A friend spent four dollars on me. Does that sound like a little, or a lot?
He picked over some items at a yard sale and chose a bag of artist’s brushes he thought I might like. Does that sound like a big deal to you? Or not?
So far, we’re talking about small amount of money and work. Let me ask you, how much worth does a little money, or effort bring? Can you make an argument for a high value outcome?
My friend saw the brushes and thought of me. That’s a benefit of friendship. I didn’t send him out to find brushes. I didn’t tell him, “You owe me.” He didn’t feel that he had to make anything up to me.
A hobbyist needs brushes. There are junk brushes and there are quality types. Junk brushes leave streaky finishes and thick, imprecise applications of paint. Great brushes are balanced instruments, with soft uniform bristles that hold a shape the artist counts on.
I’m a hobbyist who can’t have enough quality tools. My jeweler’s files come from Europe. My Lindstrom cutters have served me since 1990. I use a ¾” flathead brush for a drybrushing technique that transforms scale models for viewers around the world. I tend to wear out my brushes and am in regular need, in order to maintain the work.
I have a dearth of brushes.
The yard sale bag, marked at $4.00, held a dozen various types. One thing that was consistent was the high quality. These brushes were top dollar, when the original owner bought them.
One brush was marked at $26.00. Another, $12.00. The person who bought these from the art supply store spent over $75.00. The brushes were unused. That sad tale is for another time.
My style of painting does not utilize a few of the bristle types. I take advantage by writing an essay about them. I can use the odd brushes to create in a different way, which is an innate drive for artists, wouldn’t you say?
Do you want to know what keeps a person young? We keep young by looking at a wide fan brush and thinking, “I am going to use you to make something entertaining and positive. I’ll write about you, and show your picture. You’ll be part of something that will be read by people around the world.” What better can be done?
How does this type of thinking promote youthful feelings? Children test limits. All adventuresome people do. Testing limits can be adapted to basic mental exercise. If you give your brain the training to range in all directions, the application goes beyond paint and tools. The useless brush has a use.
In an old town, ten steps behind a familiar grass hill, sits a backlot filled with debris. There’s a full-sized stone statue of a boy, with a bird on his shoulder—both decapitated. The boy’s head is on the ground; the bird’s is nowhere to seen. Plastic space dividers, doomed to last much longer than their usefulness, lay strewn about, each piece having exhausted its original purpose. The trash is unwanted. Yet each fragment, in fact every thing you can see, is a character. You have to isolate each piece, and study it, to believe it. While the trash is going to a place where it will still be called trash, the characters will be moving on to the black night.
I’ve never asked how this was possible. I was told what is, and then I placed the idea in regard to the realm I can’t conceive.
Yesterday was a beautiful spring day. I came across the first indoor bug of the season, in my work-from-home office, and set him free outside. It was a great moment for that creature, and bittersweet for me. Why? Because I had no one to tell the poignant details of the bug’s cautious attitude regarding his release. For the moment to stick, I had to talk to, or write to, a reader, any reader, of AN INCONSEQUENTIAL BEING. And even though that story had about thirty people interested in it, those people were unknown to me.
I had him in a small cup and tried coaxing him onto the front yard’s wood railing. He walked to the edge of the smooth glass and tested the warm, sunny rail. I could see he hesitated and seemed doubtful, then he decided against freedom and circled back into the glass.
I angled the cup further downward and tapped. The persuasion helped him walk back to the lip, right up to the edge, and he used his feelers to check the wood again. For whatever reason, he didn’t want to proceed that way. While it was certain to me the route was his best shot at life and freedom, somehow, the glass felt safer. To him.
He ended up making his choice, and flew away. I will never forget his reluctance to take the safer steps put in front of him.
I needed to see that. Needed to learn the nature of his caution. To value his pause. I needed to see the care he took to the approach of a new surface. Thirty readers will have an idea why I make this statement.
Two months ago I set a brother of his free and he flew straight into a snow-covered bush, and oblivion. I’m sure he died within two seconds of freedom. I’d not given him a choice. He was going out the window, right then, like it or not.
Choices and chances, and heaves out the window, are placed before all of us.
I knew a forty-year old woman who was diagnosed with cancer and she was dead within ten months. Would you say she was gently prodded out of the glass?
After dark, when it’s time for bed, I rest in a range that’s within the plateau of the black night. I don’t ask any questions, any more. I don’t make requests and I do not pray. I get hundreds of answers and I stow them, and so very politely forget it all.
I thought she was shoved out the window. That was what neuroendocrine cancer did to her. I was resting in the black night and was told she was prompted from the glass cup. That startled me. My opinion rested on the analogy of death I’d witnessed via impact with extreme and all-encompassing cold–a forced demise of a creature in its prime. The black night presented me with another idea. My friend’s death was the warm day’s flight. A relief, and a transport, all her choice.
As I said, I’ve never asked how this was possible. I am told what is, and then I place the idea in regard to the realm I can’t conceive. And then so very politely, I forget it all. At least, most of it.
Last weekend early morning I got a call from my buddy Felix, he needed help moving another buddy. I gave him a quick lesson. His friend needed help. But he, Felix, wanted help. Needs may get taken care for free, but a want would envoke a cost, and a laugh, both at his expense. We agreed on he buying me a big breakfast next week.
I hopped in the truck and headed out. My GPS said the apartment complex was forty-five minutes away.
I’d been driving about two seconds when I noticed it. A bug on the windshield. I was just about to give it the windshield wiper and spray when Felix phoned up.
“Do you want a donut or coffee or anything? I want to pick them up something hot.”
“No, I’m fine,” I said, reaching for a bottle of water I’d thrown into a small cooler. I’d broughtten three bottles, in case I’d needed them. One definitely for the ride back. And one, for right now.
I was traveling at a bit of a clip now, on a rural road about a mile from the Highway 9 onramp. Highway 9 would then take about half my drive time. Then Highway 16A to finish up. I looked at the bug again.
Damn, I think it was two of them. Yeah, one on top of the other. Gross. I opted not to smear my window with their guts and just let the wind do its work. I sped up and wind! Do your thing! I could see the force was disturbing their antennas and whatnot. Good. Move it along.
Cars up ahead, I had to slow way down. And so, I could see the bugs relaxed.
Felix called again. He wanted to give me a head’s up that we might be rushed today, the moving van was only rented till late morning. The couple would have to hurry. What dopes, I thought. Don’t limit your time on a move day. Cut a swath of time. Oh well. That meant I could be loose outta there by lunch. Maybe.
I’d reached Highway 9 now. Light traffic, that was good. I sped up. I wasn’t going to kill myself though; their lack of emergency was not going to constitute my emergency. I should have that printed up on my next round of business cards!
I would have to clean it up of course. Something like, YOU’RE LACK OF EMERGENCY DOES NOT CONSTITUTE MY EMERGENCY or something like that.
My eyes were fixed on the bugs. The highway wasn’t knocking them off. I moved to the speed lane. Got it going to about eightly.
The wind was bothering them! Good! Get lost! They shuddered with the force. How they’re sticking on?
Cars slowing ahead. I switched lanes, barely cutting my speed. Try hanging on to this.
Man. How exactly are they managing to stay gripped?
Why do cars in the high speed lane always seem the first to slow down? That’s the lane to move at. There ain’t no exits. Dopes. Making it dangerous for everyone else. Zig-zagging around you and what all.
Why do dopes who have rented a moving truck not plan right? And how does Felix find these fools? Who’s the real dope in this situation? Me.
Felix if you were on the phone right now I’d offer you two breakfasts to pretend you’d never called.
Okay, clear lane. Eighty-five MPH.
Ha, ha, you disgusting idiots. Never felt this kind of sting before, have you? Nuh-uh!
Felix on the phone again. “Rick, a question, do you happen to have any singles, or fives on you?”
“I have some, sure. For the drive thru you mean?”
“No, I want to have some money to tip the driver.”
“Oh, sure, I have four singles and two fives.”
“Okay, I’m all out. Very good. That should be enough. You about halfway?”
“Why are we tipping a driver?”
“Yeah, the couple’s in a bad way. They had to drop the two movers from the agreement, there’s only a driver. That’s why we have a time crunch. Truck’s gotta get back.”
I was incredulous. “No movers?”
“No, that’s us,” Felix said. Then: “Rick, look. They’re starting over. Patty’s friend’s mom has a sister who’s an admin on a chat board who knows this gal whose brother and wife are moving up here. And I got volunteered. Okay, I’m just pulling in now. I’ll get started with the husband. We have a lot to unload. GPS will take you into the complex and you’ll see the truck. On the right.”
“Wait! Where are they coming from?”
“Alabama. Okay Rick I gotta go!”
I was angry. Angry at Felix, for laying this on me with no preparation or anything. This was going to take hours. All day. I didn’t care about the couple of bucks. He had to have putten more thought into it.
Alabama to Connecticut was a long way to go. Who does that? Who doesn’t plan the move right? How again did Felix find these people?
Alabama to Connecticut was a long way to come. Actually that was a better way to phrase it. I took another swig of water. Oh, damn it. That had to have been a tough ride. What did I know?
What did I know. A man and a woman, were coming a thousand miles or whatever. Not a lot of money, obviously. Not a lot of planning. Felix somehow, got involved. Supposably he had some knowledge or connection to them through his wife. It was to be foreseen exactly how he got volunteered. He probably found out a few minutes before calling me this morning. And I had to have left my ringer on!
I suddenly felt very, very stupid.
I was complaining about my Saturday being ruined, helping a guy move. I thought it was a couch or something. But a couple and their stuff? I wasn’t sure about, I mean, what were we walking into?
Still being stupid! What were these people walking into? That was the thing.
They were the ones who should be all up in knots. I turned the radio on, to find a song. I found nothing.
Up in knots, I’m sure. Riding into Parwich County without much on their side. Felix, the good guy, always a good guy, was probably the only helper around. Their friend. Not really their friend. A set of hands. Getting on it right now. Making sure it got done.
Felix is a helping kinda guy. I know that.
What had he’d said? He wanted to pick them up something hot? Hot, as in breakfast? As in, they’d not of eaten so far today? How would he know that? Maybe he didn’t need to have it spelled out for him.
But a thick head like me? Did.
What a damn jerk I was. Those people needed some breaks, starting over.
Ooo, sheese! A truck nearly side-swiped me! I had to change a lane, without seeing if it’s clear!
The swerve force was so strong my water bottle jumped the console holder and hit the passenger floor. Cap’s on it, that’s okay. And the bugs–the bugs! They were hanging on for dear life.
I couldn’t believe what I blurted out aloud: “You’re gonna be all right.”
Rick, you damn fool. What had you’d said.
“Hang on. Halfway there. More than.”
I clenched the steering wheel, staring at them two. They’d been hanging on for thirty minutes. Woo, it was sure funny for me, wasn’t it. Watching them struggle. Oh man. I cut my speed and got over to the slow lane. It was an exit lane, so I had to watch out for that.
Okay, that was better. They relaxed a bit. I could tell from how they adjusted their knee-thingies. Was he getting tired? The bottom one?
What was this like? The top one must be getting tired too.
Rick, you idiot. You are going to tell exactly no one what the hell you’re doing. You are never going to recount this to anybody. You’re going to drive and it’s just like any other freaking time you been driving. Don’t look at them. They’re damn bugs. You don’t care. You got that? Good boy.
They have wings, they will fly away, they will be fine.
They will find their way without any help from you.
I went to grab another water, no, changed my mind, I could hold off, I was okay. Even if I did pack them in ice. Maybe reach the roly-poly one? On the floor? Nope, bad idea. I could wait.
You are the ugliest bugs, you know that. Ever see yourselves from the bottom? I don’t think so. I don’t recommend it. But you can sure hang on. So just please, keep at it. Almost there.
Then I got an idea. It’s true, as much as I wanted to I couldn’t stop, we needed to get to the move. I was going fifty, as slow as possible really. My idea was, the bugs are treating this like a wind storm. And this storm will pass. An hour, you’ve hung on to gales for an hour, haven’t you?
(Watch for Starting Over, the conclusion, coming in April).
You were my best friend. Wakefield, early spring, 1980. We were two fourteen-year-olds who were introduced to each other by a troublemaker, and his bringing us together was the one good thing that kid did all year. He wanted something in return of course, so you and I conspired to present him with the dullest afterschool plans possible, day after day, until he gave up and walked away.
We walked, as well. You and I walked everywhere. We couldn’t drive yet, right? We had our precious Friday nights, free from school, free of home, and we needed to get moving! We walked around Lake Quannipowitt, often two or three times a night, boombox in hand, our latest favorite tape blasting our newest favorite music. We’d make tapes for each other, you brought me Randy Rhoads and Rush’s Subdivisions, I gave you music from The Elder. We’d walk five miles or more on those nights, talking about the bands, talking about the world, and talking about girls.
Life was so good to me, and that’s the vibe I flowed to you, a good environment. I did it unknowingly, without conceptualizing it or making it some grand mission. You liked my cheerfulness and it rubbed off on you. I recall an early day when you came to my house, and without a word, you stepped right into our closet where our jackets were hung. Click, you closed the accordion doors, shutting yourself inside. My parents and I stood there wondering: What the hell is he doing?
Quick! I laughed and ran for my camera. I was ready when you opened the door. You had a big smile on your face and I captured the moment, not just on film but seared into my mind. That grin could only happen right there, in my house. You produced it just for me. I can see you right now, and remember the moment perfectly– especially the sounds, the before and after sounds of you being bold, your unexpected action thoroughly entertaining.
The world as it was, and the world as we wanted it to be. That’s what we talked about, for hours and hours on end. What was our destination, and where could we go to plan it? We’d hunt for any place to chat, a place clear of our families, a path around the school’s cliques and away from peer pressure. We did not do what was expected, not from the popular kids and not from the unpopular kids, and not our folks. None of them were going to understand how you and I had fun, if they were judging by the way we spent our time.
Oh, where could teenagers go to be entertained, and not get into trouble? Where could we go, and not spend more than a few dollars? Where could we go, and not be shooed away? To not be terrified, intimidated, beaten up, or bored? To survive, every teen had to find this answer. Because the solution wasn’t at home. Our parents couldn’t provide it to us. They couldn’t create such a space; we wouldn’t have accepted it. The combined minds of two friends was the only resolution to this question.
Teens had to be on the move. Or as you said, “Let’s go mobile.”
At the lake, next to the American Mutual Insurance plaza, there was an empty plot of grass, two city-blocks wide, mowed short and kept as a neat lawn. At the back of this field there was a narrow but dense thicket, separating the highway from the grass. Do you remember? At 9PM, 10PM and 11PM we sat on the open grass, far enough away from the access road so we could flee if the police, or if troublemakers, saw us there. No one could approach us from behind; Route 128 protected us. We sat at this perfect place under the stars on those late weekend nights, a bottle of this or that in our hands. We were in full sight, that is, if anyone happened to look out there.
We talked it all out, our frustrations, our joys, and our dreams. Because we were kids. Because we were friends.
You were articulate with your perception of life, and what action you wanted to get from it. You wanted to windsurf in the Bahamas, happy to start your plans at this modest lake. You challenged every established idea that your elders laid in front of you. Teachers, parents, and community leaders would get a counterpoint from you, points that you’d worked out on your own. You didn’t just kicked the tires, you questioned whether tires were really needed. Your suppressed desire was to windsurf, after all.
After hearing you talk one night, I joked, “The World’s Problems Solved, By My Best Friend. Available on Nine 45-Minute Tapes.” I could have made such a statement on dozens of nights, in those high school years.
In December 1981 three underclass girls started phoning me, together, from one of their homes. I didn’t know them. The bold girl dialed the phone and was the first to say hello. Then she’d pass the receiver to the girl who was more chatty, a real extrovert, very cheery. Finally, a thoughtful girl would get on the phone, and speak with me the longest. She was the reasonable one, with a beautiful voice, apologetic for the intrusion.
After a week or two of these calls I asked the bold girl out. She was my first girlfriend. When you asked me why I chose her, I told you straight out: What got my attention was how gutsy it must have been for her to call a stranger. I mean, a team could come up with a plan, but someone had to pick up the phone. She impressed me, sight unseen. As the calls came each day, I kept her on the line a bit longer each time.
Not all of my experiences with girls would go so smoothly. One time I was in real danger, and needed your help. In the spring of ’82, you and I were on the outdoor track team, and our sport was the javelin. Remember the day we traveled with the team to Winchester? Remember how scared I was on the bus?
“What’s going on?” You wanted to know. As the bus got within ten minutes of Winchester High School, I told you what had happened while I was living at my summer house, the previous year. I’d been interested in a fourteen-year-old, the prettiest girl on Wingaersheek Beach, and I finally got the nerve to ask her out. And we’d gone on a date. One date. And then she was done with me.
That should have been the end of it. But big problems arose.
A friend of mine at the other end of the beach also liked this girl. He was seventeen, one year older than I. He spotted me having a drink on the deck at her house late one night and did not like the fact that I’d cut in on his game. As luck would have it, his winter home was in, you guessed it, Winchester.
Now, I told you this boy was older, but there was more. I’d been over his beach house several times that summer, and the previous two summers. We’d spent a lot of time together fishing, working on neighbor’s yards, and exploring the beach and rocks. One day, weeks before the girl flap, he told me his dad had a temper, and a gun, and did I want to see it? I said no, to either. “Take a look,” he said, pulling out a shoe box. Inside was a German Luger pistol, with a packet of bullets.
“Don’t worry, it’s loaded,” he joked.
I said, “You mean, it’s not loaded.” “No. It’s loaded. And you don’t have to worry, because we get along. We’re going to be fine, you know. Just don’t get me angry.” He shook a retreating finger at me and put the gun away.
A month later I asked the girl out. I hadn’t known he knew of her, never mind was interested in her! Needless to say, he was livid, and I avoided him. I laid low for the rest of the summer, and was happy to head back to Wakefield in September.
I told you all this as we rode to this boy’s town.
As our bus pulled into the facility, I crouched low. You said, “You think this guy will be here? What are the chances? Does he even know you’re on the track team?” I was unsure, about nearly everything. “No he doesn’t have any idea of that,” I said, “and yes, I do think he’ll be here. He knows I’m from Wakefield. Our meet will be enough for him to ask around.”
“What do you want me to do?” You asked. This was another defining moment of our friendship; you did not flee. “I’m staying on this bus, out of sight,” I said. “I have a plan. I have two cards I can play and I’m saving them. Get off with the team. See if he’s out there.”
“How will I know?”
“You’ll know. He’ll make it known very quickly.”
The team filed off the bus and I didn’t dare lift my head to look. You came back within a minute. “He’s here! He’s asking if you are on this bus. And, he has a javelin. He’s on the jav team.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Look. He’s a tough fighter. His dad used to hit him. If this turns bad you just have to let me get close enough to reach him. I need to be no more than a foot away. But if I get too close he’ll hit me first. Understand?”
“C’mon,” you said, “Let’s just face this.” And we stepped out.
You, my best friend, always seemed to find a way to protect me from the world. You did it many times. You were like one of those cement barriers on the highway, my personal barrier, taking scrapes from all the idiots of the world. And now, one such person was at hand.
Oh, God, that was him all right. Big shoulders from weightlifting–bigger than ever!, light brown hair, and a killer smile.
He greeted me, and I could tell he couldn’t believe his luck. He looked cheery enough, and because we had been friends before our little conflict, it was natural for him to smile and say hello. He and I had a good couple of summers and the currency remained valid. He acknowledged our passing teammates with charm and a gentle voice. It was all damn subterfuge though. He was a dangerous boy.
At this moment, he was using his friendliness as a means to edge physically closer to me, and to wait for the team to pass. I think you sensed that. You didn’t leave my side.
He turned to me. “Hey Hagopian. You know why I’m here?”
“You weren’t expecting me, were you?”
As he and I talked, he began throwing the javelin sharply into the ground in front of us. Each throw was a bit closer to my feet. I started talking fast. I told him two things he needed to hear: First, I hadn’t known he liked Rory, which was the truth. Second, we’d gone out only once. Also the truth. I’d been to her house but two times.
He was somewhat satisfied with this. Plus the fact, a half a year had elapsed. Perhaps he’d found another girl?
Somehow, his satisfaction wasn’t enough for him. I don’t think he was going to allow any non-physical resolution. The javelin strikes kept landing near my feet. The spear clanged with a loose internal weight that he kept shaking free before throwing again. You asked me something like, “What do you want to do about this?” You were ready to fight.
The team had moved to the playing field. We three were alone.
“Danny,” I said to our nemesis, “Rory wasn’t worth it. She had her sights elsewhere.”
“Like, the McFadden kid. You know, the middle brother. Chris.”
“Yeah. He had the money, he had the boat, a car, and he was eighteen.”
“Really?” he said, like I’d told him the Blues were running the Annisquam River.
“Yep. They’re dating.”
“No way,” he said, but he wasn’t throwing anymore. He used the javelin to lean on now. He smiled and adjusted his glasses, which was his way of saying, Let Me Slow This Down And Clarify For You. “He had no business with a kid like that. A little girl.”
Then: “I still owe you a punch. Why did you disappear? You didn’t show your face. For like, the rest of August.”
“Why did you hide? Unless you knew you were guilty.”
“You know,” he said, still keeping it slow for me, “I had nothing to do, for weeks. The folks wanted to know, what I’d done this time.”
“Because, you know, I always had to have done something. ‘That Hagopian boy was so sweet,'” he mocked his mother’s tone.
I turned to you, just for a second, but Danny lowered the spear. “You think your friend’s going to help you?” He looked at you and laughed.
Then, to me: “You’ve never been punched before Ara, have you? I know you!” He scoffed at my utter, pitiful weakness.
“Danny, let’s just have a track meet,” I offered.
“Oh yeah?” He laughed again. He was relaxed, and had let his guard down. He was inches from me. Inches!
“Yeah,” I said, and quickly put my hand on his shoulder. I was like lightning and gripped my fingers with something I gave all hope would be perceived as concern. Do you remember how this all happened? And, just like that, he stood down. I mean immediately, as if his muscles lost their air.
As if he was relieved.
“Danny. I’m sorry. I didn’t know I’d done that to you.”
That was the one-two that got him. He’d long been a boy in need of gentle contact, you had to move fast and couldn’t telegraph it was coming. Otherwise, he’d flinch and back away. And then there’d be violence. But if you could touch and hold any place on his upper body, and sell it as sincere, it was like paying him a compliment. Better yet, if you were sincere, it was a compliment. I’d known this on the docks, and from mowing lawns with him, and walking side by side on the dune trails. He took the concerned touch like a gentle man, if given to him.
Was something his father had never learned.
The first person to land a hand had won the match. “We’re on the jav team too,” I said. “Can you show us where the field is?” And he did. Like a victor. Like a friend. Because I knew him.
Later, you asked me about the two cards I held in reserve, and had I played them? I told you I’d used one, the bit about Chris McFadden. The other card I did nothing with, and dropped all talk right there. But, I will tell you now, thirty-nine years later.
Here was my last-ditch play: I’d had one date with Rory, and… one date with her mother. At thirty-six she was well over twice my age, and knew how to manipulate boys. That was the card I was going to use to slay Danny, had all else failed.
That night when he was walking by Rory’s street and had spotted me at her house, standing on her palatial stone deck, I wasn’t there to see Rory. I had walked her mom home from a lawn lecture we’d attended, arm-in-arm. Mom had brought out the wine but I’d stuck with the lemonade. Rory chastised her and told her she was making a fool of herself. Luckily, I kept that mess to myself. Because her dad would have killed me. Really.
Oh, man. I’m glad you were with me on the bus that day.
Truth is, for those four years, you were by my side more than anyone. High school is acutely exciting and generally terrifying. Sometimes kids find pals that are just right for them. And the terror is diffused, along with all the other wild emotions that come with pre-adulthood.
I want to tell you, as often as you’ll hear it, how much I admired you. You were my hero. You said and did things I didn’t have the guts to say or do.
You also introduced me to music that enriched my life.
I’m trying to picture all the days and nights you must have spent in your basement, listening to records, just by yourself. You brought those bands into your house, and then you let them take you out of there.
What a selection you chose. The Beatles, Moody Blues, Rush, Floyd, Soulsonic Force. So much more. April Wine. Queensryche, when they only had their EP out. You were always making discoveries, beyond what your classmates were getting into. I remember how excited you were about the Rafferty solo in Baker Street. The keys in Highway Star. The dynamics in Night Moves. The bouncing rhythm of If I Can’t Have You.
You explained these nuances in great detail to me. It wasn’t just about Rafferty’s choice of notes. His guitar tone completed the mood, perfectly.
When Rush talked about escaping the suburbs, you heard it as a kid fighting the boundaries that were holding him in the same old place. They were talking to you! And when they spoke of Chemistry, it absolutely blew your mind! They delivered the magic trio; the mix of lyrics, music, and you.
I have had many great friends. I’ve only had one best friend. You have been the only one I’ll ever have. First of all, you wanted that title. You claimed it. You wrote your name on it. Second of all, it did come with risk. If we’re going to talk about you being like a protective highway barrier for me, then we’re going to have to talk about the scars.
One early morning the two of us were walking the corridor at school, headed for our homerooms. The warning bell sounded and we had about five minutes to get to our respective rooms. Up ahead, a few boys blocked our path. You recognized them and they called to you. I recognized them in a different way; they were bullies. You told me to stay back.
“Let’s just go back, up the stairwell,” I urged. “We can circle around them if we hurry.”
A boy stepped out of the recessed entrance to the library door. It was probably the only time he’d been that close to sequentially-numbered books. Lo and behold, it was Dale, the guy who’d introduced us, two or three years before. He came up to you, didn’t even see me. Two other kids remained in the shadows.
“Hey!” he said, “We’ve got something sweet. Want to come outside with us?”
“C’mon Dale,” you said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re late for homeroom,” Dale said. He frowned at how ridiculous the concept of attendance was. He slapped your shoulder. “Spend some time with The Dukes.”
“Nah, that’s not what I’m into.”
The Dukes. That was the name of Dale’s short list of friends, who named their gang after a joint.
He laughed. “Not what you’re into? Who isn’t?” he mocked. “Why? Why be weird?”
You were conflicted. Dale had been a good friend of yours, not too long ago. You’d been elementary school pals. As you’d grown older, his choices had appealed to you less and less.
Oh, but you were a loyal bastard.
“C’mon,” he said. “Please. No really, and I’m serious, please. Be normal. Hang with us. Just this morning. We have passes. You won’t get into trouble!”
“No!” you said, and without looking back to me, you proceeded forward.
The two Dukes stood up. Dale grabbed you by the neck, punched you in the head, punched you in the gut, and threw you like a rag doll headfirst into the library door. He laughed and the three of them took off.
I went to help you up but you wanted nothing of it. I wanted to get you to the nurse’s office but you told me to just shut up. You were red and angry and you stormed off. The boy who just weeks before had smiled so brightly and happily in my closet doorway made haste out of that nook of a library entrance.
We were both late to homeroom and our parents were notified. That was the first time a pair of adults questioned my influence on their son.
I left you alone for about a day. Which of course, was an eternity for us. When you called, you wanted to talk about anything other than what happened that morning. In fact, we never spoke of it again. Instead, you asked me an odd question. You wanted to talk about Elizabeth, the girl I’d dated that winter.
“Why did you pick her? Out of those three?”
“I told you, she was daring. She had confidence.”
She also gave me my first kiss, at sixteen. I remember the tree we stood under, and how seriously she took that moment. I took it seriously, too.
You said: “The other girls had more going for them though. They talked to you more. They focused more on you.”
“I told you. She was the one who called me.” And that pretty much summed it up for you.
I’m sure you remember seeing KISS on their Creatures of the Night tour. That was our first concert, at the Centrum, and boy was it loud! We’d met the band earlier at Strawberries Records, and after that you and I shared a pizza in some Worcester dive. There was a video game in there. You worked your magic on that console, just like you did on every twenty-five cent video game in the Wakefield area. You got the top score. The three letters you entered would remain until someone beat you.
The initials you chose for yourself were AAX. I never asked you the significance of the letters, but boy did you leave your mark as the best gamer around. Tempest and Black Widow at Christy’s on Main Street. Defender and Stargate at Nick’s Pizza across from the Post Office. Robotron and Front Line at House of Pizza near the tracks.
Missile Command got the AAX at the Colonial Hilton lounge in Lynnfield. Omega Race at some no-name place on North Avenue. Donkey Kong and Deluxe Asteroids at the convenience store next to Triple A on Albion. Asteroids at the YMCA. Phoenix across from the Bowladrome on Water Street. Space Duel at Mancini’s.
House of Pizza also had the 1943 game. Remember the day we got a free pizza? We walked in there and Les Hakey said, “Gentlemen, what’ll you have?”
“Les,” I said, “He’s saving his money to beat this game. I don’t think we’ll be buying more than a slice.”
Les laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s been a popular one. Lots of plays. Boys let me tell ya. Tonight’s your lucky night. I’ll tell you what. Someone ordered a pizza an hour ago, and he hasn’t picked it up. You two like onion and pepper? It’s a large.”
We looked at each other. We couldn’t believe our luck.
Les was an interesting guy. He grew up in our neighborhood, up the road a bit near Aborn Avenue, and was only a few years older than us. I remember when I was a kid, maybe nine or ten years old, I was walking home from Hancock Street. It was dark out, I’d stayed at a friend’s house too late, and was hustling to get home. I had four blocks to go, an eternity.
I heard some steps behind me. I was scared. The steps got closer. I stopped. It was Les.
I didn’t know him, but he said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Don’t you ever worry when you’re walking alone. The worry will kill you. Just whistle, and, walk very fast. Don’t stop. Whistle, and walk. You’ll get home all right.”
I think you remember the boom box I had, it was the best boom box a hundred bucks could get you at Sears. I decked it out with metallic stickers and a Native American guitar strap. You and I played that thing to death when we were out on our walking nights.
One night, the play button broke. We were so disappointed, we couldn’t get the damn thing to stay pressed down. Then, luck! We got the button to stick, just when we’d reached House of Pizza.
When we got into the booth we were told to turn the music off. A conundrum: We’d worked hard to get that play button to stay. I turned the volume down very low. The album, after all, was from our ear-bleeding concert.
The chef came out from around the counter and leaned into our table. His eyes were blood red. He said, this restaurant was in mourning. Turn off the radio. Les Hakey had died.
Death comes and the music stops. When Randy Rhoads died you called me, and you were heartbroken. There would be no more music, played his way. I met you in your driveway and we talked it out, for ages.
When my father died, on Mother’s Day 1984, I called you. You were in my driveway within two minutes. I never told you how it felt. Dad dying was like my family being crushed inside a collapsing house, with all the wood beams and plaster falling on our heads. We had to get out individually, on our own, or fall where we were caught. We couldn’t help each other, we were thrashing, choking, not able to see.
One person pulled me out of that mess. It was, of course, you.
You dusted me off, cleaned my face, kept the curious away.
You ignored what I told you and listened to what I had to say. I went away for awhile and you wrote to me every week. When I told you I was going to have a very bad year, you said we were going to have a very bad year. When I told you I was going to rot alone on New Year’s, you told me that night was so overrated anyway. But you came by. Anyway.
I don’t care about the stuff you’re made of, or your size, or where you live. What matters is your utility, how you put your talents to good use. Have you disbursed what you’ve been given throughout your life? Not your possessions, not your money, but the benefits you have to offer the world. Why are you holding back? What are you hoarding?
Yesterday, when I was walking, I noticed a jar of peanut butter on the ground. It had been dropped, unopened, and was beginning to leak some oil. The jar’s usefulness was over, it was trash. All of the effort put into getting a good source of food from a farm to a manufacturing plant to a store to a home, was wasted. In this case.
I didn’t care what brand that peanut butter was. I didn’t care about its size. I didn’t care which neighborhood it had fallen. The jar had a purpose, that failed.
The most successful peanut butter jar is an empty one.
A jar’s biggest failure is going to the trash, full.
All the states of quantity in-between are degrees of non-utility.
A jar that’s been emptied of its complete contents in the course of human consumption has provided the most nourishment it can. It has done its bit, fulfilled its potential. The packaging designers succeeded. The peanut farmers did their thing just right. The processing plant that dispensed the recipe into clean jars got an A in class. The salespeople who closed the deal with the market earned their keep. The truckers and receiving clerks shined. The shelf stockers and cashiers completed the deal. And a family got fed.
Consider the amount of peanut butter in homes across your town. What if the jars that get thrown out during normal use aren’t reasonably empty? Is it an exaggeration to say that a scoop of goodness left could provide perhaps one meal? Wouldn’t that be important to somebody, somewhere, whose need may be great?
Have you ever gone to bed just a bit hungry, or not hungry but you knew your stomach would be growling before breakfast? Yes? Has your solution ever been a piece of bread with peanut butter? A final scrape in a near-empty jar would tide you over.
I’ll ask again: What talents are you hoarding? What’s in “your jar” that’s not been put to good use today? There’s a scrape of something you can give, to help someone along. A forum post, a photograph of someone’s forgotten Christmas, a text hello, a Direct Message when it’s not your turn to send one. If you know what you’re conserving, then you are closer than you think, to giving. If you don’t know what you’ve been holding back, I foresee the cracked, street-side jar– full of waste.
Every decent person in your life has done their bit to fill you with goodness. Good preparation, good ideas, good advice, good example. Your parents, your pastor, your teachers, family and friends, they are the farmers and truckers and shelf-stockers. If you don’t empty what you’ve got, you have failed them.
Labels don’t matter. Chunky or smooth; both are fine. It doesn’t matter your maker or your brand. Whoever you are, there’s an eager audience, who need what you have to give. Every last scrape of it. Don’t tell me you can’t find them. Tell me how good it felt to give.
Are you ready to learn something unexpected? If youth is fondly recalled, and youth is about new experiences, then think about the associations of new, as a concept. New is exciting! Are you ready?
Stop listening, and learn to just be silent.
That phrase is a novel concept for you, isn’t it? Do you think it’s even possible to follow? Isn’t it the definition of sleeping– being silent and not listening?
Not exactly. There’s no learning to sleep. Try again.
Are we talking about zoning out? That’s closer to the concept. Again, there’s not a lot of learning required to zone out. The object of Stop Listening is to develop and put to use an otherwise unthinkable alternative.
Why would we want to do that? Well, consider this. If in our lives we could manage to tackle unthinkable alternatives, and possibly make utility out of even one of them, then the approach would automatically graft to useful purposes.
Have you ever been in a room at night, when the only light came from the TV? Of course you have. Picture it, you’re sitting comfortably on your couch watching detective Lennie Briscoe solve a crime. You’ve got a drink within easy reach, and a big bowl of popcorn, just for you, no sharing. Do you know what it’s like to be fixated on that screen? And then all of a sudden you detect a movement, a very slight movement caught by your peripheral vision, happening on the floor, halfway between you and the TV?
Yes? You’ve been there? Do you know what I’m driving at? What did you do? I’ll tell you. You gave the rug the quick two-point check. First check: Was the movement caused by the action on the screen? It was usually that, right? So you shot a look at the rug. But it wasn’t the show’s fault. Not this time. Nope, that’s a quick-moving bug hustling there, a beast of a spider, making a break for it, thinking he’s alone, doing the shady night-time thing, not buying the Law & Order directive of Motion to Suppress. The evidence was before your eyes.
You were frightened, disgusted. Afraid. You set the drama plot aside and you grabbed the tissue box to provide a solid smack, and series of smacks, until that beast was dead.
Congratulations. For the last three paragraphs, you have taken the first steps in learning to focus silence, by involvement in the written word. You got lost in a scene. You were fully involved in the audible world and yet you stopped listening. You didn’t zone out. Didn’t fall asleep. Just the opposite, in fact.
Answers can be in the unobvious. If your answer to the simple question of “How does water respond to a crack?” is, “The water will leak out,” then you should become familiar with another way to think. At the least, you should be prepared to analyze from a ridiculous perspective. The training would provide all sorts of nonsense– and one great idea. Cracks can stop the progress of water, which is the opposite of a leak. Your experience in the Stop Listening technique would help you identify what’s workable.
This activity is an exercise in thought. One day I was on a Teams call that included my boss’s new boss. We, the work team of about a half dozen, were introducing ourselves to him, and he to us. It didn’t happen, but what if he asked me, “What’s on your mind? What are you trying to accomplish, what are you challenging yourself with?”
I imagined handing it over: “Stop listening, and learn to just be silent. That sir, is what is on my mind, quite a bit.” How could he argue with that phrase? How could he, or anyone, quickly attack this? Sure the Teams group would laugh at the ridiculousness of the words. But being a boss’s boss, with a big mind, he could respond with, “Ah ha, tell us what that means!”
I would explain it this way. If you take the phrase at face value, yes it’s a silly turn on “Stop talking and learn to listen.” Think of this. If for a moment we accept the Stop Listening concept as valid, solvable, something that could actually be done through higher thinking and logic, well then, what other impossible things could also be solved?
This is a nursing home’s wishing well. Take a look at it. It’s full of dust; empty of water. It’s encrusted with circular stains, absent of the coins that were responsible for those scarred outlines. Also absent are the visitors who stood here, sat here, and hoped for a wish to come true.
This nursing home has its elderly residents but public access has been restricted for a year. Its well has been drained and forgotten, two words that are commonplace in elder-care facilities today.
As it stands, this wishing well provides no value. It’s one of many things that’s been shut down, cordoned off, and considered non-essential by the staff. Perhaps this empty well is proof management never believed that wishes could come true.
Why else dismantle the well and remove the coins?
The wishing well is located near the entrance of the facility, and is set the furthest distance from the elderly. It isn’t near any destination for them to pass. No one can sit by it. No one can rest here, gaze into the still water and see themselves. No one can gaze into the statue’s flowing water and, like a child, see the wonder of endless formations and hear the giggle of the splash. No resident can have their eyes fall to their softly folded hands, at peace with the sounds and sights this bricked edge used to serve.
Let’s talk about who tosses coins into a nursing home wishing well. This is not the well at Rockefeller Center, where young hands eagerly hurled silver to make wishes for themselves. The visitor’s hands at the home aren’t so young. Their wishes aren’t for personal gain. The coins are copper and of modest value. And no one steals the pennies from the old age place.
Think about who stood here and opened their purse for an offering. Was it done with a smile? Or with rapidly-blinking eyes. Was it done on a whim? Or with the weight of the world. What do you think of these moments?
No one walks by this well by accident, or on a relaxing stroll. The people who left their money were visiting loved ones who might not recognize them. The people who made their wishes had a little in their hands and a lot on their minds. Every coin that hit the water had its dream determined hours, days, and years before it struck bottom.
Hear the echoes of wishes. Please ease my mom’s pain. Please let dad enjoy his memories again. I wish we could get some financial relief and guidance to do the right things. Please God, forgive me.
An emptied elder-care wishing well is like a kind thought, that has been misplaced by anger. It’s a memory in the wings, waiting much too long for her recall. It’s one more method of expression, on top of the pleas and prayers, to get someone help– someone other than ourselves.
When I look at the moon, I think: Wow, we gotta fix that thing. The moon’s been struck pretty badly, given its four-billion year life. Its lack of atmosphere allows meteor strikes, and the windless plains deny leveling forces, forces that are normal to me and you.
The moon is battered.
Most people, virtually everyone, would agree that the moon has a damaged surface. If they are right, and if the moon is important to humankind, then what would it take for us to enact repairs? What could be done to fix the damage, if we could prove that the costs, and the practicality of such measures, were not insurmountable issues?
If we had the means and access to do the work, we could organize teams, or robotic machinery, to rake and level the irregular landscape. The surface is soft and workable. We could fill the craters and heal those scars. The moon would become a better place. It would be smooth and look whole again. Presuming of course, it looked whole, once.
Who would argue there is no need to help out– to clean up– our own Heavenly Body?
We would need to consult with scientists around the globe to determine how we’d best protect the newly-repaired surface from future strikes. This is much more than simply protecting our investment, although protecting what we’ve built is a human tradition in the finest order. The moon is hit by an estimated 6,000 pounds of meteor material per day. Consider: What type of minimal atmosphere could we reasonably set in place, to stop a percentage of the strikes? Then we could get on a schedule to fix the surface as needed, perhaps on a quarterly or even yearly basis.
How about the moon’s shape? Would we correct it?
Despite what we see from Earth, the moon is not a perfect circle. It’s more like an egg shape, with the bigger part of the egg facing the Earth. What could we do to reshape the moon, or at least bring it a percentage closer to a true spherical diameter? We could set a goal of perhaps a 15-20% correction. Who would argue against the moon being modestly adjusted to the universal symmetry standard of a bisect line, with an equal mass and shape to the left and right, top and bottom?
To keep this discussion reasonable, and our costs lower, we could propose the following. Let’s set aside our direct and admittedly pie-in-the-sky plans for reshaping the moon. Instead, let’s do this. If we identify the parts of the moon that need more mass (the top of the egg, the “pointy part”) why don’t we relocate the tons of surface we’re shifting during our crater-filling activities? This concept of double utility has served us well in the past and can serve us today. Even if we only fix the moon by five percent, that is something.
We’re not talking planet-sized work. The moon end-to-end doesn’t even stretch the length of the United States. These projects could work, if we are in agreement to prioritize positive change. That, in effect, is what this discussion is all about. If we aren’t in agreement to prioritize positive change, then I don’t know what to tell you! Step aside! We need to look inward before being afforded the luxury of moving outward.
Space truck those tons of lunar dust north my friends. Dump it, resettle it, and come on back for more. Don’t worry about the path you’re leaving. We’ll fix that, too. Each step you take, you’re moving forward. This can’t be argued; process is progress.
And then, we can say we’ve done a good thing and go home satisfied.
THE COURT WILL NOW LISTEN TO THE OPPOSITION.
When I look at the moon, I see what people have been gazing at for centuries. And yes, it looks like a dead-on circle to me.
Is the moon damaged? Or is it just simply, the moon?
Why is it our responsibility to effect a change to it? What if our work causes unforeseen problems to it, and to the Earth?
The fact that we’re considering reshaping the moon is terrifying. The so-called imperfect egg creates lunar gravitation that has served Earth very well for its lifetime. If any of our adjustments to the moon happened to cause a change to our planet, there would be no undo button. We could not know if reverse adjustments could make things better or worse. We have no good experience in whole, sweeping unified changes to nature. Yet the discussion is before us, due to someone deciding an oval shape is inferior to a different kind of round.
The talk that all steps are progress, and that progress is inherently good, is childish and incomplete. Have you ever seen someone walking in the wrong direction? They are progressing in the wrong direction my friends, and so shall we, due to people who are not inclined to accept rough or cracked rocks. Why aren’t we polishing the Maine coast? Why aren’t we filling the Grand Canyon?
A crater-less lunar surface would increase the sun’s light reflection. What would be the effect on the millions of nocturnal animals who know only the natural way? Talk to the scientists, the opposition says. I would get a lesser assortment of answers by asking children.
There is one object that people have looked to, in universal wonder. It is hanging in the stars and has connected loved ones, living continents apart. The moon has been a unifying point for us to fix our eyes, to join us, and ease our loneliness.
That object is not broken, and should not be changed.
Our sole natural satellite has inspired the greatest songs, poems and writings the world has known. Not one of those works speaks of the flaws of the moon.
The moon is not the sand trap of space, to be raked smooth at any dent or fissure. The moon is not our sculpture, to form into a so-called normal shape that happens to be a current political party’s fancy.
We are told to get on board, or step aside. I would rather go to the tallest skyscraper, and throw the moon reshaping funds off the roof. At least in that way, the money would find its way to people in the street, who could no doubt put it to better use.
This debate hall will be demolished, with all of us long gone and buried, and the moon will eclipse us all, changed a bit each day but unchanging in its way.
The moon was created just right. Its system, shape, and means of absorbing violent strikes is perfection. Moonlight is the nighttime’s custodian of sunlight, its lumens determined by God and nothing else. The moon is ours to be inspired by, it is not ours to change.
Last year, in late February, I wrote the following piece. This occurred just before the nation-wide restrictions on nursing home visits. What you are about to read may never happen again, because people can’t freely visit nursing homes anymore. Let’s hope it changes.
From last year:
Last week, by accident, I made a new friend. She is one of the elderly residents at a local nursing home, and I happened to pass by her a few times. Each time I walked by, she smiled at me, as she sat in her wheelchair.
On my 5th pass I stopped to say hello. We talked for awhile, I asked her name and where she was from. She told me she had two sons, one was deceased and the other, she said, didn’t visit. Of course with the elderly their reality is their own story, which may be different than what’s really going on. I took her word for it.
Nursing homes are lonely places. I shook her hand and our ten minutes was the highlight of my day. I would like to see her again, hopefully tomorrow.
Here’s something I wrote for a photography exhibit. I’m posting it here, along with the picture that went with the words. I wrote this for a spot of grass, not an elderly person. But if you bear with me, and read it through, maybe you’ll feel like it could apply to my friend. Tell me what you think. Here it is, from MANHATTAN BEACH: 72 HOURS:
PLAIN GRASS. Somewhere near 11th Place, a resident had chosen to maintain a tiny spread of grass, where typically cactus or exotic flowers grew. The lot was about four by eight feet. The grass was free of weeds and was perfectly plain, growing long but not in need of a trim quite yet.
Underhand, she felt like a Golden Retriever’s coat, thick and orderly, demanding a careful touch and not minding a ten-minute stay. Let’s hear her voice. Here’s what she has to say:
“You walk by because I have nothing to interest you. If you’d stop, and sit, and give some attention, you would find so much more than you had passed by.
“As fate would have it, I can’t stop for you. I count on others to pause, and say hello, and put a hold on their world. It hardly ever happens, that’s the truth.
“Are there more interesting things in the world than I? Yes, there are. If you do what you do every day, you will never find the time to sit with me. There’s no justification for wasting your time; there will always be something more vivid, elsewhere, for you to seek.
“One day, you will make a mistake with your momentum and you’ll stop your world, and join me right where I sit. Before you realize I have very little to offer and you get up to move, think of this: You have something to offer me. And I do nothing all day but wait, for someone nice like yourself, to pay me a visit.”
The biggest movement is stopping. That was what I was thinking in regards to art, which is my life. Too many times, when I’m busy, pre-occupied, and simply being functional, I don’t stop from points A to B.
That is an art-less life.
Odd as it seems, moving is the easiest thing, when I’m being functional. Pausing to listen, lingering in front of a painting, halting for a hallway’s photograph, pulling over to watch ducks on the water—stopping can be the hardest thing to do.
Stopping costs you time. Stopping spreads your time. Inflates your space. Stopping where there’s no one else means you’re the one who has a chance to appreciate what’s in front of you!
Stop and look, before it’s gone. Stop and look, before you’re gone. Stop, before it changes. Take it in, and then maybe, you can tell someone about it.