The last hundred miles.


The last hundred miles were always the time in which I’d surrender, when I’d breathe in the cool air in the parking lot of a motel in Orangeburg, South Carolina, pack my duffel bag into the car, make a last circuit of the room for left-behind items, and leave a few dollars for the maid. I’d slip the key into the stainless tray at the motel office, and would have the same old rush of regret that I’ve had since I was a child—

I will never be in the place again, in this moment.

The last hundred is when I can let it all out, when I can put on the saddest songs and reflect on the losses and the troubles, and this is how I do it, when I can make the trip. It is when I sing along to the most lonesome down-and-out songs I love, and when I stew in the losses, in all the failed crops and storm-beaten grain that never made it to this harvest festival time, when we come together to share what we reap over the length of our lives.

The highway is a dead one, old Route 301 tying my world to my father’s, and it’s a smooth ride as metaphors go. The traffic’s all since shifted to the roaring modern corridor of I-95, and year by year, the old loops and bends of 301 are being ironed out and forced into compliance, but this last stretch, connecting my overnight stop with the small Georgia town where we meet, is still almost as it was, and it’s a good place to be free—free to roll down the windows and sing yodeling, hiccuping country songs about love lost, free to open up all the neurons and cupboards in the brain to all the anxiety and frustrations and laments amid the relentless brush of pine forests along the way.

It is a part of why I love to travel alone, that; why I relish the morning and the last hundred miles, when I can just reflect without any filters at all. It is where the statistics add up, totaling up the people we’ve lost, the relationships that crashed and burned, the friends moved onward and elsewhere to new lives in which we are no longer part of the day-to-day.

I sing along to all the saddest songs in my worst and most earnest voice that cracks at the inadvisable high notes and mumbles off in the half-forgotten lyrics, wiping tears on the back of my hand, watching old familiar landscapes of a favorite in-between world rising and falling until we’re into the swamps, my car and me, a spark of hot nerves racing the morning sun along the abandoned causeway of the old road, built when this route was big and important and left to rust when life moved westward. I play out arguments, parting moments, the horrors of death and disaster, and it is a thing curiously full of warmth and love and celebration, the sea of dried stalks parting before the plow at the end of another season of emotional agriculture.

The South Carolina welcome center lies abandoned, too, just north of the border, a once modern building left to sag, and I’ll stop, sometimes, to pee in the unneeded privacy behind the place and peer through the windows at the half-dismantled racks of brochures bleached to a bloodless blue in the relentless sun before setting off again.

I think of you on the trip, and how and when I lost you, and of this you, and of that you, and of another you, and of how so many lights have gone out by now, when the grey hairs are sweeping in like winter weather, and how many voices have retreated into this place in my heart, where I’m the only one left to carry on the conversations, and that’s another pang, another heartache, and it’s all okay, because it’s the last hundred miles, when the crop is coming to harvest. The roads are dusted with tufts of cotton where the trucks have come and gone and left the land milled down to red clay and churned up roots, and it’s okay to end a season this way and let the harvest festival begin.

I will tell stories about you, and some will just make me smile a private smile when everyone’s all there, lush in life and rich with tales to tell and the comfort of a rare family gathering on this scale. The last hundred miles lets me let it all go, because one fine day, we will all die and be someone else’s burden on that journey, and someone’s well-deserved reward for the hard years spent tending, bringing water and nourishment, pruning, and recovering from the sudden hailstorms and unstoppable floods that wash over everything, leaving only ruination—

It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—

For the holiday, the harvesters lie silent in the fields, immense egg-beater blades standing in as way-stations to the starlings that sweep up from the quiet lands in sinuous clouds that I watch through the haze of melancholy, and I sing louder and surrender more, until I’m a ragged mass of nerve endings reaching for the light like sunflowers looking to their sun god, and then the fields start to have that old familiar feeling, the one that lifts me up, and brings me back to this moment, right here and right now, where everything is fine, and more than fine.

I park and carry my things in, crunching across the sandy soil, and let my fingers trail through the rosemary bushes, sending a cascade of that gorgeous evergreen scent into the air, and open the door and step into the warm embrace of love again.

Yet, even without the trip, as life moves and shifts and things that always happen become less regular and less dependable in the bustling riot of adulthood, this morning is still the last hundred miles. I’m standing in my kitchen, earphones singing heartbroke ballads into my senses, chopping  asparagus and onions and washing broccoli and grating parmesan beside steaming pots and pies packed up for a shorter trip, and it’s just the onions, I swear

And the food is that much better, and the stories are that much richer and funnier and more meaningful, and the faces are that much more beautiful, and the scampering run of children is that much more raucous and joyous, all because the harvest at the end of another long year is always the sweetest, juiciest fruit, all laid out for us by sacrifice and the bitter counterpoint of loss and revisitation, and so it’s not the onions, and it’s not the music or the last hundred miles, and it’s just everything everything everything and how we so seldom have the occasion to stop struggling long enough to just let the landscape rush by and reflect on how lucky we are and how much joy and wonder we’ve had in our hands, even if it’s never quite enough, and then we open the door to a steamy holiday kitchen full of voices and that rare golden autumn light that washes out almost everything but love.



Joy [in spite of/because of] everything.

[Contains adult themes and language]

The first one was in 1978.

You were with a friend, chasing what you called “the sensation,” because neither of you had the composure to actually look it up, with pants down, side-by-side on your twin bed, using the little cardboard boxes that rolls of caps came in as sleeves around dicks still years away from hair for another kind of fireworks, and it was, as all new things are, the best time in the world up to that point.

The sensation would creep in over shortening breath, a duo in motion on the bed in a race for the moment, a little tingling electric anticipation in the thighs as your legs would tense and straighten, a buzz chasing shocks down your nerves, and then, and then, and then —

In 1978, we would always stop just at the edge of the storm, shivering as we sat up and dissolving into nervous, sheepish chuckling over the novelty of it all before pulling up our pants and going outside to ride our bikes.

One day, though, it occurred to me to see what would happen if I didn’t stop, if I just stopped bouncing on the tip of that diving board and jumped.

Next time around, I did.

Two friends up to no good, pants down, cap boxes at work, and at that perfect, indescribable moment, when my friend stopped, I jumped, and the whole world rose up around me, rushing like waves on the ocean, and I lurched and recoiled in something like a seizure, muscles everywhere tense as it hit and hit and hit me.

“What the heck was that?” asked my friend. “Why didn’t you stop?”

My legs were trembling uncontrollably, and I knew I wouldn’t have been able to stand if I’d tried.

Am I going to be paralyzed now?

“I just wanted to see,” I said, and managed to sit up, still humming like a tuning fork throughout the bones and sinews of my whole body. “I just thought —”

“Did it feel good?”

“I…I think so? I don’t know.”

“Did it hurt?”

“Not exactly. It just—”

And that was it, really. It was just — and it always would be.

Getting older is a trial, catching the failures of your physical self as they come and realizing that those things just aren’t going to get any better, whether it’s the moment your 72 year-old mother points out that she probably shouldn’t be reading street signs to you, or when you struggle to lose weight and drop dozens of pounds only to find that you don’t just find your skinny young body under there, but end up as a mass of bony knots and inexplicable lumps under loose skin like a firetruck under a swiftly deflating parade balloon.

There are the scars, too, like the little circle at the corner of your right eye from scratching at your chicken pox, and the line where an open gash was stitched up, and the never-quite-healed rough stretch on your right shoulder where you skidded through an intersection with a Vespa banging along just behind you, throwing up a fantail of sparks in its wake.

Life is hard, and it marks us at every turn.

Open up the heart of a grown-up and you find the heavier scars; the knots of failures taken in instead of being laughed off, the loves that never happened and the ones that did, but ended badly, and the ones that just hung there, suspended, life on pause, just leading us to dream in ways that can only hurt. You dig deep and find the regrets, from the cruelty you passed along in childhood because that was all you knew how to do to the things you’ve said to people who have loved and needed and wanted you to the unforgivable crimes, at least as you reckon them, done out of anger, or jealousy, or indifference.

Being an adult hurts in ways you’d never have known possible in your youth, when you were strong and flexible and nearly indestructible, with a roaring fire burning in your chest like the boilers in a ship just setting out on the wine dark sea. We live and love and try and fail and explore and are defeated, time and again, and we do not forget, even when we learn enough to know that all things are forgiven in the end, when it’s all over.

One day, your time will come.

That car on the other side of the road will suddenly turn left, milliseconds before you and your motorcycle arrive, and the aggregate science of materials in collision will add up to cascades of destruction tearing through your body in a swift mutilation of all the parts that keep you going, and that will be it.

Cells in your lungs will stop following the rules, and they’ll spread like a bad rumor whispered down the lines of cellular communication in your chest for years before that cough produces a single spot of blood that sends you to the doctor, but not nearly soon enough.

Maybe, even, you’ll just reach the end of your organism in the best comfort possible, a small body at rest under the blankets in a bed with those who love you and lived long enough to be there with you as you breathe more slowly, slipping into sleep with a gentle smile as the world gets brighter and brighter and brighter until all that’s left is light.

One day, everything will be over, and we never saw it coming, racing down red clay hillsides on beat-up bikes, and never saw how bad things could get, when those late-night phone calls broke the silence with the worst kind of news, or when we finally surrendered to love on that cosmological scale that leads you to fondle inanimate objects as you think of him, and find your finger tracing the edge of a filing cabinet in some lousy office where you slave away the years for almost nothing, and everything would have been right, except —

People who love you fiercely, and who are always there for you when you see how bad things can get are taken away at the worst, soonest times, and you add to your scars, and to the list of thoughts that you forcibly stop as soon as they start tingling in the lower parts of your brain, because it’s all too much.

And yet, there is no joy as powerful as what comes to someone who’s lived, and who’s earned all those scars and rough spots and marks of age and wisdom or a lack thereof. If we’re afraid of revisiting pain, we’re almost more afraid of acknowledging that joy, love, and the ecstatic frenzy of those moments when there is happiness all around, but that you can only fully feel them when you let it all come, and don’t stop when the tingling, buzzing, frightening, magical, enraging, agonizing, brilliant bolts of the energy that’s still as strong in you as it was when you were just a dumb kid start to rattle the wiring strung through your old carcass.

I have never been more full of pain, hurt, regret, shame, and an visceral, wrenching understanding of desolation and loss than I am right now, at this moment as I’m writing, and I will be more so tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, until it’s all over, but —

The part they never tell you about in aging school is the other side of falling apart, how the receptors in the human soul start to open up to new sensation and the curious way that things that are bitter and harsh can feed the escalation of delight, in the same sort of sense that things that don’t appeal in youth, like black coffee and olives and bitter greens, become a part of the palette of life at its most saturated as we grow and change.

So maybe you’re killing time on a long flight, earphones plugged in and your little music player stepping through a favorite selections as the miles roll by thirty thousand feet down, and maybe that song comes on that you don’t want to hear because once it meant so much, and then things happened, and now it’s just too damn soon, but —

So you find yourself bouncing on the tip of the diving board, afraid of the dark, deep water down there, and you hear the opening notes and your finger is on the button to skip to the next song, but instead, you turn your hands upward on your lap, as if to check your strength, and jump.

It’s all there, verse and chorus, instruments rising and falling in joyous celebration of the incomparable possibilities of complex compression waves propagated in a gaseous medium, and there’s the joy and the residual magic of having discovered a particular song that moves us, and presently, all the memory bound up in music comes along for the ride, and there is so much joy and pain and delight and regret and just everything until your heart’s in your throat, and if you weren’t crammed into a tiny seat in a noisy airplane you’d jump to your feet, throw out your hands, sing along as loud as you could, and get happy like an old lady in church in the grips of a hallelujah fit.

It’s all there, it’s all there, just every damn bit of it. I get so tired, sometimes.

It’s easy to fantasize about feeling just the joy, and just the glory, and just the wonder of things, and to wish we could, just for a moment, be surrounded by nothing but light, but then we grow up, and we grow older, and things get worse, and better, and just more.

The song is over, and you want to click rewind, to just stay there, even with the hard parts, to just stay at that peak of what it meant when that song was new to you, when life was pulling you forward like a freight train, and before it would be tainted with loss, but the woman in the next seat taps your elbow, tentatively, and whispers a question.

“Are you all right?”

It’s a kindness, and you find that you’re shaking and your face is wet with tears, but the whole story is just so much more complicated, so you make something up.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Just split up with my boyfriend,” you say, and it’s irritatingly appropriate that that’s the lie you tell instead of just inventing a dead grandmother on the spot. “I’m okay, though, thanks. Well, I will be.”

The stranger in the next seat just smiles gently, puts her hand on your forearm, and gives the merest squeeze, which dislodges a few more tears, but you are okay, or at least you will be.

What a horrible, wonderful, impossible, unbearable world this is.

In 1978, all I knew was simple. Things hurt or they felt good. People were nice or they were jerks. Moments were wonderful or terrible. The world was laid out in front of me like an endless landscape of new things, and I had all the energy in the world. I was less afraid to jump when I had even the slightest reason to think I’d be okay when I landed.

These days, I can’t figure out which glasses to wear and usually get the wrong ones, substituting my cheap readers by accident and trying to drive a block in a fog of lost focus. I stand in front of the mirror and wonder if I really look this awful naked, or if it’s just shame speaking, and I’ve been having these strange, sudden abdominal pains that I need to have checked, but have put off because I’m afraid it’s cancer and it’s too late to do anything about it.

I can never remember anyone’s name anymore without some prompting, which makes me wonder if I’ve got Alzheimer’s like others in my family before me, and I can’t remember a damn phone number when I used to be able to recite my own little book of contacts from memory, and the phone numbers of all my long lost childhood friends live on as PINs and parts of passwords.

I remember joy, though, and it’s always within reach, as long as I’m ready to open up, right down to my core, to the depths of all the hurt and confusion and disappointment, ready to surge out all together in a rush of sensation if, when I feel it coming on, I can just restrain my fear long enough to let the hundred person gospel choir into the room, and let everyone I’ve loved and lost to death or disagreement or just the way things are come home to dance, and call down the lightning.

When the time is right I stretch out my arms, palms up, and let it come.

My body betrays me, but I have never known such strength.

“Did it hurt?”

That’s hard to say. Maybe hurt isn’t entirely the right word.

I let it come.

On operating an automobile without grandeur.

I once urinated on a single overhead cam engine directly in front of the Rockville Pike entrance to the White Flint Mall at the height of rush hour with an elderly former calendar model in the passenger seat covering her eyes with a program from a Residents concert.

It was 1987 and I had a 1979 Fiat Strada, which I adored for its strange joys, like wonderfully tight handling, peculiar aesthetics, and having the key on the left side of the wheel, but it had a few quirks, like needing to be push-started a little too often and occasionally bursting into flame.

The drive from Rockville to my apartment in Bladensburg was the commute that’s made me turn down a profitable life ever since on the basis of my rigid anti-commuting rule, because, on the return trip, it was an hour-and-a-half-long series of six-inch angry lurches down Rockville Pike and then onto the DC Beltway Inner Loop, and it was particularly bad for my Fiat, which, when running hot, would clearly demonstrate the problem of putting a fuel line across the hottest parts of an engine. The engine would heat up until gasoline would actually start to boil in the clear plastic inline fuel filter, which would then pop off like a champagne cork, spraying gas everywhere, and the gas would hit the exhaust manifold and go up in flames.

I had the drill down, though.

When this would happen, I’d know immediately because tendrils of flame would start to flicker up from the strange asymmetrical vent on the hood and the car would stall as soon as the carburetor float bowl emptied. I’d jump out, fling open the hatch, pull out a can of expired diet grape Shasta from a whole case of expired diet grape Shasta I had from my weekend job at the pizza joint, shake it up wildly, fling open the hood, spray out the fire, and carefully plug the fuel line back into the inline filter.

I’d done it so many times that my entire engine was stained a luminous turquoise from one of the dyes used to make terrible artificial grape soda appear grape-related. I’d close the hood, toss the spent can on the floor in back, start up, and continue my Chinese water torture commute for another hellish day.


I’d just passed Nicholson Lane, where the headquarters of the terrible Theater Vision company hunkered down in the grimy colon of Rockville (“Ha, ahm Joe Jacoby and this is Theater Vision!”) and where the last surviving Peugeot dealership in Maryland was beginning to fade away, approached the mall in that stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start stop start misery, when appeared the frightful tongues of flickering demon flame.

“Crap, Flora, the car’s on fire,” I said to my regular riding carpooling companion. She was in her late sixties, a beautiful black lady with a sort of careworn Lena Horne vibe and a mean sense of humor.

“Well, put it out!”

I hopped out, into the solid cholesterol plug of traffic in that miserable sclerotic artery, directly in front of the mall, flung open my hatch with the first horns of anger starting to sound their plaintive, hopeless cries against universal injustice, and—

I was completely out of expired diet grape Shasta. The back seat was full of empty cans, the case was empty, and I could already smell burning plastics.

“Shit, I’m out of Shasta!”

I darted back and forth, thinking in that panicky headspace of I’m-screwed.

“What do you mean, you’re out of Shasta? Should I get out?”

“No, not yet. Umm. Uh—I’m gonna pee it out!”

“I do not want to look at your little pink dick this late in the day, Joseph Wall!”

“Cover your eyes!”

I flung open the hood, looked around in a moment of flickering modesty, then pissed out a minor engine fire. This did not smell good, and clouds of fetid steam billowed. In a car directly beside me, a man muttered, “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” to which I looked over and shrugged.

My car’s on fire and I’m being resourceful, jerk.

Traffic had resumed its halting slouch towards the bedroom communities of the DC area, and the horns rose up in a Wagnerian chorus.

“Jesus Christ!” I yelled, clipping the rubber hose to the somewhat burnt fuel filter. “We can’t all have new cars, you assholes!”

I slammed the hood and hopped in. Flora Doyle, once relatively successful as a catalog model for successful black-owned businesses of the pre-decay District, was perched there with one hand holding a concert program of the Residents over her face, having pulled it out of the glove compartment as a meager social grace.

“You can put that down,” I said, starting the engine. “I put it away. For the record, it’s not little, though.”

“Oh, I’m sure. Still pink, though. You know, you probably ought to fix that damn thing.”

“The fire thing, you mean?”

“Can’t do much about t’other,” she said, and we laughed like banshees, gracefully celebratory despite our poverty.

In the end, it only cost me two bucks to reroute the whole fuel line all the way around the engine compartment to stop the fires, but we tend to put things off, you know.

To this day, I recall the scent of urine steam and rehydrated residue of expired diet grape Shasta chemicals every time I am anywhere near White Flint Mall, which seems oddly appropriate.

They were not grand days, these, but we got by however we could.

Fatherhood, delocalized.

Dad and me.

It’s Father’s Day, and it’s a celebration wrapped up in a certain uncertainty.

I will never be a father, though, thanks to a money-making venture in the mid-eighties when I was living in a grimy room in a basement apartment near the local college and living off ramen and salads crafted from a Buckaroo burger and generous thefts from the Fixin’s Bar, it’s always possible I may actually be one from a biological standpoint, but it’s nothing on the order of proper parenthood. I would not have been a good father, being as I am at best a mercurial and moody specimen and at worst an inwardly driven grump inclined to duck my social responsibilities, and I’m comfortable in my avuncular role.

My father is nearly seventeen years gone, and was never witness to my becoming much more than a fussy knot of untapped and unfocused potential held back by my inimitable ability to sabotage my own ventures.

“Son,” he’d say, in that sort of pointed and clear-eyed analysis that drove me to snarling challenges, “You’re a flake. You have a strong moral center and you’re kind and smart and clever at things, but you’re just caught up in flakiness for whatever reason.”

I’d protest, but without much conviction.

My excursions and experiments in life met with varied success and defeat.

Then, without warning, it was the end of our road.

After fifty-nine years as a monolithic and highly-localized phenomenon, he disappeared.

I dreamed about him, for a time, particularly during the miserable year of aftermath, when I suddenly had to live life without a safety net, when I had to pick up whole sections of our collapsed family business, and when I had to figure it all out without a reference point. I don’t know that it’s normal, when one’s parent dies, to stop working and retreat to a numb and lifeless place, but that’s what I did, withdrawing for months to just bivouac and regroup, engaging in necessary tasks and not much more.

He would appear in dreams, dressed in his ragged blue overalls with one broken strap and a big black blotch on the seat where he’d sat in roofing tar, and we’d talk about things.

The bank came after our family, despite the millions we’d run through the place, because in this world, you’re all well and good until the bean counters ask, “Well, that’s nice, but what have you done for us lately?” They took our family home in Scaggsville, then sold my own home out from under me. I’d dream meetings with a lopsided spectral father, then spend my waking work hours daydreaming about taking a two-by-four to the official at the bank who’d turned on us so quickly.

It was, without doubt, a lost and ugly year.

We managed to extract a section of the old business from the wreckage, a minor unit that we’d bought in as a subsidiary some years earlier, and managed to keep it running to keep my mother employed, and strange phenomena emerged along the way.

Faced with a need to set up a small-scale microfilm developing facility in my basement, I had to build a temperature-controlled water regulator manifold to feed the little Kodak processor that we’d found tucked away in storage from decades earlier. I drew up a diagram, mapped out the flow, bought copper pipe as bright as a new penny, with flux, solder, and a torch, and I built a temperature-controlled water regulator manifold, having never even touched a pipe in recent memory. My joints were perfect, each a glossy band of silver without drips or gaps.

“You know, when your fancy-pants plans fall through, you’re going to need to have a trade,” my father used to say, as I sat beside him like an indentured plumbing nurse. “Give me the flux.”

I’d roll my eyes and huff, as I was a sullen teen with hair gelled into a cockscomb of arch, pretentious showmanship, and hand him the flux, complaining throughout.

As it turns out, I had been paying attention.

In the years on the other side of the safety net, I found that I had been all along, whether it was in regard to the importance of building jigs to make sophisticated cuts on the radial arm saw or in the methodical precision of electrical wiring or the value of planning and measurement and constant reevaluation of every project, no matter how small.

My father appeared in one last dream, back in ’98, as a voice on a phone, calling to settle our fifteen-year ongoing argument about the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, and that was the end of our direct contact, unreal though it may have been. With that, he was gone.

I’ve been making discoveries ever since, though, uncovering unexpected clusters of skills and propensities and sudden moments in which I find that I am inexplicably adept at things I’ve never even thought about. Carpentry? No problem. Patiently tracing mechanical problems in an old car? Got it. Diagnosing trouble with a ever-closing network of possibilities that filters out clouds of exclusions in favor of the root of a problem? Oh yeah.

In ’97, I was a hapless twenty-nine-year-old with issues and a sudden change in fortunes. In 2014, I’m 46, and people call on me when things go wrong. I still have issues, but I can at least name them. I have done amazing things, from constructing the intricate support system for a huge mosaic and overseen its technical details to managing a giant clock tower and mastering the peculiar art of Edwardian clockworks to writing some of my best work and executing performance pieces that won me awards and audiences.

The acute, aching sense of loss that so often stalked me in that first ugly, hopeless year of aftermath has long since faded into the background radiation of middle-aged wisdom that’s hard-won, borne of a lifetime of mistakes, losses, regrets, and the victories that temper those things.

I don’t believe in the things most people believe in, and I don’t have much faith that my father is perched on a cloud somewhere, looking in on me, or that he’s anywhere where we’ll ever meet again, but like the curious emergence of skills and interests that climb out of my inner places, I do not need to look far to find my father.

Less than twenty years ago, my father was still a highly-localized phenomenon, tied down to a single point of view working its way through the world in a series of events and experiences played out in a linear and thoroughly sequential order of cause and effect, and that point is gone, boiled away into the breeze and leaving behind only a box of ashes, and yet—

These days, he is everywhere.

In the careers I’ve forged since, in the skills I’ve used, in the connections I’ve made, in the embrace of my inherent glee of absurd personal performance, and in the play of all that’s possible when you find that you somehow know how to do almost everything and still know when to shrug and say “Yeah, I don’t think that’s something I can do.”

It is in the landscape and the places I go, in the people I know and how they treat me, even when I am concealing my insecurities and blustering ahead in bravado when that works best. It is in the place in which I live, and the family I love and value and am always creating and expanding and embracing, and in the people who knew and those who only know from the stories I tell and retell.

Death is the natural endpoint of a highly-localized phenomenon that’s our easiest point of reference on where we come from, but after that, unbound by the obligation of being a particular person in a particular place in a particular moment in time, those who’ve worked to build our lives for us out of whole cloth, seat-of-the-pants improvisation, and difficult lessons can never really leave us.

Where could they go?

So, on Father’s Day, my father is in the pattern of little bloody nicks and scrapes on my hands after a long day spent building an addition on a house, and in the mental note made on the drive home that the little hitch in acceleration in my big old truck is a sticking fuel injector, and in the way I put on one of my favorite pieces of music on the drive and get overwhelmed in the same way my father would get overwhelmed by a piece of particularly celestial instrumental music. He’s in the managed clutter of my apartment, in the way I cut off a chunk of cheese from the block in the fridge for a snack, and in the way I cuss when I whack a finger with sloppy hammer work, though I’ve added a few choice oaths to my repertoire that he’d have found a bit beyond the pale.

I plod into the house with two heavy tool bags and my folio holding my architectural drawings for the project I’m working on, dump everything in a neat pile, get myself a chunk of cheese and a big glass of water, and head into the remainder of my day.

I wash the accumulated grime from my hands and forearms, splash cool water on my face and wipe off grit with a washrag, and he’s there in the mirror, in the eyes and the deepening creases in the forehead and the overwrought facial hair, worn with a full understanding that a gimmick is sometimes a very useful thing, just like he used to say, and the future is just more roads unfolding, one after another, turning and splitting and heading in new directions, for as long as we can keep on, and my father is here, and my grandmothers are here, and my dearest lost friends are, too, and arm-in-arm with the music rising all around us, we follow the yellow brick road that never ends.

The extraordinary in the ordinary.

Each weekend, I sit down in the imaginary office of my imaginary restaurant estaminet, La Poubelle Bleue, with the little yellow fountain pen I bought in middle school and a rough list of what’s in my refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, and ponder. I consult my cookbooks and the stack of index cards of favorite recipes I’ve collected over the years and come up with a menu for the upcoming week.The week's menu at La Poubelle Bleue

It’s an act of pure pretense, of course, or of pretending, if you prefer that way of looking at it, but it’s my way of finding a path to the extraordinary in the everyday. We get so caught up in lamenting the mundane and in being bored, even though there is still so much in every moment and any gesture that can be expressed in fresh iterations of recombinant experience.

My imaginary restaurant came into being as a way of making humble meals into something worthy of celebration, and the discipline of actually composing a menu is a means by which to chart a course through a number of thought processes that has benefits that range from budgetary concerns to self-examination and motivation. With each new menu, I can look back on the past week and ask myself “What did I enjoy most?” What worked, what didn’t work, and what was an effort that produced the best results in comparison to the wasted efforts—these things are all reminders of thinking of the whole, rather than just disjointed pieces and parts to a life.

There are some purely functional reasons for taking the time to practice these regular rituals, from the way the act of noting one’s expenses has the effect of moderating spending through a more holistic notion of where money goes to how documenting our eating habits usually results in our diet becoming more rational and less emotional. In the instance of living on a tight budget, it’s also an opportunity to sidestep the tendency we have to get into what I’d call the “hair shirt cycle,” in which we strip down to the barest essentials out of a sense of fiscal emergency, suffer through a few weeks of dietary or financial self-flagellation, then crash and go absolutely wild until…shame kicks in and we go back to the hair shirt and the whole cycle starts up again like the old wheel of suffering that buddhists call “samsara.”

When you’re down, or recovering, or recalibrating your place in the world in the hopes of getting closer to what you feel is your true nature, the act of simple planning, with an honest inventory of resources, an investigation into the possibilities allowed by those resources, and a projection of what you’d like to see, generally has both a real, quantifiable benefit and a more nebulous one. In my imaginary restaurant, I lay out where I stand, then make up a list of things that would both nourish and delight, and the longer the list, the better, even though I will not, as a rule, actually prepare all the dishes that I could make for any given week.

We give a lot of stock to the happiness that we see in children, but we start to think those imaginary places and waking dreams are beyond us, an essential tradeoff of adulthood, but the broader perspective and sense of our limitations that we’ve earned through maturity can actually give us room to play, too. When times are tight and the pantry’s not as well-stocked as it was or could be, that’s the time to let the mind play and to sit for a half hour or so with a stack of cookbooks and ask the question “what are the best, most satisfying things I can make with what I have?”

So you take a moment, reminding yourself that, even in times of want or need, that you are worthy of a nice meal in a little restaurant that no one knows about but you, and write up a menu that’s also a plan to stay focused over the next week, and the benefits become clear. Even if it’s just you, dining alone at home, you can lay out a placemat, dishes, and silverware, light a candle, put on some nice music, and peruse the menu for something that sounds good.

Even when money is tight, you are no less worthy of living well, and it just takes a little cultivation to make it all work, and an understanding of how awareness and foresight work together to make the present moment into something more magical than mundane.

What’s on your menu?

2014: The big push.

Howdy, my lovelies!

I’m making a point to get myself out there in 2014, and to that end, I’m starting a pledge drive of a sort. I’ve been writing since…well, since always, almost, but I’ve been doing spoken word/storytelling performances, with and without music, for twenty years, keeping a regular online journal for thirteen years, making slow, quiet music, exploring strange new worlds, making silly videos, and otherwise sharing the things I love about being a citizen of reality, but I have to admit I’ve not done it in an organized, comprehensible way.

I’m knuckling down.

I’m consolidating and streamlining, trying out some new outlets, and working to make it easy for you, the folks who’ve encouraged my raconteurship over the years, and new friends who’ve just come aboard for the ride. I cut my teeth online at Livejournal, but unfortunately, Livejournal’s not what it used to be, so I’m going to be primarily posting new material on a few sites and making my LJ a private space for my friends and family. I’d also made a stab at using the blogger platform, under the monicker “bluestarlounge,” but I had a hard time getting traction there, so I’m concentrating on new modes.

I maintain an info site at You may notice that I now have a middle name, and I’m using it because it makes it easier to find me on Google and other search engines, for which “joe” and “wall” are awfully vague search terms. It’s all part of the whole “branding” thing, which make me scowl at myself, but if I can’t be found, I can’t get my work to new audiences. The site will continue to be a general news and biographical info site, with archives of some of my favorite material for various media, announcements of events, projects, and other useful data. My previous info site,, now links into this site, with all of the original material, as well as new material.

To make it easier to keep up in the Facebook age, I’ve created a special Facebook page linked to my info site and my twitter account, at, which is a simple one-stop-shop to get updates on all my projects, events, and twitter updates.

To find my day-to-day writings, stories, music, and other updates, I’m using several outlets, which I’ll list here:

• Twitter —

I resisted Twitter for a long time and for the usual reasons, in large part because I’m fairly described as “verbose,” but it is a splendid platform for linking one’s work, sharing one’s favorite things, and otherwise honing the fine art of the perfect Dorothy Parkeresque one-line party zinger. My Twitter feed tends to be a bit surreal, often amusing, and it’s a great clearinghouse for letting people know what I’m up to right now. I promise it isn’t all just announcements of what I’m eating, wearing, or am mad about (well, there’s some of that).

• Tumblr —

Tumblr is an excellent resource for sharing all sorts of things, from stories to news to photos to videos to music. It’s visually spare and simple, and a nice outlet for storytelling.

• Medium —

I’m a fan of what the developers of Medium are doing, which is to set up an adjunct to Twitter for more detailed writing, with a nice clean design and the additions of a system for collective curation of topics and a helpful tag on each post with an approximate time it’ll take you to read the posting. I’ll probably be simultaneously posting to both Tumblr and Medium, with Medium more focused on the shorter stories.

I’ve embarked on a new project, dubbed “Nowhere Joe,” which combines the pitch I made to a travel network for a travel program about going nowhere, or otherwise using the idea of travel to make everyday life more interesting, and a sort of household-hints journal loosely organized around the idea of living well on little money. It’s a bit different from some of the excellent sites out there on simple living in that it’s not a compendium of tips and tricks as much as it is a means of sharing the why of a humble, adventurous life. I’ll definitely share my own little methodologies, recipes, and shortcuts, but more than that, I want to cover the rewards of making the best with what you have on hand.

• Nowhere Joe —

I’ve also created a corresponding Facebook page specifically for the Nowhere Joe project, and you can find it at Like my professional page listed above, it’ll pass along my updates, links to new stories on, and relevant info. In addition, there’s a nice mechanism built into the site that will help you to share any post you found entertaining or informative—just scroll to the bottom of the post, and there’s little set of icons to share the post with your friends on a number of outlets. The green icon at the end offers an even more fully expanded listing of ways to share, so if you like something, pass it around!

The easiest way to keep up, if you’re on Facebook, is to “like” my professional Facebook page,, which will get you notifications of things I’m doing, my Twitter updates, links to new material posted online, and listings of upcoming events and appearances, as well as updates on Nowhere Joe, my videos, and my musical projects. If you prefer to primarily engage with my Nowhere Joe blog project, “like” that Facebook page at, which will be more specific, though there will be some cross-posting between the two.

There’s a mechanism on Nowhere Joe to collect email addresses (a bar at the bottom when you visit the site), and I will never sell or otherwise misuse your email, but if you sign up, I can email very occasional updates and announcements directly to you (and you can easily unsubscribe using the links in the email, should you decide to). I will probably be adding a similar email list to my professional site, and the two will be essentially connected.

Here’s my pitch—If you like what I do, and enjoy my stories, music, and other things, please “like” me on Facebook, “follow” me on Twitter, Tumblr, and Medium, sign up for my email list, and otherwise share share share anything of mine that you enjoy with anyone you know who might like it. It’s easy, it helps me to build an audience so I can eventually spend less time in my so-called “day job” and more time writing and performing and telling you stories.

Thanks for reading,
Love, your pal, Joe Belknap Wall

Tools: The Alphasmart 3000 & Neo for writers

I do, on occasion, wax romantic on the delights of the traditional manual typewriter, and my feelings on those marvelous devices remain vivid and devotional. I’m a child of the emerging computer age, an aging teen in the era in which these machines and the web they spin just keeps getting larger and better and opening out into new worlds, and an adult who savors the potential of interconnection offered by the technology that surrounds me, and yet—

The internet calls us, distracts us, lulls us into functional abeyance as we listlessly paddle down the endless streams and by-ways that we wander while we wonder about something that tickles the curiosity, then draws us deeper in, and deeper in, and deeper in until we’ve forgotten what we set out to accomplish. For a writer, this can be a compelling trap. We start out strong, wrestling words and phrases into submission, then have a question about a word or a fact or some detail and step outside our work to check on the consensus, and suddenly we’re lost in the wash, dazed and digital, and the hours pick up speed and leave us behind.

The typewriter is a splendid focusing tool because it can’t pick up four strong bars of wireless, and, in the manual varieties that I most adore, they don’t hum, don’t get hot, don’t run out of charge, and don’t occasionally fail to save one’s work for no human-comprehensible reason.

It’s just there, a nearly passive secretary to crystallizing daydreams, and it’s the tool with which many of the most accomplished novels in our language were realized. At the same time, typewriters are a dwindling resource, with the last manufacturers of manual typewriters finally shutting down their production lines, and they fall prey to opportunist craftspersons, who cut them to pieces to make gimcracks and jewelry for literary dilettantes. It’s a shame, but one that won’t be recognized until it’s too late, alas.

The Alphasmart 3000, on the other hand, is a refugee of a more recent era, an almost laughably limited machine that stores about a hundred pages in eight files selected with dedicated keys, revealing your writing through a digital mail-slot screen of four lines of forty characters each. It has no apps, no distinct software or capacity for installing any, and can’t connect to the internet, retrieve email, or browse anything beyond those fixed eight files. Even the means by which it connects to a computer is idiosyncratic—one either plugs a USB cable from the 3000 to one’s host computer or uses a now quite rare infrared connection, fires up a word processor on the host computer, and presses a key on the 3000 to send the contents of the currently open file to the host computer by simulating a keyboard typing the file in.


You plug it in, tell it to go, and it dutifully types your work into the computer to which it’s attached. That’s it. There’s no communications software, no hardware specific plug-ins, widgets, or drivers, just clever hardware that tells the host computer that a keyboard is attached. A more sophisticated user might call it absurd, and a clunky workaround, but it’s designed to be robust, and it is robust.

It’s also physically robust, because the original Alphasmart and Alphasmart 2000, which evolved into the 3000, the somewhat awkward mid-level Dana, and the current Neo, was designed for an educational setting and children, and reflects their wild, destructive nature with sturdy, simplified construction. I’ve demonstrated mine with enough waist-level drops onto a variety of surfaces to have killed more sophisticated machines, and it doesn’t show a mark from the effort. It’s been frozen and broiled, sitting in the trunk of my car as my be-anywhere writing machine, and it’s still here, still stalwart. The dated translucent blue-green plastic of the case seems almost surreally impervious to anything but a targeted assault.

It runs on standard AA batteries, and runs nearly forever at that—I wrote the bulk of my first book-length manuscript in fits and starts on a 3000, watching the battery indicator stay stubbornly in one place because of its clever operating mode in which it’s really only consuming power when keys are being pressed. I’ve carried it with me on cross-country trains, on planes, on the bus, at work and at play, writing whenever there’s a free moment of clarity, and it just works. It just works, which is more than can be said for more sophisticated machines sold to us as perfect do-it-all multi-tools. It does just one thing, and does it very well.

The keys aren’t the most satisfying in use, and my single longstanding complaint about the 3000 is that the spacebar needs a firm stroke in a direction perpendicular to the key-bed and will stick if struck near the edges, but they work, and in a decade’s worth of use, I haven’t worn them out. The display isn’t backlit, so you have to use it in lighting conditions comparable to the conditions in which one would read a book, and there’s no font—just 1980-vintage 5×7 dot matrix characters against LCD grey. None of these flaws do more than cause an occasional and fleeing furrow at the bridge of my nose, and for the price, the 3000 is a bargain.

I carry mine everywhere, never worrying about the risks of losing a thousand dollar laptop, and if I leave it in the trunk of my car for months, a backup for those moments when inspiration strikes, it’s always alive when I dig it out and fire it up.

When the newer Dana model came out, I picked up one of those as well. The keyboard on the Dana is just fantastic, with a much nicer touch than the 3000, but the screen’s larger, though not quite as legible, and the stylus-based interface (the Dana is essentially a Palm device) and attendant complexity of having multiple apps and files and storage media (with a dependance on using software for the defunct Palm OS to move data in and out) disturbs the simple surface tension of the original 3000 enough that I’ve not used mine nearly as often as the 3000.

The newer Neo/Neo2 models, which is were a hybrid of the 3000 and the Dana, with the 3000’s simplicity and the Dana’s lovely keyboard, would likely be an even more perfect companion, though I can’t directly speak to its virtues, having never found myself needing more than my old reliable 3000.

Unfortunately, the website for Alphasmart indicates that the Neo is now out of production, which means it’s the end of the line for new ones, but the 3000 is common on Ebay in the $10-$25 range and Neo/Neo2 models can be had for $40-$60, and they’re likely to last quite a while in regular use.

As a tool, they were unmatched. They were simple, robust, long-lived, and economical, and I can’t think of anything remotely comparable on the market. If you’re the kind of writer I am, who’s a little too prone to tangents and distraction, I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The sensibility of making the best of things.

One of the things that broke the curious haze that enveloped me when I lost my job this past summer was the moment when, after being sat down in the head office with the director of human relations and told that my department was being merged with another, and that, for reasons of budget and seniority, I was being let go, I took the train home, walked back from the station, petted the dog, and opened the refrigerator. I peered in at the little wooden box containing two thirds of a wheel of a fine textured goat’s milk cheese from a creamery in Western Maryland with a brielike smoothness gorgeously crossing over into the sharp tang of a more traditional goat cheese, a delight that I’d only just discovered days before, and the gravity in the room just sort of went.

This is the last piece of expensive cheese I’ll have for a long, long time.

Of course, I’m not particularly extravagant in how I live. I’ve never owned a new car and probably never will, I’ve lived in the same two room apartment for more than twenty-five years, I’ve never had a traditional vacation with air travel and accommodations, and I don’t drink beyond occasionally buying a glamorous cocktail with an umbrella that I carry around like a party totem, but merely sip.

This, though, has been my gourmet year, albeit for unexpected reasons.

I swore off food with ingredients, mostly, at the start of 2013. Everyone around me rolled their eyes, pointing out that there’s no such thing as food without ingredients in the same way that there’s no such thing as food without chemicals, but I meant it in a very specific sense, in that I intended to stop buying food with ingredients and transition to buying foods that were ingredients. To keep a few treasured items in my occasional realm, I allowed for the odd item with three to five ingredients, and because there’s nothing more obnoxious than a purist, I think it’s perfectly fine on the odd afternoon to slouch down to McDonald’s for a McChicken sandwich or similarly vile piece of chemistry-set-created bovine calm on a bun.

The spark of forced participation in the culinary arts in lieu of the meek acceptance of convenience turned out to be a very good thing, and the mode of working from roots and staples turned out to be a big step forward.

I work in a kitchen that is five by nine feet in total, including the appliances, and have no counters at all. There’s a giant cast iron sink on a metal cabinet, a broad shouldered vintage Real Host gas stove with the burners clustered around the center so I have a little working space around the periphery, and a refrigerator that’s really too big for the space. There used to be clunky old metal cabinets overhead, but in the final venture of a hysterical cockroach purge that’s given me a bug-free kitchen for twenty-two years, I tore out all the cabinets and installed open basket shelves, overhead hangers, and racks everywhere. Everything is in a mason or recycled jar, tin box, or hanging from a hook, and the kitchen is my pantry, as well.

The discipline imposed by a tiny workspace means that I cook like Julia Child, in that I prepare my ingredients in batches, setting up little glass custard cups full of crushed garlic and kasoori methi that I’ve ground extra fine in my well-worn mortar and pestle (a tool that few people seem to own, which just boggles my mind). The move to that mode of working was a natural adaptation to the dimensions of my working environment, but I can’t discount Julia’s influence, because she was the goddess to my childish awakening to food a long time prior.

I remember watching her, transfixed, even as she prepared things I’d never eat, and still won’t. Her voice, her imposing stature, and the way the joy of her work was just a radiant thing, a warmth that flowed straight from the tiny screen of our TV into my lonesome heart, and I was changed.

In high school, my best friend and I created what I believe to be the first ever pirate radio drag science fiction cooking show with field reporting segments, which I broadcast to almost no listeners from a tape recorder in a locker connected to a tiny FM transmitter that I’d bought at Radio Shack and hopped up with a little more wattage. It was, of course, mostly unlistenable, in that The Agnes & Agatha Show was largely two teenaged boys talking in rolling falsettos and cooking mundane foods in what we claimed was a space station in a geosynchronous orbit over Maryland.

“Today, we’re going to tackle pancakes,” said Agatha, a doughy space woman in her mid-fifties.

“I’d better get my football helmet, then,” quipped Agnes, another doughy space woman in her mid-fifties, and the two of us laughed and laughed. My father, happening on these scenes, would roll his eyes and twitch slightly as two skinny high school kids wrought havoc on the kitchen in the guise of shrieking Catskills-grade drag routines, and my mother would just scowl at the depth of destruction, but she was more patient with the extremes of art as an artist herself.

“As you can see, Agnes, I’ve prepared our batter in advance.”

“Batter up!”

Oddly, neither of us had any notion of exactly how gorgeously queer the whole endeavor was. It was just play of the best kind, and while we cooked nothing of any consequence and didn’t even do a particularly good job at preparing things as mundane as pancakes, there was a lightness in the play of it that I’ve carried forward ever since.

“Jeez, Joe,” Vygis griped, looking properly ridiculous in a red polyester cocktail dress that I’d found at a local yard sale. We were both greasy nerds in those days, all stringy hair and curated dishevelment, and in his party dress and Soviet-style metal rimmed glasses, he looked hilarious, which was my point. My dress was not as nice, a red and white number with a Peter Pan collar, and was a bit too snug, but he was the straight man and I was the buffoonish ringleader, so it was as it should be. “Do we have to actually wear these things? I feel like an idiot.”

“Yes. We’re method.”

“But…it’s radio. No one can see us.”

“They can hear the dresses.”

“They can hear dresses? C’mon.”

“Would you just stop fussing and fix the ruffles on your collar?”


Thing is, until fairly recently, I have always been a good cook, but a good cook in the sense of being someone with the methodical nature to execute recipes to the letter of the law with a set of well-practiced techniques of preparation that I’d learned from watching my mother and my grandmother and my great aunts setting up holiday meals in the big open kitchen of one of the rambling ancestral houses back in low country Georgia. The freedom of the moment, and the je ne sais quoi of just throwing together a meal with seemingly random ingredients, though, was not within my grasp.

I’d diverge from recipes, only to ruin the delicacy of contrasts and the careful balances of flavors, and I’d experiment at my own peril, occasionally having to throw out entire casseroles of inedible combinations, and it infuriated me that I could not master the art of cooking in the same way I’d mastered the craft of it, but it wasn’t until my no-ingredients pledge that I had to start breaking down the way I worked into discrete parts that allowed for play and variation.

With just the atoms of food available, just flours and beans and oils and vinegars and spices and so on, I had to work differently, even though I was using items I’d always used. There was just something to the zen habit of working from simplicity upwards instead of from complexity downward that made for a change. I mastered the five mother sauces, and honed my more visceral sense, borne out of memory, of what flavors worked well with other flavors, and took my love of cuisines from Vietnam and India and Indonesia and worked them into the mix, exploring variations and combinations, and shift happened.

The thing is, 2013 was an awful, defeating, difficult year.

My old friend, the Agnes to my buffoonish Agatha, was killed in a bizarre accident in March, management changes at work turned a dream job into a punishing, stressful chore, a pinched nerve that had triggered six months of chronic pain only a few years earlier returned in full force, and suddenly, I was out of a job and knocked for a loop and the little piece of fine textured goat’s milk cheese in my refrigerator was going to be it for a while.

In the face of lack, though, I went absolutely wild. I have long sworn to never leave the house without a proper cooked breakfast, and without a train to catch, I started getting grandiose, posting my morning culinary projects on the ‘net in a vestigial reflex going back to the days of my pirate radio drag science fiction cooking show with field reporting segments.

I may not have any money, but now I have time for hollandaise.

I’d stand in the kitchen, hair still wild from the pillow, and peer into the refrigerator for the morning’s vocabulary of flavors. A few mushrooms left, some cheap supermarket brie, frozen spinach, powdered milk, and some eggs in the refrigerator door.

Don’t think. Just let it flow.

I’d brew a pot of tea, start working, not thinking, not overthinking, not being analytical—just letting my hands start to work.

“I’ve made a tiny brie and mushroom soufflé with a side of creamed spinach with kasoori methi this morning, served in the grand manner with a painfully dark cup of Café du Monde sweetened to diabetic wonderment with canned condensed milk under a dusting of orange zest,” I’d subtitle my precious little photos online, then send the whole thing into worldwide distribution with a click of the post button.

“Gah, could you get any more pretentious with your breakfast posts?” my sister said to me with the kind of weary familiarity that comes from having had to live with my eccentricities for decades.

“Oh yes. And I will,” I replied, with a withering tone that is, itself, awfully twee, but it’s all part of the play. The thing is, I carried that little soufflé and teeny cup of zesty coffee to the old walnut table in my front room, put Astrud Gilberto on the stereo, and it is all a put-on, in a way, except that that meal was absolutely celestial and would start a day in which I would otherwise feel sad and sentimental and frustrated and worried about my ability to ever pull things together again with a triumph on the scale at which we can always triumph against the overbearing shittiness of an unfair world.

I cannot beat back all the demons and unexpected disasters that plague my world, but I can own this moment, right here and right now, when I can surrender to joy.

Is it a queer sensibility, this? Is it just what people have always done when things will not go our way, to either give up the game to suffering or to stand up, laugh in the face of lack, and use things as simple as invention, adjectives, and determination to make something out of almost nothing?

So, for me, in a year in which almost everything sucked beyond all reason, I also reached a point at which I realized that I am not a decent cook, bound by cookbooks and a narrow canon of how decent cooks cook—I am an excellent cook, making the best I can with what I have and learning new things every day, in a kitchen that I stock on the cheap with staples and a few indulgences that can come together in an almost unlimited way and remind me that life is like that, too.

This morning, after I check what I’ve written here to catch most, but not all, of my typos and malapropisms, I will stand in my kitchen, hair still wild from the pillow, and light a candle for days lost and another for the divine Julia Child, who made it all real, ring the little tingsha bells that hang from the door frame to my tiny kitchen, open the refrigerator, and see what the day has to offer.

Guess where I’m calling from!

We had one of the first cellular telephones in the area during my family’s brief flirtation with crossing a class boundary, thanks to a flush of huge corporate lawsuits that boosted our family business of mostly litigation support microfilming, and in the same way one remembers where one was at the moment of an assassination, natural disaster, or sports victory, I remember my very first call on a mobile phone with great clarity.

I’d been walking around with my underpants hanging out all day at my high school, though it wasn’t as much a conscious fashion statement as a reflection of a structural flaw of corduroy that would have me declare a one man moratorium on such trousers for a good twenty-five years from that day. I’d apparently had some sort of little flaw in the fabric of the seat of my pants, mostly concealed under my v-neck velour pullover with gold piping and asymmetrical accents when I’d gone running for the bus that morning, and the little flaw worked along the fault line of the groove between ribs in the material and made its ravaging way downward throughout the day.

“Nice ass, spaceman!” yelled the bullies, and the tittering in the hallways was distinctly louder that day, though I was sufficiently studied in the practice of just passing it by while gathering the mockery into a tiny leaden ball of HA! that I kept buried in the layers of burnt muscle in my heart, so I just shrugged, wondering what new fad of cruelty was making the rounds. Had I been a little more sensitive to the issues of the physical world, I might have noticed a dramatic increase in the ventilation of my left leg, but I was lost in daydreams in those days, most of which revolved around the day when my real parents would come for me from outer space and we would collectively evaporate the bullies and the collaborators in the student body with ray guns before heading for our home planet.

In the last class of the day, my miserable art class with my wisecracking jerk of an art teacher, Mr. Perrine, I had to get some supplies at his desk, and as I walked up there, my pants torn open from the belt line to the crook of my knee, the vulva of ribbed velvet rippling as I walked, revealing my baggy white Y-fronts from Sears Surplus, the tittering erupted into guffaws.

“Nice drawers, dick!” giggled the school’s official acid casualty, his ratlike face briefly turned from bovine idiot calm to craggy bemusement.

“I don’t know why you think you’re so funny with that,” I snapped back, carrying a small tray of colored pencils back to my desk, and as I turned around, my wisecracking jerk of an art teacher, Mr. Perrine, spoke.

“I think it’s because your pants are ripped and your backside is hanging out, cowboy,” he said, and I stopped, my blood fully curdled by an adult weighing in on the matter, reached around to my leg and felt…leg.

Oh my god, my pants are ripped open. They’ve probably been ripped open all day. People have been looking at my baggy white Y-fronts from Sears Surplus all day. This is probably the worst thing that will happen to me in my whole life.

I almost certainly should have burst into tears, flung the tray into the air behind me like a colorful pencil rain, and fled, but I have composure beyond most human tolerance, so I just raised my chin, strolled back to my desk with as much of an air of stylish indifference as I could muster, and sat.

“They’re not ripped,” I declared. “It’s an accent.” This nearly caused rioting, but the class calmed down, at least to a slightly elevated level of hilarity. When the period wound down, the last class of the day, I sat, listening to the bell ringing out, pretending to be carefully arranging my knapsack, until everyone had gone but the teacher.

“You better go, Joe—you’re going to miss your bus,” he said. When I got up, I heard a snort, but I did not turn back, lest I turn into a pillar of salt. I did not go to my bus, either, because the bus was the worst scene of mockery of all, and I wasn’t going willingly into that industrial blender of social stratification. Instead, I darted through the halls to my refuge in the library, where the lovely library secretary, Mrs. Shaw, greeted me with a smile.

“Help! I tore my pants and I can’t get on the bus with my butt hangin’ out!”

I did a little supermodel twirl, revealing the full horror of my situation. She smirked, but did not laugh, because, unlike my art teacher, she had a human soul, and so she dug around her purse for her little plastic sewing kit.

“That’s a heck of a tear, Joe.”

I hid out in the curtained space of our school TV studio, trying to thread a needle, with my pants off and inside-out so I could do a few quick basting stitches, but I was so jittery with that gonna-miss-the-bus panic that I couldn’t get the thread through. I stuck my head out of the room and yelled for my secretary friend.

“Mrs. Shaw? Can you toss me a stapler?”

A stapler flew my way and I frantically stapled the ragged fabric together, then put my pants back on and walked a few stiff steps before they came undone. Pulled them off, stapled more, tried ’em on—nope. I ended up emptying the entire stapler in the task, handed it back to Mrs. Shaw, and stepped out like a robot with a jagged scar of randomly placed staples scraping up and down my thigh as I made a run for the front plaza of the school.

Naturally, the last of the buses was departing in a cloud of blue smoke.

I stood there for a moment, then stiffly staggered back to the library, the first trickles of blood already gathering in my sock.

“Can I use the phone? I missed the bus.”

I sat and waited in the library for about fifteen minutes to wait for my ride, slouching sideways on one of the benches there like Mae West on a chaise in order to favor my bristling staple scar, enjoying some gossip time with my grown-up friend, then limped out to the plaza to wait.

I looked for my father’s silver and purple Suburban, but it never showed. There was a sonorous beep, and I peered around, seeing nothing but a sleek grey sedan. I looked again, the window slid down, and my father hollered.

“Hey Joe!”

He had that grin he’d get when he was up to something, and man, that car was definitely up to something. What it was, in fact, was a brand new, freshly purchased charcoal grey 1983 Jaguar XJ-6 with gorgeous sweeping lines, a tasteful amount of chrome, and an interior like the kind of place where you’d wear a smoking jacket and stoke fine Cuban cigars as you’d sip a glass of port.

I opened the door, and the seat was pure virgin leather. I hesitated.

“I can’t sit on that,” I said, and turned to show my father that crusty metal-spiked still-bleeding scab that my left trouser leg had become. “I’ll tear up the leather!”

“Why are your—” my father started to ask, then stopped, sure that the answer would be long, breathless, and ultimately ridiculous. I had another idea, which was to just get into the passenger seat backwards, half-reclining it and sort of flopping forward with my butt in the air. “That’s your solution?” he said, scowling at my lack of dignity, “Why don’t you…oh, never mind. I’ll drive slow.”

From my awkward vantage point, I couldn’t help but notice the shiny handset of a car phone, clipped neatly into a cradle bolted to the side of the transmission tunnel.

“Is that real? Do we have a cellular telephone in our car?”

I have a cellular telephone in my car, yes.”

“Ooh, I wanna call someone! Can I call someone?”

“You may, but it’s seventy cents a minute, so make it quick.”

I picked up the handset, dialed my best friend’s number, paused for a moment before I figured out that I needed to press the CALL button, and listened for the ring.


“Hi, is Vygis there?”

“Yes, he’s here, Joe. Hold on a second.”

“Hello?” my friend asked.

“VYGISVYGISVYGIS you will not believe where I’m calling from!” I shouted.

“The tailor shop?” he asked, as dry in affect as Jeeves.


“I assume you’re getting your pants fixed.”

“No, wait, did you know my pants were ripped all day? Why didn’t you tell me my pants were ripped all day? I’ve been a laughing stock!”

“I didn’t notice until the end of the day, and I thought it would make you self-conscious.”

“What? I’d rather be self-conscious than have my underpants hanging out!”

My father looked over, scowled, and said “Seventy cents a minute. Out of your allowance.”

“Never mind never mind, I’ll kill you later—HEY GUESS WHERE I’M CALLING FROM!?” I said in a flurry of words.

“The kitchen?”

“Ha! I’m calling from the CAR. ON A CAR PHONE! I’m calling from a car phone!”

“Like James Bond?”

“Oh yeah. Hey, I gotta go, this is costing seventy cents a minute.”

“Call me later.”

“Yep,” I said, and pressed the red END button on the phone.

I’m living in the world of the future.

“What do you think of the engine note?” my father asked. “Smooth, huh?”


It would be a decade before he would tell me why he loved Jaguars, which went back to when he was working as an occasional tympanist and theremin player for an orchestra in Alabama, doing handyman work in-between, living in a run-down trailer outside Birmingham, and being a sort of ambiguous regular consort for a wealthy older woman with a white XK140. As Laurie Anderson said of her father, when he died, it was like a whole library burned down.

For the next few months, virtually every phone call we placed from the phone in our his car was prefaced with “Guess where we’re calling from?” and we’d wave to any other car that had the little pair of helical antennas on each side of the car. They were halcyon days of what seemed like unimaginable wealth, and it wasn’t long before my father showed up with the brick phone, and triggered a new flurry of “Guess where we are?” calls.

Later, sitting on the beach with my family, with my father lightly sunburned in his swim trunks, my mother read a book in her sun-blocking mummy outfit while Dad worked on a project, making calls on the tiny flip-out Motorola MicroTAC phone that had replaced his brick-like DynaTAC, and it all seemed au courant and amazing.

“Dad, are you going to bodysurf with us?” my brother asked. Dad looked up, held up a wait-a-minute finger, finished attending to a file folder, and walked his bandy legged walk to the sea, where we all caught the waves and got ground into the rocky bottom of the Delaware beach time and time again.

“Cleve, your phone’s ringing!” my mother hollered, holding up the little phone, then answered it as my father lumbered up the beach. “It’s Jim Summerfield!”

“Oh crap, gotta ‘tend to this.” He talked briefly, gathered up his seemingly tiny phone and briefcase, and padded his way back to our hotel room, where he would disappear into the business world for most of the rest of the weekend, and that, as it happened, would be a harbinger of the world of the future, right till the day he died on the job, on the floor of the office with his morning paper and a cup of coffee thrown in the fall.

In the future, we will be connected to each other all the time.

When I did my exit interview at the end of my previous job, six months ago, I reluctantly handed back my employer-provided iPhone, suddenly panicked at the prospect of no longer having that constant connection to the rest of the world, and had a rough month of not being able to look things up, or to access a constantly updated map, or to fill everyone I’ve ever met in on what I’m eating at any given moment, but it faded, and a calm returned that I hadn’t known in a while.

I’ve still got the phone I came in with, an ancient pay-as-you-go flip phone that’s not smart, internet savvy, or filled with games, and it’s a relationship I find altogether more manageable. I’ve got a little wifi tablet that works perfectly as a relatively well-connected internet terminal (I can check my email by pulling my motorcycle into the spot right by the door at any McDonalds and getting on their wifi), and ultimately, I am as close to the future as I plan to get.

Sitting in the moldy splendor of my relatively remote cabin in West Virginia, I can look out the window at the spot where my phone sits in an old plastic milk bottle that’s cut open on the side and nailed to a post in the hotspot where the signal gets through the gaps in the mountain ridges, and I can just hear it if a call comes in, the little tweedly sound magnified by the milk bottle like an old fashioned bullhorn. I can usually run down the hillside to catch it in time if I want, but I usually don’t want to. If I have a chainsaw accident up there, I can probably call for help, which is futuristic in the best possible way, but the luster of the rest of it isn’t what it used to be for me.

Flopping like a fish in that brand new Jaguar more than thirty years ago, I was on the cusp of a whole new world, and what’s done is done. About the internet, on the other hand, I have no such reservations, but the internet does not have the same hold on us in the way a phone does. A cell phone seemed like a miracle in my youth, but these days, I’m not so sure.

In the grocery store, a man is loudly talking to his phone in the frozen food section, clearly in a frustrating discussion over frozen peas.

“Do you want the petite peas or the regular peas? What? No, they don’t have those.”

Signals burst from the tiny phone, exchanged in a rush of bits with a tower somewhere nearby, racing through wired connections and computers and satellites and more concentrated knots of technology than anyone could have ever dreamed of when I was born back in the sixties, and we still can’t find peas.

My thigh twitches to a buzzing sensation, and I reach down, but it’s just the usual vibratory mirage, the shadow of a phone that’s sitting on my desk at home. Like phantom pain in a lost limb, we feel the twinges of anticipation when there’s nothing there.

We live in the world of the future, though it’s not quite what I was expecting.

The official bird of my state of contentment.

Today is National Bird Day in the US, in honor of which I post this piece:

I’m pleased that the official bird of me, the grey catbird, belongs to no state or territory, because I was personally adopted by representatives of the line, and I think they still look out for me, no matter what logic or reason has to say.

The garden at the museum where I worked for a number of years is bounded on three sides by high brick walls, and the walls are encrusted with trumpet vines that the catbirds love—wild green canyon outcrops of tangled, woody tentacles merging into wrist-thick rivers of fibrous vegetation plunging into the soil. For a time, the catbirds were content to observe and comment, and I was indifferent to them as I’d been to birds all along.

Overnight, once, while a group of Outward Bound campers were holed up in the museum’s Love Barn, a noisy gang of kids climbed the wall, using the biggest knot of trumpet vine as a ladder that tore away from the wall and collapsed in a heap, and proceeded to storm through my garden like Godzilla redecorating Tokyo. The next morning, I arrived to talk to the campers, who’d been careful not to open the doors while the carnage was underway, and opened the huge doors into the garden to reveal the wreckage.

I don’t understand some people, and the need for damage.

I think it is so much better to make things, but that’s just me.

The catbirds were loud and insistent, circling and landing, singing the chittery, scratchy, electronic songs that Morton Subotnick would have killed to replicate, and they hopped around me as I approached the corner where the mass of the trumpet vine was laid out on the ground like a displaced circulatory system. Under it all, near what had been the flowering crown of the plant, a pair of nests were upside-down and trampled, with fuzzy babies cold and dead underneath.

Do something! Do something! Do something!

The catbirds were in hysterics, assembled in ranks on the edges of the meditation chapel, clicking and whirring and burbling and sounding their alarm call, but they were not warning against me—they were talking to me.

“I’m sorry, birds,” I said, and paused because the lump in my throat was choking me. “I’m sorry that humans are fucking assholes, sometimes. We really just—”

Do something! Something’s wrong! Everything’s different now! Where is our vine?

I dug a hole in the corner of the garden and buried the nests and their trampled occupants. The catbirds stayed right with me, always noisy, getting closer and closer as they watched me work. I brought out my ryoba saw and knelt to cut off the vine at the root, but paused. The birds stopped their chatter, which was unusual for the noisy little devils. I sat and looked over the splayed out vines and the wall, where all the old points of attachment were torn away, and had another idea.

I took some of the gnarled branches I’d accumulated for the task of maintaining the ever-decomposing log chapel and built a sort of tetrahedron, using the saw to hand-cut pieces according the what the grain and the shape of each branch told me, then extended it into a sort of wire-frame construction like a tree fungus. With an impact drill and a few well-placed masonry screws, I mounted the piece on the wall, carved a few extensions and added them to the structure, and spent several days lifting the heavy mass of the old trumpet vine back into place.

What are you doing there? What are you doing there? This thing is neat! This thing is neat!

The catbirds abandoned the safety of distance and started standing around on the growing structure, where the branch frame and vines were coming together. I’d carefully weave vines into the openwork, tie loose ends up with a bit of hairy brown twine, and catbirds would land on my shoulders and perch where I was threading vine through openings, bipping and buzzing and commenting on every action.

We love this thing! We love this thing! Look—we can stand here!

I started spending way too much time in the garden, and would smile as I came in, because the catbirds would fly out of the restored tangle of vine and watch me from the top of the meditation chapel, talking to me. I didn’t know what they said, of course, but I’m prone to poetic excess, so I interpreted the floral cantatas of song as a validation.

Hey Joe! Hey Joe! Hey Joe! Where you going with that trowel in your hand?

I’d dig in the center of the garden, working on my new plantings, and as I dug out grubs here and there, I’d hold each one between my thumb and forefinger in a sort of sloppy version of the vitarka mudra, and every time, a catbird would fly down, land delicately on my forefinger, take the grub, and fly back into the vines. Pareidolia leads us to find all sorts of patterns in natural phenomena, and my conceit to such knowledge is a nagging belief that catbirds everywhere know who I am. I don’t believe in god, a distinct and immortal soul, or an afterlife, but on some level, I believe that catbirds are looking out for me. Silly, I know.

“Joe, I saw what you were doing in the garden,” said the museum’s founder, a woman with a wild and often loose connection to the purely empirical. “Can you call the birds?”

“No. Catbirds don’t take kindly to orders, and aren’t much interested in requests.”


“I did them a favor and they remember.”

A year or so later, when it was time for me to move along, I cleaned out my workshop in the Love Barn, boxed up my items from my office in the basement of the museum, said my goodbyes, inasmuch as they were goodbyes instead of see-you-around, to the people I’d worked with, and I kept my composure through all of it to the very last. I stayed after the museum closed on my last day, working in the garden even though I knew that what I’d done there would fade and change under someone else’s oversight, and when I’d planted a rank of lovely rudbeckia so I could leave a wake of gold in my passing, I stood up, dusted myself off, and pinched forefinger and thumb together, just to check.

A catbird fluttered in and landed there. She looked for a grub, paused in what might have been the avian version of a shrug, and clicked and buzzed and burbled.

What’s new, Joe?

I’d held it back through a day of hugs and promises to stay in touch that I’ve mostly honored since, but a single plain grey bird with a black cap like a little beret looking me in the eye made me choke, and I couldn’t help but let loose a few tears.

“I’m going away, bird,” I said, “and I hope you’ll be okay, but be careful out there.”

Bip bip whirr.

The catbird flew off, disappearing into the green safety of the vines, and I left the garden with a bit of indignity, climbing out over the tall sculptural gate that I’d had security lock with me inside because I’d turned in all my keys.

Catbirds may always be too small and too insignificant and too boringly grey, particularly in comparison to their larger and more boisterous cousins, the mockingbirds, but that’s okay, because while they’re unlikely to be printed on Welcome To Our State signs to add another boring fact about another boring state, I spend my days harboring the ridiculous belief that they remember me and that life can never get so bad that I can’t just call on them to come fluttering out of the greenery in flocks the color of an overcast sky, to take hold of me with a couple hundred tiny claws, and lift me up when I can’t do it myself.

Bzz bip bip click whirrrr, they say, standing in the branches of the cherry tree by the porch as I’m heading for the train to work, and I grin up at them.

Catbirds are the official bird of the state of contentment, at least for me.

Bzz bip bip click whirrr to you, too, bird.”