Tag Archives: fate

Fingers, and That Place in Time

reelWe needed to cut the grass. Just three weeks before, we’d used our push mowers and trimmed the green stuff to well under ankle height. Now, after the perfect combination (if you are grass) of steady rains alternating with bright and warm days, the undulating lawn was covered in knee-high weeds waving in the breeze and tall, shaggy patches of growth. They were also still wet from a recent downpour, and try as I might, I couldn’t get the manual mower to do anything but run over the tall stuff, bending and flattening it but doing far too little in the way of cutting it. Stepping back to consider my work, I appeared to have been trying to create crop circles to fool and excite the UFOlogists in the neighborhood.

What was needed was a power mower. We could borrow one, or, if need be, rent one. But a power mower is something I will not, can not, use. It has nothing to do with the loud noise of it – although I do dislike the sound, especially up close – nor the smell of the clouds of exhaust. It has everything to do with this: When I was a kid, my Uncle Charles had a power mower – the electric kind, with a long extension cord that snaked back across his well-kempt lawn to an outlet inside his suburban ranch house. He was mowing one day – maybe a day like the one I was now trying to mow in – and, perhaps, the wet grass clumped up and choked the works, clogging the blades and bringing the mower to a halt. I don’t know the exact details – I don’t think I ever asked. I think I didn’t want to know, although now I do, a little. Anyway, for reasons I can never quite wrap my mind around, my Uncle Charles decided that he could remove that clump of grass, and he put his hand out and reached for the obstruction … and the mower started up. And he lost his fingers – all on that hand except for his thumb. Just like that. And family lore has it that when my Aunt Lena found him on the lawn, he was banging his hand against the lawn, not in pain but in utter anger at his stupidity.

mower(somegeekintn)

It was a moment where he could have gone one of two ways: to do what he did, or to turn off the mower, or unplug it, and then try to unclog it. But, in that moment, that split second ­– that place in time that altered his life forever – he felt that he could do the job just by grabbing at the grass. Did he feel that there was no risk? Or did he think that it was a reasonable risk? Or did he just think the wrong thought? Or did he not think at all? In a breath, in the twist of a wrist, everything changed.

And thinking of this, I thought of the brother of a friend, a guy who worked nights and headed home in the early still-dark hours of the morning. He took the same route all the time. But this one morning … did he miscalculate the distance between him and the oncoming truck, or did he not see it, or was he so tired that morning that he couldn’t think straight, or did he think that he could make it? A reasonable risk, or no risk at all? But he pulled away from a stop sign, into the intersection, and he was dead before the other vehicle hit its brakes. What happened in that hair’s breadth of a moment, between intention and oblivion? That place in time.

Stop sign

These are extreme examples, and sad ones, and I’m sorry to lay them on you. But we all make these decisions, if decisions are what they are – impulses, maybe, is a better term. We sit at corners in our cars, at stop signs, and sometimes because of cars parked too close to the corner we can’t see oncoming traffic clearly, but we feel, as we edge out a bit, that we can see enough, and that it seems clear to go, and we go – and we, the lucky ones, make it. But it could have gone the other way. We took a gamble – for some reason, we thought it was worth it, or that we were invincible and nothing could happen to us, or that if suddenly a car appeared we could hit the brakes – or they could – and calamity would be avoided. A place, a decision, a time – an action. A result. We go into old buildings and walk onto floors that look like they could never hold us. There is that moment of hesitation, or calculation, or ego, or nothing – and then you step forward. And you are in that place in time, that action of no return. That steep and rocky path, with a long fall below; the electrical wires that could give off a fatal jolt; that rickety ladder you use to reach that ceiling fixture; the slippery roof on a rainy day, and you with a tool in your hand, and a cloud that looks like it could hold lightning … we go ahead and do what sense might tell us to hold off on. That place in time where the action of the present meets the fragility of the future.

Time is a place, and this is the most tenuous of locales. That reaching out with the back-of-the-mind awareness that you should keep that hand where it is. Is taking that chance a weakness of the creatures that we are, or is it what makes us human and the dominant life form on the planet? Is it those chances that are what makes a person an artist, and makes nothing into art? By that place in time, by the accumulation of all the little places in time, are we carving out our rightful place in this world, that place that comes only by confronting the chance and taking it. Sometimes you lose your fingers ; sometimes you make it out into traffic unscathed; sometimes you win the battle. Sometimes you disappear.

We have hired a neighbor to mow our lawn for us. I will not touch that power mower, no matter how careful and aware I am or sure I will be, with the memory of my uncle in my mind. I am not one for leaps of faith. I will never rule the world by taking a chance. I am resigned to knowing that I will have more fingers than others, but they will have led more vital lives losing a few of theirs, and dwelling more fully in a frighteningly alive placeness that I can’t bring myself to quite enter.

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My Way Home

What is coincidence?

Not, I mean, its definition but, rather, where it belongs in our limited ability to pigeonhole. Is it an element of time? Well, sure, you need to have one thing happen or be seen, and then another, so as to have the set-up and, later, the comparison. But, it seems to have more than just mere chronological procession, with a surprise twist. Is it, then, a force, like gravity, or, less scientifically, like deja vu or precognition, or, dare I say it, Fate? Or is it a place – a place of comfort where things link and make sense and have some order in what appears to be a disorderly universe … a place where one needs to be in order for the click of connection to occur? Or is it all these, and more, in a mess of a metaphysical mashup … or none of these, but instead some involving thing as yet undiscovered and unimagined? Or, maybe, life is entirely made up of coincidence, that it is the brick and the mortar of consciousness and learning and meaning, and that we only perceive it and invoke its name when it is too obvious for our small minds to ignore.

Temporal? Physical? Mystical? Personal? Universal?

Whatever it is, or does, however it gathers together its powers and conjures, or doesn’t, there it was – coincidence – thick in the air and, first of all, on the air, on the radio, as we made our way throughout New England in our recent arslocii-driven road trip. 

Those who are young enough to have made their car trips serenaded solely by music stored on and reproduced from CDs, or MP3s, have missed the curiously quaint and painful exploration and depressing joy of being aurally imprisoned on long stretches of remote road with nothing but whatever the car radio can pick up. You drive, one hand on the steering wheel, the other – forefinger extended – poking at the “search” button, looking for something, anything, palatable, possible, to listen to for a while: no Mr. Rights, mostly Mr. Right Nows. To find a station with great music is your hope, and, should you find it, sweet sorrow, because before too long it begins to fuzz and fade, and then it’s gone, and you are back to the hunt: press–talk; press–twang; press–ad, press–ad, press–ad, press–ad; press–classic rock? No, contemporary country; press … . Like the definition of insanity, like the rat in a lab experiment, you keep pressing the button, running the dial’s full spectrum, bottom to top, and then round back to bottom and up the numbers again – press, press, press; maybe this time around, you think, it will be different, all channels miraculously changed, the demagogue at 98.6 supplanted, wondrously, by all-Beatles-all-the-time. You find yourself pausing at stations – programmed in some central studio somewhere and shipped to stations throughout the states, with only locally inserted commercials differentiating them and telling you where you are or are within earshot of – playing collections of oldies, mostly from the ‘70s and ‘80s (which, to those a certain age, seem less like oldies than middle-ies) that they’re packaging as “The Music of Your Time” or “The Soundtrack of Your Life.” And you realize what an immensely inane life you must have lived if this is its soundtrack.

And, suddenly, frighteningly, you find yourself, desperate for connection, singing, loudly, surely, and, you imagine, wonderfully, “Precious and few are the moments we two can share …” and you hate yourself for actually enjoying doing this, for actually knowing – a full two decades since you’d last heard it – all the words, perfectly, all the “ooh-oohs” and precisely when they drop into the song. You despise yourself for remembering and precisely rendering the harmony line … at the top of your lungs. It is dreck, and you know it, but it is your soundtrack, and, there in the far mountains, in a remote valley, in a world of static, it is your lifeline. You would give anything to hear even Chicago, even “Does Anybody Ever Really Know What Time It Is?” Even that. You would give a pint of blood to hear “Walk Away, Renee.” 

Press–no. Press–no. Press–absolutely no. Press–no, never, ever. Press–uh, maybe … no. Press–n… wait! And there, somewhere in Connecticut, or maybe it was when we’d crossed into Massachusetts … instantly recognizable, as familiar as a heartbeat, as much a part of my life as anything I’d actually done … a note of the true soundtrack of my soul: “… and I (clash!) can’t find my-y way ho-o-o-ome, and I (pause) can’t find way wa-ay home.” Stevie Winwood. Blind Faith. One of the great rock songs of all time. Clapton. Ginger Baker. Ric Grech. You sing along, this time with feeling and fervor, because this means something to you – you don’t just know this song but, somehow, it knows you. And you sing, as he does, “cahn’t find my way home” although your whole life you have pronounced “can’t” as though the “ca” were the same as in the word “cairn.” No matter – you say “cahn’t,” and can clearly envision that still-slightly-disturbing and weird topless barely pubescent girl on the album cover, and it all brings back how exciting it felt when this music first hit, and you were first-hitting, too. Inscrutable lyrics reflecting the late 60s’ disillusionment, dissolution, even loss and directionlessness, echoes of not just folk music but ancient troubadours … “and I’m wasted and I cahn’t find my way home.”

And then it was done. That’s all we heard – flicking around the dial (although one no longer flicks, and there are no longer any dials), we’d come upon the song, like finding a friend adrift on a raft in the middle of the ocean – in its final 42 seconds. The dismay of its ending so close on the heels of the excitement felt upon its belated beginning. Joltingly returned to the world of press–no and “Sugar, Sugar.”

But, eerily, every day of the rest of our journey through New England, occasionally twice a day, but never the same time each day, out on the road, searching, pressing and rejecting, “I can’t find my way home” would suddenly pop up and greet us, on different frequencies and far different locales … and always, always, we would catch it in its last 42 seconds. Bizarre to just short of the point of plan or profundity, almost to the note, to the syllable, we would collide, confer and depart. It became a joke – maybe these radio stations were playing only the last 42 seconds and we were actually catching it from the start. But we ached to hear the song whole, from its first solo guitar to fade out. Just once.

On our next-to-last day, after long hours of fast driving just to make time, in late afternoon we rolled into North Adams, Massachusetts, and to a converted factory complex that is Mass MoCA: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Though museums are like lobsters – the good stuff is inside the hard shell (and is acquired only by being accompanied by a lot of hot air), our quest was, as usual, to explore the outdoor art, the sculpture and earthworks dotting and, with luck, enhancing the periphery of the art building. Alas, there is not much there, not much that’s good, and some no longer intact or functioning. But we followed the directions of a Mass MoCA employee, wound our way behind the main building, where, in an old, abandoned structure – the Boiler Plant – full of long pipes and woven conduit, several flights up steel stairs and connected to this building by a narrow walkway, sort of hanging off the building and propped up on long, spindly trestle legs, was Michael Oatman’s seasonal installation “All Utopias Fell.”

It is, at first sight, the perfect typification of the sort of thing that makes your eyes roll in exasperation with what passes these days as “art”: artspeak made solid, and less a testament to aesthetics or creative thought than to the artist’s ability to play the game required to convince a grant-giving organization to loosen its grip. What it is is an Airstream trailer that’s been tricked out to pretend to be, as accompanying material explains, “a 1970s-era ‘satellite’ that has crash-landed at Mass MoCA … with large parachutes and active solar panels … hybridizing a domestic space, a laboratory and a library, it has the feel of a hermitage, where the occupant will ‘be right back,’ only it is 30 years later.”

Yes. Well. Oh, brother. Another one of those – humorless humor, meaningless meaning,  flatline satire, ponderous triviality, fueled by misperceived self-importance. Well, we were there, we’d made the investment of climbing stairs (although, luckily, not the investment of hard-earned cash) and, so, we ducked our heads into the Airstream doorway for what we assumed would be a few seconds of disdainful perusal before making our yikes-filled escape.

Except – it was fascinating. A clever and droll and, actually, challenging piece. George Lucas, describing the scenic design of the first Star Wars, said, “The future should look used.” And, so it was here. Oatman had created a strange retro-future quasi-tomb, almost the result of an archeological dig, something thrown into the present from yesterday by way of tomorrow. Images of the 1939 World’s Fair’s signature Trylon and Perisphere, all sorts of wall scrawlings and images, lots of worn tech, a hippie-ish stained-glass window, the homey touch of a shelf of put-up tomatoes in Mason jars. And all, all of these objects and more, seemed to be referring directly to us and our lives: we are enthralled by the ’39 fair, our home-canned tomatoes look precisely like those on that shelf, the lounge chair in the “capsule” is exactly the model of the same chair we have at home. Everywhere we turned inside that customized trailer – so full and tight that turning was difficult – we seemed to be looking at a deconstruction of our own life, our own inner musings and inclinations and experiences. It was as if “All Utopias Fell” was made for us – like the mentalist in a show who shoots a balloon inside which is an envelope containing the card you’d secretly picked earlier. It seemed to anticipate us. 

I made my way slowly, farther back into the Airstream, amid shelves and flickering TV screens and detritus from a future passed. Then – hiss/click, hiss/click, hiss/click … . A sound I knew so well, a sound I hadn’t heard for years. There, down a bit and to my left: a turntable, an LP revolving on it, the tone arm stuck in the smooth, blank space between the end of the groove and the center spindle hole. Hiss/click, hiss/click.

And, as I looked to see what record it was, my eye was caught by something on a ledge below the turntable – the album cover for what was spinning above it. On the cover: the blue of a sky and a white puffy cloud, curly red-ish hair … I pulled the upside-down cover out from the shelf. The dull-expressioned pubescent half-nude girl holding a chrome jet plane stared blankly back at me.

I shifted my gaze to the record, and recognized the label, many years since I’d seen it last. I lifted the tone arm and gently, out of practice, placed it where I knew it should go and what would happen. From some speaker in this art environment, I heard the familiar guitar opening, and then the voice: “Come down off your thro-o-one and leave your body alo-o-one, somebody must change …”

And for 3 minutes and 16 seconds – not in my car, not traveling at 70 mph, not dictated to by mocking fate but, finally, being the recipient of its generosity, I listened to the entirety of “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

From our trip, I brought back home lots of photos, new memories, a sense of accomplishment – and the knowledge that I’d briefly visited a place where, for some reason beyond my pool of understanding and logic, what was, what is and what will be connected, met up, for the first time or again and, somehow, I was there when this co-incidence happened, either witness or participant, or maybe even creator.

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