The Jonathan Newsletter, Vol. 1

(An e-mail, to many friends and perhaps a few strangers)

Hi. I know all of you, somehow: I've worked call centers with you, hogtied children with you, had papers graded by you - and in all likelihood, talked smack or made merry with every single one of you. At various points, a few of you have requested 'a Jonathan newsletter.' Well, OK.

It is, as you might guess, a long story.

Some of you might know that I was in the Pacific Ocean for a month. Dolphins duked it out on the port side, 7' hardass Romanians made us dinner, and thirty foot swells are the bee's knees - especially when they hit the boat at night and make you dream of bad heavy metal concerts.

From there, I headed east - to D.C. I would spend five months there, scrutinizing disease vectors for a West Nile Virus project at the National Zoo. It was one of the best jobs I've ever had - like, I admit, most of them. But it was the only job I've ever had that allowed me to wake up at noon if I felt like it, as long as I would later leave work by jumping the zoo fence (they didn't give us keys). And nothing freaks out innocent dogwalkers quite like jumping a zoo fence, at midnight, in a pinstripe suit, and with a lumpen satchel clutched quietly in your hand.

D.C. surprised me. I was expecting a bureaucratic wasteland, and found instead a smorgasbord of Ethiopian food, go-go, hardcore punk, and packs of idealist and/or power-hungry pages. I broke a shoe while dancing in the streets, as a local brass band played ragtime. I also got Lyme Disease, with a rash so impressive that doctors invited interns to come ogle.

My brother got married in Chicago, and madness ensued. His was an anti-wedding: held at a museum, a red silk dress for the bride, New Wave and Britpop from the DJ, bachelor parties which inevitably involved Dungeons and Dragons and bachelorette parties which obviously involved zombie burlesque . They played Morrisey and The Pixies when going up and down the aisle, and my sister-in-law's uncle busked for change on city streets. Dancing, also, ensued.

A post-DC roadtrip took me to Biloxi, Mississippi - although by way of Asheville, North Carolina, where I won a t-shirt by eating a box of cereal in under thirty minutes (twenty-two, bitches). I volunteered for a month, surrounded by brilliant and idealist dorks. I did minor things - mere tidbits - like research hurricane-resistant design, or update city maps where overgrown fields occupied 90% of former cul-de-sacs. And I helped build at least one playground, and the local kids gave us thank-you cards with little foam cut-outs of bulldozers crazy-glued onto the front. Best. Cheapass. Card. Ever.

I headed west. I visited family in San Diego. And I played Rock Band on New Year's.

I also put out CDs. I got tired of being 24, and not having put out a CD - so I put out two. I've been told this is 'a typical Jonathan move,' but to me it's common sense, and I recommend everyone do it, because you can. And so I recorded twenty of my stories in a proper studio, spoken word-style, and put ten each per volume: Geek. Bookworm. Hero. Volumes 1 and 2.

I sold my first copies, for $5 each, on the train back east.

I spent a month in New Orleans. Most of that time, I worked in a sustainable salvage yard in the Lower Ninth, as whole subdivisions of lumber were rolled in to be denailed and reused. I rode to work every day on a pink bicycle with green polka dots. But I actually spent my first few days slogging through wetlands, and one afternoon did everything I could to stay away from a mob of middle-aged, machete-swinging Jewish women. Terrifying.

But New Orleans is a magical city. It is filled with spirit: both alcoholic, and non-alcoholic. It is a land of king cake, jazz funerals, and no last calls. Half the homeless have instruments on their backs, and people start to dance on the first song. They also have crawfish boils, and I have infinite respect for any people who stir their dinner in fifty-five gallon drums. With an oar.

I also had no idea that Fat Tuesday is, in fact, Obese: Mardi Gras is a month-long affair. The old-society, inner-circle, official parades throw not just beads, but coconuts, and shoes - and just behind them are an army of street-sweepers, who clear the streets of a landmass of cheap plastic within minutes. Hulk Hogan presided over Bacchus, one of the most boisterous parades of them all. And you know what? "Outside of the French Quarter, Mardi Gras is for kids."

But the unofficial parades? They're a free-for-all, a democracy of soulful debauchery: I saw one in honor of 'Queen Colleen,' who was in fact the eighty year-old woman being wheeled around in a grocery cart while wearing a hula skirt. Faux American Gladiators battled it out in the streets, underwear-clad rock stars played Slayer on Decatur St. balconies, and I ran into one old friend who was dressed as a zebra at the time and hustling tourists with hula-hoop tricks. Purely by accident, I stumbled into a cavalcade of gutterpunks and bohemians at 9pm: some were dressed as beetles, others as zoot suit-clad devils, and still others as exterminators whose bug-sprayers were loaded with cheap whiskey. And from there, I biked back to my couch, through the French Quarter, at midnight, through some of the most beautiful fog I've ever seen.

I then left New Orleans, to demolish houses in Waveland, MS with a band of transsexuals.

This crew included my father, her electrologist, and her electrologist' friends. On the first day, we demolished Popeye's house - and I mean that, because the man was 5' tall, eighty years old, and his name...was Captain. We built a damn tool shed! And we had lunch with a pair of confused Southern Baptist Ministers, teased adopted stray dogs named Katrina and Mugsey, and repeatedly informed a sweetheart ex-cop that, no, she couldn't test her stun gun on us.

I left a month ago, on my "2008 Midwestern Axis Tour." I didn't expect to include Cleveland. And yet, by early March, Ohio had become important - for the first time in my life. Possibly, ever. A weekend there had me walking past block after block of foreclosures, in a city with a 31.5% poverty rate, as I canvassed for Barack Obama. Southeast Cleveland reminded me of Biloxi, except that Cleveland had been hit by the economy, and not by a hurricane. I spent that Tuesday evening marching face-first into an ice storm, which was a fine night for democracy. 'Dedicated white people!,' one local marveled. And I met Forrest Whitaker, for some reason.

There have been other cities, that I've seen on the way. I visited Austin, and spent at least one Friday night making spring rolls with Polish girls, and waking up every morning to a cat sitting on my face. I passed through St. Louis, and jumped down seven-story slides at an old shoe factory, which is in fact the world's largest jungle gym. In Atlanta, I rubbed shoulders with a whole hotel of drag kings and rabblerousing genderqueers. And in Madison, an old roommate of mine has learned to ride a unicycle down State St.

I've been in Minneapolis this week, gathering my grandmother's stories and pouring over sepia photographs. Her favorite uncle was the town drunk, named 'Copper Donahue;' she was first patted down for weapons at a mobster funeral, by a woman who 'looked like a door;' and she once raised a crocodile in the bathtub when she was eight. She named him Baby. And so on.

But come Monday, I'll be in Seattle. And I leave the country ten days later, to Japan. I'll be there for three months - after which I hope to be in Cambodia, for another three. Obviously.

It is, as you might guess, a long story. So what's yours?

By Way of Explanation

I just walked out of a recording studio with two full albums in my hand: two CDs, ten stories each.

No one is more surprised than me.

Geek, Bookworm, Hero. Vol. 1.
1) I Suppose You Do Have Two of Them
2) An Ode to the Landlubbers
3) I Am My Father's Son
4) Bibliophilia With a Side of Moxie
5) The Poor Man's LSD
6) Physics Has Its Seedy Side
7) Like Frank Gehry on a Speedball
8) Astronauts are Missing Out
9) My English Makes Men Weep
10) Coming Home To Roost

Geek, Bookworm, Hero. Vol. 2.
1) Crazy Trailer Man
2) Random Shopkeepers Call Me Brother
3) Sending Love From Six Feet Above
4) My Tapeworm's Name is Fang
5) Mother Nature is a Bad Babysitter
6) Casual Friday Will be The Death of Me
7) I Am Completely Innocent
8) Nylon Burns Feel Like Adventure
9) What Has J.K. Rowling Wrought
10) We Had Telescopes the Size of Oil Drums

The recording studio asked me for my card, in case anyone came in looking for voiceovers. He also said that, on the phone, he thought I was a black Cajun man from New Orleans. For those who have actually met me: don't try to understand it. I gave up on that fool's errand long ago.

I just thought, "I'm 24? And I haven't put a CD? That's not right.' So I put out two.

I_Am_Completely_Innocent

---
The man two feet to my right is very, very confused. He is staring at his mobile phone on a Tube car in London, and he has just received a message from an address that he does not recognize. There's not even a number. It has materialized, unbidden, onto his screen.

Please answer as many of the following questions as you can. Work with ferocious intensity and/or gentle reflection. Don't push on till you're exhausted, but try to come as close to total combustion as you can.

I get off at the next stop, because I am to blame for all of this.

I'm not entirely sure why I do this, except that it makes me happy in a unexpected way. The technical term is 'bluejacking,' after the Bluetooth program on most mobile phones. Bluetooth allows for the transmission of pictures and text messages. Or in my case, questions.

Be innocently truthful and spontaneously thoughtful, or else gratuitously sarcastic and recklessly flippant. If you find yourself responding with ideas that you used to believe but don't any more, abandon them and start over.

You can ask your mobile to search for other phones in the area that also use Bluetooth: it has a range of about ten meters. Most people don't even know that their phones can be detected like this, and a lot of phones don't even ask permission before downloading whatever they're given. And no one expects a spontaneous bunch of questions to burst out at them from the aether.

Take advantage of this rare opportunity to be creative and authentic for no reason. Don't save yourself for 'something better.'

If I'm not reading or with friends, this is what I do when going from Point A to Point B.

1. What did you dream last night?
2. What image or symbol represents the absolute of your desires?
3. In what ways has your fate been affected by invisible forces you don't understand or are barely aware of?"


I did not write these questions - I admit that much. I'm not that good. They are cribbed directly from The Televisionary Oracle, a book for which I have a great deal of respect. The author is Rob Brezny, who used to be a rock star but nowadays writes beloved horoscopes. He is also known for standing out on street corners and intersections, once a year, with five-dollar bills and a cardboard sign that reads, 'I need to give; I love to help; please take my money.'

4. Tell a good lie.
5. What were the circumstances in which you were most dangerously alive?
6. Are you a good listener? If so, describe how you listen. If not, explain why not.
7. Compose an exciting prayer in which you ask for something you're not supposed to.


I hope this is harmless. Confusing, but harmless. At worst, I imagine, a technophobe will dart his eyes from side to side and wonder if he's finally gone absolutely barking mad, because his phone is suddenly quizzing him about the great moral quandaries of the age. Or more likely, these questions will go down the drain with every other damn piece of spam in their inbox.

8. What's the difference between right and wrong?
9. Name something you've done to undo, subvert, or neutralize the Battle of the Sexes.
10. Have you ever witnessed a child being born? If so, describe how it changed you.
11. Compose a beautiful blasphemy that makes you feel like crying.
12. What do you do to make people like you?


But at best, someone will actually be shaken out of their workaday trance, their bitter discontents, their everyday distractions, their thousand-yard-stare commute. Don't lie. Sometimes, you want to go through unlocked doors. Sometimes, you wouldn't mind for an adventure to come along and kick you in the ass when you're not looking.

13. If you're not familiar with the Jungian concept of the "shadow," find out about it. If you are, good. In either case, give a description of the nature of your personal shadow.
14. Talk about three of your most interesting personalities. Give each one a name and a power animal.
15. Make up a dream in which you lose control and thereby attract a crowd of worshipers.
16. Name your greatest unnecessary taboo and how you would violate it if it didn't hurt anyone.


I don't think anyone has ever seen me, or has ever caught my eye and furrowed their brow in realization as we all huddle out the doors at our final destination. And that's how I prefer it. I want this to be a gift from no one in particular. I don't want anyone to ever remember the bespectacled boy who stood over their shoulder, pressing 'Send.'

17. Give an example of how smart you are in the way you love.
18. What ignorance do you deserve to be forgiven for?
19. What was the pain that healed you the most?
20. Make a prediction about yourself.


All I want is that they answer some questions.

***EXTRA CREDIT***

In the ancient Greek epic, Odysseus and his men become stranded on an island belonging to the sorceress Circe. In a famous scene, Circe uses magic to turn the men into pigs. Later, though, in an episode that's often underemphasized by casual readers, she changes them back into men--only they're stronger, braver, and more beautiful than before they were pigs. Tell an analogous story from your own life.

My_Tapeworm's_Name_Is_Fang

---
Whenever people ask me where I put my food, I simply tell them, 'Into the future.'

This makes both philosophical and metabolical sense. As a skinny-ass, excitable whiteboy, I burn through calories before they even get to my duodenum. I once had a roommate in the Bronx: a 270-lb., Argentine/Italian brown belt in judo named Big Daddy Lou. We went out to dinner with my parents once, and we battled for serving-supremecy. I won, with six.

So it's out of financial necessity that I have a love of buffets. In London, it was the Thai vegetarian joints, with an infinite stock of fresh broccoli and sauteed mushrooms. In New York, it was a school cafeteria with a cast of friendly Haitians who turned out kicking risottos. In Seattle, it was an Indian/Pakistani curry place, with lines around the block every lunch hour.

Here in Germany, it is the Chinese buffets.

I'm on my way to Poland for work, so conserving money is of the utmost priority. Housing is not a concern, because I am staying in the attic storage room of a man who went to school (for urban design) with one of the 9/11 hijackers. The important thing is, it's free. Vices are not a drain, because I don't drink or smoke. The two primary concerns are simple: food, and books.

I need both, or I will starve.

So for the former, I have found a lovely little restaurant not a far walk away, for six euros. For my one meal of the day, this is perfectly acceptable. My hunger expands like a crocodile to fit its environment, and I have the cheeks of a gerbil to boot. As I stumble in with a bag of books on my back, I probably look like a hobo squirrel preparing to hibernate. In a library.

For three days, I arrive to tuck in for a seven-course meal of canned fruit, greasy duck, and questionable noodles. I am not Homer Simpson, and my body-mass-index is not the stuff of horror films. So the owners welcome me as a new, regular customer, and with open arms.

It is on the fourth day, of course - my next to last in this city - that their arms cross.

My German is passable, although rusty, so I listen a lot. So what occurs next has the direct, makeshift tone of two people - both in the business of feeding somebody, even if only themselves - communicating in a language that is foreign to both of them.

"I need to speak with you," he says.

"Go ahead," I say.

He steadies himself. I don't think he's ever done this before.

"Listen. You come here, for three days. You eat every day. Now look..."

He waves over to the food-strewn table which has been my savior all this week.

'You pay six euros. The fruit, that is three euros. The chicken, two euros. The noodles, two euros. I send one euro back to my country. Feeding people is my business. But feeding you..."

"..."

"That is not my business."

"..."

"..."

"I leave tomorrow."
-
Getting kicked out of a buffet restaurant is one of my proudest moments. It's like breaking a shoe dancing (which I've also done): it is proof that you have taken one of hobbyhorses of daily existence, and ridden it straight into the ground. It is a testament that I am still alive.

I know that my hunger will eventually come back to bite me in the ass. As time goes on, I'll stop riding bikes up steep hills. I won't go out dancing as much as I used to, and always should. And so my metabolism will start to slow, creeking along like a Soviet-bloc railroad, until it finally comes to a halt - a dead end. In my modest queen-size deathbed, I will emit a death rattle that sounds like a broken dinner bell and smells of fruit yogurt and home fries.

And at that terminal moment, everything I've ever consumed will come rushing back to me en masse: the strawberry smoothies, the pad thais, the cheese omelettes, the banana nut muffins, the fried rice, the knishes, the injera bread, and the mountains upon mountains of fresh fruit.

And I will explode, my body ballooning out like a deleted scene from The Blob, my rolls of newfound flab cascading like a burst dam through the doorway of my retirement home, drowning wayward puppies in its wake and knocking out power for blocks around. Car alarms will blare, and the zoos will be filled with panicked pachyderms. And after a minute or so - the time frame for most natural disasters - the fleshly mountain will settle, and go quiet.

Only then, will I finally be full.

Mother_Nature_Is_A_Bad_Babysitter

---
I never expected to wear a badge.

Then again, I never expected to be a park ranger, either, because I always thought that meant living in the damn woods, away from precious things like subways and nightclubs and 24-hour Chinese food. But this was New York, which has tens of thousands of acres of parkland to its name, and which is one of the only cities in the country where the job title 'Urban Park Ranger' is not a joke. Even if our uniforms did resemble those of garbage men - at least we had hats.

I suddenly found myself in the odd position of having authority, which is a very odd position for a skinny white boy to have in the Bronx. I wear glasses that can fry ants at a hundred paces, and pack as much of a punch as a kitten parachuting into a flower bed. Me trying to raise my voice against true New Yorkers is like trying to fight a wildfire with a super soaker.

I was not born in New York, and that made me the odd-man out for my entire crew. My partners were, in no particular order, a butch Italian lesbian from Queens who threw sex parties with her wife; an Indian-American biology major who later went to med school in Aruba; an Iroquois-Taino former landscaper who once marched with the Zapatistas in Mexico, a Puerto Rican DJ who spun reggaeton and drank Crystal, and a Honduran Sunni Muslim with his own personal pair of handcuffs. I...was a dork who reads strange books in bad light. And throughout the entire season, my sergeant constantly called me, 'Paul,' the name of the only other white guy in the entire department. Because really, how was she supposed to tell us apart.

We all got along swimmingly. And 'swimmingly' is a great way to get along, really, when your first bonding experience involves a canoe rescue 'practice run' gone horrible awry. Nothing stirs the heart to new heights of teamwork like watching ninety percent of your coworkers flip headfirst into the Atlantic Ocean, and looking at each other wistfully as you all drift off with the currents as a team. If you're lucky, you might manage ground yourself on a dollop of mollusks, use your belts to lash together five canoes out of sheer desperation, and row for an hour against the tide in an attempt to get back to the beach before sundown.

Most jobs, when they ask you about your capacity for crowd control, are more often than not refering to mobs of snot-nosed birthday parties at Chucky Cheese. In New York, 'crowd control' means quelling the rage of a million dehydrated Puerto Ricans during the annual parade, after the NYPD shunts them all onto Central Park East. And 'professionalism' means that your college intern can bang the park fitness instructor after-hours in the nature center and have no one be the wiser. Seriously, how were we supposed to know. She was stealthy.

We were called over to the beach, so as to rattle out two skunks from behind the sink in the woman's rest room. A snapping turtle got lost, and we carried him a quarter-mile to the local pond while the bastard strained his neck like laffy taffy to get a bite of my pinky finger. And one day there sat a guinea fowl, in the Bronx, in one of the woman's bathroom stalls. It had a two-foot line of string running up its throat and out its mouth. We don't know why.

We adopted a baby skunk: its parents had abandoned him, and we spent a whole afternoon running about the woods to rustle up some - literally - grub. Occasionally he did a one-eighty and let loose with his pint-sized stink cannon, with all the adorable oomph of a butterfly bumping against your cheek. One of the sergeants gave him the obvious name, 'Flower.'

And the children. Children everywhere. We become the favorites of a local daycare, and every day we tried to trot out some wholesome, child-friendly fact about Science. The kids always borrowed my hat: a Smokey the Bear-style, woven-straw fashion flashback. A local newspaper crew arrived to take our picture as we taught the cutest lesson of the year, about butterflies.

I'd worked there for a full season when my parents divorced. So after years of living in one of the greatest cities in the world, I turned in my badge and booked a flight three thousand miles away. Taking care of my family and loved ones is my first job. My paycheck is secondary.

The night before I left New York, a transformer exploded on my block, knocking out the power for the entire neighborhood. The street flooded with Bengali prayer mats and Dominican pick-up football games. I went with my roommate and father for chinese food, and we watched cops set up traffic flares while a stray cicada hurled itself against the neon lights.

Casual_Friday_Will_Be_The_Death_Of_Me

---
I do not take well to cubicles. I feel this is to my credit. Cubicles are an indignity to God and man. They take the most organic and freeform species on the planet, and put them into a box.

I managed to avoid them completely until I was twenty-two. Before then, my professional career was held in classrooms, in labs, and even behind a friggin' badge. But a spontaneous trip north, to a new city free of connections, left my anti-cubicle stance flapping in the wind, and I caved.

My first gig lasted a grand total of nineteen hours. My job was to raise money, for a cultural organization I swear I used to respect only the day before. On my second day, the woman next to me managed to bilk $2,500 out of a woman who just had a nervous breakdown - and it was her husband's money, besides. But the commission was killer.

And my boss, in a bizarre twist of fate, asked me for a threesome on Christmas morning.

I finally got dropped because I raised, count 'em, zero dollars. It might have had something to do with my genuine attempts at honesty: 'So we're coming to you, on bended knee, rattling the tin can - with sad, sad, puppy dog eyes - asking, 'Please, sir. May we have some more?'

And yet it pleases me to no end that I can't ask people for handouts, even when it's my job.

I got another job within the week: better pay, but more cubicles. We recruited people for focus groups. And yet, the people there had souls, and they helped to save mine as well.

There were one-armed chefs, frontmen for punk bands, triple-majors who studied piano and played chess in their head. These people had stories about street fights in the Czech Republic, knowledge of Micmaq linguistics, and a conviction that they would one day leave this place, and watch as a ghost town of staplers and clogged Xeroxes disappeared in their rearview mirror. We drank tea, we stood on desks like Dead Poets Society, and gave money away, instead of taking it. We even called people who wanted to be called.

(Mostly. We all dreaded The Sample, in which companies demanded we call unsuspecting poor bastards whose number they'd scored like a pickpocket scores Rolexes during rush hour. Occasionally, they would rage about the no-call list, for which we did not qualify. And I told them: trying to ward me off with a do-not-call list is like trying to kill a vampire with a tomato).

Occasionally, from the other end of the line, a genuinely kind personality would come ringing through. A wrong number called back, and I talked with him for an hour after closing, talking about how it felt for him to see gobs of magma leap from the caldera of Costa Rican volcanoes. When he finally asked what the hell sort of company this was, I told him that we were the front-line of the mating rituals of capitalism. In a world where Santa is a CEO, we are his elves.

I met a beautiful girl. She had seen me around town before, dancing at an 80s night downtown. But I dance like a daddy longlegs in a skillet, always on the lookout for ankles I shouldn't break, and she thought to herself, "I want to talk to that boy. But he's...too fast. And too sober.'

And she’s a priceless, beautiful girl, who my grandmother thought was Lithuanian but strangers think is Cajun. She’s a hardscrabble spitfire of piss, vinegar and grey matter. She once drank a one-eyed, 300-lb. neo-Nazi named Bronx under the table. She was twelve years old, the drink was whisky, and she was dragged away from his unconscious body screaming, ‘I want his fucking eye.’ She’s adorable. She loves the 1920s, deformed kittens, and pinstripes.

I lasted a few months. This was a pit-stop on the long haul that is my life. But it was enough. And from another job on the other side of the world, I sent my old supervisor an e-mail.

Dear Collin, My Collin:

I can't stop thinking about you. The memory of our last hug has burned itself into my fevered mind forever. The scope of your cynicism, the largesse of your misanthrophy sends my heart racing.

Mere sonnets cannot encapsulate the way you bewitched me with your tender slavedriving. You crack the whip with the hand of a poet. Your blackened, corporate heart outdoes the beauty of the most ominous eclipse. And one day, come hell or high water, we will join hands in unholy schadenfreude.

Peace be with you, beloved.

Yours always,
Jonathan

Sending_Love_From_Six_Feet_Above

---
As I child, I loved to visit cemeteries with my grandmother. We were both of the opinion - senior citizen and anklebitter alike - that they were awesome. Their grime, their history, their pastoral charm had made us instant fans. And so my grandmother and I walked hand-in-hand past granite angels and crumbling mausoleums while superstitious passersby held their breath.

Meanwhile, I - who was apparently a math nerd in utero - calculated the ages of those who died. Except perhaps for the game I called Crib Jailbreak, calculating the ages of dead people was probably my first hobby. My grandmother remembers how I once walked along the gravestones crunching numbers - '42...71...' - and suddenly paused. 'Awww,' I said. 'A baby...'

My mother thought it was creepy.

So it seems I've always been fascinated by how we treat death. In Sweden, you only get your grave for twenty years, before they dig you up and put somebody else on top of you. In certain cultures you can't even utter the names of the deceased. Jim Henson banned black from his funeral, Josephine Baker was feted down the Champs-Élysées, and Babe Ruth lay in state at Yankee Stadium while hot dog vendors hawked their wares all around him.

I used to go to Greenwood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, and take walks. It was designed by the same people who built Central Park, which means all of the winding paths but none of the dog runs. Once, on my way there, I saw a gorgeous woman on the subway, and as was my style at the time, I asked her out for coffee completely out of the blue. She said she gave 'points for balls.' She then told me that she was a 29-year old from Berkeley getting her PhD on religious mutiplicity in American history, and she was going to the cemetery. Would I like to come?

That is the only time that dead people have gotten me dates, although years later I did take my girlfriend with me into cadaver lab. We were both absolute dorks who jumped at the chance to cut away subcutaneous fat from the skin with a scalpel, or hold a smoker's lung in our hands. And we did actually have to suction body fluids out of the chest cavity with a turkey baster, which I did not expect. The most disturbing thing of the whole affair wasn't the body, actually, but the black garbage bag that they'd used to cover the head. I wanted to apologize to her.

One day, at the Natural History Museum, I found myself standing in front of a glass case, staring at a ten-thousand year-old grave. Some little tyke waddled up next to me - he was four years at the oldest, he was more t-shirt than toddler, and he had his mother by the hand. He pointed at the placard posted next to the exhibit, and his mother read it off for him:

“THE BOY OF TESHIK TASH”

“In the 1940s, Soviet archeologists recovered the remains of a Neanderthal child from a cave at Teshik Tash, high in the mountains of Western Central Asia. The child was found in a grave surrounded by upright goat horns deliberately placed there as if to ritualize the burial. The Teshik Tash burial illustrates an early expression of an animalistic belief - that is, that nature is essentially personal and filled with spirits that behave like human beings.”


There was a pause.

“You see that?” she said. “Those are goat horns. And that’s a baby.”

“A baby goat?”

“No, a baby. They...put him there to keep him warm.”

“...”

“Yeah, it’s like a cradle.”

They wandered off.

“Do they use it for a long time?”

“Yeah, a pretty long time.”

"..."

Denying death has never done anybody any good. When my grandfather died, my brothers and I agreed he would have done without the pomp and circumstance: he would have been happy with a pine box and a salute. Death happens. That's why you love them when they're still here.

So I don't intend to deny my own death, either, whenever it rolls into town. So, when I die, I ask that my friends grieve to their heart's content, and then go out to dance the night away.

We_Had_Telescopes_The_Size_Of_Oil_Drums

---
For reasons that fly in the face of predictability, I live in a mountain town whose population doesn't even hit five-figures. I, whose most direct exposure to small-town existence are reruns of Twin Peaks, now inhabit a community for whom Friday night karaoke is the big event. This town's primary commodities seem to be liquor, leather and woodcarvings, and every time I walk to the center of town, I expect some murderous Headless Horseman with California license plates to scream around every blind turn at 70 MPH and run me down like a dog.

But I am a science teacher, and the mountain twilight allows for wicked astronomy lessons.

This school is directed by a former superconductor engineer, who still walks and talks like a California surfer boy. My comrades, my teachers-in-arms, are kung-fu fighting graph theorists and cheery, redheaded hobos who sleep under rocks. The former Jehovah's Witness broke free of his religion while standing on the rim of the Flagstaff meteor crater, went and earned his degree in astrophysics, and after this school year will track planet-killer asteroids at an observatory in New Mexico. One woman here was once thrown out of an eight-story window while swing dancing, landed in the swimming pool below, and snuck back into her parent's house at 3am with a full-body bruise that they never discovered.

We are the only affordable school within hundreds of miles with the equipment necessary to teach proper science, and so buses roll in every week from as far as two states over. We turn off the lights and crank up the Van der Graaf generator, evoking lighting bolts two feet long. We man rock-climbing walls that we only allow children to climb after they've told us amazing facts about Mars. And we point 12" telescopes at the Pleiades star cluster, while drawing out the Cassiopeia constellation with a green laser pointer powerful enough to distract planes.

We collect bizarre medical conditions off the student release forms. In a distant third is the boy who is 'allergic to smoke in Japanese restaurants.' The esteemed runner-up is a young lad who, we are warned, 'talks until exhaustion': we see him every day, talking like he was afraid his tongue will fly the coop like a clay pigeon, and then collapsing into a panting heap. The winner of the whole season, however, is beautifully simple: 'Sleepwalks. Can be awoken by saying, 'In Jesus' name.'' We really want to try, 'Hail Satan,' to see if he'll lapse into a coma.

We are reckless dorks living together in a confined space, which is a combination fraught with both danger and hilarity. We create a three-liter dry ice bomb which erupts so loudly that the director races down from his hilltop home thinking the propane tank exploded. We have access to a launching pad used for the kids' model rockets, and one night we start launching our own ramshackle creations, in pitch darkness, and hope that they don't fall back down on our heads. And at one point during the season, a fish tank explodes - which is actually entirely my fault.

The staff develops a sport called 'stick fighting': at midnight, a dozen geeks who spend their daylight hours being child-friendly gather on an open field, and pair off into approximate weight classes. Two combatants at a time stand across from one another, and both grab hold of a sturdy, five-pound tree limb that someone plucked out of the wood pile. Then, somebody yells, 'Fight,' and we battle each other in the dirt and grass for guts, glory, and just because.

Near season's end, the martial artist physics major and I teach a whole class in the style of Bad Kung Fu. We do roundhouses, speak like we've been dubbed, and proclaim astronomy to be a matter of our father's honor. We receive a standing ovation, although you really had to be there.

But on one night, a real rocket, one called a Minotaur, launches from a nearby air force base. In the blue-black night we watch what looks like an earth-born comet glide across the sky, like a baby spider on the wind, from the Big Dipper on over to Scorpio. The first and second stage boosters detach, and the third stage shoots forth, leaving behind a contrail ten times as wide as the full moon. Half the sky is coloured a ghostly white with exhaust, which fades out, slowly, into the starlight. And it remains, to this day, one of the most stellar things I have ever seen.

I_Am_My_Father's_Son

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Trinidad is sometimes called the 'Victorian Jewel of Southeastern Colorado.' It has a population of ten thousand people, nine thousand of whom are cowboys. The rest are transsexuals.

I know this for one simple reason: because this is the town where my brother and I tended to our father, after the four-hour surgery that finally made her a woman, at the age of fifty-three.
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By the time she was twelve, my father was winning tri-county mechanical drawing championships and building fiberglass motorboats in the garage. In her twenties she went to university for aviation management and art, going on to work as an air traffic controller for thirty years. She drove to work on a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle with leather pants and an urban camo tee, and came home to read books on string theory and Rembrandt and to paint intricate airbrushes of the back tailfins of ’59 Cadillacs. She built spiral staircases and secret passages to relax.

She, in short, has the brain of a neutron star and the emotional stability of a cut diamond. This is the father who raised my brothers and I, who nurtured me along with my beautiful mother from mere homo sapien larva to the smartass geek writing before you today.

I, in part, have her transgenderism to thank for that. And to be proud of.

Let’s look at it from the very beginning: a quiet, bookish boy in New Jersey realizes before she’s even verbal that she was born in the wrong body, and if she says a word about it to anybody she’ll be a deemed a pint-sized basketcase. So how do you tackle a revelation like that? In my father’s case, she did it with logic, with self-control, and with prime-time episodes of Mr. Spock. My father adopted Leonard Nimoy as a sort of emotional hero, and a pointy-eared Vulcan as her role model.

Obviously, my father soon became the most socially awkward boy this side of the Mason-Dixon line, and as extroverted as a black hole. But, fact is, she stayed alive - which is better than the alternative. And given the choice between a Star Trek geek for a father, or a McCarthy-era teenage suicide, I'll take the nerd.

Fast forward thirty years. My father worked eight-hour days as an air traffic controller, a profession that would drive mere mortals to a spontaneous arsenic binge. You couldn't do it - I couldn't either. Because one hour in a tower would turn our guts to quicksand, our confidence to jelly, and our head so inside out we'd think that hammer pants were hip again.

My father did it every day, on nothing but a handful of Ritz crackers and a tuna sandwich. She did it by using the same mind that she developed for her survival: the discipline, the focus that in lesser mortals appears superhuman, otherworldly. My father played 3-D chess with several hundred pieces, each flying four hundred miles an hour and carrying more people in a single day than the population of Memphis.

Even by air traffic controller standards – and seriously, most of them are as average as a Rorschach blot, from survivalist nuts to concert cellists to outright friggin’ loons– she was stellar, a king among men (so to speak). And it was her skills - her unalloyed genius - that put food on the table, books in our hands, and college in our future. Mr. Nimoy would be proud.

And he should be proud. Because my transgender father also taught me how to be a man.

Men open doors for strangers and spend quiet alone time with a good book. Men come to bat for the people they love, dive into a new challenge brain first, and do the dishes without being told. Men know how to wear a fine suit, preferably one with pinstripes. Men...don't leave the seat up.

So let’s review.

My father was in the closet for over fifty years, but it didn’t matter. Being transgender is part of who she is – on top of being a race car driver, a sci-fi fan, a bookworm, a tinkerer, and a calm and fundamentally gentle human being on all fronts. I was raised by every portion of her, whether it took center stage or not.

My father lives in New Jersey now with her mother, but thank God no one has ever called her a ‘Jersey Girl.’ She rides her bike in the morning, eats the same bowl of Raisin Bran she’s eaten her whole life, and schleps sheetrock into the back of a pickup truck like she used to – although now random men suddenly offer to help by the dozen. She spends a lot of time painting, and remodeling. When she goes to the city, she gets cat calls, and she’s still not quite sure what to do about them. I once took her out dancing, to an 80s night downtown. And I don’t think there’s a word, in any language, for the feeling you get when you see your transgender father getting hit on by an Alaskan fisherman named Dirk.

‘Dirk.’ Seriously, his first name might as well have been ‘Punchline.’

My friends still tell me that my father is hot. And that, of all things, will always be creepy.

Me? I survive like I always have. I do my best to read too many books, stay up too late, and eat like crap. I turn to both my mother and father for well-meant advice, and then ignore it to my own detriment. I am filled with verve and gusto and uncertainty about what I’ll be doing tomorrow or a year from now. But I’ll do my damnedest to do a fine job of whatever comes around the bend, even if it means screwing up ever now and again. There’s always tomorrow, and I look forward to it. And there’s a very simple reason for that.

Because I am my father’s son.

My_English_Makes_Men_Weep

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This emu is staring at me, and I don't think it speaks English.

Very few people here do, and that is why I am here. I am standing on a mountain top in Spain, and I am living in what used to be a trading station for sheep farmers. It has now been transformed into a four-star villa, and its guests sleep in the former stables. The emu farm is next door, and I hear they make good eating.

I live here for free, because I was born speaking a tongue that everyone wants to know. And so entrepreneurial businessmen from Texas have decided to give people like me free room and board in Spain, in exchange for talking to Spaniards. Not teaching, just talking. We are to talk just like we do every day, in every conceivable accent: Manchester, Pittsburgh, Cork, Houston, Boston, Auckland, Brooklyn. And Spaniards will learn English like their dignity depends on it.

For the first and only time in my life, I am interviewing fifty-year old businessmen who have whole pig farm empires to their name, and they are sweating bullets. I hit them where it hurts, I insult their intelligence through my very existence, I undermine everything they ever believed about their English ability, because I talk very, very fast about many, many things. Every day they huddle around the schedule posted on the lobby wall, and every day the unlucky Spaniard scheduled to talk to me - for an hour, and no more - pantomimes slitting their wrists, hanging themselves by their neck tie, or jumping through the nearest window. I am a linguistic Grendel.

This sort of thing could give me a complex, if I didn't already have one. My voice has been a running punch line all my life, because no can quite decide what I sound like. They thought I was French in first grade, German in second, and Australian in third. As an adult I am most often mistaken for British, or occasionally some sort of Eastern European. One job thought I was Polish for six months, and half the people in California think I'm South African. One man guessed that I was either from Turkey, or Queens, New York. A Russian actor friend once recommended I tell people, 'I am from Caspiar, an island in the Caspian Sea.' Pause. 'It sank.'

I think people hear what they want to hear.

An American here worked as a cryptographer for the spooks, and he lived in ICBM bunkers for twenty-three years. One fellow did his thesis on heroic bloodshed action movies, and another studied how to electrocute fish instantaneously for sushi markets in Japan. One beautiful Irish woman - because all Irish women are beautiful - talks about seeing the night sky in Zimbabwe, where every star juts out like a diamond. There is a seventy-plus guttermouth Spanish woman who is having every adventure she can because, quote, 'I am in a hurry.'

We have nothing to do all week, but walk and talk. Eduardo and I wander down to the river, and we pick gleaming white boulders off the bank to add to his garden. Sergio and I walk down into town, and windowshop for whole flanks of ham. At night, we either dance, or get completely soused: one evening has us making queimada, a colon-scarring concoction made out of four bottle of grain alcohol, a bag of sugar, four bags of coffee beans, lime, and fire, over which we utter a Catalonian incantation about demons and 'farts from infernal asses.'

The language gap fills and overflows with makeshift intimacy and badly translated dick jokes. A discussion amongst the women about facelifts and boob jobs descends into madness when they ask what I would enlarge, and the seventy-year old Spanish woman sees me blush, points at my crotch and says, '...Only there?' And suddenly I have half-deaf grandmothers and CEOs alike offering to pay to inflate my genitals to inhuman and terrifying proportions, and for ten minutes the entire table can neither breathe, nor stop laughing.

Somewhere it slips that my birthday is next week, something I haven't celebrated since I was fourteen, and which I usually spend sipping tea and reading a good book in the corner. We get as far as the final day, and over dinner people laugh about their everyday lives that they'll be returning to, places without long walks in the mountains or intercontinental drinking games.

The lights go out. And without warning I am surrounded by a mob of half-drunk Spaniards and Irishwomen, who consider it an unforgivable sin to celebrate a boy's 21st birthday without cakes and candles and standing ovations. One of the gorgeous young Spanish women comes up from behind me, and kisses me on the cheek, and its like the floodgates open: every woman lines up and out the door to get their turn, from Irish therapists to Spanish-Moroccan computer programers. And suddenly, the career CIA spook is there, and he plants a big, loving wet one.

My whole previous week of jabberjaw abandons me. And I have Absolutely. Nothing. To say.