Peach-grey Formica Table

I came over one afternoon.
You invited me there
On a handmade painted card
Written from afar;
That winter when I was in Indiana
And you had gone back to Arizona.
I sat in your second hand kitchen chair
And played with the spoon
In your crusty sugar bowl.
I sat there at your peach-grey
Formica table and watched you
Boil water for Ramen noodles.
You wore a gauzy slip.
I watched your legs move
Against the sheer fabric
As you walked barefoot across
The checkered linoleum floor.
I watched your artist’s hands,
And your rough,
Crooked fingers as you
Poured me coffee from
A tin pot.
You were older than me

And sweeter.

You were tender

And stupid
To trust me,
A youth with no edges,
A lover today, perhaps,
Tomorrow a bumbling drunk
With a switch blade heart—
Bound to do damage.
Our days began there
At your peach-grey
Formica table.
And it ended at the foot
Of your bed with you in tears
And me stealing away
Into the night
Like a criminal
Pulling my coat around me
And stepping into the
Bitter streets of
Missoula, Montana.

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47

I sat in the small room in the front of our house and sipped my coffee in the early morning light.  The room itself was small and bright.  We had recently bought new furniture for the space and it was quaint and comfortable.  A thin Martha Stewart Christmas tree still stood and twinkled in the corner of the room near my chair.  I fondled a copy of Swann’s Way I had pulled from the mailbox just a few minutes prior.  I had forgotten I had ordered it.

I sat with the book and felt it.  I do this with books.  I fondle them, stroke them, thumb through their pages.  I put my nose to them and smell them.  Some are sharp.  Others have the vaguest reminiscence of perfume upon them.  This copy of Proust was scattered through with some student’s notes; a terrible spidery hand which I could not read without my glasses– and perhaps not even with them.  The notes only went to page one hundred or thereabouts, so I naturally assumed the reader never finished the work.  I also began to wonder whether I would finish it either.  I would at least, I assured myself, go further than she had.  (I had determined the handwriting was that of a woman.)  I felt suddenly a sort of literary competitiveness to at least go beyond this woman’s meager effort.  She was a lightweight, I fancied.  And I suddenly looked upon her notes with disdain.  Why should I bother to take note of her?  The lines she had drawn, and the circles around Proust’s words began to irritate me.

I laid the book on the coffee table and was suddenly overcome by a terrible sense of emptiness, as if all things had suddenly disconnected from me, as though I were some astronaut set adrift from his vessel.  I sat and felt this all-consuming loneliness, so much so that it seemed to me just the opposite, a sort of burgeoning everythingness, as if I were some solitary antenna absorbing the beginnings of time and space and matter in waves of what was clearly nothing and everything at the same time.  I thought about others in the house and it was clear to me that they were all strangers, that I was a stranger, that Proust was some dead lout vibrating in the room like a phantasm.  And I was a tender, flesh-wrapped receiving dish.

I sat there like this for only a short while then quickly got to my feet.  I filled my coffee cup and went up to my study where I am presently writing these very words; my own fragile signal projected out to the void.  Nature, I have heard, abhors a vacuum.

 

47

The guitar has been a constant companion in my life since I was 17 years old.  Now, I own 7 guitars, a mandolin, and am contemplating the purchase of a ukulele.  No man needs this many guitars of course, but the guitarist who has played for thirty years is bound to pick up a few—and lose a few—along the way.

Guitar players fall into several categories.  The first is what I call the Guitar Hopist.  The Hopist is a person who purchases a guitar, plucks about on it for a month or so, realizes that it is much harder than anyone led him to believe, and then puts the instrument aside with the hope that he will someday magically gain the ability to play it, perhaps via osmosis, or by listening to enough Beatles records that he will just wake up one day to discover he can suddenly, without any practicing, play like George Harrison.

The Hopist never gets rid of his guitar.  The Hopist’s guitar hangs on a wall, perhaps, or is propped in a corner of his bedroom.  Perhaps it resides in some closet or attic.  It is never removed entirely from the house.  The guitar, for the Hopist, is a symbol more than an actual musical instrument.  It is a symbol of creativity or freedom or cool or a future in which he envisions himself finally having the time to really devote to the instrument.  The Hopist is a miserable liar and is to be despised, like anyone whose mind is filled with hope but no action.  Hope without action is as useless as prayer without god.

The second category is the Strummer.  This individual learns to strum a few chords and sings.  He is mostly harmless, that is until he finds a captive audience, then he can be downright malicious and should be avoided.  The best way to avoid the Strummer is to pretend you have to go to the bathroom between songs and then never come back.  The Strummer is ubiquitous, mostly found in coffee shops, local bars, and neighborhood parks.  The Strummer is not despicable really.  He is more of a pathetic sort.  A man with dreams to be like his heroes, John Lennon, John Denver, Bob Dylan, or Cat Stevens, or in the case of the female Strummer; Melissa Etheridge, Joni Mitchell, or Ani DiFranco.  Most guitarists start out in this category.  Only a few move on to the next.

The third category is the Musician.  This guitarist has gotten good enough with the instrument that he has had some paying gigs.  He has written a few tunes.  He shows some promise.  But the world is ultimately a cruel place.  It chews up and spits out Musicians with promise like a hayseed chews up and spits out sunflower shells.  As rejects of the music world, these guitarists can wind up in many places.  Local cover bands, recording studios (often as sound engineers), school music rooms, or—the worst possible location for them—the guitar store—sometimes as private guitar teachers for scabby prepubescent boys with braces and rich parents. The music store is by far the worst fate for a Musician.  It is a half world, a world of crushed dreams, broken hearts, and perhaps a bit too much weed.  You can recognize the guitar store Musician immediately.  He usually sports some sort of ridiculous hairdo—envision a style that is one part MacGyver and one part Joey Ramone—and vaguely resembles (because, again, the world is unkind) Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.  He has not made up his mind if he is a guitarist or a salesman.  He hates sales.  He hates other guitarists.  He hates himself.  He hates music stores.  And most likely, he hates you.

If he has sense, the Musician avoids all of these bad ends by simply staying home, building a little workable studio in his house, and recording songs for his cats and his friends on Facebook whom he hopes will give him at least 5-10 likes per song.  This Musician is mostly harmless.  Pathetic, but harmless.  This is about where I fit in.

The last category is the Professional, or the Virtuoso.  I admire these folks.  I aspire to be one, but I, like the Hopist, doubt I will ever apply myself enough to achieve it.  To be a virtuoso at anything requires a singular dedication, a nearly insane level of focus and discipline.  A little raw talent doesn’t hurt either.  And I had (and have) none of these things.

Playing the guitar was always work for me.  I worked and worked at the instrument.  Eventually of course, things became more natural, but in the beginning years, my friends and family mostly hated me.  I played the same chords over and over again, and these I played badly, with buzzing strings, flat thuds, and tortured notes.  I played the same songs.  I plucked the same stupid tablature to songs every beginning guitarist must learn.  I traded in one guitar for another, certain that a new guitar would make me a better guitarist.  It never did.

Eventually I taught myself how to read music and began playing classical guitar pieces.  This is where my knowledge really began to grow.  I came to appreciate guys like Francisco Tarrega, Isaac Albeniz, and Napoleon Coste.

And though I never played Bach or Weiss with brilliance, it was enough that I could play them with mellifluous mediocrity.  In this way the guitar became a constant in my life.  I loved the smell of the spruce and the mahogany.  I loved the feel of the ebony fret board.  I loved the guitar’s shape, like a woman—a real woman who knows a few things.  I loved the sound.  I have studied left hand techniques; fretting, arpeggios, and scales.  Today I have begun honing my right hand technique—the last frontier for the guitarist, really, amid many other subtle “fine tunes” he must make if he wishes to really improve.

The guitar, like so many instruments, presents an illusion.  The true instrument is not made of wood or bone or nylon.  These are simply outward manifestations—the housing for the equal and necessary dimension—the dimension of nothingness that we mostly ignore when we think of the guitar, or for that matter, the trombone or the piano.  We must be careful not to focus on one thing at the expense of seeing other things.  If we focus our attention on the right hand, we forget the left.  If we focus on the strings, we forget the wood.  If we focus on the wood, we miss the space the wood contains.  And without the chamber housed by the wooden walls, what would the guitar be?  A guitar is simply the body where sound resides, and from which music springs.  But the music is not the guitar.  Nor is it the empty space within.  It is a relationship between the space and the matter, between something and nothing.  The wood and the space are both necessary, just as the air, the ear, the nerves, and the mind are necessary.  Without even one of these components, the whole affair breaks down.

David Regan, a ceramics teacher of mine many years ago, was constantly amused by the ways in which the thrown vessel controlled him.  “It is not,” he said, “solely an artist pushing a shape into life.  It is the unmolded clay that pushes the artist as well.  Just as a cup full of hot tea controls the drinker.”  Just as the guitar controls the musician.  Decisions are made, but what inspires the decisions?  Does the gradually emerging form inform the artist, or does the artist inform the form?  If you can split this question in half, you are a sage beyond my understanding.

20

“Why are you taking that damned thing?” asked Steve.

I stared into the trunk of my Ford Escort.  It was crowded, but I didn’t care.  “It’s my guitar,” I answered.

“Fuck, Fan Roy.  Your car’s too small for all this shit.”

Fan Roy was the nickname my neighborhood buddies had applied to me.  I had no idea why.  I would later come to hate the name as a pejorative, but whether it existed as a pejorative in the minds of my friends or not, I do not know to this day.  It may have been that the name was simply given to me playfully.  It could be that all nicknames carry with them an implied pejorative meaning.  After all, it takes a certain bravado to apply a nickname to another person in place of the name given to them by their parents.  It is as if a man is saying, I know you and think so little of you, that I am certain I can now call you Sparky instead of Leonard, or Mutton Chops instead of Alfred P. Cathwald.  Or perhaps it was just my own insecurities of the time and I would have felt belittled even if they had called me ‘Atlas’.  I don’t know.

“You could drive,” I ventured.

Steve Trisler glared at me.  He didn’t have a car.  His dad had given the three boys a piece of shit Firebird that sagged at both ends like a Claes Oldenburg hamburger on wheels.  Their other car was a Chevy Chevette.  There was no point saying more about this particular car.  It was fine where it was, out by the tree stumps and the collapsing shed.

Steve was bitter in other ways too.  His younger brother, Brian, had gone off to Columbia.  His older brother had been accepted at West Point.  Steve had wanted to go to West Point too, but his grades and his athletic ability hadn’t cut the proverbial mustard.  So, he was with me and Mark Mouser heading to Florida for a spring break none of our friends were attending because they were all in college.  I didn’t feel too bad about this, really.  Mark Mouser had never given college much thought, so far as I knew.  But Steve—Steve still burned with the need to achieve and get somewhere.

Steve Trisler’s family was full of hyper-competitive people.  His father had been a professional baseball player.  His mother was a hard-core, driven business woman, as white and Republican as Nancy Reagan’s underwear.  All three brothers had swum on swim teams their entire lives, getting up at 4:30 in the morning to practice and then practicing after school until 5 or 6.  They were driven.  His oldest brother, Mike, had nearly made the Olympics and would later go on to be a Hollywood stuntman who also did the Ironman competition for fun.  Living next door to these guys was exhausting.  I couldn’t imagine being one of them—let alone being the least successful of them.  The inward recrimination must have been intolerable.

The three brothers fought like wild savages.  They would burst out of their front door, fly through our yard, and land in the grass pummeling the living shit out of each other.  Steve always got the worst of these exchanges, but it became apparent to me, after several of these incidents, that winning fist fights was not really his goal.  Being the least athletic of the bunch, Steve had invented his own method of winning—primarily, being such a prick that eventually people around him lost their shit and wanted to beat him to death.  He reveled in this.  He was a living Loki.  He was a man who loved to be hated.  If he could make you react violently, with hate and malice in the core of your being, he was, by contrast, the happiest man on earth.  This was the way he won. And he was really—stupendously—good at it.

Every night we would play basketball on the street between our two houses.  One day we chose up teams and Steve’s brothers didn’t pick him and told him he couldn’t play.  Steve at first seemed fine with this.  We went on with our game as if nothing had happened, as if we had not just snubbed Beelzebub himself, but we should have known.  We should have known that one does not spurn Moriarty.  One does not shun the devil.

Ten minutes later, Steve emerged from his garage like Smaug from his lair.  He mounted his bike and rode, with a gay smile on his face—as if he were having a Sunday trip through the countryside—directly to the basketball court and began riding circles through our play area, indiscriminately running into anyone and everyone.

“Get out of here!” said Mike.

“Just riding my bike,” said Steve.

I said nothing.  I was a scrawny little dude who knew better than to pick fights with anyone on a swim team—on a croquet team, for that matter.

“Get the fuck off the court, asshole!” yelled Brian.

“Come on, man,” moaned Mark Mouser.

“Just goin’ for a little bike ride,” said Steve.  “Nothing wrong with that.  It’s a free country.”

I have often noticed that people refer to the freedoms of our country either right before or right after being a total assface to the community at large.

Steve ran over his brother, Brian’s, foot.  Brian shoved Steve.  Steve did another circle.  Mike threw the basketball at Steve’s head.  The ball glanced off his back and bounced away.

“Get the fuck out of here!” cried Mike, shoving Steve so hard that he wrecked his bike onto the pavement.  Then it happened.  The fists flew.  Blood emerged.  Bruises appeared.  And when it was over, Steve walked back to his house with his head held high, like Loki being fed his own shit and glorying in it.  He had been beaten utterly, but somehow he managed to walk away a winner.  And somehow we all knew it.

This was the guy I had invited to come with us on spring break.  It was going to be a long trip.

20

We arrived at the hospital around midnight.  There was a strange antiseptic smell in the E.R. and a curious assortment of characters.  There was a man who looked vaguely as if he had been living under a bridge.  A woman waiting for her son who had broken his arm.  And one sheriff with an inmate in an orange jumpsuit.  The inmate was cuffed and shackled around his ankles.  I did not know why he was there.

We stepped up to the check in desk.  A woman was there in light blue scrubs.  She wrote down my information and what my symptoms were.  We then went to the waiting room and sat.  I was not nervous.  No one seemed overly alarmed.  I was twenty years old and looked healthy enough.

I watched the others then thumbed through a magazine.  After about fifteen minutes a nurse came out and addressed me.

“Mark van Dyk?”

“Yes.”

“This way.”

We followed her to a room with curtains for walls.  They drew the curtains and had me undress and put on a flimsy gown.  After some talk, a blood pressure check, and a pulse check, they decided to test me further.

“We’re ordering an EKG and an ECG,” said the emergency room doctor.  “It’s just a precaution.  Your symptoms are a bit puzzling.  You’re twenty and so heart problems would be rare, but we want to be certain.”

I nodded.

My mother looked at me and then nodded to the doctor.

Another nurse came in several minutes later and put a needle into my hand.  She taped the needle down then attached the protruding tube to an I.V. bag.  Some time later another nurse came in with a razor.  “Please slide your robe down,” she said.  “We’re going to attach sensors to your skin, but we need to remove a bit of your chest hair first so the electric pads can touch your skin better.”

“Okay,” I said.  I hadn’t had chest hair for very long, but there was enough to be a bother for her, I supposed.

The nurse shaved several patches clean.  Minutes later a technician rolled a rather ordinary looking machine into the room.  They hooked electrodes up to my body and then left.  The machine drew lines much like a seismograph.  I watched.

There was a certain blandness about the whole affair.  It was not as if I expected rushing doctors and scurrying nurses as you might see on the television, but the whole thing just seemed hollow, even boring.  The hospital was a place of nervous waiting.  So much nothing between moments of terror and needles.

After some time the nurses returned.  They pulled the electrodes off.  They left.  And then I waited again.

Nearly half an hour passed.  I watched my heart beat on the monitor.  I watched my heart’s pace fluctuate from 80-90 beats per minute.  I fiddled with things.  I watched the man in the orange jump suit from time to time.

Then, the ER doctor returned with his clipboard.  “How are you feeling?”

“Okay, I guess,” I said.

“We’d like to keep you overnight.  The EKG gave uncertain results, and given that it was chest pain, we’d just like to be safe.”

“Okay,” I shrugged.

Mom looked at me.  “Well, they’ll admit you now.  I’ll stay until you get into a room then I might as well go home and get some rest.”

“Sure,” I said.  It wasn’t like I was dying.

47

The beech tree is a peculiar tree that proliferates Indiana forests.  The tree is widespread throughout most of the eastern United States.  It is a hard wood, deciduous tree that grows rather slowly, though it can live over three hundred years.  Young beech trees anywhere from three to fifteen feet tall are odd in that they do not completely lose their leaves in the fall.  The leaves become dry and very pale yellow, but they do not fall to the ground until they are replaced in the spring.  This is most observable in November or December when one heads to the forest and sees hundreds of ten foot tall trees all with their pale dead leaves fluttering in the breeze.

The beech tree at one time was so hard it was often left standing and was not used as a resource.  With the advent of modern machinery, however, now beech trees are used for flooring, containers, and so on.

Beech trees are smooth and silvery grey.  Their barks are unique in this way.  Kids and lovers often used to carve their initials into beech trees.  Over the years the slits spread out making the carved letters appear like “bubble script” on the trunk.  I am not so sure, with the advent of Facebook and Instagram, if this is still held in fashion.

In the Indiana forests, only the sycamore possesses a smoother and brighter outward appearance, being itself white as its old bark flakes off.

Beech trees grow sometimes as large as 150 feet and can spread terrifically, creating immense shade.  As the tree grows older, its inner core begins to rot out.  Many beech trees can be seen to have hollow and accessible innards even while remaining outwardly healthy.  Animals, of course are fond of this.  In addition, squirrels, raccoons, and opossums eat their small nuts, cased within shells no bigger than a man’s thumbnail.  These shells possess pointy little barbs and are not enjoyable to step on with bare feet in September.

We had many beech trees in my yard as a boy.  We also had many large old oaks.  But the largest beech tree in our yard was my favorite.  It stood as a constant reminder to me of the awesomeness of nature, its ability to dwarf mankind.  Its quiet, tremendous strength.  Its shade.  And its emptiness.  As a young man I was keenly aware of how useless the beech tree was to man, and this somehow pleased me.  It was as if the beech had figured out a way to be tremendous and useless all at the same time, a sort of middle finger to the human world.

Humans always find a way though, I suppose.  That great, towering beech in my side yard is gone now, though it looms large in my memory.  It was a friend.  I say this without the least trace of nostalgia.  The tree was alive.  It was ever present.  It drew children to it, challenged us to dream of climbing it (though we never could), and changed the very nature of the world it inhabited.  Grass would not grow under it, much to my father’s consternation.  Its shade and roots allowed for no gardens.  It reigned supreme.  And when my friends would come over to play D&D and we decided to sleep outside in a tent and play all night, under which tree did we decide to camp?  Of course, the beech tree.  There was no other tree, as grey and empty and useless as it was, it was the king and three hundred year old grandfather of the entire neighborhood, and it was the heart of my childhood.

15

Grimhelm hunkered down behind the shattered remnants of the cathedral wall.  His men were scattered around him, their backs up against pews and overturned wardrobes.  Alphonse the Gnome sat beneath a great marble altar and scratched images in the dust with a bent candle snuffer.

“Hell,” said Grimhelm, turning back to the others.  “There’s just one of him up there, right?”

“Aye, sir,” said Tho’ef, a bowman of Elven descent.  “It’s just one.  Troonankhset is alone in that tower.”

“Son of a bitch,” said the knight.  “We can’t get within a hundred yards!”

The old wizard, Thumedan, with scrapes on his face and blood running down his cheek, looked at his younger brother then turned to the cavalier.  “Perhaps this is simply not our day?” he suggested.

Grimhelm frowned.  “Say again?”

Thumedan lowered his head, not wishing to respond.  He blotted the blood on his cheek with his robe.

“I think,” said his brother, Madlawakanahgy, “what Thumedan means is that perhaps there is another way—on another day—when we’re more prepared.”

Grimhelm shook his head.  “Nonsense,” he said.  “We’ve finally gotten one of Komaaks’s henchmen alone.  We’ve worked months for this opportunity.  We’ll never get another shot like this.”

Nepankhra (his friends called him Max, for reasons unexplained) tried not to let the dismay in his heart show on his face as he addressed his commander.  “The worst is yet to come,” he said, his voice low.  “We haven’t seen the depth of his power yet.”  Nepankhra, being also from the land of Khemt, knew this all too well.  He understood the priests of Set and their deadly snake cult.

Gunnthryd squeezed the handle of his sword.  “I don’t care whether he can summon his foul god here before us right here and now.  We’ll send them both to the underworld!”

Grimhelm smiled.  “Now there’s a man of the Silver Tree.  Blast it all, men.  I say we charge in at once, confuse him with surprise and numbers!”

“How did I know he was going to say that?” mumbled Alphonse.  “Have you got another plan?”

Grimhelm was not pleased at the attitude or the insubordination in his ranks.  “All plans boil down to the same thing.  Us charging in.”

Thumedan rousted himself from the floor.  “At least, for the love of all that’s holy, let the men of magical proclivities take the flanks as you men charge ahead.  I can’t weather another of these assaults.  My head is ringing and my left leg may be broken.  Dash yourselves to pieces on his mace, but leave the infirm to die quieter deaths.”

Grimhelm scowled.  “Fine.  Shall I note your cowardice on your gravestone?”

Thumedan rolled his eyes.  “I’m heading north.  Ahgy, head south.  We’ll turn eastward after a block.  Max, are you up for an assault or will you flank with us?”

“I’m spent already.  I have no more prayers left to offer.  I’ll join the others.”

“Alphonse?”

The gnome shrugged.  “Charging is a good simple plan.  I’m familiar with it.”

“And Gunnthryd is with Grimhelm,” Thumedan concluded.  “Tho’ef?”

“I’ll position myself high up.  I should be able to reach him from a hundred yards or so.”  He knocked an arrow to his bow.

“Good, good,” said Grimhelm.  “That’s all settled.  Now then!”  He stood up tall.  “With me!!!”

And with that he slammed the temple door open and ran into the street.  Gunnthryd and Max were just behind him.

“Gods save them!” Thumedan cursed.  “We’re not in position yet, you idiots!”

13

“Does god know everything that goes on?” asked Ben.

“Everything,” answered Mr. Johnson.

“So, is he in charge of it all?” asked Eric.  “I mean, does he really make everything happen?”

“Everything happens because of god’s will,” said Mr. Johnson.  “Right.”

I listened from across the room.  Our tables were set up as a sort of square so that we were all roughly facing each other.  Mr. Johnson’s desk was situated near one of the corners.  He sat in a chair close to Lisa Klebenow (the same Lisa Klebenow who tattled on me for everything from drawing in class to cheating on confirmation tests) and fielded questions from his 8th graders in religion class.

“So, he makes it rain and even sometimes, like, kills people?” asked Lisa.

“I wouldn’t say he kills people,” said Mr. Johnson.  “Events might kill people.  Other people might kill people.  God cares for everyone.  People die, of course, but remember that man was supposed to die because of the original sin.”

“But he did destroy Sodom and Gomorrah,” said Peter.

“Yes, but remember, god was unhappy with the way they had lived their lives.  They had sinned in many different ways,” said Mr. Johnson.  “When we sin and disobey god, and we don’t ask for forgiveness, when we aren’t repentant, we are doomed.”

The class grew quiet.

“God has a lot of responsibilities,” said Lisa.  “Lots of decisions to make, doesn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Johnson.  “He sure does.”

“Yeah,” the others nodded.

“I wouldn’t want his job,” said Lisa.  “Who would want to be god?”

“That’s a good observation,” said Mr. Johnson.  “Really—who would want that?”

“I wouldn’t,” said Richard.

“I wouldn’t,” said Mary.

“Me either,” said Alec.

Nearly everyone chimed in with the same answer.  No one wanted the job.  No one wanted to be god.

I was alone, sitting far off.  I didn’t answer.  I thought about it.  I thought about the omnipotence, the omniscience, the smiting, the obedience, the disobedience, the punishment, turning people into salt, flooding the earth, leveling cities, sending locust plagues.  I thought about never dying, singing angels, constant worship, and being able to basically do anything I wanted.  I didn’t really see a down side.  I’d take the job, I thought.  Being god would be okay by me.

I didn’t say this out loud, of course.  No one sane said these things out loud.  I’d seen T.V. enough to know that.  I was pretty sure my classmates suspected I was nuts anyway.  There was no need to utterly convince them.

And so I sat and pondered my godhood in silence.  I created new animals, monsters, and demons and populated the earth with them.  I made demons eat Lisa Klebenow, in my mind.  I created lakes of boiling fire and refrigerators full of ice cream just for me.  I made it so my sister couldn’t open that refrigerator door!  No one could.  I ate ice cream sandwiches all day and finally had my own Atari that I could play all by myself in my even bigger bedroom.

I looked upon my creation, and it was good.

47

Memory is a tricky thing.  Memory is a collection of beliefs, misrememberances, visions, false thoughts, true thoughts, dreams, and emotions.  Memory is a random assortment—a patchwork of feelings and words and images that are accessed via biochemical processes and fed back to other parts of the brain responsible for interpretation and processing of these thoughts, feelings, and images—often in relation to other thoughts and feelings that have been stored and compartmentalized.  The brain, if it is good for anything, is magnificent at creating patterns and connections—whether real or imagined—and then providing us with what we might call a world—or a worldview—a collection of beliefs we have formulated by thinking further about the thoughts we have amassed in our noodle.

This reflective part of our grey matter might be called consciousness.  We are aware of the world.  We can symbolize it via abstract constructs.  And we are aware that we have thoughts which we can likewise symbolize into recognizable patterns, patterns mostly in the form of language.

What is most interesting to me, however, is that if we look closely at ourselves and the way our own minds work, I believe[1] this thinking about thinking, or “metacognition” reveals a certain peculiar tendency which we all seem to share.  That is, the idea that memories are memories.  As far as our understanding of reality is concerned, it doesn’t really matter if our memories are completely false.  It doesn’t matter whether we truly had the experiences or not.  It doesn’t matter whether we imagined them, fooled ourselves into believing something different, or just remembered things incorrectly.  The memories are still just memories.  False memories, as far as our brains are concerned, are just as real and useful/harmful as true memories (if such a thing even exists).

For instance, it makes no difference, as far as your view of the world is concerned, if you believe in your heart you kissed that girl in third grade and she loved it.  Perhaps you simply thought about this scenario so much that it took root in your mind as a memory, complete with romantic music.  It doesn’t matter, as far as your mind is concerned, if the actual event was that you tried to kiss her, she didn’t notice, and you thumped your own nose into the side of her head.  Your imagined, more pleasant, scenario became so real for you that—it supplanted “reality” and became itself your experience.

This phenomenon is experienced also by patients and therapists.  A patient seeking psychological counseling can become convinced of sexual molestation or other such debilitating events in their past simply by being influenced by the therapist via suggestion—whether intentional or not.  The patient can become so convinced of the reality of these memories that law suits are begun, families destroyed, and reputations injured.  And the mind is fine with all of this.  Memories are memories.

As negative as these tendencies may at first appear, I believe there are ways in which this may be used as a positive influence in our lives.  For instance, imagine that you are a fifteen year old boy.  You are riddled with self-doubt and paranoia, so much so that it is like a demon inside you clawing at your every interaction, your every hope, your every design for life.  Now, imagine that you have an opportunity to pretend to be something other than this.

Carl Jung was convinced that when young children played and imagined themselves to be witches or knights in the act of play, that they were in fact witches and knights.  Meaning that the division between reality and play was nearly indistinguishable.  This delusion is so powerful within children—ask any parent or school teacher who has the occasion to observe the playground—that interrupting it with issues of the mundane world are positively jarring for the child.  After all, witches don’t particularly like being told in the midst of conjuring some horrible devilment that they have to stop and take a bath.  A witch in this condition may very well turn you into a spotted toad.  Knights don’t care to come in for supper and clean their rooms, either.  Such disrespect for the knight’s quest may place you upon the business end of a lance.

Now, suppose this anxious, self-doubting, fifteen year old boy has an outlet for this very same world of pretend.  Suppose, despite his culture’s frowning upon such pretend at such an age, that he is able to immerse himself in a world of fantasy so real and powerful that he becomes the knight again, just as he did when he was five.  Suppose that as a result of this pretend, played with other boys who are likewise pretending, that he begins to form memories of his character, this grande knight who is full of confidence and promise, who smites enemies with relish, who charges into battle no matter the consequences.  Imagine these memories taking root.  Imagine them, over the years, taking on the same character and living in the same neighborhood of his grey matter as any other memories he’s had.  In no time at all, memories of himself as a knight move into the same space in his mind as memories of wetting his pants in first grade.  Memories of derring-do cozy up to the beatings he received as a child.  Memories of slaying dragons reside hand-in-hand with the memories of being laughed at by girls he tried to kiss and bumped with his nose instead.

Over time, what does this do for the boy?  Over time, does it matter if being a knight was real or not, if the result was that he became more chivalrous in the “real world”?   In all my forty-seven years, I have never once been able to distinguish the real world from any other.  This world, Inzeladun, Middle Earth, Pelucidar, and Narnia have always occupied the same place.  They have all resided within the empty space between my two ears.  And as such, I have always been god over them all.  I am Jesus, Buddha, Aragorn, Grimhelm, and Satan himself, and the world, so far as I am concerned, is a playground wherein I can be or become any fucking thing I want—without ever leaving my doorstep.

[1] I have not read anything about this, though I suppose studies might have been done.  This is merely my own hypothesis, and I have no scientific method for backing it up beyond my own observations.  Thus, this is purely a philosophical claim.

20

It was March, 1990.  I was looking forward to spring break.  I had dropped out of college the year before and I had some time off from my job as a flight attendant.  My friend Mark Mouser and another neighborhood friend, Steve Trisler, were going to come with me to Daytona Beach, Florida.

I woke, got dressed, and had a bowl of cereal.  My father was away.  My mother was in town on some errand or other.  I went out to the driveway and walked to my car.  I always parked in the same place, near a middle aged beech tree that I had run into with my Chevy Vega station wagon just a few years before.  Because of this (and a wealth of childhood experiences near the tree) I felt the beech and I had a special relationship.  It had taught me the valuable lesson that one may back out of a space and still sideswipe a tree with the front end of a car.  I had taught it… well, that it was tougher than anything Chevy could make in 1976.  The Vega bore that wound until the grave.

My current car was a two door tan Ford Escort.  As far as cars went, it was reliable and slightly more attractive than the Vega, though it was not going to win any speed competitions either.  I opened the hatch-style trunk then went back into the house to retrieve my pack, my sleeping bag, and my guitar.  I didn’t go anywhere without my guitar.  It was a total piece of crap and I could only play seven or eight chords, but it had accompanied me to Vincennes University, flight attendant training, Holland, France, and England.  It had a hole in one of its sides from a luggage mishap when I had once been forced to check it.  The front soundboard was cracked to hell—had been from the day my dad had bought it for me.  The action was too high and murdered my fingertips.  It was not so much a guitar as a device of torture.  But I loved it.  I would play it for hours—until my fingers turned bright red and I couldn’t do it anymore.

I closed the trunk and sat down on the rear bumper.  Mouser wouldn’t be awake right away.  Steve—why had I invited Steve?  He’d be up whenever.  I could wait.  We were the only three boys left in the neighborhood.  Steve’s brothers had gone to school—West Point and Columbia.  Mouser (I called him Mouser, since he shared my first name) was not college bound.  His brothers and sisters had all moved out and gone on to other things.  He was the youngest of five.  I had dropped out of flight school after my first year and gotten a job as a flight attendant.  My dad had gotten me the job.  He was an airline pilot.  He flew the L-1011.  I didn’t know how much longer I would do it.  I was an alien there.  I was an alien everywhere, really.  The only friend I’d ever had who I never felt uncomfortable around, Vincent Darlage, was gone and not coming.  It wasn’t his sort of gig anyway.  He was into Star Trek and AD&D.  So was I.  Mouser and Steve weren’t into these things, though, and Vince wouldn’t have fitted in well.  You had to be careful who you took on a road trip.  Or, that’s what I used to think anyway.  I used to be careful about who I hung out with and how certain friends weren’t supposed to meet certain friends.  My “cool” friend weren’t supposed to meet my “D&D” friends.  Somehow, I felt it would be embarrassing for me on both sides.  I was easily embarrassed in those days, I guess.  I longed to be cavalier.  I longed to be a pirate or a knight.  I longed to be able to truly say that I didn’t give two fucks for what others thought of me.  But I did.  And until I was truly able to say “I don’t give two fucks”, I practiced and pretended to be the man who could in a world called Inzeladun within a game called Dungeons and Dragons.  Which I played religiously for hours and hours.  With Vince, my inestimable Dungeon Master.