A Eulogy For Myself, In Anticipation of Dying Young

ed. note: About a week ago, in the wee small hours, I was almost hit by a car. The experience got me thinking about the practical details of dying unexpectedly, whether everyone involved would know my burial preferences or what songs I’d like played at the service (is Iron & Wine’s “Naked As We Came” too obvious?). It also made me think of what I’d want to say to the people who love me enough to come to my funeral. This is what I came up with.

i.
I would hope that by the time these words are read aloud in front of a captive audience – you all look wonderful in your classic black suits and ornate veils, by the way – my life will barely resemble the one I lead now. If all goes according to plan I will have died a peaceful death at home on my dairy farm, my gentle heifers Cownie Chung and Mary Tyler Moo-er grazing in a nearby pasture, the hypermodernist farmhouse I designed and built an enduring metaphor for my simultaneously forward-thinking and self-indulgent nature. I will be survived by my wife Helga, our three sons Sufjan, Maxwell, and Maximillian, and a princely Australian Shepherd named Sir Francis Barkin that I love more than the four of them combined.

Of course, life has a way of laughing at our plans. I can say with some confidence that I would never have met most of the people in this room had I received the future I laid out for myself. What a miracle that turned out to be! No less a modern prophet than Garth Brooks once observed, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” The beautiful faces in this room are living testimony to the truth of that sentiment.

Some people preoccupy themselves with uncertainties about life after death. I have no such questions: I know that I will keep living. I don’t mean that in the strictly spiritual sense (although I certainly believe that to be the case as well). Perhaps you remember that essay I wrote about those aspects of other people’s personalities that have rubbed off on me, that have become integrated into my identity, inseparable from my soul. As you have been grafted into me, I have been grafted into you. I live on through you.

I live on when you garnish your butternut squash soup with toasted pistachios and some shards of Parmesan. I live on when you step around to execute a perfect inside-out counterloop, preferably around the net and for the win. I live on when you go top shelf on some sticky summer day, floating above the defender as though carried by cherubs. I live on when you complain that Tarantino’s character work got particularly shoddy after Jackie Brown. When you cry readily at a film, when you order the plainest thing on a menu to accurately gauge its quality, when you sit quietly and just absorb the unceasing human drama playing out in the lives of those around you, I get to live in you.

You found me malleable and seized that opportunity, molding me like sculptor’s clay. No doubt your fingerprints have been baked into my spirit by some cosmic kiln. (Hopefully I wasn’t murdered, or this metaphor just got very awkward from an evidentiary perspective.) Maybe ee cummings had something like this in mind when he wrote,

losing through you what seemed myself;i find
selves unimaginably mine;beyond
sorrow’s own joys and hoping’s very fears

yours is the light by which my spirit’s born:
yours is the darkness of my soul’s return
–you are my sun,my moon,and all my stars

And even if he didn’t, we get to misappropriate his words and intent to our hearts’ content. That is, after all, one of the beauties of art.

That is also one of the beauties of life. It is up to us to interpret and reinterpret our stories, and we can give value and meaning to their details. Superficial tidbits can be imbued with depths unfathomable in the moment. We own our biographies – as Chef John might have said, you are the John Dory of your life’s story – and it is up to us to decide when fidelity to a greater truth trumps fidelity to objective historical accuracy.

And so it is with how I’d like to be remembered. My closest friends no doubt remember our running gag about how the manager at Famous Daves once gifted us with a $7 trillion-dollar meal platter, a not-so-subtle joke about how easily we’ll exaggerate things in retelling, but also a nod to how prestigious, how august that gesture made us feel. When we were still poor college students, savoring the irony of buying kid’s meals for our weekly man nights, this wonderful woman gave us a meal that made us feel like warrior kings. The absolute cost of it is meaningless minutia compared to the emotional value of that gift.

Just a couple nights ago, I was trying to describe to a friend the feeling of being stranded at home with a broken-down car. I crafted an image of a frontiersman in a lonesome log cabin, deep in the wilderness, coughing up white smoke from the pine log that he’d not properly dried before adding to the fire, longing for human contact from anyone who wasn’t his softly-snoring beardly brother. But he dares not venture outside. “He’d die,” I said. “There are bears in these woods.”

In my mind, then, when you retell my stories, the best way to honor me is to identify the kernel of truth each of those stories was told to convey, and to use your best judgment about how to capture that truth in the retelling. Maybe that means that car we found just outside of Montevideo was shrouded in fog when it was, in fact, probably a clear winter night, and maybe the man we found stiff and rigid at the steering wheel was already turning blue. Maybe that means that balcony I pulled you from was on the fifteenth floor rather than the third. Maybe you lost three thousand dollars instead of seventy-five that time we got sushi and I told you that I loved you.

If it’s the feeling that matters, if it’s the emotional experience that is in some way the real truth, the image we use to craft that feeling or evoke that emotion is as real as what we otherwise call reality. Perhaps reality itself is itself a handcrafted image, its sole purpose to reveal these feelings to us. Perhaps these shadow plays are the only way by which such truths can be revealed: “Now I see in a mirror, dimly.”

“But when the perfect comes, the incomplete will pass away.”

I don’t know how I’ll be remembered. Hopefully my award-winning cheese hybrids (like a cross between Gorgonzola and Gouda called, you guessed it, “Blouda”) will merit mention, as will my bestselling self-help extraordinaire “The Macks Effect: Making Life Your Bitch Through Reverse Psychology.” Others will focus instead on my unlikely scientific breakthrough, the discovery of the heaviest element known to man (your mom). But if I had to choose, I hope the stories you tell are about how together we became more than ourselves. I hope you’d remember first those times it felt like our hearts had left our bodies and were dancing together on a stage only we could see. I hope you take comfort recalling those times we looked at each other with tears in our eyes, unsure if the pains we endured were woven from my wounds or yours, or if the joy we felt was your victory or mine. Were you the harmony to my melody, or was it the other way around? It couldn’t matter less. Together we sang a beautiful song.

 

976C0B87-F1E6-443E-A62D-9BEEA39B08E4

Photo credit: Daniel Mick

Advertisements

The Peculiar Quality of Friendship

One question I like to ask people after I’ve known them a while is, “In your opinion, what is the exact moment that we started to become friends?” I’d have to concede that in many cases the trust and intimacy required for friendship came along so slowly that no one could identify an exact moment with any confidence, like pinpointing the precise place a creek becomes a river. On the other hand, many of my friends choose the same memory that I do. One friendship started the time we stayed up half the night talking about how I felt my life was crumbling in front of me. Another began when I happened to be the only person in earshot when the cumulative pressures of college and family had become overbearing. Yet another sprouted from a chance encounter in a piano practice room, where she was on the brink of tears and I managed the rare (for me) feat of saying something meaningful and encouraging.

I once described friendship as having five essential pillars – trust, comfort, affection, quality time, and open communication – but I’ve come to realize this model is at once too complicated yet not sophisticated enough. “Too complicated” because quality time and open communication aren’t so much components of friendship as they are the fuel it runs on. (Is gas really a part of a car? A question for the philosophers.) “Not sophisticated enough” because identifying those core components says nothing about the way they interact. Does open communication lead to comfort, or does comfort produce open communication? I’m self-aware enough to notice that it’s often when I start talking that people become uncomfortable.

Setting aside for a paragraph my instincts as a writer, I think friendship can be helpfully conceptualized as a tree, with roots of trust, a trunk and branches made from intimacy, love as its fruit, and communication and quality time the sunshine and rainwater that keeps it fed and makes it grow. Perhaps this is why those friendships with discrete beginnings – the ones we can trace from seed to sequoia – almost invariably involve some moment of profound vulnerability, a basic bid for support, a plea for understanding or compassion that is unequivocally answered.

But rain falls on concrete as well as trees. This obvious fact (and the brusque, blunt person who feels the need to pedantically point it out) has created a lot of conflict in my life. If the word “friend” is to be a useful term, it must refer to something stronger than just someone I talk to or spend time with: it must describe the essential nature of a particular kind of relationship. Nobody, except those who just moments prior had an explicit claim to the contrary, would take offense to the statement, “You’re not my employee” or “You’re not my spouse.” But to say, “You’re not my friend” is an egregious faux pas. Why should this be?

Of course, the first obvious answer to this question is that most people mean something altogether different than I do when they use the word, that their category for the term is much more expansive than my own. Perhaps they would likewise describe shrubs and cornstalks as “Basically just trees.” I hope you can at least understand why I find that lack of distinction unsatisfying.

C.S. Lewis noticed this too. “To the Ancients,” he wrote, “Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it. We admit of course that besides a wife and family a man needs a few ‘friends.’ But the very tone of the admission, and the sort of acquaintanceships which those who make it would describe as ‘friendships,’ show clearly that what they are talking about has very little to do with that Philia which Aristotle classified among the virtues or that Amicitia on which Cicero wrote a book. It is something quite marginal; not a main course in life’s banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chunks of one’s time.”

The second – and infinitely more important – answer is that friendship is by its very nature selective and exclusive. Any conscious act of exclusion necessarily begs questions about value or worth. But we will continue to be selective, even as we are offended when we are not selected. We will continue to be exclusive even as we are excluded. Percipience is an essential quality of friendship, and our unease will not change that.

Even then, the inherent selectivity at play between friends can create jealousies and rivalries among those who have an equal or even greater claim to such a title. Who has not experienced the feeling of being unable to relate to a close friend when they are in deep rapport with someone else, or the feeling that this person you know intimately has transformed into someone unrecognizable while they are in the company of another friend? White chocolate brings out unexpected flavors in both caviar and coffee, yet few would dream of combining the latter two. If coffee could talk, would it express its insecurities that white chocolate sometimes hangs out with a much fancier friend? Would caviar envy coffee’s much wider social circle and wonder why he needed to hog white chocolate’s attention? Has this metaphor gone off the rails yet?

I like to think of friends as fellow-travelers on the same secret road, people with whom I share a (sometimes intuitive and sometimes explicit) sense of understanding, whether about a shared experience or passion or even something entirely ineffable. “I know how you feel. Let’s walk a while together.” Or, as Lewis wrote, “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’” Perhaps this peculiar quality of friendship is one of the many that gives it so much value. Regardless, I want trees to climb, even while I see the value of cornstalks. I want friendship, not something like it.

Swallowed Whole By Canvas

v.

The earliest memory I have is of my older brother’s third birthday party, when he got a battery-powered police car that would drive itself in a circle while its siren wailed. I wanted that car so badly I burst into tears on the steps from the kitchen to the porch, hurling myself on the faded flower-patterned tile. Someone – my mother, most likely – retrieved a small wooden recorder and thrust it in my hands, a substitute satisfying enough for a toddler. Apparently all I really wanted was to contribute to the piercing cacophony.

The next coherent memory I can recall is of a dream I had when I was maybe four years old. Everyone I knew – which, considering I was four,  consisted of my grandparents, my mom, my brother and my two sisters – had gathered in the sunny living room of my grandparents’ white one-story postwar rambler, seating me in the middle of the pale yellow davenport. The angled ash tree in the front yard loomed large behind my grandfather, though the sunflowers and petunias of my grandma’s front garden had also crept into view. The room felt warm with love.

I don’t remember who spoke, but I remember the message: we are all from a different place, a world inside a painting in fact, and we all have to go home. And you, Steve, cannot come with. Then I watched in horror as everyone I knew in the world walked to the wall and were swallowed whole by canvas, smudging the watercolors as they passed through. And then I was alone in a suddenly darkened room.

I feel lucky to recall waking up, to remember the relief I felt hearing the sound of bacon crackling in a skillet. Maple syrup still smells like comfort to me.

~

At a movie night not long ago, for some reason my friends and I started talking about gifts. This was a group of friends in which I feel comfortable enough to admit the more awkward aspects of my personality, so I told them that I keep lists about them. “Sooner or later, everyone will tell you what they want,” I said. One of them, for example, had mentioned a handful of records he’d hoped to find on vinyl. Another had, once upon a time, expressed a desire for a particular graphic tee. Shortly after the next movie started, one guest, who’d come after the gifts conversation, blurted out in excitement, “I want that jacket!”

“Exhibit A!” I said in triumph, but everybody else had already moved on from that idea so my self-satisfaction was met with confusion.

Gifts are the most tangible form of love, at least if we categorize our affections by the love languages philosophy. If one were so inclined, it would make sense to ask why I keep notes about ways to match giving to a person but don’t, say, try to keep track of the ways those same friends could be served well, or what forms of verbal affirmation make them feel especially honored, or what kinds of touch are especially comforting to them – or if they are comfortable with any touch at all. Perhaps that’s an area where mental notes are best.

One time I told a friend that my love language, or at least the tongue that speaks loudest and most clearly, is quality time. Just enjoying someone’s company, knowing that they are enjoying mine, no matter what we are doing, swells me up like a balloon. (The next time I saw her, she told me she thought we should spend less time together. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more hurt by such a simple sentence.) Is it any surprise? I’ve had dreams of abandonment since I was four years old.

In A Grief Observed, CS Lewis’ panicked, scribbling attempt to navigate himself through the death of his wife, Lewis noticed that his need to feel comforted by God was preventing him from feeling any comfort at all.

You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst…. And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.

My pleading mantra, uttered in rhythm to every heartbeat – even before I could understand the concept – has been, “Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.” What a fool I’ve been. I’ve had a clutching vice grip around nothingness and all the while the Eternal One has been waiting patiently to sweep me into His loving arms.

On the Circumference of Lake Superior

iv.

It’s already difficult to picture, standing near its shore, where Lake Superior could possibly end, but when the sky’s a dripping, drizzling gray it becomes practically impossible. The horizon seems to extend above the tree line, as though the lake is curling up over itself and dumping the excess back into its basin. I can’t help but wonder at the first people to encounter it, whether they thought they could find something on the other side or if they believed it to be the edge of the world. Was there an intrepid skeptic who dared put it to the test, walking north only to return from the south several months later?

These were the questions on my mind as I sat at the bar at Castle Danger, sipping a George Hunter Stout – “an American version of the style with aromas of molasses, licorice, maple, coffee and cream that are also echoed in the flavor.” I also wondered if there were more beers on tap than daydrinkers sporting identical trucker-hat-and-camo ensembles.  The tap list boasted eight beers. “Did I already charge you?” asked the bartender, a squat middle-aged woman with silver-gold hair and a ready smile, as I tipped back the last dregs. “I can never remember when someone’s paid or if I’ve just given away beer for free. It’s a nightmare.”

“Your nightmare is someone else’s dream,” I replied as I pulled out my wallet.

“Don’t you want another one? The cream ale is really nice after the stout.”

I declined. “It’d be bad manners to show up to a wedding drunk. Besides, I have to drive back to Duluth for it.”

When she asked if I was excited to go, I smiled and said, “Sure, who doesn’t like an open bar?” But in truth I was dreading it. I tried dodging the invitation once it became clear it was coming, but the bride tracked me down like a blood hound. Didn’t she know you’re not supposed to bring prior romantic baggage to your wedding?

It would have been easy enough to simply decline the invitation. The wedding was in Duluth, after all, and that’s a difficult trip without a car. Scheduling it for 5 p.m. on a Friday meant I’d have to take time off work, another reasonable excuse. And even though there’s no lingering attachment, a betting man would think it’d be, at the very least, an uncomfortable experience. But in the end, I couldn’t convince myself that I wasn’t just trying to hurt her in the most passive way possible. Could I say with total, unshakeable confidence that there wasn’t any part of me that wanted her to notice my absence, that wanted that absence to sting and linger, no part of me that wanted that slight to fester and damage? What would it say about me as a person if I hid behind a reasonable excuse in even the most miniscule attempt to inflict pain on someone I have claimed to love?

It was convenient, to say the least, that my ability to feel, to commune with my emotional self, has been so eroded these last couple months. I don’t like to think of it as a numbness; rather, it’s as though that emotional self is unconscious, passed out in a drunken stupor. He’ll come to just long enough to yell something angry – and probably offensive – before slipping again into restless slumber. It hardly matters which emotions have come for a visit when he’s snoring loudly and mumbling about Vietnam. They’ll have to come back later if they want an audience.

This enabled me, at first, to watch the ceremony with a detached fascination. There were fewer groomsmen than bridesmaids. The pastor had brought a football as a prop, despite the fact that neither bride nor groom cared for the sport. (I’m still not totally clear about the point of that. Something to do with Chris Berman’s “He. Could. Go. All. The. Way.” catchphrase?) But when I saw her eyes well up with tears of joy, and I watched his gentle thumb dry her cheek, I became self-conscious of tears in my own eyes. Was I feeling something, or were my mirror neurons just firing blindly like a caricature of an old prospector? Moving my hands towards my face felt too conspicuous. I let the dampness linger.

It’s fair to ask whether some achievements are worth the effort. In her journal, Sylvia Plath wrote, “The danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness.” For the fur traders of the North West Company, it was essential to know how far the lake would stretch. For those early few who were driven only by curiosity, one has to think the satisfaction of attaining that knowledge would be tempered by the realization that they’d only ended up back where they started, but with salt water running down their faces.

A Valediction

We both knew this. I had my miseries, not hers;
she had hers, not mine. The end of hers would be
the coming-of-age of mine.
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

iii.

I’ve read that when Grant Achatz, the famous modernist chef, came down with cancer of the tongue, his ability to taste salt was the last to go. I am working from memory, but I believe sweetness faded first, followed by the sour, and then bitter flavors. Saltiness lingered a while, rendering each morsel a monotonous chore, but before long it was all just texture, varied gradients of sand brushing up against his tender tongue. I’ve wondered if that sequence would be the same for everyone, or even the same for every chef. Perhaps sugar would linger for the pastry chefs and bakers. Maybe the garde mangers would cling to bitterness.

It’s worth asking if Achatz felt “less” as his ability to taste eroded away. While his mind and experience and unrelenting creative capacity let him continue to develop celebrated dishes and flavor pairings (the year following Achatz’s cancer diagnosis was widely considered Alinea’s zenith to that point), the inability to taste for himself must have induced some fear or uncertainty. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Fate (or whatever it is) delights to produce a great capacity and then frustrate it. Beethoven went deaf. By our standards a mean joke; the monkey trick of a spiteful imbecile.” But would we elevate Beethoven so high had he never been deaf? The great Swiss mathematician Euler reached the peak of his productivity after he went blind. Frustrated, yes, but not stopped. Taking on water but not yet sunk.

And so I go back to tending my heart’s garden, praying a soft prayer that when this rhubarb ripens I’ll be able to dip a stalk in caster’s sugar and eat it raw, that the magical sweet and sour taste will transport me to some summer morning ages ago when everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
– James Donne, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

Signs and Wonders

Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow
– Sufjan Stevens, “The Only Thing

ii.
It may seem strange, but it is instructive to think of depression as being like a friend. “Dee,” let’s say, is like an old college buddy who’s a great dude but has rather poor hygiene, so you’re reluctant to admit you’ve been hanging out with him. Dee’s the guy who will say, “Hey, man, let’s focus on you tonight. I’ll bring beer and pizza rolls,” and then just sits quietly and stinks up the place while you watch Netflix. Whenever he comes around, he’s making a timely, almost heroic, entrance: everything’s falling apart around you, but here’s Dee, a friend indeed. He’s blunt and brutally honest – he tells it like it is – but he really, really wants you to understand that even though he likes you as a person, he doesn’t think you have what it takes. So you stare at your feet as you say, “Yeah, you’re probably right. Let me get some of those pizza rolls.”

There’s something poetic to the fact that soil erodes most quickly when there’s nothing planted in it. Common sense then dictates that your heart should be a well-tended garden, with healthy diversity like zucchini and a raspberry patch to go along with a row of lilies and sunflowers and three different types of mint. A lucky few have plots that edge up against some old-growth, with some beech or cedar just barely on the other side of the forest edge. When my grandma died seven years ago, I felt the ground shake as that blessed oak was pulled out, roots and all. Now that my grandpa and his brother Elmer have followed, the whole landscape has changed. My secluded garden is now strip-mall adjacent, a little more of that nitrogen-rich soil flowing down the storm drain with each rainfall.

Reflecting on the loss of his mother, Sufjan Stevens was struck by how the trajectory of his grief seemed so unconventional. “It felt really sporadic and convoluted,” he told Pitchfork. “I would have a period of rigorous, emotionless work, and then I would be struck by deep sadness triggered by something really mundane, like a dead pigeon on the subway track. Or my niece would point out polka-dotted tights at the playground, and I would suffer some kind of cosmic anguish in public.”

Nothing. Nothing. Intense pain. My phone buzzes. Dee wants to know if I’ve ever tried Fireball.

“You are an individual in full possession of your life,” says Stevens. “You don’t have to be incarcerated by suffering.”

It’s jarring to realize that it’s as likely as not that I will someday consider suicide again. Dee reminds me that my retirement savings are meager anyway.

“The Only Thing” refers to what kept Sufjan alive as he was contemplating suicide: “The only thing that keeps me from driving this car half-light, jackknife into the canyon at night….” Signs and wonders. The Northern constellation of Perseus cradling the head of Medusa. A random pattern of moisture on a bathroom wall, conjuring an image of the biblical Daniel. The sea lion caves of the Oregon coast giving sight to a blind faith. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing else but intense awe.

To Him alone who does great wonders
For His steadfast love endures forever
To Him who made the great lights
For His steadfast love endures forever
To Him who struck down great Kings
For His steadfast love endures forever
– Psalm 136

Perseus

A Cluster of Words Simulating the Way Steven Macks Had an Existential Crisis at the Dentist Office (Blog Titles Inspired By Sufjan Stevens Songs)

i.
“That doesn’t look right,” she said behind me as I stared up at the ceiling, the treble in her voice deadened by her dental mask. “It could be an occlusion or maybe even a cavity. But the whole root of your tooth is dark on the x-ray.”

When I woke up Saturday morning, an emergency dental visit did not seem to be in the realm of possibility. But when I got out of bed and brushed my teeth, I felt an unmistakable grit on my brush. I spit into my hand and put it under a gentle tap and let the water pass through my shaking fingers like a prospector panning for gold. Soon enough, I found my treasure: sharp flecks of mother of pearl. I ran my tongue around my teeth and found an unfamiliar texture, like a corn kernel made of shale, on my lower lateral incisor.

Shit. I’m going to lose a front tooth.

A quick Google search revealed three dentists within a mile of my house. Fortunately, the one open Saturdays – Bucca Dental – was also in my insurance network. A follow-up Google search told me that “Bucca” is a storm spirit of British yore, a wraith believed to haunt the abandoned mines of coastal regions. That sounded to me like a sturdy, romantic name for a dental office, so I got dressed and walked over.

It has been my experience that all dental hygienists are gorgeous young women, and Bucca’s was no exception. She had orangish-red hair and the slender body of a middle-distance runner, the sort of combination that made me think of a defiant maple still gleaming despite a waning autumn. I also couldn’t help but wonder whether my dental visits growing up have had an impact on my dating life. Meet a beautiful woman. Fall in love a little. Endure a span of pain, and criticism, and judgment. Try again in six months.

At any rate, by this point she had summoned the dentist, a regal and handsome Hispanic man named Edgar Mantilla. He looked like a Mexican version of the actor Ray Wise. “Let’s have a look,” he said, gesturing for me to open my mouth. The exam last less than ten seconds. “This is nothing. It’s a calculus.”

What does this have to do with derivatives? I wondered to myself. Confusion must have registered on my face.

“It’s calcium buildup. We’ll scrape it off and you can go.”

The voice behind me chimed back in. “There’s still the matter of this occlusion, Doctor.” I glanced back to see green eyes shining like traffic lights against her cerulean facemask. I couldn’t help but wonder if occlusions were dealbreakers.

“Ah yes,” he replied in a cadence close enough to Emperor Palpatine’s to be unsettling. He explained that a spiral cavity had cut off the blood flow to my tooth, and it was likely dead. He proposed an experiment to illustrate his point, and disappeared momentarily to retrieve a shard of dry ice the size of a pebble. Instructing me to tell him when it started hurting, he pressed the dry ice against my poor occluded tooth. I felt nothing, and so I shrugged slightly. Then he moved the it to the adjacent tooth and I felt a burst of intense pain. He did it again to drive the point home. Nothing. Nothing. Intense pain. “See? You’ll need a root canal.”

I thought to ask when I’d be able to eat hard cheeses again, but I didn’t think he’d get the reference.

lizlemon2

Vampire Weekend and a Lament for a Lost Friendship

Vampire Weekend is a polarizing band. Some people find their orchestration and energy to a refreshing change of scenery from the sheer gray monolith of top 40 pop; others seem to find pretentious both their wordplay and occasional outbursts in French. For what it’s worth, I remember how I excited I felt when I first stumbled onto them. There’s no doubt they have the sound and feel of a summer’s day, or at least to my ears they sound better with the aroma of fresh-cut grass wafting into my nose the same way that shrimp and oysters taste better when you can hear lapping waves and seagulls. It’s appropriate, then, that I first heard them on a July morning, jogging back from the Dairy Queen across from Lake Josephine to the Northwestern dorm building we called Arden Hall, a gutted out Holiday Inn with a creaky elevator and a mold problem. The song, “M79“, was exciting and frenetic (and other adjectives as well) and renewed my energy to glide across the tarry shoulder of Lexington Ave.

Around this time, I’d set up a Gmail account with a friend for the sole purpose of sharing music with each other. When we found some hidden gem we wanted the other to see sparkle, we’d email the MP3 to that account. We exchanged more than five hundred songs in this fashion: windows into our childhood, like “Take On Me” by A-Ha (her) or “All My Life” by K-Ci and JoJo (me); boosts to our indie cred, like the rough demos from Mumford & Sons; even Hannah Montana tracks to devour “ironically,” I guess. There’s something uniquely intimate about getting to know someone through their musical autobiography, to try to understand why certain melodies pluck their heartstrings. Vampire Weekend was one of the earliest chapters in that book.

That project died a slow death. It’s been three years since she shared anything with me, and maybe two since she even checked the account (the Citizens arrangement of “Amazing Grace” she requested of me has been unopened since I sent it in 2013). And it’s been about a year since our friendship ended. But here’s a secret: I still send her songs. Every once in a while, when a new tune quickens my pulse or brings tears to my eyes, I sign into that old Gmail account and I share it. I don’t know why I do that.

To be sure, I know what some of my friends would say. There are those that would think I haven’t let go, that I keep watering soil in the hopes that some long-dead seeds will miraculously sprout. Some might suggest it’s a continuation of that aching need to be known, to write the next chapter of that autobiography, even if it will never  be read. That it’s an answer to the question Sufjan Stevens asked rhetorically, “What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?” My more cynical confidants might say that it’s an extremely passive aggressive attempt to demonstrate my moral superiority (“See? I’ve been giving this whole time.”) But to the extent that I’m allowed to choose my own interpretation for my behavior, I’m deciding to see it as a lament to a lost friendship, laying flowers on its grave. It’s a shoebox to hide away the lingering fragments of that nostalgia, a place to put them so nobody else has to see.

Vampire

Three Conversations

1.

The exam room was maybe eight feet by ten feet, with the requisite medical posters adorning the walls and the obligatory forest-green bed spanning most of the far side of the room. The nurse sat across the desk from me, clicking through the patient database, hunched forward with fatigue at just ten in the morning. She was lanky, almost six feet tall, and wore a lab coat over her blue scrubs. I wondered if it was common for nurses to wear lab coats, though I didn’t think to ask. After a protracted silence she said, “You remind me of Keanu Reeves.”

“Thanks?” I offered with a slight chuckle, imagining for a moment myself in place of the most inexplicable movie star in film history. That was a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever received one.

“Why is that funny?” she asked, tilting her head forward so her eyes bobbed above her ruby rimmed glasses.

“Oh, it’s funny because I was just reading an academic paper on the neutral mask, which helps explain why Keanu Reeves was such a successful action star.”

“Are you a professor or something?”

“No, I’m just constantly curious.”

She sat up straight. “What is the neutral mask?” I explained to her that, in theory anyway, one of the keys to blockbuster movie success is having a character who doesn’t emote much, if at all. The idea is that the more subtlety and emotion a character expresses, the more cognitive strain we feel in processing why he or she is having that reaction, and the harder it becomes for us to psychically substitute our personalities for theirs. This is why Neo is so bland in the Matrix, why Bella Swan is expressionless in Twilight, and one of the components that makes superhero films so popular: we can insert ourselves into their character and see the world of the movie through their eyes. (It’s interesting to me that the neutral mask concept was introduced by the French actor Jacques Lecoq, a mime who taught his students to use the neutral mask in order to develop their ability to convey feeling with the rest of their bodies.) We project our own feelings onto them, and that’s what allows us to feel immersed in an implausible story.

A conversation of my favorite films and directors ensued (The Lives of Others, Shaun of the Dead, and No Country For Old Men all came up). Although I inquired about hers, but she seemed reluctant, almost embarrassed to share, like finding yourself confessing to a wine snob your love of three buck Chuck. She eventually admitted to her love for Fight Club and, to her relief, I returned the sentiment.

“That’s interesting,” she said as she played with her silver and gold spiky hair. “You’re so interesting.”

2.

Recently, and to my surprise, I’ve been told by a half a dozen different people that I am a good conversationalist. Given that at least one of these people studied communications, I found it difficult to disagree. While it’s not as though I had any particular evidence to support such a dissent, I had always taken for granted that the opposite was true. Considering the ease at which we can selectively recall certain events but not those that contradict it, I’d managed to ignore the myriad pleasant, deep conversations I’d ever had in favor of those occasions where someone I’d tried to talk to was either reluctant or shut me down entirely. (Self-scouting notes: I am quick to assume that any social unpleasantness I experience is my fault and my fault alone).

But this revelation, as welcome as it was, cast new light on some of those joyous and fulfilling conversational highlights I look back upon, a relational proxy for athletic glory days or the like. The three hours at Nina’s with my friend Katie, for example, perched upon our thrones at the top of the stairs, is a memory clear and warm to me that the paint still seems moist in my mental portrait. Or that lonely January night saved by an impromptu chat with Jasmim, spanning topics from wall art to empathy to the religious influence of our parents, her brown Disney eyes welling up with tears as she opened up to a man who was a stranger mere minutes prior. Whereas before I’d thought these times were moments of developing rapport or an emotional connection, now I have to wonder instead if they were as equally-matched tennis players sharing a long volley.

3.

My friend was waiting for me at Five Watt when I arrived. “Just got here,” she’d texted a few minutes earlier. It’s poppin!” I’m almost always the first to show up when I’m meeting up with someone for coffee, or drinks, or what have you. Perpetually early. Saturday reminded me of a scene from 30 Rock, when Liz is introducing her new boyfriend Floyd to her boss, Jack Donaghy. “I hope this isn’t too boring for you,” Liz offers apologetically as they walk into the restaurant.

“Are you kidding? Jack Donaghy’s a legend. I’ve read his book like twenty times!”

“Jack wrote a book?”

“Yeah, ‘Jack Attack: The Art of Aggression in Business.’” Floyd spots Jack waiting for them at their table, sipping Scotch. “Oh no, he got here before us. You’re not supposed to let that happen. That’s chapter two in the book.”

When we sat down, she told me she wasn’t thirsty. I came back with a Busy Beaver in hand (one of Five Watt’s signature drinks, made with maple syrup, Blackstrap bitters, cinnamon, molasses, black pepper, and espresso, and it is absolutely delightful) and offered her a sip. “I don’t actually drink coffee.”

“Wait, really?”

She explained that she didn’t like the way it made her feel, and that listening to what her body was telling her was something she was learning how to do. More people should learn that lesson. She then sat graciously sipping water in a temple of caffeine as we enjoyed a conversation.

4.

Kevin and I had been waiting at Lyon’s for almost an hour. His friend Mike, we had been assured and reassured, was on his way and would be with us shortly. Jon would be bringing his girlfriend: “I think she’s the one,” or some variant, he’d texted to Kevin, with the not-so-subtle subtext that we should help make him look good. I’d been warned that Jon was something of a meathead. A former pro football player, and retaining the physique of a current one, he had no patience for people he didn’t care for, and no use for pretense or drivel. Not everyone was going to like him, and he could in no way care less.

They finally arrived. Jon shook my hand and quickly turned his attention to Kevin. Laura asked all of us if we wanted anything to drink. It was 1 a.m. at this point. “Nah, we’re trying to sober up.” She smiled and headed up to the bar. “Isn’t she perfect?” Jon asked. “I mean, aside from the fact that she needs to lose like forty pounds, but I’ve told her that.”

Laura came back with a shot and a beer for each of them. Jon and Kevin were already lost in conversation about life in Colorado, a discussion to which Laura and I had been denied entry and would have had nothing to add. I decided to play dumb, one of my favorite conversational tactics. “I hear you’re a financial analyst,” I offered. “What’s the difference between that and the guy who drags me out to coffee and tries to look at my bills?”

She laughed. “That’s a financial advisor. A financial analyst gives guidance to institutions, helps them make investment decisions and things like that.”

I asked her if she liked her job. She said she loved it: it paid well, it afforded her the ability to travel to more countries she could list, and they had even paid for her to be tutored in French. “There’s been a trade-off, though,” she admitted. “My social life has suffered.”

“I have a friend who recently confided in me that she was worried the same thing would happen to her. You can’t have it all, or at least you can’t have it all at once. You have to prioritize.”

She agreed. “And I’m glad I put my career first. I’m on a CFO track. I can have a family at any point, but it’d be almost impossible to break back into where I’m at if I’d picked that first.”

Around this point, Jon started to notice that his girlfriend and I were not waiting patiently for him to drop conversational crumbs for us to lap up. Some men, when they want to assert dominance in a non-threatening way will offer a compliment. This is a subtle way to express that he is the source of affirmation, and that therefore everyone else should consider themselves lower in the hierarchy. “Hey bro, I like your coat. Maybe I should borrow it for my interview.”

I laughed to myself. I’m not sure if he noticed. “There are plenty of Banana Republics around.” I turned my attention back to Laura. She lowered her voice. “Can I tell you something I haven’t told anybody yet?”

“Of course!”

“I’ve been offered a teaching position at Columbia.”

“That’s awesome!”

“Come on, you’re probably boring him,” interrupted Jon.

“I’m passionate about my job! When you’re passionate, people find that interesting!” Was I interested? Did we, over the course of a half an hour or so of polite conversation, develop rapport enough that justified making me the first person to share in her news? I don’t know. Perhaps that Keanu comparison was more apt than I’d thought.

Meme credit to Michael Vanden Oever

Meme credit to Michael Vanden Oever

No Free Lunch

Please, remember me
My misery
And how it lost me all I wanted
– Iron & Wine, “The Trapeze Swinger

Across the street from the train station, on the south side of 5th street, there was a beggar holding the requisite cardboard sign. I couldn’t really read what it said, but despite the usual club-goers and the traffic on Hennepin, it was quiet enough that night that I could hear his conversations. “I’ll do a dance for you. If you like it, you can give me a dollar,” he’d say to passing pedestrians. Sometimes they’d laugh. Usually they’d ignore him. Before too long, though, a well-meaning young man in a blue Oxford and a black North Face windbreaker walked up with a doggy bag in hand. “Here. I got you a bite to eat.”

The beggar mumbled something in reply – a humble but practiced “Thanks,” perhaps – but accepted the white bag reluctantly, as if he thought there was a fifty-fifty shot it contained scarabs rather than food. He glanced inside before setting the bag beside him, reciprocating a wide smile with a curt nod. He watched as North Face walked away: as soon as the do-gooder turned the corner, the beggar slogged over to the nearest trash can and threw away his free meal.

I considered rummaging through the trash to see what the bag contained, but my curiosity wasn’t strong enough for me to bypass the arriving train. Being late on a Wednesday, the cabin was predictably empty. Two people had their heads down on the seats in front of them, striking the “Heads up, seven up!” pose I learned so well in second grade. (Train travel note: discounting rush hour, you’ll find that most people sit on the last car. It didn’t take me long to realize that this is because the station entrances tend to be closer to the rear of the stationary train and most people can’t be bothered to walk the length of the platform. I, on the other hand, prefer to defer my laziness to end of my trip and board the car that will be closest to my exit.)

That night I wanted a distraction, and as amusing as it was for me to imagine some sprawling city-wide game of Seven Up, it wasn’t about to cut it.

The next station gave me people to watch. I mistook them for a couple at first. They were both attractive: her with sandy-blonde hair and what seemed like green eyes – or maybe her emerald jacket just drew the green out of them? – and him dark-haired with murderer’s thumbs and, despite it being well past five, a square jaw without a hint of stubble . What drew my eyes were his shoes, rich burgundy wing tips without laces. They seemed unnaturally stiff, as though toes had never flexed against the polished leather. Even after I noticed the titanium rod where his ankle should have been, it took a moment before it dawned on me. This man is missing his legs.

That detail, perhaps morbidly or unfairly, piqued my interest in what I’d brushed off as a run-of-the-mill date night. But by then it was too late to eavesdrop. “Well, this is my stop,” he announced.

“Okay.”

“This was a lot of fun. We should do it again.”

“Yeah,” she said, somewhat flatly. “We should.” He gave her a side hug and shuffled out the door.

I glanced over at her and I felt anger swell up. Have you ever been irrationally angry at a total stranger over something completely innocuous? It’s a good sign you’re projecting. How could she? I bet it’s because he’s an amputee. Just how shallow is this woman? It always says more about you than it does about them.

I don’t remember what she said that interrupted the self-analysis of my contempt. With how much time I spend speaking to strangers – and just how often people ask me for my favorite ice breakers – you’d think I’d have a more natural memory for conversation starters. But the best conversations seem to flow from something said off the cuff. I wish I remember what she’d said. All I can say is that one second I was fuming, and the next second we were talking. Detached from the immediate context of such events, it seems remarkable to me that people open up to strangers on public transit, or that they’d deconstruct elements of their lives in the apparent hope that a fresh set of eyes could help them reassemble in a more comfortable arrangement. All that to say, at some point she asked me in some arrangement of words, “Why do men ask women on dates if they know there’s no future for their relationship?”

I could think of three reasons. “Either they don’t know that they don’t have a shot, or they think they can change your mind, or they see inherent value in going through the motions and issuing the invitation regardless.”

(She scoffed at the third possibility. When I told her I’d done it, she pressed me for an explanation. All I could think of was baseball: if you’re at bat, in the bottom of the 9th with two out and a full count, a certain type of man will always swing at that next pitch. Although she nodded her head, I’m not sure she could relate.)

“Is that what happened tonight?” I asked. “You don’t think you have a future with that guy?”

She nodded her head.

I often finding myself asking the wrong question. What followed was a discussion of why she didn’t think he was right for her – a conversation I had no way to contribute to, not knowing him at all. What I should have asked but didn’t was, “Believing that there was no future, why did you go on the date?” Maybe hers would have been a disappointing and banal reason (“I didn’t have any plans” or “I couldn’t think of a good excuse” or “Well, he asked, and I have a rule about that”). Maybe it would have been something interesting like, “I didn’t want people to think I was shallow for turning down an amputee.” Perhaps the presumption that had me fuming was, in fact, her whole motivation for going out with him in the first place. I’ll never know.

Past her sandy-blonde head I saw the familiar sight of the Lexington Aldi. “Well, this is my stop,” I said as I stood up. “It was nice meeting you.”

She sat up straight. “Actually, we haven’t met yet.” Then she thrust her hand in mind and told me her name.