Aging In Place

This week I went to a medical appointment with a dermatologist.

The perky physicians assistant, who maybe was thirty, started to irritate me with her manner of being overly kind, overly solicitous, to the point of being demeaning. I am 59, but this woman made me wonder, “Is this how I will be made to feel when I am 69, or 79?”

Just after getting the cotton gown around me, with the brilliant open-back design guaranteed to make the wearer feel vulnerable and silly at the same time, the doctor came into the examination room. She was a fair redhead with flawless skin. I calculated the minimum time to become a doctor of dermatology, even for a gifted overachiever, and figured she was at least 27. I imagined she was delighted each time she went to a bar or nightclub and was asked to prove her date of birth.

The doctor glanced at the recent phenomena of red blotchy skin on my forearms and the new clusters of lesions on my face, and then, moving aside the cotton gown several times, glanced at each section of my body. While she sat looking into a computer screen and her fingers expertly typed notes at 110 words per minute, she summarized her answers to my rather ignorant and searching questions: No melanoma. The red blotches on forearms and lesions on face indicated my skin and even my blood vessels were becoming thinner, rupturing. In a word, I was aging.

After the doctor had left the room, I removed the clown gown, dressed in my street clothes, and recalled a memory from long ago. I had been driving my car in Manhattan, all the windows down on a warm sunny day. As I pulled up to a stoplight, a convertible car pulled up beside mine, and a woman called, “Sir? Excuse me, sir?” I turned and looked. There were three attractive young women in the car. The one in the back seat asked me for directions. I gave her directions. She said, “Thank you, sir!” The light turned green, they drove forward, I drove forward. And I realized that was the first time I had ever seriously, respectfully, been addressed as “sir”. The three women may have been just past twenty. I was just past 30. I frowned, and the memory embedded itself for periodic exhuming over the coming decades.

What else should I expect? Time passes. Like everyone and everything, I age. Which is to say, I am trapped inside a complex and inexorable process of falling apart, breaking down, rotting away.

When I come across interviews of very old people, usually women, on the occasion of their 99th or 103rd birthday, the interviewers always ask two questions. The first is, “What is your secret for a long life?” The answers are scattered, idiosyncratic; from “only eat two small meals a day”, to “drink red wine and maybe a shot of bourbon now and then”, to “smoke two packs of Lucky Strikes every day”, to “don’t give a dang what anybody else says.”

The other question the long-lived are asked is, “How do you feel inside, now?” They all have the same answer: The same way they have always felt, whether 7, 17, 27, or 77-years-old. I, too, at 59, have the same droning voice inside my head, sometimes encouraging, most times reproving, and I behave with the same timid, yet forward-moving behavior, as when I was 7, 17 or 32-years-old.

The only thing that has changed is that I am less afraid. Less afraid of real or imagined failure. Less afraid of real or imagined humiliation. Less afraid of real or imagined discomfort, suffering, aloneness. I could be wrong, but I believe I am less afraid of death.

Decrepitude, on the other hand, scares the shit out of me.

It is not the new red blotches on my arms or burst oil ducts on my face that bother me. These are but the leading edge of an inescapable force: Entropy. Which is a word to describe being an enclosed thermodynamic system in the complex and inexorable process of falling apart, breaking down, rotting away.

I believe there are only two things I can do each of the 17 times a day I run smack up against the certainty of my looming death. The first is to tell myself I must fully, honestly, and without pleading or whining, accept what I already know is true. I am an infinitesimally small and nervously animated collection of nothing more than stardust.

And that was pretty much what I was telling myself as I came out of the medical building,

I turned to the right, and strode briskly for fifty yards. Then stopped, and said out loud, “Wait. I think I’m parked in the other lot.”

I did an about face and strode briskly for fifty yards, back to where I had started, when I noticed a blurry white patch in the upper peripheral vision of my right eye. I stopped. I took off my eyeglasses. I carefully extracted a bit of toilet paper stuck in the hinge, where it had been since I had cleaned my eyeglasses three hours before.

Which caused me to look into an imaginary mirror, and see myself as the physician assistant and doctor would have seen me. A gray haired, gray mustached gentleman blithely unaware of the bit of toilet paper stuck in the hinge of his eyeglasses.

I laughed aloud.

Which is the second thing I try to do each of the 17 times a day I run smack up against the certainty of my impending death.

And then, because I have acquired experience with the vagaries of aging, I checked my fly.

It was unzipped.

I zipped up, and briskly strode to where I thought I had parked my car.

Protect Our Women and Children

I was driving into the hills outside of Julian, California to go hiking when I felt a different call of Nature. I pulled over and went into a restaurant to use the restroom.

There was no one in the mens room as I went into the roomy ADA compliant wheelchair accessible stall and locked the door.

A moment later I heard someone come in the restroom and start washing their hands.

Then I heard what sounded like a woman’s voice exclaim, “Whoops! Did I come in the wrong one?”

What sounded like a man’s voice answered, “Either you did, or I did.”

If we had been in North Carolina, one of those two people would have just broken the law.

But we were in California. Which is probably why I then heard what appeared to be one man’s voice and one woman’s voice—laughing. Then they both went about the serious business of living their lives.

As did I.

When I was driving away, I thought about the legislators who had enshrined their own fear in the punitive. discriminatory North Carolina HB2 law. And how they had repeatedly declared they did so from an urgent duty to “protect our women and children.”

I am very old and so I can remember a time when the spiritual predecessors of these legislators claimed to protect “our women and children” by passing fear-driven, punitive and discriminatory laws against people who did not have pink skin.

I, too, am strongly in favor of protecting women and children.

Which is why, as I laced up my boots and started hiking into Nature, I wondered. Why don’t these alarmed legislators who declared they had a duty to protect women and children pass laws to enhance family planning and health services for women? And to provide prenatal care, preschool programs, and well-funded public schools for children?

A Walk in the Park

“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”
Margaret Atwood

After spending a long day alone in a small room staring into a glowing computer screen while intensely concentrating on the backend components of an ecommerce website—I had two urges.

Commit suicide. Or get outdoors.

I went for a walk in the park.

The sun was warm and the early evening air was cool. My body relaxed and my mind did what it does best; it wandered.

I walked briskly along one of a network of trails inside a few acres of precious wetlands. The wetlands were encircled by the sprawl of a gated community of 4,000 square foot houses. The wetlands had survived because citizens united in a lawsuit against the same developers who had built the huge homes they lived in. The court had agreed with the citizens’ argument: Preserving the wetlands, and, in addition, forcing the developers to build a network of trails within the chaparral of the wetlands, would improve everyone’s quality of life. In the years since the lawsuit victory, very few residents ever improved the quality of their lives by walking or riding bicycles on the trails. But their property values had increased.

To block the noise of nearby traffic, I had inserted ear buds and was listening to a random shuffling of dozens of popular songs, all of which had been carefully curated for me and downloaded to my phone free of charge by the American-based global corporation, SBUX.

While striding along the dirt trail, my wandering mind allowed me to also be sitting in a living room in Chico, California, reliving a recent visit with a nephew and his wife. I had met the 16-month-old boy they were now fostering and hoping to adopt, after the State of California had determined the boy was “failing to thrive” and had taken him from his drug addicted homeless 20-year-old parents. Sometime after a good meal and three bottles of wine and two hours of rambling conversation, my nephew’s wife had told me that when growing up, she had been raped.

As I walked, my mind continued wandering, but now, like my body, it was following a trail.

That trail led through memories of women I knew casually or had known well and loved deeply, each of them telling me a story of being attacked by men. One woman had been a freshman at a large midwest college and while walking to her dormitory in the early evening she was tackled by a man and dragged into the hedges. She fought him off and ran. A mother had told me that her young daughter had been drugged and raped—three—different—times. A 40-year-old woman had described to me, during a rare moment when she could push apart the decades long veil of alcohol, drugs and denial, how her grandfather had repeatedly raped her, starting when she was three-years-old.

This was not the first time I had thought of these women, and still others I know, and the violence done to them. Their stories would be in my thoughts whenever I read the local news of raped girls and women, the international headlines of rape as a weapon of ideology and war, and the reports from societies where rape is condoned as a centuries-old judgment and punishment. Punishment not of the trespasses of men, but of women. Almost every day I see the headlines, even if I choose not to read the stories, of women raped by soldiers, politicians, coaches, athletes, entertainers, bus drivers and yoga instructors.

Because this planet is powered by coincidence and non sequitur, it was of course at this moment that I came around a sharp corner in the trail and saw in the low grass beside the dirt trail, a pair of women’s elastic running pants. And a sleeveless yellow t-shirt. And a single purple running shoe. The running pants and shirt had been folded neatly and the one shoe placed on top, as if to keep the clothing from blowing away.

I took the plugs out of my ears and listened to the real world around me; a few crows cawing nearby, the whoosh of cars pushing through the air at 45 miles per hour, a television playing in one of the three-level houses behind an eight-foot tall iron fence only a few feet from the trail. I looked around dumbly, as if I might hear or see a woman, naked but for one purple running shoe, fighting off a rapist in the high grass and scrub brush of the wetlands.

But the neatly folded clothes made no sense, and even as I looked and listened to everything around me, my mind again wandered, and I thought how, on another dirt trail in my neighborhood not too far from where I stood, a high school student had gone for an afternoon jog a few years ago. A man had overpowered her, dragged her into the chaparral, beat her and raped her and strangled her.

And I imagined calling 911 on my phone. What would I say? “I’m walking on a trail. There are some women’s clothes neatly folded and stacked alongside the trail.”

I imagined the emergency operator saying, “And?”

I heard myself stupidly answering, “Um. It’s odd. Don’t you think?”

“Is there anyone in trouble? Are you reporting a crime?”

I hung up.

Already, my mind had gone off again, now thinking of all the odd debris I had seen alongside trails and sidewalks. The soda, wine and beer bottles; the condoms and underwear, male and female; the pizza boxes with whole, uneaten pizzas inside; the books and magazines, often pornography, both homo and hetero; unopened packages of cigarettes; cheap or prescription sunglasses; and so many shoes. And, always, just one shoe, never a pair; whether a dress shoe, a high-top sneaker, a flip-flop or sandal, a boot; from battered to brand new.

I resumed my walk, moving just as fast, but feeling heavy now, and frowning. I did not reinsert the ear buds to listen to more three-minute bursts of petulantly narcissistic pop songs.

In another half mile the winding trail led up some stairs made of railroad ties and across a small grassy lawn. In the center of the religiously irrigated and manicured lawn, there were two men. One man held a black leather pad in each hand, with his arms extended and slowly moving. The other man, wearing jeans but shirtless, sweating, his hands inside red boxing gloves, jabbed punches into the moving targets. His eyes were narrowed and his face hardened. He grunted with the effort of each punch and rapid combination of punches.

Because I am a person powered by coincidence and non sequitur, the sight of these two men triggered questions I had somehow never before asked myself: Who are the men that rape? Where are they? Do I know any?

When I got home I went back into the small room I had been so desperate to get out of. I went back to staring into the glowing computer screen.

I typed, “How many American women have been raped?”

For half-an-hour I browsed articles with many estimates, guesses, including a piece in the New York Times on a 2011 survey by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimated, guessed, that 1-in-5, 20 percent, of American women have been raped. *

I read that even two percent of American men have been raped.

Which made me think again of several years before, when I was standing in a graveyard on a hill outside a small town in Massachusetts. My estranged father had insisted on taking me there to show me the plot in which he would one day be buried. I was surprised to see so many graves with our family named carved into the tombstones. The dates of living and dying began in the mid-1800s when our Irish ancestors had fled the famine and come to the New World, and continued through the Civil War and the Spanish Flu, and the eras of World Wars and anti-Communism wars. And in that graveyard my father told that when he was 6-years-old a cousin had raped him.

The idea of rape stuns me. I cannot comprehend, nor can I stop myself from trying to comprehend, the tens of thousands of years of violent human history, a history of so much spontaneous and systemic rape; rape done to humiliate, to conquer, to enslave, and to kill.

If 1-in-5 of American women have been raped, how many American men are rapists?

The answer is unknown. But, as with everything in human behavior, we have experience and information to contemplate.

There are some studies where men were asked questions not using the word rape, but which in fact constitute rape: had they ever used force to have sex with an unwilling person, had they ever had sex with a person too drunk to resist their advances. In one study 6% of men admitted to doing these things. Just don’t call rape, rape.

I went for a walk in the park and followed my wandering thoughts and discovered a new math. Over my long life I now understand that I have been in classrooms, in business meetings, in writers groups, at concerts and baseball games and in churches; I have been friends with, on teams with, in bands with, men who have raped.

Some of them, a lot more than once.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/health/nearly-1-in-5-women-in-us-survey-report-sexual-assault.html?_r=0

 

http://www.upworthy.com/whoa-4-questions-that-got-120-rapists-to-admit-they-were-rapists-5

 

http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-datasheet-a.pdf

 

https://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2009/11/12/meet-the-predators/

 

Mary Koss’ much-discussed 1987 study of rape prevalence is famous mostly for its finding that 1 in 8 college women have been victims of rape at some point in their lives. What’s not as well known is that the same study also surveyed thousands of college men, asking them about if they had ever forced a woman to have sex against her will. About 4.5% reported that they had.

You Are Not Good Enough

Going from an article about ISIS atrocities to a Thich Nhat Hanh quote can give you whiplash, inducing temporary bipolar disorder.

I recently downloaded an application for my phone. It is a feed of articles from news sources and magazines. I did this because I haven’t watched television in many years and thought reading more about popular culture could, at the very least, allow me to understand more of the clues on the next crossword puzzle I attempt. 

thich_nhat_hanh1After downloading the application that would feed my phone articles from the New York Times, The Economist, Google news, Fast Company, Seeking Alpha, Wired, and dozens of other news and information generators, I entered some of my general interests; ecommerce, dividend investing, entrepreneurship, Buddha and baseball.

Each genre of news and information seems to have its own common, underlying, premise. The premise of the international news articles is: The World Is One Fucked Up Place and It’s Getting Worse by the Hour. The premise of the national news articles is: The Nation Is One Fucked Up Place and It’s Getting Worse by the Hour. The premise of the local news articles is: The Town You Live In Is One Fucked Up Place and It’s Getting Worse by the Hour.

On the other end of the spectrum, the premise of the Buddha information generators is best summarized by Thich Nhat Hanh, “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.”

Going from an article about ISIS atrocities to a Thich Nhat Hanh quote can give you whiplash, inducing temporary bipolar disorder.

The common, underlying premise of the business related articles in my new data feed intrigues me.

These articles seem to all be about waking up early, jumping out of bed and doing more, more, more. You need to exercise more, have better habits, eat smarter, know smarter people, work smarter, sell more stuff, dominate others using the latest scientific investigations of alpha posturing, and stand in front of a mirror for seven minutes every day repeating over and over, “I love myself!” 

You have to be better. Really. How can you expect more money, more respect, more sex or better business connections if you keep doing the same things you’ve done in the past? You need to change. You need to execute. Getting up two hours before work to run for 45 minutes on a treadmill is not good enough. You must run on the treadmill while applying the latest scientific research—HIIT—High Intensity Interval Training. If you do not HIIT it, you are failing to maximize your invested time, get the most aerobic exercise, burn more calories, feel stronger leaner meaner. You are failing to succeed. 

I suspect that American business writing from Ben Franklin’s time to Horatio Alger’s time to Tony Robbins time has all been about that one word imperative. Succeed.

Every American business, every man, every woman and every third grade student is trying to be successful. If you are not successful you are a failure. This is irrefutable. This is, the articles tell me, scientific. 

I consider myself an expert on failure. Which may be why this ‘succeed or die’ imperative intrigues me. 

According to the application on my phone that feeds me news and information from dozens of businesses making money by generating news and information to satisfy a seemingly insatiable demand, I am not good enough. No one is good enough. Nothing is good enough.

I, you, we need to be better.

Having a body mass index of 22 is not good enough.

Having $543,578 invested in dividend paying blue chip companies is not good enough whether you are 51 or 27.

Launching a new business and making a profit and creating a handful of jobs but failing to be bought by Yahoo for 52 times the worth of the business is humiliating failure. People will talk.

You are not good enough. You must do more. You must be better than you are.

You, your wife, husband, child, parents, friends, business associates and softball teammates are all not good enough.

Shame on you. Shame on them.

If all you manage to do today is get out of bed, smile, breathe, and go slowly enough to pay attention to the people, places and things around you—you are an abysmal failure.

Fuck Thich Nhat Hanh. What does he know? What’s he ever done? Has he ever dominated an interview by employing subtle alpha posturing? Has he ever surpassed his sales quota by 247%? Has he ever merged a corporation, hacked a database, run a marathon? Who’s his personal trainer? In what five-star restaurants has he eaten or hotels has he slept?

You need to do more. You need to do it better. You need to start right now.

You are failing to succeed.

The First Wonder of the Modern World

augustine-of-hippoMen go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.

—Augustine of Hippo

One Two Many

roger dodger goodelMy brother was in California recently and came to visit. As we do whenever we get together, we talked a little about growing up in the same family. Our secret code words, shrugs, and sudden moments of being transfixed by the vivid memories only we can see, would have sounded to an observer like the communion of two combat veterans.

At one point my brother said something very profound, which made me grunt. I forget what he said, probably because while grunting I was also busy formulating a reply, which, while not as profound, is memorable, but probably only because I said it, not him.

“In a half-century of being alive and wandering around this planet,” I intoned.

(To inflate the meager work product of my woefully incompetent brain, I often assume a portentous, almost Biblical, tone.)

“I am convinced that nothing is ever caused by only one thing.”

My brother said, “Huh?”

I said, “Everything causes everything else.”

Which caused my brother to repeat himself, “Huh?”

I tried a new tack. “There’s never just one side to an argument.”

“Right!” My brother said. “There are always two sides.”

“No,” I said. “There are always many sides.”

My brother nodded thoughtfully while gazing into the center of the infinite space between the sofa we sat on, and the television on the wall.

Then we talked about the Commissioner of the National Football Monopoly. We evaluated his job performance versus his $40,000,000 annual salary. We determined he should be immediately unemployed.

Writer’s Block

writersblock-300x187I hate the name, the condition, writer’s block.

Do carpenter’s get “blocked”? Truck drivers? Pediatricians?

Maybe they do. Maybe all humans do. No matter the work they do. It’s just that a blocked truck driver keeps driving. Sure, maybe it’s not her best driving, she’s not absorbed in the work and fully present in the moment; not feeling the joy of hitting all 9 gears perfectly or parking a 40-foot trailer in a space others would struggle to fit a Prius. While driving, she is, in fact, daydreaming of everything in the world other than truck driving.

From around the age of 20, roughly 35 years ago, I have yearned for, searched for, secretly prayed for, and endlessly applied for a job that would pay me enough to not live in abject poverty while leaving me the freedom, i.e., the time and the energy, to write. 35 years. Perhaps the only other thing I have ached, yearned, wanted, and dreamed of possessing with such persistence, and such frustration, is a weekend locked in a Vegas hotel room with Marisa Tomei.

In spite of, or perhaps, because of, all my pathetic wanting of a job that would provide me with food, shelter, safety, and beer money, without exhausting my physical and psychic energy—each and every job I have had over the past 35 years has been, either because of the work itself or the people I worked with, shitty.

A year and a half ago, I was working in a job with a flaming asshole boss. Invariably, any job being done in the proximity of a flaming asshole will be shitty. (See: The No Asshole Rule)

I quit.

Not a big deal. I had quit many other shitty jobs, fired many other flaming assholes. But a short time later I would wake up inside another bad dream, another shitty job, once again in the proximity of a flaming asshole.

This last time I quit I channeled Scarlet O’Hara. Rather than swear I would never go hungry again, I swore I would never work with an asshole again.

Unless that asshole was me.

I started my own business.

Now, a year and a half later, I have the very thing I have wanted since I was 20.

My work is interesting. My job does not take all my energy, numbing my brain and wasting my body. The business I have created is making enough money not only for me to afford a simple, safe, extremely comfortable lifestyle. But, for only the second time in my Life, I am earning enough money to invest—making my money work for me—rather than me working for it. (The first and only other time I earned investment grade income was when I sold quarter pounds of cheap ass Mexican marijuana in high school in the 70s and had an $800 balance in my savings account.)

I have achieved my dream. I am experiencing a level of prosperity and financial independence beyond what I had imagined.

My Life now has zero—ZERO—assholes in it.

My business allows me to take any hours I want in any day I want—to write.

But.

I have not written a complete story or essay in over a year.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot.

How to Live Until You Die

One

Once upon a time I was 22 and sitting on a low stonewall in the blotchy shade cast by diseased elm trees lining a quiet street in a city named…Providence. It was 8am but the steamy August day was already soaked through and needing to be hung out to dry before mold began growing on it.

In my damp hands I held a sheet of yellow paper, my copy of the three-part form I had completed minutes before at the temporary employment agency called…Manpower. It was an important document. When the Employment Counselor had handed it to me, he said, “Take this. Don’t lose it. Go out by the stonewall past the gate and wait for a guy in a white van.”

“A guy in a white van?”

“His name is Sonny. You’ll be assisting him today. Make sure Sonny signs that yellow paper. Bring it back here before 5pm and you get paid.”

“What kind of work is it?”

“You listen and do a good job, you can pretty much work with Sonny every day. Like a full-time job.”

I echoed myself, “What kind of work is it?”

“Sonny is the Odorano Man.”

My brain, lungs, tongue and mouth all worked in perfect concert to form the interlocution, “Huh?”

The employment counselor said, “At Manpower you work. You get paid. Cash. Every day.”

He looked past me and shouted, “Next!” 

Two

A horn blared, momentarily startling me from my 22-year-long daydream. A large white van pulled to the curb. The sides of the van were covered by blue and gold letters in the braggadocio typestyle used on the covers of superhero comic books, ODORANO!

The driver leaned over, rolled down the passenger window, and called, “You Manpower?”

I hopped down from the wall, folding the yellow paper into quarters and sliding it into the back pocket of my jeans. Blue smoke came from the tail pipe and loud country-western music came from torn, dashboard-rattling speakers.

I raised my voice, “Are you Sonny?”

“I’m the Odorano Man!” He smacked a hand down on the vibrating metal dashboard and yelled, “Time is money!”

I stood there, outwardly unmoving while inwardly falling through light years of empty space. Like blindfolded Justice, I stood with outstretched arms weighing two life-changing choices: Get in the Van. Walk Away.

“Hey! The world smells bad, Tonto! We’ve got work to do! Get in!”

I imagined my Employment Counselor plunking a battered guitar and singing like John Lee Hooker, At Manpower you work. Uh! You get paid. Uh! Cash. Uh! Every day. Uh!”

I got in the van.

Three

In September I had been living with a roommate in a dormitory and attending classes at a little known private college in Maine. The school was little known for good reason. But it had found a profitable niche to serve; offering an accelerated two-year program for wannabe entrepreneurs impatient to launch their first business and blow through their relatives’ life savings. So I borrowed money from my relatives and enrolled.

The accelerated program quickly revealed that rather than fail at being an entrepreneur, I was much more driven to fail at being a writer.

So I left, and in January I was enrolled in the creative writing program of a little known liberal arts college in Rhode Island. It, too, had discovered a profitable niche: Offering a two-year creative writing program for young men and women impatient to launch their writing careers and blow through their relatives’ life savings.

My new roommate was my girlfriend, and rather than a dormitory, we lived in the second floor apartment of a decrepit wood house, with our 76-year-old Italian-speaking landlady and her 49-year-old unemployed son living downstairs.

My girlfriend worked graveyard shift in a 24-hour restaurant, one link in a corporate chain. Nearly bankrupted from a highly principled, decades-long fight against frivolous lawsuits brought by its own customers, the corporation had recently admitted defeat. It changed its logo from that of a grinning barefoot cartoon pickaninny eating a watermelon, to a grinning barefoot cartoon tiger eating a hamburger. The corporation’s employees also began, with some exceptions, treating customers who had dark skin, respectfully. The lawsuits stopped. The profits resumed.

I worked at a gas station, from 3pm to midnight. About every three weeks the gas station was robbed. A few days later the robbers would be found and arrested, having spent the stolen money on buying drinks for anyone who would listen to them tell how they had robbed the gas station.

The writing program was exceptional. The instructor was one of two brothers, both of whom had gained national literary reputations by writing about their separate but equally brutal childhoods. Not only had our teacher’s writing been published, he had been paid for it. Although not nearly as much as he was paid for teaching writing. A dozen of us would sit at a circular table and listen as our instructor told rambling stories that seemed pointless, yet artfully managed to contain one or more cameo appearances by different writers whose names I recognized from having read old issues of The New Yorker magazine. I could not afford The New Yorker, but my girlfriend’s mother had kindly passed old issues to me, after learning that I wanted to be a writer. I was also indebted to her for tactfully explaining that Evelyn Waugh was a man, not a woman

Despite my short time on earth, I, like everyone else in my exclusive and expensive creative writing program, was convinced I had something to write about. And I did. For one semester.

By the end of that semester I had encoded everything I knew about being alive into three overwrought and unfinished short stories. In May I turned 22, the semester ended, and I was drained, depleted, creatively exhausted. Spent.

Fortunately, Life whooshed in to fill the vacuum I had become.

My intermittently faithful girlfriend dumped me. And moved to… Manhattan.

I quit the creative writing program, skipped out on our rent, and moved to… Providence.

Four

Sonny drove erratically. Too slow, then too fast; he became convinced he needed to be in the left lane, but once there, became more and more agitated by the urge to be in the right lane.

I dug out the dirt-encrusted seat belt from where it was wedged in the crease of my seat and bucked it. I asked, “So what are we doing today?”

You’re an Odorano man today!

“What does Odorano mean?”

“In Italian it means perfume!” He slapped the rattling dashboard. “Ha! Per-fume!”

“What’s it mean in English?”

“I don’t speak English, only American! Ha!” He tugged the steering wheel to jerk the van into the right lane. “In American, Odorano means shit! Or, in your case, Tonto, paycheck.”

The radio blared. A man sang through his nose, having perfected a way of simultaneously whining and yodeling.

Baby when you done left mee-EEE-eee-EEE-ooooo

I felt la-la-la-lonely as an emp-TEE staaa-AAAA-dium

After the big gaa-AAA-mmme!

“How, exactly, do I earn that paycheck?”

“You exactly perform sanitation engineering of private real estate that is open for use by John Q. Public. Got it?”

I parsed the sentence and uncovered its meaning. “I’ll be cleaning toilets.”

“Not just toilets, Tonto! Think big! Think entire restroom fa-cil-i-ties! You will also install and maintain a patented air-freshener that magically makes a shithouse smell like Italiano perfumo! I am the Odorano Man! And today, Tonto, you are, too!”

I looked out the side window at the passing landscape of tired brick buildings, and parking lots enclosed by chain link fences topped with razor wire. I had a sudden understanding of a Zen koan contained in a science fiction paperback I had found in a train station: You have to live until you die.

I exhaled slowly, “Hi-ho, Silver.”

(to be continued)