After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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Mid-sixties, Coltrane would die soon. So: Pharoah on the other sax, Rashied on drums, wife Alice on keys. Trane gets lost in one of his interminable solos, so lost he forgets the room and the people who’ve come to listen, forgets himself, drops his horn, finger-crook dangle by his thigh, and starts with this cacophony of howls and yelps, grunts and hisses. Audience stunned. Nobody knows what’s going down. Later, evening over, they ask him the sixties version of WTF? Darkly, confused, he says, “I don’t know, man. I just ran out of horn.”
Sandra and daughter Abby, seventeen, are at the cafe with Maya the golden retriever, old enough now to take her first excursion into the world. Abby has a progressive congenital disorder, fatal, and lives her young life with a deep-running current of wisdom in her spirit, a quiet equanimity to her understanding of what it means to be alive in a day that the rest of us can only feel as hint and shadow. Maya is exuberant and frenetic and wiggly and just unable to contain her wild grasp of every sound and smell, of the glory of being. An elderly woman passes the table, an octogenarian surely. She pauses, leaning on her stick, asks leave to pet the adorable puppy. She cups Maya’s small chin. She looks Maya in the eye, and Maya, remarkably, goes still. “You’re going to have such a good life,” the old woman tells the puppy dog. She walks away.
“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” Look up this quote, and you’re likely to learn it’s from the Dalai Lama. But look deeper, and you’ll find that’s wrong; it’s actually adapted from Life’s Little Instruction Book, by H. Jackson Brown Jr.
A St. Pete gallery. Opening night. Art Walk. The town struggling to establish itself as the artsy yin to Tampa’s business yang. Always the mad rush, days of preparation, curating, hanging, laying out a spread of toast points with olive tapenade and cheap-but-not-too-cheap red and white. Twenty minutes to go and I’ve forgotten something, something small but crucial. Scotch tape? Plastic wineglasses? I can’t remember. There’s a store three blocks away. I take off in a trot, me in my artsy opening-night clothes, the afternoon heat still in place even as the sun has begun to set. Stress and frustration, soon the sweat. On the sidewalk a woman in an electric wheelchair approaches. She alters course, heads right at me. Her wrists are bent in permanent contortion, her torso wracked. A neuromuscular issue. I don’t want to stop — the napkins are important, the clock ticks — but I don’t want to be a dick. She waves me closer, closer still. She waves, and I lean over, impatient and breathing heavy, to hear what she so needs to say to me. “Whatever it is,” a hoarse whisper, “it will be OK.” She rolls on.
Noam Chomsky and Joseph Campbell square off in a game of one-on-one hoops. Chomsky launches a brick from the top of the key, screams, Organized sports are the means by which the state anesthetizes the polity, the contemporary opiate of the masses. Campbell rebounds, takes it back out, feints a three-pointer, and drives, tries some sort of fancy-ass, reach-around-the-back layup. Not even close: Sports are the realization of our need to manifest the mythic quests that drive the human condition. They give us our heroes, an articulation of the culture’s need for epic journeys and triumphant returns. Campbell’s got six inches on Chomsky, you say. Yes, I say, but Chomsky’s scrappy. Campbell, you point out, played high-school ball. (You might be making this up.) Maybe, I say, but Chomsky’s alive. Score: 0-0.
If, say, you were looking to find one more item for your top-ten list, and you wanted to keep it short — because, you know, who has time these days? — and so you fired up your search engine and looked for “quotes about grace,” the top hit would help you calculate your six-month premium for car insurance. Something to think about.
My office window looks down across the Chapel Hill post office parking lot. I do good work in this office — or, rather, I help other people who do good work, which is good work of a sort. It is — this helping people to help people — the most important thing I’ve done, the deathbed evidence I might adduce, sorry though it might be, to show that I have not wasted my life. But the post office: Mid-December, heavy snowfall, cars in continuous circuit in and out, last-minute holiday rush. Parking Lot Guy holds station on one of the medians dividing the rows of spaces. He’s always there, a man for all seasons. He faces away from the busy street, toward the front of the P.O.; he motions the cars by, motions them to pause while other cars back out to vacate new spots, waves the walkers toward the front door as if they didn’t know where it was. He is ignored. Always. But still he takes the responsibilities of his office with all due gravity. He never causes a fuss; the P.O. authorities tolerate him, though he is forbidden entry to the lobby. Public property, and he is a member of the public. He wears castaway jeans, torn mid-calf, and he is barefoot. The snow falls. It gets harder to see down there; we don’t usually get this much. A guy exits what looks to be a BMW 7 Series, shoulders hunched against the wild snowfall, taking care with his footsteps. Twice today I’ve seen good citizens’ feet fly out from under them, seen them land on their backs in comic pratfall; both times they got up and brushed themselves off, more embarrassed than hurt. BMW Guy has on a bright, puffy, down-filled parka. Probably only ever used before on Vail or Telluride ski jaunts. He doesn’t turn to look as Parking Lot Guy waves him by. Minutes pass, and BMW Guy exits, again passes within a foot of Parking Lot Guy without pause. Is this a blizzard? It might be a blizzard; I don’t know. I’m a Florida boy at heart. The car flashes its lights and unlocks as BMW Guy closes in. Here is what happens: BMW Guy opens the driver’s door but stops. He unzips his down parka and takes it off and turns around. He’s heading back to Parking Lot Guy, jacket straight-arm proffered, and through the swirls and whorls of snow I see the silent play: Parking Lot Guy will have nothing of it. It’s not his parka. He’s proud? He cares to be in nobody’s debt? He’s crazy? A pantomimed drama seen through the obscuring flurries of snowfall. BMW Guy proffers the parka twice, three times, but no. He makes his way back to his car, tosses the parka onto the front seat, gets in, and drives off to his life. Parking Lot Guy stamps his feet and waves him past. My office is warm.
Most of the statues you’re thinking of festooning the parapets around Notre Dame are not technically gargoyles. They don’t divert water, so they’re “chimeras.” Gargoyles gargle. Le Stryge is the one you’d recognize. He’s famous. Also he’s bored. He’s propped his elbows on stone, rested his chin on his palms. He’s sick to death of the parading centuries of soft-fleshed humanity who — in but a blink to him — become crumbling bone, heave-hoed into the catacombs. After the first go-round of decades, it’s just reruns with updated dialogue and oscillating hemlines. He has stuck out his stone tongue to let you know his feelings on the matter. He survived the fire.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Make-A-Wish Foundation always struggles for funds. Always. Abby’s big brother, Ethan, has her same congenital, progressive disorder. When he was young, his wish was to have a horse. Even before he had the words, driving by a field with a horse made him wild with glee. There’s never enough money to get all the children their wishes; always the clock runs. To be on the list means they’re going to die. There’s never enough. Ethan’s wish had been registered for years; the family didn’t expect to get it anytime soon. Then they did. A horse farm up north was having a pony sent down. The owners asked only that whenever Ethan tired of it — or if . . . you know — that they be contacted so they could have the pony sent back. Children all over the area suddenly were getting their wishes. Here is why: A girl in Charlotte, North Carolina, had risen to the top of the list. Bone cancer. Her death was imminent. Her wish? Her wish, there in her final days, her wish for anything she could think of in the whole wide world? Her wish was that all the other children on the list would get their wishes. She died. Donations flooded in. Her name was Hope Stout. She lived to be twelve and one-half years old.