I’ve mentioned this before, so I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, but I never really developed much of an ability to use or understand body language. I thought words were the thing, and so I missed out on a lot of what other people were actually saying and everything kind of sucked. Childhood was no fun. I couldn’t connect with the other kids. Our social languages were too different.
When I was 15, I decided that I was going to sort through all of this. I could tell by then that something was going on. I looked around at my peers and they seemed to magically know things about how humans worked. I thought every other kid was a genius because when people asked, “How are you?” they knew what to say. People always seemed to know what to say. It was miraculous to me. That was my life then. Lonely and anxious and curious about people.
So I was trying to sort through all of this. This was 1990. Diagnostic types of thinking weren’t around then. People weren’t clinically framing all of the behavioral stuff, so I had to go on observation.
And I figured it out. Mostly. 80%.
I watched people and I tried to understand the patterns and just visually I began to realize that body language existed. It existed and it served a purpose. I could see in the rhythmic, recurring gestures of people that these gestures were purposeful. They were providing emphasis to words and almost orchestrating shades of meaning in a discussion.
Those were weird days. It was a weird adolescence. Everything was a mix of super interesting and extremely depressing. Anyway, body language. I was stunned with that discovery. I couldn’t stop watching the way people moved when they interacted with others.
And I was so angry at myself. I didn’t communicate with movement, I didn’t know how, so I looked down at my body and felt miserable. My arms just hung there pointlessly. I felt like a robot that had been turned off.
I was in a panic to start memorizing as much body language as I could. I kept asking myself, What are the rules? What are the basic types of body language and what do they mean? I wanted to absorb all of that and fit in and be one of the magic people.
My point (that I am inventing as I type this sentence) is that this is the moment that I most needed help. 15 and self-hating and trying to memorize non-verbal communication: I needed help. Not help in being a certain way, not help in meshing with the social world. I needed help learning what not to do. I needed help learning to be at peace with myself. I needed someone to talk me out of the social mimicry phase. That was no good.
I don’t know what the nature of any help would have been in 1990. There were sympathetic school counselors who seemed to not really have a lot of depth of insight into the nuances of human behavior. Lovely people, though. Don’t get me wrong. It just wasn’t a compelling option for my existential predicament. I needed something more next level and really there were no options at that time. Not in rural Arkansas.
But I suspect that 10th grade, when I’m really digging into the low self-esteem and idolizing the lives of others, that’s probably when help would have been most impactful. I didn’t have any way of understanding that I needed the opposite of what I wanted.
I got help later in life and it was enormously beneficial. Later kinds of help can work too. I just can’t not have memories and so those exist and as I sort through them I think a lot about the past.
Memories often print too deeply, but I’ve probably said that before.
eavesdropping notes, saturday, november third, 2007, noon.
I’m wedged in this corner booth, scrawling words.
A bearded guy walks into the bar. He has a voice like a door that won’t open. I close my eyes and listen to the weird sounds of people. This is the alternative.
The birds in my head flock and talk at the same time and I’m unable to sleep. I can’t rest at home, the birds get cacophonous there, so I leave and implant myself in distractive spaces. The birds tag along. I steer my thoughts away from them.
I think about clouds that go still, give up and fall.
The bar’s TV- a large one against a far wall- says, “New spacewalk to begin shortly”, so I imagine funny things happening in the big ink above us. I imagine elderly mall walkers in fish bowl helmets doing laps around the moon.
Thoughts feel word-centric on alcohol. I close my eyes and try to focus on the human birds around me. Conversation bores into my ear like a marrow. It seethes from mouths.
From the table next to me: “Claremore is a different market. You can get away with more in Claremore than you can in Tulsa.” Someone else at the table uses the word “housing”, then the first guy says, “If your house sells for more than you paid for it, that’s capital gain”. I then learn a lot about the tax implications of capital gain. Suit guy, befuddled clients, slow-talking a decision.
Bikers…a family of them…sit at the booth in front of me. Mom, dad and three little kids, they’re all wind-blown, sun-burnt and decked out in leather. It looks like they sat in a circle around a cartoon bomb that blew out their hair and toasted their skin. The youngest of the kids, he’s two or three, turns around and stares at me. Mom turns around too and says, “I’m sorry. He’s probably going to stare at you for awhile. He does that.”
My beer is inert. I keep touching the bricks on the wall next to me, fingers straying over the roughness, one way, then back.
Biker Dad, talking about the littlest biker, says, “Are we just going to let his hair grow forever? Is that the plan?” Mom defends the hair; dad responds, “That’s fine. I’m just sayin‘ is all.” He pauses, sighs a big sigh and says, “Your way is always the right way.” Mom says, “That’s right.”
Six frat-birds drink beer in front of a huge tv. They nod a lot and blurt sports-themed monosyllables. “Pass.” “Run.” “Go”. They high five and holler.
Biker Dad to Biker Mom: “Don’t speculate. You don’t know. You’re getting yourself worked up over nothing.” He’s quiet, then he says the phrase, “Civil War re-enacters.”
That seems out of context. Then three guys in Civil War costumes walk by and take a table. The “housing” people proceed to have an hour of very structured small-talk. Slow, detailed, educational. The tiniest Biker stares at more people and starts to hop up and down. Biker Dad says, “You wanna get down and boogie? You wanna be in funky town? Yeah, you can dance. I don’t think anyone will mind.”
I get loopy on the beer. I go into my stares and have to catch myself, sort of consciously talk myself out of the bricks. It’s like a landscape where the closer you look, the more detail there is and the harder it becomes to see the landscape. Mind transposing to moonscape and craters. The wall gets weird.
Fraternity table: “See this shirt? I haven’t washed this shirt since the USC game.” His friend says, “Dude…we lost that game.” First guy looks confused for a second, then says, “Right. I washed it that night, after the game, and haven’t washed it since.”
Then all of the birds diminish. The mind ones, the real ones, all of them. I stand and struggle over to the bar guy and say nothing and pay up. On the bill, I input the tip…the amount…on the back, I write, “O rover, red rover.”
Then I go home and the birds clutter around and we listen as the fridge motor hums like a numbers station.
Music is fracturing. I didn’t realize that for a long time. I thought you were supposed to hear music and experience the memory version of lucid dreaming.
It wasn’t until high school that I began to suspect others had a different sort of relationship to music. It is- and this is my theory- intended to evoke feelings or maybe sometimes it tells a story or you connect with the lyrics. Probably it’s more of a feeling thing. I never have the intended reaction.
Music summons memory. And I don’t mean that I recall feelings or memories from around the time that I first listened to a song. I don’t know what I mean, really. This should probably be one of those wordless things. And yet.
Music seems to activate memory fragments at random. Vivid fragments that have no apparent connection to any aspect of the song. The notes proceed and I am in that memory. The intensity of the recall papers over the real world and I absorb in that fragment from the past.
It’s almost never an interesting memory. These are stray moments…mundane activities, verbal pauses, lost conversations about nothing.
Music, subjectively: I think of rings within a tree, growth marks that expand outward over time and I think my mind has a similar build. My mind is layers of sensory resin that slowly, densely accrue one over the other. The older ones, the deeper ones, are gone and forgotten…unless a song evokes them, through some kind of obscure and circuitous pass through the weird tumblers that open up lost time.
And then you are not in your regular, daily world anymore…you are through the lock and lucidly dreaming your own past. Every song a different memory, apropos of nothing.
It’s not music, it is hallucination. Maybe. Maybe it’s something else. I tend to magpie together my own theories.
Songs overtake me. I have to plan to listen to music. I have to set aside time and close curtains and mentally brace myself.
I mentioned high school because that’s when I started driving around with friends and it was startling to realize that most people get in their vehicle and immediately turn on music.
That fact impressed me at first. I assumed everyone was having experiences like mine, so to hop into a car and play music, I thought these were very brave souls. Driving with a mind full of hyper-lucid memories…for a time there, I thought, “Wow, these are true mental explorers. And dangerous. These people are dangerous!”
Eventually, I grasped that folks just feel nice when music is playing. It’s pleasant for them. A diversion, but not of the unsafe, world-occluding variety. They can listen to music and drive or socialize or flip pancakes. It’s an okay thing to do.
A professor chalks words across a board and explicates a system. I move a pen around to seem life-like and repeatedly stick a coffee-filled thermos against my face.
The lecture ends, students clatter and drift. I’m too tired to stand, but the professor waves me into the hall and down to her office. She asks for a quick discussion.
We sit. She hands me an envelope and says, “Congratulations. Not many students receive this honor, but you’re officially invited into…”
And she says some kind of phrase. My mind files it away as, “Psychology Club or Something Like That.”
She says more things. There’s a national society for the top students in each psychology program. Invitations are determined by grades within the program and the testimony of professors. Upon entry, students are then punished with weekly meetings and travels to seminars and so on.
My mind is just stuffing all of this info into the “Psychology Club” file and consciously retaining nothing. I keep the thermos near my face, absorb caffeine and wait.
The professor starts handing me papers…meeting outlines, seminar schedules, and so on. She shakes my hand and repeats, “Congratulations”.
I don’t say a single word during the conversation. I leave, drop all of the papers, including the invitation, into a nearby trash can, and walk to my next class. There, I move a pen around to seem life-like and drink coffee. Time proceeds.
By the end of the day, I’ve forgotten about the invitation and the society.
spring semester, senior year, 1998
I’m unraveling. I know I’m unraveling. As graduation nears, I begin telling friends that I’m in trouble. I can’t tell what exactly is about to happen. I just know I’ll finish classes and that I won’t have much of a self left after that. I’ve emptied out like an hour glass.
The depression is now beyond any mood or feeling. It sits inside of me, monolithic, a still and silent thing.
I wait out a lecture. It ends. When it seems like I’m alone, I try to sleep in my chair, but a professor calls out, summons me to her office.
She says the faculty are having a banquet in honor of the graduating seniors who are in some type of society deal. She sounds frustrated. I have to dig around in my thoughts to understand what she’s referring to and why she sounds annoyed.
She says, “I’ve personally traveled with the other four seniors over the past year. We attended national conferences; we presented at a seminar; and we’ve been meeting together every week to discuss issues relevant to our studies.”
She pauses, then says, “You chose not to be a part of this.”
I remember something about an envelope.
She waves a hand dismissively and says, “Your decision. But I do feel like you should attend the banquet. What will happen is that, at the banquet, we will be giving out official certificates of membership into the society. With a copy of the certificate, you can identify yourself as a member on any resume, application, or during interviews. And to be honest, if you can’t attend the banquet, I’m comfortable rescinding your membership. It’s rare to do that. It’s not something I take lightly…but, you know, we have so many students in the program here and so few get an invitation like this…I’m disappointed that you chose not to be more involved.”
I’m still trying to remember what was in the envelope. Something about a club. I feel guilty.
“I apologize,” I tell her. “Circumstances have made things…I don’t know. I apologize.”
I tell her I’ll attend the banquet. I clear my throat and add, “I’ve never done this sort of thing. I guess I’m not sure what people wear to…one of these. A banquet. What kind of clothes should I wear? Is it okay to ask that?”
She glares at me and replies, flatly, “Banquet attire.”
I look at her. She has nothing else to say, so I leave.
I immediately track down my friend Jen-Ling. She’s a business major. She knows things about people and networking and social rules.
I find her in the student center and say, “I have to be at a banquet and the dress is ‘banquet attire’. What does that mean?”
She answers, “Coat, tie. Do you have a suit?”
“No,” I say. “The thing is, it will probably be a small banquet. It’s only for a handful of students.”
She sighs and says, “Small banquets can be formal. Or not. It can vary. My advice in these situations is to err on the side of formal. Always. I will help you.”
We go to a thrift store the next day. I’m pretty broke. She helps match together a cheap suit kind of deal, the least-awful suit we can find.
I walk out of the dressing room to get her opinion. She sighs and says, “It will suffice.”
So, a few weeks later, I go to a banquet. It takes place. This happens.
I arrive and stand at the edge of it all and breathe tensely. I squeeze my fingers around the coffee thermos. It’s filled with bourbon now. Cheap bourbon. The sting of it reminds me of antiseptic on childhood scrapes. I sip and emotionally waver.
The room is sedate, low-lighting. Quiet music pipes in from somewhere. 30 or so people magnet together in ebullient clusters, chatting away, gesturing happy gestures. I circle the room, fake smiling, eyes always on the distance so that it looks like I am definitely heading somewhere. I don’t go anywhere, though, I just circle around in big loops, lost in a room full of people.
A noisy professor claps and herds people to tables. I don’t like the noisy one.
I sit. I’m familiar with no one at this table, so I keep the smile going and nod pleasantly and repeatedly drink secret bourbon. Then I stare at my napkin for awhile.
Food happens. Small chicken parts, wilty leaves. That’s the food. I’m an excruciatingly deliberate eater- food textures are intense. I slow motion scrape around the parts and leaves.
Each table generates this ebb and flow of group conversation, a tide-like disharmony. It’s nice. I frequently dislike specific conversation, yet enjoy the vibrant noise of overlapping people sounds. I steep in that and begin to hum along as if participating.
I pat my face and think, “See? I’m here. I’m a person. This isn’t so bad.” Wait, Jesus, I’m drunk. Somehow I lost my napkin. I don’t know what to stare at. I stare at the thermos. I remind myself to keep fake-smiling. Hold on what’s this hand? Am I still patting my face?!
A professor gets up and says a few casual, good-natured things. People laugh. I laugh. I don’t know why. This is all pretty weird. I say to the table, “This guy’s a peach.”
The low lights go lower. My mood drops with them. A slide show happens; images of professors and students at seminars and the like. I mentally superimpose myself into the pictures and try to imagine what that would have been like, going through that. All of that talking and listening and sharing and connecting. It’s a hell, but it also makes me feel dysfunctional and lonely for those connections. I feel strangely moved by these pictures of good people doing meaningful things. I wish I could have been in that nightmare. I wish it could have healed me.
I’m realizing that I really hate slide shows. Too many emotions. F**k feelings. Why do people do this to themselves?
The professor who had seemed annoyed with me: she goes to the podium and, oh no, she’s focusing on the graduating seniors. She calls one up, gives her a certificate thing and the room applauds. She calls up another student, gives over the certificate. The professor ends up saying a few nice things about each person after they’ve returned to their seat. It’s a convivial scene. Four students go up and hear nice things.
When the professor calls my name, I stiffly walk over, legs and arms like wayward stilts. I take the certificate. Room is quiet…sepulchral, even. I return to my seat. The professor, understandably, says nothing. I raise my thermos in a cheers gesture, turn it upside down over my face, the sting reminiscent of childhood scrapes.
The seniors are asked to stand. The room applauds. My fake smile falters into misery.
That’s pretty much all I can take. When it seems like things are wrapping up, I just walk out. The night ends.
The next day, Jen-ling walks up, asks how it went. I say, “It went okay.”
She always wants me to do well. I can’t bring myself to tell her the truth…that I didn’t know anyone and that I drank too much and likely patted my face a weird amount and felt emotional over a slide show.
Instead, I tell her, “I was given a tiny chicken leg and a certificate. So that’s probably okay. It’s over now.”
A few weeks later, I graduate and move away and, for the next seven years, give in to the depression.
birds going by, dead leaves sweeping past. people (anonymous to me) driving by in shapeless cars. me (anonymous to them) drifting in the distance behind them. stars rolling around at night. the computer fan whirring all day; stopping at night.
silence fading into sound. sound going silent.
the fridge motor really gets to me, its mechanical patter. those droning, empty sounds are the most rich, for me. i get sad when they stop. computer fans, distant traffic, the fridge purr. noises without codes, i need those to live. i can steep for hours in those, in the sounds passing by.
i liked touching this one brick when i was a kid. it was in a classroom and it had this rough texture, a wonderful thing to touch. it never moved…it was never going to fade as a result of my touching, but i knew the school year would end and i’d eventually change classes. so i thought about it a lot, the brick, the way it felt. i had this profound sense of loss before I’d ever left it.
i wondered how i would handle it, being in a different classroom, away from the daily routine of that particular brick’s texture. i’d run my hand over it, try to imagine what a different wall would feel like…but i couldn’t conjure an image or feeling. all i could think about was that brick, that moment; its inevitable absence. i couldn’t push my mind anywhere new or different. there was there and a weird nostalgia for the thing right in front of me.
i don’t know when kids, generally, start thinking about death, but i started then, seven or so. the need for sameness encountered the impossibility of sameness. loss became a reality.
it made me curious. when will i die? when will mom and dad die? every time we got a new pet, i’d look at it and wonder, how long? and when the pet died, i’d think back to the first moment i saw it…my memory spooling out like a tape measure, stretching backwards in time…and i’d dwell on that: this creature’s duration, its life a visible impermanence.
ambient fans, obdurate walls. the tender, breathing things.
sometimes the lack of meaning in it all is nice; the relief of codeless noises. existence as a brief and funny-sounding verbal pause.
i don’t know what i’m talking about, really. this is me just typing. this is letters passing by.
i read this in a book today. it made me feel feelings. this is from ‘death on the installment plan’ (and the ellipses are not mine, this is straight from the book):
“Ah, it’s an awful thing…and being young doesn’t help any…when you notice for the first time…the way you lose people as you go along…buddies you’ll never see again…never again…when you notice that they’ve disappeared like dreams…that it’s all over…finished…that you too will get lost someday…a long way off but inevitably…in the awful torrent of things and people…of the days and shapes…that pass…that never stop…All these assholes, these pests…all these bystanders and extras strolling under the arcades, with their glasses, their umbrellas, and their little mutts on the leash…you’ll never see them again…Already they’re passing…they’re in a dream with the others…they’re in cahoots…soon they’ll be gone…It’s really sad…it’s rotten…A wild desire took hold of me…I was trembling with panic…I wanted to jump out on them…to plant myself in front of them…and make them stop where they were…Grab them by their coats…a dumb idea…and make them stop…and not move anymore…stay where they were, once and for all…and not see them going away anymore.”
Air flow. You briefly consider the sequence: doors met gently, then parted, then rejoined themselves.
They sense you and divide accordingly. You try not to think about it too much.
It’s all light bulb scented and spacious, this cavernous room. A gloomy-bright where you stand. You drift towards the dim corners for their quotidian relief; the avoidable spaces you find so soothing. You mill about and breathe and build energy.
All right, then: to the right. Color-wise, your favorite location.
You get an eye-full of the primaries and the strangely purple, all orderly, sorted. You run your hands over them because you’re allowed. You whisper, “You can.” You ripple your fingers. Strays, possibly at random, get hefted, thumped, returned and patted. You attend to the orderliness of it all, respect the sorting. You’re not a monster.
Back wall, corner, narrow tubs, more thumping…these more for the sound than the feel. These aren’t your favorite. You wonder if they know. (Animism haunts you.)
Next path over, you stare down it, begin to march. You need nothing here, but you stomp past it all. You like to have properly trod the paths, all of them, simply for that frivolous sense of completion.
U-turn into another and you pause the march. You pat your pockets. You feel a wallet and keys and a foldy phone from Olden Times. You dig around the pocket and find nothing else, none of the prompts you know you need. You left one behind or forgot to write one.
You mumble curse words to yourself and ignore the reaction from strangers. They’ll forget you. You like this about strangers.
This path, it’s for drifting. You go slow, then pause. You speak: “Oh, the cans here.” You lift them up, one at a time, give them a good squeezing. You like the lack of give and the strange ridges. You think about those ridges a lot. You place the cans back, gently, facing the correct direction. You’re not a monster.
More drift. You let your fingers splay out and caress invisible lines onto passing boxes. Their blankness feeds silence into you. You take it in, keep it, selfish. Silence as appreciating currency. You’re rich with it, in this moment, the royalty of this path. Your reign abstemious and short-lived. Here, then, ends the path.
There’s the back wall again. It stares at you. You feel nothing.
The way forward swivels into the next stretch. Tubes and sacks and bottles. You wish you had your prompts. You’re not sure if you should be here. The sacks glower. You press an index finger into one, unimpressed. The drabness here smothers you. You exit this moment tired and moody.
The ride continues and before you is revealed a garish tunnel of boxes. Cereal aisle. If you squint until your eyes water, the straight lines gently curve and the tunnel begins to undulate. Cartoon faces blur and swim. Boxes go by- boats for the faces. You do the caressing thing as you drift past, leaving your invisible lines. One box is facing shelfward…you look away and pass quickly. Bar codes. Too cryptic. You can’t let your eyes unravel their lines. You need to get out of this tunnel.
Back wall. Butter. Lumps of things in circular tubs. Lid-thumping, patting. A tub says, “Bump.”
Next stretch of gray. Boring things. Grown up things. Plates and fake spoons and rolls of tin foil that you look at and say, “Pre-hats,” a joke you share with the pointless row of boring things. You take steps, breathe. You stare at your shoes. Steps. Bin of empty bottles: inscrutable. You rattle it, shake the cage, move on.
And you are reality deep in it now: toothpaste. The toothpaste aisle is hallucinatory. You pause at the edge of it, let your eyes acclimate to the eerie blues and silvers and the gem-like glow of alien bottles. It’s too real…possibly a beyul. You shouldn’t be here. Ghost-white batter in glittery tubes goes unsqueezed out of a misguided sense of decorum. A human, whoa. You whisper to yourself, “Padmasambhava has chosen a caretaker.” You lean in a little too close to check out his name badge: Oliver. Oliver stocks floss. I pass by, possibly running, maybe floating inches above the linoleum. I don’t know anymore. The toothpaste aisle defies most of what we know.
Obstinate back wall.
Hey, liquid sugar tubs. Some of them in thin cans. You press one until it dents. You try to squeeze out the dent, but this just adds two more dents. Sometimes, you’re a monster. Away from the sugar tubs.
Cold things. Spacious row, too bright. You never took your eye shields off. You laugh at the lights. All of the frozen bits are overly-intense to your digits, so you fold them under a palm, press things with your knuckles. You need all of the tactile dregs you can gather, even here, where it’s too much. Knuckles suffice. You gather your dregs.
Last path: deli. The food morgue. Pink meats. Flesh. Shaved. Displayed. You get surreptitious and let your peripheral vision do the looking. Deli sections are graphic. Still, you peek. The meats go by. Bon voyage, dead relics.
Last, last path, the shortest one of all. Today it’s a teenager. Glasses, freckles. She asks, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
I glance at my cart…I’m surprised to see things in it. Boxes and cans with ridges and lumps and colors. I stare at my shoes and reply, “Yes. I ran through the toothpaste aisle, though. Oliver had things under control there.”
The ritual, now. I breathe in slowly and hold the breath.
Teenager waves each object like a magic wand. The Aperture Below says, “Boop.” I slide a thin rectangle through a plastic crevasse. The Hidden Onlookers approve.
Air flow. Doors before you (met gently, parted). You walk through. Doors rejoin.
You try not to think about it too much.
At home, you place the new stuff into your own miniature version of the grocery store. You sit for awhile, bones steeped in lethargy.
You listen to a window. It chirps and sounds like distant traffic.