Salt Peanuts

Hey Drew,

Did you ever use a flavored ChapStick and it reminded you of grape soda when you were a kid and that got you thinking about reaching up into the old soda machine in front of the gas station on Old York Road to liberate a bottle without the bother of paying, how much was it, 35¢? All because Eddie, the bad kid down the block, thought it was a good idea and you didn’t know how or even why to say no. It was a small thrill on a hot and humid suburban summer night; right up until the cops skidded to a halt. We bolted but I couldn’t make it over the wall so I slid under a parked car, gravel buried in my skin and held my breath so tightly that my chest hurts just telling about it.

Memory is peculiar isn’t it. And the more remote the memory the more peculiar it gets. The things that surface from distant memories are the things that didn’t even bear mentioning back when the dormant past was the urgent present. The subject of Monday morning’s meeting will be lost forever by Thursday afternoon but something about Miss Dulcet’s lipgloss, her perfume and the way she looked, reflected upside down in the polished surface of the conference room table, those details will revisit you on your deathbed.

And in every instance we are reminded that memory is the echo of five senses. The smell of roasting peanuts can trip trap doors to anywhere. A bus ride can abruptly transport you decades. Every song triggers a memory and the quality of light, at any given moment, can let loose a snowfall of associations. Memories are such tangled and sentimental creatures. The point is, we are constantly reminded that not only is the distant past not so distant, it hasn’t even passed.

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

When I was a kid my mom would stick me on the Greyhound Bus to Atlantic City to spend a few days with my grandparents. I went during Easter Vacation, well before the summer season started, so the place was pretty much abandoned. I barely recall a thing about my grandfather except that he loved to play Solitaire. Solitaire isn’t the kind of card game that invites a lot of company. My grandmother, my Bobba, didn’t like to do anything as much as she liked to walk. She also liked to watch soap operas in her birthday suit but again, not an activity that benefits from company. They lived on the boardwalk at the Vermont Arms in an apartment overlooking the ocean a generation after Atlantic City’s heyday and a generation before gambling arrived.

What I did there on my visits was walk the boardwalk with my grandmother. And I don’t mean stroll. We walked with the purpose of refugees fleeing an active volcano. We would go from Captain Starn’s Seafood Restaurant with its giant curio shop at the north end by Absecon Inlet, to as far south as we could go before running out of boardwalk or daylight. Even then she would take a moment to look further south; consider her options. I don’t know what was calling to her but she always listened to it before we turned back. Perhaps it was some inner voice urging her on to conquest and adventure. Whatever the case, I have no doubt whatsoever that if the boardwalk extended to Cuba we would have attempted breakfast in Havana.

The Atlantic City of the 60’s was an open air museum. A run down version of the Atlantic City of the 40’s, 30’s and 20’s. Those marches took us through a landscape of oddities and a near endless stream of my grandmother’s memories. My grandmother was deeply self centered but, to my memory, her reminiscence were not about herself so much as they were about the landscape. What pier used to be here and what entertainments used to be there. It may have been through her that I learned that every place has a story and every object in that place also has a story. There were rolling chairs. An oversized one or two passenger wheeled high-back chair made of wicker and pushed by a hired hand. As a child I remember that it was not at all clear which direction was forward or even what their function was. There were hundreds of them lined up, sometimes stacked up as though ready for a bonfire but I never once saw a person ride in one.

We would stop at Steel Pier and Steeplechase Pier which were open but just barely. They weren’t so much open as they were simply unlocked. Mr. Peanut would be wandering around like a movie extra outside the store at the formerly world famous Haddon Hall Hotel. Everything was moldy, faded, and decrepit. Everyone I saw was old. Of course when you’re eight almost everyone really is old but that feeling remains stuck to the memory even after I have joined the ranks of the walking dead.

While I appreciate the forces that were in play that turned Atlantic City into a gambling Mecca I think it’s a shame that no one seems to have given any thought to turning the entire place into a Zombie Theme Park. Where were the big thinkers, the visionaries, when such an opportunity knocked? They were there of course, just like they always are but nobody listened. Money replaced memory. History and therefore meaning were the casualties.

Though my grandmother and I traveled miles in both directions, the place I liked best was the pinball arcade right next door to their building. It was an arcade out of The Twilight Zone. A genuine time warp where you got to kill an enemy that was already dead. Every machine was a relic of the second world war. At least one would hope so with names like Zap the Jap and Kill the Kraut. Every kid could contribute to the war effort by dropping a coin, looking through the periscope, knocking over the drop target destroyer and sending a thousand men to a watery grave. Preferably with sharks.

Those machines and their murderous innocence are gone now, along with the ramshackle structure that housed them and along with my grandparents who lived next door at the Vermont Arms.

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Call Me Irresponsible

Illustration by Clayton Mednick

Hey Drew,

Are you an Eccentric? A Rugged Individualist? A Sententious Crank? How about a nut job. Are you a nut job? Maybe a Whacko? A Fruitcake? A Head Case? An Oddball? I’m none of those things but it seems to me that everyone else is. I mean, think about it. Children appear to be a bunch of lunatics. Teenagers are incomprehensibly deranged. Old people are chronically demented and everyone else is non compos mentis. It’s a little strange how nobody notices their own peculiarities and hypocrisies. And absolutely nobody wants to take responsibility for their actions. We often describe people as suffering from delusions but the reality is quite the opposite. It’s not them, it’s us. We’re all suffering from each other’s delusions. From one another’s common, yet persistent, disorderly editing of reality.

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

I’m sitting here on the front stoop watching the kids pick on each other. It’s like a microcosm of every regional conflict in the world.

Me against my brother.

Me and my brother against my neighbor.

Me, my brother and my neighbor against that kid over yonder.

If they were old enough to cross the street, I fear they would make a foray into the next block (after waiting for the light and looking both ways) in search of plunder. A half pint raiding party with plastic light sabers picking up conscripts and kicking over the Lego castles of the weak along the way to pillaging the local candy shop. When the parents show up there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing.

And of course that behavior doesn’t really abate when people get older. The grabbing and the bickering, the cheating and the name calling. The only difference with grown- ups is the scope of the undertaking and often times not even that. Adults are just big children. And you know what that means?  It means that when the lawyers show up there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing.

The nice thing about kids is that while kids are as averse as adults to taking responsibility for their actions, at least kids aren’t pretending to be doing you any favors. As cruel as kids can be, their convictions are as short as their attention spans. With kids you can see the knife coming. And the knife is flimsy and plastic with a glow in the dark blade. Not so with adults.

It’s been said that every possible universe is possible and so I imagine there must be a universe where everyone takes responsibility. And not just responsibility for themselves but for everything. The cheese goes bad on the plate and the person standing closest points it out and apologizes. All the other people in the room say ” That’s ok Mork, it wasn’t you, it was me.” or ” Nope, nope, I did it!” or “Ok, if you think so but still, I feel just awful about it.” Then everyone chimes in together “We’ll try better next time.”

Neurotic? Sure! Unbelievable? Not so fast!

I worked in an environment like that once; where everyone was happy to take responsibility. It was my first job in heavy construction and it was a pier renovation. A dive job. I learned the responsibility ploy from my mentor, a commercial diver and whacked out Vietnam vet named Scotty. Scotty used to say “I’m the second best diver in the business. Everyone else is the best; just ask them.” Whenever something fell overboard, and on water jobs things fall overboard all the time, Scotty would say he lost it. No one bothered with recriminations because it was widely understood that this kind of thing happens and that Scotty could kill you with less effort than it takes to blink and in about as much time. Also, Scotty hadn’t lost anything. Everybody knew that Scotty was just happy to take the blame. And everyone else, when not eagerly grabbing the blame for themselves, was glad to have such a convenient place to put it. Scotty understood that assigning blame doesn’t move the job forward, it’s just divisive. But almost everyone else on this particular job was of the same mind. When asked where a missing tool was, guys would generously offer up a  “Gee, the last time I saw it, it was in my garage” or “Yeah, I think I sold that to my brother-in-law.”

Neurotic? Sure! But these are the tradeoffs we make. And there are advantages.

Everyone taking responsibility creates a rock bottom level of tension between people. And it takes the time consuming task of assigning blame right off the table. Assigning blame is so rarely of any benefit. I’ve listened to so many stories of love gone wrong. He was mean, she was demanding. I always give the same advice. Assigning blame is pointless. You didn’t get along. You weren’t compatible. That’s all.

All that time listening to the lovelorn, lost to me because of my own willingness and because I guess I look like the kind of person people can trust. Alas, they’re wrong. When people ask me if I can keep a secret I always say “No.” That kind of honesty inevitably has people telling me things I have no business knowing. Counterintuitive I know but that’s practically a definition of human nature. The truth is I can’t keep a secret any better than I can keep a cookie. If I have it, it’s a goner. It might be me or it might be hereditary; it’s hard to say. For generations our family motto has been,

 “Your Secret Will Die With Me.”

 

A nice double entendre, no? It’s on our family crest in the original Norwegian.

 

Din Hemmelige Vil Dø Med Meg.”

And while I do understand that we are Ukrainian peasants without land, title or crest, I also understand that the reason my clan has blonde hair and blue eyes is that footloose Viking dandies were galavanting around the Ukrainian countryside looking for soul food and a little snuggle. Therefore we claim our birthright as Vikings. And Jews too. We’re not trying to dodge an investigation regarding our whereabouts on the morning of 1 day B.C. Plain and simple we are Viking Jews. Yes we pillage. Yes we destroy. Yes we leave our dirty clothes on the floor and empty milk containers in the fridge. But our ambitions are fueled by good intentions. We’re genuinely sorry about any inconvenience our ransacking may have caused. We feel just awful about it. Honest, we’ll try better next time.

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.

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.

What I know

Hey Drew,

They say the first rule of writing is to write what you know.

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

Writing about what we know is a challenge because what is it that we really know? And just because we know it now doesn’t mean that our entire knowledge of the universe won’t be overthrown in 5 minutes because of some sub-atomic particle that, according to an expert team of international widget tweakers, changes everything we know about the universe. Now don’t get me wrong, I love widgets as much as the next……..widget lover but to say that I am out of my depth gives the barest nod to the deep well of my ignorance. I want to know about widgets! I long to be part of the big idea even if it means having just enough understanding to hold over the heads of the guys at work.

But of the universe what do I really know? I know that the universe has billions and billions of stars because Carl Sagan told me so and Carl Sagan would never ever lie to me about a thing like that. I guess that effectively covers it.

Ok so maybe I don’t really know that much about the universe. You know it’s all hear-say anyway. It’s not like I have personal experience that I can lean back on. It shames me to admit this but I have had nothing to do with the Superconducting Super Collider on any level. I didn’t design it. I didn’t build it. I don’t push the buttons. I don’t interpret data. I don’t sweep the floors and empty the trash at night. There. I’ve said it. Ok, so maybe I should be sticking a little closer to home.

I think it’s safe to say that the things I know about the universe are the same things I know about our galaxy and the 8 previously 9 planets of our solar system, Pluto now being considered a Planetary Body or Dwarf Planet or Trans-Neptunian Mass as opposed to a planet. I know that to be a new fact and I agree with it but I haven’t a clue why. Probably I agree with this new nomenclature because the fact that someone is out there giving this a lot of thought is comforting and I don’t think their efforts should go unacknowledged.

The earth, I know some very specific things about because I have first hand knowledge. It seems that even personal experience is subject to doubt and believe me when I say I am the first to doubt myself but I am firm in my convictions about these few things.

I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that you cannot dig a hole to China with a spoon. Even a soup spoon. How do I know this? First hand experience. I tried it. And not just once either. As a kid, going on the advice of my parents and reassured that China was on the other side of the world I relocated my ass to the back yard and began digging.

Every child is an egomaniac and because this is so, there is a moment in every child’s life when the dagger slips into the soap bubble. Every child is forced to say “I am much smaller than the world.” “It really isn’t a small world after all. It’s me. I am small. The world is gigantic; just fucking huge.” Or words to that effect.

And then the short sharp shock of sure knowledge.

“The world is separate from me.” “Separate!” It is the pivotal moment between self centered and self conscious. That was my moment. I doubt I made that hole a foot deep.

To my own credit I must say that anyone else would have left it at that but no, not me. Once I became an artist I decided that digging a hole to China was a thing worth trying again and documenting. So you see not only did I do the original experiment but I was able to recreate my experimental results. And I have pictures, documentary evidence in the scientific parlance. Back to my parents back yard. This time I used a shovel. Turns out to be a glorified soup spoon but I knew that when I started. I got about 6 feet down before I started bringing up civil war era garbage, mostly thick glass bottles.

Bumstead’s Worm Syrup ••• One Bottle Has Killed One Hundred Worms •••

Children Cry For More •••Just Try It.

My parents house was built on a landfill. This I know.

I repeated this experiment on the beach at Long Beach Island, New Jersey. If you dig a hole at the beach you hit water. This I know.

I did it behind a security fence in a mid-block, empty building lot in New York City on 29th Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue across from that beautiful little church, The Church of the Transfiguration, better known as “The Little Church Around the Corner.” Trespassing attracts cops. This I know.

And finally, I worked on a building foundation at 161st and Broadway several years ago. We hit bedrock at about 55 feet below broadway and then the hoe rams, the big jackhammer attachment on the excavator, chopped out the base and corners all nicey nice before we poured the slab. It took months. I’m told that from my childhood home in the suburbs of Philadelphia to Cowpai, China is 7900 miles. I didn’t take that measurement myself but I believe it to be true within a small +/- factor of error until someone with a pocket protector states differently. All of these first hand experiences effectively have me convinced that I know you cannot dig a hole to China.

I’m sure I know other things about the earth but it’s all the stuff that everyone else knows so writing about it is a losing proposition.

So that reduces matters quite a bit further to what I like to call local knowledge. Things that you know because of intimate familiarity. There was a period of time, in fact a long period of time, when the only thing I would order at a restaurant was a hamburger, french fries and a milkshake. The restaurant of choice was The Hot Shoppes, first brainchild of J. Willard Marriott, of hotel fame. It was a place with a large eat-in dining area surrounded by a drive-up eat through your car window perimeter. The girls didn’t wear roller-skates but I do recall there was a lot of orange and white in the uniform. I’m sure they all smelled like melted Creamsicles.

Everything they served at the Hot Shoppes was comfort food and Oh it was good. The savory, the sweet, a mild crunch, the fat and salt. The cool moist acidity of the tomato. The cold clean wet crispness of iceberg lettuce. Whoof, is it getting warm in here? It was all taste and what they now call mouth appeal. Texture, slipperiness, resistance, the sight, the sound of it being “masticated”, in short everything about the food except the flavor and nutritional values. Not so long ago I was reading a book called Visual Illusions by Matthew Luckiesh, copy write 1922, that explained to me that a pretty long time previous to him it was discovered that “the sensation of taste is subjective; it is in us, not in the body tasted.” A little morbid in its formality but the meaning is clear. The taste is in the taster, not the food. A bit counterintuitive but that gives it the ring of authority. So now what is it that I really know? That the meal was tasty? That I am tasty? What I know seems to be colored by the same kinds of things that effect mouth appeal.

I know that vampires are scary even though one of the things I think I do know is that there are no such thing as vampires. So if they’re scary it must be that vampires are like food. The vampire is in the taster. You thought the vampire was tasting you but no. It is you tasting the vampire tasting you that you are tasting. Well, that certainly adds clarity doesn’t it.

I know that candy is bad but Chocolate, chocolate is food. I thought I liked chocolate. Now it turns out there is a flora of some kind, bubbling away in the gut, that flourishes on chocolate. And when it doesn’t get chocolate it gets stressed and sends out an urge. So where is the free will in this calculation? Where am I? It turns out that what I know is complicated not only by the question of knowing but by the question of what constitutes I.

So it seems that what I know is subject to change. In short, the truth, which is only another way of saying my truth, is subject to change. That’s fine. I’m good with that but it means that there is no fundamental truth. What we know is only that which we believe.

If you believe in the tooth fairy or god, what is the difference? These are your truths. I don’t believe in god. Not even a little bit. I believe in the need for god but that is an entirely different question. My financial advisor says there is no profit in atheism. A nice pun, yes? His point is that if you are right, there is no gain and if you are wrong the losses are big. I dispute the lack of gain. I believe atheism is a positive influence in my life, actions and thinking. He thinks the possibility of hell is worth considering. Recently he said to me, “Listen. Eternity is a really really long time. Take it from me, I’m married, I know”. I persist because there is no other way for me. I am a product of The Age of Enlightenment. There is no turning back.

So what is it that I do know? A few important things.

I know my mommy loves me.

I know that to err is human and that to forgive is human too.

I know that seeing is misleading; illusions are legion.

As a corollary:

I know that the camera always lies.

I know that the bigger they are, the more it hurts when they hit you.

I know that when a boss tells you that you have a great future with the company it’s time to look for a new job.

I know that like seeks like and opposites attract and that this is not contradictory.

I know that it’s not possible to learn from other’s mistakes.

I know that life is, in fact, a dress rehearsal. The actual performance was cancelled because the entire audience is on stage.

I know that money can buy happiness if you know where to shop.

I know the best laid plans don’t go astray. That’s what makes them the best laid plans.

I know there was a time that I would go down to the Reading Railroad tracks and put down a penny for the commuter train to flatten. I know there was a time that I would not hesitate to break into an old empty house and run around inside and generally make myself at home. I know that the world is packed with stupid people and every year there are more of them, but that may have something to do with my proximity to Staten Island. I know that raising kids is harder than everyone makes it out to be. I know that shouting is a tool and sometimes the only tool that will do the job.

I know that there are two kinds of people. The kind that think there are two kinds of people and the ones who don’t think there are two kinds of people.

I know that when the automated, voice activated, routing system, help line says “thank you” it doesn’t really mean it.

I know that one size does not fit all except in the case of M&Ms which could not be larger or smaller without upsetting the balance of crunch to squish.