2011: Arcs, the Apocalypse, and American Horror Story

My review of last year opened with a rather definitive statement.  There will be no such statement this year.

2011 was a different sort of year, a more difficult year, a year of complication and nuance and building and unraveling and expectation and perhaps — overall — fear.

When speaking of narrative a term that gets thrown around a lot is “arc.”  Where does a character start, and where do they end up?  The thing about life is that you’re always starting somewhere and ending up somewhere else, and then starting again.  You never really stop moving.  2011 was the year many arcs ended, and when many other began.

2011 was the year of learning what it means to occupy; to learn its dangers, and its signification.  American Horror Story is not just the name of a hit new series on FX, it’s also a buzzy phrase for our current political and economic clusterfuck.

But, then again, it’s also the name of a hit new series on FX.

I watched it recently, and American Horror Story is pretty good.  It did its homework on haunted house movies, and it’s got some visual flair.  It’s also one of the most sloppily written things I’ve seen in the past few years — there are, perhaps, no ghosts, just the mournful whisper of wind through the gaping and multitudinous plot holes.

But then there are also actually the ghosts.  The fact that the show is so poorly written means that, when you get right down to it, the character arcs make no sense.  Stories of haunting, as I’ve written on this blog before, often deal with that which has been denied or displaced or forgotten, the problems we’ve neglected to face but which still occupy, however nebulously, some space in our lives.  To save you from any spoilers, suffice it to say that the arc of American Horror Story does not attempt to navigate this hauntological cohabitation of the past and present.  What it does is cheat, in at least two ways.

One is the introduction of an apocalypse storyline — something the latest season of Dexter danced around as well — which is probably the most boring thing imaginable in a horror story for me.  The antichrist, the fruition of Revelation — so fucking what?  Supernatural or horror-inclined shows need to learn is that betting the whole damn farm only makes me think you’re not taking the game seriously.  The stakes are so high they’re meaningless.

The second way AHS cheats is a bit more subtle.  Though it wants us to think the apocalypse is a Bad Thing, total annihilation is in fact the only workable way out offered by the logic of the plot.  The only way our ghosts can be overcome — or at least, cohabitated with — is to be ghosts ourselves.  To force ourselves to belong to the past, or as the past seems to those who inhabit it, in a character’s words, “one long today.”

The apocalypse is the end of futurity.  If there is no future, there can be ghosts.  The ghosts become us, or we them.

Interesting, then, that the world is supposed to end in 2012.  I doubt this, of course, but I guess I could be proven wrong.

But for the time being, no matter what American Horror Story (the series or the situation) suggests, I rather think I’d like to continue soldiering on into the future, with my ghosts in tow.

In 2010 my life was working to a clear, definite point.  It was a time of transition but that transition’s nature felt solid.  The solidity fell to pieces in 2011, when many things happened.  These weren’t necessarily bad things; my graduation was one of them.  I am the first person in my family to obtain a four-year degree, a first-generation college student and, now, a first generation graduate student.  These are wonderful things.

And they are frightening things.  I am on my own now, further afield than any chick from the ancestral nest.  My friendships from undergrad, though they maintain in some ways thanks to modern technological convenience, have ended their arcs for now.  I need to build new relationships, I need to find new ways to occupy the world I’ve made for myself, and that others have made and will make for me.

It would be dishonest to not here mention the one arc still hanging from undergrad: the most frightening and the most wonderful thing of all about 2011.  She knows who she is, and to her I say thank you.  Thank you for staying in this story, even as it got messy.

For the rest of you, I wish you and all your ghosts a happy new year.

Cormac McCarthy’s Pre-Written Obituary

The world was saddened today to learn of the loss of author Cormac McCarthy.  Mr. McCarthy lived a long life and anticipated his own passing some time ago, and thus wrote his own obituary well in advance.  It is printed without editorial comment below.

the old man


The old man died this week.  He was known chiefly in the region as a charlatan who peddled illusions to a people desperate to speak back into the echoes of its own savage past and there scrape up the dried blood on the worn stones of this country’s history.  He had white hair and a face dry and cracked like an ancient arroyo scraped into the land by a presence perhaps implied by circumstance but far from tangible and at many points seeming to be a figment altogether.

The old man had read quite a few books and at some point took it to his own mind to produce a few which was hard but honest work and in the end the satanic engines had churned up and down the hillsides devouring the trees to make the paper on which his thoughts were printed.  His works included Child of GodNo Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road.  Several were bought by soft men in suits and these men went back to their luxurious cities and they made these stories into talking pictures not entirely to the old man’s taste but it happened regardless, inevitable like the onrushing dark as the sun sinks down into the parched earth and extinguishes the light of gods and reason.  On account of one of his books he met the black woman Oprah.

The old man was not always an old man but was once a child.  He was a child partly in the East where he was born but the currents of his life dragged him West and his fascination with this place was to become in some ways metonymic with the old man himself.  When the old man was a child he once saw a dog beaten to death with a tire-iron by a local rustic and as the child who would become the old man watched the animal’s eyeball stalk and all drip like egg yolk down the cracked skull he thought, One day that will be me, and in the grand design of things he was not far off.

The old man’s favorite song was Always on My Mind but not as you would expect based on his demographics the Willie Nelson version but rather the recording from the 1980s by the Pet Shop Boys. It will be played at his services this Thursday no matter whatever his wife says.

Texts from Last Night

The library here is a lot stranger than any others I’ve ever been in.

It’s two towers of aging Indiana limestone that have stood here for forty years and for all I know might stand for forty more.  Unlike most major university libraries students are allowed to browse the stacks freely, which is of course quite a privilege, and something that makes me excited to have it at a resource.  Actually being there, however, is quite an experience.

It’s far larger than any academic library I’ve been in, and thinking about the books it’s acquired throughout the years — for the first time in my life if I want to read something I can almost guarantee it’s close by — it’s a little unsettling.  On one hand, it’s exciting to consider all of those books around me, all of those things freely available for me to pick up and read.  On the other it makes me intensely aware that there are many more books available to me than I could ever read, literal decades of accumulated attempts at communication, more than I could ever comprehend or understand or synthesize into a coherent whole.

This becomes especially pertinent if you hit the library during a slow period, or if you end up in part of the stacks where no one usually goes, and have plenty of time on your hands.  You may be surprised at what you find.

I was on the ninth floor of the east tower — the highest you’re allowed to go if you’re not staff — when I first saw the phone.  It was probably the beginning of September and I was dropping by to pick up some books for a possible research project.  I stepped out of the elevator and into the small hallway situated in the dead center of the stacks.  Immediately across from the elevator bank are the restrooms, plus a table supporting a yellowed dictionary (which seemed adorably quaint to me upon first glance) and I noticed, right by that, a purple cell phone.

Cell phones aren’t unusual, of course, and I figured this one wasn’t my problem.  Someone had left it — probably after sending a text or making a call, which incidentally is a big no-no since cell phone use is prohibited beyond the main lobby.  After waiting around for a few minutes, listening for anyone approaching or to see if anyone ducked out of one of the nearby bathrooms, I realized that the owner probably wasn’t going to come back any time soon. Because I’m something of a Good Samaritan, I decided to take the phone down to the Lost and Found, after I got the Milton biography I came for.

I grabbed the cell phone — a purple Motorola — and slipped it into my bag before running my errands.

It wasn’t until I got back to my apartment that I realized I’d forgotten about the phone entirely.  I’d been distracted in the stacks and gotten a deal more than the Milton bio I was aiming for, and the Motorola had slipped my mind.  I found it when I emptied out my bag and instantly felt a sharp pang of embarrassment.  Of course, all was not lost.  I just turned the phone on.

I already mentioned it was a Motorola.  It was also marked as a Verizon phone, and beyond being purple was mostly nondescript.  It was one of the models that slides open to reveal a perpendicular QWERTY keyboard.  It also had a camera, but the background was what looked like a default image: two figures silhouetted against a sunset on a beach.  Above that the time was displayed, the signal strength (good), and the battery life (about half).  My plan was to see who the last person contacted was and hit them up letting them know a friend’s phone was missing, so I quickly navigated through the menus.

I discovered the lists of incoming and outgoing calls were both blank.  The text message in- and outboxes were likewise empty, and so was the address book.

I can’t say I wasn’t suspicious.  This simply wasn’t how people use phones. Yet, if someone had chosen to clear out their phone, well, more power to them, no matter how weird it was.  That just meant I had no way of getting it back to them on my own, and at the time I remember being distinctly grateful that the next day I could just drop it off at the library Lost and Found, as per my original plan, and be done with it.

So I set the phone aside, and went about my business.  It was a Wednesday, which meant my roommates would be out most of the evening for various reasons, so I took advantage of the situation by making full use of the kitchen.  I was dipping chicken thighs in Italian dressing when I got the first text.

I’d left the phone on, and right next to my own phone in the pile of homework I habitually keep on the kitchen table when I’m cooking.  There was no ringtone, only a setting to vibrate, so when the text came, I thought it was my own phone going off.  (I personally hate ringtones.)  But I was surprised to see, after washing my hands and heading over,  that it was the purple Motorola’s screen that had lit up with a message notification.  One new text message.

Thinking I might be able to return the phone in person after all, I opened the message.  It was prefaced by the number of the sender — no name, since there was nothing in the address book — and I could tell at first glance that the number wasn’t local.  The message said

are you home yet?

I hit reply and with fingers not at all used to the keyboard wrote back that I wasn’t the owner of the phone, that I’d found it in the library, but I’d be happy to return it if I could figure out who it belonged to.  I hit send and waited.

I expected a response within at least a few minutes.  In my admittedly limited experience with things like this, people are pretty prompt when a phone is missing.  But as it turned out, I didn’t get a response until half an hour later, after my chicken and sweet potatoes had been in the oven for a quarter of their bake time.  I was sitting at the table doing homework when the next text came.

are you home yet? this is harder than i thought lol

Confused I spent some time comparing the originating phone numbers  They were the same, but the second seemed oblivious to my reply to the first.  Not sure what to do, I replied again, something along the lines of, I’m sorry, this isn’t my phone, I said I found it, could you tell me who it belongs to?

The phone was silent again until I was doing dishes almost an hour later.  I took my time checking it, since I was already expecting something less than helpful, and sure enough I wasn’t disappointed.

when they knocked i didnt answer so its ok. ive been drinking a little. ok maybe alot lol what about you?

Still the same number.  I didn’t respond to it this time, figuring that whoever was on the other side of this conversation was probably a bit more than drunk.  Instead, as a mild curiosity, I googled the number, idly fantasizing I’d find it associated with a Facebook page or something.  No such luck there, but I did manage to pin down a region: Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.  Nowhere close to local, but the university takes students from all over.

I shrugged this off as I went about my business, finishing up the dishes and moving on to more homework.  It occurred to me at one point that due to the time difference, my mystery correspondent was drinking a little (okay maybe a lot) at four in the afternoon.  Strange, but I hear they have odd ways in California.

Regardless of my own lack of response, I saw the purple phone had received yet another text after I got out of the shower.

hes been weird since you left

By this point I was beginning to feel a bit uneasy.  Whose phone was this, who was texting it, and why were they ignoring me?  I began to consider the possibility that this was an elaborate prank, or maybe part some psych doctoral student’s research project.  Of course it made me wonder what sort of prank or research project relied on people stealing a cell phone from a library and sending those people aimless texts.  I wondered if it were some sort of trolling gimmick — someone with money to blow was hoping to get a rise out of me, and would upload a transcript of my hilarious reactions to a cutting edge comedy website, or a 4chan board or something.

That still didn’t make any sense.

I got another text while I was pondering the possibilities, though.

i saw lights outside my window are you home yet

I swallowed.  It had to be a trick.  Someone’s dumb game.  Would I be playing into their plans if I called?

Only one way to find out.

I called the number and waited.  One ring, two rings, three rings, four and five and — someone picked up.  “Hello?” came a voice.  It sounded like a woman’s voice, maybe middle-aged.

“Hello,” I said, doing my best to organize my thoughts.  I honestly hadn’t expected anyone to answer and now I didn’t know what to say. “I’m not sure whose phone I’m calling from, I found it in the library here and when I received a text from your phone I tried asking for a name so I could–”

There was a groan.  “I’m so sick of this,” the woman said.  “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Then she hung up on me.

I stared at the screen for a few moments, watching  CALL ENDED blink on the screen, and then set the phone aside again.  It was certainly some kind of trick, I decided.  I was getting texts from the woman’s number.  I got one just before I called her.  There was no way she didn’t know what I was referring to.  It was a prank, a really elaborate and inscrutable and asinine joke.

A bigger man, at this point, would have checked out, just turned the phone off.  But I was beginning to feel indignant and more than a little pissy toward whoever was orchestrating this game, and more than a little anxious to see if they tried anything further.  So I just set the phone aside on my night stand, right next to my own phone, and went about the rest of my nightly routine, finishing up reading for the next day’s classes.  As 11:30 rolled around, the purple phone hadn’t shown any signs of life.  I went to bed.

I’m a heavy sleeper, which somewhat explains what happens next.  How I remember it beginning is rolling over in bed during the night, as I think most people do, and becoming aware that something was off about the light level in the room.  That set me on the path for a full awakening, and as I smashed my face into my pillow in protest I became aware of a low buzzing sound.  The sound of a phone vibrating against my night stand.

I’d forgotten about the purple Motorola and immediately assumed it was my phone going off, that there was an emergency somewhere.  I reached out, my hand scrabbling around the nightstand until I felt my phone’s familiar case, and cracked open my eyes.

The screen was dark.  The light was coming from the other phone.  Memories returned and, irritated, I picked up the Motorola with the intention of turning it off.

That was when I caught sight of what the screen said.  It was not a call, of course, but a text message.  But not just one.  The screen said there were now 15 new messages.

I dropped the phone, my hand reaching out again for my glasses.  I blinked as I pulled them on, wondering if I’d read the screen correctly.  On the night stand the phone buzzed again as I picked it up.  16 new messages.

I hit a button, automatically opening the most recent.

im coming now let me in

I closed the message and frowned, still trying to get the sleep out of my eyes.  As I focused on the screen I noticed two things.  The first was that it was past two in the morning.  The second was that the battery icon was flashing.

But before I could fully comprehend that, the phone died, the screen flicking to black in an instant.  But in that instant I saw once again the background image, the wallpaper, that sunset.

Then I was alone in the dark.

I took the phone back to the library the next day, not even bothering to see if my own phone cord would suffice to recharge it.  I decided, after my night of intermittent sleep and uneasy dreams, that I didn’t want to see whatever else it had to say.

“Hey,” I said to the man behind the reference desk, “I was wondering if you had a Lost and Found here.”

“Sure do,” he said.  “Lose something?”

I shook my head and showed him the phone.  “I found that up in the stacks on the ninth floor,” I said.  “No one was around, so I figured if anyone came back looking for it they’d check here.”

“Ninth floor?” said the man.  “Thank you very much.”  He took the phone and dropped it somewhere below the counter as I walked away.

I wondered if I had imagined the look on his face when I set the phone down between us.  It was almost surprise, or rather, the look someone trying to hide surprise.  Or recognition.  Maybe I had imagined it, I decided.  Just like when I glimpsed the phone’s wallpaper for the last time, and in my confused, half-asleep state imagined I saw, standing black against an orange beachside sunset, a solitary silhouette where I had before seen two.


Last week I got a call from an unfamiliar number.  I usually don’t answer them but occasionally, if the mood strikes me, I will.

This time, after maybe four or five rings, I did.

“Hello?” I asked.  I was standing in the hallway of the apartment, just getting ready to head out for the night.

“Hello,” said a voice, a young woman’s voice.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know whose phone this is, I found it today, but you’ve been texting me and–”

I understood what was happening, at least on a surface level.  I suddenly understood, with perfect clarity, as if I could see it physically, what phone this girl had found.

But I still don’t know what came over me.  I knew, as she was speaking to me, exactly what it was I was going to say.  I don’t know why I said it, but with a heavy sigh I did: “I’m so sick of this.  Don’t you have anything better to do?”

And then I hung up.

My phone began to buzz in my hand almost immediately; she was calling me back.  I held down the red END button, watching as my phone’s screen went black, and I kept it off for the rest of the day.

When I turned it on the next morning, I was relieved to see there were no new messages.

The Best Time I Ever Fell Down a Well

When I was about five years old I fell into a well.

This is not as wildly dramatic as it seems, as “well” in this case does not mean the classic visual trope of a moss-encrusted piece of masonry, a chthonian portal mortared together by our pioneer forefathers and slowly crumbling into dust ever since, waiting patiently in the middle of the forest or meadow to gobble up young boys such as I and/or your telepathic demon daughter who wants nothing more to be a ghost in the television.  No, what I mean by “well” here is a large metal tub, maybe about three feet in diameter and a foot high, with a grated bottom and a water spout rising over it to one side, said water spout being the actual “well” part of this device, tapped into the aquifer below and constantly pumping forth a heady stream of absolutely frigid water into the basin, where it drains through the grate and returns undrunk to the chill, stygian darkness.  Experts call this sort of thing an Artesian well.

So: there is this Artesian well on a campground-cum-park area near my hometown, as I just described it, pumping constantly all year and exposed to the elements, accumulating since time immemorial a patina of characteristic rust.  The pipe that spills the water into the basin has this nifty thing where, if you bend down over the well and put your palm over the open end, the water redirects to a smaller aperture at the top of the pipe, sending a vertical stream of water straight up into the air and into your mouth or probably your nose as the case may be.  However, at age five, I was slightly not tall enough to make this method of operation feasible, and so if I wanted to drink I had to cup my hands below the pipe’s larger opening, spooning the water into my mouth in this way.

Fun fact: I am picky about water.  Like, super picky.  I’m very sensitive to the way water tastes, and when I was younger my parents thought I was just being a brat and bullshitting them when I said water from this faucet or that faucet or this house or that city tasted bad.  But it was God’s honest truth, and it never made sense to me how some people can just, like, drink water from anywhere.  Anyway the point I want to make is that the water from this Artesian well tasted absolutely rad.

It was untreated, of course, which I think had something to do with it.  I’ve discovered that the harder water is, the more it is essentially some sort of sand/mineral suspension, the more I like it.  Up until the time I was about 12 and my parents divorced we lived in the country, in a house with its own well, and that water was harder than an AP Calculus exam.  Part of me has never forgiven my father’s eventual decision to buy a water softener, as that water is probably some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

The water from this Artesian well at the park area was a pretty close second, though.  We were at the park this particular day in late summer for what I believe was a family reunion, which was being held a bit of a ways away from the well in a largish shelter, where there were tables decked out with deviled eggs and potato salad and iced tea and a particular Midwestern delicacy called “hamloaf.”  I had aunts and uncles milling about, and some cousins, but I ended up in some strange generational gap on both sides of my family so there were no cousins precisely my age — they were all notably older or younger.  This meant I had pretty much no one to play with during functions like this, and I was particularly sensitive to when I was becoming a nuisance to adults, which translated into me hanging around on my own an inordinate amount of the time.

And so: this explains why I ventured out to the well on my own, at the tender age of five.  This was in fact no great journey, since the well was right next to the road and at most maybe a hundred yards from the shelter.  Because I 1) was bored, and 2) absolutely fucking love drinking good water, I decided at some point that what I really needed was to head out to the well and fuel up.  I’m five years old, so at the moment I’m making some educated guesswork about my exact thought process here, but it seems good enough.

Now what I remember is having no concept of the dimensions of a circle (though of course I did not know this at the time).  What I mean by this is that it did not occur to me how a point on one side of the circle is the furthest distance from a point on the exact opposite side of the same circle, which is to say, I completely failed to understand the concept of a diameter, esp. how it is the longest chord of a circle.  How this played out in real life was me standing exactly opposite the well’s spout, leaning over the rim of the basin with my hands cupped, grasping handful after handful of water.  Because I was the greatest possible distance from the object of my desires, I was leaning forward pretty damn far.

Too far, it turns out, as the relatively low rim of the basin and my relatively large forward bent plus the sudden weight and pressure of a powerful jet of water on my tiny five-year-old arms meant I tipped right the fuck over into the well.  My trajectory, then, consisted of more and more of me being pushed into the path of the water jetting from the spout, soaking me as I fell down into the basin, splashing all over my face and doing nothing to help my sudden, panicked, ultimately useless burst of adrenaline as I smacked right into the metal grating.

This is it, I thought.  I’ve fallen down a well.

As if it were an eventuality for every child.

I had been conditioned by years of television consumption and cultural osmosis to know that the only way to be saved from a well (any type of well!) was for a brilliant, golden-furred dog to witness the event and rush back to the old family homestead, where its worried barks would be correctly interpreted by one’s salt-of-the-earth family as an oddly specific yet ultimately effective and timely warning.  The immediate problem this posed was, of course, no dog had witnessed my accident — in fact, I did not own a dog.

I was doomed.

So I lay there, a torrent of water slamming into my back, too pressurized for me to actually stand up with the leverage afforded me, and my head throbbing where I’d bumped it against the side of the basin.  Like the greedy man who wishes for infinite riches and drowns in gold, that wonderful, mineral-infused H2O I had so loved and desired would now be my demise.

Except of course there was a grate in the bottom of the basin so the water was basically just running over me, back into the ground, and only getting into my mouth/nose because I was trying to shout for help instead of concentrating and trying to like, you know, move out from under the goddamn water.

Now, you will recall the depth of this basin is only, like, a foot, so there is no way it could have swallowed me entirely.  In fact, what any passersby would have seen (should they choose to look) was about the final third of a five year old boy, being mostly the legs, sticking up awkwardly into the air, Kermit the Frog adorned Velcro sneakers waving manically.

Luckily, a passerby did choose to look at this particular sight!  Some woman who happened to be driving by (remember, the well was pretty close to the road) saw me fall in and immediately slammed on the brakes, pulling over and dashing to my rescue.  From my perspective this meant that I had been in the  well for roughly half of my life (in reality: maybe 20 seconds) when suddenly something grabbed the back of my shirt, yanked me back through the gout of water, and into the land of living, non-doomed five-year-olds once more.

The woman, I remember rather distinctly, was for some reason wearing a lady’s business suit.

She slammed her palm into my back a few times to help me expel any water I may have swallowed (not much, really), and then helped me stagger back to the shelter, where some of my family members had noticed the spectacle and my older, more female relatives were positively flipping out at the way in which I had just brushed the edge of the mortal coil.  I readily admit my memory of this bit is even more hazy, being completely panicked and cold and wet as I was, but I distinctly remember thinking that the woman who had pulled me from the well was some family member I hadn’t met before, and I think I asked my grandma (as she wrapped me in a fluffy beach towel) if my savior was one of my aunts or something.

My father and I believe my grandfather shot some stern words my way about the incident, making me feel like I was somehow totally and irrationally guilty for what just transpired (in retrospect I think they were angry this stranger saw what looked suspiciously like reckless child endangerment) and that, on top of the whole having-almost-made-peace-with-my-own-death thing, did not put me in a particularly good mood for the rest of the day.

A few years ago, during high school, I was at the park again and saw the well’s basin now had a grate on top, as well  as on bottom, and I wondered if I was the sole purpose for that or, alternatively, how many kids through the years had ended up in my position.

The water was still really good, though.

if we stop teaching we’ll need someone to raise us from the dead

“What are you preparing to study?” asks the woman next to me on the bench.

English literature, I say.

It is approximately 82 degrees Fahrenheit and our bench, which does not have a protective awning, is placed squarely in the sun.  Three hours have passed since I first got off the bus at this stop, and I have walked in toto something like three and a half miles in a pair of sandals not made to live up to my usual brisk walking pace, so consequently my feet hurt like hell.  I have visited four bookstores and have $250 (15 pounds, ~6.8 kilograms) of books in my lap, this being no doubt the reason the woman asks me what I am studying.  My bus back to my apartment will arrive, by my estimates, in more or less 25 minutes.

“English, good,” says the woman.  “It’s a good thing to learn.  Good luck to you and bless you.”

She hesitates.  “God bless you, I mean,” she says after a moment of thought.  “His blessing has got a lot more weight to it than mine, I can say from experience.”  She laughs.

I laugh too, to be polite and thank her.  “I know it can be a hectic time right now,” she says.  “A big, new experience.”

I tell her that it is indeed, though I sort of have a head start.  I’m here for my MA/PhD, I already have my BA, but that was from a much smaller institution, and a very different institution, with only about 1,000 students combined compared to this place’s 40,000.

“Well, maybe you can teach them to concentrate,” the woman says, and laughs.

I laugh too.

“I know it’s supposed to be a place of learning,” she says, “but come dusk…”  She shakes her head.

I know what she means.  I’ve been here for only a week and multiple times now, and before 11 o’clock hits, I’ve seen the roaming herds of frat guys and sorority girls drunkenly jaywalk, like flocks of petulant birds in muscle shirts or miniskirts, respectively.

“Your degrees,” she says, “after the first one, when you get those does that mean you’re gonna teach the teachers?”

I say yes, because, well, I am sure some of my hypothetical future students will teach in their turn.

“Ah, that’s good.  I don’t have any degrees, but I have some experience with that area.”

The woman is maybe forty-something (she is 54, she will tell me later) and has on her lap a K-mart bag with some boxes in it and a Nalgene.  When I first sat down the woman was eating goldfish crackers from the K-mart bag, popping handfuls into her mouth.  She is thin without looking drawn in the way that some older people sometimes have, though her blonde hair is starting to look a bit gray in a certain light.  She is wearing a pair of sunglasses that sit close on her cheeks, the lenses so large and round that they obscure a third of her face and look a bit like goggles.

I am already mentally kicking myself when I ask her what it is exactly she does, because I dislike talking to strangers generally and dislike talkative strangers even more, plus what are the odds a random bus station conversation will not turn weird, especially given the God thing from earlier,  but there I go, I ask her, I ask her what it is exactly she does.

“I teach ministry,” she says, smiling that I’ve asked.  “I work with a group of believers here and do some street evangelizing.”

I nod and consider asking her if she’s associated with any particular church but don’t.  I also consider mentioning Quakerism, the theology with which for various reasons I tend to be most copacetic, but don’t.  Instead I ask her how long she’s been in town.

“A year,” she says.  “I was doing some wandering — I was in fact part of the homeless community for a while — and ended up in a tent.  Literally, in a tent!  Like Abraham!”

I know there is something of a housing crisis in the city, forcing many lower-income locals into nearby tent communities, and I am struck by the Old Testament parallel the woman has drawn.

“Of course, we’re moving on now,” the woman continues, “and the ministry has gotten stronger.  We were in our prayer circle back then,” I assume she means the tent city, “and we heard God telling us ‘boot camp.’  My minister-friend just looked at me and he says, ‘Boot camp.'”

The chain of association here is beyond me, though I guess the idea is that boot camp whips you into shape for deployment whether you like it or not, and the woman and her prayer circle were being told by God to stop feeling sorry for themselves in a tent community and move on with their lives, an act which apparently consists of spiritual deployment into the Gomorrha of a Big Ten University town.  Whatever the case, combinations of military and religious terminology make me uneasy (cf. Quakerism, above), so I just nod and cross my arms over my books.

“And you know,” she is saying, “it took some humbling when I heard that.  I had to get rid of my pride.  My minister-friend asked me, if you were ministering in a jungle somewhere where they hadn’t heard of Christ, would you try to change their culture, or be Christ-like in their presence?”

Though I’m still not really following the chain of association, I think this is a pretty good theological sticking point and I tell her so.

She nods.  “That shut me right up,” she says.  “Now I think that when we do minister, we have a lot more behind us than we wouldn’t have without that experience.”

Yeah, I agree, it seems to me she and her friends would have a strong foundation from which to work.  They know what it’s like to be in tough spots, unlike some ministers.

She nods again.  “I may not have any letters next to my name, but I did go to college, and I’m 54 years old, and I got experience.”  She offers me her hand and tells me her name is Tracey.

I shake her hand and tell her my name is Michael.

Something flits across her face and she says, “Of course it’s Michael,” which is a pretty weird thing to say and I mentally kick myself some more while I wait to see where this is going.  “You know what that name means, right?”

I say I don’t remember the Hebrew meaning, but I know that Biblically Michael is an Archangel, the general of Heaven’s army.  (I know this because I read Milton.)

“And what it originally means,” she says, “is ‘Who is like God?'”

I know this is correct, because I remember the fact as she says it, as sometimes we remember facts.  I think it’s a rhetorical question, because the correct answer is that there is no one like God.

She says, “I know that because it’s also the name of the father of my child.”

Oh Lord, I think.

“We looked it up once.”

This is the end of this particular tangent, apparently, as she goes onto how names are very interesting, very meaningful.  I sort of wish I knew what ‘Tracey’ meant so I could say something about it, or maybe I could ask her because she probably knows, but I don’t.

The topic of names steers her toward the topic of her ministry again.  She works in prisons, leading classes with names like “Emotional Healing” and “Positive Attitudes.”  She makes it a point to memorize each prisoner’s name — and with God’s help she does it within the first six weeks — because names are important.  A lot of those people aren’t used to being called by their names, just their numbers by the guards and their doctors, and sometimes by their doctors’ diagnoses, which trap them into cycles of thinking about themselves in certain ways, ways which limit how they can act and feel.  And part of her job as a teacher, she says, is to help break those cycles, to show those people that they can be loved, to help them learn how to be loved.  If you can’t be loved then you’ll never love anyone yourself.

I look in my lap at a copy of The Duchess of Malfi, which is a play where a corrupt cardinal confesses his sins to his mistresses and then murders her by persuading her to kiss the poisoned cover of a Bible.

I tell her what’s she saying is very true.  I’m angry at myself a little because I know that despite the sappy rhetoric what she is saying is true, I’m angry at myself for thinking that and at the same time thinking it’s absolutely cheesy, and I’m angry at this woman for talking to me, and I’m angry at myself for talking back, and I’m angry I have this impulse to immediately start forming counterarguments, I’m angry that I have to squash a desire to say, Well, yes, but aren’t there some people who just won’t learn to love?

“It’s all about attitude,” says Tracey.  “You have to keep your attitude positive, because — and I know this — in a lot of situations, all you really can control is your attitude about things.”

I agree again, this time more enthusiastically because it really is true, and I don’t think this is a cheesy thing to believe or say, even though I’m aware that other people probably do.  It’s a shame, a real shame, I say, that there are so many people who never learn that, who aren’t taught that.

“You’re right,” Tracey says.  “And a problem with a lot of people who haven’t learned that early, is later on they won’t learn it.  They’ll think they already learned everything.”

I think, what if this were a Flannery O’Connor story?  The street evangelical and the modern malaised intellectual at a bus top on a hot day.  If this were a Flannery O’Connor story Tracey would be blind behind those sunglasses, or she’d have a club foot.  If this were a Flannery O’Connor story I would probably die at the end.

“I have a saying,” Tracey tells me: “If we stop teaching we’ll need someone to raise us from the dead.”

This doesn’t make sense to me at first blush.

“Something I’ve learned, while teaching,” she says, “is that if you’re teaching, you’re also learning, and if you’re learning more, you should understand each time you learn more, how much more you haven’t learned.”

Again she’s saying things I agree with, which makes me happy but then also makes me uneasy, because it makes me wonder how much of what I believe is basically bromides for street evangelists, and then I am angry at myself for wondering for even the tiniest second that something being a bromide, or something being believed by both myself and a street evangelist, makes it inherently lesser.

I tell her that’s she speaking a lot of sense, and I see my bus is coming, so I tell her good luck with the ministry.  And then I think Oh hell why not, and I tell her God bless, too.

She takes the same bus as I do, but we have different stops and sit pretty far apart, so by the time I get off she’s already having an involved conversation with the unsteady old man who sat beside her.

I think about how when I first sat down she was eating little goldfish crackers, and the little fish connected with the fact she’s a Christian minister would be symbolically significant in a short story, but I don’t know how to make it work without it seeming silly.

Touching base.

I have been very, very busy, going on a vacation of sorts!  I was trundling around New England for a few days and in that time managed to drop by and visit Lovecraft’s grave.  Isn’t that something!

While I was in New England I also managed to catch a performance of All’s Well That Ends Well, and it happened to be the Boston Commons production, so I have a handily prepackaged review written by the dude over at Shakespeare Geek.  It’s a pretty spot-on review, I think (even from the same night I saw the play!), and Duane is a good Shakespeare guy.  He’s a lot less heady and academic than I can be, so it’s good to read him and make sure I’m not disappearing up my own ass.  (If you like Shakespeare maybe you should read his blog! I do!)

The only things I would add to his take are some personal notes, namely, that I have (gasp!) never read this play before.  Yes indeed!  Despite my love of the problem plays this one had escaped me, so it was my first experience with viewing Shakespeare as performance-only.  Everything I knew about the play beforehand I’d absorbed through osmosis.

That said I have a bit of a problem seeing why All’s Well is classed as a problem play, or problem comedy.  It actually seemed remarkably straightforward to me — a young boy without a strong father figure latches onto a braggart, then learns a valuable lesson about humility and self-sacrifice when that braggart is cut down to size.  This was probably also an effect of the staging, I admit, and when I eventually get around to the text I’ll probably find some of the weirder elements of the play that were elided or cut, but until then: I ain’t got a problem with you, All’s Well.

I am also in the process of packing up to move to grad school, and also reading A Dance With Dragons, so you can imagine how busy I am.  So busy, guys!

But because that’s never stopped me before, I will now make veiled allusions to a project of mine on the horizon, a project design specifically for this blog, a project that will happen dammit because I paid money to set it into motion.  But again, given how incredibly busy I’ve been and will be, I have no idea when I’ll actually be able to initiate this project.  Suffive it to say, I think it should be a lot of fun for you and me.  (if it ever happens)

However, if you’re desperate for something to read today, something of substance, you could do worse than Blake Butler’s piece on American Psycho over at HTMLgiant.  Note this:

The way that Bateman copes with the building distortion between his inner want, however buried, and the continuing nothing his life has filled with is to break with himself underneath himself and do violence. The book goes on building further and further levels of intricately imagined scenes of rape and torture, which late into the book begin to take on a kind of ingenuity otherwise absent from his life. All throughout this, Bateman famously maintains for the most part the same copy-voice he uses in making dinner reservations or trying to impress women he wants to fuck. The narration’s sheen is perhaps what most upset readers ofAmerican Psycho early on, in that such acts were being put on with such apparent detachment that the book was “violence for violence’s sake,” which while I personally don’t have trouble with, I don’t think is the case at all here. This is not a book, as has been claimed, that sees the dark of the world and wallows in it. This is a book that in some way wanted more. This is true for Bateman, I think, as a character, if one that never definitely admits it, or changes, though there are certainly moments where the sheen begins to crack, if not in the face of it itself, but in the face behind the face: Bateman visiting his mother in a home and his odd silence there, while still not emotional; his weeping at sitcoms on TV; and even in the exuberant tone he takes describing pop music, which is of course written in a brilliant flat and media-inherited way, but also, in its reiteration, to me reflects not nihilism, but an even deeper burning for there to be something good in the world; something perhaps misplaced but to Bateman joyful, even in the multi-cloaked levels of how blank to some something like Huey Lewis, for instance, is. His wanting, where it lands, seems stilted, misplaced, but that doesn’t make it any less sincere, even when deployed as a passage turned from murdering women violently; in fact, it’s more poignant that way, if you ask me. There seems to be a big idea in literature and even all of entertainment that for something to show heart, be heartfelt, it must have light; that the moments must exhibit some kind of “human element” in order to make it relatable, and therefore somehow validated. This was Wallace’s big problem with this book, and it’s something you hear a lot. I’ll argue, though, that by leaving that sheen up, by complicating the borderline redemptive qualities of Bateman, and feeding his only out into a pathos that is terrifying in its operation in hurting other humans, is actually even more human, more honest; it does not have to bare itself in order to realize where it is. If one’s belief in humanity is founded on the idea of love, then why is that the element we continue to question? Do we really need to reach a moment in every work to remember light and love to know it exists? That the job requires you coming back to this by default seems to me a weaker pose than knowing already it is in there, or can be, and what of it. Depending on that requirement seems cheaper in spite of itself, actually less human, and less sure of the human than one who assumes it, or, holy shit, on paper, lets it go.