"There's not much doubt in any of our minds that no complete idea springs fully formed from our brow,
needing only a handshake and a signature on the contract to send it off into the world to make twenty-five billion dollars.
The germ of the idea grows slowly..." - Walt Kelly

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Instructions for building a house

Painting by Ben Grasso
You build a house
with wood.
Self-explanatory, perhaps,
but who considers
a plank of wood
and what, exactly,
goes into it?
Each plank is
a decision, wrought
with knots in stomachs
and cold sweats
in frigid mid-December.
There are good decisions
(sturdy, glossy wood)
and bad ones
(rotten planks,
most probably the ones
a good contractor
will use in your basement).

You build a house
with stone.
Each rock is a gem,
hand-picked by
gentlemen with beards
named Larry and Pete.
In these stones
a steady hand might find
a rib of metal,
or two,
and you build a house
with this as well.
Craft a growling furnace,
a building's beating heart,
set the air warm
and watch Life go -
an inquisitive creature,
actions all founded
on curiosity.

Playing on Spotify at this very moment:
Dr. Dog, Lonesome

Friday, May 10, 2013

A person of a different size

This is a two-part post: part promotional and part actually doing what I'm supposed to do here (hint: writing). I saw a very funny off-Broadway show last weekend called 'Old Hats' and while I was at the theater I found something called the Storymatic. I'm giving it a shot here for the first time.

They started calling him "Andre" when he was in the sixth grade. He was larger than most sixth graders, and that trend continued as he got older. He never seemed to stop growing, until one day he did. That was the day he turned twenty-eight, and as a birthday present to himself, he drove to the tattoo parlor down Route 18 (it was called "Franz's") and got the name the children had for him permanently etched onto his skin. As tattoos often were, this would be a reminder of the difficulties he had overcome.

He had heard that it would hurt, and it certainly did, but it was worth it. Just a little more discomfort before you can really start enjoying life, he thought as he sat in the tattoo artist's chair. The artist, Franz himself, was silent as he worked, bobbing back and forth for different views of the nameplate he was imprinting onto the other man's arm.

Finally, it was over.

"All right, buddy," Franz said, rolling his chair back to the side of the room. "You're all set, man. Take a look."

He pointed to a mirror on the far wall. "Andre" walked over to it, but had to squat considerably in order to bring the tattoo into view of the glass. The words shone back at him like they were luminescent - some kind of farfetched species of fish in the deep black of his flesh. Trapped.

"I guess it's none of my business, man," the artist said, "but I don't know if I would be so public about it."

Turning from the mirror in a flash of newly-reddened skin, "Andre" fixed a puzzled look on the artist, who now sat slumping in some kind of uncomfortable-looking position on the counter along the wall of the room, wedged underneath a cabinet.

"Well, you know, whoever this Andre guy is, he must be pretty special to you," Franz said. "You know - like, really special."

He unhinged himself and hopped down from the counter.

"Can't say I agree with it, man. Not really my thing, if you know what I'm saying."

Despite the irritation the artist was causing, "Andre" did what he had learned to do a long time ago when faced with criticism. Keep silent. Unflinchingly, uncomfortably silent. He shook his head in frustration and straightened himself out, unleashing his full size upon the room. The artist took a step back, fearful for what retribution might be coming, but "Andre" only turned and walked out of the room, pausing only to drop the necessary cash on the counter as he passed by.

          *          *          *          *

Back home, "Andre" continued about his life, and for the next week he moved about with an increase in confidence. He felt himself opening up more at work, interacting more smoothly at the supermarket and not noticing the glances and stares that were directed his way.

One morning, though, all was not well. He sat down at the table, his breakfast in front of him and the scent of bacon still wafting throughout the kitchen. He flopped open the newspaper to the editorial section (the only one he ever read - he trusted opinions more than "objective" news) and ran through the headlines. He scanned over the letters to the editor, and one of them caught his eye.

"American values disintegrating at increased pace"

Though he valued opinions, "Andre" was not one for the fear-mongering and scare tactics at use in the modern discourse. Naturally this meant that he had to read the letter, and he did. In it, a concerned citizen mused on the decline of American society, remarking that same-sex marriage was chief among his concerns. "Andre" bristled. He did not appreciate such criticisms, but opinions were opinions. He kept reading.

"Why, just the other day," the letter said, "I had a man walk into my place of business and demand that I give him a tattoo of his lover's name. Andre, the name was. Now, I don't know Andre, and I don't know the gentleman who came into my store, either, but I can certainly tell you that whatever these two men are engaging in is a part of the problem in this country. I chose to live in ignorance, but now that it has been brought to my very direct attention, I don't believe I can continue to do so."

The letter was signed with one name. Franz.

"Andre" was furious. He felt his hands start to shake and the flimsy newsprint crumple in his intensifying grip. He rose from the table, his breakfast cooling by the minute, and walked to the closet. He donned his shoes and jacket and rushed out the door.

          *          *          *          *

Franz was at the computer when "Andre" arrived, checking to see if there were any comments in the online forums for his letter to the editor. He had hoped there would be a few angry readers - he enjoyed arguing more than most. But when the massive frame of "Andre" burst in the front door, all other thoughts vanished from his mind.

"He-hey man," Franz stuttered. "What's....um....what's up?"

He stumbled backwards against the front counter of the store, steadying himself with his elbows. "Andre" approached, looking as menacing as he could (which was not difficult) and placed a hand on the artist's shoulder.

"I read your letter this morning," he said, glaring. "I can't say that I appreciate what you did there."

"Hey man, hey," Franz panicked. "I didn't mean any disrespect to you or Andre, I promise."

The larger man rolled his eyes.

"There is no 'Andre,'" he said. "I got this tattoo to remind me of what the children used to call me when I was young. But now, I need you to remove it." He lowered his gaze and deepened his voice. "Now."

Franz squirmed under the considerable weight of the hand on his shoulder, sinking as he spoke.

"Well, you know, hey man, I'd love to help, I really would." He stopped, seemingly weighing his next words. "But, um, well - I can't do it, man."

The grip on his shoulder tighted.

"Hey, listen," Franz said. "I wish I could, but it's part of my thing, you know? I never go back on an ink, man, not ever. It's my art, man. You know?"

Disbelief swept across "Andre's" features.

"You mean to tell me," he said, "that you won't undo all the trouble you've now caused me just because of your stupid artistic integrity?"

Franz gulped.

"Yeah...yeah, man, pretty much."

"Andre" sighed in a deep, earthly breath. There was nothing more to be done here, then. He squeezed even harder on Franz's shoulder, causing the artist to writhe and give a squeak of pain.

"There's only one thing you need to know, then," he said.

Franz's eyes widened in terror, and beads of nervous sweat popped out on his forehead.

"What?" he asked, horrified of what the answer could be.

"My real name," the larger man said, "is Philip."

Playing on my iTunes at this very moment:
Common, The Food

Friday, May 3, 2013

The greatest lie

Painting by Joe Rea

In the language of the ancient Greeks he was the bringer of the dawn, the bright morning star that separated the heavens from the earth. For a long time, he was nameless, and that was the way he preferred it. He kept the headlines in front of him, and when he needed to speak, he spoke well, his syllables floating effortlessly as though they were filled with helium.

"Speak plain," he would ask of his constituents. "The road is paved with honesty and with simplicity. Any bumps we feel are as warnings that one among us has laid down a lie."

Skeptics fell before him as grass in an unending wind. He would dazzle them with tricks and illusions. He would cover the ugliness of the world as one would bandage a wound. It was something to behold, this chicanery.

I witnessed it once. We were out among the highest steps, a vantage for the ages, when he beckoned us to the edge and gestured our gazes out into the distance.

"Here," he spoke. One word, nothing more.

We were silent, waiting for something to appear or occur. He stood, his back to the horizon, cloudless and clean, and said nothing. His expression suggested that he was waiting for us to realize something. None of us did, and moments passed. Then, one of us, a troubled soul, stepped forward.

"It's a trick," the troubled one said. Confident, but not loud. "There was something there, but you've taken it. Haven't you? It's somewhere far from here, hiding where only you can find it."

The morning star smiled and shook his head, enjoying the confusion he had sown among us.

"No, my friend. It is here. It is always here. There is nothing up here you can take away - it is all permanent, parts of the scenery, so to speak. The only thing that changes here is what you see." He turned and spread his arms. "So, what do you see?"

The troubled soul gave him a doubting glance and stepped forward, focusing intently on the airy landscape before him. He spent several minutes that way, adjusting his stance, his vantage point, going from standing to crouching and back again. Murmurs spread through the crowd behind him, tiny whispers ("Do you see it?") and silent denials.

The bringer of the dawn stepped up beside the troubled soul and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"There is no shame in this," he said. "None at all. Do you think any of these beasts behind you would have better luck?"

"I don't know," the troubled soul said. Subdued now. Uncertainty tainting the tone of his voice. "It's just - it's just not there."

"You're right," the morning star said. His grip tightened. "In a sense."

He stepped away from the troubled soul and turned his back to the scenery once more.

"There is nothing here, friends." He placed his hands inside his pockets, feigning sheepishness. "I've lied to you. Perception is an untruth, a bump in the road. There is only what is and what is not. What gray do you see here, up in this world? What middle ground have we found? None. None, because have not built it."

He removed his hands from his pockets and gave a flourish, a magician standing before awestruck children. He wheeled around, his shoes grinding two half-moon shapes into the terrain beneath him. His back to us, he raised his hands high and out to the sides.

"My hopeful allies," he yelled, "I have built our middle ground."

His arms flashed to the side and he gripped something invisible. With a single motion, he tore the bandage from the wound and an enormous, cloak-like sheet came tumbling down from the background. Pale blue as the sky, it blanched as it fell to the ground, a pallid shroud.When we could tear our eyes from it, we looked up and saw, appearing in the sky, a single, tumultuous cloud. Its folds fell over one another, a mirror of the cloth that lay crumpled at our feet.

"So you see?" he said, triumphant. "What was not here now is. But what is it, really, besides a conjurer's trick?"

The troubled soul fell to his knees, choking sounds back into his throat.

"Enough," he cried. "There is nothing to this but madness!"

The morning star knelt beside him, stroking his shoulders.

"Fear not, my brother. There is no madness here. I said you were right, in a sense, and I meant it. It is a conjurer's trick, and I am only a conjurer."

He gave the troubled soul one last touch, then stood and walked to his creation.

"The truth is, this cloud does not exist," he said. "And neither do I."

He shook his head and laughed - a deep, horrible sound.

"So many bumps in the road."

Playing on my iTunes at this very moment:
St. Vincent, Just the Same But Brand New