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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.


◊ 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—“

(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
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—

(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
Or panned:
    Let data make your presentation bright!

(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.”

Taking Things Home

There are places in the world where people go to find things. If you're looking to find a good guru, you go to India. If you're looking to find good pot, you go to Amsterdam. Celebrities can be found on the terrace at Barney Greengrass for Sunday brunch. Dense, buttery donuts can be found in the pastry case at what seems like every Starbucks in the world: you can pretend you don't know that, but we know better, dear, don't we.

Of course, there are things in the world that are impossible to find anywhere, like someone who will admit that they really did like "Blame it on the Rain." And there are places in the world that seem to exist for no other reason than to taunt one with the possibility that there are just possibly more places in the world than things that one would want to find in them.

I am sitting at an airport outside of a place that people go to, a spot that is known for being both the home of the largest urban bat colony in the world and for serving some of the most succulent Texas-style barbecue known to man. You will, of course, never find these two facts—the most important two facts about this place—mentioned in the same ad space in National Geographic or Gourmet, but nonetheless they do make this city a new kind of place, the kind of place where you are likely to discover the connection between things that ought not to be connected.

A young woman with jet black hair is sitting across from me at my gate, but for an earlier flight. She is dressed in a black tunic, black leggings, and black shoes. The black of the tunic is broken only by a field of white dots above her bust and another at its hem. Next to her feet is a black hobo bag with white dots next to a black carry-on. She is drinking iced black coffee out of a white cup, which she has rested on the black carry-on. She is reading a book. The cover is black and the printing on its back is white. She is not wraith-like or goth or drab at all. She is fashionable, in a way. Her plastic spotted bag—in all its black-and-whiteness—cheerfully reflects the ambient light in its shiny creases and panels. But still, I'm bothered.

I noticed the young woman in the first place because as she was walking toward me to find an empty seat, it was impossible not to observe that she had the clearest, whitest eyes—framed entirely unflatteringly by a thick, black swath of eyeliner curving under each, in an arc extending far past their outer corner, lifting the line of her cheekbones far out into her temple. Black liner across her lids and thickly-blackened eyelashes met the lower line there at her temples, smoothly, in an implosion of blackness that disappeared, finally and impossibly, into nothing.

I'm drawn, unwillingly, to that swath of stark blackness. Her eyes meet mine briefly, and I want to see something in them that explains the wide, inky stroke. Perhaps her lids are thin or undefined, or her irises are dull, or her eyes are too small or out of place. But none of these are true. I erase the streak in my mind and they are eyes like any other, perhaps even wider and brighter than many. The depth of the blackness conceals no fault. White and clear, the eyes stare back at me from inside their prisons. I see nothing.

In a moment, she has arranged her luggage and her cup, crossed her legs, and opened her book. She settles into her chair. Her face turns downward, her lids lower. At this angle, the stark swaths disappear into the thinnest, clearest, and most delicate silhouettes that I have ever seen grace a human face. I trace the outline of her eyelids, and I see them now as soft, full, shapely ovals: dark, soothing, feminine, and seductive.

She has painted her eyes with exceptional skill so that when they are open and engaged with the world around them, they are unremarkable, even ugly. But half-closed, lowered demurely—seen but not seeing—they softly invite light, and gaze, into their deep and vulnerable perfection.

She has long past boarded her flight while I have sat here typing, trying to remember, to reconstruct the moment when I realized that she had painted her eyes this way so that she would be the most beautiful when she was the most vulnerable, so that in the act of lowering her face and her eyes—an act that is understood in every culture and every species to be one of vulnerability and submission—she would be the most striking and memorable, at the cost of never knowing the moment when eyes casually regarding her would see her in a new way.

Her eyes will be what I take home from this city. The sky will close its lids over Austin tonight, I will close mine as I am carried back to LA. And she, somewhere, will submit, and be seen.

What Makes You Think

You are sitting on a New York subway train. A wide-eyed, furtive man with nervous hands and breath stinking of alcohol sits down next to you. He turns to you and says, “Yo, buddy. Does this train stop at 14th Street?” You are a visitor to the city so you have to think. In a moment, you say, “I don’t know.”

The man growls at you menacingly. He says, “Stop being such an asshole. You just told me this train stops at 14th Street. Why are you being such a fucking jerk now and telling me that ‘you don’t know?’ Don’t stare at me like an asshole. Why did you say one thing to me a minute ago, and another thing now?”

You put twenty million people together in one place and eventually you're going to get someone who is drunk and crazy.

Now what makes you think that person isn't you?

Getting to Know You, Part III

People know “cocktail chatter” questions by different names, another of which is “first date” questions. The difference between the names is, of course, largely semantic, but also—equally of course—largely revealing, in this case, as to whether you spend most of your time making idle chit-chat with friendly, attractive people you’d like to date or friendly, attractive people you’re mostly glad you won’t.

One thing, after all, they are not called is “McDonald’s restroom questions,” and one topic that you pretty much don’t bring up regardless of what they’re called—unless you’ve snuck in the back door of the cocktail hour at San Quentin—are your personally compelling fantasies about murder.

All of which makes it extremely surprising that one of the most famous “cocktail chatter” questions of all time revolves around the question of whether or not to kill a baby Austrian, as though it were perfectly acceptable to debate the merit of snuffing out the life of an innocent child in an environment in which it is barely considered acceptable to ask whether the tuna is dolphin safe.

Said baby will still, most of us know by now, one day grow up to be responsible for the deaths of forty-two million people—over twice the number of his nearest Russian competitor—one hundred percent of whom were, used to be, or would have otherwise one day been innocent babies too. Apart from his singular achievement in infamy, however, the name Adolph Hitler is mostly important to us because it is otherwise impossible to ask the question, “If in 1890 you were given the knowledge by a supernatural power that the infant nestled in the arms of his mother Klara Schicklgruber as they passed you on the street would one day grow up to be Adolph Hitler, would you kill him on the spot,” without using it.

The question is, on its surface, supposed to reveal how you balance the value of one life against the value of many. Like Spock—dying behind the glass of radioactive maudlinism, having in his last moments no more the connection of human touch than he had in the years before—do you or do you not believe that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and are you willing, in the absolute obedience to a divine voice that no one but you can hear, to put the life of somebody's baby where your mouth is.

“Of course I would,” you’d say, if that child were your own and that divine voice had told you to strap it to a donkey and drag its ass up a little hill for a quick game of child sacrifice. However, the role of the progenitor of monotheism already being taken, the likely result of your action will not be the founding of a triad of new religions that together would turn out to be responsible for the deaths and suffering of more people than even Hitler could not have dreamed of achieving in ten lifetimes. More likely, your action will result merely in the deaths of three people: the baby at your inspired hands, yours at the cold State’s, and Klara’s, suffocated in the calloused ones of loneliness and grief.

It takes a village to raise a child, but just one person who believes they know the future to take its life away. So with your third martini in hand, will you stand among the lawyers, doctors, actors, and celebrities assembled and say, “I am that person?”

It’s a darkly interesting question, and we don’t tend to know how our friends, family, and colleagues would truthfully answer it. If you heard a voice in your head, saw graphic images of untold death and misery, and with them experienced an awe and euphoria that you knew was the voice of God warning you that I would inspire an army of fanatically devoted soldiers of an imagined Apocalypse who would ultimately cause the loss of billions of lives in order to prepare the world for the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven, would you kill me?

Would you kill me if this voice showed you what my followers would ultimately do in my name, even if I devoted my life to personally preaching a message of love, tolerance, justice, and peace?

But the question has no business in cocktail hours. It has no place in human discourse at all. It is not about life or death, how we weigh our values when they are in conflict, or what of the smaller we are willing to sacrifice for the larger. It is not about the “small” evil of believing that the end justifies the means.

It is about the large evil of believing that there is an “end” at all.

Only in believing in the existence of the “end” does the justification of the “means” become possible.

Eventually, Klara and her baby pass on the street. In a few years, World War I will start and end. Germany will be humiliated, and the social and economic forces at play in the post-Weimar era will create fertile ground on which one madman will rise and ultimately fail—where another might have succeeded—at wiping the Jews, the blacks, the gays, the gypsies, and hundreds of millions of other undesirables from human history forever.

Klara returns to her home, as we will return to ours, thankful that we didn’t kill that madman when we had the chance.

The cocktail hour ends. The few remaining guests smile uncomfortably as they wonder who invited us to the party. We leave our glass, still nearly full, on a nearby near-empty tray.

We have a flight to catch, to a far-away place, in a remote part of the world that we will come to at great expense, where we know will never be able to return to again. A dessert awaits us there, and a choice.

But not today.

RIP, friendster

This morning, my girlfriend broke up with me. In keeping with the respect and intimacy that has been the bedrock of our relationship for the last fifty-seven and a half Internet years, she took care of business by phone.

“Good morning, bunny-wunny!” I chirped cheerfully into the handset when it startled me out of sleep at 4:30 in the morning. “I can’t wait to share breakfast with you later today, after the sun comes up and all the vampires are safely tucked away back into their coffins.”

“Good morning, my love,” she replied. “I’m calling to break up with you.”

“Oh,” I said, propping up my pillow in bed and reaching over awkwardly to turn on the light. I fumbled for my glasses, a pen, and the pad of paper I keep neatly arranged by the side of the bed for occasions like this one. She waited patiently while I grunted and rearranged myself and discovered, following a sharp pain to my thumb and a breathless curse, that there is a reason why people put on their glasses first and fumble with their pen caps second.

“Okay,” I continue when I’m finally settled. “Where were we?”

“I was breaking up with you.”

A pause. “Didn’t you just do that yesterday?”

“No,” she corrected. “That was three weeks ago. We got back together, you took me to Hawaii for a week. That was very nice of you, by the way.”

“Thank you.”

“But I have to break up with you now.”

“Well,” I begin, “thank you for calling to let me know.” I scribble a little at the top of the pad of paper to make sure that the ink is flowing. “I just have a few questions to ask you before I process the cancellation of our relationship.”

Now it was her time to pause. “Are you kidding?”

“Of course not.”

I heard the rustling of sheets and what sounded like the switch of a table lamp clicking on. The sounds from the other room muffled slightly. “You’re going to have to wait a minute,” she hissed, and then returned to the call.

“Okay,” she sighed. “I hope this isn’t going to take long.”

“This survey,” I began reading from the page, “will take less than five minutes to complete. Your answers will help us to provide a better dating experience for future partners. While we regret your decision to cancel this relationship, we hope that the lessons learned from—“

“The clock is ticking, survey man.”

“Okay, moving along. I will begin by asking you three questions about the quality of our relationship. Are you ready?”


“Very good. For the answer to the first question, please answer a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ On the whole, did you feel that this relationship met your needs for friendship and partnership, and the general qualities of support and dependability that you expect out of a committed, loving partnership?”

“Um. Yes.”

“Thank you. For the second question, please answer on a scale from one to five. With a ‘one’ indicating ‘not at all’ and a ‘five’ indicating ‘perfectly,’ how would you rate the frequency and quality of your personal sexual satisfaction as part of our previous physical intimacy?”

“You have to be kidding me.”

“Do you need me to repeat the question?”

“I’m not going to—“ Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m not going to rate our sex life with a number. That’s stupid. I can’t believe you’re asking me to do this.”

“It’s just a number. It’s easy. In fact, all the numbers from one to five are composed of a single syllable. Just one syllable. I mean, it’s not like I asked you to select a number from one to ten, in which case ‘seven’ would have—“

“Okay, okay.” In the time it took her to consider, I realized that “three” was potentially debatable, depending on what part of the country you came from. I hoped that she wouldn’t call me on it.

She returned to her normal tone. “Okay, two.”

“Two?” I gasped. “Really? But you always said…”

“You just promised me one syllable. A number. You didn’t say I was going to have to defend it.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “But it’s just so different from everything you’ve said before. It’s a bit of a shock, really.”

“I’m giving you points for effort. Do you really want to know more?”

I considered, was about to speak, and then considered again. “Two is fine,” I said with certainty. “Unfortunately, we’re running out of time, so we’re going to have to skip the next question.”

“No, we’re not.” She continued. “You’re putting me through this survey, you’re going to ask every question. Move along.” I noticed that her tone was a little angry, and wondered why, considering that she was the one calling at 4:30 in the morning to break up with me.

“Okay, third question. This is also a scale from one to five. Please rate your impression of my personal generosity in terms of bearing the financial burden of dinners, drinks, vacations, and gifts.”


“Do you need me to repeat the question?”

“No,” she answered. “Did you just use ‘generosity’ and ‘burden’ in the same sentence?”

I looked at the question and grunted, and circled “burden” several times on the form in blue ink. I scrawled a question mark next to it.

“Besides,” she added. “It’s a tacky question, especially right after the last one.”

“Tacky how?”

“It sounds like you’re rating your relationship with a—“ She paused. Apparently we were both doing a lot of considering. “Real people don’t use the word ‘generosity.’”

I decided not to have a debate about tackiness with a woman breaking up with me over the phone when it was still so dark even the worms in my backyard were safe from having their heads severed by hungry robins.

“But if, nonetheless, you were to give it a number…”

“I’d say a three.” And, fortunately, she said it simply, in the one-syllable way.

“Three,” I repeated.

“Three,” she confirmed. “A solid three.”

“And, um...” I was a little offended. “Hawaii?”

“I never asked you to take me to Hawaii.”

I circled the number quickly, once, and then several times more before I realized what I was doing. “Okay, thank you,” I sighed, and continued reading from the form. “In the second half of the survey, I am going to ask you about several factors that may have been behind your decision to cancel our relationship, and I want you to list back to me the three that were most important.”

“This will be very quick,” I rushed to add, although it wasn’t on the form. I had long past used up my five allotted minutes. “Is that okay?”

“Okay, go ahead.”

I read the options. “There are a total of ten options. Remember, please pick the three that were the most important factors in your decision. One, not enough fun. Two, not smart enough. Three, not interesting enough. Four, not around enough. Five, not enough things to do. Six, not handsome-slash-buff enough. Seven, not rich enough. Eight, not satisfying enough. Nine, not, um, generous enough. Ten, found someone else.”

“That’s quite some list.”

“Yeah, I understand. Did you get it all? Do you need me to repeat any of the numbers?”

“No, I think I got it. But what happened to, ‘Not considerate enough’ or ‘Not compassionate enough’?”

I looked down the list. “Do people really break up with other people because they’re not compassionate enough?”

“I guess you’ll never know, will you.”

I wondered where you would go to find out the universe of reasons why people break up with each other. Was there a web site somewhere? Or a textbook? Was there a list you could buy in a thick hardbound volume in a bookstore with so many numbered reasons that they covered the entire range of human failure? “There are many ways to fail,” I pondered creating an aphorism that would withstand the tests of time, “but only one way to succeed.” Maybe it was the other way around.

But she interrupted my reverie. “I’ve met someone else,” she said uncertainly, not of the fact, but not requiring two other options either.

“Oh,” I flopped.

“I’m sorry,” she offered. “I have met someone else, I have fallen in love, and I can’t date you anymore.”

“That’s okay,” I consoled her. “I’ll just need his name.”

“Excuse me?”

“The survey requires that if you have cancelled the relationship for an alternate provider, that you reveal his name for our customer service and marketing purposes. If you have cancelled the relationship for another partner, you can’t submit the survey without revealing his identity.”

“Like hell I can’t,” she flashed.

“You can pick a different option if you like. You can change your answer to, for example, ‘Two, not smart enough.’ If you do that, I won’t have to ask you his name.”

It was getting close to 5:00 am, and she began, with the approaching dawn, to raise her voice. “This has got to be… Of all of the stupid things you have ever said to me, this has got to be the stupidest of them all. I can’t even believe I’m talking to a human being. I can’t even believe I’m—I can’t even believe I’m talking to the person I just shared the last fifty-seven-and-a—Seriously, are you kidding me? Where on earth did you ever get the idea that you could—I—“

“Yes?” I tried to help.

“You’re not going to ‘let’ me—what did you call it—‘cancel’ this relationship because I’ve met someone else, unless I tell you his name, but you’ll let me cancel it for any other reason and then I don’t have to tell you? Do I have this right?”


“Who the fuck do you think you are?”

“I’m friendster, of course. Who were you trying to call?”

RIP, my former social networking site. It seems, after all this time, that you're just like me: you never got it, and you never will.