Thursday, August 14, 2008

I am a Genius

A Long Island–shaped cloud centered the sky,
Stuck in its throat a quarter of lemon,
Which was the moon, past the broke down jaws
Of the fish, shining through cumulus scales.
I thought of an X-ray in a sitcom:
Framing the lambent ghost of a toy car
Or a wedding ring in safe deposit
In the aching stomach of a child.

The door splits wide. “Please! Help my fish!” I say.
“Fish?” says Doctor One. “Fish?” says Doctor Two.
“But this is a people hospital.” One.
“Not a fish hospital.” That’s number Two.
“He ties the aquarium together,”
I say, “Oh please help.” “Very well,” says Two.
“Let’s get him in water,” says Doctor One.
“Brilliant move, Doctor One!” is Two’s reply.
“Throw him on the slab,” Doctor One commands.
“And get the lead apron,” advises Two.
The machine hiccups. The fish somersaults.
Doctor One: “Ah, I see the problem now.”
Two, M.D.: “He’s got citrus of the throat.”
“Out damned lime,” I say, “Out!” “No good,” says Two,
“It’s terminal. Is there any family?”
“Tetras and loaches, schools of angelfish.”
“I don’t want to tell them.” Doctor One weeps.
“No, no,” I say, “This can’t be Herbert’s end.”
“One treatment,” says One, “Experimental.”
“Anything.” “Throw him in a glass,” says Two,
“Add two shots Gin. Brim with tonic. Stir well.”
“Purple parasol. We’ll drink the lime out.”

Now a blob, a vaporous amoeba
Full of drizzle and soot, meaning nothing
And never to be a lamprey again.
But the moon’s been passed; it straggles behind
Like a radioactive kidney stone.
Clouds float forever. Or they become rain.


SCOTT: I've been thinking that the secret of racquetball is not, as I thought, in the shoulder, but in the wrist.

JAY: Yeah?

SCOTT: Today, I've been snapping my wrist a lot to hit the ball and it's quite effective.

JAY: I don't know. My best days have been ones where I swing from the shoulder.

SCOTT: But listen. If the secret's in the wrist, that would explain why I do so lousy those days after I work on my arms in the weight room. Whereas today, when I did my legs and shoulders, I feel fine.

JAY: Tough to say.

SCOTT: Also, this explains something else--why are you shaking your head?

JAY: Because you're going to say something about masturbation.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Plotting the evolution of the human species thus far, using the measures of over fourteen noted experts, leads to the inescapable conclusion that we are, as a race, approaching a sort of intellectual singularity. If this trend continues, as we have every reason to suspect it will, barring nuclear calamity or a whole shitload of Sasquatch attacks, eventually the race will produce a being so intelligent that he will be able to do all the activities of traditional human beings, but with more skill. Thus, he in turn will be able to create a being smarter than himself, and the successors will repeat the process at a faster and faster clip, until intelligence advances towards positive infinity.

The first genius being will be known as Charlie Volokh, and today he entered the world weighing a mammoth 9.5 pounds, nearly all of that brain. I wasn't there, but I assume his telekinetic powers displayed themselves soon after the birth. With his advent, the Human Age has ended, and the Era of the Volokh has begun.

So bring it, Big Foot.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hollywood Widow

August 11th, 2008

When I say I met Jack Warden’s widow a week ago, I mean I narrowly escaped her. I didn’t know who Jack Warden was until I looked him up, then instantly recognized him as the grandfather from Problem Child. (I apologize, Jack, but I can’t control the order of my associations. For what it’s worth, you were great in Being There.) Of course, I didn’t know who she was when I first sat down in the row ahead of her, on a southbound train taking off from Penn Station.

I eavesdropped. Not purposely—I was trying to read a Bradbury book—but her voice, spritely and cheerful, was not to be ignored. Biographical clues trickled out. I realized the two boys she talked to across the aisle—behind me—were not acquaintances, but strangers she’d seized. They sounded French, and, as it turns out, were.

She was not. I can’t recall her origin, but I remember she mentioned it, among the sea of things she mentioned. Nicaragua, perhaps. Honduras. Maybe Mexico—regardless, she later lived in France. Her and the French boys shifted languages without warning, mid-thought, mid-sentence: English, Spanish (which I could follow), and French (which I could not) formed a cosmopolitan braid.

She lives in Georgetown. A recurring theme of the discussion was sites to see around DC, mainly museums. Apparently, this was to be the youths’ first time there, and she wanted to make sure they saw everything of note. She dropped that she’d married a famous actor, but the name was yet to come.

The French kids were just kids. They were mildly interested in the chattering woman, and offered the occasional rejoinder or jumping off point, but you could tell they were trying to read or texting someone. The entire car could tell, though Warden’s widow could not.

We learned how she came to the United States. We learned her opinions on art—Picasso came up, I believe. More accurately, we learned a third of all this, the remainder occurring en français or en español, but we pieced it together.

I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Train travel hypnotizes me, a haze of white noise stirred by the metronomic click of the wheels. Perhaps I dozed. But every minute or so a tinkle of laughter erupted and I snapped awake.

I suppose I envy her. Keeping a dialogue brewing for thirty minutes takes all my concentration—performing a two hour monologue, as this woman ended up doing, is completely beyond my powers. It’s not that I want to talk that much—much less about myself—but I’d like the option.

She acknowledged that she primarily talked about herself and defended with something like, “It’s the subject I know best.”

We went through French politics and the Prime Minister’s engaging wife. This segues nicely into the American Presidential election, and so the conversation went. The topic churned for awhile—mandatory praise for Obama—but how we happened upon the following, I don’t recall:

“Now slavery was awful, terribly awful, just evil,” she said, “But it was so long ago! We have to move on from it. How long can you blame the past?”

Maybe this was the point her husband got his second mention. This time the French kids asked for the name; I overheard and Googled. She returned—she always did—to the topic of DC sites (to her credit, she omitted the Spy Museum). She wanted the boys to call her, and she’d lead them to everything of note.

Some thread of conversation eventually roped me in: she was fumbling for the name of an artist she met once, and started describing his oeuvre. The French kids were useless.

“Warhol,” I said, turning around, “Andy Warhol.”

“Andy Warhol!” she squealed, “Yes! Thank you!”

“Happy to help,” I said, and because her smile was infectious, I smiled. It was the only time I saw her face—a soft brown, at least fifty, probably older, once gorgeous, with a smile that emitted light. I was afraid that any further discussion and I’d be snared, too, so I quickly went back to my book.

When she took off for the café car (promising to buy the French kids whatever they wanted) I watched her walk down the aisle. The moment the door sealed behind her, I turned around and grinned.

“I have never heard anybody talk so much in my life,” I said to the French kids, who only smile slightly, as if completely understanding some peoples’ need to talk. They didn’t find her as fascinating as I did. Maybe they wanted a bigger name than Jack Warden.

After I pointed out the obvious, everyone in nearby seats let out a sigh of relief and talked at once:

“She’ll never stop!”

“Heavens, I don’t think she ever took a breath.”

“Are you kids all right there?”

“How can anyone talk so much?”

And we laughed at this momentary bond and went back to whatever we were doing. I read.

When she came back, she didn’t waste a moment. But the conversation turned sad, and I didn’t want to hear anymore.

“You will call me tomorrow, right?” she said to the boys, reaching out and touching a forearm, “I hope you will. We’ll have so much fun. Oh please call, please call. Promise me.”

Yes, they said, yes. But it was non-committal—we all heard the tone.

There isn’t much more. She stopped talking and read a magazine. I may have finished my book, I may have fallen asleep. I got out in Wilmington, leaving the rest of them two more hours of travel before DC. My parents are impressed by the company I keep, until I find out that Jack Warden and his wife separated twenty years ago and never reunited. For my Mom, this lessens the experience—and, though I don’t know why, I understand the feeling.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

New York

August 10th, 2008

Since I offed my car, I arrive at the city in two ways: ejected into Chinatown pandemonium from a bus without air conditioning stocked with poor students, or sputtering via Amtrak into the catacombs below Penn Station. As I now have a job, I consistently splurge on the second option.

I’ve never seen the outside of Penn Station, though I’ve been shunted through it a dozen times. For all I know, the entire complex is dug into the mud beneath the East River, fed by a dozen tubes. Speaking of water, the tide of people rushing through grabs a hold of me and my duffel bag the second I’ve detrained, and it tosses me through newsstands until I’m thrown against a subway map.

I speak DC metro, a dialect that shares many phonemes of its New York variant. Sadly however, despite scattered cognates, the two are mutually incomprehensible. I speak of the Red Line and the locals exchange looks with sympathetic half-smiles. Ergo, I end up on the wrong train—or I end up on the right train, but it skips my stop for no apparent reason.

Backtracking several times, I finally hit daylight and the reaction is always the same: utter fear. DC’s crowds are lax—people stroll about on bloated lunch breaks on luxuriously wide and perplexingly clean sidewalks. The crosswalks tick down the time to the next signal, and things unfold like the innards of a neat pocket watch. But NYC crowds surge over and through each other like army ants stripping a carcass.

But today, there’s no time for terror and no time for carrion, because I’ve got a job interview. Hence the suit, despite the heat. Gloriously, I even manage to pick the right train.

I always run into the same landmarks when I’m in the city: the glassy cube marking a subterranean Apple Store, a Met Life logo perched on a skyscraper, watching my every move, like Jesus or Batman. I zigzag down from the southeast corner of the park (later Joey tells me the firm’s in a nice area).

Miraculously (or is it because I now have a Google Maps-enabled iPhone?) I find the building ninety minutes early, leaving time to eat a ridiculously expensive lunch and to go hit on the girl attached to the nicest pair of legs at the nearby Borders. (Grinning, I text Tamboli: I just got gunned down like a Kent State sophomore.) But this only knocks off a half-hour, and the heat is an entity unto itself on my back, so I return to the office and beg to be let in an hour early. I’m happy to wait on the couch.

The punctuality ends up impressing the interviewer. Indeed, I excel when I’m finally interrogated. Also, everyone in the office wears shorts and T-shirts. I’m reasonably sure I’m the only person on the island in a suit.

That done, I’m left with the rest of the day. Joey and Meagan plan on dinner, but they work late, so I spend hours writing. I generally avoid caffeine, but seeing as I just aced an interview, I treat myself.

This is enough time, as it usually is, to get used to the city. I end up on a bench in the park, people-watching, comfortable and happy. Notably, I don’t take off the jacket. For one, I look good. For two, if I’m going to spend the money to dry clean an outfit, then I’m going to enjoy an entire day’s worth of it. Meg finally calls and I head northeast to some Brazilian place.

Buses I find even more mystifying, but everyone is perfectly obliging. In fact, a couple is kind enough to make sure that not only do I get on the right bus, but that I get off at the right stop. (I say couple, but I couldn’t identify the sex of one of them. This is another phenomenon more prevalent in New York than the District of Columbia.)

There was a time I was afraid of running into college friends. What if whatever affinity we had no longer exists? What if we ended up just talking about old times and other alumni, unable to connect on anything new? But I haven’t worried about this in a while. I see friends annually to biannually, and sometimes have no other contact with them in between. And yet, we’ve never failed to fall into the same rhythm—sometimes it’s even improved.

The Hipps are no exception. We talk about old times, sure, but we talk about current elections, and new careers and directions in life with the same gusto. And we always laugh, and we always smile, and we always end with affectionate handshakes and hugs.

This isn’t because we’ve failed to change. Joey’s off to graduate school—not in music, either, which is the major we shared in college—but in finance. And Meagan, who’s an actress, has become involved with a hedge fund, a job she amazingly adores (her speech has become rapid, I hypothesize, as a result of being in a business community). So you see, we haven’t failed to change at all.

No no. But I have, and herein I suspect lies the reason we can always pick up where we left off. For no matter what comes—never mind the pregnancies and the weddings, the cross country relocations, never mind Joey’s continually coarsening politics or Meg’s new ability to rattle off quotes from the NYSE, or the friends who abandoned art and the friends who abandoned work, and never mind the changes in sexual orientation (granted, this has only happened once… so far), and never mind the sometimes rapid series of boyfriends and girlfriends, for despite how fast the rest of the world spins, I remain precisely the same. I neither grow nor mature. My tastes don’t falter, my ridiculous political opinions don’t bend—I shine on, a boring beacon in a world of flux.

When Meg and Joe moved to New York, I helped unload the van. Bizarrely, the day of my interview is also the day Meg’s plan to redesign the apartment comes to fruition, and she’s arranged for sales of several pieces of furniture (furniture that years ago I helped Joey drag up three flights of stairs in a Brooklyn shithole). Joey and I end up taking the same furniture out to the car of the new owners.

We go for drinks and dessert (I’m partial to pecan pie and ice cold martinis) and say goodbye. It’s far too late to grab a train home, so I snag the last available room at the YMCA. It’s on the top floor, and a narrow window opens onto an attractive view of Central Park and, beyond, the East Side. In the morning the buildings look like ghosts in the green.

I really have to move up here sometime soon.