Monday, April 26, 2010

Finding My Haircut

Every man eventually finds his haircut.

Young men struggle with their hair. At first they celebrate it by growing it out. And why not? Hair is a symbol of youth itself. Thin and light or heavy and wiry, an excess of hair is a signature trait of young men in their teens and early twenties. This trait, this marker in time, is actually a process, a passage into adulthood.

Sadly, unlike women, no matter the surfeit of hair, men have very few choices when it comes to a hairstyle. My father, for example, who had less on the top of his head than growing out of his ears, knew this from long experience with little hair. He always enjoyed a good laugh at the seventies 'hair stylists' who offered to 'style' his hair for a few dollars more. Although he had the sense to know that styling a classic comb-over was ridiculous, somehow the idea of having a comb-over in the first place didn't seem to cross that same line.

I'm not saying that every man grows into the right haircut. Just 'his' haircut.

Eventually, it has to happen. The experimenting comes to an end. The hair 'products' and styling gels get washed out. Dying and close cropping get cropped, as do the ponytails and rattails. The mutton chops get chopped. Of course, not every man does this. Not every man gives this stuff up. But most do.

Most men give up with styling and settle on one haircut out of sheer laziness. It's the same with clothes, really. Most men would prefer to do as little 'prep' work every day as possible. This is not because there is any deficit of vanity in front of male bathroom mirrors, by the way. Most men just don't have the sustained energy to keep up with their hair. So, in time--usually mid to late twenties--they settle on the path of least resistance. Eventually, they pick a haircut and learn to live with it.

It's not as bad as it sounds, really. It's not giving in so much as it it seeing which way the universe is leaning and just going that way. In my case the choice, like my father's, was made simple by the absence of hair.

Now, unlike my father, a comb-over was definitely not among my options. Certainly, his comb-over (and subsequently, in my first year away from home, the similar affectation of a certain freshman history professor who had the habit of leaning over while he read the day's lecture) made me resolve never, ever to allow that to happen to my head.

Thus, the calculus is simple when I sit down in the barber, erm, hair stylist's chair these days. She will ask me how I want it cut. And I say, "Give me the old guy cut." This is a variant on the directive my father used to give the barber (yes indeed) as I clambered into the great big leather and chrome chair in my youth.

"Give him the little boy's cut" he would say, and out came the clippers. It took all of thirty seconds, if you didn't count the little shave they gave me around the neck and the cut that ensued when the razor hit the mole at the hairline. Nowadays, it takes about the same amount of time, but the stylists use scissors instead of electric clippers. They still hit that mole.

In some ways, the process of finding my haircut--even if it was motivated by a brutal slide down Occam's razor--was the same as finding my voice as a writer.

Both required much experimentation to make sure I have tried everything reasonable--and then some. Both required that I made some mistakes, but none of them were lethal. Both required that I would relent--eventually--to the force of our human nature and accept what it is because it could not be otherwise.

Neither process has required that I give up my individuality nor did either losing my hair or finding my voice require that I conform, completely, to any stereotype. I am a bald guy, but not just any bald guy. I am a writer, but not just any writer. Both my haircut (or absence thereof) and my voice have been shaped by a complex combination of my genes and my experiences.

In my case, it happened that I didn't find my voice until recently. The odd combination of my obsessive compulsive personality and the circumstance of having grown up in a traditional book culture with an unconventional autodidact for a Mother has for many years restrained my voice. But the annealing fire of grief has at last burned away the resistance and cleared away the background noise.

It took much longer than finding my haircut, but at last, I think I can finally hear my voice through the din.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What We All Know

With every passing second, people around the globe--like an army of mindless brooms directed by an invisible 21st Century Sorcerer's Apprentice--are using the new tools of technology to add, bit-by-byte, billions and billions of buckets of information to the ever-growing pile of human knowledge.

How big can the pile get? Is there a limit to this knowledge, or is it infinite?

Before we jump to the obvious conclusion--that no matter how large, the number is still finite--I think it's worth thinking about our old friend Zeno and the space-time paradox that we live as 'everyday reality.'

In other words, is it enough to know that information must be finite to conclude that knowledge has a limit as well?

This may seem like a question of semantics, but it's more than a neat juxtaposition of terms. Though they overlap to the point where they seem congruent to the casual eye, information and knowledge are not necessarily the same thing, and the difference is not trivial.

Making the distinction is important, I think, because while the gathering of information has expanded at at exponential pace throughout human history, the synthetic process of creating human knowledge--which is also expanding with mind-bending rapidity--is not accelerating at anywhere near the same rate.

Large though it may be, the amount of information is necessarily finite. The expansion of human knowledge, on the other hand, like Zeno's arrow, will never find a boundary.

Consider for a moment only a very narrow set of knowledge. What do we all know? We define knowledge so broadly that sometimes we give it a credibility that is at the very least unnecessary and at worst, most likely disproportionate to it's intrinsic importance.

So, while it's a given that something needs be "known" by only one person in history to be considered knowledge, it should also stand to reason that consequentially, most knowledge is thus simultaneously local. Most knowledge is consistently lost to all but a handful of humans over time and through space.

But what of things that are known universally, by all humans, in all places and at all times?

First of all, are there such things? Are there certain things that "we all know"? Indeed, are there even certain things that we all learn?

Well, we all know--even infants--that we must eat to live. We are born hungry, and every day, every human, no matter how well fed--experiences hunger and thirst. We all know--even infants and the insane--that to fall from a great height is to risk death, or that to touch fire is to risk getting burned.

The list may be a long one, but there are indeed things that "we all know".

There are nuances, of course--like the fact that we all know that being hungry is not the same as starving to death, or that falling into hay--even from a large distance--is consequentially different than falling a short distance onto rock. Oh, and we all "know" from experience--not necessarily from being told--that the heat from a stove is not so obviously dangerous as fire itself.

These are minor and relatively inconsequential distinctions however. These are imaginary artifices, divisions that we make between the basic bits of information and the basic webs of knowledge that those bits form inside our brains.

And, are those distinctions really important? Are webs of knowledge, like the bits of information that form them, finite or infinite? If we were to make a list, say, of "the things everybody knows" would the list ever even have a final item?

I "know" that the mathematicians have an answer for this question. I am not inclined to agree with them, if only because I also "know" that--despite our calculations--the arrow never really reaches the target. It just looks that way.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Thing Abuse

I am a chronic abuser of things.

I can say this now without shame or fear of retribution because I know that the objects of my abuse, undeserving of it though they may have been, have no feelings, no morals and no desire for revenge. I also know that even though my behavior was seldom justified, it was equally seldom intentionally abusive in the strictest sense.

Mostly, it was accidental.

I have been breaking and/or losing things since I can first remember. Some of my earliest memories deal with the frustration and anger resulting from losing or breaking something. Usually that something was not mine. In fact, it's only been relatively recently, when my 'affluence' has permitted me to buy things of my own to lose and/or break.

I say "and/or" because usually, I can mange to do both. It's always just a matter of time for one or the other. Of course, it is easier to break something before I lose it, but I have been known to pull it off the other way round as well. Like I said, I'm chronic.

And, it started even before I knew I had a problem. That's because, when I was younger, it was mostly things that I was given--what else does one have before the age of ten?--that I managed to break and/or lose. So, for a long time, I didn't know that the heartbreak of loss of a thing wasn't real.

As a result, my heartaches started early. One of the first things I can remember losing was one of my Father's cufflinks when I was about eight. On Friday night as I got dressed for services, Bill lent me the set of sterling silver links with a "D" engraved on them. I managed to lose one of them before sunset. Perfect.

I can remember losing a garnet ring my parents bought me at the market in Mexico City when I was eleven. My parents were visiting some friends and I'd been forced out 'to play' in the back yard while the grownups talked in the house. I lost the ring about ten minutes after we arrived. Then, I spent the rest of the afternoon frantically crawling on my hands and knees through what seemed like acres of St. Augustine grass picking vainly at the brown roots in search of a never-to-be-seen-again flash of red. I suffered in silence on the trip home, ashamed to admit that I had lost my treasure or that I was covered, head-to-toe, in chigger bites.

My father's things were, unfortunately, a constant target of my abuse. I broke Bill's favorite light meter on a camping trip when I was thirteen. I broke at least two of his cameras sometime after that. To his credit, he continued to allow me to touch his cameras right through my college years, with the expected disastrous results. I wrote about breaking his camera in Paris in a post in this journal called (go figure)The Camera.

It wasn't just Bill's precious things that I managed to break. Other family members have been targeted as well. No one, in fact, in my family is exempt, nor have they ever been. When I traveled to stay with my brother Stephen in Kansas City in 1965, I broke the first electric potters wheel in his studio and my ankle in the bargain.

Over the years, I've broken bikes, cars, cameras, watches, saws, coffee pots, record players, records, CD's, DVD players, computers, model airplanes, plates, glasses, printers and toasters. That's a very short and very incomplete list.

Honestly, I've broken or lost almost anything and everything I've ever had. As noted, I've broken a lot of things that weren't even mine. In fact, if I've broken something of yours, dear Reader, if you were unaware of my condition, now you know why.

Indeed, now I've come to the quite reasonable conclusion that, constrained only by age and some hard-earned caution, I'm actually on pace to bat very near a thousand. That is, without resorting to metaphor, I can say frankly that given enough time, I fully expect to break or lose everything I've ever owned or will own.

The only circumstance that may save some of these things will be my untimely end.

There's a simple truth here that I've learned. No matter how careful, wealthy or wise you are, every thing you own will eventually get lost, broken or be taken from you.

Things, I have learned, carry this intrinsic and often unseen danger. Things, I have learned, are here with us but for one reason: To break the hearts of those who would willfully seek and attach themselves to them.

In this sense, it is perhaps my clumsiness and abusive relationships with things that have so far preserved me into my middle years. On looking back, I really thought that loved those things. Now I see myself as having been a false lover.

Apparently, I never loved things enough to prevent me from breaking and/or losing them.

It's not as though I haven't tried to love my things. Though I am not without my share of heartache--as my abridged list of abused things will readily testify--I sense that I have in fact actually been preserved by callousness toward the well-being of things through my innocent youth.

I admit, when I was seventeen, I didn't care if rolling the electric windows in Bill's Mercedes up and down repeatedly would break them. It did. Now that I am fifty-three, I don't much care if my repeated use of the windows in my truck will do the same. It will.

The difference is that now I find myself in a place where I not only admit to being uncaring about the life of things, but pronounce that attitude with some pride. It is precisely this attitude which will allow me to escape from what could have, would have been, an inevitable sense of guilt brought on by a lifetime of lost and broken things.

The reason for this change is simple. I've lost things I that I thought I loved and I've lost people whom I know I have loved. No matter what, the things just don't matter.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

What do I think I can do?

I'll be honest, I was was grateful to find Mr. N. asleep in his room when I arrived at the nursing home last week.

I saw the Hospice nurse at the door on my way into the facility. Although she cheerfully told me that Mr. N. would be happy to see me if I woke him up, I was not inclined to do so. This not just because I didn't want to disturb him, but more because when he is awake, I am not quite sure what to say to him.

Since I started seeing him several months ago, Mr. N. has never been what I would call coherent. For example, when I first met him, he was visiting with his daughters in his room on a Sunday morning. Having never met me, the daughters greeted me with some understandable circumspection, but Mr. N. had no such reservations.

He smiled broadly and took my offered hand. "Well," he said, "It's sure been a while since I've seen you!"

Now, to this assertion I could only agree. "Indeed!" I said, "It's a pleasure to see you!"

The daughters looked at me quizzically. I quickly assured them that this was in fact our first meeting. I introduced myself, of course, and soon left them with a promise to return to visit Mr. N. on a weekly basis.

Each visit has been marked by a visible bit of decline in Mr. N. Though not unexpected, it does limit the interaction we've had. Try though I might have to talk about the weather, or to ask about his family, he's never really answered any of my questions. And try though he might have to respond to my queries, nothing approaching a coherent conversation has emerged from our visits.

At least until last week.

Thinking--hoping--that I would find him in repose when I arrived, I brought my book. I soon sat relieved in the big chair in the corner, watching him snore while I pretended to read. But, not a moment after I sat down, I was startled by the sound of an old woman's voice. She was loudly calling for help.

"Someone please help me!"

I sat up. The voice was coming from across the hall.

"Please, someone help me."

I started to get up.

"I need to get off the train!" she said, in a very matter-of-fact tone. I stopped to listen some more. It was not so much what she said, but the volume of her voice and the anxiousness therein that caught my attention. She was calling out as though to someone whom she could see but who couldn't hear her. it was as if she were calling to someone through the window of a train.

"I need to get off the train." Her voice was insistent and impatient. She went on and on.

"I need to get off in Chicago. Do you know if this train goes to Chicago? I need to get on the train so I can get off the train. I need to know if this is the right train. Is this the train to Chicago? If so, I need to get off, in Chicago. If not, I need to get on the train to Chicago so I can get off in Chicago. So, I need to get on the train so I can get off the train. Please, someone help me. Help me get off the train."

All this she said without taking a breath it seemed. I sat on the very edge of my chair, book folded over my hand, eager to move and satisfy my curiosity, but at the same time, paralyzed by the tenor of her voice.

I began to wonder. Was there someone in the room with her? Or, was she just calling out to anyone who might hear? She was talking so loudly that it seemed unlikely anyone was with her, but I was becoming more and more curious. Why had no one come to calm her down? Would anyone ever come?

My curiosity overtook me. I got up and slowly crept out of Mr. N's room to have a look. There was no one in the hall and no one coming to check on her, so I angled over to the point where I could see into her room.

The old woman was lying quite alone in her bed, with eyes closed and arms folded across her chest in a corpse position. Her hands were balled into fists and she was still talking at the top of her lungs to no one at all.

But, no sooner than I crossed into her field of view, her eyes popped open and she turned to look at me.

"Who's there?"

Like a six-year old child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, I felt the hot flush of embarrassment and I fled back to the quiet safety of Mr. N's room. I jumped back into the chair and opened the book, though I had no illusions about being able to read.

"I need to get off the train. Please, someone, help me get on the train so I can get off the train in Chicago."

And so it went, for another twenty minutes. I sat on the edge of the chair, paralyzed byt the metaphor and watched the shadows cross the wall. I listed to Mr. N's soft snores under the constant railing from the lost traveler across the hall. I thought of Lynda, who employed the very same metaphor when she at last realized that she was dying. And, I thought of Mr. N., who couldn't ask to get off even if he wanted to. Or so I thought.

At 4:20, two young attendants came in to wake Mr. N for dinner and get him into his wheelchair. In less than twenty seconds, they woke him up, sat him up and transfered him to his chair. When I first saw this procedure several weeks ago, I thought it was rude to say the least. But this time it seemed more efficient than undignified.

After one of the attendants wiped his eyes and put on his glasses, I stepped up to say hello.

In spite of his condition, Mr. N. has never failed to greet me with a smile, and this time was no exception. Today, however, perhaps because he was just freshly awakened, he seemed to be a bit more present. His eyes focused on me as I took a seat on the bed next to him.

"We'll have to see what we can do," he said, quite clearly as he looked at me, "In terms of the company."

I had no idea what he meant by this at first, but it quickly occurred to me that he might be interviewing me for a job.

Now, up till this point, I had never considered what I would say if I could actually understand Mr. N. I took it for granted that we would never have a meaningful conversation of any sort.

Yet, in this brief moment, Mr. N. seemed so lucid that it would have been disrespectful to remind him that I was a Hospice volunteer, not a job applicant at the company for which he used to work. Why not play along?

So I did. I said simply, "Thanks, I appreciate the opportunity."

He said, smiling again, "Where do you live?"

"South Austin. Brodie and William Cannon. It's very convenient."

"Good," he said, studying me with soft pearlescent grey eyes.

"So, what do you think you can do?"

Suddenly the game became a serious one. What a question! And from such a source! What could I say that would make sense? To him or me? I found myself in a gravity well, spinning round with the force of falling. Down the rabbit hole. Suddenly I was the one who wanted off the train.

Fortunately, I was saved by the attendant, who returned to take Mr. N. to dinner.

"4:30! Time for your dinner Mr. N!"

She smiled at me but had no idea why I had that conflicted look on my face. I shook Mr. N's hand and wished him an enjoyable dinner. He looked at me blankly again, caught back up in the quotidian world as she rolled him away.

I was left wondering, as I am still. "What do I think I can do?"

Thursday, April 8, 2010

My Letter to Mike Rowe

Dear Mike,

First off, I want to say that, like everyone who writes you (no doubt), I am a fan of your show.

Now, I can't say I've seen every show. I can't even say that I watch the prime time episode every week. But, somehow--maybe because the Discovery Channel runs it all week in the late-night slots--I end up watching at least two or three episodes a week.

Heck, sometimes we even watch two or three episodes at a time!

So, I've seen you at work. I saw you climb into that buoy and under that house with all the vermin, and the room with the mosquito larvae and the place where they dissolved flesh to get at the bones. Yes, I've seen you milk camels and reach into a cow's stomach. I saw you make that charcoal and that bird food.

When it comes to dirty jobs, you definitely done them all. Well, all but one.

You see, whenever you get to that part of the show when you turn to the camera and beg us, your loyal viewers to send in our ideas to keep you in work, I always came up empty handed, so to speak. That is, until the other day. That's when it hit me.

I have a dirty job for you, Mike!

Ironically, it's a job I've actually been doing for more than twenty years. It's a job I used to do, routinely. But it's gotten be too dirty, and too tough a job, even for me.

I like to think I'm a pretty tough guy. I've been a waiter and in the restaurant and catering business all my life, and I'm used to hard, dirty work. I've hauled heavy things, cleaned dirty things and done both to downright nasty things. leftover food, grease traps, broken dishwashers, clogged toilets and septic tanks.

In short, I know dirty and I know hard. And this job is a bit too much of both for me.

But, it's not what you're thinking. No. it's not at the restaurant. It's at home. The job?

Cleaning the kitchen after my wi...erm, Bride, Valery makes dinner.

Oh right, I can hear you saying. "Now that sounds like really a dirty job."

Well, ok, you're entitled to be smug about it. At least till you've done it.

Let me say right now that Valery is a wonderful cook. Better than that, she is an inspired and inspiring chef. She has made dinners that even the most discerning foodie in the world would absolutely rave about. As I said, I've been in the restaurant business all my life, and have eaten in many places and many countries. And I'll stand by Valery's cuisine any day. Many a diner at our table has affirmed this simple truth.

So, here's the offer. Come have dinner with us. We'll even feed Barsky (and the crew). That part, I am sure, you'll enjoy.

Then, you have to clean the kitchen. That part, believe it or not, is a helluva dirty job.

Oh, right. Proof. How about some photos, or, some videos?

Keep in mind that these are just examples. The best part--for you anyway--is that you only have to do it once. Pity my poor daughter Madelaine, who has to clean it up almost every night.

Did I mention that I don't do it anymore? Call me lazy. Call me a wimp. Just don't call me to clean the kitchen.

That's your job. Your next Dirty Job.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Two Tables

There are two tables in our house.

Of course, if you were to go have a look, you'd swear there is just the one. It's right there in our kitchen 'nook'.  Right now, it looks like a single table.

Most often, it is the kitchen table. Like now, with all the stuff that is the day in the life of a typical family scattered across it.  It's covered with envelopes, newspapers and a laptop or two, looking for all the world like the kitchen table in many houses around the world.   But, in our house, like many houses, there are actually two tables right there.

The thing is, the two tables occupy the same space, but not the same time.

Many days, even when evening comes and it's time to set the table for dinner and all that stuff of the day is swept away, the table is still the kitchen table.  In our house, we routinely eat at the kitchen table.

Some days, however, the laying of the tablecloth and placement of the utensils and dishes anticipates a more formal event, one we call Dining with the Dubovs.  On these days, the object itself is transformed, from a kitchen table into a dining table.

If that sounds a bit like transubstantiation, it likely is.  In some ways, this 'transformation' requires the same slippery semantics and it definitely relies on a similar leap of faith.

The principle difference between taking communion and Dining with the Dubovs is that, instead of a measly bit of wafer and wine, at our table, you'll get some savory rosemary grilled lamb chops and a generous heap of fragrant spiced couscous to go with your full glass of malbec.

You'll also get some interesting conversation at our table.  In fact, as important as the food is, some say that the food isn't the most important thing at the table.  The table is.  The food, they say, is really just an excuse to get together around it.

Or is it? Does good food bring people to the table, or do the people at the table demand good food?

I think it's the former, since whose table it is that people will gather at depends on who is cooking.

In our house, fortunately, that is Valery. When our kitchen table is transformed, there is no doubt that it's Valery's culinary skill that brings the Diners to the Dubovs.