Faces

“However close, the distance between perceptions is always greater than zero. Communication inevitably gaps as even the ‘clearest’ messages filter through each unique consciousness…” [show more]

However close, the distance between perceptions is always greater than zero. Communication inevitably gaps as even the “clearest” messages filter through each unique consciousness.

A film critic scoffs at his cohost, who could not possibly have watched the same movie. A group of smart alecks light up next to a huge no-smoking sign. Someone finally kisses their crush, who totally recoils—mortified—having assumed the deal was platonic.

From time to time, an alternative or outright mis-interpretation can be more rewarding than the intended idea. Robert Frost’s famously chosen road is an inspirational act of courage to risk-taking go-getters everywhere—until we learn that he meant all paths are equal, including the beaten ones.

“Sing-in’ whoo!” is an uptempo 1980 soul lyric by Tavasco that, for years, I heard as, “Sanguine moves! Whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo-WHOO-hoo!!” While it makes way more sense as a flashy ballad about finally surrendering to groovy, sweet love, I much prefer my version, where a funk-tastic serial killer disco-liciously celebrates how he gets away with it all! 

And breakfast has never been so profound ever since that lady on the news saw God in a slice of bread. “Would you like white, wheat, or Jesus toast with your omelet?” 

The trouble arises when truth matters most. A misheard song is a fun mistake, but skewed viewpoints on who won the election and whether or not we’re changing our climate into a microwave are misconceptions that lead to fascism and skin cancer.

So brace yourself, America, for some sanguine moves… because fact and opinion make perilous synonyms.

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“Currently”
“Whatever the setting, our mind is rarely there…” [show more]

Whatever the setting, our mind is rarely there. Instead, we alternate between past and future.

Still pissed about yesterday’s argument, planning tomorrow’s comeback. Scrolling Instagram while someone’s talking. Cursing myself during a recital for the flubbed C-sharp two measures ago, then tensing in anticipation of the next difficult note. On Monday morning, mourning the loss of the weekend, already yearning for the next.

The trouble with dwelling in other times and places is that it’s always right here, right now.

And now it’s now.

Now, now is now.

The two-ton vehicle you’re operating while mentally relitigating that fight is fast approaching a crowded intersection! The conversation to which you’re half-paying attention could be the last you’ll ever have with that person. Hanging onto mistakes only ensures more and more and more of them. And all those Mondays we wish away are days we’ll never get back, sunrises to long for on our deathbed.

Being out of the moment means missing out on our lives, like facing away from the movie.

So, turn around!

Slow. Down.

Watch closely…

Process each and every frame until you meld with the scene.

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“Trick or Truth”
“So many phantom roadblocks discouraging our way forward…” [show more]

Being a horror fan, it’s only natural my favorite holiday is Halloween, the season of chilly breezes, longer nights, personified gourds, gory movie marathons, and pop-up funhouses. Most of the gimmicks they terrorized us with at those attractions are a blurred memory, except for the fake—but very loud and vibrating—chainsaws they wielded one year during a hayride!

And another, subtler moment in an exit crawlspace at the end of a haunted house. In the dark on hands and knees, I waited for the dude in front of me to shuffle ahead so the whole line of us could leave, attitudes behind me growing as restless as mine. Eventually, the final actor-ghoul had to peek inside and encourage this guy to move along. I remember hearing, “It’s cool man, just keep going!” as I likewise thought, Yeah, what the hell? Move your ass!

It took an excruciating half-minute more of this to realize I was the one holding everything back. Hanging down in front of me was some tattered plastic debris the crew had fastened to the ceiling of the shaft for one last touch of gloom before departure, which to my confused eyesight became a paralyzing obstacle. There was nothing more blocking the path than an illusion, my own presumptive hallucination.

It’s the same the other 364 days of the year: so many phantom roadblocks discouraging our way forward.

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“Drowning Matt”
“In trying to win the moment, I almost lost our lives…” [show more]

Summers in the 80s were spent at my grandad’s condo in Bradenton, Florida. Right on Sarasota Bay, it was a great place to retire but dull as Wite-Out for a pre-internet middle schooler with no driver’s license and too much spare time.

Which is why I was so excited to invite my friend Matt down for a week. We were in homeroom, gym, and math together, lived in adjacent neighborhoods, and already had a number of uneventful sleepovers, so it was an easy permission slip from his folks, though it would end up being way more dangerous than any field trip. 

We weren’t even fully unpacked when we grabbed swimsuits and hustled over to the pool with a manic urgency only kids can produce. In the sunny, unsupervised water, our excitement shifted seamlessly into sarcasm, insults escalated to splash fighting, splashing to wrestling, and grappling to near murder.

I can’t even remember what it was—an accidental elbow to my neck, the intensifying feedback loop of wills, maybe some oxygen deprivation—but I crossed over into a primordial survival space where it wasn’t me anymore. Just animal rage personified as it held a dear friend underwater with gritted teeth and a pure commitment to annihilate.

Matt thrashed violently below the surface… until he didn’t.

His lack of resistance broke the hateful spell, and quicker than our horseplay had risen to violence, my determination melted down to horrified regret, like falling off a mountain. Thank the universe, my frenemy finally emerged puffy and exhausted but alive enough to join me in the most awkward silence of all time.

In trying to win the moment, I almost lost our lives.

I consider myself an exceedingly compassionate soul, the guy who always roots for the underdog and literally helps sure-to-be-stepped-on worms off a waterlogged sidewalk. I feel “bad” for the last slice of pizza. To think that I nearly ended someone makes me fear for us all! If a total softie can see such red, what of the world’s leaders with worse weapons than water and more to lose than face in a splash contest?

Or maybe that’s all it ever is, no matter the shouting match, brawl, or all-out world war: a moment of petty masculinity exploded to savage catastrophe.

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“Shakespeare in the Shitter”
“I’m a connoisseur of men’s room graffiti. One of the best parts of going out, really….” [show more]

I’m a connoisseur of men’s room graffiti. One of the best parts of going out, really. That cryptic, inside ridicule that only comes from drunken lack of censorship. The grammatically incorrect hubris over the reader’s phallic inferiority. And most of all, a calling out of all our moms.

I especially love the dialogues unfolded over months and years, each contribution in a new font, like a pre-internet chat thread on who’s doing what to whom (and their mom). Everything so concise due to pressures of time and smell. Obnoxious, hurried haikus.

Does any of this happen in the women’s room?

You can gauge the level of a place by its patrons’ messaging. I’d much rather hang out in the joint featuring “Mary Poopins,” “The Logfather,” and “Forrest Dump” than the one stating, “Seth rulez and wuz here.” (I’ve heard some really nice places don’t even have anything scribbled on the walls.)

People want to express themselves and, given a venue, they will. Now that we’ve all got one in the palm of our hand, I miss the days when you had to venture out to a restaurant, bar, or club and then answer nature’s call to happen upon the random tabloid musings of anonymous America, akin to finding a coin on the beach.

With so many walls on which to incessantly post, the virtual world has turned that beach coin to hot sand in our shoe and sent the quality of our collective discourse straight down your grandmother’s moldy butt crack.

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“Screenlocked”
“After months in quarantine, we’re burned-out blue from more screen light than sun…” [show more]

Before COVID-19, we were in an awful hurry to digitize every relationship. Texts replaced talking, kids faced a computer more than their teacher, and love was reduced to an algorithm.

After months in quarantine, we’re burned-out blue from more screen light than sun. Demoralized by login errors and connection failures. Alienated by a grid of familiar faces we can see but not touch.

Pay attention to these feelings. Sit with them. Let it all sink in. 

Because now is our century’s chance to rethink this virtual wish come true.

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“Fatherhood”
“Flash is not a pet and not just a cat. He’s a person, and he’s my son…” [show more]

Flash is not a pet and not just a cat. He’s a person, and he’s my son.

As with many parents, we adopted because we wanted a family that we couldn’t make from scratch, and someone out there needed one.

That first night was a marathon of tense uncertainty. Lots of pacing, crying, and questioning if it was a good fit.

A year later, we’re all resting easy. He recognizes that, while we don’t look like him, we are his tribe (though his dad also wears black all the time). Through us, he’s learned that the world is loving, life is beautiful, and people are cats too.

Like any adolescent boy, he plays ball, fights with his tortoiseshell sister, and has assigned chores, which in his case is to patrol all corners and crevices for any trespassing flies or spider crickets unaware of the new sheriff in town. We keep count of his apprehensions on a chalkboard in the kitchen. He’s up to twelve this week.

Now Flash isn’t going to university or continuing anyone’s family name, but nurturing that sleekishly effervescent lifeforce to its full cuckoo-bananas potential is legacy enough for us.

And who knows: in a karmic future life, maybe he shepherds us to safety, takes care of the litter boxes, and celebrates our fleeting-but-brilliant starlight.

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“Unmasked”
“Such a fragile superpower, after all…” [show more]

The deadliest pandemic in a century, and half the country won’t wear a face covering in some perverted twist on American exceptionalism.

As the cloth comes off, our collective character is revealed: the nation that weathered The Great Depression and then buried the Nazis currently worships a fascist while throwing petulant temper tantrums over following temporary hygiene protocols.

Such a fragile superpower, after all. 

America unmasked.

Where will we go from here, now that we have seen ourselves?

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“Underdog Rising”
“Fortune is cruelly compassionate…” [show more]

Fortune is cruelly compassionate. Over there, someone is born into the lowliest caste of untouchables, forever relegated to the bottom regardless of personal potential. Over here, a talentless trust-fund recipient rises to prominence for doing nothing in particular.

Someplace between lies existential justice. In this space, the daughter of an immigrant day laborer finishes school and builds a great business. A barefoot toddler on a dirt-and-rubble field kicks his way to the World Cup. The oldest, ugliest mongrel at the kill shelter gets adopted.

We need these righteous success stories to balance out the Anne Franks and Kim Kardashians of the world. To remind us that life is fair sometimes. 

And that it’s worth sticking around to see how it all ends up.

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“Enjoying Thy Blow job”
“His Highness—entirely preoccupied with his own runaway gluttony—climaxes in pandemonium…” [show more]

A leader inspires a movement; a king colonizes.

Then, as the aristocracy drains and guzzles the life blood of its people, the leader builds up the masses by enabling their potential.

And when society is equitable and self-sustaining at last, that leader will fade gracefully into the background, while His Highness—entirely preoccupied with his own runaway gluttony—climaxes in pandemonium.

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“In a Good Place”
“Members of an easy club, postponing tomorrow until closing time…” [show more]

Is it close by? Walkable if happy hour gets hysterical?

How’s the lighting? What’s playing over the sound system?

Is the staff glad to see you (even when they’re not)?

What’s on draft? Do they mix them strong? Are their wings any good?

It’s important to find a regular place. That coveted third space apart from the job and home where you can be still, catch a buzz, and pass some slow, simple time in a bubble of atmospheric community.

For some, it’s pint-fueled commiseration in a dank, dark pub. For others, uplifting cocktails in a glass café.

Wherever it is, when you connect with souls who’ve adopted the same venue, you bond through that beloved geography. Sometimes with characters you couldn’t stand in a meeting, subway, or checkout line.

Members of an easy club, postponing tomorrow until closing time.

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“In the Moodlight”
“Because living in grayscale inspires a less colorful existence…” [show more]

Atmosphere is everything. The psychological medium in which all situations unfold. The difference between loving and leaving a party. Passing or failing the test. Between that first kiss and another hug.

And nothing affects atmosphere so much as lighting. Stick employees under fluorescent tubes, and they’re reduced to serial numbers who dread every task. The same job near a sunny window is instantly more tolerable, more humane. Deep-red lava lamps move me to smoke a flower. Switch to blacklight, and chewing a mushroom’s more like it.

Ambience is an underutilized variable in our daily life—such a simple, overlooked way of elevating the mundane. Give it a try. Put a strobe in the shower. Hang a disco ball over your desk. Leave the string of Christmas blinkers up. Get your glasses rainbow tinted.

Because living in grayscale inspires a less colorful existence.

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“Hounded”
“Is it any wonder I’m a cat person after such a Pavlovian history?” [show more]

JR was my uncle’s Dachshund, an adorable little brown hot dog—who bit me on the mouth. At just four years of age, that was to be my first of many unfortunate canine encounters.

A high-school friend’s West Highland White Terrier, Rudy, would go one hundred percent berserk when I came over. If we wanted to hang out there, her parents had to physically restrain Rudy—an otherwise lovely animal—until we escaped to the basement rec room. Even then, he would pace and snarl along the other side of the door for the entire visit, and remember: dog time is seven times ours, so that pooch had some committed animosity for me.

During college, there was Cinnamon. Such a sweet name for such a sweet-looking white-and-copper Spaniel. An interesting case, this one. She would bare teeth when I tried to leave! It got so that her owner had to create a diversion while I ran for the exit. On lucky occasions where I found her asleep, I would tiptoe past to the front door like an escaping prisoner shuffling around a tired but vicious guard. Named Cinnamon.

Is it any wonder I’m a cat person after such a Pavlovian history?

There have been exceptions, I admit. Lily, my aunt’s Beagle-Pointer mix, is as amiable and chill as they come. A colleague has a Basset Hound named Emmylou who just wants to flop near me and score a treat once in a while. I also have an unlikely fascination with Neapolitan Mastiffs because their faces look like drawn curtains of pure droop. Even met one called Blue in a pet store. Despite his murderous gargoyle likeness, he simply lacked the energy to give a shit. Only six months old, and it still took all his effort just to sit there and drool. It was kind of Zen.

That said, maybe it’s time to reexamine my aversion. If some are OK, couldn’t any of them be a Lily, an Emmylou, or a Blue under different circumstances? Not knowing better as a kindergartener, I did in fact get down on the floor and touch my nose to JR’s before he tried to eat my lips. And Rudy probably wanted to kill me because I arrived in an overwhelming Halloween costume our first meeting. Still trying to figure out what was up Cinnamon’s ass, but it could have been my tension, my own aura of mistrust triggering a negative feedback loop.

The way people’s reactions range from ugly to uplifting depending on my approach.

We get what we give in this circular life.

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“Slumberland”
“Another chance to kill our nightmares and give life to our dreams…” [show more]

Daily, we straddle the cosmic threshold in a ritual near-death experience. Under covers, behind eyelids, we tempt fate, suspend consciousness, and trust an alarm to bring us out rejuvenated.

The moments leading to sleep are pure potential energy, a wheel at the crest of a hill, teetering on the cusp of this and another dimension.

In the best of times, the transition is an effortless surrender to psychic gravity. At the most inopportune—the night before a double shift or a long drive with children—it’s holistic constipation as your entire being insomniatically strains toward anesthesia, unable to let go and pass over, and you roll over and over, afraid of tomorrow, afraid of no tomorrow…

Either way, tomorrow becomes today: another chance to kill our nightmares and give life to our dreams.

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“Committed”
“Byberry was a notorious psychiatric hospital in northeast Philadelphia from 1907 to 1990…” [show more]

Byberry was a notorious psychiatric hospital in northeast Philadelphia from 1907 to 1990. Its fifty buildings housed seven thousand of the city’s mentally challenged to criminally insane. For much of the century, it more resembled a concentration camp with patients abused and exploited, huddled naked in crap-smeared corridors, having teeth extracted without Novocaine—the kind of hell the staff should go to Hell for. At last, budget cuts and a series of appalling inspections shut it down.

For the next decade-and-a-half, Byberry would become an abandoned post-apocalyptic playground for looters, gangs, and dark tourists. My friends and I were among the earliest wave of trespassers, high-schoolers from nearby Bucks County armed with a crowbar and flashlights, maneuvering past the on-duty cop to get inside. There was still wax on the floors. Wheelchairs. A straightjacket. Boxes of patient files. An art room featuring a dementedly asymmetrical portrait of the Pink Panther. A morgue.

The first time venturing into the cold, tile hallways, light beams unable to see the end in either direction, all that terrible history in mind, disembodied noises… we lasted as long as virgins do before pulling out. But we returned a hundred times, getting braver and staying till the sun came up to explore every last nook. The blueprints we found even led us to underground tunnels used for shuffling people between wards, concealed from the light of day.

Best friends already, our little club bonded deeper as we got covered in tics on the overgrown property and had to strip naked for the drive home up Roosevelt Boulevard, where the other cars honked at us in celebration and disgust; as we encountered a former-resident-turned-squatter in a stairwell; as a dozen Satan worshippers with medieval weapons chased us on a rooftop, down through levels of ransacked architecture, and out desperately onto the highway—cars honking this time to avoid running us over. Not quite a military kinship, but at least the Goonies in a fucked-up asylum.

Everything was razed in 2006 in a ceremony with the mayor. It’s condos now, so someone’s microwaving a Hot Pocket in the spot where an auditorium once held theater productions with lunatics. Where later I sat in the seats while a giant demon head floated in an exit door behind me, accidentally captured with a $20 Radio Shack camera. In the developed photograph, a line of chairs obscures the entity’s mouth, but those eyes suggest a malevolent smile…

My only record of our tremendous adventures there, that picture prompts me to look over my shoulder now and again, to be mindful of toxic forces that creep up unchecked such as burnout, complacency, or those extra Jack and Cokes. And to keep finding ways of tapping into the bold electricity of youth which landed me in that front-row seat to exhilarating madness.

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“Only Eats Bugs”
“Certain characters exude a particular quality so strongly that it defines their entire persona…” [show more]

Certain characters exude a particular quality so strongly that it defines their entire persona.

Many of us sport a mask for a few hours at the end of October, but Gene Simmons and RuPaul are living embodiments of their costumes, unrecognizable without them.

Can you imagine Charles Bukowski doing anything other than drinking, fighting, and betting horses?

With that aura of highest spirituality, it’s hard to envision His Holiness the Dalai Lama hunched over the lip of a bathtub cutting his toenails or sitting on the crapper.

Contrastingly, Hitler was evil incarnate no matter what paintings he produced.

Bees, the pollinators that they are, are inextricably linked to humankind’s very survival, yet their stinging reputation lessens our urgency to prevent their extinction.

Thereafter, how might the universe see us in totality? For better and worse, what will have been our greater essence, you and I?

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“Omega Summer”
“Some are born to be hot, lusting after beaches, saunas, hot springs, Jacuzzis… carnally drawn to searing engulfment…” [show more]

Some are born to be hot, lusting after beaches, saunas, hot springs, Jacuzzis… carnally drawn to searing engulfment.

I have an extraordinary aversion to high temperature. While everyone else prepares for their Florida retirement, I daydream of pounding slushies in Alaska. I’m so white I’m almost blue, so UV rays scorch me like flames on marshmallow. Walking on an August afternoon, I can actually feel my cells being murdered. If there’s even a leaf’s worth of shade, I’ll park my little toe there, and indoors I require cryogenic levels of air conditioning.

I wish the future were colder, but global warming is as established a fact as the solar system, and it would take a geek with more degrees than the sun to reverse it. I’m grateful I won’t be around for smothering pollen counts, charcoaled California, sunken Venice, total blackouts, and water wars. What can I say? I like my Arctic with a shelf.

Despite our blistering fate, it is worthwhile to slow down the burn. If we at least delay the inevitable through science and sacrifice, we could eke out another generation or two—who would greatly appreciate it—and buy our species a little time to figure a way off the planet. Really, doing nothing is tantamount to blasting a fart in a packed elevator as you’re leaving.

And that’s some karmic heat I don’t want to take.

: – | >

“Raised by the Racket”
“Punk was uniquely cathartic and motivated fans to surge toward any goal set to its soundtrack…” [show more]

Thanks to my parents, the soundtrack of early childhood resounded with The Beatles, Janice Joplin, Errol Garner, and Bach. After that, I was on my own.

For years I turned the dial, continually underwhelmed by what vibrated through the speakers. Billy Joel was lame, early rap clunky, and new wave had as much soul as the supermarket aisles over which it now plays. 

Then a girl in tenth-grade social studies let me borrow a Memorex mixtape starting with The Dead Milkmen’s “Bitchin’ Camaro.” I replayed that snotty, sarcastic lo-fidelity raving until my Sony Walkman chewed it up, and then spent an hour performing surgery on the tangled mess of magnetic ribbon so as to salvage the cassette as well as my chances with this chick.

But the Milkmen are to punk what Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi are to the blues, so it was quickly on to the more legitimate intensity of The Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, and early D.R.I. That shit? Made me wanna kick down doors, burst through walls, and whirlwind-destroy every room therein! In a good way.

Punk was uniquely cathartic and motivated fans to surge toward any goal set to its soundtrack: causes fought for; democracy exercised; broken hearts welded; workouts conquered. Most importantly, the scene connected scatters of colorfully awkward outcasts too creative and brave to surrender, but nonetheless worn down by Top 40 expectations. Minorities in our far-apart high schools, suddenly five hundred strong in a charged concert hall.

So, what happened? Like the hippies it replaced and the hip-hop that’s replaced it, punk’s just another iteration in the grand timeline of counterculture. A stop along the evolution of revolution, eventually a mohawked anachronism. 

In the meantime, for those old enough to remember, the fire that music ignited continues to light the path of our current endeavors, fueling productive rebelliousness and keeping us spiritually honest until we slam dance into the great beyond.

I hope they blast “Rock for Light” at my funeral and catapult my studded coffin into the grave at the center of the ensuing mosh pit. My last stage dive.

<  : – | >

“Tacit Peace”
“Familiar rhythms crescendo to a beating headache when overplayed…” [show more]

Routines are an inevitable necessity. The cosmos works on interconnected unity and repetition. Had I not finally established an official spot for my car keys after the fifth time leaving them somewhere, I might be writing a “Do Not Tow” sign instead of these words.

Familiar rhythms crescendo to a beating headache when overplayed, however. I drove one route to work for years (on the days I had my keys). Every morning at 6:53 by my dashboard display, I passed the same stoic, mustached, walrus-like construction worker standing at the corner of Motter Ave. and Dill St. waiting for his ride to an overly familiar gig. The pattern was initially comforting, a reassurance that I had company in facing the day. Later on he just bothered me, a tired character in a tired plot. (At one point I stopped seeing him there. I guess it got to him too.)

We eventually cease to appreciate even the most spectacular encounters. Once you’ve lived in a place at the shore for a while, you no longer look out at the ocean, and that upbeat yellow you painted the living room now drives you up the very same walls. Notice how mellow the crowd remains under a ritual Independence Day sky, as if the fireworks were happening on a distant screen saver. Chronic users get low instead of high, the cannabis cloud thickening into a lead blanket, the harder stuff a deathbed.

There are some cycles that have to be broken altogether, certain landmarks that belong in the rearview mirror. You don’t revisit quicksand, perpetual religious conflict only begs the apocalypse, and one colonoscopy is enough, thanks. Otherwise, a well-timed departure begets a positive return. The best chocolate cake comes at the end of a diet. A forgotten view takes your breath again. Love is renewed after time apart.

The more things change, the more they stay the sameness.

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“Unlocked”
“Keys have always captured my imagination because they open worlds…” [show more]

Keys have always captured my imagination because they open worlds.

A world of wonder as the lid of a treasure chest releases with a baritone creak.

A secret world, finally accessed by the inheritor of an eccentric relative’s safe deposit box.

A world of memories when I come across the key to a house (and marriage) long since demolished.

A freer world the moment iron bars slide sideways to discharge an inmate.

Most of the time they admit us into routine living: turning deadbolts of front doors, starting cars, and protecting valuables in gym lockers.

People are lockboxes too, denying or permitting entry depending on the solicitation.

Waiting for that uniquely inspiring teacher to move our potential.

For that singular love to unwind our individual complication.

For that particular chemical to trigger addiction.

For that one insult to unleash our fury, then our fists, then our firearms.

And at long last, for that unifying cause, compelling us to let loose our collective best impulses before Karma changes the locks, and humanity is shut out altogether.

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“Plentitude”
“America is desensitized to its existential advantage…” [show more]

America is desensitized to its existential advantage. It’s not that you can’t find agony in the USA, but we’ve collectively lost sight of what a relative haven this is, bitching about the long red light while sitting in a Hummer with heated seats. Heaven forbid that Amazon order of unicorn stretch pants arrives a day late, and there’ll be hell to pay when the delivery driver forgets extra garlic sauce.

Imagine dropping a dying third-world skeleton in Wegmans. He’d die of shock before starvation, taking in the neon-bright pyramids of polished, organic produce and aisles of self-care products too long to see the end of. An avalanche of abundance―yet we whine about going to the supermarket on our day off and impatiently sigh waiting to roll our overflowing treasure cart through the checkout, back to that Hummer with the heated seats.

  

I’m the worst. I get pissy the moment I pull into the strip mall, resenting every taken space with mumbled epithets, nerve-wracked over who’s going to dart out in front of me with car or cart. Then it’s total lizard-brain mode inside the store, the other shoppers becoming detested adversarial obstacles with lower deli-counter numbers than mine. I recall the guinea-pig owner ahead in line. She remembered the woodchips but forgot the carrots and would have to go back for them. So I waited. Then we all waited. Then I fantasized about hammering a carrot between her eyes like a railroad spike. (I’m fine now.)

Many will fall apart once our society does, ill-equipped to suffer catastrophic hardship. It’s an outrage to find an empty shelf where the two-for-one eggnog should be, so imagine the tantrum when the entire shopping center is a crater. Before that happens, take a moment―this one―to breathe, look around, look within, and marvel over something you’ve got that someone somewhere else might not. Does not. If enough of us hold onto that thought, we could grow the will to preserve this paradise in progress.

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“Pierre is Strange”
“Everything is surreal at first…” [show more]

Everything is surreal at first. Drive a baby under the track lighting of a freeway tunnel with the sunroof open and watch his face transform as if seeing God. Forty years later, he’ll do a dead-eyed daily commute along that same stretch, unmoved as a Pac-Man frog, because each experience has a perceptual contour of spike and decay. Otherwise, honeymoons would last forever, the first hit wouldn’t be free, and the latest fashion would still be Cro-Magnon chic.

We thrive on the right kinds of change. Discovering punk rock in high school was a glorious, exploding gift from an alternate dimension after years of enduring the pedestrian sedation of Top 40. These days my favorite reality shifts occur through travel, where a foreign landscape becomes home over time, and home feels foreign upon returning. Then reality reestablishes itself, and I begin planning my next departure.

Long before our body collapses, our soul withers when starved of novelty. The agony of solitary confinement hinges on indefinite sameness, but the unincarcerated also cage themselves by uncritically settling into mind-numbing routines, slow boiling in the gradual cook of their rerun days until retirement hits with scarce time and energy for a spiritual recovery.

Now is the time for new. For getting a better job. For taking a different way home, at least. For catching a buzz or trying sobriety. Time to paint with the other hand. To be on the bottom or in front during the act. Time for a strange conversation with an unusual stranger. Today is the day to act on curiosity and inject some life into our lives.

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“Can’t Crop a Giraffe”
“You can’t force art inside the lines…” [show more]

You can’t crop a giraffe.

You can’t make a cat follow the rules.

Can’t make a kazoo subtle, and plaid always takes over the outfit.

Weeds will continue to sprout wherever, as sand won’t stay on the beach, as water finds its way out of any vessel.

Every rumor spreads like fire, like they’ll never censor every curse word.

You can’t force art inside the lines.

You can’t keep a viral trend from its time.

Nothing restrains true love or righteous revolution.

And yet all poems…

Must come to an end.

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“Faraway Needs”
“The less accessible a thing, the greater our desire…” [show more]

The less accessible a thing, the greater our desire. We’re cats, incessantly scratching at a closed door while ignoring the open one next to it. Obsessing over what we can’t have.

Those late-night munchies intensify once you see that the takeout place is dark and closed for the evening. Husbands yearn for the woman next door as their wives lay close. Compare the panicked sprint to find a job with the dreadful slow-walk toward the time clock. Then you slump at your workstation, lamenting all you could get done if only you were at home, but come your day off you’ll procrastinate that to-do list like a root canal.

The largest economy in the world is a carrot on a stick; the American dream is a long con of unfulfilled appetite, where every ad campaign presents a hole and sells the filler. How many companies would collapse if we recognized that fulfillment comes from within—the shortest distance of all?

We reach for faraway wants, leaning ever farther away from our innermost needs.

: – | >

“The Cold Case Blues”
“In this age of relentless informational bombardment, so many aching mysteries remain…” [show more]

Sometimes not knowing is ok, even preferable. You don’t need the Pythagorean Theorem to cut pizza into triangles, nor the unwelcome ridicule of the bathroom scale after eating most of them.

In other cases, missing answers are a torturous burden to those asking the questions, elusive as God. Why haven’t they called back for an interview? Where the hell did that lottery ticket go… Didn’t anyone see who she left with?

In this age of relentless informational bombardment, so many aching mysteries remain.

: – | >

“Cocktail Chic”
“Substance and style rarely come in equal measure…” [show more]

Substance and style rarely come in equal measure. My mother’s sister is as sophisticated as she is fun, as genuine as she is refined. Uses adjectives like “fabulous” and “smashing” without a hint of pretentiousness. There isn’t space enough in her bookshelf-lined home to contain all she’s read―and the couple she’s written―but her closet was just as full of dancing shoes back in the day.

 

She loved to dance. One of my early memories is being held, bounced, and whirled around by aunt Joan as The Beatles’ “Come Together” turned against the needle, which would skip when we carried on too forcefully. Riding horses made her happier still, another sort of dancing.

Naturally, I’ve always known the older woman (she was in her thirties by the time I was born), but I also like to imagine her before that: in the 1960s sipping highballs at a Nina Simone concert, as the anecdote goes. The gravity of the music, the tricolored stage lights casting a soulful surreality over the room…  

The way her luminous life force and encouraging love have shined on me.

: – | >

“Face”
“So many sets of eyes, noses, and mouths, and the stories to go with them…” [show more]

Faces are the hardest to describe and reproduce. The basic components are simple enough, like the exposition at the start of a fugue. But just as an increasingly varied musical theme gets harder to hum amidst the unfolding counterpoint, one’s facial expression is a complex, dynamic intersection of physical and metaphysical attributes elusive to capture. There are no identical twins.

In novels, characters’ faces are always blurriest in my mind’s eye, the descriptions like molded plaster that won’t stick to its subject. It’s the same in nonfiction: police sketches never fully resemble the perp because the profiling software can’t render the narrative behind the eyes, the life that led to the likeness. For that revelation, you need to meet someone’s gaze directly.  When you do, you see a vivid page from an autobiography in progress.

So many sets of eyes, noses, and mouths, and the stories to go with them. Billions―collectively the same, individually distinct.  Past faces, living faces, and all those yet to come…

: – | >

“Beard Power”
“I grew my first chin beard in tenth grade. Not the broom that it is today, a half-inch at most, but enough to change the game…” [show more]

I grew my first chin beard in tenth grade. Not the broom that it is today, a half-inch at most, but enough to change the game. Less emasculating sarcasm from peers. More attention from girls. Feeling closer to adulthood than childhood, seeing that manly little outgrowth in the side-view mirror as I cruised along with a newly acquired driver’s license.

The hair and its effect have been growing ever since.

On a three-week road trip from Philly to L.A., my friends and I ended up along the same route as 50,000 hogs headed for the 60th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. Everywhere we went it was bikes, beer, and badasses. On the outside, from the neck up at least, I blended in and earned us a little cred in a subculture not known for its warmth (on the inside I’m too anxious to ride a ten-speed through town). Some years later I was in the Uygur city of Kashgar, where the Muslim men greeted my uncut bushiness with nods of approval, perhaps thinking that I was with Allah (when in fact I’m “spiritual but not religious,” as my online dating profile would say). After that I took a teaching job at an urban Maryland high school, in which being a goat-like caricature of myself fast-tracked classroom rapport and greatly increased the number of completed homework assignments. 

Impressive, how a tuft of facial pubes can alter so many outcomes. How differently might events have unfolded had I shaved? Which triggered conversations and resulting relationships would never have occurred? Which ones would have in their place? Maybe I get carjacked or miss meeting the love of my life in the beardless version.

If nothing else, against my baldheadedness, it keeps me from looking like a crazed volleyball.

 : – | >>>

“I Was on My Way”
“The last leg of a journey is often most precarious…” [show more]

The last leg of a journey is often most precarious, especially on the important trips.

That’s when you run out of gas, twist your ankle, and lose faith. It’s the round where the finalist chokes, the stage at which the pilgrims start eating each other.

Almost there, just miles of inches to go…

The finish line reserved for the most determined good or the most relentless evil.

: – | >

“Out”

From a great enough distance, any exclusive club looks absurd.

: – | >

“Eighty Proof Overflow”
“A potent ingredient can enable or destroy the recipe…” [show more]

A potent ingredient can enable or destroy the recipe.

By the tenth hot wing, pepper turns to pain. Leftover rainwater in an overturned tire teems with microscopic life while somewhere else an entire community drowns in a monsoon. A little confidence inspires a first date; too much and you’re a sociopath. The cleanest, most efficient means of keeping our trillion devices running uninterruptedly is nuclear—until a seal breaks or the wrong person gets the codes, and then Earth is a charred, radiated husk.

Sitting here at the bar, the right number of Jack and Cokes have delivered me to this line. Time to close my tab before the writing and its author sink to regrettable depths.

: – / >

“KKK”
“Racism is intellectually clumsy and depends upon an unbalanced worldview…” [show more]

Racism is intellectually clumsy and depends upon an unbalanced worldview.

The only way to deem an entire people inferior is to be (willfully) unaware of their accomplishments, like viewing The Grand Canyon through a paper towel roll.

Tribalism is natural, but diversity is no more unnatural than the combustion engines and computer networks that compel us to mix.

And since the world has gotten too small to segregate, we either learn to move forward in step, or we trip fatally over one another, tilling the soil for our replacement.

: – | >

“Egg Demons”
“There once was an expectant hen pecking around a nuclear plant…” [show more]

There once was an expectant hen pecking around a nuclear plant. Worse, the place was constructed over a cursed Indian burial ground.

When her eggs finally came, they were way more alive than nature ever intended…

: – | >

“Shyness”
“Some of us should have rather been turtles, hard-shell recluses engineered for withdrawal…” [show more]

American egos are even bigger than our asses. We’re always Number One, and our colors never run. Assertive as eagles. Prominent as Mount Rushmore.

Amidst so many megaphones, social squeamishness is a substantial burden. Some of us should have rather been turtles, hard-shell recluses engineered for withdrawal.

Really, we could all benefit from a strand or two of tortoise DNA. A cousin to humility, shyness is as much a spiritual asset as a political liability. Envision a nation with more listening than shouting, where restraint overrides impulse and mindful introspection prevents thoughtless self-confidence.

Blush if you agree.

: – | >

“Edna’s Herbs”
“Children naturally hyperbolize the world. From their novel point of view, they experience everyday life in a partial dream state…” [show more]

Children naturally hyperbolize the world. From their novel point of view, they experience everyday life in a partial dream state. To a new mind, reality is a caricature of itself.

The interior of the family car at night, with all its illuminated controls and aqua-neon readouts, becomes the cockpit of a spaceship. The doctor’s needle looks and feels like a harpoon! Skittles really are pellets of solidified rainbows.

And that unfriendly elderly lady down the street, with the overgrown garden from which you must uneasily retrieve your lost ball, is a terrible plant-woman just waiting to ensnare you in tendrils, cast some wicked botanical spell, and pot your freckled little ass like cilantro.

: – | > 

“Tabloid Carnival”
“We’ve come to value attention over the reason for it, turning heads by any means necessary…” [show more]

We’ve come to value attention over the reason for it, turning heads by any means necessary.

But there’s only so much meaningful notoriety to go around, and most of us aren’t going to come up with a vaccine or win a Grammy.

So fools rush center stage, bucking and braying for the camera like jackasses! Each resounding hee-haw lowering the standard for recognition as it drowns the signal in dumb, hollow noise—and the country is too busy taking a cinnamon challenge to vote down the forces taking our future.

To influence this circus, the visionaries will have to get a lot louder and learn to juggle.  Chainsaws. On a flaming unicycle.

: – | >

“The Impressionables”
“Following in devious footsteps…” [show more]

We exit the womb as unmolded clay, and then life stretches and squeezes us into the shapes we become. Genetic predisposition aside, monks, gangsters, and physicists are created, not conceived, through an existential apprenticeship of exposure, inspiration, and practice.

It works out all right when your role model is Dr. Phil. Less so when it’s Dr. Mengele.

Following in devious footsteps…

: – | >

“Food Chain Maneuvers”
“A Pac-man planet, each of us predator and prey…” [show more]

A treetop bird drops captured worms into the mouths of chicks while a hungry cat paces below, waiting for any them to fall.

Nearby, ravenous bulldozers devour earth for a shopping center to soon replace the tree.

In that future parking lot, a carjacker stalks and strikes unsuspecting customers because the system jacked him.

A Pac-man planet, each of us predator and prey.

As time―the ultimate apex hunter―consumes us all.

: – | >

“Getaway”
“We can pull down our eyelid shades and take respite in whatever setting we conjure…” [show more]

February, 2004. Hong Kong. I was hiking Lantau Island when the trail unexpectedly brought me to a beach. No other people, not a footprint. No boats on the water nor any other manmade structures in sight. The Pacific like a still, breezeless lake under the overcast sky. A scene of sublime inactivity.

Seeing now that this was my destination, I took off my backpack, used a rock to dig a butt-sized hollow in the sand, planted mine in there, and reclined against the pack. For an hour I didn’t move. Just my eyes panning the ocean, reading the horizon like the most important poem ever written…

There was only one return bus to town and not much time, so I sat up, brushed off, and continued along eons sooner than I wanted. I’ve gone back many times in my imagination, though: that boundless refuge where no distance is too far, our passport is always valid, and touchdown is just a thought away. During the hard times especially, our mind’s eye sees us through. When the windows of the world let in the harsh light―workplace anguish, imploded love, a fatal diagnosis―we can pull down our eyelid shades and take respite in whatever setting we conjure. For me, it’s that incidental shore at Lo Kei Wan. For you?

We can’t ignore reality either. The longer you spend inside, the more force the outside world amasses against you. Bills pile. Disappointment turns to depression. The tumor doubles in size. You’ve got to take care of life before it takes care of you.

In doing so, you enable the next beautiful moment to retreat to when ugliness returns.

: – | >

“Gorbio Cats”
“Not so foreign after all… ” [show more]

Felines are notoriously aloof and elusive souls, which is one reason I adore them so, and why I take great pride in my cat-whispering abilities. When I’m somewhere they’re likely to be, my first order of business is to make contact―the Holy Grail being to romance them into getting scooped up and letting me press those warm, underneath pad parts of their feet ageeinst mah face! I switch into my most charming, reassuring catspeak, and they know that I know: they come chirping and blinking in approval, weaving vigorous figure eights through my legs with almost involuntary affection. (I have the opposite effect on dogs.)

Still I wondered if my game would be enough to impress the strays of old Gorbio, a medieval seaside town in the mountains of the French Riviera where I visited one summer. Across the Atlantic, wandering that twelfth-century village near the clouds, part of me was expecting “different” cats. Would these old-world French felines be extra snooty? Into cheese and smoking? Or unapproachable, feral vagrants ready with flesh-shredding violence should I dare to put the moves on?!

The first encounter along my tour―a grey-and-white tabby, who not only let me hold her but then bouncily pursued me into a rustic church―allayed any doubt. Deeper into the damp, overcast alleyways, a blind orange one with cloudy blue eyes remained remarkably calm as my approaching voice progressed into petting; in the absence of mutual sight, our essences connected.

I gather this primal-spiritual communication would be the same with cats in Italy, Australia, Afghanistan…

As with the people around this vast rock.

Not so foreign after all.

: – | >

“Evil in the Attic”
“No emotion so misplaced as fear…” [show more]

Some constructs are universally creepy, others innocuous. A couch is never unsettling. Though you may toss and turn on a lumpy one crashing at an after party, no one’s losing any sleep over campfire tales of a possessed sofa. But a creaky rocking chair? An antique doll? An old full-length mirror stored in a basement corner? The doll in the rocker facing the mirror? No way I’m hanging out in that room.

Diabolical imagery in horror movies surely influences such reactions. A shower was just a place to scrub your armpits before Alfred Hitchcock killed a chick in there. These films also reflect our preexisting associations. There’s a reason why the victim in The Exorcist is a little girl versus a middle-aged cabby, why the invincible demon car in Stephen King’s Christine isn’t a Volkswagen Rabbit, and why The Amityville Horror would be far less scary as a haunted yurt.

Some boogeymen lose their edge through overexposure. Zombies are just fun at this point, appearing in videogames, comedy, even romantic roles. We’ve seen so many five-year-old pirates on Halloween that, by the time we fully processed the threat of a real one, we’d already be kidnapped, duct taped, and halfway to hades in a human trafficking barrel.

What will be the next iconic scare? Maybe something happens to make electric hand dryers chilling. Perhaps it’ll be stink bugs, abandoned malls, or hoarders. A condemned mall, infested with stink bugs and overrun by the feral colony of the world’s craziest cat lady!

In any case, the perceived threat will be a harmless illusion compared to the pitfalls of everyday living. Blood pressure spikes at the thought of a rabid clown or terrorist sleeper cell, but a person is more likely to get junk-food diabetes, become an overprescribed opioid addict, or die of a meaningless, grinding job than to be alien abducted.

No emotion so misplaced as fear.

: – | >                                 

“Today’s Special”
“Food is so personal that we judge others on their meal choices…” [show more]

Eating is as intimate as it gets. The ingesting of organic material through the middle of your face down into your deep physical core to become temporarily one with the consumed mass―it’s even more penetrating than intercourse. 

Food is so personal that we judge others on their meal choices. Order something gross on a first date, and it could be your last.  The fifth grader with the strangest brownbag lunch gets picked on most in the cafeteria. Americans find Southeast Asians offensive for eating dog (even though we eat large dogs called cows, which makes us seem ignorant to Hindus). 

Shrimp greatly upset me because of their pinkish-orange, fingernail-like shells and poop veins.  So, when I lived in Shanghai, it probably took a month off my life to catch a glimpse of my Chinese officemate aggressively stuffing entire prawns into her mouth until the ends of their shockingly long antennae disappeared into her satisfied expression.  In the process of devouring them, she became prawn-like―and I’m sure she’d feel the same about the scrapple I chowed down as a Pennsylvania native.

Seeing an animal feed can bring on the same revulsion. The sickest thing about opening a trashcan swarming with bugs isn’t necessarily the insects themselves, but that they think it’s delicious in there. In the moment, that itself justifies the swatting; if you are what you eat, then those flies are rot-filled maggots unwelcome in our space!

One person’s haggis is another’s honey. Taste is pure subjectivity. Whatever a “mangoon” is, it’s out there somewhere, it’s awful, and it’s hot, sexy dinner for some ravenous mouth that can’t get enough.

: – | > 

“Nobody Special”
“It’s an act of liberation, really, to relinquish title and be no one in particular…” [show more]

Fame is a national preoccupation. We chase after recognition like it’s the last train out of Camden. Playing the game isn’t enough―you’ve got to dunk on ESPN.  Getting elected to office requires raising at least as much image as money or ideas.  Even inanimate objects get famous: when Hostess stopped making Twinkies, the public reacted as if we’d lost a legend.

As pack animals, it’s natural to want some form of social embrace, an identity within the group.  Clearly, I strive to be noticed or you wouldn’t be reading this; joining act and audience is emotionally nourishing and completes the creative cycle.

Ego is a potent element, though, and becomes quickly poisonous like as much chlorine. Self-confidence might drive a ballplayer to the majors, but the team loses when he comes to value home runs and sponsorships over the pennant.  Some of our representatives enter public service with service at heart, only to have years of self-branding so thoroughly convince them of their own campaign slogans that they lose track of their policies’ greater impact. 

A measure of humility must balance self-worth, or else competition exceeds cooperation, and  the ship sinks as everyone fights to be captain.

That said, as a high school teacher, I want my students to be proud and determined, to innovate, to lead.  Of course.  At the same time they should be aware that, however brightly their individual interest burns, it’s a pixel in a larger screen that affects everyone’s picture, and there are times when the integrity of a task is more important than taking credit for the result. Furthermore, if attention is what they’re after, posting shirtless selfies or skateboarding off a clock tower is a counterproductive way to get it.

Periodically, we need a break from ourselves as much as the greater good needs respite from our ambition.  It’s an act of liberation, really, to relinquish title and be no one in particular.

: – | >    

“The Explorer”
“Music, science, psychedelics―their unifying allure was the charged anticipation of what awaited in the next moment, the rush of dramatic unfolding, the promise of new and evermore curving pathways of experience…” [show more]

At ten, his family moved to a bigger row house in Northeast Philly. No longer rooming with his older brother, he was free to investigate the radio without quarrel. Near the end of the dial he found a classical station. His interest piqued, he began tuning in regularly, often listening through the night, until the fourth of Beethoven’s Fifth took hold of his soul and ushered him into a sustained passion for the great composers. He started taking the subway to free monthly concerts at The Philadelphia Academy of Music. There, keen in his seat with the orchestra before him, he was a sonic adventurer in pursuit of the next grand crescendo, the next earthshaking finale. 

As a teenager, his curiosity expanded from sound to the solar system. An introductory astronomy text called Stars found its way into his hands, and the information on celestial bodies sent his imagination into orbit. Soon, secondhand descriptions weren’t enough, so he saved money from odd jobs for a telescope through which he could verify Jupiter’s four moons and Saturn’s many rings with his own two eyes.

Around the same time, he happened upon a second book, the one that would most decisively focus his inquiring temperament: Lemkin’s Chemistry. Its pages described the visual magic of certain chemical reactions, which quickly converted him from armchair tourist to young, experimental chemist. He was in the basement precipitating colors or heating ammonium chloride to see it smoke like crazy. Or out on the front sidewalk igniting test tubes packed with flammable powder and attached to train-set wheels to make mini-rockets (that left major potholes when the mixture proved too flammable).

Because there was so much knowledge available, organic chemistry was the perfect subject to satiate an intellectual appetite, so he continued digesting it into adulthood with a fellowship at Penn, a Ph.D., and a career in research and development. There were also personal experiments with lysergic acid diethylamide along the way, some internal chemical exploration (an inquisitive mind is a gateway drug).

Music, science, psychedelics―their unifying allure was the charged anticipation of what awaited in the next moment, the rush of dramatic unfolding, the promise of new and evermore curving pathways of experience. 

I hope that his journey through fatherhood was as formative and affecting.  

Like it is being his son.

: – | >  

“Roman Road”
“It’s easier to accept mankind’s inevitable destination than our collective hurry to get there…” [show more]

Every single thing begins d/evolving the instant it comes into being.

Leaves turn color as our skin freckles and loosens, as great restaurants become mediocre, as performers lose their touch, as the rind of industry surpasses the pulp, as civil wars percolate, as the stars dim.

Eventually, an endpoint is reached, and what was is no longer what is.

Leaves fall until the tree itself succumbs. Flesh dies. That restaurant goes out of business at last. Careers retire. Landfills replace landscapes. Empires implode. The largest, brightest star you can imagine becomes a light-swallowing void.

It’s easier to accept mankind’s inevitable destination than our collective hurry to get there.

: – | >

“Ataritarded”
“As a child of the late seventies and early eighties, I grew up with the second wave of home videogame systems…” [show more]

As a child of the late seventies and early eighties, I grew up with the second wave of home videogame systems. One Christmas morning, I entered our family room to discover a fully hooked-up Atari 2600. My parents had left the television on late the night before so that I would walk in on Space Invaders cycling silently through its demonstration mode as the screen changed endless, hideous color combinations.

Technically, the machine was a moron with a 1.19 MHz CPU, 8-bit microprocessor, and a paltry 128 bytes of RAM that rendered entire cityscapes as featureless, rectilinear clusters, and titanic dragons as goofy, upright ducks. The music and sound effects were equally primitive in their sine-wave melodies, sample-and-hold atmospheres, sawtooth alerts, and white-noise collisions. Ironically, each game came with realistic cover art and an elaborate storyline. The box for Super Breakout showed a stoic astronaut in a jet-propelled suit swinging some kind of space baton to valiantly beat a path through an encroaching force field. When you loaded the game itself, it was pong with a beeping rainbow at one end. 

But these digital rudiments tripped the imaginations of all the neighborhood kids. Those plastic, wallet-sized cartridges opened worlds for us to run,  jump, and fly around in, and in some cases compelled us to become obsessive virtuosos in the art of the joystick. I may have embarrassed myself in gym class, but I earned back respect at the console. I recall playing Missile Command for so long without getting killed that I had to quit before my legs permanently fused Indian-style. I went the distance with Megamania: I was in the midst of the flying-hamburgers board when my score hit 999,999 and the program simply froze. Completed the entire Pitfall course―backwards―against the direction of the alligators’ chomping jaws.

Since those years, the technology of play has exploded into a virtual cockpit of buttons and functions to learn, so it takes five minutes just to figure out how to make your character stop walking around in a corner, let alone advance through the level. Compared to the droid-like dexterity of today’s gamers, I’m entirely inept. Ataritarded. What’s more, graphics have become so vivid that there’s nothing left for the mind’s eye to do. Too much for the hands and too little for the psyche. A taxing, empty investment.

I retired my controller ages ago to play piano and draw.  

: – | >

“Max’s Turtlenecks”
“The uncloakable scandal of the human condition…” [show more]

One striking difference between the dirt-poor and super-rich is that people in the gutter wear their agony in plain view―keeping up appearances is a distant abstraction when your teeth are loose and the kids are hungry―whereas those falling apart on yachts scramble urgently to shroud their pain in silk. Anything to avoid the humiliation of hardship.

But anguish is an amorphous cloud, a wriggling snake: hard to contain; bound to escape.

The uncloakable scandal of the human condition.

: – | >

“Xander’s Stenographer”
“Each organization has a recorder, someone whose role is to be present, document, and distribute information to the group…” [show more]

People form strange tribes. No matter how intense or esoteric the interest, there’s an established fraternity, sorority, or secret society of its aberrant connoisseurs and practitioners.

Rocky Horror Picture Show reenactors. Plushie fetishists. Freemasons. Nazis. The Mid-Atlantic Conference of Albino Born-Again Vegan Weavers.

Each organization has a recorder, someone whose role is to be present, document, and distribute information to the group. When a club’s charter is ethically questionable, or markedly vile, one wonders how its secretary can so passively bear witness. These recruits deserve our contempt and appreciation: they don’t try to stop it, but they amass indefensible evidence making it harder for inhumanity to repeat itself.

Those un-swatted flies on the walls of history.

: – | >

“No More Breakfast”
“It’s as superfluous as appendixes and wisdom teeth…” [show more]

If you grew up on a farm, you rose to a super-meal of animals and starch.  Eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, and bread.  A most digestive way to start the day, but hours of intense physical labor lay ahead and you needed the caloric equivalent of diesel to grind through it.

There are few family farms in the U.S. now, but that greasy a.m. custom remains. It’s the oil minus the toil. Folks roll out of bed into automobiles that shuttle them to McEverywhere’s, where an arm passes infinity calories through a window.  Instead of dissolving through exertion, the food brick is simply transferred via stomach from car to cubicle where it continues to sit. Others take it to another level of impracticality and go to an all-night diner for the very same “morning” feast.

It’s as superfluous as appendixes and wisdom teeth.

: – | >

“The Ballet”
“Our lives are a choreography through the abrasion of time…” [show more]

Our lives are a choreography through the abrasion of time. We maneuver about the stage of existence, each experience adding to our spiritual core while simultaneously eroding its container.

Just as a pencil shortens with every expressive stroke, a ballerina grinds herself down a little more to stick the next inspiring landing. A marathoner crosses the finish line with a smaller body and a bigger soul. The same goes for rock climbing, mosh pits, work, love―any act at all.

The most significant choice we make each day is how to use ourselves up. On what to spend our fleeting life force? Fully living means dancing toward death with purpose, passion, and style…

To stick that ultimate landing.

: – | >

“Stinko Pig Bartender”

Where would desperate servitude be without greasy middle management to facilitate it?

The world’s two oldest professions.

: – | >

“Adaptation”
“Survival is a dynamic drama of hustle and variation…” [show more]

That which is alive evades and adapts to remain so.  Survival is a dynamic drama of hustle and variation.

When the Nazis came to Amsterdam, Anne Frank hid quietly in the dark for two years. For generations, the destitute Zabbaleen along the outskirts of Cairo have resorted to sorting trash and burrowing into literal garbage towns like inhabitants of a rotting ant farm.  

Nature is equally resourceful. When a creature becomes vulnerable, it develops camouflage, agility, and/or weaponry. Leaf-tailed geckos resemble the tree bark where they bask, fresh meals in broad daylight except for their disguise. With large hind feet and scaly toe fringes, basilisks run on water to escape predators (thus the nickname, “Jesus Lizard”).  If that’s not ingenuity, horned toads shoot eye blood at their attackers. Even rocks reposition and erode to fit into the evolving puzzle of the landscape.

In the theater of being, every cell is a saga, each entity an actor toward another fantastical plot twist.

: – | >

“The Party of Tomorrow”
“Some celebrations last forever…” [show more]

A brain is as fragile as it is powerful. When the signal is altered dramatically, our mental GPS might not be strong enough to guide us home.

Some celebrations last forever.

: – | >

“Spectra”
“Color is potent and duplicitous…” [show more]

Color is potent and duplicitous.

Red wine. Orange sunsets. Yellow radiance from polished gold. An emerald rainforest. Blue eyes.  Lavender fields…

Purple bruises from treacherous blue ice. Green mold. (Green money.) A swarm of agitated yellow jackets! The orange explosions and spilled blood of war.

The world turning colors, as color turns on us.

: – | >

“St. Abstract’s Home for the Aged”
“When something is far away, the distance obscures its differentiating details, blurs meaningful variation into flat, oversimplified uniformity.  Old age is like that…” [show more]

When something is far away, the distance obscures its differentiating details, blurs meaningful variation into flat, oversimplified uniformity.  Old age is like that.  Until you reach it yourself, it’s an abstraction.

When I was very little, I was almost afraid of the elderly.  When a great-aunt would move to embrace me at a holiday reunion, I could feel my entire body stiffen like I was about to kiss Death itself. This is because our society vehemently promotes youth over age.  We’ve been encouraged to regard aging as a disease and to put off acknowledging it for as long as possible, lest we peer into our own liver-spotted future.

In ever-up-to-date Silicon Valley, thirty is considered old. Thirty. So they’re getting plastic surgery to look younger and feel more competitive. At thirty. I suppose next they’ll reattach their umbilical cords and submerge themselves in dark tanks of canned peach syrup.

Growing old is inescapable. Our cells will continue to divide no matter how many antioxidants we consume, regardless of how much Lubriderm we slather on.  Moreover, we pay a cultural price when we devalue our eldest citizens and push them to the periphery to gather dust and stereotypes.  In terms the hipster crowd can appreciate, what’s left once you pour all the vintage wine down the drain?

I’m fortunate now to have close relatives and friends who are much older than I. They remind me of the rich insight a seasoned veteran can offer. If nothing else, an older person has proceeded further through the maze and knows where more of its dead ends are.  They‘re mentors who help me appreciate each new ring that time adds to my trunk. I had fewer white beard hairs years ago, fewer random ear hairs certainly, but would I really want to return to the assertive ignorance of my twenties?  Of my thirties?  (I’ll be saying the same about my forties when I’m fifty.)

True, lots of old folks become incapacitated, lonely, confused… deceased.  But so do many of the young.  Grow up, already.

: – | >

“Unreachable”

When adults carry on like children, it’s the children who are forced to grow up too fast.

: – | >

“Hatched into Hunger”
“We’re all born with an appetite…” [show more]

We’re all born with an appetite.

Fewer of us will fill it.

Let the games begin…

: – | >

“Twinkles in the Sea”
“The ocean is a positive, spiritual place, but beneath the magic there’s a threat…” [show more]

When I was five, I choked on a lemon drop. It happened in summer on the front porch of our house in Ocean City, New Jersey. I breathed in too hard while running around, and that little yellow cap turned into a death pebble. The front door had latched shut from the inside, and by then my parents were around back on the beach. I banged and rang the bell, but no one heard against the loud wash of the ocean. The drop lodged in, and me locked out. I grew desperately faint and began seeing electric white dots floating around…

At the last minute, the gods intervened. Earlier, our neighbor had accidentally dropped some things outside while taking down wash from the clothesline. Had she not come back to retrieve them, she wouldn’t have seen to administer the Heimlich maneuver, and you wouldn’t be reading this. (If I publish a memoir, it’ll be titled The Socks that Saved Me.)

Seriously shaken, I had my first nightmare that evening. In my dream, I was in the basement of the house. A thin but opaque fog obscured the ground. It seemed like walking on wet sand, though, and I could feel gritty saltwater coursing around my bare, reluctant feet. When I reached the center of the room, an area of fog cleared and a faceless pair of eyes opened in the floor: androgynous, intense, unstable. For a moment they regarded me favorably and relaxed into a smiling, reassuring expression. Then, as starkly as my afternoon play had turned to peril, those grinning eyes turned on me and squinted into a threatening, sinister taunt as if to say, “How’d ya like that candy, Marty pants?”

I awoke like an exclamation point. I’d been sleeping in a bunk on the third floor, so there were two sets of stairs between me and my parents on the ground level. In that state of wired fear, running down each step felt too slow to escape the disturbing afterimage pursuing me, so I jumped down both flights one after the other, my adrenaline covering the pain. Finally, I found Barb and Bob Graff in the living room watching a horror movie about killer ants, a consolation compared to the trailer that had played in my mind.

*           *           *

To this day, the ocean remains a positive, spiritual place for me. The age, size, and grand rhythms of the open water inspire me like no other setting.  Immense and healing.  On multiple coasts and continents, I’ve long stood breathing it in, tuning in to its ancient white noise, inviting the busy choreography of its sun-speckled surface to trigger vast, wondrous daydreams, feeling the full potential of my existence. But beneath the magic there’s a threat, a lethal undertow swirling with pincers, stingers, carnivorous appetites, toxic industrial detritus…

And that aquatic, psychotic whatever-it-is that haunts my brittle confections.

: – | >

“Scumbox”
“Each generation hypocritically resents the next, like circles blaming squares for ruining geometry…” [show more]

A conversation overheard between two grumpy, elderly figures:

Old Shape 1: “I tell ya. Those dirtball cubes are taking over the neighborhood.  No respect for anything.  Their angles don’t even add up!

Old Shape 2: “Tell me about it. But what can ya do? At least they ain’t as bad as ’em triangle delinquents out by the park!  Isosceles punks…

Each generation hypocritically resents the next, like circles blaming squares for ruining geometry.

: – | >

“Sinners”
“Deliver us from hypocrisy, amen…” [show more]

Religion strives for ethical cohesion through prescriptive morality and the threat or reward of eternal consequence.

Rightly, the price of free will is a conscience.

But then divinity gives way to conceit, spirituality descends into Holiness, and the harshest judges become the worst offenders.

Deliver us from hypocrisy, amen.

: – | >

“A revised manuscript may well alter the course of an entire culture…” [show more]

One of our most salient human characteristics is our capacity for storytelling. Stories entertain, move, and shape us. They document, explain, and instruct.

Some narratives are so powerful, so thoroughly internalized by a population, they have a greater impact than bombs.  Certainly, many weapons have been discharged in defense of one coveted tale over another.

As much sway as stories hold over us, they’re an arbitrary force we manufacture. Accounts become so old and well-known we forget they could’ve followed a different plot line. 

Imagine if we had access to rough drafts. What if Medusa had a scalp of golden roses and transformed people into pure chi?  What if Robert Frost had taken the highway?  How about a female Christ?  In an alternate version, we may just as easily have spent a childhood leaving quarters under our pillows for the Scab Fairy.

A revised manuscript may well alter the course of an entire culture.

: – | >

“ADHD”
“Our attention span. Is becoming. Byte-sized.” [show more]

Thoughts are like light beams. The more concentrated, the more they illuminate. A focused mind can conceive and realize tremendous objectives. The power of concentration has given us piano sonatas and discipline to practice them, novels and the literacy to read. Consider all that Stephen Hawking grasped about the space-time continuum because he had so much uninterrupted time and space to study it. If not for a rigorous brain, we still wouldn’t know how to control fire or raise food, let alone come up with paella, the Sistine Chapel, and quantum theory.

But.

Our attention span. 

Is becoming. 

Byte-sized.

Industrial automation and electronic overstimulation have shattered presence of mind, the very aspect separating us from those erratic squirrels we’re increasingly unable to ignore.

A lack of mental stamina threatens everything of substantive worth because a fragmented thought process yields an incoherent conclusion, the way a smashed mirror reflects a splintered face. Deep understanding, sustainable innovation, lasting relationships, the arts, justice… it all depends on patient perseverance.

Multitasking is a euphemism for distraction.

Eventually, by sabotage or exhausted resources, a wholesale collapse of the digital infrastructure will force an analog reboot. In the meantime, we might ready ourselves and maintain some synaptic tenacity by willfully disconnecting from the Network, by safeguarding our precious time for slow, offline engagements like meditation, drawing, fishing, building a deck, reading a book, writing one, having face-to-face conversations―just sitting with the stereo on, reflecting. 

Should this mass cognitive decline go on unchecked, should we wait too long to reassemble our collective consciousness, some crucial pieces may be forever lost.

: – | >  < | – : 

“Pageant”
“Like glitter on a husk…” [show more]

There are beautiful souls living in unsightly containers, and gorgeous vessels with little inside.

Overemphasized beauty is a cover for lacking substance, and it’s less attractive besides.

Like glitter on a husk.

: – | >

“The Fourth Kind”
“Those vicious aliens are a projected fear that foreign life forms resemble humanity at its worst…” [show more]

There may be limitless variation on life among the sextillion or so planets, but we’re limited by our human schema when envisioning what it might look like. We necessarily conceive of the greater sentient universe in terms of earthly society, as that’s our only reference point.

Films, writings, and interviews on the extraterrestrial more often involve encounters with predatory monsters because those vicious aliens are a projected fear that foreign life forms resemble humanity at its worst. It’s easiest to imagine astronauts being shot down and vivisected in an outer-space operating chamber since that’s just what our institutions would do if the ship were on the other shore.

In here and out there, we pose the most consistent threat to ourselves.

: – | >   

“Witch Dog”
“How would we feel if they saw us as amusing mannequins around which to drape, bundle, and tie humiliating apparel made in their image?” [show more]

How would we feel if other creatures saw us as amusing mannequins around which to drape, bundle, and tie humiliating apparel made in their image? What if a peacock stuck a flashy accordion fan to your backside without asking? Or if a kangaroo glued a hairy pocket on your stomach?  Claustrophobics, be thankful you don’t belong to a turtle or a hermit crab.

Put yourself in their scales, feathers, and fur. Pugs already resemble chewed gum, so spare them the tinseled Christmas sweater with matching sleigh-bell cuffs announcing their every googly-eyed entrance. And all those cats persecuted on Easter, enduring the indignity of being dressed and photographed as another animal that is both cuter and lower on the food chain.

If I were a pet with a festive owner, I’d be under the bed waiting the holidays out like a passing storm.

:  – | >

“PG-13”
“It’s time for a grown-up rating system…” [show more]

Nothing against adolescence―it’s a bridge to adulthood we all must cross―but tweens and teens are not fully developed beings.  By simple fact of a shorter life, they find novelty in cliché, depth in shallowness. They’re forgivably whim over wisdom and are entitled to a learning curve. 

The trouble is that their demographic has the most disposable income, and companies have seized on this.

So the airwaves ring with formulaic edginess around impotent anthems of pseudo-revolution. Movie screens burst with explosions and costumes in place of plot and character development. Supermarkets teem with highlighter-colored drinks and snacks engineered to nourish cartoon characters.

With so much censored substance, where are the casual opportunities for personal betterment?  How do you bring about a society of healthy, whole people when the majority are reared on sugar and emptiness? In part, our cultural collapse will come from gauging the success of industry by how well it appeases the impulses of those who can barely grow pubic hair.

It’s time for a grown-up rating system.

: – | >

“Soloft”

No matter how great the liftoff, we eventually have to land on the ground of our own lives.

: – | >

“Down in the Bog”
“The farther into the earth a creature resides, the less aesthetically appealing it is to us…” [show more]

Apparently, the farther into the earth a creature resides, the less aesthetically appealing it is to us, as if the clouds were made of beauty cream and the dirt were made of… dirt.

Birds are typically associated with gorgeous gracefulness and freedom. When asked, most surveyed would choose to be a bird. Koalas, squirrel monkeys, and their other tree-perched counterparts?  High up in the canopy and generally adorable.

At sea level, things can go either way. Depending where you tread, the terrain holds everything from bunnies to boars, ponies to porcupines. (The giraffe is an interesting case: half airborne, half grounded. Certainly, the head is cuter than the tail.)

The subterranean realm is the place to go if you wanna churn up some ugly. No shortage of worms, cicadas, and star-nosed moles down there. The ocean yields the same effect; it’s those critters way at the bottom―arctic, soulless gourd-fish with spindly spotlights, jagged razor teeth, and murder brains―that are creepiest.

The sky and surface of the planet have been considerably more explored than the spaces far below our feet. Imagine the as-yet-uncovered horror show of buried species ready to freak us out if we’d only dig further! Somewhere deep in the green, oatmeal nastiness of a secluded swamp lurks a revolting, blind, snaggletoothed slime blob awaiting its terrible debut.

: – | >      

“Horrible Hell”
“Why is it downright effortless to be negative?” [show more]

Damn. Why is it downright effortless to be negative? Easy as flopping onto a sagging, old couch.  At times I have to consciously will myself to maintain an optimistic outlook―like holding a mental plank position―whereas pessimism comes as freely as diarrhea. The wrong notes seem to ring loudest. A persistent pebble in a hiking boot spoils the majestic rockiness of the mountain. 

In truth, things usually work out, and a statistically significant number of people perform inspiring acts, so this default gloominess perplexes me. Undoubtedly, life is a gorgeous light that I mean to burn brilliantly for as long as the filament lasts (perhaps I should switch to an LED). Nonetheless, my brain bends toward darkness.

Curvature of the mind.

: – / >

“Vague Viking”
“There are conflicting accounts of ninth-to-eleventh-century Norse people…” [show more]

There are conflicting accounts of ninth-to-eleventh-century Norse people. One story characterizes them as intelligent craftsmen and traders with progressive ideas on gender equality.  In the alternate version, they’re a berserk whirlwind of theft, rape, and murder.

So which is it?

Eventually, every narrative becomes false as time and interpretation filter it into an oversimplified distillate.  Only firsthand experience can reveal what history obscures.

Not that I’d like to find out.

: – | >

“Caste System”
“Despite isolated pockets of upward mobility, society is hierarchical…” [show more]

Despite isolated pockets of upward mobility, society is hierarchical. The sacrifices of those below enable the surplus of those above them. The slope of the triangle may be more or less steep at a given time, but the overall socioeconomic pyramid holds, immovable as the ancient Egyptian structures.

How did it start? Which savage, monobrowed mouth-breather was the first to subordinate a fellow cave dweller?

It’s been so long, this disparity, that it will take a global catastrophe to level the field.

And then so very little to spur the next shoving match.

: – | >

“Sígnatéur”
“How we write our name is as unique as the fingerprints holding the pen, and it reveals something about us…” [show more]

Animals make their mark by rubbing, digging, and/or relieving themselves on it. We sign our name.

Though abstract, a written name carries material power. It can be the difference between financial liberation and hindering debt, between getting a promotion and getting fired, going free or serving time, fact versus legend.

How we write our name is as unique as the fingerprints holding the pen, and it reveals something about us. If the prescriptions I’ve gotten filled are an indication, physicians are too busy to write carefully or feel that legibility is beneath them, while a slave’s “X” on a pre-Abolition document is a tragic symbol of his captive illiteracy. 

Because inscription is so individual, it’s also very emotional. It’s why forgery feels like such a deep violation, and why collectors pay big money for autographs at auction: to feel closer to celebrities by acquiring their essence in ink.

More than fluent scribbling, the signature is the face of our penmanship, the insignia of ourselves.

: – | >

“OCD”
“Organization and rumination. My autobiography.” [show more]

Lists. Piles. Columns. Rows. Routines. Right angles. Highs. Lows.

So hard to escape such perpetual force.  Again, and again, and again, and more…

Organization and rumination.

My autobiography.

: – | >   : – | >

: – | >

“Here Goes Nothing”
“Between athletics and the military, it seems the bulk of our ingenuity goes into making stuff fly and collide…” [show more]

Before humankind, matter generally lay around unless weather or giant reptiles stirred it up.  Then we arrived, began thinking about our relationship to the environment, put a few rocks together, and before you know it the planet’s got jungle gyms, Rubix cubes, and computers.

Between athletics and the military, it seems the bulk of our ingenuity goes into making stuff fly and collide. Playing sports is basically controlling the trajectory of things. Wars amount to nations hurling volatile material at one another. 

All those impartial atoms caught in the middle.

: – | >

“Secrets”
“I guess the last place left to hide is our dreams…” [show more]

Is there any such thing as a secret in the twenty-first century?  Try as we may, we’re bound to leave an electronic trail when so many of our transactions and interactions are mediated by gadgetry. In the end, even the careful technophile can’t dodge the most determined, resourced extractors of information. If the Man wants to know, he will.

I guess the last place left to hide is our dreams.

: – | >

“Tender Little Geekling”
“Smallness seems inversely related to ugliness and tends to neutralize otherwise unattractive features…” [show more]

Smallness seems inversely related to ugliness and tends to neutralize otherwise unattractive features. The very same qualities that repel us in large creatures become tolerable―even adorable―in tiny ones.

The fattest baby is first to be fawned over, but if she stays that way she’ll be last to the prom. The squashed, salivary nature of a pug is irresistible while the equally droopy walrus is far less endearing up close. E.T. was a slimy, gangly bowel movement with a kazoo voice, but he was totally cute relative to H.R. Giger’s towering, exoskeletal Alien.

When he’s fully grown, we’ll likely flee in revulsion from this awkward, bucktoothed monstrosity. For now, he’s just a vulnerable wittle weirdo crying out for a coo-chee-coo.

: – | >

“Nine Thousand Floors”
“Gravity is kinder to the temperate…” [show more]

Ours is a competitive culture.  We’re programmed from the start to accumulate, to ascend. It’s a race to the top for ownership and authority, and a steep descent when the contestants lose balance and grip.

The company that grows too quickly and bankrupts itself. The overexposed, teetering superstar who falls from spotlight to darkness. The lottery winner who blows through the prize so ravenously that she lands in more debt than she started with. The insatiable politician who uses countless others as expendable footholds in his career climb, finally plummeting the entire rock face under the weight of scandal.

Gravity is kinder to the temperate.

: – | >

“Bridge Masonry”
“Human endeavor is loaded with consequential un-intentions…” [show more]

Human endeavor is loaded with consequential un-intentions. Penicillin only came to light after a Scottish scientist forgot to put a lid on a Petri dish.  Selenium runoff from mining helped two-headed fish make their debut.  You think anyone envisioned hot dog mac and cheese? That happened when a mom needed something quick and fattening to shut her kids up.  And, as it turns out, milk crates make even better space organizers for college dorms.

The impact of such fortuity is positive or negative depending on the context.  In this case, I imagine the construction crew were quite concerned upon realizing they accidentally built a tunnel monster.

: – | >

“Lester’s Transformation”

The situation forever evolves.

Happiness flows from letting go.

¦ – ) >  

     

“Leaving Saul”
“I’ll leave it to you to compose this backstory…” [show more]

I’ve always been moved by the dreamlike unknown. In sleep, our minds conjure imagery and plotlines with enough coherence and linearity to make some sense, but enough strangeness to make our imagination tingle! That synaptic in-between space is the sweet spot of creativity, the place I live to inhabit.

Engaging art balances clarity with vagueness, allowing room for the viewer to contribute. Without that dynamic personal investment, the expression is a static, closed loop, and I’ve yet to experience a deeply affecting fiction that spells out the mystery, the monster, or the motive.

So, I’ll leave it to you to compose this backstory…

: – | >

“The Face Zone – Volume 3”

Get the books HERE — open the cover, open your mind!