Lazy Lie-Abed’s Wild Ride

The black sedan rockets down the road. There is a monkey at the wheel. He has on a chauffeur’s cap, and a little jacket and no pants. He jabbers and points at the road, and yanks the steering wheel back and forth. Lazy Lie-Abed is sprawled on the back seat. “Oh my delicate constitution!” he says, his pink bulk tossed side to side in the car. “Oh, my liver! My digestion!”

The car speeds on over dusty lanes, into a village of gray stone houses with window boxes full of red and pink geraniums. The monkey pilots the squealing car around the village square, knocking into tables heaped with produce, scattering oranges and chickens in his wake. At the corner café, the coffee drinkers observe the flight of the car, cups frozen halfway between table and lip, their heads swiveling silently. “Oh, my paws and whiskers!” cries Lazy Lie-Abed from the back seat. He licks the backs of his wrists and passes them over his eyebrows.

Lazy Lie-Abed plucks crumbs of Cheez-it crackers off his chest. He peers into the empty box, then out the car window. “Ooh! Oooh! Look, it’s a drive through. We’re out of Cheez-its. Oh, stop here, you must!” The monkey wrenches the wheel over and the car screeches sideways into the Dairy Barn driveway. The reflection of the red silo slides across the windshield. The monkey leaps halfway out the window, only his bright red ass visible, his tail wrapped around the steering post. Boxes of foodstuffs come hurtling in through window: Cheez-its, Ho-Ho’s, Ring Dings. A can of Poppycock sails all the way to the back seat and bangs off Lazy Lie-Abed’s head. He is momentarily cross as he rubs the point of impact. But than he sighs philosophically, pries open the lid, and stuffs a handful in his mouth. “Drive on!” he says through a mouthful, and small pieces of the popcorn spray out and stick to the back of the monkey’s neck.

Down a hill into a small valley. The hillside is flecked with snow banks and dark green pines. There is an A-frame chalet with a goat perched on the very peak. Across the second story of the chalet there is a wide balcony, with a row of whirligig flowers all along the wooden railing. The flowers spin around as the car flies past. The monkey tosses a red sweater with white snowflakes on it over the seat back to Lazy Lie-Abed. “No time to ski!” moans Lazy Lie-Abed and the car skids around the corner into the flat and dusty desert. A cloud of dust spews out from under the car, and the horizon leans back away from the car in all directions. “Oh for my couch! Oh for my books. Fetch me the book about the car ride.”

The monkey tosses back maps. Lazy Lie-Abed examines a map closely. “Am I here?” he asks the monkey, pointing at a place in the map. The monkey turns over and grasps the steering wheel with his feet. He leans far over the seat, grunting whenever a bump forces the backrest into his belly. He looks at the map upside down. The car runs off the road, knocking aside cacti, roaring in and out of gullies. Small rocks flick out from under the wheels, and lizards skitter away.

The car plunges over the side of a cliff and tumbles down, down, down. “Or am I here?’ asks Lazy Lie-Abed, pointing at another place on the map. The car drifts down slowly now, suspended by a large parachute. It swings back and forth like a pendulum. The rocking car descends past a cloud that is supported by four balloons, each tied to whatever passes for the corner of a cloud. There is an angel on a barstool playing the harp. The monkey bounces on the seat. He scoops up a handful of his own feces and flings them in the direction of the angel. But the window is only partly open and most of the handful sticks to the inside of the pane.

The descending car is framed in the window of a kitchen where a Bored Child asks, “What is there to do?” leans over the kitchen table and contemplates an empty afternoon. The kitchen table is covered with linoleum imprinted with a faux-marble pattern. It doesn’t look much like marble; it looks more like chunks of snow or ice, floating in a violet gray sea, or like yogurt parting to reveal a fruit filling on the bottom. The Bored Child doesn’t examine the table very closely. If he did, he would notice that there is a two-dimensional car tearing across it, no bigger than an ant.

The monkey is wearing a tall Russian hat and a long trailing scarf. The car bounces over the ice floes, airborne half the time. On each jolt, the monkey is lifted clear of the seat, but still clings to the steering wheel. He pivots as if he were hinged there. The window is still open, and the breeze blows the scarf straight back, into Lazy Lie-Abed’s face. Between brushing the scarf out of the way, and being jounced around the back of the car, Lazy Lie-Abed is having difficulty concentrating on his game of solitaire. “Red Queen!” he says, “Where is the Red Queen?”

The Red Queen rears up over the horizon, enormous. Her mouth is pulled down in a great frown, like a mailbox. When she speaks her whole lower lip flops down to reveal white teeth, like letters. She plucks the car up and plunges it into her pocket. Darkness envelops the interior of the car. The monkey shuts off the engine. Lazy Lie-Abed turns on the reading light and settles back into the seat, turning the pages of an action novel. He turns to the section where the lean and chiseled hero is climbing up the boulder strewn mountains. It’s the part right after the lean-and-chiseled one swims the raging torrent, and right before he slides down the cable of the ski lift, his rock hard biceps straining. Lazy Lie-Abed sighs contentedly and settles back against the seat. He props his head up with the sweater and a box of Cheez-its. His lips move as he reads.

The Secret Spring

We are about to enter one of my favorite times of year: the secret spring. You would never think it was spring, looking out the window. It has snowed here several times, and New York has practiced its wretched alchemy, converting the once pristine snowbanks into sullen gray floes that gird the street corners. The sidewalks are all carefully cleared to avoid lawsuits. But the corners are a no-man’s land, disdained by the snowplows, ignored by the building owners; the gray ice has congealed into humped and slick outcroppings, like molten glass that has hardened haphazardly.

Even as the season proclaims itself winter, inwardly I can feel that it has turned toward spring. It’s more a kindling of feeling then the feeling itself ; a sense that we have accomplished the pivot and are moving in a new direction. The days are just perceptibly longer now, and we are turning out of darkness and into light. The winter is a time of contraction, a falling inward. The secret spring brings the first relief from that compression. It is as if the year were a roulette wheel and we that hard steel ball rolling around the track inside. But the roulette wheel is not circular, it’s egg shaped. We’re at that point where the ball has just passed around the little end of the egg, the time of greatest compression. Now we begin to expand.

I lived for a while in California, where I was blessed with many fine spring days right in the middle of winter. I find myself more comfortable wintering in the Northeast. In the Northeast, the waning light corresponds to colder weather and gray days. There is a perverse coziness in feeling depressed on a cold gray soggy day. The weather invites you to fall inward, urges you to sleep. It is sympathetic to your mood, and there is an implication that perhaps your mood will in its turn be sympathetic to the weather, and lighten as the weather does.

In California, these shortest days are accompanied by rains that wake the plants. The hills cover themselves with leprochaun green grass. The moss on the trees softens. Daffodils bloom in January. When I lived in California, my inner world and the outer world felt in discord, and that only intensified winter depression. How much worse it is to be depressed on a lovely day, to find your mood in disharmony with that of the environment, to be the gloomy guest at the wedding. The inability to grasp a proffered pleasure is more painful than the outright denial of it. And therefore, hell might turn out to be a pleasant enough place for all but the damned.

On the other hand, it is a joy to be happy in inclement weather. I have rarely felt as alive as I did one day on the winter marshes of Ipswich. All around me the reeds stretched beige and brittle. The wind prowled over the mudflats and tugged at my jacket. I was intensely aware of the spark of life that I held protected inside my winter clothes.

I can feel the slow awakening of the buds beneath the snow. I know that soon the sun will burn the snow to water and reveal green shoots that look like blades of grass with a stripe of white down the center. I’ll walk over to observe the bulbous head of a crocus, still wrapped in a white layer like paper. The air will be cool, but it will feel moist, too. I’ll stand looking at the crocus, and at the soil that looks like old coffee grounds, sodden and brown, and my shoes will drink the snowmelt, until my wet socks inform me that they’ve had their fill.

The secret spring is a relinquishing of grief and a return to life and appetite. I love it because it is the time of infinite possibility. I love it as I love the moment just before the dance begins when all of the songs are yet to be played, and all of the partners still possibilities. It is a secret and a promise, a first beckoning, not yet a compulsion. It is a low tremolo on the strings prefacing the first full gesture of the symphony.

It is the moment after the first moment, the time after God stretched out his hand and said “let there be light”. The moment when the universe knew that it would be populated, and felt still its cool dark empty spaces and welcomed the stars.

There is a corresponding, complementary time in the Summer. Summer is the time of the promise fulfilled, the time when the sun pushes the plants into greenest unfolding. Summer sunsets can evolve so voluptuously that it seems that time itself must be stretching out. My favorite place to watch those sunsets is the porch of my family’s house overlooking Huntington Bay. The porch faces northeast, so that the sun itself is not visible, blocked by a point of land. Unable to directly view the departing sun (and have my vision obscured by floating green spots), I find my attention directed to the response of the landscape to the changing light. The bay becomes a great bowl filled with liquid colors. The water reflects molten lead and rose. The houses across the way flash orange fire from their windows. A few sailboats lean over, slouching leisurely back to their moorings, the white bellies of their sails touched with gold. If I have any say in the design of Heaven it will include that view, and the smell of sausage grilling, and an abundance of fresh sweet corn.

Yet in that time of greatest expansion and relaxation begins the first movement back toward contraction. There is the smallest tincture of sadness in the languorous yawn and stretch of the Summer evening. And this serves to intensify the flavor of the moment, as a drop or two of vinegar can lend depth to the flavor of a soup.

We stand on the threshold of the secret spring ; the first stirrings of lust, the small sudden spark that passes between two not-yet lovers, a pheromonal message sent and received, slyly, like a note passed in class. It is a tingling in the nose and at the nape of the neck. And there opposite us on the other side of the wheel is the apex of summer; the post-climactic moment, the instant after release. Two lovers lie entwined, one lying on the other’s body as if it were a raft, the two carried now on gentle meandering currents, down and down, inward, back to the center, back to the beginning. Two nestled in each other’s arms, like squirrels in a hollow. Pulses slowing, contracting unhurriedly toward hibernation, until that time when they, like the world, will be born again.

Brother Solitaire

Brother Solitaire walks through the garden of his cloister. The vigorous morning sun has climbed up into the sky and heated the clipped rosemary hedges. The fragrance of the rosemary drifts into the walkway. Small bees swarm ceaselessly around the light blue flowers of the rosemary, the sound of their activity an indolent drone. The light is clear and golden; it warms the patient stone of the benches. It would be pleasant to sit here, if only there were time.

Brother Solitaire wears a coarse brown robe that rebuffs the caress of the day. The cowl hangs on either side of his face, like blinders on a horse. He fixes his gaze on the worn stones of the pavement before him. Brother Solitaire could have worn a more pleasant garment, but this was the one that fell to hand when he awoke. Now it seems a little late to change. Somehow the day fills up.

There is a fountain that murmurs in the center of the garden. The fountain throws moisture into the air; a cool, fine mist that drifts up like the languid exhalation of a newly-beloved. There are fruit trees in the garden, figs pendulous and heavy, apricots, mangoes and avocados. There is a lovely arcaded walkway that circumambulates the garden and embraces it. There are four gates that open from the arcade to the outside. The first gateway leads to the clamor of the marketplace. The second gateway leads to the quarter of the dance halls and ballrooms. The third leads to the ancient university. The last leads to a beautiful, unsullied forest. Every day scholars and dancers and merchants and woodsmen come and gather at the gates calling to Brother Solitaire. Sometimes Brother Solitaire leaves the cloister and joins them. It is then that he remembers that he is not a monk. He is a wealthy man of noble lineage, and the place he lives is not a cloister, it is a palace. After each foray he returns invigorated, and for a time he notices the beauty of his garden. But then, inevitably, he falls back into his familiar ways and gradually drifts again into forgetfulness.

Brother Solitaire paces the garden of his palace, and his feet find the depressions worn in the flagstones by his regular comings and goings. The grooves lead him on past the gates and toward the center of the garden.

He passes the first gate, and the merchants call out. “Come to our marketplace. There are beautiful soft clothes for you to wear and clever devices for your diversion. We have spices and wines and candies. The roasts are on the spit; they are brown and dripping. There is a feast ready and your cleverest companions await with their wits sharpened.” And brother Solitaire says, “I will come and sample your wares on Friday from 3:00 until 8:00. I have put aside an adequate amount from my budget.”

He passes the second gate and the dancers call out. “Come dance with us. Come abandon yourself to the banked curves of movement. Put your arms around us and we’ll dive together into the crystalline blue depths of the music. The currents will whirl us by creatures with needle teeth and iridescent fins, safe in the bathysphere of each other’s arms.” And brother Solitaire says “I will dance with you on Tuesday night from 9:00 until 2:00. I have good dancing shoes and a change of shirts.”

The scholars call out. “Come and study with us. We have stored up arcane secrets and uncovered truths so large that they are overlooked. Come wander through the streets of societies that do not yet exist, and those that are already dust. We have preserved the laments of the bereaved like insects in amber. Come quickly. We have letters for you. They are a thousand years old.” And Brother Solitaire says “I have signed up for your seminar on Monday mornings. I will be early for class, and I will bring a notebook and three pens.”

The woodsmen call out. “Come with us to the forest. The seasons are turning and as they turn they grind out gold. Perhaps today the daffodils will push their fingers out of the thawing earth. Perhaps the birds will arrive to sing their songs older than man. Perhaps the brittle leaves will waltz with the breeze. Watch them describe the contours of the air, and meander to the ground. The woods are breathing out a perfume, and each day it is a new one.” And Brother Solitaire says “We will walk together this weekend from 10:00 until 3:00. I have bought sunscreen and a hat.”

Brother Solitaire always gives each group its due. He is unfailingly polite, if a bit distant. He wishes he could spend more time with them, but there doesn’t seem to be enough time. Where does the day go? Brother Solitaire proceeds to the center of the garden. He does not want to miss his meeting.

He arrives early, as usual. He sits down on the bench, but does not notice its warmth. He does not smell the fragrance of the fruits around him. He does not hear the birds that sing in the trees, nor does he see the figures they draw in the air with their flight. He leans forward and looks down and his cowl falls forward and blocks off the view to the sides. He sees his shadow on the ground before him. He speaks to it:

“How about today? Will you show me the way today? If you would only make the first small movement, I would follow you.” He leans forward and the shadow leans forward, too. He grows still and the shadow grows still. He watches and watches, and then it seems to him that perhaps one of the shadow’s hands is beginning to move. Is it gesturing, or is it just the shadow of a bird overlaid upon his own? As he tries to decide, a cloud drifts in front of the sun. The sharp golden light becomes gray and flat, and the shadow fades away. When it reappears, the shadow is in the same position as he. It does not move. He sighs and the shadow sighs. He leans back and the shadow follows. He recommences his vigil. Brother Solitaire waits.

Echoes of Weeping

Knollwood Beach is surrounded by a black chain link fence. It’s an ugly enough fence, and it makes the beach look like a kind of gulag, although it is softened by the beach roses planted on the inside. The fence replaced a low red brick wall that used to be there. The wall was good for sitting on, and for placing slices of pie on top of for the fourth of July pie eating contest. The wall had a small gateway that led directly into the street in front of our house. It was through that gateway that my youngest brother, not quite two, ran onto the street, was hit by a truck and killed.

The truck was backing up at the time. It was driven by a friend of mine, and I had been talking to him. It was May, and the summer was just in view, the shape of it emerging out of the constraints of the schooltime winter. I was 16, my friend 17. He was driving a truck that belonged to a fish store, where my sister and I had worked the summer before. I had liked working there, despite the incredible stench that clung to my clothes. All my friends worked there. I got to hang out with my friends and make money, too. To my mind as an adolescent, the two great goods of making money that I did not need to account for and hanging out with my friends easily outweighed the negatives of tedious work and malodorous environment.

My friend had just driven up to drop off another friend. We chatted briefly. He looked behind him, and backed up. My youngest brother was so short and so close to the back of the truck, that we didn’t see him. When I try to recall the event, which is not often, it is like viewing a series of artifacts. Here is the image of me speaking through the driver’s window to my friend. Here is the image of my brother’s small body travelling around the left rear tire of the truck. Did I actually see that? I don’t know for sure, but I have the memory of it, as I have a visual memory of many stories that I have heard. Now here is a kind of treasure map that outlines the paths of the actors immediately afterwards. Here is the X where the truck hit my brother. Here is the dotted line that represents my sister scooping up my brother and running up to the house. Hear is a circle where my mother was inside the house. I could not see her, but I heard her scream. Here is the dotted line of my mother carrying my brother out to neighbor’s lawn, where a paramedic, another neighbor, has already appeared. Here is the X where my brother’s body was laid on the lawn, my parents and the paramedic crouched over him. Where are the memories of my emotions? I can’t find them. Did I misplace them, or was that event like a cut from a knife so sharp that you do not feel the slice, but only realize that you are wounded when you see the blood?

Trying to find something helpful to do, I told my friend to move his truck, to get ready to take my brother to the hospital. But an ambulance was already on the way, and we stood on the street, on the corner where the beach pushes furthest into the road, waiting and superfluous. And now I come across an image that I am sure is a real memory, even though it has become iconic. I know that I did not invent it, because it surprised me. From down the street, we could see my friend’s mother running toward us. She is a dancer, graceful, and I can picture her now, her arms thrown out over her head, her hands angled out as she reaches toward her son from a hundred yards away. In my memory she is frozen there, a carved figure, a caryatid, her body sculpted into the curves and angles of movement. She wails for her son, a terrible cry of pain and sympathy. For a moment I am baffled. Why is she comforting him? It’s my brother who was the victim. And then in a rush, I realize that in the irrevocable moment of the accident not only was my brother crushed, but my friend too, although it is his fate to remain alive.

We all of us want to undo the awful accident. But we are like passengers facing backwards in a train, borne away on the invariant geometry of the rails. As soon as the thing bursts into view, it is already beyond our grasp, though it dwindles for a long time in our sight.

Many years later, I heard another wail on that corner. This time it came from my cousin. He had just returned from the hospital. A friend of his, one of the kids from down the block, had dived off a pier into the bay below. The friend had made a simple, graceful, direct dive headfirst, but the tide was ebbing, the arc of the dive not wide enough and he had broken his neck in the treacherous mud under the too-shallow water. My cousin was in med school at the time. He knew all too well what that injury meant. His friend was paralyzed from the chest down. There was little hope for the recovery of his movement, and nothing at all that my cousin could do to change it. I remember my cousin meeting his parents on that same corner, and the wail that burst out of him as they hugged him. (Where was I at the time? I can’t recall. My memory of the event seems almost as if I was in a boom camera looking down at them. Yet I am sure I witnessed it.)

Years later still. One of the neighbors had been taken off to the hospital. She was the woman who gave all the kids art lessons down on the beach one summer. Occasionally, I stumble across the improbable portraits of tiger lilies that we created, the pictures slumbering now in garages and attics. The ambulance carried her away, and we wondered – had she had a stroke? No one was sure, and from the porch of our house, I could see my sister and my cousin’s wife meet down on that same corner and discuss it. No, it turned out, the neighbor had had no stroke. There was no weeping on the corner that day.

The beach association planted some ornamental grass on the corner a while ago. It grows there like an unruly shock of hair on the forehead of a beautiful straight-haired boy. There is no way one would know that this corner has heard such weeping. Why should such an innocuous looking place be the witness of tragedy? Is there something special about it? No, I believe that it is simply that I have spent more time near there than any other place. Stand in any one spot and the whole multifarious parade of life will pass in review. Life will unpack all its wares for you, dealing out awful moments as offhandedly as it does sunsets and thunderstorms.

One place is much like another, as far as life is concerned. There is no place to hide from tragedy, without withdrawing entirely from life. I don’t want to withdraw from life; I mean to participate in it as fully as I can. I know that I will return to Knollwood again, to be with people I love in a place I love. And therefore I knowingly risk that I may yet again hear the weeping of witnesses on that innocent corner.

Memories of Things Imagined

This last week, my mother’s side of the family gathered for its annual holiday party. Her brothers – my uncles – bestrode my narrow childhood world like colossi. They were demigods with huge laughs and gargantuan appetites, bone-crushing handshakes and stories of adventures that stood my hair on end. Hercules and Hermes combined, they were the offspring of mischief and might. I only saw them once in a great while, and always orbited them in awe and delight. How different they were from my father’s only sibling, a sister who lived in Europe. She would arrive for visits exuding fascinating perfumes. She had an exotic accent, at once foreign and familiar. Her children, my cousins, had unusual clothing and curious footwear. My father’s sister always seemed to me the height of sophistication. My mother’s brothers were paragons of vigor, large and lively dogs, cunning, laughing, and a little dangerous.

My mother had a picture of them when they were young, standing on a dock by a lake. They are looking into the camera and laughing. I looked at the picture so many times that it became familiar – the feel of the dock, the sound of their laughter. I could imagine it as a memory of my own, as if I was there when the picture was taken. Of course it could not be my memory because I was not yet born at the time it was taken. But memories accrete to such objects, just as edged and faceted crystals grow on a string floating in sugar water.

There is a part of me that still thinks of my mother’s brothers as a towering grove, and believes that I might yet scurry around the oak trunks that were their legs, eluding the pursuit of my siblings. But at the party I can see that time has begun to put its mark on them. Their faces are more lined, bodies more rigid, and handclasps less fierce. I am their size now. It seems as if some of their vigor has been drained out of them and into me, inflating me, deflating them. I am astounded to find myself a grown up. More shocking yet: middle aged.

The next generation tumbles about the gathering, ranks of cousins, cousins once removed, and second cousins wrestling and twirling, and generally engaged in the very serious business of play. The second-oldest of the Uncles present stands up to make a toast. He’s the most boisterous of them, all tumultuous embrace and booming voice. But he has a way of focussing attention that is remarkable. He goes from loud and jocular to grave and attentive instantaneously. When you are speaking to him and he does this, you feel as if he has stopped the whole raging carnival of the world to listen to the specific thing you have to say at that instant.

He stands at the holiday party, drink in hand , subito piano, and miraculously all the kids arrest their games in mid-careen and lie on their bellies, heads balanced on their palms and listen to him. The moms scramble behind him, cameras in hand, to capture the improbable moment. The kids listen to the toast, and for them it’s a story, the story of a little house in which all these grandpas and grandmas grew up. I imagine that all of those kids can picture this house that they’ve never seen, and that they’ll remember what they’ve pictured. The image of that little house may reappear to them in dreams, or bubble up years from now, a snapshot memory. And they’ll remember that this was an important place, but they will not be able to identify it, because it is a place that they have never seen except in their imaginations. It is the artifact of an instant, the moment that their great-uncle spun out the thread of a story and they gathered in the other end. In that instant an image formed and hung between them like a pendant.

Dancing at Twilight

Last week I spent a day swinging through the age groups. I started off in the morning teaching swing dance to three classes of fourth graders at PS 94 in the Bronx. In the evening, I walked over to the Jewish Home for the Aged and participated in “Roseland” night where volunteers dance with the elderly residents. Then I went out swing dancing at Swing 46. When the day started, I thought, “Well this is a natural for an essay.” A nice upbeat story about joy and communication in dance through all the ages of life, right?

But as I sit to write, I find myself haunted by the smell of the home for the aged, the plastic odor of catheter bags, the waxy fragrance of the old bodies, the pinched aroma of the institutional food. Life doesn’t always fit the requirements of a chipper blog post.

The night has turned cool and rainy as I walk to the home for the aged. As I enter, the fresh moist air is overcome by the cloistered institutional smells, the darkness yielding to the shuddering and brittle fluorescent light. I am filled with revulsion and a strong urge to turn around and leave. My spirit appears to be flowing through the bottom of my head and out my right foot.

I meet up with the other volunteers, and am dispatched to pick up the residents that need help getting down to the auditorium. I bridle at the idea of going up to their rooms to harry them out, but this is the system, so off I go with another volunteer. The other volunteer seems inured to this place. She is relentlessly cheerful, sticking her face right into the face of the elderly as she speaks to them. She’s bright and interested, and happily follows along on vague conversations that ramble off topic. I don’t want to follow down those long, meandering, dimly lit hallways of speech because I think I know where they will lead: that cramped inner chamber where the lonesome speakers sit, slumped and in pain, steeped in sadness. What will there be to do then but sit with them and know that they are dying piece by piece, in pain and bored? I am amazed that the other volunteer is able to take positive, optimistic action so casually.

We locate a woman who wants to go to the dance, and walk with her, making slow but deliberate progress back to the auditorium, where the crowd is gathering. There must be about 25 residents seated around the dance floor, most in wheelchairs. There are some residents who still have their mobility and can dance upright. One of these is an erect and gaunt woman, her body mass reduced to bones and ropy muscles that are surprisingly strong. She is 95, her hair going sparse, her teeth mostly missing and she wears a flowered housedress. She loves dancing. “She’ll never say no”, one of the men sitting by her side says. I lead her onto the dance floor and dance with her, holding each of her hands in mine. Her body pivots easily, her arms strong despite their wasted look. We lean away from each other, and then pull toward each other, and her face floats up to mine. Her eyes are milky with cataract and lit with amusement. She smells like my grandmother did, of warm milk and the plastic capsules of medication. “Boo!” she says. We push apart and here comes her face again and she says “Meow!” Apart, together “Ruff! Ruff!”. It’s like dancing with a child.

There is a black man who wants to dance to the funk music. Actually it’s hard to tell what he wants, but the funk comes on, and one of the volunteers is over there talking to him. Did she just happen to be near him when the music came on, or did she decide that black man = funk music? I don’t know. She’s got her face down next to his, asking him if he’d like to dance. I can’t tell whether he really understands the question, nor can I read the response well, but the consensus is yes he’d like to dance, so we help him up out of the wheel chair, and his body is heavy and slack. His balance is poor so I hold him under the armpit while the other volunteer holds his hand and dances. The three of us dance together, she facing him, bright and smiling, me at his side, my arm under his armpit, supporting his weight. I can feel the way he dances, the loose sinking motions like a t’ai chi artist dropping his weight into the ground. And it also feels like maybe he’s in the pocket there, he’s got the loose groove going, he’s sinking his weight just a little behind the beat. He’s really dancing with what mobility he has left. And I feel happy for him, and I smell urine, and I wonder if I got any on my pants.

The wheel chair bound residents are parked in a circle facing the dance floor. I go up to them and ask “Would you like to go for a spin?”, and I am surprised how many answer “Yes!” definitely. They look slyly pleased. Off we wheel, making looping patterns around the floor, and dodging the upright dancers. On one Latin number, we form a wheelchair conga line.

Since I am behind my dance partners, I can’t make eye contact. This is frustrating to me, since I’m used to dancing face to face, reading my partner’s expressions and adjusting the dance accordingly. Standing behind the wheelchair, it’s hard to tell whether my passenger/partners are enjoying themselves – it’s more an article of faith. With some, I can tell. There’s one woman that likes to carry a maraca and play it as we go, so I know that she’s into it. Another sits in her chair, her body flaccid, her feet and lower legs swollen and edemous. But as I push her she shimmies, her hips wiggling in the chair, her fingers snapping, her dark eyes flashing. I compliment her on her shimmying and she looks up at me with her raven bright eyes and says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. I am pierced by her indomitability. I pray that I will be able to flirt from a wheelchair as gallantly.

There are others of the wheelchair bound that do not want to be wheeled around. One of these is a woman who sits slumped to the side of her chair, her face slack, and her eyes pained. I ask her several times if she would like me to take her around, holding my ear up to her lips so that her answer can drop in. But she never wants to glide around the floor, and whenever I pass her by, I am scorched by her sadness. I can’t help but look her way and feel my heart curl.

Maybe that’s my problem here at the home for the aged. I have little immunity to their sadness. I’m always sensitive to sadness – prone to it myself. I fall for women with sad eyes. In my neurotic romantic mythology, I think that somehow I’ll make those sad-eyed women happy again. When I’m at the home for the aged, I know that many of the residents are suffering from a sadness that I will never be able to lift, and I feel crushed by it. I shrink from the infection of their sadness, fearing it fatal.

I spent a lot of time over the summer trying to learn to be present. Intimacy, I think, is being able to be present just as you are, and see and touch another person exactly as they are. It’s easy enough to witness someone in the glory of joy and beauty. It takes much more strength to be present for someone in sadness and deterioration. Sometimes I despair of ever achieving that measure of strength.

Uncle Monster

I have long maintained that an uncle’s job is to be a cross between a large dog and a jungle gym. After last Thanksgiving I have decided to add shooting gallery duck to that list.

It was getting to the end of the meal when my nieces and nephews sent up their messenger. My brothers and I were lounging at the table, our distended bellies challenging the tensile strength of our belts. My sisters darted about like hummingbirds, zooming in to clear off the plates and shoot us meaningful looks that we pretend to be too obtuse to interpret. The kids had all been exiled to the basement. The occasional yelp floated up the stairs, but no full throated howls, which meant that the casualty level in the basement was still acceptable.

I have 10 nieces and nephews ranging in age from 1 to 11. When the whole family gathers, they often play together in a tumbling pack. Despite the age difference, the kids all seem to like it. The older ones like it because they get a host of minions to do their bidding, little hands to construct pyramids, and serve as lackeys. The younger ones like it because the older ones always construct games of enormous detail and drama. Adults can’t sustain the detail and scope of imaginative play that an older child can. The only problem is that the younger kids tend to have a limited attention span, and right in the middle of the heroic assault on the ogre’s castle they might decide that they are not stalwart foot soldiers, but instead happy little puppies. This is not a problem that General Eisenhower ever had to face.

Sometimes the fascination of their games eludes me completely. For a while, there was a craze among my nieces and nephews for the game “Dog Show”. In this game, each of the kids picks a dog name and a breed of dog to embody. They all participate in the Dog Show with its attendant promenades and display of tricks. As an Uncle, my job is to attend the promenade and to issue commands like “Sit” “Lie Down” and “Roll Over”. I have not yet issued the command “Run over and bite Uncle Mike on the ass”, though I have been tempted.

There is something surreal about seeing the kids earnestly acting like dogs, something that could hardly be explained to a non-participant, and that is why the family has carefully videotaped it. This way we can be sure to show it at a time that will be particularly embarrassing for the niece or nephew. Maybe the first time they bring home a special someone….

Since I grew up in a large family I am familiar with games involving a cast of thousands. My older sister excelled at organizing all the kids into pageants with grand mythological themes and dance numbers. She was a cross between D.W Griffith and Busby Berkley, I think. Several Christmases she staged dance presentations for the entertainment of my Grandparents who, to their great credit, never once fell out of their chairs laughing. She had a real flamboyance, and I’m sure that if she had the wherewithal she would have had us dressed in satin knickers for the Minuet number. And I’m certain that I would have worn them, and not even questioned at all. When you are young, you assume that everything that happens in your family is the way things happen in all families. “Of course”, you think “Christmas is the holiday where we put on satin knickers and dance the Minuet for Grandma and Grandpa.” It is only when friends come over and get that slack jawed look of disbelief that you begin to realize that perhaps your family is a little different than the others.

Being in the middle ranks of kids, I was not at first aware of the subtle ranks of hierarchy that my sister had built into her games. There was a game we used to play to the musical accompaniment of a recording of Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite”. In this piece, there is a movement that musically describes the descent of a mule train into the canyon. I remember pacing around the living room on all fours, matching my mule gait to the rhythm of the music. Years later, I recalled that game to my sister. “Do you remember how we would all play mule to the “Grand Canyon Suite’. “Oh, ” she replied, “Not all of us were mules.” My sister had made an ass of me.

From the nature of the sounds drifting up from the basement this Thanksgiving, it sounded like the eldest cousin was calling the tune tonight. He is a rambunctious boy, and his chosen games drift in the direction of Lord of the Flies. They usually end with one of the younger cousins crying, and another cousin explaining earnestly that it was an accident. “I didn’t mean to step on his head…”

As we sat at the table, one of the middle cousins appeared, a Hermes ascended from the underworld, who said with conspicuous nonchalance “Uncle Tom, we have something to show you.” I went to the top of the stairs and peered down. Below, the lights were off, and there was a good deal of rustling and giggling going on in the gloaming. Clearly, the surprise in store for me was not going to be a pleasant one. I felt like the crewman on Star Trek, the one you’ve never seen before who gets beamed down to the planet with the landing party. “Spock – You and Bones and Sulu go wait over there in the well protected area. Crewman PhaserBait go check out the really dark cave with the fumes and tentacles.”

But being an Uncle means knowing when you are going to have to accept a Lilliputian beating in the name of holiday fun, so I submitted to my fate, and donned the mantle of the Uncle Victim. I descended. The basement is a cavernous cement room strewn with various piles of furniture, exercise implements, and play apparatus. The cousins had been organized into two battalions. One group was protected by a fortification of furniture and leisure tools. The other group hid in the back room, waiting to attack me from the rear once I had engaged the defenders of Fort Sofa. They had turned the lights off, and had a few flashlights that they shined in my eyes me, attempting to blind me, while they flung various dolls and balls at me.

Earlier that day, we had made a rule of “Soft Objects Only” after one of the younger and fiercer of my nephews had begun belaboring the kneecaps of his uncles with a large wooden puzzle. So now, under the hail of missiles, I felt relatively safe from crippling. Nonetheless, a hard flung beanie baby to the crotch is no laughing matter. My older brother is content to act as Uncle Target, but I decided that I would not play Wooly Mammoth to their Neanderthals. I decided to try to capture the flashlights and become Uncle Monster.

I don’t know why kids like playing Monster so much, but I do know that it is a perennial favorite. You’ll be sitting in a chair, a smiling and delightful Uncle, and one of the kids will come over and say “You be a monster”. It is no use telling them that this is precisely what your girlfriends ask you not to be. You are dragooned into dragonhood.

The successful monster is hopelessly inefficient. The successful monster shambles along, making lots of noise and considerably less footspeed then the shrieking victims. The successful monster is extremely unobservant, and will blindly rattle the furniture very close to his intended victims, unable to find them even though they are in plain sight and screaming. Both Frankenstein and the Mummy are very successful monsters.

The point of the game as I see it, is to always be on the verge of capturing the victims, but never to actually get them. The successful monster is always just behind his prey, just about to strike. The older kids can sustain this tension for quite a while, but the younger kids invariably lose it. For them, there is a moment in which the game leaps over into reality. Suddenly you are not the Uncle playing monster, you actually have become the Monster. The victim stands stock still and in a quiet and distinct voice says “You’re not a monster anymore, okay?”

Downstairs, roaring and shambling about, assailed by the slings and beanie babies of outrageous fortune, I finally managed to seize both flashlights. I turned them off, and quietly moved off to another part of the darkened room. I began giving out my Stalking Lion snarl, a kind of low growl in the nose. It’s a pretty effective monster noise, but they’re mostly familiar with it, and it only quieted them a bit. So I switched over to a new one, the Velociraptor Hiss. It’s a two parter, with a semi snore inhale, and a hiss on the exhale. That seemed to get their respect. There was silence punctuated only by my dreadful reptilian exhalations. Then the quiet voice of one of my nieces, overly polite. “Uncle Tom, would you turn on the flashlight, please.”

Victory! I turned back on the flashlight magnanimously, savoring the moment of my success. Uncle Monster triumphant! The Lilliputians put to rout!

I was returned to my proper station by a well flung nerf football to the back of the head.