Friday, December 17, 2010

Persistent Inattention

I had made it three and a half hours without talking to him.  Mostly by furiously underlining in my book.  The whole time I could feel him fidgeting in his chair, shifting positions.  He had brought a pillow in the shape of a pineapple and made a show of punching and tugging at it before setting it down on his tray table.  He wanted me to remark on the pineapple.  He wanted my attention.  I could feel it.  And when I didn't give it to him, he reached down underneath the seat in front of him and pulled his knapsack onto his lap.  He put the pineapple into the bag and then shoved the bag back under the seat.  I snuck a peek at his shoulders as he pressed the bag.  He sat back up and sighed.

We flew for a few hours.  He slept.  He was awake.  He played SuDoKu on his iPod.

I remained glued to the pages in front of me.  I felt as though I hadn't concentrated so hard on a piece of fiction in a long time.  The stories danced for me in a way they hadn't.  I felt very serious.

But on the 214th minute of the flight, I suddenly lost concentration and looked up at the back of the seat in front of me.  The kid in the middle seat, seizing the opportunity to break the plane of my attention, reached over me and pulled up the shade to look out the window.

"I'm just trying to see," he said.  In the grey yellow of my reading light, he looked unshaven and tired, but he had earnest eyes.  Dangerous eyes.  There was almost an hour of flight time remaining.  I turned toward the window and could see his reflection craning to see around my head.

"We're over Las Vegas," I said, looking down at the bizarre splotch of lights in the middle of the black desert.  I think I was hoping that by confirming our location, I could somehow get back down into the private headspace I had established for myself.  I looked back into my book, staring at the words more intently, but feeling the kid's eyes pointed out the window.  We crept by Vegas, and I stared at the Strip, unable at our altitude to pick out any detail.

"What class are you reading that for?" he asked.

I turned toward him.

"I'm not in school," I said.

"Oh, I just thought you had the look of a student."

We let that sit for a moment.

I decided that I would be ruthless in my disengagement.  That I would sit and listen with a flat look on my face.  That I would let whatever he said wash straight over me until he was pummeled into submission by my own inattentiveness.  This had been my defense before.

I looked at my watch and put my pen in the book to mark the page.

"What are you going to do in Los Angeles?" he asked.

"Visiting a friend," I said.

"I'm going home from my first semester in college at Southern University."  He leaned back in his chair, confident all of a sudden that he had attained my attention and could shift into easy conversation.

"Have you heard of it?"

I shook my head.

"It's a small Seventh-Day Adventist University in Chattanooga.  Do you know where Chattanooga is?"


"Well anyway, it's really right outside of Chattanooga, in a small town called College Crossing."

I imagined

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Suburbs

For a few years every December, my family would go driving around the neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights.  This was around when I was about five till seven years old, and my little sister between three and five. We never put up lights on the outside of our own house.  My father is Jewish, and for some reason there was an unspoken rule that--while we could have the biggest  tree on the block and enough lights inside the house to raise the temperature by a few degrees--we would never put lights outside.  This never seemed in any way contradictory to me.

"Why don't we put lights on the house," my sister once asked me.

"Because of Dad," I said.

Ironically, my father seemed to love these aimless overheated drives more than anyone else in the family.  And he had a real appreciation for people who seemed to put monumental time into stringing lights.

"Look at the detailing on that snowman!" he would say of an outline of white lights.  "I bet that took hours."

And he had a term for haphazard or half-assed attempts.  "Mish mosh," my father would say when we passed a house with a string of blue lights thrown over a hedge.  Or God forbid a house should have blinking lights.  "What are you going to do that for?" he'd ask, the aesthetic so repulsive to him that the question obviously did not need to be addressed.

"Oh Mike, just leave it alone," my mother would respond.

Sometimes we set out with specific destinations in mind.  Cul-de-sacs lit up with efflorescent motorized Santas, and wattage so intense you could probably have benefited from a pair of science-grade eye protection.  These were blocks in places like White Plains and Eastchester ("You have to hand it to these Italians," my mother would say) that people knew about.  Places where families had blood feuds every year over who got the best coverage or prime picture placement in The Journal News.

Slow moving Ford Windstars, Dodge Caravans, and Nissan Stanzas circled around.  Kids like me and my sister were glued to the windows, clouding up the glass and then wiping it off with our hands.  The sharp sensation of glass against the cold nights and the sound of rubbing our skin against it.

But mostly we just drove around, switching back around neighborhoods in search of the perfect house.  It was always best to run into a totally unexpected house on a dark block.  We would turn around a corner and everyone would say, "OooOOOOoooooh."  I remember one house we would visit every year.  It was our favorite, and became the standard bearer for light-decorations.  It was as though we had to go every year to remind ourselves of what was truly exceptional in the business of lights.  This particular house always prioritized white lights.  They used color, but used it tastefully (though that always seemed a bit random).  They never used reindeer on the roof or anything animatronic.  And of course, there were no blinking lights.

"Maybe we should knock on the door sometime," my mother said one year.

"What, are you crazy?" my father said.  "Like--hi we've been stalking your house for several years now, and just thought we would say hello."

"I don't know," she responded.  "I just think it would be nice to tell them that we appreciate their house."

It made me nervous to think of knocking on strangers' doors.  And more nervous to hear my parents fighting.

When we had driven around for about an hour, my mother would start to yawn.  We would drive back down the Hutchinson River Parkway to Mount Vernon, and up our darkened block of houses inhabited mainly by elderly couples.

"No lights on our block," my father would observe, and we wouldn't say anything.  I can't remember ever really wanting lights on our house.

We would get home and my mother would open the garage door and always say "Hey look at our tree!"  And we would look through our bay windows and see our warm living room, lit up, glowing in the dark.