The first time I noticed a bird just sitting there with its mouth open, it freaked me out. I think it was a crow. I tell people I'm not superstitious, and I don't like the idea that any animal represents the ideas that we lay on them. They're just trying to survive. But when you're confronted with the sight of an animal that people have worked into scary stories over generations, and when this animal is doing something that looks weird, it's easy to forget you're not superstitious.
Was this an omen? Was this crow trying to tell me something? If so, what creepy thing would it be trying to tell me? Was this one of those things where a spirit takes the form of an animal but hasn't worked out the mechanics of it yet? Naturally, this called for some Googling.
As it turns out, birds just sit there with their mouths open when they're hot. That's all. Suddenly, this possible harbinger of doom was more akin to a fuzzy pooch sitting there with his tongue out on a summer day.
Now when I see a bird with its mouth open, I remember that it's just as hot for the bird as it is for me. Our bodies just have different ways of dealing with it. Maybe they think my standing there red-faced and sweating on a hot day is a bad omen. Maybe they think I'm a spirit who took the form of a human but hasn't worked out the mechanics of it yet. Maybe they wouldn't be entirely wrong.
Warning: There are some graphic descriptions of an accidental knife injury and stitches in here. If you're squirmish about that stuff, don't read on.
I badly cut my finger in a whittling accident a couple of weeks ago. I had just got a knife set from Amazon and was impressed with how my first two figurines came out. I was eager, some might say rushing, to start a third.
After drawing the outline of a wizard on a new block of balsa, I took it in my obviously gloveless left hand and started digging away with the freshly stropped knife in my right.
Just as the hem of this guy's robe started taking shape, the block, slightly wet with the sweat of my manic enthusiasm, slipped. Before my right hand could react it had driven the knife into the side of my ring finger.
The wood and the knife fell to the floor.
It wasn't a straight cut. It left a long flap of skin that extended from between the first and second knuckles up to the edge of the finger nail. It ran deeper and wider the closer it got to the tip.
If you can avoid blacking out entirely when you've put yourself in a dangerously stupid situation, it's interesting to look back on the things you do. In the midst of this panic, I gently pushed the flap aside to see what was in there. I was glad to not see any bone, but I knew I'd have to get professional help either way. I was just looking at this profusely bleeding, spongy tissue for the sake of looking. Maybe it's like cursing, just something you do when you're hurt.
Blood rushed to fill the gully I'd made in my finger and started running onto my hand. I bound over to my kitchenette—one of the great things about living in a one-room apartment is that you're always next to the kitchenette—and flung a banner of paper towels off the roll. I squeezed it around my finger, jammed my feet into my boots, and almost forgot to slip on a mask before heading out to my car.
On the drive I wondered whether the cops would be sympathetic if they pulled me over for speeding. I slowed down regardless. An actual wreck would not be sympathetic.
I sat alone waiting in the small patient room of the urgent care clinic, wondering if it were possible to bleed to death from a cut finger. I did not think so, recalling all the old folks I'd known with maimed or cut off fingers. The main difference here was that they all mangled themselves earning a living or improving their homes. I was trying to carve a wizard figurine. That's when the guilt over the absurdity of this situation set in.
A cold tingling sensation came over me. My vision started closing in. I gently pushed myself off the chair and tested my balance before opening the door to the little atrium with the nurse's desk. The physician's assistant and receptionist were searching through some boxes when they turned and saw me standing there looking worried.
"I feel cold and kind of light-headed."
The PA walked me back into the room, where she offered me a cup of water and a pillow and told me to lie back if it would help. It did. She assured me that this feeling was not the result of blood loss, that some people just get this way when they see their own blood.
"Am I this much of a wuss?"
"No," she said smiling. "This is a normal response that some people have."
Mainly wusses, I added in my head.
I regained a pittance of face when she said I didn't flinch as she put three shots of the local anesthetic into my finger around the cut.
"The worst part's over," she said, tearing open the packages of suture gear.
With a pair of tiny chrome scissors, she cut away the thinnest part of the flap, which she said was too thin to save. The viable, fleshy part she sewed down with five stitches.
For the next few days I walked around with my tail firmly tucked and a big wad of white gauze wrapped around my finger. I got good at changing the dressing with one hand, which I did at least twice a day for three days. First, put a square gauze pad flat against the wound. Then, wrap the slack around the finger. After that, hold the gauze together with the other fingers on the injured hand while you wrap the whole thing up with tape.
They told me to let it air out some after those first three days. At first I couldn't stop looking at it. The stitches appeared to be working hard to hold everything together. What was once covered by the strip of flesh that she had to cut off was now open, left to heal by secondary intention.
Secondary intention. That's where a wound heals inward from the sides. It's one of the things I learned during my obsessive medical Googling over the next week. I learned that a finger has a blood vessel on each side, and that an injury where one of them is cut is generally easier to deal with than one where both are cut. I learned that the bone at the very tip of a finger is called a distal phalanx. I learned that whether a cut affects the nail bed seems to play a role in the healing outcome. My cut stopped just short of the nail bed.
The instructions they sent me home with said to return for suture removal after seven to 10 days. Eager for a professional to look at it and burned out on Google and WebMD-fueled catastrophizing, I went on the seventh.
A different but equally patient and charming PA said it was healing well enough to remove the stitches. She unceremoniously snipped them and plucked them out.
"So it looks like I'll get to keep the finger?" I said, laughing to conceal that I was only half joking, at most.
She smiled. "Yes. We won't have to take it just yet." I hoped she was more than half joking.
That was a little over two weeks ago. The wound is now fully closed and covered with fresh, pink skin. I have to accept that some of the skin that was sewn down may always be numb. At least it's not right on the tip. The parts of the scar I can feel are oddly sensitive, still building up that stratum corneum, another thing I learned about during those anxious research sessions. I'm still trying to be gentle with it, but I'm more and more confident that I will indeed get to keep the finger, provided I learn my lesson from this fiasco.
I haven't touched my carving knives since. I don't know if I will again. While the satisfaction of cutting away chunks of balsa wood to reveal a whimsical figurine is great, I'm not sure it's worth any more chunks of myself. Maybe I'll invest in some cut-proof gloves. Maybe I'll stick to hobbies that don't make me think I should invest in cut-proof gloves.
Most days I take a short walk to the local Wawa for a coffee and maybe a cheese roll or something. This has been my social life for the past month and a half, at least in the real world.
There's usually a guy working the register who smiles under his mask at you. Middle aged, stocky, gray hair, blue eyes. He'll sometimes make gentle jokes about the stuff you're buying. "Three bananas? People will talk!" I was an uptight jerk for initially feeling secret defensiveness at these jokes. I've come to like them. Joke or not, he always ends these little interactions with a secular blessing. "I wish you well" he'll sometimes say. He'll look you in the eyes while he says it, his own eyes smiling.
If he says it to you, he'll say it to the next guy in line. You might think this would make a person feel less special and therefore less charmed, but it has the opposite effect. Here's a guy, working some job, freely offering a bit of friendly small talk and well wishes to anyone who comes by. Knowing he'll be there for you too if you happen to have enough free time and spare change for a coffee is a great comfort.
If you're a regular he'll get to recognize you. "Off to a late start today?" he told me one time, reminding me of how laxed I'd become about my own schedule. Since then I've been making more of an effort to care about my schedule. I've been making more of an effort to care in general since I started going to this Wawa.
In the United States, something like 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides.
On the trail I saw some bird of prey hover above the canal before diving to hit the water with a deep wingy splash. The trees obscured my view of the impact, but the sound painted a clear picture.
On a different day I rode through a park, where I turned my bike toward a small opening in the wall of woods at the edge of a field. The trail wasn't much wider than a deer path. I ducked to avoid the thin branches that hung out to reclaim the intollerable absence of wild growth. It opened to another field, where I surprised a grazing cluster of deer who seemed as curious as they were startled. They weren't expecting a human on a bicycle. I slowed down in a futile attempt to ease their fright. I wouldn't appreciate my meal being so interrupted. They eventually ran off, one in one direction and the rest in another.
I was worried that they might not be able to find each other again. Then I realized that to the creatures who call that place home it was probably no different than if one family member went to the powder room while the rest went to the kitchen. I'm sure they know those woods and all the parts of it.
A hundred or more white-clad demonstrators were gathered on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in support of Belarus.
Those in the front held a giant banner calling for US intervention. The women wore white dresses, some with a band of red around their waists. Some held red and white flowers. A man's voice boomed in a gutteral foreign tongue over a loudspeaker, occasionally accompanied or perhaps contested by a scream to "Save our children" from a woman somewhere in the crowd.
A few hundred feet away, in the grass along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, stood a big tent encampment. Their banner said "Housing Now." At the edge of the encampment, a shirtless white guy washed his meager wardrobe in a utility sink that was by some miracle of survivalist ingenuity connected to running water.
Any interest that passersby took in either scene was directed toward avoiding it. These scenes have become part of the scenery.
The Rocky statue had its usual line.
What's a community? Would I know one if I saw it?
What was a community a hundred years ago? Is that still available? Does it need to be?
Two young men drove along a shoulderless road through the woods. Their discussion about the latest political outrage got heated, until the passenger suddenly stopped what he was saying and raised his hands in front of him.
“Woah, watch out!” he said. The driver tensed up and swerved to the left, barely missing a buzzard that was sitting on top of a possum carcass.
The driver broke the silence. “He ain't never scared.”
As the car returned to its lane, the buzzard lifted his head to the shrinking taillights and croaked, “I don't fear death. I eat it. Do you know why my head is naked? It's so the rotting flesh that sustains me doesn't get caught on my face and cause infection. You furless humans should understand this well, surrounding yourselves with rotting filth, creating it, consuming it, and you see me as grim and ugly.”
The two young men heard none of this as they sped away, soon resuming their conversation about the latest political outrage.
Things are simpler when you're a thousand miles from home, hauling farm equipment at 75 miles per hour along that shimmering desert blacktop.
I started out of a garage in Carson City, doing odd contracts for various companies until I could afford my own Kenworth day cab. The more I drove, the bigger the job I could take, until 18-hour hauls became the norm.
You have to plan your routes carefully for those hauls. Respect the trip. You might run out of gas in the desert, or the road lines could lull you into a sleep from which you might wake with a slam followed by torn metal and flaming gas.
After a few thousand miles, I swapped my day cab for a studio sleeper. A Peterbilt. I got to know the roads, the highway numbers, the rest stops, the speed limit changes as you cross state lines.
I hired my first driver last night. Piotr. He didn't have much experience, but he didn't ask for much either. Just a solid rig and a steady income. Set him up with the same day cab I started in. Never could learn much about him, where he's from, whether he has a family. Maybe he prefers it that way. I don't mind. All I need to know is that he takes his own jobs and brings in enough profit to cover fuel and maintenance expenses.
Now I'm sitting at a rest stop outside of Bakersfield, on the way to San Simon with a harvester. I'm about four-hundred miles from my garage, but I'm right at home anywhere I can take this cab.
Rookies go walking. Amateurs go hiking. Professionals get lost in the woods and manage to stumble into a remote gas station half crazed from dehydration in muddy, burr-covered Vans slip-ons just as the sun's going down.
Why do 99% of ghosts come from times when people dressed mad spooky anyway? Tailcoats all flapping around at three in the morning. You don't often see a ghost in Sperrys or a Metallica tee.
My head feels like a washing machine, but not in a bad way.
In my fourth or fifth-grade classroom, there was a poster that showed a school of bland-looking fish swimming downward. In the opposite corner of the poster, a lone sparkly fish swam upward. The message at the bottom said something about doing what's right to you even when it doesn't seem right to everybody else.
It didn't say anything about why most of the fish were swimming downward. It didn't say anything about why such fish swim in groups in the first place. It didn't say anything about the misery of being a contrarian asshole fish.
Where was the poster that said "This world is incomprehensible and confidence in anything is a farce"? This might have been a big help at that time.
But then again, I would probably just be shitting on a different classroom poster 20 years later.
God bless the teacher who put that poster there. Regardless of the message, I realize now that the most important thing it told us was that the teacher who put it there was trying to guide us somehow. Trying to make us think. Trying to make learning just a little bit more exciting than it would have been in a room with bare walls.
Sometimes the intention is the most important part of a message. Sometimes the feeling that motivates a message is more important than the message itself.
One reason centipedes are so disturbing is that when you see them in the corner of your eye, they look exactly like the kind of floaters and phantoms you also see in the corner of your eye, especially in the middle of the night, and especially when you're starting to worry about centipedes.
I'd like to go fishing. I'd like to quietly sit near some water, cast out a line and pull some mysterious being from its perpetual twilight and into the light of our world, where I'd study its markings and morphology before watching it disappear back into the silty depths without a sound.
But I can't bring myself to do it anymore. When I see somebody else fishing, I can't help but smile. It reassures me that a world that I thought was lost still exists somewhere, somehow. But I myself can't do it anymore. My sympathy for the fish--who wouldn't even be aware of my existence lest I put a hook through his lip--has outgrown my desire to catch him.
Not everything requires an opinion. Not everything is subject to opinion.
Well? What are you doing here? I ask sincerely, knowing I'll never receive an answer. Knowing I'll never receive an answer, why do I ask? What am I doing here?
I'm here writing this to ask whoever passes by--and myself--what we're doing here. Is the answer something that you find or something that you develop? Maybe it's something that you do.
When I moved to the city for college back in 2008, I noticed a lot of cool-looking people riding around on cool-looking bicycles. It took me longer than I like to admit that what made these bikes look so slick was what they were missing: gears! shifters! a rear brake! These ultra stripped-down, single-speed bikes were very popular at that time.
I was reminded of this feeling when I started browsing some of the computer-related subreddits where users show off their builds and battlestations. Aside from the systemic slickness of a lot of builds you'll find on these subs, there was something particularly slick going on with a lot of the keyboards. Again, it took me longer than I like to admit that what made so many of these keyboards so cool looking was what they were missing: The number pad!
After a lot of careful consideration--and after switching to a much smaller desk--I decided to try one of these tenkeyless keyboards. I'm not missing the num pad that much so far, but I'm too enamored with the all-around quality of this WASD Code to make a meaningful judgment about the mere absence of the num pad.
Say what you will about algorighthms cynically designed to quantify our tastes and serve us whatever their calculations say will keep us consuming. But you can't say they're always bad at it.
After I'd let Prefuse 73's album One Word Extinguisher run through, Spotify put me on the Prefuse 73 station. There I found an artist named Salaryman, which led me to Unwound and their album Repetition.
Both Salaryman's eponymous album and Repetition have found a loving home in my library. And both occupy an interesting no-band's-land between noise-rock and heartfelt indy pop.
While I'll be listening to both of these artists more, I'll also continue to trust the unfeeling computer brain of Spotify to provide the soundtrack to my late-night manifesto writing sessions. Considering how much it has me looking up to see who these groovy artists are, these manifestos aren't going to be very good.
The epidemic we're going through now is only unprecedented if we limit our memory to the things we've been through firsthand. You might not know anyone who's been through something like this, but we know humanity has made it through much worse.