Silent Ego

Silken spider strands
Hung like beaded tapestry
A practical collector;
Nature’s design reveals
An arc of gossamer threads
Awaiting purpose and passion.

Bits of memory float by
As if released of earthly bonds;
Unkind words and thoughts
Like wind driven sand
Against unmarked skin;
Gritty friction rubs raw
Unwanted past exposed
When reason dies.

In troubled times
Invisible societies appear
Caught in spiral curves;
Caustic heat and sudden luck
Conspire to pull them down
Until soft hands invade
To rescue music
From the noise.

Listening leads to action
Momentum overcome
By forces strange and light;
Like a guide in dark forests
The way opens on dappled paths;
Single steps are taken
And no one follows
Where silence seeks
The tide.

Grandper

The day after watching a rerun of Jim Carey going nuts in the Grinch’s big screen debut, we are standing amidst a rare November snowstorm. I remind the kids that the Grinch and all the Who’s in Whoville live inside a single snowflake. Stephanie, watching the flakes melt on the ground says, “and then they all die a horrible death.”

Move over Spielberg.

Sometime later Stephanie asks, “Why do we cry when we are sad?”

Powering up the ol’ Internet, we quickly plow through mountains of irrelevant data in search of this most tearful of all grails. Apparently there are several types of tears: Continuous tears which flow to keep our eyes from crusting over, reflex tears in response to some external stimuli like sand storms, and emotional tears which are tied in some way to strong feelings. The causes of emotional tears remain a mystery, and only a handful of researchers are studying this area. One study described a lady in Australia who cried from her right eye when she thought of her mother and left eye when she thought of her father. Stephanie has once again taken us into uncharted territory.

Another day, I notice Stephanie staring at me.

“Why?” I ask.

“I’m trying to rearrange your face”, she says, embarking on what I know to be a futile exercise.
Later she asks, “Do you know every single thing about me?”

Not in this lifetime, I think.

Our search for a house came to a screeching halt once we discovered the place on 100 Buck Jones Trail. Don’t laugh; I find that rustic, Danielboonesqe name far preferable to the R-rated and poorly acted Melrose Place. I’m not saying that we have become cave dwellers, but a roaming pack of possibly mutant deer has reduced our shrubbery to grotesque stick figures. We have a bird nest on our porch.

Our 4-year-old traditional house sits petulantly amidst a sea of grass, each grinning stalk practically begging for the great whirling blades of Death to bring order to chaos. No wonder they call themselves blades. I imagine myself astride a Sears Lawn Ripper, gouging huge swaths in the weed wasteland in a vain search for machine perfection. The Joneses on either side will nod in synchronized approval at our having kept up. The bastions of suburban America will remain thick with righteous ivy.

You need me on that wall.

I was hired into the position of Deputy Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the State of North Carolina. Within 2 weeks I found myself named as Acting CTO, temporarily shoring up the cavernous hole left by the departure of the previous CTO. In this acting position I was watched carefully for signs of impending mental breakdown, hives, or unrepentant leering. I’m proud to say I experienced no hives. After 3 weeks in the acting role I was permitted to apply for the actual CTO job where, like Melrose Place, acting is simply not permitted. In keeping with the lofty image of this position I was required to pass through the gauntlet of the dreaded executive interview, consisting of questions heavy on medieval philosophy and existentialism, but light on actual technical knowledge. Gazing into my twisted visage I believe they wisely skipped the question on leering.

During such interviews I am prone to burst into spontaneous giggles, which almost never lands me the job unless I am interested in the position of executive clown. See previous job for details.
But life, trickster that she is, spins me another curveball. One interviewer asks, “Of all the people you have known, either personally or through reading, who do you admire most and why?”

Sometimes when we think of living life to its fullest we describe a life lived “on the edge”. But my grandfather, Horace Jewel Fenton (“Granper”) lived a life full of grace and dignity in the heart of experience. When I think of him I imagine a steadying hand; a calm in stormy waters; a rock upon which to fix the untethered cord. In his mid-nineties he could still be seen riding his bicycle every morning, off to see the world before the Florida sun burned away the mist.

Born late in the 19th century, he lived to see most of the 20th until passing away in his sleep at the age of 94. A graduate of Yale, he taught Constitutional Law at the Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland. Both his sons would later attend the Academy and serve with distinction in WWII. When he found himself unemployed in 1920 (through a change in policy on civilian teachers), he began to write for Natural History magazine, describing life on his farm in Connecticut. He later wrote books on the history of the small towns he lived in, like Avon Park, Florida. I once read his handwritten account of a trip to Hawaii in the 1920′s, with meticulous descriptions of the costs (“…Dinner on promenade deck: $0.92…”), exposing his Yankee frugality.

One bright morning in my early teens I remember my father answering the phone, listening with full attention until every word was spoken; then placing the phone on the counter to cry — with both his eyes.

We all need guides in life to steer us around the hidden dangers lying just below the surface. If we’re lucky the lessons learned are so strong that they persist in word and deed, spanning the generations. These leaders become living connections; to the world, to the past and to each other; made manifest.

Through the distance of time I can see Granper turn and beckon, riding his bike through the morning mist, still showing the way.

SpringRoot

Subterranean echoes embrace
Dark energy unseen;
Below a quiet note
Permeates like muffled
Thumps of quilted hands
Against the drums of time.

Crowded life on hold
Motion unimportant
Dense and colorless
Like a painting begun
And set aside
Forgotten.

Earthen orchestra poised
Slender fingers long dormant
Anticipating radiant signs;
To pluck dark instruments
And prepare the conductor’s
Quiet harmony.

Sun comes round again
Old Midas reaches out
To touch the book of Now;
The timeless hymnal reveals
A solitary voice and
Life itself
Explodes in song.

Whirling desperate globes
Repeat the chorus
Riotous and profane;
Seed brown, leaf green
Crystal tears rejoice
Upon the land
And wonder.

Avocado Bravado

Avocadoes are apparently among the most cherished of vegetables, if something with a fat content higher than beef can be called a vegetable. Americans consume mountains of these things in the form of guacamole dip, in the process sending billions of otherwise innocent corn chips to meet their fate in the curved talons of their cruel maker: Freeto The Terrible.

Beware the avocado seed however. It is not edible and is a bitter little ball of incipient badness.

California produces so many avocadoes that the profits could run a small country. This huge economy has resulted in the inevitable marketing crusade, with an Avocado Commission, an Avocado Society, and an Avocado Kids group. 43.6% of American households buy avocadoes each year. Just stop, OK?

Yet demand still far outstrips supply. Neighbors have begun to steal each other’s fruit, with intimidation and violence threatening to further erode the thin veneer of our civilization. Instituting internecine warfare over this sinister and subtle fruit seems ludicrous even for our benighted species, but Mr Supply and Mr Demand care not the coin of their realm.

In conclusion, not only does the avocado have a disgusting soft texture and bland taste, it is contributing to the breakdown of our society. And lest we not forget, entire generations of kitchen appliances owe their evil green souls to this profane produce.

The Avocado: Fruit of Satan.

Two More Things I Don’t Really Like

Beer. This one is weird, because long ago I liked beer. But too many went down too fast while I was too young. Too bad.

Reality TV. Don’t get me started. These made up fantasies pose as some kind of reality, the carefully planned and scripted reality of TV. There’s more reality in a work of fiction or the Jerry Springer Show, or so I’m told he quickly adds. In this New Sell Realism Market anything apparently goes as long as there is a viewing public willing to watch and a cunning sponsor to act as the bank. This form of ridiculous television is so tenuous and vapid that it has to keep raising the bar in order to keep an increasingly somnambulant viewing public from lapsing into coma. Studies show that unconscious audiences are 42% less likely to buy soap than living audiences, making it crucial to keep them awake with Dead Celebrity Kickboxing.

Stephanie Continues To Question The Universe

Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer: What are they and why are they called that?

The Earth is tilted with respect to the imaginary plane that contains both our planet and the sun. Because of this tilt, it might be cool to find out where on Earth the Sun can be directly overhead when it’s 12:00 noon local time. In the Southern hemisphere latitude 23°30′ marks the farthest south this occurs, and it therefore is thought to define the southern boundary of the tropics. It happens around December 22, the summer solstice for the Southern Hemisphere. The term Capricorn comes from the Latin words caper [goat] and cornu [horn] and is the name given to one of the 12 constellations in the zodiac. The constellation Capricorn would have been directly overhead 2000 years ago on December 22, when those that like to name things lived.

Tropic of Cancer is the same idea only in the northern hemisphere, at latitude 23°30′ north. This is the northern most point where the sun is directly overhead (once a year around June 21), and marks the north edge of the tropics.

What does this particular latitude have to do with Cancer?

It turns out that on June 21st, if you look up at night you will find that the Sun’s path will take it through constellation of Sagittarius the next day. However, if you lived around 2000 years ago you would have seen constellation of Cancer.

The Ancients got dibs.

Watch Ya Doin’?

My brother gave me the best watch I ever owned. I was 19 and had just completed the NAUI scuba course in Hawaii, when he presented me with a Seiko diving watch. From that point onward my relationship with watches would head into an alarming and rather permanent decline. Case in point: My 9-year-old $14 Casio bit the dust last week. The watch was working fine but the various clasps and hinges that held the band together finally fell apart. I can’t wear those flexible metal watchbands because they rip out the little hairs on my wrists, making it appear that I’m into some dark form of recreation requiring handcuffs. Young shelled out $18 for a replacement, which should hold me till retirement and beyond, although in my case retirement might just be beyond.

I believe that as long as there’s sunlight digital watches will continue to run. If we ever end ourselves in a noisy nuclear whimper, the only things left will be the cockroaches, the reptiles and our forever optimistic digital watches, carefully timing the apocalypse until darkness falls.

He Shoots He Scores

Anytime you are faced with a story that begins in the bathroom you have to suspect that it might be exceedingly odd, perhaps even a tad unpleasant. If you like ‘odd’ then read on Macduff, otherwise race away swiftly like the wind until you are a dot on the horizon, then turn and wave with your ‘hands’ or at least rotate your blank, curved surfaces. You’re a *dot* fergodsake; give us something!

Bathrooms have a number of functions – some straightforward some less so – but I am particularly fond of their use as a reading room, a place to catch up on the latest politico-thriller involving rogue states, or to peruse an old copy of Home and Garden containing perhaps, in the interest of time, a story of spies hurtling through the recently planted and pruned rose bushes in sleek black sports cars.

Consider the lowly reading glass. This humble invention has single-handedly laid waste to an army of squinty eyed loons who refuse to accept the gracious gifts of Father Time. Squint all you want grandpa, it ain’t happenin’. So there I am with my cheap Walgreen glasses reading this book which suddenly has incredibly clear text; I kid you not; the little letters practically leap off the page like a 3D version of Bambi in the movie, um, Bambi. Reading glasses rock.

The flush toilet is another great discovery of our time right up there with the wheel and fire and the wheel, and….. other stuff okay? I suppose one might mount one on wheels and set it on fire but what would be the point other than some moderately cool YouTube video?

Anyway time to depart the reading room, exercise the flush toilet and hey, what’s this? My belt’s little hooky thing is caught in the throw rug and now my pants have been pulled down and strangely locked so that I can’t stand all the way up. I have imprisoned myself in a full body version of the Chinese finger trap. I become aware that everything is really blurry and I realize I am still wearing my reading glasses, which whilst excellent little devices for reading, render one effectively blind otherwise. I reach up to remove them but in my bent over position misjudge the distance to my head and succeed only in knocking them off directly into the (thank god) recently flushed toilet. I instinctively grab for them but with the belt-rug-pants situation unresolved I proceed to exercise the rarely attempted Crab Dive and collapse slowly to the floor. Fortunately I catch myself on the edge of the toilet bowl only to have my hand slip off and plunge directly into the (recently flushed!) bowl. I now have my glasses.

At this point I become quite still, intuitively understanding that further motion from me could trigger a giant sinkhole and conceivably bring down the entire house. Try explaining THAT to the insurance guy.

I slowly unhook my belt and free myself from the infernal rug. Standing, I move carefully to the basin and wash my glasses and hands twenty three times with a caustic soap compound designed to remove the upper few layers of skin as well as all recent images from my visual cortex. How you handle your visual cortex is entirely up to you, however I suggest raucous laughter.

You might be asking yourself; why would Mike tell us this story? And my answer would be; I have NO idea. However I seek your help in petitioning the Committee Who Accepts Petitions to award me a medal for my Crab Dive and reverse the 5.4 given by Pavel Sturgeon, the obviously biased and corrupt Lithuanian judge.

Then, like a belt-less Mr Magoo, I will proudly assume my rightful place upon the medal stand, avoiding throw rugs at all costs.

After Twelve Years, America

This is the prologue to our relocation from Seoul to North Carolina. It deals not with our arrival in that great state but with our journey there. And, try as I might to hide behind pure observation, my hand will occasionally cover the lens.

I read somewhere that we don’t see things the way they are; we see things the way we are.

Matthew is the only person I know that suffers, not from motion sickness, but from stopping sickness. He makes the flight from Seoul to Tokyo to Hawaii just fine. But as soon as we glide to a halt on the tarmac of Honolulu International Airport, stomach contents threaten to appear, and he carries his protective bag with him until we have our luggage in hand. He has always been this way and now proceeds about his inner business in singular silence — patiently waiting for the Earth to reclaim him.

Hawaii reclaims me the minute I step out into the sunny trade winds. We emerge into the light like moles after a 12-year dig, overly large eyes blinking in photonic revolt. No place can match the weather of Hawaii, and, after the Oxygen Wars of Seoul, I can feel the pollutoids falling away like shards. The scales covering my eyes will have to wait for further enlightenment.

We spend a lazy afternoon at the Honolulu Zoo. While lounging on a park bench, a pigeon (actually Fred, the God of Irony) insists on reminding me of my place in the vast pecking order of things by targeting my shoulder with an indelible organic marker dropped from a great height. I glance up to see which Fred (Oh fowl saboteur!) to accuse, but all I see are the usual suspects innocently whistling and rolling their eyes.

Things that used to be free in Hawaii (truth be told the best things) are gradually being converted to revenue generators. Hanauma Bay and Diamond Head have joined the ranks of fiscally responsible natural formations. The State of Hawaii needs the money, and the beauty is there for the picking, but I worry about this journey down a very slippery slope.

We visited our home in Lanikai. This is a little old house on a large (for Hawaii) parcel of land near a great beach. Matthew and Stephanie found a sea cucumber being rolled around in the tiny Lanikai shore break. Matthew dragged it up into a small pool he created in the sand. Sea cucumbers basically survive by (1) appearing to be a chunk of mammalian solid waste, and/or (2) having a high yucky coefficient. Matthew walked around the rest of the day wiping his hands on his pants like some character from a watery MacBeth (MacBath?) “Out, damn cucumber slime!”

We went for a swim and basically acted like the tourists we were, imagining all the while what our lives would have been like if we had stayed in Hawaii instead of Asia for the last 12 years. One of the many roads not taken …

It took a squadron of airport security personnel to pry my fingers off the jetway at the Honolulu Airport, but they managed to get me on the plane to California without further incident.

The first sign that we were not in Kansas anymore was the girl at the Safeway checkout counter in San Mateo. I asked her where the Howard Johnson’s was, and she responded with a series of high-pitched clicks and whistles, like some superannuated dolphin on mescaline. To me there’s nothing more scary than a Safeway counter clerk on drugs. I mean, they could do anything and it might involve cheese. Then you are in the Unsafeway.

The second NotKansas indicator was an actual blinking sign outside our room at the Howard Johnson that read:

Ladies Night Mo
Pinball
A ir Hockey

This, even with the missing bulbs, spawned images of large, poorly dressed women blasting metal disks at one another. And that’s just on Monday. One can only imagine what horrors await later in the week.

We visited Santa Cruz, which I am given to understand was the birthplace of surfing. Either there or Vladivostok. Anyway, we saw a few tired-looking surfers riding the swells in water so thick with seaweed that it looked like they were sitting on somebody’s lawn.

At one ocean lookout in town, small stones had been piled up in arrays of teetering rock piles. The notion here is to add a stone to the top of a pile, thereby making your presence known in an anonymous sort of way. But suppose instead that these seemingly innocuous towers hold the keys to the universe? Suppose changing say, THAT one, changes Planck’s Constant? Then what? Something to think about on a rainy day in the ol’ asylum.

While driving through Santa Clara on Highway 101, Young asks me where Silicon Valley is. We’re here, I say.

This Valley is a state of mind, a state preoccupied with IPO, shares, equity, and ruled by the cruel God, NASDAQ. In a test of faith, NASDAQ has been smiting infidels right and left lately. But optimism is high even as the cultural coefficient tends to zero.

Stephanie asks me if I waited too long to have her. She thinks I did since she will only be 17 when I’m 60. This kid is some kind of psychological terrorist.

We swing into Golden Gate Park one afternoon to walk through their great Science Museum. No IPOs here.

As the sun begins to set, we see that there’s an ongoing concert in the park in celebration of Black Music month. The band plays some great old hits from the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s and I notice that those dancing are the very young (5-10) and the very old (60+). I am handed a flyer requesting donations in memory of a young man killed in a drive-by shooting. He looks out of the picture as if remembering better times. One of the booth managers asks if I want to a six-pack of Coke for a dollar. I say, no, we’re traveling, we’re moving, we’re on our way, feeling the need to apologize for turning down such a deal.

As darkness falls we leave the Park, but in the gloom we see the young and old still dancing, here in America.

Musings on a Korean Winter Day

The Prize

You are now reading words written by the winner of second prize in the Korea National Writing contest. Actual money is awarded, making it the first time I have ever won anything in my life. It’s funny how a little, out-of-the- blue event like that can perk you up. Not the money, but the fact that a bunch of strangers looked at your stuff and thought it was pretty good. It’s not The New Yorker, but hey, we bottom feeders take what we can get.

Name Game

It is a well-known fact that you can elevate the status of any product by placing the modifier “-star” after the name. A van can be called the “AeroStar”, a train the “SilverStar”, but leave it to our friends at Hyundai Motors (motto: We Own Everything) to devise the ultimate name for their new automobile: The CarStar.

On the way to and from work I pass a store that for a while was called “Black and White”, a name that provided only the barest clue as to its purpose (the sale of formal wedding clothes). I was waiting for some clever entrepreneur to shorten the name to “Gray”. Recently the business was sold and the name changed to just “White”. The new business is the sale of skin lightening cream. I now refer to this building as The Store Formerly Known as Black and White.

Becoming pale seems to be an objective of women throughout Asia, a compulsion apparently implanted by cunning epidermal marketing droids. These are the same folks who have convinced Western women that ‘tan’ and ‘brown’ are the ideal colors. I think of these people as ‘mind brokers’ — whichever way you jump, they take their cut.

Anyway, in keeping with our local tradition of efficiency, the giant picture of the blushing bride on the building’s facade has been reused, her blush replaced by a ghostly pallor reminiscent of rock stars or the recently departed. The problem with this particular makeover is that the models’ face has become nearly the same color as her dress, leaving her eyes to float like raisins over her neck, like a Michael Jackson video gone horribly wrong.

Tie Died

I like to think that I’m a reasonable person in most areas, but I seem to have met my Waterloo when it comes to Nooseolgy – the science of wearing ties properly. I am but a foreigner caste upon the shores of TieLand, communicating with grunts and hand signals.

My excuse is that I spent much of my early working years in Hawaii, where donning a tie can result in laughter, good-natured ribbing, and ultimately, shunning. But then my best friend, The God of Irony, decided that I should work in Asia in jobs where the tie is considered a necessity for membership in the human race.

Let’s see:
Tie? Go work at a bank.
No tie? Send him to the mutant farms.

Striped or solid? Diagonal or checked? Muted pastel or a splash of red? Metal or cardboard? So many choices, so little fashion sense. I also find that my ties are of different lengths making it difficult to know exactly where to start the left and right halves. Starting the thin side too long results in a stubby little clump of fabric stuck to your chest. Starting it too short creates a long looping rope that keeps getting caught in your zipper.

A badly worn tie can negate the entire ensemble and destroy your carefully crafted image. Think of the Titanic but with greater loss of life. My choices are often alarming enough to create a kind of fashion singularity in the Armani space-time continuum. Accordingly, I have mastered a single tie tying methodology called “Knot” and a pattern-matching algorithm called “Ask Young”.

Equatorial Cold

The weather has taken yet another turn for the worse I’m afraid. Like the Korean people, once the course has been discussed and set, everything is geared to achieve the goal. Winter is wearing that look of grim resolution as it moves threateningly passed Fall, who has turned out to be something of a wimp, practically tripping over itself to get out of town.

Ex-warm weather dwellers retain the genetic inability to dress properly when the weather turns fickle, insisting on too many layers of clothing. We are attempting to keep the air next to our skin a comfortable 92 degrees F, ignoring the fact the just inches away, the air is 32 degrees F. Hence, you can easily spot us, the tropical refugees, by the little tornadoes being spawned in our wake.

Millenial Blues

In order to test our readiness for Y2K, the bank has devised a series of Dress Rehearsals denoted DR1, DR2 and so on, giving the whole thing a war room persona. But then I thought, what if these tests are infinite, DR1 … DRn, approaching the millennium in an endless series of trials, each one more maddening than the last? We near the terminus but never broach it, living the end of days in a kind of bureaucratic purgatory, faces pressed to the glass.

I’ve GOT to get out more.

Vehicle Dance

A long work week ended late last Friday with the Road Gods bestowing upon us weary car dwellers one final gift in the form of a large somnolent traffic jam – one that seemed not to have a beginning or end – making we wonder if this might be the beginning of planetary gridlock. So there I am slumped behind the wheel, assuming the aspect of a vehicular zombie shambling along unsteadily, slack jawed yet strangely determined.

In such circumstances there is not much to do except glance around at your fellow zombies and perhaps gain hope from shared experience, miserable though it may be. The guy next to me appeared to have his steering wheel clasped in a death grip and had taken on the fierce aspect of a Norse god threatening to release the Kraken. That baby could clear out some of these cars I bet.

To my left a couple was engaged in an intense argument full of scowling faces, head shakes and finger wagging. You may go entire months without seeing fingers actually wag but there they were wagging away like nobody’s business, scoring argumentative points like Michael Jordan in his prime.

In front of me was one of those mondo truck things being driven by what must have been a very small person because their head was not visible above the seat. I imagine this person reaching *up* to grasp the wheel with tiny hands. This may be an example of the Law of Conservation of Size, which means somewhere a football player is driving a moped. Thus doth the universe smile.

I glance behind me and see a young woman driver experiencing what can only be described as complete musical euphoria. Sometimes you can catch people singing along with the radio or CD, but with this young woman we are talking gittin’ down, rockin’ out, cookin’ with gas. I mean if her doors weren’t closed she would have flung herself completely out of her car, scattering rainbow-colored dance molecules all over the road. She was butt-dancin’, people! Look out! Watching her perform was like watching Glee with the sound off.

Of course I am having my little fun with it, but in truth you could not watch her singular performance and not feel a little bit better regardless of the coefficient of automotive stasis. In my mind I see her cruising along, happily getting ready for the weekend when HER song came on the radio; you know, the one that played the night she met her soul mate and talked until the sun came up and they went out for coffee and held hands across the table. The one that played when her best friend beat cancer. The one that played when she got into the college she wanted. The one that played when her daughter was born and her dad came to see her for the first time in all those years; and he had hope in his eyes.

Yeah, THAT song.

Scene — by Maxine Chernoff

What the body might guess,
What the hand requests,
What language assumes
Becomes amulet,
Which is to say
I am carrying your face
In a locket in a box
To a virtual location
Guarded by kestrels,
Suggesting the scene’s
Geography of love and dirt,
Trees ripe with darkness
And bones’ white luster.
In the moonlit blue house,
Where snow won’t fall
Unless called upon,
Grace enters as requested,
Lands next to you, grasped,
As if love were a reflex
Simple as weather.