Little Boxes

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1204A

From the curb, 1204A appeared less like a house to me, and more like a 3D representation of the inverse of love rendered in wood and shingle. It felt like it to me, too, even from the first night I pulled up in front in the 22′ Penske. I tried to detect this same thing in other similar houses throughout the neighborhood whenever I walked past them, but none exuded the unhappiness of my hunched and peeling hovel. Maybe it’s the way that watery, dull green paint job looked by the half-light of the moon; like zombie phlegm, or the color of the filing cabinets left behind in your dead uncle’s garage apartment.

Dreams of Splitsville had sustained us both there for a while. Just getting out of the Southeast was a feat. Then it was retail therapy. My wife and I’d kept little lists of appliances and paint chips and such. (That German-made clothes iron was really going to change things.) Sometimes I’d buy something nice, but then keep it in its box, deciding it was much too fine a thing to be installed amid the leaky ceilings & cracked soffits, and serially clogged drains, and the doorknobs and switch plates hazed in hand grunge, and the fritzy wiring and the broken, fetid grout. I’d unboxed some nice bone china mugs at one point, only to cringe as I watched the neighbor from 1204B (nothing more than an aggrandized potting shed behind our place) literally slobber all over their rims during one of his ritual and protracted self-invites. He was a double PhD, and Japanese, and also a dwarf, and also weirdly passive aggressive, and snoopy, and would do irritating things like press his oily nose up against one of my old guitar amps and smell it before letting out an approving sumo grunt. And yet, for five summers we copied ‘n’ pasted our virtual signatures on the dotted line of the renewal notice, our plans remaining tightly furled on a high-up shelf, our belongings gradually morphing from treasure to encroachments. (There would be several Pompeii moments upon opening long-stowed boxes years later, rediscovering something that had been hastily packed away mid-doing with the clear intent of getting right back to it.)

We’d known that 1204A would be a downgrade from the get go, but had decided to live beneath our means for a while in order to save for a place of our own. Of course, 2008 was not the greatest time to start being a saver. To do so during a global recession felt like something on the order of sedition. After all, every bit of economic policy being drafted was designed to facilitate consumer spending and discourage saving. I’d never before lingered on the subject of economics, let alone the dynamics of the national residential real estate market. Just not my cup; but then the well was poisoned, and for a good long while, finance found its way into almost everything we drank or ate. The thesis of nearly every conversation turned to matters of housing, or speculators-vs-savers, consumerism, inflation/deflation, commodities, rentiers, (not renters misspelled — look it up ((or don’t))), lemon socialism, bailout scandals, Georgism, pump ‘n’ dump schemes, debt-to-income ratios, slumlords, down payments, taxes and how much was too much.

Today, I run from any such discussions. The decimal stuff depresses me, and I honestly, finally, do not care. Instead, I think about which of those early Pasolini films I should see, and which Billy Bean albums I still haven’t heard, and what is the best dry brush ink on the shelf, and whether the lilac bush on that one corner is in bloom yet, and absent friends, and my favorite architects, and mastering a new orchestral chord or two on the guitar, and good sculpture, and Jeffers’ Carmel, and where to find chrome-plated slotted equipment rack screws, and whatever else the hell trips my fancy.

On some of those nights toward the end, 1204A got to me so bad that I’d migrate out to the porch, no matter the weather, just so as not to be physically confined within its walls. Careful to avoid the grease spot where 1204B made his nightly kibble deposits for the strays, I’d park my tired trunk on the top step and proceed to over-think the matter of my own existence, or just play with my beloved feline, Charlotte, for an hour or so (she hated 1204A, too).

There was one night in particular; it stands out as being one of the last of the season perfectly suited to extended porch lamentations. It was late April I think, a moon so bright you could repair a watch by it, and more fireflies than you knew what to do with. A warm breeze hushed through the budding pear tree out front, sending it’s leaves shimmying and glimmering in the moonlight. I guess if a tree could be happy, this one was as giddy as a boy with a new puppy. In the distance, a halyard dinged against a flagpole, keeping time for a chorus of crickets. I probably shouldn’t mention the waves of honeysuckle or the shooting stars (two of them). A truly splendiferous night. Indeed, I suspect there must be only a handful of nights across an entire lifetime as truly Eden-like.

Meanwhile, my wife was inside asleep. She wanted to leave me. She’d told me so earlier that evening. She felt nothing for me anymore. Her words had set up franchises throughout my brain, doing some pretty ugly business with my heart along with the first few floors below before finally stopping at my guts and dwelling there like a 60 cycle hum. Every square inch of my nervous tissue had been tenderized and subsequently suffused in one after another of cheap, double fight-or-flight cocktails. Eighteen years together — since we were kids. Not to do the propagandists at the NAR any favors, but I swear that if we’d been installed in an actual home rather than slumming it in some grubby cubby down in scrubhole Texas, things very much most highly probably would not have gone to hell the way they did.

I remember that night wandering out past that happy pear tree and ripping out weeds by the fistfuls, like some green-thumbed fiend from a Robert E. Howard pulp. Fuck all these fucking thistles, man… It was probably a little after 1AM. I guess I must’ve given hell to about a good dozen or more when I heard the jingle of a dog collar from somewhere in the street behind me; there, being dragged past my curb by their spazzy whippet was a thoroughly modern couple of the shampoo/sugar/gluten-free persuasion. The kind of kids who have a ping-pong table outside the cube farm at their startup company and think it means they’re working for a really progressive outfit. Thankfully, they were too engrossed in discussing something to do with their new chicken coop to notice the sad weirdo lurking just off-screen, wielding a giant thistle still dripping milk from its taproot. They may have been the vile sort, but I did truly envy their unawares; 1204A meant nothing to them. They’d probably never even noticed it.

Composing myself, I flung the thistles up onto the roof and then crept back inside, silently making plans to drive back over to the old neighborhood once I was finally gone and go for a nice late night walk, just so I could walk right past 1204A.

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FOREVER: sell by–2013

“Oh! – these are a-MAZ-ing,” swooned the wizened, hennaed cashier at the Walgreens as she scanned my Kleenex, even sneaking the box a mawkish little hug. According to the packaging, they contained a wonder ingredient — something called Cool Touch, which was supposed to make them seem, of all things, cool-to-the-touch. “Yeah, it’s like they came straight outta the crisper!” I studied the box, envisioning a group of chemical engineers somewhere out there in the vast shadowy lowlands of the territory, brainstorming new & improved means for mitigating the afflictions of the oozing masses; a real hell of a bunch.

“You ever tried ‘em before?” she asked. I told her I hadn’t. “Oh, they’re just the best. Way better than Puffs.” Then, with an exaggerated splutter: “They kill Puffs.” I told her I liked Scott tissue best, but that after awhile, it started to feel more like something woven in the Outer Hebrides against the ol’ mucus membranes, and so we discussed our preferred toilet tissues for a spell. Her name tag said FANNIE, but the obvious humor eluded me at the time. Fanny was something like the headwaiter who’d tried everything on the menu at least once, and I commended her on her supreme authority of the paper products aisle.

Once past the automated door, I let go a long sigh, and then treated myself to another, and another, until I was ventilating exclusively by long warbling sighs. I’d done it; I’d ventured from my blue little corner out into a hyper-lit public space while maintaining a reasonable facsimile of highly random slob. I even mustered some convincing smalltalk, despite not one thing in my life being small. That’s when I first stumbled on the formula — and maybe it’s something that’s obvious to everyone else but me, but essentially, all there really is to being strong is acting in a way that is exactly opposite to your suffering. (Try it out and let me know how it works.)

*********************

   As I navigated the old 240 homeward through the backstreets, my woman’s words sloshed around my brain pan. A torrent of resentments and recriminations that’d apparently gone untagged for years had suddenly been dragged out into the sunlight and flopped at my feet like a pile of dirty transcripts recovered from a house fire. In summary: I’d gotten everything wrong. Apparently, whenever she’d expressed how right and wonderful I was over the years, she was also acting in a way exactly opposite to how she felt.

In one of the more desperate hours, straying ever nearer ankle-clutching-&-begging territory, I began deconstructing and illustrating my love for her, to her. I expounded upon themes of loyalty and patience and caring, describing what exceedingly rare, highly endangered forces of good they each were, and how we both needed to do our small part to keep them from the shadows. I told her how afraid of how natural being alone had always felt to me — like a laziness or a vice to which too many people I’d known had too readily succumbed, all the while telling themselves how their handicap was really a kind of enlightenment. I told her how I needed to have at least one other soul in my life for whom I’d do anything, and with whom I wanted to do everything. Us against them. It came out sounding almost lyrical, and felt like it, too. It was also something like an epiphany for me, for in that moment, the full realization of these things about myself were gelling as I mouthed the words: damn…yeah, I really *do* feel this way.

She asked me whether I didn’t think it was unfair to burden a person with so much devotion. The inference was that I was loving her to death. I sat there for a long time, blanking out on the patterns in the homely blue quilt my mother-in-law made for us in back in the day — days I never would’ve dreamt I’d look back upon as the better of the bunch, for they’d been lean and uncertain. Finally, the question just seemed insane. No, I said; no, I don’t — but it was really more like, no I don’t garnished with a silent fuck you. Up until that point I’d been talking like it might be the last talking I ever did, as you do when you feel like how I was feeling, but no was suddenly the best I had. I was being rendered down to an unedited, binary state of being, all mannerisms, wit and guile skimmed away, leaving only my sloppy heart running down my shirt cuff like a melting clown nose. It does something to a man’s mind and to his body to be so naked. Personally, I’m not sure whether it’s grown me or shrunk me.

The card was what really did it. She’d sent it a few years earlier when she’d first started traveling for a new job. Reading it again, I started sobbing in place, my big dumb tears smacking the tiles in our ugly rented kitchen. She’d constructed it herself one afternoon at my suggestion that she’d been working too hard and needed some creative downtime. I remarked how much I liked the finished product, (she’d used my favorite colors). She remembered this, sneaking it out in her luggage a few months later and posting it to me from her hotel room. She’d addressed it to Sweetums. On the inside of the card was her loopy script full of gooey stuff. There was even a line where I could see she’d squeezed in an extra affectionate adverb or two as afterthought. (That’s when you know somebody loves you; when their feelings splash out over the neat margins of their bespoke stationery.) When I showed it to her that night, she reacted as though I’d produced a sneaky bit of evidence.

“I don’t know — I don’t remember how long ago I wrote that,” she muttered, glancing over her missive. I told her I did — that I remembered. I told her I’d counted up the days from the postmark; just over a thousand. Then I said something like — what difference does when make when someone says forever? If anyone can love any person that much, only to turn on a dime and slam their heart shut some 1,000 days later, well, then…what’s the fucking use? Of any of it?

“Probably,” she shrugged, “I just wrote something I thought you wanted to read.” And just like that, I found myself lost in a room without any windows or doors in my own little house of pain.

*********************

   Back home, I sat down on the concrete porch and wept as quietly as I could. I’d be goddamned if I let anyone hear me carrying on, but especially that witch inside. The tears just coughed up and out of me from somewhere very deep. I couldn’t breathe right. I cried for quite some time, by and for myself. I cried because people were so fucking rotten. I wrapped my arms around myself like you do to feel like someone’s holding you when there isn’t anyone. They were the lean, strong arms of the man I’d long ago cultivated to camouflage the too-sensitive kid tucked beneath. I’d been born with a soft heart — something like a boiled pumpkin inside a thin glass box, albeit, glass painted to look like cold rolled steel. The humble wizardry of muscle tissue and manner were my only remaining armor. But I could feel the walls going up even as I sat there; ramparts growing thicker and higher until, finally, there would be no way in or back out again. I might even secretly go around wishing that someone strong enough might one day crash the gates; but I already knew nobody could ever be that strong, nor brazen enough to hazard a go, because, to start with, their own walls wouldn’t allow it. Maybe I’d even grow bold enough to lend someone a hand; but then, dismantling one’s own firewall feels something akin to slow suicide.

Years earlier, I’d helped my woman remove a wall or two, allowing for ready access to all my jelly spots. But now, sitting there in the dark on the steps of our loveless home, sopping up the exit wounds with cool-touch Kleenex, it was impossible to do much else beyond dream up blueprints for better, stronger defense systems; to go back and redraft the schematic for a 2.0 release, utilizing the narrative arc of Lee Hazlewood lyrics and old MANDOM commericals as general templates.

But For My Machine

                                         

 

It’s getting to be that hour when you start dragging out the heavy equipment: meaning; desire; love; hate; good; evil; life; death. Meaning’s a good one. File under The One That Got Away. You silently pine for it like a dead pet. It certainly can’t be found in or anywhere near your guitar playing tonight. Mostly it just feels good to sit and be with your machine; the foreclosed farmer sat alone in his shut harvester with no crop to thresh.

You were after a specific attack character achievable only with the use of a certain super-thin plectrum blasted against some .013 round wounds. You really needed that sound. You scoured the place up, down, and sideways, but still could not find a single pick in any of the usual crannies. It seems like just a week or so ago, you couldn’t get away from the dizzy things. They’d go flying from your pockets into the lawn as you pulled out your house keys, or you’d find them used as bookmarks, or in the clothes dryer, or the silverware drawer. You got annoyed seeing them everywhere, but now you wish you could locate even one. A collar stay could almost work; but no…maybe there’s one in the guitar case, but you look, and there isn’t.

You take your usual spot on the third step from the landing and play with your thumb instead. You strum, thump, pluck, mute, detune, re-tune, and then hobble through a few scales ’til your ass gets tired. There’s the usual pet shapes, maybe a part of something you loftily refer to as a composition that you’ve been working on for a lifetime now (taxonomy-depending, we could be talking several lifetimes). The notes produced are exactly opposite of what you were after — chubby and warm, yet devoid of soul coal. Indeed, at best, there’s a few scant cinders yielding barely enough heat to barre a chord. Even your muscle memories are growing spotty.

Not much doing tonight, is there kid? Not much doing on a lot of nights lately. Thousands, probably. It’s been a real bad spell.

When was the last time you replaced the strings? You sit there, actually trying to pinpoint the exact night you were in that awful music shop, knowing all the while that it’s that other stringed machine that’s fucking you up tonight. Lately, you are more physically aware of this other machine than you have ever before been. It’s been clocking some real hard mileage on some very bad fuel over the last year or so. Blaming your guitar strings for your playing would be like taking an open-wheel racer across the Baja peninsula and then blaming a bad shave for why everything came apart after mile one.

You hurt, and the hurt is so deep as to border on the unreal. It is actually bizarre to hurt so much. Lately, whenever you hear the word heartache in a song or read it someplace, it’s like you’re unfolding a series of hidden wrinkles within the word itself, its true dimensions fanning out like some phantasmagorical blueprint replete with detailed footnotes and exploded views.  All the references you’ve heard over the years become clear after finally sitting down and reading the codex. Don Covay; Roy Orbison; Barry Gibb; Doc Pomus; Charles Aznavour…all of them contributing architects.

If you make it through this, you know you’ll look back at the brink in awe of how close you were. Maybe some humid night several thousand nights from this one, you’ll be slouched in one of those injection-molded Adirondack chairs in some old buddy’s carport, listening to some Capcity sides and glugging some good suds as you compare scars from all your exit wounds. Someone’s flirty half-sister’ll light some fireworks at the end of the drive; cheap thrills will ensue. You’ll remain plopped there, delighting in your own dumbness, staring at the half-sister’s perfect little ass through the sulfur fog banks plaiting around the old street lamps. And it is in that instant, lungs full of mossy midnight air, that you will realize that you feel just about as close to fine as you’ll ever get. You contrive and fixate on various such banal scenes evermore frequently and in evermore detail, as though they might represent the zenith of the human experience. Could be they do.

You put the guitar up and go put the sprinkler out. With this machine, you have better luck.

Just Be Nice To Him…

The kid next door went nuts & murdered his father last week. In fact, one week ago this evening. There’s a certain disquietude following such a thing…the Aftermath wagon’s been parked in the driveway everyday. Yesterday afternoon, in almost the exact spot where I first shook Dan Davis’ hand, there sat a red biohazard bin.

I’d only met Dan once, about a month ago when I was first moving into my new place. He possessed a sun-burnished patina and a smiling, mid-life lassitude that made him instantly likable. You could also tell he was intelligent. You just know, sometimes. And friendly; by the end of our brief encounter, he’d already suggested we get some drinks one night. Dan’d mostly come by that day to make sure his son’s car wasn’t in the way of my moving truck. I recall he was cradling a yap-happy chihuahua in one arm — only one of an increasing number of four-legged surrogates his wife had adopted as more of their children headed off to school. He mentioned having a couple of sons still yet living with them, “pre-University, sleeping ’til 2 PM,” he smiled, “you know the drill.”

“Yeah, I met Lance,” I said. Dan’s eyes widened.

“You met Lance? He talked to you?”

I’d met him three or four nights before I’d met Dan. He’d apparently been investigating my frequent comings-and-goings all throughout that week. (I opted for the word investigating even before reading in the deposition where Lance insisted he was a special agent trained by the CIA.)

I was by late that night dropping off some cargo when I heard a voice pop out from somewhere behind me in the dark: “You movin’ in?” His gruff tone sounded cartoonishly affected to my ears, as though he was trying to disguise his voice or sound meaner than he was for some reason. I turned to discover a rangey, slightly pumpkin-headed figure standing on the stacked stone bank dividing our drives. I said hi and then motioned him to the end of the driveway where we might make proper introductions. There in the dark street we shook hands, or rather, I imposed my hand on his. His movements were jerky and bursty and he spoke in a weirdly truncated syntax. Throughout our brief exchange, Lance kept his left hand placed over his mouth. At the time I thought he was simply trying to obscure the ludicrous mustache I managed to glimpse despite his best efforts (I’ve returned to this curious mannerism several times since the incident). Despite his cautious reticence, he explained how he lived in the house behind his parent’s and I responded about what a nice setup that must be, and that I also had a little outbuilding behind my shack that I planned on fixing up. He seemed uneasy, so I kept things short, telling him we’d be seeing each other around. Turns out, we never bumped into one another again.

I’ve replayed this encounter over a few times in my head, as probably anyone in my boots would; an unusual enough kid, sure — tetchy even — but then, I’m no paragon of mild manners myself, so who am I to judge? Certainly, there was nothing about my encounter with Lance to suggest he might be capable of cold-blooded patricide.

That’s the thing that I keep coming back to every night: the horror of being destroyed by your own creation. It disturbs to imagine how one may conceive of, create and nourish their own executioner. Think about that — a ticking time bomb made from the flesh of your flesh. As a childless artist, the closest equivalent for me might be dying from a violent paper cut or something.

“You met Lance…” Dan repeated to himself in half reverie. Then he gently cautioned me, should I run into him again — just be nice to him, adding: “He’s autistic.” Perhaps the explanation for everything lies in that single postscript. I don’t know enough about Autism to speak to that. All I know is that the man from next door was stabbed to death by his son — the same son he implored me to be nice to — and it’s ushered forth a suite of new, unusual, and heavy feelings in me that just won’t go away.

(names were changed, etc., etc.)

nextdoor

FROM THE BUCOLIC TO THE SHAMBOLIC — PART ONE: TRAVEL VS VACATION

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The most fundamental criteria for any away game should be that it’s exploratory in nature. I don’t care about lying on the beach eating chips ‘n’ dips all day or watching back-to-back episodes of Gator Boys after the obligatory hotel screw on some puffy jacquard duvet. Duke Ellington once said that vacations are for miserable people looking to escape that which makes them miserable — and I take my miseries like daily vitamins. The difference with travel should be that you’re venturing out to landscapes unfamiliar in search of texture and color and shapes; things which will subsequently inform and even transform things about you, from your very ideas about life to the way you prepare your eggs.

Having said all that, I’m still too tired to detect any such phenomena in myself from my recent maiden European voyage (Prague by way of Lisbon). Yeah, I know — at 36, the Lonely Planet mavens would write me off as a tragically under-traveled slob; but I’ve never been a passport fetishist, nor do I have an obsession with all-things-European. Indeed, I’ve been working my way though the vestiges of the American landscape over the last several years, trying like hell to get to it all before the whole territory’s transformed into one giant mixed-use development. Besides, when it comes to culture, I’m decently internationale — miles more so than any of the travel snobs I know. As evidence, whenever I part with anything from any one of my book, record or film collections online, nearly every item ends up going to some disparate corner of the planet, from Australasia to Scandinavia; from South Africa to Oceania (in fact, rarely the US). The point I’m trying to illustrate is that it’s possible to be worldly without the need to breathe in other people’s effluvium for eight hours at a go.

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL AIRPORT IN THE WORLD IS STILL JUST AN AIRPORT

I’m an ardent adherent to the idea that adventure is less about the destination and more about the journey. One glaring exception to this rule is air travel. Flying compresses and depresses me. I’ve been trying to build up my resistance with long continental flights to far-flung burgs like Anchorage. Still, though, think about it: Have you ever reflected fondly upon a favorite flight? In coach? For eight hours??

(No.)

The airport in Madrid was my first taste of Europe on the ground. First impression: High on style, low on functionality. The Madrid Barajas Airport is just too insanely beautiful to be the place where Airport personnel report to work everyday. In fact, it barely feels like an airport. This is a bad thing. To begin with, you disembark the plane and begin an interminable zig-zag up the jetway before at long last emerging at the arrival gate, at which point you follow-the-herd, as the paucity of signage leaves one without any clues as to where to proceed to a connecting flight or baggage claim. Gotta take a leak? Sorry, slob — hopefully the sense of mystery which envelopes you as you wonder aloud where they’ve hidden all the privies (note: WC/Debussy) will distract from all those bladder pangs. Need a porter? Sorry, also — you will slog and slog and slog, while the only signs you’ll spot are those occasional green & white EXIT signs depicting that DRI-looking stick figure which seems not to suggest an EXIT, but rather scrambling for your motherfucking life. Every time I saw that little guy, he managed to induce in me a vague sense of urgency. It didn’t help that I was gradually resigning myself to the fact that we would never make our connecting flight in time. It took some forty minutes before we finally arrived at the departure terminals, after jog-walking for over ten, clearing customs and navigating the excessively farcical airport security theater, (my black leather boots were okay to keep on, but not the strappy goddess sandals the woman behind me was wearing), and then traversing the giant duty-free mall strategically sandwiched between customs and the departure gates. With an eight hour layover until the next flight to Lisbon, we spent our food vouchers on below-average coffee slung by passive-aggressive baristas, good beer and some curious-looking sandwiches. Eight hours is a long-ass time to kill, and it does not die easy…not even in the most beautiful airport in the world.

MUSCATEL! CORK! TILES! BACCALAU! VASCO DA GAMA!..TILES!

We arrived at the Hotel Mondial in downtown Lisbon later that evening, an old, slightly pricey resort on the Rua Palma, just a few blocks up from the bay. The Mondial’s lobby is dazzling enough to impress even the most jet-lagged and jaded soul, replete as it is with smiling staff running around in cummerbunds and bow ties. This somewhat belies the humble nature of the guest rooms, the carpet in which was more like thin wool batting stretched taut over what felt and sounded like starlight mints trapped beneath. Likewise, the bathroom was more like a found object sculpture depicting frustration, starting with the first third of the toilet installed under the first third of the sink, followed by the bathtub installed upon a three foot riser, requiring one to launch one’s carcass up into it. Bursitis of the hip? Enjoy your sponge bath, turkey. Further comedic relief was provided by the absence of mixer valves in the shower, making for wavering extremes in water temperature, punctuated by the occasional scalding blast, which truly took a bite.

There was some good stuff, though: the central location with its view of the Rua Palma, chock as it was with restive natives preparing for their anti-Troika demonstrations the following evening; the mattresses, which were perfectly firm — the best I’ve ever slept in outside of my own; the mostly young female staff, who exuded an earthy pleasantness as opposed to the phony hyper-politeness you get here in the States; the scrambled eggs…I had dreams about them.

That first night in town, our cicerone bussed us over to a restaurant in the older part of Lisbon. It was a large, grotto-like space, ornately decorated throughout with a high barrel ceiling and a stage. We were seated at a long table and served one of those five course meals where each plate features a diminutive pillar of food, randomly strewn with sprigs of this ‘n’ that, and strafed by a single squiggle of sauce. Following this pretentious and unsatisfying little meal, we were treated to a Fado show. In case you don’t know, Fado is a traditional Portuguese music, which I found rather hokey. The jet lag didn’t help things. The performance seemed to go on and on and on, and I just wanted them to stop. All I could think about was that lovely mattress I wanted to get back to where I might die in my sleep. The most entertaining thing for me the whole evening was the crazed death ray one of the guitarists kept trained on some little shithead kid in the audience who kept playing video games on his Ipad with the volume cranked throughout the entire performance.

The second day was better, with a trip out to wine country, where we toured the giant mahogany casks of Portugal’s oldest vineyard, home to thousands of gallons of the rather nasty Muscatel — a treacly sort of fortified wine that serves as the centerpiece to Portugal’s vintner heritage. I got the sense that the Portuguese were even lighter lightweights than myself, given their propensity for such craziness as adding 7-Up to their Super Bocks and cutting twenty year-old wine with Coca-Cola.

Ponte25AbrilBridgeCheck it out: In Lisbon, you get your wine country, the Mediterranean climate and even a Bay Bridge — all without the Californians! Unbeatable. I wonder what the suicide rate is compared with the one in San Francisco?

The two biggest things going on in Portugal are cork and tiles. They cannot and will not shut up about their goddamned cork and tiles. Christ! Enough already!!!

…I, of course, only kid: The tiled walls and houses all throughout Portugal left cricks in my neck as I craned around to glimpse as many of them as possible as we zipped past in the bus. Everyone gets beautiful tiles in Lisbon — doesn’t matter if you’re a wealthy club owner like John Malkovich, or subsisting in the Terras do Lelo slums. Call it the banality of beauty. As far as cork goes, one of the local merchants mentioned something to me about some ongoing research to develop transparent cork, which I still can’t get my mind around. I hope he wasn’t bullshitting me.

I tore ass around a few castles, the crumbling botanical gardens and one or two splendiferous old palaces, but by day five, all the threadbare opulence was beginning to tire me. You seen one ruin, you’ve pretty much seen ’em all. There was that, and the growing sense that the trip was devolving into a sort-of wealth transfer, as it seemed to me like the ladies in the group were being subtly funneled from one stop to the next in order to have their anemic US dollars swiftly Hoovered up with a too-keen obrigato. Not that I condemn the Lisboans or anyone else for hustling, I just got bored of watching it. For my part, I bought a blanket, two pads of paper, a bar of shaving soap and a pencil — shit you can really use, and all made in Portugal, thank you.

The evenings in Lisbon were free, and my woman and I wandered the streets together, marveling at the uncanny number of shoe stores throughout the city. We were warned away from the *bad parts* of town, but I unwittingly wandered into them a few times without incident, save for a bemused look or two. Compared to the asphalt killing fields (with corresponding Murder Maps) that comprise the bad parts of most American metros, a dangerous street in Lisbon might consist of a guy in a black t-shirt, snarling to himself. PG-13 stuff at worst.

Most nights we ordered beer from one of the various arcades near the bay — and that’s exactly how I ordered them: a glass of beer, like we were on the set of a Hollywood film in 1947. And just like in those old films, without hesitation, the waiter would whisk away to procure a perfectly crisp Blonde or Bock. Try it out. It’s pretty terrific.

Overall, the city of Lisbon, it’s people, and the surrounding areas are handsome and melancholic, which is my kinda stuff. It’s got poetry. One fear is that the ongoing austerity measures imposed by the IMF on the people of Portugal will continue to negatively impact the area. Even the bucolic coastal areas of Cascais looked quite neglected (at least compared to how they looked in 1971’s The Last Run with George C. Scott). Many of the urban areas appeared blighted and drenched in Krylon. Outside of the numerous anti-Troika messages, graffiti in Lisbon looks the same as it does everywhere in the world, and covers nearly every vertical surface, including, most tragically, some of those tiled walls and even a few ancient stone ramparts. One saving grace is that the city was constructed with certain local materials and in such a way as to weather and rundown much more beautifully than any American strip mall or condo tower ever will.

Lisboan hellraisers seem to have it pretty plush. The prisons in Lisbon are quite stately, at least on the outside. Sadly, the one pictured at the top of this post is slated to become a condominium once the Portuguese economy gets back on its hind legs. Who knows when that’ll be…thanks IMF!

Mystery of the Braingasm Solved

So, I’ve had this *thing* for watching people do their *thing* for just about as long as I’ve been able to have *things.* Not sexual things, just regular day-to-day doings. But not everyone who does their thing has it factor, as it were. Someone like Bob Ross for example: Solid IT factor. Whenever I catch a glimpse of someone like Bob doing his thing, it triggers something strange in me…a unique kind of low-order euphoria. That is to say, I get all tingly n shit.

Maybe you’ve felt something like this, too. And maybe you felt like I did — a weirdo who doesn’t need any help feeling anymore weird than you already do at your plainest, most vanilla default setting, and so you remained cautiously reticent about this nameless quirk whilst in the company of those…other people.

mynormalshirt

If so, then you can relax my fellow pariah, for you are quite normal indeed. There’s even a jazzy name for this sensation: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. Check it out.

http://mindhacks.com/2013/05/13/the-unnamed-feeling-named-asmr/

…Fascinating stuff.

Now, I suspect that a lot of people/losers who’ve never experienced this unique phenomenon for themselves might conflate the mechanical with the methodical, or the boring with the quiet. The two are not the same! For instance, I could not (and would not) watch someone telecommuting from their laptop in an airport gate and feel so much as a flutter of deflection on the ASMR meters; but if I were watching someone carefully polishing the screen of that same laptop — THAT’S the stuff of a good braingasm!

I was living in this apartment a few years back, staffed with a small maintenance crew who’d periodically come through to sweep out the stairwells and porch fronts. There was one elderly staffer in particular; whenever I was at home and I’d hear her coming around, I’d deftly sneak over to the peephole and spy her as she swept. Even after she’d disappear up to the second landing of the stairwell, I’d keep watching her shadow. Yeah, Creep City, I know — and if she’d ever discovered me — if the door had somehow turned transparent in that instant, I am certain she would have scrambled for the hills. Even knowing this, I still couldn’t help myself. Despite being one of the most mindless, menial chores known to man, I was (admittedly bizarrely) captivated by this woman’s approach to dust/detritus relief. Watching her in action in that sunlit stairwell enveloped me in a weird sense of tranquility, vooshing over my entire body in syrupy, tingly waves. It’s rare that anything effects what is actually one of my favorite sensations, and one which is impossible to replicate, but this sweeper-upper had the moves, man. Whenever I’d hear the scritch of her bristles — even if I was barely out of the shower with a toothbrush champed between my teeth — I’d discreetly haul my soggy carcass from the bathroom over to the door and silently ogle. I didn’t even holler when I caught her snooping around my storage closet — there’s nothing good to steal in there, goddammit! Go back to sweeping! You’re amazing at it!

Other ASMR-accelerants: watching my good pal Ray cleaning records in his record store — especially when he’d get busy with an old hair dryer and some Ronsonol while attacking price tag goo on a precious 45 label; the world outside was on fire, wide-eyed, long-legged nymphs were milling about the Pop/Rock aisles, but there’s Ray Ehmen, focused like a laser on his lighter fluid ablutions, (and me before him, all pimply-fleshed and dazed).

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True Story: Years ago I went for a haircut from an over-fastidious coiffeur who was so exacting about every little nip and snip that he spent over two hours trimming my grass, slowly scanning my crown for any wayward strands like a seasoned forensics specialist at a complicated crime scene. He wound up trimming it much shorter than I’d asked him to, but I was so deep in that ASMR zone that I didn’t really want him to stop!

Watching someone polish aluminum is another good one; joinery and marquetry; cake decoration, stain removal tips on YouTube…all potential ASMR triggers. There was a chick on Youtube with about a hundred one minute videos of how to clean stuff with vinegar and baking powder; that was a mine! I’m sure I’ll think of more once I publish this…

The two key ingredients for me are OCD-level detail-orientation, and, most importantly, care. The person has to really care about what they’re doing, and it can’t be faked. I can instantly tell when someone is doing something strictly from the neck down. A certain ambiance helps, too. That’s why watching someone play the guitar doesn’t get me in that ASMR zone, while watching someone string a guitar just might. I was recently in Cuba, watching some workers in a cigar factory roll cigars, an ASMR orgy for certain — right? Unfortunately, the bustle of the workers and those damned German tourists everywhere effectively dampened the effects.

Anyway, that’s one mystery down out of a ker-zillion.

(Thanks to MindHacks and Lambert Strether via Naked Capitalism)