Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mornings at Windermere

So today I peeled myself from bed at 6 in the morning. The terrorizing alarm clock had been roaring for ten minutes, but I seem to have developed immunity to its chant. With anesthetized eyes I set off for my morning walk, me and my camera. In the summer it is only during the outrageous hours of the morning, when only the drunkards and the overachievers are awake, that you can be outside and feel like a human being. At all the other times you feel like a potato in the microwave, dying a slow death smothered in a paper towel.

Believe it or not, there is a 6 am “crowd” roaming these wide roads that are our walking routes. We know each other by now. Let us make a brief inventory. There are the two inseparable middle-aged ladies who carry these wide, gruesome smiles in their pockets and put them on as soon as they see me. As I catch sight of them, the white cotton shirts, I turn onto a side road whenever possible. There is also the Saturday Shirtless Guy, but he is only an occasional participant to the walking marathon. He lives under the impression that he is a Greek god and wants to make the fact known to everyone. There is something truly incongruous about a topless dude jogging on the side of a five-lane road. You expect to see the beach somewhere, but it is missing. Did I miss a meeting – is this Macon, or Malibu? My rejoinder is the same to women who jog outdoors wearing sports bras. I know that it is hot and everything, but PUT SOME CLOTHES ON, PEOPLE. One of these latter specimens is a morning walker, a woman, must be in her forties, who is excessively bony. All the parts of her body are somehow suspended unnaturally at a 45 degree angle. She keeps the jogger posture, you know, upper limbs rigid and gathered. I am sure that in a crowd her elbows can be used as a weapon of mass destruction.

There is also a ceremony of salutes involved in these cursory encounters, but I will not talk about that. Instead I will dwell on something which truly puzzles me, which at times makes me turn my head and stare at these people kicking dust with their heels. Jogging – why? So the idea is that we put on a costume consisting of polyester shirt and shorts (that is how they make these running outfits, 100% synthetic), we pull our hair back with one of those heinous bands that squeeze our skulls, we buy really expensive running shoes that look like spaceships, and we run. Actually it is not exactly running, because that kind of effort and speed is not sustainable on longer distances for regular people like us. So what takes place is more like hopping, running’s unrefined cousin. So we hop and we sweat. We hop and we sweat and damage our knees. You cannot possibly think that we make our joints happy when we hurl our entire weight onto them again and again. So after we make a milkshake out of our internal organs and return home drenched in sweat and with bad knees, do we feel good? I wonder whether these people jog for pleasure or because others are doing it. Better yet – maybe they do it because it feels good to overtake the slower participants, the walkers, who are not soaked in sweat and do not get bad knees, and who actually take the time to look to the right and to the left. Who is better off, I wonder, the walkers or the joggers? Since I am a photographer, I suppose, I will never be a jogger.

The most arcane mystery of the walking crowd comes with the heavyweights. Every now and then you see them: panting, groaning, sweating, nearly breathing their last but still going – jogging, I mean. Yet their presence is recurring throughout the year and each time they exhibit the same egg-shaped and rubicund features. Is there a universal conspiracy against the humpty-dumpties of Macon? Forgive me, I can never be delicate when the situation requires. I am genuinely concerned, though, about the futility of their efforts to lose weight. Or are these efforts merely simulacra, like occasional outings to maintain appearances, to shut the hecklers up. It is a gesture that seems to say “See? I am trying!” – much like me going to the theater, which also happens twice in a year. But what is the point, really? Instead of sequestering the rebellious flesh into sweat-inducing, weight-losing garments, exercising themselves pathetically on the side of the road to delirium and then swearing off physical activities for the next six months, why not put on normal clothes and go for a walk. Walking, you know? The thing that is not jogging. The kind of thing that you do for pleasure, not to lose weight or to keep up with the trends.

In any case, on the way back from the morning walk I meet everyone again. It seems that all of us travel to a certain point and then turn around and walk back. Only I do not like to turn around: it feels like regression. So I seek to make a loop and then it is as if I am walking a whole new road, a virgin path. I am an intrepid explorer. When I return I have come full circle. Windermere Circle. It is 7.30 and time for breakfast at the holiday house.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Like Atoms in A Fugue

I had a friend from Vietnam once. She used to braid my hair and get bored halfway and leave it in a mess. I had the pleasure of hosting her recently when she came to Macon for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Of course she got the date wrong and arrived a week before the festival proper, so she left frustrated and infestive, as it were. Admittedly, it did not surprise me. She was never the organized, prescient kind. In fact she is the type who in America would be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and prescribed a fistful of pills. In Vietnam, I suppose, she is just a regular girl.

I am the first to admit that I do not have patience for everything. I remember a time when I did, however. Learning how to work my antediluvian Russian sewing machine was a superhuman effort and I, god knows, got to know all its whims. Now, however, I find myself hitting the imaginary CTRL + F just to find my keys in my room. Just find them, damn it, where are they! And I jitter my leg like a madwoman.

It ought to have been the other way around. It is children who are impulsive and instinctual. They do not care to know how things work but rather to ask and ask and ask and remember nothing, just so they can ask again. But as we grow up and ascertain the workings of the world – learn the settings of the microwave, train ourselves to check the oil in the car – we cultivate patience for details. At least in theory. The situation de facto is that people skim texts rather than read them. They buy half-cooked foods and cakes-in-a-box rather than cook for real. Holes in socks and missing buttons are a common occurrence, because who is familiar with the artful craft of sewing nowadays? My foreboding Media Studies prof would be eager to asseverate that people are becoming more and more mechanical, inattentive and essentially robotic.

I am skeptical about that thesis, however. It seems unlikely that the patience of the world has run down the drain with the dregs of technological development. Patience does not come in a limited amount, like natural gas. The popular theory is that patience has been eroded by convenience, like rocks yield their substance under the abrasive pressure of water. Since we have dishwashers and microwave ovens and vacuum cleaners, we can relax more around the house. Since we have Walmart our cooking is minimal. The cars that meow in our driveways render obsolete the uncivilized bustle of riding the bus, waiting for the damn thing, smelling the proximity of the other passengers. How primitive it was, back in the day. How far we have come. So if our patience is no longer being taxed by these nuisances, where does it all go?

Well I’ll be damned if here in the South people don’t spend 70 per cent of their existence smiling. Perhaps this is where our resources go: making small talk, stretching our faces, getting along with people. Does this amity come naturally? On the contrary, it is an effort. Unlike the detail-oriented efforts of the past that belonged to rustic living – a self-made dress, a home-made birthday cake – living in harmony with others is today an effort “en gros,” like a full work-out for our persona. I am convinced that the concept of “persona” is a recent addition to our vernacular, born from this fecund pressure of social protocol. We have to contrive to be a certain somebody and this full-on pantomime sucks in all our patience like a vacuum. Who is peeved every day when coming home from work, say Aye. Why, it is just about anyone who works in an office.

I recognize it here, in our holiday house. Being in the world is exhausting. When you kick off your shoes and collapse in a chair it feels like being released from prison. It is only “home” that you feel safe enough to relinquish the phony accoutrements that are requisite everywhere else. It can be disconcerting to know somebody in “home” mode after you have known him in “social” mode. Sentences without smiles, curt comments that betray ominously irate underlayers: these are things that are not acceptable in the work place. But they are inside, frothing, because we are human after all. So they have to find a crevice to seep out.

If you live with people who work in an office it may seem sometimes, because of the illusion of artificial habitude, that they are mad at you. They might let dishes pile up in the sink, let dust gather on furniture, do things that say “I don’t have patience for this.” But they are not angry or irritated – they are just being normal. Their reservoir of patience has been pilfered by a compulsory, sophisticated species of decorum that encourages people to be less human and more zombie. Patience is not extinct. It is still there but it has been derailed, like a hijacked train, toward objectives such as: must look good in society, must do a good job, must get along with everybody. With this mask of unnatural harmony draining our resources of patience, no wonder we need antidepressants for the
natural, uncontrived side of life.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Plague

When I decided to take the SAT a new realm opened up before me. I had a new project, something to occupy my jilted mind with. This time the promise was of a fair trial. The rigidity of the testing process contrasted sharply with the examinations that I was used to. My calendar shone with highlighted dates, my stock of number 2 pencils was replenished. I was going to take a test and it was going to be honorable. For the first time there would be no cheating. Nothing had been that strict before. I thought it an auspicious beginning, like a yellow brick path that would take me, finally, somewhere.

The age of eighteen found me weary and flippant. An early age to be tired of life. If I had read Camus then, perhaps he would have managed to teach me how, on the whole, men are more good than bad. That precept, had I espoused it in earnest, would have obviated the bitterness I accrued with each passing day. Admittedly, it was not life I was fed up with but living itself, the active participation in everything that happened to me. By this time I had had my share of disappointments, the series of which reached the pinnacle with the sordid burlesque that was the Baccalaureate. The sudden realization that nepotism and favoritism overrode honest work sent me fuming, almost in hysterics. I returned home from each test in a daze.

As I waited for my turn to the oral examinations at the ramshackle school where I was assigned, the human pantomime unraveled before my eyes. Sloths I had taken classes with, who could not speak in full sentences, who did not know how to hold a book, gloated with triumph as they emerged from the building flaunting their grades. Their bought grades. Like everybody else I knew their worth, their worthlessness. The rest of us stood paralyzed before this revulsive satire. The world had been turned upside down. Brutes that were not good enough to kiss our feet were gods, and we were their groupies, their retinue. My peers shook hands with these harlequins obsequiously, as if the wheel of fortune had been somehow reversed and they were now the heavyweights, the masters. Even more than these thieves who were taking the stage, it was those timeserving Pharisees that especially nauseated me. It was like watching Beavis and Butthead, where everyone pretends not to notice how utterly stupid the situation is. Here we were pretending that it is natural for incompetence to conquer all. Why did we feign so well? Perhaps we are too familiar with the souls of mercenaries. We live among them. Sometimes we inhabit them. Whatever is required. In this instance it was required to dissimulate that it is natural for incompetence to prevail, so we delivered.

The performance was unbearable. I allowed myself to be incensed, to seethe with indignation. I even allowed myself the pleasure of contempt and pity for the fatuous opportunists who were now the center of attention. If you ever lived where I lived, you would know that one must get over these things quickly to keep on living sanely. But presently I could not reconcile myself with this particular situation, where success had been so shamelessly travestied.

It is hard to regain your composure in such situations, especially if you are the next one on the list. My name was called. So I played along in the charade, went through the door with apprehension like an innocent little schoolgirl. I knocked and was beckoned to enter. But when I came face to face with my examiners something went terribly wrong. My face was screaming. I was trying to tame my mutinous muscles but they would not relent. A battle was being fought under my skin, between propriety and visceral insurgence. What were you thinking! my face screamed at the pathetic duet before me. They were two women. One of them: your typical crone with aspirations of coquetry. The other: young and quite pretty, but severe and forbidding. Two anonymous shapes, two more pieces in the modular chess game of playing academics. Professors, they call them, these quacks who make a mockery of our merits. What were you thinking, I offered silently. They looked at me blankly. Maybe I smiled, I don’t know. The evaluation began.

I had my notes in my hand; my erudite vocabulary up my sleeve. As I spoke my palms sweated uncontrollably and I had to hide them. The older deviless, impressed, nodded along to encourage me. A smile insinuated itself on the lips smudged with flaming lipstick. She had probably expected nothing of value from me. But the young one, she was a tough cookie. A furrowed brow was all I got. What was truly unpleasant was that I knew why. I was the hireling of no one. I had no warrant, no star next to my name, no one of importance had put the approval stamp on my value. My bought value. As I mused on this my confidence waned and I became transparent. The damsel saw the battle under my skin and she knew what I was about, all conceit and contempt. Who are you to judge me, she seemed to say. Get used to it, kid: this is how it starts. You start all hopeful and starry-eyed and when you come out of the scholastic slaughter-house voila, the pedagogue-humanoid with his wires still sticking out of his head, freshly incinerated and recycled for future use. When you are 30, living with your parents and earning minimum wage you get laxer on quixotic affairs like correctitude and justice. If all this is a pile of crap, then we all partake of it in equal servings. And why should you be different? Come here, grab a spoon, dig in.

There was silence, suddenly. I had finished answering the questions. I quickly assessed my harvest: I had managed to impress an unsuspecting old hag, who gave me a 10 and continued to praise my vocabulary as she scribbled down her notes. I had also managed to secure the animosity of the young witch, who insisted on a 9 for a technicality. Apparently I had pronounced a word wrong, or something equally insubstantial. I should have felt it unfair on my skin, itching, like eczema. Instead my perception was all warped and I felt like they had made me a gift, been kind to me when they could have wronged me so much worse. An absurd debt weighed on me. For all the reading, the culture and the vocabulary I had behind me I felt shamed. I cannot explain it. My conscience told me that I owed these people something, perhaps the respect that I could not summon. My mind was plagued with too much contempt and I felt guilty for it. So I bowed respectfully and carried off my crippled grade. I played the angel until the last moment. I was an exemplary doormat.

The door made a horrible sound behind me, like a pendulum clock marking an inexorable, most regrettable moment in time. The corridor was dark, ominous. At the end of it there was the door. I was going to go through it, outside, where the crowd was waiting to applaud its soldiers of fortune and offer its contrived sanction. I felt lightheaded. I sat down against the wall. Reality came back to me in a cascade. I was trembling with anger again. I reviled my own weakness. How could I have been such a softie? How could I have not protested? I had compromised my pride in a detestable manner. There are few things more detestable than detesting yourself at any given time.

I sat calmly, matter-of-factly on the floor. I did not pull my hair out. I did not cry. I understood well. This was not a test: it was a compromise. The Baccalaureate in Romania is the empirical test of identifying the choking point. Let us ascertain, then, how much crap you can take. Come on, another spoonful. You can do it. Just swa-llow. Gooood. The doses increase, of course, as one proceeds through the thicket of instructional hierarchy. In college we use the ladle instead of the spoon. Later it is one whole cauldron at a time. There is an adjustment period for ingesting morally repulsive dishes. People can get used to anything. Even to murder, according to Meursault. Ah, Camus again.

Sure enough, the crowd is waiting outside with bated breath. I tell them. I don’t know what is wrong with me. I should keep silent and wait to assuage my demons in privacy. But Providence has other plans for me. As soon as I disclose my grade one of the fiends elbows his way out of the audience and confronts me. He and I shared a classroom for four years. I know that he does not know how to spell or how to multiply. He knows nothing about me except that I use words that he does not understand. This ignoramus has decided that he is better than me. It is like a scene from Beavis and Butthead, I swear. He throws me a cold supercilious look, the look of kings. I am a mendicant before him, a destitute literatus begging for alms. I look him up and down. He is wearing a football shirt colored in bright hues, like a talking parrot, and snow-white sneakers, a famous brand I am sure. His neck is adorned with a heavy gold chain. He has healthy-looking skin, amber-colored by the sun, like a peasant. He looks puffy on the inside and outside, like one who is well-fed and well-anchored.

It takes eons for his words to find their way into my skull. “What did you get? he asks, although he knows. He wants to hear it again, the confirmation of his grandeur. I should turn around and leave, I know it. Masochists they are called, if I am not mistaken, the ones who seek hurt and harm on purpose. So I remain and say: 9.5. Pfui! he dismisses me. I got a 10, girl. You’re lame. And then he tilts his head in such a way, like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, like a thug. He has his hands in his pockets and he flicks me off, he just flicks me off, as if I were some kind of irksome insect. Satisfied with the information I just delivered he is bored with my existence and presently his gaze wanders off to the next person coming out through the door, the next possible victim of his disgusting braggadocio.

I have no recollection of how I arrived home. No one came with me, so I must have walked. I remember climbing the four flights of stairs under a spell. My father opened the door. That is when I transformed. I became another person, a shrieking, frolicking monster. I lacked the enzyme required to digest the baseness revealed to me today. I was incredulous about the whole thing. Maybe I dreamed it. I am not one of those who stop eating and sink into silence when depressed. No, I rationalize my way through everything. I have to talk, speculate, predict. But there was no logic to find in this rigmarole, no formula to weed my way out of the labyrinth.

Surely enough, the same thing happened the next day, like a charm. I was decorated with a 9.5, in English, ironically, the sanctum of my academic breakthroughs. I was nearly delirious. Day after day I watched how some students who were below me, in knowledge as in ambition, were exalted, while I was demoted. By the end of this Kafkaesque nightmare I was crazed. I was convinced that I had no real idea of my value. I was either a genius or a failure and I oscillated between these scenarios from one moment to the next. When I came to see the final results, posted on the windows for everybody to see, I could conjure no anger or rebellion. The fire had burned out and only cinders were left, smoldering quietly. My curiosity titivated me, so I perused the lists searching for the name of my nemesis of the other day. In all his glory there he was, decked out with 9s and 10s like a stolen Christmas tree. Behold, man, the underdog genius of thermodynamics. Of English. Of programming. Of literature. Of mathematics. By Xerxes, his encyclopedic mind has dwarfed us all. And how well he kept his treasure all these years, feigning ignorance, ridiculing himself to amuse us, to secure his secret, only to let it surface now, in this epiphanic conclusion of another scholastic stage. How misleading it all was!

The academic thief is a new breed of man, one that perfects itself with every generation that embarks upon the sacrilege that we call school. Romania is the place where anyone could buy the subject of the national Baccalaureate in advance for $25 on the street, like one would buy cigarettes from a street vendor. Americans take for granted the typed and framed Honor Code that they hang up in their classrooms, oblivious that this trivial icon stands for something grand, which in other countries is entirely nonexistent. I am talking about fairness, of course. In the room where I took the SAT there must have been thirty people, all of whom in another context would have yielded to the unethical practices of the formula that they were used to. But this was not a “Romanian” type of thing. As soon as we were given the subjects everyone was quiet. There was no one smuggling books under the desk, whispering answers across the room, covering his eyes while peeking into the neighbor’s test. No one punched me in the back urging me to pass a cheat-sheet to the front. It felt strange to the others, I could see it. They laughed at this unprecedented scrupulousness. I found it strange too, like a new shoe that pinches a little before you break it in. But it felt worthwhile.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Of Capricorns

I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans – the poets and seers. Some other breed of man has won out. This world which is in the making fills me with dread. I have seen it germinate; I can read it like a blue-print. It is not a world I want to live in. It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress – but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist an escapist, the man of vision a criminal.
(Henry Miller - The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, page 24)

I discovered Henry Miller in a used book store in Brussels. Several of his books were on the promotional rack with other books that are slow to sell, where in America you would see the tag “Closeout.” Dog-eared Sandra Browns, Danielle Steeles and other pieces of would-be literature kept them company. It is interesting to see the value that Belgians attribute to Henry Miller. I found three of his novels: Quiet Days in Clichy, A Devil in Paradise and Plexus of The Rosy Crucifixion. Not what I would call, now that I am a connoisseur, his best samples, but arresting works nevertheless. I bought them all for 4 euros. The Belgian friend who was my cicerone for the day asked with bewilderment if I liked Henry Miller. It puzzled me that his question, not in the words but in the tone, seemed to accuse “Do you read porn?” I don’t know yet, I replied. Tell you what, he said, if he ends up on your favorites’ list I want credit for it. He paid for my books at the counter, despite all my punctilious objections. He also bought me a book of poetry by an unconventional Flemish author, Paul van Ostaijen, a sort of mountebank of words averse to punctuation. But this last gift was only because he liked me and thought that he could win me with a desultory, avant-garde breed of lyric. The book did not impress me and, to his disappointment, I had no comments to offer.

With Henry Miller, on the other hand, it was a different story. After years of intellectual solitude and cynical shame I felt that I finally had someone to talk to. A bridge to another soul’s dry agony and its convalescence. Panacea for my days of desolation. Henry Miller is still there when no one else is.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

No Direction Home

I have been thinking about you today.

I remember your garden, all slovenly and marred by weeds. There used to be roses in there and we made jam out of them, the nectar of gods. But the poor flowers were unhappy in disorder and eventually gave up and died. Why did you not care for them? You were brawny and callous, yet indolent and passive. You gulped your cheap beer while you watched time and rust and mold take over your treasures. Should I have condoned that indolence with kind words or should I have stayed on to watch you sink, in the name of camaraderie? I did neither.

Your house was quaint, if I remember well. You had hammocks and cots, a fireplace with wood. I still remember the smell of burned things, the crackling of the fire and our silence when we looked into it. There were evenings when we boiled wine with cinnamon and looked through steamy windows and sighed. We had cheese and tomatoes for dinner and watched television from wicker armchairs. So bucolic were we in our small quarters.

When was it that I began to sugarcoat the memories? Perhaps I have always done this. Perhaps everybody does. After some time, genteel impulses make me think ‘bucolic’ instead of negligent, ‘peaceful’ instead of careless. Euphemism is the bane of accuracy. I have not forgotten how you left your clothes lying haphazardly, how you forgot to take out the garbage and how you adamantly refused to recycle.

If it had been just you and me, I would have felt cozy in your house. But it was not. Your friends were loud and raucous. They mocked me, snapped at me, slammed the door in my face. Their gratuitous spite made me feel inadequate. I tried to blend in, but we were like water and oil. After a while I stopped trying to be friendly. I got in line. I was bitter. But it did not make me happy.

I used to complain a lot about you, but the truth is that I learned to overlook a lot. In that context I had a simple choice between tolerating and going insane. Sometimes it is easier to live with problems than without them. You are happier. Confrontation, insuccess, dissatisfaction kept us busy. Here, where those petty ideological obstacles are absent, I have too much time to ponder other things. Time to be depressed. Maybe Pascal was right when he said that people seek clash and controversy to escape thinking about themselves.

And how many sunsets did we see together? After all is said and done, that is the only thing that remains unsullied in my mind. The beach, the sunset, the white shirts puffed about us in the mild breeze and the hippie guys with their guitars. The Black Sea with its dark eye guarding us when we dance the night away on its shore. The anthem was Billy Idol’s ‘Rebel Yell.’ That smell of saltwater, fried anchovies and dirty sand is forever gone. I have not found it anywhere else, as I am sure I never will.

We had some good times, you and I. I wish that Americans made pills for nostalgia, especially for the irrational kind. I could use a fistful. I find that we engaged in a kind of mutual betrayal that left us both scarred. Alas. I am not here to assign blame, but to remember. Today I missed you, Roumanie.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An Uneventful Day

Indeed, there is such a thing as caffeine rush. It starts with a cup of tea. Black, strong, fragrant, milky. It looks innocuous. But underneath its opaque veneer there is pure energy. Energy of the mind, not of the body. I sit here inert and slouched, like a folded person. But my mind is effervescent. It branches into myriad directions at once and I cannot keep up.
What was that movie we saw last night? They have a sale at Belk? What shall we have for dinner?
I’ll be damned if I know who is asking all these things, but it is not me.
Silvia, who is playing this song?
I am sitting here quietly, minding my own business.
It’s Cake, Cake is playing. They are light, kind of like Modest Mouse.
I am chaos on the inside, equanimity on the outside. Nobody knows.

Yesterday was the day when everybody cooked. I made two stir-fries, Dibya made mashed potatoes, Bill grilled chicken and Khushbu made fried rice. The day before, Khushbu awoke in the middle of the night with unshakable culinary impulses. Four in the morning found her busily whirling edibles in the kitchen, to Bill’s dismay, who saw the spectacle and crossed himself. The kitchen is becoming the most popular room in the holiday house. Presently Dibya is boiling water for what I surmise will become hot chocolate. And it is only little after midnight. The night is young; I hear the pots and pans shuddering in their cupboards with resigned panic. They will get no respite this summer. We eat perpetually, obsessively, excessively. Matters of food override matters of the soul, even though Southern cooking is dubbed “soul food.” We eat as if we are trying to stifle some other need, to smother other preoccupations. We eat as if to forget.

Dibya and I walked by Wesleyan today. We received exactly three honks and two vulgar howls from drivers. It was a slow day. Wesleyan looks forlorn and in denial, like a septuagenarian running on the side of the road. The lights are out in the library. The parking lots are deserted. The gates are locked. If there are any people left on campus they are secluded in the cores of these buildings like mummies under the balsamic effect of air conditioning. It is not that hot. In fact it is peachy, if I may. But Americans complain all the time about temperature. It is as if they are made from a different kind of dough than the rest of us.

We walk home facing the sunset. The sky has the color of my favorite smoothie. We arrive home by eight. So... what are we having for dinner?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Windowshoppers

It is morning. I am behind the wheel. Bill is jabbering away in the passenger seat. Soporific Shreeti is floating in the back seat, daydreaming. We are different species brought together by the abracadabra of evolution. So different, yet so compatible. Shreeti is responsible for laughing at my jokes. Bill is responsible for being interested in what I say. And I am responsible for talking when there is silence. My role is that of a radio.

Today we are going to shop like women. Look without buying, turn our nose up at merchandise, sneer at prices. We are looking for a new wheeled vehicle that will make Bill feel like Superman. I am amused by the sense of validation and masculinity that men seem to derive from engines, which they always address in the feminine. A car is not an object but a mistress, a sinewy Amazon. It is always “she” who is steady, rapid, furious, purring or ill. It seems to me that a man sees in a car the perfected version of his flawed female, whose workings he has not yet succeeded to comprehend. A car is a female under control, a subdued beast, an elegant servant. It amuses me how sometimes this simplified version suffices. But how could I possibly understand? I am one of the complicated ones.

Atlanta is one of the settings of my nightmares. Too many cars, too many lanes, too many exits. It is the only place where I find it compulsory to use all my mirrors at once, plus turn my head for certainty. Atlanta traffic is like a massacre in which one plunges voluntarily, headfirst. A bungee jump with a dubious cord. I consider myself lucky whenever I emerge alive and manage to save the crew. It makes me feel like a hero.

Don’t forget the emergency brake, I tell myself as we stop into the driveway. Finally, we are at the owner’s residence. I swiftly evaluate the situation. Shreeti has the unique ability to become a piece of luggage when she falls asleep. Presently her presence in the universe is reduced to an immobile lump of flesh in the back seat. We leave her in the car, lock her in, slam the doors. She does not even twitch.

His name is Fred. He has a Humpty Dumpty quality as he descends to meet us. The car sparkles with rain drops. It is definitely a “she.” Coquettish and chic, she invites us for a test drive. I take the passenger seat, Fred snakes into the back and Bill, Bill is king of the world. The car purrs, like a kitten. Or like a tigress? A few turns, a little speed, she feels heavy on the road and safe, like a cocoon. Because of the wide dashboard it feels as if we are taking up the entire road. The other cars retreat to the shoulder in deference. Bill – the lord of the road, I – the rookie copilot and Fred – the hopeful Cerberus. Bill has half a mind to kidnap the car and I am not entirely opposed to the idea.

When we return we find Shreeti in the same position we left her. She stumbles into consciousness as I bumpily put the car into first gear and blast off. It is morning for her, so we are all required to have lunch. We decide on an Awffle House where incidentally everyone is black. Our ethnic mixture notwithstanding, the three of us make an unlikely alliance, so we get a lot of stares. But we are too hungry to care. I have eggs, Shreeti has eggs, Bill has a burger. Shreeti steals Bill’s food, I steal Shreeti’s food and eat the pickles that Bill finds disgusting. When we are finished the plates are wiped clean. As we leave we get the same nonplussed looks. Everyone is pleased.

The next stop is the dealer’s. Diligent Bill receives directions over the phone from solicitous Cody. We are in fact dying to meet our new friend Cody, whom we expect to find prolix, antsy and blah, like a car salesman. He is everything that we expected, plus the proud displayer of a gigantic tasteless ring branded with his name, for posterity. He flirts with Shreeti and I, asks too many questions, tries to feign congeniality and fails, offers several “Oh, really!”, pathetically reports that he knows nothing about this car (“As a matter of fact this is the first time I see it!”). The conversation during the test drive, essentially a soliloquy, is painful. I roll my eyes until my brain goes numb. Bill reads my mind and makes a U-turn as soon as the possibility arises.

From Atlanta to Macon it is a “straight shot,” as Bill would say. We deliver Shreeti to the airport on the way. It is pouring rain and we are in a hurry, so the farewell is matter-of-fact and devoid of sentimental effusions. And then there it is, Interstate 75 seen in reverse. Like a book read from end to beginning. I jabber away as I drive. Bill pretends to listen. But I know that he is thinking about his car, his new Amazon. The car glides in fifth and I become calmer as we approach Macon. The traffic slows down, grows languid. My foot relaxes on the clutch. I caress the steering wheel with the tips of my fingers. The sunset flashes me a conspiratorial wink in the rearview mirror. I am going to close my eyes for a bit now. The car knows the way.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Dell Guy

There is something truly intimate about a conversation with the Dell guy. In the absence of other identification elements the voice of a person gains a colossal potential for exploration. The tone, the timbre, the amplitude of the pitch and the laughter – especially the laughter – are all factors that determine how we feel about people we have never met. Movies want to make us believe that a conversation on the phone can be conducive to an amorous relationship in much the same way as a bump-into-each-other encounter is in a supermarket. I remember a Seinfeld episode where Elaine develops an interest for the guy who delivers her wake-up call service. But it turns out that the match is not well made. A voice can be as deceiving as it is arousing, I suppose.

The Dell guy is concerned with making my computer work. He tries to strip my comments of artistic irrelevancies (“My screen looks like a clown with a running nose”) and match the symptoms to an entry in what I suspect is the Dell Tomes of Most Common Problems Version 528293892892.3 Abridged with Annotations. To reach a diagnostic, often times he needs more information than what I provide. So the Dell guy proceeds to instruct me about running a variety of tests. The duration of these tests is variable, so that it is possible to stay on the phone with the Dell guy for an hour or more. This buys me time for my own agenda.

I imagine that the Dell guy wears a headset. It would be cumbersome to have to hold a phone while shuffling through the Dell Tomes of Most Common Problems. As I sit waiting for the tests to complete I find myself switching the phone from one ear to another in search of a comfortable position. But if the Dell guy does indeed wear a headset then how come I cannot hear him breathe. I listen carefully for the sound of lung activity. There is nothing. Yet the microphone is close to his mouth. I hear the cadence of his voice in minutest details. Perhaps he does not have lungs. It could be a fish or a robot I am dealing with here. After all, this is somebody whom I have never seen in flesh.

The Dell guy must be the unhappiest man on earth. In our minutes of silence, when we wait like sycophant humans for the mighty computer to reach its verdict, I can hear the voices around him. At first I do not pay attention to the content of the voices. They are just soothing, like background noise, like static. I imagine the confluence of voices to be an intellectual discussion of some kind. It could be one of those polemics that colleagues carry at work to take their mind off official matters. My Dell guy is probably impatient for this call to be over so he can join in the conversation. Even though we have known each other so little, I desire the best for him. I wish that my computer were quicker, more responsive. I want to set him free. But then I listen more carefully. “Thank you for choosing Dell,” “Can I have your service tag number?”

They are all Dell guys in the line of duty, just like mine. And since I can hear them all so well, discern what they are saying, I gather that they are closely spaced. I picture hundreds of them in an office like a warehouse, segregated in small cubicles where they attend to their callers and meekly bear their crosses. My Dell guy lives under the supervision of a Big Brother who records calls and prohibits his workers from flirting or joking. He answers calls with his hands tied with the cord of a keyboard and his skull fettered into a headset. My Dell guy lives in Orwell’s 1984.

His name is David. Or so he is told to say. This is not an American story, so we do not meet after twenty years, recognize each other and live a sweet, mellow love story in our old age. He gives me his employee number, which is the closest he can get to asking me for my phone number. Big Brother is watching. “If you have any more problems” he says. I wish that I were the kind of person who can say something cute at the right time without messing up. But I am not and I know it. Our farewell is deadpan, professional, resigned. He would betray me, I know it. I can already feel the rats crawling under the mask, eating my face, like in the novel. “Do it to her, not to me! Do it to her!” How can a love affair with a Dell guy turn out? How does one love after the carnage of thoughts which are mutilated to fit into the Procrustean bed of the headset? Is this a man or an automaton? Is it David, or... Hal?

The post-it with his employee number is gone forever. David, the Dell guy, my Dell guy, took another call and went back to his 1984. And I, listless and sated, went back to mine.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Walk to the Pharmacy

Walking in Macon is an extreme sport. People do it seldom. When they do it, they are clearly identified by athletic gear. Walking is not recreation, it is a work-out with a clearly established code of attire. Shorts, running shoes, a white cotton shirt or a sports bra are often the components of the walking outfit. An individual who does not subscribe to this convention is instantly singled out. His deviance meets reactions that range from vulgar gestures to uncommon benevolence. Manifestations of surprise or concern from people are often frank and quite bewildering for the amateur walker. As a consequence, every walk to Walmart easily translates into an adventure story with many details.

I like to think of Wellington drive as a shortcut from Forsyth to Zebulon. But actually it is a long, winding route. I prefer it because it takes me away from the pandemonium of traffic and its profane smell. It is a residential area, an oasis of wealth and trimness. On each side of the road there are Barbie houses with long private driveways and freshly mown lawns where a sign cautions that the property is protected by “Bibb security systems.” It is quiet on Wellington drive, the realm of squirrels and birds. Next to the notice about security we are notified that a dog exists within the premises and he is contained by an invisible fence. In addition, the passer-by is advised to keep off the grass. I stroll by at a moderate pace and look at these exquisite houses that cannot be touched, like antique arabesques in a museum. A man is mowing his lawn, but he is wearing sunglasses and so am I, so neither of us can establish eye contact with certainty. Neither of us says hello.

Once on Zebulon road I am again in the real world. This world is loud and rapid, a sharp departure from the comatose euphoria of Wellington. The walk to Walmart has a pungent smell of green and death. Two tailed creatures lie flattened on the sidewalk and the air is fragrant with their disintegration. Farther ahead there is a squirrel struggling between life and death in the middle lane of the road. Its tail is rising and falling, its eyes are open. The scene is horrific and I wince. Then I pass a yard where there is a black curled something near a bush. I cannot identify it and am not persistent. I am averse to the very idea of snakes.

The road meanders into a depression before the intersection with Bass. On the left there is an idyllic orchard girded with barbed wire. On the right are bushes and carrions. From here I can see the road climbing ahead, fata morgana playing under the whirling tires of hurried cars. On top of the hill there is a large speedometer that shows, in turn, 38, 40, 35, then shuffles random numbers in the brief interval when no cars are passing.

It starts to rain right before I enter the Walmart palace. Inside there is havoc, as always. Americans shop sedately, unlike Europeans. Here the commercial frenzy comes from the abundance of merchandise, not that of people. Walmart is a cornucopia, a tree replete with commodities. It is for this reason that I find myself lost in its labyrinth, unable to find what I am looking for, even with more or less precise directions from the staff. Eventually I find my mangoes and a most needed red umbrella and stand in line at self checkout. Who are we, the people who prefer self checkout? The misanthropes and the old people. We are the ones who for some reason or another do not want to interact with another human being.

On the way back I have the sun behind me. I have my backpack, my camera hanging diagonally onto my body and headphones extending conspicuously from my pockets. I am also wearing The Matrix sunglasses. Perhaps I look helpless still. Out of the blue, a car pulls into the driveway in front of me and a woman asks me if I need a ride. Startled, I explain that I am walking for pleasure. I am clumsy. I thank her too many times. She leaves, as disconcerted as she leaves me. This time I take the other side of the road to avoid the macabre sights. Rebelliously, my eye still glides in the direction of the squirrel in the middle lane. I am a voyeur after all, hungry for the gruesome. The entire little body is now supine. The tail is sleeping.

With the pain in my feet, Wellington is more burdensome than mesmerizing. I am suddenly very aware of my bones. Steps no longer come naturally. They have to be crafted, supervised. I am no longer walking for pleasure but for necessity. Sometimes I feel a need to break away from convenience. Where is the excitement if I have my car at an arm’s length? We need strain to appreciate the easy life. I have known this ever since I came to the States. Every evaluation is the result of a comparison. The woman in the car, who could not understand that I was walking by choice, who was concerned for my safety, perhaps limits herself to an existence that is comfortable and protected. Why does she reject the other side of the story? Everything in life comes in pairs of opposites. White and black, tall and short, wealthy and poor, optimist and pessimist, philantropist and... misanthrope.