For Emily

4 08 2006

She came back last week, back to us. She lied, she tried to pretend to fall out of the fold. Last Tuesday, when the autumn spell was already withering down, when Emily stepped off that shelf, we watched her cry on the worn-out bench that has always sat and will always sit on her front porch.

“Two things,” she said, “exist. There is love and there is knowledge.” A studious girl, or rather studious enough to fool us, she seemed to live and be the part. Maybe a few years younger we would have listened more closely like sacrificial lambs led to the altar. Now it’s different. We know her. I know her. More than she’s willing to tell her girl-friends. Back when she was ten, I remember having a contest with all of the boys and Emily (she never played with girls, we should have known it then too). It was a marathon race, at midnight, at the old Lincoln Park on Broad Street. Out of the twenty boys in the class, only five or so showed up. Two of them left before the race began, the Spanish-Irish twins Isaac and Jake; their parents had taken them for ice cream, they probably felt guilty. We didn’t even find it strange at the time to see Emily, being too young for the awkward self-recognition and instant segregation of puberty. Emily disappeared that night, midway through the race, dashing down the East St. corridor. Some unlit alley. I watched her disappear, I watched it, as if I had watched her grow up all along, but then some internal train drove me to run, and I kept running. I guess I figured if she made it without tripping over someone’s trash can, she’d be minutes ahead of us.

Love and knowledge. “Love is true, always. It blends the seen and unseen, the pure and the impure, the strengths and weaknesses.” Back when we used to sneak out to ride the swings after dark unmolested by the infantile tantrums of our illustriously dramatic peers, I’d always take her words to heart, as if I could understand then, even in those tired and young moments, that her brief stay meant she had to produce a lifetime’s worth in only eighteen years. Speaking of suicide, a friend of hers – James or something, called in a suicide watch. He said he saw her picking out razors and rope, and talking about it with her friends. Another person, a chronic liar, said she was reading a book about suicides.

She didn’t “simplify the situation in black” as we like to say. She didn’t save us the trouble of hearing about her true love. Emily, it seems, is one of those people whose life seems like an allegory or metaphor that we are meant to understand but cannot. Like we’re too stuck in the thick of it to understand what it means to be out. I cannot write these words any other day, any other day I might be (or pretend to be, if there’s a difference) more mature. Sitting last week, on the bench, we could almost drown ourselves in simple, pretty teenaged love. Would she cheat on her soulmate, maybe savor having one of us, settle for a night with us? Dreams slurred the speech of my friends in a warm sepia-toned drunken glow, small sensual drops wetting their impatient mouths.

Emily’s soulmate lived surprisingly nearby, only thirty-seven straight-line miles from her house to his. Yet they met in some dreamlike fantasy, a wondrous escape far from house and home. I will not say where; to have a taste of what it must have been like, imagine the glory of your high school days and the cosmic beauty of a home with parents out for the weekend. When we sent her off, we half-expected her to find a boyfriend. Not that she was famous for being promiscuous (though yes, even then, a few boys like me knew), but most thought anyone on a trip like that would find someone and fast. Her boyfriend was not exactly typical fare, he had a charm to his words, and emitted a positive radiance that shone only where it found a receptive home. Yet, he was not better than me, he is everything that I can be and less; I suppose the one time I met him, which was before he met her, I remembered him for his ability to play the piano and how envious it made me. Music attracts the girls, always. How many guitar-playing boys spend hours honing their skills just to impress their friends, I will never know.

They fell in love as people are prone to do. I asked her what she misses; and she replied that, even for a girl as experienced as she was, “I loved how he kissed me. He gave me hickeys, and still managed to kiss me differently every night. I knew then, what it was like to be turned on.” I half expected her to finished that sentence more romantically. But this is Emily. “I wanted him in the same ways he wanted me. There is nothing left to do once you have fallen in love, all actions fade away into nothingness, there is your other and only your other.” She had the symptoms, sometimes, but I always am indecisive if she had the disease. I noted that they “had sex”and not “made love”, that she “experimented with several positions” and “enjoyed missionary most”, that the sex “hurt always at the beginning” but “was worth it”. Most importantly, she “never will go out with another guy ever again, not until college, maybe not until I find the one I want to marry. No one compares.”

Always in the past tense, I noticed in our brief interview. Her “two week soulmate” and “first true love” and “best individual she’s been with”, the boy she gave her virginity to. Is she lost in her wantoness, misguided by lust, seeking her first orgasm unconciously? Sometimes the boys who know that little secret raise their hands with eager delight, as if sex is a gift, pleasing and one-sided. I ignore it, thinking only of a single kiss, imagining the slow parting of lips that would infect me with more than just lust. Emily was not worth dating, her pride and presumptuous arrogance delighted me though, enough to develop a crush. Pretty dress, deceptive makeup, playful innocence. She was going out with a guitar player then, of course, a footballer and black haired look-a-like of me. Her hair, her dress, her innocence betrayed my senses for the time being; later I became her friend and found myself glad to not to be involved in the typical high school white and trashy relationship.

I listened that night, sitting on the porch; trying not to imagine her running off the edge of the city map, into some barren unknowable distance. My head processed more than concern, I saw in myself shades of fear. Reflecting how I once held her hand, rested my head on her lap, trusted her with a look I should not have given. She could not be typical, I struggled to believe, and she would stay. More than I feared my own transgressions, I stood doubtlessly shamed at the way her life could be reduced to a paperback plot. Collapsing to her seductive, metaphysical state, I recalled watching her lips say, in quietly pink softness, “I don’t try.”

I believe in coincidence. I believe that Emily existed, as she was and nothing more, not as a sign like my grandma had said “of what must pass” and not as a message. She was a jaded girl. Only another out of many; one more soul bound for predictably sweaty-bodied kisses, miscellaneous hands groping under familiar purple cloth; hands and lips bound for an above-par school and an above-par life. And still I thought, in truth deceived myself, that she could be more.

Emily left, she’s dead, or left the county to run off with her soulmate, or perhaps joining him in the sky, perhaps making love to an image of him, or dancing outside with a boy I might know, or throwing my advice to the winds and scattering her dignity to every boy she kneels in front of, or perhaps starving herself in pious meditation. Whenever I imagine Emily, though the Wednesday paper would disagree, I like to think of her driving away on a stolen car, learning to steer as she soars along, prepared to start new, create for herself a living Emily, one without makeup, without boys in backseats, without exploring her sexuality or unfaithfully experimenting with girls, without false friends, without impulses. An Emily with morality, with a due character, a sense of limits and reason. An Emily I cannot ever get to know.


Problems with Makeup

17 06 2006

Forgetting, Pretending

I love how girls pretend to be,
When they’re not,
Playing to what boys want to see,
Pretty glittery soft,
She’s got a fake smile and not a grain of sand in her hair,
When did she last have fun outside,
Making snow angels in her underwear,
Too worried about the way she’ll look,
Busy preserving an image that wont last,
Forgetting that pretending gets you nowhere fast.

A dress worn hanging on her shoulders,
Maybe is a bit too revealing,
You’d think a perfect guy to hold her,
Just another vision unappealing
To those who prefer the false pretend,
The enigmatic climb and eyeliner descent,
Glossed lips that beckon feeling,
The population approves of beauty stealing,
Last I checked, we’re not on stage,
These girls forget there’s more than UV rays
To keep out, a diseased disgrace to purists everywhere,
Girls play Barbie with their own skin and hair,
Winning every Ken and losing every Socrates,
Is it wonderful imagination or just another
Symptom of plastic degradation?

Charming Friends

6 05 2006

The night smiled; nothing more existed. The romantic chaos of pageantry, hand-holding, and formalism eroded over the now-mellowing sounds, only casually resonating the sweaty intensity of a few hours ago. The girls laughed in unison; apparently one made a joke that was universally comical. I sat there amongst the boys; we were all so different. John, the tragically-typical handsome football player, sat alongside me. Andrew, the destructive introspective product of ADD, must have overdosed on Ritalin tonight. His subdued mannerisms belie his general energy and fervently deprecating black humor. I smiled, as I always do, pretending to play along in this charade. Part of me wants to believe they are all cognizant of the pathetic nature of their (and, unfortunately, your beloved narrator’s) lives. John recounts something about school; a teacher is giving him trouble and apparently I missed when Andrew and John set off his car alarm. I doubt they realize how petty it all is. Or worse, maybe they do, and they just don’t care. I’m more inclined to believe that; but that just leads me to thinking, why am I around these people? I suppose their “teenage angst” or “rebelliousness” will simmer down in a few years and as their comrade-in-arms, I will wait for that. Waiting is what I do; waiting for car alarms, for that next story, for a fix, for a friend, for something real.

Between Brittany and Tiffany (we call her Tiff as if that is cute and stimulatingly original), sits Michael. Michael is more apathetic than the rest of us, and thus drinks the most. Generally speaking, pretty boy Michael keeps us balanced. I’m more emotionally destructive, Andrew is more vandalistic, John tends to be self-destructive, and Michael serves as the means to collect and temper us. We are all of us guided by the usual stereotypical motives: drugs, sex, and money, though we would hardly admit it. We like to believe we’re above that. I laugh again, perfect timing, at John’s ridiculous joke about Canada. Andrew had added, “Canada is just a different way to spell Communist.” Everyone laughed, though this time I couldn’t. Every goddamn joke I hear is this stupid and she laughs at every one. She adores this culture and so do they; they’re absorbed by each other, the tangled web of interconnects, relationships, common friends, experiences, and kisses. I fit in perfectly, these thoughts so buried under the surface no one will ever know.

It’s beautiful, really. The way suburban urbanites play with culture. Oh, it’s like fire to us – we love it. We’d light up the sky if enough people would burn it with us. The girls laugh again almost in unison, until my girl breaks the ranks and laughs a little less. I wonder if that means she is starting to think, to understand that making fun of an entire population is no fun at all. No, I was wrong, she had choked and is now laughing as loud as the rest. I am again disappointed. The driver focuses on keeping a steady pace, invisibly maintaining order with a silent voice of authority. We, on the other hand, reveal to each other certain items we managed to get past our parents. John brought some grass, Andrew brought sharpie markers – apparently to decorate the afterparty with. Sharpie tagging is so commonplace, so easy to do, that even a first grader could do it by accident. It’s vandalism without style, which to me, does not appeal. Some of the girls reveal small bottles of alcohol. I proudly took out a few condoms and a pack of cigarettes. Michael has a sophisticated flask filled with imported wine. Very dryly, I comment on how it’s actually domestic if they’re bringing it from Napa California. Everyone is nonplussed, my date laughs saying, “oh shut up Paul.” Paul is such a horrible name; we all shared biblical names, but honestly, I had the shortest straw.

If there’s one unifying aspect to our clique, it is our pride. We all love ourselves more than we ought to, but can anyone blame us for feeling like we have little more than our pride. We’ll refer to California as if it were some exotic foreign country in one sentence and in the next, bleed words into the air about how our state is better than those gay Hollywood mansion hillsides. I’m glad our insults make so much sense. We have pride because we’re so focused on “making ourselves”, we’re intent on believing our down-to-earth existence that no one else understands. It’s so convenient to be in a clique where you can excuse the world’s dissenting opinions as misunderstandings. Michael always loves to remind us of how, this one time, he told his dad’s boss’s son that “rich boys will never be friends with poor boys because rich boys don’t get it.” Some stupid third-grade act. I love our pride, it’s an excuse for our shortcomings. We take pride in things we have no control over; the state population, the local haunts, the memorials. It’s not like we chose to live here, we’re just proud of things like that because there’s nothing else to be proud of.

Awkward silence, and everyone’s looking at me. My date said something a few seconds ago and I was too deep in thought to hear. It must have been directed at me. In a sure-fire voice and glassy tone I say, “Of course I’ll kiss you.” I lean forward and, while everyone continues the conversation without interruption, I kissed her. Whether or not it was what she asked me for did not matter to anyone. I find this tradition strange. Here we are in our finest suits and dresses, pretending, and all the while debating every man, woman, and child about how difficult life is. Girls remain an entity to me, shapeless, love taking on shallower forms in every manifestation I am presented with. I’ve dated the aforementioned Brittany and Tiff, and my current one isn’t much different. I’m not interested in sex, though I know that’s what Michael and John want tonight; they’ll probably end up envying me for no real reason whatsoever. I know Andrew is more like me – he wants something real, but he’s so lost between Ritalin and Zoloft to know which way is up. We usually call him Ritalin (I always call him that) and I find his problems funny. Truth is, as close as the eight of us are, including Jessie (Andrew’s date), none of us care about each other’s real problems. The sub-cliques that form, essentially when we go out with one another, form out of a silently painful desire to be heard and cared for. It is that emotionally consequential highway that allows us to go on. I laugh out loud. I just realized something. We date to find in each other what I want out of every single friend.

The car slows down, we arrive at Jessie’s house. Her parents take our pictures one-by-one and then in couples. This is extremely irritating, and we all pretend to play along as best we can. Of course, that means Andrew moaning about not getting smashed yet. He almost blows our cover, John gets upset and takes him outside. I hear a scream and then an apology. Everyone is astonished, parents included; no one expected John to get violent because he is such a charming young fellow. John and Andrew re-enter, questions were being fired left and right. Were you drinking? What happened? Are you okay? It’s stupid and I don’t care, so I walk to the basement to get a drink from Jessie’s second refrigerator. Splitting up into two teams of four, we left the house an hour later. The parents were eloquently subdued with our most-pleasant small talk.

In the car driving, I put on some quiet music to think to. My date sits alongside me, while John and Brittany grope each other in the backseat. No one says anything, pardoning, of course, the muffled noises behind me. In the meanwhile, I entertain thoughts about our charade. I hold her hand and reminisce about our dancing earlier that night. The immeasurable difference between holding hands and grinding our sweat-laden sexually stimulated bodies against each other is so ironic, it’s beautiful. I know she prefers the sex over the hand holding and I think I know why. Maybe it’s because the sex feels good and there’s really not much else here to do and no one really cares and maybe someday it’s love. I don’t delude myself with notions of love, especially not with this crowd. It’s something I long for, but I don’t expect to find it here. The music resonated in my empty brain, channelling a lost soul that died burnt alive in childhood. I lift my arm to her shoulder and she starts to cry. John moans softly, we do not look back; even though it is my car, such an act is a violation of privacy. I turn off the music and murmur her name, mulling it over, imagining a real conversation with that name. She speaks to me, allowing me some insight on what she wants currently out of this relationship, this temporary arrangement.

She says, “I am not so sure about you Paul, you seemed so distant tonight. At the dance, I almost felt as if you wanted another girl. I know you think there are problems, but it’s nothing we can’t work out. Relationships are meant to be experienced not just questioned to death. Let it be and let’s have some fun tonight. Watch for the stop sign. Okay, and remember that time ..”. At the moment she corrected me, I tuned out. I don’t need a lecture on love. I’m just passing the time here, waiting for something better. Granted, my idealism leads me to be a purist and not enter any relationship short of what I want, but my forgiving soft side is stronger, and I go out with the most fun, convenient girl on hand. Relationships just work like that; no one actually cares or attends to the incomparably important selection process of picking a girlfriend. Relationships, more or less, just happen, and some parties come more willingly than others. I find it funny that when one of us begins to reach out, say like phone calls or emails, to someone else, that the two invariably go out. It’s part of the secret code to being a guy; all you have to do is “listen and she will sleep with you.” I don’t listen to girls and their issues for the same reasons, but I don’t mind the benefits. It’s almost a grotesque way of saying thank you. However sick it may be morally, I don’t mind it. I’m beginning to look forward to tonight in bed with her.

As strange or sick or beautiful or ornate or delicate you might think our group is, you’re probably wrong. Either that or I’m wrong. I find my friends to be the patchwork quilt that gets me through the day. They sure do come through in a pinch. We’ve all committed our crimes, tripped over the ethical line, and danced our souls away. We all feel shallow, but proud. We all imagine something better, something less apathetic. But the apathy feels so good.

“Prom” [short story] [1892 words]

Unfamiliar Wilderness

28 03 2006


Crystal lake ran out in all directions. She sat there looking out on the expanse wondering what was to come. Sensing nothing in particular, he walked around the edges of the lake, passing her. Moments after passing her, he recalled her face as if it were some lost memory or dream he had forgotten. He turned back to analyze her reclined figure forming a silhouette against the setting sun. She was postmodern, guessing by the book in her hand, and based on an intuition she was also independent, focused, and energetic. He turned his backwards glance almost into a stare, until she glanced back in his direction. Smiling, she called out to him. By the time her voice got to him, he had already continued walking.

She laid herself out on the blanket watching the red sunset trickle across the soft, beating ripples scattered over the lake. Her name was Jane. She would tell you that she grew up in a prestigious boarding school on the shores of this lake, before going on to Ivy and eventually, the lucrative job she works in now. Though her job is lucrative and she graduated Ivy, there never was a boarding school on Lake Paraguas. She still comes every summer as if the invisible school was her home. The years go by and yet her face hardly ages, her friends and relatives have all forgotten her birthday, it is a hard-kept secret.

When the sun had set twenty minutes later, he realized he would not make it to the campsite before dark. Rather than pursue what he felt would be a fruitless and painstaking venture through the unfamiliar wilderness after dark, he headed back towards the woman with the book. Using his cell phone he notified his friend that he would not make it that night. Though the voice on the other line was worried and agitated, he calmly replied, “I’ll find my way” and hung up. The woman lay there taking a nap in afternoon attire.

She woke up as his footsteps broke the small twigs and branches she had put nearby. “What took you so long,” she spoke without opening her eyes. “What do you mean,” he said startled at her keen observations. “You know exactly what I mean, you just don’t think a girl like me could figure you out so easily.” Hours passed. Eventually, it struck the both of them that it was far too cold to be outside. She spoke, assuaging his fears, “I have a place, you can stay”. He then realized that amidst the long conversation about his past and her future he had neglected to ask permission to stay the night. He also became suddenly aware that he gave up his chance to get to his campsite that night in exchange for the uncertain odds that he might get to stay with this woman. The lake trembled deep underneath, though nothing changed the glassy surface.

He followed her all the way into her cabin on the hillside. Entering the door, they immediately began kissing passionately. At first, he pretended to be surprised, then he gave in and kissed back fiercely. Never before had he noticed her long, swaying green dress, her defined shoulders, smooth complexion, and wistful eyes. Moving towards the bedroom, they continued kissing thinking about their past, their present, and perhaps their future. Almost at the foot of her cleanly made bed, he paused. What did he know of her past? And what future? Would they even have a future? Is there a point to the present without a future? Jane seemed to articulate his exact past, her future. She had faltered several times when talking about her past, including when he asked questions surrounding her experiences at this lake. “It is home for me,” she had said, “I visited when I was very young. We always carried umbrellas, even if there was no rain. My mother used to say we must always block something out; if not the rain, the the sunlight.” He asked Jane how old she was and her birthday. For once, she replied honestly though it was so direct, so honest, that it made him doubt it. “September the fourteenth, nineteen hundred and seventy seven. And that makes me about thirty.”

Without realizing it, he was already in bed with her. It was if his consciousness became separate from his decision-making. While he thought things out, his body was simply getting things done. Sensing nothing, he chose to go on, to make love to Jane. Afterwards, she offered him coffee and toast. Blinking, he noticed she still was not wearing clothing. He replied softly, “no”, fumbling the covers and adding, “thank you.” Hours passed.

He woke up just as the sun was rising over the lake. Small ripples soon brought last night’s events into focus. He smiled as he watched the reflection of sunlight over the lake. “Nothing,” he told himself, “not a thing.” Turning away from the windowsill, he noticed Jane still nude. She was beautiful. Not just on the outside, but her voice was sweet, her past was interesting, and her thoughts intricate. Truly a pleasure. Offering him a small breakfast, she caressed his shoulders. He paid his dues as a guest and ate dutifully. Afterwards, he quickly made the jog over to his campsite. He eventually arrived at his tent with the old Chevy parked beside it. He remembered how perfect the campsite was; there was no one for miles. Unzipping the tent flap, he went inside and gently woke up his wife. “Good morning, darling.”

A Sea of Troubles

9 03 2006


The world around me is plain, in hues of greys, black and white. What they say to me cannot hold me here for more than moments. I am terrified of the freedoms I possess, the seeming freedoms that do charge me to act, succeed, and live. It would be easier no doubt, to be in life swayed entirely by the tides around me. However I cannot take up arms against this, my sea, because I do indeed have my own strength, an independent will that governs the courses of my actions which flow out of my body and into that indomitable tide. To take up arms and construct anew this earth would be the same as to surrender to the waves; neither makes a difference. But to move delicately admist the waves towards the particulars in life that we desire, that and that alone is life for those who choose this woeful medium.

That, my friends, is where our life begins. At the recollection that all is the nothing you’ve always known it was. Life is not the absence of death, but the intermingling of death in the shape of flow, creation, and motion. The cold, unwedded sea does so toss and turn us that we are like prisoners, trapped. And this is what we have been spoon-fed as life. Life is that distant shore which the tides will not ever let us reach, though by ingenuity we create companions, ships, and sails. There is but death deep below, and life far across, and above there is only sky. Though our life now seems to be this impregnable vessel of despair, we must acknowledge the happy tides that sway and shape us, the shallow emotions we keep breathing for. To arrive at that distant shore is not a dream, but an impossibility.

What then of love, of that appetizing dessert for the cynics? Faith is the substance that keeps us afloat, the empty fear that judgment will impound the soul. A faith in God is but an unnatural belief in the union of the plight of the many; it is a belief in purpose, a trust constructed by the people merely to function. Love, too, is cherishable in that same sense. Love unites the wandering souls in the tide, who by a combination of will, pursue in union their own goals. For many, that is life. A life where we can ignore the tides from time to time and instead rejoice in the perfection of companionship. I will not criticize these people, for I myself am but one of a countless multitude who have experienced such a union in varying degrees. They and by they, I too; love is meaningful, because rather than seeing the woes and struggles of life, we ignore that distant shore and willingly face the tides. Love allows the human race to cope, react, create, succeed, survive, be true, be emotional, be profound, and simply be.

And still I see the world in the fleshless tones of forgotten films, in that inhuman cinescape of black and white.

The Trick is Just Making Yourself

24 02 2006

“Welcome, everyone”, the man spoke to the crowd. “This new day, from which…” was overheard by the audience as they settled into their seats. Children were lighting sparklers near the stage, distracting the people. He continued on, “We are all failures. Note my friend here, a popular young man”, turning to his friend. “He, to me, is no more than a self-conscious, insular, weak, and dull drunk. They standing over there, they have their failures too”. The crowd sat at attention, their eyes fixed forward. “Don’t give me that sullen expression. You are no longer children. I should not have to be apologetic when I criticize you. I will not list out my personal faults and shortcomings so that you can have comfort in that. Today is your day; your day to pause from smoking, drinking, cheating, and getting laid to think about your life. What purpose do you have? Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t just kill us all?” The crowd was aghast. The older ones were angry, culling into small infant-like cliques plotting how best to get revenge. The younger ones were perplexed; where had their kind and gentle introvert gone?

Pausing to let the audience take it in, he spoke: “For one glorious day, I don’t want to coddle my fellow man. Don’t turn my words into pious religious spite, ignorant psychobabble, or mindless rage. This is a well-calculated attack on your individual motives, your character. You are all failed men and women. Divided between rich and poor, you mock each other. Divided between apathy and the willingness to cheat, we cheat ourselves out of any successes. Divided between those who steal and those who fight, we ignore the law. Even better, we’ve got lawyers to clean our slates. And doctors and teams of psychologists to heal the wounds, and more construction to increase our production.” The self-destruction of the man was almost complete. The machine had set their designs. “If you dare to walk away from this day, having not thought about yourselves under the critical lens of your own conscience – assuming you’ve all got one, then I will know that I have failed this occasion. I will also learn the truth; human beings will kill for their right to believe they are innocent.”

On Hamlet

18 02 2006


A quiet spring in the living soul,
Can erode the timeless foundations.
The spectre of doubt, shades
The happy ground I would now stand on,

Like the imminent plague
That buries us all,
My life stands upon a precipice,
Between a lack of action and
A lifetime of acting.

If we do indeed
In these mortal moments design
An immortal end,
Then that which time does not affect,
Will itself render me dead.

For I do choose to set apart
From the weary-worn and narrow path to th’ above,
And from the untrodden roads that go below,
I will navigate a middle way,
Letting reason battle faith,
And upon the resolution,
I will, from the pleasing skin, escape.

Calvin and Hobbes

13 01 2006

“Some people are pragmatists, taking things as they come and making the best of the choices available. Some people are idealists, standing for principle and refusing to compromise. And some people just act on any whim that enters their heads. I pragmatically turn my whims into principles.”

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes is perhaps the single greatest heretofore unrecognized influence on me. Like a J.D. Salinger for the misunderstood child, Calvin oftentimes seemed to speak to me personally. Calvin’s unique blend of cynicism (especially of the adult world) and idealism catered to my world-view. In fact, it still does. The oft-quoted line from the strip is “Reality continues to ruin my life”; his philosophy’s only drawback is that it can’t handle the adult world. But is it really impossible?

God, I hope not. Maybe I don’t have a literal Hobbes, but there are many aspects of my life that I live just because I’d like them to be that way. “Whether or not Hobbes is real or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that Hobbes is real to Calvin” – Watterson. When I read Calvin’s interactions with Hobbes, I see a child with the imagination, vision, and idealism to live in the world he’d like to live in; in Calvin’s case, this is a world with a genuine friend.

“I’m yet another resource-consuming kid in an overpopulated planet, raised to an alarming extent by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, poised with my cynical and alienated peers to take over the world when you’re old and weak.” Calvin, trying to scare a neighbor while trick-or-treating.

It was Calvin’s relentless cynicism that made his strip a banned book in my household. With oblivious parents, lonely school life, and overlapping references of “building character”, I felt I connected to Calvin and Hobbes as close friends. I guess we had a few things that kept us distinct from one another: Calvin was wittier, I did better in school, Calvin had a perfect imaginary friend, I had very imperfect real ones, he wore the same clothes each day, and I did not. I learned from Calvin (maybe too much), and from him I began to do what all kids do at some point or another: question authority. I questioned authority; this doesn’t mean I raised a Calvin-sized uproar. I just mused on it. Either way, I ended up being told to stop reading my anthologies on several occasions.

“I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart so long. If we’re in each others dreams, we can play together all night”

Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that a strip entitled Calvin and Hobbes would relate so much with philosophy. Calvin had style, he had grace. His thoughts on the absurdity of art (often portrayed by his beloved and painfully contorted snowmen), his understanding of the power of media (I still remember Calvin informing his dad that, among the household, his poll ratings were falling), and his word play (“As a math atheist, I should be excused from this”) thrilled me.

“Nothing spoils fun like finding out it builds character”

I could write pages upon pages of the adventures I shared, the laughs I had, and the number of times I re-read “The Essential”, “Authoritative”, “Tenth Anniversary”, and other collections at the dinner table. I derive a lot of my personality from Calvin, and at this point I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say it hasn’t hurt me yet. There’s a lot more to Bill Watterson’s strip than meets the eye; as a kid I sometimes missed things and reread them and had “aha!” moments. Calvin’s unmentioned attraction for Susie Derkins and the experimentation with avant garde art, even the entire Hobbes-may-not-be-real story element flew over my head. Even so, the insight stuck. My greatest lesson? Learning about true companionship.

My favorite quote from Calvin and Hobbes:
“The world isn’t fair, Calvin.”
“I know Dad, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?”


22 10 2005


What did that nameless man believe when he asked Parks to step out of the bus? What must have run through his mind that day? Did he even think about the rationale for his actions? Of course not. His response ran through his words before he whispered them. It was instilled within him from society, from his parents, from his friends. Everyone contributed; everyone sustained the deeply held prejudices. To break this cycle, people like Dr. King had to accomplish something extraordinary – remove oneself from the patterns of society.

Hatred is not always a conscious decision. It rarely is. Rarely can we look at someone and say, I hate that person because, though he has done some amount “x” for me, he has done these actions “y” to me, and has therefore transcended my fair and reasoned area of neutrality into dislike and into hate. No. Instead, hatred is slow to build. Hatred is a principle that blinds us to the good in people. Hatred comes unconsciously, building through prior experience, learned prejudices, and distorted reasoning.

“Love is the condition in which the happiness of one person is essential to your own”. Hatred is the absence of love; it is the absence of compassion. Where we slip into hatred evolves from a cycle of distortion, vengeance, cultural unity. When this cycle becomes self-propagating, when the distortion is not your own, but your grandfather’s, the escape becomes more and more difficult. The hatred is so embedded into the fabric of society, that to escape from the patterns is difficult. Beyond that, removing part of the lens with which you see the world is just like extracting and separating part of what constitutes you as an individual.

To love, and not to hate, is a hard calling. Much harder than hatred, love calls us to analyze the whys of every belief we hold. Are the reasons valid for the way I perceive this person? What are the lenses that I use to view the world? How can we escape from looking at someone negatively, when we don’t realize that we are doing it at all? I notice that not solely in Christianity, but in Buddhism and other religions as well, that there exists a rule: treat others in the way you want to be treated. I don’t want to lose my audience here by sounding like I am pumping religious views – no, instead, I ask that the rule be taken in a secular and very real sense.

That day when that nameless man forcedly removed Rosa from the bus with the aid of the police, he did not put himself in her position. Were he to have tried, he would have dismissed it and sat down next to Rosa and her two adjacent unoccupied seats (Because a white man was alotted not just a seat but a whole row, two other black people left the bus).

The call to hatred is one embedded within us, formed in part from our experiences and our culture. The first step is recognizing the probability that we are prejudiced in some way that we do not consciously recognize. The second is to go through and think about the reasons for being judgmental about others. And the third is to reconcile those judgments with the moral rule of doing what you would have done to you.

Love is the absence of hate and is the garden where compassion grows and progress blooms.

For Amelia

14 09 2005

“If I Never See You Again”

Life is irrational. No matter what laws science or religion will try to ascribe to it, so much of the world is still unable to be understood by anyone. The closer we get, the more we realize we don’t know.

There was this child. Her name was Amelia. Age seven. Forty seven and a half pounds. She was four foot even, though she would always say four foot two inches. She wore a green dress that morning. And then she walked out into the street and died.

So much of the complete story is missing to us. There are so many chapters. So many pages. Maybe all of life has one author; maybe we’re all the author. Or maybe there is no author, just a bored typist writing stories. There are also a lot of pages. There is no sparknotes edition on any one event. Every single event is flooded with detail. Every single event is an eight-hundred page Russian novel. Most of us just miss the detail.

Amelia suffered. Two weeks ago, she had played in the streets with the boys. They played tackle football. She didn’t care. Amelia was last pick. The captain, resigned to the fate of having Amelia on the team sighed heavily. She just ignored it. Amelia played as an extra wide receiver on that team. The captain, thinking it was the most original thing ever, threw a Hail Mary pass to Amelia. Two eight year old boys tackled her before the ball landed on her stomach. That night, she would remember, was the first night she really cried.

Sometimes we see that side of the story. Sometimes we are allowed to see how a person grows and changes, the events that unfold and how a character is defined by these events. Who you are is how you deal with what happens.

Amelia died two weeks later. She simply walked out her door and died. The entire town had been evacuated by that point. There was no way for her to see the plane fly overhead in the midday sun. She was left alone, left behind, left to die.

Most of the time, stories don’t make sense. There’s no reason, no logic to certain events. They always just happen. Mostly, we just suffer and move along. Sometimes some of us are left behind. We move on anyways. But mostly, stories don’t make sense. We always miss the bigger picture. Some of the most minute details glow for us, like the bright noontime sun. Sometimes we don’t see that girl standing in the doorway about to take her steps and go die.

Amelia was my friend. I could never show that to her of course, but she was. I was the captain that day, two weeks before. I don’t know how I let her get left behind at the orphanage that day. I will never forgive myself. I am now twenty-five, and every time I drive by that city, every time I fly over it, I can’t help but be the boy who told her to stay in the attic and never come out.

Even when we can’t make sense of a story, we can still be struck with pain and remorse. Confusion is a few melancholy and somber moments to yourself where nothing makes sense and everything seems to have been your fault and you just can’t understand how or why and after hours get compressed into twenty three seconds, you just get real quiet. Real quiet.

Ameilia died last Thursday. That was it. It was final. I kept telling myself that it didn’t happen last week, that it happened almost twenty years ago, but I can’t. The memory of stepping into the car, buckling my seatbelt, and waving goodbye to the girl in the attic plays over and over. It is a completely silent dream. There are no voices, no words, no laughter, no sobbing. It plays itself out in black and white. A slow camera trails the car reaching to touch it and perhaps itself escape, but loses out over distance and the car pulls away never to be seen again.

Many people make up stories. Some people are extraordinary at it. Some can create entire worlds with friends, events, professions – that did not exist. Some have lives making up fictional lives. Other people make up stories because they feel they have to in order to suceed. Still more make up stories to get us places we don’t want to go. But I’m telling you a story about something for no reason at all.

Just a life’s story to pass the time.

I just want to be forgiven.

a work of fiction by kevin verbael

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