I want to tell you about the kindness that can be found in the mayhem of little children. So often, we focus on extremes. We observe languidly and perk up only at peak behaviors, bad or beatific. We scorn bullying, scold brattiness, coo at sudden affections, and reward above average decency. There is so much of the in-between we miss. Children operate in roiling political cauldrons with rules that shift by the day or location. On a Saturday at the pool, shoving is allowed–and shouting and screeches and splash. However, on a Thursday during a couch-bound video game extravaganza, lower voices prevail and touching of any kind would be weird. Within these crazy-making waves of rules, children navigate, thrive, learn, and frolic, and the complex demands make it extremely tough for children to be any more than adequately kind. Some manage. Over the weekend, I saw a little boy in persistent pain and a double-leg cast share smiles and kisses with another toddler. The adults around melted, and it was extra cute, but most hadn’t remarked that the child had been calm, amenable, and smiley all afternoon, despite having a pretty crappy injury to bear. Another day, during pool time, a cousin and a little brother were towed about the deeper water by a patient big sister. Adults remarked on the girl’s maturity, and she deserved the compliment. Still, less recognized was the fact that these kids of disparate ages had spent most of the afternoon together, playing peacefully, looking out for one another. No one had throttled anybody. And another time, during a midnight game of capture the flag, three older boys gently drew to a younger one who was a bit downcast. They softened their words and brightened their faces and soon the sad was gone. The little boy was then up and in the fray, happy to be part of the pack. I beamed at this exchange, but then the evening’s string of events slowly rose in me. And I recognized this type of kindness, perhaps quieter, in a hundred moments of grunted congratulations, scooching over on the couch, and shared Cheetos.
I want to tell you about crab dip. Lately my caloric intake has been pretty minimal. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s probably right around 1700 a day. Sort of low. I’ve been trying to eat the same breakfast every day and the same lunch every day. I enjoy not thinking about it, so the meal is automatic and I don’t have to waste a lot of time with calculation and prep. And the few places I’ve been around the world, it seems to be the way that other people do it–rice soup in the morning or fish and noodles or cheese, salami, and bread. I don’t much like breakfast foods, but I got inspired at a diner when I saw they served a vegetable hash. Now, on Sundays make a giant cocotte stew of squash and beans and corn and tomatoes. When it’s done, I parse it out and to a half dozen plastic bins and I’ve got breakfast for the week. Some my friends find it vile, but it works for me. (And, my goodness, this is a boring post.) Lunch has the same daily rhythm, but more of a Mediterranean sensuousness. Raw. Crisp. Bright. Cucumbers and tomatoes, a hunk of cheese and a tiny corner of meat, all are arrayed on a cutting board with two crispbreads. This simplicity feels elegant and cosmo, and after four months I have come to crave it like a late night box of Mike & Ike’s. All of this Spartan cuisine releases the creative side of my cooking brain–and reserves a thousand spare calories–for the third meal of the day. There, I go wild: linguine with clam sauce, green curry with eggplant, or catfish potato crumble. And I can go out to eat, and wonder at surly, overburdened waiters, who reluctantly bring me Caipirinhas and the best crab dip I’ve ever had.
I want to tell you about seedy back stairways. Around one in the afternoon, on a day that wasn’t as hot as the ones before, but just as bright, the lunchtime traffic coming out of the strip malls and their sandwich shops made for a slow drive across the county. Slow was bad. Slow gave me time to think. I once heard that if you’re worried even a little bit about something that you should just let go, and follow your imagination into the worst possible scenario, allow it to build towards its nightmare conclusion. That way it’ll be easier to dismiss. But for me it’s never been the nightmare scenarios that bothered me: much worse are the thousand tiny indignities that I imagine are waiting for me. So what can go wrong at a tattoo parlor? I could feel totally out of place… The artist might think my design is silly… The price could be way out of my reach… The final art could look like crap… I could get an infection… I could lose my arm. All funny, all preposterous, but all nevertheless foamed through me like excess adrenaline. Didn’t make it any easier that the tattoo parlor is on the second floor of one of the only remaining two-story brick buildings in town. The structure is literally crumbling. There are missing bricks. The approach is intimidating: worn concrete steps and a wrought iron railing where the only paint remaining (green, over older red) is on the bottom of the bars. A gallows ascent. I climbed quickly and pushed open the soft and silent wood door. The receptionist, shoulder deep in display cases of ear, eyebrow, lip, tongue, navel, and unmentionable piercing studs, was a small and skinny bearded guy with long brown hair and welcoming eyes. His bright greeting was the same I might hear in an Apple store or a Starbucks. Millennials are so chipper. I told him what I wanted and he slid some portfolios across to me, so I could check out the work of the resident artists. They were full of skulls and angels and barbwire hearts. One of the portfolios had plenty of shoulder art and that’s where I want my tattoo and that would’ve been enough for me to go on, but she also included a headshot and it was a done deal. I am terribly shallow, and happy to admit that I favor pretty people. And then there she was, padding barefoot out of some secret door: 5’3″, sides of head shaved, the rest long and blonde, black jeans and tank top, ink everywhere, and oval green eyes. Smart and lucid, too, and incredibly receptive to my dumb idea. When I mentioned all the shoulder photos I’d seen in her work, she tugged down one of her tank top straps and showed me her decoration: A spiderweb in black about 14 or 15 inches across. I smiled because, fears faced, I had made it up the seedy stairs, and look what I had found.
I want to tell you about record shopping. Online, there’s Gemm and Amazon, and in the chain stores, BN has a rack of vinyl in the middle of all their CDs, and homophobic Urban Outfitters has wooden bins of LPs amidst all their hipster furnishings. The records you can buy from those purveyors are 180 gram hunky discs, reissued to capitalize on the music snobs’ quest for authenticity. But for street cred, I feel drawn to the two or three independent brick-and-mortar used record shops left in town. Even they are mainly peddling CDs these days–CDs and superciliousness and castigation. I mean, I love these stores, but I am so ignorant, my music appetites having been diffused by a steady diet of MP3s, fixing on singles instead of long play albums, and I am easily cowed by record stores. The one I found was one room, dark, low light, playing the Pixies–ironically I’m sure–and had maybe a half dozen men, heads bent, flicking the stacks. I was overwhelmed. I almost couldn’t start, and I was consciously nervous and calmed myself by staring at the walls, which were papered with cover art and rare posters. Lost there in graphic joy for a moment, I eventually found my breath and worked up the courage to begin. Letter P. Then, I sidled through to the end of the alphabet, then over to Funk, then Soul, then back to Rock A. Eventually I had seven LPs, totalling $150. With that sudden math, I gasped and began replacing records and headed out to my car, sort of ashamed at myself for having gone manic. It took my hours to forgive myself for such blatant consumerism, but eventually I came to battle that overreaction. My pendulum is fairly free-wheeling. That is why, late afternoon, once the thunderstorm had passed, I returned, balanced, stable, smiling, and dropped $30 bucks on Roxy Music and REM. My hypocricy knows no bounds, but in the end, I am at my best when I am an average of myself.
I want to talk about panicky transitions. In the bright hour of seven p.m., which should have been an evening hour save the sun kept it fixed to afternoon, it was 93 degrees. Open car windows managed to move air inside the tiny cockpit, but at stoplights the heat closed back around me like mummy wrappings. And I was in my underwear. Since four, I had been in a chilled graduate school classroom, wearing jeans and a button-down, filter-listening, skimming the rare cogent comments of classmates from the innumerable inanities and self-promotions. Mostly, I drew blue hearts in my notebook. There was a quiz, and I scored an orange, with a bit of green. (This will be the intellectual quality of my graduate education for the next two years.) Then, the students shut their laptops with soft, magnetic tocks, and under the cover of rising post-class chatter, I dashed to the parking lot and the heavy heat of seven p.m. In the car, I felt the hot air burrow into my nostrils and actually it was a comfort, a buffer against a small but rising panic. I had only a few minutes to get across town to yoga and I was about freak out about getting there late. It was evening yoga, focused and intense and silent. I could not arrive frenzied, and I could not arrive in pants. So, on steady, straight avenues, among the spotty traffic of afternoon/evening, I pulled off my pants in a moving car. And my shirt. Then, when I drove into the tangle of red stoplights, I caught each one. Hot and tardy and edgy and nearly-naked, I was at a complete stop alongside minivans and pizza deliveries and lazy police cruisers, and I discovered that I wasn’t breathing. So, I laughed, almost a choke. And I laughed again. And bowed my head in greeting to the cops. Namaste.
I want to tell you about adhesive removers. Look, I try to play it cool, line up my political signifiers just right, show the world I am evolved, that I reject avarice and the mainstream worship of possessions. I am a thoroughly modern overage hipster. And such a hypocrite. I confess. I love shiny things and I love to hold them and I would love to own them. I would be perfectly pleased with myself if I had all the things that I precisely shouldn’t want–Euro-tailored suits, a honeycomb of shoes, cable TV, ultra-modern, design-conscious furniture, and a Triumph. Especially a Triumph. To go with the brutish white ragtop Mustang, which I don’t have and also shouldn’t want. Instead, my car is tiny and fey, and I have been disloyal to it. It is scratched and sticky and the carpets crackle with spilled granola. Yesterday, I put in three hours cleaning it, which was a simple process of subtraction: subtracting crumbs from the carpets, subtracting dust and leaves and pollens from the dash, subtracting the smears of peanut butter and maple syrup from the windows, subtracting the yellow haze that had built up on the headlights. I had planned it for yesterday, both as a penance for the growing guilt of covering my car in a delta’s worth of driver sediment, and as a cleansing rite to welcome in the new summer. It was hot, even parked under a tree near the gas station’s vacuum, and I was soon working and hatless and then working and shirtless. The sweat emerged heavily and my glasses became more distraction than help, but layer after layer of car grime fell away. I filled with that buoyant neutral sensation that comes from being both proud and guilty, lifted and depressed, in balance, because of how good the car came to look and how long I had let it slide. The spray cans in my hand were fascinations, each chemical a solution to a problem of vinyl or cloth or glass. In the aisle of the auto parts store, five shelves of toxins promised restoration of cars neglected too long. In the heat of the afternoon, they beauty-saloned my well-venilated car, a high-end spa day on the cheap. The only disappointment was a promise too well met: the adhesive remover removed the adhesive on my dash along with several layers of surface, so that now there is a island of burn just above the center vents that catches the sun and reflects dully. Perhaps it is for the best: my car is shiny but scarred, a bit more proletarian, a bit more vintage and hipster, and I can sort of stand myself.
I want to tell you about a Sunday morning when the grass floats. The soil below was bloated and soft from ten thousand raindrops that landed heavily in a crushing after dark storm that had built slowly through the heat of the day. The noise of that storm was cotton stuffing in the ears, loud and near and collosal. It dampened all other sounds, and my guitar wouldn’t ring and my darling companion’s sweet narration of photo albums came through only as whispers. The rain didn’t stop until long past midnight. This morning I stayed to the sidewalks and left the grass free of my flip flop shortcuts. Each blade had gone from green to silver sparkling, countless water drop jewels glued to each one. I walked and felt the air as is should be, cool before sunrise, dry before the heat of midday pulls the water off the grass. I want to tell you that this mornng I was heading over to steal a newspaper from the door of an apartment I knew was unoccupied, and with this one trespass planned, I didn’t want to add to it with the trampling of rain-sogged grass. A stand of burly black mushrooms had burst up overnight on the edge of the concrete path, and they were ugly. A narrow arch of sun had just cleared the roof of the building behind me, and the mushrooms were already shrinking away from it, while the grass and saturated soil waited, a pot of water before gas ls lit. The newspaper was entirely disappointing.