Updated: Sep 17, 2020

The formerly alcoholic baker who came to our 7th grade health class, maybe fifty but looking seventy, red-rimmed bulging eyes and flaky, dry wrinkled face, to talk about how he kicked the habit through AA, though I had my doubts; M. who became the girl everyone loved to hate for a while, who, during this period, had the misfortune of accidentally hitting a kid in the head with an aluminum bat during gym class, an act that seemed to her accusers to validate her bitchiness, M. who is a Facebook friend now, who wanted to kiss me when we were six, in second grade, I remember running away from her, though maybe that’s made up. The little store down the street from the apartment M. and I shared in Soho that only sold fresh, homemade mozzarella, something like six bucks a little package, ridiculously pricy but really good, people would line up for it, it was trendy, and probably the pet project of a trust fund kid, otherwise how could he have afforded the rent there, though I wouldn’t have been tuned into that back then. The street artist who would write your name with a tiny brush on a grain of rice, then put it in a container, like a petri dish but the lid magnified the contents inside; the handwriting expert who looked at M’s sample and absolutely nailed her personality, to a degree that was almost eerie. The parties with all the animators there—guys who spent 8-12 hours every day drawing—some witty, some very awkward, the very awkward ones the most talented as a rule, the time we went to a children’s hospital to volunteer, and some of the artists did the thing where they wrote a sick kid’s name in bubble letters and then turned the name into a fun drawing of an animal, a skill I stole and have done for my sons and other kids a few times. Which reminds me of that show growing up, hosted by a gentleman cowboy-artist, black mustache, gray hair, commercial-actor’s face—during which he’d tell a story and then sketch it out with pastels on light brown paper, how riveted I was watching that, seeing the scene come to life—how satisfying it was to guess what the thing was going to be a moment before he drew the distinguishing part, the eye on the face, the curved white smile—the fact that my memory of that show bleeds into my memory of watching footage of the Challenger disaster, because we watched both things on the TV that got wheeled into that particular classroom, either 5th or 6th grade, all of this the era just after the era where playing marbles outside was such a big deal, it seems so old-timey now, like something my Dad would have done, but we did it in the mid-eighties, brought little baggies of cat eye’s, big and small, and steelies, and Matt W. had an advantage over all of us, because his steelies were industrial-sized ball bearings he got from his mechanic-dad’s garage, not really marbles, huge eyeball-sized suckers that if he dropped his on your cat-eye from four feet off the ground, could crack it in half. Unfair.

Fairness: How many times in my life have I witnessed perfect justice in action? A really satisfying in-person dressing down? Someone standing up for someone else the way you’d want to see it in a movie? I’m trying to think, there must be a couple, but it feels like all the most satisfying showdowns I’ve seen are from movies or sports or books or stories I’ve heard secondhand. Plus I’ve imagined a hundred more, I’m sure—not just things I’d do in a situation but things other people might do. As if to prepare for the moment if it arrived. I feel like I’m less afraid of life than I ever have been before, something about being a certain age, having withstood some things, feeling like I have ways to be both open and vulnerable and strong inside the vulnerability when it counts, not always, but there have been many little tests, in the last ten years especially, and though it’s beaten me down at times, I also feel less afraid of the world, more confident that it’s mine to do with what I want, and that’s a gift I’m grateful for. On standing up to cruelty: Sometimes I think about a moment in time at summer camp in Minnesota: the two laughing kids who threw a handful of little stones at this kid who was clearly disabled, his hands had webbing on them and were raw and red, I think he had cerebral palsy. We were on some sort of quad and I was so shocked by what I’d seen that I felt paralyzed and the kids, I suppose, were older, scary to me, but I don’t remember anyone coming to help that kid, the kid was very alone in that moment, and I still wish I’d gone up to him and said are you okay, and in my mind this kid is related to the guy who had the misfortune of being inside a Porta-Potty outside of The Boot one night, maybe during Mardi Gras, when a gang of fraternity jagoffs started rocking it and then tipped it over, whooping, thrilled, so proud of themselves. In my memory he banged on the door of the thing, which was flat on the ground, and then sort of slumped out, covered in the bluing they put in the bowl and liquid shit and he was yelling and almost crying, like some swamp creature, this guy who maybe knew the jagoffs, maybe didn’t, who had just been having a private defecatory moment and then, suddenly, was horribly the center of attention, something disgusting, and it’s stuck with me, the casual cruelty of it, so much so that I wrote a story featuring that moment, or three-quarters of a story, and the violation inherent in that act also makes me think of the women I love who had jagoff college guys or any guy force something awful on them, too, and how this happens every day, and nobody’s keeping track, really, unless you believe God is, which I don't, which means that only a little bit of justice is ever properly served. And that’s part of the burden of being alive: having to accept that.

I remember in the little illustrated story books about the Bible Dad brought home for a while there was a story about the Pharisees, who were greedy, who only cared about money, and Jesus was the enlightened one who saw through all that. Back then, the Pharisees seemed like such cartoon villains—who could be so stupid to think money was better than being nice and love?, I would have thought, so innocent, surrounded by people who loved me, who weren’t concerned with status in any way; but seeing the state of the world now, a world that has become much more tilted towards the rich in the forty-some years I’ve been alive, I think of those Pharisees sometimes and think about how satisfying it would be to write something about a billionaire getting his comeuppance—not Trump, someone more competent and confident/arrogant than Trump—maybe kidnapped and made to reckon with his sins by some righteous group of angry people whose lives he distantly but dramatically fucked up—the way he’d first scoff at them, assuming his money or security team could save him, then the bargaining, then the drama of him being beaten up a little, and forced to hear the awful truth about what his actions did. Sort of like the last days of Khadafi and Saddam Hussein, except instead of a mob hanging and beating, it’s more tactical, more personal; they’re trying to make him cry, to feel as awful as he should, to face the raw consequences of his actions. It’s a daydream a lot people probably have – about Trump, about others – the chance to confront, to convert the unconvertable or just to make them hurt, so they can finally feel what it’s like to be powerless and used, but the big question at the end of it would be, would the gang get away with it, would the revenge they got actually make them feel better or would it make them sick in some way too, the way vengeance can? If he offered them big money not to kill them, money that really could help them, maybe one of them has a sick child, brain tumor, a mother with huge medical bills, what if one of the gang buckles and considers taking the money, sees himself as Robin Hood, justifies it that way—it would touch on the question of whether there’s such a thing as selling out anymore, such a thing as pure. Maybe the billionaire has Crohn’s disease—some weakness or vulnerability that makes it hard to completely loathe him too. Maybe things come out about his childhood and they’d have to decide whether to care or not. A play, this feels like, all set in a single room.

Last thing tonight: Sometimes I think about all the work days over the past twenty years, all the projects I scramble to finish, all the deadlines, all done to prove that I can do it, to meet some business goal, to not let down the team, and that’s when the pure artist’s life that I dreamed of as a kid (well, and as an adult) comes rushing in, the amazing feeling that it would be to have months at a time like the ten days I had at Ragdale, twice, where there’s the space to tunnel deep into things, to play around, to experiment and riff and make connections, that’s the part of life that I miss most now, there’s playing with the kids, trying to improve the lives of the people in my life, that pleasure, but deeper down there’s the feeling of being onto something personal, following a thread, experimenting, chaotic at first but then a tenuous order of sorts appears and it’s exciting, because it came from somewhere internal, not rules handed down from someone else, but something you had to harness yourself. I will never forget how fulfilling and exciting certain stretches of editing my novel were, or writing the Rome 1970 section five six years ago in a headlong rush in that shitty hotel room in Buffalo Grove, bags of vending machine food on the little desk, the feeling of riding a wave, of all the lights flicked on inside my head, and being able to pull in things from the air while on my metaphorical surfboard I guess, ideas I’d jotted down, things I cared about that I wanted to confront at some point, so much of it finding a natural place, folding nicely in. That headspace, that quiet full energetic feeling, is what I miss most lately, and sometimes I daydream about what it’ll be like to exist in that place more fully, someday—and then as much as I please, when I’m retired, twenty-some years from now, or sooner, if I get lucky.

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The people funnier than you are. The people who think they are but aren’t. The people who aren’t. The people with better social skills who intimidate you. The people with better social skills who put you at ease and make you feel capable. The people more awkward than you are that you’re thankful for…and the little shock, if you’re used to being the slightly awkward one, of realizing, that to that person, you’re the “together” one. The weird shift in identity that takes place on the fly in these situations. The couples with a better rapport. The couples who bitch in public, a lot of drama. The couples where the man is the stronger personality. The couples where the woman is. The couples where strange things emerge when one or both are drunk or high, little, dangerous, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf things. The couples where the husband and wife seem almost like brother and sister, either in looks, or in demeanor. The couples that are hard to pin down, enthusiastic sometimes, sad-seeming others. The couples who are very proud of their sexual hijinks. The couples who never mention that at all but who sometimes brim with lust for each other, a look at a campfire, subtle massage on the neck, noticed. The single people happy to be single, after much dissatisfaction in relationships…secular nuns or priests who get what they need from friends, sleep around here and there, free as a bird. The single people trying, but not that hard, who vaguely want someone. The desperate single people. The desperate married people. The divorced people with kids trying to stitch parent-life and dating life together. The divorced people not really dating.

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Sweaty summer nights as boys, plopped on our beds in our underwear listening to Brewers games; the little boombox I would play Sherlock Holmes radio plays on as I fell asleep, the clip-clop of horse hooves, the moody violin soundtrack; grade school Salisbury steaks and elephant ears speckled with sugar and the lunch lady with the mop of grey curly hair who smiled at you, called you hon, whereas the other lunch ladies were kept behind the scenes, the grumpy ones who probably escaped as soon as possible for a cigarette outside; the amazing flexibility and guileless heart of Mindy D.; the rangy, alcoholically-handsome eighth grade teacher, Mr. R, probably forty, who gave the girls in his classes rides on his shoulders, which seemed, then, somehow not weird; the seventh grade teacher, Mr. M, who would grab R by the collar, perp walk him to a wall, and shout at him to shut up, his mouth an inch from R’s mouth, his whole head beet red; the time I was reading a chapter about synchronicity in The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries, my favorite book in 6th grade, and something very, very synchronic happened, I wish I could remember what, I think maybe a diagram Mrs M. had drawn on the board matched some doodle in my notebook, right as I’d been reading about synchronicity, whatever it was I remember feeling floored, the urge to tell someone, but it would be too hard to explain it; the  incredible, unbearable feeling of my first real crush that same year, a twist in my heart and a catch in my breathing whenever I saw her in class or when she smiled at me that I have felt, in a slightly more muted way, a few times as a grown up, we’re all susceptible to crushes now and again, they’re natural, a reminder we’re alive, and the feeling connects me instantly to my twelve-year-old self, my single eighteen-year-old and twenty-three-year old selves, my occasionally crush-susceptible married self of years past; for a little while it makes life feel electric and less constrained, less set in stone. And that reminder: it helps.

What about that very sweet, large couple in their forties, no kids, who were the landlords of a summer apartment in New Orleans, the man like a character in a children’s book—cheery, apples in his cheeks, gap-toothed—who would whip up endless batches of enchiladas, who had almost a mania for it, and kept a giant, industrial-size storage freezer full of them, hundreds, which he would share with me and my roommate weekly, a cooking habit that made me wonder if he was heartbroken about not having kids, if he had wanted a big lively family, but couldn’t, so did the cooking for a big family part, as some kind of compensation. There was the owner of the Korean place we liked in Cambridge, a gruff lady who would hack at the half-burned rice at the bottom of your little cauldron of Bi Bim Bap with chopsticks if you hadn’t finished it, and nod at you and bark, “Eat! The best part!;” the seventy-something lecturer at NU, not a professor, I’m embarrassed I’ve forgotten his name, who I would play ping pong with in the student center, because we both loved it (he’d been part of a club when he was younger) once a week for a semester, up until I got good enough to beat him, the peak of my ping pong career, spins and roundhouse swats and everything, at which point he didn’t want to play anymore, this circumspect man who wore a suit every day and who seemed to be estranged from his family, who spoke of a son, but did not want to speak of his life, or ask me much about mine, only to play ping pong, three games a session, where the rules were clear, and the action lively. My violin teacher my junior and senior years in high school, who flew to NYC every weekend from Milwaukee to be with his wife, who played in the New York Philharmonic, who had a Stradivarius on loan and let me play it once, who told me about how he travelled through Europe in his early twenties with a string quartet, they’d play for cash in the square of various cities and made enough to stay in hostels, eat well, how he shook his head at me when I hadn’t prepared nearly enough for some competitive symphony weekend thing he thought I should do, for which he thought I’d be first chair, how I furiously crammed the first violin part of what we would play that weekend (Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony) from the fifth or sixth chair and barely, barely got through it without wiping out during the performance, the experience both exhilarating and awful, like surviving a ski hill that’s two levels too hard for you. The distant cousin, a girl of about five, who took a liking to me and wanted to sit on my lap when we visited in Switzerland, me seventeen, and the feeling it gave me of what it might be like to be a father someday, of feeling like you’re someone else’s safe good place, not something I’d ever felt with the boys, only boys, I’d babysit sometimes in the neighborhood; the girl I had a crush on at fourteen at camp, Annika, the freedom of being whoever you wanted to be that summer, around strangers, the California boys who didn’t want to be there, who told me Richard Gere really had put a shaved gerbil up his ass, THEIR DAD KNEW RICHARD GERE, SO IT WAS TRUE, OK?, who nasally pronounced “gracias” “grassy ass” at lunch and snorted, who were probably were jerking off like monkeys at every opportunity, something I was still innocent of back then. The feeling of pushing off in a canoe into still, cold water, as happened at that camp, the slight wobble, the settling into position, the glide before you start pushing forward with your oars. The kayak rides like the ones I took by myself, sneaking time, the past few summers in Canada, how needed they were, how calming it was to row towards the little cul de sac of the lake where giant trees loomed over dark water full of yellow lily pads and flattened peagreen reeds striping the surface like calligraphy strokes, the tops of some of those looming trees nodding deeply like big, moppy puppets, a steady, deliberate kind of lurching, but also just underneath them the sequin-like twinkling of tiny birch leaves, their branches firm and stoic, only the leaves fluttering, and the squat brushy trees swaying like fat hippies at a Peter, Paul and Mary concert until the winds picked up and swirled at which point the hippies would move erratically, up and down, side to side, tripping too hard. There was also the calm flapping of the longer-branched trees to my right, like the ritualistic fanning of giant palm fronds, as if Jesus on a donkey would show up any minute. In the kayak, I moved closer to the end of the water, the wind’s hollow whistle, a dim seashell sound in the hollow of my ear, and with maybe twenty yards to go, I lifted up the oars and let the wind push me and drifted into the water growing more shallow: three feet, two, one, until I hit sand and stopped.

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