GCSPrank Is Here

For people who spend the day saying and writing things that others accept, while thinking things that are infinitely more interesting.

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Gil C. Schmidt was born. Lucky for him and some 416 people, many of who don't seem to know it. Lives in Puerto Rico, which is convenient because he also works from there. Gil writes about dozens of real things (with relish) and dozens of imaginary things (like phantasmagoric pickles), in separate forums. Author of several books and a son, Gil gets in trouble when he's bored. Please head to the egress now.


Wednesday, June 15, 2005

AFROTC

A blue uniform, heavy in wool, cut squarely to flatter a figure both wider and shallower than mine. A peaked cap that acted more like weather vane than symbol. The ritual of dressing was akin to torture, a depressing rite faced only with the balm of music and flashes of anger.

Joining the Air Force ROTC program was not a wise decision for me. Although raised as an Air Force brat, familiar with base life and the rigors of military existence, AFROTC was more mild nightmare after anchovy pizza than a formative experience.

The first facet of the nightmare was the gung-ho mentality, the “War is Glory” vehemence of youths with battle experience limited to war movies, wargames and the occasional fistfight. They pranced and snorted like immature apes, bandying words of aggression like pre-schoolers talking about being policemen, firemen and superheroes.

The second facet was the banality of the program itself. Mired in post-Vietnam apathy, soured by the then-recent humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis, the Armed Forces were searching for relevance in a world not yet fooled by Reagan’s policies and still fooled by so-called “Communist threats.”

The third facet of the nightmare was my hair, shoulder-length from Day One to well beyond the final hour. ROTC regulations no longer forced a cadet’s hair to be trimmed to specs, so with nary a thought, I let it grow. But in the midst of my natural incompatibility, I felt the vague wash of shame. My father had served honorably and with commendations for 21 years, and yet here I was, displaying a flip attitude in the uniform he wore with dignity. The colonel once remarked about it, unable to keep himself neutral as expected. I nodded as if he’d spoken words I’d make my own. But I didn’t say “Yessir” nor did I take his suggestion.

The fourth and final facet was my temporary loss of isolation and anonymity. Wearing that blue canvas tent made me feel like a marked man again, a target, a figure to be scorned and singled out for abuse. Knowing only one way to handle that—straight on and inflicting pain on others as well as myself—the exposure dragged me back to a time and place I had definitely left behind. Week after week I went through the gauntlet of exposure, struggling to beat the odds and my own fears. Yet I take away from those hours the certainty that while wearing the uniform I never missed a commitment, whether class or ceremony, was never late and never acted in any way that would chalk up a black mark on the unit. My hair was enough.

One Thanksgiving, the commander, Major Covell, invited me to his home. Three other cadets were also invited, but as I was the stranger in his home, I attracted the most attention. The conversation funneled through me, so much so that I barely ate. Once dinner ended, I headed for the kitchen to help with the dishes, but was shooed away by Mrs. Covell (with a warm smile) and called away by Major Covell, to sneers from the cadets. Football, of course. The cadets tried to impress Major Covell with their knowledge of the war sport, when in the middle of the second quarter, I predicted a lengthy series of plays and the commentary about it. The cadets lapsed into furious silence and Major Covell seemed to really notice me for the first time.

“You know a lot about football,” he said to me.

Eyes on my fellow cadets I said “I know a lot about a lot of things.”

Major Covell smiled. “So why don’t you put them on display in the program?” His eyes were cheerful, wine-happy without drinking wine.

I stared at the cadets. “Not enough competition,” I said. They paled and started talking loudly.

Major Covell asked “Run or pass?” then belatedly nodded towards the TV screen.

I almost laughed. I got the message. “They will pass, about 15 yards out,” I replied, pointing at the screen. “And I’ll stay.”

Major Covell laughed and clapped softly. The cadets stared at us like a befuddled hydra. The pass was complete for a 14 yard gain.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Oxpatch

Every character needs a stage. For GCSPrank, that stage was a tiny village, wrapped in its myth of literary and historical pedigree. Dropped amidst the emptiness of northern Mississippi, Oxford was irreverently and accurately called Oxpatch, a moniker that framed its attitude and size quite well.

From dusty arrival one cool January morning to testy departure one cloudy January morning four years later, Oxford accepted me reluctantly. Long accustomed to outright rejection—some of it well-deserved—the lazy, impassive, almost bovine indifference to my presence that Oxford dropped in my path was like a Welcome Wagon on skids. Passing for an American in appearance and name, but Puerto Rican in heart and mind, the surprise was not that I was suddenly cold-shouldered after the revelation, but that Oxfordians and state brethren would consider it almost their duty to do so. The Old South had changed, from white sheets to blank eyes.

I walked the village for days, days I tell you, from one end to another, through shaded streets and open roads to grimy alleys and mottled woods. Time and again I’d visit the town, with its early rush of “farm folk” in the post-dawn hours to the staid passages of the mid-afternoon throng, heavily influenced by students, businessmen and passers-through on their way to someplace more important.

Oxford had a warm heart, a generous helping of Southern hospitality and gentility that could ease your mind. Oxford also had a mean streak, one that afforded open approval of a KKK rally during a Confederate flag controversy more academic than racial. The whites stayed on their sides; the blacks on theirs and I wandered through both sides. Never in defiance. My presence was never a challenge, but an admission that I could only truly learn if I shared openly. It was a challenge to myself and I confess I didn’t do as well as I wanted to.

I spoke more often than my habit with dozens of people of all ages and skin colors. Some conversations were brief and sharp. Very few, really. Most were rambling jazz sessions, trying to find a common rhythm we could attune ourselves to. The gap could be too wide and the end result was a slow descent into awkward silence. At other times, the gap was bridged with a rainbow of words and images that carried its own reward from beginning to end.

From oddness to odd comfort to odd distaste, Oxford mutated in my mind. A blanket in the dark, an aquarium during the day; playground in the summer and prison in the winter. I was unimpressed at first sight and unsentimental at the last. Oxford holds its own place in my mind, a curiosity that no longer inspires the need for examination, collecting dust on a mental shelf tucked deep.

One day I could arise to feel the urge to return to Oxford, though it has changed into another world by now. But I’ve learned quite well that what’s possible is very much outside of what’s expected. Especially in Oxpatch.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Pizza Inn

Everyone in college seems to have a hangout or seven. A popular one for Bill, Don and me was Pizza Inn, across the road from Rebel Deli, just catty-corner to Kiamie Lanes and the useful Mr. Quik. The advantage of Pizza Inn was more location than Italian cuisine.

Going through management like Italy went through Prime Ministers, Pizza Inn went from hangout to job site and back to hangout. Bill and I worked there, and speaking for myself, my only gain was learning how to make a pizza, though in mediocre fashion. I’ve gotten much better.

As a hangout, Pizza Inn gave us a place where we could go play some video games, watch the big projector TV and just annoy the waitresses for hours, because there were always empty tables. (Sign number One about management changes.) The menu was simple: pizza, salads, pastas, soft drinks and beer, though beer wasn’t part of our diet. Bill and I were such regular customers that we were often given free pitchers… of Dr. Pepper. I hate Dr. Pepper. I said it every time. We kept getting free pitchers of Dr. Pepper. (Sign number Two about management changes.)

Walloped by the grand opening of Domino’s, Pizza Inn tried to match the “30 minutes or its free” deal, but with nowhere near the resources the delivery specialist had. So every night during that month, we’d brace for “The Big One,” an order that strained our manpower and oven capacity in a race against time. Sure enough, the phone would ring and we’d hear: “Six extra-large, with the works,” and an address on campus.

Dough and toppings would fly and pies were shoved into the ovens almost like shingles. Fifteen minutes later they’d be yanked out, slashed without mercy, dropped into boxes and the designated driver would race out and peel rubber…

And come back, pizzas congealing in soggy boxes. “No one there,” he’d say, shrugging. A few times he sold the pizzas at discount to guys who happened to be standing outside the dorm and eventually Pizza Inn dropped the charade. (Sign number Three.)

The buffet, Tuesdays and Sundays, then Wednesdays and Fridays and then some Mondays and then some Saturdays from 4 to 6 PM then only on Sundays from 11 to 2 PM (sign number Four) strangely ended every time with a large extra pepperoni pizza coming out one minute before the buffet closed and thus, to avoid wastage, was shared by the employees. Didn’t matter who was tossing pies: that pizza came out like, well, clockwork. You’d think management would figure out the logistics of pulling that off consistently and yes, apply it to the rest of the operation. Never happened. (Sign number Five.)

One Sunday evening, after eating like starving bears, Don and I walked out of Pizza Inn and spotted a group of about 10 people getting out of their cars, possibly after attending a church service. At that moment, a stray cat raced across the parking lot. Without a second’s hesitation, Don and I began chasing it at the same time yelling ”Food! Fooood!”

We chased the cat out of the lot and over a fence, then turned without a word and walked away.

The church group looked at each other, got back into their cars and left. I guess that could be taken as Sign number Six.

Friday, June 10, 2005

M*A*S*H*

It lasted almost 11 years, revolving around a time that lasted barely five. A satire of military half-thoughts and a herd-like society, the show also lauded dedication, compassion, tolerance, loyalty and humor. It blended comedy and drama in ways that are common now, but were strikingly new and powerful then and remain even so now. It’s name was a four-letter word that became an icon: M*A*S*H*

No show was better-suited for black-and-white TV, surrounded as it was by green and khaki. But no show was better-suited to the mind’s theater, that rich stage where words, images and their emotions come together to make you feel as if it were all real.

M*A*S*H* pulled you in, whether you were a hawk or a dove. It was grounded in the reality of war and the equal reality of its idiocy. M*A*S*H* thumbed its nose at high command and authority, disconnected from the truth, while elevating the common man and woman doing the extraordinary routinely to their rightful role as heroes. Facing pain with laughter, melding tears with smiles, M*A*S*H* also told us of the power of friendship to keep us hale when walking through portions of hell.

The final episode was a true happening, the first of what would become “must see TV” moments. For weeks before the two-hour movie that would close the longest war we never fought, the media kept the public posted on the final moments, the cast’s feelings and what TV critics were saying would be either a glorious finale or a fabulous flop.

Around the nation, M*A*S*H* parties were scheduled, with many attendees coming dressed in scrubs and mock-military duds; some men dressed as women to honor Corporal Klinger’s quest for a Section 8, though he was now a responsible sergeant. Bill invited me to such a party at the Student Union, but I declined. I would watch the last show, in my apartment, with Carol.

Storylines of the final half-hour episodes led into the movie and as scene after scene developed, I sensed, then knew I was watching something unique, a powerful collage of heart and emotion. I carefully kept my eyes on the screen and avoided looking at Carol, afraid my tears would give me away. And as the final scene unfolded, Hawkeye flying above a rock-dotted “Goodbye,” I struggled hard not to sob.

I could deny that I was caught in the emotion of a mere comedy show, but it was more than that: it was the acknowledgement--unknown to me--that “goodbye” was a word worth expressing. It accepts reality. It looks beyond and back at the same time. It frames and savors the bittersweet moment.

I learned that lesson then and then forgot it for years. In the silence that followed the show’s closing, I noticed Carol too had been touched by what we’d seen. It was several minutes before we spoke, but they were important to me because I had shared as much as I could without being hurt, a treasure to a barren soul.

The movie has been shown several times, but I haven't watched it again. Maybe someday I will. For now, I rely on my memories to bring the emotions back, and forward, to my time. I do watch the episodes every chance I get, though my TV time is now minutes a day rather than hours. Through M*A*S*H* I see friendship and remember my friends. That will never change.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Scuzzo

I think Don and Bill gave him to me as a birthday gift. A tiny ball of fake fur, eyes and nose and feet connected to a roughly ovoid head, his color that of runny diarrhea. We named him “Scuzzo” and he became Rapline’s Official Mascot.

As Official Mascot, Scuzzo’s duties were quickly determined to be football, annoying projectile, conversation starter (“Have you seen Scuzzo?”) and gamepiece in the ensuing battle between Sonja, Protector of Scuzzo and “The Miscreants,” led by the rest of us.

One of Scuzzo’s first and most most frequent rescues was freeing him from hangman’s nooses. I would weave a noose from the curtain cords and then execute Scuzzo, a piercing metaphor for our times that Sonja thought was just plain cruel.

Bill and I would often carry on conversations with Scuzzo punctuating our wisdom as he flew back and forth across the office. Scuzzo’s usually-perplexed expression never altered, giving him the look of a dazed dodo as he hung in mid-air.

Time and again someone would hide Scuzzo, usually in a drawer, underneath a seat cushion, behind a file cabinet or even kidnap him for a day or two. However, the weeks of using Scuzzo as a prop ended when Sonja, winner of an enthusiastic game of “keep-away,” made a promise to protect Scuzzo “once and for all.”

Obeying the new rule that Scuzzo had to remain within Rapline’s two-room office, Sonja confidently announced to us that Scuzzo was “safe.” That night, and the next day, we searched the offices and came up empty-handed. As neither Bill nor I were known for reining in stubborness, we kept searching, but found neither cloth nor thread of our nearly-departed Scuzzo.

Life intruded and the search for Scuzzo took a back seat for almost a month. Bill asked Sonja if Scuzzo was within the office and she answered firmly “Yes,” prompting a renewed search.

Nothing.

After pondering for a few days, Bill came into the office and told me he had an idea. He placed a chair in the doorway of our “file closet,” climbed on the chair and peered up inside the closet. In a neutral voice he said: “I found him.”

Coming down from the chair, he politely waved me atop it. I climbed, peered back above my head and my mouth actually dropped open. High up on the “inner” side of the closet wall, about a foot from the top, was Scuzzo, his beady eyes wondering who I was. His feet, tucked neatly against his head, had been nailed to the wall.

I climbed down. “She crucified Scuzzo!” Bill nodded, climbed back up and using the filing cabinet as brace, managed to de-crucify our Official Mascot.

Well I can tell you that word of Scuzzo’s crucifixion flew through Rapline’s staff like measles in a playpen. Naturally, we had to hold a burial ceremony for Scuzzo, with the obligatory rising on the third day. Sonja acted casual about her cruelty and I, for one, was envious of her idea.

Scuzzo did return to his usual duties, except that his role as gamepiece was pretty much over. What do you do to someone who’s already been crucified?

Later that year I lost track of the critter and I don’t know where Scuzzo ended up. I suspect Sonja retrieved him and I hope he didn’t end up with her in a nunnery. He’d already been crucified for several weeks: he didn’t need a fate worse than that.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Music: 1984

I arrived in Hattiesburg with barely a plan: say hi to Tim-the-Freudian, find an apartment, get a job. Though I had changed living quarters in Oxford a few times, the move to Hattiesburg was my first in four years, damn near a lifetime in my experience, and was the first I had orchestrated entirely for my own reasons.

A new sense of time, place and self had emerged. My own steps. My own decisions. Beholden to no one. Not yet 20, not really 19. Found Tim, an apartment and a job. And on the second day, I rested.

Music had become visual, as the MTV experiment had grown into a major entertainment phenomenon. Intrigued, I watched music. But despite some excellent and even artistic efforts, music would remain a product of my imagery. So despite the undeniable presences of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Culture Club and The Police, other songs and artists framed my moments.

Hours went by as I drove the streets and roads in senseless attempts to be what I wasn’t. The somber aches of those moments return with OWNER OF A LONELY HEART, by Yes and HARD HABIT TO BREAK, by Chicago. Hearing Chicago was especially poignant as Don was an avid fan of their music, the only person I ever met who had all their albums.

The newly-won freedom of relying entirely on myself is revived by Laura Branigan’s SELF CONTROL; Kool and the Gang’s JOANNA; I CAN DREAM ABOUT YOU by Dan Hartman and especially THE WARRIOR, with Scandal adding Patty Smyth to the mix. And Billy Joel's FOR THE LONGEST TIME was a connection to a rock and roll feeling I grafted onto my quickly-suppressed memories of Oxford.

Two songs evoke the feeling of Hattiesburg in ways I can’t pinpoint: HOLD ME NOW, by The Thompson Twins and The Cars’ YOU MIGHT THINK. Over the years, the undefinable essence of that evocation has prompted many a self-search. On the other hand, CUM ON FEEL THE NOIZE, by Quiet Riot reminds me of riding to Mac’s Fish Camp with Brendan and Terry, jammed together in his small Isuzu pickup truck… and me riding in the back during the return because the All-You-Can-Eat for $10 was a bargain, a challenge and a chance for gross excess we could not pass up. We were indeed a quiet riot then.

My central stage in Hattiesburg was Brendan’s comic book shop, a snug library of memories and discoveries. Conversation, joking, games, hilarity, trading, reading and music fused into a single experience, pearls on a growing string. The songs that place me there, sitting on an upturned milk crate and watching the oddities walk in and out are TRUE, by Spandau Ballet; OH SHERRY, by Steve Perry; IF EVER YOU'RE IN MY ARMS AGAIN, by Peabo Bryson and ALMOST PARADISE, by Mick Reno and Ann Wilson.

The jokes would fly and reach outer orbits as Corey Hart revealed he wore SUNGLASSES AT NIGHT, prompting intensive discussions of stupidity (in other people, never ourselves.) Tim Shoemake and I would argue constantly over Stevie Wonder’s nasal I JUST CALLED TO SAY I LOVE YOU, my trenchant observation that it was Stevie’s lament while sitting on a nail trouncing Tim’s loopy opinion that it was the love song of the decade. I still rehash the give-and-take that often included references to Watergate, the Byzantine Empire, John Lennon, bad cheesecake, the best way to drive to Alaska, impressionist paintings, how the invention of gunpowder doomed the Chinese empire, why money isn’t real, medical procedures that sound more horrible than what they actually are and doomed relationships. Customers walking into the middle of our conversation would invariably ask what we were discussing. Tim and I always shared what we called “the recap,” going backwards from the current topic and tracing the path back to Stevie, relishing the blank faces of reaction. I smile even now.

On the other hand, both Tim and I agreed that WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GO-GO, by Wham! would make them a one-hit wonder, never to be heard from again. Okay, so I missed one; he missed two.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Music: 1980

I left the U.S. for Puerto Rico in 1972 and returned in 1980. At that time, it was my 16th move—averaging one a year—product of an Air Force that felt my dad was the guy for the job in too many places.

In the midst of making the transition back to what was once familiar, I didn’t take into account that my interests were no longer the same. My attitudes had changed. My horizons were broader than even many, much older people. If the world around me was different—very much so—so was I, even more different than the changes in the world now around me.

But like a masterful soundtrack, compelling but subliminal, music began linking the gaps. In Puerto Rico, music is like air, often hot, always present, occasionally overwhelming. Though first I noticed the relative silence, I quickly developed a habit of tuning in to the music of the new background, the melodies and rhythms that marked the minutes and suffused my space.

Music became my embodiment of time and place. It is for near everyone, but for me it wasn’t an automatic process: it was deliberately cultivated. It began with Queen’s CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED LOVE, echoing the rollicking rhythm of Elvis and the nervous energy of arrival. LONGER by Dan Fogelberg settled like a butterfly on the soul, a signal that calm was not weakness. I can feel both songs as they place me in the Rapline office, the vintage 60s stereo the perfect companion for solitary nights and shared pain.

Wrenching Janis Joplin’s tragedy back to our minds was Bette Midler’s THE ROSE, a song that drifted over the nooks and crannies of Oxford like a gauzy curtain. Christopher Cross emerged full-blown and bracketed the summer with SAILING and RIDE LIKE WIND, songs that bring the heat of dry sunny days of exploration. IT'S STILL ROCK & ROLL TO ME, by Billy Joel, was the drumbeat of those lazy, hazy days, energizing and insouciant.

But the clearest mental stage is a bowling alley, Kiamie Lanes, where Mae Helen served chili and sandwiches, Bill, Don and I scattered pins and quips and music was like a second skin. FUNKYTOWN, by Lipps Inc., is the scenario for happy moments when a win was secured. The tender harmonies of SHINING STAR, by The Manhattans, brings moments of sadness, none my own. Not everyone went to Kiamie’s to share: some went to say goodbye. INTO THE NIGHT, by Benny Mardones and JUST THE TWO OF US, by Grover Wasington Jr. and Bill Withers are a sonorous reminder of quiet times with friends, those moments when silence is shared because it’s understood. STEAL AWAY, by Robbie Dupre is the song of a prank executed brilliantly, though I believe the bulk of the pain ended up being mine.

The Spinners are my bridge from Kiamie’s to everywhere else, with medleys that never failed to break my darkest moods. WORKING MY WAY BACK TO YOU/FORGIVE ME GIRL was the anthem of a future I could dimly perceive; CUPID/I'VE LOVED YOU FOR A LONG TIME was the paean of a brief past I felt too keenly.

The last piece of that 1980 collage came much later, in the summer of 1981, when The Manhattan Transfer, an outstanding jazz vocal group went nova with BOY FROM NEW YORK CITY. A jukebox in a long warehouse space, several pinball machines, four guys playing away, talking about everything and nothing, empty pizza boxes scattered about, the Oxford streets barren as the tiny clock buzzed the wee hours… moments of heart and mind caught in a web of notes.

It would happen again in 1984.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Wargames

The store sat at the back of a “village mall,” some outré mélange of faux country-style and business rent. You literally walked into it, as the store seemed more an extension of the lobby than an actual store.

The lady in charge—one of the older ladies I bandied words with extensively—had created a store that was part women’s hobby shop, part decoration center and part wargame depot. Needlepoint and crochet kits vied with dried flowers and wicker baskets to create a visual eccentricity that was pleasing.

Up on shelves—sentinels over frippery—stood the wargames. In one of the many indications of coincidence as lubricant of the Universe, I had read about a wargame called Blitzkrieg, an abstract wargame more reminiscent of chess than simulations, pitting Red versus Blue. The next day, while going to visit one of “my ladies,” I saw the game on the high shelf, next to other boxed items of future interest.

I bought Blitzkrieg and jumped without a banzai into wargames. After wading through the rules, I went over the game with Don and we played a few times. In what was to become a defining moment, we discovered that the game essentially became a huge central-front gridlock with a desperate conclusion… so we tweaked the rules. Enter the mind of a game designer.

While others were focusing on the sci-fi randomness of Traveler and the fuzziness of Dungeons & Dragons, I jumped into the premier wargame catalogue of the day: Avalon Hill. Over the years, I bought games as diverse as Kingmaker, Machiavelli, Civilization, Circus Maximus, Alexander, Down with the King, Diplomacy, Third Reich, Storm Over Arnhem, Napoleon, Magic Realm, D-Day and Bismarck (aaaagghh!) The joy was always the same: defining an interesting game, ordering it, reading the rules, playing it once or twice and then tweaking the rules for better gameplay.

I often played alone, the only sad aspect of my love of wargames. I was not one to join a “club” or advertise my interest on scraps of paper pinned to a bulletin board. I explored the game designer’s lot of rules and strategies, seeking a balance between logic, accuracy and mental effort that would make the game more absorbing. Hours would fly by as I played scenarios over and over, trying new tactics and seeking flaws.

I learned to take apart a game’s mechanics and apply simple rules to make it work. I discovered that playability lay in keeping complexity at hand, but simplicity on the board. Naturally, I made up games, simple representations of what a game could be, and in those days before computing power at our fingertips, the games remained in embryo.

I never really pursued game design in any serious way. At most, I created games for neighborhood kids to play, and when I had the chance, introduced them into the world of wargames. It pleases me that some of the games I invented—and the memories of those days and nights playing wargames—are still brought up in conversations.

Avalon Hill is now a faded memory. Most of my collection of wargames is gone. It has been years since I played a wargame of that solitary time. Ever so often I yearn for the chance to play, to match wits across a colorful board, to battle time and again. I read about gamer clubs that revive the old AH titles and I feel the unaccostumed spearing of envy. It’s as if I had gone into mourning some 20 years ago, this extended, seldom interrupted, sadness, an emotional hollow of need that I can’t bring myself to express.

They’re only games, after all.

Friday, June 03, 2005

It

There are days—not many—when I know I have it, a special energy that seems to beam from my skin. It attracts the eyes of women, some of whom stare like cats as they try to determine what caught their attention. It creates an aura that often startles a woman who sees me suddenly, a combination of surprise and puzzlement that leaves a strong impression, many times leading to a sudden relaxing of the body that serves as a prelude to more intimate conversation.

Men who look at me on those days often frown, as if challenged in some primitive way. On those days, men walking with women tend to reach out to them, pull them closer, openly place themselves between me and “their” woman or glare at me. Although I make eye contact with the woman, I never change expression or make any gesture, nor do I hold the contact longer than needed to see their reaction. Often enough to please me, on those days of it, women will move away from the men and keep their eyes glued to mine.

Those few days happen on their own. I can no more will them as I can will the sun to stop. They emerge slow, yet swiftly, a rising crescendo of energy that swoops upward to fly above the normal into the extraordinary. I ride that energy, play with it, revel in its glow like an otter in the bay, treasuring every minute as if collecting gold figurines.

The flight may last a few hours or several, but its afterglow carries me ‘til the morrow. Except for that one day when I thought it was mine to control, that I was pilot of my fantastic flight.

I have blue eyes. Not a big deal, except in a country where brown is the vast majority. They are almost certainly my only attractive feature, as I am neither tall, nor broad nor handsome. The blue is not singular in hue, but at times can become dark, tending to indigo or lighten from sky to baby. And on those days when it appears, my eyes have been described as vivid, haunting or unforgettable.

On one such day, in my teen years, I walked into the Post Office. As I addressed a letter, a woman walked over to me, entranced. I had noticed her outside. Her face was transformed, serene, intent and her walk was slow, as if in church. She stood within a few feet of me and said with liquid force: “You have such beautiful eyes.”

It was here. And with the mindless glee of the drunk, I replied: “It’s my contact lenses. They’re brown. My contacts that is.”

The face became mask. From alive to blank, vibrant to defensive. “I said you have beautiful eyes.” Her voice was dry, a hint of doubt creeping in like a weedy tendril.

“Oh, I know,” I babbled on, drunk on myself. “I paid green for brown that seems blue.”

Shutdown. Anger, sharp and thick, covered her face. She twirled, her heavy skirt a dismissive wave as she walked out. It followed her. I knew she thought her words and emotion were wasted on a dork. I knew she was right.

I felt empty. Not so much drained as sucked dry by the massive void of my careless words. For although I knew then I had ruined it, it was years before I knew why.

On those magical days that flow from me, I am giving the best of myself freely. I feel in tune with me, and that is what it shares with the world. It is generosity, the sharing of spirit; it cannot be forced, for doing so breaks the connection. Generosity denied is selfishness of the venal sort.

I took from that sincere woman not only my generosity, but hers. I severed mine, but what I did to hers went beyond denial to contempt and disrespect. She honored me in my moment: I dishonored her acknowledgement of it.

The flight—the magical flow—has returned many times. I let it happen as one lets the dawn. I neither seek nor rely on it, and while the energy glows, I move with it like a soaring bird, lightly upon its currents, content to follow any lead, swoop smilingly in any direction and land when it lulls away. Never again have I cut the flow… nor will I. It is mine and yet not. Maybe someday it will be.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Indy and Superman

The movies came out in the same summer, with the fedora-topped Indiana Jones reaching the local screens before the Man of Tomorrow.

A fan of comic books since I started reading, Superman was the towering figure of Truth, Justice and what passed for an American Way that seemed to include only white people. Or pink, actually. The whole magic of the film was the selection of an unknown actor, Christopher Reeve, as the latest incarnation of the most emblematic of funny-book heroes and the latest technology to make it seem like a man (or woman) could fly. None of this “George Reeves on a table with strings tugging his cape” crap.

I point out that George committed suicide. I’m sure there’s no connection.

But before the flying unknown crossed the screen, Indiana Jones outsmarted death traps, ran through the jungle to escape a hundred crazed warriors, fought snakes, solved puzzles, took punches and blows that would deck a lesser man, sabotaged a plane, shot a swordsman (okay, not really sporting, but damn funny), hijacked a truck after being dragged under it (by choice, of course) and even infiltrated a Nazi submarine.

I remember telling Tim-the-Freudian that after seeing Indy, Superman would be a wimp. Well, he was. Although it’s true that Raiders is a much better movie than Superman, to me the difference went deeper. Superman was simply “unengaging”. He didn’t make you feel much because, well, he’s just loaded with advantages too overwhelming to pose a challenge, so you ultimately don’t care.

Indy was human, with common frailties, but a sense of purpose—and thus of self—that made him heroic. Superman was a hero because he simply had to be: he had no choice. Indy was a hero because he chose to be, despite the many chances to choose otherwise.

I’ve since watched people as they face challenges. I especially watch me. Are they—am I—choosing the heroic or the mundane? Although none of has ever been forced a la Superman to be a hero, there are times when the decision is made for us. Having a child who needs us is an obvious example. But in those foggy moments when taking the heroic road is difficult, especially when people will never see the choice, I always remember Indy and Superman: one human, one alien; the chooser and the chosen; free will versus obligation. I have failed to make the choice for heroic a number of times; it has yet to be a pleasant experience. Unlike the Man of Steel, I am flesh and blood.

Indy would understand. I couldn’t care less if Superman does.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Deli and Destruction

It sat almost on a corner, across a wide parking lot from Mr. Quik and Kiamie Bowling Lanes and across the road from Pizza Inn. I once spent a solitary summer in its second room apartment. It had the publicity-oriented name of Rebel Deli and it was a den of destruction.

Rebel Deli served—-as expected—-deli-style sandwiches, with thin-cut meats and steamed goodness. A simple menu meant quality and service could be high and with about 12 tables, you always had a bit of a crowd. But to the rear of the Deli, standing like a stack of weapons, were the true engines of destruction: video games.

This was 1980. Pong had shown that a game played on a screen could foster addiction and the first wave of great video games emerged. For a generation raised on Half Life and Doom, Space Invaders seems throbbingly dull. But for us, the first generation of video gamers, the drumming metronome of descending aliens that gained aggressiveness as time ran out, was a shot of mental crack. Quarter after quarter was dropped into the console, techniques were debated, tested and approved and the early game wizards, guys who could play for an hour on just one quarter, were as close to demi-gods as we ever saw.

The gobbling munchies of Pac-Man, with its maze-running/escape skills, burst on the scene and added a new—disturbing—element to video games: women. Lacking in any true violence (eating meat on the hoof without caloric penalty being less violence than wish-fulfillment for the anorexic and bulimic corps, I guess), Pac-Man often had us guys waiting in line behind a girl to play a game. Some of the guys took advantage of the situation to play “video Lothario,” but the efforts (at least those in my presence) were as comfortable as using someone else’s dirty hanky.

But the Rebel Deli quarter-muncher, destroyer of budgets and savings, was Asteroids. Deceptively simple, with only lines to demark boulders, rocks and ships, Asteroids introduced full-screen movement in a circular universe: fly left, emerge on the right; fly up, emerge at the bottom. In a burst of genius, inertia was also a part of the formula, as your ability to maneuver was limited by your speed. Blast an asteroid, get two boulders; blast a boulder, get two rocks. Clear the screen of debris, shoot the trigger-happy little alien ship and move on.

Asteroids, boulders and rocks broke in reaction to speed and angle, so that sometimes debris would fly by as happy whales or at warp speeds. As your skills developed—-quarter after quarter—-you could anticipate how a shot would create a reaction and plan your moves. Like any challenging activity, focused effort and lots of practice gave you appreciable growth. But in the end, your little ships would find themselves overwhelmed and the death-phrase “Game Over” would shut down the flow to your pleasure centers.

Bill and I often spent hours at Rebel Deli, eating sporadically and practically living on a stool in front of Asteroids. One memorable day, we arrived at 11 AM, ate about 8 sandwiches apiece and left shortly after 6, our stomachs a bit fuller than our pockets. Near the end, I was playing mechanically, the way a lifeboat survivor continues to bail even as the rescue ship looms above. We walked out and parted ways.

Next morning, at 11 AM, we were back on the stool, blasting rocks, eating sandwiches, lost in the Deli and the Destruction.