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22 October 2009: Chapter One of my book Conversations, titled How Is She Beautiful? Enjoy!


How is She Beautiful?

He palmed his mobile phone as it vibrated, signaling the hour that life was set to begin. He hit the snooze button three or four times with quickness, subconsciously knowing –to the moment—when the phone would writhe again in his alert but disinterested hand. There were few moments that carried so much peace for Demetri as the moments directly proceeding his offsetting the alarm. Seconds later he would fall into a deep and dreamless sleep, as if following a pulsing rhythm of waking and unconsciousness. The sleep brought satisfaction to Demetri, the same satisfaction, he imagined, that one would experience in perfect isolation. Waking, however, brought with consciousness a rising sense of reality, a clarity that –though temporary—seemed another world he knew deeply, briefly, but experienced regularly enough to call the strange place “a separate home.”

Three steps to the stove, two steps to the refrigerator, two steps back to the oak cabinet to retrieve his tall white mug. As he handled the stained mug Demetri was possessed by a sudden recollection of his previous night’s dream. He remembered or rather, should I say, he felt a smoking Samovar that was nearly burned out in the coolness of morning. The tea at the top of the urn had been at room temperature for hours now and was barely drinkable. The wood chips at the base were slowly digested by the orange glow that ran like a consuming breeze over the face of the fuel. Dreams often caught Demetri in precisely this way and momentarily paralyzed him in a timeless memory– and always of one object or another, never a whole dream. Just a symbol.

He went on imagining the brown-stained mug to be an extension of his hand, no less valuable than any other appendage. As he slowly poured the just-below-boiling water over the black tea he watched with increasing interest as the dark corrupting rust leaked from the bag into the innocent water. Demetri let the bag sit in the hot stained water longer than usual, so he added some extra milk to mellow the bitter drink.

He stopped in the vestibule and stared at the empty dog food bowl –he looked at the fresh bag of kibble, and without notice his heart broke. He lost control, let his sanity rush into a type of euphoria that danced recklessly with both tears and laughter. He began to weep in mad ecstasy. Laughing and wiping tears from his eyes he felt so full that he could not help spilling over for the slightest of reasons.

“There is mercy in the world.” he thought rapturously, still wiping the tears away from his scrunched eyes. He grabbed at his chest as if hoping his ribs would expand, just to contain his very self. He was unaware of his arm’s dramatic movements and spilled five or six drops of tea upon the linoleum floor.

He ran his fingers through the kibble, and it left a dust upon his hands. Normally disgusted by such things, today he was simply ecstatic to be touching anything at all.

“I know, and feel, and act—” he said, as if for the first time recognizing both life and beauty simultaneously. He was aware that he indeed was beginning to understand something, and this understanding first appeared to him as an incredible weight upon his chest… or was it an internal pressure pushing outward? He felt as though there were cords within him stretching in hope, reaching out to connect to any and all life and, though entirely irrational, to tenderly touch even every atom. He gulped down the hot tea and embraced the fire consuming him within his chest.

“I have the sudden urge to bless everything!” he exclaimed as he tied his felt and rubber valenkis and headed out into the sunny, yet snow covered, day.

. . .

The morning seemed to stab into Demetri’s bones with happy knives that no more desired to pierce him than an innocent child, but simply followed inescapable destiny to make their jagged, freezing way into the marrow of Demetri’s bones. His fingers were covered by knit gloves with pads of leather upon his palms and fingertips, but still the cold seemed to pass right through him. As he walked carefully over ice and briskly over last week’s snow, Demetri had it in his mind to head across town to visit Caleb.

The taxi was not cheap, but the bus would have taken over an hour, and Demetri could not shake the urgency, the stretching cords within him that persisted in linking to every weary old woman he passed; their beauty and life so delicately burning, so perfectly wrapped in an end-of-winter blue flowery shawl, that he could barely speak and only mumbled to himself as he walked. He traveled only a short distance down the boulevard. He’d pay more here than at the corner, but he paid little mind to the price and reached out his pointer finger to hail a taxi.

He was in a state of delirious prayer as he neared the bus stop. The first taxi driver to stop was a young Kazakh man with a straw mat of black hair, pronounced cheek bones, and forward-leaping yellowish buck teeth.

The two negotiated a price and Demetri hopped in the front seat. He noticed the Muslim prayer beads dangling from the rear-view mirror. He began thinking through all the ninety-nine names of Allah. His mind danced around, but never quite reached, the love he wanted to exclaim. If only there was one more bead, or one more name, he thought.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” The young driver said boldly, insincerely, as he rolled down his window.

“No, not at all.” Demetri said, almost entirely in gestures, shaking his head and tossing his hands forward. He was still having problems speaking because of the feverish energy within him. Go ahead, his hands seemed to say, I am okay with everything. His hands were speaking reassuringly to the driver, I love you even now.

The cab driver spoke with little focus, and seemed to be constantly defending his every thought because of some buried guilt known only to himself. Demetri, however, felt the driver’s guilt in a wordless way and subconsciously threw his gestures kindly to put the young man at ease. They spoke rather one-sidedly about an unexpected commonality between them. They had both grown up in Kazakhstan and couldn’t wait to get together the money; the courage to return.

The driver warmed briefly to Demetri, but the car was soon on the corner of 2nd and 7th and Demetri wrestled his wallet from his pocket. Demetri instigated the handshake, and effectively caught the driver off guard, though through some reflex the driver also extended his hand and met Demetri with a hearty and respectful shake.

“D-do you play billiards?” The driver asked him abruptly.

“Sir, I would absolutely love to play billiards! I assure you, I am no good at the game myself, but I would love to go! However, sir, my heart will not be at rest until I see a close friend. Perhaps we will meet again. Yes. Yes?”

“Ah, yes. Okay, okay. Nice to meet you! Have a good day, sir.”

“And you as well. Sir, would you also be so kind as to meet me here at this exact spot at 5pm today? Perhaps we will play billiards then, but at the moment I am quite busy. Whatever the case, I will certainly need to be picked up at 5pm.”

“Sir, yes, sir. 5 pm it is! Corner of 5th and 7th .”

“Ah, good. Okay, now I must depart! See you later Mr…”

“Call me Oscar, and what is your name?”

“Demetri. And a pleasure to meet you once again. But now I must be off. 5pm! Don’t forget!”

With that Demetri slammed the passenger-side door and threw his trench coat around his front in the brisk wind as he began to walk away. Caleb’s flat was in the second building from the end of the block, and the door man needed nothing more than to see Demetri to swing open the gold-plated door. The two smiled at each other meaningfully and Demetri struck his initials on the sign-in sheet at the front desk. Demetri relaxed his trench coat as he rounded the corner of the glossy stone corridor, making his way towards the elevator. The elevator doors, too, were gold-plated, but smudgy, and he studied the varying hand prints as he waited for the always surprising ‘ding’ of the lazily opening doors.

. . .

Caleb was a tall, lanky man of surprising strength which he often proved to Demetri after a night at their pub around the corner. Not that Caleb was a violent man, he was simply boisterous and possessed a certain type of restlessness that crossed occasionally into irrationality, which Caleb almost always regretted, and loudly condemned himself immediately proceeding one of his passionate outburst.

As Dimitri approached the strong metal door to Caleb’s flat, he stepped over four plastic shopping bags full of garbage that had gathered in the hallway. Demetri turned off the buzzing light switch next to the circuit breaker that, while once painted a milky green, was now rusting, bent at the top and shedding its green for the reddish gold and wordless dignity of oxidation. While there was a doorbell Demetri never rang it. He removed his glove and gave four powerful knocks upon the cold metal door.

“Who’s there?”

“Caleb, it’s me, Deema. Open—” but before Demetri could finish his sentence he heard the descending melody of twists and slides, yanks and fidgeting chains that kept Caleb’s pink and blue hyacinth and rose petal couch, broken aerobics bike, and closet full of old slippers safe from the most desperate of thieves. The door swung open towards Demetri. Caleb quickly changed his initial wide eyed, tight lipped surprised disposition into something quite warmer, a cracking smile with discerning sunken eyes.

Caleb was in blue flowered board shorts and shirtless. He extended his hand, and though shaking Demetri’s hand, indeed his whole arm, through the doorway –in Demetri’s mind a rude gesture—he was pulling him inside, and chuckling all the while at his own surprisingly forceful yank. Demetri took two stabling steps into the foyer where he grasped Caleb’s arm with both hands as fully as he could.

“Brother, I have something to tell you,” Demetri said hastily.

“Alright, okay Demetri, but maybe you can come inside first? Look at you, have you caught a chill or something? Take off your coat, my friend. I just started water for tea. Lilly is on her way over right now. In fact, I thought your knock was hers, Deema, and your ugly mug surprised me!” he said as both men laughed with manufactured masculinity.

“Ah yes, OK. Perhaps I can sit and stay with you two for a while.”

. . .

Caleb was something like a distant continent that Demetri knew was warm, too warm, as heated by volcanoes, fire, and the sun. Full of vegetation; ground so fertile that one could start a forest quite by accident by carelessly casting seeds of thought just about anywhere. Caleb was a man who loved new ideas, even if he did not fully understand them himself. He was more captivated by newness than by the power of things. Demetri was acutely aware of Caleb’s distance, however, and was about the business of discovering the mysteries of such a strange place.

“I’ve had so many ideas lately, Deema.” Caleb said as he took a seat directly split across two couch cushions, not fully committed to either side; whether too close to Demetri or too far.

“I’ve had some too, Caleb—and that is exactly why I’ve come to visit you. But first, dear brother, would you tell me one of your ideas? Something that’s brought you great enjoyment. I don’t want to hear any of your Palahnuik-inspired depravity anymore! Hah! You know I love you Caleb, but I’ve heard nothing come from that man’s mind that brought joy into the world, and nothing unique either. All of his characters are so flat and horrifying, unchanging, depraved; existing in the angst of each moment and yet completely devoid of any existential glory! No, brother, tell me something steeped in Dostoevskyian joy. Haha… Let me slow down a bit: Caleb, I am just so happy to be here with you. Tell me whatever it is you will.”

Caleb’s face made an awful frown as he spoke:

“None of my ideas have been birthed in pleasure, my friend. I tell you now soberly, even fearfully, that I have been cursed. I can conceive, no doubt, but only in sorrow. I can only conceive in sorrow!”

Caleb’s intensity seemed to Demetri to cause him to resemble a squeezing fruit. His eyes became especially juicy.

“It’s bitterness, my friend! Nothing but bitterness! You have always been a romantic. You are in love with the pain you feel, yet look at the misery it’s causing you!” Demetri cried, as he was moved in his soul to exclaim the most truthful thing he could feel at that particular moment.

Demetri continued, catching himself, descending from the third heaven and thrust back awkwardly into his body, sinking deeply into the stained flowered couch. His fingers picking at the tare in the fabric upon the armrest.

As the two men waited in the apartment for Lilly, Demetri sank more deeply into the couch and fiddled restlessly with an old Afghan rug with his big toe. Caleb retreated down a dark corridor for what seemed like seconds, and returned pulling a faded, paint-covered navy tee-shirt over his head.

“Is the tea ready yet, Caleb?” Demetri asked nonconfrontationally.

“I put on a whole pot of water, so it will be a few minutes yet, Deema. And besides, are you having black tea?”

“I think I will,” Demetri said in an entirely indifferent tone, yet set and dedicated completely upon whatever the outcome.

Demetri fiddling endlessly, reached into his back pocket and removed an old note card with an address on it, but no name. He read the cross streets:

W. Hunting Park & Rising Sun

He didn’t remember writing down the address, nor did he remember putting the note card in his pocket. “Who do I know in that neighborhood?” Demetri spiraled through intoxicated contemplation.

This small mystery, unbeknown to Demetri, would be his great crisis, without which he would not be the man we speak of today. As is most often the case, the smallest mysteries of life –of which there are multitudes, like angles dancing on the head of a needle—are quite a great deal larger, nay– deeper than we originally assume.

Demetri folded the note card along a preexisting crease and returned it into his back left pocket.

Caleb suddenly spoke from the kitchen:

“It’s about ready now Deema. White or black?”

“I’ll take only a spot of milk, Caleb.” Demetri said with noticeably more conviction the second time around.

“Ah, alright. You’re in luck! This cream is astounding. And fresh! I watched an old Amish woman ladle it out of a cast iron vat when I was up in Lancaster last week. Honestly, Deema, I had almost forgotten that milk came from cows!”

“Hah, Caleb, way to get connected! I applaud you for upholding the Agrarian Standard. Have you been reading that book I gave you? The Wendell Berry one… Ah, never mind, We’ll talk about that later. But honestly, the milk sounds wonderful. And thanks again for this tea.”

But as Caleb sat down with the two tea cups, he did not pass one to Demetri. Instead Caleb sat with the full and steaming black and white mugs before him.

“I need to let them steep for the exact amount of time, Deema. Three minutes and fifteen seconds. You understand? Typically it’s three-to-five minutes, but I know this tea, and any time over three minutes and fifteen seconds embitters the drink. Trust me on this one, Deema. I’ll prepare it for you and you can tell me if I’m crazy, alright?”

“Caleb, I don’t think you sound crazy at all—” Demetri began to explain, but was suddenly cut off by Caleb.

“Or maybe I am going a bit mad… You tell me… Sometimes I feel like a perfectionist resisting perfection.” Caleb was always this way, finding just the right words to sum his whole heart, mind, and strength in one confusing phrase that takes him half a conversation to explain. He went on, “Take this morning, for example: after doing the dishes my ice cube tray was slightly layered beneath the freshly cleaned baking pan –only in the smallest degree!—but I could not just let the dishes remain that way. So I moved the pan to separate them, but the ice cube tray was then shifted into a diagonal position.

Well, of course then I had to put my drink down, for this took real effort and full concentration. With both hands I straightened the pan and the tray into parallel and adjacent neighbors, and you would think I could then leave these poor confused things alone! But I can’t. If something –anything—approaches near perfection, I must do my part to complete the picture. But Deema, I walked away this morning from those perfectly clean dishes weakened and unhappy because they were too perfect. You understand? They were grid-like and unmistakably arranged by some human or machine. I had a strong desire to go back into the kitchen and ‘mess them up a little,’ just to make it seem like a natural arrangement. I am a perfectionist resisting perfection, everything has it’s place but me! There is a natural order but I feel entirely lost, and I only confuse the things I touch, disrupt their beauty… Now what do you think Deema? I value your opinion. Am I as mad as I think?”

Demetri sat for a few seconds, considering deeply what his friend had just shared with him. He had been in such euphoria this morning, but now he felt as though he could not find the right words to express his burning passion at all. He wanted to share a deep word, this spirit, with his friend but there was something blocking them from truly communing. He then began to think about the precise word to label this disruptive feeling that crept up inside him over the course of the last few minutes.

“Faithlessness!” Demetri suddenly exclaimed, though intending the word for a fresh and markedly more silent perspective upon his own introspection. Caleb, however, took the exclamation to be referring to his perceived “condition”.

“Ah yes, Deema. Perhaps you’re right. My love has become faithless,” he then paused to reflect, though only briefly before picking up his thought again, “’Faithless’ is the exact word to label myself! Why haven’t I thought of that before? It all begins with faithlessness. My desire for perfection, while never quite leading towards satisfaction, is rooted in this lostness, the crisis of lostness. I will never be content!” Caleb did not stop to consider the ramifications, the implications of what he had just stated, but instead continued on enraptured in himself. His arms conducted, with great sweeping motions, the atonal orchestra that were his words.

“But wait!” He interrupted himself, “I just had a thought. Hear me out Deema, and then let me know if it makes any sense to you at all.” Caleb began to speak out deeply contemplative, yet wildly chaotic rivers of thought. He then paused, not to consider the impact of his words, but only to embrace the euphoria that had washed over him.

Caleb continued, “I wonder, am I really a part of anywhere? Patriotism is such a strange idea. But I wonder, what part of me is America, and how much of America is in me?” Demetri nodded, affirming that his last statement was indeed intelligible. To keep Caleb grounded, Demetri learned to encourage focused thoughts and ignore or challenge his unfair generalizations.

Caleb spoke, leaning forward now, his hands palm up, with his forearms resting on his knees.

“Here, and I mean in America, we’re safe. We take our… our homes and our families as things that will never change. We don’t think anything can… can hurt us, or harm us, can… can destroy anything we’ve built. We don’t believe that anything can deeply touch us. That anything can really … change… our lives. We are the most disbelieving nation in the world!

I am thinking now of our President, and many politicians like him who run on platforms of “Change!” I think I understand now Deema… that political change is ancillary to a truer change. Do I… do I believe that things can truly change? That revolutions can happen here? Just a thought off of Caleb’s question – revolutions are possible, maybe even commonplace, there have been so many; the question is, do revolutions change anything? The oppressed rises up against his oppressor, then he turns around and oppresses his former oppressor with the same things. That the Lord can return, and will? Am I a believer, brother, or am I faithless? And what difference does it all make? And what’s more, why should faith make any difference at all?”

Demetri was trying to follow Caleb’s stream of thought, yet he was struggling to see the connection between his friend’s odd perfectionism and his philosophical digression into the nature of faith. It was all a bit silly to Demetri and was beginning to distract him from the search for words, words to bless his friend.

“Caleb, slow down my friend. Can you explain to me now what you mean when you say that your ‘love has become faithless’? Start there. Could you perhaps help me see the connection between faith, or the lack of it, and your anxiety? You aren’t saying the two are polar opposites are you? And how do you generalize your sentiments to our whole nation? I think you might be speaking a bit too boldly.”

Caleb did not make eye-contact now. He was in deep thought, and yet backpaddling through the rushing ocean current that was his consciousness. He wanted to explain this very thought-river to Demetri for his own sake and, he thought, for his sanity’s sake as well.

“Alright Deema. I think I can explain myself more clearly with a story. I want to tell you about a dream I had not too many days ago.”

Demetri smiled as he spoke, “Caleb, are you sure that you won’t just confuse the whole matter more with your dreamy abstracts?”

Demetri felt a welling compassion for Caleb, and wanted his friend to make true progress and not share in the fate of so many young people who philosophize vainly to no end. He wanted Caleb to find comfort, but what Caleb wanted was for the world to shift, for a revolutionary overhaul of all things greedy and mechanistic.

“Just listen, Deema, because the best explanation of what I love would come through a picture of beauty as I see it. I promise that this dream is not an abstract one. And don’t stay confused either! Stop me, Deema, if you want me to explain something more fully.”

Caleb then began to recount his dream, staring at the lamp in the corner of his living room.

“I was at the bus stop waiting for the 114, looking westward down the street. I saw, and could not force myself to unsee, a drunk woman wobbling her way down the road towards me. She was a mess, Deema. A real mess. Now if this would have happened in real life, who knows what I would have done? But in my dream I was overwhelmed by her. What she meant to me, you understand? No, of course you don’t. Let me say it another way—she kind of displaced the air, like when a train whizzes by you on a platform, you know? And you feel like it’s about an inch away from hitting you. This woman was beautiful in a way that nearly pummeled me. I wish I could remember what she said to me… ” Caleb paused to think. He was quiet for longer than he intended, but was blissfully unaware as he searched for ‘just the right words’ to relate what he was trying to say.

The silence seemed to completely belong to Caleb’s room, to his space. This was the living room’s true identity, silence and the faint ticking hands of a clock, a sound that occasionally made Demetri aware of his beating heart. Suddenly, Caleb spoke up again and reminded Demetri of the immediate matter at hand.

“Ah yes! Now I remember her words. Deema, I want you to listen carefully to what she said to me. This mess of a woman, this symbol, she stumbled over to me and looked at me with spinning eyes. Then she opened her mouth and spoke like a sword that cut me to pieces, saying ‘There aren’t only two ways in life. Sometimes there are more ways to go.’”

Caleb paused, proud of himself, “Now do you understand?”

Demetri held back his laughter. His sweet, naive friend was honestly pouring out his heart, yet he lacked all ability to communicate such passion effectively. Demetri knew all too well what this felt like, though he was one step ahead of his friend, for Demetri had already begun to recognize his distressing wordlessness. Caleb, on the other hand, was oblivious and content, as if a snake’s best meal was his very own tail.

“Caleb! Could you stop for one second?” Demetri chose his words carefully here, so as not to steal any power from Caleb’s spirit.

“Can you tell me more about what you think her words meant? I mean I can guess, and it sounds like a pretty simple concept, you know? Why did this woman effect you so much?”

Caleb continued, still looking away from Demetri unintentionally, as if on an expedition into his mind.

“Ah, Deema! So you were listening after all! I have been puzzling over her words all week. She seemed to me to be a prophetess. Not a particularly kind spirit, but nor –would I say—is she entirely cold. She seemed to me to be tied completely to one physical place. Indifferent towards me, myself only a temporary visitor. She looked beautiful and ancient—”

“How so? Pardon my interruption, but Caleb, how is she beautiful?”

“Again, Deema, your questions are perfect—for her beauty, too, is something I’ve deeply contemplated. She appeared near the pub around the corner. Her head was badly injured, and she was dressed in a rough and itchy-looking woman’s wool sweater. Her hair was disheveled, and twigs and dirt clung near the roots. She was carrying two open bazaar bags full of God knows what. Her face, once a cherry pink, was now covered in dirt—”

Demetri interrupted again, “Caleb, she doesn’t sound beautiful at all!”

“Wait, Deema, and I will explain my reasoning to you. As I said, she seemed to me to be a part of the land, tied to that specific place. And it is precisely in this way that she was beautiful in the same way this animated world is when it runs its purposed course. She was a part of the natural order, following a deeper course…”

“I am sorry Caleb, but I don’t understand—”

“You wouldn’t disagree that there are things more ancient, Demetri, than you or I. And don’t forget all the many great and mysterious worlds expanding all around us–” Caleb stopped himself midstream, then picked up again on a more vital tributary of thought, “This ‘dream’ as you call it, was a glimpse into something permanent, something unshakable, and I felt privileged to speak with her.”

“Caleb! I love you. I wish only that I could understand you. Please don’t abbreviate any longer. Whisper if you have to, as a man treading on holy ground. Whisper, Caleb, and let the truth be Spirit, coming and going from some unknown place!”

“Well Demetri, what is it you would like to know?” Caleb spoke using Demetri’s formal name unintentionally, but it caught Demetri off guard.

Demetri held back his chuckling again at his friend’s obliviously cryptic ideas and somewhat flawed attempt at communicating his thoughts. Again, he chose his words carefully so as not to upset him.

“The purpose of the woman, for starters. You say she is ‘tied to the land’ did I say that correctly? Yet she is covered in blood and twigs, intoxicated, stumbling down the road—no doubt headed to the pub for another drink. God, man! How do you infer all that you have from this ‘vision’?”

Demetri immediately regretted the harshness of his words, yet his face was unchanged by his guilt. He was noticeably frustrated by his lack of understanding and Caleb’s lack of articulate descriptions. Caleb did not react too harshly, however, as he was lost in his own thought, now only making occasional eye-contact with Demetri. Caleb started up immediately, nearly cutting Demetri off.

“Ah, but I did not ‘infer,’ as you say Deema. I intuited. Isn’t that the only way that a human can understand beauty? I can not rationally infer anything beautiful about this woman, and yet she is an angel. Listen again to the words she spoke, after I asked her about the bus route.

“There aren’t only two ways in life. Sometimes there are more ways to go.”

She understood the place completely! Wise as the dirt and the streams—she told me that there is something deeper than the pavement and asphalt—something wilder. Are you beginning, yet, to see what I mean?”

Demetri was happy to finally have some pegs to hang his thoughts on. So Caleb had been reading the Wendell Berry book that he had purchased him last month.

“Yes, I think so, Caleb. I am going to take a stab at this– you’re saying that the roads, the sidewalks, all of these pathways—despite their usefulness (and it is precisely their usefulness, I believe, that you are coming to resent) the open road is not the right symbol anymore. It’s not enough, not a true enough picture of our wild, absurd freedom. You are looking for something deeper. In other words, you’re suggesting (or should I say, the woman is suggesting) that these roads, sidewalks, and other pathways create an illusion of progress as we travel down their predefined, mechanically decided paths. You are no Kerouac, my friend, but I believe you’re onto something. A new symbol for absolute freedom and Spirit. Spirit, a rushing breath; not solid lines or the supposed ‘progress’ suggested by linearity! How many infinities we miss in the pursuit of such ‘progress’! Am I correct in my understanding, Caleb?”

“Yes, yes Demetri! Exactly!” Caleb was ecstatic now, deeply satisfied with himself and his ability to communicate. “And here I thought that explaining this truth to you was absolutely fruitless. But you understand! So Demetri, what is your opinion about this deeper ecology, this intuited beauty? Do you think that this, by all appearance’s sake, ugly woman is beautiful? And are you beginning to understand why I say that my love, or perhaps more appropriately, my perfectionist aesthetic is faithless and full of fear?”

Demetri hesitated for only an instant, but this small gesture was repulsive to Caleb, precisely because saw as if in a mirror a disgusting flood of faithlessness rushing into the conversation. To Caleb, Demetri’s innocent reflection carried with it a measure of cowardliness and disloyalty—yet to Demetri, this pause was absolutely necessary—for he had yet to understand the full weight of Caleb’s question.

“Did you clean the woman off?” Demetri asked abruptly, leaning forward –engaged— intentionally closer to Caleb now.

Caleb was startled by his intensity.

“Yes, I had a wet napkin, God knows from where. I cleaned her off. The crusty blood and dirt from her forehead and hands left a brown stain upon the wetnap. She winced as I passed over the congealing wounds…”

“Then she is beautiful, Caleb. You know I love you. It is precisely your unquestioning and perhaps even unconscious kindness that I treasure and admire about you. Who is this woman? Never mind, for the question is irrelevant. She is beautiful because she has received your kindness, your clumsy, imperfect love. Yes, she did communicate something deeper than the asphalt, Caleb. But not deeper than blood! Not deeper than the rushing breath of life you have within you, or your capability to make humans out of the dirt! The way you restored her, helped free her from the destructive pattern of her ‘natural order’…”

Suddenly there was a knock on the door and the two men seemed to awaken from their trance-like conversation. Caleb hopped up silently and quickly, jogging to the door. Caleb could see through the peephole that Lilly had arrived. The two men simultaneously brushed themselves off. Demetri stood up as she entered.

. . .

Lilly was a Russian girl with a touch of Tatar blood. She had green piercing eyes and was never to be seen without a shawl; nor, as it seems, with the same shawl. Demetri and Lilly had volunteered together at a day camp in the suburbs and it was through her that he had met Caleb –now his closest (and practically his only) friend. Lilly spoke sweetly, but had an impolite social condition, primarily directed towards Deema, in that she would –in the middle of conversation— laugh (not a little) in a thick Russian accent at Demetri’s expense. She made no attempt to hide her inappropriate giggles, but kept her eyes fixed upon the noticeably uncomfortable Demetri.

Demetri cared for Lilly deeply, but she had been fifteen when they met. And although now she was midway through her twenties Demetri could not shake the social stigma of dating someone younger, despite their only four years difference in age.

Demetri always conducted himself as her older brother or father— knowledgeable, in-control and unaffected, but of these three characteristics Demetri could rightfully claim only his intellect.

Lilly had majored in international business at the American University in Washington D.C., and even spent a year in Dubai at the hight of the UAE’s gold-painted kingdom, now exposed to be not much more than a whitewashed tomb filled with the naked bones of poor Emirate laborers. Dubai was a place for which Lilly carried only contempt, often exclaiming, “My God! Who could live in such a place?” And continuing on about the heat, and the air conditioned pools, “for otherwise they’d boil!” and besides that the endless desert…

Her passionate and eloquently articulated opinions (of which there were many, and as Caleb would say, too many) would always conclude with a knowing twinkle emanating from her emerald eyes, as if the whole world agreed with her, or if the world did not affirm her, then she would wholly recant and weep until transformed into a shining sage by her guilt. She was capable of nearly anything, and despite her uncanny ability to excel at nearly any professional pursuit Lilly, at this time, had accomplished only a fraction of what surely laid before her.

She rarely drank her whole cup of tea and usually let it cool to absolute zero upon Caleb’s wicker end table. She had black hair with a streak of purple that was always getting trimmed or tied or brushed away.

When she entered the room, Demetri grabbed his top shirt button and rubbed it shyly as he stood up. It was almost two o’clock. Demetri knew the time, for that awkward silence –the true nature of Caleb’s space–had returned briefly enough to hear the cast-iron clock ticking from the kitchen.

Demetri looked down at his hands and noticed that he had a blue-black stain covering most of his fingers and his left hand in ink smears. His pen had exploded. He wiped the wet spots away on his jeans as he approached Lilly, smiling. Hugging. Staining. She wore a black cashmere cardigan over her purple paisley blouse and loose gray cargo pants.

“Lilly!” Demetri exclaimed, “We’ve been waiting for you! Rescue us from one another and our futile conversation, please. Join us, we were just discussing the faithlessness of ourselves and our nation. Post-God and Post-Country. We’ve been trying to come up with a new symbol, not an ideal. Come on in and sit down. You take milk in your tea, right?”

“Caleb, Demetri, thanks for the tea. And yes, Deema, as usual. But we really can’t stay here too long,” this was not true, as the two men both knew, because Lilly always ‘couldn’t stay long’ anywhere and yet she always forgot about time in favor of relationships. Surprisingly, sweet Lilly was never late to an engagement either.

“Could I bum a cigarette from either one of you?” She spoke colloquially, not without a measure of elegance, to put the two men at ease and at the same time dignify herself as one who has learned how to speak correctly in the company of all sorts of people.

Demetri was already reaching for his cigarettes when Caleb stretched his arm out to stop him.

“No, Deema. She’s always bumming smokes,” Caleb said regretfully, smiling despite his harshness.

Lilly did not take the insult well and curled her two beautifully thin lips together thoughtfully, passionately sorting through various responses to Caleb’s rude gesture.

She chose theatrics, and looked at Demetri with a naive, helpless expression.

“Oh, Provider! Homemaker! Master! My sweet Deema. Keep your smokes, don’t waste them on the weaker sex.” Her tone changed and became slightly more sinister now. “I will, again I say I will refuse! Get it? I’m alluding to the delightful tale of Bartleby the Scrivener, that poor naive man, he had the right idea. What is the use of a ‘will’ without our ability, no—our power to will against something? Again, I say I refuse! Or in the words of Bartleby, ‘I prefer not to.’ Am I speaking too radically for you Caleb? Watch your words next time my friends. Keep your smokes Deema.” Her tone, she noticed, crossed into a condescending and somewhat repulsive aggression, of which she chased with a gloriously sweet smile.

Caleb, with his smashed strawberry expression, juicy-eyed, turned to Lilly and spoke.

“Lilly, you know my words are worthless! My tongue is an adder—curse it! Or rather, bless it, please! God bless my words, that I would turn your bitter heart sweet again!”

Demetri chimed in with a balm he knew would heal the already softening Lilly.

“Ah, worthless words indeed! Lilly, he is speaking the truth. Perhaps you were too harsh, sister. Come in and settle down. Have a smoke. No, have the whole pack. You are my sister in an intangible way, and much more valuable to me than cigarettes. Can I even express it in words how much I care about you? I’d give you anything, and yes I have read Melville’s tale of the Scrivener, but I saw him more as an ironic figure. He worked himself to death by not working, but don’t let your anger turn you into a tireless and unrelenting Captain Ahab either. Caleb is no white whale, and you, sister are too kind, too intelligent to fall so radically for such a stupid slip of words. But don’t be embarrassed either, just take a smoke. You sound like you need it! Hah!”

Lilly was laughing at herself and at Demetri’s speech, and also partly at Caleb’s embarrassed and squished-up face.

“I’m sorry Deema. Perhaps I was too harsh. Caleb, you too, I’m sorry. It’s just that I have been coming to see that no words are truly worthless. You shape the world with them. Indeed, I think we’d cease to ‘be’ without them!”

“Now you are sounding radical, sister. Have you been reading Derrida?” Demetri asked sincerely, but his tone suggested more scoffing than was intended.

Lilly laughed again at Demetri. “My little philosopher! Why does it always have to be some heavy idea with you? You’re all signs and symbols! Perhaps I have been reading Derrida, and perhaps your unrelenting need to label all of reality illustrates my point exactly.”

Demetri, still reeling from the head-spinning conversation he had halted with Caleb only moments before, felt it too harsh a transition from Caleb’s confused aesthetics to the new phenomenology common with intellectuals in his day. Instead, he decided to let Lilly talk for a while while he collected his thoughts.

“Lilly, go ahead,” he said chuckling, “I know you want to tell me all the new ideas you’ve had. You’re the perfect progressive, such a symbol of our generation!”

Lilly saw through Demetri’s laughter to the compliment buried beneath his sarcastic wit. She considered dropping the matter entirely, but perhaps it was the caffeine within her that pushed her on, her intellectual fervor, or her need for human companionship that caused her to construct , or rather to deconstruct, the world before the ears and hearts of both Caleb and Demetri.

“You say I’ve been reading Derrida, and you’re right. I have. But I’ve also been thinking privately about language. I feel like we’ve come to the end of it. More precisely, I believe we’ve come to the end of language as the vehicle of truth. What I think is left is something far truer, though. The real truth of things is wordless. Wordlessness.” She spoke the last words nearly as a whisper, then paused to let the silence, the truer nature of the space, sink into both of her listeners.

“You see, as we think of ‘true’ things, phenomena and propositions, as we think of ‘the way things are’, precepts and doctrines… you see, we write it all down in language, with words… But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I have to establish the current thought-climate. Many intellectuals of our time hold that language is a vehicle of truth, and some even say that language is truth itself… now I am not saying that there is no ‘absolute truth’, but instead that absolute truth is not propositional in nature. Perhaps real truth is wordlessness, and we are all completely inarticulate.” She paused here, pleased at her ability to formulate such a thought out of words, while being so close to what she perceived to be the end of human language.

“So if I sound like Derrida it’s because we’ve both run out of words! The best I can offer you is my clumsy articulation, for I can speak only in symbols of reality that I construct. But I don’t need to remind you that a symbol is not the real thing. How much is lost in the semantics of existence!”

Demetri was now intrigued by what she was saying, and forgot about Caleb’s chaotic thoughts for the time being.

Caleb spoke up, “So you’ve successfully come to the end of language have you? And you’re so young! How will you speak for the next few decades?” His tone was entirely condescending, but Lilly took this rude gesture more graciously than the first.

“Demetri tells me that you’ve been talking about ‘faithlessness’, can you fill me in a bit more on what specifically you’ve been talking about?”

Demetri jumped in and explained to her to the best of his ability what the conversation had entailed. Caleb sat forcefully quieted by Demetri’s unhalted storytelling. Despite the continual interruption from Caleb, Demetri’s eyes were locked on Lilly, and his words made more sense of the argument than Caleb understood of it throughout their discussion.

As he concluded his explanation, Lilly chimed in.

“I think I know why you say that ‘America is the most faithless nation’ Caleb. I would venture to say that it’s not just America, but all of Western Civilization, and it is for this reason that I’ve come to the end of language. I must think up a new way of relating entirely. A new vocabulary!”

Caleb, now, was the confused one. He asked Lilly with the passivity of a beaten dog to explain further.

She graciously obliged, “Caleb, listen to what I am saying as I think you’ll find it insightful to your problem. The entire history of Western metaphysics has been atheistic in its worldview. I can tell by your look that you’re confused, Caleb, so I’ll explain a bit further. I say this because every Western philosopher and scientist from Plato onward has separated the “is” from the “is not”, or used such vocabulary to relate to the world. You see, this is the great fallacy of Western Metaphysics! What you see is all that “is,” and what you don’t see “is not,” be it an ideal, or in modern times, an unnecessary construct. And even Christianity, in this Metaphysical framework, has become an atheistic construction, linguistically speaking. You see what I mean? God “is not.” Because I can not say that God “is,” I force myself into atheism by the very language I use to explain God’s existence! Again, I am speaking linguistically.” She paused to let the contradiction sink into both Demetri and Caleb. Unfortunately only half the ears in that room could truly hear her riddle.

“I’m being brief here, but let me explain my purpose for all of this. I want to create a new approach, an alternative to the faithlessness that we see in America, to produce a new vocabulary for understanding the world that would show the “is” of God. And I think I will start with the ascension of Christ as the center of my new language. There is a great and relatively unexplored mystery buried in understanding the Body of Christ, the very “is” of God phenomenologically speaking, ascending into a Spirit-ual place. Into an “is not.” We need a language steeped in the mystery of God! But can Western culture be redeemed at all? This is the most troubling thought to me. And how many atheistic frameworks confine my thinking? That I am even using words at all prevents me from truly getting at the deeper nature of things!” Lilly sighed in existential despair. The great scream of nature surrounded her.

“Ah, the ‘deeper nature of things’! So you are in search for the same thing as Caleb and myself!” Demetri replied. “You need a new symbol –is that it? Or is that term too loaded for you? —some new freedom to liberate us from all that’s been constructed around us. Perhaps it is language that needs to go, or perhaps the streets as Caleb suggests, but I doubt it. Mankind will always need symbols; will always need vehicles, or windows, of transcendence because our very existence depends on them! What arises in my soul when you critique language like you do, Lilly, seems to be more of an angst, not against words as vehicles of truth or, more deeply, as a criticism of the primacy of communication and of Buber’s dialogical existence… No… this is a new measure of existential angst, something like the ‘crisis of being’, only more unresolved, like a question proposed through music… Let me explain. I anticipate your questions, and I hope to answer them all…”

Demetri took a breath, and his two friends sat silently. Demetri shared his opinion only at the most opportune times, and he typically was a catalyst to great progress in any discussion. His two friends were both attentive as he continued:

“The machines that modern man has built, our assembly lines that produce everything from weapons to medicines—anyway, the product is not my focus. What is my focus is a seemingly insignificant factor, that is—that we produced at all! We manufactured and built life by dehumanizing all who were gobbled up by the Machine… First it was just a tool that we used to live, but then the tool became the model for who we are. What we created ended up shaping the way we saw ourselves, until humans were nothing more than machines.” Demetri stopped himself and then laughed knowingly, continuing on.

“OK! We get it, we get it. Thank you Post-Modernism: we are not machines! Yes, ‘post-modern thought’ has liberated us from machinery… by deconstructing it, but I want to start asking people: Now what? We’re at a stand-still, quite literally we are in the midst of an existential-cultural confusion as we stand amid the smoldering ruins of Western Society. Humanity, I think, needs a little prodding—a poke, to say “Be!” “Exist!” “You’re free!” But we’ve forgotten our purpose, our edenic sensibility, and only our fallen angst and faithlessness remain. That is all we know of absolute freedom.”

He paused and they both sat silently again. Demetri looked kindly, pleadingly at Lilly.

“Lilly, shock me, and I hope you will shock the world. I have full confidence that you can do it. Nowadays, symbols have become as important as the real thing. And I don’t even know if that’s wrong! So storm the tree of life! Perhaps the angels have relaxed their guard. Or now does Christ beckon more enticingly than ever before? You tell me, where do we go from here?”

“Why, to Jon’s house on West Hunting Park and Rising Sun of course!” Caleb blurted out, “Lilly, you know this, but Deema and I started talking before I could tell him why you were coming over here in the first place. A friend of mine is having a party. It’s an open house, he’s alright with anyone coming over. Why don’t we take our conversation on the road? I’ll pay for the cab.”

26 September 2009: Here is an essay I am working on as a tribute to my Grandpa.

Gathering Stones Together:
A memoir of change by Nicholas Drapeau.
Dedicated to my Grandfather.

Part One: Building the Past with Stones of the Present.

It was a Sunday in November, an early afternoon, and the sun was burning a hole in my shirt. What was the deal with this heat wave? I just wanted to go for a walk in the shade; through those tranquil trails in Grandpa’s forest. Those trails lined with large sticks shaken from larger sticks, surrounded by clouds of mist rising from the damp and timeless humus. I asked him if the dogs could come up with me to the elephant rock, if he wanted to come too, but Grandpa had some important things to do. He was building a wall, and the day was moving faster than either of us cared to acknowledge.
I think every once in a while about the rocks, the sun, the older and more distant man beside me –my blood— and I wonder, is there a deeper connection? I juggled this question as I handled each stone on top of another, fit securely into the carved red earth and itchy grass. There was a lot of granite buried there too. As I dug, my shovel hit a gray speckled chunk of the stuff with a –BANG— and my teeth tingled like I just ate one of those pink sugar flowers off a wedding cake.
I usually got to Grandpa’s house twice a year: once in the summer for a week and once for a long Thanksgiving weekend. It was a house situated precisely in Boonsboro township, Virginia but it was maybe fifteen minutes outside of downtown Lynchburg. Famous home of Liberty University; infamous home of the late Jerry Falwell. I must digress now from too many opinions. Just the facts. Stones stacking one upon another.
One of those stones said “Pomona”. I didn’t know that at the time, but it did. For those of you unfamiliar with this fine township, Pomona is a small piece of earth located exactly at  41°11′11″N Latitude, 74°3′20″W Longitude in Upstate New York. I have a claim in this town now. Yes, I know the town very well; almost by blood relation. This is the result of a long string of unforeseen consequences beginning with a Prussian man’s immigration to New York City and then to Upstate New York where he built a family of two.
This Prussian immigrant was my Great Grandfather Isaac. He was a big hearted man with a Russian understanding in his eyes. I have recently come to the conclusion that Russians are the only people on this earth who understand the unexplored depth of humanity (See: Dostoevsky; See: Gogol; See: Tolstoy; See: Solzhenitsyn). Grandpa returned only a few years ago intending to rediscover his nearly forgotten childhood home but arriving there, he said, was devastating. The home he knew, where Great Grandma Lottie lived above the garage in her own little apartment; the home where that same Great Grandma pawned her engagement ring to buy an outdoor patio (which she loved and used every day; reading her terminally half finished books and watching the humming birds dance carelessly around the sun-drenched lattice for hours) was no more than a bare foundation. He tried to find the trees he knew; the buried time capsule and other sacred relics, but he could not. Instead he found a stone, a part of the foundation, to add to his wall. Great Grandma Lotti’s diamond terrace was wholly dismantled, brought to ruin by time.
New things are built all the time with the neglected stones from the demolished foundations of what we have loved. Nostalgia numbs the deep senses, but reality is feeling everything for what it is. I hear Grandpa saying Nick, take your past and build something fantastic with it. Have a new and beautiful beginning that will blossom from sorrow.

Part Two: Dismantling the Time Machine.

Grandpa and I were building a time machine.
“Come on Marty, let’s get in! Where do you want to go?” said the Doc in his typically spastic tone. Rush every word, even the mundane ones. There was no hesitation on my part. I knew where I wanted to go.
“To see the dinosaurs!” I shouted through an impossibly ecstatic grin.
“The dinosaurs it is then.”
We stepped into our time machine, which was a converted dog house. It was shabby but honest work.  I pushed and turned a thousand buttons. Blue and red lights reflected off my face from the control panel. Grandpa said enthusiastically, Here we go, and we were off. The speed was intense. I felt the butterflies in my stomach thrown backward by the G-Force. Suddenly the machine stopped, throwing me forward, sharply indicating that we arrived in the ancient Dinosaur Jungle.
“Remember to keep a look out for T-Rexes,” Grandpa whispered. We stepped out of our machine slowly. This overgrown jungle was Grandpa’s patio, only six million years in the past.
I picked up a stick and quickly converted it into an A.D.D., or Anti-Dino Device. We then stalked through the tall grass. I heard every leaf crackle. Every birds call. I felt every cool autumn breeze, and every shift in the winds direction. I smelled the Triassic aromas… pecan pie and deep, tired turkey.
“Marty, you see any dinosaurs yet?”
Not yet, I told him, still holding out hope that before our adventure was over we’d see some action.
Leaves crunched in the distance. Faster. Closer. It had four feet, judging from the sound of it. This might be what we’ve been waiting for.
“Shhh. Marty, do you hear that?”
“Get down low!” I said in a commanding whisper; motioning with my hand patting the ancient ground. “And be quiet!”
I readied my A.D.D. at my side, aiming towards the rustling. There was panting and a metallic jingling coming closer. What is this thing? I thought wildly.
“What do we do, Marty?”
“Quiet, Doc! I need to listen for-”
It was too late. Out of the tall grass came a waist-high golden-furred dino. Initially he didn’t appear antagonistic. The Doc laughed. Could this licking be a type of primal pre-feeding exercise? Is he preparing to eat us? Possible, but not likely. I holstered my weapon in the waist-band of my pants and approached the beast.
“It’s a friendly!” I said reassuringly.
“Oh good,” said the Doc, “maybe he can be our pet.”
A pet dinosaur. What a great idea! No one owned a pet like this back in my time. Think of how well we could bond. Think of the loyalty. The companionship.
“Good idea, Doc,” I said, “Let’s take him with us.”
“Marty, look at my Time-Watch. We need to get back to Our Time soon or we’ll miss dinner,” The Doc said with a sense of urgency.
He was right. His specially built All-Time Watch was reading 5:15pm Our Time. I was afraid to wear one because the links in the watch band pinched my skin. I just told the Doc I didn’t need to wear watches. There were other ways to tell time.
“Alright, let’s turn around then. Back to the machine!” I pointed over Doc’s shoulder towards our point of origin; snapped my tongue twice and we were on our way back to our time machine.
We arrived back to the time machine too quickly, though neither of us would have noticed if the distance was a mile or longer. We were excitedly recalling our adventure while tossing a tennis ball to our new pet dinosaur. As soon as we arrived the dino walked right in and laid down on the rocky floor. He was the perfect height to fit through our Time Machine’s dino-door.
“It’s time to go back now, Marty,” the Doc said with wisdom in his voice.
Why Doc? Why do we have to live in the present?
When we returned to our time everything looked the same, but it all felt different. I knew what was around every corner. What was behind every wall.
“Come on Marty. We need to head inside and eat up. We’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow.”
Right. Tomorrow. The wall. I was still adjusting to the present.
But where are the dinosaurs and their Triassic jungle? I thought. They’ve all moved on. Only their ghosts remain; only the stones are still with us.
“You go inside Doc. I need to take care of something first.”
He nodded hesitantly; walking up the patio stairs and in through the swinging kitchen door. I took the A.D.D., now just a dry stick, out from it’s holster and threw it into a flower bed. I walked over to the dog house and dismantled the time machine, stone by stone. I didn’t want to, but I knew it had to be done. We can never go back. We can only build the future. Learn this, it’s time.

All that remains of the past are stones. Will there be a new beginning? Grandpa, help me build it.

-NVD, 26-9-2009

06 May 2009: This week I am currently digging Wolfram|Alpha, and I’m not the only one. This new beyond search engine actually turns language and ideas found on the web into a computational form.Amazing, no?

Think of the potential: This means that Wolfram|Alpha can actually understand and interact with human language in a useful way. An example of the power of this computer is given on the page:

[E]very school child has at one time or another written a report on the moon, and they probably included the wrong figure for how far the moon is from the earth. Why wrong? Because the distance from the earth to the moon is not constant: it changes by as much as a mile a minute. If you ask Wolfram|Alpha the distance to the moon, it tells you not only the conventionally quoted average distance, but also the actual distance right now, which can at times be well over ten thousand miles off the average. The actual distance is a figure that can be arrived at only by computation based on the moon’s known orbital parameters. It’s rocket science, if you will. (SOURCE)

Wolfram|Alpha understands human language, both in the search terms and in the mass of data available to it on the internet.

I can’t wait to check this thing out, but in the mean time check out this MIT project that is attempting a similiar feat, only on a smaller scale:

The START Natural Language Question Answering System


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