Published in Mental Contagion, online arts and literature magazine

Platypi: Warm-blooded, Egg-laying Stories
Column 7, March 2004
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Everything is relative; everything is in motion; it’s all in your perspective. You can sit still and let the world move you. Sitting still can be soothing even as all the other things in the universe swirl around you in their own orbits; at least you’ve slowed down one thing in the world close to you: you. But taking that first step changes everything. Put yourself in motion and your relationship to the universe changes at every instant. It seems like everything just starts moving faster and faster once you start moving. If you think about it, motion is dizzying.

I’m sitting here on the porch trying to still the motion for a moment. I look at the deck. Redwood. Needs refinishing. Two quick thoughts and the motion swirls again and accelerates: should I refinish my deck before I rent this place? Inside are holes to patch; paint to touch up; things to build; places to clean. And yet it all seems so futile. Soon enough this won’t really be my place.

“Not your place anymore?”

“I push my thumb against my teeth—an odd gesture I don’t recall ever doing before—trying to link up my emotions with the speech centers of my brain.”

The voice is so in synch with my thoughts that it sounds like my own brain chatting with itself. In my head I reply: “Well, technically it will still be mine—but other people, renters, will be living here calling it their own place. It really will be their place.”

“Oh, right—you’re engaged now. So you two are getting another place?”

Wait—even the bickering schizophrenic parts of my brain know all this now. This isn’t my own mind conversing with me. I look up from the weathered deck where my eyes had softened into the dazed, unsettled stare shared by philosophy and motion sickness. My eyes focus now and my mind—slowly—follows. Here where I first met him so long ago is my friend Hikoki. He’s staring down at the deck where I had been fixated. He has no idea how nice this redwood of mine looks once refinished.

He looks up and peers deeply through me for a moment. His intense gaze quickly resolves to something less piercing and he smiles slightly. I sense that he has telepathically lifted from me the whole story of my engagement, my pending house purchase, and my plans to rent this place. This bat-telepathy is kind of like fastforwarding a movie: you can skip right to the sex scenes or car chases. Unfortunately in my current state I find we are skipping ahead to the long slow empathetic parts.

“How’s it feel to be leaving this condo?”

I push my thumb against my teeth—an odd gesture I don’t recall ever doing before—trying to link up my emotions with the speech centers of my brain. My eyes wander without seeing, as if my thoughts have short-circuited, triggering the muscles at back of my eye sockets instead of my thinking muscles. Despite all the electricity in my brain right now, the only answer I can muster for Hikoki is: “Feels kinda strange.”

My eyes settle down and focus again on the deck. I think back to its first refinishing; to hard-scrubbing cleanings (and the huge splinter that shafted my hand through the sponge). I think of the parties, the grilling, the quiet weekend afternoons, the breakfasts, the lunch escapes from work; all on this here deck. In about eight short years—one quarter of my life—I feel very rooted to this place. I say to Hikoki: “Mom had this poem framed on the wall of our house growing up: ‘You give your children two things/ One is roots and one is wings.”

“What has roots and wings? A feathered beet? A flying carrot?”

“Exactly: I hounded my mom on that one—it seemed such a tug-of-war, this roots and wings thing. Even my mom had to admit she’d just as soon pluck those wings right back out so her kids might plant their roots closer to home.”

“Animal life’s about wings, man. Look at us bats. We’ve got nothin’ but wings. No baggage, no real family ties to speak of, just wings to take us wherever we might want to go. Now plants: they’re all about roots. They stake a claim, dig down in the earth, and just plain sit there for the rest of their lives. Even as the trees grow up toward the sun their root systems grow down, every year rendering them even less likely to fly. Not you and me, buddy. We keep on movin’.”

“Well, you may be all wings, but I’ve got these feet: with each step up they plant back on the earth. They burrow into the sheets on cold nights as if they were taking root. I’ve got these hands that grab onto things: things that weigh me down and make it hard to fly.” With a gesture at my front door, I add: “It’s pretty hard to let go of this place.”

“You’re not really letting go of it, right? Aren’t you, in fact, gonna hang onto it?”

“Yeah—you’re right. Now I’ll have two places. Even those of us humans who think we aren’t materialistic or grasping seem to accumulate stuff and stake claims to more and more pieces of the landscape. I wonder if it ever gets to a point where we entirely forget how to fly away.”

“Do you remember even now?”

I think back to a past conversation when I spoke of people flying in a metaphoric sense, through art and creativity. Then my eyes go soft again as I think of really flying. “I used to dream of flying a lot. I guess it’s been a while. Man, it used to be so easy.”

“How’d you do it back then?”

“I think I borrowed the technique a little from a Douglas Adams book. I think one of his characters learned to fly by walking along, tripping over something, and then, well, forgetting to fall down. It was kind of like that in my dreams. My gut would be quietly hinting to me that this would work, that I knew how to fly. Eventually I’d put aside most of my doubts and take off running, bounding, further and further, eventually just forgetting that I should be coming back down after each leap. It wasn’t so much like an airplane, with all that effort and horsepower building to a climactic takeoff, but more like I just stopped acknowledging gravity; like I just started moving how I wanted to move; like I decided to go wherever I felt like going.

“I’d go from bounding hops to superhero leaps to fully gliding, swooping and soaring. I’d still get doubts now and then as I floated ever higher up to dangerous heights, but would frequently surprise myself by pulling out of a very low swoop and soaring up unbelievably high. Onlookers would gape and point, but mostly it was just me over a pristine dreamscape of rolling green hills and big puffy clouds.”

“Want to try it?”

No hesitation: “Of course.” Hikoki’s eyeing me hard, like a skydive jumpmaster weeding out whackos who won’t pull their chutes. I suspect my return gaze is steady: “I ride chairlifts and look longingly at cliffs below, wondering if I could launch off and land as handily as the daredevil heroes of ski movies. I ride my bike to and from work tempted to stand up on the seat and pull off stunning circus tricks. I imagine pulling off Hollywood stunts in my car, leaping through windows, and rolling down stairs without a scrape. I long. I imagine. I dream. But I never do these things.”

“What makes you think you can do it?”

“It’s not that I think I can. It’s not really a rational or a thinkin’ thing. It’s more a feeling, a belief, a dream.”

“Mmm hmm.” Hikoki’s gazing at me soberly, earnestly. “Let’s go.” I stand up and follow him, glancing back twice at the condo’s open door. Ordinarily I would run back and lock up. This particular early dusk hour, warmly lit and surprisingly quiet, is anything but ordinary. Off I go, door wide open.

I trudge along at first, watching my feet and allowing my mind to race in its battle with my gut. How could I really be doing this? What if I land on my face, break my nose, and spoil forever my dreams of flying? What if my beautiful naïve notions of soaring should, in this one act, darken to nightmares of plummeting, crashing, failing? Belief versus rationality. Freedom versus laws. Dreams versus gravity. And so it goes until inexplicably my eyes narrow and my lips turn sly. Something broke the stymieing seesaw of these dichotomies and it was something simple. Very soon I am fairly skipping after Hikoki.

This park is so much closer than I remember. Why don’t I come here more often? And how strange that the grassy slopes are so much like those I’d soared over in my dreams. I’ve nearly lost Hikoki in a sky bleeding orange to red. I catch the faintest glimpse of his aeronautics and then he’s gone again, swimming in the sunset. Just now I realize I’ve made it atop the park’s highest hill. The slope below me is long and gradual, undulating to the far fence. One streetlight flickers, unsure of dark or light.

In the grass below me one shoe has come untied. I bend down, pull them both off, then straighten up and flamingo each sock off. The grass is cool and almost dewy, tickling my toes, sweeping off sock lint, massaging away toe jam. My ankle skin begins to reinflate cotton indentations.

I close my eyes and conjure those old dreams of flying. They come to me fast and fresh, just like I remember them from—middle school? Has it really been that long since I took to the air? Or does time flow differently in dreams? Either way I’m overdue. And it’s so simple to do. Well, it’s simple in that infuriatingly ineffable way that smug Zen masters riddle about. It’s the truly simple things that we who immerse ourselves in complexity, who seek out and relish complexity, who create it just for the hell of it—well, sometimes we just can’t fathom the simple things. In my head I see that little Charles Mingus quote propped up next to my Sesame Street cookie jar, typed atop a black and white photo of a cloudbreak sunset not unlike the one upon which I just closed my eyes; the quote reads: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

What I’m realizing here atop this hill, as I watch the oozing lavalamp colors of blood circulation in my eyelids, is that even truer genius is the ability to embrace the simple things, things that are pure and beautiful without analysis, and embrace them for their very simplicity. There’s no need to either simplify or complicate when the simple can be uplifting enough. Take flying for instance.

The take-off is easy but counter intuitive, like those first moments leaning back off the cliff edge against rappelling ropes. You finally succumb to gravity and stand there sideways against the mountain with only the ropes—and your belief in them—keeping you from falling. In my dreams I never quite silenced the doubt as my strides turned to bounds. There was still fear in me as my bounds grew to leaps then finally to gliding swoops. Perhaps it was that very tension of confidence and doubt, fear and ambivalence, joy and terror that somehow triumphed over gravity in my dream flights.

Eyes still tight, I know I am swaying, allowing my arms to float up and surf the cool night air. I give myself to the sensation of flying; rehearsing; believing more and more. The motion seems effortless but I feel strong and in control. Those frail little birds with their soda straw bones must have this same confidence with each flap to rise higher in the sky. And my bat friends, of course, wield this same power in every agile darting gyration—the slightest, simplest of muscle action changes their loft and drag and they are in utter control. This is what Hikoki said: Life’s about wings, man.

The dream is blowing through me like wind, stirring leaves that long to pluck themselves from their limbs and float away. I indulge the sensation a while longer. I touch treetops, plucking leaves to set them free. I circle up high, swoop down low, and make unlikely mid-air maneuvers just for the feel of it. Finally I glide down close to the ground, smelling the earth as I skim. Leading with my belly button, my back arcs upwards and my body follows, slowing my horizontal speed and I touch gracefully down, decelerating with a few swift steps. My muscles feel alert and warm. I open my eyes.

The grass is cool-colored in the dusk. The streetlamps are now mostly steady except a couple flickeringly uncertain if it has yet turned night. The air is calm. I assume that Hikoki is still up there somewhere zipping around, giving me my time. I am a pool of calm. Up rises a bubble, an impulse. I go.

My lead toes curl into the grass and my weight starts to find its way forward. My legs follow: one step, two; and my arms churn along lightly at my side. Everything is smooth; easy; very right. My steps are swift and grow longer. I’m striding now, cool and fast, my breath steady and quiet. The lawn rolls out ahead. Distant streetlamps are now steady, beckoning. I’m leaping and bounding. There are no creaks or pops, no groans or strains; my body feels young and able. My moment has arrived. My mouth is no doubt hanging open, gaping and jubilant.

It’s just like that rappelling moment: my momentum carries me forward, my arms are loose at my sides, my legs relax. Like a dancer’s change of tempo, the leg that was up next stays behind me for a beat. Now they both trail out behind as my body continues forward. My bellybutton becomes a pivot point and I feel myself coming parallel with the earth: I feel my momentum; I feel the planet’s momentum beneath me; the difference between us is beginning to blur. I suddenly understand the principle of a rocketship’s gravitational orbit—I understand it not in my mind but in my bellybutton, around which I continue to pivot.

Fractions of seconds tick away. Time had been so languorous and soothing there for a while but suddenly seems to be accelerating frighteningly fast. The ground is coming at me; my feet are soaring upward; my belly button sounds the alarm: the controls aren’t responding. And then a black box inside me records: “Oh shit!”

Crash! my face is a crater. searing pain! blood blood blood. tumbling crumbling crashing. arms legs everywhere. not supposed to bend like that. blind eyeballs punched inside out. neck roars angry hurt. tumble crumple heap. afraid to move. hard cold silence for a moment then—A TORRENT OF PAIN!!!!!! More! Worse! Arrrghhh!

. . .

I’m sobbing again, still facedown, still searing, rocked, obliterated. darkness. heaped and sprawled.

. . .

This is a very different place. White oh white. Lights. Old TV up high. Beep. Whirr. Whispers. Redness in my vision seeps. I close my eyes and the pain ebbs then splashes hard against some trickling numbness. Sleep. Dreamless sleep.

. . .

Doc says I broke my nose. The impact punched my beak into my brain and made a bruise. Concussion. Neck trauma. Lucky there’s not more cranial and facial damage. Some contraption I can’t see has my neck immobilized. Broken limbs, contusions, strains and sprains. The painkillers aren’t yet winning the battle, but I sense I’m becoming more pliable to them; or else I’m beginning to enjoy this numb weirdness. There are flowers. My vision’s less red but still a little. My face burns as much with shame and disbelief as with the doctor’s attempts to manhandle its parts back into place. My body is filled with mistrust and disillusion and ache. I am alone against the painkillers and myself, here to contemplate and seethe. I close my eyes and the pain and the numb say to sleep. Stark dreamless hours descend again.

No dreams. No flying. No bats.

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