Sunday, March 27, 2011

Helpful

Too many different kinds of cheese and things
just get too confusing, which things often
are. You would like to purchase a single
     scrub pad
but they only seem to be available
in bundles of a dozen or more
and you know that you will not use
a dozen scrub pads in what is left
     of this lifetime.

If you ran, say, a summer camp
or a prison, or maybe if you were
     a profligate breeder
utterly cowed by the most obscure
pronouncements of scripture
you might have use for a cask of
pork and beans or a package
of toilet paper large enough
to possibly float you to safety
in the event of a ship wreck.

You certainly don't need forty AA batteries
or a bag of jerked meat that could feed
a party of lost explorers for a significant period
     of lostness.
No, what you want is a single
scrub pad to clean your single
frying pan, but you don't need it
     that bad.

The old fellow at the entrance
is wearing a gold paper crown
that has the word HELPFUL
inscribed on it in some sort of mock
medieval font, and as you leave
empty-handed he offers
what almost seems like a genuine smile,
claps his hands enthusiastically,
and says, "I hope you found
what you were looking for!"
Which, of course, you have not
even as you suddenly sense that
     you have.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Conductors of the Moving World


The Making of CONDUCTORS OF THE MOVING WORLD from Little Brown Mushroom on Vimeo.

For more info, or to order the book, go here.

Here's the math on the edition, with thanks to Steve Sturdevant (and Andy), Kurt Froehlich, Rial Cone, and Stephen Davis for taking a crack at crunching the numbers: Based on the total number of original photos, and the random selection of one photo each from 17 columns of three stacks of prints, plus the 17 slots in each volume and the purely serendipitous sequencing, the number of possible editions of Conductors of the Moving World is “45,933,532,441,368,219,648,000. That is: 45 Sextillion, 933 Quintillion, 532 Quadrillion, 441 Trillion, 368 Billion, 219 Million, 648 Thousand. Or, in more poetic terms, roughly the number of grains of sand upon the earth.” (The quote is from Andy.)

Or, in purely personal terms, somewhere in the same ballpark as the odds of running into a beloved ghost on a corner of Bryant Park moments before entering The International Center of Photography, where Inspector Ota took his first tentative steps as a reincarnated man.

This is a really mysterious, lovely, and lovingly assembled book, and my contributions are the least of its charms. Many, many thanks to Alec Soth, Hans Seeger, Carrie Thompson, and Charlie B. Ward --a sort of Caucasian version of A Tribe Called Quest-- for working so hard on a truly mad project.

If you should decide to order the book, cross your fingers that you get the astronaut, or at least the manhole, bikini shot, or World Trade Center towers. I'll be happy to send anyone who requests one a specially packaged collection of the 110 lines of text --strange little aphorisms and koans inspired by, among other things, Zen, the history of traffic control, Walter Benjamin, and P.D. Eastman's Go, Dog, Go!-- that didn't make it into the final version. Or perhaps I'll just post them here at some point.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

You There: A Prayer In A Dark Time

Our job is to understand and to care, and most of us have failed miserably.

The everything we cannot understand we are asked to accept, and at this, also, we have failed miserably.

Most of us, though, have gotten pretty good at going on, and for this most modest of achievements we are rewarded with what?

Laughter, I suppose. A sensitivity that can sometimes almost convince us we are human and have souls worth saving. The occasional flight outside of ourselves that allows us a glimpse --however brief-- of exactly where we are and what we have been given, which is the one thing we can ever truly call our own: our lives in this world, exactly as the world is, which is too often heartbreaking and fragile but which can nonetheless also be incomprehensibly fascinating and beautiful.

So, You then: Big Thing. Great Eraser. Compulsive builder and eccentric architect. Demolition expert. Thresher. Conjurer. Custodian of bursting and broken hearts and Choreographer of confrontations with mirrors and painful truths. Master of disappearance and deterioration. You with your largess with lilacs and your wondrous palette of greens. Lord of the turtles and obsessive molder of birds and beetles. Dog maestro. Prodigal prototype. Soul pincher. Star sower. Shatterer. Lamp lighter. Candle Snuffer. Trickster. Slumberer. Sourpuss. Soft-hearted old fool. Mutterer. Madman. Misery maker. Terrifying Immensity. Merciful One.

You, who so often in your boredom or wrath seem to study your majestic creation like an indifferent chess move: I'm crying uncle, right here and right now. Come on, Alleged Something, show a little tenderness. Go easy on us. If you have some perhaps understandable grudge, let it go and forgive us.

Forgive us all the great and usual sins. We can be beautiful, but so can we be stunned and stupefied into unaccountable and unpardonable ugliness. We know this. We know that some of us are fools, and dangerous, but there are many who try very hard to combat such destructive assholes. Please don't make it any harder than it already is. Please don't be a vengeful dick.

We know that we are bumbling failures, too often cold hearted, but we also know that we can still be miraculous and compassionate, and the best of us are out there proving that every minute of every day. So, come on, forgive us. Most of us want desperately to be here.

We understand your takeaway prerogative and, frankly, we've seen enough of it lately. You've shown that you can crush us, that we can be crushed, that we can crush each other (and do), but I'm asking you to please raise up off us and let us try once more to prove ourselves worthy of the grace and the magic we've been given, and the redemption we've supposedly been promised.

And if you must turn away, if you've truly had enough, then turn, and let us live. We can take care of each other, and should. And will.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Insomnia: A Dispatch From The Foothills Of Sleep

From somewhere he heard a few hesitant notes from a piano. Perhaps it was coming from the back room, but it sounded even more distant. It was the sound of a piano stretched to the point where it could almost not have been a piano he was hearing. It could have been an audio hallucination. There was no pattern, just a random pinging at the high end of the keyboard. Silence, then a burst of four or five notes.

He went through the front room and into a hallway that was carved through permanent shadow. The whole place had been sealed up tight for weeks and most of the furniture had been removed. The curtains were all tightly drawn, and only a stray strand of fuzzed light snuck in from outside, crepuscular and loaded with slow cruising dust.

There was still blood on the kitchen floor, a substantial quantity of it, dried to the darkest edges of maroon and become almost chalk, or tempera powder. It had splashed up onto the cupboards and across the refrigerator door.

From the kitchen he could see out into the backyard, where there was a familiar and now abandoned doghouse. When he wandered out there he found the piano: a rusted set of wind chimes swaying almost imperceptibly from a clothesline pole.

He didn't stay long.

At the edge of town there were the ruins of an ancient fortress, perched right at the edge of the ocean on a hill. The ramparts and parapet were all more or less in place, thrown up around a cluster of terraces, each of them situated at a different height and connected by a series of damp tunnels and stone steps and the occasional wooden ladder. Above it all at the southernmost end overlooking the water was the largest terrace, now completely exposed to the sky and the stars.

He made his way through the tight lanes of the town to this fortress, and through the labyrinths of the fortress to the terrace above the ocean. He'd been there many times. It was a wonderful place for silence. Whatever sound made the journey up there was oddly transformed. The voices from the little tavern at the bottom of the hill sounded as if they were rising from a very deep well.

The whine of an unseen boat in the darkness lulled him almost to sleep. He saw blazing cruise ships creeping along the distant horizon, and heard what sounded like one loud laugh carry from far out at sea. Exhausted and splayed on his back, he watched as one star after another tumbled down the sky and crashed into the ocean.

After a time he walked back to his room at the only inn still open in town.

He was very tired from his long journey and retired early, only to be immediately seized by an episode of what felt like intense seasickness. Words and images were pitching around in his head and it was as if he were aboard a flooded boat or rolling raft. This went on for several hours. He went to the basement at one point and retrieved a plastic pail that he placed next to the bed and vomited into during the night. Recalling that he had a bottle of motion sickness tablets in his travel bag, he staggered to the sink and swallowed several of the pills.

The medication did not, however, quell his seasickness, and he suffered through terrifying hallucinations of violent storms and hurricanes and even sea serpents. Again and again in the midst of these visions he would find himself tossed from a boat into the endless, roiling darkness of the sea.

He thrashed and thrashed until he felt himself sinking into a deeper and darker place. As he sank he was dimly aware of daylight slowly developing on the walls of the room.

The coroner's report listed the official cause of death as drowning.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Take Your Protein Pills And Put Your Helmet On

We are flying in outer space. My dog is floating upside down and licking the darkness.

To make a spacesuit I turned my skin inside out and rolled around in salt.

There are no assholes in outer space, or if there are they are nowhere to be seen. It's not like an airport.

The sound of outer space is a swelling sound that builds and builds and never breaks. Sometimes it sounds like an endless series of medical carts being wheeled down empty tunnels a mile beneath the earth. Other times it sounds like a solitary vacuum cleaner in an immense hotel ballroom at four o'clock in the morning. Still other times it can sound like a lonely road in a horror movie when someone who is about to be killed is walking away from a brokedown car as darkness falls.

Don't even think about trying to take pictures in outer space unless you have a special camera, which you don't.

There is plenty of time in outer space to contemplate things both simple and grand. The term "space capsule," for instance, a phrase that manges to be both. Or you might wonder this: when Elvis was sitting alone in his underwear in a hotel room late at night and looked in the mirror, what did he see?

In outer space the plains and prairies of the earth begin to seem like the work of a rococo eccentric, and mountains take on the abstract quality of something purely imagined.

Most of the voyagers who blast off for outer space head straight for a space station. This is the equivalent of planning your vacation around a visit to a truck stop. Just as on planet earth, the real wonders in outer space are to be found along less traveled byways. A man named Sun Ra understood this. He knew how to turn his skin inside out.

If you spend enough time in outer space, and obtain some level of mastery over the patience such travel requires, you begin to appreciate what a wonderful gift it is to expect that nothing much will happen, and to wish you could have access to such mastery during your time on earth.

In outer space I assign my dog the rank of colonel.

In outer space I actually sleep, and dream of a monkey in a white room, sitting quietly in a corner, painting on a canvas and tap-tap-tapping his hairy little foot to a popular song on the radio. A woman in a lab coat brings the monkey a glass of ice cold root beer. The monkey asks to be excused to make a telephone call.

Sometimes, after dozing for a time in outer space, you can open your eyes and briefly convince yourself that you are in a boat floating in the middle of a deep, dark sea full of stardust and inexplicably swarming with fireflies.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Richard Riggins, Grade Four: Revisited

Richard Riggins had a little red robot that made his bed each morning and put his sneakers in neat rows in the bedroom closet. He also had a chimpanzee that played ping-pong with him in the basement.

Richard and the monkey liked the same programs on television, and whenever Richard laughed the chimp would bounce up and down, clap his hands, and expose his yellow teeth in a wide, happy smile.

Richard had received the chimpanzee from his father, who was an astronaut and traveled all over outer space in a rocket. Because his father was so busy, he did not live with Richard and his mother.

Richard's father would, though, sometimes come for a visit, arriving on each occasion in a helicopter that he piloted and landed in the parking lot of the Mormon Church across the street from Richard's house. Besides his work as an astronaut, Richard's father was also a famous scientist and archaeologist. He had once sent Richard some dinosaur bones. A strong, handsome man with a fine singing voice, Richard's father regularly sang with a band in a nightclub near the base where he lived with the other astronauts.

Richard's mother refused to acknowledge any of these things about the man who had fathered her only child.

Richard went to school at Thomas Edison Elementary. He was shy and small for his age, and had bright red hair that his mother cut with old sewing scissors. All of his clothing had once been the clothing of a cousin who was almost 20 years older than Richard. The other kids at school picked on Richard and said things about his mother, who was known to make scenes at the Piggly Wiggly and had written checks that were taped behind the counter there and at several other stores in town as well.

Richard never told any of his classmates or teachers about his father or his robot or his monkey.

At night, Richard would sit at his bedroom window in the dark, staring out across the neighborhood of small, low houses. Far in the distance he could see the town's water tower and the big sign above the 24-hour Conoco station near the highway. For some reason the water tower reminded him of a rocket ship, which reminded him of his father. He had determined that the next time he talked with his father he would ask for a talking bird for Christmas.

Richard's father would usually call late at night. Richard would have to tiptoe through the living room where his mother was often asleep in front of the television. Sometimes one of her cigarettes would still be smoldering in the ashtray next to the recliner, and Richard would quietly stub it out before proceeding to the kitchen to answer the phone. The ringing never seemed to wake up his mother.

His father's voice always sounded like it was coming from someplace far, far away, almost as if he were calling from his spaceship. Richard liked to imagine his father in his astronaut suit, turning cartwheels in the air as he chatted with his son on the telephone. His father would ask him about school, and when Richard told him that he was having a hard time his father would say, "It's okay. Things will get better." They would talk about the monkey and the robot, and Richard's father would laugh at the stories he told.

One night after it had snowed all day Richard's father called him from a tropical island where he was on a deep sea diving expedition. Richard told him that he wanted a talking bird for Christmas and his father had been silent for a moment.

"I think I might have just the bird for you," he said. "The one potential problem is that this bird speaks only Farsi, and you will have to teach it to speak English."

Richard said that he felt confident he could teach the bird to speak English.

His father asked him what words he would teach the bird, and Richard answered without hesitation.

"I will teach the bird," he said, "to say, 'I like you.'"