A Literary Feast

Seen

Posted on June 10th, 2016

The western field has flooded.  The diner talk is all about the weight and depth of the water, and Ray’s truck stuck in it.  You know where you are, Kath is saying to Ray, because this is news and he agrees.  I’ve had four cups of coffee and won’t call today either, and the note looks back at me from the paper telling me to do it but I won’t.

 

Ray doesn’t believe in angels.  He told me that once over eggs even though I hadn’t asked.  If you sit in one spot long enough in a regular way, people tell you things, and sometimes, it’s about the afterlife and sometimes it’s about the bait shop.  They’re about the same.  He said their outfits are wrong and Heaven isn’t a place where you just wear bedsheets, and so he couldn’t really get behind it.  Ray had a daughter.  You’re expecting me to say that she drowned, because that would explain why he doesn’t want to think about otherwordly sheet wearing winged guardians but what really happened is that Ray’s ex took her to Arizona and he’s never been on a plane.  Sometimes people become past tense just because of geography.  They’re alive somewhere else, but, you don’t know about it, mostly.

 

That was last winter.  Kath was wearing the red jacket a lot then.  She has two, one red, one tan, and they signal something, but I haven’t worked it out yet.  I kept track for a month, but the pattern stayed out of sight.  Sometimes I think Ray is in love with her, and maybe the switching has something to do with that, but JJ tells me I’m fanciful and I keep it mostly to myself.  

 

What I don’t say is that I’ve seen one.  And they don’t wear bedsheets.  

 

They mostly wear canvas coveralls, and are at the hardware store, sorting through the nail bin, and getting silvered fingers.  I asked what that was all about, and he just said ‘It’s pleasurable’.  I didn’t know, right away, what I was seeing, which he said was pretty common.  They go to great lengths to make that happen, otherwise, it’s nothing but requests and gawping and hey can you tell me if I’m doing this thing right, or why this other thing happened and is there a plan, and it makes you pretty tired.  I said you get tired? and he said sure thing, it’s not the easiest job, and put his silvered hands in his pockets, and rocked back on his heels a bit in some invisible wind.  Ray doesn’t believe in you, I mentioned.  Oh, we know.  That’s okay, is what he said, which was charitable, and I guess that’s no surprise.  I was gonna go for a walk, is what I said next, and he said We know that too, and I thought that it must be annoying to talk to anyone, knowing everything all the time, and he said, out loud, yeah, sometimes, it is.

 

He followed me out of the hardware store.  I wondered if I should be nervous about it or not, but, figured there was no point, either way, and kept on down the sidewalk.  A condom had washed up against one of the road drains and I felt embarrassed to have to see it given my walking companion but he didn’t say anything and I guess he sees everything no matter what, but still.  Don’t sweat it, he said to the back of my head, because the sidewalk had narrowed and I was walking in front a little bit and I started even though I knew he was there.  I’ve always been a nervous person.  When I still lived with JJ I’d forget that he was in the house sometimes and he’d come into a room and my heart would stop because I didn’t always know who he was right away.  I lose faces.  Their parts go from me, and it takes effort to call them back.

We reached the hill that falls down to the docks and my feet started on the familiar slope to the water.  

 

I like this place, I said out loud again, because it is habit and habit is hard to stop having, and the presence behind me didn’t say a thing.  It smelled the way that it always did, halfway between what you’d like to remember and what you’d like to forget, with salt mixed in.  Ray can only ever talk about all of the fish that have pissed in the ocean when we go out early in the boat, and I see it when I look down, a river within a greater river.  

 

My companion says nothing, which is fine, which is what I expect, I guess, but also, if he knows what I am thinking, he knows that I am not going to call.

 

I take the paper out of my pocket, where its number has grown thin, in the creased places, so that it is soft.  As soft as water.  As soft as sugar, sifting down.  As soft as anything.  

 

It lands on the water.  Soft, there too.

 

It comes back.  

 

What, I say?

 

Just what I meant, he remarks.  You will see.

Last Call

Posted on June 10th, 2016

Lately I’ve been thinking about a dark side of consumption—addiction. Something might start innocuously enough (wow, this feels really good, if I have more if it, I’ll feel even better) and spirals to that malicious, delicious point where one is otherwise underwater without it. The glass of wine that becomes a bottle. The cigarette that becomes a pack. Drugs hidden from sight but very much present in the owners mind until that next sip, drag, hit and now the water parts, the mouth reaches the surface, and you can breathe again. As if every moment until this moment had been a deep dive act of breath-holding until that thing you most want is in your hands again—vaulted, exalted, exhalation.

 

I see addiction all around me. As a public school teacher in the South Bronx, I see the unswerving student commitment to Takis, Doritos, Sour Straws, Utz Chips, Cheese Doodles—each offering a chemical high for under a dollar, stuffed into black plastic bodega bags and parceled, assessed, and consumed throughout class. And the next class. And the next. And the following morning. Again, on Wednesday. Thursday. Every day of the week, hours a day, bag after bag, and no amount of cajoling, of “no eating in class” signs, of teacherly demand or love or any combination thereof will pry the goodies loose. A true exchange between a kid and me the other day:
Me: “What’s up, D? You have so many bags of chips in your hands. Is this seriously your breakfast?”

 

D: “Miss, don’t start with me.”

 

Me: “Okay, I’m just curious—when was the last time you started your morning without the redolent taste of honey-roasted barbeque cornstarch?”

 

D: “I don’t even know what that means.”

 

Me: “I mean, why you gotta eat this crap all the time, it’s so bad for you.”

 

D: “Miss the fuck you getting in my face for? I am not in the mood.

 

Me: “Why not?”

 

D: “High as fuck, miss. I am high as. My head is not connected to my body right now in no way, shape, or form, trust and believe.”

 

Me: “Huh.”

 

D: “Yep. And when I be high as fuck like this, I be getting the munchies and you know how that goes. You do not want to be in Ms. L’s bum-ass fucking class without a good few bags of these, you know what I’m saying?”

 

Me: “But why even go at all then? How are you going to learn anything if you’re so high?”

 

D: “Miss! The fuck you think I’m ever learning anything anyway in this bum-ass school? I’m only here because I got to be here by law. Trust and believe, soon as I turn 18 I am out of here. But as long as I gotta be here, Imma have some fun.”

 

And then I go home and pour a gigantic glass of red wine and think—what’s the difference? As long as I gotta be here, Imma have some fun.

 

Lately I’ve been dating a man in that rapid, circuitous, pointless way that only online dating can so consistently deliver, while offering little else. No one looking for much of anything serious, everyone just having a laugh, taking their clothes off, walking away the next morning, texting vaguely after that or not at all. Or maybe that’s just the way I’ve gone about things. The other morning as I got ready for work, the radio host remarked on the fine quality of the day’s weather: “And if you’re just waking up from a one night stand, you are all set,” the host said. “The weather is perfect and it’s exactly the same as yesterday, so just put those same clothes back on and get out of there.

 

This man I met online had been relatively candid with me from the start about his addictions: a recovering alcoholic, he didn’t drink. A sworn pothead, he lives in Colorado and there enjoys the legality of the substance to the point that several times he forgot, while I was visiting him, that he was having a conversation with me. “Wait, what were we just talking about?”

 

“I just prefer an altered state,” he explained. “I prefer that to the real way I feel, whatever that means.”

 

I don’t know what that means either. I’m not judging, not refuting that addiction is a disease, or that his voracious appetites do not challenge this man. Or that I don’t have problems of my own. He came to visit me in New York and flew with what could only be described as a “shit ton” of pot tucked into various pockets of his luggage. We found furtive places in nearby parks and greeted the few people that passed us with nods and smiles, me silently praying no one was an undercover cop and, seeing as nothing happened, I guess no one was.

 

Bourgeoning addiction is a lighthearted flirtation with an absolutely destructive force, something alive in the same people who chase tornadoes and stand, awestruck, by how close they can get to something so powerful without getting killed. I’m not bigger than Valium or wine or pot—smoked or eaten. I’m much, much smaller. And these things will not only continue to exist but thrive in minds and livers and bloodstreams long after I am gone—a dust so fine you could snort my remains. And if you believe the rumors, some people have. Is it true, for example, that Keith Richards rolled his father’s ashes into a joint and smoked before falling out of a coconut tree? Addiction can make people do funny things. But is addiction itself funny?

 

I laughed pretty much throughout Weiner, the new documentary on Anthony Weiner, a man clearly struggling with some variation of sex addiction that found easy, not-so-private expression through technology that consequently blew up both his private life and political career. “I did some pretty stupid things,” he tells the camera. “But I also did some pretty good things.” You can almost see him wishing—pining—to wrap his hands around some secret clock in the sky and reverse time and make it so that none of this was ever discovered. Not to turn back time so that he never did it, but to reverse, somehow, its discovery.

 

I don’t think I was laughing so much at Anthony as with him, in a way, for his trajectory outlines in the boldest possible strokes the same route that any of us could take with any number of vices if only we felt, somehow, that we could get away with it and never face the consequences. What feels fun and affordable—even cheap—at the time of rampant consumption becomes astronomically expensive at the moment of intervention. The moment of “Did you send these photos?” The moment of “Do you realize you called me eight times last night, sobbing and slurring your words?” The moment of “Ma’am, you can’t sleep here.”

 

While the guy in Colorado was pretty upfront about his smoking (off the charts) and his drinking (cold turkey) he was less candid about perhaps his biggest vice—sex. He scrambled innocuous questions about my day with explicit questions about my body. He demanded photos. He wanted details. He called me panting. He joked that he had been kicked off an online dating site “again”. And for one hot, deeply flawed minute, I took his attention as intense passion, just for me.

 

Then he invited me to his brother’s wedding and I attended, twirling on the dance floor with his father, listening to his mother retell stories of the man’s childhood. And I thought things like “Who am I to judge?” and “Maybe this could go somewhere” and “Nobody’s perfect.” Being a single, childless woman near 40 will easily allow such statements to seep into your mind just as spilled wine seeps into your couch on the night before you know you’re not going back to your South Bronx job tomorrow because you are going to call in “sick”, sick with a sickness of your own making.

 

Two days after the wedding, the man texted me:

 

Him: “Can I still seduce other gorgeous women if we are married?”

 

Me: “No. I’m happy to not be the right person for you and to let you be, but no I don’t want a marriage built on that kind of bedrock. No.”

 

Him: “Makes sense. I’m just still not able to commit because I don’t want to cheat and I am so tempted by so many beautiful women for pleasure. This partially why I have never been married, like we talked about.”

 

Me: “Got it. That’s not good enough for me but I wish you all the best.”

 

Him: “Wow, intense. You don’t fuck around. You have my shoes and I have your keys.”

 

Me: “Okay, let’s find a time this week to deal with all that.”

 

Him: “I love your decisiveness.”

 

Me: “Bye!”

 

But it wasn’t bye. There were still the logistical arrangements of handing off our possessions—something he did not want to do in person. And there was still the fact of his sex addiction, which kept coming up even as we tried to hammer out these logistics:

 

Him: “Thinking about you with other guys is hot, but probably not healthy.”

 

Him: “Dressing sexy for tonight?”

 

Me: “The fact you just sent me those two texts back to back cracks me up so hard. Literally read that. You can’t help yourself, babe!”

 

Him: “I am a sex addict and love seducing women. Mother Nature made a mistake with how I was designed.”

 

Me: “Do you honestly identify as a sex addict?”

 

Him: “Dude, labels are odd but quite possibly.”

 

Me: “Would you be open to answering a couple anonymous questions for a piece I am writing on addiction?”

 

Him: “Now I’m your guinea pig, not sure I’m into that. But I hope you cum so hard Friday that you are like, who was that sex addict guy again?”

 

Me: “Just looking for insight.”

 

Him: “Google it.”

 

Me: “Are you ashamed?”

 

Him: “Nope. But I have big goals and sex is fun but doesn’t feel productive after I cum.”

 

Me: “You mean big professional goals or big sexual goals?”

 

Him: “Professional, social. I’ll drop your stuff off tomorrow.”

 

Me: “Cool, I appreciate it. By the way, do you think your parents and bro will think it was weird that I attended the wedding, or are they used to this kind of thing?”

 

Him: “Who cares.”

 

Me: “Wow.”

 

Him: “I can’t live my life for how they think I should be. Have a fun date!!”

 

A few days later he wrote me again.

 

Him: “Even though it never feels good to have a woman happy with a new guy, hurts a mans ego a bit, but I actually can’t help but respect you based on how you have treated me. Have the best life!!!!”

 

A couple days later I found my response, a photograph of text from Louis de Bernieres’ 2002 introduction to Chekhov’s “The Story of a Nobody”, analyzing the character Orlov:

 

He does have ideals, but he knows that he wouldn’t be able to sustain the inconvenience of pursuing them. He despises all classes of men, but would rather be in his own class than any other. He knows his job is a waste of his life, but he quite enjoys the manner of its wasting. He knows that he is intelligent and talented enough to achieve a great deal, but he happily spends all his spare time reading unsystematically, and playing cards. He knows that he just wants a mistress with whom he can have fun when they are both on top form, and he knows that he couldn’t be bothered with the proper relationship that he is conventionally supposed to want…He seems to have achieved the imperturbable indifference of an eastern monk.

 

Perhaps in sending this text, I indulged one of my own biggest addictions: the pretentious use of academic texts to achieve a dual sense of self-righteous insight while delivering a backhanded insult.

 

The man did not respond.

My Pizza ‘Tis Of Thee

Posted on June 10th, 2016

My father is a pepperoni lover.

Dad grew up in Sandusky, Ohio with one sister and two brothers. He is the son of a tennis player, go-cart racer, and pool shark (my grandma was a badass). He is the son of a German grocer who would take him to Chicago to select beef for his meat counter. He used to deliver groceries in exchange for comic books. He would ride his bike down to the train station and watch the trains come in and leave for points north, south, east and west. These visits turned into a lifelong passion for model trains. He loves being on the water, beer, photography, John Wayne movies, and the practice of medicine. He loves goofing around with the grandkids, taking walks with his partner of over forty years, helping his four sons with whatever they need, and giving lengthy updates about the comings and goings of his weekend. Who did what, where they went, what they ate, what they drank, if they danced or not, and what their plans are for the coming week and month. He is a man of curiosity and intense interest in the fields he chooses to shine his gaze on.

My dad is a pepperoni lover.

Not just any pepperoni. Not the fancy stuff. Or the cheap stuff. The pepperoni he loves is something special. When he utters the words “…and they had really good pepperoni…”, everyone in the family knows what he means. There is no real way to describe it to anyone outside the family. It is a code that sometimes excitedly passes his lips. If he were to say it to just any old so and so on the street, it may be hard to decipher the details he eludes to. You just have to be shown. Taken to the mount. Guided to the edge of the canyon. Lead to the light.

He brought all four of his sons into the church that is Pepperoni Pizza very early on. First in our single digits, we grew to our double number years in those hallowed halls of grease. The ruler of these was and still is Massy’s Pizza.

This great among greats started in 1949 with two brothers (Jim and Dan Massucci) and their pal Romeo, together they owned The Italian Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. They were the first to bring pizza to town. Cooking it on the hearth of their deck ovens, they then cut each pie into rectangular strips and served the slices in brown paper bags to go. The Massucci’s saw how popular the newly introduced food was and opened the first Massey’s soon after. These days, they have nine locations in Ohio and three sports bars in other states. As for the pepperoni, it is still the same and still exclusive to their operation.

My memory of this pizza is a combination of fresh cut grass, the first time I got a concussion, the first time I kissed someone, and watching Saturday morning cartoons. When I try and get back to eating this pizza, it brings with it smells of my dads office chair, the feeling of wind on my face while riding my bike, the first time I saw a horse and thought it was the biggest living thing I would ever see. There is so much wrapped up in this memory. A childhood that remains a magical, half remembered time.

When I was 11, we moved from Ohio to Virginia. Gone was the playground, the sandbox in the backyard, the reservoir, the creek, the woods, the neighbor I had a huge crush on. I even had to give up my pet mouse Houdini.

And Massey’s pepperoni pizza.

—————————————————————————————————————————————

My world had changed so irreversibly that the only option was to lay down and adapt. To go to the ocean and learn how to boogie board was a new experience. Having our grade school mile run on the beach was a strange and wonderful thing. Distracted by hormones and trying to shyly make friends. To come into ones own in a new place, with a new tan and a new swim suit. A new life. So on it went. I went through grade school. Then to high school. Trying to find an identity, a group, a style. Running away from family to find my own. I revolted. I learned to smoke cigarettes. I got into weed, wore a drug rug, and did other goofy things that people who are lost do. Like listen to 90’s music.

Within those clouds of confusion, clear air was visible. I found restaurant work. After a brief stint bussing tables, I got my first pizza job. At my tender, angry age of 17, the door of Doughboys in Virginia Beach opened to me (after applying of course). I was making dough, saucing, cheese-ing, topping, cooking, serving. There was a calling in this work. My god, what a life! Slinging pies to the tourists, smoking cigarettes along the side of the building, talking shit, and generally just being a bunch of intolerable teenagers. So began my love affair with making pizza. It was a job that I looked for throughout my twenties. “Experienced pizza cook”. I made it in Virginia, Connecticut and Massachusetts. I’ve eaten it in France, Spain, England, Belgium, and Italy. I’ve eaten a lot of pizza. I’ve made a lot of pizza. A kind that I thought was pretty good. There was a place on the Cape that I helped open and one of the main concerns was the pepperoni. It had to be the right kind of spicy. The right curl when it cooked. The right amount of grease. We thought we had hit it right on the button. I felt as if I had achieved something in the world of pizza. I made a good pie, with good sauce, good cheese, and good pepperoni. Good pepperoni.

I am a pepperoni lover.

—————————————————————

Fast forward a few years……I had gotten fed up with the job I was working. I had made my way to being a chef. In charge of the food. Training, ordering, sourcing, work work work.  I was tired and it was time for some change. That change came in the form of a road trip. The plan was to go and cook, go see friends, take in the wonderful sights, sounds, and tastes of this country. Scrimp, save, hatch plans, contact friends, come up with a route.

It’s a wonderful thing to think of, The American Roadtrip. Something that gets us out, changes us, spits us out on the opposite shore. Some may say, a birthright of the American experience. To go to the wilderness and come back with news. Some understanding. Some mysterious knowledge gained. The wonder. The awe. Scope. Scale. Power. Silence. The amber waves of grain. The purple mountains majesty.

The plan was to get in a car alone, travel to various cities, stay with friends, set up my tent, cook with people, see the desert, and learn a little bit about the country that we Americans all call our home. The trip was to last three months. Maybe somewhere out there I would get lost. Perhaps.

So off I went.

I went to New Orleans, shot an AR-15 and sat through a rainstorm. I went to Clarksdale, met the Iceman and saw what a Walmart can do to a town. Bow fishing from a canoe near Dallas. Music in Austin. The desert on the Mexican border. The mountains of Colorado. Snowstorm on the transcontinental divide. Mormons in Salt Lake. Sunrise over the Grand Canyon. Riding passenger on a motorcycle through Phoenix. Joshua Tree. LA. Route 1. The Redwoods. The Olympic Peninsula. Seattle. I had traveled for two and half months and was tired. I got drunk a few times. I cooked a few times. Had visited friends that I cherish from the then to somewhere in the distant future. It was time to go home. It was time to be done with the car. It was time for a sock drawer.

At breakneck pace, the Northwest, Montana, the Dakotas, The Midwest; they all flew past my windscreen. The high desert, the Badlands, amber waves of grain. Driving straight for long distances. Watching storms break on mountain ranges and suspicious stares at gas stations. Alone and trying to get home.  So much of the trip was strange territory. Things never seen before and still unseen now. A language and way of life that was beyond my understanding. Places that draw my curiosity, but no place for my boat to dock for an extended stay. New terrain and strange practices. How’s that go? A stranger in a strange land?

Then things began to feel familiar. Somewhere east of Iowa City. The roads took on a familiar color, a familiar curve. The trees started to resemble something known. Green and lots of it.

——————————————————————————————

The old house has new coat of paint that turns it more modern and less 80’s Tudor. The creek is way smaller than memory tells. The big hill ain’t that steep. The main street is so tiny.

—————————————————————————————————————————————

Pulling into the parking lot, calling the number, placing the order. Waiting 5, 10, 14, then 20 minutes. Should be ready. I step into the heat. Walk across the divide.

First things first.

The smell. Wind, dad’s chair, laying in the grass, horses. Home. Family. Belonging.

This was an experience that was pleasurable and embarrassing. The first feeling of yearning for someone else. Seeing something beautiful and laughing out loud. A knowing. Some sort of reason for all the searching and looking and running.

A memory that matches the reality. A hard fact of being alive. An identity that is impossible to erase.

I had no idea how much I had missed it. How good it was. How good it still is. I understood something that I didn’t know I didn’t get. My brothers were there suddenly. My mom was there. And my dad was there. It was joy. It was confusion and comprehension. It was home. It was Family. It was belonging.

It was Massey’s. It was pepperoni.

Vacation

Posted on June 10th, 2016

 

I asked the owner of the rental house ten questions in my first email, and six  of them were about the kitchen. I had been scrolling through property listings on AirBnB for many hours and, despite panoramic views, hot tubs, cable TVs, and ‘charming touches,’ no house had seemed suitable until this one. “Lakefront,” it said and, “rustic Maine character.” My fingers hovered over the ‘next’ button. “Great room with stone fireplace. Huge screened porch.” I paused, then scrolled further into the description. “Kitchen can handle large meal prep. Sleeps 23.” Hallelujah. It’s hard to plan a vacation with twenty of your closest friends, but Tuesday Night Potluck is doing it again. We’ve added several members, two babies, and one dog since the last time we all spent a week in Maine together. Knowing us, however, the hardest part of this expansion will not be finding a house or coordinating money or even getting along for a week: it will be bringing enough butter.

Tuesday Night Potluck was founded on one guiding tenet: show up. It doesn’t matter what you bring, or how much, or even if you burn the bejeezus out of it, freak out, start over, put in too much salt this time, and then bring it anyways. It doesn’t matter if you skip a week, and then two weeks, and then maybe three months. Each of us has gone through phases where we pulled back, turned in, stayed home for awhile. Some of us have actually left, moved, fallen out of touch, then come back and called and starting showing up again. The reason Potluck works is that it is always there to return to. The dynamics ebb and flow as the individuals within it live their lives, but the community is strong enough to absorb these fluctuations in energy, attention, investment. Potluck lives and breathes its own life, grows through its own changes, and leans into the challenges of a family that is chosen, not born. We show up, and we bring what we have, even when that is only our broken-down selves. Particularly when it is only our broken-down selves.

Like a family, we are very used to eating together, but unlike a family, we do not often plan or cook entire meals together. In the normal course of things, we simply bring whatever we have in the fridge or whatever new recipe we’ve been thinking about trying. One week I might make an elaborate stew, the next bring a big bag of chips and a jar of salsa, the next – exhausted and late – rummage through my pantry, come out with a jar of pickles and a weird box of seeded crackers I bought on a whim last month, and hustle out the door. Sometimes everyone has made soup and we have to do courses, each person circling back with their empty bowl to refill, while other times I’ve brought weird seeded crackers and someone else has brought just a block of cheese. We don’t even blink at these kismet moments anymore.

On our first vacation together, we realized that our normal system wouldn’t work. On the simplest of levels, none of us would be coming from anywhere else, so the very premise of a potluck fell apart. In practical consideration, a dozen people all trying to prepare disparate dishes in one kitchen, one modest kitchen, at the same time seemed like the fastest way to strain our relationships. So we divvied up the nights and in couples or trios took turns cooking dinner for everyone. Partners planned their meals ahead, brought ingredients in bulk, and headed to the kitchen on the afternoon of their assigned day.

It was a new experience from both sides of the stove. As cooks, we were unused to preparing in such quantity or with particular attention to the restrictions or tastes of every person. Part of the beauty of potlucks is that not everyone eats every dish, and no one dish has to feed all. As diners, we were used to contributing. People kept trying to edge in and help, even when it wasn’t their day, and conversation on the deck where we sat sipping pre-dinner cocktails revolved around how simultaneously luxurious and uncomfortable it felt to lounge while our friends scrubbed, chopped, and sauteed so close by. In the end, we had some spectacular meals, made all more special by the fact that we all ate the same thing, sat around the same big table, and helped clean up while the evening’s chefs relaxed by the fire.

This year, with our expanded community and expanded rental kitchen, we’ve decided to go one step further and assign cooking partners outside of our regular households. No one will be planning, shopping, or prepping with someone they are used to cooking with. Just as we have embraced eating in community, this year we will cook in community. It is a tangible symbol of the ways that Potluck is committed to creating an intimacy that transcends romantic relationships or the nuclear family. Those things which are typically reserved for behind closed doors or after guests have left are embraced as a part of what it means to really know and love another person. We listen to each other’s mean-spirited gripes, we know where the measuring spoons live in each other’s drawers, and yes, we’d even come over and clean the bathroom if you needed us to. When we bring those things in instead of pushing them to the corners of life, the pressure to be prepared, to be presentable, is relieved.

On vacation, we become both hosts and guests, and we change the way we interact with each other by changing our environment. We love our everyday community where no one person bears the burden of providing or receiving, but vacation allows us to experiment, to try on different roles. Planning and preparing a well-rounded meal that will make everyone happy is a stressful project, but it is also the fullest expression of the smaller generosities we practice every week. If it goes horribly wrong, the fault is all yours; but if it is a glorious meal with much happy groaning and many second helpings, the satisfaction is also multiplied. In our everyday lives, the risks and stresses of hosting everyone are unsustainable, but in the expanded week-long potluck vacation, we can go all in, if only to remind ourselves why it is we share the burden the rest of the year. The extremes of life are important in their balance, even when that balance is seven kinds of soup.

A Pie, We Suppose

Posted on June 10th, 2016

So consider this, please: a pie. I am holding it. It probably isn’t steaming but I’d like you to imagine that it is. I’m standing on a concrete stoop, or let’s call it a cement step because it doesn’t really have any of the dignity of a stoop which is something you should be able to sit on and look out at the world, and if you sat on this step you’d be straining your knees horribly and staring out at the broken window and the peeling paint across the street. It isn’t a nice neighborhood. It’s exactly the kind of neighborhood where the person I’m visiting ought to live.

 

And he does—at least I remembered that correctly. I find that a lot of the things I told myself it’s important not to forget have faded: the way the light plays under the oak tree that looks too healthy to be here, the devious slant of the driveway that makes pulling out into the street a hazard for at least three months a year, even the way the antique glass ripples almost attractively in the upstairs windows that aren’t broken and look like they might hide either an attic or a cramped though civilized second floor. I wonder whether he sleeps up there, whichever it is, and I’m surprised to realize that I can’t remember, that I couldn’t even hold on to an intimate detail like that. I suppose it has been a while. Anyway I’m not exactly sure what the date is, because the art I’m practicing these days is that art of approximation. It is not an exact science no matter what the scientists try to tell you; it calls for a certain amount of finesse, and there’s plenty that can go wrong even if you follow all the rules completely. It’s a lot like gardening in that respect, or love. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like baking, too, and that makes me smirk even though I know it isn’t exactly an appropriate moment for smirking.

 

But I’m rambling. There’s me on the stoop. Doorstep. There’s a pie in my left hand, which is still a little weak from the accident, or maybe just from advanced old age—I can’t really tell now that I’m no longer exactly in my prime. By some ways of reckoning, I’m well past my vespers, but the aches and pains are worth it for this withered face, the perfect disguise. And, of course, for the peculiar skill that old age seems to have brought me. I’m better at everything than I used to be. I’m a culinary wizard now, and everything I touch turns to ambrosia and nectar. I could open a restaurant now and make it big as one of those celebrity chefs, if that is still a thing, and retire in a year or two, only I’m well past the age of retirement anyway and I doubt anyone would want to put my face on the television, or whatever they call it now, and anyway I have better things to do with my time, or whoever’s time this is, whatever “this” even means, which I can say with confidence no one really knows because I’m better at other things as well, things I always had a knack for but never truly loved like numbers and truths and the laws of the universe.

 

I’m rambling again. Or did I already say that?

 

Pie on my left arm, the weak arm, pie like a spry young suitor. Right hand reaching up toward the doorbell, which I also can’t quite remember, which makes me worry one last time that maybe I have the wrong house.

 

I ring. I don’t.

 

*****

 

Here’s another tableau for you: it’s my body on a gurney or a stretcher or whatever it’s called, wheeling down the hall of the larger of three hospitals in a city whose name you probably don’t remember either, quite possibly because you’ve never heard of it. He—yes, the same he who may or may not sleep up there behind the rippling antique glass, if you’re still with me on the doorstep—he, I want to make sure you know, had nothing to do with the accident. Nothing at all. How could he? He was far away by then, or I was. He was what I was running from, and I was good at that too. Not even in the same state. Out of touch. I doubt he even had my number anymore, because I’d changed it twice so he wouldn’t.

 

Back then I’d been a baker, at least for a while. Call it a change after my studies. I wasn’t great at it but I wasn’t bad either. I could make a perfect crust nine times out of ten, and the tenth probably lived up to everyone’s standards but my own. Typical me.

 

The nice thing about that little town—no, not the small city, we’ll get there, but the little town where this whole damn chronicle really begins, the one I was born in, the one I was standing in just now with my finger on a doorbell—the nice thing was that it had everything in the world that I really loved. My mother, until she died from a complaint too ordinary to mention. My friends, until they sloughed away one by one and forgot about Darby’s Dimestore and the Lurking Stone and playing Captain Jack in the field behind the middle school. A few streets that really felt like real streets and not just like strips of asphalt with houses on either side. And peaches that hung on their trees like orange stars in summer, and a low rambling stream that unapologetically powered what must have been one of the continent’s last waterwheel wheat mills, from which the smell of flour drifted like impossibly quiet music for the better part of every afternoon.

 

So maybe it was fate. Place is fate—isn’t that what one of the ancients said? My place decided long before I did that I was to be a baker, and so I came back when the others had left, and I won a red ribbon or two but mostly I rose before the sun and learned to sing the quiet music of stone fruits and pastry flour, butter and salt, water and ice and fire and time. It was everything I loved and everything I needed, until he leaned over the counter one day, a stranger from someplace that mattered more, and asked me questions, and told me he’d stay if I wanted him to. It was nice at first. I think he was running from something. It would have been just like him: the surrogate drama, the utter lack of any fresh notion. Only I never found out, not even when we’d married for a year or two. I ran instead.

 

After that, I lay awake at night in the city and told myself that everything I loved was back there in that town because it was the simplest way to dodge the sort of question that could make me lose an hour or a day here and there. I wasn’t ready to sift through my memories like that. I even hated the metaphor, which seemed to reach back and taint every pure black solitary morning I’d begun with a fall of flour like snow on my dark marble counters deep in the basement of someone else’s shop. If those were my memories, tumbling from their clumps, each one too small to imagine as anything more substantive than a mote of air, then somewhere amid all that indiscernible substance there lurked the rotten seeds of thoughts too dark to have twice, even though the feeling of them never left me, not even when I lay awake at night in the city and tried to think of anything other than the things he did, the sounds and the dull sensations, the locked doors and the sting of antiseptics, the cold tile floor and finally, always, his tears—never mine—which I almost never stopped believing.

 

A bottle of hydrogen peroxide will kill almost anything it touches, though it’s really nothing more than the marriage of water and air. On the other hand, they say alcohol is poison, but isn’t it an excess of chemical pageantry, the very stuff of life itself, that turns ripe grain to strong drink?

 

A sprinkle of vodka will turn a good piecrust into a great one. A sprinkle of hydrogen peroxide will kill a million bacteria and the flesh around them. I know which I prefer. Still I wonder how many times the killer saved me. Or did we use rubbing alcohol back there in the old house? My memory is blurry. I suppose I’m old now, or then. Am I still there while I’m here? I’m standing on a doorstep and ringing a bell, my white hair loose in the wind like a portrait of madness. I’m twenty-three, crouched on the bathroom floor and hoping the door never opens.

 

I’m not sure I understand the difference.

 

What was I trying to tell you? Oh—the accident. He had nothing to do with it. I slipped into the coma because I crashed the car. I crashed the car because I took the pills. I took the pills because I lay awake at night. I lay awake at night because I couldn’t not remember. I couldn’t not remember because it all really happened. It all really happened because he really did it to me. He really did it to me because he was a monster dressed as a man. A man who had nothing to do with my accident. Because it happened months after I left him. Because it happened in a city in the next state over. Because I’d changed my number twice and he couldn’t find me even if he wanted to.

 

This is the house that Jack built, but Jack didn’t build the house. Dame get up and bake your pies, bake your pies, dame didn’t. The world keeps turning until, many ages later, we realize that it doesn’t.

 

*****

 

I’m standing on a doorstep ringing a bell. Suddenly it occurs to me that I might be inside. I consider panicking, but what’s the use? I probably wouldn’t even recognize myself, and anyway I think I’ve aimed fairly well, and this should be a year or so after I left. Which should mean I’ve already smashed my Corolla, which should mean that I’m lying in a hospital bed somewhere in the next state over, friendless and anonymous after changing my phone number twice.

 

A few seconds pass. It’s just enough time for me to realize that this is the closest I’ve ever come to myself, at least in this year which I missed entirely the first time around. It’s just enough time for me to have one really incisive thought, which is that I missed the peach harvest this year. Every year they’re a little bit different and that year—this year—I forever lost my chance to bite into even one, let alone to slice up a bushel and watch them slowly turn golden in an oven like the sun itself.

 

Only I haven’t really missed the chance, because I am here, after all. Forever changes, and sometimes now comes around again. For a moment I consider running away from the doorstep, finding the nearest orchard, and filling myself with the warm juice of summer peaches until I’m happy enough to die quietly, which is something I’ll likely have to do sometime in the next few years anyway.

 

But then I imagine the embarrassing scene when the policeman arrives—I wonder if I remember his name?—to ask the mad old stranger in the orchard to move along because it’s private property, after all, and is there someone we can call to take you home? And what would I tell him—no, officer, there’s no one you can call, I’m not a vagrant, I have nothing in this world or any, once I was a baker, now I’m a—

 

The door opens. He’s there. He’s still him. What does that make me? Now I really want to run but his look says nothing at all. I’m a mad old stranger with a pie in one hand, a neighbor who’s made too much of a good thing and feels an urge to pass it around to those who’d rather go without.

 

No, officer, I was just passing through. Just a humble baker passing the time. Just a traveler come back through the years to offer you a little taste of the future.

 

“Hello,” I say, wondering if I remember how to smile. “I’ve brought you something.”

 

*****

 

The world keeps turning until, many ages later, we realized that it doesn’t.

 

Or maybe they’d known that much all along. I still don’t exactly understand all the science, but some weeks before I took the big leap I began to realize that no one did. It was just too much for any one of our minds to handle. A lot of us played little parts, a lot of people whom previous ages might have called geniuses. There were no geniuses any more. We all felt too small for that sort of thing.

 

The breakthrough came not long before I woke up. Or maybe I was the breakthrough. Honestly I’m not sure how much they worked out while I was sleeping and how much I worked out on my own in my strange days of bed rest and correspondence, slowly adjusting to my ancient face in the mirror, asking the people who came to see me what year it was exactly, and realizing I was cleverer than I’d ever been.

 

No one should have come to see me. I’d slept for seventy years, the doctors said, and there wasn’t a soul still living who knew me from a fish in the sea. So I stayed a while and I read. A lot, it seemed, had changed. The climate had gotten hotter and then gone cold again, which puzzled everyone. A shy screenwriter had brought Europe back together after the revolutions. Central Africa was quietly industrious and hadn’t admitted tourists since the Forties. The great whales had returned but they didn’t seem to trust us anymore. And last year’s Global Physics Consortium in Gaborone had collectively stumbled upon most of the secrets of time travel.

 

I read the article three times before I suspected it wasn’t a dumb joke. The hospital staff exchanged looks I didn’t appreciate when I asked for access to the actual conference papers, but it turns out there isn’t much a team of nurses isn’t willing to do for a patient who wakes up compos mentis after seventy years in an apparent vegetative state. The math was hard—I’ll admit that much. But the longer I looked, the more sense it made. Then my mind started seeing the cracks in the wall and working out how to fill in some and pry others wide enough to step through. I started writing letters. It was hard at first. My credentials were a Masters in physics, seventy years in a coma, and two years of pie-making. I didn’t expect any answers, but something about my terse prose style and my clean equations “attracted some attention,” as the committee chair put it when she paid a visit to my hospital bed.

 

We had the whole thing worked out less than a year later, which came as a relief to me, a fading nonagenarian who had done little in life and expected to do far less. Our theory rested on two principles: first, that everything goes round and round and nothing ever changes, and second, that the world is in a constant state of flux and yet entirely stationary.

 

Wheels within wheels. Loops bisected, spheres pinched together along finite boundaries, entropy applied to an ordered system to soften an invisible and ultimately unknowable interior. At night I dreamed of pies in ovens, whole universes cooking to perfection while eternally both fresh as spring leaves and also boiling away into oblivion. I thought about the old days of watching the stars fall all along my black marble countertop and couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d somehow understood this all along. They were a part of me, these secrets. If I’d never met him—if he’d never touched me—if I’d put half my fear of him into the old wonder I used to feel on winter nights when the town lights went black—if I hadn’t lost seventy years to sleep—

 

Impossible questions to answer. I tried not to lose more time. Somehow they decided I could be the first through. O pioneers. It was quite possibly a one-way trip so I wondered how much of an honor that really was. The device itself was relatively simple and would take a month or so to construct. After that, I was free to hurl myself into any abyss I pleased, provided that I could learn to walk again.

 

It took time. The hospital corridors were long and the food was bad. I found myself weeping one night over a cup of some orange gel the nurse called peaches. I would get away. I would. I went from shuffling to dragging my feet to lifting them, and before long I was the fury of the ward, the mad sage with the white hair who, they whispered, would be going away soon.

 

A week before the test run I saw his chart, carelessly left outside his room. He was old—older than I was. Had he followed me here? No—that was seventy years ago. More likely he’d forgotten me, found others, done to them what he did to me, moved on again and again. Life tossed him up here, in a city you haven’t heard of. Cancer had eaten him from the inside out. I tried to look in but the room was dark and I didn’t want to see a face I wouldn’t know. I didn’t want to think that whatever he used to be had somehow escaped, had duped some withered carcass into stepping in while he stayed twenty-nine and evil in the heart of some eternal summer.

 

I glared into the darkness. I thought of our equations, our beautiful machine, and I realized that that is exactly what he had done—that somewhere in the never-quite-departed spheres of the past world, he lurked and laughed and loved and killed, and stayed forever ripe as summer fruit. So did we all, maybe, but I couldn’t let him. I wouldn’t.

 

The next day he died. The day after that, the morgue lost track of his body. A week later the time machine was ready, and I stepped through into the warm orchard I’d never really left, an unsought gift on my weak left arm like an old lover.

 

*****

 

I want to see fear behind his eyes but I don’t know what that would look like. I see him as though it’s for the first time, or as I should have seen him the first time: a cold schemer, a brutal slave to all the wrong impulses. There are words for people like him but I haven’t had much time to think about them. I remembered his smile when he leaned across the counter of the bakery for the first time as though that wall was his to breach, a stale smile like stubborn dough that won’t rise.

 

Back then I mistook his face for something charming, charmed, a little wry. Now I realize what it really is: antiseptic. The smile that killed off all my worries away for just a little while, then started in on me.

 

Now is the time when I say something, isn’t it? I realize that I haven’t really rehearsed this part. I’ve been busy. Sleeping through my middle age, learning to walk all over again, honing the details of time theory and, of course, baking pies. What do you say to the man who stole your life?

 

“Hello,” I say, and I flash him a smile that I hope is as lifeless as his, that I hope will wash over him and burn like hydrogen peroxide, though I know he won’t feel it because he’s already dead—he was always already dead, even when he killed me—“I’ve brought you something.”

 

I already told you that, didn’t I. This is what it means to be old, I think, the gears of the mind spinning freely. Or maybe the big leap through the decades has left me a little unglued. Our travel theory strongly suggests that jumps of a century or so should have no harmful effect on the human body, but we were far less certain about the human mind.

 

I know that’s why they chose me to go. No one had to say it. Nothing would have kept me from accepting.

 

He’s looking at me with a hint of puzzlement and for a moment I worry that he might recognize me from the color of my eyes or the slant of my nose. In fact it’s the opposite: he’s wondering who I am. “New to the neighborhood,” I say, and I don’t give him the chance to correct me: “I mean, I am.”

 

He says something conventional and too welcoming, as though he wants to sell me a car, and now I remember what it used to feel like always to be talked into or out of everything, never to feel in control even of the passing time. I’m suddenly very, very tired. I don’t feel like wasting this second chance and I know he’s not used to people who don’t listen. “I bought the old house down the other end of the road,” I say, and the details come back to me vividly even though it’s a mile or more from here. “The one with the old green shutters. A real fixer-upper, they said,” and I hope I’m right because for all I know it’s not even for sale at this particular point in history, maybe a family of four lives there, in which case maybe he’d take me for a dotty grandparent with a penchant for baking, “but I still feel up to the task, I mean, what’s a little home repair even at my age, the wiring’s good in spite of everything else, and what really drew me there,” and I realize I’m rambling again but that’s all right because I’ve remembered something, the old house down the other end of the road, the great stretch of yard behind it, the wild, untended orchard where peaches as big as globes and as warm as the core of the sun hung from stout branches that even in the worst of storms swayed as though there really was something so enduring in this world that nothing could break it, “what really drew me there was the old orchard,” and as I say these words I know my task is over.

 

He asks if it’s peaches, still good at feigning interest in anything, and he nods toward the pie in my hand, ready to demand what he doesn’t even want.

 

I glance at the upper crust, afraid for a moment that he’ll recognize some telltale way I always had of pinching it together, or cutting slits that waver like trees through the dough, but of course he would never notice anything like that, or the first crocuses in April, or the eye of a frightened sparrow.

 

“Something like that,” I say. “Actually more of a breakfast sort of thing. Old family recipe. All right for supper too. A pretty hearty meal any way you take it,” and I smile. I give it to him and I turn and I walk away from that stoop or doorstep and I know now that he was never really the reason I wanted to come back here, not even for the thrill of impossible payback.

 

There’s somewhere I have to go.

 

*****

 

The week before the test run, the week before we powered up the squat steel box that we didn’t dare call a time machine? I spent it as anyone else might. I practiced my walking. I brushed my hair. I stayed up late into the night worrying about whether I’d be torn apart like a bird flung into a wormhole. I baked my first pie in seven decades, blueberry with a sort of meringue, an homage to the future. It was perfect; the long sleep had honed more than my math skills. I gathered strawberries, apples, fresh lemons, white wheat and barley. I contemplated the immortality of the human soul. I learned from an archive that peaches had been wiped out by blight almost thirty years ago. I sharpened knives, borrowed a bone saw when no one was looking, shut off the security cameras in the hospital ward for the better part of a night so I could dismember the stolen corpse of a man I used to know, grind the bones to flour, chop the muscles into passable cuts of meat, and throw the rest into the biohazard incinerator without having to explain myself to anyone. I read some of a book, just to see how novels had changed. I went out into the fresh air to make sure I wasn’t just imagining it, that the air really was cleaner than it was in my youth, that somehow the world had gotten better rather than worse, that we’d staved off the worst of the great crisis and learned to be something other than poison. I played with a dog. I learned how coffee had changed.

 

I baked one last pie.

 

*****

 

The world goes on turning until it doesn’t. I walk down the street I used to know, the street I know again now that I’m finally ready to forget it, and when I know I’m out of his sight I start running. I haven’t run in seventy years and I feel like my bones might break apart like the scattered shell of an old star ready to make new worlds.

 

I’m running toward the old orchard, which I tell myself I haven’t thought about since I went to sleep but then I realize it’s been longer than that. Everything I’d ever really loved was—is—right here, in this town, which is the shell I should have carried on my back all these years but didn’t because the fear was always too strong and too loud. The orchard, half wild with thistles and coarse grasses, was a world, my world. It had always seemed a little older than time itself and I hadn’t thought of it, really thought of it, since the day I met him. I’d traded my world for the one they always told me might be better, and the time since I’d crawled through those dark tunnels of weeds and crept up against a tree trunk and slithered up it like a quiet snake to grab sweet peaches by the fistful felt like more than centuries. I’d lost it, or he’d taken it, or it had passed me by—one or the other, or all of the above, or I didn’t care because there it was, the old house, still empty because no one, maybe, would want to live there ever again, they will say it’s haunted and it will be, soon, but not so soon that I don’t have time to summon one more thought just so I can cast it away: the thought of him, alone in his own evil home, prodding at the crust with a knife and thinking that a mincemeat pie isn’t something you come across very often outside of novels, and maybe he’ll try a slice but more likely he won’t and that is even better: the thought of him carelessly tossing the whole thing into the garbage can without pausing even for a second to think of what sort of animal gave its life to end up in that glass dish. He wouldn’t even save the glass dish, and later that week a small truck would come by the curb to carry the desecrated remnants of his future corpse to lie in the town dump where growing things would feast on them and rise again from the lifeless ruin he tried to sow in earth that was never his and never will be.

 

It’s the last time I ever think of him. I can see the orchard now, just around the corner. A different sun shines here, and I feel for a moment as though I’m pressing my face against the universe.

 

There’s no way back. That’s also why they chose me—why they let me go. The only way they’d know I’d gone anywhere is that I wouldn’t be in the box anymore when they opened it. Our primitive sort of time travel is a one-way street. I’m okay with that. I think I always have been.

 

We must start somewhere.

 

I have pinched together the two sides of my life and left them joined forever. There is no top or bottom to the universe. That was our great breakthrough, the one that made this all possible: time does not resemble an arrow or a spiral or even a sphere. It’s more like a pie, we suppose, a constant opposition of past and future separated by some infinitely enticing present and yet joined around the edges so subtly that if it’s done just right, you can’t tell where the top ends and the bottom begins. A world that doesn’t need to turn. A world that is the turning.

 

The peaches hang like ripe stars ready to scatter. I stumble through the grasses and I reach for one. It’s already inside me, it’s already sprung from the ground I’ll lie in after this last shimmer of blinding pain passes through my used-up body and leaves it quiet. Both of my arms are weak now. The grasses are tall enough to cover me if I kneel, and all around me the bright spheres grow slowly dim as all stars will.

Riddle Roundup

Posted on June 10th, 2016

Hey kids! Think you’ve got the smarts to bust open these three brain-twisting melon scratchers? Wowie, these riddles sure are tough! But no peaking at the answers until you’ve given each one a shot, okay?

  1. Jeremy works in an administrative position for a military subcontractor. The specifics of the work he does are so opaque and tedious that even Jeremy himself is not 100% sure he understands all of it, but the gist is that, when the military buys electronic equipment from foreign companies, it is Jeremy’s job is to develop a summary of the transaction and the equipment purchased to be reviewed by [REDACTED]. After [REDACTED] reviews the summary of the transaction, Jeremy receives notes that he then uses to revise his summary. Oftentimes, this revised summary contains misleading or even outright false claims about the transaction to which it refers. Over the years, Jeremy has been able to identify some trends in the types of changes that [REDACTED] tends to make to his summaries: for instance, [REDACTED] seems to never want a final summary to indicate that more than 1,000 hard drives were purchased from a Vietnamese company, or that more than $150k was spent with any company based in a former Soviet nation in a single transaction, or that transactions made with Qatari or Saudi businesses not be approved by certain general or admirals; in all cases, the reasoning behind these preferences are complete mysteries to him. These restrictions, as far as Jeremy can tell, do not hold true for the transactions themselves, only for the summaries. Once Jeremy’s changes have been made, the summary is returned to [REDACTED] to be shown to people or committees that Jeremy knows nothing about. When Jeremy was new to this line of work, he found this veil of secrecy alternately frustrating and intriguing. Nowadays it barely registers. He’s become adept at making changes before they’re requested, often needing only the most inscrutable of adjustments to be sent to him by [REDACTED]. He has received several commendations, and feels confident that in 5 to 7 years he will be supervising his department provided his current supervisor retires on time.

Q: Who is Jeremy helping?

  1. Kim and Laura were in grade school together during the second Bush administration. It would be misleading to say that they were ‘friends’ in the literal sense, since in reality they knew very little about each other beyond certain superficialities about music and TV shows they liked. Still, they were of roughly equal social standing and had several friends in common, so it was not infrequent that people assumed they were closer than they really were. They had generally fair-to-high opinions of each other and could mutually enjoy some polite small talk or gossip on occasion. When they were both sixteen, there was something of a scandal in their fairly small town when a rumor began spreading that Kim had performed certain lewd acts with Mr. Kristoff, the PE teacher and girls’ volleyball coach, in the back seat of his Toyota RAV4 in the parking lot behind the gym one evening after a volleyball game. The veracity of this rumor was never really confirmed one way or another. Kim and Mr. Kristoff both denied it, though he did get divorced shortly thereafter and eventually left the school to teach in another state. There were also at least three different versions of the rumor, each of which featured the same basic premise (that they were discovered by Becca Radowitz, who ran out to Mr. Kristoff’s RAV4 after discovering that he had left his wallet behind in the gym), but varied greatly in the depravity of the acts witnessed, ranging from simple kissing (the version Becca herself would tell) to far more adventurous arrangements repeated in the privacy of the school bus and the teacher’s lounge. In any case, whether she had actually engaged in any of said lewd acts or not, Kim found herself at the center of a whirlwind of speculation and moral grandstanding, the most visible results of which were the sudden decimation of her GPA and her alienation from most of the people she had once considered her friends. Laura, for her part, reacted to the whole affair almost as severely as Kim did, though not out of sympathy for her acquaintance; Laura, who had recently engaged for the first time in acts of moderate lewdness with a slightly older boy who worked with her at Panera, found the negative attention pointed at Kim over what seemed to Laura like similarly lewd activities to her own to be extremely distressing and filling her with anxiety about the possibility that her own filthy debauchery would be discovered and she, too, would lose her precious 3.7 and tight knit social circle. The boy at Panera, of course, knew next to nothing about any of this, and found Laura’s suddenly icy and in no way flirtatious demeanor towards him surprising and upsetting (though his father tried to assure him that such behavior was typical for chicks that age). After somehow managing to avoid discovery and complete her high school education, Laura studied Spanish and history at a small liberal arts college in New England, and did reasonably well despite now taking medication for a recently diagnosed anxiety disorder. Since a certain fateful evening on the couch in the basement at the house of the boy from Panera, Laura found the prospect of physical intimacy terrifying, and tended to avoid placing herself in situations where she thought men might identify her as a single woman and attempt to hit on her, especially if there was alcohol involved. After college, Laura moved to a nearby city and got a job at a grocery store. She had a very small group of mediocre friends and lived by herself in a tiny apartment, which was expensive to do in a city on a retail salary but was worth it to Laura for the privacy. Today, Laura is at work, moving cans of tomato paste from the back of the shelf towards the front, and down at the end of the aisle she is in is a woman pushing a cart who Laura is 80-85% sure is Kim. Seeing Kim and the whole associated web of neurosis and anxieties makes Laura’s ears ring and her vision go fuzzy; she feels lightheaded and is having a hard time catching her breath. As the woman who might very well be Kim moves toward Laura down the aisle, Laura tries to regain enough composure to make it back through the store to receiving, since she absolutely cannot handle talking to or even really looking at Kim right now, if that is really her.

Q: What do Laura, Kim, and the boy from Panera all have in common?

  1. Kevin the Caterpillar was happily munching away on a leaf one day when he noticed something odd: down on the branch where his friend Stevie had been hanging out the day before, Stevie was nowhere to be seen! He would be hard to miss, with his yellow polka-dots and the big red stripe down his back. Instead, there was some sort of weird fuzzy lump that seemed to be stuck to the branch. Kevin looked towards the end of the branch and saw that there were several completely untouched leaves fluttering lightly in the breeze. That wasn’t like Stevie at all! Stevie was the best leaf-muncher Kevin had ever known, and he couldn’t imagine what would have made Stevie leave perfectly good leaves unmunched. Slowly, carefully, Kevin made his way down to Stevie’s branch to investigate. He poked at the weird fuzzy lump with one of the legs closest to his head; it was stick on the outside and felt weirdly gooey on the inside. “Hey, Stevie! Are you in there?” Kevin asked, quietly at first and then again a little louder. The lump didn’t answer, but Kevin thought maybe it vibrated a little the second time he asked. Kevin thought for a minute, and decided that he would stay on the branch for now and keep an eye on Stevie’s remaining leaves. Kevin waited and waited, and then night came, and then day, and night and day again, and again, and still no sign of Stevie. By this point, Kevin felt hungrier than he had ever been. He felt bad about eating Stevie’s leaves, but now he was too weak to get back up to his own branch, and with no sign of Stevie in days he was beginning to worry that something really bad had happened. Slowly, carefully, he made his way down towards the end of the branch. One little munchful at a time, he carefully ate one of the leaves he had been guarding for Stevie. It was the sweetest, juiciest, most sunshine-filled leaf he had ever tasted! Kevin wished Stevie was there to share this delicious leaf with him. When he finished eating, Kevin made his way back over towards the weird fuzzy lump. When he got there, he was amazed to see that the lump had ripped open, and was empty! Kevin felt scared; he wondered what had happened to the gooey thing in the middle of all the sticky fiber. Had Stevie been trapped in there, and he finally made his way out? “Stevie! Oh, Steeevie!” Kevin called out towards the branches below. But no one answered. Slowly, carefully, Kevin made his way back up the tree towards his own branch. He didn’t feel very good. His tummy was upset, and despite having eaten a whole delicious leaf only a few minutes earlier he felt like he had no energy left by the time he got back to his branch. His throat felt scratchy and dry, like there was something stuck in it. Kevin laid down and started to cough; after a few minutes, he coughed up something that looked and felt an awful lot like the stick fiber stuff that the outside of the weird lump on Stevie’s branch was made of. Kevin still felt sick. As night fell, Kevin was exhausted but he couldn’t seem to fall asleep. That night, for the first time, Kevin felt afraid of the moon and all the things that moved beneath it.

Q: … where was I going with this?

 

 

ANSWERS:

(coming soon)

The Once And Future King

Posted on June 10th, 2016

Manila, Philippines. Friday, December 10, 1999.

President Joseph Estrada is meeting with senators and the discussion is tense. Estrada took office during a time of major economic decline and now, a year and a half later, the debt and unemployment are still growing. His popularity falls while opposition to his policies rises. In August, tens of thousands of hungry Filipinos swarmed the streets in protest against his probusiness agenda, demanding he focus instead on the needs of the poor. “Whether removed by force or by the broad coalition arrayed against him,” US analysts said a few weeks earlier, “Estrada is unlikely to fulfill his six-year term in office.”

In the midst of the meeting, in mid-sentence, the lights go out. Half the country has just lost power. Have rebels sabotaged the power system? Is this a coup d’état? Estrada’s predecessor endured seven failed coup attempts; the president before that was successfully removed by popular revolt.

Estrada waits, blind. Time passes slowly, ten agonizing minutes, every second of which he expects to hear the sounds of fighting, expects to be surrounded by rebels, expects to find a gun pointed at him.

But when the lights come back on, he’s still president. He tries to calm the public the next day, explaining that the cooling system failed at the country’s largest coal power plant, Sual Power Station, when its water intake was clogged. It took seven hours to fix the problem, he says, because workers had to clear, by hand, hundreds of tons of brown and black slime—the power plant had been assaulted by millions of jellyfish.

It’s not only in the Philippines that jellyfish are a problem. These otherworldly creatures are amassing around the world, doing far more than ruining family holidays with beachside stings. Jellies are wreaking havoc, causing billions of dollars of economic damage. They’re shutting down power plants, capsizing boats, disrupting underwater mining, disabling aircraft carriers, destroying commercial fish farms, and taking over entire ecosystems.

A jellyfish makes for an unlikely monster. We were once even unsure whether it was animal or plant. Floating in the ocean, it rides the currents without resistance, kelp-like tentacles streaming listlessly behind. The radial symmetry of its body suggests it might be flora—alive, but free from the burdens of volition—moving only at the wave’s whim. But then its body suddenly contracts, rhythmically, the pulse of a ghostly heart. Clearly, this is fauna. Primordial and alien, but animal.

The creature’s limpid skin teases with the promise of secrets exposed, but inside there’s nothing to see. No bones, no blood, no guts; no ears, no nose, no blinking eyes; no lungs or gills; no front and no back. A jellyfish is a sack within a sack. The outer sack, the umbrella, is a skin that absorbs oxygen and separates the animal from the world, a skin that holds a jelly-like substance called mesoglea, but no apparent organs. The inner sack, the subumbrella, ingests food and expels new jellyfish. There is only one way in or out of a jellyfish; its mouth is its anus is its mouth. Food, excrement, sperm, eggs, all pass through the same versatile orifice.

There are over 2000 species of jellyfish. Some are enormous, eight feet in diameter, with tentacles longer than a blue whale. Some are as small as a grain of sand. Most are harmless to humans and, seen from behind the safety of aquarium glass, all are beguiling, more mystery than menace. After all, it’s a stretch to say that these blobs of goo even hunt for their food. Few can swim anywhere other than up or down, and even that much they do slowly. Most of them don’t have what we’d consider eyes and simply stumble into their meals, relying on providence to sweep hapless prey into their waiting tentacles. Such a bumbling predator has none of the shark’s toothy menace, yet sharks kill fewer humans each year than do jellyfish. In 2012, seven people were killed by sharks, worldwide. In the Philippines alone, jellyfish annually kill as many as forty people.

A box jellyfish’s home is in the warm, tropical waters of the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia, where, instead of drifting, it hunts. It has true eyes with cornea, pupil, lens, and retina that, like ours, form images. It can swim as fast as a human walks, purposefully. Of all the jellies, it has the closest thing to what we’d call a brain: bundles of nerve nets hidden along the inner margin of its bell that connect to receptors for light, touch, gravity, and smell—a networked system it uses to sense the oxygenation and salinity of water, to know pressure and depth, and to detect and avoid nearby obstacles. Pale blue and transparent, a box jellyfish is cube-shaped, with one to fifteen tentacles at each of its four corners, tentacles up to ten feet long, all of them bristling with thousands of cnidocytes, cells containing poisonous harpoons that shoot out with 40,000 Gs of force to hit their target in less than a microsecond, one of the fastest movements in nature. The sting of one species of box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri, the sea wasp, can kill an adult human in less than three minutes. It is the world’s most venomous animal.

It may sound like something out of a 1960s B-movie, but some scientists see a coming marine apocalypse, an oceanic coup orchestrated by mobs of mutinous jellyfish. Marine biologist Lisa-Ann Gershwin says jellyfish “could crash the world’s fisheries, outcompete the tuna and swordfish, and starve the whales to extinction.” She thinks we’re headed for a future where the seas are filled with jellyfish and little else. In some parts of the world, we’re already there.

Through accidents of geology, for thousands of years much of the Black Sea has been low in oxygen and high in hydrogen sulfide, effectively toxic. Though few areas of the sea support life, even that small portion has been an important source of food and income to surrounding countries; boats used to pull hundreds of thousands of tons of fish out of the water each year.

Then, around 1982, the jellyfish Mnemiopsis leidyi, also known as the warty comb jelly or sea walnut, appeared. By 1998, the fish were gone, the local economies were crippled, and the sea walnut was the Black Sea’s dominant species. Today, 95% of all the organisms in the Black Sea, by weight, are jellyfish, and it’s not the only place threatened with jellification; San Francisco Bay sees a new marine species added to its ecosystem every three to four months. Off the coast of Angola, jellyfish have built an all-encompassing killing field, a curtain of stinging slime that covers 30,000 square miles of ocean. Jellyfish are even in Antarctica, where they may eventually replace penguins.

Jellyfish are launching their sorties by hitching rides to all the world’s ports, to Manila, to the Black Sea, to San Francisco, to Angola, hidden in the ballast water of tankers, moving to ecosystems where they have no natural predators. Flexible eaters, they feed on the eggs and larvae of native fish, as well as the plankton that feed those fish, even the fish themselves, quickly wiping out their competition. Toxic environments aren’t a problem—a jellyfish needs much less oxygen than other fish and it’s immune to most toxins, having little tissue in which to store them. A jellyfish’s biggest weapon, however, is sex.

Like the butterfly that spawns from a caterpillar, a jellyfish has two forms. One form, the polyp, a translucent tube with a frilly frond, roots itself on the ocean floor, flowerlike. The other form, the medusa, named after the Greek monster whose venomous hair hung from her head like tentacles, floats freely in the water. Unlike the butterfly, each of a jellyfish’s forms can reproduce. Polyp babies, ephyrae, grow up to be medusae; medusa babies, larvae, grow up to be polyps.

When the ephyrae produced by polyps are sexually mature they look like what we think of when we think of jellyfish: round bells with long tentacles. A medusa spawns daily, usually at the same time, filling the water with thousands of new eggs, churning out armies of jellyfish. Each soldier is able, each day, to eat many times its own body weigh. It’s these ravenous hordes of medusae that become soldiers in World War J, assaulting power plants and ravaging marine life.

Polyps, meanwhile, are jellyfish generals, sending a seemingly endless supply of fresh troops into battle. Polyps look like plants and act like seeds, lying dormant for years or even decades until conditions are right, conditions in which to bud, one by one, dozens of new ephyrae. Polyps can also reproduce asexually, cloning themselves to make even more polyps. When jellyfish—medusa—populations wane, polyps remain; hidden, waiting. Such an immense reproductive capacity has made the jellyfish a threat in the Philippines and around the world, where they’re reproducing explosively, creating plagues of biblical proportions.

If there’s no intent behind this jellyfish takeover—they’re more zombie horde than evil genius—is it going too far to call the jellyfish a monster? When a creature is colonizing every corner of the planet, invading and taking over ecosystems, killing all its competitors, wiping out entire species, reproducing without limit, fouling the water with its waste, and making vast areas of the planet inimical to life, what else would you call it?

How about human?

Sual Power Station in the Philippines, the one that left Estrada in the dark, gets its water from Lingayen Gulf, where, along with the jellyfish, more than a hundred fishermen pack into each square mile of water. Over the last half century, fish hauls in the country have increased by almost 1600%, making the Philippines one of the world’s largest producers of fish.

Along the way, they’ve created the perfect environment for jellyfish. Commercial boats drag trawls along the bottom of the sea to rake in the fish; the locals use dynamite and cyanide. Both approaches have devastated the fish population and, to compensate, the country has shifted to aquaculture. They now farm more fish than they catch. Farmers have cut down nearly all the archipelago’s trees to make way for fish ponds, a practice that has led to severe erosion.

By turning fish into food and money, the human population has quadrupled in the last fifty years; their sewage flows into the sea, along with eroding earth, heavy metals from mining operations, waste from fish farms, and chemical fertilizers from human farms. As a result, the Lingayen Gulf is increasingly warm, acidic, toxic, and low in oxygen, with few large fish—but plenty of plankton and jellyfish—and the Philippines are not an outlier. The same song, with minor variations, is playing in China, Europe, Africa, the US, and Antarctica. The jellyfish are just doing what jellyfish do, and we’re the ones making it possible.

It’s not through dumb luck that jellyfish can turn almost any situation to their advantage, including the ones we’ve given them. Jellyfish are successful because they’re weeds—hardy, flexible, and opportunistic creatures that exploit disturbed environments, reproducing aggressively, surviving under the worst of conditions and thriving under most. They’ve developed their simple but effective biology over hundreds of millions of years, surviving five mass extinctions, including the Permian–Triassic event that wiped out 97% of all marine species. Jellyfish may be our planet’s greatest evolutionary success.

There’s a way, perhaps to put things into perspective. Raise your arm until it parallels the floor, extending it out in front of you, palm up. Imagine that the length of your arm represents a timeline of the history of the planet. The trailing edge of your shoulder is Earth’s beginning, the very formation of our world, four and a half billion years ago. The very tip of the fingernail of your middle finger is the current moment. Life began—simple unicellular organisms like bacteria and algae—where your pectorals converge with your deltoid and bicep above your armpit. The bend where your middle finger meets your palm is when jellyfish appear in the fossil record, before the Cambrian explosion. For the next 100 million years jellyfish ruled the sea. They were kings of the ocean and so kings of the earth, for during this time there were neither animals nor plants on land; the earth was barren and rocky, desolate, Mars-like. Midway between the second and third joint of your middle finger, the dinosaurs appeared. An inch further on they went extinct. And here we are, at the tail end of history. Run a file lightly across your fingernail and you have erased all of human existence. Here we are, living a waking dream, the dream of the jellyfish, the dream to make the seas Cambrian again, as if restoring the once and future king to his watery throne was our one true purpose. Here we are, waiting. Blind.

The River Squid

Posted on July 14th, 2014

You’ll start with a terrific love,

and later replace it with a merely serviceable love,

but cheaper.

There was no plesiosaur

but there was a kronosaur.

 

When you swim the central channel

your stellate ganglion remembers its jaws

and the alarm shocks down the mantle.

Now you know what it’s like to be prey.

 

Up ashore there are rote chants

on oak pews.

Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest

To give and not to count the cost

To fight and not to heed the wounds

To toil and not to seek for rest

To labor and not to ask for any reward

save that in knowing that we do thy will

 

Tough syntax for a cephalopod.

You can’t stop seeking rest

or leave off worrying the ragged margin.

 

The wounds of their teeth

the teeth in the jaw

the jaw in the glass case in the dead zoo.

 

If I serve thee as thou deservest—

But I have only and ever served thee as thou deservest.

 

You see,

our margin is excellent

and your compliance is not, in any case,

required.

 

Spell

Posted on July 14th, 2014

a hot afternoon reading

Henri Cole whose

1978 photograph is something

i’m sighing over no matter

that he has no

interest in my

underpinnings

 

it’s a season of

push and want and

limbs falling

through the dead

streets

i wrote once some

letter to a

fiction, saying

oh your

white soft

tshirt, your

careless hair let’s

eat plums or

get drunk and

let the quiet

build up some

force between

us–

 

i call my own

name in bed

at night, drive

with the windows

down, eating

strawberries

 

the way back to

a lost town is

non-fiction

only.

Lyrids

Posted on July 14th, 2014

I like to get unhinged in early spring:

Hung over from dark, I want to spark a light

that should be left out in the cold. I’ve caught

magnesium flare of slow-streak meteors, twice.

The first, in Boston, walking home too late:

I saw it bright above the bridge. You blinked.

Then later, soft warm night in Monterey,

A sizzle by the bay, grand fireball

shed pieces of itself as it went out.

That one burned close enough to remark upon.

Burned close enough to catch a sudden scrap

of what you will; enough to draw a breath,

lie still ’til March, when sun comes back to us

and cold ground splits from burgeoning new words.

Orthogonal to what we say, the heat

of saying it at all. Don’t leave us out

here in the cold. Ten years of other flames

burned out; I found a nickel-iron core,

accretions on impact. The spring’s ahead.

Put down your torch. The ground’s already singed.