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I Know

This past week, there was a meme going around Facebook that appeared on my timeline either because a friend "liked" it or a friend posted it. It was a list of principles defining who Donald Trump's supporters are and what drives them to want a Trump Presidency.

It listed the usual things about Hillary Clinton and immigration, extremism, and political correctness. But what struck me the most about it was the first principle: "We hate liberal ideology."

It stuck in my head, and I felt it swimming in the emotional pool I live in, conjuring a disquieting fear and anxiety that swirled around it for days. But I didn't know why.

Until last night.

Last night, as I was reflecting on a beautiful candlelight service in my community that remembered the victims and the families of the victims of the shooting at Pulse, I said the words over and over in my head to feel where the first tendrils of fear and anxiety emerged. I heard them in my mind's ear in different tones and in different voices, fast and slow, and at one point I stopped because I had felt the first deep and chilling grip of those cold eddies around me. I had said just two words.

"We hate."

Like most people, I live in a vast emotional pool every day of my life. I feel joy and grief, hope and fear. I feel anger and sadness, I feel inspiration and anguish, pride and pain in both myself and others.

I love and cherish but can also feel beaten and withdrawn.

But I don't hate.

I don't hate people who have hurt me or wronged me. I don't hate people who have stolen from me or made me feel fear. I don't hate people who believe in God or people who don't, I don't hate Islam or Donald Trump. I don't hate the things that reflect the worst of humanity. I don't hate anyone or anything.

Not because I have chosen not to, not because I have constructed a character that is free from fault. Not because of anything that is special or unique about me.

I don't hate because I don't know how. Other than recognizing the cold chill when I touch hatred in others, I don't know what hate even is.

Trying to explain this gulf between a heart that can't hate and a heart that is filled with hate is like trying to explain what it is like not to hear a note in a scale, or what it is like not to see the color blue. It is like hearing a conversation in the dark about a vicious and terrifying beast and knowing how fearsome and dangerous it is and feeling your skin tightening as the rustle of leaves and snapping of twigs around you signals that it is near, and yet having no idea how to visualize it at all.

"We hate."

I know.

I feel the cold, blackness of that hatred all around me every day now. But I don't hate. I don't know how. And I am deeply, and painfully, sorry that you do.

Anthropomorphism, or, thoughts about love

Buddhism teaches—and this is true of the mystical strands of Judaism as well—that the mind that you are aware of, the mind that prattles on in words and songs and symbols and judgments, is not the actual mind—the "true" mind, if you will—but only an illusion over it, a kind of a shell, through which the rational mind hears consciousness but does not directly experience, or participate, in it.

This is obvious experientially. Today, your conscious mind is reflecting on your experience of the world, which includes both your inner world and your outer world, through the veil of language. You are thinking, "What will I do today," or "That was a really long sentence," and the words, at least as your vocal mind would understand them, are your thoughts.

But there was a time, when you were much younger, when your mind existed, and was aware, before you "thought" in words—a time when, psychologically speaking, you were "precognitive." The shell of your mind in which words form and in which you believe "cognition" takes place, did not have language. The voice in your head that you hear when you believe you are thinking did not yet exist. You could say, if you were inclined to mysticism, that it was "unformed and void," and at some point an awareness grew and separated the larger mind from the crust on which you currently live, and that it has been your task as a human being since then to reuite the two.

But before we can reunite, we have to understand what is in the crust above and what is in the Mind below.

The thoughts you have, the language and the judgments, the day to day dealings of categorization and conflict, definition and measurement, these lie in the crust. The quickening of your heart when you are excited, the pounding of the blood in your temples when you are in terror, the mix of weightlessness and weightiness that you feel when you are in love, these lie in the crust as well. Your mind is different than your thoughts and your awareness. It is different than your perspective, your personality, your feelings, your experiences, and your memories. Your mind is different than your joys and your pains, your conflicts and your friendships.

Your mind has vast depth beneath the shallow crust of your awareness. You can't reason about it any more than you can "measure" truth, "point to" importance, or assign a "color" or a "shape" to meaning. It is there, nonetheless, and it is frighteningly vast, and it is where "you" are, every moment of every day, whether you realize it or not. It is where you hope, it is where you laugh, it is where you yearn.

It is where you love.

We came upon this word before, and surely we know what it means. We love our parents, we love our partners, we love our children. But like so many words, we think we know what we mean when we say them, but in truth we hardly do at all.

If I asked you how you knew you loved someone, you could point to many things. You could talk about the way they make you feel, about what is like to spend time together, about how important it is to you to nurture them and care for them. You could talk about the pounding in your heart or the butterflies in your stomach, about desire and passion and joy. You could talk about the way they ennoble you, and you them, how you feel that the two of you together are greater than the two of you apart. You could talk about what you wish for them and them for you, what you give and what you receive.

But the only things you could talk about are what you can vocalize, and the only things you can vocalize are what you are aware of, and the only things you are aware of are what lie on the crust.

But love is not in the crust.

There is a beautiful prayer in the traditional liturgy that precedes the recitation of the morning Sh'ma—the central meditation on the commandment to "love the Lord your God" with all your being—in which the supplicant affirms, "With a great love You have loved us, Y-H-W-H, our God," and goes on to describe the manifestation of that love as Jews and humanity have experienced it.

But what it doesn't do is answer the fundamental question left in the anthropomorphis of God, which is that if God has no "crust"—no sequential thought as we understand it, no rising and falling of emotions, no past and no future, no memories, no palpable pain, no limited language in which to think and experience—if God is vast and unlimited and mysterious and hidden in the same way that we are vast and unlimited and mysterious and hidden—if we cannot define what "love" means without using words or concepts or experiences because there is no crust on which to define them, how can we understand what it means to say that "with a great love You have loved us" or "that you shall love the Lord your God?"

But of course there is a crust. You see it, you touch it, you smell it and hear it and taste it every day. You live on and in the crust. Just as your thoughts are the physical manifestation of the Mind that lies underneath, the Universe is the physical manifestation of the meaning that lies underneath. It is unformed and void, and awareness comes and separates the two, and it is your task in life to unite them.

I cannot provide the definition of love. The heart erupts as do mountains, the hands shake as do valleys, blood runs as do rivers—the love beneath the crust of the Universe pounds and yearns and rushes and calls out as much as the love beneath the crust of our own Minds.

It is a great love, but no greater than our own. It is a vast love, but no more vast than our own. We huddle and scurry in fear on our crusts, and when we touch it, we tremble.

Memorial Day, a meditation

This weekend, remember that Memorial Day is not about beaches and campgrounds, or about barbecues and parades.

It is a Federal Holiday.

Schools are closed so we do not teach our children that it is our destiny to conquer other lands, and expand our influence, and subjugate others to our needs.

Banks are closed so we cannot count the profits we make on the backs of those who will learn to hate, and one day to rise up, against us.

Government offices are closed so no one is paid to legislate or regulate away the freedoms that so many died to protect.

It is not just a Federal Holiday but the most important Federal Holiday.

So remember our fallen today, and keep those in your heart who are inscribed to fall tomorrow.

K-V-D, a sermon

I want to advance the theological notion that light is an emanative quality that allows the mind to visualize and experience the world, and that, as a category, physical light shares that characteristic with many other kinds of light, one of which is the light of insight, another the light of the attribution of meaning—and that there is a nexus, which the world of religion inhabits, in which these lights are synesthetic, and in which it is legitimate to talk about the shapes and colors of one as though they were the energy and presence of the other.

I was reminded of this while thinking today of another word whose meaning I thought was obvious but which it turns out I did not appreciate at all: the Hebrew K-V-D, kavod, which is translated as "honor" when it is used in the context of "K-V-D your father and your mother" and as "glory" when it is used in the context of "and [God] will rule in K-V-D."

In the Bible, K-V-D is associated with the "Divine Presence," the visible "Glory" of God as it rested on Sinai as a fire or a cloud, or over the Tabernacle or the Temple. It is understood in some synesthetic sense to be a physical thing—what the angels call to each other proclaiming that the Lord of Hosts fills all the Earth with: K-V-D.

It is so deeply important that in the Talmud, the rabbis say, "The K-V-D due to every human being is so great that it suspends a negative precept in the Torah."

But what is this "honor" as it applies to people; and what is the synesthetic light through which people "see" this "glory" of God?

And still maybe more importantly, is there a singular meaning for K-V-D that unifies all the individual senses that have diverged and nuanced over time, and which can deepen our understanding of each? Is there something common that an individual sees when they or another give honor or respect to a human being that is the same, in some way, that the Israelites might have seen as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai awaiting the deliverance of their Law?

I have decided, for myself, that there is, and that it is what you might call "palpable dignity and reverence."

Palpable dignity and reverence is what is due to the source of our life. Palpable dignity and reverence is what rested in the place where a freed nation took on the yoke of becoming a kingdom of priests.

Palpable dignity and reverence is the meaning of K-V-D. It is how we are called to look at the heavens or the stars, at our mother or the planet, and at each other.

Palpable dignity and reverence is what we wish—whether we are Jews or Christians, Muslims or Buddhists, atheists or humanists—the whole world to be full of.

And when we are, it will be too.

Don't Stand So Close to Me

Some things are too painful to fix.

There are no cars patrolling the streets looking for teenagers trying cigarettes for the first time, no sharp-eyed drivers pulling to the side of the road, rolling down their windows, saying, “You know, thirty years ago it was my mom standing her with her friends. I buried her this morning. I want you to have a picture of her when she was your age; just promise me you will look at it once before you try this again.”

There are no trusted elders sitting in our living rooms with us, staying our hands as they reach to the remote control, saying, “You know, there really is nothing that Kim Kardashian has to say that you have to hear. We live in an ever-shrinking world with deep rifts between rich and poor, with violence and hatred tearing apart families every day. Give me ten minutes of your time; let me tell you a little about it and one thing you could do tomorrow to help.”

I am not certain exactly why I follow the stories of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning with such focus and sadness. Perhaps, together, they embody this absence of righteous involvement in the conscience of community. Warn, they have, and have exposed countless truths, lies and manipulations.

Trusted elders they are not.

I was thinking the other day about one of my favorite TV shows from the days before the trivial involvements of debutantes became both the medium and the message of broadcast television. Although its moral pronouncements were sometimes heavy-handed, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek was unapologetic in its “liberal” morality: in promoting the values of personal freedom, liberation, racial equality, knowledge, science, and fairness.

The only two-part episode of Star Trek, The Menagerie, tackled the question of happiness and illusion in a setting, alongside a subplot of law and disobedience, of what we might today call virtual reality: the question of what is real, and whether what is “real” really matters.

In the end, The Menagerie left its viewers with two assertions:

  1. It is possible that one’s beliefs about oneself and one’s place in the world are more important and more relevant than what we could objectively call “the truth” about either.
  2. It is possible that an act of deception can reveal the truth with greater fidelity and impact than a straight statement of the facts.

I was thinking about The Menagerie not so much because I wanted to explore the reality of belief, the nature of the “virtual world,” or the role of television or fiction in shaping national consciousness. I wasn’t looking for a foil to Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I was just–for some reason I can’t explain–suddenly bothered by its central plot contrivance.

For people who aren’t into science fiction or too young to remember that there was an original series before it was called the “Original Series,” this contrivance was the devastating disability of the Enterprise’s original captain–Captain Pike–who had been seriously injured on a prior training mission, his mind locked in a disfigured and paralyzed body, from which he could only communicate via a single blinking light signifying either “yes” or “no.”

I’ve watched that episode probably close to two dozen times over the years. As I’ve grown older, I’ve understood more of the nuances in the challenges to truth, honesty, and order. I’ve appreciated more the pains of loyalty and personal values. I’ve realized how much the questions about “virtual reality” overlay the “virtual” reality we all operate in, in our personal happiness, in relationships, in our reputation, in how we both view and distort the world through the lens of our “virtual” values.

But over all that time not once did I stop and say, “Hey, wait. Starfleet is a navy, for cripesake: if he could communicate with blinking lights, he could have said anything he damned well pleased the whole time.”

As, you know, could we all.

IN-FOR-MATICS

◊ His arguments were hard to construe (ooh-hoo)
So he put a ticket into the ... queue
“I need some dramatics—
Not just pure mathematics—
Can you whip me something out of those—“

IN-FOR-MATICS!
(It’s the Science of Information)
Putting analytics on your desktop—
Charts to help you make your point—
(Or just a footnote if the data’s not as strong.)

So don’t be sloppy
Or bland
Forgettable
Or panned:
    Let data make your presentation bright!

◊ Her PowerPoint was hard to get through (ooh-hoo)
The endless tables threatened to – bore you
No longer phlegmatic,
Her boss was ecstatic
‘Cause she added just a pinch of some—

IN-FOR-MATICS!
(It’s the Science of Information)
Putting analytics on your desktop—
Charts to help you make your point—
(Or just a footnote if the data’s not as strong.)

So don’t be sloppy
Or bland
Forgettable
Or panned:
    Let data make your presentation bright!

IN-FOR-MATICS!
(It’s the Science of Information)
Putting analytics on your desktop—
Charts to help you make your point1


1… or just a footnote if the data’s not as strong.


(Sung to Interjections, with some liberties in phrasing and a lot of gratitude to Lynn Ahrens and the Schoolhouse Rock team. Thirty years before Steve Jobs, they made it cool to be a nerd.)
"It's called an action figure," I tried to explain, although for the most part the excuse merely tossed and turned in my head like an alibi looking for a crime to snuggle up to. They are called, seemingly simply, action figures when they are for boys and dolls when they are for girls, although what you call it when a boy dresses up his Captain Janeway action figure in an evening gown for a formal dinner with the Talaxian delegation may belie the Orwellian assertion that a society that lacks a word for a thing most likely also lacks the concept for a thing, in much the same way that Americans, whose English lacks a word for "taking delight in the misfortune of others," are unable to conceptualize why the rest of the world views them the way that they do.

German, of course, has a word for everything, and they have a word for this too: Schadenfreude, which translates literally as "the reaction that you have when a country looking for a pretext to elect a fascist discovers the chilling existence of dangling chads and gets one," but which is used figuratively in many other circumstances, the most delightful being that situation when the semi-literate jock who was banned from playing football for his high school for twenty-one days and dropped into remedial English for spray-painting "FAGIT" across the locker of the president of the drama club comes home from a long day slipping flyers for shady autobody shops under the windshield wipers of expensive SUVs to find his son's Talaxian Ambassador action figure standing on the kitchen table in Captain Janeway's dress, sticking something that looks like a flyer under the windshield wiper of his Tonka truck.

My favorite action figure as a child was the Six Million Dollar Man astronaut figure, who at thirteen inches tall towered like a bionic giant over the technologically superior but more diminutive set of Star Trek explorers—Kirk, Spock, Uhura, McCoy, and I seem to remember that there was a Klingon as well—who spent their countless daylight hours with Steve-Austin-as-Astronaut exploring the outer reaches of the known galaxy between the foot of my bed and the door to my bedroom, but their nights piled haphazardly together in an old shoebox next to Steve, who himself slipped comfortably into a space capsule whose size and shape, were I to see it today, might bring me to wonder whether it was designed for the entertainment of children or some sort of sick animal husbandry where the unfortunate Six Million Dollar Homunculus was, one hopes, designed to be deployed only once.

Yet while this assortment of action heroes spent most of their existence, like Rock Hudson, in an uncomfortable jumble in the closet, never once did Kirk find himself in the tighter clothes designed for Uhura's more slender form, a circumstance which would have—growing up, as I did, in an environment that would make Leave it to Beaver look like a heart-stopping dramatic thriller—been outside both my interest and my imagination except as a tragic transporter accident, and there is no truth at all to the rumor, viciously spread by my sister, that for several weeks in the Spring of 1974, after an interspecies encounter by the heat vent in which the nameless Klingon inexplicably failed to take the opportunity to vaporize the starship captain, McCoy refused to sleep in the same shoebox as Kirk without a phaser in his hand.

It's called an action figure because to call it a "doll" would make it, one supposes, an inaction figure, a thing that represents another thing for display rather than for play, a thing designed to be an ornament rather than an achiever, and the reason why—while he shares the same gender with Kirk and Spock—it is the Ken doll rather than the Ken action figure, because Ken, regardless of what he does for a living or how smashing he looks in Barbie's full-scale replica of a Ford Focus hatchback, is, in the end, only an ornament for Barbie and not an actor in his own right, fulfilling his role to socialize the young girls who play with him to feel that it is natural for things that look like people to be ornaments and not actors, so that when they grow up to be things that look like people, they will not be shocked to be thought of as ornaments themselves, nor to treat their Kens as such in the package of home-husband-children-dog that represents the unmoving, unchanging standard of perfection to which all such childhood play aspires.

"It's called an action figure," I want to explain, because in the commercialization of play, toys are designed not to stimulate but to train the imagination, and what is "wrong" about a dollhouse for a boy is the same thing that is "wrong" about a dollhouse for a girl: that play consists of ordering its inhabitants into a structure that never extends past variations on its own comfortable ideal, never questions the boundaries of the dollhouse itself, nor whether the dollhouse should or even does exist, or whether it is possible for the dollhouse to be a paradise one day and a prison the next. There is no part of the framework of the dollhouse for a child to wonder whether the dolls really want to be in that house, or whether it is simply expected of them, or even to wonder if there is a difference. They simply are, and at the end of play, all roles are in order, all mortgages paid, and things are as they should be, and the pathways of the young mind—the mind that is still not hardened into the porcelain mind of adulthood—become well-worn and comfortable, and ultimately paved, slowly, with clean streets and watered lawns, and gated communities with common kitchens and common grills and common gyms and common theaters and no change in sight.

I sit in my third coffeehouse of the day, thinking these things but saying them to no one. I began my morning in a Coffee Bean in a part of the Valley that is home to many Israeli expats. They come in early, flouting some of the dictates of their faith by doing business on the Sabbath while respecting others that send them to a coffee chain that is the only one to be certified Kosher Los Angeles. I end my afternoon at the Starbucks on Hayvenhurst, just two miles away but with no Israeli in sight, writing database queries at the only seat left in the maddeningly busy place, at the table across from a middle-aged transgendered man quietly sipping coffee and highlighting his textbook, a giant of a man, really, who dominates the table of intellectually nimbler but more diminutive students, focused on his reading, politely sharing greetings with other customers who crack open their laptops and sip from their mochas as I do too every day.

I sink comfortably into my seat and smile a Mona Lisa smile at the bustle around me. A dozen laptop screens glow brightly even as the afternoon sun glares hotly through the massive glass windows overlooking the well-kept foyer. I return to my queries and the din recedes into the inescapable structure of my computing task. All is as it should be; the music plays, and tomorrow is another day.

Stimulate Me

It's another day in the office.

Business has been brisk at the shop. Many people are earning, and spending, a lot less now than they used to. When their $2,700 flat screen televisions go dim or on the fritz, they don't just drive them to the local landfill and go out and buy a bigger one anymore. They strap them to the roof of their Priuses and take them to me.

I'm Eliot. I can fix anything. It's what the sign says.

It was busy early this morning, but for the last while it's been usually quiet. There's no traffic on my little side street off Dupont Circle, even though it's approaching lunching. And no pedestrians. But there's a howling wind outside and a few sheaves of newspaper blow past my storefront like yesterday's bad news.

I stare at the glass door and the backside of the bright neon “OPEN” sign that hangs behind the window next to it. I start to daydream of other days. Minutes go by before I realize that there is something very wrong about the preternatural quiet.

Another newspaper blows by.

But just as am I about to cross the counter to investigate what's outside, the blast of sirens surrounds me and the squeal of brakes, and a dozen black SUVs screech to a halt on the street and sidewalk out front. The flashing lights of capitol police play against the bare, white pictureless walls of my new shop, washing out the bright red welcome I have been staring at.

At once, the door opens and a dozen men in black suits and briefcases stream through it, taking positions around my small shop. A small, pale, hairless man in a cheap brown suit follows behind them, sets his laptop across the counter from me, and begins typing, furtively.

No one says a word. The men standing in the bare room stand motionless, their faces at rest, watchful.

“Can I help you?” I say, to no one in particular. The small, hairless man continues to type. The dark-suited men observe me, but say nothing.

“Can I-”

The air tenses and my words are interrupted by the entrance of a tall, black man who strides through the open doorway alone. He has a distinguished bearing and intelligent eyes. He is carrying a small black box, about one foot square, with a hole on one side and a slot on the other. It's clearly usually heavy for its size. He carries it with only thinly disguised effort softly across the carpeted floor, before coming to a stop directly in front of me. He rests the box on the counter, between us.

I look at the man. I expect him to smile. He has smiled much in the past. He is not smiling today.

“Can I help you,” I say. It comes out, to my surprise, not as a question, but as a statement.

“Thank you,” he responds, seeming to wait for me to add the inflection that apparently today I don't have. After a few moments, he abandons that. “I need your assistance in fixing this.”

He taps the box. I examine it more closely. There is, on the surface, nothing remarkable about it. With the exception of the hole and the slot, it's just a plain, black box, somewhat weathered, and of indeterminate age and function.

It has no lettering or labels.

“What is it?” I ask.

For the first time in the last several minutes, the little man pauses his typing just long enough to look at me and roll his eyes. The soft, persistent clacking resumes. He won't answer. My visitor does.

“It's the economy, stupid.”

He doesn't crack a smile. I'm certain I've misheard him. “What's an e-con-o-my?”

“Please don't play games with me, young man,” he says, flatly. “Everyone knows what an economy is.”

“I'm certain that I don't,” I respond stiffly. “Why don't you humor me and tell me what it is.”

The man across from me smiles, but it's a cold smile, a programmed smile. It's the smile you reserve for a child, or an idiot, who has asked you the same question that they have asked ten thousand times before.

He points to the hole on one side of the box with one open hand, and the slot on the opposite side with the other. “It's the economy. It's very simple. Hard work goes in and prosperity comes out.”

He must be kidding, I think. Or insane. I move to touch it, but he brushes my hand aside. “Don't do that.”

I look at the box and look at his eyes, which stare back with quiet authority into mine.

“What do you want me to do with it?” I ask.

“It's broken,” he says. “I want you to fix it.”

The police lights flash. The small man types. The dark-suited visitors search the room noiselessly. I say nothing for a long time.

I had thought I'd recognized the man when he walked in my front door, but now I wasn't so sure.

“How does it work,” I finally say, again forgetting my inflection.

He smiles again with feigned patience, placing one hand one one side of the box, and the other on the opposite. “It's the economy. It's very simple. Hard work goes in and prosperity comes out.”

The smile remains on his face, again, blank but reassuring.

“I mean on the inside. How does it work.”

His eyes look back at me uncomprehendingly.

“Okay,” I retreat. “If you don't know how it works, how do you know it's broken?”

This time, it's the elfish man who responds. “We received the economy last month from its previous owner, who demonstrated its functioning to us prior to receipt. At that time, the economy was producing prosperity within specifications. Today, however, it is not.”

My visitor with the regal bearing allows his companion adequate time to finish. When resumes his typing, he continues, “Can you help us?”

“I'm afraid I can't.” Unconsciously I feel myself standing what I hope is imperceptibly taller as I reject the insane request. “I am not competent to do this job. I have never fixed an economy before. And I don't know how to fix one now.”

My interlocutor turns briefly to the man with the laptop before addressing me again. “Are you Eliot Levitt,” he asks.

“Yes,” I respond.

“Are you the proprietor of this repair shop?

“Yes, of course.”

“And did you graduate from MIT?”

“Yes, I did.”

“In 1990?”

“Yes, it was.”

“With a degree in economics?”

“Most certainly not.”

My answer apparently surprise him. He glares briefly at the man with the laptop, who promptly vanishes into thin air. The laptop remains, silent. The man looks back to me, continuing without interruption.

“No, wait,” I say.

“You did graduate with a degree in economics?”

“No, I didn't,” I answer, perhaps too impatiently. “I want to know how you did that.”

“Did what?”

I motion to the laptop, humming quietly on my countertop, unattended. “Did that.”

He frowns, and says nothing.

“You need to tell me how you did that,” I repeat, emboldened. “There was a man standing right there one moment ago and now he is no longer here. This is my shop. I think I have the right to know what happened.”

Moments pass while the man stands motionless and unresponsive. Finally, a shadow of resignation and embarrassment passes over his otherwise proud countenance. “I didn't do anything,” he admits. “It was the economy. That's what it does when it gets like this. Jobs just disappear. I'm not sure, but I think he might have gone overseas.”

“Of all the-” I start to say, beginning to feel both impatience and rage. But I stop myself and continue in only measured words. “That was a person. People do not disappear. This is the real world. This is not a metaphor.”

But my visitor only shakes his head. “Can you help me.”

I think I am beginning to feel the same hopelessness that I have sensed rising in him. I catch myself in the middle of a long sigh, that I end abruptly. “Tell me again how it works,” I concede.

Before he can continue, the black box starts to hum and whir. It rumbles softly, rattling the pencil holder on the far end of the countertop. Then, as suddenly as it started, the machine stops. Silently, two bills emerge from the slot and drop to the counter.

I am about to reach for them when another young man walks briskly into the room and takes one of the bills from the table. He bows graciously and says something briefly in Chinese to my visitor, who nods. He sweeps out the door as quickly as he came.

My visitor and I look wordlessly at each other.

“What was that,” I demand.

“What was what,” he queries.

“You know very well what. The man who just came into my shop. What was that.”

“Oh,” he says, “That was only Mr. Chiu. He is just taking his payment on the loan. This is not a matter to concern you. It is unrelated to the functioning of the box.”

“Humor me,” I say flatly. I feel like I have said this before.

“The box has been broken for some time,” my increasingly uneasy visitor admits. “We need the box to produce three bills each time it runs, but with the work we put in, it will only produce two.”

“So?” I ask.

“So one of the previous owners discovered that if you put two additional bills in the hole on this side,” he pauses, motioning at the hole on the first side, “you will get an additional bill out the slot on that side.”

"Two bills go in and one bill comes out."

"So to speak."

“So then...”

“So,” he concludes, “Mr. Chiu has been loaning us the extra bills so that the machine will continue to work. Every month he comes to collect a bill in return. But now there aren't enough bills coming out. That's why I am here, to get your help to fix the economy.”

I look at him for a long time. “I don't know how to tell you this, my friend, but from what you have said, I don't think that your economy is broken. It seems like it is working exactly the way it is supposed to. I don't understand why you're here.”

“You will,” he says. He tries to reassure me with a broad but empty smile, while two of the suited men close and lock the door. “If I could see your wallet for just a moment.”

Only Because You Can't Read

Even if it weren’t for the gnarled fingers of the Chesapeake Bay stretching like an arthritic water lizard through its landmass, Maryland would be an oddly shaped state. Unlike sensibly-drawn places, like Wyoming or Colorado, Maryland begins in a completely arbitrary fashion and then, seemingly unsatisfied, tries to end half-heartedly several times before West Virginia insists that it is simply no longer reasonable for a coastal state to reach as far inland as Maryland has tried, and stops her inward reach, finally, with the resolve of a Vegas dancer giving up her implants one breast at a time.

It is a state of chicanery, one learns on the drive southward from Philly to Baltimore, during a trip that I made recently to introduce the two little ones to their birth grandmother for the first time. After a brief stop in Wilmington to meet up with a dear friend, learn that my eldest is not quite ready to master Guitar Hero, and sit—in homage to Number Two—in an authentic Ball Chair, we passed quietly over the Maryland border and slipped into Havre de Grace, where a small sign bravely announced, without the least acknowledgement of irony, that a Decoy Museum lay ahead.

Notwithstanding that in America we spell “of” with the vowel first and the consonant second, the misread promise of Havre de Grace could be, I mused wistfully, every parent’s dream come true. No more grand stone buildings with their frighteningly expensive underground garages and crisply-uniformed staff whose sole function is to stand just inside the imposing glass façade, directing members into the member line and non-members into the non-member line, for patrons able to appreciate the finer brush strokes of a Renoir but unable, so it seems, to read. Instead, the misplaced town in the misshapen state offers a droll fantasy of delighted lines of happy children giggling with anticipation outside a small, cheerful, red-and-white-striped building smelling of chocolate and gleaming with the richness of cinnamon, peppermint, and cream, anticipating the wonders that lie within the “Museum of Candy”—though once within, whisked by unseen, gloved hands into rooms filled with Renaissance Art, as the aroma of boiling sugar is pumped into the summer air to ensnare more of the unsuspecting and acculturate them against their will.

“As a student,” a well-lit billboard across the country in LA declares, “he was no Einstein,” although, as a student, he would probably not have been fooled by such as a Decoy Museum, or by the well-scripted rescue of long-held hostages in Columbia on the day a Presidential candidate arrives, thirty years after a similar trick worked to elect a different oligarch. And it is doubtful that he would have been bamboozled, either, by the mission of the “Foundation for a Better Life,” a non-profit funded by a billionaire railway owner and oilman that would plaster his aged but still playful visage years later on billboards around the country in order to promote positive Christian values to a nation of the well-behaved and gullible, as they drive their soft, bloated bodies in burning machines from home to work and work to home, believing in the coincidence of candidate visits and hostage releases, in the rewards of Industry, Confidence, and Devotion, and in orderliness and decency and all the safety and security that this nation can enjoy. (And it's easy to be safe, isn't it, in our neighborhoods and our offices and our cars and our gyms and our dreams when the government has imprisoned nearly two and a half million of its unruly far from the reach of leather seats and spreadsheets and inspirational billboards of our comfortable and protected and unexamined lives.)

Was it really Confidence that made Einstein great?

She was working in the Starbucks up the boulevard from my home in LA, in the six-lane strip of restaurants and malls between the beach towns of the South Bay and the night gun shots of Carson, a Starbucks that draws students for study groups attending the community college perched between the languor of the poor in the east and the indolence of the rich in the west. She wore a bright smile and a cheerful, thin sun dress, and the dark eyes that met mine occasionally over the rim of her laptop sparkled with enthusiasm and joy.

Over the next hour, she rose and hugged a dozen times as friends arrived and ordered coffee and cracked open books, and debated the mathematical approaches to problems in Electricity and Magnetism. Eventually, while her problem set wasn’t done, her battery nearly was, and she carried it for a recharge to the table at which I had been sitting, which nearly bristled with outlets.

She turned her screen to face me for the first time as she left its wide bulk apologetically on the table and it began to suck in the energy for a later session. The hairy, unkempt, black-and-white mess of Einstein stared back at me.

She smiled.

“So why,” I asked, “did you choose that particular picture for your desktop background?”

“He’s my idol," she answered casually. "I’ve always wanted to be just like him.”

“Oh.” With the particular achievement of discovering the theory of relativity and harnessing its power into an efficient way of killing about a hundred and forty thousand Japanese people being already taken, she probably wanted to be just like Albert Einstein in some other way.

Still, it hadn't been the question I'd asked, had it. "Albert Einstein is my idol" would be a perfectly fine answer to any number of questions, like, "Who is your idol?" or even "Why do you have a photograph of Albert Einstein on your desktop?" Of course, I would have been unlikely to have asked the former question to a stranger in a café—even a shimmering, brightly-colored stranger who had distracted my attention from my own work. And, of course, I could have known the answer to the latter without having asked. Why that particular photograph of Einstein—why the black-and-white one, why the unkemp one, the unruly one; why the one looking ahead with sad and brilliant and distracting eyes—that was the interesting question, the question that you want to know about someone, the question that is freshly revealing, perhaps, of something in the universe that you had never understood before.

“You want to be a professor of Physics at Princeton?”

“No,” she clarified earnestly, “I just wish I could be half as smart as he was.”

The Straight Talk Express is coming to town, and though it is dark, Einstein’s black-and-white tongue sticks out brightly beneath his unruly mane, over the steady, well-ordered stream of SUVs curling past it, illuminated by powerful LEDs and floodlights that burn other-worldly light into the brightly glowing evening sky. One day, the coastal hamlet of Havre de Grace—home not to a cleverly-disguised museum but to an inspiring historical collection of handmade wooden waterfowling decoys—will grow to include our glowing Einstein billboard from the 405, the flight itineraries of Ronald Reagan and John McCain, the collected seasons of American Idol, the textbooks and examinations and sun dresses and other decoys and distractions that have kept generations from seeing the signs that, without the least acknowledgement of irony, announce the chicanery and disappointment and hopelessness and despair that lie ahead.

The spacious, glass-walled box redolent of ground coffee and chocolate and cinnamon and peppermint in which we sit darkens as the sun sets. The girl with the earnest brown eyes smiles cheerfully and I know she will pass her test if only because it was written so that she would. “Don’t worry, little one," the face of the aged professor considers his subject on the other side of history. “You probably already are.”

So I've Been Told

Black-and-white memories of demure vulnerability aren’t the only things I picked up in Austin, and while that announcement may tease the reader with a greater promise of salacious revelations than I am ever likely to deliver, I did pick up a revelation perhaps scandalous to some, that there is a tiny gland tucked somewhere in my body, that lacks either a name or any other useful function, and whose only purpose seems to be, when exposed to the State of Texas, to secrete a pheromone with such squid-like ferocity that every gay male within the approximate blast radius of a tactical nuclear device becomes immediately and uncontrollably consumed with the desire to have sex with me.

“Watch out in this city,” a colleague from Portland cautions me over dinner the first night, both of us oblivious, like our waitress, to my exhausted gland as it pumps overtime to spew a cloud of latent homosexuality over our table. We were speaking of alcohol and guns and the sign I had seen over the hotel bar, warning patrons that possessing a firearm in the State of Texas in an establishment in which alcohol is served is punishable by ten years in prison or a fine of $5,000, which both of us quickly agree would be an easy choice to make if we were possessed by the desire to shoot a drunk that week and given the option. “It looks like a college town,” he adds, “but scratch beneath the surface and it’s still Texas.”

By the next morning, every pore of my skin has been co-opted to puff this thick, sweet cloud into the air around me, and an oily, ethereal residue has begun to collect on the edges of every conversation I have. That night, I write, bewildered, to my friend in LA. “I can’t,” I confess, “spend ten minutes in a room with ten men before one of them invites me to be his Happy Meal.”

“Just be careful,” he writes back. “It’s Texas,” as though my next step out the door would be to a disco bar where all the men drink peach schnapps and all the boys dress like Cher, and a small pack of Brazilian shemales stand out front under a lamppost, languidly smoking cigarettes and winking naughtily at passing men, until their girlfriends, caught by an unpresent chill, take their arms and pull them close.

I don’t believe that they cater to that demographic deep in the heart of Texas.

The rest of the attendees seem relaxed and confident with nary a worry on their minds, but I struggle at the symposium. The first day is 14 hours. I haven’t finished my own talk. The work is done and I know what I will be saying, but the thread that will hold it together eludes me. I find myself scribbling notes while half-listening to the other speakers. I work into the night, long nights, but the cloud is inescapable. They are not long enough.

Not nearly.

My talk does finally come together, almost miraculously, the night before it’s due. The next morning, I avoid crowds. I experience the dread of opening with a joke that no one gets. But otherwise, everything goes fine. I finish. It is all a lot of worry for nothing.

The symposium ends yesterday, and today I arrive at the airport, hours early. I have to sit with my luggage a long time before the airline will accept it. There is no reason not to be early to an airport when you have a laptop and work to do. My friend in New York finds me on IM. I haven’t spoken to her in a few days. She doesn’t know about my gland or the cloud of bedroom eyes following me everywhere, or my talk, or any of the trouble I’ve been up to. But “K” is not convinced.

“It’s not you,” she assures me, and I immediately tap back that it most assuredly is. I can walk into a room full of women, I explain, and not a single one will show the slightest interest in me. I can spend the night in a sports bar and every drunken jock can be passed out on the floor, limp and breathless from a night of whooping for the home team, with tables stretched out as far as the intoxicated eye can see—stacked with those of the fairer sex sipping sullen and unsatisfied on their creams and sours—and not so much as a soul will look up at me from her empty glass and pout for a refill. But put me in Texas and I’ll get more attention from a gaggle of gays than Rock Hudson introducing the National Ballet.

“You can’t expect women to walk up to you and proposition you for sex. We can get sex whenever we want. We don’t have to proposition anyone.”

We don’t?

“Trust me, it’s not you. Men are whores.”

But the time has come to check my bags and undress for security. I say good night and promise to debate another day. Logged out and packed up, I swipe my card and retrieve my boarding pass and feed the conveyor with belongings I can at this point in the history of our country only idly hope to see again in LA.

The line to get to the line is mercifully short. I hand a wide, featureless woman my boarding pass and California driver's license. She sorts through the small array of devices on the podium in front of her for the one appropriate to verify the authenticity of my ID.

The tool she needs turns out to be a cylindrical one of medium size, not squat and yet not long, with bumps and ridges along its length and a bulb at one end. She holds my card in one hand and what I assume is a light in the other, but evidently it’s a light that doesn’t work, because no matter which way she pulls or twists it, she apparently sees nothing more in my license than what she saw to start.

“Is it not working?” I ask, trying to be helpful, although what I am really thinking is, “Am I going to jail?”

“There it goes,” she announces, finally, satisfied that I genuinely am who I pretend to be. “It doesn’t work standing up, only horizontal.”

“Apparently like a great many of us,” I quip. “—Or so I’ve been told.”