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A Country Song

There is a Country song that I like.

Last night, Lupe, the Universe, and luck treated us to a Blake Shelton concert at the Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, in honor of our wedding anniversary.

Amid the white Stetsons and the plaid shirts, short shorts and tall boots, I had the chance to enjoy and reflect on the joy of the music and the energy of the crowd. There were jokes about drinking and songs about drinking. He sang old songs and new songs, songs about love and about breakup, and there was one thing that was one thing that was clear through it all—through the shifting keys and tempos, moods and lyrical themes—through the interludes and build-ups and water sips and musical flourishes: Blake Shelton loves what he does.

There was an exuberance to his performance that knowing the rules of flow and tempo, when to sing to an audience and when to speak to them, when to turn and when to pause—there was a genuine joy to doing what he does—to working an audience through story and song—that can’t be faked. Blake Shelton has never murdered a cheating wife and her lover. He has never escaped from prison. But he wants you to feel the notes of those experiences in a genuine way as though he had lived those stories and drawn the notes of them with both agony and exuberance out of his own heart and delivered them to yours.

What he does brings him joy. It matters to him. And it matters to him that it does the same to you.

There is a Country song that I like. It’s not one of his, but that doesn’t matter; it might as well have been. It’s a song called “It Would Be You,” the title song of a 1998 album by Garry Allen.

“It Would Be You” hit #7 on the Hot Country Songs charts the year it was released. Like many Country songs, it’s a song about a breakup, or maybe a song about reflections on a breakup.

For a song about sadness, it has a tempo that encourages gentle and cheerful movement, and a musical storyline that is joyful, if not exuberant.

But what I like about the song isn’t about the musical power. It’s that it’s unabashedly synesthetic. It’s a song about looking for the right words for a feeling and finding them not in describing an inner emotional experience but in describing the intensity of similar experiences in color, in weather, in food, in cold, in time, and in other experiences we relate to emotionally but not with the same emotion that we experience in loss.

It mixes metaphors and experiences without boundary, creating a shameless orgiastic fluidity of intensity that makes no rational argument on the surface but that we all understand intuitively.

Of course a color is not a feeling. A storm is not a feeling. A story is not a feeling. But, regardless of how we may name them, all human experiences have qualities, and if you allow the labels and boundaries of your experiences to become permeable to these qualities, you will see—or rather feel—that they are all the same, that all experience is synesthetic, that the depth of a color is the same as the richness of a note, the coldness of a touch. That joy is the same as sadness, that all of the boundless richness, the memories and dreams of the human heart are a symphony of exuberance without start and without end across which all of the dramas of human life play out.

There is a Country song that I like, and it is in the unabashed and unapologetic symphony of joy within it that I find the answer to why I don’t like Country.

There is a great schism dividing the world we share. Some people would say it is between Black and White, or between rich and poor. There are people who will say that it is between morality and decay, between faith and faithlessness, between fear and peace. Between law and disorder, power and powerlessness. Between Islam and the non-Islamic world.

I do not think that the source of the darkness that chills our hearts today lies in any of these things. For sure the darkness flows through each of these divides, fueling resentment and anger in every corner touched by its bleakness and despair.

But just as many tributaries can flow from a single river, many fissures can flow from a single crack. There is one divide in this country that fuels all of the other divides, and it is not the one that you think. It is not about race. It is not about poverty. It is not about injustice, or about fear. It is not about violence or about power, about guns or about borders.

It is not about any of these things. There is a divide among our people, but it is not about the color of their skin, or the place where they live.

It is about those who can say they are sorry and those who cannot.

There is nothing less natural to hear in the world today than an apology. We live in a world of unabashed joy, shameless anger, and unapologetic resentment. We owe no answer to anyone for our happiness or our sadness, no regret for our mistakes or our inaction. We have no cause for shame in our ambition or how we wear our wealth.

We can be exuberant if we want to be. We can be unabashed in our song, in our story, in our lives, in our world, no matter how large, or how small, we choose that world to be.

We owe no apology to anyone.

It is hard for me to sing a symphony of joy when I know that others cannot hear. Every day I wake up and I sing as loud and as hard as I can, because I know that it’s important. It matters to me. It matters to me that someone hears and maybe starts to sing too.

But it isn’t easy for me. Every song is a broken song because it is born in a broken world. I can sing with joy, but not unabashed joy. I can sing with hope but not with unbridled hope. I can sing with happiness but not with shameless happiness.

I can sing, but my song is not Country. I can sing, but the notes do not come easily. And outside of the insulated world of the white Stetsons and the plaid shirts, the short shorts and the tall boots, I don’t know that they come easily for you.

It’s okay if they do. It’s okay if they do not.

It’s okay to sing. It’s okay for your song, and your story, to matter. But if you’re not ready to step out of your own song and learn another—if you’re not ready to sing that Black lives matter, or poor lives matter, or the lives of Muslims or the lives of children you will never meet—if all that matters to you is that you get to say what you want to say and live your life insulated and unbothered—

At least have the decency to wipe that smirk off your face and say you’re sorry.

To someone.

We live in a broken world. A terrible fissure runs through it. Please don’t let it run through you.


Not You

I am asthmatic.

Even if you know me very well, you probably don't know this about me.

I don't carry an inhaler. I don't take steroids. I walk. I bike.

I grew up around tobacco smoke and have a lot of allergies. To grass, to trees, to dust, to fabrics, to pets, to foods.

Even if you have spent a lot of time around me, you probably haven't noticed, because against the scale of people who have asthma, my asthma is mild, I tend to avoid what triggers it, and I'm pretty good at masking my symptoms.

But at some point, if you are with me enough, you'll be with me when the right factors come together. I might be enjoying a glass of wine, or eating a salad. We might be talking. And I'll put down my glass, and all at once I will look very serious. My breathing will be measured, and my smile will seem forced. And if you haven't passed a couple of glasses or more yourself, and you are particularly observant, you might see a little fear in my eyes.

Because I don't know what is going to happen next.

I've known that I have asthma for almost thirty years. In all that time, I have had only one serious asthma attack. It happened ten years ago, almost twenty years after I had been diagnosed.

I was traveling with friends, sharing a room in a hotel just outside Lake Titicaca in Peru, more than 12,000 feet above sea level. It was the middle of the night, and I woke up with a start. I had acclimated to the elevation days before, but the air was thin, and the right factors came together, and with a friend sleeping just ten feet away, my eyes shot open and I took in a breath, and then I gasped for another, and there was nothing there.

I might as well have been in the dead of space. I opened my lungs and tried to find anything, and as the panic tore through me and a deep cold washed over my face, I turned to look across the room at my sleeping friend, and I knew I didn't even have the air in my lungs to cry out for help.

Some fears we face together. Other fears we face alone.

There are people in your life today who are facing fear alone. They are ten feet away from you and they are crying out for help. But you can't hear them.

You have a friend who is Black and who is afraid to drive at night, because they don't know if they are going to get pulled over. They don't know if they are going to "look" the wrong way, or say the "wrong" thing. They don't know if the right factors are going to come together at that moment and things are going to spiral out of control, and they don't know if a second later, their eyes are going to pop open and the cold is going to wash over their face and they are going to realize in an instant of terror that they can't breathe anymore.

You have a friend who is Black who got into their car last night and didn't know what was going to happen next.

You should know what that fear is like, because you live in a culture of fear. In fact, you can't watch TV, you can't walk down the street, you can't even ride the bus or take a train without seeing the sign of that culture staring at you in the face:

"If you see something, say something."

You are ever-vigilant to your fear. Fear is all around you. You've been taught to fear, you've been encouraged to fear. You fear Black people, you fear gay people, you fear the government. You fear people who have been driven from their homes halfway around the world and are coming to your shores asking for help.

Take a moment and close your eyes. Touch that fear in your heart, the fear that is there, just out of reach, every moment of the day, every day now of your life.

And open your eyes. Take a breath. Put your glass down, and try to see that fear in the world around you.

See the person who is sitting a little too straight, who is a little too careful. See the person whose smile is forced, whose breaths are measured. See the person who is not sure of themselves anymore, who is not sure of their surroundings. See the person who doesn't know if it's safe to drive, who doesn't know if it's safe to talk. Who doesn't know if it's safe to talk to you.

And if you see something, say something.

Say, "I love you."

It's okay if it's hard the first time. That is just the fear talking. Try again.

Because no one deserves to live in fear.

Not anyone. Not you.


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.


◊ 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.”