Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My parents would attend drunken bacchanals in the woods of Northeastern Connecticut, in the decade of the seventies. What else was there for a married couple, one of whom was a college professor and the other a homemaker, living in a split-level ranch on three acres, with four kids, one of whom was off to college doing God-knows-what, and one car, and nothing around them but the trees and the starry sky, to do?

In those days drinking was a sport. You were half a man if you didn't keep the pace. There's a story, my dad passed out under the piano. The way my mom told it, that was his M.O. To cozy up under the grand piano at a certain hour. Like it happened a hundred times. Maybe it did. Or maybe it happened once and became mythology. This is what Dad does when he's drunk. There was something, I have to admit, that rang true in that characterization of him, even if it was unfairly extrapolated from a single event. I could well imagine him checking out semipublicly like this, making a bit of a show of his resignation, a grouchy gesture of interior civil disobedience. Under the piano. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that's not him at all. Maybe that's only him because that's the story that got told.

There's another story from those blurry nights: He saved some poor fuck's life who passed out face-first in a ditch of icy water. Some fuck from the English department or something, who was drunk as hell and went out to piss in the woods. "Has anyone seen whatshisname?" someone asked, through the haze of smoke and pretentious conversation. "Why, no," my dad said, or something, and he went out the kitchen door and looked around and found the fucker in a ditch, in the dark, breathing what could just about have been his last. My mom never hesitated to tell that story either, principled as she was, and she almost made it seem like both happened on the same night, or happened night after night - save the man, lie beneath the piano; save the man, lie beneath the piano.

But I'm pretty sure that's not the case.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

It was 1975, I think, when my dad grew his beard. He was sitting there at the head of the dinner table, or was it the tail. I was sitting on the side to his right, as I always did, I suppose. He hadn't shaved and we took notice and somehow it was communicated that he was growing a beard, though I don't remember that he said a word.

In the summertime my mom would brew iced tea and we could have it with lemon and a little sugar. We drank it out of those smoked green or gold glasses, sculpted with thumbprint-sized indentations around the bottom half. With ice from the metal tray that frosted up around the handle and stuck to your fingers if you had no patience and tried to crack the ice before running it under water. The sun set so late, we left the lights off and let the sunset seep through the woods and through the picture window, through the kitchen window and the door.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Steve was beside himself that the Giants won. We were all planning a skiing trip and as we were leaving the Super Bowl party I asked him if he and Natuza had a ride yet.

"Oh!" he smiled. "We've, we've... made other arrangements. Already." He could barely suppress his laughter, cheeks red and rosy, eyes like slits. As though their arrangements involved a top-secret trip to the moon.

Practically the entire fourth quarter, he'd sequestered himself on the outdoor deck, peering at the TV from the other side of the sliding door, his breath clouding a patch of glass. 'Cause it was good luck. Only at the end would he come in from the cold.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Ballad of Kirsten O.

There was this girl in class, Kirsten O. Everyone hated her. She was the type of outcast that gave every single other person the feeling they belonged. The weirdest, awkwardest, most preyed-upon geeks could vilify and ridicule her – and hardly anyone missed an opportunity. We'd pan her with gazes of sneering scorn as she walked down the hallway from class to class. She was never safe and she was always alone.

Why she was the object of such extravagant contempt is perplexing, as such things usually are. She was ugly, but she wasn't the ugliest. She carried herself with what seemed to be a bit of a haughty air, preposterously – a chin-up, tight-lipped pout which had a regrettably princessy effect. But that's not why everyone hated her. That was her reaction to everyone hating her. It was all she had to offer in defense. There seemed to be something about her that was tragically askew, accursed. Maybe we detected in her what we detested in ourselves. Maybe we just sensed, primitively, some malignant aura about her. None of this was any fault of her own, of course, but in the ruthless calculus of twelve-year-olds' minds she emerged as the village scapegoat.

And keep in mind that as I'm not her I must count myself among her tormentors. It's only fair to say.

One day we were called into the Language Arts center, the entire class, must have been the seventh grade class. One of our teachers announced to us that Kirsten and her single mom had been the victims of some kind of home invasion, some murky attack by a deranged man with a hammer. One or both of them were raped – at least that was the insinuation. I don't think the teacher was willing to assert that there had been a rape, to use that term. I don't know what happened - something horrible happened. Everyone adopted a posture of appropriate solemnity upon hearing the news, then promptly forgot it. The upshot was, Kirsten won't be in school for a while, but be supportive, that kind of heartwarming shit you get from teachers. God, I'm now realizing that the teachers had no idea what an extreme pariah she was. They assumed we'd be mortified to hear this news and that we'd all - her friends in particular, she must have friends - reach out to her, be there for her, that type of shit.

Eventually she crept back into our midst and we walked ever wider circles around her, keeping in her in a sort of perpetual quarantine.

But that's not why we're here. What I can't shake from my mind is not any particular incident of Kirsten being berated by kids, it's one of her being berated by an adult. I remember I was sitting in the cafeteria and I spied her sitting alone - of course - at a table against the wall. Our principal, Mr. Perotti, was strolling about imperiously, chit-chatting with the students. He passed by Kirsten's table.

"Mr. Perotti, look!" she exclaimed cheerily. She never spoke a word to other kids. "I was feeling especially hungry today so I bought two ice creams!"

Sure enough, all she had to eat were the strawberry shortcake ice cream bar she was gnawing on already and the crushed almond one still in its wrapper, before her on the table. I'll never forget the way she over-articulated the word "especially" through her braces. Es-pesh-ee-ully.

Mr. Perotti paused a couple of beats and drew back, aghast. "YOU mean to tell ME that ALL you're having to EAT FOR LUNCH is TWO ICE CREAMS!?"

Kirsten recoiled. Every head turned.

"Are you CRAZY? What kind of lunch is two ice creams?! Do your PARENTS know this is what you eat?! What's the matter with you?"

I'd never seen Kirsten Olsen more humiliated and unhappy than at that moment under the shadow of that looming, shouting, shaming man.

Goddammit, Mr. Perotti. Dammit. Why'd you have to do that. Why, why, why, why, why.

People say that life is short. The Beatles, Thomas Hobbes. Astrophysicists and Hindu mystics. But in fact it is not. It just drags on and on. Especially towards the end.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


It is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is.

That idiotic grouping of five words, only three of which are different. It almost wants to be a palindrome - It is. What is it? - but instead, it is what it is. It's what you say when you're too tired, lazy, depressed, or stupid to say what it really is.

I clambered down the stairs with the two boxed curtain rods resting unsteadily under my arm, like two jousting poles. By the time I was halfway down the block they were scissoring alarmingly, veering towards passersby, sliding down my side. Finally I carried them with both arms, to my chest, like someone bringing firewood in from the cold, or carrying a bride across the threshold. Finally I made it to FedEx, where I was instructed to fill out the green-and-white form. Over my shoulder I heard the manager greeting a very old man who'd crept in behind me.

"How may we help you, sir?"

"I'd like to send a package," the old man said, uncertainly, but with a trace of irascibility, like he'd already been slighted or ignored.

"You may send a package. You may purchase envelopes and packaging materials. You may insure a package. You may have copies made. One of these..." - here he paused, searching for a term - "beautiful young women would be more than happy to assist you. Simply come right up and take your pick."

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The time after the Super Bowl is over and before bed, dirty like dishwater, with the too-bright lights and all our heads clouded drunk, when the post-game interviews fade into ads and then the requisite, over-hyped network premiere, when the guests disperse to put their coats on, linger ten minutes more, and then leave for good. It's like the doldrums in the middle of the second quarter, when you're not sure where you are, whether you're watching a football game, and whether you need to drink more beer or take a piss.

This was an incredible Super Bowl, one to redeem many others, and to justify all the attendant dreariness.
In order to make sure I had the name Devil's Tower right in my previous post I consulted the Internet. Just to know it's Devil's Tower, not Devil's Peak, not Devil's Mountain. And I couldn't help but click on the official Devil's Tower Web page on the National Parks Service Web site. I was amused to find that bewilderingly, the fourth of five highlighted "Quick Links," coming right after directions, hours and fees, is Can I Bring My Pet?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

I gazed up to the roof of the Marriott from the eighth floor bar and lounge atrium, with the elevator column in the center shooting straight up by dozens of stories, with cars gliding up and down its exterior. I sought some apprehension of wonder that this thing could be, that here it was before me, some notion of future now. But instead it all seemed leaden and dreary, grayed by the relentless come-and-go of conventioneers and bored and surly kids with their put-upon moms and pops in tow.

Last night I dreamt about my dad and as I spoke to him, in some version of his stricken state, blue and rose clouds roiled and gathered in tight, contiguous spheres. Somehow reminiscent of the gathering clouds of mothership activity in the sky above the government-installed landing strip on Devil's Tower after everyone thought the show was over and it was time to pack up the big synthesizer and go home in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Today on the phone, wanting to allude to that, I told him it was stormy in New York, which in fact it was. "Ah," he said.