Tie One On

Lately I’ve started wearing sturdy button-down Oxford shirts
and a tie to work — and not just a tie, but a tie bar,
too. And on Wednesdays when we have staff meetings,
French-cuff shirts and cuff-links!

Not a suit, mind you. That would just be pretentious. I’m a
coder, not a banker or a lawyer.

And it’s not that I work in an office environment that
requires these sorts of accouterments; it’s been decades
since such extra decorations were expected of the rank and
file. Indeed, except for middle and upper management types,
and the occasional visiting Extremely Important Executive,
the Innsbrook Technical Center is a bastion of Business
Casual and Jeans Each And Every Friday — endless diffident
cubicles and hallways and lunch tables of pasty men clad in
khakis and polo shirts, tubular women slacked and bloused
like markdown mannequins at a fire sale.

In fact, I used to be (more-or-less) one of those
down-dressed sadlings myself. I had my own private uniform:
black jeans and solid color double-knit shirts — with a
handy pocket for my pens and pads — and on days when I felt
especially curmudgeonly toward the world, my six-inch slide
rule and a little microwave detector that would chirp
intermittently like a demented robotic squirrel as I walked
down halls or into meeting rooms. I wore a hat — not just
any hat, but a black Chairman Mao hat (sans red star,
fortunately). My hair was appropriately ponytailed. My
shoes were scuffed and world-weary, my gait the downcast
resentful shuffle of the socially inept.

No whiskers, though. Not even a chin-tuft. I was reaching
more for a suffering, slightly-puffy Chopin-esque look.
Tormented. Misunderstood. Soldiering up the Sisyphean slope
toward ennui and regret. A doughy sack of existential doubt.

Taken in toto, these are, of course, the usual warning flags
and buoy markers of a typical introverted software type,
teetering on the abyss of Asperger’s, allergic to sports and
manly comradeship, more comfortable with finite state
machines than with the infinitely more complicated gadgetry
of human interaction.

Acerbic retorts always loaded in the reply hopper? Oh, yes.

Pun-and-wordplay-generator set a maximum? Yup.

A compulsive need to hyper-analyze the simplest, most
inoffensive sentence, proffering inscrutable replies? Check.

An indefinable, angst-laced ache at People With Friends,
People with Important Filled Calendars, People brimming with
Manly (or Womanly) Purpose stormtroopering into Futures
bursting with fulfillment and repose?

Checkmate.

I don’t recall that I ever intentionally set out to wrap
myself in such a pall of archetypal pretensions. I didn’t
even have the excuse of recent teenager-hood to explain my
sullen affectations. I’m careening toward sixty, and I’ve
been at this same job (writing pretty much the same type of
process-control software) for over thirty-five years.

But over those same years, I suppose I’ve neglected my garden
of self. The weeds had grown. The hedges had become
untrimmed. I had cracks in my brickwork.

And don’t get me started about how much the fence needed
straightening, repairing, repainting.

Then just about a year ago — temporarily — we hired an
additional software type into our group. I say temporarily,
because by now that restless soul has moved on to another
lily-pad in a new puddle of self-made tears (as indeed, their
resume strongly suggested would be the case, inevitably).
But for those few months I had (temporarily) an example of
what I had become — a mirror, of sorts, reflecting me back
at myself. Distorted and inexact, since this restless one was
roughly half my age, but recognizable.

Social awkwardness worn like a bandoleer. Quirky, prickly
personality, rife with cracks and traps for the unwary. A
plethora of behaviors, hobbies, speech-patterns, attitudes
and attributes all neon-bright, billboard-large, and,
frankly, embarrassing.

Black hat, too. And scruffy clothing. And the resentful,
eyes-down shuffle.

In a moment of intense, Hitchcockian clarity, I realized what
a guy nearly sixty must look like, behaving that way. What
an object of penguin-shaped, bumbling ridicule he must
present to the world.

Okay — maybe not quite that bad. But I did suddenly
realize that, whether through sloth or simple neglect, I had
allowed myself to morph into a slope-shouldered trope of
nerdly self-loathing. And I didn’t want to be that way any
more.

So I ditched the jeans and the polo shirts for some dress
shirts and slacks. I got my spouse to cut my hair. I lost
thirty pounds. I even bought a new car — not for the manly
status potential (it’s a peppy little Fiat 500, if you must
know) or as the balm for some psychic mid-life pimple I’m too
timid to pop — but because my previous car had become a
handy excuse to feel disadvantaged and at odds with the
world, another notice-me neon pointing to my own diminished
sense of self.

And I started wearing a tie. Not as a new species of
notice-me billboard, or as some sort of improved armor to
protect me from the world of loud, brash, purpose-packed
extroverts, but as a reminder to myself that how I feel,
how  I meet the world, what I am, is as much under my
control as anything can be in this age of data mining and
twittering connectivity, selfies and social networks,
15-nanosecond celebrities and round-the-clock news cycles.

It seems to work, too. I don’t look at the ground so much as
I walk. I try to keep my shoulders back. When I notice a
furtive double-take from a co-worker, I smile
ever-so-slightly, as though I’d just learned a wonderful
secret (better late than never). And I don’t shuffle.

Acid Dump

We bought our house twenty years ago, and in those early
days (halcyon days?) there was much for former apartment
dwellers to learn and marvel over. It’s an old house, built
in 1927, and had lain dormant and forlorn on the market for
many months before we — giddy with the idea of bricks and
wood and dirt and slate and tin roofs and joists and
radiators of our very own — signed papers until our hands
ached.

Early on, the sewer line was balky, maybe from disuse, maybe
from all the cleaning and de-wallpapering we did. Back then
there were still hardware stores in Carytown, and from one
of them I bought two bottles of a drain opener with the
magical name ‘Liquid Fire’.

The bottle was red plastic (obviously), and carried enough
skull-and-crossbone warnings in giant letters and multiple
exclamation points to scare off a seasoned Centurion. The
liquid inside was purple, acrid and foul-smelling. Concentrated sulfuric acid, the giant letters said. Burns. Fumes. Every drop concentrated danger.

And I had two bottles.

Brave new homeowner that I was, I donned chemical gloves, a
face shield, an old long-sleeved shirt — and slowly poured
one bottle down into the shiny, slimy darkness of the
outside sewer cleanout. Brown/gray smoke curled up, with a
smell like a mouthful of horseradish spiced with
vinegar. For a moment, I thought I was burning a hole in my
seventy-year old sewer line, and I imagined a backhoe
growling and trenching up the back yard before I’d even made
a year’s worth of mortgage payments.

Then the bottle was empty. I re-capped it, hurled it into
the trash as though it contained a demon, and ran cold water
through the drain for an hour. Somewhere downstream, rats
and cockroaches screamed as a fuming smoky apocalypse roiled
them into oblivion. I wondered if sinkholes might open in
the alley as Liquid Fire consumed vermin, old iron pipes,
old clay pipes, ate through tree roots and dirt and stone
until–in a gassy gray-brown geyser–a sewage Sauron arose
to lay his odorous finger upon me.

Well, nothing like that happened. But the drain line didn’t
work any better, either. So I called a plumber, who came
with two frowning plumbing attendants and an electric rooter
the size of a refrigerator. They chuffed and huffed and ran
their magic device through the inside cleanout (was that
my sin, I wondered at the time?) for an endless grinding
time. A few hundred dollars later they left.

The drain seemed to work a little better (a few hundred
dollars is a mighty fine inducement to reality-altering
perception). Some weeks went by, then more weeks, until one
night sludge slipped under the basement door and bubbled up
through the basement drain.

Now, I still had that second bottle of Liquid Fire, but I
had already tempted the Muses of Darkness once and
lived. Twice would be folly. So instead, I bought myself a
huge manual drain opener — a vast, hooped ribbon of steel
with a walnut-sized plum bob at one end — and spent hours
jamming and ramming it down into the depths.

Long about midnight, I broke through whatever nameless,
eldritch horror had blocked my line (a bloated weasel
carcass? encrusted poo from the McCarthy era? a wad of
hundred dollar bills hidden for decades, now lost?).

And that was that. From that day to this, nary a problem
with the sewer line.

But … I still had that second bottle of Liquid Fire. For
years it sat like an accusation, some sort of Faustian
reminder of my youthful indiscretion, early homeowning
hubris wrapped in skull-and-crossbones and big red letters
and a baker’s dozen exclamation points.

For twenty years it sat — first on a shelf in the
basement, then out in the garage, then in a big old utility
bucket out under an awning I built to shelter bicycles, and
when those didn’t work out, all sorts of half-empty paint
cans and half-used spray acrylics, along with other
homeownery detritus.

And every time I passed that red death’s-head bottle, I
thought,  Someday I need to do something about that.

But I never did. Twenty winters. Twenty springs, summers,
autumns. Someday I need to do something about that.

Until this past Saturday, when suddenly, as though a switch
had clicked in my mind, or I had become possessed by some
autonomous Spirit of Essential Simplification, I found
myself donning chemical gloves, safety glasses (by now I was
a seasoned homeowner; face shields are for newbies, and it was too hot for a long-sleeved shirt ), and slowly pouring the purple devil liquid down the basement sink drain.

Brown-gray smoke, just like I remembered. Horseradish and
vinegar fumes. Check. Every drop concentrated evil danger.
Oh, most definitely.

And when the bottle was empty and capped and in the trash I
felt spent, the way Monet must have felt when he put the
last blat of blue on the last water lily, or Stravinsky when
he finally drew the double bar line at the end of the Rite
of Spring (and probably, I’m thinking, blew on the ink to
make sure it wouldn’t smear).

As though I hadn’t done something, but that something had
been done through me.

And I got to wondering how much that sort of thing happens
all the time, with events and needs less momentous than an
incriminating red bottle of Liquid Fire. When I decide I
want a cup of tea, do I decide it, or do I just go along
for the ride?

Tea? Great idea! Fine by me.

Maybe we  never notice when we’re driving, and when
we’re just riding along. After all, if you’ve been inside
your head your whole life, and never known any difference,
you’d get pretty used to how things work.

Maybe, like the materialists say, consciousness really is
an illusion, an epiphenomenon, a by-product of all the
chemicals sloshing around inside us, and we’re really just
squishy robots following a bunch of half-baked random rules
that sometimes lead to Shakespeare and Beethoven and Gundam
animes.

Or maybe, like the Jungians say, there’s an unlived me
inside the lived me who sometimes bangs on the roof and
takes the wheel for a dangerous curve or a tricky traffic
circle.

Single lane up ahead. Merge left. Slow down. Let
me just get us around that speed bump — Okay, all yours
again.

And then the unlived me goes back to whatever it is unlived
me-s do when they’re not driving — poetry, or composing
fugues. Or just lighting out over the rills and buttes of
the collective unconscious.

Me, I’m with the Jungians. It is much more interesting to
think there’s an exciting, erudite inner me busily plotting
all the stories I’d like to somehow manage to write, as
opposed being simply a mindless extended chemical reaction
whose ultimate goal is to become fertilizer.

So, I’m going to keep a weather eye out for when my inner me
is driving, when I’m just auto-piloting and yet still
managing to do stuff. Maybe I can get that other me’s
attention and we can start exchanging plot points, get sort
of a joint effort going.

In fact, I may have already gotten a start on that. I pulled
a Google just now, and Liquid Fire is still available — in
gallon jugs (room! for! even! more! skulls! and!
exclamation! points!). A calm peacefulness settles over me
as I contemplate the (about) 57,900,000 search results.

It’s the peacefulness of complete agreement between my outer
and inner me. No Liquid Fire for us, thank you very much.

So we’re off to a good start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too Much Zeitgeist

Yesterday I had to attend a training session on workplace
violence, so I sat in an auditorium for two hours with an
assortment of other stolid middle-aged office-workers,
watching a video, listening to a pleasant and pregnant young
woman who used to be a homicide detective read PowerPoint
slides and tell us how much force it takes to rip off an
active shooter’s ear (8 and a half pounds, if you need to
know). She also revealed that our elbows were the hardest
parts of our bodies, patted one of her own as though proud
to have such a battering ram at no extra metabolic charge.

All of us, packing bony heat. The very idea.

The video was done by one of those firms specializing in
this sort of collective anxiety medicine; it was like a
crime-recreation documentary done on a tight budget. First:
earnest, slightly-dumpy guys with titles suggesting
astonishing and arcane expertise stared soulfully into the
camera, or off to the side (giving ‘candid’ interviews to an
invisible someone — just talking, imparting hard-won wisdom
while we peeked), saying obvious, common-sense, mundane
aphorisms with all the evangelical fervor of revivalists.
People get angry for reasons. Angry people upset other
people. Some people have sad lives. Trust your gut
instincts. Run if you can, hide if you can’t.

That sort of thing.

And then came unsettling skits: all shaky hand-held camera
work, dim lighting, apocalyptic music, un-actorly actors
carefully sprinkled among popular combinations of age,
gender, race. Un-acting in a soul-crushing cubicle farm
where they didn’t seem to do much more than talk about each
other and look at graphs and flee a scruffy shooter.

I wondered about those people. Were they once theater
majors? All glossy-eyed with hope and excitement,
memorizing an Ionesco one-act just for the experience?
Scoring a walk-on in an Ibsen play in summer stock? Running
improv with friends? Dreaming of Shakespeare?

But now, ground down like the rest of us, had they settled
for playing the angry white-shirted bald guy who slams his
notebook down on his desk, grinds his teeth so we can see
the muscles twitch, narrows his eyes like Brando in that old
movie about motorcycles?

I played the angry bald guy in ‘Workplace Violence’, I
imagined them saying to anyone who listened. I nailed it.
I really, really owned that part. It was a good experience
for me. But their eyes would be sad, the surrender and
defeat etched deep on their faces. Their shoulders would
bow. They would know. They would know we know.

Then I saw the man in the row in front of me, nodding at the
video, leaning forward in concentration and excitement,
getting it. Getting it all. He was there, un-acting along
with the video. That bald, white-shirted guy, he obviously
thought. He’s nailing it.

Every once in a while the video would stop and the pleasant
pregnant lady would read to us a slide that usually repeated
what the video had already shown us. Sometimes we would get
some extras: the phone numbers to call if someone exhibited
‘behaviors of concern’; statistics, of course — those
always pump up plausibility; real-world examples from
company files with the names changed to obscure the
innocent.

It worried me, that no one even coughed when we were told
we’re all supposed to watch our co-workers and report
anything ‘of concern’. We shouldn’t hesitate if we’re
unsure. Better safe than sorry. Corporate security will know
what to do.

Toward the end, after watching too many repeats of the
scruffy active shooter guy stalk the cubicle farm with his
assault weapon, the pleasant pregnant lady told us if we
can’t run and we can’t hide, we just might have to try to
take that scruffy guy out. After all, at that point we’d
have nothing to lose. We might have to become more violent
than we had ever thought possible.

As though we had all been violent in the past, just a ho-hum
perfectly acceptable level of violence. Quarrel
violence. Angry shout violence. Laying on the horn in
traffic violence. But no teeth grinding. No slamming
notebooks.

And then the training was over, and all that really stuck
with me was a lingering, wistful sadness. I thought about
the time I had slammed a notebook down, after hours of a
long debugging session that seemed hopeless.

I thought about the scruffy shooter. I thought about dead
first graders, dead high-school students, dead college
students, wounded and maimed and slain people from
everywhere — offering their blood and pain and loss to this
new, nervous normal: glance over your shoulder, be watchful,
report your concerns, always be ready to be ruthless and
violent at a moment’s notice.

No thanks, I told the pleasant pregnant lady as I left the
auditorium. Not my world. Yours, maybe. But I’ll opt out,
and go on believing that people are mostly, basically good
— if sometimes a little confused. That the few bad people,
in the end, won’t matter all that much unless we let them.
Unless we become like them: glancing over our shoulders,
being watchful, reporting concerns, taut and shivering,
always ready for violence.

But I was a coward, I guess. I only told her in my mind as I
walked out. I didn’t want her to have to report a concern,
or glance at me just a little more sharply than usual, or
wonder if she needed to ready her elbow and choose which of
my ears needed to go.

 

 

 

 

Begin. Repeat. Begin.

Long ago, when I was seven, I used my mother’s typewriter to
transcribe — word by word, character by carefully
discovered character — all the captions in my Fireball XL-5
coloring book, until at the end I had a little pseudo-story. Three or four uneven lines of gray, wobbly  letters and spaces, because I hadn’t quite figured out how to insert the paper, or snap the lever to hold it tight, and I hadn’t quite figured out the spacebar, and the ribbon was dry anyhow.

Now wouldn’t that make a great start to a writing career?
Maybe. Maybe not.

A couple of years later I wrote a novel of sorts in one of
those tiny pocket-sized 6-ring loose-leaf binders with
bible-thin paper the size of index cards but lined the other
way. Chapter after chapter in almost Spencerian cursive
about flying to Alpha Centauri and exploring planets and
finding underground cities and volcanoes and escaping from
earthquakes and monsters. My fourth grade teacher liked it
so much she took it home and I never saw it again.

But wouldn’t that make a great start to a writing career?
Original work, after a fashion! So loved by a reader they
couldn’t bear to return it!

Again, maybe. Maybe not.

Then a couple of years further on I typed (in a customized
four-finger two-thumb style from which I’ve never entirely
recovered) a story about two boys and a spaceship that was
given to them by aliens. Actually, that story turned into
three  stories — the first one on erasable bond and the last
one on onion-skin paper that still has a sheen like
econo-vellum, or the tissue paper that comes with antique
jewelry.

Surely juvenilia (liberally! sprinkled! with! exclamation!!! marks!!!!) makes a great start to a writing career. No timeless quality required, just embarrassing amounts of energy (!!). And a series, no less.

Well … maybe.

So it has gone over the decades. High school, and a vast
unfinished fantasy novel that lurched from Tolkien to Andre
Norton to Magnus Robot Fighter, with one brief detour into a
thicket of E. R. Eddison.

Poems, of course. Teenagers and poems. Hand and glove. Pea
and pod. Lock and key.

Then college and more poems and some ‘realistic’ short
stories, the kind that show up in little hundred-copy
literary magazines that sell for a dollar at the used
book store, and end up tucked in the magazine rack at the
laundromat, with mustaches drawn on the cover and somebody’s
phone number scrawled on the back.

But, a couple of my poems and a short story made it into a
couple of those little magazines. So there, at last, the
start —

Not really, alas.

I put it all away at thirty or thirty-five, and hunkered
down to writing software (which, I guess, is a sort of
writing career after all, if you’re feeling generous. A
compiler is an editor that will never lie to you. And the
surest way to see if your plot is worth a damn is to see if
the software performs as intended).

Besides, by that time I was married to a lovely, wonderful
woman; and then came car and house; and not long after a
lovely, wonderful daughter. And I wrote a lot of software,
and I thought: this will do. This will take me from
midnight to midnight, too busy to ponder, too busy learning
multi-threaded coding and perl and what bash is really good
for to wonder about all the unlived lives I carried inside
me.

And sure enough, the years have ticked by like the miles on a trip meter until one day you glance at the dash and are amazed at how
very far you’ve traveled. And you only remember a little
of the trip — a view or two, the rest stops, a nice
bed-and-breakfast. And you wonder if you’ve reached your
destination, or if you’ve got further to go.

And most amazingly of all, you find that one of those early
stops — way back when the car still smelled new, and the
morning was sharp and bright, the shadows like long gray
runners laid over the world, and all the promises you made
yourself were promises of adventure — was the place you
most remembered. The place you’d like to visit again.

So it seems I’m writing stories again. Absurd. Sisyphean,
even. And I sputter and fritter and stop and start and hem
and haw. I wring my hands. I wonder just why I flog myself
to begin another Quixotic windmill-run.

Then I remember the sharp bright morning. The long shadows.
The promises of adventure I made to that unlived life inside
me. And I keep beginning this one last time.