I had forgotten how lovely Cambridge could be on clear winter nights. England, being very old and terribly British, has a way with chilly evenings that few other places I’ve been can match. It was the second week of January and I’d returned to my former stomping grounds to present some of my research to people wearing tweed and sporting hair that didn’t give a damn. I’d been awarded a travel grant that threw money my way, thereby both encouraging and enabling me to sally forth to wherever science people might gather. The stars aligned for me allowing a long-overdue return to England.
It had been six years since I’d last set foot in Cambridge and I was well aware of the fear that some people have regarding going back to a place and being disappointed, but I also returned with limited expectations. I knew that 1) Time had passed and 2) Things change, even in a place older than dirt. During the four years that I lived in England, I’d spent copious amounts of time in Cambridge with friends doing what young-ish military types do in foreign countries that boast excellent beer. I’d spent most of the second year preparing for war, part of the third in it, then more or less all of the last in libraries and book stores around the town trying to wrap my head around the existential crisis that I was lucky enough to be having in a place full of bookstores and libraries. 3) I wasn’t there for the sake of nostalgia.
And yet ….
First of all, London. I know how to get around, can still find my way through the city easily enough, and remember the places where the food and coffee don’t suck and won’t break you, monetarily or gastrointestinally. Knowing where to go and/or not to go is more or less the extent of the secret to navigating London. Or New York, I guess. Or Cleveland. Whatever. The point is that there’s nothing more comforting than de-planing from a long-ass flight and knowing exactly how to get out of a city that’s perpetually crowded with aggressive people, many of whom have probably been drinking hard cider.
Second, the trains from London rarely disappoint where eventual scenery is concerned. Of all the directional possibilities, straight north is arguably the least potentially breathtaking. There were any number of excellent reasons why East Anglia was and to a lesser extent remains pocked with airstrips. It is gloriously lacking in undulations and sports an abundance of fields begging to be landed on. Still, there’s a serene beauty to the rolling pastures that maybe can’t be appreciated without some time having accumulated between viewings. I can attest to the truth of this.
Third, Cambridge. The extent of what I can say about my three days walking streets that I’d frequented so long ago: My favorite sandwich shop closed and was replaced by a bakery in a town already overflowing with pastry shops. I actually walked up and down the alley three times just to make sure the new storefront was the same one that used to not suck. ‘Fuck,’ I muttered, putting emphasis on each of the four letters. This wasn’t progress. The university has been around since the early 1200s, but I travel halfway around the globe for the sake of science and I can’t even get a baguette stuffed with chicken tikka masala from a place that had been there six years earlier? ‘But what about all the history and the architecture?’, you ask. You don’t get it, man. Those sandwiches were magical.
Despite this crushing disappointment and after the successful enlightening of my wollen-suited colleagues, I did spend some time during the aforementioned lovely evenings walking hither and yon along The Backs, crossing the bridges into and out of the various colleges, and generally feeling like I was at Hogwart’s. Six years now seems like a lifetime ago and while I don’t spend much time thinking about it anymore, I was almost a completely different person then. The pubs we used to frequent are still there, of course, but going into them without the same company now seems pointless. I was surprised that there was a loneliness that permeated everything familiar. And maybe I shouldn’t have been. Having a history with a place can sometimes make it hard to have a present.
There’s a bridge across the River Cam that leads to the back of one of the colleges and off to the right is the rear of its associated library. In one of the windows, there sat a young guy hunched over a table full of open books. His head rested in his hands in a way that constitutes the universal sign of surrender to one’s realization of how much one doesn’t know. How lucky, I thought, to recognize one’s ignorance in a place designed to cure people of it.
Sir @ May 21, 2012
I believe that all of the demons dancing around infernos, waving their pitchforks above them and rejoicing in our destruction, reside in our psyche and constitute the perpetual hell of our own making. Love balances on a knife’s edge, teetering between the divine and the aforementioned inferno. If we think too much about what’s at stake where our heart is concerned, we can rest assured that our head will find a way to tip love into the fire. Because we are all uniquely self-destructive snowflakes. Yay, us.
In my life, I have let someone go for what I thought was their own good. My head told me that I was doing them a favor. My head at the time and for much of my previous existence to that point, was astonishingly full of shit. Despite this, its arguments were compelling enough to convince someone (me) that chivalry demanded that I save this other person, this delicate flower, from what would inevitably be a life of pain and woe. I left. She was devastated and confused. Not my finest hour.
The other instance, of which I lack experience, involves letting go of the person you love because they are a physical, emotional, and/or spiritual vacuum. Love holds on in spite of their ability to make you yearn for the sweet release of death. In stark difference to above case, your sense of self-worth and self-preservation take precedence. This is healthy where the above scenario is decidedly unhealthy, bordering on the kind of destructive neurosis known only to Jews and chihuahuas (it’s how I’ve always explained their bulging eyes and shaky dispositions).
But the question: How does one look at the woman they love and convince themselves to walk away? The only answer I can imagine without some sort of background for context: There has to be a part of you that wants to burn. Because no matter the reason, good or bad, sound or insane, it will burn. You’ll pull the trigger on the starting gun and the sound that will resonate in your mind for days or maybe years will be, ‘What if?’, and all of those little demons with their implements of pokey destruction will breach the castle gates and they will beat the hell out of your frontal lobe. For awhile, anyway. It won’t be good.
And then again, it won’t be so bad, either. At least not in hindsight. Time heals all wounds, etc., etc. Love is dangerous because the contrast between pleasure and pain is black and white. There is no gray. People who say they’re ‘kind of in love’ either aren’t at all or are fooling themselves. When you are in love, however, giving up on it, regardless of why, burns. It takes either a coward or the bravest person alive to willingly throw themselves flame-ward. It’s also instructive, however, to remember that in either case, love was felt, even if only in passing. In this regard, it’s better to burn then to never have seen the fire at all.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Chimnese challenged me with “How do you look at the woman you love, and tell yourself that its time to walk away? ” and I challenged Jordan with “I killed a man with a flugelhorn. Not out of spite, but because he told me I wouldn’t.”
Sir @ April 19, 2012
Even the slightest introspection illuminates in us the understanding of our frailty and how little control we have over our fate. This is a burden gloriously lacking in many celebrities and politicians, who are arguably better off because of it. Perhaps they should be envied their ignorance. Or not. In any case, this lack of self-awareness often results in their spreading wide a cloud of insufferable jackassery. A cloud comparable to that of the silent-but-deadly gas that emits from your roommate’s ass after he’s made a run for the border and eaten three bean burritos. Celebrities and politicians assault our senses like so much digestive trauma, which in both cases becomes magnified in the closed space and shared atmosphere of an airplane.
Turbulence is a scientific fact. Hot air rises to meet cold air in its descent, at which point they decide to dance for awhile sometimes in the vicinity of flying hunks of metal. During a particularly turbulent waltz, I found myself seated next to one of the most well-known pieces of digestive trauma that our pop culture had expelled in recent memory. Despite the fake tan, their complexion had turned a pale gray with knuckles whitened by the death grip being inflicted upon the armrest.
First, I knew this person. Well…..knew of them, anyhow. Second, I loathed this person and all they represented as the totem of our backward society’s voyeuristic excesses. Third, I’m a sucker for scared or wounded animals. So, I leaned over and whispered, ‘Try to relax. This will all be over soon enough. Turbulence occurs in small pockets and planes are designed to withstand much worse than this. Planes want to fly. We’ll be fine.’
Looking at me as if I’d just shot his mother with a dart gun, this person choked a reply through gritted teeth that went something like, ‘Who the hell are you and why the hell are you talking to me?’
Having successfully morphed from a scared animal back into an arrogant dipshit, this person elicited from my inner monologue the line, ‘Okey dokey, then’, whereupon I leaned closer and in a low voice began to explain:
‘I used to be a pilot. Let me tell you how these things fly and why you don’t matter. Thrust is what pushes a plane forward, enabling air to pass over and under the wings. When you push a wing forward through the air, the speed with which the air passes over and under the wings determines lift. Lift is what makes things go up. Turbulence is just air being an asshole. You know how that is. But as long as the plane keeps moving forward, it’s going to keep flying. Because planes are designed to stay in the air until we tell them not to. I guarantee that the two people in the cockpit are doing everything they can in order to perpetuate the status quo of our not being dead. Know why?”
The person looked scared on many levels at this point, but was still capable of squeaking out a pathetic, ‘Huh?’
‘Because as pilots, they know that if this plane crashes, they’ll likely be the first to die. The price you pay for having such a great view, a spiffy uniform, and being surrounded by instruments is that you’re also the first to hit the planet in the event of a *air quotes* catastrophic loss of altitude *air quotes*. So, you should take solace in the fact that up here, right now, you don’t matter at all to the people in control or for that matter, anyone else. You’ll survive because the pilots want to survive.’
Having said my piece, I leaned back for a couple seconds to allow the moment to sink into the person’s well-moisturized forehead before suddenly turning back and adding, ‘Unless they know you’re on the plane, in which case they may just nose dive into oblivion to do society a favor! Let’s hope they didn’t read the passenger manifest! HA!’
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Lance challenged me with “You or your character is seated on a plane next to celebrity you hate and/or have no respect for. ” and I challenged Michael with “You remove your fear of the abyss by spending time looking into it.”
Sir @ April 12, 2012
IndieInk, The Deep, Whatnot
I have a history of ambition. Superficially, this history appears to be replete with success and the happiness that generally accompanies it. I have a lot of framed stuff from people and places, some of it signed by individuals thanking me or wishing me luck in the next whatever. Others are awards or their reminders, received for being better than others in one small and ultimately insignificant way or another. If the truth be known, awards in my previous profession had more to do with writing than with reality; the better one could plausibly combine the two, the more decorated the individual.
Ambition was my downfall and ultimately, ironically, my salvation. I became a dynamo of self-destruction, while excelling in every single thing I did by virtue of staying later, working harder, doing more, etc. The universe stepped in, thankfully, and shined a light on my misgivings. Success was how I had always intended to separate myself from a childhood that I desperately wanted to leave behind. It was a remarkably absurd goal for a laundry list of reasons and I owe the universe a beer for helping me to see the flaws in my thinking.
As I’ve said here before, however, self-awareness can be a double-edged sword. My youth made me a pessimist and my adulthood a cynic, but exiting on the far side of addiction(s) and depression allowed me to see myself with a clarity that can at times be a bit disconcerting. I call myself on my own bullshit regularly. I can’t abide self-pity, in myself or others. I cut myself no slack. And there, I think, is where I sometimes catch myself once again tipping into the abyss.
I’m a 4th year graduate student involved in medical research. Things are going swimmingly. I publish. I travel to conferences. I win things occasionally. The goal of re-entering academia was to re-engage the mental hamster on its wheel in areas difficult enough to preclude any possibilities of said hamster focusing on anything else. I’ve channeled my A-type personality into things that are both fulfilling and ridiculously difficult. I solve puzzles for a living, more or less. It’s a hoot.
But science is a rather cutthroat community where ambition can be both a equirement and a detriment. When I left the military, I swore that I would never again lose the balance between what mattered and what didn’t. And yet, recently, I’ve started to feel familiar pangs of fatigue and mental exhaustion. The warning signs have started to make themselves glow a shade of red that I haven’t seen for many years. I’m starting to worry and to push myself about a future that I think I have some sort of control over, despite documented evidence to the contrary. When I get this way, I live in a black and white world: There is success and there is failure and nothing in between. I have to publish more. I have to get this grant. I have to be all things to all people (except to myself, of course).
So, yes. I do catch myself falling into old habits and and am both capable and willing to call myself on the piles of horseshit that I shovel upon my own head from time to time. But the balancing act is difficult, bordering on impossible. My girlfriend’s step-father, who’s been a exceptional pastor for eons on top of decades, asked me over coffee one morning around the holidays, ‘What do you do for fun?’ The question stumped me. Fun isn’t a thing I do anymore and haven’t for a few years now. All the sports, all the climbing and hiking, everything that I might label with the ‘fun’ tag has been pushed aside. It made me think how handy it would be to have an older pastor follow me around asking the kinds of innocuous questions that end up making me look at them like they’re speaking mandarin.
Life for me, as for all addicts (there are no ‘former’ addicts), is one of constantly walking a tightrope. There is ambition and then there is obsession. I’m not a good judge of where the middle ground is between the two. The rope represents to the present, which is really and truly all that matters. Yet it’s the past that we carry and the uncertain future that unbalance. It pays to know the person walking the tightrope, but I do so with the understanding of how precarious the situation is and will always continue to be.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, The Lime challenged me with “Walking the tightrope” and I challenged Allyson with “‘When does the fun start?’, he asked, blood dripping slowly from the knife in his right hand.”
Sir @ April 5, 2012
Dear Steve Kawasaki,
My shrink felt that it might be beneficial to send a note to someone from the outer circles of my acquaintanceship describing a recent breakthrough I had in my latest rectal shock therapy session. I think my therapist is giant douche, but he assures me that I’m making progress on his buying a boat, so there’s that.
Allow me to slay you with some background prior to unleashing the terror of my psyche upon your face: I wonder daily what the person in the mirror is like. Does he have my fear of everything? My crippling doubt? Fear of the unknown, the future, dogs wearing sweaters, death? Does he rest his self-worth squarely upon the opinion of others as I do? I look into his eyes every day and see something different from what I see in myself, but I never understand how that’s possible. Today I found out.
I blacked out after the second round of shocks. Evidently there was something wrong with the car battery, but that’s neither here nor there. The important thing is that after blacking out, I found myself completely lucid and standing in front of the bathroom mirror. The dude on the other side (we’ll call him ‘he’ in order to be unoriginal with pronouns) looked back at me with the same indifference as usual, except this time he said, ‘Ask’.
I was all, ‘Holy shit, dog!’, and he was like, ‘Ask me the question’, all straight faced and serious and acting like he had anywhere else to be other than manifested by my reflection. So, I said, ‘OK, me, let’s do this. So, like, what’s your deal, man? How is it that you seem so calm and collected and unafraid and unbothered by the world and everyone in it? How is that even possible?’
He lit a cigarette real cool-like and I was all, ‘WHOA! NO! LUNG CANCER! HALITOSIS! NO! I WILL NOT HAVE IT!’, and he, sensing my trepidation, looked back at me like I was gum on his shoe before flicking the cigarette into the toilet. Then he spoke: ‘The secret to being unafraid is hate. Hate people. Hate their petty injustices and hypocrisies. Hate them and you take away their power because you realize they’re not worth taking seriously.’
‘Gosh,’ I replied after regaining my bearings. ‘that’s a bit dark.’
‘Truth,’ he muttered.
Then I heard through the ether someone shout, ‘CLEAR!”, followed by a surge of electricity, a flash of light, and POW, back in the therapist’s office, pants down around my ankles and an EMT kneeling over me with two paddles. My therapist is king of the jackasses. Seriously.
The fact is, Steve Kawasaki, you’re neither Japanese nor a rider of motorcycles. You’re my reflection in the mirror. You are my temporal penpal. My acquaintance in the outer circle. Help me understand me. We need to find a middle ground before my therapist kills us. Our ass is begging for relief.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Lance challenged me with “Create an alter ego (first and last name) and a penpal or family member to write to (also an alter ego, first and last name). Deliver 500 words in the form of an email desribing your life as that alter ego.” and I challenged Grace O’Malley with “Envy those who die, for their race is run and the test is complete.”
Sir @ March 29, 2012
‘There is nothing in the world that you can’t do if you want to badly enough.’
Her father had told her this with such frequency as she grew up that at some point it became her default approach to life. This isn’t to say that she was an unfettered success. Far from it. Failure was a constant companion through much of her formative years. And yet she was never daunted. Always in her memory sat the image of her father, pipe resting pleasantly between thin lips, paper drooped ever so slightly, just enough to enable him to see her standing in the doorway in her pajamas. ‘Nothing is impossible,’ he muttered through one side of his en-piped mouth, ‘unless it involves staying up past your bedtime. Go to bed, my love.’ And back up would go the paper.
She finally found her creative calling as an artist and when she told her father that she wanted to be an art major in college, she thought that she saw in his reaction the slightest twinge of regret. ‘Promise me that you won’t give up on this decision’, he said, recovering himself, ‘for the life of an artist is difficult and the rewards lie mostly within. But I know that you’ll do well. Do you know why?’
‘Yes, daddy’, she replied, slightly exasperated. She wasn’t sure what he meant about the ‘rewards within’ stuff and it would be years before she appreciated the part about the difficulty of her chosen path. What always kept her going, confident in her choice and passion, was the seed planted in her grey matter from when she was merely a sprout. That she could do anything.
Eventually she made a name for herself in a field where one’s name is mostly spoken only within small groups of people with very specific tastes and talents. She could create the most realistic representations of people and animals that many people had ever seen. Her colleagues held her in high esteem with what was equal parts admiration and jealousy. She had arrived after decades of effort, failure and success always accompanying her like siblings. When she decided to retire her chisel, she settled her mind on a final work that would be her finest, searching the world for the largest hunk of black granite that she could find, and procuring its purchase and delivery. The cost was astronomical, but ultimately met with the help of friends and galleries whose faith in her ability had never been marred.
And so she worked on this last sculpture for years, through retirement and the gradual loss of motor skills that finds us all in due time. She never rushed, however, even when her sight began to fade. Always her focus remained on this one final work, a memorial to both herself and her father.
In the atrium of the gallery named posthumously in her honor, there stands a 6’3” likeness of a curious looking man in a three-piece suit. One hand rests in a trouser pocket, while the other arm, bent at the elbow, holds a pipe. The head is titled forward and a permanent thin-lipped smirk adorns the handsome face, the eyes of which are cast downward, forever resting upon whomever might be standing in front of him. And there on the base of the statue are carved the words that paved it’s creator’s glorious path.
‘There is nothing in the world that you can’t do if you want to badly enough.’
A young girl, filled with the insecurity that plagues all young people on field trips to art galleries, stops to read those words. Through the haze of her unstable life at home and at school, she looks up into the tall, dark, handsome man’s face, and suddenly, unexpectedly, begins to think that he just might be right.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Lance challenged me with “tall, dark and handsome” and I challenged Sophia Grace with “Tell a story about the passage of time from the perspective of an old clock.”
Sir @ February 23, 2012
When his nephew found the body, his eyes alighted upon a piece of paper on his uncle’s now still chest that read, ‘The note is on the desk to your left.’ Turning to his right and walking to one of the two large oak desks in the room, he found another note that read, ‘Your other left.’
Upon reaching the correct desk, the letter he found read as follows:
Just a quick note before I go.
To the coroner who will do the autopsy: I’d been a chemist for 57 years before becoming what learned people refer to as ‘a vegetable’. However, I’ll not insult your intelligence by telling you how I off’d myself. Consider it a puzzle and a gift from me, a complete stranger.
To my nephew, I’m sorry for the little joke. It seemed appropriate. Even writing from the past, I know that you went to the wrong desk. You have that weakness for directions that endears you to old people and children because it makes them feel less feeble. You’re lovely. Truly. You and your amazing family have done an incredible service to me these past two years, taking me in, caring for me in ways that I’m not sure I could’ve done for another.
When your aunt died, I gave up a little. Then when the cancer showed up, I gave up a lot. I spent a life studying the disease and was therefore never under any illusions about my prospects. Hope is powerful thing, however, and I lasted years longer than I’d intended. But there comes a time when even the stubborn need to face facts. There’s hope and then there’s fool’s hope. I’m not now nor have I ever been much of a fool. Kind of an idiot at times, yes, but never a fool.
When I was a boy, I remember hearing the melancholy whistle of distant locomotives at morning and at dusk. From a very young age, I’d desperately wanted to leave my small town and I tied all of my hopes and dreams to that whistle and its owner’s destinations. Since then, I’ve gone to those places and lived dreams that I’d never even considered having. My life has been full in ways I’d never imagined. But the whistle is silent now. There are no more places to go or things to see. Lives run their course and death comes to us all in due time. It’s just that I’ve decided to choose my time instead of letting fate do the heavy lifting on my behalf.
And don’t get all maudlin, either. Let the wake be a good one. Tie one on. Kiss your wife like you mean it. Give your son his first beer and drink one with him. He’ll love you for it later and your wife will appreciate the kiss. As for me, I’ll be fine. I know there’s something else out there waiting for us. I can’t explain it and don’t have enough ink to try. Just trust me. And in case you think that I’m watching you read this right now, don’t flatter yourself; I trust there are better things to do in the afterlife than watch the living read mediocre writing.
Hug the boy. Love your wife. Tell the rest of the family ‘so long’. Listen for the whistles from what few trains are left in the world. I’ll be in the messages they send reminding you to keep the hope alive. And to dream.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Kurt challenged me with “Suicide note.” and I challenged Crosshavenharpist with “Tell a story about the passage of time from the perspective of an old clock.”
Sir @ February 16, 2012