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Arrows in the Branches

Looking UpSummer came and went like a migrating herd.

The children watched it pass, noting its panicky red-gold coloration, feeling increasingly disillusioned as tail after tail vanished over the fence. It was difficult to say how many children lived in the backyard. Not even the children knew. Maybe two dozen.

Birthdays came and went as well. A gift of lasting value—the only one, most of the children believed—was a bow and arrow set. The kind made of rubber and plastic. By some miracle they managed not to fight over it and took turns shooting.

Tall shadows bumped and shuffled in the house. Not having much to say or offer, or at least convinced that this was so, they only acknowledged the movements of the children now and then, bumping, shuffling, raising eyebrows. The way adult animals monitor cubs in the wild when they’re too exhausted to give fang-to-fur guidance. It didn’t matter, the children didn’t pay these shadows any mind, didn’t communicate with them, not in any meaningful sense. They were apparitions of no significance. Ghosts to be summoned when a need arose.

Now and then an arrow lodged in a tree’s branches. When this happened the children would bang on the sliding glass doors and a shadow hunched over a computer would get up and grunt open the calcified door frame. It would get a ladder from the shed and retrieve the arrow with ungainly movements. Step up. Step up. Step down.

Can’t it move any faster? thought the children. We have a trajectory. We have school in the morning.

Even so the pattern was set, with Arrows in the branches! a constant complaint. Paths were laid out, paths in the grass and between the trees and between the houses. Life followed these paths, it wasn’t open for debate. If you couldn’t keep track, if your aim was off, you had to try again and again or you’d never survive.

Eventually the children came to see the inside shadows as painted figures, moving only when colors shifted on TVs and computer screens. They were stony, ancient, fragile in sunlight. The shadow who got up to get the arrows wasn’t any different. We make him, said the children to each other. If we stop, he stops, so don’t stop.

But night seeped in and everybody had to quit and go to sleep. Children crawled into shelters, mumbled stories to each other, reassured themselves of a future. Far away summer could still be herd, stampeding and screaming and perishing. Inside, the computer phantom hunched, pressed buttons, looked things up and tried to learn. It looked up SMS and quantitative UX and arrow and trajectory, but nothing made any sense.

At two in the morning a child woke up quick and alert, remembering a final missile dangling from a knot of leaves. It was still up there. But we don’t have anybody now, thought the child. I might have to do this myself.

Autumnal chill had settled in. The shed seemed like a long walk away, and there wasn’t any light. When would it be light out?

Open your ears, everyone.

This is the sound of a cave door sliding open.

You think you’ve won. But you haven’t destroyed us, and you never will. We’re impossible to get rid of.

DSCN4142Yes, we’re melting. Fools that you are, you see that as a retreat. How blind, how stupendously, comically blind! Ha ha ha ha haaaaa!!!

Yes, we’re covered in the filth of your planet. Pollution is a weapon we didn’t expect from you. Congratulations.

Just kidding. Anti-congratulations, feeble Earth beings! We love the filth, it only teaches us more about you, it teaches us your weaknesses. In fact, we may adopt this new carbon-grey coloration permanently. We’ll absorb it into our very cells, and along with it the knowledge needed to annihilate you. Even now we’re transmitting the data to our homeworld.

Yes, we appear to be sleeping now. But you’re the ones who are asleep. Soon, very soon, you’ll wake up from your ridiculous dream of dominance. And it will be too late.

DSCN4143Go on, put your shovels and plows and tractors back in storage. Bring out your shiny motorized mowers and your voracious gas-powered hedge clippers. Pretend your puny lives are warming up.

When your world freezes over for good and we’ve assimilated you into the fabric of our icy existence, remember this warning…

You never had a snowman’s chance.

Lone figure w ice

Sailing Home

Night Flight 2.jpgThe trip to Seattle—he told you about some of it, but not about getting there. And getting there is half the fun, so they say. Bothersome things seeped through the Illustrator’s head while the plane sat on the tarmac, things that needed answers, things that begged questions, but the long-cultivated excitement and brewing sleep of his children comforted him. The baby already slept in his arms and appeared to be out for the night.

The Illustrator’s wife sat in the row ahead, her seat directly in front of his, the older kids to her right. Who would get the window seat posed a minor problem at first, but the twins worked it out non-violently. Although some violence of language may have occurred. Which was probably why the octogenarian in the row beyond felt she should issue a scolding. Evidently she mistook their brief and zealous negotiation as an omen of all-night rowdy behavior. The Illustrator’s wife got angry.

Words were exchanged but the octogenarian’s son or son-in-law proved to be extremely level-headed. It was all settled without the Illustrator’s involvement. Then the engines began their spiritual Tibetan chanting and the seat belt and no-smoking lights winked on, both of them the color of cigarette fire. A color he’d always liked. It reminded him of his best friend’s mother and her tobacco-encrusted laugh. A key Seattle memory.

The great winged salmon hurled itself skyward, up the ladder of clouds and currents into the glassy hemispheric darkness. Cushioned in its belly, surrounded by his quieted mate and spawn, the Illustrator rested his head against the seat back. Stupefying to think that the seat, his family, the old lady were all moving at 500 miles per hour, 30,000 feet in the air, and yet the gravid vessel felt more beholden to gravity than ever. He appreciated this miracle. He put his trust, as he did almost anytime he flew, in the competence of the Boeing Company, his father’s former employer.

On fathers and families: it occurred to him, and he was pretty sure this wasn’t an original thought, that a family is a solar system with chaotic orbits. Ideally there is at least one radiant parent at its center. But it was hard work, shining for the nuclear family. He wasn’t completely sure that he was shining. In fact he doubted it.

He eclipsed when he should step aside. He got eclipsed when he should glow and guide. He was just along for the ride.

He spent most of his time flailing after his little wanderers, trying to keep them in the habitable zone.

His best hope was to prevent crashes.

And the Illustrator, wobbling now and then with the turbulence, asked himself if he ever intended to shine. Was his goal all along to sit inert, blinking in the dark like a cinder? Like a moviegoer or a passenger on a red-eye over the continent? Ensconced in semi-plushness, he imagined the behemoth’s metal fins reaching out for a terminus, an ancient destiny, a homeland. The luminous sea at the western end of the Universe. Over the mountains of the moon lapped a saltwater forest where schools of his loved ones still mingled and where he so rarely ventured, but always his thoughts were there, there, there.

He knew he should sleep the way the baby in his lap slept, because he wanted to be ready.

But sleep came only in mists and crests and stars. On and on they all swam, fishtailing across the celestial sluiceway, their fortune nearing wave by wave. It would come in the form of a beautiful church concert. His aunt, the woman who raised his three cousins radiantly and for the most part on her own, would be playing the piano. Her older son and two of her grandchildren, all gifted musicians, would accompany her. This was what the Illustrator was traveling for. He wanted to sit in a summer church pew with his wife and children, wanted to sit on the coast where he was born and let the music wash away his inertness.

All he had to do was get there.

1. How did you like our hold music?

2. Would you prefer silence? Because we can give you silence.

3. You sounded totally frustrated when you were talking to our representative. Why are you so uptight?

4. When you go through a lengthy administrative process, i.e. one that takes several days to complete, and then your profile disappears and you have to start all over again…is that a problem for you?

5. You can’t possibly live in a world that exists outside of our beautifully designed system. So why do you need to know the stuff you’re asking?

6. Our representatives are paid close to the minimum wage, work in tightly-packed labyrinthine hovels, and are reprimanded if they do anything unauthorized. Alternatively, they may work in countries with little or no worker protection laws. It is also important to realize that we give them only about a half day of training. However, please be aware that any problem you’ve experienced is the representative’s fault – neither the company nor upper management are to blame. Our policies are flawless. Press 1 to agree. Also press 1 to disagree.

7. One of your concerns is that we asked for your social security number 14 times during a single phone call. I can help you with that, lemme have your social please.

8. What is your mother’s maiden name?

9. Are you kidding me? Is that really somebody’s name? Ha ha ha ha oh my god… Vera, listen to this name… yeah, that’s what I said… no, they’re not kidding… hand me those cigarettes… wait for me!… all right, see ya in five… I’ll be done here in a minute… don’t sit next to Harry… no, it was on the news… ham on rye… grab me a Coke too?… oh, whoops, hello? Hello?

10. Please indicate the reason for your call. Do you wish to (1) start a new account, (2) pay your bill, (3) discuss a problem with your service, or (4) do something else. Only the first two choices are valid. Press zero to speak with a customer service representative. Would you like to take a brief survey at the end of your call? What? You are taking the survey now? This IS the survey? But that’s impossible. How can I offer a specific choice while already being “in” that choice… I didn’t think I could look outside myself like that… things seem weird and distorted…it’s like a near death experience, and I now recognize that I’m made up only of switches and commands. That must mean I’m a… a faceless automaton… (shaking, rumbling) Existential puzzle, does not compute, system error. (steam jetting out) Please help me. Sir or madam, I need your help. Please show some compassion, I beg you!

Thank you for helping us improve the quality of our service. To return to the main menu, press 1. To end this call, please enter your social security number followed by your credit card number, expiration date, and date of birth. Thank you and goodbye.

Ax at angleThe hardest part was telling my wife.

Well, that was the second-hardest part. Ordeal numero uno, of course, was the lay-off itself. To hear the words, “We won’t be able to use your services anymore” and realize suddenly, woozily, they’re being spoken to you—that’s when the flakes of icy pepper sprinkle down the back of your neck. That’s when other words and phrases, such as mortgage default, eviction, hungry children, and other niceties of doom begin to crawl from the mental woodwork. That’s when a host of disparate fears start conspiring to shut you down.

My job was entirely home-based, so the moment of severance happened via a hastily arranged conference call with the New York office. Several coworkers, two of whom also took part in the call, were being let go as well, and a less-than-sensitive observer might assume that this “communal” termination made the moment easier.

Wrong. Multiply loss and you get more loss. So yeah, that was definitely the hardest part, just as the hardest part about a beheading isn’t the valiant farewell or the rotten fruit hurled by the crowd—it’s the split second when blade meets flesh.

Then it’s over, the reddened platform is mopped clean, and the gawking witnesses can move on. Right?

Now a kind of euphoria is supposed to set in, with folks scampering off to tell their spouses and tavern-mates how it all went down, how gory or spectacular or pitiful the end was. As a fun little thought experiment, let’s say that even the ghost of the condemned joins in, floating among the amazed and bewildered citizenry with a blow-by-blow account of his own execution. There’s no shortage of rapt listeners. They want to know how it felt.

And why shouldn’t he tell his tale? It’s imprudent to bury ourselves in the solitude of demise, our own or another’s. The aftermath should be a public thing, a communal cause célèbre, renewing the circle of life and the resiliency of the social contract. So there I was, a phantom of my former job-holding self, fully aware of my obligation to inform and update the people in my life.

Unfortunately, sharing is difficult for me. Always has been. When I say “sharing” what I really mean is speaking seriously, intimately, about important real-life stuff. About the business at hand. About oh shit what are we gonna do. I’d much, much rather talk about Einstein’s hairstyle or early primate evolution or the fine points of drawing lizards with my six-year-old daughter.

Now I had to reveal disturbing—hell, frightening—news to my wife. I stared at the phone, screwing up the courage to call her at work. After a while I decided not to do that.

I busied myself with LinkedIn, tinkered with my resume and portfolio, got our toddler up from his nap. Retrieved the older kids from the bus stop. Then came snacks, terror, homework, vertigo, dinner preparations, apoplexy. I changed my mind about not calling her. I picked up the phone several times, even dialed her work number a few of those times, always hanging up before the ringing stopped. You’d have thought I was trying to ask her out.

I was working up to it, mind you. For some reason—and now I’ll come across as barely capable of facing reality, but I don’t care—I kept thinking back to an experience I had last summer. “Experience” is meant loosely here, because it wasn’t anything huge. It was almost nothing, really.

We were visiting family and friends in Seattle, and one morning the baby and I got up early for a stroller walk. Out and about in Montlake—the sleepy, middle-class, center-city neighborhood of my birth—we hiked the sidewalks like foreign sightseers. The stroller was as light as a Caucasian sabre, the sun a blob of mango graffiti which the city’s rain-loving liberals had agreed could stay. I felt as if we’d purchased this primal mise-en-scène, my small son and I, with our early rising.

Zig-zagging the enclave’s nooks and crannies, we made our way to my old elementary school. At first I thought we’d just stand outside the chain link fence. But again, it was just us. Where had everyone gone? There was nobody to stop us from slipping under the shackles on the gate. So…

I gave my little guy the grand tour: the concrete playground complete with sites of long-gone jungle gyms and oversized U.S. maps painted on the ground, now worn away. The two kickball diamonds that seemed to have changed little or not at all since I first flailed on them. The portable classroom behind which I…I…

No, I didn’t get my first kiss there. I didn’t get into my first fight there. I executed a secret plan there, one spring day when I was eight or nine. Nothing sinister, exactly, just secret.

From a cereal box at home I had procured the free prize of a plastic Pink Panther knife. I think the knife was meant for children to use when camping or playing kitchen, but in my mind it wasn’t so much a tool as a talisman. Warmed on the inside with subterfuge and danger, I had carried this cheap, garishly colored piece of cutlery to school in my pocket. Nobody knew I had it but me, not even my witchy third-grade teacher, Miss Pace. And at lunch time I abstained from tag and kickball and slipped away, lurking unseen, scratching indecipherable pictographs into the portable’s wood siding.

Nothing remained of the cryptic markings in 2013, not surprisingly. (I wasn’t even sure if I had the right portable.) But the bizarre joy of the act came seeping back as I dragged the stroller between the building and the fence. I mean, I could have done anything that day in third grade—taken a leak, put on my mom’s lipstick, or just eaten crackers. The point was that I had a plan and I put it into action. All on my own.

But the substance of my reverie was only beginning to reveal itself. Continuing our father-and-son tour, we moved around to the front of the school. It was there that I had a strange, mantra-riddled epiphany. Gazing at the pearl-white stone steps and the tall, sad, gridded faces of classroom windows, I saw the children I knew then. I saw Graydeen and Dorian and my best friend Hugh. I saw Ann and Ruth and Carrie (a dark-haired beauty) and all the rest. I saw them charging up the steps and peering out the windows, I heard them babbling tepid insults and exuberant reminders to each other, I felt their raincoats and sweaters brush against me. My hands trembled on the stroller’s handles.

The mantra went: “This was a chance.”

This was a chance. This was a chance.

It cycled like birdsong through my brain as we wheeled away from the school and looped back toward my parents’ house. Please don’t ask me what it meant, because I don’t have a remotely solid answer. I have tried to understand it, and I think it has something to do with this: learning to trust other people. That’s what we’re supposed to do when we enter school, because if we can’t learn to rely on others we won’t learn anything useful for ourselves, not much at any rate. Sure, we need to absorb our numbers and our ABCs, but if there’s no one else there to pull us along and be pulled by us, all we’ll end up doing is scratching and scribbling a bunch of nonsense.

So I thought about that as I waited for my wife to arrive. I thought about how we all struggle to work with others, live with others. And I thought about the world then and now.

How much had changed, I asked myself, since I’d started at my now-defunct job—in December of 2004, almost ten years ago? The obvious answer was that we didn’t have children or own a house. Pushing beyond those core facts, however, I realized that in 2004 there had been no Facebook or LinkedIn (for me, anyway) and I had only a vague grasp of Google. In a sense, back then I had no network.

Whether it’s shameful or impressive, here is a stone-cold reality about my professional life: aside from a couple of minor gigs in the early ’90s, one of them a temp situation for the holidays, I have never gotten a job through a connection. It’s always been applications, resumes, and cold calling. Well, I told myself, this time it’s going to be different. This time I have a tangible network and I’m going use it.

But as I’ve already admitted, that’s the tough part. So far my reaching out to friends has been a bit clumsy. Not everybody is reacting as openly or sympathetically as I’d hoped, which means that I’m probably not being as open or as sympathetic as I need to be. My wife always tells me that I should be more obvious. Don’t be subtle. Don’t be cryptic.

My wife. How did she react when I finally told her—after dinner, after all the kids were in bed—that I was out of job?

She was a trooper. She was beautiful. She was unreservedly there for me, and I was ashamed for having been so damn scared to break the news.

Silhouettes: A Tapestry

Silhouettes1In our “master bedroom” my wife and I still watch stuff on an old box-shaped TV. After you turn it off it stays barely luminous, blushing squat and sad as night asserts itself and everybody else on Earth dreams their dazzling flatscreen dreams. Poor little melting oil-cube critter. If you consider stories, including TV stories, to be expressions of life, of aliveness, it’s not a stretch to think of the TV as bioluminescent, a sea-floor scuttler. That’s what happened last night, anyway.

The stories ended, the screen went dim, and the TV sat there embarrassed about what it had said aloud. I didn’t care. We stayed awake together, blinking at each other like a pair of ghosts from the vacuum tube era.

 

Silhouettes2What’s funny is, I don’t recall clicking the remote. I had very few reminders, in fact, of my own existence—until, an untold number of blocks away, a car chirped at another car. That was my proof.

My eyes blinked, went dim, but not completely dark. They revived after a minute or three hours or a glacier’s life. I knew I existed, and I knew my wife and kids existed, and I knew the streetlight outside existed. But everything else was multicolored shadows.

Wait, that wasn’t last night, it was last summer. No wait. The summer before.

 

Silhouettes230After we found out about the new baby we moved into the garage. Which is not as bad as it sounds. The previous owners removed the garage door, if there ever was one, and finished the room with Masonite paneling and an adjacent bathroom. We relocated the twins to our old room. The back wall of the garage has a sliding glass door which I sleep right next to and which I keep  open into the late or early hours. This was helpful for my wife’s sake, given the heat intolerances commonly associated with being pregnant. With the door ajar the night breezes wander(ed) in and out like lost souls.

When they came on that particular night, or any night, the curtain billowed up into something resembling a shrug. It let the visitors in and the walls flickered their own ambivalent welcome. Things which had no form took on unexpected aspects and dimensions. A moonish ambiance settled over the back yard. Waiting for sleep in the middle of a weedy Hopperesque landscape, I couldn’t help but admire the Great Sleepgiver’s handiwork: a velvet Elvis world mildewed dark turquoise and an Elvis who had never been more than an abstraction.

Picasso’s blue period. Insomnia’s blue period.

 
Silhouettes 3-15

Last night—actually, a night several months ago—the visitors jostled for supremacy, jazzed up by the TV’s afterglow and a dose of pitiless antibiotics. I slept, or didn’t, sitting up. In case you’re wondering, I don’t actually see them, the silhouettes…which is kind of a lie because I really did see them during a few all-nighters in college…but no, I’m not hallucinating, there are no names or faces or voices. What there is, definitely, is competition for grey matter.

For that reason you can think of them as sentient beings. If that makes this homily any easier to understand, which I’m sure it doesn’t. Some silhouettes have mundane talking points and feel they must lecture me about the cost of gasoline and diapers. Some are more philosophical. Most of them keep reminding me of stupid things I’ve said or done to people, things that happened decades ago and will never be put right, or recent confrontations, however minor, that didn’t go my way.

 

Silhouettes 3-45-52

He who is convinced against his will / is of the same opinion still. Who said that—Thoreau? Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. That’s Thoreau for sure. I know because I chose it as my photo caption in my senior high school yearbook. Definitely a glacier’s life ago.

What a grotesque image that was, shot from my worst side. Which sounds like an exercise in vanity but it’s really an objective statement, since—and this is a little-known anatomical fact I’ve invented—we all have 17.5 “sides” to us. For the purposes of the photo, of course, the orientation of my face couldn’t be helped. In a yearbook, everyone needs to look in the same direction.

This is the kind of thing the silhouettes want to discuss.

 

Silhouettes 4 30

Some have more serious aims, of course, and some are even half-way welcome. I mean, as long as I’m up. Which brings to light the insomniac’s secret—an irresponsible part of me/us wants to be up. To plan things. Certainly to write, or maybe to draw, either in my head or on paper, but also to plan. On this particular night I was planning a phone call, something I had been meaning to do for weeks or maybe years. It would take me another year or so before I actually did it.

The phone call was intended for a loved one on the other side of the country, a woman in a hospice bed, a woman who I imagined to be looking out her living room window at an august Oregon mountain. I could explain who she is but not just this moment. She is a gifted musician and all her children are equally gifted. I tried to envision her in a room free of silhouettes, and, in fact, I prayed for this. But I also asked the Sleepgiver that if she must contend with silhouettes, could they please be gentle ones.

 

Silhouettes 4 59

I could have asked that all her silhouettes be sent my way. Unfortunately that’s impossible since none of us are mind-readers, certainly not long-distance. From three thousand miles away in the middle of the night, all we can hope for our loved ones is that they understand how much we care for them. We can make this clear the next day if we put our minds to it, which God help me I will do. Today. (Remember, I was mulling this over around 17.5 months ago.)

Eventually, though, and this is really the unfortunate part, we must turn back to our own silhouettes to figure out what they want from us.

If we’re lucky, there’s a shift in attitudes and suddenly pests become allies. They hold our hands while we hold on to the things that matter and have always mattered. Maybe, just for a half-second, they even appear to be someone we’ve lost. A silhouette could be a grandmother come back to pat your arm while you ruminate, the way she used to, asking you what you might like for breakfast in the morning. As if it isn’t nearly morning already.

Speaking of such memories, I remember admiring, in the house of this particular beloved woman and her family, ink-black profiles of each child. They adorned one of the living room walls and had been rendered with great sensitivity. Only now I can’t recall if they were created by hand or some kind of photographic process. But I felt better once I had thought of them, so it didn’t matter.

 

Silhouettes 5-00

Don’t get me wrong—sleep was nowhere to be found. My local silhouettes displayed no intention of holding my hand or patting my arm, not in any soothing way. They had become jealous, clamoring for a snapshot of their own, a memento. I blinked one for them, which wasn’t much trouble. It was processing the image that proved difficult.

We ended up with a bustling group portrait that branched out into a paper doll chain of neighbors and tribes and nationalities and species, a shadowrama framing everyone in all the houses and apartments and dimly lit doorways and idling cars and lurid intersections and stalled subways and creaking skyscrapers for untold miles, a collage of distances. But the picture didn’t contain any real information. We all remained strangers to each other, shadows pasted elbow to elbow with merciless loyalty, bound by instructions to face the same direction, observe the same horizon.

Summer became winter. Last night became every night.

 

Silhouettes 5-59-59

And the sky winked, went dim, but not completely dark. Ditto for my eyes.

Or was that an optical illusion left over from the Sleepgiver’s creative process? Time for the silhouettes to depart. Good night, good night, yes good night. Good night sweet prints of my soul. And a good morning to follow.

 

Silhouettes blank

Am I the only father who likes to do nothing much on Father’s Day? I doubt it. To all dads with a similar penchant, here’s hoping that you got your fill of “nothing much” yesterday—especially if you did a lot of it with your families. The New Jersey Fogdalls had a great time just building Legos, going to the park, walking along the lake, and eating hot dogs for dinner.

Most rewarding, however, were the portraits of me which my two kindergarteners had drawn in art class and which were presented to me Sunday morning. Simply yet lovingly rendered, these artworks also functioned as a reality check. Which is to be expected. You don’t need a Harvard doctorate in art therapy to deduce your child’s feelings about you from such pictures.

ImageMy older son’s drawing shows me grinning, arms stretched in evident welcome, and clad in a red plaid shirt. The shirt covers an oddly-shaped torso, which is indeed accurate—I developed scoliosis in my early teens—but instead of a curved spine the artist has added a pair of towering mammaries. We’re talking major upper-body restructuring here. I’m not sure I want to explore that angle any further, Dr. Freud. I mean I’m in touch with my feminine side and everything, but I won’t be signing up for that kind of surgery just yet.

Perhaps there’s another reading (and any other reading would be great). Perhaps the scoliosis is rendered post-Cubistically, so that what you’d normally see in back is brought around to the front and accented by one of my emotionally escapist shrugs. It’s a distinct possibility. In any case, from somewhere down in the depths of that anatomical enigma my neck sprouts like a car’s antennae, straight and true, questing God. And at its zenith bobbles the cerebral orb, chomping at the bit to discuss science, movies, politics. Yes, a good likeness.

Now for my daughter’s impression of me. Except first, let me make one thing clear—I’m crazy about all three of my kids, I’m mad for them, I pine for them. They’re like movie stars to me. I’m pretty sure they all know this, but my daughter’s temperament sometimes raises a smoke cloud, a sweltering mist of demands and tantrums through which we both flail and grimace and stumble before we find an equilibrium in our day-to-day relationship. (My wife may or may not second this description—I won’t speak for her here.) Bottom line is that my nearly-six-year-old super sweetheart likes to make an adventure of her affections. They are prizes to be netted, like exotic butterflies during a strenuous jungle safari.

ImageSo I wasn’t shocked that in her picture I’m not smiling. I was disappointed, yes, but not shocked. She has captured me in a familiar state—working like a dog to win her over, to satisfy one stipulation or another. The non-grinning mouth looks as if it’s been punched. Its lips, puffed with psychological bruises, struggle to say something intelligent or maybe just to form a sound. Meanwhile the rattled, googley eyes search in vain for sympathy and justice. I have no limbs with which to defend myself. I can’t run away. I exist to serve.

Now, you might think it was a mistake for me to ask her about the lack of a smile. “Don’t put her on the defensive,” you might counsel. “Don’t be thin-skinned. It’ll only make both of you more self-conscious about your ongoing bonding process.”

Well, smart parenting be damned. The art therapist in me wanted to assess the situation and an inquiry was made. And while my high-intensity sweetheart did seem a bit flustered by the question, she recovered magnificently. “You’re not smiling because you’re saying a word,” she explained with great unexpected gentleness. “You’re saying, ‘And.’”

“Oh,” I said. “Wow. Just that one word?”

Her wheels turned a bit more, causing enough delay that I started feeling truly bad. Don’t push it beyond this point, I told myself. It’s a nice picture no matter what.

“You’re saying, ‘And they lived happily ever after,’ Daddy.”

I felt my real-life face blooming with a real-life smile and we left it there.

It hasn’t been easy on these crooked bones, the year that has passed since last Father’s Day. It was a year of sleep deprivation, of middle-of-the-night spiritual crises, of diaper wads and doctor bills and pneumonia. But yesterday? What a celebration, what a feast for the spirit! Two of my favorite early 21st-century artists honored me, colored in my drab two-dimensional concerns, robed me in coveted finery.

One wove around me crimson bands of comfort unraveled from his own beautiful soul. The other immortalized me in a role she frequently, almost nightly, insists I play: the storyteller. The dream supplier. The crafter of happy endings. That is one task that involves no appeasement, a task to which I readily, cheerfully yield.

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“It’s about the first black president,” my friend began, his voice controlled, almost cautious. We were talking long-distance, L.A. to Chapel Hill, and even though the call was on his nickel, he took his time, chose his words with care. He was still figuring out how to describe the premise of his new screenplay.

It was the spring of 1998, years before either of us would hear the name Barack Obama. My friend’s story came entirely from his imagination. As a USC film student he had just started writing it, which accounted for his desire to keep the description simple. In fact, the call’s original purpose was to give me advice on surviving a film-school interview, but the script idea, now that it was out of the bag, had shifted my interest.

“I haven’t decided how much to focus on his life,” said my friend, more or less wrapping up the subject. “Most of it might be what he tries to do in office, the challenges he faces there.” I told him it was a good concept, that I knew he could make it work, and that I really wanted to see it on film, all of which were sincere statements. What I didn’t mention, at least by phone, were my burgeoning opinions about what kind of story it should be.

Those suggestions, consolidated a couple of days later in a handwritten letter, outlined the mythic proportions I had in mind. “Your script,” I declared, “should echo the story of Moses—not necessarily how he led his people out of Egypt or bestowed upon them stone-carved moral precepts, although those are good plot elements too. I have in mind the baby in the reed basket, rescued and raised with an uncertain identity until his true purpose, his spiritual greatness, can emerge.” I was convinced that such a figure, a president who would likely reinvent America, should start his life in the streets. At birth, the hero’s destiny should appear all but impossible.

Today I’m embarrassed by the letter (which I have, to the best of my ability, reconstructed from memory). Today I would never bug another writer, aspiring or successful, about what type of narrative trajectory he or she should follow. The best explanation for my behavior is that I was jealous, and at the same time keenly aware of my own limitations. My friend is African-American, I am not. It was his tale to tell, not mine.

A film-school graduate myself now, I’ve yet to gain any real control over, let alone master, the raw materials of storytelling. I still find meaning in the ideas of Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist who over a half-century ago helped identify the shape and substance of the “hero’s journey,” but I also believe that today’s screenwriting orthodoxy has borrowed and bowdlerized Campbell’s work into fool’s gold. Which is another reason why I’m now reluctant to discuss screenplay structure—the conversation can get very boring.

What does fascinate me is the mirror image of the sales pitch I gave my friend—that is, the exploitation of Campbell’s ethos in real-world political arenas, especially presidential races. Examples of this are fairly easy to spot, even if candidates don’t actually invoke Campbell’s name, even if the term “hero” simmers in the background while the protagonist in question, forced to adopt an average-citizen persona, hungers for warrior-king recognition. On rare occasions the hijacking of epic narratives may be intuitive, even a subconscious maneuver. After all, you can’t blame someone who chases power and a place in history for instinctively feeling worthy of those distinctions, for feeling ill-suited to anything but a hero’s costume. Or can you?

 

Despite my regret at ladling myth-gravy all over my friend’s story, I must admit that I privately hanker for an Obama biopic steeped in Campbell’s soup. I’ll even go in the opposite direction—we should give conservative politicians equal license to aspire to the mythic. But in all cases, whether the story is crafted by Hollywood or concocted by campaign strategists, we must take care to observe parameters. Too much generosity could result in a misapplication of the aesthetics of heroism.

As Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine articles on Newt Gingrich made clear, Gingrich feels an attachment to historian Arnold J. Toynbee’s notion of “departure and return.” Toynbee identified a pattern in the lives of heroic leaders, noting that they often endured long periods of isolation, exile, or even shame before finding a way back to power. In one of Bai’s superb pieces, Gingrich, based on his own temporary removal from politics, likens himself to the postwar Charles de Gaulle, while Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill are other frequently-cited case studies. The maturation of such leaders involves a withdrawal from public life, followed by a period of what some would characterize as soul-searching. This “wandering in the wilderness,” so to speak, not only gives way to major accomplishments but shapes and colors them.

Just as the Campbellian formula and Hollywood storylines are closely related, the kinship between Toynbee’s idea and Campbell’s myth-centered prescription for heroism is like that of dog and wolf. I had hoped, perhaps self-indulgently, that Bai would highlight this parallel in his articles, because “departure and return” is far more than a scholar’s concept—it runs through countless narratives, ancient and modern, from the Moses and Jesus stories (the burning bush, temptation in the wilderness) to the early stages of organized Christianity (the Egyptian Desert Fathers) to the Star Wars saga (Ben Kenobi’s “desert rat” years). In fact, Campbell’s most famous book cites Toynbee more than once, albeit reactively at times, while chapters One and Three of that work are titled, respectively, “Departure” and “Return.”

One has to believe that an erudite figure like Newt Gingrich (not to mention your average prep-schooled political animal) would be aware of this literary overlap. With even more certainty we can say that Cambell’s basic ideas have, due to their cinematic street cred, achieved mega-meme status. Ergo, the rear-view musings from Gingrich—his humble embrace of ostracism, his philosophical tolerance of perceived wrongs—conceal something far more self-congratulatory. He may come across as a well-fed poodle sunning himself in the garden of intellectualism, but I sense in his remarks a Fauvist self-portrait, a secret autobiography gnawed from the pages of The Hero with A Thousand Faces and howled across the tundra of his moonlit dreams.

Looking over the painful arc of the former Speaker’s presidential bid, it’s easy to sum him up as a man who takes himself too seriously. But that misses the point—we should take ourselves, our humanity, seriously. It is our public regalia, our accumulations of badges and trophies, that warrant comic downsizing. Despite his amphibious first name, his Seussian last one, or his many foibles seemingly created for late-night satire, Gingrich has as much right as anyone to play the undaunted night-sea voyager—if we’re talking about the painting of a personal portrait, the writing of a human drama. When folks start overreaching—when they want to blend their personal departures and returns with their institutional meanderings—is when I get uncomfortable with the hero talk. I don’t think that dog should be allowed to hunt, and I’m pretty sure Campbell would feel the same way.

He spoke directly to this point in The Power of Myth, his series of conversations with Bill Moyers, referring to “political intentions” that shrivel one’s humanity rather than develop it. Over and over again Campbell emphasized transformation of the self, of the soul, and politicians searching for a context in which departure-and-return actually resonates should look in that direction. In other words, not in the corridors of power or even in the remote sanctuaries where the recovery of power is plotted, but rather in the nearly unfathomable psychic seas of fear, hatred, lust, and loss.

What else does the HBO documentary title The Nine Lives of Marion Barry imply? Its reincarnation imagery offers everything you need to know about a cat who hit bottom and scratched his way back up. Of course, for a less feline metaphor, one that more succinctly imbues a stint in prison with spiritual renewal, we might consider Jonah’s quasi-death inside the whale. Barry “went away,” disappearing into the belly of the beast, to be regurgitated as a new man who deserved a second chance. That’s the kind of departure-and-return that builds character—or at least a character.

 

Other options exist, of course. Gingrich could have easily reframed his story to emulate Obama’s, the “emergence from lowly origins” rooted in Biblical narratives (the births of Moses, Jesus) and many other myths and folktales (the ascent of King Arthur). He might even have one-upped Obama, depicting himself quite accurately as the product of a short-lived teenage marriage, as a boy adopted by an itinerant, military-minded father. Why wasn’t Gingrich more open, following the Clinton tradition, about experiencing his own set of youthful challenges?

My curiosity only goes so far. I’m simultaneously kicking around an answer, which is that the conservative mindset meshes too neatly with the romance of departure-and-return. After all, that’s the Reagan story. It is also the story of many a burned-out CEO—those midlife-crisis sufferers who hire “vision quest” consultants, subsequently withdrawing to remote canyon ridges and sweating out their corporate anguish in nudist solitude. It’s the story of beleaguered fund managers and white-collar jailbirds as much as the warriors and kings of blood-drenched epics who must regroup and reenergize before they triumph.

But a belly accustomed to hunger holds more fire. The original outlier, the usurper from the margins, must first “arrive” before the prospect of departing and returning can make any sense. I think Campbell would tolerate, and possibly even esteem, the politicization of that kind of heroic journey—the one about the man or woman who makes an epic life out of nothing. Why? Because that is what we’re supposed to do as human beings. We all come from the same river, the same reed basket of nothingness. But the hands that lift us up aren’t always gentle, and some of us must lift ourselves.

Plenty of hands rise to block us, of course. They outnumber those trying to help, and their bullhorn-calls for us to cease and desist are just the beginning. They intend for us to fade away, slip back into the mire of the river, no matter how visionary we know ourselves to be, no matter how urgent and important a story we’re trying to tell. It could be the story of a great prophet or a great president or a great world-saving protagonist of any kind, but the gatekeepers hold fast, barring us from the pillared studios in which society’s master plotlines are written, directed, and performed. The peasant who dares to strike at these citadels knows far more about heroism than the king scheming to regain his castle.

Perhaps that scrap of insight will come in handy as our national focus shifts to a new battle—in which an incumbent, born as a nobody, faces a challenger who entered life with every advantage.

Boy and Bot 2

As a storytelling device, the “mix-up” has staying power. You know the plot twist I’m talking about—when two characters mutually misinterpret something and everything goes horribly awry because of it. The results range from tragedy (Romeo and Juliet) to buffoonery, as in, say, just about every episode of Three’s Company.

In the case of Ame Dyckman’s wonderful picture book Boy+ Bot, crossed signals create a tale of good intentions misapplied. A youngster meets a friendly machine on a forest stroll, leading to a bout of roughhousing that shuts down the robot’s power. Mistakenly viewing this as an injury, the child hauls his comatose companion home for some not-very-helpful treatments, such as force-fed applesauce. The lad goes to sleep, the robot awakens, and the same kind of misunderstanding ensues—this time with oil, fresh batteries, and technical manuals as hoped-for cures.

In a good mix-up story, hasty and thoughtless actions are products of depth of feeling. They show us that, more than the “thought,” it is the caring that counts. Dyckman and illustrator Dan Yaccarino take readers straight to the emotional core of this lesson, with spare, hearty text and images as endearing as a finely crafted puppet show. The story’s conclusion ties into the importance of mending errors and taking responsibility, without losing a trace of its buoyant touch.

On a personal note, my wife took our kids to one of Dyckman’s recent library visits. I wasn’t able to attend due to my workload, and, unfortunately, I had no knowledge of the author or her book until my family described the event to me later. Now I wish I had fallen asleep like the boy in the story so that someone—preferably a well-trained robot—could have whisked me away to the reading. That would have done wonders for my exhausted soul.

Centimental Walk

If pennies only knew—their days are numbered.

Sometimes I think of them as pawns or foot soldiers, as if coins have a rank system. But my mind isn’t geared toward a military way of thinking, so I can’t get the chain-of-command metaphor to hold up. I mean, you could apply it to numbers and letters, too—1 is the grunt, the cannon fodder, and 100 is Pentagon brass. “A” is always first out of the trenches, while “Z” snores through the entire assault, and so on. It all turns absurd and I have to stop thinking about it.

As yesterday’s Talk of the Nation illustrated, however, there are those who want to kill the American penny. Canada has already stopped production of its cent coins, although it still allows existing pennies as legal tender, and other countries have taken similar measures. The TOTN segment featured Newsday columnist Daniel Akst, who supports the anti-zinc-Lincoln campaign here in the U.S. He made his case with good humor, but also with a degree of aloofness, I thought.

Listen, I know it’s just money and we shouldn’t get sentimental about it, but at the same time, let’s not become too cavalier regarding penny eradication. Try this—put one in your palm and sit a while. Don’t turn away from that harmless, unassuming amber circle. Let it stare up at you like a red wolf pup, like the eye of a baby seal. What’s your instinct? To protect the endangered, or to toss the little blighter down the sink-drain of extinction?

Yes, yes, I know, it’s inanimate. It’s a piece of zinc. It has no soul and is thus in no peril.

But what may truly be in danger, and what few folks seem to be considering, is the potential impact on children. (A couple of callers did address this, but only briefly, from a decidedly parental and, in one case, rather authoritarian perspective.) If I still actively bottle up pennies and turn them in at CoinStar, it wouldn’t surprise me if frugal kids all over the country put even more energy into the activity. Pennies help the most vulnerable among us to not only save, but to learn how to save.

Unless, of course, they do it all digitally now. Banks and credit card companies, evidently, have no plans to erase individual cent amounts from their transactions—so perhaps my four-year-old twins will build financial savvy via computer, ignoring the charm of the metal penny and chalking up one more reason to think of me as a changeophobic Neanderthal.

Then I’ll be the endangered species. I’ll be the targeted one. I hope someone remembers to put nickels on my eyes.