Chapter 6: Can Art Really Influence Science?

Most scientists I asked about whether art had truly influenced science said in general, no, because they recognize the fundamental difference between the enterprises more than most artists, and the rest of us, do.  We are entranced by parallel images from subatomic particles and Zen brush painting, but we don’t think through the fundamental oppositions of such activities.  Science is a cumulative quest for the objective description of the way the world really is, with each stab towards the truth subject to rigorous scrutiny, logic, and possible repeatability.  Art is a stab in the dark, a quest to make a strong statement, to feel ‘true’ in the gut by doing something polished and complete enough to cause an instant stir in the heart.  You can analyze, you can test it, you can try to explain it, but the greatness will be more than the sum of its parts.  It may be an easy gesture, or a labored effort, be done in minutes with the turn of the hand or a sudden glance.  As much as one may speak of similar gestures in science, they represent an aesthetic part of the scientific work, not the main gist of it.

Science and art have different criteria for truth. They present their conclusions with a different sort of stance, a different weight.  An artist can convince by the splendor of his work, or just the conviction of this presentation. Even the image of a whole that doesn’t quite make sense, and cannot exist apart from its presentation.  Like a fine bird song, which has no message or meaning outside its performance. It is what it is, and if it touches enough who experience it, it will endure.  But not science.  Every conclusion is subject to the intense scrutiny of the whole field, and will most likely be superseded by new discoveries over time.  In science there is most definitely progress.  In art, we recognize changes in taste over time, but not aesthetic advancement.

Most of us would not say today’s art is better than that made in the Renaissance or Enlightenment periods.  It is certainly different, and we may or may not prefer different things today. Art is primarily expressive and evocative, not needing to be useful and informative.  But I would like it to help us, to improve our lot, in a way to progress. I want to imagine it can change the way we see the world, and improve our understanding. So should it then at least sometimes positively influence science? Taylor and his colleagues believe Pollock anticipated the discoveries of fractal mathematics, though maybe he is instead saying that what is great in Pollock’s wild imagery is the fractal naturalness of it, which is more like an accidental secret code than a real insight.  In the end he too is showing how mathematics might explain art, giving science the upper hand, a kind of solid exact power that comes with science’s ability to do things, to make things, to physically improve the world.  Compared to the changes in our world that science has wrought, art can seen downright frivolous, but it does make us laugh and cry.

One scientist who has thought quite deeply on this is the Nobel prize winning chemist Roald Hoffman, who has also published several books of poetry and is famous for organizing the monthly “Entertaining Science” events at New York’s Cornelia Street Café, one of the longest-running series of informal gatherings to present science and downtown culture together, the forerunner of the great “Science Festivals” now popping up in major cities all over the world.  Chemistry, he says, surprisingly, is often all about drawing. The vocabulary of chemistry can get so technical that even its practicitioners cannot understand all the words in a typical journal article in the field!  But when they see molecules drawn, with their elements and their interconnections, in the standard and universally understood way, then it all makes sense.  Chemists are trained connoisseurs of a particular kind of illustration, which, in its universality, has more currency in explaining its concepts than the confusing gobbledegook of words, which outsiders like to call jargon.  Even within the field it is jargon, and there are too many terms to ever know.  The image is the key, the drawing tells all.

“The communication of molecules’ architectonic essence by little iconic drawings (rather than photographs or etchings), and by ball and stick models, is of proven value – remember it’s been more than half a century since the Watson and Crick paper. They didn’t synthesize DNA, they reasoned out its structure, almost willing a model into being,” writes Hoffman in a special issue of the journal Hyle on aesthetics in chemistry.  “It never ceases to amaze me how a community of people who are not talented at drawing, nor trained to do so, manages to communicate faultlessly so much three-dimensional information.”

He is amazed, but also shocked by his colleagues’ resistance to a more aesthetic approach to the world.  Why is it, he wonders, “that people who have learned to communicate visually in such a variety of artistic styles—chemists—are not more tolerant of expressionist and abstract artistic ways of communicating knowledge and emotion?”  I would say it is the classic sense that in science the march of knowledge is rigorous and cumulative, while an artist can just get up there and say something, make a gesture, do something different or out of whack, and demand to be taken seriously and his culture will sometimes take him seriously, without needing to ask all these questions that situate the work in its context.  Art does not work the same way as science, so if you talk about their relationship or how to combine them, you will want to tell your audience if what you present is to be taken as science, or as art, and in each case it will need to be enjoyed or assessed differently.  This is not to favor one or the other ways of knowing, just to recognize that they will always be different, and if something is to be both art and science then it will have to allow these two different ways of interpretation.

So as a musician, I can sail off the coast of Hawaii and try to play music live with humpback whales, and sometimes I get those whales to sing along with me and the interspecies results might once in a while be interesting to listen to as a kind of music that crosses many aesthetic lines.  All I have to do is get one beautiful recording, show that it really is a live interaction between human and whale, and present the work as such. It might be successful. Is the whale really responding to my clarinet?  How is he adjusting his song in response to mine?  To say something scientific about this, I’m going to have to go out on hundreds of trips and collect a lot of data of whale/human interactions that can be statistically analyzed. To turn this into a scientific experiment, such data is essential. Only then could I make more objective conclusions about what I hear as beautiful. As an art experiment, one beautiful human/whale duet is enough.  It is easier in that it takes less time, but you have to be musically prepared to take such a thing seriously.  That’s the harder part.

Hoffman has thought much more deeply on this. He has considered how science might learn far more subtlety from art.  After being amazed by how much chemists can express to each other using drawing, a fundamentally artistic techniques, he thinks more daringly on how art might inform science.  What of abstraction?  We have spoken of abstract art for more than a century—can there also be something called abstract science? For one, we cannot really be sure any art is really abstract; if it doesn’t represent the appearance of nature, does it not idealize nature by seeking to exalt pure form one way or another?

Abstraction, when it was introduced, seemed to be put forth as in opposition to something, a more naïve notion that art could basically represent the world.  So, let’s try for an abstract science.  Is there any sense in which chemistry could be seen as in opposition to something?  It too is sometimes opposed to nature. Hoffman says: “Chemists in the laboratory are torn between emulating nature and doing things their own way. A protein, through its own curling and its tool kit of sidechain options, shapes a pocket where, say, a molecule with only right-handed symmetry fits. But it not only fits, it has something done to it—a specific bond in that molecule is cleaved, or an atom is delivered to it. The chemist’s fun, much like abstract art, is in achieving the same (why not better?) degree of shape control that nature does, but doing it differently, perchance better, in the laboratory.”  With greater abstraction may come greater fun.

And greater attention to form and simplification, the basis of science’s tendency to break things down into their simplest parts.  Yet it is not the elegance of the rules that most impresses Hoffman, but the sense that the playing of the game can trump the results, like Hermann Hesse’s vision of the mysterious spiritual/technical activity he introduced in The Glass Bead Game, an activity never quite defined but consuming its players like a whole sci/art culture, always a vision that impressed me for years as a college student, especially the fact that it could never quite be described because its totality was so immense.  So it’s either a metaphor for life itself, or a call to generate the great games of today, intricate structures in cyberspace or playing themselves upon total digital machines.  But that’s still probably not it, it’s still more likely that great sense you feel when, against all odds, all the processes one thinks through at any given moment suddenly seem to make sense, and all fit together like some great “aha” moment that finally really works.

Hoffman gazes at the cool geometrical forms of Rothko, amazed by their exactness and fuzziness at once.  Art has evolved to depict tendencies, hazy eminences like the unclear parts of the brain that may light up when one or another thought process happens.  Science of the mind not like a device, with gears and cogs churning the machinations of thought, no, hazy areas on the screen light up, we have a glimmer of idea we might begin to chart. Data? A diagram? Proof, some clear result?  Not really, but a century where art can be blurry and with this blurriness offer a new kind of precise meaning inspires many disciplines of science where inexactness does not stop us.

 

Roald Hoffman, “Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry,” Hyle, vol. 9, no. 1, 2003, p. 7.

Roald Hoffman, “Abstract Science,” American Scientist, vol. 97, no. x, 2009, p. 450.

Ch. 6, Survival of the Beautiful, by David Rothenberg, © 2011. Used with permission by Bloomsbury Press

 

A friend of mine is going through an emotional upheaval. She’s in her forties, married, with two children. She is no longer effervescent. She tells me that she is incapacitated by sadness and fear. Things are happening in her life that drain her of her will to live.

“What kind of things?” I ask.

Family things,” she whispers.

Because she won’t tell me, I fear the worst. Though I’ve asked, she refuses to tell me exactly what is happening. She’s painfully shy, secretive about the things she cherishes most. To better cope with her inner turmoil, she’s taken up smoking again. Whatever happened has affected her for months, yet she cannot bring herself to tell another living soul about it.

In an email, she writes about the weight she’s lost since whatever happened happened—“down to [x lbs], my weight at time of marriage–but I look fabulous!” Because I know her to be sensitive about her appearance, I read this as a proud boast. I write back that this is good news, but what I really think is how profound her depression must be to have caused this loss of appetite.

A number of weeks ago, an article on MSNBC.com caught my eye. A woman who survived a lupus-induced stroke tells of how impressed her friends of her resulting severe weight loss.

“The crazy thing was people thought I looked great because I was so thin. They’d ask if I was working out and I didn’t have one muscle. You could see every bone protruding out of my shoulders, my elbows, my wrists.”

She tried to tell people how dire her weight loss was, how much it jeopardized her health, yet her friends prodded her for diet tips.

“It was like the skinnier I got, the more I heard about how great I looked. Men, in particular, thought my body looked fabulous. I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s really sick. I have to be anorexic to make you think I’m attractive.’”

Stories like this get to me. I’ve been writing a novel lampooning how obsessed we can be with false ideas of feminine beauty. Much has been written elsewhere about the psychologically damaging effects that our culture’s focus on body image can have on women, yet it still startles me to see how alarmingly short-sighted people can be. What’s the value of weight loss when it is achieved as a consequence of emotional despair? Or life-threatening medical conditions?

When beauty is concerned, misplaced priorities are rampant.

In August, Jane Fonda appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. The occasion? A new movie by the two-time Oscar-winning actress? A new political cause for this activist who has helped shape public opinion about crucial events for over forty years? Nope. Appearing in a revealingly sheer Stella McCartney dress, the 73-year-old Fonda announces to the world that she is still beautiful.

Fonda, who has an artificial hip and an artificial knee (“I set off as many bells and whistles at an airport as I did [at a Cannes fashion show.]”), freely concedes vanity. She still has the need to show off her figure. “I wear what will show off my best parts, which are my waist and my butt.”

While I have nothing against people taking pride in their personal appearance, it’s appalling that someone as accomplished as Fonda feels she can only assert her continued relevance through brash boasts of youthful beauty. Beauty is confining pedestal. One senses from reading Fonda’s comments that its pursuit has obscured her ability to take satisfaction from other facets of her life.

One needn’t be a cynic to suspect that a septuagenarian’s the outward appearance of beauty is maintained by a fair amount of make-up and, perhaps, cosmetic surgery. Beauty is a wasteful pursuit. Worldwide, the cosmetics industry raked in $170 billion in 2007 (the most recent year for which I can locate reliable figures). Anti-aging facial serums are the most expensive products. A 1.7 ounce jar of La Prairie “Cellular Cream Platinum Rare” will set you back a cool grand at Neiman Marcus.

Do these products work? A 2005 Forbes article suggests maybe not. While the cosmetic industry touts these products as “clinically proven” to reduce wrinkles, their studies lacked clinical control groups to test their findings. As Forbes writes, “If these studies were repeated using, say, olive oil, or even a generic lotion of any kind, it is possible that the results would be the same.”

Dollars are not the only thing that being wasted in the pursuit of beauty. Anxieties and false expectations are being needlessly thrust upon women.

I feel sorry for Fonda.

“I was raised in the ’50s,” Fonda says. “I was taught by my father that how I looked was all that mattered, frankly. He was a good man, and I was mad for him, but he sent messages to me that fathers should not send: Unless you look perfect, you’re not going to be loved.”

As a father of a six-year-old girl, I hope never to wittingly or unwittingly impart that same message. Yet some days, it’s a struggle. My daughter now has longish hair, hair that frankly gets untidy if not brushed. Am I sending her the wrong message every time I brush her hair before she goes to school?

As much as we like to believe that we’ve washed away the blatant sexism that has existed to subjugate or otherwise limit opportunities for women in our society, the expectations we place on women to maintain physical beauty place them at a tremendous disadvantage. Just think of how much time Fonda put in over the years maintaining the comeliness of her butt. Now think of all that she might have accomplished with that time had she devoted it to some other cause.

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton still fiercely contested for the Democratic nomination, Michael Kinsley wrote a Washington Post thought piece about how much time candidates spent each morning readying their physical appearances. Whereas a man can quickly shower, brush his hair, and toss on a suit, greater care is expected from women. Attention must be given to the color co-ordination of their wardrobe. They must apply make-up and style their hair. Sadly, appearances matter as much as policy stances. Should a hastily made-up female politician greet an audience or television interviewer, votes would likely be lost.

These extra preparations, Kinsley conservatively estimated, cost Hillary Clinton twenty minutes more each morning than Barack Obama.

“In most occupations this 20 minutes doesn’t make much difference — especially compared with the disproportionate time that women still spend housekeeping and child-rearing. It will make no difference after the election; no one will care if the president is well-coiffed when answering that 3 a.m. phone call. But in a close-fought election campaign, every minute counts. If you figure 20 minutes a day over a year and a half of 14-hour days and six-day weeks, it comes out to an extra two weeks of campaigning or sleep for a male candidate.”

Just as no one really cares what a president may look like at 3 a.m., I doubt anyone really cares about the state of an actress’s derriere. When a friend emails us at three a.m. with her emotional woes, we don’t really care if she’s lost a lot of weight lately. We don’t ask about the wrinkles that might be crowing her eyes, or the brand of lipstick she might be swishing over her lips. What we want is her emotional well-being, which seems to be the first thing we lose sight of when our thoughts turn to beauty.

It’s three in the afternoon on Saturday. I’m on my second or third double espresso of the day, not because I need it, but because I love it. I got home this morning at six, after a night spent out and about town, went to bed and rose like black magic at noon to get going. Yesterday marked the end of a 60-hour week at a job I adore and now, I’m writing this piece. My energy levels are through the roof, but I promise you I’m not manic. This is the life and I’m still living it, even though I’m not 22 anymore. Far from it. Though I’m not quite Disco Sally, either.

I live hard. I work hard. I play hard. And I just can’t stop. Late nights, strong cocktails, out until dawn… you know how it goes.  The kind of life you told yourself had to end once you hit your mid-twenties, only I’ve never stopped. I fear if I stop, I’ll hit the wall, and when you’re going 100 MPH, you know the ending result will not be pretty.



That’s me in all my green skin glory, about a month ago. It was taken around midnight in a bar with a camera phone, that is, no bells nor whistles, no filters nor airbrushing involved. It’s definitely not the best picture of me, but I think it captures how I look on any given night (rather than, say, my TNB photo which was professionally shot for a magazine). I still get carded and challenged that my driver’s license is actually my own, granted the lighting in most bars is pretty forgiving. Don’t for a second think that I actually believe I look under 21, but I could easily lie about my age by 10 years. My mom does. Lies about my age, that is. But, I think lying is silly. On the other hand, avoiding the full reveal = awesome! It seems that when most women hit their thirties, especially if we look good, we start to conveniently not mention our age. We do have this mystique to maintain, right? Just call me ageless.

I went to a new doctor recently and when she came in the room after the nurse took my stats, she demanded, “OK, what’s your secret?!”

Secret? I started to freak out thinking she somehow knew I had lied about how many drinks I actually consume in a week on the new patient form.

“We were all just marveling over your age!” she continued. “And we don’t believe it.” Relieved, though a bit shaken, I shrugged and said what has become my throwaway answer: “good genes.” But I come from a family that is prone to just as many maladies as any other.

Look, I’m not here to rub anything in your face (except for a good face serum, maybe). There’s nothing to envy. After all, the past ten years haven’t been easy by any stretch and sometimes I’m shocked and extremely grateful that a pre-plastic surgery Joan Rivers isn’t staring back at me when I look into a mirror. Let’s see, there was the excruciating task of opening and running a business that eventually went south and made me financially and emotionally drained, not to mention the end of relationships, falling in and out of love a couple times. You know… grown-up stuff. Who really has it “easy” anyway?

Consider for a moment what I do “right” and I promise not to lecture. It’s not all that impressive: I avoid the sun (easy for night lovers), get plenty of sleep (I don’t get less than 7 hours a night, on average), eat well (vegetarian, non-processed foods, though that’s undoubtedly its own separate subject), exercise like there’s no tomorrow– while forcing myself to enjoy it (I do, really, I do. Perhaps I’m even a bit addicted. Hey, better than crystal meth right?) and I take care of myself, especially my skin, which I don’t take for granted for a second. It may be kinda green, but it’s smooth and other than a few fine lines, wrinkle-free.

Surely, you’ve heard all that before, so what else? What’s my secret? It could be that I treat myself well, because I feel I deserve it. I love to spend money on clothing, shoes, quality beauty products and services. I also love to spend money on good food, books, travel and entertainment. All of this keeps me stimulated, inspired and healthy. Could it also be that I refuse to “settle down”? More like I refuse to settle. Once you settle, then you become complacent and then you might as well die as far as I’m concerned. Call it extreme, but this philosophy works for me.

Let’s get back to the topic of work, though. It’s what keeps me in Fluevogs and good bedding (a sound sleep is crucial to a divine daily existence, so go ahead and splurge on those 700-thread count sheets and luxury mattress), not to mention, earning a paycheck allows me to be able to afford those things I can’t live without. But it’s more than that. I was raised with a really strong work ethic, which sucked at 16 when I wanted to fuck off and just go to the beach on weekends, but now I appreciate that ethic. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a workaholic, if you allow for the other aforementioned good stuff. I don’t sacrifice my own happiness for work and won’t do so ever again after owning my own business and having to make constant compromises with a partner who did not share the same outlook as me. Ever since that ended, I have followed my own rules, worked many jobs, often two or three at a time, and other than a brief hiatus in employment due to a life-changing move to the Midwest, I now have the career of my dreams. I think that once you get there, you should want to devote yourself to overachievement.

I have this thing called a writing habit, too. My recently completed novel may be on the back burner, but it’s warming up quite nicely. Slow cooking means the most enjoyable eating, I’ve found. And I have some hobbies, too.

But the secret, what’s the secret to looking and feeling young? I think it’s the grand sum of these things. For example, without the exercise, I have to wonder if I could sleep as well as I do. Without eating healthily, would the drink make me a lazy lush? Without sleeping a full night, would I still have endless energy and not get sick? If I didn’t sleep, eat well and drink a few quarts of water a day would my skin look this good? Who knows? It’s a life in progress. I do take breaks from the hard living. There may be a week or two of staying in at night, too. Too much of anything can get boring. I guess I just fell into good habits somewhere along the way, to counterbalance the not so good ones. Listen, not trying these days isn’t an option anymore.

The first paragraph of this piece could have easily started differently. I could have listed all that I do “right,” and I do plenty right but wouldn’t you rather have the fact that I do plenty wrong as a frame of reference? I am not perfect. I drink. A lot. I love caffeine. I love late nights and “sleeping in.”  A lot of this I can attribute to two decades of practice. I started going out when I was underage and living in Greenwich Village. I cut my teeth on New York nightlife as soon as I could.

I do it all, all that I want to do, and I’ll stop when I’m dead. But I will try my best to look and feel fabulous all along the way.  Who knows, some day I may even achieve Zelda Kaplan status.

The living hard part? It’s not crucial, nor is it advisable for everyone, but why not gradually make a go of it? You may find yourself feeling better, having more energy and you may just want to pull an all-nighter or two.


 

I got naked while writing this essay. It was not sexy. Or it might have been, in a desperate, drunk kindof way. From waist to hips, from bust to thighs, I poured myself an obscene serving of sake and went to town with a measuring tape.

Explosion

Watched my old quarry friends blow up a section of hillside today. With extreme reluctance I agreed not to film it, for corporate reasons. But, man, C-4 is breathtaking, a plastic explosive not quite as powerful as PE4 but half again up on TNT. A detonation velocity of 25,000 feet per second +. That’s pushing 18,000 mph.

I concede this kind of stuff is extremely dangerous and needs the tight controls it has. But it is a godful thing to behold in action. And contrary to what you might think, the satisfaction of watching it work lingers. It’s like a raw pink Argyle diamond placed in your hand. For one moment you hold what might be a million dollars a carat in Antwerp–and your hand knows. It remembers when that rough gem is taken away. It’s not the same hand ever again.

The same with a proper blast. Your mind holds it–even as pieces of bluestone are flying.

The care in setting a good explosion…

It’s an art. And it makes me think of my own arts differently.

If you’re not blowing something up, you’re not really making anything. That’s the new credo. I’m going to be sorry to miss these guys. One’s going off to Western Australia to blow up things for real money for the mining industry out there. The other is joining the world’s biggest building demolition team in America. They’ve studied for their credentials and expertise–good for them. Everyone has to explode forward or implode inward.

Gone are the days. But we went out with a boom.

To anyone in the arts, I say if it can’t also hurt you, it might not really be art. Think dynamite and pink diamonds.

Written in 2004

THE LADY NEXT DOOR was a thin figure slightly gaunt in stature and form from the years to which her body had accumulated. Her height was nothing profound through the eyes of a small child—the pinnacle to her highest point no greater than 5’4” tall. This comparison may be slightly off for many years have passed since young eyes stared upward to gaze upon the lady next door. Thus, the only contrast to which my childish eyes can relate lay in my great grandfather, Charlie Marion, a man of Native American descent who stood at 6’7” with legs that stretched for miles and miles as if trying to touch eternity with the tip of his boot.

Mrs. Hartness, for that was her name, was a tiny thing indeed. Soaking wet, her weight may have faintly surpassed one-hundred pounds. A curve in the upper portion of her back was exposed through garments, which rested, swathing her delicate build. Her skin was stretched loose and markings of age covered her entire body from head to toe—from her neck all the way down to her swollen pale ankles.

The hair atop her head was thin and fine, the color of faded strawberries and silver and snowflakes like the cap on the peak of the Alps of Cisalpine with small hints of white flowing in between. From her larynx came a soft voice that shook with each word she spoke. Though, I must say, it would only be accurate in this account to mention that within her soft voice was contained a slight scratchiness and congestion. At any given moment, a cough would erupt and it would seem to those around that her lungs had surely failed her.

When this happened, she would stand up, her body as erect as gravity and arthritis would allow, and grasping for the closest solid object to balance herself, a wall or a doorframe, she expelled from within what the cilia had failed to catch.

Reaching upward to cover her mouth, the veins in Mrs. Hartness’s emaciated hands were quite noticeable and plump. Her fingers were thin and long; and much to the mimicry of her voice, her fingers shook with her every movement as if the last leaf in autumn blowing in the wind—quavering yet resilient.

Everyone she knew and loved from infancy to her adult years had by now passed away into the verve of the afterlife except her own flesh and blood: the precious children she weaned many years ago.

Yet, there was one without a drop of kinship that loved her just the same—not as if she were his grandmother or even a relative—but as his best friend.

The young boy was her neighbor. His stature was less than a foot in height shorter compared to his elderly friend with long, skinny arms that seemed out of proportion with the rest of his body. As the years passed, his body would grow into these long extremities, taking away from the disproportionate specter to which he had known for such a protracted period in his childhood. He had deep blue eyes reaching Caribbean depths, dirty blonde hair, and skin the color of fresh homemade biscuits straight out of the oven, painted as if with a blend of russet and taupe acrylics from an Impressionist’s palette.

Everyday, the young boy would scurry across the green grass, past the pale leaf Yucca plant one house over, to his elderly friend’s door. Her face so gentle and kind was the only face other than his immediate family and friends that he remembers distinctly from that age—a mere four years old.

Sometimes, more often times than not, the lady next door could be seen crouched over, the bumps of her vertebrae poking through her shirt, raking leaves that had fallen from the oak tree that adjoined her and her young friend’s residences. Other times, she was to be found hanging wet laundry from the turning wire clothesline that sat beside a leaning cement birdbath in her backyard. When the wind blew its breath against the clothesline, a slow but acute noise would follow.

“Nails on the chalkboard,” the lady next door would whisper under her breath. “Just like nails on a chalkboard,” the loose skin on her neck and underneath her chin all the while jiggling to and fro.

Her young neighbor referred to this loose skin as turkey neck.

“Mama, why does Mrs. Hartnence have a turkey neck?”

“Because she’s not a spring chicken anymore,” his mother would say. “Hartness,” she added.

“What?”

“It’s Hartness.”

“Hart-nence.”

“Hartness, but don’t worry. You’ll get it one day.”

But the young boy loved her turkey neck. He used to pull and stretch the skin as if trying to wrap it around his fingers as he sat on her lap while she rocked back and forth in the wooden chair on the front porch.

Mrs. Hartness let him do this never blinking an eye for a second.

It gave her sagging skin a certain kind of beauty she knew not before; well, that is to say until her young neighbor began visiting regularly; and visit he did.

If ever the boy wanted to find her after school as he stepped off the bus, there she would be, sitting on her front porch, one leg crossed over the other, smoking filter-less Lucky Strike cigarettes, rocking backwards and forwards in her faintly stained wooden chair. On rare occasions, too, it must be added, when the weather forbade her from escaping outside, she was to be found inside her home alone at the kitchen table with an ashtray, a Dr. Pepper, and the day’s newspaper.

Choking smoke danced from the end of her resting cigarette. Ashes un-ashed grew in length by the trice, but the lady next door was not bothered in the least. This was a pattern to which she belonged—the smell of smoke both a friend and foe; and so it was, she would lick the tip of her finger, sip a long sip of Dr. Pepper, and turn to the next page of the local weekly, The Charlotte Gazette.

The chill of the wind.

The downpour of rain.

Whatever condition the Heavens sent down would have to be waited out.

Mrs. Hartness’s young neighbor had much more mobility. He was a rambunctious little fellow. He could never quite keep still no matter what his mind found favor in doing. Because of this surfeit in energy and vigor, his mother allowed him to meet his older cousin, Robbie, early each morning at the basketball court before school. The parents of both families agreed: Exercise was not only necessary for these two but also indispensable if the sanity in their respective homes would continue. Not only that, but it would keep the two out of trouble once the playground was replaced with the school room, their weapons no longer walnuts and sticks, but #2 pencils and writing pads.

The young boy and his cousin were good kids: polite, well-mannered, and reverential to their elders, but a half-pint of chocolate milk at lunch and a chocolate-banana fudge bomb to follow and the very axis to which the universe rested would be tilted, disrupted of its very mellifluous harmony at the local elementary school. The basketball court would at least rid them of this surplus in energy. It was to them itself a sanctuary for the neighborhood kids and was only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the young boy’s front doorstep.

Through this front door and just to his right lay the house of Mrs. Hartness, its gray and black speckled shingles holding on for dear life. As a souvenir of his adoration, the young boy used to bring her a handful of rocks as a gift: the prettiest, most beautiful rocks he could find to give to the little old lady as a gesture of his love and appreciation—for she was his best friend, he knew no other.

Two or three times each week he did this—never missing a step, never faltering the beat. What is more to say is that he never, oh never on his life would he, settle in giving her the dull, colorless rocks of gray and charcoal; no, only the best for the lady next door, only the prettiest and most beautiful in her eyes and his.

They were just ordinary rocks in a driveway to most people; but to the young neighbor they were much more than that. They were a precious token to the little old lady he cared for so deeply, so true and innocently.

To characterize the rocks distinguishing them from the rest in the driveway were the heavenly brushstrokes of color, epidote, and other mineral deposits. Some were speckled with green, others with pink and some the color of sunshine, and even more a light blue like the Heavens above that the lady next door stared at during the day as the young boy sat in Kindergarten class daydreaming.

Day after day, the young boy waited patiently yet with eager volition to get off that big, yellow school bus to go see his friend; and so, as his routine schedule was sentient of, one day after the bus let off, he knelt down in his driveway as he did everyday. Juggling the gravel in his hand, he fished out the most beautiful rocks that he could find from all the rest. Though he only gave her rocks two or three times a week, he would nevertheless collect them each day. In his room at night, he would pour them out like marbles onto his bed; and then again, the young boy would separate the most beautiful from the strictly beautiful.

His mother used to tell him not to dump the rocks out onto his bed sheets because it would cause a given spot on the cotton linen to turn all the beautiful colors of his gifts to the lady next door, but he paid no mind. Thus, when the lights went out and his mother had left his bedside, he would reach under his bed where the rocks lay hidden in a shoebox and repeat his partitioning of gifts. Subsequently, he would wipe away the residue from the consolidated minerals and close his eyes for the night. The dust of the rocks would itch him as he slept like cracker crumb morsels eaten in bed, imprinted in the skin of his back.

This day, as a repetition of previous days, the young boy stepped off Bus 38 and ran from the driveway in front of his home hurrying to his neighbor’s doorstep with his oversized book-bag nearly ripping at the seams. He pushed his tiny, little finger hard against the doorbell because it always took some extra effort for someone his size to make that old thing sound; but it is what he had to do to let Mrs. Hartness know that he was waiting for her; and so, he pushed and pushed in anticipation of seeing her face.

RIIIIIiiiiing! RIIIIIiiiiing!

The noise it made was always so drawn out. It was not a pleasant ring but the doorbell always made that particular clamor. It was a sharp-pitched tone like an antique wind-up clock one can still find at a Pawn Shop or Flea Market if searched for long and hard enough. Nevertheless, the young boy loved the sound that doorbell made. Its significance meant that soon after it was sounded the person he cared so profoundly for with all his heart would soon be on her way to open up the creaking and hinged screen door to ask him how his day went at school.

“I hope you are getting good grades and paying attention,” she would say as the door opened slowly. Then with his two little hands covered as if he were hiding a baby bird that had fallen from an oak tree, the young boy would open them, palms up together in unison, exposing his gift as his face lit up with joy; and there they were: the most beautiful rocks you would ever see.

“Aw, are those for me,” Mrs. Hartness would ask in question, knowing the answer already as she leaned out her fragile, shaking hands.

“They are beautiful,” she continued, giving a wrinkled smile his way and tapping her hand on her lap, and the young boy would hop up and give her a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you so much.”

Mrs. Hartness, with her young neighbor now firmly planted in her lap, would begin rocking back and forth in her chair. He grabbed four fingers of loose skin from her turkey neck and folded the layers over his finger as if a blanket. Not long after, he was sound asleep.

He pushed on the doorbell again and then waited a moment on the concrete slab at the entrance to her home. He jumped one step down and then back up. No one answered.

She might be sleeping, he thought. But she always answered the door. Sometimes she was slow to answer but she nevertheless came within a minute’s time. It had never taken this long all the other times he had come to visit, so he stretched his arm out once more elevating himself on his tippy toes and pressed the white, rectangle doorbell with a faint orange light inside yet again.

RIIIIIiiiiing!

He waited. No one answered.

RIIIIIiiiiing! RIIIIIiiiiing! RIIIIIiiiiing!

Still, she did not come to the door.

The young boy dropped his outstretched arm, cupped his lone, full hand together, and ran across the yard back toward his own home, his book bag smacking back and forth and all. As soon as he opened the door to his house, he asked his mom for a Zip-loc bag to place his rocks in for safe keeping. That way when his friend woke up, he could still give her his present and his beautiful pink and green and yellow and blue speckled rocks would not go to waste. With the Zip-loc bag in hand, the young boy hustled upstairs, jumping one step, then two steps at a time, and threw off his book bag onto the floor and ran directly back outside, grabbing his bike before heading over to the basketball court to wait for his friends, Robbie and Jeremiah.

Later that evening around 5:30 PM when his friends had to leave to get ready for dinner, the boy decided to go back over to his neighbor’s house.

RIIIIIiiiiing!

No answer.

RIIIIIiiiiing.

Still nothing.

She must still be asleep, he figured. It has only been two hours since I got home from school anyway.

The next afternoon upon his arrival back home from Kindergarten, the small boy noticed more cars than usual filling up the driveway next to his: the driveway of the lady next door. The Zip-loc bag full of rocks from the past day was in the small pocket at the front of his book bag with his pencils and crayons just waiting to be delivered. He even took them to school so that once he stepped off Bus 38 he would not have to run back in his house to fetch them.

He slowly edged off the bus this time in a non-haste like pace, unzipping the front pocket of his book bag, and pulling out the plastic bag. His eyes focused on the extra cars he saw in Mrs. Hartness’s driveway and then back toward the entrance to her home.

The wooden door was wide open and the screen door, too, where the top bolt had been locked as to keep it open so that someone could enter, leave, and then re-enter again.

He started to make his way from the road that passed from in front of both of their homes into her front yard, brushing up against the two bushes that had not more than three inches between them that were always connected by a thick spider web that forever had a few drops of moisture waning on top of it; but he went in between the bushes each and everyday regardless even though he was terrified to death of spiders.

The young neighbor made it about halfway through Mrs. Hartness’s yard when the door to the house to his right, his home, where he lived, opened. As he heard the turn of the door handle at his home, he turned his head. His mother appeared. He stopped, was at a standstill, and looked in his mother’s direction. Her mouth shifted downward and her eyes, cat green in color, had a very precise look to them, never blinking, not even for a second.

“Son, come here for a second,” she said with a maternal presence.

At that very moment a figure appeared from the inside of his neighbor’s home while he stood like a fixed statue in the yard, like the cement birdbath out back. The young boy turned back into the direction of Mrs. Hartness’s home, and holding his bag of beautiful rocks in his hand, he noticed how the dust from the gravel had settled on the sides along the bag.

“Hey,” he said kindly to the stranger who looked to be about in his fifties with light gray hair wearing a green sweater and dress slacks.

“Well hi there, young man,” the stranger responded quickly as he continued to walk toward what appeared to be his car in Mrs. Hartness’s driveway.

“Son, come here for a minute,” the boy’s mother said again.

“But I’ve gotta—” he started to reply before his mother interrupted.

“Please come here, Jeff. I need to talk to you.”

Ugh, he thought as he began to trample back toward his yard, his hand running along the two bushes. His little head went under his mother’s arm as she held the door open as he entered, still grasping his beautiful bag of rocks firmly in his hand.

Immediately the door to his home reopened and he appeared grabbing his bike from in front of his house. He pedaled as fast as he could and headed by the basketball court and straight toward the woods and creek that lay down the street from his home. He sniffled and his breathing was heavy now. He wiped his hand across his face as the wind tried in futility to dry the tears that poured from his eyes. His legs kept swiftly pedaling the entire time. Robbie and Jeremiah saw him at a distance and called his name. He heard nothing but the sound of his own whimper and running of his nose.

A few hours later the young boy returned home. His mother awaited him at the door. He laid down his bike and sat on the front steps to his house. His head was buried between his knees and his forehead rested heavily on his arms. You could still hear the young boy sniffling and his breath was hesitant as if he was gasping for air. His right foot moved from side to side as if he were stamping out a lit cigarette. The strange man he had met earlier with gray hair and a green sweater came from his right. The young boy looked up, his eyes painted red, his high cheekbones and face laced with dried tears, salted.

“Would you all like to come into my mother’s home for a few minutes?” the stranger asked.

“Yes we would like that,” the young boy’s mother answered as she motioned to her son for him to get up, but he did not want to.

“Come on, son. This nice man is inviting us into Mrs. Hartness’s house. Let’s not be rude.”

The young boy still did not want to get up but he did eventually just because his mom had asked him.

They made their way through the adjoining lawn and walked casually in the already open door. The little boy’s head was still down. He looked at his feet as he followed behind his mother. There was no reason to ring the doorbell anymore.

The three of them—Mrs. Hartness’s son, the young boy, and his mother—passed through the hallway, its wooden planks much the same as in his own home and into the kitchen where the man asked them to sit down and have a glass of tea. The young boy could smell the aroma of his familiar friend trickling in and out of his nose. A pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes sat beside a more than full ashtray next to the nightstand in Mrs. Hartness’s bedroom as they walked past. Yesterday’s paper was on the tabletop opened as was a Dr. Pepper can beside it.

As the man poured tea into tall glasses, the young boy reached inside the inner pocket of his coat, wondering exactly what that was rubbing up against the left side of his chest. What is that, he thought. As he moved his hand into the already open pocket of his coat, he wiped a tear from his cheek and then noticed something in the corner of his eye. His mother tapped him on the shoulder. The stranger, Mrs. Hartness’s son looked too.

The young boy’s mother pointed upward to the open top shelf that ran horizontally atop the kitchen sink and stove; and in his pocket, the boy pulled out the little plastic bag filled with rocks that had been pressing hard up against his chest. And on the shelf, one by one, hundreds and hundreds of pink and green rocks, and some the color of sunshine and light blue like the Heavens above sat in rows: the most beautiful rocks you would ever see, all lying silently in glass pickle jars, dozens of them.

The boy’s mother lifted him up eye level to the shelf. He stretched out his arm that shook with every movement and gently placed the bag of rocks beside the others that had already found their way into old Ball pickle jars on the shelf top. The stranger, still holding his glass of tea in one hand, stood up beside the young boy and then placed the glass of tea down, letting it rest on the countertop beside the sink. He turned one of the lids counter-clockwise, opening up a jar that was not quite full yet.

“I think those belong in here,” he said to the young boy.

They were just ordinary rocks found in a driveway to most people but not to the lady next door. They were the most beautiful rocks you would ever see and she kept every one.

Hardened bread crumbs burst into fine white powder, sprinkling to the ground. Seeds crack under the weight of jaws clinching, and in an imperfect circle the birds gather round the old man and strut mechanically, their fat necks jerking. They welcome him as if he is one of their own, and he in turn accepts their embrace, and feeds them grain as everyday, assuredly white proso millet and milo for the dark-eyed junco.

The sky is layered pink then orange then blue with clouds of white cotton and gray mastheads splotched throughout. A slight chill fills the air like a cold hand on the back of one’s neck unexpectedly but is otherwise refreshing and silky as it passes from the nostrils to the lungs and presses against the gut.

Crouched, the old black man talks to the birds in low whispers as if they are his children. The birds of variegated species listen attentively, cocking their heads momentarily at his voice and scoop with their stout beaks into the ground seeds threaded underneath blades of grass still wet with dew and they mash the seeds near into dust, and the wet, green blades turn white with chalk.

Laggardly, the old black man rises from his crouched position in Washington Park and stands as erect as the arthritis buried deep in his joints will allow. Muscle, bone, and tendon like toothed pinions within a three wheel skeleton clock turn slowly but surely, never faltering though their movement so supine you are certain will one day just stop, the hand of the clock ceasing, time standing still. The body no more.

He stands upright and looks over his shoulder in my direction. Even from afar, I see the crow’s feet carved into his skin on the sides of each eye, brown and deep. His eyelid hangs droopily, weighted down by age and gravity, the skin loose. His eyebrows scrunch almost touching, three wrinkles to each side of the center of his brow, as he tries to make out the other figure in the park.

I had, for about a week now, been coming to the park each day around 4:00 PM to sit and watch the old man. I watched the way the birds greeted him each day, welcoming him as if he were one of their own, birds of one feather.

The old black man spots me. His arm shoots into the air, waving. I wave back. And he turns around and again reaches into his pocket scooping seed out for the birds and they flutter around his body, wings spread then tight against their bodies.

The moment he realised he was a hero was the exact moment when he knew he would never be a hero again. It was at that instant he knew that what was necessary was almost certainly that which was furthest outside the boundaries of possibility.

As a young man, Stephen had travelled the world, rapidly, and with abandon—fearlessly, some said. Idealist. Schtick. He was big on other people’s dreams. And fulfilling them: To expose them as nothing more then received aspirations – the third-hand smoke of a disinterested Empire: To spite them.

He’d followed the trail, strung farther and farther out across the third world like a garland of adolescent spittle gobs, hiding behind a Lonely Planet – glossy shield against the appetite of some diabolical gorgon.

A pair of low green hills were shaped like a pair of breasts in the Transylvanian mountains when he was 18. He remembered wondering to himself at the time what exactly the point of travelling could possibly be:

If you could go there, why the hell would you want to go anywhere else?

If truth be told, that ambition had never really left him.

Proust reckoned, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Pico Ayer has it that, “one really travels in one’s head”. Colonial Belgian explorer of Central Africa, Jérôme Becker identified the cause of his departure as, “nostalgia for the unknown.” Rimbaud was all about, “traffiking in the unknown”, in his aimless wanderings around same.

In a warped psalm ninety-one to the hard-on of Moses; in the mistaken belief someone wanted to share his sleeping bag for the red-granite sunrise, Stephen sprinted 2000 metres up Mount Sinai with the gold meridian of the sun at his heels.

He crucified himself on a swift and frantic Siamese emigration, like a trans-hemispheric Saint Valentine’s Day martyrer – marking the anniversary of a purple and orange Balinese high with cold memories of a hot rainstorm. He wound himself round the thread of a ballet-dancing Ariadne, tearing himself out of her eyes—Theseus abandoning himself on the beach instead of her. He eclipsed his existence for a glimpse into the diamond life of a Japanese actress with lips like the plumula of an orchid.

He wandered the art galleries, museums and religious monuments of the world, flattening the ostensibly wild, varied and fascinating continuum of his existence into a psychedelic gestalt of unending indulgent stimuli:

If there was ever an aesthete, it was Stephen Darlington.

Nursing Spanish hangovers, he lusted after the Reina Sofia with Picasso’s bent eyes. He saw the womb in Anish Kapoor. He paid for Ubud primitives over the mystery of the feminine. He broke his mind on Vietnam—hallucinating that he wasn’t even there, man. By New York, he couldn’t even look at the walls: Every minute he spent not desperately trying to inveigle himself into the lives of the genetically-stellar made him feel like he had wasted his entire life.

In flight, he escaped on the wings of opened books — delving into the recesses of esoteric knowledge; mining compensatory sapphires.

It didn’t matter that everyone else’s dreams were not his own, he followed them anyway. The long, slow pixel degradation of his unarticulated ambitions exposed the dark fissures in his life, like the black papyrus absences threatening to eclipse the hieratic on the Egyptian Book of Dreams:

British Museum recto 10683

“The dreamy blue of Italian skies, the dappled shade of summer woods, and the sparkle of waves in the sun, can have accorded but ill with that stern and sinister figure.”

-James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1890 – 1935

Freud believed that neuroticism is the inability to tolerate ambiguity; that contagious magic is a delusion of the neurotic – that things once in contact with each other do not continue to act on one another after physical contact has been severed.

Keats wrote that poetry is the ability to hold equal and opposite ideas in the mind at the same time—that an equal propensity for the greatest ecstasy and the greatest despair at one and the same moment is eminently necessary.

No wonder those men had a go at the face of the sphinx: The inscrutability of the silent and unknowable ancient enigma is impenetrable and absolute. But Oedipus beat the riddle with his head, didn’t he? He didn’t rely on torso alone.

“The mind is what one must consider, the mind. What is the use of physical beauty, when one does not have beauty in the mind?”

-Euripides, Oedipus, fr. 548

A few weeks ago I was watching Planet of the Apes, the original version, circa 1968, for the first time in many years. It’s a movie you can only enjoy fully one time because of the famous concluding scene, the Big Surprise. I was streaming it on Netflix and only half-watching, at least until the point where our confused astronauts encounter a tribe of wild humans. One of those humans turns out to be a woman who eventually becomes Nova. Like all the wild humans, Nova can’t speak, and mainly she’s there to look pretty.

I got my hair cut and then my grandfather died. 

I knew one had nothing to do with the other, but for some reason, for months after, I was unable to cut my hair.  I wore my hair mostly in a ponytail or crumpled atop my head, but there was no hiding the split ends, its drab dullness.  Sometimes I just let it fall where it may, flapping and resting wildly on my shoulders. 

My grandfather would never have let his hair get into such a state.  He was a classy guy.  Always impeccably groomed.  He could pair stripes and plaid and pull it off with grand ease.  Sometimes he wore funny ties, ladies lounging in martini glasses and that kind of thing, but it was never cheesy – just pure sass.  Even in the hospital when he had been ill a couple of years ago, hooked up to machines, stripped of his beautiful clothes, his only wardrobe a hospital gown and sheet, I couldn’t help but notice that his nails were perfectly manicured, freshly buffed.  He was sleek and elegant, unique but classy.  He had been in retail, head of Gimbels, back in the day when Gimbels meant something.  So he knew about appearance. 

I have never been that way.  Askew is a word my friends would use to describe my style.  Cute, funky, but never completely without a wrinkle or a rip.  I do what I can to not be a walking disaster.  My hair is usually something that while not blown, curled, teased, set or held together by product, is usually trimmed and neat.  That much I have been able to do.  But since that Sunday, many months before, the color was fading, the gray was showing and my hair bands were snapping at all the extra use.

Before that last haircut, my hair was finally getting longer, growing out after I had chopped it one day.  But it was just kind of falling there.  My baby fine hair didn’t swing and flow as I wished it would.  So I called up my stylist, Moses, to see if he could fit me in.  It would be layers.  All over.  They would add depth, movement.  Drama.  I loved it.  And so did the people I saw that night.  “Best haircut you’ve ever had,” I recall someone saying.

Then my Aunt called.  My grandfather was in the hospital.  Something had happened the night before.  I was assured I didn’t need to rush home.  I live in Los Angeles.  He was in New Jersey.  I asked my Aunt to tell him that I loved him.

I get the sequence wrong, but he fell into a coma, I was looking into flights and then the phone rang.  I didn’t answer it.  I made my husband get it.  I knew.  A moment earlier I had felt it pass through me.  Jay handed me the phone and I heard my Aunt say, “This is the phone call.”  I had dreaded this moment, but had been anticipating it.  He was in his nineties.  He’d been in the hospital before.  But he had always pulled through.  I didn’t really believe the call would ever come.

I fell deep into the couch, heaving and suffering, digging into its yellow color as if bad news did not exist within its cushions. 

We went to New Jersey, to the funeral.  I shook as we approached the cemetery, then stood frozen.  Two graves I could handle, but this now made it three.  I made it into the building with my family, his friends.  I actually felt pretty in my black wrap dress and new haircut as I greeted my family.  The prettiness provided me with a strength. 

There is something about funerals.  Something about the ritual and the routine.  There is a reason we travel 3,000 miles to hug our family and eat food together.  There is a reason.

Later, in the confines of my bedroom in my mother’s house, I turned to my husband as we prepared for bed.  “Let’s make a baby,” I whispered to him.  It felt mostly like a plea.  “Let’s make a baby,” I said again.  “And name it Bernie, boy or girl, okay?”

He took me in his arms and took me to bed and agreed, never divulging the truth that we both knew, that I was on the pill and baby making would not be easy.  But I needed to believe that in that instant I could create life on a wish and a demand.

I returned home and went about my routine.  I was in a fog but no one would know unless they asked.  I hid it well.  And fairly soon after my return, they stopped asking. 

There is a certain amount of grieving to be done for grandparents.  They were old.  It was expected.  Glad to have known him so long.  It wasn’t a parent.  I repeated these beliefs over and over until I myself started to spout their truths.  And then eventually I just stopped talking about it.  But in my car alone, I cried.  The streets would just pass by me as I drove, bright lights and other people going about their days.  And then I would arrive at others’ doors and I was fine.  See, I thought I knew about grief.  I was a child of death, after my father died when I was four.  I should know how to handle this.  My grandfather’s death had halted me but I felt I could not show it, so it showed in my hair.

My hair.  My wild mane defied how I seemed: together, rigid almost.  But my unkempt disarray actually defined how I felt: distressed, discouraged, stalled.  The mirror spoke a truth only I knew.  I felt I carried a secret everyone around me should know, but one I felt compelled to keep to myself.  Or maybe they all knew.  I did look a mess.  And yet I was unable to do anything about it.  Whenever I called Moses he was never there and I took that as a sign that I should not get my hair cut.  My grandfather’s death had stalled me so that I could not even make an appointment for the future.  If Moses was not there right then, there would be no haircut.

I have never taken hair that seriously.  I was never locked into a look.  I’d cut bangs on a whim, highlight with no worries or chop off my hair when a boy had made me cry.  There was a certain freedom to changing it up.  What’s the harm?  It’ll grow back.  It’s just hair, I reasoned.  Hair bounces back.  It is the only part of your body that you can change without any serious consequences.  It was something I knew completely.  But then at that moment, I knew nothing.

What is it that I fear will happen?  Will someone else die?  I don’t have that much power I remind myself.  If I go for a hair cut my mother’s plane will not crash, my grandmother will not die.  I know that rationally.  But what if I did have that kind of power?  What if this was the time my powers were turned on.  One action causes another action.  Coincidence is actually consequence.  Or what if it were pure coincidence and it happened again? 

But separate from that, hair carries our past.  My grandfather’s in there.  He’s in my DNA.  I had this hair when I knew him.  The hair on my head was created by his side.  And I am not ready to part with it.  It is my tangible access.  At times I just want to shave it all off, be done with it.  But mostly I just want to keep as much of it with me for as long as I can.

I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror.  Staring back at me with my hair falling where it may, I saw a different girl.  My hair had reached a certain length and wave at that moment that I looked earthy.  It struck me.  It was the first time for a while that I could remember thinking I was pretty.  And it had nothing to do with the mop on my head.  Possibly it wasn’t my hair that had been weighing me down, but me.  And maybe just maybe, that part of me was waking up.

I went to see Moses. 

I told him straight away about my hair, my grandfather and my phobia.  He greeted me with a sound in his voice of someone else who had gone through a recent loss.  I knew his grandmother had recently died.  He got it.  He did not judge.  It was perfectly reasonable to think if you cut your hair someone would die.

He wouldn’t cut much off he assured me.  Just clean it up, make me presentable.  Maybe fiddle with the color a little?

“Okay,” I said.  I needed to trust him.  I needed to just follow along.  I needed to know that I could do this.  The Police’s King Of Pain played above.

Then, he asked how he died.  That surprised me.  To tell the story.  Most people hear grandfather.  92.  Dead.  And they don’t need to know how.  It was hard to tell.  “Dehydrated…coma…cardiac arrest.”  I was unsure I even had it right.  But it also felt good.  Real.  I don’t know if I thanked him for asking but I meant to.

He continued to cut my hair, layers around my face. 

The world did not end.                                                       

My cell phone did not blare with bad news. 

He colored it to give the brown some unity and then lightened the top pieces that fell by my eyes.  He said he wouldn’t even charge me for the highlights. 

I made it through this part.  I took a deep breath as he twirled me into the mirror’s view.  My hair rested on the floor.  I rose up in the seat, lighter, as he revealed the streaks of blond racing across my head. 

That’s better.

I thought the story would end when he started cutting.  I wanted to feel all better.  I wanted it all to lift up and be done with.  I wanted to leave it on the floor with the hair being swept away.  As I looked in the mirror, I knew that was not the case.  The grief and the hair were two different things.  But I also knew as I gazed upon myself, with my new lovely hair that brought out my eyes, that I was in there somewhere.

 

supercool1

Here they are in Disney World with matching princess-mouse hats. The sun shines warmly on their painted faces this November afternoon.

Grace, eight years old, loud mouthed, freckled, athletic, proud, and protective, stretches her arms across the railing behind her. Her chin is high, and the blue sky stretches into eternity behind her as she gazes thoughtfully into the distance, but out of the corner of her eye, she checks you out and sizes you up. The star on her forehead marks her as a visionary.

My mother says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. She says that beauty is only skin deep.

My mother says that I’m gorgeous. She says that I’m adorable. That I’m not fat, no, she swears, it’s the truth. My mother says I wish you could see yourself the way I see you.

Right, I say with a smirk. Through love cataracts.

My mother says there will be days like this. There’ll be days like this, my mother says.

* * *

We are one. An undulating mass of freshly shaven legs, glitter eyeshadow, cheap taffeta and hormones.

We are women. We are thirteen.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are playing. Or possibly Sugar Ray. “Bad Touch” or “Mambo No. 5.”

When a slow song comes on, people pair up. Pair off. Mary Nash with Roger, Anna with Alex. No one comes for me, though and “we” becomes “I.” Alone, I stand around for a minute, nervously picking at my dress. But I’m not stupid, not blind. I beat a hasty retreat.

I walk fast, with purpose, to the bathroom. In the mirror I can see that I am not what I thought I was. Under the fancy dress, I’m just me. Ugly.

I lock myself in a bathroom stall and hang my head between my legs waiting for the moment to pass.

I am, in fact, intimate with ladies’ rooms. With powder rooms and lounges, the loo and the john. In fact, sometimes I feel as though my life has been nothing more than a long line of evenings spent hiding in bathroom stalls.

* * *

My face is the shtetl. I am Galicia. I am the Warsaw Ghetto. I am Zabar’s. The new Woody Allen film. I am some tertiary Philip Roth character.

Because my eyes are dark and brown and heavily-lidded, they are often described as soulful. Or mournful. Sorrowful. There’s something of Susan Sontag in them. And there’s a bit of Rosa Luxembourg in my long, hooked nose. Or maybe Emma Lazarus. In my smile, there are echoes of Anne Frank.

I invite comparisons- not to movie stars- but to Holocaust victims and Ellis Island rejects.

Even my body is foreign: fleshy and puckered. Tits and ass and hips. I have unruly brown pubic hair. One part ChiaPet, one part steel wool. I have a faint mustache that I bleach faithfully. My hair gets greasy and my skin is dotted with fading pimples. I am neither svelte nor toned. It’s telling: there’s no English word for zaftig.

I am much too much.

* * *

I am not a pretty girl. I know this, but, at the same time, I’m hoping someone will come along to contradict me.

I’m not a pretty girl and the most I can aspire to is “striking.”

Striking. Or “unusual.”

In college, a friend asked me to be in her student film. “You have such anunusual face,” she said.

But everyone knows, of course, that “unusual” is the polite word for ugly.

* * *

Pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes. But the thing of it is, pretty does well.

Studies show that being attractive comes with plenty of benefits. Pretty people make more money, more friends. They get more sex and better jobs.

And while my mother would have me believe that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, science says otherwise. Beautiful people, they say, have symmetrical faces. Lithe bodies. Wide-set eyes and generous mouths.

Even babies know this.

In 1989, psychologist Judith Langlois found that infants have an innate sense of what is and is not attractive and act accordingly. The babies in her study stared significantly longer at attractive faces than at unattractive ones.

Which is to say that I am- and always have been- doomed.

* * *

Pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes. But women have always known this to be a fallacy. We know that all we’ve got is the curve of our ass. That a pretty face is worth more than a Ph.D. We know that when our looks fade, we will be irrelevant, obsolete.

We know this and so we spend our lives, our money, trying to be beautiful. We tweeze and we pluck and we shave and we wax. We curl our eyelashes and we host Botox parties. We starve ourselves or we corrode the pipes with our vomit. We go under the knife again and again. We buy, buy, buy.

And we never give up the hope, propagated by Hollywood and children’s books, that we will wake up one day and be- quite suddenly- transformed. A swan.

* * *

For women, looks matter. Pretty is pretty damn important.

* * *

I always knew this. And when I was sixteen, I decided that if I wasn’t going to be beautiful, I’d better be thin. If I was thin enough, I reasoned, no one would notice that I was ugly. Models, after all, are allowed to be unusual. To have crooked noses that meander leftward and asymmetrical faces. So I’d be thin.Yes.

Yes.

And for a while, I was. I was very thin. I was 95 pounds and then, for a moment, 88 pounds.

But I was also starving. I was puking in the shower and cutting my stomach with razor blades. And I wasn’t any prettier.

* * *

My friend Lacey recently tagged this awful photo of me on facebook. I detagged it.  Because I’m vain and I’m insecure.

“I look hideous,” I wrote on her wall. “And fat.”

In the picture, I’m in the midst of a story. In full flow, prattling on about something or other. I’m clasping my tote bag. Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body is poking out. Maybe I’m extolling its virtues.

My breasts look enormous and so does my nose. I look heavy and cow-like and the photographer has, unflatteringly, shot me from below. Also, it’s my bad side.

And so I detagged the picture. Of course I did.

But I’m giving the picture a second life here. Because, when it comes down to it, this is what I look like. Living and breathing and reading and yes, eating.This is what I look like. Caught up in the moment. This is what I look like.

It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth.


 

I don’t remember giving consent. Or protesting. Or having a choice, not with adult forces at work. A secret committee decided that I should represent my elementary school at the Little Miss Lafayette pageant. How I got the news, I’m not sure, but my guess is this:

My mother: “Ronlyn, you’re going to be in a beauty pageant. You were picked out of everyone from the whole school. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Me: I likely scowled. I likely pondered the real threat of dress-up clothes. It’s possible I asked, “Why me?”

Why me indeed. There had to be at least 150 girls in my school. Certainly someone else would have been thrilled by such attention, someone to whom strangers commented, “Oh, what a pretty little girl.” I was a cute kid, like the quirky type in cereal commercials. I was not a beautiful child, one born for pageants or hair product ads, tresses wavy and loose, eyes and cheekbones aglow with well-placed catch lights. I was no girly-girl.

Well, it’s official: after 37 years on this planet– 37 years of being chased by homicidal maniacs, trapped in mazes, falling off cliffs, forgetting how to drive stick while the steering wheel comes off in my hands as I navigate particularly treacherous mountain roads, having my teeth fall out when I show up late for school with no pants on only to find my term paper was due the day before, falling into the ocean while clutching my computer which contains the only copy of the book I’m writing, oh and going back to college and finding that somehow I wasn’t assigned a dorm room and have to live on the street oh but I didn’t register anyway and all the classes are full and nobody seems to care about my predicament– um, stop here, sentence too confusing.

I finally had the most fucked-up dream of my life.

If I weren’t listening to Judas Priest right now (Sad Wings of Destiny) I would never have the strength to talk about it. But luckily I am!

So. I had this dream. And in my dream, I was in… Walgreen’s!

Blessing Lost

By Erika Rae

Memoir

She was unapologetically beautiful with ocean damp hair and breasts that pressed two dark spots into her pink camisole.Light freckles on her nose matched her sand crusted toes and she walked the leaf-shadowed path as if she bore the weight of a hidden royal past.