Once in a lifetime

After the second chorus of Once in a Lifetime on “Stop Making Sense,” David Byrne pulls away from the mic and starts shaking like a gelatinous thing from outer space, some astral slug, and it’s just wonderful, and then, suddenly, Alex Weir moves into the shot, straight vamping on this tight scratch psychedelic riff, goddamn shredding this chord, and he’s all obscured in shadow, like and then he starts shaking too, echoing Byrne’s movements, crazy frantic, twin wildernesses blooming in moonlight and all that, true ecstatics, and Tina Weymouth’s bass is pounding the foundation of this brief moment, earth-thudding, like the sky splitting open and heaving onto the shore of every note you’ve ever heard, every song you’ve ever loved, the bass line itself a sort of stand-in for god, in the rhythmic sense of the word, a spoken symbol of groovy communion with the everlasting present, one with everything else.

To me, that’s what 420 means.

Walter and Helen

Walter and Helen, the twins down the street, were so bored that they would sit in their driveway and stack rocks all afternoon. I couldn’t believe it. I would ride by on my bicycle, careful to stay at least three barking Benjamins away from the two of them, and ask if they wanted to walk along the railroad tracks with me, maybe go run around park. My dog, Benjamin, was never far behind, woofing like crazy and sniffing around the bushes for an old sandwich or something.

Of course, they said no. It’s like they wanted to be bored, sitting in the lazy sun and burping at each other. Who could live like that?

The other kids and I figured we’d use this time to explore the woods. School was closed. We spent all day outdoors, away from our frazzled parents. On the far end of our neighborhood, there were a bunch of good, knotted tree trunks and leafy back alleys to stake a day of adventures. Knights in the Castle. Zombie Invasion. That’s right: Kirby, Eleanor, Fat Willy, Bryan, RJ, Spud and I would play around in the woods for hours. Benjamin came too. Occasionally, we’d bring out rolls of foil from our moms’ cupboards and wrap ourselves in costume, pretending to be the hazmat officers who were hosing down our classrooms with white chemicals. Benjamin was the hazmat pooch, we called him. Walter and Helen just sat in their driveway like a sack of apples.

Then, one day, they stood up.

“Hey, Eddie! Hey!” they cried out in unison as I pedaled past. “Hey, Eddie!”

I hit the brakes and called Benjamin closer to me. “Well, what is it, Walter and Helen? You been out here long enough?”

“Naw, we’re gonna go get a watermelon and wrap rubber bands around it ‘til it pops.”

Well, now I really couldn’t believe it. I loosened my grip on the handlebars. “What?”

“Yeah yeah, we saw it on the computer.” They spoke as one. It was unsettling.

I looked around for Fat Willy, for Spud—anyone. Suddenly, the neighborhood was deserted. Where had everyone gone?

“We’re gonna go get a watermelon and wrap rubber bands around—”

“Yeah, all right, all right, I heard you. Whattaya mean ‘til it pops?”

“You put enough rubber bands around anything, Eddie, it’ll pop.”

I was sweating. In mid-April. “Well, all right, let’s see this. You guys better not have anything funny up your sleeve.” I glanced behind me once again—nope, not a soul on the street—and followed Walter and Helen into their weird garage around back of the house.

They even yanked open the door together. Inside, dull light filtered through never-washed windows. We walked into the drab darkness, Benjamin’s tail subsiding, Walter and Helen both reaching for the twine strung from a single bulb overhead. Click.

There it was: a plump watermelon just sitting on their dad’s workbench. A jumbled pile of rubber bands loomed in the immediate background, ready for the operation. I think I gasped.

Without a word, they set to work. Was I supposed to be involved somehow? Were they guessing I’d join them in this crime? I decided to sort of stand near the door and casually observe. Very soon, it seemed like they just forgot I was there, so absorbed were they by the surgical procedure.

Walter and Helen breathed audibly as they took turns yoking the watermelon with rubber bands. Finally! One thing they couldn’t do at the exact same time! A rotation of skills emerged: Walter snapped the band quickly from the top. Helen moved just a beat slower, strapping the melon with an almost maternal care. Her demented child in a stroller.

Something like an hour passed by. I’d started to doodle in the dust on the windowpanes, drawing little characters in bulky helmets, each gripping a great, elongated hose. I figured by now the gang was somewhere deep in the woods, playing at zombie hunters again, probably wondering where me and ol’ Benny had wandered off to. Or maybe they thought we went for ice cream, and they’d be biking past Walter and Helen’s to get over to the Dairy Freeze on Gabel Ave. Maybe, if I screamed loud enough, they’d hear me.

The twins kept at it, dutifully. They seemed robotic, but what else was new? I started assembling pails and moldy boxes, building a little hut for me and Benjamin to live in. He barked at small piles of dirt in the corner. I smoothed the edges of rumpled newspapers into a sort of area rug. When I glanced up, I noticed the watermelon was basically caving inward. I felt a pang of the unknown, an anxiety lurching around the next corner. If I really tuned my ears toward the melon, I swear I could hear it groaning.

And maybe Walter and Helen were even chanting at this point, it’s hard to remember. The next few seconds all happened in one great flash.

“Oh, boy! Eddie! Eddie, come look!” they suddenly shouted. I bonked my head on a ratty suitcase I’d fashioned into a table and looked over at them. Walter and Helen. The terrible, nose-drippy twins from down the street. What had I gotten myself into?

“Oh, boy! Eddie! It’s going to happen!” They ratcheted the assembly line, each one hurriedly following the other with another rubber band. Faster and faster. “Oh, boy!”

I tried to shield Benjamin, but he couldn’t look away either. He peered around my legs, horrified in a way I’d never seen a dog look before. Eyes like saucers, tail rigid.

Helen daintily placed the final rubber band, and that was it: ZZZSSSSPPLLAAATTT!!!! The thing just exploded out across the garage. Like one of those supernova videos they show in science class. It went in every direction—up, down, left, right, in my hair, on Helen’s blouse, on Walter’s suspenders, on Benjamin’s snout. My little hut in the corner crumbled under the barrage. I think a window broke.

After everything settled down, I realized we were covered head to toe in splattered melon. Richly textured globs and flea-sized seeds. We were soaked, totally drenched in chunks. I tried to catch my breath.

Silence.

Then the twins started chuckling.

“So, that’s it?” I asked, spitting out a fleshy mass. “But what was the point?”

They laughed so hard they started coughing.

“Is this the sort of thing you twins do when you’re not sitting like lumps in the driveway?” I couldn’t get through to them. “Come on, Benjamin. Let’s go meet up with the others.”

Walter and Helen gathered themselves and followed us, giggling.

We stumbled into the shiny afternoon light. I was flecked utterly with fruit bits and juice splotches. Benjamin was doused, his fur all sticky with summer sweetness. It seemed impossibly bright outside. Walter and Helen couldn’t stop laughing. They looked deranged.

I heard my friends yelling something, tearing down the street on their bikes. What luck! I could tell them how crazy the twins were acting, go take a shower real quick and be back in the woods with everyone in no time.

The gang suddenly steered into view, braking abruptly at the end of Walter and Helen’s dumb driveway. The twins shut up and sort of slumped onto the ground. I felt immediate relief. Back to normal, everybody!

Spud cried out first, his eyes frantic with sudden terror: “Holy crap! Zombie!”

The rest of them joined in: “Get ‘im! Aaaahhhhh!!!”

I threw my hands up. “No, no, no, you guys! It’s me! Me and Benny and those awful twins!” I looked around for them, those idiots.

“Kill the zombie!” “Zombie attack!” “This is it, everybody! Get ‘im!”

“No! It’s just watermelon!” They got off their bikes and walked toward us. I started backing up, yanking Benjamin by the collar. “We were just doing this stupid thing with rubber bands! I wasn’t even doing it!” I tripped over a painted cinder block, another mindless project of the industrious twins. My ankle seized in red pain.

Fat Willy had some sort of spiked stick in his hands and he was thwacking it against his thigh. Preparing the weapon. RJ was removing the chain from his bike. Eleanor was twirling her helmet like a primitive rock slung with rope. They looked battle-hardened, streaked with mud. Benjamin curled into my arms. I screamed out in horror: “But it’s just watermelon, you guys!”

Before the stick clocked me in the side of my head, I saw them, the twins, sitting like blameless cows over by the bushes. Covered in fruit and just staring at the grass, mumbling to themselves probably, bored forever.

Disaster

“If Trump is reelected, it’s an indescribable disaster. It means that the policies of the past four years, which have been extremely destructive to the American population and the world, will be continued and probably accelerated.”

Noam Chomsky has been sounding the alarms of nuclear war and climate change for decades. These threats should seem obvious and dire, but, looking around for half a second at how the U.S. is handling a global pandemic, I’m not holding my breath for the electorate to sprout a spinal cord this year. Of course, being stuck at home, we’ve got a lot of time to think through the impact of our lifestyles and our fixation on corporate power. It seems like a lot things aren’t working very well for us.

How might a new America lift up future generations? What principles should guide our community through the current crisis and these looming threats? I do see glimmers of hope in a lot of the fleeting actions carried out between neighbors and coworkers and small businesses. Maybe we need to think smaller? Maybe there’s a better way to develop that kindness?

If a Biden ticket is the next incremental sidestep toward that future, well, it sure seems like the sort of work an intern would slap together on a Friday afternoon, but all right. Onward!

At home

I’ve been writing more than ever these past six months. A lot of these latest pieces have gone unpublished—shuffled into folders on my desktop or languishing in magazine editors’ inboxes. And that’s fine. Maybe I’ll roll out a few stray essays from the winter while we’re all quarantined.

But even with all of that, I’m compelled to write more. I’m at home all day, working and writing and talking with my fiancee about the present and the future. What’s next? What unknowable hardship is lurking around tomorrow’s corner? We can’t seem to turn around anymore with running headlong into some gasp-breathing cluster, upending either our lives or our friends’ lives or far-off strangers’ lives. It’s a shattering sort of feeling, far from numbness. It’s an acute pain that redounds to throbbing, hour by hour.

There’s joy, too. Each day is a new chance to create something. Yes, we’re caught up rescheduling a wedding, trying to buy a house, putting out fires at work, but isn’t that all part of the resplendent present, even in chaos? And apart from all that less exciting stuff, the whole point I’m trying to make is that there’s a lot of time each day to write new stories, record some music, create little pieces of magic for your future.

Anyway. Here’s a poem I wrote a few weeks ago. There’s really nowhere else to run with this thing. It’s called “Safe Passage.”

there was then, and then there’s now
and it’s hard to get over
never looking back
if that’s the space
you’re facing
and acting out
reacting route
(play-acting doubt)
and acting out again

sure, it’s hard to get over
never getting over it
again
and getting stuck in the past
at the bottom of the stack
of photos neatly packed
away for good

if you’re still wondering
what was so good about it, anyway?
enriching
any day
might come around
any day now
(was so good, you say?)
if you’re all hung up on
days spent spaced
without the frame
of now
no return to form

without return and form
and seeking/mourning
safe passage
in a stormy sea
rollicking
to the mind’s muddled
lack of clarity
and memory

everywhere
is all you are
if you want it

leave the rest outside the door
by the shoes
and doldrum sets
we’ve got plenty more
everywhere
to go around
if you want it

Kevin Keith is trapped

The intersection of the American prison system and the novel coronavirus outbreak is fraught with social inequity, panic, public responsibility, emergency litigation and the unavoidable threat of a global pandemic looming over every human’s head. It’s a dangerous time to be stuck in the custody of a state that has not built its prison facilities with inmate health in mind. I’ve been reading a great deal of terrific reporting on the prison system and how U.S. governors are (or, more to the point, aren’t) stepping up the plate to provide a meaningful level of safety. Each defendant has a story.

There are about 49,000 inmates held by the state of Ohio as of today. I’ve been following several cases, but the story of Kevin Keith is one that’s been close to my work for the past four years. I’ve written about his 1994 murder conviction here and here. Watch a trailer for a documentary project covering his case here. He’s being held at Marion Correctional Institution.

In late March, Keith, 56, filed an emergency motion for release, citing an “unprecedented health emergency” that casts a sudden, grim shadow over his previous 26 years of dubious incarceration. As a diabetic inmate in close quarters with a sprawling, vulnerable population (and years of civil litigation that raise at least a few questions about his being in there at all), the emergency motion requests that he be let out of prison under judicial release measures (ankle monitoring, etc.).

Here’s the case that Keith’s attorneys laid out:

“Kevin Keith was wrongfully convicted, and his case is pending before [the federal court in the Northern District of Ohio] for a full determination of whether he meets the [federal] standard. The Sixth Circuit has already determined that he has made a prima facie showing of his actual innocence. …

“The layout of the housing does not allow Keith to use social distancing. Recently, a staff member at Marion Correctional Institution tested positive for COVID-19. The media has reported that the infected staff member is a lieutenant, and that four other officers who had come into contact with the lieutenant are now experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.”

As of April 6, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has confirmed that five inmates at Marion have contracted COVID-19. Across the state, 27 prison system staffers have contracted COVID-19, “but most come from Marion,” DeWine said.

More from Keith’s attorneys:

“Keith’s tragic situation will be made much worse if he contracts COVID-19, as he is particularly vulnerable to severe illness due to his diabetes.”

“Keith recognizes that the complexity of the case has led to an extended consideration time, but because he is in the category of individuals who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, Keith moves this Court for an order permitting his release until the current health crisis subsides. In these unprecedented times, extreme measures are necessary and justified. He would, of course, consent to being electronically monitored at all times, and he would provide the Court with addresses and contact information for his mother, with whom he would be staying.”

The warden file an opposition on the same day, writing that the federal court lacks the jurisdiction to grant this request. (“Keith’s complaint—that he should be released because of fears of contracting COVID-19—are more akin to a complaint on the conditions of confinement, rather than the legality of his confinement,” warden Lyneal Wainwright wrote.”)

On April 2, federal judge James Knepp denied his request. Read the full order here.

Here’s Knepp:

“The Court is mindful that circumstances faced by this country in general, and [Keith] as well as other prisoners specifically, are certainly extraordinary. But Petitioner has not shown his particular circumstances to be ‘exceptional.’

“Although [Keith] points to his age and diabetic status as heightened risk factors for severe illness, these factors (and other risk factors) are surely shared by many inmates throughout the prison population, and indeed by other inmates at Marion Correctional Institution where [Keith] is incarcerated. Therefore, the undersigned finds that this is not the ‘very unusual case,’ where a habeas petitioner [like Keith] should be released pending a determination on the merits.”

Sargasso

She carried two wine glasses to the ring of chairs in the backyard and set them on the oak stump that her family had used as a fireside table for many years. A gathering point. This was routine by now; she’d cart out the glasses and the bottle again tomorrow night, certainly. The sun lay low behind waning trees, and the cold sky grew bruised in purple and orange. In sorrow, she slowly built a good fire.

If only, she thought, he could slide open the glass door of their home and walk down the hill to join her again.

He was there, watching. He liked to watch her do the small things that made a day. Brewing coffee in the French press, walking Barney up and down Sargasso Street, crocheting a floral pattern in the gently dim light of their living room. She’d answer game show trivia without ever looking up from her work. She laughed at her own jokes. Drinking wine and recounting their days.

She poured from a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, a slim bottle that would be empty before long. The fire was crackling nicely, and she stared into its warmth. The house stood above her, just up the knoll, sort of looming in an unavoidable way.

He sat down on the green chair across from her. She was wrapped in a red blanket, woolen and scented with time spent laughing on the couch together. Barney’s fur still clung to the weathered fabric. She felt warmer now—the fire, the blanket—but was she really? It’s impossible to say what happens in the space between mind and body. What does it mean to feel something? If she shivered, would she notice? Would he?

Of course he’d notice. He liked to watch her, noting small shifts in attitude and physical tone, not interjecting so much as leaning in and making his supportive presence known. Listening. When her father began to forget her name a few years back, he listened to her describe moments in her childhood that she’d never shared before. A steaming pot of coffee at the kitchen table. He’d called her by her sister’s name when she first took off on her bike, learning to ride and feeling a cresting, nervous pride when her father let go and watched her sail around the bend in the driveway. The young girl in 1981 rode for hours, whole weekends, up and down Sargasso Street in a long buried era.

They’d been excellent listeners, something their friends had remarked on over the years.

He tried to lean in now, passing through the small licks of flame in the backyard. He tried to say her name aloud, to correct all the fleeting moments that had gone wrong.

How long would it be like this?

She poured another glass. He lingered, floating, will-o’-the-wisp draping light across her downcast eyes. She poured another glass.

About to go over the edge

I don’t do this too often, but back in the day I’d toss “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the speakers when I could tell we were about to go over the edge. When the walls started breathing. By the time we saw the walls breathing, it was too late to get out. And, sure, but you could say the same thing about anything, right? Once each day gets going, an entirely new universe bends across your life and there’s no way to undo it. Each day is its own chance at enlightenment. You’re in it. The only way out is in.

Now, when we’d all come out of it, talking about the way the pine trees wriggled and how the sun went all purple for a while, the big goal was to draw something meaningful out of the experience and improve our lives with that knowledge. Lift up our friends with our glowing empathy. You’re tuned in, so now what? It’s all about kindness and the trembling resolution that life will never be the same. It will never snap back. So, knowing that, how would you like to live?