Month: August 2015

Switchblades and Naked Men: On Deciding If the World is Good

My human-guts-trigger-indicator-of-everyone-is-innately-good has been misfiring again.  Or maybe it’s my human-guts-trigger-indicator-of-everyone-is-innately-bad.  It would make more sense if it was the latter.  Triggers generally go off when something bad is about to happen.  But maybe this implies that everyone is mostly good.

Regardless of my general theology or lack thereof, something is misfiring.  It’s the thing that keeps me checking one, two, three times to make sure we locked the door of our little home.  It’s the thing that makes me hold my breath when we are at the corner where we thought we last left our truck and don’t start breathing again until we see it.  It’s the thing that, though we clearly did not park directly on the train tracks the night before, the rush of the whistle and the bang of the track has me grabbing the end of the mattress at 3AM and 5AM and 7AM preparing for the white light and the explosion of my insides on the front of my last nightmare ride.  It’s the thing that, while my pacifist Someone and I own no firearms, my daydreams of break-ins always involve me on the right– or wrong?– side of a long rifle, Annie Oakley style, spitting threats like a mysterious gun-wielding venomous spider who has been expecting this moment in her wicked web all along, the masked creature in front of me, usually wearing a black and white striped shirt and having a strange resemblance to Peg-Leg Pete from the Goof Troop, shivering and groveling at this unexpected twist.


Five years ago, my burglary fantasy consisted of me calmly asking the two gentlemen to take a seat while I baked a batch of cookies, handing over each item of value to them to place in their giant knapsack on our way to the kitchen.  There, I would ask them about their day jobs, their children, and their Freudian tendencies before sending them with full bellies and a little more guilt than when they first entered.  I kept a spare bag of chocolate chips in the cupboard just in case.  When I discovered my gluten allergy, the effort was too involved, and I dismissed the fantasy fearing my burglar friends may not like the consistency of my new baking style.  Life’s a bitch, man, and I traded in my bag of chocolate chips for a baseball bat beside my bed.

In Western Pennsylvania, near the overpopulated hills of Pittsburgh, you will find a series of giant adorable Caterpillar yellow monsters roaming the hills of the soon-to-be suburbs, pushing around the dirt from one end to another, buckets of runoff collecting at the bottom of long, perfected grades.  After a PA drizzle (which means “rain” to the rest of the world), pools of silk smooth mud– the delicate bubbling lard of dirt– will collect.  That’s when the naked people come.


I was 18 and working for my father’s excavation company, equipped with work boots and farmer’s tan and jeans with holes and tank tops covered in grease– the cool-as-hell approach, which often served as my cover for the don’t-know-what-the-hell-I’m-doing reality.  It had been a rainy summer week, and the second consecutive dry day had landed me on the lower end of a job site, equipped with a bucket and a cup to lower myself into a freshly dug manhole and haul out the pebbles and mud that had collected.  Letting down my tools to the bottom of the eight foot drop, I began my descent when, while peering just over the lip of the opening, I saw a lanky, blonde white man sitting in the luxurious copper colored silt.  Naked.  I glanced around– he was alone.  And, seeming to take no notice of me, I hopped back up and ran to the top of the hill, pig tails flying.

In a few heaves and a stern resistance to tears, I explained to my father and my foreman the thing I had seen, back peddling a little in case I had imagined it this time.  The two of them looked to each other, slightly concerned, then united their front and explained the whole thing.  It seems a lot of folks in the area seek out excavation sites with freshly turned dirt.  The creamy silt that lays at the base of these mounds of topsoil are believed to have a healing effect for all sorts of ailments– skin sores, cancer, insanity.  This wasn’t a crazy naked man acting alone.  Though it was potentially a crazy man.  My father laughed it off and told me to get back to work.  In one of those rare teenage moments, I did what I was told, mostly relieved that if my father didn’t see the need to address the situation, there was likely no situation.  Then I heard my name and turned to see my dad holding a shovel.

“But take this,” he said.

“For what?” I asked.

“Well, to hit him in case he tries something, of course,” he responded.

I looked for a trace of a joke on his face, but it was impossible to detect since there is always a trace of a joke hidden on his face.  So I turned and braved the naked, potentially cancer-ridden man equipped with a shovel and a mass amount of confusion about the state of humanity.  The naked man was gone by the time I finished my work at the bottom of the manhole.


I picked out the knife I carry in my boot at an antique store in Knoxville, about three years ago.  It was around the time that I was starting to feel unsafe in my own home, let alone touring in dark cities on long nights around the country.  It is a perfectly small switchblade, the color of caramel silt found at the foothills of job sites in Western PA and lined with a gold trim that has since rubbed off from spending so much time pushing between my ankle and my boot.  It’s not the sort of blade you would want to bring to a gun fight, but it’s a suitable bulge that keeps my sock feeling safe and cuts apples like a badass.  The embarrassing truth of my little companion, however, is that the first switch I made with it in that cluttered store, it sliced right through my thumbprint, bringing forth more blood than could be embarrassingly contained in the palm of my hand, or the thick rumple of toilet paper I obtained when politely excusing myself to the restroom at the checkout counter.  I stood in the bathroom deliberating signs of the universe and begging my cut to stop bleeding until I came to a decision.


I purchased the knife with the suspicious and concerned look of the old man at the register, the old man who took my money, anyway.  The old man who warned me it was very sharp.  And while I have held it only a few times in my hand when confronted with a dangerous situation culminating, I also held on the same hand a thumb scar I obtained by trying to protect myself from a world that I suspected was innately bad.   But in the front seat of a truck constantly rolling from one city to another, there is no better apple cutting switchblade in the country.

Barroom Talk: On Being Loved When Faced with Hell

Back when I was special, I believed in Hell.

These days, when the Nothing is being tossed into the center of a Chicago barroom table between half cans of cider at closing time, I hope that I’m not.  This is where the fear sets in.  With no Hell, no Heaven, no reincarnation– with only the Nothing to drift silently or screaming into, floating around while our matter decays and our consciousness flits one last second before it’s gone, I think I’m going to vomit.  The panic lurks somewhere on the back of my ears and reaches down to give the bottom of my heart a tremendous wedgie before sending the shakes to my sweating palms.  Somehow, to my Windy City friends that night, the Nothing calmed their heaven-or-hell jitters, consoled their long-time-guilt-ridden-religious selves to a place they could believe again in a benevolent God.


Maybe I’m not enlightened enough, yet.  Maybe I’m not certain of the terms.  Maybe I’m confused as to where the love we create here goes, or how the Nothing could possibly fit it all.  Mostly, I’m worried that I’m special, and like the one in a trillion that anesthesia doesn’t take for, I would be the one conscious soul floating in the nothing, fully aware, fully alone, fully missing out on my Nirvana or zen or whatever it is, panicking eternally at the gaping loneliness that sits forever in front and behind me.

Maybe I just tipped the Devil off as to how to create my version of Hell.

And this is where I run into the trouble of believing I might be special.  That even the Devil himself thinks enough of me to make me my own, insular Lake of Fire.  Which, sometimes, sounds better than a big God who thinks only enough of you to let you into his house, but then you will spend forever meditating or prostrate or glowing with hundreds or thousands or millions (depending on the exclusivity clause in your religious contract) while you turn into the Faceless who sing always in key and never have to work out a crossword puzzle again since all of our questions will be answered and all our sicknesses will be gone and all our hardships that make us different and special will be forgotten.  The trouble I run into with Heaven is that it feels an awful lot like the Nothing.  And somehow, between times I am dodging lightning bolts from the sky, I want Heaven to be more.


I remember this tidbit of embarrassment well: a 15-year-old with sweaty armpits and outrageous hormones holding court on the church gym floor, crying about the possibility of Heaven.  Sure, I wanted to be saved.  Sure, I loved to sing.  But choir practice?  For forever?  What would we do with the time?  The forever time?  It was time to go home, and I was causing a scene.  A well meaning and patient deacon simply took a knee next to me and spoke as if the answer was right on my face all along.  “As soon as you get to Heaven,” he said, “God will wipe your brain so clean, you won’t even realize the time is passing.”

Of course!  A celestial lobotomy!  All of my crying and carrying on, my questioning and my disruption will be eliminated upon entry.  I will be the Jack Nicholson of Heaven’s Ward, pattering and mumbling and drooling about while the rest of the cuckoo’s nest rested safely together worshiping the holy throne.

And then I become afraid that I am the one in a trillion for whom the anesthesia won’t take.


Today I am not feeling the tug of the Nothing, the lurch and the panic and living a full life only to be spit into an endless black curtain of phlegm-y zen.  Neither do I feel special as Satan fluffs my pillow of nails.  Today, I just have to believe that I am loved, even if all signs are pointing that I am not.  Even if the sunshine is too bright to my dull boxed wine headache, and the perfectly temperate weather seems more like an insistence that I don’t deserve it.  Even if nothing is clicking between me and my Someone, even if my dog keeps barking and scaring the shit out of everyone who walks this sidewalk, even if I am homesick for a place I’ve never been, even if the home I do have has a bent axle and an attitude problem, today I have to believe that there is a God and he/she/it loves me.  And I have to believe it here, on this side of Heaven or Hell or the Nothing, not because I am afraid of my limited options.  And I am too tired of the theological and post-life-placement-plan contingencies of love to think any more about them.

1060932148 (1)

Heaven and Hell and the Nothing have eternity to wait for my arrival.  Now, I think, I choose to be loved right here.