I learned the difference between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA. I learned HTML and CSS and Ruby and Sass. I learned Omnigraffle. I learned to distinguish CPT codes from HCPCS codes. I learned to chiffonade and to julienne, to boil, to parboil, and to broil. I memorized three hundred kanji. I memorized the Ruy Lopez. I learned the effects of excess phosphorus in watersheds. I learned to identify points of inflection on a curve. I learned to find the derivative. Insertion sort, selection sort, merge sort, heapsort, bubble sort. I learned to rollerblade. I learned to mix tap water into the paint and apply the paint to the paper in accordance with the numbers. I learned how to identify poison ivy, oak, and sumac by their leaflet shapes. I learned the Konami code and the nocturne of shadow and the bolero of fire. I learned the trumpet, guitar, the bass guitar, and the ukulele. I learned the stock color combinations of the original Corvette. I learned the true names of the four horsemen of Notre Dame and the Galloping Ghost. I learned the seven sacraments and the eight beatitudes. I learned to write my name and its mirror image at the same time.
Summer again and so again with the sound of the ice cream truck and the intermittent explosions of mysterious provenance. At work I take my lunch and eat it down by the river, the tour boats come by and the tour guide is wearing a funny hat and mincing around, telling people that my office building is so large that “employees used to don rollerskates to get from one end to the other.” Not so for me but a guy can dream. Somebody says how are you, I say I’m great, they say that’s surprising because you’re never great. The truth is I am great a lot of the time but some people will never know it because I hate them.
I come home for the evening and the NPR film critic says “I have never seen the death camps done quite that well.” My neighborhood smells like chalk, tree pollen, and Ortega taco seasoning. Everyone in my neighborhood has a new puppy and none of them know how to act. Walking around it’s like walking through hell and all the devils are leaping out at you despite their shackles and chains, but instead of hell it’s summer in Chicago and instead of demons it’s a cohort of puppies.
The first therapist is a slim young lady, I always remember her as a kind of dolphin woman because every time I see her she’s wearing a teal suit with silver and gold sequins. Her office is a small concrete building on a hill with nothing else around it. All the suites in the building are vacant except for hers, the parking lot is empty except for me and my mom. My mom has her appointment and then she comes out of the office crying and it is time for my appointment. I am fourteen and am seeing this therapist because I play video games all the time and everybody says my eyes don’t light up anymore. She asks me about my troubles and since I don’t know what they are or whether I have any, we sit together in long periods of silence. Her posture is impeccable, her skin is so white. When I talk she looks like she is frozen in time but also crying.
The dolphin woman refers me to a guy called Chris. Maybe I will find it easier to talk to a young, approachable Christian man with square-framed glasses. I eat hot dogs on the way to his office and tacos on the way back; I get fat for a while. A family therapist comes to our house on account of my dead eyes and my bad-tempered sister. I invite my friends over to play video games on a day that I know the family therapist is coming, and I pretend that I didn’t know she was coming. I hope that they will bring it up to me later and ask me what is going on in my life, but they do not.
Despite the interventions I play the video games all night and I go to school tired, so then comes the psychiatrist who I think is maybe Chinese. He says if your leg was broken, you would get a cast, right? He says this is like a cast for your brain. If you try to walk around on a broken leg, they would say, that guy’s crazy. He is insistent on this point and I don’t know how to dispute this metaphor-based style of doctoring. He gives me some pills to put me to sleep, some pills to wake me up, and some other pills to change my mood for the better. Around the house we call him by his last name, Gumapas, as in “don’t forget you have Gumapas on Thursday.” Today you can use this name to find information about Dr. Gumapas on the internet. A review says that he “over prescribed and took years of my life because of it,” that “he put me in a vegetative state”—one star out of five.
In college I play video games all the time and do not go to school, and my grades are not so good and so I make myself an appointment with somebody who tells me to go to a therapy group for men. There are two men leading the group: a tall man with chin-length hair who wears epaulets and bangles and hoop earrings, and a lumpy man with a tan beard, a soft nature, an imploring voice. Aside from myself there are three members of the group: a tall fat one, a tall skinny one, a short weary one. We get to know each other. They have problems with their angry fathers, and with anger of their own. When it comes time to talk about my troubles I doubt whether I have any and so remain silent. We should all go out for drinks when this whole thing is over, the skinny one suggests. We do not go out for drinks.
In my dreams there are cracking teeth, tornados on the plains, a dread apparition of the future, a blackeyed mask, a greyeyed somebody, dying parents, dead parents, a wild success in Supermarket Sweep. In my dreams I am the idol of all the world, in the world I am a motionless animal in a broken office chair inflicting treatment modalities upon my life before the living comes to pass.
The story of how my family came to be is very long. First, imagine an ancient clan in somewhere in old Europe. They take to hunting and gathering well enough and in times of plenty one of the older men will carve a little animal out of a piece of wood, maybe a sheep or a goat or something common to that area. This man gives it to a little child and look! the child takes the goat into a sort trance of play and cannot be brought back to this world. The adult carves another little animal, hoping for the same reaction, and puts it in front of the child who to everyone’s delight goes at it again, inventing and entering a parallel world where the inanimate object has a very cute voice and a particular way of clomping around that sends the village into sobs of laughter. For a while everyone is happy and nobody worries about stockpiling a thing, in fact they have feasts with greater frequency and splendor. When there’s nothing left to eat, some clan members seek food elsewhere and so their numbers dwindle, but the people more or less recover to find new ways of drawing rapturous, impractical worlds down into their village, and in the face of ruin they do so again and again and so on through the rest of clan history.
Also in old Europe, but as good as a universe away, there is another one of these ancient clans. They never think to carve wood into any shape other than pointy sticks which they make continuously as if preparing for the approach of a terrible army, though no such army has ever been seen. They surround themselves with piles of oats and withhold themselves from feasting in times of plenty and so they never come to hunger. By the time the oldest clan members pass out of their lives the younger generation has come of age in equal number. They look at the animals in the area with a dull and heavy patience.
A million years later, my parents are born and so am I!
The family business is a paint store, and when I was a kid there were all these women working there, bookkeepers and “wallpaper ladies,” who took a great deal of interest in my life. There was the woman who painted a giraffe to hang in my bedroom, whose name I can’t remember. There was Joni who always kissed me on the cheek with her cartoon lips. Irene who at a certain point became old and mean. And then Lucy I remember the most: she had a drawer full of tootsie rolls and cigarettes, and when I went to the store I sat on her lap and ate candy and pushed the buttons on the adding machine, printing long strips of adding machine tape and throwing it in the trash while she smoked and smoked, seven minutes off her life each time, so they say. I lost faith in the seven minutes theory after I learned multiplication but at the time it was terrifying to watch.
Lucy lived in a house which she rented from my parents and we went there often for dinner and ate fatty ribs or chicken a la king or potatoes in brown liquid. She had a dog that she put in a different room before we came over and the food tasted somehow like a dog. After dinner I set to work polishing her laserdisc collection while she talked for hours with my parents about god knows what. My parents were having problems, Lucy’s husband had died, but chances are they were only talking about her new grandson and my progress in school.
She had a son of her own called David who wore prescription glasses the color of smoke-stained teeth. We watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind on laserdisc. Lucy spoke straight ahead but David always seemed to be talking to something stuck up between the walls and the ceiling. The rooms were always dark. He knew everything about computers and airplanes, and once he came to our house and flew a 747 from Chicago to Florida in a video game while the rest of us ate dinner. Something suddenly went wrong with his kidneys and he died, somebody said he wanted me to have his guitar so now I have that. Lucy went on oxygen and a few years later she died, too. I went to her funeral with my mom and my sister in a nondemoninational megachurch that had the look of a very large dentist’s office.
Yesterday I bought my mom a card with this quote from Emily Dickinson: “we turn not older with years / but newer every day.” It’s demonstrably false but I’m no longer throwing in my lot with proofs by demonstration. Certain things I doubt will change: this is the face I will have as a grown man, this is the shambling way I will walk. Later in life, people may be curious about whether or not I can understand a question. People may describe me using the word “cogent.” If I live long enough, somebody might visit me and leave impressed by my ability to connect something that happened in one minute with something that happened the minute prior. I may come to experience space and time as something like a burnt up piece of paper, and what. It is the first day of spring, isn’t it? Edward Nelson was a mathematician who had a quarrel with inductive logic that he expressed like this: “When something new is made, it is something new and not a selection from a preexisting collection. There is no map of the world because the world is coming into being.”