“I saw six men kicking and punching the mother-in-law. My neighbor said, ‘Are you going to help?’ I said, ‘No, Six should be enough.’” – Les Dawson
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” – Elie Wiesel
“A man only becomes wise when he begins to calculate the approximate depth of his ignorance.” - Gian Carlo Menotti
“If it’s true that our species is alone in the universe, then I’d have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.” – George Carlin
“All generalizations are false, including this one.” – Mark Twain
“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” – Douglas Adams
“Our attitude toward life determines life’s attitude towards us.” – John N. Mitchell
“What you perceive, your observations, feelings, interpretations, are all your truth. Your truth is important. Yet it is not The Truth.” – Linda Ellinor
“The unreal is more powerful than the real, because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. Because it’s only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.” – Chuck
“By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”― Franz Kafka
Having a near death experience is almost as liberating as a near hobo experience. Personally, I prefer the latter.
Now some of you may be so uppity as to suppose my hoboing was to blame for what befell me. Hogwash. Balderdash, even. It weren’t nothin’ but secret government agents. They reconnoitered my hobo camp, surveilled my affiliates, checked my library accounts, and knew very well my political leanings. The hospital didn’t care to look, but I’m betting there’s tungsten powder in my lungs. Later I found they even collected my tent as evidence. Of course, I’ll allow that it could have been another up-and-coming hobo who purloined it.
But getting back to my recuperation, I was laid up in that hospital bed for seven days and nights with a tube sticking out of my ribbed cage. They had it hooked to a vacuum, which may as well have been sucking the soul out of my hobo spirit. Because that’s nearly what it’d done.
I was eating three squares a day, sleeping in a bed, watching Bonanza on the talkie-vision. There wasn’t no end to it. The only thing keeping me hobo was my refusal to shave, inability to shower, a persistent, non-communicable skin fungus, and the excruciating pain.
Now I must confess something to the reader. I haven’t been completely forthright all this time. There was another plot, paralleled and intertwined with the current one, all along. You see, love found Hobo. Yep. It snuck up on him unawares one night on the internets of all places. Yahoo! used to be a famous cry of the hobo cousin, the cowboy. Now it’s just an ethereal location with icons where souls meet. And so it was for Hobo a little ironic and very iconic.
From the moment Hobo came out of anesthesia and uttered the words “call Sara,” his marauding, meandering path in life was straitened to the yolk of love and domesticity. He knew if someone didn’t reach her to relay the news she would have been worried something awful and maybe would even have thrown herself into some other hobo’s arms in grief. Hobo was pretty sure the person whose name is on one’s lips the moment the effects of the ether wear off is someone pretty darned important. He’d read Romeo & Juliet after all.
This was the most precious ruination of Hobo he could ask for. There was even poetry to it.
Hobo and Sara commenced with plans to meet in person. It would be expensive and fraught with peril for all. It was a proper love story. Her parents were filled in at long last, and so too, Hobo’s. Each relation gave his or her blessing—albeit with reservations about such an arrangement. But it was Sara and Hobo who would be making the reservations before too long—in Turkey.
Fortunately, Hobo was socking away for just such an occasion.
With hurried planning in the works, his recuperation took on a ragtag tumbling brawl betwixt Hobo and his self. Would he become something other than Hobo? Or would Hobo land a haymaker on this heretofore noncommittal, aimless, ne’er-do-well? It was a fisticuffs-to-end-all-fisticuffs.
But have patience dear reader. Hobo’s ramblings weren’t quite to their end.
Out of the hospital, weak and humbled, I was offered and took up residence at a dear old friend’s house. His wife was with child and I can’t thank them enough for their sparing their guest room for a sorry, stinky, and humbled hobo. I was on another’s dime and feeling mighty shiftless about it, but was for the moment too weak to change my circumstances.
This friend was at the time still partaking of dried cannabis flower in the smoked form. Having been fond of jazz cigarettes in my earlier days, I found I was still partial to it. However, we both reckoned it wasn’t the wisest of things to enjoy what with my newly healed lung being unsullied and all. So we did what any functioning co-dependents would do—we improvised and baked pot cookies. After a few nights at that homestead, I was well enough to go back to my campsite. But to my horror I found that my tent was gone. My camp broken, my cover blown again, I set out for new land. But before I did, I took out my pocket knife and scrawled defiantly into the tree, “HOBO WAS HERE!”
Well, seems you couldn’t get enough of our resident Hobo – an oxymoron if I ever heard one. So, after a four-year leave of absence, he’s a-back. Hard times, people, hard times. Our Hobo – hereafter mostly referred to as “me” – had a change of fortune two or three times over and back again. It seems the Big Hobo in the Sky saw fit to strike me down in the prime of my hobo youth. A mere 30 years old and humbled like a Wall Street con man.
Sometimes people think when that big fellow hits he’s a-gonna wallop you like a thunder strike. Well, there I was, sleepin’ all restful-like in my environs, dreamin’ of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, when little by little I was stirred from my sleep. Just some back pain, I thought. So I rolled over and went back to sleep on that hard-scrabbled makeshift bed o’ mine. Next time I woke up with back pain and fullness in my solar plexus. Now this was highly uncommon for a hobo of my constitution. And the consumption was not afoot in these parts, so far as I knew. So at this juncture – I’m not ashamed to admit – I was afear’d.
First thoughts were the heart attack. For a long time before I switched tracks over to a transient lifestyle I was a self-professed hypochondriac. A bit like Redd Foxx in the Sandford and Son sitcom, I feared the “big one” three or four times a day. But I was a recovering hypochondriac, so I tried awful hard not to panic.
Pretty soon I was in a fix. My split-second list of possible ailments included the heart attack, the pulmonary embolism, the pheochromocytoma, or just plain old hypochondria (otherwise known as “the fits”). But then I remembered my own father’s 30-something spontaneous hemothorax. That’s when your lung just up and starts bleeding on its own, voodoo-like. Then, if you don’t get help, you drown in your own blood. My father’s episode ended with a scared-outta-his-wits junior doctor plunging a scalpel into my father’s chest at the last minute to drain the blood which was more like bursting a blood-filled balloon releasing a shocking six foot crimson geyser, leaving a Pollock-esque souvenir art piece on the hospital ceiling. And he lived to tell the tale. True story. Still smokes non-filtered cigarettes, too. The grizzledest most hardscrabbledest man I ever knew.
Upon this consideration, my hypochondria was held in check and I resolved to break camp early and ride my bike to the emergency room. If a hobo can’t out-hardscrabble his own father or die trying, why live? I figured the worst that could come of it was a true and worthy hobo death either behind a vacant gas station lot among the overgrown vegetation and water-filled tires with skeeter larvae or on the side of the road – literally in the margins of society, which would leave the hobo poet soul brimming with a deep satisfaction, I might add. It was also a solid test of my hypochondria recovery, which I passed.
I pedaled about eight miles or so – not to the nearest hospital, but to the second-nearest. By the time I passed within eyeshot of the first hospital – a place known for its nuns, reforming alcoholics, and a killing off of the hobo spirit – why, I was hurtin’ bad enough to want to live, but not bad enough to want to die. So I pedaled on further to another hospital known by many a hobo as a place to get warm, vomit, and maybe sober up occasionally. It so happened that this hobo had family employed there, as well – a small comfort indeed.
By the time our Hobo landed, he could barely walk. Standing up straight hurt the most, as it does for many hobos or others in such an ostracized social state. But this was much more than usual. Furthermore, he noticed a peculiar cough, one he likened to a whoopee cushion which rattled as he exhaled. As he breathed for the doctors and nurses who were fussing over him with tubes, electrodes, and other doodads, his heart warmed to the hobo credentials he was earning and he smiled a wide hobo grin of snaggletooth delight. Hobos have a way with descriptions. And this one did not disappoint with his whoopee lung. It was a whoopee lung’d pedal journey that would be his ticket to hobo hall of fame. This surely could trump his grandpa’s being born six months premature and incubated in a cigar box next to a wood stove, being too poor to know there was a Great Depression on, and living to tell the tale.
Hobo had many reasons to smile. He was yet alive, still earning hobo points while pilfering some creature comforts in an honest to goodness bed. Bathed in a sterile white, and being unknown to the hobo nature, was otherworldly and only added to the heavenly attributes of the entire experience. Mark Twain wore entire suits of white in his older years. Hobo knows why.
It was soon revealed that a spontaneous pneumothorax had visited Hobo in his sleep, and nearly wrested his eternal spirit through a hole in his lung as Hobo, himself, was resting his very transient body.
Like father like son.
As it was in the beginning and so forever shall be… and all that other happy horse hooey.
According to 300 cubic centimeters of leaked data from an incontinence study, aging Americans are twice as likely to urinate before reaching a toilet than they were 15 years ago. The results put to bed the idea that the European continent was the worst sufferer of incontinence. French scientist, Pierre Talet, thumbed his nose as he quipped “Who’s European now, America?”
Still researchers are not certain of what’s causing the increase. “We are now trying to collect more leaked data to determine if the increase is from a larger, older population, more beverage drinking, enlarged prostates, weakened bladders, shorter urethras, sleeping with the hand in a pot of water, or just laziness,” said lead researcher, Dr. Yuri Nader.
Up to 75% of study subjects, mostly middle age adults or older, reported frequent urinary urgency alone, while 15% reported flatulent urgency immediately followed involuntary urination. 7% claimed to not pee all day, citing “stage fright” while in public restrooms, only to report going home in a race against time, which they often lost. The remaining 3% of respondents did not seem to know why they were participating in the study.
People keep telling me to cheer up.
Some of my friends teased me throughout college because I’d sometimes wear a frown during class. I’d be staring at nothing in particular; just sitting and listening and thinking. I was never conscious of it; I am certain that it was a default expression of mine; eyebrows knitted in thoughtful contemplation, maybe arms folded across chest, all devil-may-care.
“Why do you look so angry in class?” They’d ask me. “Why do you frown so much while you brush your teeth?”
“I’m not angry,” I’d answer. And it was always the truth. Well, almost always. But people tend to notice when I’m angry. I tend to notice.
A woman at work the other day – somebody I’d never spoken to (I didn’t know her name and still don’t) – asked me, not exactly politely:
“Are you always that intense?”
She asked this based solely on whatever expression was on my face. My answer should have been something like this:
“I’m at work. What the hell is there to be grinning about?”
But I turned it into a joke, like this:
“I’m at work. I’m in the zone. It isn’t any fun in the zone.”
She just looked at me like I’d threatened to shoot up a post office.
What the hell kind of thing is that to say to a perfect stranger? Suppose I accosted somebody I’d never met and asked them any one of the following questions:
Excuse me; do you always look that pregnant?
Hello. Why do you smell like cat poop and raspberries?
Hi! Are you gay? You look pretty gay.
I see people on a daily basis who seem to arrange their faces purposefully in as unpleasant an arrangement as possible. It can’t happen by accident; it’s the sort of expression that takes practice and effort. I stay away from these people. I skirt around them at work, avoid eye contact, avoid anything that might require dialogue. They’re off-putting. They all look like walking great depression-era photographs with a great deal less personality.
So when I am treated like these many dour people, I’m a little offended. I got the usual pleading from my mother to “smile nicely” in photographs, and the same from my father, who was eager to see the return on his investment in my teeth; the cost of my orthodontic treatments throughout the years could have bought a modest palace somewhere in the middle east. Despite this, I’d keep my lips shut and smile with my mouth closed. I have to believe it looked more natural than throwing my mouth wide open in an alarming grin like I’d just discovered masturbation.
But maybe I’m not actually treated the same after all. Perhaps I remain approachable anyway regardless. There’s evidence for this. For some reason I’ll never understand, people want to talk to me. I don’t make any effort to avoid conversation – I just don’t pursue it. A terrible trait for a writer, I’m sure. So I’m astonished anytime someone reaches out to me. What is it about me? I have no idea and I may never know.
But people at work make conversation, and not even what I’d call polite conversation. Which is not to say that the conversation is impolite. What I mean is that it’s not smalltalk. They want to know me. Several of them know details of my recent personal history that one or both of my parents don’t. And I know stuff about them, too. This guy at work – we’ll call him Fred – sidles up to me at startup in the mornings and makes the smalltalk. And then we’re back loading trucks in the afternoon and he’s spilling his guts about lost hopes and dreams and an absentee, alcoholic wife and a gifted kid that he wants to give the world to. He’s 37 years old, and has a perspective that I’ll not have for quite some time. And I value it highly.
And there’s other stuff, too, like the number of times he and his brothers hit each other in the head with shovels and other blunt instruments. One day in his childhood he stole a bike from one of his brothers (he is one of nine children) for a day of riding. That evening as he slept in his bed, the wronged brother snuck up and hit him in the head with a brick. How is it that I know this now? Why must I know this? Fred laughs about it now and I laugh about it. He claims it was even funny at the time, even with all the blood on the pillow and the sheets. I’m torn between wishing my parents allowed this sort of thing to happen under their roof and being real damned happy they didn’t. But I guess I’m glad to have dodged the brain damage bullet. Fred seems to have dodged that bullet somehow, too, though I can’t imagine how.
And there’s “Bruce Lee” Nguyen, a 47-year-old Vietnamese man who I’ve managed to grow close too. He was born without a filter, so he asks me pointed questions about my relationships and for some reason I answer candidly and calmly, glad to have another pair of ears at my disposal. It only got weird after he told me he had a dream about the two of us working in an ice cream factory together. But the creepiness subsided quickly enough and I went back to marveling that this man who’s seen the world for what it is can still have the uncomplicated, joyful dreams of a child.
There are people who were born to share. I’ll never be one of them. I’ll spill my guts if I’ve had a few drinks (it takes considerably fewer now than it did in college) or if I know somebody particularly well. I believe I have a longer than usual warm-up period.
Back to the subject at hand, I have to believe that the expression on my face that my friends (and strangers!) affectionately call “anger” is my face’s neutral state. I’m not about to go around grinning like an idiot. Only people who own windowless vans do that. And it isn’t a scowl that deters or discourages essential human interaction. I’m not conscious of it. I’m not creating a persona. I’ve seen people who do this, who cultivate a personality that is not their own; it’s in their face, in the way they move. And sometimes I see them when they think nobody is watching. And they’re still doing it. They have substituted their personality with a false one – perhaps the most tragic amputation of all.
I am not one of these. I don’t try to appear as anything other than what I am. Not really. Maybe sometimes I bend the truth and maybe I can choose to feign calm when it doesn’t come easily, but that’s really the extend of the deception I’d bring to bear on a perfect stranger.
So much of what we do depends upon our understanding that we exist, physically – that we are seen by others, that we know ourselves to be standing upon this floor with these feet and are holding this box with these hands. What else could we be capable of, if we were not possessed of such a need to accommodate our physicality, to wonder and stress and live and die according to how we are seen by others, and to how we see ourselves?
I have had to dramatically decrease the scope of my ambitions.
During my LEGO-strewn childhood, my mother was quick to tell me that I had what she called “good spatial awareness” and that I could, if I wanted to, pursue a career in architecture. I remember being surrounded by notebooks full of graph paper and pencils in constant need of sharpening, sketching out schematics for spaceships from Star Wars and some of my own design. But when when I took to the dull parallelisms and straight lines of homes of office buildings, my sketches became stilted and hollow and wholly uninspired.
And my dad reminded me gently that my less-than-impressive grades in mathematics were unbecoming of an architect. He didn’t do this to discourage me from my dreams; quite the opposite. But I have no doubt I caused him at least a flicker of disappointment; he himself is gifted with a knowledge of the absolutes of numbers and their function, having worked as an engineer and programmer for almost as long as I have been alive. He was never a terribly patient teacher but he was knowledgeable, and helped me limp through my math classes. I remember him buying me a set of very expensive student encyclopedias halfway through middle school, and he and I opened them together exactly once: to look up the procedure by which one might – by hand – find the square root of a given number. The method taught by my math teacher had been reproduced imperfectly in my notebook, and so my father and I set out to find an alternative method. We were successful, and I turned in the assignment and received a failing grade. My toad-like math teacher, Mr. Barton (who not even tenure could protect when he backhanded a student), suggested that I pay closer attention to his lessons in the future; alternative methods at reaching the same goal were not permitted. Imagine if all of life worked that way.
So any tiny, withered desire I had to perform well in mathematics got the remaining life crushed out of it and I decided to muddle through with only minimal effort. But while I floundered at math, I flourished in my studies of reading and writing. As early as second grade, teachers were commending me on my vivid and energetic writing voice. My family took a vacation to the Bahamas when I was about this age that I only vaguely remember now, but I do remember coming back and presenting my teacher with journal entries describing my family’s adventures. She thought they were works of fiction; my recollection of a coconut milk vendor trolling the beaches was too perfectly rendered to have been the product of memory, and didn’t have the tell-tale stiltedness of a child’s journal entry. She was the first to tell my mother that I had a possible future in writing.
The second was my fourth grade teacher. I don’t remember what singular thing I did to impress her, but whatever she said to my mom, it wasn’t soon after that Mom’s ambitions of my becoming an architect were replaced by dreams of being a Bestseller’s Mother. I think she’d probably already had the bumper sticker made up. And so after high school I went off to college to pursue a BA in writing. Hindsight tells me it was a fool’s errand on some level, but recent empirical data claims that liberal arts majors are in demand now more than ever. There’s evidence for both pronouncements. I suppose part of the problem is that it’s a career choice that doesn’t really have an endgame in mind; business students, in my experience, have at least an imperfect picture of what they’ll be doing after they graduate. “Writer,” on the other hand, is not a word fit for printing on a business card – it is not a word that instills confidence, however attractive it might be as a self-title.
Four years came and went. I became a writer, I guess. Or began the process of becoming one. I realized how much I didn’t know before I got to college. I learned the craft and perhaps more importantly, I learned about myself. I re-learned myself. I think it’s probably a cliché by now that young men and women go to college to found out who they are. This is absolutely, terribly true; I am a different person – a better person for the time I spent there; I made lasting friends and I unlearned certain truths about the world and about myself and I discovered confidence for probably the very first time in my life and as good as things were at the time, I learned the skills necessary to avoid total implosion when things inevitably got a little less great in the quickly approaching future.
Can these things be accomplished without going to college? I have no doubt that they can be. It’s a truth of our modern world that college students have more doors open to them than do people who didn’t go to college. But this is not to say that the latter are any less valuable as human beings. We are not our collections of skills.
I’ve been out of college for over a year now, and I know exactly two people from my circle of friends who have found a job related to their field of study. Several others have taken jobs best described as the very best of very limited options, and others have chosen to further their education and defer their entry into the real world.
Physics teaches us that potential energy refers to an object’s position relative to a reference point; an object’s potential energy changes according to its physical location. A book resting on the floor, for example, has a great deal less potential energy than does one placed high up on a table. I look around most days and think that, while my current situation isn’t ideal, I do at least have a moderate amount of stored potential.
My brother lives by a similar credo; he attended business classes at the local community college and teaches himself musical theory in his spare time. He’d rather be studying music at Berklee, but until then he’s working to maximize his own stored potential.
For right now, I’m working in an Amazon.com warehouse ten minutes from my house. It isn’t remotely what I expected to be doing a year after I graduated, but as I said before, I never did have a very solid plan. I was recently granted a conversion from a temp to a full-time Amazon associate, which brought with it a (very) modest raise, benefits, and a reasonably secure future with the company. In the couple of months since I started, I’ve managed to distinguish myself in ways that, viewed against the backdrop of the universe’s many galaxies and vast untamable wonders, mean precisely nothing. I have been frequently recognized for the speed and accuracy with which I move boxes from one part of the warehouse to another. My life over the last couple months has been defined by the wait between computer print-outs telling me that I’m meeting or exceeding Amazon’s expectations for productivity. I have a ream of these at home.These are my accomplishments. This is the place from which I cultivate my pride, and measure my ambition.
And maybe the worst of this is the fact that it wasn’t a gradual realization; it hasn’t been a process that I could watch and be aware of and have some measure of control over. No, it was quite sudden indeed. A little bit like an obese man waking up one morning and looking at himself in the mirror and realizing for the very first time that he hasn’t seen his penis in five years.
My ambition is that penis.
I am alone with my thoughts much of the time at work, so it’s easy to let the phrase So this is what my life is? enter my mind. But then I mentally kick my own ass and realize that the constituent parts of my life are so miraculously and completely perfect that I have to remind myself daily, when thoughts like these creep into my head, that I am one of the luckiest people on planet earth. I have a loving family and a roof over my head that I don’t have to share with strangers, running water, clothes to wear, food to eat, friends, a well-rounded skill set, and I’m reasonably attractive and male and white. There isn’t any single thing about my life that somebody, somewhere, wouldn’t murder to have for themselves.
I might be living for small pats on the back when I perform certain menial tasks well, but the truth is that they wouldn’t be thanking me for my quality work if even these stupid, mind-numbing tasks could be done well by just anyone. There is pride to be found here, even in distinguishing myself among other non-skilled workers; there is something worthy of ambition here. Because if I’ve learned anything at all in the last couple of years, it’s that no task is too small to bring the whole of my human essence to bear on it. Nothing is worth doing to anything less than the best of my ability. And reminding myself of this fact is what it takes to remember that what I am is not all that I ever have to be.
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