Sunday, December 4, 2016

Years apart

These are the things that woke me up at 4:00 am this morning.
  1. Work. It's a Sunday for God's sake. Or maybe god's sake, because any deity that has anything to do with making me think of work on a Sunday doesn't need a initial capital.
  2. Rain. My bedroom is at the corner of the house, and I can hear the rushed progression of water from the roof starting on my right (as I'm in bed) to the left.
  3. Pain. Shoulder pain sucks. Really, it's a terrible joint to injure. I hurt mine in June and it still hurts every day. Probably will for the rest of my life. My ankle hurts as well, in case you're keeping score. But when I am asleep, the ankle has no role to play. Not so the shoulder. And it's my left shoulder, which prevents my from draping an arm over my wife, which is probably not a bad thing in her mind.

I really don't like waking up early, and it happens almost every day of my life. It's like I have some sort of weird jet lag, as though my body believed it was someplace else; Asia, most likely Japan, if we're being honest. Or maybe my old soul is more ancient than I thought. I've read that people in the 19th century (and beyond) often only slept a few hours at a time. Where did I read that? On the Internet, Facebook specifically, so in the spirit of 2016, it must be true. And it's a known fact that I am a man out of time. Way out of time. A female friend once told me that I was the oldest college Freshman that she ever met. She wasn't the first or last. I don't really believe in mysticism, but if I did, I'd believe my soul is that of someone from Japan who lived long ago. I'm basing that on one of the invisible friends I had as a kid; his name was Toshi and lived in the east. At the time, I doubt I had ever heard of Japan; we were in rural Tennessee, Appalachia, with PBS only on good days, so if it wasn't on network television, I didn't get to see it until I was in college.

Sleep is important. That's what I've heard my whole life. I guess like many important things in my world, I will rebel against it, meaning I'll be up at 4:00 every day for forever. Or until I move to Japan, because there I don't have this problem.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Ventra Card

We were in Chicago for the weekend; we had the opportunity to get free lodging, so we decided to go. My son did a campus visit to Northwestern while I sat in a coffee shop writing. Later, we wandered around the city and got dinner with my wife, who was there for a conference.

It was that sort of cold you only get in Chicago. The air temperature is meaningless; it's the wind chill you have to think about, though even on a calm day (Sunday) the cold seeped into every weak spot in your clothes.

Saturday night I had the chance to make a difference. Maybe. Those opportunities come along more than we think or recognize. All too often, people want to make a difference in their own lives: why can't I watch what I want on TV RIGHT NOW, why can't I get promoted, why can't I succeed, why can't I have a vehicle that I don't feel a need to celebrate when it makes a ten mile trip. Etc.

There are many homeless in Chicago, as in any city. People who know me will understand what a weak spot that is for me. I have bought food for homeless in Nashville, offered to buy groceries, have conversations; I don't give cash, mostly because I don't keep cash on me, but partly because I have those built-in prejudices a lot of us have.

As we were walking to a sculpture called The Bean (a giant chrome bean-shaped thing that literally and figuratively reflects the city and its people), a man came up and said he had missed the handicapped van that takes him home, and could I buy him a Ventra card. The Ventra card is what you use on the Chicago transit system. The man showed me his veteran's ID. He had one of those industrial-strength walkers that has a place to sit if you get tired; my mom used one just like it most of my life. He needed a Ventra card to take the train home. Again, he said he missed the van that takes him home, and all he needed was a Ventra card. Not cash, just the card.

I said no.

Because... why? As I crossed the street it hit me like a hammer. I had no reason to say no. I had no reason to not help. I had spent all day in that city and had so quickly become jaded to its people. Worse, I actually had a Ventra card in my wallet. My son and I bought a 24-hour pass Friday night, and there was a good three hours left on it. I told my son I was going back to find the man. He asked why, and I told him I had a card I could give him. I would meet him and his mom at The Bean.

It wasn't easy to find the man. Which way had he gone to find another person for help? I chose the direction where there were the most people. From a distance I saw two people refuse him. They looked so callous, so cold. Had I been that way? Probably.

"I have a Ventra card," I said to him. He was looking tired, dejected. He raised his face to me. "I remembered that I have one. It's a 24 hour pass and is good until 9:30. That's more than enough for you to make your train to get home."

He looked at me. His face was an unreadable emotion. "Thank you," he said, smiling. I walked away.

My son asked why I chased him down. The old man was probably faking it.

"In life," I told him, "we can only be responsible for our own soul. If he was lying, that's on him. That's his soul. I had what he said he needed. I didn't need it, so I gave it to him. There is no harm to me, no danger, no risk, no loss except something I didn't need.

"What if he was faking? What if he goes and trades that card to someone for cigarettes or something?"

"Then maybe I made a difference. Maybe he'll say, 'that man came back to find me and give me what I asked for' and maybe that will influence him. If it doesn't, then it doesn't. That isn't something I can control. He is who he is, and his soul is his to govern. I have to do what I think is right, what I think is good."

That's what I'll leave you with today. Take care of your own soul. Seed it with goodness, fertilize it with kindness, protect it from selfishness.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

It's All About Nothing

I don't normally write political commentary; actually, lately I don't normally write any kind of commentary. But this is a weird year, and I'll write a political commentary. Sort of.

Let me digress for a moment.

About a dozen years ago I had ankle surgery; I had a bone spur, torn ligament, and tons of inflammation. It was a painful experience. Sometime in the next year or so I'll need surgery again; the pain is becoming more intense, and I didn't do surgery a couple of years back because of work obligations. Now, I think I need to.

When I go for my surgery, I will go to a qualified orthopedic surgeon with expertise in ankles. Not a shoulder or hand doctor; but an ankle specialist. That's because it's important that the person who helps me to walk pain-free be an expert in the field. I wouldn't go to a veterinarian or a dermatologist for that. Only an orthopedic surgeon specializing in ankle repair.

This is common sense. Everyone in the world would do the same, given the choice.

Why, then, do people support a political candidate whose primary talking point is that their lack of qualification makes him qualified to hold one of the most powerful positions in the country?

If I had to go into my ankle surgery and had to choose between a hand surgeon and a marketing guru, I would choose the hand surgeon, because at least that person knows surgery.

Another digression.

I love magic, especially close-up stuff. It's cool. I know how a lot of it works. I know that it's all distraction. "Look over there while I do something over here." And that's part of the fun, trying to figure out what's the distraction, and what is happening while I'm distracted.

Politics is much the same. So while we're all focused on two political candidates for the office of President, I do not understand why people aren't looking at what they're being distracted from.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Eulogy for James

My friend is dead.

It’s difficult to process that sentence. Thursday we talked and texted. He was excited about coming to Nashville for a motorcycle swap meet.

On my bus ride home, I kept getting called from a Crossville, TN phone number; I thought it was spam so I ignored it. But I had a premonition. Maybe that’s the first time in my life that’s happened to me, but I knew I had to answer that number when they called again. Honestly, it would be much more useful to have a premonition about the numbers I need to pick for the lottery.

But I knew that I needed to answer the call.

I did, and I was on the city bus and couldn’t hear the lady on the other end. She called back and identified herself as a nurse from Cumberland Hospital.

“Are you a family member of James Hodges? He’s been involved in an accident.”

“No. I’m his good friend, but I’m not a family member, so I cannot speak to anything regarding his health.” I saved her the trouble of potentially getting in trouble; the laws on this are pretty clear and hospital employees have lost their jobs for discussing health information when they shouldn’t have.

She explained that I was the last person to text him, and that’s why she called; I helped her find his wife’s information on the phone. She called me back a short while later and said that she couldn’t get in contact with her. I explained that James’ landlord and friend is a police officer in the town where he lives. She had his driver’s license and said she would contact the police.

I told her I would pray for him. Her response was a simple “okay” and I knew, from the restraint in her voice, that prayers wouldn’t help much.

I searched online all night. No news stories; one website had a few sentences about a motorcycle accident that caused traffic to back up, but it was a traffic story, not a human story. Otherwise nothing else was mentioned anywhere.

Late Friday night I texted him. Just in case. Just in hope. His wife texted back in the wee evening hours that he had died.


Mid forties and dead. Not of the myriad health things he thought would kill him. Life had been hard on James, and he had risen above it. Then lost his job. Then risen again. Lost job again.

Then he bought his second motorcycle; his first sat on his porch, a bike as troubled as James. The new one represented, maybe, a new person as well. He joined a motorcycle club. Found peace. 


Motorcycles are an enigma to many. I don’t ride anymore because I understand the attraction all too well. They represent a way, however brief, to overcome our world just a little bit. To be in control of something. That’s why he rode. And he pushed it too much, went too fast on that powerful, heavy Harley, maybe bought too much into the lifestyle – leather vest, bandana over his mouth.

That pursuit of happiness killed him.

I don’t know if I will ever know the details of his accident. Today the University of Tennessee plays Alabama, so the Knoxville news sources care only about that. The Cumberland radio and newspapers most likely are on skeleton staff for local news; everyone is too concerned with the election and other “popular” news to care that a man lost his life in their midst.

I cannot write about the accident, because I don’t know.

But I can tell you about James.

He was born to a mother who was the poster child for trouble. He talked little about her, only that he tried a few times as an adult to reconnect with her, only to fail. He wouldn't be upset to know she didn't attend the funeral; but would, contradicting that, be bothered by it.

The man he always knew as his father was not, at least biologically speaking. He and James got along, for the most part. They respected each other.

James didn’t meet a lot of his father's family until he was well into adulthood; strange that there was an entire family out there for him to discover and learn about.

I met him at the University of Tennessee in around 1997. I was married, he was not. I had lived in Japan, he had been in the military. He was a couple of years younger than me. We hit it off immediately. After he graduated, and after I moved to California, he went to Japan. I met up with him there, once or twice, around 1999. I worked for a shifty Japanese company that was into online casinos and porn sites. He taught English and lived south of Osaka near Kishiwada. We drank in Kobe. We peed on a fence because there were a couple of Japanese businessmen doing the same, and we had to pee. I showed him, in the darkness, where the buildings had been that collapsed during the earthquake.

Another time we went to some onsen (hot springs) around his home. He was happy to drive me around in his crappy little car. They probably should have kicked us out of the onsen; we were a bit rowdy, and had there been somebody else there, I’m certain we would have been asked to leave.

Many times over the years we relived those times. They made for great stories, and life is nothing if not little short films stitched together in our minds to form a rough timeline of memories.

Over the years we’ve talked a lot. When he had success, I was stagnating. Then he stagnated while I had success. We were yin and yang. Never both up at the same time, never both down. Sometimes we talked about going to Japan and opening a hamburger shop; it would succeed, we knew, but neither of us are truly entrepreneurs. Maybe we should just go back and open a small school in the country, a small town where we could earn enough to live comfortably. Maybe we should do this. Maybe that. 
Always planning and scheming. Looking for the greener grass was our shared hobby. Just this past week he tried to convince me (again) to buy a Harley and ride around with him. Just this past week I (again) told him I didn’t want to, but why not come to Nashville and we can goof off? He had no job, time and desire to ride.

He said sure. His motorcycle club’s Nashville branch was having a swap meet. Sure. He would come visit again. He was just here a couple of weeks ago, but no problem coming again.

Of all my friends, and there truly aren’t many, he is the only one to ever do that. To say that he would just come visit. Just to see me. To hang out with me.

A few months back he asked when I was going to my hometown again. I told him I was tired of being the one who always went to visit others. In twelve years, only my parents have ever come to visit my family just for the hell of it. And James, after he discovered the truth of my frustration, said he, too, would come. And he did, with no plan, nothing to do, really, and I believed that he was going to continue to do so.

But now he’s dead.

How do we cope with these things? With death? This is a one-way street we’re on. We’ve all dealt with it before. My mother died, but maybe that was easier because she was at a natural end to her life. I could accept it as an obvious conclusion. But imagine if you’re watching a movie and halfway in it says “The End” and is over?

That’s what I’m dealing with now. I have to complete this movie myself, without my friend, my confidant. I alone bear witness to the stories of our youth. I alone carry that flag into battle with the harsh ambivalence that is our world.

This is the only thing I can do for him, now. My simple eulogy that maybe a dozen people will read. But that’s enough. The world should know that he was a good husband, a good father. He loved his family, and, more important, knew that loving his family was right. He was crazy intelligent and had strong command of Japanese. He always tried to take the gray out of the world, and where I’m more Zen with things, James struggled to make the world fit his worldview, because the world had chewed him up and spit him out many times, so he knew the sharpness of its teeth.
James Hodges - d 10/14/2016

James felt life was unfair, and we debated many times this point. Life just is; there is no fairness to it. Like blaming the road for a pothole, or the wind for the dust it blew into your eye. He learned this at the end of his days. He learned it on the motorcycle that led to his death.

I love you, James. And I always will.