The Bomb

Hiroshima02

When I lived in Paris the first time, I taught English. Most of my students — all but one, in fact — were Japanese.

My friend Eric, smarter than me and very kind, too, suggested that I target Japanese expatriates in Paris.

It worked. Students signed up to learn good American conversational English, and I earned enough to buy red wine, Président camembert, roll-your-own tobacco, as well as yogurt and beef heart. And that was enough for me.

One of my best students was Yukinori Tanada, a man of real brilliance and impeccable style. He’d trained to be an architect, then transitioned into management consulting. He treated my girlfriend and me to magnificent meals of sushi or canard roti, and even drove us to the town where van Gogh died. In short, a prince.

Several months into my sojourn in Paris, a close friend visited. Emily’s an artist, a spontaneous and intense personality. Also, it’s fair to say that she owns more curiosity and sincerity than tact. Or at least, she did back then.

I took the opportunity to host a party with my Japanese students and her in my cramped apartment on rue St. André des Arts. My other students were less polished than Mr. Tanada, less cosmopolitan, but sincere and very sweet, and they all spoke English well.

Although we ended up knee-to-knee and the conversation had a stilted and oddly literary quality, we had a fine time. My friend and my actual girlfriend must have seemed exotic to them. Emily, a green-eyed blonde, towered above all the Japanese students, male or female.

In the freedom of gestures and her movement and conversation, she suddenly seemed completely American to me — in the best way. My actual girlfriend, an alluring Russian beauty, was quite charming herself, and she enchanted the boys.

Things went well; the wine flowed. It pleased me to see everyone getting on, speaking English with facility, finding topics in common.

Then Emily leaned down to the knot of Japanese and said, looking at them from under her brows, “Do you hate us?”

Silence.

“Do you hate us for dropping the Bomb?”

Even deeper silence.

Eyes shifted. All the bonhomie vanished, blown out the window like smoke in the wind. 

After an incredibly long pause, Mr. Tanada spoke up. First he clarified: which bomb? 

The nuclear bomb.

Mr. Tanada pulled out a Dunhill cigarette and offered Emily one, which she took. He lit it for her.

“Do you know about the fire bombings in Tokyo?” he asked. 

She nodded.

“I think,” he said, softly, “a bomb is a bomb. And you are dead either way.”

Our Lady

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A friend texted me: Notre Dame is on fire. At first, it didn’t seem important. You imagined a small blaze, easily contained, and brigades of firefighters extinguishing it efficiently.

The images on television told another story.

The footage was mystical and beautiful in a terrible way. It was if Bosch had decided to go into video — the flying buttresses, the lace work sculptures, the towers themselves lit up by tongues of fire, and swathed in cinders and smoke that flared yellow and gray. A vision of hell as Dante-esque as anything he wrote, images so beyond our time that it staggered the imagination. You couldn’t believe it was happening at all, let alone now, in real life and not in a nightmare of, say, François Villon.

At yet, it was live, in the very moment that I saw it on television.

It’s liveness, it’s thundering out in real time made it even more excruciating. Initially, you wondered where the firefighters were. Why doesn’t someone do something?

Then grief scorched, grief rained down, grief made its home. Because if Notre Dame could burn and fall, then what in the world is safe?

Nothing.

Not flesh. We learn that. But not stone, either, not books or relics. You can’t take anything for granted, not even the continued existence of a cathedral that survived revolutions, wars, neglect and even the Nazis. Even the tourists. Because part of the sheer power of Notre Dame is that even when swarmed by murmuring tourists shooting away with their cameras, it still holds magic and sends you someplace transcendent.

I spent many hours there over what has become decades. Nearly all the film photos I took on my first trip to Paris were images of Notre Dame. It seemed to call for at least that sort of homage. I visited its towers, the narrow spiral staircase like a birth canal shooting up and then out above the city. I went to mass, huddled on its pews when I was emulating Rimbaud, took my children there. (My son, then three, was so overwhelmed that when the organist made a crashing chord, he made me take him out of there. Terror and beauty, as Rilke said, are close.)

The sense that this inferno held some message washed over nearly everyone who saw it — maybe a remnant of the time when it was made and locked in the lead and wood  released a deep superstitious dread. God’s judgment is upon us. Or, even worse, Mother Mary finally lost patience. Our Lady is infuriated, and is smiting her own altar with smoke and fire. It’s because of those raping pedophile priests.

Some people saw visions in the flames. They said  martyrs and saints appeared. Others saw Mary. Others saw Satan.

Some sang hymns. You watched them, probably, on cable news which suddenly turned into a branch of L’Osservatore Romano. The Crown of Thorns has been saved!

Then sorrow. As when a loved one goes, we think of all the times we could have visited, but didn’t. How we took her presence, not for granted, exactly, but just part of life. Part of the skyline, ready for another picture, another tour group.

Threatened with its disappearance, she becomes suddenly all the more precious.

I was already in a tenderized state. Worked over. The anniversary of my mother’s death loomed, and the simmering sense of her loss, and of other, lesser griefs, had been lurking in the background. I was about as low as I’d ever been.

The next days, I joined the throngs on the banks of the Seine, looking over at the now roofless cathedral. You’d see the same set of emotions on many faces: worry and concern and then relief. Sort of like visiting a dear one who’s had a major surgery in the hospital.

Like some peasant looking at a Roman ruin, we goggle and stare and wonder, how did men make this? Could we?

And we know that we can’t. We have the technology, maybe, but not the vision. Something that old and beautiful can’t be replaced, even if we could make another beautiful building — which is doubtful.

Restoration and rebuilding were announced almost immediately, and the donations are rolling in.

But maybe we should leave it as it, roofless, ready to fall into ruins. Grass and weeds might take over, graffiti surely will. A sci-fi goth, post punk embodiment of our century.

“The Four Corners of the World”

_SunsetEldo (1 of 1) timothy tim roessler

This is a true story, although it almost seems too neat,  too tidy, and too literary in a bad way. But true. See what you think:

Beth was one of those people who are terrified of risks. She kept things as safe as possible. She drove slowly, wore seat belts, followed the rules, and didn’t rock the boat. And Beth certainly never travelled.

Beth had a daughter.

The daughter, as it often happens, was the opposite of her mother: outgoing, adventurous, and eager to see the world. After years of pleading, she finally was allowed to go across the world to New Zealand. After all, she was 21.

The day after she arrived, the daughter was killed in a car crash. Jet lagged and at the wheel, she’d forgotten that they drive on the left lane in New Zealand. She collided head on with another driver.

Back home, Beth sorted through her daughter’s effects. She found a kind of will: a letter her daughter had written in case she died. (A little strange for a 21 year old, but there it was.)

In the letter, she made this request: She wanted her ashes spread in the four corners of the world. And she wanted her mother do spread them.

Beth hesitated. Procrastinated. Tried to figure a way out of the obligation her daughter had given her. But she couldn’t wriggle out of it.

So, she booked a flight to Patagonia. Then to Europe. To Africa. Even to New Zealand.

And along the way, she forgot her fears. After all, the worst had happened. She had survived. She made friends, took pictures, and widened her world beyond all her expectations.

The death of her daughter gave her life. And now she lives it “out loud” — as fully and as intensely as possible.

photo: Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, USA

Goodbyes

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There’s a nice park two blocks from my house, complete with an artificial lake, benches, playgrounds, a workout circuit and a Frisbee golf course. I take walks there for pleasure and, occasionally, so I don’t feel like a total slug.

At sunset last night, two young families were wrapping up some sort of wholesome picnic by the playground. A toddler-aged girl sang out, “Goodbye!”

The toddler from the other family chirped back, “Goodbye!”

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

A fun game. They laughed in between their goodbyes as the parents packed up the blankets and Tupperware. 

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

Only little children could think it’s fun to say goodbye.

 

Flight fight

When I got an upgrade into premiere class on a transatlantic flight, I didn’t realize I’d also be getting a glance into the nature of cattle cars and cancer, but there you go.

Now, on this economy airline, “premier” means wide and roomy seats and a chance to be whisked through lines.

It’s pretty swell.

Unless you’re Louie, an old guy in a wheel chair traveling with his wife. Then nothing seems swell at all. One glance at him, at the fragility in his big frame and at the avocado green and cement grey of his complexion, and you knew he was ill. As in, next to death’s door. 

He had a certain gallantry. Once he arrived at the head of the line, he tipped the woman who’d pushed his wheel chair, thanked her profusely in French, saying she’d done a heroic job. His courtliness and his theatrical baritone suggested a past as an academic, but maybe one with a profitable sideline in consulting.

Because of a hangup, we had to wait on the causeway for an extra 20 minutes. The other premier passengers didn’t seem as if they had to wait around very often. You felt their impatience, the way they felt personally affronted, and you heard complaints. Murmured complaints in low voices, with an appeal to the good humor and understanding of anyone who might overhear their grumbling. 

But we finally boarded. Louie’s wife sat next me in our La-Z-Boy-sized seats. Louie installed himself in the seat in front of her, diagonal to me.

Like the swine I am, I wallowed in the sudden sense of wealth and comfort.

Not long after takeoff, a fight broke out in front of me. Louie, polite old Louie, was bellowing at the steward. His seat didn’t recline. He was being ripped off. So Louie aimed his mobile phone at the steward to photograph the steward, who put his hand over its lens. 

“You are not taking my picture,” the steward said.

As he kept yelling, Louie continued trying to get a clear photo of him. The steward, politely, but with his eyes blazing, continued to push back on the phone with his palm.

“Sir, you must stop,” he said. 

Louie’s wife, who’d been pleading with him to take it easy all along, told him to stop, too.

Louie didn’t stop.

Louie started to wrestle himself out of the seat to stand up.

“If you continue,” the steward said, “we will turn the plane around and you will have to leave.”

Now, all during the struggle, the other passengers were reacting. First, heads craned around, trying to figure out what the fuss was about. When the shouting started, a lot of the ladies gasped or made little cries of fear: oh, oh, ohs. Others inhaled, sharply. Even in the middle of all the excitement, it seemed oddly theatrical, even artificial. Badly directed, I’d say.

Shows of real anger terrify a lot of people. Not me, but that’s likely an accident of temperament and background. I’m used to displays of fury. But nice people — the sort who wear Patagonia down sweaters and Rolexes, above pants woven from high-tech fibers — seem less accustomed to it.

So, as an audience to Louie’s rage, you felt the first wave of shared bewilderment. Then a second wave of intense terror. 

But when the steward threatened to re-route and land the plane, everyone turned against Louie. Stand in line again? Wait for another two hours—maybe four!—to get another take off time? After All We’ve Been Through Already?

On my right, a guy with white hair and unlined skin looked so infuriated that I wondered if he was going to leap out of his chair and hit Louie.

Louie’s wife tried again: “Take my seat, Louie, it reclines.”

“I’m not taking your seat. I want my seat. I want this seat.” 

Two other stewards, both women, arrived to try to defuse the situation. Louie staggered up toward the front of the aircraft, but they blocked his way, then corralled him by the bathroom up front.

HIs wife tried to explain to everyone. She said he was dying of cancer. Some people get depressed, she said, but for Louie, it comes out in anger. She’d clearly had to explain this before. Often.

Word got around. Then Louie stomped back to his seat, still angry, but the crazy, high-octane rage had left him. It looked as if the plane would continue on.

The same white-haired man that had been ready to kill Louie offered his and his wife’s seat to the couple. Louie’s wife thanked him, but no, Louie didn’t want to move.

A few minutes later, a man in a uniform appeared, eyes twinkling, radiating charm, an Ed Harris lookalike. He knelt down by Louie’s seat to hash out the final details. Whatever he said or offered, it worked. 

The rest of us settled into reading books, watching movies, or playing games. Tedium, an underrated blessing, set in. Louie’s wife read her Kindle. 

I thought about how cancer doesn’t just hit the patient alone. I thought about all the other scenes his wife must have witnessed, explained, tried to justify as Louie’s spittle flew. Or about shadowy late nights at home, Louie raging about …  sheets. The way she fluffs his pillow. The way we’re designed to run out of time and die, some of us slowly and painfully. About getting the wrong DNA. Who knows?

And about how quickly a group of people can turn against you. With wrath that’s just barely short of violence. 

And how they can flip to kindness as well. Especially when it’s just a matter of changing seats in premiere class.

Psychic thwarts evil

It was slow at the Home Depot. The cashier, a lady about 70 or so with yellow-shaded glasses and an iron-grey perm, coughed and apologized.  She wasn’t contagious, she said, and then detailed the meds she’d been given to cure her bout with a superbug. She added, “To top all THAT off, my ex-husband was a coma for four days.”

She finished ringing up the curtain rods and drapes.

I looked as sympathetic as I could.

“The minute my son came into his room, he woke up and said hello.”

“Wow.”

“Yes. But you see, I’d been sending him messages. I said — telepathically, y’know — ‘you have to get up, you can’t just lie around like that. You’re gonna die if you do. So get up!’ And he did, just as soon as my son came in. I sent those messages to him all across the country down to Florida. And he heard.

“It’s always been like that. When my ex was stationed in Jordan, Prince Hussein would cut the phones off every now and then. I didn’t think that my messages, the telepathy, you know, might travel that far. But we had a family emergency, and I couldn’t reach him. So I sent him the messages. Next thing you know, I get a call from London, and he’s saying, ‘Honey, what’s the matter? I knew I had to come home.'”

She looked satisfied, the way a person does when she’s made something fine and is proud of the result.

“We’d never tried it that far, but it worked. All across the globe. We did it all the time in Atlanta. We lived in Marietta, and there was a Krispy Kreme donut shop he’d stop at on the way to work. Another one was across the street, the opposite side. One day he comes back from work with a box of donuts and he said, ‘I don’t know why I got these, but I did,’ and I told him I’d just messaged him mentally. Happened all the time.

“My kids, too. They knew when they were growing up that I’d always know if they were in a bad area. They didn’t always like it. Now I trade messages with my little granddaughter. Taught her how. I’m so glad I did, too.

“It was late at night, and I heard her. She sent me a message, saying her stepfather was in her bedroom. ‘He shouldn’t be here, Granny.’ Well, I called the police right then and met them in front of her house.”

Forgiveness

When do you decide to bury the hatchet? To reconcile, let bygones be bygones and move on?

It depends, mostly, although religious people say we always ought to forgive and forget. Let the prodigal back in and give him a place at the table.

Let me tell you about my friend. This is a true story, although the names are changed.

David grew up in a Denver suburb with his sister and two brothers. His father worked in retail, a good fit for his sunny, outgoing disposition. His mother stayed at home to raise the kids. His parents were good Catholics, but didn’t make a big deal out of it.

Solid. Prosperous. And nice. (Or, to be cynical, as nice as you can tell from the outside.)

When she was in her early twenties, David’s sister moved out. She didn’t warn anyone, and she left no forwarding address. She left a note saying she’d be okay, and that she didn’t want to have anything to do with them. As far as the family could tell, there was no inciting incident, no boyfriend—no reason at all.

They hoped it would be a passing phase. Instead it has lasted up until now, more than 30 years later. Occasionally, they’d hear that she was alive. They’d let her know they still loved her, that she was always welcome back, that if she wanted, she would always have a home with them.

They sent messages collectively and individually — mother, father and brothers, just in case that might open up a crack in the wall. She didn’t answer.

Years passed.

After he retired, David’s father hired a detective to locate her. He felt that if he could see her in person, hear whatever it was from her directly, make a plea, that it could help. Maybe she’d come back — not home, but back in their lives somehow. He was old. I suppose he wanted to be sure that he had tried everything possible.

The investigator found her. The daughter was living in a cheap studio apartment in a so-so area of town in Los Angeles. Happy that she was alive, the father contacted her, and said he’d meet her wherever she wished. The daughter agreed to see him. They set a time, 3:00 pm, her place. He flew out.

He arrived, knocked, waited, and … nothing. After a few minutes, she opened the door an inch or so, said she couldn’t see him after all, and shut it.

Soon after this visit, the father suffered his first heart attack. This started his decline. Six months later, he died. David’s mother then fell into a long illness and died in her turn. David was freelancing by then and ended up being her primary care giver. Both times, the brothers let the sister know that her parents were near death, both times she refused to come.

Of course, she has her story to tell, and has probably spun it out a few times, at least, maybe late into a relationship or in the second hour after meeting someone, over drinks.

But I wonder what David would do if she had a sudden change of heart. She’s getting older, too. She might want to mend things. More likely, she’s on a track that won’t change until she dies.

But what if she did show up? Should he embrace her, slaughter a fatted calf or two, and forgive her?

Or just not answer the door?

Bot love

He’s a DJ. So he’s on Instagram, hustling up an audience, building a following, and hoping they’ll show up for a gig, or, at least, download some tracks. He’s based in Boulder.

She’s a cam girl. So she’s also on Instagram, also trying to find customers. She lives somewhere in Arizona.

Both of them use bots to build their followers. (A bot is a program that seeks out likely matches for your profile, then automatically adds comments and follows to your account. It looks personal, but it’s an algorithm. Usually the comments are along the unspecific lines of, “Nice shot,” or “Great feed!”.)

His bot posted on her feed. Her bot posted on his. He followed up with a message, and she answered. Things progressed to Skype for a few weeks. Finally, she flew to meet him. The hit it off in real life, in meat space, in whatever you want to call the so-called real world.

It didn’t last. It’s a dirty, open secret that love seldom does last. But for about six months, they had vibes and feels and were baes, I guess.

None of which would have been possible a few years ago.

Branson Fairy Tale

A while ago, my father and his friend went to Branson, Missouri. My father’s friend wanted to buy a place for some relatives, and maybe a second place for himself, as an investment.

They discovered a house on the lake selling for next to nothing. A simple, 1970s-style A-frame, but on the water, with a dock. The owner wasn’t around, so they poked around. They saw the owner had  done a lot of work on the place. Reindeer pranced in concrete or grazed next to a home-made gazebo. A statue of Santa Claus raised a jolly hand. A concrete grotto enclosed some lake water. A bar-b-cue pit stood ready. A hot tub. A miniature golf course with red carpeting. All kinds of Christmas decorations were up, even in the early summer.

They both agreed that it was tacky as hell. But a great price. They called the owner. They asked, without asking directly, why it was so cheap. Then they got the story.

He was a widower who fell in love with a local woman. She promised to marry him. But she wouldn’t marry him or move in with him until he’d remodeled his place, the A-frame house on the lake. She insisted that he make it into a dream home fashioned after her own tastes and fantasies.

The guy didn’t have a lot of money, so he undertook the work himself, building, planning, pouring cement, digging out terraces. He worked full-time in a hardware store, so the labor of love happened over weekends and evenings for several months. The woman was fanatic about Christmas, so he added Santa and Rudolph and the rest to please her, and added more decorations. She was crazy about miniature golf, so he laid out a little course.

In the meantime, even with the work underway, even with Jolly Old St. Nick in place and the pipes to the hot tub laid out, she didn’t give an inch. She’d only marry him when it was done. She certainly would not move in with him, either.

He finished. They set the date for the wedding. The engagement was announced, the invites mailed.

And four months before the wedding, the woman died.

Falling slowly

We met in a bar close to his place. He looked a bit older. You check for that in middle age, who’s aging how quickly, who’s grey, who’s dying their hair, the depth of lines around the eyes. Solid evidence, and unwelcome. He’s holding up pretty well, though, takes care of himself.

After an hour or so of Irish whiskeys alternating with Bass ale, he coughed up what’d been bothering him.

“So, my boss called me into his office” (and immediately you think, damn, he got fired,  but no.) “He’s a good guy.” He paused. “And he tells me I fell asleep in a meeting the other day.”

“Hey,” I said. “It happens. Did I tell you about my client’s boss, the guy who had narcolepsy?”

He said it’s happened more than a few times. So it’s evolved into a delicate situation now.

“Well, you told me the job’s boring as shit.”

“Yeah, but I need the money. I need the health insurance, too. You know.”

“Sure.”

“It’s just that the meetings go on and on. Afternoon meetings.”

“Maybe you need to get more sleep.”

“Yeah. I try. Doesn’t work. To much action around the house. Kids, dogs…”

He has to get up around 5:00 am for a long commute, longer than mine because he’s stuck in his house, a place he can’t afford to sell and can’t afford to leave. I picture him, briefly, getting up every weekday before dawn, the quiet and loneliness of his house, the snap of the too-bright light in the bathroom, the harsh transition of that moment when you shift from drowsiness to getting on with the day.

“I’m just going to go back to mainlining coffee. I dunno know why I thought I should give it up, anyway.”

“It was that health kick. Diet Coke’s good, too.”

“Well, y’know, I drink. Of course — mostly red wine — but that’s gotta be worse than coffee. Some health kick.”

“So no big deal. Get a thermos. I saw a guy on the bus who had a whole case of Diet Coke. He takes it on Monday, like his whole weekly supply.”

“Actually, it’s a big deal.”

He leaned into me over the empties.

“Now, no matter what, I’ll be That Guy.” He didn’t have to explain. But he did.

“That Guy. The guy who falls asleep in meetings. No matter what I do, it’ll always be attached to that — that falling asleep. If I score a big deal it’ll be, yeah, he brought in Big Widgets — can you believe it? Must’ve stayed awake during those meetings. Or, nice guy — did you hear how he nodded off during the team session?”

“Yeah, no. Maybe. Who cares?”

It happens. Standards of office behavior are narrow. Quirks, petty rudenesses, a failure of etiquette can haunt you. I swear a receptionist I worked with got fired because she kept trimming her nails at her desk, driving her boss up the wall. Or, the vegan who kept farting. She became, “Aw, Susie,  nice girl…wish she could just…”

And everyone nods right away, knowing what’s coming.

And there’s also that fear. Maybe the biggest one of all in Office World (and in life, too). That you get marked with the spore of a loser. Not that anyone’s a loser, not really, not in the grand cosmic scheme of things. But here, in the cruel specificity of a tribe, a clique, an office, yeah, there are losers.

One day, a perfectly average person–maybe even above average–will muff something, not learn a necessary skill, get stuck, blow an assignment. Then he or she starts getting nervous. They become overly cheery by the coffee machine. They make sure they contribute in meetings, which usually means they spout some nonsense. They compound the situation. They gradually become shunned. Firing is usually the last, least painful stage. If they’re lucky, that stench won’t follow them.

“I gotta get a new job.”

I nodded, and made sure I paid the check.