A fellow blogger, the wonderful Miss Snarky Pants, challenges the world to create something meaningful (or just good) in just Four Frigging Lines.
Needless to say, we could not resist. Can you? Just put your effort in the comments section of one of her (so far) five uniformly excellent efforts.
In the gutter, on its own, a single empty can of tuna in lemon and cracked pepper.
Mouth open, like a gasping fish, staring at the sky.
I hardly know whether to rail at its former owner for his callous discard
Or to take it home and bin it safely, like burying the dead goldfish no one wants to hold.
And as we constantly remind you (the house reno is expensive) to buy all our poems (well most of them), plus a short story, head to 71 Poems and One Short Story, available in soft cover or as a download.
For more of the same, head to: paltrymeanderings.com. We like.
Surrounded by blackness on all sides, in utter impenetrable silence, and for a very, very, very long time, it did nothing.
There was nothing to see, so it did not see. Nothing to hear, so it did not hear. Nothing to feel, so it did not feel.
There were simply vast, unconscionable amounts of entirely nothing.
So – most importantly for our story – it thought nothing, either. With no external stimuli to provoke it, it simply did not concern itself with anything; it merely peacefully existed.
And incredible as it might seem in light of what happened later, for some handfuls of millions of years it did not even notice itself.
Then, during one instant which it would remember – well, forever, actually – a small, shiny proton appeared momentarily.
Over there. In what it would later come to know as “left”. And also “down a bit”.
Later – much, much later – it would come to understand that the lonely proton had flared into being for a few hundredths of a second as the result of a random and unpredictable thermo-dynamic fluctuation in the void in which it itself floated.
Like the last dying ripple of a stone cast into a pond uncountably many leagues away, space and time had broken upon the shores of its awareness in the form of one of the smallest building blocks of the Universe. And then it had immediately ceased, for with nothing around it to cling to the proton instantly had broken down into its components and they had dissipated into the nothingness almost too quickly to be observed.
Except the brief, evanescent burst of the proton was seen by the being – which, without even realizing it was doing it, had been peacefully observing nothing, and everything, with absolute and immediate accuracy. And that was why, despite its apparent slumber, it could not miss the arrival, and near-simultaneous departure, of the pretty little particle.
The glittering sub-atomic appearance, brief and unthreatening though it was, nevertheless troubled it greatly.
Contradictions and nervousness rippled through it. It shook with excitement. Seething with speculation, for untold millennia it considered one critical and shocking question.
Not, as one might have imagined, wondering “What Was That?” No, no. What first occupied its attention was a much more pressing problem than the transitory proton.
What nagged away at it insistently was the question: “What am I?”
With no previous consciousness, and with no terms of reference whatsoever, it marveled at itself, and at this new sensation of existence, without, in truth, the slightest understanding of what was going on.
Casting frantically this way and that to work out what it was, it looked about itself, systematically, but in utter confusion.
Up and Down. Side to Side. In and Out. Backwards and Forwards. Along every plane and from every angle. Indeed, from many different perspectives simultaneously.
(If it did but know it, it actually looked for all the world like a large mahogany gentleman’s desk inlaid with a rather dinky line of shell marquetry around its edges and its drawers. Lots of drawers, in fact, with little pressed-metal knobs, that held promise of all sorts of treasures hidden away inside, and a couple of attractive glass paperweights adorned its leather-inlaid heart. But it wouldn’t understand all this until much later.)
Time passed. Lots of it. Loads and loads and loads of time.
Soon enough, and in a neat twist of reasoning that we can ascribe to what it actually was – which for want of a better term we could describe as “a really, really, really clever thing” – it soon realized that its own sudden and shocking existence was perhaps most easily understood by reference to what it was not. And in a miraculously short time after that, (for its powers of perception were, indeed, remarkably unconstrained), it had consequently separated the Universe into two orderly halves.
One half of everything it perceived to be it fittingly called “Me”.
The other half, it called “Not Me”.
The Me was pleased and much relieved by this development. Its jarringly unexpected coming-into-being seemed much less troublesome now that everything was neatly broken down into itself and … something else.
Thus reassured, it settled down to make a full and patient examination of itself.
Driven by insatiable curiosity, it first tried to work out why it had suddenly become conscious of its inherent Me-ness in the first place.
By dint of absence of any other observable data at all, it almost immediately decided that the sheer,ineffable thrill of the proton’s appearance had awoken its knowledge of itself. It could remember nothing before that, and so it seemed perfectly practical to place this sudden awareness of itself and its surroundings to that startlingly incandescent moment.
Next it spent a few million years pondering the proton. Was the Me somehow related to it? Connected to it in some way? Should it search for it? Was it coming back? Was it important? Indeed, as the only thing it had ever experienced, were the Me and the proton all there was to consider?
For what seemed like a very long time indeed, but in the scheme of things was merely a blink of the Me’s eye, the Me looked around and wondered why no other protons had appeared to disturb it, before or since.
But after an æon or two of this, it happened on a thought that occupied it even more deeply.
Surely, it reasoned to itself, what the proton was could not be nearly as important as another question that bothered it constantly – like the buzzer on a motel clock radio after too many drinks the night before – and that question, of course, was why, for goodness sake, had the Me not been aware of anything before the proton?
Beyond the awful, inky nothing that surrounded the Me, (which was, in fact, only three billionths of an inch thick, but being so thoroughly enmeshed in its musings it hadn’t actually noticed that yet), the Not Me pressed inwards. It edged silently towards the Me, as if holding its breath for the answer to this one. Not Me quaked and tightened around the Me, just by a fraction, and whispered silently to itself, listening, wondering, waiting.
And then – perhaps somehow alerted by the new-found excitement in the Not Me – the Me saw to its wonderment that far from being empty as it had assumed, the Not Me that was near it was actually jam-packed with innumerable billions and billions of particles crowding nearby, just beyond the layer of darkness, vibrating slowly – so slowly, in fact, and in such tiny increments of space – that the Me hadn’t even realised that the Not Me was moving at all!
Gazing in amused wonderment, the now insatiably inquisitive Me was straight way tempted to investigate further the gentle quadrille of the miniscule particles that swirled around it.
But without an answer to the nub of its problem, to wit: why it had not perceived its ownself at some point before what it had recently decided to call “Now” – or indeed, why it had not noticed the crowded, quivering Not Me earlier, which after all was only just over there outside the Me, so close at hand – the Me was frankly too troubled to do so.
So after trying and failing to find any concrete answers by simply looking about a bit, and drawing on hitherto unsuspected intellectual resources that spontaneously delighted it, the Me resolved – for it was nothing if not a very practical being, as we shall see – that it would simply have to run with what would eventually become known in another place as an assumption.
In short: the Me decided that in the absence of observable empiric data, it made good sense to “make up something that fits, until you can prove it’s wrong”.
(And thus it brought into being that delightful hobby for people with staring eyes and strange haircuts who listen to Laurie Anderson CDs on repeat known as Theoretical Physics, but of course it didn’t know that then.)
In this wise, the Me plumped for the conclusion that – before what it now called “the Me moment” – it had simply not been necessary for it to be self-aware.
For want of a better explanation, it assumed that although it had existed, it had not needed to know of its existence – and so, post hoc ergo propter hoc, as it were, it did not know.
The Me patiently examined this conclusion from all possible angles, and could not fault it.
(You might imagine that it would also have paused to wonder how it could so instinctively express its cogitation in obscure Latin phrases, a language that had not been used anywhere in existence yet, but that was just one of innumerable trifling considerations that would have to wait until more important questions had been answered.)
Ploughing remorselessly on now, the Me then painstakingly worried away at another thought that had occurred to it, from amongst the untold trillions of thoughts that it had every second. And this one was a real biggie.
That not just “it” but “Everything” must have some purpose, if only to take its natural place in the scheme of things.
This first and most painful bout of existential angst was very intense, but quickly resolved. Yes, yes! It must surely be true! Even if the purpose of a thing was merely to lie passively next to some other Me-ness, like a compliant jigsaw piece fitting neatly into another, purpose there had to be. Pointlessness was surely pointless.
And just as it now observed that the endless particles around it in the Not Me were somehow interlaced seamlessly with one another, and that to remove even one from its place would cause a cataclysmic rent and collapse, so therefore it, too, the Me, must be where (and when) it was for a reason. For if the Me held no inherent purpose, no relationship with something, even if it did not yet know what that something was, then why would it exist? But it did exist, so therefore it must have some role to play. “I exist, therefore I should exist” it trilled.
The next thought arrived a nano-second later. “So what am I for?” it demanded of itself. “What am I for?”
Breathlessly rushing on for a few million years, the Me rifled through the arguments available to it like an over-excited burglar happening on a fortuitously open bank vault.
It reasoned that it must have begun at a particular point, and at some stage it had become needed by … well, something, or because of something … and so – of course! – before that moment self-knowledge would have served no purpose, because – and the Me raced effortlessly forward to its conclusion! – to be aware, but purposeless, would indisputably have no point at all, as mere awareness, it was sure, affected nothing else, either positively or negatively. And, indeed, might be intolerably boring.
(Thrilled with this reasoning, it made itself a mental note: ““Quod erat demonstrandum: we all do what we can.” It was not sure why this thought was important, but felt convinced it was, and promised itself that it would return to nut it out, one day.)
So. Conclusion: the Me fitted in somehow as well. Because it must!
It rippled and rang with the sheer orgiastic delight of its logic. Very well, it mused, it didn’t yet know what the reason for its own existence was, but it felt distinctly less alarmed now it had deduced that a reason must exist, and soon enough, if it continued to concentrate, it was confident it would work out what it was.
Having now been on the job for what seemed to it, suddenly, as an awfully long time, the Me paused for a well-earned rest. Happy with where it had got to so far, it rather liked the sensation of not doing much thinking for a while.
It added another note to its rapidly growing list of things to remember. “Take a break from thinking now and then. Maybe about 14.2857 recurring percent of the time,” it advised itself portentously, along the way inventing Sunday, the decimal system and a few other useful concepts without even noticing. Meanwhile, the Not Me crept ever closer, and waited anxiously for the whole complex tangle to be sorted out on the Me’s mental blackboard.
Lolling around in the dark, approvingly noticing the inlay around the edges of its drawers for the first time, the Me now began to dimly recognise the awesome deductive capacity it could marshal with such little effort.
It was as if it already knew anything it needed to know; all it had to do was turn its attention to a problem and the resolution would eventually become clear, like mist clearing on a beautiful, still lake of knowledge. And with this awareness, the tensions within it settled somewhat. There was a reason why. Because there had to be. So now, the Big One. What could that reason possibly be?
Here, the being’s deductive process – which was rigorous and invariably accurate, if for no other reason than it had an innate ability to consider all probabilities simultaneously and ascribe correct values to them – nevertheless slowed down just a little, because the number of possible reasons why it existed were so vast as to tax even its own seemingly inexhaustible computational capacity.
It spent some time, for example, wondering whether it was supposed to be a forty-seven inch flat-screen hi-definition television, an item with whose innate angular beauty it was instantly infatuated, and which was tremendously thrilling and desirable and perfect for viewing something it decided to call “sports”, and it would have been really quite content to be a television forever were it not, obviously, for the complete absence of anything to be watched on itself, at least until about a trillion years from then.
It thus followed, the Me reasoned carefully, that whilst it might become just such an item at some stage in the future, it was highly unlikely that it was supposed to be a flat-screen TV just yet. It similarly rejected being a “V8 Supercar”, “Designer Fragrance”, or “Hollywood Red Carpet Interviewer” for the same reason.
For a long time it was quite taken with the idea of being a conveniently-sized ball of dung, stationed outside the home of every industrious little dung beetle, so that their existence would not be so miserably dominated by scouring the desert for poo of all shapes and sizes and then spending hours in the hot sun uncomplainingly prodding it into an easily-maneuverable shape and size.
The Me felt very compassionate towards the tireless little beetle. He reasoned that even as he extended compassion to the Least so he extended it, by proxy to the All. The idea amused the Me, and it made a point to remember it.
Not entirely au fait, as yet, with the niceties of mass marketing, the Me even nevertheless drafted a quick advertising jingle to promote the idea that went something like this.
“Poo, poo, just made for you,
yes, do do do, choose ezy-poo
delivered to you, you’ll be glad too
with A-may-zing easy-roll Poo-poopy-doo!”
Being a ball of poo would, it felt sure, would be a selfless and meaningful reason to exist.
But sadly, once again, the fact that no dung beetles would be around for quite some time stymied that line of enquiry, too. Then in quick succession, it considered and rejected, for various reasons, the proposition that it was a field of daffodils enlivening the surface of a small rocky planet in the Lamda Quadrant, a very obvious cure for Malaria merely waiting to be discovered, or whether it was a rather nasty virus that caused the four-winged, Greater Blue Flerterbee to fall out of the sky unexpectedly and in alarming numbers on a rather nice globe circling two twin suns in a galaxy with a rather curious Coke-bottle shape, thus leading to the extinction of all life-forms on that planet within a couple of generations.
Last, but by no means least, and with an aesthetic sense that it found delightfully unexpected and artistic, it wondered whether or not it was merely supposed to fill the space around it with floating three-dimensional pyramids made of delicately scented orange seaweed and sparkling Tarl Tree blossoms.
(And that one nearly won, actually. Which would have been interesting.)
Yes, able, now, to roam its growing understanding in all directions at one and the same time, the Me patiently examined of all these intriguing options, and more.
It considered alternative reasons for its own existence to the value of 10 x 10²°. Which really was an awful lot of reasons. And sooner or later, as a direct result of its nascent omniscience, and with a rather annoyed snort of surprise – in light of its previous lack of wakefulness – it was very soon after additionally confronted by a growing certainty that it had always existed. Putting it at its most simple, the Me realised it had always been there.
Always, and forever.
This was an unexpectedly Big Thought. In fact, to be frank, it was a Big Thought And A Half.
Wandering up and down the timeline now, watching itself, it very quickly also correctly surmised that it always would exist, too. Right up until, well … forever, really. And once it had occurred, this new Thought seemed entirely appropriate and natural and comfortable.
Until, that was: until it observed – with some further distress – that all around it other things were coming into being and then moving into non-being with astonishing regularity.
Indeed, it rapidly deduced that moving into non-existence was much more common than moving peacefully through existence with no apparent end, and, indeed, after a few more millennia, it observed that it could find no other beings that shared its own notable, distinguishing, essential never-endingness.
This latest discovery intrigued it mightily. In fact, so mightily was the Me intrigued that it stopped worrying about what it was for a moment, and started looking around with more interest.
It was simply fascinated by the sheer … dyingness … of all it saw around it.
The Me wasn’t sure where it had got that word from, and there was something about it that it didn’t like all that much, but it didn’t have time to worry about trivia. Not when it observed that unlike itself, everything around it seemed to be in the process of discharging tiny amounts of energy, and in doing so, declining to entirely predictable, unavoidable nothingness.
There was an alarmingly vast amount of this decline going on. All around it, apparently spontaneous changes were going on all the time to smooth out differences in temperature, pressure, density, and chemical potential. In fact, the more it went on, the more it went on. Yes! There was no denying it. The process was accelerating.
Still somewhat uncomfortable with “dyingness”, the Me hastily coined the term “entropy” to describe this apparently calamitous force that it observed in the Not Me all around him.
It took a step back, and carefully considering all the observable phenomena, it came up with something rather like this to define what it was seeing:
Quantitatively, entropy is defined by the differential quantity dS = δQ / T, where δQ is the amount of heat absorbed in an isothermal and reversible process in which the system goes from one state to another, and T is the absolute temperature at which the process is occurring.
Encouraged by this understanding, the Me now also understood that more precisely:
In any process where the system gives up energy ΔE, and its entropy falls by ΔS, a quantity at least TR ΔS of that energy must be given up to the system’s surroundings as unusable heat (TR being the temperature of the system’s external surroundings). Otherwise the process it was observing would not go forward.
And in a rollicking fever of enthusiasm, it also realized that:
The entropy is defined as the number of microscopic configurations that result in the observed macroscopic description of the thermodynamic system, or:
where kB is something that would become known as Boltzmann’s constant 1.38066×10−23 J K−1 and is the number of microstates corresponding to the observed thermodynamic macrostate calculated using the multiplicity function.
And that was how, after all this feverish figuring, that the Me finally came to know what its reason was.
There was no doubt. The terrible, incontrovertible fact was that – all around it, wherever it looked – the Not Me was dying.
Inexorably, undeniably, because of its own nature which it could not escape, the Not Me was destined, finally, to become perfectly smooth and calm, in a state of utter non-ness, untroubled by thermo-dynamic fluctuations, and unutterably silent and quiet. It was a fate from which there was no return, for once reached, there was nothing to rekindle the energies expended.
The Not Me would simply cease to exist.
And then, the Me mused, what would become of Me?
Would I exist alone? With nothing left to observe, perhaps, but nonetheless awake?
And in a fraction of a millisecond, it knew that this outcome was too awful to contemplate. Utter knowledge, surrounded by utter nothingness, would be unbearable to it now.
Driven back to the fundamentals by its own ruthless logic, the Me considered again the beginning of its own awareness. It saw clearly now – “How could it not have known?” it berated itself angrily – that the tiny, scintillating proton had been a desperate cry for help from the Not Me. It was so obvious! Aware of its own inherent, inexorable non-ness, it had turned to the all-knowing Me to find a solution. And perhaps, even, the Not Me had known – somehow – that the Me needed the Non-Me too. That once awoken, it would have to act, for not to act would leave it, ultimately, alone and perfectly brilliant, transfixed in horrified eternally silent and motionless despair.
And as it divined its purpose, the Me also saw that it was capable of decisive action. In an instant of perception, it was transformed. It became action personified.
Surging forward through the darkness that surrounded it, the Me spoke with a voice that resonated through the umpteen layers of reality. For the first time in history, it spoke effortlessly and in chorus to the largest perfect number of particles of all kinds that it could see … crying out to the 232,582,656 × (232,582,657 − 1) tiny building blocks that it somehow instantly knew made up the Not Me.
“I Am!” it thundered, for the whole Not Me to hear.
The words echoed through all of existence like nothing had every done before. (Which was literally true, as it had just invented sound.) And the ever more confident Me really liked the phrase. It felt appropriate and proper, somehow. So it repeated it.
“I Am … The I Am!”
It rolled the phrase round and round, enjoying its profundity and orderliness. How it was so perfectly Beginning and End-ish. The Me made a jotting in the margin of History to use the phrase again when it felt the need to explain itself to someone.
It stretched, and stretched, pushing its boundaries outwards, tearing away at the darkness that clung stubbornly to it like wet serge shorts on a schoolboy’s leg. Yes, it knew its reason for existence now, and faced with such a cause, its course of action was as clear to it now as a shining new dawn.
It must act at once to end the dreaded entropy: for it was the Me’s job to banish this awful dyingness and save the Not Me, before it became quiet and flat and silent and the Me was left to stare at where it had been, alone and mad.
And now it also knew with perfect understanding that this task would become something of a recurring leitmotif for its own existence. A struggle – just beginning – which it could now see with terrible clarity would last until the end of Time.
“Listen! Everything!” it cried, in a voice that brooked no opposition. “Listen to me!”
The Not Me took a firm grip on itself and held on tight. It waited, hushed and expectant, for what it knew had to come, and what had come before, and what would come again, impossibly far into the future.
With a giant, convulsive gasp, the Me cried out in a great and terrible voice.
“Let … there … be … Light!”
And lo, there was Light. And man, it was good.
I wrote this poem remembering attending so many Remembrance Day services with my mother, whose husband, the father who I never knew, died at 46, a cheerful but essentially broken man, after six years of service in the Royal Navy..
I am very proud of this poem, both as a poem, in and of itself, and as an authentic expression of my feelings and some things I consider important.
I am largely a pacifist in my outlook, but I have great respect for those who put their lives on the line defending values I hold dear, and opposing tyranny.
It references not only those solemn services attended at memorials with my mother, but the many times since I have seen elderly people stand and pay their respects to the dead of both World Wars, and other wars.
There is a wave of emotion sweeping Australia at the moment when Anzac day rolls around, with record numbers of people attending Dawn Services both around the country and in places overseas such as Papua New Guinea and Galipolli.
Increasingly, those people have young faces. The great grandchildren, grandchildren and children of those who were wounded, broken, and died. Why the sudden upsurge of interest? Perhaps younger people today look back to a past when the issues were simpler and convictions stronger.
I am also sure that the 39 Australian service people killed in Afghanistan since hostilities broke out there have something to do with it. The Americans and others have lost more people, of course, but those 39 lives are a grievous loss to a country with a population as small as Australia’s, just as the disproportionate sacrifice of the World War I diggers left a scar across the country that took generations to heal: the faces and stories of those brave young people killed in Afghanistan in recent years sure focuses the mind.
I am also reminded, on this solemn day, of the most important thing ever said about conflict, which is, of course:
“War will continue until men refuse to fight.”
If you are interested to purchase my collection of poems called Read Me – 71 Poems and 1 Story – just head here.
(Article re-published for Anzac Day 2013 and Remembrance Day 2014.)
The sound of an ambulance
very late in the fetid night
closes, then closer, louder,
howling, cutting machete-like
through the traffic for the ER,
then leaving us, passing
away now, quieter,
and quieter. Just how you
entered my life, in a hurry,
and left it as suddenly.
All there is now to tell the tale?
A wreck, and a fading echo.
Hard as it may be to believe (doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun?) it is three years today since the very first article was posted on Wellthisiswhatithink.
For the stattos amongst you, in that time we have published a total of 783 articles, (about one every 33 hours or so), and received 3,631 comments from just about every corner of the planet, the vast majority of them thoughtful, educated, pertinent, and largely kind and supportive. There has been very very little trolling or hate mail.
We are most grateful for the effort you make, Dear Reader, in “keeping the conversation going”.
Our busiest ever month was April this year when a post about a customer complaint to RyanAir went viral. Only three months in the three years have had under 2000 visits and in total, we have had 252,298 visits. No, wait, 252,299 … 252,300 … oh well, you get the picture. Average daily hits are running at 1,115 so far on 2014.
By far our biggest number of posts (550) have included the category “Popular Culture et al” in their header, followed by Political Musings (359), Humour (147) and Business Management (91). We hope you will agree that our stated goal when we started, to re-report things that interest us (and always the credit them, please note) and to make our own opinions known where we feel strongly about something, has been met.
We thoroughly enjoy writing the blog, which we see as influencing world debate by one small regular drop in an ocean of opinions, (but who knows which drop is the one that causes the dam to break, eh?), but most importantly we enjoy it as a way to reach out, engender discussion between people of good will, and provide a little harmless entertainment, too. If that’s how it works for you, we’re glad. That’s how it works for us.
Science fiction author Philip Dick said it all.
“Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups … So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”
Well, we would not claim to make up whole universes. Just the occasional thought, perhaps.
But we sure as hell don’t want to leave all the reality-making to the powerful, the cashed-up, and the privileged.
Especially for those facing oppression and blind authority, the massive explosion of the blogosphere is hope, democracy and liberty in action.
Long may it continue.
You came to me unexpectedly
happening on a glade, as if
gliding over me like crystal in the early morning
cool like the fever in my life breaking
refreshing as the splash of a wave
murmuring like a gentle stream until I drowned.
And then you left as if you had never been
and all my world was dust and air and sand again
but I remember you to this day
when the sun beats down, cruel
when the sun is strong on my brow
I swim in my memories and pretend that you were real.
Stephen Yolland is a Melbourne poet and author/editor of Wellthisiswhatithink. You can find his book of poetry here. The book is also available as a download from lulu.com.
Many moons ago, we submitted an article to the New Yorker. They rejected it. This is not an uncommon experience for writers submitting to the august magazine, which sets an stratospheric standard for its contributors, which is why it’s such a good read, of course. Indeed, on the remaindered shelf at a bookstore many moons ago we bought a “best of” collection of the famous New Yorker cartoons which is still one of the funniest books we have ever read.
We may submit another article to them one day if we can ever think of anything worth saying. Anyhooo … Fruit of One’s Loins was sent this article which is apparently doing the rounds on the Internet from November 2013 and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. It’s a hilarious mental ramble based on a very old joke, and it’s simultaneously both witty and a clever commentary on the modern world. It’s by Simon Rich*, who is clearly much funnier and talented than me. And younger. And better looking.
So a guy walks into a bar one day and he can’t believe his eyes. There, in the corner, there’s this one-foot-tall man, in a little tuxedo, playing a tiny grand piano.
So the guy asks the bartender, “Where’d he come from?”
And the bartender’s, like, “There’s a genie in the Mens’ room who grants wishes.”
So the guy runs into the Mens’ room and, sure enough, there’s this genie. And the genie’s, like, “Your wish is my command.”
So the guy’s, like, “O.K., I wish for world peace.” And there’s this big cloud of smoke—and then the room fills up with geese.
So the guy walks out of the Mens’ room and he’s, like, “Hey, bartender, I think your genie might be hard of hearing.”
And the bartender’s, like, “No kidding. You think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?”
So the guy processes this. And he’s, like, “Does that mean you wished for a twelve-inch penis?”
And the bartender’s, like, “Yeah. Why, what did you wish for?”
And the guy’s, like, “World peace.”
So the bartender is understandably ashamed.
And the guy orders a beer, like everything is normal, but it’s obvious that something has changed between him and the bartender.
And the bartender’s, like, “I feel like I should explain myself further.”
And the guy’s, like, “You don’t have to.”
But the bartender continues, in a hushed tone. And he’s, like, “I have what’s known as penile dysmorphic disorder. Basically, what that means is I fixate on my size. It’s not that I’m small down there. I’m actually within the normal range. Whenever I see it, though, I feel inadequate.”
And the guy feels sorry for him. So he’s, like, “Where do you think that comes from?”
And the bartender’s, like, “I don’t know. My dad and I had a tense relationship. He used to cheat on my mom, and I knew it was going on, but I didn’t tell her. I think it’s wrapped up in that somehow.”
And the guy’s, like, “Have you ever seen anyone about this?”
And the bartender’s, like, “Oh, yeah, I started seeing a therapist four years ago. But she says we’ve barely scratched the surface.”
So, at around this point, the twelve-inch pianist finishes up his sonata. And he walks over to the bar and climbs onto one of the stools. And he’s, like, “Listen, I couldn’t help but overhear the end of your conversation. I never told anyone this before, but my dad and I didn’t speak the last ten years of his life.”
And the bartender’s, like, “Tell me more about that.” And he pours the pianist a tiny glass of whiskey.
And the twelve-inch pianist is, like, “He was a total monster. Beat us all. Told me once I was an accident.”
And the bartender’s, like, “That’s horrible.”
And the twelve-inch pianist shrugs. And he’s, like, “You know what? I’m over it. He always said I wouldn’t amount to anything, because of my height? Well, now look at me. I’m a professional musician!”
And the pianist starts to laugh, but it’s a forced kind of laughter, and you can see the pain behind it. And then he’s, like, “When he was in the hospital, he had one of the nurses call me. I was going to go see him. Bought a plane ticket and everything. But before I could make it back to Tampa . . .”
And then he starts to cry. And he’s, like, “I just wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye to my old man.”
And all of a sudden there’s this big cloud of smoke — and a beat-up Plymouth Voyager appears!
And the pianist is, like, “I said ‘old man,’ not ‘old van’!”
And everybody laughs. And the pianist is, like, “Your genie’s hard of hearing.”
And the bartender says, “No kidding. You think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?”
And as soon as the words leave his lips he regrets them. Because the pianist is, like, “Oh, my God. You didn’t really want me.”
And the bartender’s, like, “No, it’s not like that.” You know, trying to backpedal.
And the pianist smiles ruefully and says, “Once an accident, always an accident.” And he drinks all of his whiskey.
And the bartender’s, like, “Brian, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
And the pianist smashes his whiskey glass against the wall and says, “Well, I didn’t mean that.”
And the bartender’s, like, “Whoa, calm down.”
And the pianist is, like, “Fuck you!” And he’s really drunk, because he’s only one foot tall and so his tolerance for alcohol is extremely low. And he’s, like, “Fuck you, asshole! Fuck you!”
And he starts throwing punches, but he’s too small to do any real damage, and eventually he just collapses in the bartender’s arms.
And suddenly he has this revelation. And he’s, like, “My God, I’m just like him. I’m just like him.” And he starts weeping.
And the bartender’s, like, “No, you’re not. You’re better than he was.”
And the pianist is, like, “That’s not true. I’m worthless!”
And the bartender grabs the pianist by the shoulders and says, “Damn it, Brian, listen to me! My life was hell before you entered it. Now I look forward to every day. You’re so talented and kind and you light up this whole bar. Hell, you light up my whole life. If I had a second wish, you know what it would be? It would be for you to realize how beautiful you are.”
And the bartender kisses the pianist on the lips.
So the guy, who’s been watching all this, is surprised, because he didn’t know the bartender was gay. It doesn’t bother him; it just catches him off guard, you know? So he goes to the bathroom, to give them a little privacy. And there’s the genie.
So the guy’s, like, “Hey, genie, you need to get your ears fixed.”
And the genie’s, like, “Who says they’re broken?” And he opens the door, revealing the happy couple, who are kissing and gaining strength from each other.
And the guy’s, like, “Well done.”
And then the genie says, “That bartender’s tiny penis is going to seem huge from the perspective of his one-foot-tall boyfriend.”
And the graphic nature of the comment kind of kills the moment.
And the genie’s, like, “I’m sorry. I should’ve left that part unsaid. I always do that. I take things too far.”
And the guy’s, like, “Don’t worry about it. Let’s just grab a beer. It’s on me.”
*Rich was born and raised in New York City. He attended The Dalton School and then enrolled at Harvard University where he became president of the Harvard Lampoon. His older brother is novelist and essayist Nathaniel Rich, and his parents are Gail Winston and New York Times author Frank Rich. His step-mother is New York Times reporter Alex Witchel. After graduating Harvard, Rich wrote for Saturday Night Live for four years where Rich and the staff of Saturday Night Live were nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Music or Comedy Series three times in 2008, 2009, and 2010 and twice won the Writers Guild of America Award for Comedy/Variety Series in 2009 and 2010. Rich then departed to work as a staff writer for Pixar. In 2013 and 2014, Rich was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List. We hate him. In a good way.
ONE NIGHT OF MANY
I lie beside you, a long wait into tomorrow
and listen to you gently snore.
Whoever invented that phrase
~ gently snore ~
they knew. There is ungentle snoring,
when I nudge you in the back and roll you
half awake into silence
but that is not this. This is a soft rhythm
like the sea carressing white sand.
The rain on the new tin roof
syncopatedly changes tempo
as if to accompany you.
For a while there, it rises and falls
in time with your chest
in time with your dreams.
And the life in your breath
and the life in the rain
Without warning, I am assailed by images.
Unbidden. What would happen
if you were taken out of our lives?
A truck, a tree branch, your heart.
Police at the door, our daughter’s face.
I could manage the days, I think.
But not the nights.
I listen for the gentle heave of air.
And again, and again, there it is,
that gentle heave of air, and I am stilled.
Do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Not yet. Not yet awhile, at least.
Go to sleep.
The rain falls on the world like balm.
And by the moonlight of the clock
I see your perfect calm face and think
how you would hold me, if you knew.
To buy a printed copy
of my collection of
poetry, “71 Poems and One Short Story”,
(there’s a download, too), please go to:
I am so grateful for my fellow Stooshpr member Kenneth Weene for this great little short story. It is full of good humour, pathos and cleverly-observed childhood lives. I commend it to you. Stooshpr is a wonderful Facebook group that enhances the networking of all types of creative people – singers, musicians, radio personalities, writers of all kinds, and so on. If that’s you, I recommend you find out more. And/or checkout #stooshpr on Twitter.
Horatio tries to chew his gum in a manly way. He wants desperately for the other boys to think him one of them, to count him a teammate. They do not. He doubts they ever will.
It would help if he could blow a bubble – not a puny popper, but a real bubble – the kind that would leave a skein of pink gum to peel from his pasty face.
Horatio hates his face. He hates the nickname, Ghost, it has earned. In fact, there is little in his life that Horatio doesn’t hate. For the moment, sitting in the dugout knowing that the coach, Mr. Leven, will reluctantly put him up to bat for a certain out and even more reluctantly order him into the outfield with a muttered prayer that no balls will loft in his direction, for this moment all that hatred is focused on the three sticks of Bazooka that he knows will never yield to his tongue, will never smoothly expand into a giant chicle ball, and will certainly not burst in a moment of ten year old hilarity.
In the bleachers, his mother, determined to humiliate him, waves and points as if his brother – only seven and already a better athlete – cares what Horatio might be doing. Albert is as dismissive as his teammates. He would rather be out on the field throwing and catching and hitting. Horatio knows that his team would prefer Albert out there with them, and Horatio – though he hates to think it – knows that he too would be happier if he were in the stands watching sturdy, muscular, dark-tanned Albert playing for the Steinhartz Cleaners’ Braves.
Horatio had not wanted to play Little League. He knows and fears his limitations. He knows and fears the derision of other kids. That his teachers love him for his reading and arithmetic does nothing to reassure; adults – other than his father and Coach Leven – are easy. They do not require running and jumping; they make believe that throwing and catching are unimportant.
His mother waves again, this time with more energy, more feigned excitement. Without raising his arm, he gesticulates and hopes it will be enough. Why did she have to come? he asks himself already knowing the answer.
Part of him wishes that his father, too, were in the stands. Another bigger part is glad that he is not.
On his right are the other benchwarmers. They sit in the order of their uselessness – Tony closest to the empty space where the nine boys now on the field will sit. Next to Tony – shoulder-to-shoulder – a boy whose name Horatio still doesn’t know. That boy, too, gives a half wave, an embarrassed acknowledgment. Horatio sees the boy’s mother somewhat higher in the stands and somewhat to the left of his own. She is waving, but her movements seem more appropriate, less dramatic, less demanding of attention.
Next to that boy, Roy, blond and heavyset, lots of power at bat but slow as a freight train. The coach calls him Tubby just to watch his cringe. Roy talks about quitting the team, but something keeps him coming back – practice after practice, game after game. Perhaps it is the dream, the fantasy that the moment will come, that he will hit the game winning homerun, that someday he will be the hero. Any boy can dream.
Between Roy and Horatio sits Scott. Scott is new to America, new to baseball. He grew up playing something he calls rounders. The coach keeps saying, “You’ll get the hang if it. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.” He never says anything like that to Horatio, which is just as well – Horatio would never believe him.
Horatio watches the sweat on Roy’s temple. It is trying to escape from beneath his robin-blue cap – just like the one on Horatio’s head.
When the season started, when the regulars and the benchwarmers had first been sorted, Horatio and Scott had sat shoulder-to-shoulder; over time – as if by some mysterious process – a space has grown between them – a space big enough for another boy, a player to be named later.
In the moment – as often when they are sitting on the bench waiting for their moments of play – the boys – as boys do – tease and hit each other in a playful way that says we are together in this boat called baseball and that makes us a unit, a team, a possibility. The moment flows downhill – starting with Tony – a whack to the next boy’s shoulder and so on until it comes to rest on Scott, who is tempted to pass it along to Horatio but stops to think and decides to not.
As Tony squirms his failed attention and tries to decide what silly thing to next send down the bench, the inning mercifully ends. The Blackbird Chevrolet Panthers have only scored four runs; the game stands at nine to four favor to the Panthers; two innings are in the books. Four more innings to play; it will be a long afternoon.
Coach Leven is yelling, “Hustle, you guys, hustle.” His son, Alex, the pitcher, leads the Braves from the field. He jogs as his father expects. Alex spits as he runs. Alex spits a lot; so do the other boys. Horatio spits sometimes; he would spit more often, but he knows his mother does not approve. He knows that he doesn’t spit well, that he doesn’t spit like a real baseball player.
The other kids do not call the coach’s son Alex; his nickname is Jughead, after the Archie Comics he loves to read and after his loose-jointed way of walking when his father is not present. The coach doesn’t like his son’s nickname; he takes it as a personal affront so the boys don’t use it on the field. Jughead prefers the moniker to Alex, but he has never said that to his father; he knows he was named for his father’s father’s brother, a man he never met but who died earning a medal in a place called Vietnam. The medal sits in a plastic case on his dresser. Jughead would love to put it away in a drawer, but Alex leaves it where his father wants.
As the other team takes the field, the benchwarmers stand up and twine fingers in the chicken wire fencing that protects the dugout. They are glad to have a moment when they are allowed to stand; they are glad to be yelling. They yell encouragement to their teammates and taunts at their rivals. Even Horatio yells. For the moment his bubblegum is forgotten. Scott, too, yells. His words sound strange to the other boys; his accent is from far away. Sometimes they tease him about it; sometimes they try to copy him. One time Ray, the regular second baseman, asked, “How do people say ‘fuck you’ in your language?”
Scott thought for a moment and replied, “They say ‘Go Ray yourself,’” and laughed.
Everybody except Ray had laughed, too. Ray was pretty pissed, but the other kids all slapped Scott on the back or hit him in the arm. Even Horatio had slapped Scott that day; he had slapped him and wished that the other kids were slapping his back and giving him shots.
“Go Braves,” the boys yell; “Yay team.” Their high-pitched voices are excited more because they finally have a chance to stand than from any involvement in the game, which has already exceeded their attention spans. Other teams’ benchwarmers are less orderly than the Braves’.
Other coaches are less in charge, less demanding than Coach Leven. He has made it clear to the boys that they will behave themselves on his team. At the beginning of the season he had written a letter to all the boys’ parents. “Baseball teaches boys how to work, how to take life seriously. It prepares them for growing up. That is why I expect so much from all our sons.”
Most of the parents – especially the fathers – told their sons Mr. Leven would be a good coach. Most of the parents, especially Horatio’s father, thought it was just fine that their sons learn how to work, how to take life seriously.
The boys are not so sure. They see the other teams having fun. They see the other teams playing just as well as the Braves. They wonder why they can’t have more fun. But, like Roy, they keep coming back.
Horatio has asked his parents if he can quit the team. His father told him that he has to play out the season. “You wanted to play. You made a commitment. Now you should be a man and keep your word.”
He knew there was no point in reminding his father that he had not wanted to play, that he had not made a commitment, that it had been his father’s choice for him to be in Little League.
He wanted to remind his father that all he had said was that he wished he had more friends. He had said it hoping to find a book club, an activity at the library, maybe something at the science museum. He wanted to remind his father but knew that would only mean a yelling.
Horatio had nodded his head in unhappy submission.
The players sit; the regulars sit in batting order. Only Tim is still standing. He is just in front of the dugout swinging a bat and waiting for the umpire to call “Play ball!”. Coach Leven checks the team with a jaundiced eye – ready to yell at a squirm, at a show of disinterest. The boys are still so he turns his attention to Tim. “Challenge him,” the coach instructs. “Crowd the plate. Make him pitch.” Tim nods his head the way children do when adults talk at them.
Tim grounds out, but the team manages to close the gap. It is nine to seven, two outs, nobody on base. Coach Leven sends Horatio to bat. He knows it won’t matter if he strikes out. He will have had his one required at bat. He will then go into the field for his one required inning in the field. He feels like a fool, but Alex shouts encouragement. Of all the kids sitting behind him, Alex is the only one to shout.
“Go, Ghost,” he yells. Suddenly the nickname doesn’t seem so bad.
Horatio takes a couple of practice swings. He feels awkward, he handles the bat badly, and he is afraid of the ball. But Alex has yelled encouragement, and that makes the moment worthwhile.
Horatio takes his place in the batter’s box. He taps the dirt from his shoes and twists and scrapes his feet the way he has seen ballplayers on TV do it, the way the other kids do it, as if he is digging in, as if he expects to use the torque of his entire body to belt that scuffed white ball into long flight. He copies the big leaguers and the other kids even though he knows it is a lie.
“Strike one,” the umpire, who is himself no more than fifteen, shouts with a pumping motion. He, too, is mimicking the big leagues.
“Strike two.” This time Horatio has swung late and without real effort.
“Keep your eye on the ball,” Coach Leven yells.
“Hit it, Ghost,” Alex calls.
“Go, Ghost,” another boy.
There is a moment of relief. At least it isn’t three straight strikes. He almost wants to run out to the mound and thank the dark-skinned boy who is staring past him at the catcher, who is in turn signaling as if the next pitch will actually matter.
“Good eye!” one of his teammates hollers.
Horatio is almost happy. He digs in once again. Lifts his elbows the way the coach has taught them, cocks his bat the way he has learned.
The pitch comes in; he starts his swing. It is, he is sure, the greatest effort of his life. He feels the jolt of metal against ball. It isn’t a solid bang – not the sound of a hit. Rather it is the muted sound of …
“Foul,” the umpire yells.
He can hear his mother cheering.
“Go, Ghost.” Is that Tony’s voice?
“Strike three. You’re out.” Another pitch has flown past him.
Dejected yet triumphant, Horatio heads back to the dugout. Alex meets him at the bats, which are leaning against the protective fencing. Alex is carrying Horatio’s glove. “Good at bat,” he says as he hands Horatio the glove. Horatio can feel his chest swell.
The game is kind. No balls are hit to right field where Horatio tries to look ready. But balls are hit. It is Alex’s last inning to pitch; those are the rules – only 85 pitches. Alex struggles. Walks, a hit batter, and a number of solid hits: an eight run inning. The Braves are at the edge of the mercy rule when they return to the dugout. If they had given up one more run, the game would have been called. As it is, they will play on.
The other boys know that Alex is not a good pitcher. They know that he really shouldn’t be in the starting nine. With a different coach he probably would sit in Tony’s spot on the bench, maybe even in the spot of the kid whose name Horatio does not know.
But Mr. Leven is the coach, and no other parent wants the job. So Alex pitches and plays third base when he isn’t pitching. Sunday afternoons he plays catch with his father. His father crouches like a catcher and flashes signs. Alex throws and wishes he were reading Archie comics or watching television.
Greg, whom the kids call Mr. Cool, is easily the best player on the team. He is the second pitcher; he should be the first. When Gregg isn’t pitching, he plays first base. He’s good at first, but he is awesome on the mound. Behind his fastball, the Braves battle back.
Alex, like the rest of the team, knows that Mr. Cool should pitch as often as possible. He knows that Tony should be on third instead of him. He wishes his father would be fair. He doesn’t think the other kids resent him; he knows that they resent his father. He resents his father, too. Sometimes he wonders if he’d like playing baseball on another team. He knows that he hates playing on the Braves. He has tried to talk with his mother about it, but she doesn’t want to listen. She is busy taking Marie, his older sister, shopping. Marie likes boys and clothes; she watches TV shows about dancing and cooking. She and their mother spend a lot of time together. “Talk about it with your father,” Alex’s mother had told him. He knew that he would not.
Alex’s birthday is in September, long after the Little League season ends; but the professional season, the real season, is still on. Every year Mr. Leven takes his family to a game to celebrate Alex’s birthday. Alex would prefer to go to an amusement park, but he is not given that choice.
His father has already purchased the tickets. They are excellent seats. Marie has a party that evening. Her mother insists that a teenaged girl’s parties are more important than baseball. Mr. Leven doesn’t argue; baseball is – after all – for boys. There has been some discussion of letting girls play Little League, but at the organizing meetings he has consistently voted against the idea. He tells Alex that he can bring another boy with him to the game.
Mr. Leven has Greg or possibly Ray in mind. He wants Alex to invite a kid who will be interested in the fine points of the game – not in the hotdogs and peanuts and doing the wave. He wants to teach the boys how to keep score. He wants to give them tips on batting and fielding and especially on strategy.
Alex invites Horatio. “Hey, Ghost, it’s me, Jughead. My dad is taking me to a ballgame this Sunday. It’s for my birthday. Want to come?”
“Who else is coming?”
“Nobody. Why? Do you want to come?”
“I figured he was taking the team.”
“No, just me. My sister doesn’t want to come this year so he said I could bring a friend.”
“Yeah, sure. I bet we’ll have a good time.”
“Yeah, a great one. Let me ask my mom.”
“Yeah, sure. Go ask her.”
Moments later. “She said sure.”
“I’ll see you Sunday.”
“Yeah, we’ll pick you up at 10.”
“Great. See you then.” There is a pause. “Hey, Jughead.”
“Thanks. Wow, really, thanks.”
“Glad you can come.”
Alex hangs up. He has a smile, almost a smirk. Boy, will this piss him off; and he can’t say anything. He told me I could invite another kid. That Ghost is the worst player on the team; well whose fault is that?
His parents are going out. Marie will be at a friend’s. Alex’s mother calls to him, “What do you want to eat tonight. You’ll be home alone. I can order you a pizza if you want.”
He thinks for a moment. “No, how about a couple of hotdogs?”
“Sure. I’ll get them set up for you. All you have to do is turn on the microwave and take them out when the bell goes off.”
“Great.” He knows that he’ll do them right, in a frying pan. She doesn’t have to know.
I wonder how many dogs Ghost can eat. We’ve got to have a dog eating contest. He’s sure his new buddy will like the idea. Better, his father will hate it. The ballgame may be fun.
Horatio slurps a long piece of spaghetti. It whips about, hits his nose, and leaves a brand of bright marinara. His mother smiles knowing that her son is, for an unexpected moment, happy.
Albert, her younger boy, his face a mask of sauce and a small strand of pasta clinging to his chin, complains, “I want to go. I want to go, too.”
“You can’t,” their father explains for the fifth time. “You weren’t invited. It’s one of Horatio’s friends.” He turns to his older son. “What did you say his name is?”
“Jughead. I mean it’s really Alex, but that’s what we call him.”
“I meant his family name. What’s his family name?”
“Leven, Leven?” He is searching for a connection.
“Yeah, my coach, Mr. Leven; he’s Mr. Leven’s son.”
“Yes, Leven. He’s an insurance man, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know.” Horatio really doesn’t care, but he doesn’t say that. He feigns interest because he needs something. He needs money for the game, and he needs money for a present. “He used to play second,” he adds as if the information will mean something to his father.
“Yes, I’m sure he’s in insurance.”
Horatio clears his throat. “Dad?”
“I need to get Jughead a present.”
“He’s right, Dear,” his mother adds.
“Yeah, sure. What are you getting him – a game, a model?”
“What about a nice sweater?” his mother suggests.
“No,” Horatio answers emphatically, “I want to get him something he’ll really like.”
Albert snickers in the way seven-year-olds can, in the way that says, “You’re just stupid.”
“I’m going to get him a box of baseball cards,” Horatio says triumphantly.
As someone for whom the words “mid life crisis” have become a daily reality, I read this guest blog from Helen Downing nodding at the shared insights and whistling through my teeth at the apposite and blazingly honest way she encapsulates the middle years of our lives and the search for meaning, especially in the face of profound changes and grief.
I am very proud and grateful to publish her words … and I shall be buying the book! I recommend you read on.
Helen writes …
When I was very young, I remember my maternal grandmother telling me that my grandfather had such a hard time when he turned 35 that it became a bit of legend in the small town of Seaford, DE where they lived.
Everyone knew that “Pop-Pop” had just had a big birthday and his reaction to it was pretty foul. Pop-Pop was one of my most favorite people ever. I didn’t get to know him until he was much older, and to me he was bigger than life. Self-confident to the point of being a bit of a bastard, a caustic wit that some found to be borderline insulting but always had me rolling on the floor, and he was the only member of my immediate family who was a businessman instead of clergy. (My interest always lied in business. The clergy seemed entirely too full of poverty and humility for my taste.)
He was my hero, and the thought of him having a hard time turning a particular age was so foreign to me I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
Now of course, I know. Each of us have a number in our head that will make us freak out when that number becomes our age. It probably lies between 30 and 50. But regardless, it’s somewhere in the middle. Once we reach “middle-aged” by whatever standard we’ve set, the words “Happy Birthday” becomes much more ominous, at least for that one year. Middle age is not for the weak of heart. In fact, middle age sucks.
My 40th year was the worst of my life. Not turning 40, that was fine in itself. But that year I found my self-esteem and identity truly tested.
It is not that my life, as every other person’s on the planet, did not have plenty of tragedy, trial, and tribulation, previously. I had failed relationships, sickness and death around me, a few times when I was so broke I considered selling blood for cigarette money, and lots of other things that just come with being a breathing entity on the planet.
But when things happened to me or around me, I would react based on who I thought I was, which had always been a strong, independent, intelligent woman who can talk her way through a keyhole and who could fall into a pile of shit and come up with an ice cream cone. That version of me could handle anything that comes down the pike.
Until I reached what I considered “middle-age”, I was invincible. In the year that I was 40 I had a bunch of firsts.
My daughter, who was my first-born and will always be my baby was grown up and moving out to live on her own.
I was laid off from the non-profit that I worked for due to a bad economy, and my husband of 10 years left me for another woman.
I had spent my entire career being the young executive who came in and opened up new revenue streams or developed innovative ideas to save money. Now I was the 40 year old who was put out to pasture.
In my 20s I was the ingénue who made married women nervous and hold on tight to their husbands. Now I was a 40 year old with mascara tears running down my face while knocking on my best friend’s door with an overnight bag and an old, old story.
My little girl, instead of being set free to experience the excitement of being on her own, was in fact being set adrift, all alone, while the foundation that was supposed to support her and be her safety net was crumbling behind her.
I wanted to bounce back. I wanted to be strong and independent and all of that stuff. I wanted to just overcome and be victorious. But my heart was shattered and my brain could not process what was happening to me. These things just didn’t happen to the version of me that I had built in my own head. And then my demons came out to play.
They sat on my bed at night and discussed my fate while I was lying there sleepless and sobbing. “Maybe she’s done” they’d say. “Maybe this is who she’s been all along. A loser, with no job and no prospects, unloved and alone.” On top of that, I also felt horrible guilt, as though somehow all of this was not only warranted but deserved. Maybe I was paying back all the bad karma I had incurred back when I thought that life was not preordained, and that I could be anything? As though dreaming of a greater destiny in my youth was somehow a sin? That is, of course, ridiculous. But guilt and regret became my constant companions.
Meanwhile, my mother who has been battling cancer off and on my entire life, had a relapse.
My father and I decided that I would come home to help him take care of Mom.
Back in the cone of unconditional love that I have enjoyed by having the parents I was blessed to receive, I began to heal. However, I also now had to face aging parents, one of whom had been deemed terminally ill. Now my life was filled with things like “living wills” and “pre-arranged funerals”.
So, fast forward. Several years have gone by now. My mom is still with us and some days I believe that she will outlive me. My children are happy and settled. I have a job that I love and I have renewed dreams and inspirations. Turns out that middle-age doesn’t suck as much as I originally thought.
However, this is what I think I’ve learned through this experience.
Being in the middle of life means literally being caught in between two very powerful influences.
Many of us are dealing with aging parents or parental figures. We also have children, whether they are our own or those of someone else that we feel close to. When we see those younger than us setting out to conquer the world, and making the same stupid mistakes we made, feeling the same sense of invincibility that youthful arrogance affords them, we begin to take stock of our lives. Even those who are ushered into their late 30’s to early 50’s with much less drama than I just described still take a moment to reflect on what they could have done better or not done at all. Each of us have burdens of regret that we are forced to carry to the top of the proverbial hill right before we establish that we are “over” it.
Being “over the hill” also means that we now go to more funerals than weddings – we have to plan to lose those people that we consider grown-ups – and we have to prepare to become matriarchs and patriarchs of our family units. When you mix regret and death, you have a cocktail for an epic identity crisis that can result in anything from clinical depression to simply having a bummer birthday.
The good news is that mid-life hands us as many fabulous lessons as puberty does.
At this time, we get to experience forgiveness on a whole new level. Especially how to forgive ourselves.
We also learn to let go, letting go of the past, letting go of old dreams to make room for new ones, or actually letting go of people. Whether that means letting go of children who are now adults and will start their own adventures or letting go of those who brought us to this point and are now transitioning themselves.
We learn to see ourselves in many different roles. Many of us don’t find our groove professionally until we get to this age, as well as becoming grandparents, or being caregivers.
We start to realize that having 40 or so years under your belt can inspire all kinds of things like creative pursuits, an entrepreneurial spirit, or a renewed relationship to a higher power.
We deal with relationships differently, from the married couple now having to deal with empty nest syndrome learning to rekindle their romance, to single folks like me figuring out how to be happy with or without someone else. This is a time to take stock of our lives, but not with regret. Instead we should honor our past with tremendous reverence and gratitude. Then quietly unpack our baggage and leave it at the top of the hill.
That way, instead of trudging down the other side weighted with heavy hearts, we can spread our arms out wide and fly, soaring into our own old age with grace and beauty.
I wrote “Awake In Hell”, a book about a middle-aged woman who dies and finds herself damned for eternity.
It uses humor, foul language, and a unique vision of Hell to illustrate how I felt about reaching mid-life.
When my protagonist finds herself in a temp agency along with its enigmatic staff, she discovers the most amazing thing – redemption.
I hope you enjoy the second half of your life as much as I am enjoying mine.
I hope that my story gives you something to think about, or comforts you, or at least makes you think “there but for the grace of God” – and I offer it to you with a renewed heart full of conviction and thankfulness.
Author, Awake In Hell
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Funny thing to do because you are perfectly capable, Dear Reader, in looking round the blog yourself. But with 270 new blogs in a year that’s a lot of searching, so all the “Blogging Basics” sites say I must give you a guide that you can go look through, so here it is.
By far the most popular blog of the year on any one day was http://wellthisiswhatithink.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/its-official-adam-and-eve-er-werent/ which garnered nearly 5,000 hits in one day (out of an annual total of more than 77,000 in 2012) when a very senior Archbishop in the Roman Catholic Church revealed what the rest of us with brains have known forever and a day anyway, which is that Genesis is true only in the sense that is is a moral fable, and not in the sense that the world was created in 7 days, or that Eve came from Adam’s rib, or that all the horrors of the world arose from munching a forbidden apple.
The really interesting thing about this story, of course, is that theologically speaking when we allow any part of the Bible text to be considered mythological then we have no argument that any other part of the Bible might not also be mythological.
Hence, just to pick a few major ones – bye bye Noah and capturing two of every living creature on the earth (including all bacteria, all 8000 species of ants, etc.), cya later Lot offering his virgin daughters to the crowd, not to mention the fact that Joshua collapsing the walls of Jericho couldn’t have happened because archaeology reveals the place was deserted when Joshua was around. Great story – good song – historical nonsense.
It seems we will just have to do what the 19th and 20th century “modernist” or “critical” theologians wanted us to do, which is read the Bible with the benefit of modern textual analysis, studying the original languages not the translations, (which, for example, can be used to argue that the Bible actually says nothing at all about gays) and taking full advantage of archaeology when we can.
The article on Adam and Eve was also the second most popular article overall of the whole year.
The most popular article for the whole year was http://wellthisiswhatithink.wordpress.com/2012/04/22/the-secret-serviceman-and-the-prostitute-whats-the-real-scandal/.
I’d like to think this was all about my thoughtful analysis of hypocrisy in American moral values, the role of prostitution in modern society, the role of the media in drumming up salacious gossip, and the relationship between poverty and the sex trade.
However checking out my stats closely I suspect it’s just because the word prostitute is often typed into search engines, and the story duly pops up.
Similar big scores have been gathered with articles about tits, and even bum.
One would despair, were it not for the fact that I know that some people read the article seriously.
Similarly, promising to ignore injunctions and show people Princess Catherine of Wales (aka Kate Middleton) topless and then bottomless worked well to drum up passing trade, though I doubt many of the people who clicked on the links got the point of my tongue in cheek effort.
The third most popular post of the year was this “Gratuitously Offensive Politically Incorrect Joke”, which I still think is very funny, (it’s also a paraprosdokian by the way, and there are some more of them here, which is probably why I like it so much), and scores very highly with anyone searching for Angela Merkel in Google and so on, so the Bundesnachrichtendienst have probably given me the once-over, but decided I am harmless.
Snookie, Chelsea the Borgias and Big Tits was the fourth most popular article of the year, and has been in the Top Ten most popular almost every day of the year. I a eagerly awaiting the next series of the Borgias, not to mention the next series of Downton Abbey and Throne of Kings. I don’t mind crap TV, so long as it’s good quality crap. A lot of you seemed to agree with me that Jeremy Irons and the Crew give good crap. Snookie and the Crew? Not so much. I wish, actually, I had been a TV reviewer, which is, of course, one of the most sought after positions in journalism. Do we think it is too late, Dear Reader? Hell, no!
Last but by no means least – in fifth place – was what I have decided was the WINNER of Advertising F*** Up of the Year, in fact the very first of the series which proved incredibly popular with readers. To save you clicking back to last January, here it is:
The Advertising F*** Up series were undoubtedly the most popular series of articles in the year. To access them, just type “F***” into the search box and they’ll all be listed for you. (Saves me doing it.)
I am enormously grateful for all the supporters of the Blog, all those who have commented, who have argued, who have provided elucidation, and who have laughed and loved. It is most popular in the USA, in the UK, and in my home country of Australia, and I guess that is inevitable. But in all, people in 172 countries read the blog, which I personally find quite humbling and astonishing, and the free spread of ideas and opinions must surely be the greatest boon the Internet has given the world.
I am especially proud, in the year just gone, for the work we were able to do on awareness to do with bullying, and Alzheimer’s, on clean water for the poor of the world, and on women’s rights. I am also very glad my feverish campaigning for Obama came out on the right side of history, and I hope his second term is more impressive than his first, which is often the case. Let us hope and pray for wisdom for all our political leaders, as the world is a long way from being out of the woods yet – economically, and politically.
I bitterly regret that my warnings on Syria, which predated most commentators in the world, were ignored, but I only have a very small lectern and it is a big world. And anyway, the world only listens when it wants to. Yesterday the United Nations estimated that 60,000 have died in this completely avoidable conflict thus far, and unless Assad’s Alawite regime can be persuaded to decamp to the safe haven of Iran pretty damn quickly that figure could still rise exponentially. It was – and is – all so unnecessary, and so awfully, inexorably predictable.
I am also grateful for the opportunity to showcase my poetry and creative writing. Thank you for all the kind comments.
As the blog tipped over from 2011 into 2012, I was still deeply distressed by the murderous execution of Troy Davis, campaigning against which had occupied – unsuccessfully – so much of the start of the blog. This year, I have watched with increasing horror as the might of the modern American state has born down relentlessly on Bradley Manning, the well-meaning and honourable serviceman who set off the Wikileaks scandal by releasing for public gaze tens of thousands of classified snippets of information. Expect to hear a lot more about his case in the coming weeks, not least why I believe the man is a modern hero who should be feted, not crucified.
I am still Troy Davis. I am now Bradley Manning.
Happy New Year, Dear Reader.
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