Searching for Peace (Through the eye of a needle)

Needle

“So, Biff,” said the fox. “Why do you keep sewing that shirt? I think it’s, like, mostly thread now.”

“I love this shirt, fox” I said. “It’s the most comfortable piece of clothing I’ve ever had. And I’m going to keep sewing it until it turns into a ball of thread.”

“How long have you had it, Biff?” said the fox.

“Remember when dinosaurs walked the earth?” I said.

“Vaguely,” said the fox.

“Not that long,” I said.

“You one funny guy,” said the fox. “But I think you must have had that shirt for almost fifteen years. It’s turning yellow. Don’t you think it’s time to give it a decent burial? You could even tie die it.”

“The grin, fox,” I said. “It gives away your sarcasm. And it gives me nightmares. While I’m still awake.”

“Watch it, Biff,” said the fox. “Or I’ll smile at you.”

“Just joking, fox,” I said, as I finished the sewing and started looking through the eye of the sewing needle.

“Whatcha doin’, Biff?” said the fox.

“Looking through the eye of this needle, fox,” I said. “Maybe that’s the way.”

“The way to what, Biff?” said the fox.

“The way to get closer in my search for peace,” I said.

“Don’t get it, Biff.” said the fox.

“I’m going to take a look at things through the eye of this needle,” I said.

“Careful you don’t poke your eye out with that needle, Biff,” said the fox. “You know how accident prone you are.”

“I’m not accident prone, fox,” I said.

“Big dent in your chin there from meeting a sidewalk when gravity wasn’t on your side,” said the fox. “Two false teeth from falling off the top of a building into a heap of scrap metal. Big scar on your right arm from crashing through a glass door. Three broken ribs from…”

“OK, fox,” I said. “That’s enough. I’ve had a few unfortunate accidents that anyone else could have had.”

“’Cept they weren’t anyone else,” said the fox.

“You know, fox,” I said. “You could be the first fox in history to hibernate. You could get yourself in Wikipedia for that.”

“Biff, how many times do I have to…” the fox tried to say.

“Time to see things through the eye of a needle,” I said.

And there I was, needle in hand (and not making pinholes in my head or eyes), sitting at Read’s Coffee and Magazine Shop holding a needle up to my eye, looking at what I’m writing on my laptop and people are looking at me strangely.

“They’re waiting for you to poke yourself in the eye with the needle, Biff,” said the fox.

Ignoring the fox and the people waiting for me to stab my eyes out, I focused through the eye of the needle at the word needle. All I could see were the two ‘e’s.

And this made me think.

What if we all had to walk around for a whole day looking at the world through the eye of a needle? What would we see? How would this make us think?

“Biff,” said the fox. “You’re starting to sound a little crazy. And you’re looking a little wide-eyed.”

“I’ve been crazy all my life, fox,” I said. “And tomorrow I’m going to be just a little crazier. I’m going to spend a day looking through the eye of this needle.”

“And you get this from looking at the word needle through a needle?” said the fox.

“You got it, fox,” I said.

(To be continued. Through the eye of a needle encore.)

“So what did you see in those two e’s in the word, Biff?” said the fox.

“Two e’s, fox…two e’s.”

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A Word For It

Pants

It hurtled through the air like a big shape-shifting bug gathering speed and spreading with bits and droplets flying out to the sides as it plummeted.

It splashed into Tiger’s head with a wet splat and dripped down his cheek―white and brown blobs streaked with luminous green―but Tiger didn’t see the colors. He was aware only of the slippery lukewarm ooze of pigeon shit.

   This is supposed to be lucky, he thought.

   But I’m covered in pigeon shit, he countered.

   The price of luck, he came right back.

   Let’s see the luck first, he touché-d.

It was about that time when he began to feel it creeping up on him like something peeking out of a dark place, afraid to crawl into the light. It was a feeling. No. A sense of premonition or maybe an awakening―a nascence. That was it. Like something beginning, like a moth splitting out of a cocoon and emerging into the hot light of freedom.

No. Not that. It was much more than that. It was like a clarifying of things, like suddenly everything made sense, a giant sigh followed by, “Oh yeah…that.”

He knew there was a word for it.

The pigeon shit dripped from Tiger’s jaw sluggishly, like slag dripping from a sewage pipe. He reached for his handkerchief but his pocket was empty. He didn’t carry handkerchiefs anymore, not since Julie had died and stopped laying out his suits and shoes and handkerchiefs. Now he just reached into drawers and closets and pulled things out. Sometimes they were clean. Sometimes they’d been stripped from his body still moist with sweat and stuffed into drawers and closets where they grew musky.

No handkerchief. He couldn’t remember when he’d carried one even though he still reached for them. Things weren’t so clear after Julie’s death but they were simpler: Get up. Walk to the bench by the Old Armory facing the busy street. Watch buses and cars and people drift across the boundaries of his vision. Return home. Eat lunch. Watch Oprah and Dr. Phil. Eat supper. Watch sitcoms and drink beer till midnight. Go to bed.

Things had been more interesting when Julie was alive.

He wiped the pigeon with his shirt sleeve and got some in his eye. He used his other sleeve to wipe his eye. A smell like early morning garbage filled his nostrils.

The strange feeling came back. Or was it a feeling? Maybe a realization? But wasn’t a realization a feeling? He sensed that he’d been here before. Not just on the bench watching buses and cars and passersby, but in this frame of mind or milieu of perception. Maybe it was college? First year philosophy? Second year sociology? No. He’d slept through most of that course. Must have been philosophy. He’d even made notes in philosophy and read a chapter or two. Was something from all those yesterdays ago creeping into his today like an idea simmering slowly in the frying pan of his life experience, and now it was ready to be consumed? Had a word or a phrase or a concept from Hume or Kant or Plato finally crystallized in his brain and he was on the verge of enlightenment? Had college finally given him something insightful?

Not likely. College had given him a job―thirty-five years of bi-monthly pay and extra office space or a plant every five years. A place to wear the suits and shoes that Julie had laid out for him each morning. A place to blow his nose on the handkerchiefs she kept cleaned and pressed.

But nothing in the way of enlightenment had come out of college, nothing that went towards making sense of anything.

College had given him a nickname: Tiger. It summed up the parties, the vomiting, the beatings he’d inflicted on friends to impress women, the drunken stupors and the bragging. And maybe that was the thing sneaking into his life now―a long un-redressed insult or wrongdoing finally bubbling up from his subconscious where he could see it, acknowledge it and release it.

No.

He’d never had remorse or a sense of responsibility for the so-called crimes of his youth. College had been a riot. It had given him a job and a nickname, and who cared that none of his buddies had kept in touch, that none of the women had slept with him for more than a week? Then was then and now was now, and now there was something oozing into his life like pigeon shit stinking up the side of his head and staining the sleeves of his shirt.

He stood up. He had to leave the bench early today and miss an hour of buses and cars and pedestrians. But he would survive. He was Tiger, and he could chug and puke with the best of them. A long time ago―but now his knees were sore with the weight of a stomach bloated from beer and sitcoms.

It came again, racing through his brain from left to right, winking as it disappeared at the edge of his awareness. It was definitely there and this was no trick of his imagination. Something was brewing―a message or a warning or a premonition was building slowly into…what?

He was certain there was a word for it.

He jumped back into the now of walking when a bus horn blared beside him. An angry car driver blared back. Tiger’s heart beat like an African drum, pumping wads of blood and flushing the side of his head under the pigeon shit.

Whatever the thing was, it was still there, but not running, not winking. It had nothing to do with college, nothing to do with parties and women. And it seemed now like it wasn’t even in his mind, like it was somewhere else―maybe in his sore knees or his sagging belly. Maybe a truth startled into visibility by the bus’s deep horn or the car driver’s instant anger. Maybe the change of schedule.

No. It had started while he was sitting on the bench, right on schedule, doing what he was supposed to be doing by the rules of his life since Julie’s death, and now it was somewhere in the immensity of himself, nagging from a sore ligament, itching behind a swollen kneecap, reeking from the pigeon shit on the side of his head.

At home, he stood with his hand on the doorknob. He never locked up. He owned nothing that he himself would care to steal, and everything that interested him was easily replaceable. He turned the knob and felt the flow of whatever it was circling around his presence with a knowing smile just beyond recognition. He turned the knob slowly and opened the door. The smell of old furniture and untended housekeeping rolled out the doorway and mingled with the odor of pigeon shit, but he didn’t notice. His mind was looking under cerebral rocks and around imaginary corners. It was still there, still hiding. Or was it trying to be found? Was he looking for it with the wrong eyes? Should he breathe deeply and think non-thoughts and just let it come into being before him? Should he cross his eyes and clap his hands together? Should he roll on the floor and giggle? Should he promise to never again drink beer and watch sitcoms?

No, he would never do that.

In the bathroom he turned on the tap and watched water spray from the faucet, almost mist-like, the way Julie had liked water to flow. He looked at his reflection in the mirror. Under the pigeon shit, the side of his head appeared to be melting. He cupped his hands and caught water to splash on his face. Every splash seemed familiar in a way that had nothing to do with washing. But it was still just beyond his reach.

And he knew there was a word for it.

He skipped lunch and went directly to Oprah. Something about families in distress. He lifted a bottle of beer to his lips and let the cold liquid bubble into his mouth. Whatever he was feeling wasn’t going away like beer bubbles evaporating into the air. It sat all around him, squatted under the table beside his chair.

   Don’t tip my beer, he thought.

   Ideas don’t tip beers, he countered.

   So, it’s an idea is it? he came right back.

   I don’t know what the hell it is, he surrendered.

It sat on top of the television like an antenna trying to pick up a message from “out there” and project it onto the screen, but translating somehow into Oprah and a woman in tears before an audience of concerned sympathizers. It settled into the cracks of the wooden floor and mingled with dust compressed into layers of years in the house, old skin shed from himself and from Julie, fallen to the floor and mixed inseparably for as long as the house shall stand. It plopped on the top of his head and teased him like an imaginary egg created by fingers spreading over his skull.

Afternoon turned into early evening and he skipped supper. The beer on the table beside his chair was warm and flat.

Whatever it was, it hung in the air and robbed minutes and hours of their meaning. It was bigger than time. It occupied all space. It emerged from the seeds of his universe and heated the stars. It jumped out of a giant cosmic box and surprised life.

The air around his head churned like water tumbling over a cliff and exploding into white spray a thousand miles below. It was the source of the turbulence and all things explosive. It was the nucleus of the universe. It was the meaning of his life and the meaning of everything. It stood before him.

There was a word for it.

   What the hell is that word? he thought.

   What makes you think there’s a word? he countered.

   You know there’s a word, he came right back.

   Yes, there is a word, he agreed.

Early evening turned to late evening and he missed his sitcoms as the canned laughter melted into the screen-lit room well beyond where his eyes were seeing.

   There’s a word for it, he thought. There’s a word that brings it all together, a word that twists it into sense and straightens it into something that can be folded and laid out on a bed the way Julie laid out my suits.

His index finger lifted and fell. He squinted into a void that promised answers or a clue to the word but it turned out to be only what it was, nothing. His mind stepped back to get a larger view but that just made everything seem smaller as late evening turned into night, and even the dark couldn’t surround the word and magnify its brightness, if, in fact, it were bright.

He stared into the night, not seeing the darkness, not seeing the sitcoms turn to news and the news turn to talk shows.

There was a word for it.

His nostrils filled with the smell of pigeon shit and flat beer overpowering the sweet smell of Julie’s perfume permeating the skin she’d shed into the floor boards and his own skin mixed with hers in layer upon layer like rings in a tree stump. He didn’t notice any of this.

Something was brewing in his body, something strange but familiar, something he’d been half expecting for a while now. It started with a small pain in his chest, a blurring of vision and a lightness that spread through the weight of his body.

His chest exploded and his world went white like washing out the days of his life. He thrashed somewhere in the white, clutching his chest and rolling his eyes as saliva dripped from his mouth. His lips moved spasmodically, trying to say something―something that needed to be said―but all that came was a drawn-out sigh, an exhalation of breath drawn from whatever life force still sputtering in his body. He sighed long and loud as his head spun around the sound of the sigh and there was something familiar about the sound beyond just a casual sigh. He’d heard this before, once, years ago.

But where? he thought    You know the answer to this, he replied

Yes. Yes, I do, he agreed. But I can’t remember.

Think into the floor boards, he advised.

Into the floor boards.

And he remembered.

Julie.

The last sound she’d made when she died―a long peaceful sigh like welcoming home after a long journey, the sound of release and a final letting go. And it wasn’t a word after all. It was a sound, and there was no word for the full meaning of the sound. It summed up his life since Julie’s death. It brought closure to his life before her. It summed up the days of his life married to her. He smiled and his body relaxed as his heart continued to explode, taking him to Julie and his life laid out neatly, cleaned and pressed.

Broken Wing

Flying

(Read this one a few years ago in the CBC Poetry Faceoff. First time I ever read one of my poems from memory. Don’t ever ask me to do that again.)

By Crooked Lake it flew
Soared 20 feet into the sky
Curtis V8 roaring across the world
For a magnificent 20 seconds
319 feet
before its tail fell off

When I was young, seems like 319 years ago
I flew
Yes, I did
I soared
I  thundered
I roared
It started with a step
Foot
Uprooted from the earth
Sinking into rich firm air
The solidity of wind and current
Its purpose and direction
The rich firmament
Of my own belief
That I could fly

And I did

Up and away
Transcending doubt
Levitating beyond fear
I flew
Up and up
Step after step
Climbing the sky
My legs step dancing
Skating and sliding and pivoting
And pirouetting

Well, not pirouetting

And there I was
Flying
Beyond the clouds and the planes and the birds
Flying
With just one wing, my belief that
I could fly
Rising beyond the expected step
Into the sky
To plunder cloud formations
Stroll with the geese
Ride Superman’s lightning slipstream

It was a possible miracle

And then, of course, the curse of all miracles
Especially those that involve high places
I looked down
And down was an awful damn long way down
And I was starting to wonder how I was going to get back down there
Gently
Smoothly
Alive

Which was exactly when my wing broke
I sputtered on doubt, choked on fear
I plummeted, screaming, a thousand feet
And splattered onto the earth

Proving once and for all
You don’t necessary die in your life
When you die in your dreams

It’s waking life that kills you
Waking life, the greatest and most dangerous dream of all

That lifetime dream filled with illusions and delusions like waking up in the middle of the night with a bursting diaper and a face full of drool and all you can say is “waa” over and over, your wing a bud that believes you’ll be fed, and somehow, if you survive, if they don’t let you die, the wing begins to sprout, it begins to grow, and then you’re in this place that’s all rows and sameness and they crush your wing just a little bit for every wrong answer, twist the tiny feathers for every thought that doesn’t fit, but if you survive it, your wing grows a little more, maybe enough to straighten your back from the heaviness of all the noise they call learning, enough to glide you into this place called a free forum of thought where the thought is free from the stacks and rows and archives of everybody else’s thought but your own, the stuff that fits, the stuff that bog-oils the struggling feathers of your wing until you stumble, wing still struggling to grow, into a mortar board and run like hell into the knowable sanctuary of nine to five hell, a world whose bio-rhythms hum to the beat of commerce and trade and all that fits, where they pluck a feather for every time you think outside the “team,” and it’s no wonder that over fifty percent of people hate their jobs and the other fifty percent aren’t talking, but you stumble through it pluck by pluck, day-by-day, year-after-year and if you survive it they give you
A CAKE
and a pension
and you’re finally free to fly

With what’s left…

A psychic bone somewhere at the tip of your imagination
Naked and calcified by all the years of your life
Cold and brittle and ready to snap at the tiniest doubt
The smallest fear, the most ancient regret
Something frazzled and de-feathered, dented and fractured
Good only for flying under the clouds.

But did I mention…

That once…
I flew
Yes, I did
I soared
I thundered
I roared
It started with a step
Foot
Uprooted from the earth
Sinking into rich firm air
The solidity of wind and current
Its purpose and direction
The rich firmament
Of my own belief
That I could fly

And I did

Fishing the Moody River

Trees 8(Found a folder with stories I’d thought I’d lost. In fact, I’d forgotten some of them completely. Like this one, published about 10 years ago in Projected Letters Literary Magazine.)

Each morning she stood on the bank casting her line into the water and reeling it in slowly as white smoke curled around her nose from a cigarette lodged between her lips. She never puffed, just let them burn away as she stared into the deep brown water. Butts, burned down to the filters, littered the grass at her feet as though they’d just been dropped from her mouth after the tobacco had burned away. Her face was the color of life winding down into a small gray door with a “Do Not Disturb” sign nailed into the center. Even her void black hair, short as it was, emanated neglect and uncaring like oil dripping from untended follicle taps.

Those were pretty much all the details he could make out from this distance. That was pretty much all he knew about her. That, and the fact that he was crazy in love with her.

She was there every morning for about ten cigarettes of fishing time, from nine till eleven, enough time to catch one or two pickerel … an amazing feat considering that she never used bait, just silver spinners and rubber worms. She hooked the long skinny fishes with the flaring mouths onto a large metal hook that clipped in at the end like a safety pin. The hook was attached to a chain that was moored to the ground with a long metal spike. She eased the dazed fishes into the water where they floated in fish-eyed disbelief.

After ten cigarettes, she reeled in, looped the spinner around the reel and tightened the line. She pulled the spike out of the ground, lifted the fish out of the water, turned and walked along a path up to her apartment building a couple of hundred feet from the riverbank.

Just one fish today.

Dale loved the way she walked, slow and easy, lazy-like and sexy. And yes, she was definitely sexy with her faded blue jean cut-offs and thin, well-tanned body. She was tall, but there was nothing lanky about her: every square inch of her body appeared hand-forged in the Fires of Worldly Lust. But her face…he imagined seeing her face against the river. Only her body would be visible, and her face would be indistinguishable from the river behind it, a deep river flowing out of a bog of haunted waters populated by dour things that had walked the earth long before the Indians and their Gods had set the power of myth loose in the bulrushes and bracken.

But he loved that face, even though he didn’t have a clue what color her eyes were, or if her nose were crooked at the end, or if her eyebrows needed plucking. If her brows were anything like her hair, they did.

***

Dawn laid the pickerel on a sheet of newspaper spread on the kitchen counter. She used a paring knife to cut open the center of the fish’s stomach. It made a “pluck” sound. The fish was dark, stiff and sticky. She shoved two fingers into the open stomach and pulled out a mash of red and white organs and fleshy tubes. She cut off the head. Just before she threw the head into the garbage, Dawn’s eyes and the eyes of the dead fish connected. For an instant, they exchanged what could almost have been a look of recognition.

She wrapped the fish in a clean sheet of newspaper and put it in the freezer. She stared into the cold darkness of the freezer for nearly a minute before closing the door. Then she sat down at the table. There was nothing on its dull wooden surface except a package of cigarettes, a green plastic lighter, and an ashtray half filled with cigarette butts smoked down to the filters.

She lit a cigarette and stared into the clouds of smoke that billowed from her mouth.

***

Dale hated his job. It was boring. There was no challenge to the work and absolutely no variation. It was the same thing every day, day after day. He entered data from hand-written reports filled out by field agents into the Wahberg Mutual Assurance database. They read like police reports: no colorful words or expressions, no opinions or poignant observations, no indication whatsoever that the person filling out the report had ever had an original thought. They were straight fact stripped of ownership: The house was seen to display smoke at approx 6 PM. Some were pared to fact so concisely that they ceased to make sense: Bar’d in row 8 to sembl w wat damage perim.

He hated his job. It reminded him of his life: going nowhere, coming from nowhere, and settled into a smooth, bump-free, never-ending ride down the slow lane to carbon copy days and notes-to-self to do something someday. His social itinerary was the TV Guide. He read his junk mail, with interest. He hated his life.

But now he was in love. He was in love with a woman he’d never met, a woman who fished by herself from a swamp-fed river every morning, who smoked cigarettes like a stick incense holder, and who never appeared to smile. She walked easy but looked hard. Maybe it was the discrepancies that attracted Dale to her; she was so much unlike anything that had ever touched on the unvarying days of his life.

“Off on another one of your tangents, Claw?”

Damn.

It was Pat Duncan, his boss for the last three months, three months of pure hell, of humiliation and slow burning anger. She was a big woman who towered over most men and she knew it. She loved it. She played it up, standing as close to men shorter than herself as the edges of political correctness would allow, looking down on them, bullying them with her size. And she had the girth to match the height. She was mountainous. But she drew attention away from the abnormality of her size – except, of course, when she was using it to intimidate – by dressing in nothing but plain slacks and patternless business jackets over white blouses. It was like a uniform she wore at home and at work. She had a bloated Betty Crocker face and neck-length spray-stiffened brown hair.

One other thing: she hated Dale as much as he hated her.

Dale had a flaw she couldn’t stomach. She’d told him as much soon after she took over the office: “You look like a preening pigeon when you scratch your nose with it.” She was referring to Dale’s left hand. The inside and outside fingers were missing, severed by a lawn mower when he was a child. It gave Pat the willies so badly that she used it as an excuse to spend most of the day out of the office, leaving Dale to do most of the work. She was a bad boss and a bad worker. Dale assumed that she’d been promoted to manager of this office probably to get her out of somebody else’s hair, somebody higher up the company ladder but shorter than Pat in staff meetings and around the water cooler.

She called him Claw.

“If you’d spend as much time working as you spend daydreaming, we wouldn’t be so far behind on these reports. They want that database ready in three weeks, Claw. I want that database ready in three weeks.”

So sit down on your fat butt and do some work, thought Dale. He nodded agreement, but didn’t say anything.

“Three weeks! That’s all the time we have. You’ve been on this project since before I got here, and you’re still not up-to-date. What’s wrong with you?”

I’m all alone, he thought. I’ve got nobody helping me on this damn project, especially not you. He nodded as he entered data, eyes on his computer screen. Pat watched the two fingers of his left hand race over the keyboard faster than most people could type with a full hand of fingers. She frowned.

“I need a coffee,” she said, and she walked out of the office. Dale’s shoulders relaxed. He stopped typing. He looked out the window. There she was. Standing on the bank by the river, smoke curling around her head, right hand circling as she reeled in the baitless spinner. His heart pounded.

Some day, he thought, some day.

***

“Unfit,” they’d said. “Unfit to raise a dog let alone a child.” She’d known what was being said behind her back, the whispers and the knowing looks. And worst, most of it was coming from people she called friends, from family, people she’d grown up with, and people with whom she’d eaten Christmas dinners. They were people who knew her past. Some even knew her secrets. And suddenly, they were turning their knowledge of her against her.

“Two men at the same time in the back of the car. That was in grade ten.”

“Sat right down on the couch without a stitch of clothing on, beer in one hand, joint in the other, dozens of people around, most of ‘em men, just talkin’ away as though everything was normal.”

“Stealing things from stores ever since she was seven. Amazing that she hasn’t ended up in jail by now.”

“She was my sister’s best friend. Or so she thought so … until she found out that she was screwing my sister’s boyfriend. And helping my sister with her Math homework at the same time.”

“Unfit,” said the judge, and that was that. She’d be lucky if she ever saw her daughter again, and even then, it would likely be with someone appointed by the court or, God forbid, her ex, watching every movement, listening to every word, monitoring the situation because, let’s face it, the judge had said: “Unfit.”

Her line tugged … a muscular, resistant movement, a movement of sudden shock, of realization and running. She gripped the reel tight, and began to reel in the line in spite of the frenzied pull in the water.

***

That night, Dawn was sitting on the couch watching the test pattern on the television. She had no idea what time it was. She had no idea that she was watching a test pattern. The ashtray was filled with butts, bent in the center from having the fire squashed out of them. Behind her, pictures hung askew on the wall. In the pictures, people smiled. Dawn smiled. She held a dark-eyed girl – barely visible under a mass of red snow suit – in her arms. The girl laughed as she pushed both her mittened hands into Dawn’s face. Behind them, a wooden toboggan lay on the brilliant white snow under a flawless blue sky.

Staring at the television, Dawn’s eyes were as empty as the pattern on the screen.

***

In his dream, Dale stands at the riverbank. In his dream, the woman he loves casts her line into the water and hooks onto Dale and begins to reel him in. Dale swims away from the tug of the lure and feels pain. Then, in his dream, he stops fighting the tug toward the shore … and the woman, along with the pain, disappears.

And then Dale woke up and said: “That’s it! That’s it!”

He wrote a message to himself on the pad by his bed and went back to sleep, smiling and strangely calm for a man who’d just dreamed of being a fish hooked on a lure.

***

Dale was late for work, and for the first time ever, Pat was early. Early. On a Friday morning. Normally, she wouldn’t come in on Friday morning, showing up maybe an hour or so into the afternoon. But there she was … big and Betty Crocker-faced, white blouse, business jacket and all. She was frowning. She was always frowning, but today her frown took on new significance.

She actually had something to frown about as she stood by her desk, all starched collar and heavy perfume. This was a frown of self-righteous, better-than-thou, caught-you-in-the-act legitimacy.

Dale would have balked, but he was too excited about the large plastic bag he had in his hand. That was why he was late. He’d stopped off at the hardware store to buy something that, if everything went well, might just change his life.

“Whatcha got there, Claw? Hope whatever it is, it’s worth coming in late and putting your job on the line for.” The frown changed to a scornful smile.

“Sorry about being late, Pat,” said Dale. “I just thought … it being Friday and all … and I put in some overtime this week …”

“Stow it, Claw. What’s in the bag?”

Dale smiled immediately, his eyes neon with excitement. He lay the bag on his desk and pulled out a long clear plastic package. “Going to take up a new hobby,” he said. He turned the package so that Pat could see a complete angler’s set: rod and reel, fiberglass line, spinners and sinkers, two lures, an assortment of tiny black hooks, and a small plastic box to store the equipment.

Pat stared at the plastic package. Then she looked at Dale, and then back to the package.

And she burst out laughing. She laughed so hard her face turned red. She laughed for at least two minutes before the laughter started to break up into quick gasps for air and gurgling sounds that could have been strangled guffaws or screams from her stomach. She pointed a thick finger at Dale and smiled meanly while she brought her breathing under control. “You … you wouldn’t be able to catch a cold if it bit your nose.” Her eyes widened and she fell into her chair, shrieking with wild laughter.

Dale just stared at her. She laughed and she laughed, pointing her finger at him, slamming her fist onto her desktop. Not a muscle on Dale’s face moved as Pat laughed until she’d exhausted her stockpile of vindictive mirth. Then she shook her head, stood up and walked across the office to Dale. She took the fishing kit out of his hand, stared at it a moment, smiling even more scornfully now, and shook her head again. She tossed the kit on his desk, snapped around quickly and walked to the office door. Before leaving, she turned to Dale and said: “Have a great weekend with your new hobby, Claw.”

Dale could hear her laughing all the way down the hall, until finally, the elevator doors smothered the sound.

He looked at the fishing kit on his desk and smiled.

***

“She was the bad one in the family,” her mother had told the judge. “The others all turned out good. Don’t know what happened with her.”

A small gray cylinder of ash dislodged from the cigarette in her mouth and fluttered to the ground, shedding flakes and ash bits all the way down. She stared into the moody water as she reeled the line in slowly. A movement to her right caught her attention and she looked.

She saw a skinny man in a white short-sleeve shirt about fifty feet downstream. He was wearing a tie. For some reason, this irritated Dawn.

It just … irritated her.

***

Dale tried to keep his eyes off the dark-haired woman. His hands shook as he cast his line into the water. He was terrified. What am I doing here? he thought. What the hell am I doing?

He stared straight ahead, his head and body immovable like a stump of wood hammered into the riverbank. Whatever color he’d had in his face had drained into the ground around him like white blood.

What the hell am I doing?

***

There it was: the tug of muscle, so distinct from the snag of reeds or submerged logs. This was the feeling of instant, horrifying realization, telegraphed right up the line and into Dawn’s hands. She had a fish.

She let the line out a bit, playing the fish, and then reeled in slowly, played the fish again, and reeled in slowly. Each time she reeled in, she brought the fish a bit closer to her than before she played it. Now, she could almost see the swimming shadow just under the surface of water. And then she felt a strong tug and the line went slack. She reeled in a spinnerless, fishless line.

Just like my life, she thought. She glanced over at the skinny stranger, and caught him looking at her. He immediately made a face and turned away.

Was that anger in his eyes? she thought. Or was that disgust, or something? Does he know me from somewhere? She picked up her things and looked in his direction again. His head pointed stiffly at the river, as though he were deliberately trying to avoid eye contact with her, to ignore her.

Screw you, she thought. And she walked, without fish, up the path to her apartment building.

***

Not a single muscle in Dale’s body failed to shake. He felt like his stomach was somewhere at the back of his lungs. Lines of sweat streaked his face. The armpits of his shirt were soaked.

She caught me looking at her! he thought. She looked right into my eyes! And I didn’t even smile or nod or anything. In his mind, he reenacted the entire eye-brushing incident, each time with a different scenario: smiling at her, nodding to her, waving to her, calling out something about how’s the fishing, or nice day. All the things he didn’t do. All the things he could have done. All the things that haunted him as he packed up his things and walked back to the office.

***

That night, Dale made up his mind that he would approach her first thing Monday morning, even if Pat were in the office and he had to just get up and walk out right in front of her, he would do it. He had to do it. He would apologize for not being friendlier on Friday morning. He would tell her that he’d watched her … no, that sounded almost like stalking … he would tell her that he’d seen her fishing a number of times and it made him think that he hadn’t been fishing since he was a kid and so he bought a fishing kit, and here it was, thanks to her. That’s what he would do … he would approach her and thank her for inspiring him … no, too slick-sounding … he would thank her for reminding him how much fun he’d had fishing as a child. And that would probably lead into something to talk about, maybe into fishing in general, or childhood experiences, anything.

I should have said something.

***

It’s not a cold feeling at all, thought Dawn. Kind of warm and relaxing. If she kept her arms still in the soapy water, she couldn’t even feel the pain in her wrists. And then her thoughts turned to fishing. She stood by the bank of the river with a beautiful little dark-eyed girl. They laughed as they cast their lines into the water under the flawless blue sky.

***

He checked his watch again. Ten o’clock. Where is she? thought Dale. She was like clockwork, on time every day, Monday to Friday, out on the riverbank at nine and there for ten cigarettes … eleven o’clock. Except for last Friday. But maybe he had had something to do with that. Maybe she liked to fish alone. Oh jeez, he thought, what if she doesn’t want me out there fishing at the same time as her. Would she leave early again today as soon as she saw him? Would she move farther down the riverbank away from him? Dale was already starting to sweat when Pat walked in.

She looked at the fishing kit leaning against the wall by his desk and smirked. Trust her to be the only person alive who could put the devil in Betty Crocker eyes. “Catch anything this weekend, Claw?”

“Not yet. But I’ll try again today. I …” He realized suddenly that Pat wasn’t listening to him, she didn’t even seem to be aware of him as she walked over to the window and looked at the building where the dark-haired woman lived.

“I think that’s the building,” said Pat.

“What building’s that?” said Dale, puzzled.

Pat shot him one of her looks and said: “Where the woman killed herself. It’s been all over the news all weekend. Don’t you listen to the news, watch television?” She smiled a smile that twisted the right side of her face into something clouded and brutal. “Or have you been fishing all weekend?”

Dale just stared at her.

“Something wrong, Claw? Cat got’cher tongue?”

He looked out the window at the building. He knew that it was her, that it was the dark-haired woman who fished. He’d known it since the first time he’d seen the life-drained outline of her face, as though her body moved around carrying on a daily ritual of deception.

She moved on.

And it was time for him to do the same.

He stood up and grabbed onto the fishing kit. It wasn’t until he was almost out the door that Pat noticed him leaving. “And where do you think…?” The door closed on her voice and the skewed Betty Crocker face.

Outside, the day was clear and the sky cloudless. It didn’t matter to Dale whether he caught a fish or not. No, just casting the line would be enough; in fact, it would even be a big improvement.

Searching for Peace (In a coffee shop, working on a board)

board

So, I’m sitting at Read’s and I’ve spent an hour working a on a skate board that’s going to be used in an auction to raise money for a skate board park in memory of a beautiful child who died in his sleep at the age for fourteen. He was a skate boarder and a movie maker. And he was a beautiful human being. I’m doing this skateboard for him.

I love working on this board. I get lost in the details of the drawings and everything around me falls away and I’m on this plain of existence composed of wood and black ink and intricate lines flowing into each other to form shapes and rhythms with meanings I may never comprehend, but this is for Isaac…so I don’t mind being lost on that plateau.

But working on the board gets a bit draining after a while. This is a good thing, but I’m on my third cup of coffee and I haven’t eaten anything today. My hands are shaking with caffeine energy. It’s time to write.

So, after close to an hour on my next novel, I’m listening to two young university women talking vociferously about feminism. I can’t hear much of their words over the background music and the distance, the conversations going on all around me, the sound of the coffee machines, the door opening and closing and letting in chills of cold air every few minutes.

But I can feel their energy, their animated excitement with ideas and the expression of those ideas, the mutual exchange and the energy that comes from clarifying thoughts by sharing them.

That’s when we really know what we think…when our thoughts are clear enough that we can express them in a manner that communicates to others.

It doesn’t have to be words, it can be a painting, a sonata, a photograph… a dance. It can be the silence of a shared meditation. That mutual awareness of an idea makes gives definition and solidity to the idea…the ability to grow and evolve. Once an idea is expressed it’s hanging around forever…if only in the vibrations left behind from mutual awareness.

Ideas are energy. They vibrate furiously inside the mind, but I’m not sure if they leave a permanent mark in that cerebral cocoon. I guess it’s like the egg meeting that sperm cell. The idea of birth is there…but until they meet, the consummation of the idea isn’t. It’s only real when the mutual awareness happens. Everything else is daydream.

“I don’t know, Biff,” said the fox.

“Hello, fox,” I said. “Something on your mind?”

“Well, I guess not,” said the fox. “Unless I tell you what it is.”

“That’s not exactly what I mean, fox,” I said. “You can have something on your mind and it’s real to you during the moments that it exists in your mind. After those moments, it usually fades into the background to become memory or a vague thing that that might spring into your thoughts another time and you might even build on it. But it’s still in a dormant stage until you express it…when you put it out there where it can suffocate or breath the air that surrounds it.”

“So, Biff, let me get this straight,” said the fox. “If I have an idea, like just in my thoughts, it’s not really an idea until I talk to someone about it…or make a painting or dance it.”

“No,” I said. “It’s an idea, but it’s still in an embryonic state. It could be growing and developing but, until you express it, it’s still in the womb of your mind…where it could be forgotten, or die with you. It’ll never have the energy and resilience of birth.”

“So what’s this have to do with your search for peace, Biff?” said the fox.

“Hey, fox,” I said. “Everything. Again. Everything. Peace is an idea, and idea that we’ve never made real by…and I mean everyone…expressing it…and making it real.”

“Hey, Biff,” said the fox, “read the papers, listen to the news, watch television…everybody’s talking abut peace.”

“Yeah, fox,” I said. “Peace on their terms. And that’s not really peace. There can be no terms on peace. Not ever. It has to be a mutual acceptance that we’re all in this together…and that is the only terms of peace that will bring peace.”

(To be continued. God only knows where.)

“So, Biff,” said the fox, “you eavesdrop on people’s conversations at Reads?”

“And I make notes.”

Searching for Peace (In the way we ask questions)

Zen-2

People don’t ask questions.

I mean it. Sure, we ask innocuous questions like, “How much is that furless guinea pig in the window?” (even though we have no intention of buying it…we’re just curious about how much shit like that costs) and “How’s things going?” (and they’d better not tell us the truth or we’ll stop asking them).

The thing with questions like this is that they don’t change anything. They don’t really mean anything. They’re elevator questions filling up the background of communication. Like a clear subject in a photograph with a faded background (technical term is bokeh…pronounced bokeh). But without the clear subject.

I think the main reason we don’t ask meaningful questions is that we’re afraid of the answers. How long does a husband or wife put off asking, “Are you seeing someone?”

I used to be a bartender. I worked in the games room of a club, which was quiet for most of the night, so I got to know some of the customers well as they sat at the bar building liquid courage for the evening ahead. One of those customers was Hakusata (name changed to protect her innocence) who came in early in the evenings for a couple of months and tortured herself over thinking that her husband was having an affair. In situations like this, bartenders are supposed to say something infinitely insightful, or just keep their mouths shut and nod agreement when appropriate. But one night, after a couple of months nodding and keeping my mouth shut, I had to ask, “Why don’t you just ask him if he’s seeing someone?”

She looked at me astounded, lips quivering, on the verge of tears, and said, “Because he’ll tell me he is. And then it’ll be over.”

So, I suppose not having a clear answer to a clear question meant that it wasn’t really happening, that everything was fine. But more importantly, it meant that nothing had to change. It wouldn’t be over. It would just go on and on.

Things wouldn’t change.

The vast majority of us hate change. We become emotionally and intellectually lazy in places where we’re not likely to make mistakes because we know the rules of the way. Asking questions can really fuck up complacency. Unless, of course, the question is background music in front of a clear subject that you don’t want to see.

I’ve worked for a number of IT startup companies. One thing you can be sure of in an IT startup is that 99 percent of them are going to have shaky periods and most will likely go under within the first two or three years. There’s this thing so many of them have in common: the layoff. I’ve seen so many of these. Times when staying in business meant paring down the staff. Thing is…we all knew when these times were coming. But very few had the nerve to go to management and ask, “Are there going to be layoffs?” And then ask, “Am I going to be one of them?”

OK, in a situation like that, they’re probably going to lie to you…so you might ask, “Why bother to ask the question?”

Got an answer for that one. Because if you’ve come to the point where you find yourself asking those questions, then it’s time to start sending out resumes. Before the axe falls.

The simple act of asking a meaningful question clarifies things in itself. If you’re brave enough for the question, then you’re brave enough for the answer.

“Hey, Biff,” said the fox. “I have a question.”

“Go ahead, fox,” I said. “Ask away.”

“Does my grin really disturb you?” said the fox. “Go ahead…I’m brave enough for the answer.”

“Yes, fox,” I said. “Your grin really really disturbs me.”

“Bastard,” said the fox.

“You asked,” I said.

“Ever hear about little white lies, Biff?” said the fox.

“Fox,” I said, “are you happy with your life?”

“I have fur and a tail, Biff,” said the fox. “What’s not to be happy about?”

“Good point,” I said. “You know what one of the toughest questions is for people these days, fox?”

“How does my hair look?” said the fox. “Oh…sorry ‘bout that, Biff.”

“I’m going to ignore that, fox,” I said.

Damn thing grinned. I won’t go into details.

“Am I happy with what I’m doing with my life?” I said. “That’s the toughest question.”

“How’s that, Biff,” said the fox. “Seems pretty straight forward to me.”

“It is,” I said. “But the answer would be pure dread for most people. It would mean looking at what they’re doing and changing it.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people complain about their jobs and say day-after-day how much they’d like to be doing something else. They already have the answer to the question they should be asking; they’re living it every day.

But they’re not asking the question.They’re not speaking directly into themselves and asking, “Am I happy with what I’m doing?” I think the answer, then, would cause regret, panic…tears. So they go on living the wrong answer. I think, if they could honestly answer another question, they might be little more honest with the first.

“What’s that, Biff?” said the fox. “Go ahead and answer. I’m brave.”

“Am I going to die someday?” I said. “I think most people come to grips with this one too late to look back on fulfilling lives.”

“Is that what you’ve done, Biff?” said the fox.

I thought about this for a couple of years and said, “I honestly don’t know, fox.”

“Any hope for you, Biff?” said the fox.

“Not dead, yet, fox,” I said. “Not dead yet.”

(To be continued. Into something different.)

“So, Biff,” said the fox. “What’s this got to do with the search for peace?”

“Everything, fox,” I said. “We need to be asking a lot of meaningful questions and be ready for terribly beautiful answers before peace is ever going to be something we own.”

“You’re not going to die anytime soon, are you, Biff?” said the fox.

“If you’d stop grinning, I’m sure that would add many years.”

Searching for Peace (a closer look at acceptance)

Mirrors

A thousand feet.

I used to work in sales and marketing. It really sucked. You never really had a chance to just be yourself…with all your strong points…and weak points. You weren’t supposed to have any weak points, at least, none that you could ever let anyone know about. Weak points could be exploited and used against you. Weak points could lose a contract or a client. Weak points could get you laid off or fired. So they weren’t allowed. You had to be perfect in every way.

It was bullshit.

And probably why there’re so few great sales and marketing people around. Maybe if we could all accept that nobody’s perfect and that our faults may even work towards making each of us distinct from each other, then just maybe we could accept that it’s OK to be human.

A thousand feet.

We used to have sales and marketing meetings in which some bozo would always say, “Let’s take the thousand foot view on this.” Sometimes it was 800 hundred feet. 400 feet. I think it depended on how much you didn’t want to see that didn’t fit in with what you wanted to see. You know, obscure everything with too much noise so that you could bore into those places that promised a whole new approach without having to essentially change anything.

I mean, what can you really see from a thousand feet up? Oceans of motion. The confusion of the moment multiplied a thousand times. It only worked for people who wanted it to work, but few did.

I always wondered what would happen if, like in Bruce Lee’s movie Enter the Dragon, those long and boring sales and marketing meetings were held in a room full of mirrors with all the meeting participants shuffling around trying to find a new idea and seeing only reflections of themselves and the other participants.

Talk about your thousand foot view…trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Some ancient cultures believed that mirrors reflected the true nature, or shadow soul, of the viewer. Can you imagine all those sales and marketing people wandering around seeing themselves and the others with all their strengths…and all their weaknesses? They’d all be out of jobs.

Unless they just accepted what they saw and said, “Hey, Arnie, you’re a human being. And that’s OK with me.”

“Thanks, Sabrina…you’re OK too.”

And they might even find that bright new idea.

But then…

“Arnie. Sabrina. I see your weaknesses. You’re both fired.”

There’s always that asshole to fuck up the best of things and scare everyone away from just being themselves.

“Hey, Biff,” said the fox. “Remember what you said about just looking into a mirror and accepting yourself?”

“Yes, fox,” I said. “I do.”

“Well…” the fox tried to say.

“I’m not looking at my naked body again while standing at the edge of a thousand foot cliff,” I said.

“Maybe more assholes should do that,” said the fox.

“If only,” I said.

(To be continued. Somewhere else. Again.)

“So you were one of those sales and marketing assholes, Biff?” said the fox.

“Please don’t grin when you say that.”