Thomm Quackenbush, author

05.19.06 8:59 p.m.

The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people - that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.  

-James Thurber

 



Previously in Xenology: Our friends never could stay still for very long.

Improving the Silent

My mother read the long essay comparing the commencement speaker, Ronin Tynan, to a mythological Celtic hero and noted that he had his malformed legs amputated at the age of twenty.

"I will not be lectured to by some cripple!" I exclaimed to her, provoking fits of teary giggle from us both. "If he is so goddamn smart, where are his legs?!"

It had already been too long of a day and neither one of us got enough sleep to be reasonable while waiting for my brother's graduation to begin. To top it off, we had arrived at Bryan's dorm room hours before with the expectation that he would be packed up and ready to go. Instead, he was sitting on the utterly filthy floor of his dorm room, in his underwear, with the door open, watching cartoons. He insisted that he had cleaned the night before until four in the morning, but this could only be true if he started at 3:55. I do not think that I can do justice well enough to make you comprehend the state of his room; you would assume the plain truth was hyperbole. That he ever had a roommate at college is nothing short of baffling. Though a single, this room was layered with the refuse of at least three people and hygienic instruments were strewn about and stuck to rolled-up posters for movies that no one ever saw. My mother and I took the liberal attitude that anything that wasn't immediately useful was garbage and treated it as such. Four garbage cans, a refrigerator box, a dozen TV boxes, and over an hour later, one could begin to see a carpet. He asked if we felt he should vacuum and my mother told him that the time for vacuuming was weeks ago. If I had seen a child living in these conditions, I would have called Child Protective Serviced on suspicion of neglect and endangerment. Frankly, it is better than I refrained from taking a picture for posterity, as it might have proved incriminating and I very much doubt Marywood University cares to have it known into what a sty one of their rooms in the ironic Immaculata Hall was turned.

The commencement was slogging as a nun spent half an hour reading us verbatim the essay on Ronin Tynan that was in our program, taking unnecessarily long pauses between the words. Mr. Tynan then stood, his prostheses covered by a long robe and told jokes was could be reduced to the fact that he can be any height the women in the audience might wish. Also, he looks like Shrek. I found him amusing and charming until he got to the meat of his speech, religiously inspirational blather purloined wholly from chain letters. "Remember that the Ark was made by an amateur and the Titanic by experts," he lilted in his Irish brogue. Things sound better to Americans in an Irish accent but remember, Mr. Tynan, that the people in front of you just spent tens of thousands of dollar they will be paying of until they are older than you are now to no longer be considered amateurs. The speech ended and the audience, most of whom had apparently never been to a graduation before, leapt to their feet in a standing ovation. Bloody hell, don't they realize that encouraging him will only prolong the amount of time we have to sit here? Indeed, he got back to the podium and cued some invisible techie to play music. He boomed two songs, one to which my mother dryly noted my younger brother was mouthing and swaying to the discomfiture of the people beside and behind him. He finished, made a few more remarks stretching another ten minutes, and sat. A nun stood immediately and said that it was Ronin Tynan's birthday.

"I'm sorry," my mom gasped, exasperated, "I was not aware that this was fucking Ronin Tynan Day."

"The fucking comes later, I think."

The invisible techie cued music again and the audience sang "Happy Birthday" as though it were a round, starting and ending well out of sync with one another. Eventually, the graduates would get their ten seconds on the stage and, against the wishes of Bryan's girlfriend Blair, we would flee Pennsylvania in a cloud of dust.

Bryan is now a college graduate. The chapter of his life where he did not live at home is at its end. I do not know if he is waxing nostalgic about it yet or if he even misses the lifestyle. From the infrequent reports I received, he did not go the typical route - as though he ever has with anything. While he indulged in some drinking, I doubt in the highest that he was doing keg stands at the local frat house. I'm not even certain he ever got drunk, though I can say without reservations that I do not fancy seeing him drunk or under the illusion that he might be.
Bryan  
Our graduate

He emerged from living in a dorm and having several girlfriends a 22-year-old virgin, a condition I advise against. While I decry the fiddling about of middle schoolers whose sexual identities have just begun to form, unless one is a devout Born Again Christian or has likewise strong moral objections to premarital sex - and he does not, as he believes himself to be a Pagan of some sort - I feel virginity becomes increasingly stigmatizing as one ages. There is a joke about hillbillies wherein one runs away from his beautiful new bride because she is a virgin. When he tells this to his father, he is told, "You done good. If she ain't good enough fer her kin, she ain't good enough for you." Remove the incest and there is a message there. (There is usually a message to most things once the incest is removed.)

He seems unchanged and curiously unaffected by his college experience. Did it touch him? I feel shaped by my brief stints living on college campuses, even as the weekly overnight guest of Katie. There is an irreproducible quality to living on campus that is powerfully formative, midnight trips to steal cow crossing signs and wretched improvisations jazz shows included. Social activities that, while not always on the right side of the law, are carried with one for life. He was not as social, no matter the clubs he lists on his resume. He went off alone in the woods to geocache for hours upon hours several times a week. I would not have gone alone, seeing it as an excellent chance to chat with someone in the midst of pulchritudinous nature. I am not as solitary as he, whether by opportunity or proclivity. He left his room in unqualified squalor, a message to the world that they were not welcome within its confines. And despite what some seem to believe through internet propaganda, it is rare that anyone online counts as an actual friend.

The other day while grocery shopping, a guy I had known in high school surprised me. We were something like friends in the seventh grade, but by high school, I was around my freaky or drama friends and he was dealing with people who would keep me out of dark alleys. I do not think that, by graduation, we were on the terms where even the subtle head nod in passing would be appropriate. He was presently working at the grocery store while he put his life back together. He had been through the shaping fires and was emerging now, his faith in the Almighty renewed or created entirely. He remembered me warmly, which surprised me. Emily later suggested that what he remembered so warmly was high school and I just happened to be a background cast member to his memories. I was thereby worth chatting with for nearly an hour in aisle seven because I was a tangible reminder of a life before the harshness of the world cast itself upon him. Yet I am still a better friend to him than someone he may have met in a chatroom.

Bryan devoted himself to obsessions, I think, forcing ideas into fruition before they could take root naturally. He would decide something was so and pursue it despite evidence to the contrary. It would be like my deciding tomorrow that I was a physicist. I took a course on it and fought to get a D, so it seems plain to me that I display no great aptitude (except on the angle of lenses, at which I rocked). Instead, observing that at which I am better than average, I gravitated toward activities and professions where writing and literacy are boons. Bryan would not simply accept his limitations, which would be a more admirable trait if I didn't feel it was going to lead him off a cliff some day. Maybe all I am saying is that I don't really understand him, despite and because of growing up at his side. My older brother Dan makes quite a lot of sense to me, though I don't think I would follow his path of electrical engineering and fathering. Still, I see why he did and can't find fault with something that has worked so well for him. Efficacy and results are what count to me, even if they are a long time coming. Mind you, I do not mean money. But the internal rewards, the joy of a path well chosen, make the toil worthwhile. To prognosticate his path, I find it hard to say that he will be as contented as Dan in five years. But, again, I am approaching this from the perspective of someone who is social to the border of codependency and who sees before him a series of time-intensive jobs, some of which he is expected to do for free as a hobby. But at the end of the day, I fall asleep in my long time lover's arms, with ideas for Delirious and its sequels buzzing in my head. Does Bryan feel similarly about something? Where is his joy? Is it the sort of thing he can show others? How does he improve the silence?

Light up their face like an angel

There is an oft-quoted statement by Michelangelo that he saw the angel in the stone and chipped away until he freed it. While this may work marvelously well with blocks of marble, it is hell when applied to interpersonal relationships. Who are we to make angels of people meant to be devils? No matter how much we see the innate goodness in people - what Emily would call Original Blessing - it is not for us to shape them with anything harder than a feather and scrap of silk. We can't chip away at the bad parts of someone, the uncomely excrescence, without losing a bit of who they are. It is not for us. The stone angel will not fight its shaping, but a human being resents any attempt against what he or she perceives as its nature. We generally like who we are and want to do our own shaping. Even when we don't and especially when we most need it, we recoil against the hand that wants to mold us no matter how softly it tries to touch us.

I am torn because it feels like my nature to see the angelic and divine and I know that I have lost at least one lover partially because of this. I am not Henry Higgins and, much as I might have loved the chance to mold parts of Audrey Hepburn best not mentioned, I do not and should not have an Eliza Doolittle. My disappointment when someone betrays my hopes for them is unreasonable. They cannot live up to my expectation - they often have a hard enough time living to their own - and the Taoist in me says they are having the experiences they need to have in order to be fulfilled and reach whatever end their path may have. I have to trust the inner wisdom of that path.

I need to make explicit here that I am in no way referring to Emily. I cannot recall a time that she has disappointed me since I have known her, though the girl presented in her stories set before we met occasionally baffle me. I can judge her only by who she is and I adore that person. I am informed by those stories, but choose to see the girl in my arms, her wings folded against her back or around small Tibetan children.

I have said for a while that, within the bounds of romantic love, the only forbidden acts are lying to me, using heavy drugs, and cheating on me because these all betray fundamental expectations that I have for the other person. They hurt me immediately, of course, but there is the secondary sting where I realize that I may have been in love with a person who simply isn't, a fiction I have sublimated onto a lover. That is the harder recovery and where I feel the most disappointment in my own actions.

Outside of romantic love, the field is larger and I never feel that I know people as well as my few strange bedfellows. The stings are less, as I do not care much with whom my dear friends share their bed and they may lose themselves to whatever substances they feel necessary so long as they can find their way back to me for a full report and moonlit discussion. Losing me is the only betrayal I think I really feel, and it is one that is hard to quantify. Has Conor lost me? His perpetual excuse is a sort of frenzied OCD that, as far as my internet research and prior knowledge has told me, left him in Sedona with nowhere to live and no prospects. I can't believe either situation lasted very long, he has never lacked in people to build him wings after he jumps from cliffs. He may return, he may not, but he did leave without notice and has made no attempt to contact me despite the closeness I imagined in our friendship. And what of those occasional passionate trysts that remove a friend from my social sphere for months at a time? It is impersonal betrayal, if it can be so called at all. There is no slight, just endorphin related amnesia. Surely I can't fault them their happiness. The only exception would be if they cut off contact at the behest of a controlling mate. I would think my friends better than to make such a choice and would feel I had been seeing something I wanted to see in them rather than something that truly was.

Hard to Master

Part of Emily and my reasoning for staying in the area was that we would be close to our friends. We should have realized that stating this aloud would provoke the hand of fate, as now two couples are planning their exodus.

Dan B, the restless learner, just got into SUNY Buffalo and cannot fathom a daily six hour commute each way. I cannot imagine why. Kei and he will most definitely be moving across the state so that he may get his learn on for a couple of years. I expect when and if they return, they will already have made headway toward creating a family. They will be in so different a space and yet I think they would still be our friends. We certainly have had friends heavy with children before, but never friends so close.

Melissa and Stevehen will only be going a quarter as far away to the city of Albany and nothing is yet definite with them; there is no compelling reason for their departure, no pressing need. Albany, while enjoying the infrastructure of a city - such as reliable public transportation for the driving impaired - is fairly countrified and friendly. It has none of the sting of NYC and enough benefits to be appealing, to say nothing of the much cheaper housing rates. It is an opportunity that I almost envy them.

When Melissa asked me how I felt about this and what I thought she should do, I did not hesitate for a moment in saying that she should move as soon as she can. Her parents' basement can no longer hold her. Angela, it is reported, was less enthusiastic at the proposition, responding with a repeated "no" until the subject was changed to Taco Bell. I may have made that last bit up, but it seems as likely as not.

Emily and I are staying, incidentally. We have signed a contract and need two months advance notice to break it and we do not yet have any cause. Her dog remains alive and our families, respectively growing and dwindling, are close. Her friends, those Pagans I designate as specifically belonging in her camp, are only a forty-minute drive away. This is what we chose and we will ride it out. The loss of Keilaina and Dan, Melissa and Stevehen is disheartening, but it isn't a disaster. If they are meant to come back, I trust they will.

Soon in Xenology: The Brooklyn Artists Gym. Old friends and dreams.

last watched: Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
reading: Lady Chatterly's Lover
listening: Between the 1 and the 9

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

Anthologies

Find What You Love and Let It Kill You by Thomm Quackenbush
Pagan Standard Times: Essays on the Craft by Thomm Quackenbush
A Creature Was Stirring: A Twisted Christmas Anthology by Thomm Quackenbush
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