Tuesday, October 12, 2010


October is just over a week old, and the leaves are beginning to turn. I first saw significant amounts of warm colors on the trees along 116th, and have begun now to notice the change everywhere. This is my first fall in three years, the last of the seasons I was able to experience after more than two years in the monotonous climate of Western Africa, where, always, it is hot; sometimes it rains.

There were many things I missed when I was abroad, comprising all categories of cravings, from the material (albums, books) to the gustatory (artichokes! Subway!) to the spiritual (less gris-gris) to the climatic (snow, different colored leaves). Each yearning had its own level of virtue.

I left Africa in December, dreaming with almost masochistic anticipation of the cold of a Midwest winter, the pure white glint of new snow. I longed to see a landscape muted by white, mounded and rolling, instead of the scarred look of burnt-out cornfields, or the stubble of felled plantations. Even the grease-spotted asphalt of the airport parking garage, the loops and lanes of the highways, were to me like the brush strokes of a master painter.

Winter came and went, the first Christmas back. The New Year in Chicago; a homemade birthday cake in February. Then spring, and the return of the twins from university, the purchase of a quality badminton set. Horseshoes and bocce and all the wonderful lawn games warm weather permits. The mowing of a real lawn with a real lawn mower. Then summer, with its endless sunshine, evening bonfires, tennis matches, and dips in the pool. Fishing in retention ponds and drinking too much beer.

Now, finally, it's fall. The best smelling season. I was worried when September came and the leaves stayed green. After missing the season for three years, I'd forgotten entirely when and what was supposed to happen. But now they're changing, and the stores are selling pumpkins by the ton, and I've been eating caramel apples by the dozens. High schools and universities are holding their homecomings, shy teenagers asking shy teenagers to dinners and dances, twentysomethings sneaking drinks before games. There is reverence and revelry in the air. A calm grasp for the joy of harvest and bounty, before the sobering chill of All Saints Day, the cold of November leading us into winter. I am waiting, patiently, watching the leaves as they fall.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Georgie Was a Friend of Mine

The drives to the Unisys building from our home in Elgin took approximately twenty-five minutes. It was an agonizing half-hour, but it beat waiting at home for Dad to come back, because then the fun would be delayed twice as long. I remember very little from the drives except the giggly anticipation, the way the evening twilight blended with the streetlights to make everything look exotic, like we'd done nothing before as interesting as this in Carol Stream, Illinois. And I don't remember anything about the Unisys building, really, except the valet-like driveway before the front doors, and the lobby, which I remember being enormous, though I know now that at eight years old I thought so many things were. Gaetano and I spent those tense moments in the lobby pulling on Dad's wrists, begging to know how much longer we'd have to wait, while Dad watched people come out of doors and elevators. And eventually one or the other would open and a tall man with large glasses and a moustache like a dust broom would step out, and my brother and I would terrorize him for hugs while Dad told him how glad he was to see him; George was in town.

Dad and George met in college in New York in the seventies, and had remained great friends ever since, even after my father left New York to settle down in suburban Illinois. George was a groomsman at my parents' wedding. He worked for a company called Unisys, and I never figured out whatever it was he did, but occasionally the company would send him to their offices in Carol Stream, not far at all from our house, where George would stay, under my parents', and eventually their children's, insistence. I don't remember the first time I met George, or getting to know him or anything like that. His visits, as eventful and thrilling as they were, seemed like natural and essential pieces of a childhood.

Gaetano and I adored George for many reasons: with every visit, our toy collection, specifically in the Lego sub-category, would increase dramatically; he would spend a large portion of his time in Illinois on the floor of the living room--a room vast and cavernous, a room suited to space-necessary tasks--helping us put together the new Lego sets he had brought us (indeed, our devotion to George was evidenced by the meticulous care with which we preserved the state of the pirate ships he helped us snap together on one visit, so that we could show him on his next just how much we loved them and that those sets were probably the best presents we'd ever received); and he would speak to us, while studying the how-to-build-'em guides, or while telling us of all the things he'd seen at FAO Schwarz when he'd been shopping for our presents, as though we were no less than two of his best friends in the world, albeit probably the youngest. I never realized until today, reminiscing about his visits, how much influence his manner has had on the way I interact with children now that I, too, am an adult.

I was thinking about his visits because, while our family has aged and we no longer collect Legos, or live in Illinois, and no talk about seeing George again had come up for probably many years, we were informed yesterday that all the times with him have been had; George was dead.

He died of a heart attack. He was sixty. Dad had talked to him only three weeks ago. George's ex-girlfriend Alice called us yesterday to give us the news. Even she had heard about it too late. His funeral had already been held; he is buried now somewhere in a cemetery in Brooklyn. My brother just called and I told him what had happened. We shared a silence over the phone that was unique between us. Our younger siblings never really knew George; we had moved to Indianapolis by the time they were old enough to buy Legos for, and George's company had no offices near us to visit. I guess that makes me and Gaetano pretty lucky. George was the kind of friend every child should have. And for that alone, if nothing else, he was a great man.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Water Under the Bridge

Freshman year of college, at nights during the warm months when I couldn't sleep, I'd change into shorts and a long-sleeve t-shirt and go running. I'd run straight out the dorm and down Neeley toward the White River, and then I'd run along the path that led past the river, along the railroad tracks, to the south side of town. I'd race the trains as they came along, or jump in fright at the first bark of a dog. Some nights--at midnight, three a.m., whenever--I'd run as far as the graffiti murals the city had sponsored on the concrete walls abutting the path, on the stretch of the track just past the bridge, where once during the spring the area was so flooded Travis and I had to turn back; the water was up to our hips. I stopped running so late, eventually, after several people were murdered that year.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Parfois je ne sais meme pas quoi dire. Vous qui savez le francais, je vous demande pardon pour la manque d'accents. Les claviers anglais, ni l'internet, ne me permettent pas m'exprimer en cette langue avec tout soin. Ce soir j'ecris en francais afin de me permettre vous communiquer sans me repeter. J'ai l'habitude d'etre pedant dans mes articles, de donner mon avis comme ce l'est le loi. Je meme comprends pourquoi mes amis me regarde comme con arrogant. Alors, je vois qu'on n'avance pas. Cette explication est inutile. Comme toutes les miennes.

Je viens de regarder "Le Dernier Metro," un film de Francois Truffaut, qui l'a mis en scene. Et pour terminer la nuit, pour me guider au sommeil tranquille, je vais regarder les particularites bonus, les commentaires, les documentaires, etc. Parce que chaque nuit je dors avec difficulte. La plupart je m'occupe des pensees de la mort, la fin de la vie, le but de l'existence. C'est stupide, a mon age, d'etre paralyse par ces choses abstraites, mais je ne peux pas les nier. Elles sont insistente. Je suis embarasse. Voila pourquoi j'en ecris en francais; mais je ne sais pas pourquoi je m'inquiete. Il est sur que presque personne ne lit ce blog. C'est encore une demonstration de mon arrogance a penser que mes occupations de la tete peuvent vous interesser. Je parle en desordre.

Je m'inquiete toujours de quelque chose: ma sante, ma forme, mon intelligence, ma personalite. Qui suis-je? Que fais-je afin d'ameliorer le monde? D'aider quelqu'un? J'avais essayer plusieurs fois a repondre a ces questions, mais je n'ai aucune reponse. Alors, je termine. Excusez-moi cette parole. Je le sais bien que c'est pretentieuse. Mais, quoi faire?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kill the Humorless!

There was a while there where I was known for being a real asshole. Oh, not everybody thought that. But a good enough number of folks did that it worried me. And they would tell me this to my face. "Am I really an asshole, like all these jackasses have been saying?" I'd ask. My comrades would tilt their heads slightly and extend, palm up, a hand, to indicate to me just how fucking obvious it was. "That is shocking," I'd say, "just shocking."

I don't mind being considered an asshole, but I do mind being considered an asshole when I have no conception that I am behaving as one. I've always felt like I've had a pretty good prismatic view of the colors of my personality; if there's one thing I dislike about myself, it's that I feel painfully self-aware, second-guessing nearly every thought or emotion. Generally, I feel like I know when I'm being an asshole. So, having a reputation for being one was something I couldn't fathom.

The result of this revelation, coupled with self-doubt following breakup desiderata, was that I felt much like Hal Incandenza toward the end of Infinite Jest, when he loses total control of his facial expressions and, eventually, his abilities to communicate in any form. People look at Hal, who is seriously troubled by a friend's forehead predicament, and ask him what he thinks is so goddamn funny. Today at work, actually, I was unusually pissed off, yet several people, when passing by, asked why I was so goddamn giggly this morning. This only increased my frustration; I wanted to break a mop handle over the backs of the humorless.

Back when this started, though, the direct result of the asshole+desiderata emotional state was that many times when speaking seriously with someone (admittedly, due to drunkenness, those times were rare) I would spend twice as much time assuring them that what I was saying was sincere than I spent saying the sincere things. And the Chinese Handcuffs feeling of it all was that the more I assured them I was totally and completely unironic at the moment, the less assured I was that they believed me. It always reminded me of the time I told a fantastically true story to my aunt, prefacing it with the comment, "This story is absolutely fucking true," which prompted her to scoff and say, "Well, now I don't believe you." And she didn't.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Why The World Needs Superman

It's been snowing all day, and nobody in the family is working. We've rearranged the living room furniture and, most importantly, taken out the old bulky speaker system and replaced it with a compact Bose version. New settings means we must sit in them; new speakers means we must listen to them. And so we shall. All we need is the right film.

Nick and I turn the volume as high as it goes during the scene in Superman Returns when Clark Kent, who has just returned to the Daily Planet offices, rushes to the street ripping off his shirt to go save the damaged airplane/space shuttle combo--which said airplane/shuttle contains, conveniently enough, Lois Lane.

The score is marvellous. I've never been a big Superman fan, but John Williams' Superman theme is astounding, especially when coupled with the sight of the Man of Steel gently placing a de-winged, flaming wreck of a plane on the pitcher's mound at Metropolis stadium. Nick had goosebumps; I had tears in my eyes. Welcome back, Kal-el.

Of course, now that we've watched Superman Returns, we're obliged to continue the streak. Next will be Spiderman 2, because it's the best of the three. Then probably X-Men 2. I would be up for some Batman, obviously, though I'm not sure which one to pick; they're all just so good. Through every one of these films I'll be cheering and shouting and cringing, because I love them.

During a job interview last week I was asked why I joined the Peace Corps. Because of Batman, I said. Because, as naive and idealistic and just plain silly it sounds, the Peace Corps was my way of being a superhero. I'm already embarrassed that I wrote that, but I'll man up and let you ridicule me. It's what Samurai Jack would do.

And maybe my military friend(s) will scoff, but I bet you that, at least subconsciously, Superman was part of the reason they decided to serve the country in that particular idiom.

Sure, on both sides of the spectrum, there are distinguished histories and inspirational stories--true ones--that more directly influence a person's choice on how they serve their country. That's why the Peace Corps has such cool looking propaganda posters; that's why we have the Military Channel. But reality can only take us so far.

Modern Americans don't have anything they would consider mythology (outside of their religion). The story of the fishes and loaves is as real to certain people as the story of Prometheus was to the Greeks. And I like both stories, I really do, but that doesn't necessitate I be a Christian any more than I be a pagan in the Ancient Greek tradition.

I am no longer a Catholic (I'm not even a Christian anymore) but I really appreciate being brought up as one. I like the values of the system, the morals, the call for sacrifice as a means of both personal and public redemption. The problem with religion, though, is morons. So I've distanced myself.

However, I wonder now, as I think into the future, a future I hope to be replete with a large and boisterous brood of offspring, how will I raise my kids with those kinds of values but still keep them out of the clutches of people who think Leviticus 18:22 is the most important rule in the Old Testament? The answer, as I see it, is comic books.

Comic books are modern America's mythology. And it's a beautifully serpentine system of mythology, because everyone living at the time of this mythology knows it to be false; but that doesn't stop people from believing in it.

That last sentence is not a paradox. I don't really feel eloquent enough to explain it, so I'm going to rely on reader identification. I mean, I know Batman isn't real, Superman isn't real, Spiderman isn't real, but because they stand for everything worth standing for in this real life, they are just as important to me as policemen, firemen, Marines, and development workers.

This is especially apropos for little kids. A child might not grasp the gravity of the situation in Sudan, or of people blowing up planes, or of Robert Mugabe being a fucking maniac. They know that evil exists in the world, but that evil is not palpable until it is distilled into the Green Goblin or Lex Luthor. And all the people who sweat and struggle and die to combat the evil in the world are in no way slighted by being represented to a child in distilled form as a comic book superhero.

I am not a comics scholar, but I know that one of Superman's biggest roles in his early years was as a seeker-outer and ultimate-punisher of Nazis. Same with Captain America (why do you think he was even created?). Same with any number of superheroes who have been remembered or forgotten. Thanks to them (and to Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and any cartoon character in a propaganda film) war bonds were bought, national rations were strictly followed--and people signed up to fight. As wars ended and comics evolved, evil villains went from Nazis to moronic hoodlums to the Joker. The superhero genre became more symbolic. More mythic. More capable of tackling the big theme of good v. evil. In this way, more lasting. Nazis die. The Joker can live forever.

One of the things that pained me while I was in Togo was the lack of a disseminated mythology. Being in Kabye country, I was interested in their creation myths, in whatever stories they might have that would help explain who and why they are. Whenever I asked after these stories, though, all I got were Bible chapters.

These stories do exist, but none of the youth know them, and few of the old. This frustrated me so much because cultural identity (usually linked to cultural pride) is essential for a people's development. Many folks I spoke with, young and old, held such a sense of shame of being Togolese that they gave up believing they were capable of being any different. Imagine the cultural divide. I come from the land of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Daredevil, and the Batman. Thanks to them, I believe I can do anything.

The fact is, we need mythology. We need it to tell us, unequivocally, what we are capable of. Real life has so many shades of grey that it is absolutely necessary to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, in strictly monochromatic terms. Religion can't satisfy those needs; if Muslims are going to hell according to Christians, and Christians are going to hell according to Muslims, we have a very confusing situation. But the Joker will always be evil. Lex Luthor will always have an ulterior motive. And Superman and Batman will always do what they've done best--stand for truth, justice, and liberty, and inspire people to do the same.

Monday, December 14, 2009

On How I Don't Write Letters, Before Devolving into an Assortment of Subjects, None of Which Offer a Unifying Theme or Satisfying Conclusion

Oh, I'm terrible at keeping in touch. I remember before I left thinking that I was going to write to friends and family all the time, multiple letters a week, a day even. I remember making that promise, too, to several people. I didn't keep the promise. My parents didn't care, though. The Dudes didn't care. I don't think Laura cared too much either, though she did always say it was nice to see those envelopes, rare as they were, fingerprinted with dirt. Vina and I don't ever really need to talk; we always seem to understand each other.

Andy and I talk about girls still, though at our age I suppose we should start to say 'women.' Same subject with Tim and Justin and Mike and my brother. Sometimes it makes me feel immature. I'm not sure how to get over that, though, so I just keep plugging along.

The first night back I couldn't sleep. I was up all night, wandering around the house, wanting desperately to go into the spare bedroom and sift through all the drawers, find out what I'd left behind that I'd forgotten. I finally fell asleep the next morning around nine, on the couch, a dog nearby. I woke up an hour later, with no idea who or where I was. Dad said I called for him, though; I think it was just instinct. I poured myself a glass of juice, my hand shaking the entire time.

I've been going to bed late lately. Tonight I haven't gone to bed at all. Tim lent me a Batman comic, The Dark Knight Returns, one of those Frank Miller's from the mid-80s. For some reason it made me think of death. I tried to turn out the light and sleep but the sky was the brown of a decaying orange and my cat was staring at me instead of sleeping, the little light of the night catching and turning green in her eyes. I was terrified by it. I could feel a panic attack coming. I've been able to control them for a long time now, haven't had one as potent as I used to when I was a kid. As soon as I feel one coming I block all opportunities for it to take hold. Sometimes this means listening to music, which I can do in the dark, with my eyes closed, until I fall asleep. Sometimes this means staying up all night to find other distractions. Maybe when I'm done here I'll make some pancakes.

I saw Chris the other day, which was nice. I'd forgotten how much fun it is to hang out with people who love literature. I mean, really love the stuff. Not just people who read and enjoy and recommend, but people for whom writing has serious weight, who sigh at the good lines, who laugh in admiration at the better ones. We talked about flash fiction, publishing. We drank beer, ate lunch. We watched Muppet videos.

Two days after my return Andy and Justin and I drove ten hours to Philadelphia to visit Vina. We were there too long, and Vina was busy with classes, but we had a great time. The first night, at a hookah bar, I met a Moroccan waitress, and we talked to each other in French, over the heads of my friends. While Vina was in class, the three of us went to Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers came up with and signed the Constitution of the United States. The tour guide spoke of how Lincoln had stopped in Philadelphia in 1861, on his way to assume the presidency. He quoted Lincoln from memory, something about the importance of the Union, the solemnity of the signing of two of the world's most influential documents, and I began to cry. After the guide liberated us, we went into another building where we saw one of the original printed copies of the Declaration of Independence, and another of the Constitution. I squeezed in front of the woman taking no-flash photos, and in the low light of the display, found my favorite lines:

"We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.... [W]e mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

Again, I cried. And then I had one of those moments, one of those beautiful moments when you step outside of yourself and realize how wonderful everything is, when I felt so damn welcomed, so perfectly right to be back in my country. It was a good way to come home, I felt.