Monday, November 21, 2005

Trudge Forth, Ecclesiastes

Progress is most nearly a road faithful only to the terrain followed. We mark the course of progress as we come forward, ever forward, living within the constraints of our short arcs of motion, which prevent any regression. The nap of the landscape varies, rising and falling with the relief of ancient stresses, hidden hardened beneath the surface. As Churchill may have recommended, we simply "Bugger on, regardless", head down, head into the course before us.

Sometimes, time and circumstance offer us hints of a possible divergence, a choice of roads yet to be hewn, or not. It remains for us to see and possibly sieze the offered alternative. One of my own little unauthorized progress indicators is a simple check, to see how often raw common sense outpoints the pomp and circumstance of official logic. To be useful, this type of analysis really needs to be applied over a broad range of decisions made: The simplest to criticize are government edicts, but it pays to look critically at ones we've authored, ourselves.

A couple of years ago, the main drag of our borough hit it big, in the grand roads and highways lottery. The DoT decided to rip up the main east-west artery through the town, right down to to the roadbed, and repave the whole shooting match. The process took a little over a year to complete, during which time, the town was effectively bisected. The town itself had seen its heyday as an agricultural distribution point, some seventy years earlier, and the streets were laid out accordingly. Its fortunes receding, a kind of calm resignation had spread over the whole area, and with it, a blessed tranquility which started about an hour before sunset. Unlike modern communities, the main routes here are also the narrowest, though the side streets are enlarged to more contemporary widths. The net effect was that it was a pretty good place to live, but not to do business. One more detail: the countryside which surrounds the borough is still, even now, diced into large tracts of farmland.

None of the improvements actually did much to improve the route itself, apart from slightly smoothing the journey through town. We still have occasional tractor-trailers in the poor guys front yard, when the driver heads up to the sharp dogleg turn too quickly. And brake retarders (whatever the hell those might be) have been strictly verboten in the borough. Why they didn't reroute this visionary path around the town, and relegate the place to being one big bedroom community, remains a mystery.

We even have the luxury of a closed regional railway station, complete with intact railroad tracks, which runs from the city to to our little slice of oblivion.

See? That's an example of government thinking, as the easy mark. Many of these decisions are either whimsical or clumsy in their effects, worthy of a chuckle or sharp remark, but not threatening.

Rolling the tape forward, our current tax code is yet another gorgon, with benefits intended to spur the economy, using the ever-popular "trickle down" theory. In theory, conservation of wealth among the elite will somehow cause domestic job creation, based on improving demand for goods and services. What a lovely sentiment! It might even have an element of truth, except for the domestic job creation part. This isn't even a knock on the wealthy, since the laws of Capitalism (or, is it a mutant form of Objectivism? I can't keep the goats apart from the sheep.) more or less mandates chasing down the cheapest labor, costs of goods, relaxed environmental regulations, in order to be competitive. Never mind that this will eventually eliminate large numbers of domestic consumers, and replace them with consumers who presumably start from a lower financial rung. I realize that the notion is anathema in some circles, but it would be good to actually put the money where it might do some good for 40 Million or so living below the poverty line, and fix some other broken things in the process. Corporations are getting cold feet over things like health care and retirement benefits. I would argue that, even in a conscientious business, the free market is running away from these costs of operation, as indeed they should, in our chosen economic model. I'm really not sure which is worse- leaving these in the private sector, and hope that any prevailing laws and ethics will hold up, despite shifting business conditions: or, give the government the task of providing basic universal health and retirement, and end the conflict of interests in the private sector.

In theory, the governments principal duty is to all of the citizens, not just the ones who bring their checkbooks to dinner. Businesses should embrace such changes, rather than barking about creeping socialism. They're quite right that the general well-being of citizens is not their concern nor responsibility. Increasingly (just ask someone who worked at Delphi) workers themselves are being lumped into the larger population. Somewhere in the midst of this brouhaha, the people who created the profits initially are curiously silent in the argument. Both groups are likely to wash their hands of these problems, if they do enough lobbying and public speaking appearances.

Businesses routinely cite internal cost controls as a differentiator between successful and unsuccessful operations, chief among these, health and retirement benefits. Placed in this situation, one wonders if it's even possible for companies to avoid an inherent conflict of interests, sooner or later. Unfortunately, the government also has a long rap sheet, when it comes to plundering our so-called entitlements. Neither party seems to realize that the money isn't theirs to spend.

All of the histrionics which attend any debate over social benefits seem to dismiss the people affected by the process as either idiots or of no consequence. Maybe there's a compromise solution that works, but right now, both sides are fumbling the future. A little personal culpability would help, with real criminal penalties and forfeiture of personal assets, for both government and private sector administrators who "forget" whose money they're coveting. Companies forget who built the value proposition, elected officials can't remember who elected them into office, after a short while. We need a system which either restores their missing recollections, or removes the equity from their spheres of influence as quickly as possible, before either can "repurpose" our futures out of existence.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Put Dreariness in Perspective

I know, mea culpas are definitely in order. You might not know it from posts, but I really am looking for the driest path through the drip of tears. It often comes out like a steady outpouring of woes, but life genuinely is about seeking and identifying happiness, not obsession with its miseries. I'm certainly no grand arbiter of what constitutes either sorrow or satisfaction in this world, but I can say that exact definitions are elusive, when dealing with groups of one or more people. I can also say that, in my experience, people come up with their own personal sets of parameters to describe extremes, and as a society, any day when these ranges overlap, is a very good day, indeed. We have spent far more time perfecting zero-sum relationships, but that only means that we have unlimited upside opportunity to treat others as we would have others treat us. Not that this philosophy comes at will; Most of us are so inured to the idea of unlikely co-dependencies that we are rooted in our independence, and thus want only harvesting, lacking cohesions to our fellow men (and women).

I imagine that, within every persons lifetime, there will be at least one place or period where nothing else is demonstrated, except our ability to see the value of living, not only within our narrow confines, but also, as part of a much larger family. However nascent or slack through disuse, these underlying sensibilities must be present, else how does any other system of valuations survive? Power, wealth, intellect- agree or disagree, but these are structures which survive only at the behest of, and with the complicity of masses of people. Ubiquity is a principal advantage- everyone eventually signs on, because eventually, everyone is signed on. This advantage may degrade, as people find themselves pushed into or aside by the juggernaut. Only later, after just a short time spent charging through the swirling dust, do thoughts of life for the living manifest themselves to the herd. To what end do we rush, and what's our hurry in getting there? Do we recieve preferential honors for self- immolation?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Company Calls

Sleeping in still feels like a luxury, once you get the elements at bay. The rain must have grown bored with the sheer repetitiousness of yesterdays outpouring, and moved off in the darkness. The cold air was in no such hurry. Outside of the cocoon, the wet grass moved vigorously. Can't see it, but it's close, right over the berm. Damn it! Have I overslept? Whatever else was happening out there, the silence of early morning was gone. I executed a quick quarter-roll and peered out from under the tarp. "[Sniff, Sniff!] Aooph! Ouwp!" a young dog, an Irish Setter or a big Spaniel, had caught the scent of something just over the hill, and was straining at the end of a retractable leash. The owner, a woman in a yellow sweat suit, jogged in place under her headset, still unaware of the dogs sudden interest in the wet grass up there. There goes the neighborhood!

It's hard to rescue a plausible explanation for situations like this, propless and on such short notice. I had barely shoved the tarp and newspapers up into the drum, when the tension relaxed on the dogs leash, and it bounded forward triumphantly. My glasses slid down the back of my pant leg as I stood up, hoping that I had willed the tension out of my face. "Aowp! Aowp! Aowp! I! See! You!" I stood up, looking around absently and rubbing my neck. "Well! I think I lost my glasses coming home from the library, somewhere around here... ", looking around the on the ground, "... and seem to have found your dog, or rather, it's found me." Chucking the dog's chin appreciatively, I turned and "found" the errant glasses. "See that? I knew they must have been dropped, right around here. I can still make it in on time!" Bravo, Sir Laurence! No time for curtain calls. Now, beat it! I waved, and ambled away as quickly as decorum permitted. So much for anonymous shelter! That spot's blown. I'm guessing that people with more experience learn not to mask the sense of violation that they feel, at least not from themselves. After all, it's only pride or dignity, weightless but still, needing a vehicle to convey it. Who's got room in their coat for that? Still a neophyte, I turned up the tracks and wondered whether I'd been innocuous enough, had vanished beyond recollection. I sifted through the experience as my equilibrium returned. Nothing like a walk in the fresh air to promote clarity. Clearly, I have some things to learn about priorities. That was a good spot, but Rover, or Bowser, or whatever dog might randomly appear, has to have a place to run, play, or just take a dump. Mustn't disrupt any community customs. At least the dog had had fun, at our impromptu meeting. Swe-et Je-ezus!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

When Does This Game Become Fun?

For a moment there, I imagined a large crowd's enthusiastic applause. That's what you get for dreaming! Dark, virging on light. The applause issued from raindrops, seeking flaws in my "deli-wrapped" cocoon. More a tenor than a baritone, the downpour wasn't much good as a pink noise source. The cocoon stayed dry, but was palpably colder. Nothing open but a few gas stations and all-night convenience stores - not much joy there. May as well ride it out. Tarps don't behave like blankets. Pulling them tight around you has exactly the opposite effect because, rather than trapping the warmth, it robs heat from every place where your body touches it. The right approach is to create a little more volume, like an enclosing balloon, then let the heat generated by your body warm the trapped air inside. This all came to me after I'd completed my clever little hoagie wrap. Oh, well. I'm here for awhile anyway, and entertainment is where you find it.

I think that I mentioned thermodynamics and heat flows, a few posts back. Applied to the current situation, there are a few design constraints which could affect your comfort level while you sleep. Owing to the need to not offend or alarm real citizens, you can't just crank up a raging bonfire and sing Kumbaya (sp?). In fact, you pretty much have to not be there at all, but if you are there, you can only count on the heater that you keep under your coat. I don't remember the exact numbers, but I think that the the average adult male puts out around 250 BTU's of heat, given normal metabolic processes, body fat, resting heart rate, etc. It's probably fair to say that, no matter what the exact BTU rating should be, you're not going to get them, after a few nights outdoors.

Hmm...okay, so there will be more night than BTUs, at least during the cold months. You can do better. Create a layer of stationary air, and protect it as best you can from moving cold air. That's where the newspapers come into play. By surrounding yourself with rolled up balls of paper, you limit conduction losses- that's the heat you feel, when hugging someone- to wherever your body touches paper, and convective losses- that's the heat you feel, when you're near someone- to the relatively still air within the bubble or cocoon. God's intentions to one side, nature intends that you pay attention to its use, because it's what you have. The same thing goes for paper balls as a mattress. The ground will just sponge up any heat that you apply to it, so you need to create a protective barrier. If the situation is extremely dire, then you may be able to find a car, a truck, or a garage to serve as another dead air pocket. Or, you can do something rash to get yourself incarcerated, in which case, you might get three hots and a cot, but you show up on someones radar, and your invisibility's compromised. So it's got to be pretty bad, before you throw that card. It suggests that you might not care, and so might be a troublemaker.

Dave has this theory that you look for some structure that doesn't translate outside temperature variations too quickly, like culvert or maybe a stone garage. Then, you just let your body track the trends slowly, like the masonry does, but he admitted that it's a theory only, something that he hasn't actually tried yet. King's bishop takes pawn.

As in libraries everywhere, I suppose, the acolytes of this particular temple insist on bathing their collection of vowels and consonants in sepulchral silence. I won't imagine what silent battles took place to accomplish the feat, but for some reason, the librarians here tolerated a chess board and the noise of boisterous pieces, sliding to and fro, so long as the contests took place away from other readers. Words seemed to help, I noticed: Scribbled on a scrap of paper, I slid the day's offering to the desk librarian. Define pellagic.

Chess has always struck me not as a serious game, but as one to be played seriously. Wanting practice, my game's clearly not what it might have been. Though she may have surmised the situation, she never let on. "The board's outside the reference section, downstairs. You know that food and drinks are forbidden, and you will be asked to leave, if you disturb anyone else."

I took the liberty of speaking for both of us. "No problem, we haven't brought any food or drinks with us."

Her countenance changed slightly. The rain had had its effect, and neither Dave nor I had thought to bring an umbrella. "Good weather for a game, but remember; no commotion."

Any casual observer would have remarked that the two guys in the stairwell landing were going about chess all wrong. It's a game of set pieces, moved in a deliberate fashion, from one position to another, to advance a definite strategy. And I would have listened to theirs or anyone else' debates respectfully, at least, until the rains let up. The game has changed. Rank and position are subsidiary to motion. Emotion is subsidiary to motion. Kings and Queens topple. Stay invisible. The essential thing is to keep moving. Queen's castle to Queen's castle three.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Approach and Departure from the Pattern

The weather seems to be locked in a stalemate. The nights have been cold but bearable, although somewhat demanding on one's weather eye. I've modified my sleeping arrangements so that the gusts of wind hit the smallest cross-section of my cocoon at night. I've been lucky: fitful bursts from the northwest have punctuated the otherwise calm evening air, so my new-found theories about the aerodynamics of a good nights sleep haven't gotten a real workout, not yet. I've been experimenting with placement on the terrain- windward, leeward, lateral, inclined. And I've mastered the art of quick ingress into my cocoon. You can probably visualize it yourself. Just imagine a hoagie, being wrapped in paper at a delicatessen counter, then imagine that no hands are involved in the wrapping process- the sandwich itself does all of the wrapping. It's a little touchy, but it's quick and nearly invisible, even from over in the library parking lot. It gives a much better seal against the weather or other things on the ends, but I nearly suffocated myself, while I was working it out. Good thing I didn't skimp on the newspaper. It also leaves you kind of vulnerable, since you can't see anything outside once you're wrapped, but at least it's warm and dry.This probably would have been a few hours' adventure, if I was a young boy. Hence the modified Hippocratic Oath, 'First, do no harm, not even by example'. The last things I need are some young kids stumbling upon my location, whether I'm there or not.

It's really, truly funny. I was besieged by real estate advertisements, urging more house for the buck, quick refinancing, location, location, location, and greater enthusiasm for buying all the home you're entitled to. Artistically crumpled into a random ball, my tarp fits well back into a thirty gallon steel drum which was used to hold carpet adhesive. The drum, tilted slightly to empty downhill, is an eyesore, but isn't visible from the street anyway. Time to get out and circulate. An unauthorized bike trail, running parallel to my aerie, leads to a railroad line. Go left for a few hundred yards, and pick up the walking path around the park. Voila, an anonymous gentleman, out for his morning constitutional. I have an internal debate which keeps my mind occupied. I can chip away at this simplified life here, or try to make my way to someplace like the city and try to get something going there. It's not idle musing, either. The autumn part of autumn will soon be replaced by winter, which is a complication. If I leave, I lose any territorial advantages that I may have, although the weather doesn't favor continuous outdoor existence. If I stay, it's a form of surrender to circumstances, and I'll still wind up in a ditch or field somewhere, eventually. I have to decide soon, but luckily, my worries are few in the world, and my calendar is empty. See? The real estate guys were right. Location really is everything. Here's this beautiful, underutilized library, not fifty yards from my cocoon: I can go see what I'm up against. Wouldn't want to make an impetuous decision.

I have to find out what my rights are, as an indigent. For instance, I still have my voter's registration card, but no fixed address. Can I vote, or do I die first, and have someone stuff my vote into a ballot box? If, in a burst of pride and luck, I decide to try and get back into the working world, the new bankruptcy law won't have any effect on me, or will it? It may be that, should I ever emerge from this economic coma, I'll find that the meter's been left running, and my wages are divided among my various creditors. Child support? Alimony? Most of my bills were right up to date, by the time my account ran flat, but that still leaves taxes and mortgage, whatever's left of it. Wonder how that calculation has changed? How do I even know what's still owed? I'm not divorced, and the ink's barely dry on the bill of sale for the house. Does any of that matter? That reminds me: Got to get word to my wife to divorce me, or she'll be stuck in a bottomless emotional and financial pit. Carefree rogues like me are clearly a threat to world banking systems and need constant suppression. Got to avoid fiscal frivolity, I think the rationale was. Love to help with that.

I've got a few hours to kill, anyway. Owing to a prior schedule, it's my turn to run the soup kitchen for my meeting tonight. I've been involved with it for years now, so there's really no need to alter the schedule. It'll give me a chance to get cleaned up, and besides, I find that having guests over for supper is very comforting. Like a scene from Breughels painting, "Peasant Wedding Feast", almost, but without the hard cider. I don't care so much about chicken, but soap, hot water and towels are another matter.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Point of Departure

My guide, off in his makeshift shelter, left me with some tactical decisions of my own to make. A merciful God, satisfied that I had as much to bear as I might, had cauterized my sentiments. I walked slowly down the alley, in search of nesting ingredients. He was right. The sheriff's sale had been a momentary attraction for a small crowd, gathered to watch bidders and browsers. It was different things to different people. To me, it was a Gordian knot, shredded at a stroke. Days had past since I saw the last of my family, as we parted company. My wife, hysterical at the loss of her mountain of objects, eventually driven away by one of her women friends. My daughter and her beau had sensed trouble brewing, and moved out on their own days earlier. After days of negotiations and vituperations, I was able to find shelter for my son with a brother-in-law and his wife, which was a traumatic and desperate change for him to absorb. We walked away from what had been our home, and waited for his new guardians to drive up. My children! I love you both, and I can't tell you the sorrow I feel at my betrayal of you both. I can only hope that your lives change for the better. Know that, wherever you go, wherever you find yourselves, I will love you for as long as I live. We embraced, embraced again, then I divided my last possessions between them: My love, my hopes, some cash and the remaining food stamps, and two old pocket watches. Amazingly, neither cried, though it was a struggle. I was pretty sure that, barring some divine reversal of fortune, it was the last time we'd lay eyes on one another; the possibility was, with any luck, slower to come to them. We hugged again, then my daughter rode away into her own future. My son, ever the one to uphold tradition, remained. His ride had not yet appeared, so we had one of those father-and-son talks, or more accurately, a vagrant-to-confused young man discussion. "I know you weren't expecting this, even though I told you it was coming. Your mother and I took the toughest possible course through the maze, and we fell short. I know how to reach your aunt and uncle, but I don't know how or when I'll be able to call you. Pay attention and be respectful of them, and make them proud of you. Your sister will know to call you there, once she gets settled. Stay close to her, love her, and look out for each other, until we meet up again. Your Mom knows where you are, but she'll need time to get herself together. Be patient, and help her however you can. You're a new man in a new world. What you don't know now, you can pick up along the way- you don't need me for that."

The sale onlookers dispersed quickly, even as bidding continued. My son, his belongings already packed, gave me a last hug, hugs all around. Our parting words were sparse, and represented a polyglot range of emotions. I told my sister- and brother-in-law where everyone was at the moment, and how to get in touch with one another, as though explaining how to fly a kite. Their expressions were another matter- city-dwellers, they knew a little about the life expectancy of homeless people, knew the likelihood of seeing me alive again. It's okay. I'm in eternal gratitude for your kindness. Raise him as you would a son. Our awkward good byes were brief. One right turn later, and they were gone. I smiled, for the first time in ages: There would be an exceedingly odd run of items on eBay, in a few weeks.

Nights later, I find myself standing in the dark, a stack of newspapers in in my arms, behind my old house. It looks as though it had been slightly vandalized. Debris, now demoted from the status of possessions, had been dragged out the back door and cast aside. Yes, that would have made sense. They must have moved out the big pieces, and this stuff had been in the way. No need to be as polite at one of these outings, I guess. Just take what you bought, or the pieces that interested you, and toss the rest. I could not find the outrage which would have undoubtedly consumed me, had I owned these things. I may have left it on the curb that day. The house itself had at least been sold, according to the notice. My eyes adjusted to the dim light, and scanned for the missing pieces I'd need to sleep tonight. I spotted a small, plastic dropcloth. That will do. I recognized the outline of one of my journals, which I'd kept over the years. Either the pages were still blank, or the writing so faint that I couldn't make out the words. That won't be necessary: You have to be a person for personal notes to have any relevance. I towed the drop cloth out to the alley, without arousing the neighbor's dog. Lights from up the alley glinted from various items strewn about the yard. I knelt to make a compact bundle of the items I had gathered. Miraculously, I had avoided crushing my reading old glasses, lying there, in the grass only inches from my boot. You can never tell, there might be some good news that I'll have to read some day. Hugging my bundle, I lumbered toward the library. It had been built over an old, reclaimed EPA superfund site, and the grass had grown agreeably tall in the field behind it. Time to settle in for some rest. If not rest, then at least I could read again, and take in the news.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Away In the Manger

A few hundred yards away, a passing recycling truck further randomized its load. Like passing trains, the sound was probably one which the brain ordinarily filters out, with familiarity. Give it a little time, to become routine. Brisk. I yawned and stretched, which disrupted the stillness further. Snap! Krackle! Pop! The plastic tarpoulin made me out a fugitive from a Rice Krispies box, as it stiffly released me from my cocoon.

After a series of forward and backward rolling motions, more of the surroundings revealed themselves. It was around 37 degrees in the tall grass behind the public library, and brilliant sunlight struggled to pry the lid of slate clouds which had evidently dug in, like ticks on a bitch's back. The rest of the day would be as a funeral, but the Sun leered in early, the clouds ajar at their far eastern edge.

Well, guess that answered at least one of his questions, or was it a challenge? Maybe outdoor living is an acquired taste. It's the little things that kill you, or more eloquently, the meek shall inherit the earth. I rolled back into my private cumulus of rolled up newpapers, pulled the tarp back over myself, and began deliberately touching my body, to see if any intrepid little parasites had attached themselves to me overnight. "If it was my call, I'd say it's better to hevel yourself early, before the police show up and try to send you home..." That flat delivery, like directions to a passing motorist. "... or some dog-lovers send Fifi or Fido out, to take care of their morning business. Nothing attracts a crowd, like a crowd."

It was a novel experience, walking around in the evening darkness with stacks of newspapers, but very pragmatic. Seeing two grown men, talking and carrying bunches of newspapers, without apparent purpose, would have been a bit ominous to other onlookers. How ironic. We were discussing the importance of invisibility in plain sight, and strategies for getting a few hours of undisturbed rest. The worst nights - Halloween, in particular- had already passed, as far as alfresco sleeping goes. The colder it gets, the colder it gets, but people try to stay indoors, if they've got a place. It gets a little tricky when the snows come, but you can find shelter from the weather in town, if you pay attention to detail. "I don't know if that'll work, in my case. I snore like a locomotive, which is a dead giveaway." I keep calling him, him, but he has a Dave-like demeanor and no evident appelation. From what little history he's revealed, Dave's been living within a mile radius of where I met him, for over six years. A statement, neither a boast nor accusation, but also a testament. "That simplifies and complicates things. You'll be outdoors tonight, but the weather's likely to let you off the hook. You might get away with snoring, if the weather goes to rain or heavy snow, but not on a quiet night, not indoors. So, your problem simplifies itself. You just have to focus on kitting up for sleeping outdoors, without being attacked by animals or people, rousted by cops, or freezing to death. Given a choice, it's better to show up out of nowhere, rather than somewhere. And forget about shopping carts, everything you have is on your back. A shopping cart full of junk is a dead giveaway and will only draw attention to you. In this country, the worst thing that can happen to someone with nothing, is to have people with something, breathing down your neck and applying their value systems until you're dead, or neat and tidy. You can whistle past the graveyard, but not within it. You might give away someone sleeping there." That was about the longest continuous speech I heard from Dave, though he continued to offer a kind of running travelogue, over the next couple of days. As words suit themselves to deeds, silence itself carried its own tutorial weight. As if to say,'Watch what you ask!'. Neither fish, nor fishing pole would be offered, only, 'Considered how you'll sustain yourself?', and a bald analysis of technique, which was the medium of exchange. I can live with this... I have to, anyway. This wasn't a one-way exchange. Out of the silence fell an observation: Charity, while a laudable luxury, carries a life-or-not pricetag. Neither of us hands the keys to paradise over, not to anyone, and certainly not out of altruism. Whatever vestiges of civility we present to others, we present for hard, inner reasons of our own. Found wanting, we are without, within, a sheer cleave between everything we're not wearing, pushing around in a cart, or stashing in the weeds. Like that poor bastard Prometheus, our livers are there for the plucking. But Olympus is a long way from here, and the chains show no signs of wear.

Divorced from outward appearances, there is no such thing as a casual stroll. Things go one way, or another, as we act on our simple judgements, estimates, and calculations. The darkness masks a lot, but I know where I am. "Those papers will help, but you'll want to hang onto them overnight. You realize that you'll need something more for the last minutes before sunrise, don't you?" My reading glasses were on the desk, before they padlocked the place. If history was an indicator, the news I was getting wasn't in the papers I'd been carrying, anyway. And the grey on grey suggestions of hidden truths weren't compelling to me, not now. Open revelations, slurred, their edges and delineations gone, had lost any power they had to alarm me. I could have probably found a pocket for my glasses, though- hope somebody has a good use for them. At the top of the alley, a penultimate pause. Outside of earshot, two men discussing something calmly, not worth worrying about or even turning the porch lights on to observe. Normal. Safe. "Look, it's getting late. You'd better find whatever else you need, and a place to sleep. They just had a sheriff's sale, about a third of the way down, on the left. That was yesterday, or the day before. You might be able to find what you need, around back. I'm going to call it a night myself." No judgement. We parted company. Dave crawled off into a row of neglected garages with his newspapers. Quite the posh accomodation, so long as the dogs slept. Five minutes worth of crumpling paper, and he'll be set up, just like Jesus in the manger.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Portrait, Seasonally Adjusted

Shadows played games with perspective. The hotel lobby got the morning sun, leaving my legs to contend with a receding line of greyness. Behind our impromptu sitting, the Sun yielded to an approaching wave of wrought lead which threatened random cumulus clouds overhead. A low-pressure front was closing in on the clear day, hand-in-hand with the approaching nightfall. Right. The time for obsessions is over. Better start thinking in terms of 'duly noted', and move lightly. The notion of dwelling is off-limits, now.

True to the rules, I remained fairly stationary. I was beginning to wonder whether this was yet another rule created out of the moment: Although his hand moved as a chart recorder, he seemed perfectly content to tap randomly on the leaf of the lab logbook. Judging by the shading, the page was ruled to hold data in log-log scale chart form. Nor did he look up, though as a pleasantry, he suddenly piped up, "So, do you feature yourself an outdoorsy man? You can call me Smith, Jones, Doe or Bub, whatever, but be consistent, or I won't know who you're talking to. What do you know about the neighborhood? Got a name, yourself, by the way?". This, delivered in a calm voice, clear and free of any pauses, was simply modulation. Each word in its place, a Transmit button, unseen, had been pressed; A patient silence left open the conversation. Head down, the tapping continued as I sifted and parsed. Like Uncle Icky, flesh gathered and was drawn about his eyes, which were neither intense nor diffuse. The expected flame was absent, or had been diverted. A garland of short, neatly cropped medium brown hair surrounded a hued scalp. He looked up. "Measure twice, cut once, I've heard. Hmm...", swivelling to review the drawing. "Look, I'm only asking simple questions here. You're out, right? That means you don't have to carry any useless baggage, like guilt or embarassment. Cat got your tongue, or would you rather not converse?"

Words just flatten out the narration of this encounter, but in point of fact, there was no inflection or inference in any of this one-sided dialogue. Nearly ready to pop off with 'How does Methusalah work for you, Bub?', I caught myself. I couldn't tell how old he was, not from his appearance. He did not add lines for aggression or fascination to his face, which was remarkably regular. On closer inspection, he looked like any anonymous pedestrian, if you neglected his peculiar entrance. He got up to stretch and get the circulation going, I supposed, as he casually peered down the street and around the corner. "Yes, that's what I thought. There's at least a hundred feet of clear curb in either direction. Why don't you leave whatever you're still carrying here, and have a look at this drawing? My eyes aren't what they were, once, but folks say it's all to the good, when I draw them. I prefer not repeating myself, but you've always got to go around, measuring twice." He handed over the logbook, then leaned against a telephone pole and looked down the street, and up above the transom of one of the stores on the island. A large circular clock clicked the seconds away. The time was clearly behind by at least two hours. Farther down the street, a large digital clock above a bridal salon entrance displayed yet another time, but it was slightly ahead of schedule. I looked at the rendering, then my reflection in the storefront. It's funny, I never saw the resemblance. The Sun had fully surrendered. I chased the coins in my pocket around; three quarters, three dimes. He accepted them, offering no change. "Look, you've been measured once, to be where you are. As I've said, measuring just once is usually a serious mistake. Are you sure you want your likeness?"

Street lights sputtered uncertainly. The clocks were neither right as timepieces, nor wrong in their relationship to circumstance. What is my likeness? "Look, the weather's going to take a turn. You think about the picture, and if you don't like it, I'll take it back. Were you planning on sleeping tonight?", he asked, shoving the logbook and pencil back under the shrubbery. He handed back thirty cents. "I'm not one to pry, but it's time to get the newspapers."

Just like so many of history's skewed repetitions, all movement seemed retrograde. The tumbling which may have begun hours, years, or lifetimes ago was momentarily in abeyance, reduced from three to two dimensions. Or, was it an expansion from two to three? I'll have to measure again, but he's right about the newspapers.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Ordering Off the Menu

It's still a new world out there, at least, while the Sun's up. I'm more used to things and people that I've encountered on my evening walks, but since I've had time to think, I may as well combine tasks: get a bit of exercise and fresh air, find out what the surroundings are like when people are less likely to be about and on foot voluntarily. The journey's already begun, but I haven't settled on either a gait or direction, yet. Never let that be an impediment to you, my son! These things will be apparent to you, soon enough.

By wondering about this turn of the wheel earlier, I wonder if I haven't predisposed myself and my loved ones to eventually travel this path ourselves. I feel no exultation at my identifying the predicament; whatever the outcome, I'm not sure how, or if it's revelations will be of any practical use to others. Luckily, degrees, certifications, and experience are as useful here as they are in the commercial world. Should have thought a bit more about what old Einstein said, "Things should be made as simple as possible -- but no simpler." I ignored the caveat at the end, to my chagrin. In my wake, others have to cope with the repercussions of simplicity, as I do, in my own way. I'm not sure simplicity mixes well with business, at any rate. I can say that the many blandishments to put oneself squarely up the pole are amplified, in a most appealing way- irresistable, really. Stop me, before I simplify again.

The alleys are cluttered with decapitated messengers and wounded horses. A temporary inconvenience, addressable by huge new growth opportunities for enterprising spirits. With luck, politicians will recognize these the facts, and impose some new regulations which will increase the number of workers to help keep our alleys shipshape and free from the artifacts of defenestration, real or figurative. The mere thought of such a fanciful, public works effort gladdens me. It just might work, since the skilled labor pool for such tasks is still relatively small, the market is already completely unregulated, and the appeal is a no- brainer. Regardless of religion or political leanings, nobody likes the idea of bunches of stiffs in their alleys, lying around ruining the look of their floral treatments. As a political matter, it has just the sort of retro feel that's needed to assuage any moral indignation on religious grounds. There's little threat of any useful outcome, as one might expect if, instead, funds were applied to universal medical coverage or infrastructure improvements- spun correctly, it could be said to make inroads into both problems.

My fleet-footed reveries were interrupted by what appeared to be an extracorporeal voice, issuing from a place, rather than a person. "Hey, Bud! Surprise your missus with a hand-drawn portrait?" It wasn't a trick of the light, although I don't know exactly how the old guy in the shadows knew I was approaching. All I saw was a pair of old Florsheims and the cuffs of khaki pants, protruding from an ornamental hedge beside the hotel entrance."Come on! What do you think, that I'm going to ruin the point of my pencil, stabbing you? I'm not armed, damn it. Ugh..." More of the man materialized from behind the bushes, dusting off licorice mulch as the hedges extruded him.

Normally, my inclination would have been to either step back, or walk by officiously, as though on some critical mission. The urge passed in a moment; May as well meet my new neighbor, up close and personal. If his "feet first" tactic was intended as a threatening gesture, then I would have surrendered my Sun Tzu, right then and there. It was a novel sensation to seek out my fallen brethren, after so many years of cultivated avoidance, but one remarkably free of self-consciousness. "Have a seat, why don't you?", palm extending to a spot on the low retaining wall. He finished dusting himself off, then reached back into the hedge to extract a hardbound laboratory logbook and a pencil. "What have you got?", he asked, seating himself a few feet away."Look, the workman's worthy of his hire. How about if I draw you, and you either give me a buck, or else, I keep the drawing and you walk away? Fair enough? We can talk while I draw, if you don't move around too much." I did a little mental arithmetic. Let's see, I spent around $2,600 for a three credit course, four years ago. That left me with a few loose coins in my pockets now. A dollar risked under the circumstances carries more weight. Was this going to be an exercise in fiscal irresponsibility? Better get used to the idea of lifelong education, isn't that what they said? Fine. You can lecture on wealth, I'll study longevity. Meet my first professor. "Okay."

"Don't fret about pricy distance learning courses or grandiose certifications. There aren't any, not for this racket. Maybe some bright spark will see opportunity's glowing beacon, and start up a magazine with a fancy title like "Journal of the Downtrodden", or, "Modern Slaughterhouse". Until then, you can build yourself an igloo out of crumpled-up copies of the "Free Press"- good for your ongoing circulation and theirs, as well. And the next time you see a heap of dog waste, find a cigarette butt to put next to it. Same with hootch- piss in the next ten empties you find. It's time to move lightly." I knew there was something different about the encounter. No vices had been solicited or offered. The picture was interesting, when complete. I'll tell you about it later, maybe. Right now, I've got to get current with the news. Only have about an hours light to finish reading it.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Past, Present, and Future Collide

Not for nothing, but the store stands on an obsolete island of commerce. It's not my shop, though I'm minding it again for a few hours. What an odd conjunction of circumstances this is. The best I can hope is that fortune will favor me by continuing its run of non-paying visitors (thus assuring me that whatever comes in will not affect my fortunes), and grant me the one thing of value that's possible: a quiet, conducive place to stem the tide, internally. God alone could stage such a darkly humorous play, then enlist me as both actor and sole audience in it's performance.

None of the irony of the situation is lost on me. It is a particularly pungent onion of (apparently) unlimited layers. In the midst of the old town, my wish is granted, in the form of an antique store, with traffic like contrasting schools of fish passing both entrance and exit- both ends of the store have portals opening on opposing sidewalks- as though encircling a true island. At the turn of the last century, this was doubtless extremely favorable in attracting horse-drawn clients. Modern cars lack cleft hooves, and in seconds, find that they cannot find parking to stop and visit the spacious stores openly hidden to their left. As a result, I have plenty of time to check the old vinyl LPs for skips, and leaf through old books. Oddly, the musty smell of obsolescence is an ingredient missing from this Rockwell picture gone awry. A pot of brewing coffee or a few scented candles might help the ambience, which is otherwise pleasant.

I'm an engineer by avocation, rather than a salesperson. The occasional visitor nonetheless gets my full, cheerful attention. I have a running start, as I examine the dated, ingenious contraptions there, and speak intelligently about the technical genesis of old Victrolas, milking machines, and the like, while I try to figure out what floats customers' respective boats. The browsers are mostly older folks; by the time folks under thirty start to ponder antiques, they'll have to go to landfills or museums to find things. Antiques are slightly different, in the same way that some folks do crossword puzzles in ink, while others use pencils. Most of the objects leave me unmoved, but I can't envision some process engineer in an OSHA poopy suit, tapping a recipe change into the workflow on his laptop. Finality, screwups and elegance collide in antiques. We are readily content with homogeniety, but things change when an object can transport you to a time or place that nobody else is even aware of. I can appreciate the romance in that sentiment. Traffic is slow, and the infrequent visitors universally lower an invisible visor as they examine various artifacts slowly. I know where they are, but none stays for long. The visors raise, and a little bit of polite banter ensues, but the invisible visor stays with the unsold object.

It's quiet again, and my relief is on the way. The tiny print of the pages is still legible in an old, beat-up Gideon Bible, which was probably stolen from a motel, back in the sixties. "Mood Indigo" has pretty serious skip- I can't work around it by adjusting the tone arm. Too bad... back into the sleeve, with a post-it note. Function or don't, but don't complain. Design as though the goods will outlive both you and your seed, as old Isaiah might have said.

No harm, no foul. A few browsers stopped in, but they bought nothing. It's all a matter of statements and what things say to folks. People either hear something, or maybe nothing, or hear something but have heard it before. Then they make statements of their own, sometimes by just recognizing the statement for a moment, and the gizmo goes back on the shelf.

Sorry, I lost my original thread there. It's okay, whatever it was hasn't changed, at least, not for today. I'll walk from here, thanks.