Brandon turned me on to exercises in object-writing to help flex and tone the creative muscle and keep the artistic mind limber and agile. He subscribes to the Pat Pattison method of object writing where the key is to make it as sensorial and kinesthetic as possible; That is, be in your senses as much as possible – how does it taste, touch, smell, sound, what is the subject like to touch, how does it make you feel inside and how does it impact your internal and external experience?
Below are some of the exercises I’ve completed.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated at least a half dozen broken umbrellas. They started appearing the first time I had a BBQ, with ill-fated weather, and have since procreated to a whole family of freaks. Some were missing spines or limbs, some creaked and cried, emiting plumes of rust and roadsalt, others simply wouldn’t awaken at the sight of a drop of rain. They were a caravan of gypsy circus players, a sideshow squatting in the corner of my small apartment. The family was decidedly black, more in the New York fashion sense than the racist one. They bore a likeness to each other in their J-shaped tailbones. Each were a candy cane, blackened and tarnished not unlike a New York City snowfall, two days later. They bore a palpable grit, the kind that sifts through your teeth on a late Winter afternoon, the kind that tastes like chalk and diesel and longing and despair, the kind that whispers of better days and clings to the promise of their arrival.
The umbrellas were never extradited to their owners. They were the abandoned roadside kittens of dreamers turned practical. They were the raven, released from the ark, never to return home. They did well to remind me of the days I spent in my youth, saving earthworms from rivulets of sidewalk floods, and glistening in rain slickers of impossible yellow. They evoked memories of loss and regret, these broken, obsidian nomads. They were me.
Coin jars are curios. The jars, themselves, are fairly arbitrary, as are the coins themselves. What really make them unique, however, is that in one room in one apartment in one city, lie dozens of tarnished silver and copper flecks that have traveled the world a million times beyond one human could possibly ever dare. These jet-setters, these latitudinarians, these nomadic reminders of the great beyond, sit idly on the corner of a desk and tempt us to follow their trajectories. Not just the edge of the desk, the corner of the carpet, on which the desk resides, the scuffed patch of hardwood on which the carpet lies, the threshold at which the floor abuts, the door which hermetically seals us from adventure and exploration, the stoop, the sidewalk, the street, the intersection, the imaginary line that demarcates the town, the county, the state, the world. But the coins, these intrepid travelers of space and time jingle a shiver of curiosity for the world outside our grasp. They smell of the old world, an exotic mixture of sweat and spice and decay. They weigh upon us, in our pockets and the pits of our stomachs. Just as they’re minted, they mint us, impressing us with the stamp of our worth and fleetingness. Just as their plated, they plate us, with a golden sense of purpose and desire to experience and consume. And just as they wait, haphazardly jumbled atop each other, they evoke feelings of longing for what treasures they’ve hold in memory. For that is the true value of their contents.
My mother brought the ficus to my dorm room my freshman year and I told her to throw it in the corner of the room, already believing its life and presence was about to whither. It was a 16 x 9 cell block with no room for the pleasantries of greenery. She said it would help me study, this taupe, knotted vestage of the home I’d left. It’s leaves were waxen, it’s roots were wizened and in between was a twisted, scared shaft with scars from house cats and Christmas light debacles and age. I’d eaten one of the leaves, once, on a dare. I think the housecats routinely swallowed them down and heaved them back up, dimpled but almost entirely intact. It had no smell, this ficus, save for the faint reminder of home-cooking and Old English dusting spray.
To my eternal surprise, the ficus last the semester, well into the following year in the honors dorm, where it wingman’d me as a sophisticated scholar among the pretty nerds and RA’s. And when I transplanted off-campus, it trans-planted to my dark sliver of common space among two frat buddies and a stray cat. There, the ficus observed countless acts of debauchery, dodging vomit and plugging its nose to the errant purple fumes of weekend parties and finals week cramming sessions. Despite all, it never once judged me, my whithered housemate. It never ratted me out to the folks or contacted social services. Its posture may’ve slipped, but it still stood their proud, and withstood the beatings of time and adolescence.
The tree was the last to go in the u-haul. And when my buddy slammed the raucous metal door home, the ficus became an amputee. I rooted the arm, hoping to restore life to it, but life never came. And in the bay window of a Park Slope penthouse, grimy with the patina of Con-Ed dust and New York City what-have-you, my tree turned to the fading light and thought of the years we spent together, back in a younger, kinder, slower, more nostalgic place, and it smiled.
“You look at it a lot,” he said. “This isn’t the first time.”
The device lay speechless in my hand like a murder weapon, warmer and heavier than moments before. For all the wonders of interpersonal communication, the blinking, glittering missives calling out for photos and tweets and messages from far-off, exotic lands, it now betrayed its sole purpose: connection.
They were right to paint it black, I think, as it was designed for subterfuge. A pocket-sized imp, hellbent on pushing us further apart. It promises a direct connection to a thousand lips, two thousand ears, countless minds and hearts, but it only returns a busy signal. We delve into the world of social networking on this compact, shimmering, diabolically digital device, yet we fall victim to its warmth, mistake it’s laser-crafted glossy exterior for a mirror that only points back to ourselves. It’s “home” button should be renamed an “away” button. The silk-screened perfectly symmetrical apple, save for Eve’s bite, is the fruit of deceit, our deliverance from Eden and our ability to look him in the eye and truly, sincerely convey our shame and contrition.
Maybe I’ll just text him a frowny face, I think. That’ll be so much easier.
Across the street, taped higgedly-piggedly to the top of a One Way sign, a stick juts out adroitly. The stick, I recall, used to have a little cloth American flag stapled to it. The flag was probably made hastily in some Chinese factory where the staples don’t have the same resolve as those in the occidental world.
While on conference calls, I watch the little stick wavering in the chilly breeze, vibrating back-and-forth in the same simple harmonic motion of a metronome or, what I assume, is the autonomic reflexes of a heartbeat, peristalsis, a nervous tick, or a restless leg. The pride of the stick has long since disappeared, leaving it to stand proud without purpose. I’ve never inspected it up close, but I’m sure I would see four rusted, rotting holes where the staples once pierced its flesh, and delaminated creases of grain as the only vestige of a living, breathing entity. The stick was nothing now. It was thoroughly imbued with the taste of defeat, the scent of nothingness. It was, after all, just a stick.
As I listen intently to the meaningless babble of clients determined to peddle their shoddy wares with logos and print materials and beautifully-crafted pixels, I wonder if I’m the same as that stick, on the inside. I used to be a designer, I think. I used to stand with a purpose — proud and defiant — with the hope that my labor would beautify the world, help people to think more clearly about what matters, and spur them to take action against the injustices around them. But the cruel gale-force onus of responsibility has pushed money to the forefront and blown my flag of honor far, far from me.
So here I sit, call after call, and watch that stick waver in the wind, and wonder who it is that I stand for, if anyone.
This little key ring was never meant to be something, but rather a something-between. Your metallic planetary ring, your compact, vacuumed helix, your machine-pressed sliver of stainless steel, you do not exist without the keys you seductively intertwine.
When I was a little boy, I found you on the sidewalk and thought you were a piece of expensive jewelry. I put you in a box, with left-over Easter grass, and presented you to my mom as a token of my love for her. She wore you for a few days, until you slipped off while washing dishes and were lost in the sudsy flotsam of dinner scraps.
When I was in college, I cherished the role of Resident Advisor, swinging you around on a burgundy band screened with my alma mater. The sound of your propeller-like flight was telltale through the hallowed halls of academia, forewarning my charges that I was on the prowl. You were my decoy whistle, my mating call, and my war-dance. How many teens flushed their pot for you? How many burned popcorn to cover the smell?
Now, you sit haphazard in a drawer filled with knick-knacks, slowly tarnishing against the acrid oxidization of batteries, foreign specie, and binder clips. You’re still a token of love and a badge of scholarly pride, for me. But you will never be anything more than a something-between.
I stole the little pocket radio from a homeless man. Well, not really, but it was laying on the bench where he normally sleeps, abandoned and forgotten, and I decided that I wanted it more than he did. The battery was dead, of course, coated with the ointment smear of oxidization that leaves your fingertips tingly and your nose acidic. The radio was lifeless and still. But I knew it would work again if I attended to it briefly with some TLC and a wire brush. In honesty, I didn’t think I’d ever use it so I’m not sure why I wanted it so much. In replacing the triple-As, I found it worked fine. SO I shoved it into a drawer and forgot about it until September 2012.
I woke to the fetid aroma of human feces, damp and clammy beneath a comforter that did nothing to muffle the torrential pounding of Sandy on my window frames. The yard was a cistern. The fence had been ripped from its roots and now teetered precariously against the disappearing, terracotta metal cage that was my chiminea. The wind had chosen a selection of Black Sabbath to sing in the shower. And despite the rising murky tide outside, I found myself without a drop of electricity inside.
That was when I remembered the homeless man’s radio. With two left-over tealight candles from the previous year’s pumpkin-carving, and one pine-scented votive from the previous Christmas, I stepped cautiously over to the drawer and untucked the portable wonder from its wooden cradle. We listened to it for hours that day, long after the winds’ voices grew hoarse and the chiminea threw up its hands in defeat, to topple to a rusted mound of kindling, itself. In a spruce-scented flicker, as the batteries again started to join the ranks of their predecessors, I could only think of the homeless man. Did he miss his little radio? Did he have someone to share this hurricane with? Or was he, like the radio, laying on a bench somewhere, lifeless and still.
I don’t quite remember how Magillah came to be named such. It seemed like such a cliche moniker, I doubt it came from me. The fact is, he’s played king-of-the-mountain with my couch long before Floyd died. I only purchased him — with some strange looks from a pair of urban youth on the Target escalator — because Floyd had taken to humping my leg at various idle hours during the work day. The so-called Magillah was brought in to alleviate this.
Almost a decade after a surgical metal lariat snipped Floyd’s cathood away, Floyd went through puberty. In fact, the only cat he’d mounted before he’d taken a liking to my leg was a tabby stray male kitten whom my roommate named Frank. And, in truth, after he managed to get himself in the proper position, he quite had no idea where to go from there. Maybe I was a bad role model.
While Magillah had become a sorta conversation-starter around my house-hold, his vinyl-scented fur and hirsute tuft of a rear-end, his glassy, inquisitive eyes, his outstretched paws yearning for attention, he only served as a reminder to me of the day Floyd was euthanized. My little buddy of 13 years had someone managed to hide a 3-pound tumor in the part of his abdomen where he never wanted to be scratched. Perhaps that was the symptom, hiding in plain sight beneath a mass of cotton-white fur and warmth.
I hug the plush ape sometimes when I’m thinking of my little guy, but he does nothing to assuage the sadness. His scent belies his compassion. His eyes belie their empathy. And so I return him to the couch to watch on-high and mock me for caring about an eternally impotent Floyd.
Cascading torrents of electric caffeine awaken every cell in my skin, ever follicle of hair, every nerve of my body. Heat spreads quickly, melting the chill in the air. If I try hard enough, I can feel my skin loosening. I can feel blood beginning to flow. But try as I might, I can’t recall how it was that I came to step into the shower in the first place, as the water washes away any remnants of the dreams that lapped through my mind in the night.
A coffee cup sits abandoned on the counter. I’ll get to you later, I think. Right now, I need something stronger.
I dip my head forward and hear the frying-egg sound of the water against the fissures of my skull. It’s reveille. It’s taps. It’s the military march of millions of splashing soldiers on quest to revitalize my senses and rejuvenate my spirit. If a great night sleep is man’s incubator, then the voltage of hot surging water is Frankenstein’s electric eels, writhing across my skin and reanimating my being.
I taste shampoo, a synthetic cocktail of juniper and tea-tree. I’m in a cloudburst among a thousand plastic pine trees. Their scent commingles in my nose as coniferous needles ignite on my body. I wish this moment would last. I wish I wasn’t alone in here, debating the bliss of experiencing the shower all on my own and the wonderment of how it would feel if she were pressed against me, with the water the only thing that separates me from her.
The puppet-master pulled too hard on the strings.
Dead center of the calcified mesh-work, rooted in my core, a log-splitter pounds. I’ve been betrayed, is all I can think. By myself. Stabbed in the back by my own worst enemy. The very definition of Munchhausen — the bi-proxy being my own aging, fallible vertebrae.
Neurons electrify from the epicenter of pain, radiating out to secondary explosions throughout my torso. Breathe deep, it hurts. Lean forward, it hurts. Bend over? Not a chance. Take a moment to relax. 20 minutes of cold. 20 minutes of heat. My brain isn’t working. It’s overcome by thunderclaps and double-charges from the pile-drivers beneath the surface.
I can’t think today.