How I Live Is My Masterpiece


Calvin, having recently received notification that his long poem, "How I Live Is My Masterpiece," would be published in the New Yorker, went out for a walk across 5th Avenue to feel the snow on his face and more generally life itself, when he started seeing a swarm of black dots filling his field of vision in the middle of which there appeared a light a little too white and rapidly expanding against the swarm. The poem began like

I am quitting my night job
of tapping words together to make heat
because the bodies on the train today
made me warmer than the mind is wide;
wider than the sky, sure, but not warmer
than blood, so let's go for a swim--
who's with me?

and ended with a rapid succession of imagery, including:

...of lightposts, broken arms, the watches we left behind, the wallets lost, and every argument and mending gone up to heaven on waves broadcast in every language to the black space beyond heaven...

which he liked. Calvin knew that he never could have gotten this one in, not right off the bat, not even close. But the other publications were opening doors and those doors in turn opened even more doors, so it was more like running through a house and turning on every light, only to find that the neighbors were doing the same in response, and their neighbors, house after house until all the globe was illuminated.

Years ago, when getting his eyes checked, Calvin was told by Dr. Harrison to watch out if he ever happened to see a myriad of dark spots swarming through his vision. Dr. Harrison was a good man; like most doctors he believed in benevolent deception, such as when he deftly and without explicit consent inserted contact lenses in Calvin's eyes after Calvin hit an internal wall he was unable to push past by actually touching his own eyeballs, badly as he wanted contacts and tired as he was of the fuzzy border of the world always peaking in beyond his glasses. None of this went through his mind, however, as he fell into the snow, which it turned out felt cold and painful on his cheeks. What Dr. Harrison was warning him about was the possibility of retinal break, given that Calvin's FBN1 gene was mutated, like his father's, and that the resulting condition known as Marfan's Syndrome left him at higher risk for a tear in the retina, which experience is accompanied subjectively by rapid onset of photopsia. Dr. Harrison's own son suffered a retinal break at an early age, after years of what Dr. Harrison sadly realized only later was obsessive-compulsive disorder, in this case the behavior being a compulsive darting of the eyes every night before the boy could fall asleep, afraid as he was of a murderer or thief or after watching Fire in the Sky, an alien's strange face suddenly pressing itself against his un-curtained windows. The memory of that night in particular, and his son's horrible insistence that his photopsia was in fact the light of the UFO coming to get him and "take him through the walls," as the boy put it -- over and over again, wailing actually, "They're coming out of the walls! They're coming out of the walls!" -- was why Calvin was warned at all, and why Dr. Harrison, deceptive or not, was a good doctor who did not see himself exempt from the physical failures that paraded before him daily.

The odd thing is that what did go through Calvin's head as he thrashed about in the snow were the nearly same images that came as if from outside himself not quite exactly three years ago, on the famous night that Calvin first pulled over to the side of the road and went running through the woods and which lead to everything else -- the poems, Lauren, and everything that he didn't know yet was coming. It was the same sense that the earth was in danger, and scenes of trees burning, and children's hands sticky from chemical burns; but now this time there was also a satellite exploding silently in space, and the face of a man who looked perhaps Korean laughing in a way that left Calvin more disturbed than did any other image or foreign sensation. It was all in the poem, one way or another. Was it unforgivable that he caught himself thinking, well, at least I'll get another poem out of this?


Several hours earlier, Dr. Harrison sat down with a new patient, a walk-in actually, but anyway his last patient had cancelled and because he was not a man who went home early when someone was waiting, Dr. Harrison had Sheila prepare the file and send him in.

"You live in the neighborhood?" he asked.

"I just moved here."

"Great, great... Hm. It looks like you wrote here under current medical conditions -- am I getting this right -- anophthalmia...?"

"Yes, that's right." Dr. Harrison stopped and looked at the patient.


The man looked back at him, blinking.

"That's what I'm told."

"Mind if I take a look?"

In the waiting room Sheila thought she heard a sound like a tree snapping, but then again the radio was on, and though it was low it nonetheless filled the room with waves of various frequencies including those which when translated sounded like

ah ah ah
I got you I can't let you go

to Shelia's ears and brain.


At home Dr. Harrison's basement is filled with stacks of cassette tapes. Above ground, there is a long narrow hall with slices of sunlight and paintings on the wall which runs past the bedroom where he and his wife sleep and up the stairs beside which hangs a painting made for him by Mark Rothko, who always wanted to say things simply even as he felt his pictures impaired by vulgar eyes and cruel powerless people who would extend their affliction to the world. Here is Dr. Harrison's studio. Here is the wide canvas of yesterday's work. Here is the sun coming through the skylight, which is cloudy, and here are the paints spilled on the floor. Calvin might say, ah, those accidents are your masterpiece! Stare at the sun and close your eyes -- whose art is that? But in the cabinets that stand in the corner of the room are more tapes, and transcripts, some typed on a typewriter and then the later ones printed, of words from people all over the world who heard about what Dr. Harrison does and sought him out so that they at the very least would not feel so alone. Of course they really wanted answers.

Before Rothko died, he promised that if he chose to commit suicide, everyone would know it. But no one was sure afterwards, when he was found on the ground with cuts in his arms and his glasses off. It was this last thing that threw off some people; he was severely myopic; how could he have killed himself if he couldn't even see?


Coming down the country road, wide-awake even at this hour, Elsa took a turn a little too fast and found herself take flight, like a giant metal insect, over the sharply rolling hill. In the air there hung innumerable stars, sure. But she knew in the back of her mind that the question of "what hung in the air" was answerable in different ways, depending on one's perspective: danger, romance, molecules, probability waves, time, pollen, dust, pollution... fortunately for her the car was not an insect, and not meant for flying. The moment passed. Everything changed, including the questions.


Rogers to the Rescue




I said his name into the phone.

"There's been a problem."

"What kind of problem?"

"The kind I need to talk to about in person."

"It's too fuckin early."

"Fuck man you have no idea. Get up and come meet me."

"If it's so fuckin important you come here."


I took off towards his place. I had Cliff in the back seat, breathing. His eyes were open as if looking out the sunroof at the early AM sky. Except they were looking red and dry.

John Mitchell Rogers M.D. was a friend of mine from school. In the very beginning we used to get high once every few months and though we hadn't done that in years, there was a bond. He once told me if he knew he had another life he'd spend this one stoned. Instead he was neurologist who liked to learn functional programming languages for fun.

I rang and he opened the door.

"What is it?"

I showed him Cliff in the car.

"Jesus, Klein, what are you doing?"

"He hacked into the dream machine. He took it from my office."

"Hacked into it?"

"I know, I know. But I need him to get out of this. I don't like not knowing what he did and where is."

"Where he is, is lying in what could very well be a vegetative state in the fuckin back seat of your car. Your car, Klein. What are you thinking?"

He leaned in over Cliff and looked and listened.

"If I were you," he said, "I'd wash my hands of all this immediately."

"I can't."


"I'm the one who pulled the tube. While he was in there."

"And now you want him out."


"And you want me to help you."


Forget what we said before: Cliff is staring at the sky. A flock of birds pass overhead, splitting up and then coming together. He watches them, and inside his skull dense patterns of electrical activity move that way, just like that.



Uncertain what to do, we smiled and shook everyone's hand. Instead of complaining about the work, or the weather, we took careful measures to say only what was needed to build hospitals out of thin air. Now everyone comes around when it rains and we turn no one -- not even the pigeons -- away.



Bum bump -- bum bump -- bum bump. This is what Cliff experiences next. There is a sound like pounding on the walls -- can you call them walls? they look cold and wet to touch. He can move his limbs, this is good. This is good, he thinks. Then he is not so sure.

Across town Calvin is in the back of a police car.

Dr. Klein is not sure what to do next. Lauren is gone and I am gone. We were never there. The world closes up around our bodies and we become something that can never be spoken or imagined.

So he turns toward the light. The computers are emitting waves at irritating frequencies, it makes his skin itch. I am too late, he thinks. The dream machine has clearly been altered. But how? I thumb through the notes but it is like hieroglyphics, Cliff's writing, and I can't tell what is idiosyncratic and private from what I simply do not know enough to comprehend. I look back at Cliff's body. He looks dead but there is smaller machine displaying his heart rate, which is fine, good even. But he's like a dead man. He won't talk. I should kill him but I won't. I need to know what he did, and then I need to undo it.

The cops lets him sleep it off in the jail in the morning Calvin is out, blinking at the winter sun. He moves like a deep sea diver through the subway station. People's faces open up with a touch of his eyes. Everything feels Too Much.

At the end of a hall, if you can call it that, is an opening and past that the walls narrow considerably and Cliff has to wiggle belly-down through some strange wet stuff. It's vicious, like hair-gel. It doesn't smell. In fact, nothing does. Cliff realizes this as his head suddenly feels like it's being drilled clean through and one eye goes out and then the other and then they both come back. The walls keep beating, massive muscles, carrying him through a chamber like someone's giant wet heart.

lyrics without a song

You won't believe but I did it again, I'm not sorry this time I have to say. Because there is someone waiting inside me, that's who I am today. All the teardrops all the years pooling at my feet. We believed yes what did we believe, what did we believe my sweet.

Take, your hands, off me. What we did we believe?

Take your hands off me. Off me.

You won't believe it but the astronauts in the space, they get paid to do the things that they do. Hard work, a little less complete, I am either contradiction and complete. (or perfectly consistent and small.)

take your hands off me. are you incomplete?

what did we believe what did we believe.

I believe I am here to say the names of everything that comes across my face. I try I will try to touch I will try to make it all a part of me. All the teardrops all the years, falling like a rocket down through space. did you believe what did you believe take your hands off me I am complete.


An elegy for being younger

Not sad but determined, the fire inside burns on different stuff. I feel the same things but feel differently about them. Is it a tragedy that everyone dies, at last? Does it matter how we live? I'd like to go and alleviate everyone's suffering out of respect for the times I could not alleviate my own. The trick was seeing the mirror's limit and using it well: I see myself in the world. If we burn we burn together.

We appreciate the poetry

I could not begin to imagine the way it feels to dip into something so still, so strong, that the suffering of the world becomes just another song. I try. The sidewalk catches my eye or maybe it's the sunlight hitting something metal or glass and bouncing back. Or given a crowded set of stairs, I look at everyone's face for as long as I dare.

Most kids in America don't play marbles anymore, some must, and maybe some play outside under the sky and have a good clean shot. I'll take anything that makes it easier to look out from myself -- and what do I see? Glass marbles of the eyes, a good clean shot straight across the heart.

[for J.D. Salinger]