, I'm tired as hell.
No adult worth talking to had an easy time of it in high school. It has come to my attention that even the pretty, preppy, popular kids weren't exactly enjoying themselves either. Who knew? Apparently sneaking out of the house to chug beers at a rich kids' unsupervised party wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
I digress. After my parents stopped making me go to bed but before I could drive, I definitely did not sneak out of the house to go and party. I couldn't even use 'party' confidently as a verb until my junior year of college.
What I did instead wass stay up super late reading comics, drawing, and watching any old messed up thing I could find on network television. No cable for the Simmermon family. One summer midnight when I was about thirteen, I stumbled across a collection of Jan Svankmajer's films on PBS.
Svankmajer is an incredibly influential Czech animator. His stop-motion films inspired the Brothers Quay, who are widely miscredited with making a video for Tool -- the one where the little man opens the pipe and intestines are flowing through it. Anyway.
Svankmajer's 'Darkness, Light, Darkness' dismantledd my mind atom by atom and swept the mess up afterwards. Now, through the magic of YouTube, I can share it with the four or five of you that care. The rest of you can keep your fucking happy hours.
I've been noticing in my stats that I've got a few more repeat visitors, which tickles me no end. It's nice to think that more people want to see what falls out of my head right before bed or after I eat breakfast (but before I put on my pants) in the morning.
But there's two of you out there that I'm insanely curious about. You there, in Mount Laurel, New Jersey and the other one one in Atlanta -- how's it going? The StatCounter says you guys are up in this little blog for hours every day. I'm into it, keep it up! But it makes me think that maybe we know each other. Do we? If you feel up to it, please stop hiding and say hi when you have the chance.
Since you asked, I did go to see the Evens at Fort Reno last night. It was great, despite oppressive humid dog-breath heat. I think the key to enjoying the Evens is to just get over yourself and completely accept that Fugazi has broken up.
They've moved on, they're older now and pursuing families and lives of their own, and guess what: you're older too. You're out on your own, making your rent and making your own music -- you don't need Fugazi to be your abstract rockout superheroes anymore.
Amy Farina's drumming is tighter and tighter every time I hear her, and Ian's guitar retains its signature chingly changly semi-disco kinda African but totally rockin' sound. The Evens are not giants, they are not legendary, but they are very, very good, and to lie back in the tall grass surrounded by kids and dogs and good friends and hear a very good band is one of life's greater pleasures.
That's not to say that I have an easy time participating in that pleasure.
For some reason, every time I get around a large crowd, I freak out a little bit. I have to ditch whoever I'm there with and just go for a big fat walk, circling the crowd and bisecting it, then bisecting the bisections until I've gotten a good read and a long look at every face there. I can feel the flickering of a million conversations and the tracings of billions of pairs of eyes like tiny insect feathers across the back of my eyes.
I love walking against the flow of human traffic at large protests and just surfing the waves of humanity at the beach, rock concerts, even the mall at Christmas. It's hard to be sure, but I think I turn invisible, dropping out of my 6'2" frame and becoming a ghostly floating pair of eyeballs bobbing through the night. Nobody sees me and I see everyone and I can't sit still.
Then one of my friends, quite understandably, goes to talk to me and I come slamming back to earth. I always get a little irritated but underneath it all, I'm really sorry -- it's just that I can't sit still. I can't be here now, or be any one place now. I just want to be someplace else, floating past the next person, hearing the next conversation, shifting, moving, pacing like a giant dog trampling circles for a makeshift bed.
I always see a ton of people I know or kind of know, turn visible for just long enough to chat and split, fading back into floating eyeballs as soon as nobody is paying attention. It's like I'm a phantom running for office.
Then finally it all collapses and so do I, back in the grass, surrounded by people who understand me and love me anyway. You guys know exactly who you are, and you're great.