A Day in the Life, Part 2

To say the police took a keen interest in the skull would be a mild exaggeration. I would say it was more like a professional interest but I like the sound and grab of keen so lets go with that.

The police took a keen interest in the skull. Everyone in construction knows that if you find a body, no matter how old, there is an agency somewhere that will want to shut the job down and put you out of work for a week while the paperwork clears. In an extreme incident downtown an entire office-building project was cancelled because the archeologists determined that the site had been, and in all fairness I suppose it still was, an old “Negro Cemetery”, as the sign said. Which is to say that the cemetery was old and had what were then known as Negroes buried in it and not that the cemetery was exclusively the final resting place of old Negroes. Language is funny that way.

My own brother was on a water job that saw several floaters come in. The job was only a mile or two downriver from a bridge that was popular with jumpers of the suicidal type. When the first one floated in they called the cops. The job was shut down for several hours while they investigated the “flounder” as I’ve heard the coroners call them. The same thing happened a few weeks later. Now, this business is no different from any other; time is money. The idea that the tides could somehow offer up a clue is so far fetched that even the boss must have noticed. From that point on, any body that came sailing onto the job was pushed back out into the current.

I myself found a foot on the job one day. It was so unlikely looking, so gray, that I thought it was a manikin foot until one of the guys picked it up, turned it over in his hands and stated, very matter-of-factly, “yup, it’s a real foot.” My foreman and I took the foot to the office trailer. His name was Robbie but he died and so he’s now referred to as Dead Robbie. When we walked into the super’s trailer Dead Robbie told the super that he couldn’t lend him a hand but he could give him a foot and tossed it on the desk. The super told us to get rid of it before the cops found out and shut us down. Robbie tossed it back in the drink but it got caught up in an eddy next to the pier and spun around in slow circles for the rest of the day. Take a moment to picture that in your mind; the water, the foot, the slow turning. It’s more than just the foot separated from the body above. It’s also the foot separated from the earth below. Isolated from the two things it must have thought were a given and yet still wandering in endless circles. It makes you think that although a foot can do what it does in a hundred different ways, still it can only be a foot.

I exit the subway at 5:32, same as every morning, to connect to the cross-town bus that would take me to work except that it departed about 90 seconds ago. Same as every morning. I can walk the mile or more before the next bus will come and so I do. As soon as I made it up to the street from the subway my cell phone chirped at me like my brothers childhood pet guinea pig, Spot. We called him Spotchalism for short. A sweeter more pleasant natured animal you’d be hard pressed to find but like many of the pets of our youth, short lived. Too soon consigned to a shoebox in the back yard.

I see that sometime during my subway ride of 21 minutes my foreman has called me. Usually this would mean that I am being redirected to another job. In this company redirection, not to mention misdirection, is a common occurrence and in the past I have spent hours being redirected multiple times before ever making it to work. My foreman is a great guy, talented in his work and amiable in his demeanor though subject to momentary bursts of uncontrollable rage. His three great loves are his wife, model railroading and marijuana.

As with many in this business you wouldn’t necessarily know from the way he talks that he loves his wife but when she suddenly took ill one day he looked ashen, hung up his cell phone, said “I’m gone” got in his van and left. Not a word to the super or any of the gang. If I hadn’t been there we would have gone looking for him at lunch and assumed he fell in the river.

The model-railroading thing is purely a sickness. I was warned by a mutual friend not to bring it up so of course I had to. He was so excited that I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was only teasing. I had to draw the line when he brought me an article about how to create realistic looking miniature pond scum. I think I’ll leave it at that.

The marijuana thing is of no surprise except as a matter of frequency. Half a joint on the way in, at coffee and lunch if the opportunity arises and it almost always does, and one on the way home. I say it’s of no surprise because if you took away the smokers, the drinkers and the jesus freaks who are, to a man, former substance abusers, you would seriously depopulate the industry. Let me retract that part about former substance abusers. Once an addict, always an addict. It’s a personality thing. They are as obsessive with their Christ, as they were with drink or drugs or women or food or whatever else it is that they claim to be cleansed of. The only difference is that with religion they lose their sense of humor. I’m ok with that though because they’re fun to torture.

As far as the substance abuse thing goes, I am absolutely sure that it is no different with us than it is in any other industry and it explains the whole margin of error factor in building projects. They say that if everything was built exactly to spec a two hundred story building would be viable notwithstanding that no one in their right mind would want to live or work that high. The point is that we over-design buildings because there is a factor that can only be counted on to degrade the best-laid plans. And that factor is human nature.

So my foreman called and the call went roughly like this:

Me: Hey, you rang?

Foreman: Good morning, where’s the skull?

Me: Why?

F: The police are here. I couldn’t find it. I told them that you may have taken it home or it may still be here somewhere.

Me: Who told them? Is the boss trying to relocate us? He is isn’t he.

F: Is it here?

Me: Maybe. What do they want with it?

F: They want to see if this is a crime scene.

Me: Tell them it isn’t and I want the damn thing back when they’re done with it.

F: I don’t know man, they seem pretty serious.

Me: Oh for christ sake. It’s on the shelf under the bag with my spare socks. I’ll be there in 15 minutes.

When I arrived I put on my tool belt and hardhat and made my way down to the work area. It had been raining and snowing off and on for two weeks and the mud is shin high. It’s still dark out. Everyone is standing around waiting for me and I get a little surge of celebrity. I’m smiling and shaking hands like a game show host. There are four cops, three male and a female. The detective looking one is in his early forties, the rest are fresh faced. He seems a bit serious, the other three are a little goofy and all are tired. It’s the end of their shift and they ask me to show them where I found the skull. Damn it! The game is over already and I’ve barely begun to turn the screws.

I walk them between a dump truck and an excavator through some deep mud. Let’s see how serious they really are. We get about twenty feet when the detective says “You know what? Just tell my about where you found it”. That was way too easy. Where’s the sport? I tell him I found it after we removed five feet of old concrete and 8 feet of mud. He says he isn’t interested in solving a murder from 1932. I point out the saw marks on the skull and suggest that it was an autopsy. He says “Look, if I call this in the archeologists will come and it’ll be a week before the paperwork clears and you’ll be out of work for a week. You don’t want that and we don’t want that for you. You know what this is and so do we, so why don’t we all pretend that this didn’t happen. You guys go back to work and we’ll go home. Just one thing. If this gets out we’ll be in a lot of trouble so keep this to yourselves and get rid of this thing. Get it off the site.” Then he tossed me the skull cap and said” Keep it for a souvenir.” That’s French for “I don’t want it and so I make a gift of it to you.”

Advertisements

A Day in the Life, Part 1

Part 1: A Day In The Life

I had a pretty interesting day at work today. It involved digging around in the dirt.

When I was a kid I went to summer camp in New Mexico and while there I spent a few days on an archeological dig. We sifted through a bunch of material and although we found nothing of interest, at least nothing of interest to me, it was a taste of treasure hunting that I was never to lose. It was also an introduction to anthropology and eventually, when I went on to college, I majored in it.

My first year in higher education was at Northern Arizona University. With its large native population and long history of habitation it’s a pretty good place to do anthropology. To tell the truth I chose NAU for its proximity to good backpacking but I never would have been able to sell that to my parents as a good reason to move 2200 miles away for school. I transferred after a year to the University of New Hampshire and I continued in the field there for at least the one semester and probably both though I can no longer remember for sure.

I think the second semester I duel majored in anthropology and sociology, the idea being that if you’re a major in something, the teachers tend to cut you a little more slack in an effort to keep you in the department. I would have majored in everything but it would have required a visit to my student advisor and that was out of the question. All I had to do to endear myself to the archeology professor was to boil his road kill. He was trying to build a skeleton collection of indigenous fauna.

Of course I dropped out after that year but my interest never really went away. I always maintained that I gave it up because there really are no jobs after you get an anthropology degree. There is nothing much to apply that knowledge to unless you want to teach but in looking at the question right now I realize that the subject, like so many before and since, simply was unable to hold my attention. Having said that, I never really lost interest, it just became another one of my many interests. I suspect a lot of people are like this and it probably could be considered a syndrome which means it deserves its own name, something like Highly Ordered Attention Deficit: H.O.A.D. “Poor dear”, they’ll say “he’s kind of HOADy.

One of the very first things you learn in archeology is that wherever there has been human occupation, there you will find a trash pit. I was thinking about that recently and naturally enough it got me thinking about my job. Going over it in my mind I realized that I’ve worked on a good variety of jobs this year. I’ve had a hand in a high rise apartment building, a junior high school, two waterfront recreation areas, a water treatment plant, a ferry terminal, a museum and a hospital. The last one, the hospital, is the subject of this story.

We have been removing material from the hole that will be the basement of the hospital for about three weeks. It’s been slow going; we have to reinforce the pit so surrounding buildings will not start sinking or shifting on their own foundations. The backhoe has been pulling up an old concrete slab and we finally got down to the muddy fill just the other day.

We are two blocks away from the river but it became apparent pretty quickly that we were digging up an old solid filled pier. This type of pier was common in the 19th century and consisted of timber piles stacked like Lincoln Logs in a grid and then filled with large stone. As a point of interest the stone is said to have come from abroad as ship ballast. I think that’s probably incorrect since it’s bluestone, the same as that used for sidewalks before the use of concrete for that purpose. It is abundant locally and the use of local materials or materials at hand would be standard for the time period.

As the hole got deeper and filled with ground water we put in pumps and that is about when the bottles started showing up. They were here and there without any order and were obviously washed into their present positions. The first one I retrieved was a ceramic bottle in perfect condition. I’ve seen these before and my guess is early to mid nineteenth century, before glass came into common use. Who knows what was in it but whenever there is no imprint to the contrary I assume all bottles are beer. That’s not so far fetched as it may sound. It’s been said that there were about 140 breweries in New York at this time. After that came some heavy glass bottles that were also probably beer and then some medicine bottles with the imprint of the druggists, complete with addresses.

The thing about a waterfront is that people work there and eat there and stand and look at the river traffic there. And when they stand there sipping their beverage and pondering the comings and goings of the world they are swept away by their imaginations to distant ports. Ports of the mind. And the time slips away and the bottle is empty. It’s time to get back to work or go home and the bottle slips from the fingers to join the barques and barges, schooners and ferries. It hits the water on this, its maiden voyage, and bobs once or twice as it fills with water. Each bob it swallows a mouth full like a drowning man and then with a last gasp of bubbles it slips beneath the surface, settles to the bottom and relaxes into the soft silt. You can tell where the best spot to stand was, either because of view or venue, by the piles of bottles that accumulate in a location. In fifteen years of pier work, most of it with the divers, I can say that an overhead view of a pier, minus the pier is like a solar eclipse of bottles. The perimeter is clearly marked out, with more bottles by the waterfront where there is the greatest activity and thinning towards the end yet the whole thing still clearly outlined.

Now the medicine bottles didn’t jive with this scenario. Also, the glass is thinner; the casting more refined and so they must have been from a later date. The waterfront was gone having moved east and the old hospital was erected on made land. Landfill. As soon as I saw the medicine bottles I knew there was a trash pit on the site and that we were digging around it if not yet fully in it. Every scoop of the bucket was bringing up yards of material and a bottle or two. At the end of the day everyone cleaned up and left except for me. I was energized and excited to begin the hunt. I had a pretty good idea where to start looking and climbed down the steep mud embankment to have a look around.

With my boots sinking in I was looking at a wall of silt and stones and bits of glass and porcelain. Broken plates and bowls and cups are common in fill all over this area. Often they are covered in elaborate blue patterns. They are from China I suppose and even a small fragment can be quite astounding in the complexity of the pattern and the beauty of the brushwork.

I was digging away only a short time when I pulled up a ginger ale bottle. The cork was intact as was the cork of the next bottle I pulled up. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything as even a cork will eventually allow water to leach in but it does give one hope of finding a full bottle. I don’t suppose a full bottle is worth any more than an empty one; in fact none of these bottles is worth more than a couple of dollars, but I like the idea of this thing having weathered a century and more as if waiting for just this moment to deliver its goods.

By this time my gloves were heavy with mud and soaked through and I grabbed a likely looking scoop from the muck to dig with. I turned up several more items including a nice dark blue medicine bottle and a large cattle bone. Back in those days dead horses and cattle were legally and routinely disposed of by being left out with the trash and so in turn were used as land fill. I had as much as I could carry back to our shanty and so quit my labors. I tossed my scoop aside but even before leaving my fingers it occurred to me that it might be something. It didn’t feel like wood or stone and the weight was odd for the size. It was encrusted with mud but I thought it might just be a more or less intact bowl, which would be a great find. Then I thought it seemed more like a gourd and I thought it might be a colonial era artifact. I retrieved it and with an armful of stuff went up the hill to wash off my finds.

The GINGER ALE bottle, from MORGAN & BRO 232 west 47th St NEW YORK was indeed full and still had a curl of ginger in it. The other corked bottle was probably beer and bore an imprint of the brewer, JOHN HECHT BROOKLYN NY and the year, 1862. A nice find. The blue medicine bottle was from TARRANT & Co DRUGGISTS NEW YORK. And the bowl when washed clean turned out to be a human skullcap. The saw marks suggest it was an autopsy.

Birthday

So the nurse hands me the mask and says to put it on and trots off to her other duties.

I put the mask on and wait to be called into the operating room where Heather is being prepped. She’s only a few feet away and I wink and wave to her through the open door and think to myself that the mask is a little tight but I’m no doctor and my experience of this kind of thing is severely limited and if I try to tie it again I’ll only fuck it up anyway and then they call me in and it’s too late and there I am sitting by her head with a little hospital green fabric screen erected over her chest to separate us up at the thinking end from the action down at the plumbing end. As they start to do the caesarean, I’m whispering to her and trying to keep her calm and me calm and why is it that I think this is important; to be calm, ever so calm, even casual about the whole affair?

Maybe I don’t want to disturb the doctors or I think they’ll think I’m an asshole for getting excited about this most everyday occurrence and it’s important to be cool and maintain a sense of distracted disinterest as if I have something else on my mind; something really deep and important and if they’ll pick up the pace a little I can return to my important and impressive life which they can only imagine to have a glimpse of, these dirty little surgeons; these gory mechanics.

Did you know they use scissors to cut holes in ladies? I can’t say I’ve observed this but the sound of it is quite unmistakable. This girl at the art school where I work had a baby about four months prior to ours and her husband had left her quarantined head area and gone to the other end to watch the caesarean and had gone on and on about how cool it was to see her opened up like a fillet and all the organs and drains and pipes and conduits and junction boxes and this thing is connected to that thing and he had really wanted to do a bit of the stitching but he couldn’t convince the doctor, even as he was trying to edge him over and get in there.

This seemed a bit on the extreme side but I maintain a rather strong interest in the sciences and this crossed my obviously not busy enough mind while I was listening to the music of the scissors over the little green hospital screen and I started to wonder what was really going on over there. I mean, I might be missing the chance of a life time and not even might but definitely am and by god I’m going to go have a look at my son being born and what the insides of a live corpse look like because I am a man of science, yes science, creator and destroyer of worlds; a glimpse into, and I do mean into, one of the secrets of life, the very meaning of life. And there is no way I’m gonna let those doctors think they know something I don’t know and what with it being only just over the little green hospital screen, all I have to do is stand up and take a look. And if it’s not to scary I’ll mosey on ’round to where the action is because I belong where the action is because I am a man of science. But first I’ll take just a little peek because even though I am a man of action and a man of science it has always been the dry sciences, math and archaeology and sociology and a hand full of other ologies which did not require me to cut into anything that might put up a fight. But after all how different is one science from another? In fact, they are all one continuous inquiry with a bunch of specialists. Damn the specialists! Where are the Renaissance men? The big picture men with the big minds and the big curiosities? I’ll tell you where they are, they’re right here behind the screen and here I go to take a look, a peek, a glimpse, whatever; I will not be denied!

“I’ll be right back honey, I’m right here with youuuu”…..What the hell is that? Some blood on the sheet. I don’t see any gore. It’s just a bit of blood. I didn’t see any skin at all, the nurse was in the way. Just a bit of pinky reddy linen and man, is it warm in here or is it just me? I mean I can hardly breath! This mask is so tight I can barely pull a breath through it! A hot breath and there is no air in here! No air at all! And this mask is choking me like a noose; can’t breath. Pulling it open from the bottom trying to find some air in this vacuum and how am I going to phrase this? “Honey, I’ll be right back. I just need to go out and get a bit of air. Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.” How can I say this and put a good spin on it and where the hell is the air in here? This mask is so tight it’s like a lamprey on my mouth; like that thing in Alien when it sucks onto that guys face. It’s definitely going to look bad if I throw up in the operating room. That’ll be the end of my proving to these doctors what an interesting and learned colleague I am but the thing is I cannot breath and this mask is not only tight but getting tighter. It’s gripping my throat and crushing the bridge of my nose and I’m prying the bottom open with my left index finger in a nonchalant manner so as not to call attention to myself and I think I’ve managed to open it just enough to get a stream of oxygen molecules through when I realize that my stomach is unhappy and what was I thinking when I had breakfast? Oh yes, I remember thinking that this would be a good day to skip eating since I am rather sensitive in the tummy department but it’s way to late now but I’ll probably pass out before I hurl because I CANNOT BREATH!

At this very moment the surgeon chirps “Well, there’s his behind” and suddenly I am transported to an oxygen rich atmosphere, cool and breezy and seconds later they are handing him over their heads from hand to hand and they slide him under the heat lamps and I think to myself that this baby-warmer temperature-stabilizing unit is not only very like the french fry warmer at the fast food joint, it is the french fry warmer at the fast food joint and I wonder if anyone else has noticed this scam and I am in awe of the medical supply guy but hey, look how cool that kid is. My kid I suppose but anyway he is very very cool and he’s there and I guess I should go say hello and I do and he looks at me because he knows my voice and they stick a tube into his nose and down his throat to clear his lungs and he cries and cries until I say “it’s ok buddy” and he calms right down and the power I have over this little one becomes all too clear. I will be able to mess with him for the rest of my life.

Unbelievable but True

Hey Drew,

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. I know the meaning of life. That’s right! The número uno of the big three existential questions. The other two being, is there a god and what’s for dinner. Pretty cool huh? And surprising coming from me, right? I’ll tell you what; I was surprised too. Not because I don’t believe I’m smart enough or old enough or worldly enough; I’m passable on all those counts but because I hadn’t known it was really and truly available and, I think this is key, I hadn’t really cared. Why should I? Why would anyone? It’s a cotton candy question. All fluff, no substance and it attracts pests.

Okay, so lets get clear that we don’t want this investigation into meaning to devolve into a messy debate about related questions. Questions like: Does anything matter? Does anything have intrinsic value? Is there good and evil? The answers to those are No, No and Yes, but only relatively speaking.

Also

What is the meaning of life?

Is not

What is the meaning of my life?

Everyone is self centered, so the one is often standing in for the other. The answer to What is the meaning of my life, is simply, how the hell should I know? What am I, a mind reader? That’s your problem. But in the big picture the answer is nothing. Individual lives have no meaning in the big picture. Of course, ultimately even the big picture has no meaning in the big picture but let’s focus. Think of the millions who died during the reign of the Black Death. A full third of Europe. I’ll bet you can’t name one of them. The event, en masse, had far reaching consequences. It truly changed the history of the world. Lives were lost, families were destroyed, wealth and power shifted. The ensuing labor shortages alone changed the dynamic between an idle elite and the peasantry that supported them. It changed the way businesses did business. But the individuals, their sufferings and their heroics, they are forgotten, lost with no effect. It was the aggregate depletion of humanity that bore the meaning.

Even the greats, Caesar, Hannibal, the Khan’s (Genghis and Chaka) Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Einstein, Cher; they were smart, talented opportunists who were good at what they did. People care but history doesn’t. The world is full of people who are good at what they do. The names are incidental. The greats were just good at what they did at a moment when the doing needed to be done. I don’t want to minimize great achievements but If those individuals hadn’t been there, someone else would have done the doing, or not. Probably differently and still we would view it all as inevitable. Manifest destiny. The forces at play are all so extraordinary that they seem to demand meaning but that is a human issue, an issue of brain architecture. Looking for the pattern. We are pattern recognition machines and we will find patterns. Period! The greats, giants though they may be, were just in the right place doing whatever it is that they did best when the historical imperative coughed them up. Events demanded that a person fill a vacuum and voila Jerry Lewis.

Jerry and the rest may have changed the course of history but they didn’t stop history. The arrow of time continues, the end will be the end and the cosmic difference will be zero.

Additionally, this is not a philosophical discourse. I know that in the wrong hands a conversation like this can easily slip into an argument about semiotics and religion and Hegelian something-or-other until all sides end up either in armed conflict or fast asleep.

That’s what makes me so perfect for the job. I don’t know the first thing about that stuff. Syntactics, semantics and pragmatics are words that I didn’t even know until just now when I looked up semiotics. I even had to spellcheck most of that last sentence. So, not withstanding that I don’t know anything about philosophy, and a whole bunch of other stuff besides, I have the mind of a scientist. Unbelievable but true. I rely entirely on observable phenomenon and cool word play. If it involves a willingness to believe in something without a shred of evidence you’ve got the wrong guy. Quoting proverbs and muttering affirmations? Pardon me while I flatline. When people like that tell you they have the answers (and they tell you that constantly) it’s only because they haven’t bothered to ask any questions.

Finally, and most emphatically, this is not a self help tract. That would require an altruism that I do not possess and an interest in people that is as foreign to me as uninterrupted sleep and disposable income. It would also require a conviction in my cause that in itself would be cause for suspicion. There is no end to the self help books that will tell you how to create meaning in your life. I don’t read that crap. Its very existence as a genre is a backwards pointer towards meaninglessness. It creates that which it proposes to subdue. Which is not to say that I couldn’t write a manifesto.

Like the expanding universe we create meaning as we go.

As with relativity, the meaning we create exists only in contrast

to the other meanings surrounding us.

These other meanings have a dampening effect or an amplifying effect

depending on how they resonate harmonically with our meaning.

Meaning resonates with other meaning not only in its immediate

vicinity but across great distances.

Distances in both space and time.

See? Anybody can write that stuff. And you know what? People will pay for it no matter how convoluted. In fact, the weirder the better. Look at any religion. People of faith are tied together by their mutual willingness to believe in absurdly implausible creation myths. Once you’ve got them to jump through that hoop the rest is easy. Then you just tell them stuff they already know and they think you’re a genius.

Don’t kill each other

Don’t steal anything

Stop lying for one minute would ya?

Don’t take more than you need

Don’t curse around your mom

Wash behind your ears

Give a guy a break

Don’t let your jollys get the better of you

Eat your veggies

Have a nice day

Bound by this common leap into the ridiculous, faith offers the ultimate in self help. Just replace your problematic self with a standardized template of preordained behavior. And, of course, follow the leader. Deeply fascist but then there’s the promise of rich rewards down the road. So far down the road that you actually have to be dead to collect. What a load of shit. If my business plan was to borrow your money, promise interest compounded daily until the day after you expire and then sell stock in this venture I would be locked up forever. Unless I called it insurance. Either way it’s a Ponzi scheme. Just another yellow brick road with a promise of safe passage at the end.

Okay, so the key to unraveling the meaning of life started with a mundane event. Of course. Your not going to find something really important in a situation that is screaming “Look, Look”. We reserve those moments for commercial activity. No, the really important stuff is found just sitting there. Out in the open. It looks like everything else because it is everything else. It looks like something that has been discarded because it has been discarded. It looks worthless because it is worthless. It all started because the dog wasn’t feeling well. I can tell when she isn’t feeling well because she pants and paces around. Also because last night she soiled the rug in a Saint Valentines Day Massacre of shit. I’m a light sleeper so tonight her pacing and panting downstairs wakes me enough to do the calculation. It’s 3:20 in the morning. Do I want to get up and walk her or do I want to clean and mop the floor when I wake up for work in an hour and a half? After the walk I lay back down and let my mind wander.

There are other things I never cared about besides the meaning of life. For instance, I never cared where I lived even though I grew up in a large beautiful house surrounded by horse chestnut trees. I never cared what I wore, though I had parents who were happy to dress me any old way I wanted, on no notice at all. I suspect they didn’t care about clothes either. I never cared what I ate though my mother is an excellent cook. When we were growing up we would always tell her that she was the best cook in the world and we really meant it.

Aren’t those supposed to be the basic elements of survival? Food, clothing and shelter? And I never cared about any of them. And you know, I have to ask myself, Why is that? The answer could be that you don’t have to care about things that are present but invisible. Invisible because they are a given. As adults we are led to believe that we are masters of our own destinies. But as children we recognize our situation, whatever it is, as a given. That’s why it’s hard to get people to care about the air they breath. Until the air becomes visible as a hazy green monster of smog it’s just a given. When millions of people are having trouble breathing, then and only then do we ask ourselves if maybe air is important. The very euphemism, trouble breathing, seems crafted to minimize the worry factor. Trouble breathing? How many steps are there between trouble breathing and not breathing. I count one. I suppose we could throw in extreme distress but that’s really parsing things. Still, I’m feeling generous so let’s say two. We live in cities where we are routinely two steps away from expiring from the air.

So meaning is like air in that respect. When it is present, it is invisible. We notice it by its absence. We notice it by its corruption. When life fails to be meaningful we struggle, as if for breath. We are launched into crisis or its contrasting equivalents; melancholy, weariness, apathy, ennui; fast food, popular music, television and shopping; alcoholism, drug addiction, lechery and extravagance. All the awesome stuff! Bacon should be in there somewhere. Candy too. But you can’t build a life around it anymore than you can build a meal out of candy wrapped in bacon. And believe me it isn’t for lack of trying.

It’s important when talking about big themes in few words to make sure we understand exactly what each word means. I failed philosophy twice in college so believe me, I know.

“The Meaning of Life”

only has two words that need considering; two words that may help point us in the right direction.

Life is the easy one. That one doesn’t need elaboration. If you are alive you know it. You may feel numb, detached and indifferent, apathetic and dispirited. You may feel dead and describe yourself as such but only live people do that. Only the living feel dead.

The meaning of Meaning is, according to dictionary.com, “the end purpose or significance of something.” Right here it seems like we run into a problem because the end purpose of something is not knowable until after its end. Often well beyond its terminal limit. And until a moment becomes historical it is really beyond accurate evaluation. Still, meaning need only satisfy the beliefs of the individual in the moment. The sense of doing the right thing while being in the right place at the right time. And that may tell us something because we can’t choose our time and as a rule we do what we believe is correct. It is not rare for people to be deceived or deluded, stupid or selfish. It is not rare for people to be pompous, egotistical, shitheads but it is the rare person who deliberately does the thing that they themselves think is wrong.

So, if time is not of the essence and, in a subjective way, we know right from wrong, that leaves only one variable. Place. I don’t want to go too deeply into this for reasons that will become apparent but it would seem that meaning is not a what; it’s a where. Meaning is not a thing, it is a place. And we’re not talking about a metaphysical place as in:

“My head is in a good place, man.”

We’re talking about a location, an actual spot. If you’re sitting at the counter at the Soul Spot on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn you are, without a doubt, standing in high cotton. If you’re right across the street at the Dept. of Correction’s, Brooklyn House of Detention, you have most definitely left your cake out in the rain.

From this we can conclude that where you are is where you’re at.

So the question, What is the meaning of life? is really the question Where is the meaning of life? And this is great because I really have it wrapped up here. And when I say here I really do mean here. I am standing in the epicenter of life’s meaning. You should see it. If I didn’t already know it I never would have guessed. Because the only indicator is my presence.

So you see I really do know the meaning of life but it would be pointless to tell it to you because you’re somewhere else and so is everyone else. But take it from me, it doesn’t make a bit of difference. It changes nothing. I had it right from the very beginning when I said I didn’t care because, Where is the Meaning of Life is not a question, it’s a statement.

Bedtime

I knew right away it was the beginning of the end.

He stayed in our bed for the first two years or so. I don’t think my mother approved. I believe she thought it didn’t encourage independence. She cloaked her concern by appealing to my pragmatic self-interest. The family bed didn’t sound very good if only because it interfered with “intimacy.” That conversation ended after I pointed out that the bed wasn’t the only place to get “intimate.”

No, the family bed ended because our bed faces east and west and like a live compass his head always ended up facing north. Even in a king sized bed there wasn’t enough room and I got tired of him kicking me on the way to his magnetic repose.

From the time he began staying in his own bed or at least starting out in his own bed, there was always a connection from his room to ours. Amputees talk about ghost limbs. They report that a severed limb is not only still there but itches. The mind fills in that loss. The umbilical cord is like that. At night it stretches easily from his room to ours. During the day it stretches all the way to school but its influence is diminished, wrapped and tangled as it is with all those other cords. It’s a good thing it’s only a metaphor. That influence is slow to fade. I suspect it is like a parabolic curve that forever approaches its infinity but never quite arrives.

The call would come in the night. “Mommy.” And off I would trudge to his room to bring him back into the cozy fold of our bed with a quick stop for a midnight pee on the way. Eventually he found the way on his own and really it was remarkable and exciting. A little rustling from down the hall. Like a dog that can’t quite get the right number of circles one way and then the other to find its rest. And then that sound, pad pad pad pad pad pad pad. It makes you laugh to hear it. It almost sounds human but the weight of the footfall is wrong; too improbably light. And then the hands thrown straight up in the air beside our bed. Not a word, just him standing there, arms thrust up. Not like a holdup at gunpoint. No, this is more like superman soaring up to heaven. Or like a high diver who has sprung from his board, reached the apex of his dive and is simply waiting for gravity to turn him towards his final fall into a sea of arms and covers. He never made a sound but then he never had to wait for his flight.

In his own bed he would always start out with his mother. Eventually the routine became that when he awoke and called “Mommy”, she would go lie down with him until he went back to sleep. Occasionally I would start out with him but I was not a first round draft choice. It really happened because his testing of her began to extend beyond lights out. He simply wouldn’t stop talking. She would threaten to leave but eventually threats stopped working and then she would leave and oh the laments. The crying and the sorrys. The agony seemed so real and maybe it was. Maybe they are manic-depressives when they are tired because no sooner was she back in his bed than he was excitedly chattering away again.

Enter Daddy. Bedtime disciplinarian. It worked out great because as soon as I lie down in the dark I am history. Hell, as soon as I lie down period. A book or two, lights out and that’s all. No one to talk to, no one to test. I’m already in dreamland. Half the time I would fall asleep while reading him a book. Sometimes I would drop off in the middle of a sentence and he would grab my nose or push my head to wake me. “Reeead” would come his voice through the fog. Many a time my eyes would close and I would hear myself finish a sentence all wrong; the last comprehended word having triggered some kind of random association. I would hear my voice behind the black screen of closed eyelids and think, “hey, those aren’t the words”. I would catch myself and open my eyes and we would look at each other and crack up. Sleep was never a chore and we became good at it.

Now, in the middle of the night comes the call for “Daddy”. Or the occasional “Mommy, I mean, Daddy” which his mother finds particularly galling. I go to him and we shuffle off for the midnight pee. He usually has a word or two like “let’s get cozy” or “I’m having trouble with my covers”. He lies down and I flip the sheet and cover and as they settle down over him he says “come in” like it’s a cabin in the forest. We are like two conspirators in our cuddling. He rests his head on my shoulder and I kiss his curls. When he turns over and rolls his head on to his pillow I know he’s asleep again and I return to the big bed. I am aware that eventually he will stop calling. More and more he sleeps through the night. He’s still a kid but his bladder is growing up.

Much of my parenting revolves around the awareness that he will outgrow almost everything without my help. For a short time when he was four and would ask me to carry him I would say, “No, you’re a big boy you can walk yourself.” I’m sure I thought I was teaching him to be strong but then it occurred to me that he didn’t need to be weaned from this request. Someday he was just going to stop asking and I was the one who would be alone in my regret. Carrying is just a hug in motion and soon, too soon, will come the last. Yes he’s heavy but so what. I’m strong.

And then, just a few nights ago it happened. He called for Daddy and when I came in he wouldn’t talk to me. Just a low growl. We went for a quick pee and I put him back in the bed. I straightened the covers and he grunted and didn’t make room for me. I asked him if he wanted me to stay and he grunted again and turned away. No room at the inn. I returned to the big bed and felt the strength of that cord again and that the balance of pull works in two directions. Like fishing; sometimes you pull on the fish and sometimes the fish pulls on you but in the end the big one always gets away.

The Measure of a Man

Hey Drew,

Before I start this story I’d just like to say that I am not a tit man to the exclusion of all else, Okay? That’s it. Just so we’re clear. I mean, sure what’s up front counts for something but everything counts for something. I guess I’m kind of a head, shoulders, knees and toes man. In my eyes it’s all good. I like everything about women from vocal characteristics to the fine grain of their skin. Also I like a nice ass but I think that’s universal. Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say. Just so we’re clear.

Now, as you know, I’m in heavy construction and as a rule construction work starts early. Most jobs start at 7:00 and mine is one of those. Every morning I get up for work at 4:45. No big deal, I wake easily and I’m in a good mood. I like the morning. I like it so much that I get up before morning so that I won’t miss any of it. I’m not a minute man, jumping out of bed, wolfing down a breakfast, running for the subway to get to work in the nick of time. I can’t handle that kind of anxiety.

After I wake I head to the bathroom for a quick brushing of the old pearly whites and a putting on of the old work clothes. I go downstairs for a bite and a write before leaving at 5:30. I work in a secured area so we have biometric scanners that read something about my hand. I have to palm in, as we call it, by 7:00 but I arrive between 6:10 and 6:20 everyday unless I’m sitting in for the foreman in which case I get up earlier and arrive at about 5:30 to palm in by 6:00. Like most heavy construction workers I’ve seen thousands of sunrises.

Sunrises are one of the few things that don’t get old with familiarity. They don’t become invisible. There is something in a sunrise that registers deep with the animal instincts.  It’s just a theory but I don’t believe we wake to eat, I believe we wake to avoid being eaten by the early risers. Big and soft and weak and slow, we must have been the catch of the day every day for ten million years. The early birds among us dodged the predator, only then did we get the worm. With that kind of victory, I’m sure more than one caveman decided to sleep late the next morning.

My morning, like most everyone’s, is a routine with little variation. But yesterday I happened to notice myself in the mirror over the sink before getting dressed. The mirror sits on a ledge above the sink. It’s 4 feet tall by 3 feet wide so you’d think it would command a lot of attention but it’s only a mirror. If you don’t put anything in, nothing comes out. I only rarely look at my face and almost never review my person. I don’t have the kind of doubts that translate into vain musings.

So there I was, looking at me from the waist up and I noticed that I don’t have a chest. No surprise, I’ve never had one. It’s kind of disappointing because, as a Dockbuilder, I’m in a very physical line of work and I’m always among the hardest workers out there. And it’s not that I’m weak. I’m no powerhouse but I can hold my own in any gang. I do try to work smart to keep myself out of situations that require brute strength but I would do that anyway. Strong men have bad backs and terrible knees because they do before they think. I’ve watched so many injuries happen because of a misplaced can do attitude that I’ve developed a no way, ask somebody else attitude. The simple fact is, I just don’t have mass. So me and the mirror are eyeing each other up. We’re looking at our sternum and ribs and by this time the gears are turning and like any good carpenter I’m wondering about dimensions and from the look on his face so is the guy in the mirror.

I guess you can see where I’m heading with this.

This chest. Flat and undefined. I decide to calculate my bra size.

I went on line and there is no shortage of sites that do the calculation for you. I decided on www.afraidtoask.com because the name made me laugh but it didn’t give me the all important cup size. On the upside, for purely illustrative purposes I’m sure, they have pictures of breasts from 30AA to 42DD laid out like baseball trading cards listing the only stat that matters. Say what you will about the analogy it’s a roster with all my favorite players.

For your own edification and in the event you’d like to do the math yourself the following formula is the Unified Theory of proper fit for undergarments designed to cover and support the breasts. Taken directly from another web site you can see that the formula requires only two measurements.

Subtract your band measurement (step 1) from your cup measurement (step 2). Generally, for each inch in difference, the cup goes up by one size.

 

Example:

Step 1: 34″ under measurement +4″ = 38″ band

Step 2: 40″ over measurement

Step 3: 40″ – 38″ = 2″ or Cup “B”

Your size would be 38B

 

Simple right? Correct me here if I’m wrong but doesn’t this seem like the kind of formula that was conjured up by a chinless, second year, math intern with instructions from some dirtbag CEO to “keep it clean but somehow make the numbers bigger, a little more, shall we say, fulsome. Add 4 inches. The ladies will love that!”

Just to clarify, the first number, the band measurement, is taken across the ribcage under the breast. The second number, the cup measurement, is taken across the nipples. What a great word! Nipple.

Onomatopoetic means the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it. Hiss and Boom are the usual examples. And while I’ve never heard a nipple make a sound unassisted it seems like saying the word nipple mimics the suckling actions of the infant mouth. Try it. Mouth the word slowly and silently and tell me I haven’t given this subject a little too much consideration.

More than that, it seems to me that the forming of the word with the mouth instantly conjures up the whole picture with a special focus on size and color and texture. Naturally there is more of an intimate connection, a genuine survival instinct, between the nipple and the mouth than almost any two other parts so this kind of visualizing shouldn’t come as any surprise. In truth it’s less of a mental picture and more of a mental movie in 3D because the images are so exquisitely varied and detailed. Closeups, angles, lighting, mood music, all that.

It seems likely, however, that everyone’s mental picture of nipple is as different as every ones mental picture of skin color. It goes back to the issue of preferences doesn’t it. My world looks different than your world because we’re looking at the world with different biases. In that respect we all inhabit different worlds. Is it any wonder we find each other so baffling?

They say, that when asked to think of a particular color, no two people are thinking of the same one because no two people are referencing the same highly personalized cranial database. Or maybe it’s just because no two people can agree on anything. And in any case as the experts will only too gladly tell you “Color is often mistaken as a property of light when it really is a property of the brain”, and unless you find two people sharing a brain you’re not going to find two people agreeing on the qualities of a single color.

Testing that theory was pretty easy. A quick perusal of the literature suggests that the human eye can discern between 100,000 and 10 million colors. The literature obviously has some kind of commitment problem but with the worlds population just a hair shy of 7 billion it seems probable that the skin color I’m thinking of is the same skin color that at least 700 other people on the planet are thinking about.

And while it may seem like a small, somewhat excited leap of logic I think that the nipple of my dreams is very likely shared by an equal number, male and female alike. On the other hand it’s hard to think, looking at my own chest, that any one of those 7 billion is thinking to themselves, “These! These are the perfect nipples!” Maybe I’m the exception that proves the rule.

So I take the two measurements. In my case the numbers are 33″ and 34″ respectively. Tap tap enter and I’m a 38AA. It doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s out of context information. I don’t have anything to judge it by that has meaning for me because let’s face it I’m not comparing myself to a woman. Like my hat size. I don’t know what it is and it’s not a measure that rings with harsh judgement or erotic undertones. Until I see the note below. “No bra is needed if these measurements are correct.” If these measurements are correct?” What’s with the doubtful tone? I’m not really digging the questioning of my honest input of data. And “No bra is needed?” I don’t know, I feel kind of slighted. Like what; I’m not good enough? I’m undeserving? It feels a little personal. I’m feeling a little judged here. If I was a girl with a lot of my self-esteem invested in my headlights I could see this being a real blow.

Now, I’ve been eye to eye with enough breasts to know that there is a terrific amount of variety out there and whatever a girl’s got is perfect for the girl whose got them and for the one who loves her. Love is not a matter of crass accountancy and beauty is not really in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is often mistaken as a property of the subject when really it is a property of the smitten. Beauty is in the heart of the beholder. And ugly, as they say, goes right to the bone. Another thing I know about breasts is that pretty much all of them appreciate a little attention, a little care thrown in their direction. Breasts are kind of suckers for attention but they can also be surprisingly temperamental. This is especially true when they are fully operational.

I think it’s fair to say that a nursing breast is a whole other beast attached to what appears to be a whole other animal than one’s wife. After determining my bra size it got me wondering about that. My wife is a lactation consultant which is a profession that on the face of it, would seem not to have a clientele. I mean, what on earth could be more second nature than a mother feeding her newborn? I don’t believe there is a single instance in nature where squeezing one’s breast into one’s offspring’s mouth is outsourced. Come to think of it you never see anything on the animal shows about breast fondling either. I guess animals aren’t really into groping or a bit of friendly molesting. If that’s the case, I don’t even know why we bother calling them animals.

But the instinct to nurse and the actual mechanics of nursing are separate things. The presumption that nursing skills are automatic makes some assumptions about how nature works that ain’t necessarily so. Naturally, much of what goes on in nature is instinctual. But what does that mean? Instinct is, according to Webster “a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason.” In other words it’s automatic behavior that replaces the need for learning. Behavior is internalized as a default setting. The down side of instinct is that judgement calls are completely out of the question. Instinct does not accommodate change or variability. I think we’ve already touched on the variability of human breasts and it is this variability along with those of the infant that present potential complications. But something better than instinct, something with better survival value, had to replace instinct.

Social grouping is instinctual and here’s where it gets interesting. The existence of extended families, sisters, mothers, grandmothers neutralized the need for the default settings of instinct. Their accumulated experience is what makes instinct unnecessary. Their knowledge is able to accommodate variables on both sides of the mother infant relationship to a point that exceeds the survival advantage of instinct. The behavior has become externalized but the success of learned behavior was dependent on a network of social interactions that largely do not exist anymore. Enter the lactation consultants who are really just stand ins for ones missing extended family as well as the discontinuity of experience brought on by the advent of formula.

In the end it all came back around to my wife, as everything always does. Her job really is incredibly interesting and the knowledge base is expanding very quickly to refill the void left by broken families and miserably deficient industrial substitutes. It almost goes without saying that hospitals which are now hospital corporations do not place a lot of value in this service. Why pay a lactation consultant when you can plug a baby into a bottle; a bottle paid for by a corporation hoping to capture a new mother in chemical dependence and be done with it.

We were talking about work and she’s passionate about what she’s learning. About the qualities of mother’s milk that cannot be reproduced not the least of which being that mother’s milk is alive. I think that’s an unbelievably cool factoid and I’m a huge fan of factoids. She talks about the mothers and how vulnerable they are and of course the babies. You would think that everything surrounding birth would focus on the baby but in fact everything seems to conspire against them. Hospital practices, doctors hours, administrators, pain management, the whole thing. It’s all really interesting and so I have to be careful about the sensitivity I show when phrasing questions. Especially questions that may have the appearance of prurience. Phrasing is all important. Whatever the question it cannot be delivered in a crude coarse crass dirty lewd obscene perverted profane raunchy skeevy smutty or vulgar manner or with a smirk. No smirking! In fact, steer clear of smiling altogether. Which of course I would never do but you know, it’s so easy to be misunderstood.

When, for instance, I ask her “By now you’ve seen thousands of breasts. Does anything about what you’ve seen stand out, so to speak.” she is immediately on to me. Still, I know her so well, I can see that there is something. A little bit of nudging and the assurance, now substantiated, that I need this information for a story I’m writing brings me to this; many Asian women have nipples that are so large the nipple does not fit into the baby’s mouth. I know instantly that I will never be able to look at an Asian woman again without wondering what’s going on under her bra. And while that may not be a significant difference between how I look at other women it certainly places an image in my mind. A starting point, if you will.

There is so much uniformity in nature. Birds and fish and lizards and insects, lions and tigers and bears. You really don’t see a lot of variation among individuals until you get to domesticated animals. Variation among domestic stock is entirely due to the tampering of humans and the same can be said for humans themselves. It’s little wonder there is so much variation among us and our chests. The reason breasts look the way they do is the reason that everything looks the way it does. Natural selection. Because, among these women, the size of the nipple doesn’t best serve the baby there has to be another motive force. If that motive force is not the end user, the baby, then it can only be the prime mover. That prime mover was men. Plain and simple men were choosing women with larger nipples to mate with. There are only two scenarios here. In that region of the world either women were producing larger nipples to attract mates and men were responding positively by choosing large nippled women to mate with. Or men preferred large nippled women and chose them as mates more often. Either way there was upward pressure on nipple size.

That observation did not necessarily endear me to my wife. For reasons that I can’t fathom she found that bit of information demeaning. To me it’s just an acknowledgement that, first and foremost, we are animals. Personally I find that comforting. Being an animal provides a lot of cover for behavior that otherwise might require a lot of explaining. In fact she wouldn’t even believe it but hey I says to her I don’t make the rules, I just report the ones that piss people off. I mean sure I’m making this up as I go but it is worth mentioning that I was always good at staying within the lines of the coloring books.

Returning to the subject of my own nothing of a chest I have to ask myself why? What possible survival advantage was gained by this genetic trait? Let’s call it the psychology of anatomy. Or is it the anatomy of psychology? What I mean is we look the way we look because this is what we wanted to look like. People mated with people they found attractive but what was it that some troglodyte chickadee found so hot about my scrawny ass ancestor. It grieves me to say that it wasn’t penis size but if he was anywhere near as romantic and sentimental as I am he probably just sweet talked her hairy ass into his cave for a tumble on the rat skin rug and that may be a clue. The need for brawn abated as the skill of bullshitting evolved. The weaker specimens among us were forced to use our brains to survive and that meant that physique was less important, all of which propelled human intelligence forward. Although I’d like to think so, I’m probably not the first to say that our weakness is our strength. And at the end of tens of millions of years of evolution I applied what little strength I had to determine my optimal bra size, 38AA.

Naturally this isn’t the kind of information you would want to keep to yourself. I mean on the one hand it’s not like I had discovered a new continent but, I felt, it was a discovery of a more modest dimension. Like the Spork. It wasn’t a paradigm shifter but it did capture your attention for a second. And while I’m sure bra sizing is common conversation among transvestites it exceeds rare among my circle. I can’t think of another heavy construction worker who has ever even posed the question to me never mind done the math.

I texted my 38AA information to my Dockbuilder friends around New York. A little tree shaking for the sake of seeing the leaves fall. The responses ranged from a simple though emphatic WHat!?!to a texted photo that would do any disgraced congressmen proud. It just goes to show you that the personal really is the universal, especially if you broadcast it all the hell over the place.