1.

I’ve only been lost once in my life and I didn’t know I was missing.

I was five, and we were on a family trip to Sesame Place in Pennsylvania. The day is a chaotic blur in my memory, my parents juggling me, a three-year-old, and an eighteen-month-old through an amusement park full of noisy Muppet distractions. We paused for lunch in a picnic area and when I finished eating, I darted away, yelling behind me that I was going to climb into the ball pit.

Please explain what just happened.

I am sitting on the tarmac at LAX and was just told that my already two-hour delayed flight to Hawaii was going to be delayed another hour.  Try explaining that to a six-year-old.

 

What is your earliest memory?

My memories pre-five are spotty, but I can remember my first day of kindergarten. It was like being offered an adventure that I had no interest in participating in.  I recall watching in terror as one boy was forcibly dragged into the classroom by his parents while he was clawing at the walls and screaming at the top of his lungs.  I thought to myself, “What kind of horrible world am I being dropped into?”

 

June in the Czech capital.  Not yet summer, but hot: twenty-nine whopping degrees, according to the blinking sign outside the bank. Even if you know that twenty-nine degrees Celsius is eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit—and I don’t; metric conversion has never been my forte—the temperature reading alone doesn’t capture the heat’s oppressive grandeur, because it doesn’t factor in the malarial humidity, or the fact that I’ve been walking around for hours and have yet to hit a patch of shade. I feel like I’m in one of those cartoons where a thundercloud is following me around, raining only on me, except that instead of a thundercloud overhead, it’s the baking kiln-hot sun.

The heat is only one of the day’s obstacles. We arrived in Prague less than two days ago, so I’m still jet-lagged. My last meal was a crude goulash made from what tasted like paprika and horse meat, and that was over twenty-four hours ago. I’m so hungry I could eat…not a horse—I already tried that—but something really big.

So I’m hot, I’m jet-lagged, I’m hungry, and, oh yeah, I’m hungover. Not just hungover. Suffering through one of the worst hangovers of all time, a hangover that belongs in the Book of Lists, if not the Guinness Book of World Records. This is what happens when the local beer is the best you’ve ever consumed, and it costs eighteen cents a half-litre, and you drink it in lieu of dinner, as it is preferable to equine cuisine, and after your tenth or eleventh refill, you decide to fortify it with absinthe—which isn’t really absinthe but a syrupy green licorice liqueur that looks like and tastes like and for all you know is NyQuil, and is only sold to hapless expats at touristy bars like Chapeau Rouge—and you stay at Chapeau Rouge till it closes at four in the morning, and the whole evening, including the cab back to your room, costs less than ten dollars.

 

 

Prague is the sort of place where you can buy a drink for everyone in the bar without taking out a second mortgage. Or breaking a twenty. My friend Chris, who’d matched me beer for beer and shot for shot, is so hungover he couldn’t even get out of bed this morning. And this is a guy who can throw down like Burton and Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That I am able to function at all is a testament to the quality of the liquid gold the Czechs call pivo.

So I’m hot, I’m jet-lagged, I’m hungry, I’m hungover, and, if that’s not enough, I’m lost. Calibrated to the neat New York grid system, my inner compass is completely useless on the tortuous byways of Prague.

The urban planning here seems to have involved paving the paths of meandering cattle. The Staré Město, in particular, is a veritable maze. With a decent map and a good night’s sleep, I might have a fighting chance. But my map sucks. And, as discussed, I’m hungover, hungry, jet-lagged, and hot, and I slept for maybe four hours last night. Plus, I’m carting around a bottle of wine, which, in my current condition, may as well be a bowling ball.

The wine is a gift for the AP’s Prague correspondent, who was good enough to find me inexpensive yet comfortable accommodations, and who I want to thank in person. The AP’s Prague correspondent is not expecting me to call, and had said correspondent been Pablo Gorondi or Dusan Stojanovic—our men in Budapest and Belgrade, respectively—I would probably be back in the hotel with Chris, sleeping it off. But I feel compelled to visit the bureau of our mutual employer, and not just to be polite. See, in addition to being hot, jet-lagged, hungry, hungover, and lost, I’m also a single red-blooded American male, and the AP’s Prague correspondent is named Nadia Romanova.

Nadia Romanova! Oo la la! I spent most of the flight over manufacturing a crush on her, even though I don’t know what she looks like, how old she is, if she’s married, or, for that matter, if she prefers the company of men. All I know is her name—but that’s enough. Nadia Romanova is either James Bond’s love interest or Anna Kournikova’s doubles partner. Either way, she’s hot. If you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present Nadia Romanova with a bottle of wine and ask her to dinner, you have to seize it, hungover or not. Who knows? She might be up for a no-strings-attached liaison with a young American aspiring-novelist-cum-benefits-coordinator.

To present the bottle of wine to the AP correspondent, of course, I must first locate the AP bureau. This is easier said than done, as I am, at the moment, walking through an urban, Czech Blair Witch Project.

The bureau is on Národní. According to my map, Národní is a major thoroughfare, or as major a thoroughfare as you can find in the Staré Město: a wide, straight road extending from the metro station at Můstek, past the National Theatre, to the Most Legií, which is a bridge. Unfortunately, what appears straight on my map is, in actuality, anything but.

I began at Můstek, so I was able to locate that. After walking around for forty minutes, I stumbled upon the bridge. I didn’t find the National Theatre, which is supposed to be visible from the Most Legií, and if I couldn’t find the biggest performing arts center in the Czech Republic, I certainly didn’t spot the unassuming AP bureau. How can I walk from one end of Národní to the other, three times, and miss it? It’s like starting at the Williamsburg Bridge and not being able to find Delancey.

I’ve long since abandoned my map and am carrying only the bottle of wine when an insanely tall blonde dude approaches me. He looks like one of the lesser bad guys from Die Hard, except for the sandals. Birkenstocks don’t exactly inspire menace.

“Excuse me,” he says. “Do you know where is Metro station?”

This is the third time someone has stopped me on the street to ask for directions since we arrived. It’s like they’re seeking me out. Do I really look like I know my way around, or is everyone else even more clueless than I am? Ironically, I am able to tell him where the metro station is. He thanks me and bounds away, on legs as tall as my entire body.

Watching him go, I spot, on a nondescript Soviet-looking concrete building, among a bevy of Slavic signs, a small plaque bearing the familiar burnt-orange interlocking A and P that is the logo of my employer.

“Hallelujah,” I say out loud.

With renewed vigor, I make for the building. Once inside, I see that the bureau is on the sixth floor, Suite 604. There does not appear to be an elevator. Just what a hot, jet-lagged, hungry, hungover guy needs—a session with the Stairmaster.

The sixth floor—which is actually the seventh floor, because what Europeans call the first floor is really the second floor; such are the wonders of the metric system—appears to be residential. There is nothing that indicates any business is transacted here. No AP logo, no sound of teletype machines, nothing. Weird. But I hit the buzzer for Suite 604.

The door opens to reveal a cute, voluptuous brunette, her hair wavy and short. Gorgeous hazel eyes twinkle at me. I was expecting taller and leaner—a tennis player—but I prefer cute and voluptuous. The only drawback, and it is glaring, is that there are two small children clinging to her like koalas, one on her calf, the other on her hip. Nothing, not even a ring with a diamond the size of Gibraltar, says unavailable more unequivocally than a pair of clingy toddlers.

Swallowing my disappointment, I give her the happiest smile I can muster in my current condition.  “Hi. Um…are you Nadia?”

Her English is fair to middling, but she manages to convey that a) she is Nadia’s sister, b) this is Nadia’s apartment and not her place of business, and c) to get to the AP bureau, I need to go back down to the ground floor, follow a long hallway to the other side of the building, and then climb up a different but equally steep set of stairs.

I’m not thrilled about the walking, but that’s the only thing. Not only is Nadia unencumbered by two small children, but the chances of her being a stone-cold fox have actually gone up. In the patois of Las Vegas, the line has moved. How much hotness disparity can there be between sisters? Kourtney Kardashian is not Kim Kardashian, but she’s still, er, kute. My buzz safely restored, I thank Nadia’s sister and go.

 

*   *   *

 

This is my first trip to Europe. Other than a long weekend in Montreal and a spring break in the Virgin Islands, it’s my first trip outside the continental United States. Oh, I’ve had opportunities. I could have gone to Paris with my high school French class. I could have spent my junior year of college abroad, instead of in New York. Can’t ask Mom and Dad; too expensive—that was my excuse for not going both times. But really, I was afraid to leave my comfort zone.

But I’m an adult now, with a steady paycheck and a yen for life experience, and I decided two months ago that I needed to get my feet wet, so to speak, with Old World water, phobias be damned. Logic would have sent me to England, because there is no language barrier; France, because I speak un peu French; or Italy, because I am fully half Italian. Plus, England, France and Italy are the obvious places for a young writer to visit, just like New York is the obvious place for a young writer to live. But none of those destinations piqued my fancy, probably because they were so obvious.

Conversely, I rejected Bucharest and Krakow and Warsaw as too alien. My college roommate, Jeff, had backpacked fearlessly across Europe in ’95…until he hit Poland, whereupon the lugubrious post-Communist strangeness gave him pause. A country that spooked the well-traveled Jeff was sure to terrify me.

What I wanted was someplace foreign but familiar, not too obvious but not too strange, a combination of East and West. What I wanted was Prague.

The Czech metropolis was an unusual choice for a maiden voyage to the Continent, but in 1998, it wasn’t that unusual. The so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989 had opened the doors of what was still Czechoslovakia, and with a bang. Prague became an obligatory destination for aspiring men of letters. That the city of Kundera, Kafka, and Klima had selected a playwright, Vaclav Havel, as its president only enhanced its literary cachet. Expatriates of a writerly bent flocked to Prague to soak up its vibrancy, its novelty, and, yes, its astoundingly cheap and delicious pivo.

If you wanted to be a Bohemian, where better to decamp than the capital of Bohemia?

Not that I was a true Bohemian. Or even a convincing fake one. Bohemian enclaves are known for cheapness and grit. Paris between the wars, Greenwich Village a generation before. Prague? Maybe in the early 90s, in its hipster heyday. By ’98, the bubble had burst. It was still cheap, but hardly gritty. I wouldn’t say I made it to the party after the keg was kicked (an apt metaphor in Bohemia), but the tap was definitely farting foam.

So: beer, life experience, aspirations literary and hipster. Good enough reasons to go where I did—but post hoc ergo propter hoc rationalizations, all. I chose Prague over Paris, Rome, London, Budapest, Moscow, and Athens—and, for that matter, Tokyo, Cairo, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Rio de Janiero, and Havana—because, quite simply, I felt like going there. Prague appealed to me, in the same way that the Yankees appeal to some people, the Mets to others. There was no logic to it. It can’t really be explained, any more than you can explain my mother’s love of the color yellow, or my friend Chris’s hatred of Led Zeppelin. I prefer Milton to Shakespeare, Bach to Mozart, Dalton to Brosnan. Why? Nature? Nurture? Or something else entirely?

Prague called out to me. And here I am.

 

*   *   *

 

Not that I’m mulling over anything so metaphysical as I climb up the last of the seven flights of stairs. The stream of my consciousness flows from Nadia to goulash to sleep to Nadia to Chapeau Rouge to the weird Czech Space Needle on the outskirts of town that isn’t even mentioned in my Rough Guide and back to Nadia. Genealogy may not be riding the last car on my train of thought, but it’s very close to the caboose. My final thought as I ring the buzzer for the AP bureau is, What will Nadia look like? Voluptuous and cute, like her sister? Tall and sinewy, like Anna Kournikova? Somewhere in between?

The person who opens the door is neither voluptuous nor cute nor sinewy nor tall. I am face to face with David Crosby. OK, he’s not really David Crosby, just his döppelganger: same white curly locks cascading from a receding hairline, same walrus mustache, same intense eyes, same leonine bearing. I half expect to see Neil Young behind him with an acoustic guitar. Or Melissa Etheridge with a turkey baster.

“Good morning,” he bellows, his voice at least a six on the Richter scale.

I open my mouth to speak, but I’m having trouble, what with the jet lag, hunger, heat, and hangover. Finally, drawing on all my powers of elocution, I stammer, with erudition that would make the home office proud, “You, AP? Me, AP. New York.”

His eyes light up even more, which I wouldn’t have thought possible.

“You are Olear!” he exclaims, possibly causing a building across town to tremble.

“Yes.”

“Welcome. I am Ondrej. Please, come in.”

Only when I cross the threshold do I realize that he pronounced my last name correctly. This bears mention, because no one ever says my last name correctly on the first try. A dactyl, like “caviar”—and not an iambic appeal to the titular tragic king. My father, worn down by the constant and futile attempt to correct everyone, has acquiesced to the Irish pronunciation. The percentage of my own friends who think there is an apostrophe after the “O” is, I’m sad to say, somewhere between the unemployment rate and Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average. And yet Ondrej, a complete stranger, nailed it in one take.

He glances at the brown paper bag tucked under my arm. “Is that wine?”

I nod once, indicating affirmation. He nods twice, indicating approval. “Good.”

I’ve always liked the neat economy of my last name: five letters, three syllables, no schwas. I like the way it reads on the printed page. I like the way it looks spelled out in Scrabble tiles. I like that it provides my full name with so many anagrammatic possibilities (greg olear=roger gale, larger ego). I like that, if I ever get a book published, it should delight Will Shortz and his wordsmith brethren, and allow me to join Sheri Oteri in the Federation of People With Unusual Last Names Beginning With “O” Who Are Crossword Puzzle Clues More Than Their Meager Fame Allows. Even the constant mispronunciation has its silver lining; telemarketers are easy to peg.

“Wow,” I say, following Ondrej into the large but unpopulated room that is the bureau. “You said my name correctly.”

One of the empty desks, I notice, bears a nameplate and a photo ID of the AP’s Prague correspondent. My inkling that she might be attractive was right on the money. Long brown hair, fashion model face. But what Ondrej says next makes me forget all about Nadia Romanova.

“Of course,” he exclaims. “It is a Slovak name. Olej means oil, and –ar means dealer in or supplier of.” He pats me enthusiastically on the shoulder, which would have knocked me over had I not grabbed an empty desk for support. “You, sir, are Oil Man!”

The news bowls me over almost as much as his pat on the shoulder. I stand there speechless, and not because of jet lag, hunger, heat, humidity, or hangover.

I never knew what my name meant. Because of the illegitimate skeleton in the Olear family closet, the subject of ancestry was off limits. My paternal grandfather, Stephen Olear, was born out of wedlock. He didn’t know who his father was—or so he claimed. I asked him about his family history once, before he died, and, as my father predicted, he refused to elaborate. He wouldn’t even tell me what my great-grandfather’s name was; Stephen’s surname, an Americanized version of Olejár, came not from his father but his mother. His last name, then—and by extention, mine—was a matrilineal inheritance.

I never knew what my name meant. I didn’t even now how to find out what it meant. And here the Czech David Crosby, of all people, has satisfied my lifelong curiosity. (Later, I will learn that Ondrej fronts a band called Žlutý Pes, so the “Déjà Vu” comparison is not far off ).

“Nadia is out covering the elections,” says Ondrej, taking the wine. “I will take care of this for you.”

“Huh?”

My mind is elsewhere. I’m processing the information, connecting the dots from “Oil Man” to my father’s father, who worked his entire adult life at Standard Oil. And then something else Ondrej said sinks in.

“Wait…did you say it was a Slovak name?”

Ondrej, who is now inspecting the wine (a moderately-priced but well-regarded California red), nods without looking up.

“I always thought we were Polish.”

“No,” and he is emphatic, “Slovak.”

“Wow. I never knew that.”

The unexpected depth of the exchange has sapped what little strength I had remaining. All my life, I thought I was half-Polish, and I’m not; I’m half…Slovak? I know what it means to be Polish—being the butt of jokes, mostly—but what does it mean to be Slovak?

And then my thoughts turn metaphysical.

Prague called out to me. And here I am.

Despite my inability to navigate its twisted roads, Prague seems eerily familiar to me, like a landscape from a half-forgotten dream. The Czech language, which should be so intimidatingly foreign, sounds more musical to my ear than my native tongue. Six months of immersive study, I’d be fluent, no question. The Slavic faces on the street are familiar, too—and mine must look like one of them, or people wouldn’t keep asking me for directions. Heck, Montreal felt stranger to me than Prague does, and I took French for nine years. Why should this be?

Perhaps there really is a collective soul, what the Hindus call the atman, and memories of places, of faces, of historical events, are stored there for all of humanity to tap into, as the html files of IMDB.com are stored on a giant web server for universal access. Just as you can only look up Tom Cruise’s IMDB.com page on a computer, so you can only access the atman subconsciously, when you dream. When we dream of places we’ve never been before, then, we are tapping into the atman. Our dreamscapes are memories from past lives, or else mnemonic heirlooms from long-dead ancestors.

Maybe I wanted to go to Prague because I’ve been here before.

That or I’m still drunk.

My mind is blown, to the point that I’m almost freaked out. I feel claustrophobic, I need air. Even the entrance of a naked and nymphomaniacal Nadia would not entice me to stay right now. Thanking Ondrej profusely, I beat a hasty retreat, racing down the seven flights of stairs to the street, where I gasp for breath, and head to the first bar for a cold pivo.

 

 

 

 

When I first saw you, you were shuffling down the aisle of a crowded train, pausing every few seats to check in—

“How do I get to Myrtle?”

“How do I get to Myrtle?”

“How do I…”

I’ll admit to feeling a prick of annoyance (not another one), but it passed on realizing your compromised condition—a slight allover tremor, eyes milky with age. You were lost, and without assistance. When you got to where I was, it was time to step out. Thinking fast—Myrtle… Myrtle Avenue?—I said I could help you; I reached for your arm, and you gave it to me. As we stood together on the platform, I asked you for more, for anything. But all you could give was “Myrtle,” plus a few extras like “want” and “need,” conjuring an image of Myrtle not as place but as woman pined for. I consulted a subway map anyway, a matrix of colored strings to confuse the spriest of us. Pointing out various neighborhoods Myrtle Avenue traverses, I looked for signs—an affirming nod, flicker of recognition: home. None came. Instead, a new word, faint but there: “Lewis, Lewis and Myrtle.” Energized, I trailed a finger, inching east, and… Lewis. Lewis Avenue: a mere three complicated train transfers away. Daunted on your behalf, I did my best to explain the complexity of what awaited should you attempt again the train, next asking softly if you had money for a cab home. You were keeping up well enough, because you pulled out a billfold, which you opened and held open for me, revealing a brave sad emptiness. I told you it was okay, I could pay for your ride, and you followed me silently, slowly up the stairs and out into the circus that is downtown Brooklyn during rush hour. As you waited somewhere at my back, I watched cab after cab clear the intersection, every last one taken. An irrational desperation crept steadily in, erasing relationship woes, that problem at work, until the only thing left to care about was getting you out of all this. I chanced a quick look behind—your face, that impossible read—and a second later a yellow car was slowing at the curb. I filled in the driver, paying in advance, in approximate, and he gave you a kind smile, understanding. “We’ll getcha there.” You took some time getting situated, organizing your tired bones in that backseat, and I stood there wondering about so much… Your solemn “thank you” caught me unawares, struck deep, though I don’t believe it changed anything important.

Years out, certain evenings when I’m feeling lost, lived up, I take to Brooklyn’s quieter streets and think of you and our exchange. I hope you made it home alright,

home to your Myrtle.

Here’s a secret: Everyone, if they live long enough, will lose their way at some point. You will lose your way, you will wake up one morning and find yourself lost. This is a hard, simple truth. If it hasn’t happened to you yet consider yourself lucky. When it does, when one day you look around and nothing is recognizable, when you find yourself alone in a dark wood having lost the way, you may find it easier to blame someone else—an errant lover, a missing father, a bad childhood. Or it may be easier to blame the map you were given—folded too many times, out of date, tiny print. You can shake your fist at the sky, call it fate, karma, bad luck, and sometimes it is. But, for the most part, if you are honest, you will only be able to blame yourself. Life can, of course, blindside you, yet often as not we choose to be blind—agency, some call it. If you’re lucky you’ll remember a story you heard as a child, the trick of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, the idea being that after whatever it is that is going to happen in those woods has happened, you can then retrace your steps, find your way back out. But no one said you wouldn’t be changed, by the hours, the years, spent wandering those woods.


***

(2005) A year after the Abu Ghraib photographs appear I wake up in Texas one morning, in love with two women, honest with neither. I am finishing up my second semester of teaching poetry at the University of Houston, getting ready to fly back to New York, where both these women are waiting for me, or so I imagine. I’d been “dating” for a few years, since the breakup of a long-term relationship, and more than once it had been made abundantly clear that I was not very good at it. For me, “dating” often felt like reading Tolstoy—exhilarating, but a struggle, at times, to keep the characters straight. The fact that the chaos had been distilled down to two women—one I’ll call Anna, the other was Inez—felt, to me, like progress. For months I’d been speaking to one or the other on my cellphone. Her name (or hers) came up on the tiny screen, and each time my heart leapt. It was the end of April. I’d come to the conclusion (delusion?) that if I could just get us all in the same room we could figure out a way it could work out. Another part of me, though, would have been perfectly happy to let it all keep playing out in the shadows.

The book A Field Guide to Getting Lost came out around this time—it is, in part, a meditation on the importance, for any creative act, to allow the mind and body to wander. The title jumped out at me—maybe I could use it as sort of an antimap. Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing…. Another book that came out around this time was Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, but I didn’t pick that one up—perhaps I wasn’t ready not to be lost. Lost, at that moment in my life, manifest itself as feeling bewildered, confused, bereft—it’s not that I didn’t know where I was, I just didn’t know what I was doing there. On a deeper level, I knew that my bereftitude was only partly due to my self-inflicted disasters of love. Beneath that surface tension was the inescapable fact that I’d just crossed the threshold of being the same age my parents had been when they’d imploded, each in his or her own way. My mother had killed herself when she was forty-two, shot herself in the heart. When my father was forty-five, he fell—drunk—from a ladder while painting a house, an accident which may or may not have left him with a permanent head injury. A year later he’d enter a bank and pass his first forged check, the start of a small-time run that would eventually lead him into federal prison. After doing his time, after being released, he’d drift even deeper into this life of wandering, until he ended up living on the streets for a few years, which is where I got to know him.

And now, here I am, waking up in Texas, just past the age my mother never made it beyond, the same age my father was when he went off the rails. The dream I’m having is already dissolving, and I’m left, once again, with my unquiet mind, which for some months now has been straddling these two beautiful women. It has nothing to do with fate, karma, or bad luck.

“We’re designed for worship.”

I’d heard it before, somewhere. People all giddy and into their sports teams like zealots at a witch burning. Or a stadium of screaming people in Kabul watching the Taliban blow heads off women.

Pastor Josh shakes hands like he’s one of the bros. It’s sometimes a bump. Other times there might be three or four parts to the process, followed by another bump. His paw is thick. He says, “dude” every two sentences like Hugo on “Lost.”

I feel like I’m at a sports bar and not church.

This is a mostly white church. I leave my dual ethnicity at the door. Actions are tempered. Not many people raise their hands like they even want to touch the feet of God. Me included. I’m usually too pissed off to raise my hands, or too torn up inside to even sing along. I don’t play games. I’m just one of the infirmed and I know this.

There’s indie rock on the stage. It’s all bass and drums. I go complain to Josh because he’s in the sound booth next to Nathan, who should be on stage shredding. Another shredder is missing. That would be my son Landen who is busy pushing carts at FoodsCo. I want the distortion. I want to feel like I’m about to watch Korn, U2, or the moment Wilco’s Nels Kline freaks on “Impossible Germany.”

“I’m four rows back and I can’t hear the violin,” I complain.

I don’t know if Nathan cares and I still can’t hear the shredding fiddler. I’m pissed. I get up and walk out of the church service.

Later I read Nathan’s Tweet: “Where’d you go?”

I scoot out the side door, walk into the daylight and head for the only security I know. It’s a bench over by the main building.

The main building is circular. It oddly resembles Space Mountain, which makes me think that Disney’s designers wanted one of their most popular rides to touch the cosmic alliance between science and a fancy American worship center. “We’ll make it look like a church. It’ll be our most holy of rides.” Until the Indiana Jones temple ride comes along.

“Ah, mom,” I say at the bench as if it could sprout a head of grey hair and some old freckled legs. I want its wooden slats to form a mouth and talk to me. I don’t even sit. I just stare down at it.

“I am so proud of your boys,” the bench says.

I wander into the main building. Some guy eyes me like I’m a jerk. I sit in the back row. All the children are missing. Everywhere there’s a suit, a head of grey hair, or some old floppy hat on a hairdo that looks like the twists of a vanilla soft serve cone.

A church choir sings hymns as if stale bread is good for the people. I start to touch a hymnal. I probably picked it up before. When my kids were babies. The books looked old then.

I wonder how long it will be before the rock band service becomes mainstream and takes over the Space Mountain sanctuary. I think about my twenty-year-old son, Jordan. He’s the fiddler. I’m missing him perform as I sit listening to the dying service. Even Space Mountain gets old. I get up and slip past the man who eyes me again.

Soon I’m outside. The hymns drift away as fast as they came. I pass the bench where my mom sat twelve years ago, dying on a Sunday morning. I imagine the ambulance sirens tearing along Victor Street. Somewhere during that day her chest got ripped open. She died.

I don’t care if I can’t hear my kid playing the violin. I hurry back to The Great Room. I sit in the back and eagerly listen to a song. Jordan’s fiddle bow is an apostle’s staff swinging along a horizon of strings. A few moments later, Pastor Josh talks about his favorite show, “Lost.” Then he mentions eating a hot dog outside of a closed Wrigley Field.

“The idol factory has started up in our hearts,” he says as I see images of factory smoke belching across the skies.

Lately I’ve been dreaming about being a spy.  It’s a nice change from the usual “somebody is chasing me” nightmare.  These days the tables are turned and rather than running through molasses from some unknown terror, I’m the one holding the machine gun.  Go me!  I’d like to think that the dream analysis is true and this represents my drive and ambition.  Sadly, I think it has a lot more to do with my recent Alias obsession.  Apparently my subconscious wants to be Sydney Bristow.

There are worse people to want to be, let’s be honest.  She’s hot, smart, funny, in touch with her emotional side, she speaks eight languages and most importantly, she TOTALLY kicks ass!  Yeah, everybody around her dies, but hey, that’s the price you pay for being an international woman of mystery.  She’s managed to have a meaningful relationship, connect with her super-spy parents, maintain long-term friendships – even if they do involve witness protection – and have a baby.  She travels all over the world and her paycheck is seriously phat.  Have you seen her apartment?  Sweet!  So she risks her life a lot; there are down sides to every job.  But her wardrobe is insane and her wig collection is to die for.  I’ve long had a blue hair fantasy.  Sydney can be blue today and blond tomorrow.  That’s got to count for something.

I’ve never been too sure about the whole “health of television on the developing mind” thing.  As a child I was allowed one hour of television a day, sometimes more if it was educational.  I spent a great deal of my time counting with Bert and Ernie and humming the tune to National Geographic.  I still get tingles when Nova comes on but, like sugared cereal, I started watching the TV equivalent as soon as I left home and finally started getting all those popular references that evaded me during my formative years.  No, I was not popular.

At this point I think I can safely say that television affects a persons thinking or, at the very least, mine.  Not only have I become a nightly vigilante but after weeks of watching Lost, flying has once again become a problem.  Of course not helped by the four or five Airbuses that have recently either crashed or made emergency landings, but it was a fear I had under control for a while.  No longer.  Living through 9/11 provided me with this particular phobia.  Having largely gotten past it, (I recommend flying to Asia as a cure.  24 hours on a plane and you don’t care how you get off.), I never would have guessed that a popular television show could bring it back.  But the show plays the crash sequence over and over and over.  During the days after the attacks the news agencies, in an unprecedented concern for public well-being, finally pulled the footage of the planes crashing into the towers after realizing it was contributing to the country’s post-traumatic stress.  Lost has essentially brought it all back to the surface and while I love the back-stories and all the characters, John Locke? – I ask you! – I’ve had to take a break.  There was recently a weekend trip to London during which I cried through take off both going and coming.  It seems The Dharma Initiative has wrecked its evil influence off screen as well as on and I’d like to take this moment to apologize to the people seated next to me on those flights.  I owe you both a drink, although it might have been better if we’d been able to have it then!

In maybe not such a smart move, I have started making my way through Dexter.  I don’t wish to frighten friends or family but as most of you aren’t anywhere near by and my fear of flying is still in effect, I think you’re safe for the time being.  It’s not my fault!  If they would be quicker about releasing the DVD’s over here I could be watching Heros instead.  I would be dreaming about flying or reading minds rather than cutting them open.  I’ll try to get through this series quickly, promise.  The nightly butchery isn’t as fun as it sounds.

Going forward I guess I have to take into consideration that maybe my parents were right.  One hour a day should really be enough and if you’re learning something from it, other than awesome kickboxing moves that is, then it doesn’t need to have the negative impact it seems to have for me.  Or maybe instead I just need to be more careful about my choices.  After all, would anybody mind if I became Martha Stewart?  Receiving perfectly wrapped gifts hermetically sealed with just the right amount of tape and given under my color coordinated Christmas tree would be something my family might enjoy.  Nah.  I like being a spy.  Hey J.J., if your next series requires a young looking, thirty-something, not-so-in-shape former opera singer turned everyday savior well, you know who to call. Cause thanks to Syd, I’ve got the moves, baby!

Of all the available super hero powers, I wish that I were telekinetic.

I’ve taken a close look at all the options out there: flying, invisibility, super strength…but these all seem so out of reach, and therefore completely unreasonable. I’m a pragmatist, and the truth is, somewhere in the depths of my being, I believe that if I really tried hard enough, I could do it. I could move stuff with my mind.

I had a kung fu teacher one time who swore that he could move things with his chi. Claimed he could blow out a candle with one focused ka-pow! I asked him to show me, but for one reason or another, we never got around to it.

I’ve tried teaching myself.  If you Google telekinesis, you’ll find all sorts of advice and demonstrations. Like this one: Guy moves CD using only his mind! And then, there’s this one: Guy bends spoon using only his mind!And then there’s this Dutchman fellow who appears to be able to levitate, using only his mind!

I even found an old documentary about a woman in Russia named Nina Kulagina who had been studied by a whole battery of scientists. She, too, could move objects on the table, such as utensils and balls, using only her mind!  

So, in the face of this incontrovertible evidence from the Internet, I know it can be done. I just haven’t figured out how to do it.

Yet.

A couple of weeks ago, a neighbor friend of mine told me about an energy vortex in the field across from her house. She said that if you stand there with a coat hanger (bent in the shape of an L, and then with one of the arms in a cardboard cylinder to reduce friction) it will spin in circles. You better believe that within minutes I was asking her to take me to this place. Take me to the vortex.

The next day, we met in the field. It’s in the back of someone’s house on the edge of the forest, so we called ahead to get permission. We took our coat hangers, and traipsed down the hill to the spot. Sure enough, the coat hangers immediately began spinning. My husband, Scott – who is kind of a geek and totally gets off on offering scientific explanations for everything – had taken along a meter to measure electric currents. What he found surprised him. He hadn’t expected to find anything – and that was exactly what he found.

That’s not exactly true.  While the coat hangers were spinning, he was actually able to measure a current.

“The air-voltage potential is going wild!” He exclaimed wide-eyed, before adding somewhat more quietly, “although it’s not repeatable or consistent enough to be conclusive.”

I eyed him darkly over my spinning coat hanger.

“What?” He asked, pulling out a magnetometer.

It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate his attempt at explaining the phenomenon in a scientific manner.  I’m a gemini and the more rational of my wonder twins welcomed it with a hearty “Form of …a modern, rational thinker!”  But I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t a part of me that wanted something unexplainable to be happening.  My other twin sort of bit her tongue and defiantly thought in her head something to the effect of “Shape of a why-can’t-you-just-experience-the-moment, bitch.”  When the twins are at odds, it’s hard to come across with any sense of uniformity in the party line.


When the magnetometer returned inconclusive results, as well, I was secretly pleased. He’s lucky he’s cute.

When we got home, I needed to think about things. I needed to go over my experience and decide what had happened.  Had it been a scientific phenomenon that we had witnessed?  And if so, is it true that all paranormal phenomena can be explained scientifically – but that we just don’t have the science to explain it yet?  

From there, my brain went wild.  What if it were actually possible for people to possess paranormal traits, such as possessing the ability to project one’s self across space and time, being psychic, being telekinetic? I mean, how would I know?  For years, I had been assuming these things weren’t possible, but what if?  What if it was only my rational mind getting in the way?

I stood up from my place on the edge of the bed and peeked around the door.  I was alone.  I closed the door.  I knew I was being ridiculous, but I needed to know.  I hadn’t checked in years.  What if something had changed?  What if my experience in the vortex had changed me?  

Carefully, I pulled out a blue marble from a drawer and put it on the table in front of me, and…focused.

Nothing.

No matter. I closed my eyes, put my hand near the marble and tried again.

Still nothing.

I started getting agitated. If I was going to exhibit signs of telekinesis, I needed to act now. Who knew how long the power of the vortex would remain within my mortal frame? Plus, who knew how much time I had before Scott walked into our bedroom and found me staring at a blue marble on my nightstand like Saruman the White over the Great Eye?


I tried again.

Still nothing.

And suddenly, I felt, once again, ridiculous.  I would love to say that there was alcohol involved, but there was not.  Why would I even think I could do such a thing?  It’s absurd!  Had I watched too much TV?  Too much Batman Wonder Woman Spiderman SuperMan Super Friends Great American Hero X Files X Men Star Trek Star Wars Stargate Stargate Atlantis Battlestar Gallactica Lois and Clark Smallville Heroes?  Do other seemingly normal people out there perform periodic checks to see if they might be the unwitting carriers of assorted psychic powers?   Where did I even get this idea?  Have I always had this idea?  Have I been secretly harboring the assumption that deep within I have a hidden well of psychic abilities and have not been able to manifest them thus propelling myself into a life of frustration and disillusionment?

When I was a kid, I had a pair of Supergirl Underoos. They had been given to me by my older half sister, seven years cooler than I. I loved my Underoos with a zealot’s passion. To me, they were not just “the underwear that’s fun to wear” – they were a life choice. When I wore them, they made me feel as if I could accomplish anything. They completed me.

Supergirl was telekinetic. She was also extremely powerful and was a bit of a shape-shifter, but whatev. This girl could move things with her mind.

I have fond memories of posing in front of the large bathroom mirror over the sink in the bathroom. When I wore the Supergirl Underoos, I became Supergirl. I’d flex my muscles, I’d pretend to fly. I’d move things on the counter, using only my mind! It was my secret identity, known only to me…and sometimes my younger sister, who would occasionally barge into the bathroom unannounced and catch me at it.

We really could have used a lock on that door.

Incidentally, my younger sister and I also had a pair of Wonder Woman Underoos (also a gift from big sis), which we fought over tooth and nail when the Supergirl Underoos mysteriously disappeared.


I believe my mother can be blamed for the heist. Unlike Wonder Woman, which was comprised of an undershirt styled top and panty, Supergirl had a top that looked suspiciously like a bra.


At the age of 9 in a conservative Evangelical household, this did not exactly fly. I had already been shamed by my ungodly desire to want to shave my legs after I had been caught in the bathroom by my mother with her pink Lady Remington. (What? I was a hairy 9-year-old.)

Faced with only one top and panty set – Underoos is clear on the use of “panty” in the singular – competition between us was fierce. If there was only one set between us, and mom only washed clothes once per week, then it stood to reason that each of us could only wear the set once in a two-week time period. This led to all manner of deals and threats between us, including some interesting outfit choices in order to try and extend the life of the Underoos beyond a bi-weekly event. Sure, a panty can only be worn once before it needs washing, but the cool top with the gold eagle-emblazoned red bustier could be worn at least a few times before it needed cleansing treatment. I’d pair the undershirt with a pair of light blue panties (plural, and therefore not as amazing or powerful), pull on a pair of red knee highs,et voila! I was Wonder Woman on laundry day.

I miss my Underoos. They had a brief, but brilliant life. At some point near the beginning of the fourth grade, I decided to make a secret appearance as Wonder Woman. Little did I know that it would be my last time. I dug out the Wonderwoman Underoos from my drawer and got ready for school. I knew in my gut that I was too old for that, and yet…and yet.

My teachers and classmates had no idea how protected they were that day – that a Superhero walked amongst them. Nobody had to know. It was my little secret. Somewhere around lunchtime, however, I realized the flaw in my plan.

Gym class.

I panicked. What if my shirt crept up in the process of clearing the projectile of a dodge ball? Seeing the potential horror of my decision I began to grow self-conscious that I might be discovered – that my identity would be exposed to the jeering taunts of my fourth grade class. I tried not participate. Used my superhero strength for good and turned Dodge Ball into Wall Ball. I went home at the end of school and retired my secret identity forever.


I believe that my first feelings of disillusionment followed shortly on the heels of this event.
To this day, I find myself feeling that I’m missing something in life – like I should be capable of something more. I should be able to accomplish bigger things, get places faster, fight for the greater good,
be telekinetic.

I decided to poll my friends to see if anybody else felt this connection – this strange sense of loss and lack of purpose in life after a childhood devoted to pretending to be a superhero. 21 of my friends actually responded to my poll. Of course, it is a rather small sampling of a huge cross section of our society, but I think we can learn from it all the same.

In my poll, I asked several questions, which for our purposes, I shall narrow down to three:


1.If you were a superhero, what would your special power be?

2.Did you have Underoos (and what were they)?

3.Do you have a clear sense of purpose in life, or is it hazy?


Here are the responses:
1 – Super strength / Superman / Hazy
2 – Know what people are thinking / Rainbow Brite / hazy
3 – Ability to beam places / Wonderwoman / hazy
4 – freeze time / no / clear
5 – Flying / Minerva / hazy
6 – get pregnant / Josie and the Pussycats / hazy
7 – flying / wonderwoman / hazy
8 – bendy / bat woman / hazy
9 – healing / wonderwoman, cat woman, spiderman / clear
10 – flying / superman / hazy
11 – the ability to dance and teleportation / no / clear
12 – flight / wonderwoman and Josie and the Pussycats / hazy
13 – telekinesis / batman, superman, he-man/hazy
14 – ability to survive on little sleep / no, but desperately wanted Superwoman / hazy
15 – treetop running, blasting off ground / no, but wanted He-man / hazy
16 – invisibility / Superman/clear
17 – telekinesis / Wonderwoman / hazy
18 – flight / wonderwoman / hazy
19 – flight / no / clear
20 – invisibility and omniscience / Incredible Hulk / hazy
21 – the ability to see through clothes / no / clear

Here is the final tally:

Of those who had Underoos:

hazy sense of purpose in life: 13 (87%)
clear sense of purpose in life: 2 (13%)

Of those who did NOT have Underoos:

hazy sense of purpose in life: 2 (33%)
clear sense of purpose in life: 4 (66%)

So, of those who wore Underoos, 13% feel as if they have a clear purpose in life.  Of those who did not wear Underoos, 66% feel as if they have a clear purpose in life.  

It may be interesting to note, that of the two respondents who did NOT have Underoos and who claimed that their sense of purpose was hazy, they both made a point of stating that they intensely pined over a pair of Underoos, but that their parents would not let them. So, it could be argued that these 2 people really belong amongst their Underoos wearing peers as they may have exhibited the same behavior – perhaps by making their own costumes out of felt and bedsheets. So, this final tally may be skewed with a deeper analysis of the situation.

Generation X has been referred to as “the lost generation.” For some reason, we who were born between 1965 and 1981 are said to exhibit a “hazy sense of identity.” Numerous reasons have been cited as possible contributors, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, a rise in the divorce rate, drugs and economic strain. No doubt, these all played their role.

We are also the generation whose parents told us that we could accomplish anything that we set our minds to. We were assured that we were amazing and that we could change the world. We were the world. We werethe children. We were the ones to make a brighter day, so we had better start living.

And to prove it, we were bought Underoos.

Is there a connection? I don’t know. Was it that Underoos were a symptom of the times…or were they a contributing factor?  That is the question.  What do you think?


* I would like to note for the record that none of my friends had the Monchichi Underoos.

Her first name was Kim.

The license plate on her car read RUSH 47.

Her last name can’t be recalled.

She listened to Rush way too much, so that part of the plate merited no query.

But the 47, that piqued my interest.

Kiptobin9e