An excerpt from "The Big Bad Wolf," This Is Not a Confession.Read More
In honor of Michael Phelps' extraordinary performances this week, we are sharing an excerpt from David Olimpio's book, This Is Not a Confession, in which he talks about swimming and MP.Read More
When I threw the stick at Jaime, I hadn't intended to hit him with it. But the moment it left my hand, I knew that's what was going to happen. I didn't yet know any calculus or geometry, but I was able to plot, with some degree of certainty, the trajectory of that stick. The initial velocity, the acceleration, the impact. The mathematical likelihood of Jaime's bloody cheek.
It had good weight and heft, that stick. It felt nice to throw. And it looked damn fine in the overcast sky, too, flying end-over-end, spinning like a heavy, two-pronged pinwheel and (finally, indifferently, like math) connecting with Jaime's face.
Jamie's older sister took me by the arm and she shook me. Why did you do that? What were you thinking? The anger I saw in her eyes. Heard in her voice. The kid I became to her then, who was not the kid I thought I was. The burdensome regret. I knew the word "accident" was wrong, but I used it anyway. If you throw a baseball at a wall and it goes through a window, that is an accident. If you throw a stick directly at your friend and it hits your friend in the face, that is something else.
My throw had been something of a lob and there had been a good distance between us. There had been ample time for Jaime to move, but he hadn’t moved. There had been time for him to lift a hand and protect his face from the stick, but he hadn’t done that either. He just stood impotent and watched it hit him. And it made me angry: That he hadn’t tried harder at a defense. That he hadn’t made any effort to protect himself from me.
What was I thinking? What was he thinking?
I am not a kid who throws sticks at his friends. But sometimes, that's who I've been. And when I've been that kid, it's like I'm watching myself act in a movie, reciting somebody else’s damaging lines.
Like this morning, over breakfast. Your eyes asking mine to forget last night’s exchange. You were holding your favorite tea mug. I don’t remember what we were fighting about. It doesn’t seem to matter any more. The words that came out of my mouth then, deliberate and measured, temporarily satisfying to throw at the bored space between us. The slow, beautiful arc. The spin and the calculated impact.
The downward turn of your face.
The heavy drop in my chest.
The word accident was wrong. I used it anyway.
Dan knew how to make the suburbs as dangerous as possible. I think we each had a sense that the most dangerous things in the suburbs sometimes took place behind our own closed doors. That the safe places weren’t necessarily safe places at all.Read More
If you had been in the classroom with me last week, where I sat spotlighted by a harsh, bright bulb, you might have heard some version of the following sentences uttered by my friend Adam, who was leading the small workshop of six artists involved in the project of painting my portrait:
"I brought in Dave because he is so angular."
"You can use the point where his jawline meets his earlobe to find the plane where his nostril should go."
"Don't think of 'glasses' or 'hat' or 'nose.' Just think of his face as a giant jig-saw puzzle of shape and color."
"It may help to think of his eyeglass lenses as mini abstract-expressionist paintings."
The students, most of whom were high-school art instructors, stared at my brightly-lit visage and nodded at Adam's words or dabbed brushes onto their palettes and sighed heavily because maybe they weren't getting it, or maybe they were, but they couldn't turn it out on the canvas.
"I'm not sure what I'm doing here," said one of the students, which made me a little self-conscious, like I was culpable in some way. Something about my face, perhaps. (The guilt complex in me is strong.) I wanted to say, "I'm sorry! Look, don't worry: it's not you, it's me. I've got uneven ears. They've been that way ever since I fell against a fireplace when I was two. Listen to me: it's not your fault."
I'm used to being the one capturing my image. I'm used to finessing it and loading it onto a screen and tweaking it and making it become the image I want it to be. I'm used to my own objectification of myself through various digital-imaging means. But this business of being painted by others is entirely different. The level of objectification, much more strange and intense.
And look, the truth is: I kind of liked it. I liked being closely observed. I liked being intensely examined. I liked people talking about my nostrils and Adam's apple. In some ways, I think I always want to be the object in somebody else's painting. I find it self-affirming. Either this, or I am an attention whore. Take your pick. I mean, I've always known I have an exhibitionist bent, but it's only matched by my annoyance at being sized up by strangers in public. So it's weird to me that I feel this way about the thing.
We took breaks every 20 minutes during the two-hour session so I could move around and stretch. During these periods, I could have gone and looked at the paintings, but I was afraid my reaction would psyche out the artists. I don't like it when people look over my shoulder while I'm writing, so I figured they might feel the same way about painting. So for the entire two hours, I remained on my side of the room, looking only at the back of the six individual canvases and wondering who the guy was on the other side.
When I finally walked around and viewed the end products, I was surprised not only by how good they were, but also how remarkably different and unique each one was. That's one thing you get in painting that you don't get in photography. With photographs, you might capture different "moods." You might show personality through placement of lens and lighting and motion, but if six different photographers took six photographs of the same thing at the same time from six slightly different stations, they would essentially be the same object. Not so with the painted portraits. Each one was an entirely different person with his own personality and backstory.
And I'm going to introduce you to those people now:
The Disciplined Dog Walker
In high school, girls used to call this guy up all the time to talk about their goddamned boyfriends, which caused him to turn completely grey by the age of eighteen. They all signed his yearbook and said he was "Sweet." He was supremely disciplined. His brown Delta 88 Oldsmobile got him to 5 am (and 5 pm) swim practice on time. He ate dinner promptly at 7:45 so he could start his homework no later than 9 PM and be in bed by eleven. Today, he owns his own dog-walking and dog-boarding business and he makes sure all the dogs that stay with him maintain a proper schedule: Breakfast is at 7 am. Dinner at 7 pm. Walks at 11 am and 3pm. Ball game at noon. Even though he is now 39, he still looks eighteen and he gets carded whenever he "lets loose" and orders his weekly Amaretto Sour at his "local" on Friday nights. Being carded doesn't really make him mad or annoyed so much as confused because, what the fuck, people? Do you not see the grey in my goatee?
The Sketchy American (Wannabe French) Photographer
This dude hangs out in the Jardin du Luxembourg and asks women in a heavy American accent je prends tu photo?? He rolls his own cigarettes and he always exhales smoke through his nostrils. Either that, or he talks through an exhale so that you never actually see the smoke come out. He has an earthy smell to him that might be musky and alluring (and maybe even a little sexy) if it weren't completely disgusting. He's got a collection of fountain pens and old film cameras back in his flat that he would like to show you.
The Coffee-Shop Coder and Cookie Taster
This guy hangs out in a coffee shop all day and pretends to build Web sites, but really he just talks to the baristas and gets them to give him free scones and muffins. He also has a crush on a bored, rich housewife named Carmella who comes in every morning at 9:30 after her yoga session. The most he has ever said to her is, "I like your iPhone case." By the time 3:30 rolls around he is so jacked-up on sugar and caffeine, he starts working on his erotic Sci-Fi novel that takes place in a coffee shop in 2105. The main character is a misunderstood programmer and his business partner, Carmellina, who has a proclivity for lesbian porn, six-inch heels, and low, v-cut sweaters.
The Angry Alcoholic
This dude got roughly "escorted" out of an Irish bar two weeks ago when he told a bouncer to "fuck off." Instead of being ashamed for losing his temper, he's proud that it took a total of three of those bastards to get him to the parking lot. He still wishes he had busted the one guy's nose with the back of his head. He is a security contractor for a Federal government agency who can't fire him because they are afraid of what he knows and that they will be sued. Once, on a dreary Sunday afternoon, he passed out into a glass of Jameson and broke a tooth. He spit the tooth fragment into the sink and chopped it up in the disposal. Then he read Bukowski poems to his dog in his underwear.
The Protective Family Man
This guy saw Rocky eight times in the theater and now owns the box set on VHS, DVD, and he hopes he has managed to get a copy in the iCloud. He is married with three daughters. His two eldest will kill him with the boys they bring home. The punks. He always puts a bat by the door when they come in the house. About ten years ago, on Fourth of July, the neighbor's kid kept racing his vintage Trans Am up and down the street and so he got his shotgun and stood in the road and, as that car barreled down on him he lifted the gun's barrel at the windshield and the car screeched to a stop and the kid inside yelled out the window, "Dude, what the fuck man? Are you crazy?" And the guy said, "My kids play on this street, motherfucker. Slow the fuck down."
The Crunchy Pot Smoker
This guy hasn't worn a pair of underwear since 2005. He usually listens to Lawn Boy in the early morning and Billy Breathes in the afternoon. He washes his wool socks in the sink each evening and dries them on the radiator overnight. He works in an REI and on his days off he and his buddy Scott get high and repel off the roof of Scott's parent's three-story house. He once spilled bong water on his couch, which was the same night he found a kitten in his backyard and named it Stoney, so he thinks it might have been a good omen.
Originally published on David's blog October 30th, 2013.
Words are Stunt Doubles
I am always saying things I don't want to be saying.
I mean, that's not really quite it.
Let me try it another way: The things I am saying always seem to be standing in for the actual things I want to be saying. Like stunt-doubles.
Stunt doubles? Really? What is wrong with me?
Look, here's the thing: Even when I carefully think it out. (Especially when I carefully think it out.) Even when there is word efficiency and sentence economy. Even when I cut to the chase in 140 characters or less and just say it. As in: Here is the thing I want to be saying.
Even when I do that, it doesn't quite nail it.
And so, in a nutshell (left on the three-ring circus floor), this is why I like clowns.
A Clown Room, By Any Other Name
Grandpa had a clown room. It was exactly as it sounds: A room full of clowns. And we called it The Clown Room. The bookshelves were covered with clown statuettes: Ceramic, bronze, gold, papier-mâché. Clowns in various states of clownery. Bashful clown. Sad clown. Clown holding balloons. Clown dancing. Clown kissing. They weren't just on the shelves, either. They hung from the ceiling on trapeze swings. They sat on the floor. In the chair. There was a clown embroidered pillow. There were clown portraits, framed and mounted on the wall. Famous clowns. Archetypal clowns. Bozo. Weary Willie.
The room had other names, too. One of the names given to it was David's Room, which referred to me. It received this designation shortly after I was born. And the name and event were commemorated with a plastic yellow nameplate that had an antique car on it. The nameplate said: David's Room.
The Clown Room became David's Room not because I was a clown or had clown-like tendencies. It's just where they put my crib when I would stay at my grandparent's house as a baby. The Clown Room had fewer clowns in it then, in 1973. The clown population of that room grew in direct relation to my hormones. And so, as you can imagine, by the time I was a teenager, The Clown Room had become entirely overrun with clowns.
There were two clowns I especially liked as a toddler. One was a little toy: a skinny clown that hung from a high bar. You could press a button and the clown would flip over the bar like a gymnast. The other was just a big clown head, and it hung proudly (and loudly) on the front door of The Clown Room. When you pressed the nose, the nose lit up and a tune played. I desperately wish the tune had been "Send in the Clowns" but I'm pretty sure it wasn't.
The Clown Room had one other name during my lifetime, which was, simply, "Inside." The TV was in The Clown Room, and when my grandparents were done with dinner and had made some after-dinner coffee and had some fruit, grandpa would say, "Do you want to go 'Inside' and watch some boob-tubes?" My grandparents were some of the most interesting users of language I know. Referring to a room as "Inside" when in fact the entire house was "Inside" seemed revolutionary to me. It required "inside knowledge." It was like a secret code. And I liked being part of it.
Before "The Clown Room" was "David's Room" or "Inside," before it was even "The Clown Room," before there were hundreds and hundreds of clowns in there, before I slept there in a crib and made baby poop within its four walls—before all these things—the room belonged to my dad and his brother Benny. And so I guess then it would have been "The Boy's Bedroom." My dad in and his brother moved into the room when my grandparents bought the house, sometime in 1958, when my dad was eleven years old. He went through puberty in that room. He probably pined over girls in that room. He listened to hours of radio in that room.
Today the room is somebody else's room. The house is somebody else's house. The room might have a name, or it might not. It might be a room where somebody sleeps at night. Or it might be a room where one man, who lives with his wife and two dogs, keeps a collection cicadas. Or trains. Today, it doesn't really matter what we call The Clown Room. After all, a Clown Room, by any other name is just as full of happiness. Just as full of woe. Just as full of life and dying. Just as full of memories.
A Clown Room, by any other name, is still a Clown Room.
It's just some words we're using in place of the thing we really want to be saying.
Good Clowns are Scary Clowns
There's an article out in the August Smithsonian magazine called "The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary" by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie and, in it, psychologist Dr. Brenda Wiederhold says, "[The fear of clowns] starts normally in children about the age of two, when they get anxiety about being around strangers, too. At that age, children's minds are still developing, there's a little bit of a blend and they're not always able to separate fantasy from reality." According to the article, people who go on to be fearful of clowns in adulthood "are unsettled by the clown’s face-paint and the inability to read genuine emotion on a clown’s face, as well as the perception that clowns are able to engage in manic behavior, often without consequences."
I never developed a fear of clowns the way some children do. Or maybe it's more accurate to say: They pretty much scared the shit out of me, but I liked it. I don't necessarily attribute this to spending my baby years in Grandpa's Clown Room, but it couldn't have hurt, right?
I remember going to the circus once with Grandpa. He was very excited to introduce me to circus clowns. We watched them do the clown-car bit, where clowns just keep streaming out of an impossibly small car. The clowns then spread out among the crowd, and one actually came and engaged with us in our row. I remember how it was impossible to read that clowns face. How it seemed impenetrable. I could tell it belonged to a real person, but somehow the person didn't seem real. He seemed larger than life and threatening and ungovernable. It seemed entirely possible (and plausible) that he might do absolutely anything, like reach into his own throat and just yank out a screaming bunny or something.
I don't think I shit myself.
Clowns are unsettling because there is a real person under the make-up, a real person with real and complicated emotions and desires, and yet permanently painted on that person's face is either a smile or a frown or laughter or crying. The clown is, at the same time, himself and not himself. He is, on the one hand, a person directly engaging with us, speaking to us, possibly even touching us. And yet he is a person who is entirely removed from us and unknown. Not just unknown, but incapable of being known. There is scariness in that. It makes us feel vulnerable. Makes us distrust our own instincts. One impulse telling us to run, and another telling us it's okay: this is safe. Clowns make us fear what we do not know. About them. About ourselves.
But where there is danger, there is also remarkable beauty, if you care to look for it. All good art is dangerous art. And all good clowns are scary clowns. Not because they necessarily set out to be scary clowns. But because clowns are, almost out of necessity, scary.
In the Smithsonian article, McRobbie writes: "So the question is, when did the clown, supposedly a jolly figure of innocuous, kid-friendly entertainment, become so weighed down by fear and sadness? When did clowns become so dark?" And then she answers that with this hypothesis: "Maybe they always have been.”
A friend recently reminded me of the clown scene in Dumbo. I hadn't remembered it, but when I played it, the scene came rushing back to me. I remember feeling kind of scared and sad at this part as a kid. It's scary humor, isn't it? Not because the clowns necessarily look scary, but it's in how they behave: erratic, with a sort of willful thoughtlessness. A sort of intentional disregard for safety bordering on cruelty, which is at odds with the fact they are playing firemen. The part where they're getting out of their clown costumes at the end only emphasizes how we feel a distance from them. We feel like, even without the clown outfits, they're still clowns. They're still unknown.
I like when there are tensions between how a thing appears, and what the thing makes you feel or think. I like feeling unsettled by it. In a recent RadioLab episode called "Blood," Robert Krulwich remarks on how sometimes "The thing that scares you most is also so absurdly frightening that you laugh at the same time."
Clowns can make us laugh, even when we feel like screaming, in part because of the absurdity. The painted face in permanent smile or permanent frown, the make-up covering up the true mood and character of the person underneath. A sad face that shows no sadness, as the person wearing it sprays another clown with seltzer water. A smiling face that shows no smiles, as the person wearing it kicks another clown in the butt.
Clowns are almost never saying the thing they want to be saying. And that's partly how they make us feel the way they do.
It's Always Hot in Dallas in June
When Grandpa was struggling with his last breathes in the hospital, one of the things on his mind was pizza. Specifically, the making of pizza. The making of pizza for me and for other family members—my dad, my brother—people who were coming to visit him in the hospital that weekend.
He wanted to set up the room next to his with a table and, the way he figured it, it would be sort of like a party. He reminded my grandmother of the things she would need to buy at the store to make the pizzas. Which stores had the the best ingredients. Where she might be able to find the best price on mozzarella.
Talking about pizza was probably one of Grandpa's favorite things to talk about. That and fruit. He liked describing the way a thing tasted or the way it felt. He'd often furrow his brow and rub his fingers together when describing something that tasted truly remarkable, but which he couldn't quite label with a word. Food was visceral. Food was everything.
His enjoyment of food was only matched by his enjoyment of numbers. He could tell you that apples were $1.39 a pound at Giant and he knew whether or not that was a good price. He also probably knew that they were $1.19 at Kroger, cheaper sure, but not as good. He had a brain for all this stuff because he had been a produce man at Grand Union. He bought produce for a living. To him, food and prices were inseparable.
I wrote these words, exactly like this, on some paper on June 7th, 2002, the day Grandpa died:
Grandpa died today. I flew into Washington at noon to find out that he had taken a turn for the worse and the doctors did not think he would make it through the night. He didn't.
When I first got to the room and saw him lying in the bed, I was a little shocked. He was struggling for each breath he took—breathing in this eerie, mechanical way, like you would imagine a machine to breath, if a machine could breath. Of course it's perfectly unnatural for a machine to breath. That's how this was. You could see his lungs and rib cage expand with each breath he took—and you could see his frail heart beating rapidly from underneath the sheets.
He was sleeping when I arrived, but woke up for about 30 minutes, during which time I got to say some things to him, and he tried to say some things to me, though it was very hard for him to talk without his dentures in. I think he asked me if it was hot in Dallas, a typical question for him to ask. I held his hand—told him I loved him. His face was caved in without his dentures. He had a few days stubble on his chin and cheeks—something I'd never seen on grandpa before. He already resembled a skeleton lying there—you could make out his bones beneath the blankets. His legs were as thin and bony as my forearms.
It took every ounce of strength for him to speak.
But he did speak—and even spoke my name. I think it was meant to be that I would arrive here today—be able to share some last words with him. Hold him.
My Grandpa's brain was always a couple of steps ahead of every situation, working out logistical problems. He was always thinking, always plotting about what to do next. Next in life. Next in the day. And the main subject that kept his brain occupied was his family. I imagine one of the reasons he found death so hard to do was that he wanted to be there to do things for them—for us. To welcome us as we came to visit him in the hospital. To bake some pizza pies for us. To ask us how we were doing. To just sit and be with us and eat some fruit.
To ask how the weather was in Dallas.
Send in the Rodeo Clowns
I had a step-brother who used to ride bulls in the rodeo. He got stepped on by a bull once. Stomped right on his chest. It actually left an imprint. Rodeo clowns are part of what saved him. Rodeo clowns save riders like him all the time from being mauled by bulls. They distract the bull. Like a stunt double. They offer it something on which it can focus its rage.
After Grandpa woke up briefly and said my name and asked me how the weather was in Dallas, he didn't wake up again. He just fell back into that weird mechanical breathing until a few hours later, he stopped. And when he stopped it wasn't terrible. It just happened. And it was peaceful. There was a final exhale, and there was a wrinkle of his forehead as his lungs failed to draw another breath, and a screwing up of his lips, sort of like, well shit, this sucks. And then the wrinkle went away and the lips softened and then that was it.
Maybe one of the things Grandpa liked about clowns was their ability to find lightness in heavy situations. To wear one expression while feeling another. I really don't think he saw the scary in them. I think he may have seen the opposite: something more akin to bravery. A sort of selflessness in making people feel good,even in terrible situations. Of distraction: of painting over the terrible and the tragic with the everyday and the hope and the good. The way they confronted fear and sadness and despair with levity, and, in this way, transcended it all. Maybe, for this reason, they actually comforted him. Maybe he longed to be like that.
I've never felt more at peace with dying than when I watched my grandfather do it. For the first time, it didn't seem that bad to me. For the first time, it seemed good and natural. For the first time I felt comfortable with the idea that I would be doing that one day and when I did it, it would suck, yes, but then it would happen and life would keep doing the things life does and it would be exceptionally unremarkable and entirely okay.
I can't quite get the feeling back today. It's hard for me to remember it. To bring it to mind. But I know I felt it, and I know I felt a sort of peace, and not sadness. Which is the final thing I owe him thanks for, because I know it was him that made me feel it. This sort of sense that, look this whole thing sucks and it's a real goddamn bitch, and shit I'm sorry I've got to go, but you know what? It's all okay in the end.
And anyway: Is it hot in Dallas?
When Grandpa died, somebody, somewhere was playing "Send in the Clowns." Somebody was buying apples at Giant at a pretty good price. And on June 7th, 2002 according to the Farmer's Almanac, it was sunny with a high of 91 degrees at Love Field, which really isn't that hot, for Dallas.
"Send in the Clowns" was previously published online August 20, 2013.
I've always had a deep, nagging sense that I missed my potential in one glaring aspect of my life, namely, that I could have been—no, that I should have been—somebody who knew more about trains. As I go about writing my memoir one day, as I no-doubt will, coffee-shop sitting, hopefully not in—but let's face it probably precisely in—Florida, wearing pants that are clean and freshly unsodden, my professorial visage spruced and dapper, and cleaved of impossible ear and nose hair, glancing over my laptop screen (and reading glasses) at women half my age who will be smiling at me with smiles not dangerous, the way the best smiles are, but sympathetic, the way smiles happen when they are directed at a kitten, or a baby, as I sit there putting the final touches on Chapter Seven: "The Day I Jumped into the Pool Without My Floaties" and before beginning Chapter Eight: "And Then God Gave Me Erections," I will take off my half-specs, slide my full-specs down off my head onto my nose, lean back in my chair, and reflect on the fact that I never became a great collector of, or expert in, things train-related.
Things started out good for me. My parents bought me an O-Scale train set at an early age. I remember the way the metal track joined together. The way the engine smelled and how surprisingly heavy it was in my hand. I remember the drops of oil you could put in the engine's smoke stack to make it puff real smoke. I remember my dad and I painting green one side of a giant, thin piece of wood to make the base of the layout. And I remember, after it was all put together, slowly moving the red throttle on the electric control, and feeling tremendous and powerful as the train began to move, the excitement of watching it snake around the train town, me the conductor.
And here's the weird thing: Is there anything less exciting than watching a train move, really? Golf, maybe? Turtle staring contests? Ice cream drip races? And yet there's a sort of universal fascination kids have in seeing a train. Today, if I have to stop to wait for a train to cross the road, I wonder what I've done to deserve such injustice, I go through the five stages of grief, beginning with denial: There is no train crossing the road. (For the sake of the drivers around me, I leave off the two additional stages I've tacked on: Heroic Wailing and Unbridled Promiscuity.) But when I was a kid, I used to hope and pray for those black-and-white railroad crossing arms to drop. I used to love hearing the bells. The whistle. My favorite part was seeing the caboose.
Listen: Kids love trains.
Before they are even aware of the romance surrounding trains. Or the metaphors they've come to represent in literature and movies. Or the influence they've had on art and life and culture. They see a train, and they are held breathless for a moment. They see a train, and they see something grand and magical and they know it is a thing to behold.
My sister's dad, Jim, takes photos of trains. Specifically, he takes photos of trains in the Pacific Northwest. He has done this for many years, and these days, in his retirement, he even earns money off of this pursuit. He is known in train circles. He has a book—one, even, that somebody else published for him. But for a long time, he just took photos of trains because he liked to do it. His government job afforded him three-month periods of time off, and while some people might spend that time golfing, or investing in rounds of drinks for friends, or shooting pool, he spent a good deal of it driving America's highways and photographing trains, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, even when he lived on the opposite side of the country. There might be a specific train or a specific location that he wanted to capture and so he would go there and capture it.
It takes a certain kind of resolve to do this. I mean, doesn't it? To set aside things in your life and take time out of your schedule to go and do something like photograph a train? On the one hand, it seems absolutely crazy. On the other hand, it seems so entirely purposeful and real and committed. There are so many things we do that have a clear-cut "why" in life. Why do we work jobs, even some jobs that we hate? So we can put food on our tables. Why do we invest in gym memberships and suffer miles plodding on treadmills? To have better health and to "look and feel better." Why does one person drive cross-country, again and again, sinking money into gas and hotel rooms, spending hours looking at asphalt and flat, boring countryside, to take photos of trains? I'm still not entirely sure, but one thing I do know: Fame and fortune ain't it. And I respect that.
I've always had a sort of fascination with my sister's dad for doing train photography, and have always felt a sort of admiration of him for it, even though I never knew him that well. He took on a sort of "mythic" status for me as a kid, not only because of the train photography, but also because Jim cuts a large and intimidating presence in the photos my sister has of him. In many of them, he had a thick, mysterious beard and a strong, quiet gaze. I knew he'd been to Vietnam and he always looked like he'd seen things that he didn't want to talk about. I ascribed certain characteristics upon him, of honor and loyalty and dedication, characteristics I had no idea if he had or not. But in my head, it's who he was, and in some weird way, who I wanted to be.
Lately, Jim's train photography has been a particular source of inspiration to me. It has reminded me of this thing I spend time doing: staring at a blank screen, filling it with words I find, then erasing them, then finding different ones, cutting and pasting them, stopping, starting over. Doing it despite the fact that nobody really cares if I do it. Despite the fact that nobody is paying me to do it. And writing isn't the only thing: The photos of my dogs (files and files of them now.) The photos of hydrants (growing in number and disorganization.) I mean, the only reason I probably continue to do any of these things is because they all require very little financial investment. If I felt compelled to drive cross-country to get a photo of a particular hydrant? To book hotel rooms and to stay for days away from my spouse? Well, for one thing, I would probably be divorced.
There's certainly more credibility in documenting America's trains than there is in documenting America's fire hydrants. I don't mean to compare the two things. Besides which, what I do is not really documenting, so much. I am not all that preoccupied by the facts of fire hydrants. I'm more interested in them for how they look. But still, you get what I'm saying: WHY? WHY DO IT? And more important than that: How do you convince yourself it should be done when nobody is out there expecting it from you?
I don't know if Jim would necessarily see it this way, but for me, his photographing of trains has always been a metaphor for a self-made life and a self-made existence. It has represented a sort of heroic, dedication to art, and to the pursuit of passion.
And, by God, if I do nothing else in this life, I want to be somebody who does the photographing of trains.
At our best, we can all be kids at a railroad crossing watching trains. At our worst, we can decide that watching trains is a useless activity. Because it is devoid of financial incentive. It is lacking in any higher purpose.
But look: nobody is paying us to watch TV.
Nobody is paying us to read crap on the Internet.
There is nothing inherently better about participating in somebody else's worldview instead of your own.
III: The Big F'ing Story
Jim was married to my mom before my father and her got married. And, for this reason, he has wound up being, for me, a sort of "gateway" to my earlier mom. Because before Jim took great photos of trains and railroads in the Pacific Northwest, he took photos of her. This younger mom. This teen-aged mom. This mom that existed nearly twenty years before I was born. I am tremendously grateful to him for these photos of her, and I am so glad I have some of them today.
Recently, Jim drove a desk that belonged to my mom to his home in Virginia from my sister's house in Dallas, where it's been for the last few years since my mom's death. He drove it in his van, a van often full of train photos and other train accoutrement, but which this time was empty and therefore capable of desk-smuggling.
I drove down to his house a few weeks ago to pick up the desk, and while I was there, he gave me a tour of his basement, which is essentially a giant museum of brass model trains. They are on display behind glass cases that line nearly every wall. Train after train after train. And he knows the name of each one, the type of engine, when it ran, where it ran, on what railroad it ran, whether it was a passenger train or cargo train. Some of the trains he has on display are painted, and some of them are just shiny brass. But each one has a story and when all the stories are put together in one room, it is an impressive thing to see.
There is an inherent sense of "quest" in collecting things, of chasing a thing you are wanting to find. Chasing a thing you are needing to find. Sometimes it's a thing you don't even know exists. Melville knew about this. It's the premise of Moby Dick. And another lesser known, but possibly more ambitious Pierre, or The Ambiguities. The key word with Melville was "inscrutable." (It's a fun game to see how many times you can spot that word in Pierre.) And his characters are often looking for something that is there, right there in front of them, and yet can't be seen.
Here's a list of all the things I've collected at one point in my life, in approximate chronological order:
- Stuffed animals
- Rabbit's feet
- Baseball cards
- Football cards
- Anything involving the Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys
- Matchbox cars
- Model Trains and model-train accoutrement
- Star Wars action figures
- Other types of action figures
- Tonka Trucks
- Plastic Military Men
- Garbage Pail Kids
- Paint Pens
- Role-Playing Games
- Lead Civil-War Figurines
- Mobile Phones
- Shot glasses
- Empty Beer Bottles
- Fire Hydrant Photos
Michelangelo described sculpture as finding something that was already there. As both a literal and figurative "cutting away" of all the parts that didn't belong. Collecting is kind of like that, too. It is finding the stuff that was already there, but putting it with other stuff so that it takes on greater significance.
Writing can be like that, too. A lot of the time, writing is piecing together the stuff that was already there, and doing it in such a way that it makes sense and forms a story. Sometimes that story is about a cat in a tree. Sometimes it's about losing a parent.
And sometimes it's about trains.
There's something impressive about seeing all of Jim's trains in the same room together, but there's also something incredibly messy and chaotic and overwhelming about it. Which is the same way stories are. But it's powerful. And either way it tells the story that needs to be told.
And look: that's what this thing is, this act of collecting. This act of acquiring. Or of taking photos. Or of organizing words. It can seem all messy while you're doing it. It can seem like maybe it isn't worth it. But then one day, there it is: all the things all together. And it makes a sort of sense to look at it. And if it's about trains, we can point to it and say, look! Look at all these things about trains! Do you see? And doesn't it mean something?
And the answer is: yes. The answer is: yes it does. It does mean something.
It has to. It has to mean something. Because we've spent hours, possibly even days, chasing the idea, reading about something, exploring how to turn it into words. Or images. Or photographs. Hoping the thing is there, in the end. It's an act of trust. You're hoping that the time you spend chasing the idea will lead to something fruitful. Because if it doesn't? Well shit, you just spent an afternoon writing words on a screen about nothing. When you could have been paying your bills. Or making money to pay your bills.
Sometimes it's a dead end. Sometimes, you spend days chasing a thing and you realize it has no place in the wider collection, the larger work, the broader essay. And if you let it, that can fucking defeat you. Truly. That can make you feel like you've wasted a tremendous amount of time chasing something that was never there. But the fact is, you didn't know. You didn't know until you looked for it. You didn't know until you started cutting away the other shit. You didn't know until you chased the idea down and found out exactly what it was and how exactly it could fit into the overall Big F'ing Story.
Listen to me: there is a Big F'ing Story about trains, just as there is a Big F'ing Story about everything. And it's made up of a bunch of little f'ing stories.
The little boy seeing a a train for the first time at a railroad crossing and feeling its power in his bones. The little girl, whose father worked for the railroad inspecting tracks and who forgot to pick her up one evening at the train station where she was waiting for him, and so she walked, sad, back to her grandparent's house. The boy and his father throttling a train around a train town in their second-story game room. The mother and her son riding a miniature train around a zoo in New Jersey.
The ride we took on Japan's shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto in 2007.
The ride we took from York to Edinburgh in 2013.
The train in Plano, TX that rumbled by the house where my mom spent the final years of her life.
The Mid-town Direct from The City to South Orange.
The "El" in Chicago town.
The Northeast Corridor Acela from DC to New York.
The heavy, menacing cargo train that rolled directly behind a cockroached apartment above an art gallery in Northeast DC each morning. Scaring us awake the hot, humid summer of 1996.
The many, many songs about trains, which I love and which I sometimes put on "Repeat 1." The sounds, the whistles, the bells and grumble—the onomatopoeia—in jazz and blues. The smoke and the metal, in art and literature and movies.
I wish I was somebody who knew more about trains.
But I may know everything I need to know.
"Songs about Trains" was previously published online July 23, 2013.
I've been washing clothes for a woman that used to wash mine. And I've been helping her put them on right after she comes out of the bathroom all inside out. And it makes me remember one of her favorite stories to tell used to be about the time I put my rain boots on by myself at daycare. And how I came stomping out to the car all proud and smiling and with the boots on the wrong feet. And how when I got into the car, I said to her, Mom, I put my boots on by myself. And how she said, I see that.
She knew I fucked it up. But she never said anything. It probably wasn't the first time she did that. It definitely wasn't the last.
It's good to have people you can make mistakes in front of.
I tell her it's time for radiation. And she says, I've done this before, haven't I? And I say, Two weeks. And she says, Two weeks? I say, We have three more. And she shakes her head. She goes to the bathroom to get out of her nightgown and into her clothes. And when she comes out, her pants are on inside out. She isn't all proud and smiling. She is weary and disoriented. And she holds her hand to her head and she says, What's making me like this? And I say, You have a tumor in your brain. I say, It's the radiation. And she says, How long have I been like this? And I say, Two weeks. And she says, How much longer? And I say, Three more.
But I don't know if that's true.
I say, Mom, we need to put your pants on the right way. I say, Your pockets are on the outside. And she looks down and says, How did I do that? And it's not really embarrassment I hear in her voice. Just confusion. And so she sits on the bed and she takes off her pants. She takes them off in front of her son. And it should be painful for her to do that. In the past, it would have been. But now it isn't. Because now it doesn't matter. And she sits on the bed in nothing but her underwear and a bra. And she looks frail and her thin gray hair is uncombed. And her skin is loose on her bones. And I pull the pant legs into themselves so they are the right way out. And I hand her the pants. And she takes them and puts them on.
I've been bringing her things to make the place she's at feel more like home. A blanket. A picture. A clock. I'm bringing them from a home she really doesn't remember anymore. A home full of things she used to love and cherish and collect. It's a home she left over a month ago in a truck with the lights on top. And even though she can't remember it, she says she wants to go back there every day. And she asks me every day if she will. And I lie and I say yes. And I think how maybe that's not really a lie at all. Because we all return home, in the end, wherever that is. And I don't tell her I've been out all day looking for a different home she can stay in while we wait.
And me, I've come back to a city I used to call home. And I've been driving and driving. Because that's what you do here. And sometimes I even get in my truck and drive three hundred feet to a parking lot across the street. Like when I'm going from the gym to the smoothie store.
And everything is familiar here. Except me. I don't recognize my voice. And when I take calls from strangers, I think, whoever this guy is, he isn't so bad. He talks pretty. And I go about these one-act plays, rehearsing the scripts I've written in my head. Changing up my inflection. Practicing my smile. Now the nurse in the hallway. Now the hospital chaplain. Now the woman selling me a new home for mom. Now the girl at the beer store. Now the smoothie guy. Now the dude at Coffeeland. Now mom telling me she hears music.
But there is no music.
I've been eating sushi at stoplights. And grocery store parking lots. Not really in the moment, but not entirely out of it, either. Swallowing my thoughts and words before they form. Tasting things only briefly before erasing them with ginger. And I've been spitting butts out my truck window when the paper burns down. And dressing inappropriately for the weather, and cursing the cold rain—and the bright sun—in equal measure.
And yesterday, as I sat there waiting for the light to turn, I remembered Monica in that hotel room in Tennessee, and how she rolled over and cried after she came. And how I lay on my back and looked at the ceiling still feeling her wet on my skin. Still tasting her. And how I didn't speak for swallowing. And how I felt myself go soft for her, but I didn't touch her. Because I'm not interested in that kind of mistake. And we were there in the quiet room, as close and as far as we've ever been. And we fell asleep that way.
The next day we got dressed in silence. Outside in the cold, she said, I told him about you, and he's not coming back this time. She said, I think I fucked it up. And her brown eyes were hollow. And her brown eyes were wet. And before we got into our different cars on our way to our different lives, I put my hand to her neck and her neck was warm.
Behind my truck seat, are plastic bags I've sealed with a knot. Inside them are empty sushi trays. Only a lump of wasabi remains in each. And sometimes I'll collect two or three of these tied bags before I remember to deposit them in the trash. And it feels good that I can gather them no matter where I go. Because, in modern cities, there is always a place to buy sushi. And so there is always a place I can call home.
Until one day when I won't be able to remember home anymore. And I'll just have these broken memories of things I used to collect. Things I used to cherish. Things I used to do that I was proud of. Things I used to do that I wasn't. And I'll talk about them to strangers who bring me medicines. And I'll say, There was a time I ate sushi at stoplights. And I'll say, I listened to someone cry once and I didn't know what to do and so I did nothing. And I'll say, I'm not sure if I should have helped her live, or helped her die. And I'll say, I've made so many goddamned mistakes.
And it'll be just another thing that won't matter. Like putting my boots on the wrong feet.
I'll say the words until they become my stories. I'll keep stringing them together the way I've learned to do. And I'll repeat them over and over. Until finally there is nobody left to hear them. Until finally the words themselves will fade and become meaningless.
And it won't be so bad when that happens. It really won't.
Originally published in Crate Literary Journal (Issue 7, Spring 2011).
The zero. The nothing. Reciting the zeros is all about repetition.
Zero is persuasive. Zero is full of ego.
Throw in a goddamned zero, and the other number becomes a zero. Every time. I swear it to you. This is not bullshit.
No matter how old you are, you will eventually be zero.
It doesn’t matter what the other number is, how proud or how big or how small.
Go up against a zero and you become a zero. Every time. I swear it to you. This is not bullshit.
One times one is itself.
One does not project itself onto other numbers, like zero. It is egoless. It is non-persuasive.
Put one up against another number, and it becomes the other number.
One times myself is always myself. One times dad is always dad.
One is how we begin to be something other than zero. One is always longing to be something more than one.
We will continue becoming more than one until we hit zero.
Dad and me. Lying on the bed in a guest bedroom in my house, which is a house where he no longer lives. Staring at the ceiling and doing times tables while I think about dinosaurs.
Let’s do twos, he says.
Can we read the dinosaur book? I say.
Let’s do all of them through nines, he says. Then the dinosaur book.
Dinosaurs lived two hundred million years ago, I say.
Yes, he says.
Is that older than you? I say.
Yes, he says. That is older than me.
How old are you? I say.
I’m thirty-three years, he says.
New work from David Olimpio is available in an Author Collection.
The crowded three. My dad, my step-mom, and me. Summer vacations. Word games on road-trips in a minivan.
The triad: wrong. The flatted third. The minor chord.
I believe in threes. I believe in repetitions of three. A fun game would be to find three different uses for the word “van.”
We already have one. We just need two more.
My stepbrother made our three into four. He was born in 1984, which is divisible by four, and which is eleven years after the year I was born. 1984 is a year that makes me think of Van Halen and checkered bandanas and Vans sneakers.
Every four is made up of a two, but not every two is made up of a four. Fourteen is not made up of a four, even though there is a four in the number.
Four is nice and round and comfortable. Four doesn’t seem hungry, and four doesn’t want for friends. Among other things, four makes a good placement at a dinner table.
Four-day weekends at dad’s were way better than two. More catfish caught on chilly Dallas mornings at Lake Ray Hubbard. More Pac-Man at quarter arcades. More trips to the video store for VHS rentals. Day one of four seemed like such a long time.
When you recite the fives, you really only need to remember two numbers: five and zero.
Also: every other five is even and every other five is odd.
Aging is best observed in five-year increments. For instance: school reunions are best kept five years apart.
I am eight times five, which is also divisible by four and two. When I was one times five, Dad moved to a different city. Dad and Mom were married two-times-five years. The first five, which may have been the best, were without me.
The last five. The last five. The last five.
I used to count the days by six packs of 7.5-percent pale ale. If you buy two six packs at one time, then you have more ways to divide the days before you need to return to the beer store. One each day for twelve days is the hardest to maintain, but the most responsible. Two each day for six is… optimistic. Three gets you four days. And four gets you three. Six will get you two nights… passed out on the couch. Twelve only gets you one of those, but costs you an additional one in recovery, so it’s like a double wammy.
Reciting the sevens was easy because I knew about football scores. I knew the 14 and the 21 and the 35 and the 42. I’d seen a few 49s but not a 56 or a 63. The 70 and the 77 were virtually unheard of. And the 84 was just crazy talk.
Every other weekend, I flew in a 737 between Houston and Dallas. When Dad drove me to love field to fly home to mom, we’d listen to Sunday football. Sunday is the seventh day. My favorite player was John Elway, who wore seven. On January 11th, 1987—27 years ago—dad and I sat in the airport parking garage together listening as John Elway executed a series of plays known today as “The Drive.” We’d do that when a game was really exciting. Just sit in the car with the radio on listening to the score until we absolutely had to go inside.
I never wanted to go inside.
My dad says eighty is the age. It’s the age for all of us, he says. The men with our last name, we only go to eighty. Then we throw a zero. Eighty is eight times ten or sixteen times five. If you graduate high school at eighteen, eighty would get you roughly twelve five-year reunions.
Great-Grandpa Guilio was eighty and seven months.
Pop-Pop was eighty and five months, just like his brother, Frank.
Great-Uncle Joe, who was terrified by the eight-oh, actually saw eighty-one…for ten days, or two fives.
Dad, who is now sixty-six and good with numbers, has had cancer twice. Sixty-six is twice thirty-three and still not as old as the dinosaurs. It is about eight times a five-year high-school reunion. It is two touchdowns (and two point-afters) away from eighty.
Two months ago, I became halfway to eighty.
Go up against a zero, and you become a zero. I swear it to you. This is not bullshit.
Originally published at Rappahannock Review.
It was Glenn who found the dead cat. Underneath a bush in Mr. Kensey’s front yard. He told Daniel about it, and then Daniel came over to my house and told me. I went across the street and told Jamie. And for a few hours one Saturday, it was the news on our block: this stiff, dead cat.
We had to crawl through some bushes to get to it. In the close Houston air, we sat on our knees, our skin damp with sweat and brown with summer, and we looked down at the cat lying there on its side, lips pulled back in a rigor mortis grin. Aside from being dead, there seemed to be nothing wrong with it. No wound. No visible trauma.
“I dare you to touch it,” said Daniel.
“If you touch it, you’re gonna die,” said Jamie.
“I’ll touch it,” I said, and I put my hand on the cat’s stiff shoulder.
A kind of trick of the senses happens when you touch a dead thing. The expectation of something familiar. Some reaction: fear, joy, love. Warmth. Comfort. My hand on this cat, which was no longer a cat at all, just a container that resembled a cat and held a mass of hardening cat biology, strange and heavy and full. My hand on this cat, and the nothing that followed.
And some time later, my mom, sitting next to me in my bed, her hand on my shoulder: “You’re not going to die, David.” She didn’t know about the cat. Still, things always seemed true when she said them.
I have always touched the dead things I’m near. Behind bushes or under sheds: canine casualties. A groundhog flat on its back near the hibiscus. A rabbit caught just short of the fence. Now things I pull into plastic grocery bags.
And in cold hospital rooms: the darkening fingertips of hands that had held mine, lips partly open that had once said, “I’m so happy,” when we danced at my wedding. My hand on her stiff shoulder, then on the belly that had belonged to her, now swollen and hard underneath white blankets. My hand on her belly, and the trick of the senses from the nothing that followed. It only lasted for a few minutes, that last touch. And of all the things to remember about the years I spent with her, that shouldn’t be it. But the echo of that touch, the weight of that nothing, continues to follow me.
Originally published by The Austin Review.