A Place of My Own

I can hear it only if I am very quiet and very selective. The first thing to go is the bass thumping of C’s stereo. It’s easy to identify and easy to mute. Slowly pull down the slider control in my mind, and it fades away to nothing. In the next room the quiet tinkle and occasional pop of M’s cleaning falls away just as easily. A slight adjustment and it is gone. Harder, but not impossible, are the occasional footfalls on our carpeted floors. They are indistinct and difficult to isolate – but they are there – and when I find them, they fall away too. Here, in this room, the soft whir of the computer and the annoying clatter of the keyboard needs to be blended, compressed, and tuned away with a more deft touch. The hardest of all is the dog’s quiet breathing. A soft snore, barely perceptible, but still there. I struggle with it for a long time before it too fades away with all the other sounds.

And suddenly, there it is. An almost imperceptible white noise. Not really a sizzle, but rather a soft tap, performed by millions of tiny fingers pummeling the roof like a masseuse. Mixed in with the sound of the rain are occasional tings as first one drop, and then another, falls down the gutter. It is the ancient sound of water on metal. A human touch in the otherwise natural setting. There are rhythmic splats too, when a few wayward drops fall from the eaves to the sodden ground below. The damp earth cushions their fall, but they are still there, as persistent as the sounds of my own heartbeat and my breathing – natural counterpoints to the man-made tings in the gutter.

It’s easier to see. I only need to turn to the window and look. On the glass the sounds mix into a vibrant, but subtle vision. Tiny horizontal slashes appear alternately with fat, wet drops on the glass. During the heavier outbursts they combine into a kind of wavy sheet that crawls down the window in a never-ending, but infinitely interesting, loop.

The effect is quite dramatic. The water blurs the colors and the shapes, not nearly enough to completely obscure them, but just enough to offer the scene a gauzy color and texture. It looks like an old notebook, left too long in the rain. The water has entered the very fabric of the paper and changed the clearly inked words into soft emotional portraits of suffused pink and blue. If you squint hard you can still make out the words, but their look and feel are somehow changed by the wash of the raindrops. If the rain goes on long enough, nothing of the words will be left. The pages will be white and the only trace of the words will be some stiffness as the paper dries and warps into soft and crumbling parchment.

To me, the combination of the spare sounds and watery and rippling window are like music. Technonerds might even call it multimedia – sound and light, vision and emotion, all wrapped into one. I am sure Bill Gates would figure out a way to sell it if he could, but the simple fact of merchandising it changes it from one thing into quite another.

When I was in college I shared a house with a few close friends. We named it Bijou Manor and fancied ourselves a world apart. There were many things that made that place special, surely too many to write here, but one of them was my room.

Not long after moving in, I moved from one of the traditional bedrooms on the ground floor to a room at the top of the attic stairs. It was a small space, just big enough for a bed, a small chest of drawers, and a homemade writing desk and bed that doubled as a sleeper and a chair for the desk. The floor slanted slightly toward the overgrown backyard and every board in the place creaked. The walls were paneled with ancient tongue and groove wood, permanently stained almost black from age and many coats of varnish. I fashioned a faux-fancy lamp shade to cover the bare light bulb that hung in the stairwell by enclosing it in a castoff bird cage. Inside lived a model bird, hand carved and insanely colorful. It was done by an anonymous third world craftsman and picked up for a buck at a local import store. Over in the corner was a gas fire – so ancient you needed to light it with a match. It was poorly vented and probably a deathtrap, but it always glows rose and orange in my memories.

The small space looked so much larger because it was glass on three sides. Two of the windows had three or more inch gaps at the bottoms where they hung square to the tilted and settling walls. I never attempted to cover the windows in anyway. I merely turned off the lights when I wanted privacy from the neighbors. It was a curious arrangement that left the place light a greenhouse. Very tropical on sunny days and cold and insular when it rained.

I liked the rainy days the best. Like today’s rain, it ran in intricate patterns over all that glass and into the gutters on the roof outside. Out there in the back of the house I never had to strain out noise. I was permanently isolated. All I could hear was the womblike sound of the rain and all I could see were the wonderful paintings it made of my windows. I could spend entire days there – reading, and writing, and listening to the rain.

My roommates almost never came up the stairs. In fact, many times I am sure they might not have even noticed if I was home. It was a place of invisibility punctuated by the views out my ever-changing windows. It was deathly boring and intensely exciting all at once. It was a place that very few people are fortunate enough to have – a place of their own, on their own terms, inhabited by what pleased them the most, and infinitely variable – it was space and time; an entire universe compressed into a 10 x 8 foot box.

That place is very dear to me now. It was a place of comfort during an almost intolerably uncomfortable time in my life. It held me, and pleased me, and gave me time to think. That small place taught me many things. It was the place where I sorted out my feelings and explored emotions, both troubling and serene. It was a place of safety and a place of danger and a place to sleep, and eat, and dream. When I emerged from it after almost two years, I felt reborn. The rain had washed terrible weights off my shoulders and though I was still young, still afraid, and still confused, it gave me the courage to keep trying. It was the place where I began to heal and from there I went out into a new world.

I am more than 20 years away from that room now. But every time it rains – every time I take the care to concentrate – I can still hear the rain and feel warm and free all over again.

On Being a Man

Note: We continued this week’s breather from saving the world with a little piece we wrote as part of a letter several years ago. We don’t remember what it was that got us thinking, but still seems applicable. Enjoy.

I sat down today to write a story about what is like to be a man. It seemed like such a simple and clear idea when it came to me that I thought it would be a piece of cake. I’d write about the trials and tribulations, the coming of age, the conflicting signals that a young boy gets as he slowly turns into a man. But the more I thought of it, the harder it became. I’d seen the same story a thousand times in other places. How could I have anything fresh to say about a topic that has been around as long as there have been men?

I made a few abortive attempts. They came off preachy, or macho, or full of the self important angst that underscores those Robert Bly drumathons. I thought to myself that there must be more than that. I listed some of the statistical nuggets in my head. I threw in a couple of one-liners that seemed to sum up one particular aspect or another of being a man. In the end I realized one essential truth – that being a man is usually not much like a story. Being a man is more like the list itself – full of statistics and one liners and particularly of contradictions.

So here is my list, in all of its testosterone-infused glory:

  • Being a man is having women assume that you have accrued societal power and prestige by the simple virtue of having external plumbing.
  • Being a man is having women tell you that you should be more like them and less like yourself.
  • Being a man is acting as the punchline in every sitcom with a domestic setting.
  • Being a man is being told to be more sensitive and caring while simultaneously being encouraged to be strong and silent.
  • Being a man is having to pay for dinner…always.
  • Being a man is sometimes being a Dad and showing your children – male or female – what men can be.
  • Being a man is always having to make the first move.
  • Being a man is facing the assumption that all men are alike.
  • Being a man is having a shorter life span.
  • Being a man means sometimes having to fight something that you neither started nor want.
  • Being a man means being invisible during pregnancies, but sticking with it anyway.
  • Being a man is always having to put the toilet seat down when women never bother to leave it up for you.
  • Being a man is politely holding a door for anyone, but being accused by many female recipients of the kindness of being condescending.
  • Being a man is being expected to watch sports, whether you want to or not.
  • Being a man is being defined by what you do rather than who you are.

But most of all, being a man means facing all those things, and more, for yourself rather than for anyone else. Being a man is having strength in all its forms – with all it’s rewards and its drawbacks. In the end, men and women are completely different at the same time they are nearly the same.

And that is not something that is bad or good, it just is.

Growing Up in the South – The Morning Swim

Note: Part Two of our Growing Up in the South package. As you can see, the south of my childhood wasn’t all honeysuckle and ham. There were evil elements afoot – though I was quite well protected from them in a suburban sort of way. The newspapers still carried separate classified advertisements for “colored” and “white”, though the segregated water fountains disappeared before I was old enough to remember them. Over the years I’ve retained that peculiar southern ability to selectively remember good things while filing unpleasant episodes away in a special place. In that place they are accessible enough for tempering of character, but far enough below the surface to save umefrom being psychologically scarred. Of course, there were episodes of honeysuckle and ham as well. Despite all of its shortcomings, the South could be a wonderful place to wake up in the morning.

The first sunlight focused on a small spot directly between my eyes. It wasn’t unpleasant at all, but warm and inviting. It caressed my head and made me feel sleepy and content. I lay there – eyes closed – and felt my body awake part by part.

I could hear a mourning dove far in the distance. A plaintive hoot as it called for its mate. I could hear the breeze in the pines, all soft rush and whispering. The smell of pine mixed honeysuckle and eggs, bacon, and coffee from the house next door. Over in the corner, a small fan turned gently, puffing sporadic breezes my way. It felt cool on my sweaty back. I sat up slowly and looked to the East. The sun was well past the horizon though it was early. It was going to be a scorcher.

I walked barefoot and cutoff-clad to the dock behind the house, sat down and dangled my feet in the murky lake water. Small schools of crappie swarmed around and nibbled hello to my toes. I slowly slid into the water. It was that perfect temperature where you can’t be sure where skin ends and water begins. Not too hot, not too cold, just right.

Diving under, I went into a different world. I felt weightless and alive. I swam about like a happy porpoise, slowly kicking my legs more to move water past my skin than to propel myself to any particular destination. It was so quiet I could hear nothing but my heartbeat in my ears. I slowly drifted to the surface and took a breath of air, annoyed at this particular drawback of mammalian design.

With my lungs filled, I crossed my legs and sank slowly toward the bottom. A few feet down I passed through the temperature layer so common in muddy Southern lakes. Near the surface the water is warm and inviting, a few feet down it turns prickly cold. Arriving at the bottom I came to rest in some cool, soft mud. I could feel it around my feet and legs.

I tilted my head up and opened my eyes. Through the green murk I could make out the color of the early morning sun. Just as my lungs began to ache for a return to the surface I saw a shadow pass over. Still wondering what it was, I began a slow rise to the surface. Just as I reached the temperature layer I heard a loud splash and looked up to see a rapidly diminishing movement. Kicking hard I reached the surface and looked skyward. There, heading into the morning sun, I saw an Osprey with a fish dangling from its talons.

It’s been a long time and I still find myself missing the low salt marshes and pines. It seems a magical place now, though I don’t remember it being anything but hot and boring when I lived there. I suppose it is just more of that peculiar Southern ability making itself known to me.