Directions

It was about 7:30 or so on a Saturday night when I realized I left my phone in the car. I went out into the twilight to retrieve it, then stopped on the porch for a moment or two to watch the late birds dart through the branches. That’s when I saw the car moving slowly down the street.

It was a Pinto, strangely enough, and though it was difficult to tell by the streetlight, it looked brown, but new. The dome light was on, so I could see two people inside, arguing quietly, a strangely familiar woman and a thin guy with long hair. I saw her point at me, and the guy opened the door and got out, walking up the sidewalk.

He was thin, painfully so, with long light brown hair, and a pair of aviator glasses sliding down his nose. He had almost made it all the way to the porch steps — nearly tripping once over a small branch in his path — before I recognized him. It was me.

“Hi, uh, sorry to bother you, but, uh, have you heard of the, uh, Gusman Theater? I think it’s around here somewhere.”

Oh, crap, I thought. I remember this, it’s the Chuck Mangione concert, back in ’78, and I went with… oh, no…

I glanced at the car, and saw Diane staring back at me, fingers drumming impatiently on the dashboard. When I looked away the kid had an odd, puzzled look on his face.

“Yeah, I know where the Gusman is, but it isn’t nearby. Why don’t you come inside and I’ll write down some directions.” I opened the door and motioned for him to come in.

Once he was inside I shut the door quickly. I wasn’t sure what was going on, and certainly didn’t remember any of this, but that was a lot of years and anxiety ago. I needed to take advantage of this opportunity to fix some things from my youth.

I grabbed a pad off the table and turned toward him. He was looking around the living room with wide eyes, saying nothing. Then he noticed me staring, and a small shudder passed through him. “Do I, uh, do I know you…?”

“Look, I know you aren’t stupid, and I know you have an open enough mind to accept what’s going on without understanding it. Yes, I’m you, and yes, I’m older, and no, I don’t know what the fuck’s going on, either. But I know some things that you need to know…”

“So are you — uh, am I a musician? Of course I am, I don’t know how to be anything else! Where do you play, in a jazz club? Well, yeah, what else? What else…?”

“Whoa, stop! Look, I need to give you some advice, it is really, really important. That woman out there, in the car…?”

“Diane? Yeah, isn’t she great! She really understands me. But hey, what I am saying? You know that, by now we’re married to her!”

He looked at me with a huge smile on his face. This was all wrong. What was I going to say to him, that the woman in the car would tear out his living heart, that she was going to dump him, go crazy, and start mailing him pages torn from Bibles with verses circled in red Flair pen? That he was destined for a life unlike anything he expected, not full of music, but filled with heartbreak and pain and weirdness and strange adventures?

“Yeah, look, Kevin, let me just write down how to get the Gusman. You don’t want to be late, we both know how Diane gets if she’s late somewhere.”

I scribbled down some directions, and he said, “Weren’t you were going to tell me something?”

Handing him the paper, I said, “Yeah. Buy her a t-shirt. It’ll mean a lot to her. Buy one for yourself, too. And enjoy the show.”

I walked him out and grimaced as he tripped over the same damned branch on his way back to the Pinto. He turned and waved at me as they drove away toward the interstate, and I walked back into the silent house.

I was pouring my second drink when there was a knock at the door. A shiver went through me as I wondered if they had gotten lost and come back again. I wasn’t sure I could deal with seeing him again, let alone Diane.

When I opened the door for a moment I thought it was my father dropping by, and then I understood. He was a little heavier than me, a few more wrinkles, but more muscular, with solid white mustache and goatee. Muscular? Had I been working out?

“Don’t stand there with the door open, idiot, the cats’ll get out!” He turned sideways and slipped in past me.

“I only have time for two drinks. Get the Green Chartreuse out, I haven’t had that in years.” I stumbled numbly to the liquor shelf and got a cordial glass and the bottle. He took both and poured himself a healthy shot, drained it, poured another, then looked at me with glee. I realized to my horror that his eyes were almost twinkling, like he was fucking Santa Claus or something.

“Okay, look, here’s the deal. Tomorrow you’re going to start thinking about tonight, and agonizing over whether or not you should have warned young Kevin about Diane and the other heart breakers in his future. Then you’d start thinking about career choices, and investments, and next thing you’ve gotten yourself into a self-indulgent, self-referential frenzy of recrimination. Well, I’m here to tell you to knock it right the fuck off.”

I took a slug of rum and regained a bit of composure. “And I’m to believe you because…?”

“Because I’m you, dim bulb! You think I’d go to this trouble if I didn’t have a reason? C’mon, you know how lazy we are!” He wasn’t wrong in that.

“Look, I know we hate that ‘Everything happens for a reason’ crap, so I’m not going to insult our intelligence by spouting it. But who you are is a result of the choices and events that came before. You wouldn’t be who you are if Diane hadn’t broken your heart and driven you halfway insane, and I wouldn’t be who I am if you weren’t who you are in…”. He looked at the wall for a moment. “Wow, I had forgotten about that Alan Moore portrait. That is cool! Anyway, where was I?”

“Something about being who I am so you can be who you are…?” I ventured.

“Right! Look, it’s simple, things are going to work out. They always do, just as surely as we could never see it at the time. It’s the curse of feeling too much, you never believe the pain can end. But you know, our emotions and sensitivity has it’s upside, too.”

As I saw my reflection in the glass curio cabinet it occurred to me that I looked a lot healthier as an older man than I did today. I opened my mouth to ask about it when he interrupted me.

“Look, I know you have trust issues, but you need to believe me on this. You are going to like where you are going. Trust me.”

He raised his glass in a toast and I instinctively followed suit. As he lowered his glass I saw the glint of silver on his finger. He noticed, and laughed. I opened my mouth and —

“Ah ah, no questions! I’m not going to let you fuck this up.” He put the glass down on the counter. “Now you are going to go to the computer and write this down so I can read it and remember what I said, and I’m going to take off so I can get home before she notices I am late.” He winked at me. “Ah, who am I kidding! She knows I’m always late!”

We walked out onto the porch, and he stepped into the fading twilight. “Remember what I said, and relax a little. It’s all going to work out. Oh, and just for the record?”

He paused, somewhat melodramatically.

“I have it on good — no, the best! — authority that you might just turn out to be a pretty good father. So like I said, relax.”

With that he turned to walk away, stumbling gracelessly over something on the sidewalk, then slipped into the night while I went back into the house to wait for my future.

Rainsong

Last night I was surprised by the rain. It was late, and as I was getting ready for bed, I heard the patter on the windows. The sound inexplicably brought me back to my childhood.

I remembered my grandfather’s farmhouse, and the late summer weekends when my family would visit to help with the small crops. We weren’t farmers, although my great-grandparents had been; most of the land was sharecropped out, but we always grew some things for our own use. My dad would help my uncle and grandfather in the fields, gathering corn, digging up potatoes, picking beans and tomatoes, and my mother would be with the other women in the house, cleaning things as they came in and cooking. My brother and I would be given small chores, sometimes picking blackberries, sometimes hulling peas, but we would usually just screw around and get in trouble. After all, with the creek and woods so close, and all sorts of animals to chase around, who wants to pick berries?

But often in the afternoons it would rain, so we’d just sit on the porch and read Hardy Boys mysteries, or play Chinese checkers, or maybe hack up sticks and call it whittling, things like that. The rainstorms were gentle and terribly green, all lush grass and thick leaves on the black walnut tree in the front yard by the gravel road. From time to time there would be a burst of laughter from the grown-ups in the house, or maybe some excitement from a glimpse of a rabbit running past the porch, but it was peaceful, which is not something boys can often appreciate. Mainly we were bored, and hated being idle.

When I got a little older, though, I started to look forward to the rain, and the chance to sit on the porch swing. It was an old, creaky, wooden swing, built for two, with bare slats worn smooth from use, and a steel chain with a touch of rust hooked to the rafters overhead. I liked to sit there when it rained, and sometimes even when it was sunny, with a glass of sweet tea and a bag of potato chips and a book. It was a calming thing, relaxing, restful. Even as a kid, I didn’t get enough of that.

After my grandfather died my uncle demolished the porch so he could use the space as storage for the tractor and trailers. The house is still there, but has largely collapsed, and isn’t really safe. When the family visits they rest in a mobile home parked on the property.

I often wish I could return to that house and find the swing still gently rocking in the cool, rainy wind. I’m not looking to return to my childhood, though. but just to find that moment of tranquility again — to bring someone special there, to my grandfather’s house, to sit on the porch listening to the rain patter on the tin roof, tumble through the leaves, rush through the gutters — just sitting, holding hands under a light quilt, watching the watery gray-green world, letting the shower sing us a lullaby.

Mulberry

A few years ago a windstorm came through my neighborhood and split my mulberry tree in half. It was an old, weird looking thing before the accident, technically not even a tree, just a shrub grown tall and spindly; now it’s really just a piece of a tree roped to the dead stump. See, after the storm I went outside to survey the damage and found it crawling with carpenter ants, the heartwood bored through and through. I assumed it wouldn’t survive much longer, and asked my lawn service to remove it.

One day, though, when I came home from the office I found it back upright, the two halves bound together with thick cord. My lawn guy was sure that all it needed was a couple of tight bungee cords and it was heal itself right back up. Unfortunately, as an arborist he should stay behind a mower.

In a matter of weeks half the tree was stone dead, and the other half wasn’t looking too good, either. It was out of the way, though, and it isn’t cheap to have a tree removed, so I left it alone. It kept looking worse over the months, but occasionally a little shoot would push its way out, and a few leaves would appear. Occasionally I’d even see a berry or two, but not much.

In a perfect storybook world I would report that eventually the tree made a full recovery, and that those few leaves turned into branches, and a sturdy new trunk has formed. But sadly, this isn’t a fable. The tree is still struggling along — old, beaten-down, half-dead, but alive — but it will never regain its old stature.

Saturday morning I went out into the yard to take a look at it and was surprised to discover the thready branches ornamented with ripe mulberries. It wasn’t a huge harvest like the early years, when I would get bucket after bucket of berries, bloodying my hands with the juice. This was two dozen berries at most, enough to half-fill a bowl.

But my! They were tasty.

Fool me twice, we won't get fooled again

I have mixed emotions about April Fool’s Day pranks. I enjoy a clever joke quite a bit, but so many alleged jokes are stupid and/or mean-spirited that a lot of the fun is leached out of the holiday.

But the Internet seems to be a particularly fertile ground for pranking, so there’s hope. Here are the best of the various on-line April Fool’s pranks I encountered today (or in the case of Australian origin, yesterday).

I confess, Pay-Per-Tweet got me, just because Pay-Per-Post is a real (if annoying) program. Did anyone manage to fool you?

MS. on a crumpled Post-It Note

In case you were wondering, I’m not dead. I’m in hardcore crunch mode in the office, and still dealing with the issues I avoided discussing directly in my last entry. Let’s hope things loosen their grip soon.

Oh, and since there was some concern expressed by the gentle (and less gentle) readers of Hidden City, let me assure you that my last message was intended to be hopeful. Sure, there’s still more workplace ugliness coming at me than I can easily stomach, and my job is still demanding that it take precedence over my life, and there are lot of difficult philosophical dilemmas consuming the few moments my work affords me, but I’m doing okay. I’m still listening to new music (I rather like Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV), and doing some bedtime reading, and occasionally venturing out in public to refresh my sunburn. Your concern is touching, truly, but this will work out.

Eventually.

The road just rolls out behind me

My adult life has never exactly been a model of stability. There have been some periods in which it has veered dangerously close to stasis, but there is a vast difference between a calm, centered world, and one locked into unchanging order. Nonetheless, at the moment there is so little stability in my life that it has become a bit difficult to manage effectively.

Out of respect I have always been circumspect when writing about my employer. A couple of months ago, though, they changed an informal policy on blogging to a more official one, a policy summarized as “we can’t stop you from blogging, but if we hear about it and don’t like what you say for any reason, we reserve the right to fire you.” In a better year this wouldn’t concern me too much, but the current environment at my workplace is so filled with stress and fear and doubt that I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a decision made to exercise that clause.

That same pervasive aura of fear stretches into my own job. I’ve worked for this company for nearly fourteen years, having reached a level affording me some small measure of security. These days, though, there are constant signs that this security may be illusory. Many previously level-headed co-workers are now short-tempered, depressed, or both, whether due to our uncertainty about our future, or the deliberate reduction in our workplace environment (replacing all offices with cubes, parking costs skyrocketing, shifts away from telecommuting). My job has always been stressful, but previously it was mainly due to my workload and the pressures of my responsibilities. Now the stress comes from all sides, and is as much a part of the atmosphere as the mold in the air conditioning ducts.

In the social arena I’ve been going through some changes, too. After years of semi-isolation, limiting my off-hours contact to a few close friends, I decided to break out of my self-imposed exile and start meeting people again. (Okay, it wasn’t entirely my own idea, I admit; I was nearly dragged out into the world by some very special people.) All in all, it has been great. With new friends moving from the digital to physical worlds, a lot has changed: I have more people to talk with, so I’ve had to increase the minutes on my phone plan; new tastes means I’ve eaten at new restaurants and gone to new events; new perspectives bring me fresh insight into my own world. But many of my friends are going through difficult times right now, too. Some are dealing with money problems, others considering or going through relationship hell, others have severe health issues to contend with; being by nature empathetic, I can’t help but want to help them, and often end up bringing the aura of their troubles into my own life. Consequently, a little more of my subconscious devotes itself to working on those problems, leaving a little less to deal with my own.

Together with — or perhaps due to — all of this, I’ve found myself doing a significant amount of soul-searching and introspection lately. With my job possibly imploding, do I want to look for work in the same field, or move in a new direction? I have a lot of support from my friends for moving more fully into writing (although why they want me to be poorer I can’t imagine), but is that the right choice? It would seem like a basic mid-life kind of question, but I suspect resolution won’t be as simple as buying a sports car and some gold chains. (I hope it won’t be as tacky, either).

But on a personal level I’m looking deeper and more critically into my own soul than I have done. Matters of personal choice and philosophy that I thought were closed and settled years ago have been cracked wide open, previously understood needs and wants are no longer sufficient, and long-held beliefs are being challenged; I’m seeing myself in a new way, with perhaps more objectivity than I have really known, and it is both exhilarating and terrifying. It is also profoundly unsettling, and adding this to my already red-lined stress meters has caused a few uncomfortable conversations with people who have not deserved it. I don’t know where this will take me, or what decisions and changes will be made, but I know that I am emerging from this reassessment a stronger man, a better friend, and with a clearer sense of my purpose in this life.

I am somewhat reluctant to commit to posterity my interim thoughts and half-partially considered musings in the best of times, so yes, all this sturm und drang is really slowing down my writing. I beg your forbearance, and hope you’ll continue to check in now and again while I get all this sorted out. After all, it may not be pretty, but it should be interesting.

If there was a better way to go then it would find me
I can’t help it the road just rolls out behind me
Be kind to me or treat me mean
I’ll make the most of it I’m an extraordinary machine
[Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine]

Hither and yon

As I am still in recovery mode from taking a day and a half off last week, please enjoy these bits of ephemera from around the web.

Lunch is over. Back to work for me.

Action

Oddly enough, of late I’ve been doing things outside my usual office/home continuum. I have attended a few local networking/blogger events, including one of Jeff Pulver‘s increasingly famous Social Media Breakfasts; I visited the Bodies exhibit in Fort Lauderdale (on which more will be written later); I even trekked all the way to Deerfield Beach for the Renaissance festival (also with more to come).

And now I’m heading off to BarCamp Miami for an afternoon of geekery, then to a Nokia-sponsored dinner tonight to learn about their S60 OS phones. Lastly (for now), on Saturday I’ll be at a “geeks and Greeks” dinner as a wrap-up to the areas many tech events (most of which I was unable to attend). All this motion is unfamiliar to me, but circumstances (and people) have conspired to move me out of my comfort zone, and into what is slowly becoming a new comfort zone.

Isn’t that the way it is supposed to work?