Monday, May 4, 2015

excerpt from Knees

The first time we see someone is the only time we actually see them. It’s our single opportunity to perceive a person as an image, a shape in the world, a set of visual data with no context or meaning. We perceive them as tall or short, ugly or handsome, and though we see a face, there is something uncanny about how its components don’t seem to quite fit together, at first: mouth and eyes and nose and ears seen in rapid succession, but separately, mentally catalogued as pieces of a whole. People are for those first few moments of interaction a collection of features and movements and gesticulations forming rapidly into meaning, into something we can understand. And that is the key difference – we stop seeing people, and we start understanding them.

Over time, people will become uglier to us, or more beautiful. The size we understand them to occupy in a room changes. We see them wearing, in addition to clothes and hairstyles, attitudes and beliefs and dispositions. Our eyes are still at work, but then so is the lens of our understanding, and our understanding is that person’s relationship to ourselves. We see them in terms of distance – physical and emotional – and we understand that ultimately they exist either outside of ourselves or in a space in which we also occupy, two bodies overlapping like a Venn diagram. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


I spent two hours this morning on Facebook, looking at pictures of people I went to high school with. I feel compelled to explain that this was made possible by a massive group list of invitees to my 10 year reunion, that this wasn't two hours spent skulking stalkerisly, but two hours of moderately-committed browsing. Think of me less as the man in a black sweatshirt darting lawn-to-lawn and peering through windows, and more the guy kicking back poolside and scrolling through his cell phone.

It's incredible seeing the difference 10 years make. I can only imagine what this will be like after 20, or (knock on wood) 30 years. Some of us have grown beards. Others have gone goth, metro, cowboy. Most of the men who stayed in California have bulked up considerably; some of them have even managed to stay in shape.  Our faces are the same faces, adorned with different hair cuts and outfits and spouses and children and lifestyles. All of us look older. 

I won't be attending my 10 year high school reunion because I've only just moved to the UK, though I do find myself wondering if I would be attending if that weren't the case. I think the answer is no. There is already too much quiet panic simply sitting here in my flat, flipping through this combination Rolodex-Time-Machine, simultaneously experiencing what feels like both memory and future, somehow.

Yours truly on the right, high school edition

It seems to me that for almost every person, attending your high school reunion must be a psychic tug-of-war between observing what people have become and wondering what their impressions of what you have become might be. And I can't help but wonder if it's actually something buried beneath the skin of that dynamic, something simpler and more solipsistic: I wonder if maybe we are unsure of who we have become ourselves. I wonder if we flip through photos and attend 10 year reunions because we require some sort of general calibration to understand who we are 10 years into adulthood. 

This may not be true for everyone, but if I'm honest, this is true for me. I search the faces of people I haven't seen for 10 years for glimpses of my own reflection. I feel like a man who has somehow forgotten what he looks like. After two hours of this exercise I land back on a picture of myself and I wonder - how much have I aged, exactly? How do I measure the silver in my hair? How far from my bones hangs my skin? What are the new trimmings around the recognizable core of my face that I have somehow learned not to see over these last 3,650 days? 

The people from my class have migrated to sundry careers and livelihoods. We are assistant managers at local car dealerships. We are buyers for Target. Some of us have become, inexplicably, bona fide ranch hands. And all of this, as dizzying as it seems, is the easy stuff. It's the stuff that you can measure and understand, somehow. What someone looks like. Where they work. How many kids they have, and with whom.

But the thing you can't measure, and I think the thing that terrifies me most about walking through those doors, is how you've aged and grown emotionally, intellectually, and morally. You know, all that cheap, flimsy plastic "who-you-are-as-a-person" bullshit. What terrifies me specifically is that I do believe I've grown in all of these ways (I've quit drinking, I've entered a long-term partnership, I've committed to loving and doing right by my peers and friends and family), I believe I've grown in all these ways but I'm terrified that it's not actually true. 

I think it's easy to be someone new in a new place, with new people. People who haven't seen you drunkenly take out your anger and frustration on your best friend. People who didn't watch you blunder from one fuck-up to the next for four years. People who haven't observed you at your most soulless and truly vacant. I think we live in the lie that the person we are is the person we are right now, currently, in this moment and over the past few weeks or months or years. But in truth, I fear the person we are is who we have been, at each and every moment until now. I fear that we are the litany of ourselves. 

I do think people change, and that people can improve. But maybe we don't change or improve as much as we think we do, or as much as we need to believe we have in order to make it through each day. Maybe the person who we actually are is like that ever-recognizable aspect of our face: slightly saggier, puffier, done up in more makeup or bordered by more gray hair, but unchanging in some essential way that is hardwired into the human brain. And you can almost imagine it jumping out at you, after those first few steps into a dark room done up with streamers and half-full helium balloons, a room of muffled music and heavy heat; you can imagine that core aspect of yourself searing like a light bulb in the darkness, transforming you from a stranger into someone that has always and will always be known.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The man with the torn iris

I work with a man with a torn iris, in his right eye. The iris of the left eye is normal, perfectly round, a full stop swollen in a pool of lunar blue. But the iris of the right eye is torn straight down the center, as if a small knife had been inserted into the pupil and dragged down to where the azure meets sclera.

I am entranced by this tear in his iris, even though I know it's impolite to stare. In conversation I make full, panic-inducing eye contact, and I wonder if this is rude. The eyes are where you anchor your gaze so as not to stare at cold sores, cleavage, and scars. Where are you supposed to look when the eye itself is disfigured?

Every day, I wonder how it happened. I imagine a chilly schoolyard under a sky the color of old socks, the clatter of two boys dueling with sticks. I imagine the sharp end of a twig striking just so, the shrieking and then the two boys going pale at the sight of blood and what looks like uncooked egg whites. I imagine instead a rock fight, a capricious neighborhood cat, a night of too much teenage drinking. I do not imagine for a moment a child born with this eye. The tear is too jagged, too much like the edge of a torn aluminum can. It has too much of this world in it.

The tear is like a castle window where the wall below has been kicked in, by time and by trespassers climbing through in the dead of night, to drink beer and laugh and shatter brown glass against the old stone walls. The iris is the color of shallow tropical water, of a tide pool. And somehow the pupil opens into the tear like a maw beneath the surface, an impossible cave the depths of which are death-black and unreal.

And it is perhaps the blackness of the eye behind the tear that is the most unsettling, the blackness into which light pours and lands against cones and rods and retina and undergoes its transformation into meaning. And as I hold my breath and stare into the eyes of the man of the torn iris, I wonder: does he see more, or less?

Friday, April 10, 2015

On loneliness

I've been living in the UK for a total of 17 days now, and I think it's fair to say that as much as I'm enjoying my time here, I'm a tad bit lonely. I don't want to overdo it, and I certainly don't want to sound dramatic. If I did want to sound dramatic, I'd say that realizing it's only been 17 days feels a little bit crushing, like stepping with your full weight on an empty aluminum can is a little bit crushing.

At the same time, I'm lucky to feel this lonely, because I realize that I haven't felt lonely in a very long time. For the last three years, I've (more or less) lived with my fiance, whose company I don't think I could have really appreciated until now. Absence, it turns out, does make the heart grow fonder.

Absence also encourages you to slip on your diet and eat tortellini three nights a week, to default to a pentalogy of sloppy t-shirts, to stay in on evenings when you should really be out there, soaking in the fresh night air and absorbing the culture like a six-dollar roll of paper towels.

Absence, contrary to what I imagined, isn't a cut-out of a person. It's not a human-shaped void on the opposite end of the couch. Absence is a miasma, a film that lightly coats the surface of everything in your day. It's a little less color in a photograph. It's slightly shittier resolution on your TV. Absence is subtle, but it's fucking pervasive.

Previously, I've characterized love as the realization that a certain person makes your life better than it would be without them. Love is that realization, and the work that goes into maintaining that relationship because - whether you're happy or sad or getting along  or fighting until you're blue in the face - your lives are more rich and full with that person in your life than without them. I've been fortunate enough these last few years to enjoy an abundance of love. Love from my partner, from my family, from some very special friends.

I still love these people, and they still love me. But we're at such a distance that for most of these past 17 days, we haven't actually been in each other's lives. It's like belonging to a cell phone plan but being just out of range of service. You find yourself checking constantly  for a signal and cozying up to weird corners of your apartment in the hope that something faint might come through. Sometimes it does, and the faces of the people you love most crackle through the screen and you hear their voice and their problems and its good to be together again, if only for a few minutes.

And sometimes nothing comes through, and it feels as if you are bobbing in the middle of a large, black ocean.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Cinema, and other terms

I went to the movies with folks from work this week, only they didn't refer to it as the movies but as the cinema. And after contemplating this difference long enough and thinking of the theater as the cinema myself, I had to admit that going to the movies started to sound a little funny: it sounds like something a fast-talking, 1920s Hollywood producer would say.

The Electric Cinema, supposedly the oldest theater in Birmingham.

Tasya suggested I write up a blog post on the difference between the British cinema and American movies, but it turns out I don't actually have much to report. We went to a small art house theater (which I understand isn't really indicative of most British theaters) and watched a private screening of The Goonies. Long story, don't ask.

Instead, I figured I'd share a few other British terms I've picked up over the last couple weeks. I've actually decided against validating any of these on online, so do let me know if I've got any of them wrong. Also, I'm going to assume that readers are fairly familiar with the most obvious British terms (the boot & loo, telly, windscreen, etc. being the kinds of examples I'm thinking of here) and won't bother with them here.

Pavement - What the British call the sidewalk. As far as I can tell, no one in Britain uses the term "sidewalk."

Quid - Slang for a (Great British) pound, the equivalent of how an American might refer to the dollar as a "buck."

Squid -
A five-pound note.

Taking the piss (out of someone) - Giving someone a hard time.

Pudding - Any kind of dessert. This actually clarifies a line in Pink Floyd's The Wall for me, though I'm a little disappointed the kid wasn't necessarily eating an actual pudding cup, which is what I've always imagined.

Biscuit - A cookie or a cracker. This is especially weird because there are a surprising number of KFCs in England, and from what I understand, none of them have traditional American biscuits. Something about that just seems wrong.

Jelly - Referring to gelatin, like Jell-O. I think this is why most Brits generally find the idea of a PB&J revolting.

A full stop - English term for a period (in punctuation).

Nipping off (to nip) - To do something quickly. As in "I'm going to nip off to the loo right quick" or someone nipping between lanes in traffic.

Cheers - I initially thought this was an alternative for "thank you" but I've heard people say "Thank you, cheers" on multiple occasions now. It's kind of like a hybrid of "thank you" & "goodbye." I don't think there's a proper alternative for this in the US.

Rubbish - Saying something's no good. In America folks will sometimes call something "trash," but calling something rubbish in England seems to be way less critical. Then again it just might be the accent making people sound nicer than they are.

Shit(e) - Also saying something's no good, and again seemingly less pejorative than saying this in America. The context I heard this in was at a pub where someone was wanted a cigarette but had quit. He sad, and I quote: "Nah, I used to smoke 'em, back before my life was shite." He was piss drunk and Irish and I liked the cut of his jib quite a lot, actually.

Also, I met someone this week for whom the term "Time to shit or get off the pot" was completely novel, which makes me suspect this is a decidedly American phrase. I'm not sure if that's due to the fact that it's especially vulgar or especially direct, but I do like to think that it's American because of both these things.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Hailing from the United Kingdom: Initial Anecdotes

Before moving to the UK, I promised myself and others I'd keep an informal blog going detailing my trip. I'm now four days in and I figure I should make good on that promise. I've been putting it off so far for two reasons: A chronicle of my journey to the UK seems rather egocentric and mundane (because we live in an  age in which traversing continents in mundane), and I've actually been documenting little snippets on Instagram after caving to the years-old social media tool that I suspect is already becoming outmoded.

The square in the center of Nottingham. 

So for both of these reasons, I've decided to largely excise the more boring details of my trip (the eight hour flight next to the man who looked like an Indian mash up between Patton Oswald and a business-suit-wearing teddy bear; and the four hour layover in Amsterdam where I managed to sleep for 30 minutes spooning not one but two metal arm rests of a deserted airport bench); I've decided to excise these details and share just a few anecdotes that have stuck with me from this past week.

Anecdote #1, or, For my fellow Americans who have also not had to put a 6-gear car into reverse before
I picked up my rental car at the Birmingham airport. I'm blanking on the make and model, suffice it to say it's a bright red miniature diesel SUV with a total of six quiet gears. Upon picking up the car, I more or less hadn't slept for a good 22 hours or so, making my 80-minute drive to Nottingham something of a dangerous journey.

Finally, I wound my way into Nottingham, which sat like a maze of old-and-new architecture below iron gray clouds and a faint but fat rainbow. Relieved to be off the freeway, I pulled my vehicle over and parked behind a black hatchback. It took all of thirty seconds to realize that I still had several hundred feet to go before reaching my apartment, and so I put the car into what I thought was reverse but was actually first, and my acceleration nudged me one foot closer to the hatchback. I studied the clutch to ensure I was reading it correctly, and yes, reverse was shown as being in the same direction as first gear, only further out. So I gave it another go and came just short of kissing bumpers with the next car up.

At this point, exhausted and a bit loopy, I stepped outside of the car for a bit of ice-cold air and weighed my options. As far as I could see it, sleeping in the car for a few hours and hoping the hatchback was gone when I woke seemed my best bet. It was then that two blonde girls sporting cigarettes and thick lipstick materialized near the hatchback and, relieved, I gave them a big Yankee smile. They gave faint smiles back, but by the time they finished their cigarettes and climbed into their hatchback, it was fairly obvious I'd creeped them out considerably.

And yes, I have since figured out how to put my clutch into reverse.

Anecdote #2, or, Details of my apartment
I'm staying in temporary housing in the town of Nottingham, in the Eastern Midlands of England. My apartment is fairly nice - I have a fridge, freezer, full bathroom, bedroom, and washer and drier. My washer and drier is an two-in-one unit and is located in the kitchen, which means it washes very little laundry at one time and is about as effective at drying my clothes as it is at fixing a Sunday roast. One of the oddities of British apartments is that all of my appliances have their own wall switches, meaning that my stove, fridge, washing machine etc. won't work unless the wall switch is turned on. This is also true for my bathroom fan, which looks to be about 50 years old and is labeled by its wall switch, menacingly, as "ISOLATOR." It growls like a V8 and has the throbbing red eye of a Cylon.

The fire blanket of unknown efficacy.

Probably my favorite feature of my apartment though is the Fire Blanket. This is a substitute for the apartment-sized fire extinguishers that I've ever owned, and I assume that the idea is that if a kitchen fire breaks out, you simply smother it with the blanket. I haven't taken the Fire Blanket out of its casing - I'm paranoid it'll switch some sort of building-wide fire alarm or something - and I honestly have no idea if it would be more or less effective than a traditional fire extinguisher. Still, I can't help but imagine an English mother tucking in her darling little English fire to bed with his favorite blanket and wishing him goodnight.

Anecdote #3, or, Not really an anecdote but a note about the bells
As I write this, I hear the bells chime the hour from the market square. They're about ten minutes off, but the bells are heavy and deep and beautiful and I love them more than anything else here so far.

Anecdote #4, or, On using the term "period"
I signed up for a bank account yesterday which was full too many weird moments to document here without going (even more so) overly long. The strangest moment came when I was attempting to recite my email address, which starts with "mr.", which I described as "M-R-period," to which I received a very strange look indeed. It took a couple back and forths to realize that what I was describing is called, in England, "a full stop." Though I didn't confirm it, I have a sneaking suspicion that the term "period" is used primarily to describe notable eras and menstruation.

Anecdote #5, or, A reason to go to the mall
The last thing I'd like to share is that the Victoria Mall, which is maybe a 10-15 minute walk from my apartment, has on its second floor an open air market. Here you can find produce vendors, butchers, and hawkers of inexpensive soft service ice cream. It's a far cry from what I'm used to in American - and especially Californian - malls, but I find it delightful. It provides a compelling reason to thrust yourself into the throbbing artery of commerce each day or two, and also, who doesn't like taking home fruits in waxy brown paper sacks?

One of the stalls at the Victoria Market Centre.

In the back of the market is a little all-day breakfast diner called 'The Frothy Coffee." It served probably one of the more disappointing English Breakfasts I've had so far (the "toast" was cold white bread skinned with a bit of margarine). The titular Frothy Coffee, however, was divine in that particular way only certain cheap fares can be. A frothy coffee is is simply freshly steamed milk poured over a tablespoon of dehydrated French Roast, and is one pound per cup. It is warm and smooth and has that burned nicotine flavor of Folders, and throughout the Frothy Coffee, you can spot tables full of couples over sixty holding tired looking shopping sacks and wearing beige foam mustaches.

Next to the bells from the market square, its one of my favorite details of Nottingham so far.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Moist Towelettes

There is something obscene about Moist Towelettes. The way they quiver when held, the faint chemical smell of lemon that wafts from their folds when unfurled. An open Moist Towelette diaphanous like a square of rotting flesh held before a lamp. That something so damp and easily torn dwells inside that hard little square of waterproof plastic packaging.

Moist Towelettes are horrific: Moist Towlettes too-wet and oozing in a clenched fist; crumpled and smeared with barbecue sauce and assorted condiments; strewn like snake moltings in grass overgrown. Moist Towlettes disintegrating into dust long after their one-time use in Post-Apocalyptia, coveted by those survivors who sustain themselves by finger-scooping baked beans out of tin cans torn open with pickaxes and pliers.

They travel through time and space like astronauts tucked into rocket ship. Safe against all probability, their fragility concealed. Hurtling through emptiness until the hull is ripped apart, dumb fleshy tentacles reaching in. Exposed to air, worthless the moment they're used.