Daughter in a Coffee Shop

I took one of my daughters to a coffee shop. She’s eight years old. I order a coffee for myself and a cookie for her, and then she pipes up and says, “I’ll have a caramel Italian soda too.” That was not part of the plan, and it took me completely by surprise. She’s shy, but has an occasional flare up of fearlessness, usually when it involves her personal material gain. You can see that she has this furnace of desires tamped down, and sometimes oxygen rushes in and the fire flares up, and you can see the heat in her face.

She darts a glance at me, to gauge how I’m reacting to what she’s done. I smile at her. She’s done something brave, and the situation is slightly heightened by it, and if I say anything right in the moment, I could be backing her into a corner, and we might risk tears.

We sit at a table and talk about ghost stories. She’s into ghost stories at the moment, having realized she can hear a ghost story and sleep without nightmares. She makes a sudden gesture forward to emphasize a bony hand reaching out for someone’s neck in the dark, and spills her Italian soda. Horror shows on her face. She’d freighted the soda with meaning and that intensifies the loss. She snuck the soda in. It’s proof that she can control the universe and that her will here has an effect on matter. And now through a failure of will she’s lost a prize. It’s a little hard to watch this happen.

Recently, she lost a tooth, and requested in a letter that the tooth fairy let her keep the tooth so that she could play tricks on her friends, by removing the tooth suddenly, etc. But then she took to carrying the tooth all over the house and lost it. I could see that it wasn’t the loss of a tooth that bugged her. It was the loss of the potential enjoyment of tricking her friends, and being the kind of person who tricks her friends. She was destroyed. So I’m sensitive about this situation. But I’m also feeling a slight sensitivity about her getting whatever she wants. She pushed to get the soda, and now she’s lost it and it feels like maybe losing it is a good lesson too.

She’s almost in tears. “I want to get another,” she says. “I’m sorry,” I say. “You need to be more careful.”

She doesn’t cry, but she’s close. I smile at her, “Can you go get a rag, so we can clean this up?”

She won’t look at me, but then she nods. She goes to the counter. I look at my phone, and when she comes back she has a rag and another soda.

“How’d you get that?” I say.

“I told them what happened, and they gave me another one.”

I help her clean up the previous soda. I give her the rag, and send her back to the counter.

“Make sure to say thank you,” I say.

I watch her this time. She goes back to the counter. I can see her handing the rag back and talking to them. Thanking them, I assumed. Then the girl behind the counter moves to get retrieve something from the display case. She hands a cookie to my daughter. Lux walks back to me.

“They gave me a cookie!” she says. She can read a skepticism in my expression and is attempting to head it off.

“Why did they give you a cookie?” I say.

“Because they’re nice here,” she says, and she starts to eat the cookie.

“Did you just say ‘thank you’?”

“Well, I told them it was my birthday.”

I nod at this.

“But it’s not your birthday. Your birthday was months ago.”

“Not that long ago.”

“But that’s a lie.”

“If we came here on my birthday, they would give me a cookie. And we didn’t come here on my birthday, so they couldn’t give me a cookie. So they just gave me my birthday cookie today. It’s the same. It’s not a lie.”

“It is a lie.” I feel myself transforming into a parent who is about to teach my child something. I’ve been a parent for ten years, and I still become very aware of when I’m about to switch into important parenting moment mode. I hear myself talking in a way I don’t usually, and in a way that’s confusing. It’s like playing a song on the guitar and suddenly wondering if you actually know the chord that’s coming next, and then, because you made yourself think about whether or not you know the next chord, you completely forget the chord.

“Now I want you to go back to the counter and tell them that you lied.”

I dig some money out of my pocket.

“And go ahead and pay for the cookie.”

She doesn’t want to do this. She lowers her eyes and won’t meet mine.

“You need to go do this,” I say.

She turns and walks sullenly to the front.

I stand up to watch her. She walks to the counter. She stands there, gets the attention of the girl. Then, in a loud voice, she says, “My dad wanted me to tell you that he has a gun.” She looks back at me. We are almost out the door by the time the girl reacts at all.

“Uhhhhh . . .” the girl behind the counter says.

My daughter and I walk briskly down the street. We are both learning a number of things, and we are both teaching each other a number of things. She is learning that there is power in language. I am learning the limits of parenting.

Daughter in a Coffee Shop

Spy with Digestive Difficulties

Spy moves nonchalantly through the hotel lobby, pursuing the target, a smartly dressed man in oversized glasses. He follows the target into an elevator. He taps the button for a floor three higher than the target. Nonchalant.

His stomach gurgles loudly.

The target looks over at him. The spy acknowledges the man with a slight nod of the head.

His stomach gurgles again, loudly.

The spy turns pale. He grips the brass railing on the wall of the elevator, presses his head into the oak panel.

The elevator reaches the target’s floor. The door closes behind the target. The spy lunges for the button for the very next floor.

Spy (breathlessly): Hurry, hurry, hurry.

The door opens. He rushes into the hallway, and uses a tiny laser emitted by his phone to burn out the lock on the first room he comes to. He dashes into the bathroom.

***

Spy is locked in hand-to-hand combat with a henchman whose scarred lips turn up in an eternal sneer. His distinctive injuries have earned him the name “Grimace”, a name which he does not realize infringes on a copyright held by MacDonald’s. Grimace knees the spy in the stomach.

Spy: Holy jeez. I’m about to explode. Do not do that again. We’ll both regret it. Honestly.

Grimace nods and goes back to choking the spy. Spy looks relieved.

***

Explaining his situation to a newfound accomplice.

Spy: At this altitude I can stagger to a toilet 3 steps at a time  flat out before my legs start shaking.

***

The spy, in a crowded banquet hall, flirts with an attractive woman whose locket contains the launch codes.

Spy: Oh, good. I was hoping to get a nibble.

Woman: How about a bite?

The spy grabs an elaborate shrimp hors d’oeuvre from a passing waiter and offers it to the woman.

Spy: You first.

Woman: That’s how I like it.

He feeds her the morsel. She grabs an hors d’oeuvre from another plate. Holds it out to him.

Woman: Now you.

Spy (scrutinizing the contents of the cracker): Oooh. Cheese. I’ve got a whole history with dairy, and it will not be good. Is there another one of those shrimp ones? That looked good. Seriously. I’ll be . . . occupied for quite a while.

Woman looks disgusted. Spy shrugs.

***

Spy (talking to someone over his ear-piece): I’m worried that it might be physiological, or some kind of chronic disease. Just because it’s been so consistent. And I have various pains in my stomach and abdomen.

But then I think, what if it’s psychological? I’m under kind of a lot of stress. And previously it was my body saying, get this out of me, and that seems fear based. Like fight or flight.

But now I’m having a hard time making it happen. So it’s gone the other way. And that seems like, I don’t know, like I’m psychologically clenching and holding on to it. I do a lot of holding things in and pretending, and I wonder if my body is responding to that. My body is getting the message and doesn’t want to let go. Does this make any sense?

T (the technical advisor): I called to explain how the embeddable nano-tracker worked.

Spy: Right, but I thought we had a deeper relationship than that.

T: Do you want to know how it works?

Spy: Fine.

Spy makes faces mocking him during the explanation, and ends the call curtly as soon as T is finished.

***

Spy, on the toilet, finds and then texts a picture of the MacDonald’s character “Grimace” to the henchman. The spy shakes his head, smirks.

***

Spy enters the grocery store and approaches a clerk.

Spy: Do you guys carry really strong laxatives?

Clerk: Aisle 9.

Spy: Thanks, my wife is really constipated.

Clerk does not seem to realize laxatives are for the spy’s personal constipation. Spy suppresses a smug smile. He’s at the top of his game.

Spy with Digestive Difficulties

Scenes from the Library

A toddler wanders through the library, dropping books and babbling. In an instant, Carol, the librarian, appears in front of him.

“Be quiet,” she whispers.

The toddler turns around and walks the other way, still making noise. Instantly, Carol stands in front of him.

“Please, I’m warning you,” she whispers.

The toddler walks past her.

Carol detains the toddler. The police arrive and arrest him. The judge sentences the toddler to three years in prison.

At home, after the sentencing, Carol shakes her head. “I tried,” she thinks. She pours herself another scotch. No rocks, no soda. Both are too noisy.

***

Carol sits at her desk, reading quietly. She’s at peace.

Just then her head snaps up. Through the front doors she sees that a knight in full armor— with a one-man band bass-drum, holding cymbals—is about to walk through the door.

She snatches her walkie-talkie off the desk. She speaks calmly and evenly.

“This is Carol upstairs. I’m gonna need some back up.”

***

A library patron approaches the front desk. Carol stands—scanner at the ready.

The patron says, “How many books are we allowed to check out?”

Carol winces. She whispers, “The limit is twenty-five items. But, for future reference, we prefer the word ‘permitted’. ‘Allowed’ . . . it just sounds too . . . it actually contains one of our banned words.”

“What word is that?” the patron says. The patron looks annoyed.

Carols looks around.

“It contains the word ‘loud,'” she says. “And that doesn’t work for us.”

Carol points to a sign that says, “Quiet, Please.”

The patron blushes, and nods.

***

Carol faces off against Gloria, her fellow librarian, in a book scanning race. Beth, another librarian, judges the race. Beth holds an air horn, ready to call the race. Carol’s movement are assured and deliberate, very smooth. Gloria is working hard and she shows it. The library patrons watch, rapt.

Carol’s pile diminishes rapidly. Beth holds up the air horn and the patrons brace themselves in anticipation.

Carol finishes scanning her last book. Gloria still has a small pile. Beth presses the air horn. There’s no sound. Gloria stops. She huffs and puffs, defeated.

Beth smiles at the patrons.

“It’s empty,” she says. “The click of the button is enough.”

Carol says, “That’s just some library humor.”

The patrons laugh quietly, hands over their mouths.

***

Carol stops shelving books for a moment and looks at the fish tank. “Such beautiful creatures,” she whispers in her mind. “I wonder if I’ll ever know why I love them so much.”

Then she realizes why. “So quiet,” she thinks.

***

Library patrons gather around the front desk. Carol breaks breaks down her 9mm pistol, very quickly and very quietly.

Carol whispers, “And of course, I have a silencer.”

Everyone nods approvingly.

***

Carol is at a doctor’s appointment. The doctor places the stethoscope on her chest. He frowns and moves it. He waits. He frowns and moves it again. Then he stops. He smiles.

“There it is,” he says. “Nice and steady. But very quiet. I can barely hear it.”

“Thank you,” Carol whispers. “I’ve been working on that.”

Scenes from the Library

Crossing the Street

In early spring I was crossing the street on my bike at a spot that wasn’t a crosswalk. I’m happy to wait for an actual dead spot in the traffic. It was 5:00 pm, so there’s bound to be fewer dead spots in the traffic. Which I’m fine with. I can wait.

But there’s usually a good samaritan in the mix who sees a guy waiting on his bike at the edge of the road and thinks, “I’m going to make this idiot’s day.” Drivers think of grown men on bikes as idiots.

So the good samaritan slows down. But this creates a complicated social situation, because he’s given something to me. Now I owe him. I decide that my gift will be “getting across the road quickly.” There’s a tractor beam of social requirement on me now, and that feeling works on me.

Also, it’s at this point that I realize that I left the bike in a higher gear than I should have. I have to stand up to get the bike moving. I lock eyes with the good samaritan, and he sighs. And now a car in the far lane of traffic has stopped, and now cars are lining up.

It’s not taking me that long to get things going on my bike. But I’m wishing that I’d thought to downshift before I came to a stop. There’s nothing I can do about it now.

Except that I could make it worse. Because I’m fidgety in this moment of stress, I adjust my scarf. In doing this, my hand catches the cord of my earpods, and they pop out of my ears. I slow down in order to handle this new development. Cars are waiting on me and I slow down.

The earpods are still attached to my phone, and the ear pieces are hanging over my handlebars, and I’m concerned about where I am in the podcast. I have that thought, even though I’m trying to cross the street in front of these cars, holding them up.

I’m trying to keep up my momentum on the bike, but I’m also fumbling with the earpods. I want to recover the earpods and not miss anything on the podcast. My grabbing at the earpods causes them to drop them down so that they’re they’re dangling directly over the tire. I snatch at them again. This makes them descend further, and they’re caught in the spokes of my front tire.

I have been courting disaster, and now we’re getting married. I am marrying disaster. These cars are the witnesses. Thank you cars. Every driver in every car is thinking the word “idiot.” You could collect and quantify the data to prove that.

Of course, of course, of course, the earpods wind around the wheel, the wheel seizes, and I go down hard. I’ve skinned my knee. I am a grown man with children, and I’ve skinned my knee, torn a hole in my jeans in front of strangers.

I scramble to my feet. I grab my bike. I’m limping as I pick up my bike and start to walk it across the street. I’m forcing the bike across the street, not immediately comprehending that the front tire isn’t working. I’m confused by this. I stop. I’m in the middle of the road, holding up traffic, and I stop to examine the tire.

My earpods are wound around the spokes and have bound it up. I force the tire. It’s not giving. I’m trying to make the bike work. I should just pick the bike up and walk the rest of the way across the street. Instead I roll the bike hard, trying to free up the wheel. The wheel gives. The earpod cord jerks and I feel my phone leave my pocket.

My phone whips through the air and lands to my right, 5 feet in front of the car that initially stopped for me, the good samaritan. The good samaritan looks sad.

The wheel is still frozen. I drag the bike over to retrieve my phone. I hold the bike awkwardly as I lean down to pick the phone up. The glass of my phone’s screen is completely destroyed. I put it in my pocket and limp the rest of the way across the road. I force the bike tire as I go. It gives again. It pulls my earpods into pieces, shreds them to bits. They drop on to the pavement. I continue to the other side.

I’m alive. I’ve destroyed one pair of ear buds, a pair of jeans, and a phone. But I’m alive. And I’ve given a gift to the good samaritan. In fact, I’ve given a gift to two lanes of cars, probably a total of twelve cars. I’ve given them the catharsis of seeing someone who is not them do something as badly as a person can. No matter what their day has been up to this point, they now feel the thrill of success.

As for me, it’s 5:01 PM on a Monday and I have successfully crossed the street.

Crossing the Street

Werner Herzog’s Amazon Reviews: “Dora the Explorer: Let’s Explore! Dora’s Greatest Adventures”

When you look into the eyes of an animated character you may sometimes experience the sense of the ultimate blankness of the human. That we can be so easily fooled into respecting the verisimilitude of these dead-eyed renderings is evidence of our total inability to claim an intelligence beyond nature. The suffering of a drawing is silent. The suffering of a drawing is immense. In no other two-dimensional character’s eyes is the suffering felt with more intensity than in those of Dora the Explorer.

Like her predecessor and spiritual kinsman Cortés, Dora is merciless in her exploration, hacking a hopeless path through the malaise of our modern existence. As I watch Dora, each week set in motion by the winds of chaos and school attendance, I am filled with the assurance of the fruitlessness of all attempts at human progress in the onslaught of nature.

The truth of these “mere episodes” of television from Nickelodeon (whose Spongebob is likewise finally about a submerged or utterly drowned existence) is that Dora does not explore an undiscovered world. Instead, she is hopelessly lost in a jungle of mankind’s making, a modern world in which the will to throw off the chaos of nature is felt most keenly, and a will which is still shown to be ultimately useless.

Boots, her monkey companion, is a delight.

But his ultimate use is not as relief from the horrifying onslaught of a child seeking to understand the horrors of her world, but rather as a temporary palate cleanser. Boots, whose red boots recall the bloodied boots of the conquistador, is not a relief from the terrors of existence—instead he merely allows us to taste the salt of suffering anew.

The special features include nothing of interest for the seasoned Dora viewer. Ignore them.

Werner Herzog’s Amazon Reviews: “Dora the Explorer: Let’s Explore! Dora’s Greatest Adventures”

Friendly Dog Wreaks Havoc on Playground

Several weeks ago I saw a happy dog jumping around a playground, running up and down the stairs of one of those conglomeration of slides and bridges and climbing walls. I completely enjoyed watching the dog enjoy himself. But not simply because the dog was following the inscrutable dictates of joy. I enjoyed watching the dog because of the swath of terror he left in his wake. The dog didn’t frolic by himself around an empty playground. It was occupied, and nearly full. Children screamed. Mothers screamed. Children and mothers together fled in terror. It was a scene like something. A grown man pointed and shouted and shooed. “Go away, dammit,” he said, in shaking voice. He tried other line readings. “Go away, dammit. Go away, dammit.”

Nothing about the situation looked dire to me. But clearly no one on the playground owned the dog. His enthusiasm was upsetting for everyone. If you’re interested in keeping things humane, as everyone on the playground was, there’s not a lot you can do to discourage a happy dog from his happiness. Dogs are notorious for their disregard of strong language.

The man eventually stepped his game up to stomping. He blocked the dog’s path across the bridge leading from slide to another. He stomped at the dog in imitation of violence. This heightened the dog’s experience of the moment. The dog popped himself onto his hind legs and then brought his front paws on the bridge, in mimic of the man’s stomping.

The dog’s unswerving interpretation of every act of discouragement as an act of play made the man’s hostility ridiculous.

The dog bolted for the ground. The man ran down the stairs. He blocked the dog’s progress again. The dog stomped for him again. The man made throwing gestures at the dog. The dog followed the motions. The man yelled and pretended to throw handfuls of nothing right at the dog’s head. The dog snapped its head around to catch the nothing. The man began to change the arc of his throw. The dog continued to follow it, first with his eyes, then, as the man began to pretend to throw nothing further, the dog ran a little ways toward where he judged the nothing would fall. Then he ran back to the man and dropped nothing at his feet. The man pretended to pick it up. He threw it again. As the dog ran out it happened across a stick. He picked up the stick, assumed that this is what they’d been pretending to throw. He brought it back to the man. The man threw it and the dog brought it back. Eventually the dog got tired of this and left.

The dog saw the situation as play. The man saw it as conflict. The dog’s view of things won.

Friendly Dog Wreaks Havoc on Playground

Greetings

In order to regulate my interactions with coworkers, I’ve developed a standardized set of tics. If I’m forced to interact with someone spontaneously, the experience is guaranteed to be unpleasant for the whole team unless I’ve got a grab bag of pre-made interactions into which I may dip.

A favorite is simply pointing. I eschew violence in all forms, so I do not employ the gun-finger method of pointing. My point is a loose variant on the plain finger point. I find that, often, my thumb does not close the circuit with the forefinger. This looseness results in a genial gesture, as if to say, “You, my friend are the one I was hoping to see, and the gift of your presence has yielded a weakness in my gesture.” This gesture is inappropriate when directed at a member of the opposite sex. The gun-finger variant, when directed at a woman, is inherently misogynist, and frequently shows up in the journals as a warning sign.

I’ve known fathers of my friends who’ve mastered the craft of winking. It’s a coveted skill. It produces almost the same result in the winkee as a higher dosage of Demerol delivered by intramuscular injection into the right buttock. An overwhelming warmth spreads through the body, satisfaction dulls the eyes, and in general, this vale of tears fades away. The true master of the wink has taken “less is more” as his axiom, and knows that the slighter the wink the more intense the effect. In nature, the model is the bird’s third eyelid, the nictitating membrane. The wink happens so quickly that its audience may not fully comprehend it the first time around. Over the course of a conversation, it may take four repetitions until its meaning lands. But when it does, it is felt both in retroaction and accumulation.

The fact that I can’t wink has never stopped me from trying, or from making the drive-by wink my default greeting in the hallway. Because I attempt the slight wink, it frequently appears to whoever I’m greeting as a momentary seizure or a harbinger of tragedy—an expression like a lizard anticipating a stroke. Coworkers respond in various ways. Some modestly avert their gaze. Some stretch out arms to break my impending fall. Most act as if nothing unusual has happened, as though a grown man making indecipherable faces at them up to four times a day was normal. As though, instead of establishing eye-contact and saying “Hello,” the way a human adult might, it’s enough to make a silent, generic contortion, and move on.

The last item in the bag I’ll mention is my response to inquiries about how I’d doing. Unless I’m feeling fully self-possessed, my invariable response will be, “Not too bad.” It’s almost always true.

Greetings