A new path to the Lantern Tree

Sand mining in Stevens County

Sand mining in Stevens County

I’m driving my kids into the deserts of eastern Washington where it’s near wildfire season with no appreciable rain in 30 days, and we stop at a Texaco near the town Vantage, and I think surely that smoke in the distance can’t be anything to worry about, somebody must be doing something about it.

The kids are really excited though when we round the bend and come upon it, right there by the road: raw orange flames just gorging the sage brush, a team of guys with radios and sunglasses on the scene running or waiting for more help, and Lily thinks to add it to the text message I send Dawn when I hand the phone back and ask her to tell mom we got in safe, which requires a few follow-up messages explaining the fire really wasn’t a concern, but probably was.

We pull up to Brad’s cabin hungry, needing the bathroom, the kids with fruit punch Gatorade mustaches and Brad on the porch mixing a drink with his childhood friend Jim, who looks like Ted Nugent or Tom Waits.

Jim has a ’73 Plymouth Scamp, a pistachio-colored two-door hardtop with some rust on the sail panels from that winter he had to let it sit and it got plowed in, primed to be repainted but his friend who was going to do it died that fall, killed at a four-way by a kid who ran the stop sign and it seemed too much to finish the job Jim said, so it just sat and hasn’t been the same since.

I adopt a country style of driving on these roads with my hand slumped over the wheel but not gripping it, just resting it there so I can give the two-finger salute and a little head nod to the other drivers as we pass; everyone says hi in the country, they kind of expect it, and I turn it into a game and sure enough everyone follows suit.

We sleep in the screened-in porch which cools off nice at night and you can hear the silica mine trucks criss-cross back and forth sure as the tide, and I listen to my kids snore and lay there late into the morning waiting for them to stir.

Charlotte asks what’s that sound and I explain it’s some kind of beetle or locust or cricket-thing that’s making that scratchy squeal, which she likens to a bee buzz but not quite.

At the cabin, there is the lake and a small patch of beach rights Brad’s got as part of his property, 15 wooded acres that require occasional thinning to minimize concern over fires. About 10 trees were dead out front and one of his nephews came out with a friend and felled them, left the rounds by the spreading dogbane that attracts the Monarchs, who flap and meander there.

I give thanks for the four years of swim lessons we gave the kids, driving them to the Y twice a week and sitting there on our smartphones while they huffed and puffed there way along and looked at us each time they were done to see if we’d seen. They can now screw around at the lake and jump off the dock without life jackets, without me worrying as much.

I drive to the country store in the town of Valley for Froot Loops, bug juice and ice — they’re all guys inside and they all know each other, worker guys with hats and boots getting their lunch like they must every day, somewhere to go. There’s one woman and she works behind the counter, has a smoker’s voice and calls me sweetheart when I leave.

The silica mine trucks are the same color, a gray-white like bone, and it’s all the industry in Stevens County, makes me real careful we look both ways when we climb up to the shoulder from the lake and the kids cross the road with their pink floaty devices.

Before we go, Brad takes us for a walk on the property past the ice house to the old road his great grandfather used for planting potatoes with an ox and a harness and a plow, and we walk to the north end of the property to the Lantern Tree, where legend has it Williamson Black was out in a snowstorm one night trying to rescue a dairy cow that was floundering in the snow, and hung a big old tin can on a tree branch and left it there, and so it remained for a good hundred years or more, and marks the edge of his land.

My kids are all bit up and burned in places and starting to complain about the walk though, they want to go back to the lake for a last swim, so Brad offers Charlotte a piggy-back and there I am again, following Brad on the trail with him carrying more than I, more good memories than we can take back.

Eastern Washington -- photo by Loren Chasse

Eastern Washington — photo by Loren Chasse

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Stuck inside a hummingbird mobile with the Memphis blues again

We drove around with five fluorescent lamp bulbs in the back of the Volvo and one of the two mufflers missing with the second one scraping the pavement and hanging there wrong like a bad organ, something that needs removed or adjusted but never would, like the lamp bulbs that need recycling and only one place will take them, across town.

I was a pulsating dot on the GPS creeping closer to a different colored dot, amid other dots and avenues lined with trees, sprinkler systems hissing, strip malls and churches, the suburbs.

When I got to the hardware store I used a broomstick handle to hold the liftgate ajar on the Volvo since the gas in the piston rods is gone, only works when the outdoor temperature is just right, like the sun roof that won’t close properly without the aid of a plastic spatula, something small in the assembly unit that doesn’t work and would cost too much to fix.

And they had a sign on the door at the hardware store; I knew what it said before I read it, they weren’t accepting returns because they’re going out of business next month. I dropped off the lamps and thought I should buy something as a sign of good faith, and also since we’d just finished reconciling every single belonging we owned now that we’d moved, it was time to start cranking it up and accumulating more — so I took my time browsing the lawn art items that were half-off, that really straddle the line of ‘art,’ blowing that line right out of the water at times with all manner of Green Man faces, frogs, bumble bees, Christian art — and I settled on a solar-powered hummingbird mobile that changes colors at night, plastic, made in China.

I drove across town to recycle the lamps as an excuse to get lost and listen to the new Mark Kozelek CD, and ruminate on this moment now that we’re finally out of our house and into my mother-in-law’s just a few miles away, with a view of the lake, a couple decks, and for the time being at least, an utterly spotless house.

And the sky wants to storm but it can’t quite: the clouds blot out the sun and it looks like a tail forming on some evil woodland goat deity, how the clouds swell and rub and make the tail move, how they turn to ribs, to brain matter and tissue with wizard faces, rumbles, a street fight dance, switchblades.

All the drive-thrus are open 24/7 and when you drive up they appear like automatons, like puppets in a mechanical skit that replays all day every day until the parts break down and need replaced.

I ran into a woman I used to work with at Starbucks and when I started in the mid 90s she’d already been with the company 10 years or so, was the first of the old timers to hit their 20-year anniversary, but for whatever reason she’d left the corporate office and gone back to work in the stores, now deep in her 40s, and it’s the same thing I’d considered myself, going back to where it felt more real, less encumbered by all the stuff that creeps up in a big company that wants to stay small but can’t, a corporation trying to not act corporate.

On our last night at the house we had a party with the neighbors so we could introduce them all to our friends who are now our renters, and everyone brought their kids and their dogs and we learned one of the guys across the street, of the band of four single men in their 30s, is on a reality TV show about treehouses that will run next week, and the English couple up the road are terribly funny, and the guy Andrew approves of the color green I have in my den, says it’s truly English, and admires my Youngs Snug Bar sign I hauled back from the UK, rests his elbow on the mantel and stays past midnight, all the kids getting into hot cocoa packets or doing god knows what — we leave at 12:30 for my mother-in-law’s and Dawn forgets her wallet and the other set of car keys, so I get a text from Chris the next morning and have to go back and get them in our house that’s not our house anymore, I have to resist the urge to turn off the lights and adjust things, and just go.

The hummingbirds are confused because Beth hung the mobile in the spot where there used to be a feeder, and they just sniff the butts of the fake hummingbirds, which are green, white and orange like an Irish flag.

They will lift the EXCESSIVE HEAT WARNING today, in all caps because it’s serious, and there’s dry lightning in the mountains and no water to fight the wildfires that will start soon, but we’re going east to the desert to my friend Brad’s cabin where it’s triple digits, a dry heat, and when we get there, just me and the girls, we’ll remark on the heat and maybe have a campfire, swim at the lake, trade texts with all the people who aren’t there, and then I’ll write about it and think what a good time we had.


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The man who caved in on himself

Five years ago we hired our neighbor to renovate our bathroom — redo the shower, tile the bathtub. It took longer than it should when you try to get a good deal and at the end of it, he said you’ll just need to caulk the bathtub.

Roughly four years passed with the tub uncaulked. I had a caulk gun and got inspired to use it once, but couldn’t get the damn caulk to come out, and so the gun sat there in our closet another year or so, until yesterday.

I had some fresh caulk but couldn’t get the old tube out. I had to break down and do a fucking Internet search because try as I might, it wouldn’t come out of the gun. I even went outside in the grass, had the urge to slap it against the ground but resisted, then realized the tube had caulked itself to the gun and collapsed in on itself.

And after letting the caulk sit that long I learned you just need to break the seal in the top of the tube, which I did with a pair of poultry shears.

The bathtub in the kids’ bathroom is pulling away from the linoleum, inviting all kinds of problems like rot and mold, so I sealed it, did all three bathrooms in about 20 minutes. And since I’m terribly efficient with all my tasks, I took a break.

Dawn and I got into a spat over a box of binders I threatened to throw out if she wouldn’t go through them. So I went through them myself and found some of the shit in there is actually mine: a drawing I made while temping for Air Products and Chemicals, the back of the woman I supported, her bad posture slouched in front of the computer monitor, which was terribly large in the 90s, so large it could swallow you.

When I finished the cigar I threw it on the driveway then thought about fishing it out of the compost later, regretted not saving it. As if cigar smoking isn’t loathsome enough, it makes me spit, makes me drool like a dog when I’m lighting it, so it’s best to do it alone. My body’s like all the older guy bodies that disgusted me when I was young, when I wondered how a guy could let himself go like that, growing boobs, going soft. But I also got the attitude now I don’t care.

I got the caulk everywhere and no matter how hard you try, you can never get it right, even if you use a towel to dab it up and your finger to smear it down the crack, it still forms a tiny lip on either side.

I cut my own hair which is never good, and the bottoms of my feet turned black like they did when we lived at the beach — like the bottoms of our feet weren’t even a part of us, they were rentals.

And my street-fighting Yoga teacher Charlie was right when he said I’d blow the cartilage out of my knees doing virasana like that, you should always use a block.

Everyone’s in an uproar over session beers now: first, beers needed more flavor, then more fresh, more local — now they need all the flavor of a big beer but with half the alcohol, like we can’t be bothered getting drunk drinking beer.

We traded stories about lice removal with our friends in the driveway and my mother-in-law chimed in, when she was growing up her mom just used lye or turpentine until their scalps burned, because that would kill just about anything.

My wife, who rarely touches the volume on the stereo and tolerates me to no end, made the mistake of interfering with T. Rex, forcing me to start it over again at the right level, but the moment was gone.

And I stayed up until after dark admiring the proud sprinkler unit as it spit and sputtered on the dial, the sound of a golf course in the morning or Las Vegas, sucking the water out of someplace unseen, spewing it all over everything, hosing it down.

Coming back from my mother-in-law’s over the hill facing east, the mountains have gone purple and they’re calling for record highs. When you’re moving out, it’s the coffee maker that’s the last to go, the hope dies last.

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Taking it straight out of the can

We were so distracted we agreed to let Lily get her hair dyed purple and it cost $50 plus tip, and I wasn’t even there when she was picking out the color because I was on the cell phone trying to keep an eye on Charlotte, who was getting into the bottles of hair care products, rearranging the magazines in the waiting lounge, circling the cookies. Then I let them have hard candy when it was over, even though they’d just been to the dentist who explicitly said don’t give them anything hard and crunchy, not for two hours. So they agreed to just suck them down and not bite.

The dentist has a long face like a talking dragon, calls out the numbers of the teeth and codes to his assistant — the Class 1 overbite category — removes his glasses, his rubber gloves, addresses me about each of the girls, the diagnosis, but I can’t hear him, I just nod and watch myself pretending to listen.

It takes 45 minutes to wire the money into a German bank for the immigration lawyers we hired and my bank says go to Western Union instead — it costs less, and I get the feeling the branch manager isn’t really up for it, when you get right down to it, it’s going to cost $75 in fees.

I have nowhere else to listen to the new Mark Kozelek CD but my garage. It’s verboten in the car with the girls because of all the F-bombs and Dawn has started putting her foot down with certain artists, like Kozelek or Joanna Newsom, with her harp.

There’s a bracing realness in Mark Kozelek that’s like you’ve walked in on him at some intimate moment, but he’s half-hoping you would, he left the door open.

He’d be hard to date, Dawn says.

I burn sage and point it in each corner of the garage, light candles to keep the mosquitoes away, write a poem about the bats, their uncanny flips in the air, the time between day and night, a changing of the guard.

Even though we live across the road from four single guys in their 30s with like, eight cars in their driveway and two dogs, teams of professional mountain bikers passing through for races, somehow I’m louder than they are — I’m more of a bad male stereotype walking around barefoot at odd times of the morning or night, half-hoping one of them will want to have a beer with me but they never do, they’re busy sleeping because they all have jobs.

Lily’s friend Kamaile gets dropped off by her Hawaiian grandfather who gestures to the garage and says Man-Cave, as if identifying volcanic rock.

You can watch the nail of the moon creep its way behind the trees and reappear on the other side.

There’s really no other sounds out here in the suburbs than the ones I’m making. The house next door got sold at auction, bought by a flipper, resold to a family wanting to sub-divide but it fell through, and now nothing gets watered there, it’s all dying in the back and the grass is knee-high. It feels like we’re really in the country at last.






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The root beer raised nipple dial

Loren’s brother Alan is a philatelist and remarks on my root beer raised nipple (watch) which I didn’t know I had until Alan called it that.

A philatelist collects stamps, and Alan works for an auction house in San Francisco that organizes events for collectors to meet and buy stamps — a combination of art, ego, and money he says.

Three kids + Alan, Loren and me trying to scratch out a meal in Portland, by foot. Some place called Laughing Planet which is a chain but doesn’t act like one, not completely, though the staff (even tattooed and bearded) still has the trappings of a chain — this unspoken thing they’re all aware of, what could be a bad diagnosis.

I’m stubborn about using technology to navigate but my paper map doesn’t have enough detail and I don’t know exactly where I am, somewhere near the convention center, and it’s right as you’re arriving at your destination on a roadtrip the kids start to unfurl as do I, and Loren hears me launch an F-missile to the backseat as I’m trying to get them to quiet and ask in a not-so-obvious way how to get to where Loren is and I don’t really ask because I should be able to figure it out Portland’s not that big, and he says let’s meet at Laughing Planet but when I type it in, about seven locations pop up all over Portland, not the one on Woodstock like he said.

For a while, we just drive. It looks like we’re going the right way, I can let myself believe that. We’re following train tracks that must lead somewhere — and they do, but not where we need to be, so I get back on the 5 and wind up right where we started, and go a few more exits this time, and find our way to Holgate, then Cesar Chavez.

The restaurant has plastic dinosaurs in the windows and our kids have gathered them all up, like they’re supposed to be for all kids in the restaurant and there are many, they’ve commandeered the dinosaurs in armfuls and initiated some plot premise they’re dramatizing now and the grown-ups have all gotten beers.

Anything for 30 minutes, if that, of harmony with kids, trying to eat in public. Trying to pretend you’re not the slobbering, screaming, in-the-pants pissing monsters you really are behind closed doors, keeping the lid on the boiling water of all your childhood problems from bobbing and bubbling over when you address your kin, suggesting limits in a non-limiting way that still allows their mango-sized brains to blossom unfettered by bad conditioning — like what we all got, it seems.

They have salty, bland things, and my girls are ecstatic, like I’ve finally heard them for the first time, I understand their needs. And sometimes a hot meal tastes better than it should because you can just sit and breath and eat, and so you wolf it down while you can because it will turn on a dime, at least with three-year-olds, which is Loren’s, named Arthur Heron. They are like wizards at that age practicing spells, blowing shit up just because.

There are the same, familiar scenes to the day. The waking up ritual, the feeding / sometimes napping rituals, educational moments with books, games — then feeding again, and the going-to-bed ritual.

The going-to-bed ritual lasts too long with a three-year-old. It’s the longest day of the year and feels it. My girls settle into the bed where the three of us will sleep later after I crawl into it discreetly, after many hours of talking and drinking in the backyard with Loren and his brother, listening to difficult music, listening to Loren get stuff off his chest, spinning webs of the past and far-away places — how he learned to drink Scotch the way the Scots do, stories of unmarked bottles brought by old men to the study, where they gathered and talked about books and drank Scotch for hours, mixing it with water.

When I wake, I hold each of my kids in the crook of my arm and they settle onto my chest and we just lay that way for a while, for what’s not long enough it seems.



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The frail edge of belief

They look back at themselves
thinking they will see
something more but never do,
they are still the same.

We are the modern harvesters
picking turds out of the grass, bits
of glass that could be made into
something, some day.

Who would hang on
to the frail edge of belief for so long
with nothing to go on,
but this?

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What your voice sounds like in a box

I found myself getting wistful about leaving our house, started pacing around the outside of it looking in, noticing the roses on the side for the first time and how they looked like faces imploring don’t go — even my tractor in the garage, it seemed I never connected with it the way a guy should.

So I got up on the tractor because there was nowhere else to sit in the garage, on the side with the stereo wedged in between an Elliptical and an antique wood stove I bought on the Oregon coast — my Canadian boss called it a $500 candle holder, and she was right.

I noted the tractor’s curves for the first time, its nice lines and proud hood, how the belts fit just right around the mower deck, how the material collection system sat in place with a mere linchpin, all of it bright green and yellow like a superhero’s costume.

I got a hat with the tractor and tried riding it with a beer in the cup holder because that was the thing to do, and rode it on the hillside above the septic leach field which was dangerous because tractors can flip over, but I countered the weight by leaning far to the other side, adding some risk and style to the way I ride.

So even though there’s still lots to do in our house to finish packing up, I lost myself in granular tasks in the garage, putting off the dreaded kids’ rooms, namely their bathroom, for the bad energy that lurks there like a clown inside a drain trap.

After oh, 18 years I finally played one of the micro cassettes I recorded when I was living at my mom and step-dad’s in Pennsylvania. It was my voice on the tape, but it sounded like it was on the wrong speed, too high, like I was sucking helium. It’s me doing a freestyle rap thing against Classical music with our dog Chumley chiming in, me on the phone with my friend Loren (you can hear just my side of the conversation, like a made-up dialogue on stage), me recording crickets, the sound of the traffic on Route 100.

I have tapes like this from climbing Mt. Rainier, enamored by the sound of the snow crunching against plastic boots, the metallic clink of our ice axes and cramp-ons jingling, how a small party can sound like a group of foot soldiers wearing chainmail.

I carried the tapes around with me since the late 90s but never played them because a micro cassette recorder was rarely around and even when it was, the batteries were dead, and so you really had to have the time and interest to hear them, to stop and put all the necessary components together. It’s like carrying around undeveloped film before the digital age, never summoning the effort to develop it, refusing to just throw it out.

And I have a tape from our first night in Marrakech, when I awoke to the sound of the morning prayers not knowing what it was, but a low hum building like a bee hive, and I climbed the spiral stairs to the rooftop terrace with the recorder going and stood there looking across the other rooftops and mosques, how the voices blended in a way you couldn’t really capture on tape.

I’ve gotten cheap about the refrigerator, and insisting we don’t buy anything since we need to whittle it down, and there’s a ham I cooked a few weeks ago before I went to Germany but no one else will eat it, so I’ve started carrying the ham around with me everywhere like my Woobie, taking small slices of it, sometimes frying it in butter, which flies in the face of everything I’ve read about controlling your cholesterol.

Loren has been pestering me for a copy of Colin Newman’s first solo records from the early 80s which are out of print now, and go for around $40 USD on Discogs. The record is called Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish/Not To, with the first part instrumental, each song titled Fish One, Fish Two, and so on.

It’s not easy-listening but it’s so strange and intricate, it sticks with you. Like everything else, we make music personal when it’s attached to a specific time — for me, driving across Maryland in the middle of the night toward the ocean, where the land flattens out, and listening to it on a cassette with a friend, turning off the headlights so we could drive by the light of the moon and transport ourselves somewhere very far away.




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Assisted Living

The lake level has gone down now and there are kayakers and fishermen out early — the same lake I came to with my dog in the winter months with my German tapes on an iPod shuffle and my notepad, hoping for something brilliant. We live 10 minutes from this lake and don’t come to it enough, so I resigned myself to daily walks since I left my job, six months ago this week.

My wife clocked enough hours for her contract work last month to annualize at $300,000 USD. It’s no kind of life though, working 80 hours a week — and while I’m quick to point out that I’m doing everything else and itemizing my tasks, it’s nothing like getting 32 session owners to get their decks in by the drop-dead date, which means nothing to anyone, the term “drop-dead.”

So there is a stark imbalance in the household with Dawn online most of the day and much of the night, batting back IM’s and managing 2700 open emails, worrying over what might be in the in-box if she’s slept normally and not checked-in for eight hours.

But we pretty much got everything done with our lives and our assets that we could die a tidy death now, and it’s a goal of mine in some ways, to disappear for a year.

Since I left Starbucks, I’ve been in touch with a few people and thought about many of them lots, but haven’t reached out to them. As a friend and former boss of mine said last night, there really aren’t any jack-asses there because the jack-asses don’t last. Really without exception, I liked everyone I worked with, so leaving had a feeling of finality that was both sad and liberating.

I wrote it out and told my friend I believe there are lessons and insights in my story others could relate to and find meaningful, but I’m unsure if I can pick it up now or need to let it sit for a while. Unfortunately, there is a filter in my memoir-writing that sanitizes out a lot of what’s real, and that’s death in any kind of writing — and not the good kind of death, that’s fun to read about.

I think we need to write and sing about what pisses us off or makes us happy and do it with gusto. I have to figure out how to do that with my manuscript, and it seems the first 50,000 words aren’t the hardest, but what needs to follow for it to be finished.

There’s an elderly man I met months ago on my walk to the lake and he pointed in the direction I’d come, down a Dead End street, and asked if that was a good walk. His wife has dementia and he’s moved to a home to be closer to her, even though she doesn’t recognize him.

Neil Young had it better in his song “Old Man,” but there is something in that, to see ourselves in others; it allows me compassion.

He said he’s a thousand feet from the Assisted Living home in a different place, because he doesn’t need any assistance with that for now.

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Zen fortune cookie prize

The man hatched out of nothing
and spent his whole life
trying to lose it
so he could return
to a place he didn’t
remember but thought
might still be there
if he believed it was.

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Why men need caves


Men need caves to be their base-ass selves, to giggle and fart and talk nonsense because that’s what men do best, being men.

I’ve thought about why men prefer pissing in the outdoors, will even go out of their way to piss outside when they could just as easily go in — and I can’t pass it off as a cat/dog thing, I think it’s something perverse.

Like, we live in the suburbs but my friends and I will go around the edges of the property because it’s rural here and you can pretend you’re in the country, though there’s a slight chance you could be seen if the neighbor happened to be looking out, and that’s kind of exciting.

Two weeks to go in our house before we move out and I finally got my man-cave, in the garage: that crude place of music and menthols and the odd bottle wrenched from a dusty corner, this one, a Bols Oude Jenever which is pronounced AUWD YER NEIGHBOR (and who wouldn’t?), comes in a ceramic bottle that weighs like a bowling ball, an aged Dutch gin that runs like syrup when kept in the freezer, bought in one of those shifty Spanish border-towns where everything’s cheap and people are acting like it’s all going to run out any second.

We sit around the generator and the abandoned desk on a carpet that’s being aired out for piss stains and we laugh and probably fart and mumble nonsense that makes us feel whole again.

We close the bay doors because we’re getting sensitive and funny about early evening breezes, mild shifts in temperature (I have to worry about my friends getting cold now, bad circulation) and I’m glad to have the scent of cigarette smoke on us, it feels legitimately dirty, we’ve arrived at being men.

The thing about good friends is how you can be yourself and somehow they’ll accept you — and it gives you the impression you’re not such a bad old twat after all, they choose to be here. You’re there for your best friends even when you’d rather not, you go back because there’s a part of you in them too.

Some men go to caves to hide and be alone with their tools, but I believe the man-cave is a social place, a place for thinking and ruminating, a place to make art, cave-art.

I moved the tractor out because I didn’t want oil spills on the carpet, and Mike got into the CDs. They aren’t organized, except the titles all go the same way, up and down, and they’re set in the shelves real tight and dangerous so you have to jiggle them to get one to come out, use some fingernail.

We play the old five-CD carousel that has a Shuffle option and the player cranks and does a muscle spasm when changing discs, with long pauses in between.

We did this 25 years ago now, playing the CD Shuffle and passing the hacky-sack in the parking lot, each of us picked out a disc for Shuffle.

We commented on the peculiarity of the Shuffle’s choices and what it seemed to favor, the seeming implausibility of the segues — I guess we assigned it some character, gave it attributes, because that made the randomness more interesting.

We made up a character out of the stereo Shuffle function because it lent a spirit of imagination to our otherwise banal, hacky-sack lives, drinking out of Mason jars with Birkenstocks and Ray-Bans.

You really must believe there’s something more to life, worth sketching on the walls. There is no Random despite the shuffle. We men go back to the caves to return to where we belong.



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