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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.
Wandering Facebook today brought us across this lovely snippet from our friend and reader Mimi in California.
“Today’s irony, brought to you by Hailey’s school:
“Let’s have a moment of silence for the deaf” at the end of the afternoon prayer.”
How thoughtful of them. Next week, poking our eyes out for the blind, no doubt.
Anyhow, it did remind us of the only joke we have ever consciously written. It ran thusly:
“So when Marcel Marceau died, did they hold a minute’s noise?”
Hardly enough to establish us as one of the world’s great humourists, but we are proud of it. Years later – and we never published the joke apart from gleefully sharing it with friends and acquaintances in the pub and over dinner – it was fed back to us from a comic in the UK. Amazing how the world works.
Marceau was a French actor and mime most famous for his stage persona as “Bip the Clown.” He referred to mime as the “art of silence,” and he performed professionally worldwide for over 60 years. As a youth, he lived in hiding and worked with the French Resistance during most of World War II, giving his first major performance to 3000 troops after the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Following the war, he studied dramatic art and mime in Paris.
In 1959 he established his own pantomime school in Paris, and subsequently set up the Marceau Foundation to promote the art in the U.S. Among his various awards and honours, he was made “Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur” (1998) and was awarded the National Order of Merit (1998) in France. He won the Emmy Award for his work on television, was elected member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin, and was declared a “National Treasure” in Japan. He was friends with pop artist Michael Jackson for nearly 20 years, and Jackson said he would use some of Marceau’s techniques in his own dance steps.
Marceau’s work was frequently whimsical and humorous, but also often exquisitely beautiful and sad. Given that existentialism is basically a French invention, it is hardly surprising that he addressed it in his work.
His famous performance of “A Life” in three minutes was happily captured on film and is on YouTube with a number of his other history-making performances, and although the quality is very poor – it almost obscures the fact that he starts and ends in a foetal position – it is well worth viewing. What is fascinating is how he can create tension through repetition, can create suspense through inaction, and can provide shock through the tiniest changes in facial expression or bodily position. In a word: exquisite.
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.)
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.
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:
As a professional writer for over 30 years now (a very scary thought) who is yet to actually go broke (got close a couple of times, admittedly) I am often asked “How the hell do you make a living writing?”
I have wondered myself on a few occasions. When people ask me the next question, which is always “What do you write?” I always answer “What someone will pay for.” In fact, of course, I frequently write for no financial reward at all, but hell, I don’t want that idea gaining too much currency.
The answer to conquering the biggest problem most creative people face is in this little video from Ira Glass. He sums up the greatest thing holding most creative people back – the fact that they know that what they are doing could be better – and neatly provides a solution.
If you are in any way involved in art, writing, advertising, or miscellaneous content creation, and whatever stage of life you are at, I do recommend you listen to this short video. It happens to be charming and uplifting to.
And then do what it says.
Incredibly it’s two years to the day since we somewhat nervously launched Wellthisiswhatithink.
Seems like yesterday.
In that time, we have enjoyed – and we really mean that – a whopping 113,677 viewers and responded to 2,096 comments. Phew!
Our “Top 20” most popular countries for views are, in order, the good ol’ USA, UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, India, Netherlands, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Sweden, Greece, Japan, Brazil, Finland, Philippines, and South Africa, but virtually every country in the world is represented.
We have even had a visitor from Vatican City. Just one. Once.
So welcome, and thank you, Your Holiness. Do you prefer to be called Frank?
Anyhow: other “sole visitor states” have included Micronesia, Togo, Solomon Islands, Lichtenstein (lift your game, please, bankers), Djibouti, Benin, Lesotho, Madagascar, Uzbekistan, Bhutan, Dominica, and the British Virgin Islands.
So you can expect a travelogue item sponsored by the local tourism authorities of the British Virgin Islands really soon: a quick acclimatization and photography tour will probably be required, don’t you think, Mr Minister of Tourism for BVI?.
And “Where’s China, we hear you ask?” Answer: banned.
Not them, us.
We have fallen foul of the Great Firewall of China, which is damned annoying as we really like the place, and the people. 请停止阻止我们的博客，我们是非常好的人。*
We await a response from the Chairman soon.
Anyway, we’re now comfortably over 500 posts (so you should be able to search on just about any topic you can think of and find it covered somehow!) and we’re not far behind a rolling average of offering you a blog a day, which was the goal we set ourselves.
Not a bad effort, really, from both readers and writers. And we really are very grateful to everyone – every subscriber, every visitor, everyone leaving a comment, and every guest blogger.
We are delighted that you, Dear Reader, show every sign of enjoying the deliberately esoteric collection of news items and thoughts we pull together. It’s not a political blog, it’s not an art or photography blog, it’s not a food and wine blog, or a travel blog, it’s not a blog about poetry and writing, it’s not a humour blog.
We hope Wellthisiswhatithink is all of that and more, and we are deeply touched by your interest and your generous help.
Your loyalty – and more importantly, your input: positive, or critical – is what has made Wellthisiswhatithink a success.
We hope you stick with us, and keep enjoying our somewhat wry, askance, and opinionated view on the world. Please tell your friends. And once again, thank you from the bottom of our ink-stained hearts.
Is there a topic you would LIKE us to comment on that we haven’t? Got a pet cause you think should get the Wellthisiswhatithink treatment? Want to volunteer as a guest blogger? (Worldwide fame guaranteed, and not a cent in pay.) Just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org …
It’s your blog. We built it for you. Be a part of it in our next year.
*Please stop blocking our blog, we are really nice people.
Poet Neil Hilborn has become an internet sensation in the last 24 hours.
His massively impressive two-minute performance-style, life as art, baring of his soul poem about his love for his girlfriend, written through the window of his OCD, is simply astonishing.
As someone who has suffered from OCD in the past, a brutal multi-layered, multifaceted illness that makes its sufferer’s lives a misery, may I just say that I find the last two lines of the poem among the most moving I have ever heard in all my life.
Listen, weep, laugh, marvel at the courage – enjoy.
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.
At Wellthisiswhatithink we have been quietly issuing opportunities for people to appear on the blog as our guest, and we are delighted that George has taken up our invitation, via the StooshPR Facebook page which is an outpost of the very busy stooshpr.com.
This charming and insightful description of life and love as an expatriate in Japan’s snowy, mountainous, and exquisitely beautiful north is fascinating. Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and I will visit Tokyo briefly in a few months, and this lovely article will enrich and inform our visit. Thanks, George! Would you like to be our next Guest Blogger, Dear Reader?
“This isn’t my first experience with being an expatriate, but it is by far the longest, and will undoubtedly by my last one, as I intend to spend the rest of my life as an expat living in Sapporo, Japan.
Back in late 1973 I went to Mexico City for a little over two months, explored the possibility of moving there, going so far as to check out what I’d need to do to open a counseling practice there.
But the time wasn’t right for me, so I flew back home to Minneapolis. In January. Given the fact that it was 75 degrees above zero (Fahrenheit) in Mexico City and 25 degrees below zero when I arrived in Minneapolis, that was very bad timing. If you want to explore what being really cold is like, try doing what I did. It works in spades.
The two most important things about moving to another country are deciding to move, and knowing why it is that you’re moving.
My “why” was supporting my wife’s desire to move back home after half of her life in America. Would it be a big move? Huge! That’s why the decision has to be a good one, because it’s a lot of work. Suffice it to say that, after two years of planning, three visits to Japan, and having the astonishing good fortune of selling our house days before the real estate bubble popped, I retired from my mental health practice, we flew to Japan, found a condominium to buy, bought it, flew back to Seattle, packed up the rest of our things, and on March 28th 2008, caught a flight to Tokyo, then on to Sapporo and our new home.
“Home” in this instance, was vastly different from the 1200-plus square foot house with a big yard and gardens we had lived in for eighteen years.
Our home in Sapporo is a typical Japanese “mansion” (code for “condominium”), called a “2 LDK” — two small bedrooms, a small living room, and a dining area with a tiny kitchen at one end. The bath, toilet, washing machine and water heater are off the entryway which, in winter, is cold! Then comes the reality of trying to fit everything you own into this tiny space without driving each other mad. Downsizing to something this tiny was, well, a huge challenge once everything we had shipped arrived. We were literally tripping over each other. In our Seattle home my work space was in the basement, and my wife had the first floor all to herself. Here it’s a very different world.
Japanese families raise their families in places this small, and my wife grew up in one, but after spending half of her life in America, adjusting to this kind of change has been daunting for both of us. We’re still adjusting, but we have reached the stage where we can laugh about it.
The neighborhood is lovely, public transportation stops across the street, the subway station is easy to get to by bus, and there’s the nearby Motsukisamu river (we call anything this small a creek back home) to walk along.
Our condo is ours free and clear, we’re both happy, although we are a bit nostalgic at times for the things we loved about living in America.
Before moving, we had thought that I’d be the one who would find the move the most challenging. After all, I’d spent my life in America, and was going to leave family (a brother and sister-in-law, four children and ten grandchildren) and friends behind to live as a foreigner in an Asian country.
Would I adjust? Would I find it uncomfortable to be among so many strangers I couldn’t communicate with? Would it be easy to meet other expats and establish friendships?
As it’s turned out, my wife has found it as difficult, and perhaps more difficult, than it has been for me, as she had lived away from Japan for half of her life, had adjusted very nicely to American culture and social norms, and discovered that readjusting to Japanese social and cultural norms was very stressful.
For example, in the US if you don’t want to do something, you say “No thanks,” and that’s it. Here it’s not so simple, as the person is likely to take offense. When you receive a gift from someone back in the States, you thank them for it, and that’s it. Here receiving a gift implies that you will reciprocate, and failing to reciprocate can – and often does – result in hurt feelings, which she finds very stressful, as she is expected to know, whereas I’m forgiven because, after all, I’m an “ignorant” foreigner and I don’t know better. Good for me, not so good for her.
The other difficult thing that’s been hard on my wife is having our roles reversed in the sense that the things I did for both of us back home (obtain medical services when we moved to Seattle, take her to medical appointments, obtain a dentist, go grocery shopping, and so forth), she had to do here, as I don’t read or speak Japanese.
This was tremendously stressful for her, as she had no idea where the good service providers were. The easiest part was getting medical insurance, which a cousin’s husband helped her to do, and getting me an ID card, which he also helped us do. And he helped her pick out utilities for our condo (“mansions” don’t come equipped with them). A friend helped us find a good contractor to redecorate (called “reform” here) our condo, which needed new wall covering, new patio sliding doors and a few other upgrades. Some of these things we’ve both learned to laugh about, but early on laughing about them wasn’t easy to do. Today we can laugh about the fact that our condo looks like a jumble store in the winter when the laundry hangs everywhere; so does everyone else’s “mansion”, which though it gives small comfort, is a lot better than none at all.
The upside is that after nearly five years, we’re both happy here, are able to laugh at the quirks and social gaffes that remain, and go our own way. What we’re not able do is become “Japanese”, which isn’t a problem for us.
What about friendships, you may ask? I’ve found several expats that I’ve become fairly close to, in the sense that we get together for coffee or a meeting of a few local writers once a month, and talk about various things of mutual interest, such as writing, politics back home, Japanese politics and so forth, much as we would do back home.
Generally speaking, I’ve not found the expat community all that open to connecting, which is pretty much the way it is back where I’m from.
We connect with people we have something in common with. I’ve established some good friends online that I sometimes chat with via Skype fairly regularly.
All-in-all I’m a happy camper as an expat living in an Asian country. The benefits have far outweighed the inconveniences for both of us, though it’s taken nearly five years for us to get to the point where we’re both feeling that way.
A wonderful, and unexpected, upside to our move to Sapporo is the way it’s stimulated my writing career. Living where everything is new and challenging is very simulating to my mind and my creativity.
For me moving here has resulted in writing and publishing two books (“The Old Man and the Monkey” and “Grandfather and the Raven”) both set in Japan; a short story about a Tokyo artist (“Seiji”) published in “A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Short Stories” edited by Mohammad A. Quayum and published in Singapore by Marshall Cavendish Editions; finding my publisher (Taylor Street Publishing, San Francisco, California); publication of a third novel (“Bear”, about a boy and his dog, set in Seattle), and a queue full of other writing projects that are either in process of being written or waiting to be written.
I’m sometimes asked what I would do if my wife died and left me widowed. (Indeed, she has asked me that herself.) I usually say that I’d probably move back to America, though I have no clear idea where, so I’d have to research that.
When asked why, my answer is always the same: I’m not fluent enough in Japanese to live a happy, connected life here.
But that’s mostly a passing thought that I don’t spend a lot of brain time on. Mostly I spend time living each day, enjoying each day, writing, and thinking of things Aiko (that’s my wife) and I can enjoy doing together.
And, in the final analysis, that’s the most important thing there is.”
George Polley is a writer, author and retired mental health professional from Seattle, WA. He and his wife moved to Sapporo, Japan at the end of March 2008, where they now live.
People usually enjoy it when I post my own poetry here, and I am happy to do so, so long as some of you buy the book occasionally too. Remember, any profits benefit a number of wonderful charities. You can head to: http://tinyurl.com/7tzxxgg where it is available in both book format and download.
I am always – like most writers – pondering the nature of writing and the creative process.
This is not mere self-absorption, I feel. Well, I hope it isn’t.
Like a musician who hears notes constantly in their head which won’t go away until he plays them, or an artist who perceives the lines and colours of the world in a particular way and feels compelled to depict them, so the writer is frequently the victim of his or her words, not their master or mistress.
Sometimes – often – I simply feel an urge to write things down, to express them just so. If I ignore the urge, it becomes a mental nagging, then an indescribable emotional itch, then a full-blown obsession.
Like all writers I have been tortured by words or phrases, and eventually tossed back the sweat-drenched sheets and stumbled angrily to my typewriter or computer, willing the damn things down onto the empty page, so I can get some damn sleep.
And as any writer will tell you, it is the day you forget your shiny new portable electronic device, or more prosaically, your notepad, that the thoughts come flooding thick and fast, insistently, clamouring for attention, and you have to press confused bystanders or friends into giving you pen or paper immediately less the internal howling becomes too intense.
So: I wrote a poem about it. As you do. (Well, as you do if you’re a poet.) About how writing doesn’t just invade my life, it really is my life – has been for as long as I can recall, actually – and the rest of my life goes on around it, sometimes uninterrupted, and sometimes completely dominated by it.
The poem’s very long, but I do hope you find it enjoyable. It describes a real evening, long, long ago. Deep in the last millennium. Or perhaps, an amalgam of evenings. The pub was the Leinster Arms in Collingwood, in Melbourne, which for a while I seemingly kept open almost single-handedly through my contributions, (it would have been cheaper to rent an office, as I later did), and I only reveal that location now because I am perfectly sure that no-one there remembers me at all, and most of those that I now report on are either dead, demented, or simply moved on. And anyway, the poem is written with affection, and “no names, no pack-drill”, eh?
I am sure other poets and writers of all kinds – indeed, creative people of all kinds – will find echoes of themselves in here.
OK, so – back at 10,000 hits (and again at 15,000 hits) we had a bit of a celebration because the blog had reached lots and lots of readers. Which is a Very Good Thing, capital V, capital G, capital T. And so as not to appear too self congratulatory, I said the next little milestone would be at 25,000, assuming it would be a fair way off.
Well, it wasn’t, because we have just belted through 25,000 hits and more when I wasn’t looking, helped by some wonderful advertising f*** ups, and some poetry, and not a little of being rude about the Republican Party.
Anyway, back at 10,000 it was really interesting, because Wikipedia had this really cool article about all things 10,000-ish which I shared with you.
Sadly, I have to tell you, dear Reader, that finding anything to go with a celebration of 25,000 is much harder. Much.
The best Wikipedia could do was this rather attractive Iraqi money.
A number of websites offered to sell me cars all under 25,000 somethings, mainly Aussie dollars.
And Flat Finder told me they had over 25,000 apartments on offer in Australia.
There’s a battery charger called CTek XS 25,000. There’s not many people know that.
And Kenya has just fired 25,000 striking health workers.
Oh, and an outbreak of Avian flu in rural Victoria resulted in 25,000 ducks getting the chop. Awww.
And a woman in Dublin received 25,000 Euros for a botched cosmetic surgery thing on her lips. The way the Euro’s going I hope she spends it soon.
But that’s about it for our massive, once in a lifetime celebration of all things 25,000-ish people.
Not terribly inspiring, I’m sorry. I will pick our next number to celebrate more carefully – and, as always, thanks so much to everyone who reads the blog, and comments, and passes it on. You’re why.
Meanwhile, un-noticed by all except close family, 21 years ago Monday just passed my darling daughter popped into this world, and after hanging around a bit, rather quickly in the end, actually.
At one point my wife asked the midwife “What’s happening?” The midwife calmly replied “You’re having a baby.” My wife somewhat tiredly asked “When?” The midwife drily replied, “Er, now.”
And out she came.
So on Monday we had a few drinks, and then a few more, and there’s going to be a big party soon, of course, and, you know, all the things people do when someone has a significant birthday.
Which is much more of a something to celebrate, really, than a battery charger or a strike in Kenya, or even a blog. So I thought I’d mention it.
I’ve been quieter than usual, this week, because I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a 21 year old daughter. Sadly, I keep running up against the most obvious conclusion “Sh*t, man, you got old.” It’s hard to ignore the fact that the body is beginning to creak alarmingly, and the brain doesn’t go quite as quick as it used to. But all in all, I am content with my lot.
Because, you know, kids don’t come with a manual, no matter how many people try to sell us one in the bookstores, and her mother and I just muddled along as best we could, making plenty of mistakes, clinging onto each other for dear life sometimes as the waves of life rocked our little boat backwards and forwards, but we made sure that what we did do for the kid was try to teach her right from wrong – and always to hang onto what’s right – to always believe in her dreams, to be able to talk to us about anything, and to love her to bits.
Good, bad, indifferent, grumpy, cheerful, frightened, brave, loud, quiet, hard-working, feckless, in love, out of love, in sickness and in health, we just loved her to bits. And always will.
In return, she grew, miraculously, before our very eyes, into this infinitely better and more golden and more caring and more insightful human than us.
Which is all, on reflection, that I think you can really hope for when you set out – that you leave behind you a child who is just the best that you can both be, and then some.
And she is. So “well done Caitlin”. You turned out real good. Thank you. And please remember I really want cable TV in the old folks’ home. I don’t care if the place smells of cabbage and wees, but it must have cable TV.
And sometimes, without warning, it is lost.
Like old men trying to finish a marathon, we keep running.
Our spindly, shaking knees taking us all over the road.
We trail behind. Even the spectators are leaving.
True, around corners we find unexpected relief.
Small surprises of pleasure appear without warning.
Cracking lips suck, relieved.
But back at the start of the race we ran with the blood singing in our veins.
Each step juddered revelations through straining fibres.
Nothing broke our tempo, nothing could stop the running.
Now each slight incline is a panting reminder of past fitness.
Reality sticks in our lungs like an inhaled burr.
Others run ahead, still full of the singing blood.
Ashamed to catch each other’s eye, we trot to a halt.
Put our shaking hands on quivering hips.
Clasping them for a little passing stability.
The sweat of our failure drips incessantly on the pavement.
But the night has grown cold.
Somewhere, a mobile phone plays tunelessly.
As if by a signal, we turn our backs on one another.
Take a last, shuddering, sucking breath.
And silently creep away.
When the other is safely out of sight, we strip off our shoes,
barely concealing our relief at the new-won freedom.
Fling them over high walls, and walk, now.
Picking our way carefully, through a slalom of dustbins.
Miles and miles of dustbins waiting to be emptied.
Filled to the brim with other’s discarded shoes.
Anyone interested in checking out my volume of poetry – READ ME – 71 Poems and 1 Story – can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/7y55a7v
Once the decision was made,
you were ruthless.
You hoovered away our life.
Shuffled poems, letters, and sleeves crusty with bleeding hearts into drawers.
Locked them, and threw away the key, making sure I saw it arc, scintillating,
over the back wall and down the embankment.
Watching your demolition, I waited quiet at the foot of the stairs.
Like a man on his way to an execution he thinks he deserves.
The unspoken agreement that it would always end like this stapling my lips shut.
Pinned together by the promises of expecting nothing.
When you deemed it right, we were to be un-realised.
“I will run out,” you’d said. “Always do.
No lies, not between us.”
No whining. No reminiscing.
No last minute pub-garden rescues over bitter ale.
No relying on fevered bodies to make things right.
You had run your hand across my belly, making it stiffen.
“It won’t be that,” you had said. “It will be other stuff.”
Quiet now. Waiting for the bullet. Eyes fixed on the sky.
Click, staple, click, staple. Your timing.
That was always the deal.
Casting around the newly laid graveyard, now neat as a pin,
untidy man neatly stowed away,
jumbled memories marshalled into neat rows,
you straightened the flowers
I had bought you, for this day,
self consciously, in the middle of our dinner-partied, wine-soaked table
where once you had bent, looking over your shoulder,
hair tumbling, laughing madly at me.
“Afters. Come on.”
Brushing passed me, you hurried up the stairs, and re-appeared,
bearing in front of you like an offending sceptre,
a solitary, white edged and almost new toothbrush.
For a moment, your face trembled and hope leapt.
Then, click staple, our lips were closed again.
You swallowed the toothbrush into my breast pocket,
gave it a little pat, and then another, more thoughtfully.
Looked at me for a moment,
and walked to the door, working the key
I had just given you back.
I pavemented, eyes squinting against the sudden light,
refusing a blind.
As it closed behind me, I saw you through the bowl of glass
fish-eyed through the mock Tudor door
grasp your broom and resume your busy sweeping.
You never glanced back as you swept and swept
your tears washing
the kitchen floor we had once danced on
Anyone interested in checking out my volume of poetry – READ ME – 71 Poems and 1 Story – can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/7y55a7v
As I keep telling people, little matters like sentence construction, correct punctuation and carefully laid out type – or handwriting – really do make all the difference. Oh, dear. Oh dearie, dearie me.
But you tell the young ‘uns nowadays, and they won’t believe you.
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