read fast, how I thought it, wrote it

As I have noted elsewhere, Britain is leaving its post-war age of austerity, and entering an American age, an age of plenty. Where once the British housewife was content to buy orange squash, she now stocks the family fridge with Robinsons High Juice; where once father smoked tobacco, there are now a dazzling array of alternative substances which can be smoked, injected, or otherwise transubstantiated into the bloodstream, the better to while away the empty hours.

Nowhere is this transformation more evident than in the field of sandwich fillings. When I was a child, all those years ago, there was paste and little else. The congealed, gelatinised, mashed, pulped shadow of a chicken or a cow or both, even more abstract an expression of the animal kingdom than Spam. If you did not eat paste, you were a vegetarian, and therefore odd. Three memories from that period are etched in my mind; River Raid and Moon Patrol on the Atari 2600, and Princes Ham and Beef paste in my lunchbox, at a time when the word 'lunchbox' had not yet become synonymous with Linford Christie's crotch. For a long time paste was the word, it was the time, it was the motion. It was the thing we were eating.

And then came pâté, Matthesons, but its reign was short. Pâté was the Minidisc of sandwich fillings, the APS, the 3DO; advanced, but trapped on the cusp of a paradigm shift. For it was soon replaced by MP3 recording, by digital photography, by the Sony Playstation - in this case, the actual chicken, the real deal. Slices of chicken, first from Marks and Spencer, later from lesser supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda. Now, every supermarket in Britain sells actual pieces of chicken, pre-cooked for insertion between two slices of bread, insofar as people still eat sandwiches in this age of takeaway salads and rice dishes and so forth.

Where will the progression lead? I have no doubt that the sliced chicken pieces on sale in supermarkets are either reformed, or recreated in some nefarious way. Perhaps the next logical step will be whole, live chicken. In five or six years time we will be expected to kill, pluck and cook living birds, just as our grandfathers did before us. Alternatively, we could be approaching a paradigm shift - digital chicken, substitute chicken, potatoes which have been genetically engineered to taste like chicken.

Whereabouts is America, on the paste curve? What do the Americans eat, in their sandwiches? Do they even have sandwiches? The sandwich is a British invention, and the news tells me that America will soon be a Spanish nation, and thus party to the tortilla and the siesta and the British ex-pat, living on the Costa del Sol, as in the film 'Sexy Beast'. Spain looms large in British culture, for it has been a favourite holiday destination since the 1960s. Many British people go there to live out their final years because the country is poor and thus cheap, yet politically stable, with an enormous land area which is mostly warm. Britain is politically stable, in the sense that a year-old corpse is stable, but it is not cheap nor is it warm nor large.

Are there chickens, in America? They have turkeys over there, 'gobblers' they call them. No doubt they eat haddock instead of cod, or perhaps plaice, I know little of the waters surrounding that nation. We come from water, you and I, and we will go there still; the sun will one day evaporate the Earth's oceans, and there will be nothing left. Life and water are intertwined, only fish can know God, and what lurks in the dread depths, what sleeps in death?

Fran and Eric were having lunch at a long picnic table with several other women from the Cedar Hill Women's Shelter and their children, the kids occupying themselves by pointing out all the sights to one another while the mothers took the time to regroup and count the money they had (or, in most cases, didn't have) left.

"You look a lot better today, Fran," said one of the women. "So does Eric."

"We're both feeling better."

"Have you thought about, well, about Ted?"

Fran shook her head. "No--I mean, yes, I have, but Eric hasn't mentioned him and I'd appreciate it if none of you would bring up his father today, okay? I don't want anything to spoil the day for him."

Eric and most of the other children had wandered over to watch a group of balloon-toting clowns breeze by. One of the clowns stopped to make balloon-dolls for several of the children. Fran saw this and smiled. "Look at them will you? Everything's still new to them. Even with what's happened to them, they still laugh and giggle and, I don't know, hope, I guess. Remember when we were that young? How nothing bad ever followed us to the next morning? Maybe something bad happened before, but now's fun, you've got a ball to bounce or a model plane to fly or a doll to pretend with, and the day's full of mystery and wonder and things to look forward to and--"

You're babbling. Shut up.

They scattered shortly thereafter, instructed to meet back at the south entrance at six p.m.

Fran and Eric rode the merry-go-round for either the second or third time that day (Fran had lost count), but from the way Eric acted you'd have sworn this was the first time he'd ever been on the thing. Fran envied him his joy, but was at the same time aware of how precious it was, and knew by the wide smile on his face and the gleeful shimmer of his eyes that she'd made the right decision to leave Ted and take Eric to the shelter where he wouldn't have to worry about Daddy coming at him with the belt or his fists, or be forced to cower upstairs in his room while Daddy thrashed Mommy into a whimpering, broken, swollen zombie who shuffled around, whispering, never looking up, afraid of the violence the next five minutes might or might not bring.

Since they'd moved to the shelter two weeks ago, Eric--who before had been at least fifteen pounds underweight--had begun eating again and laughing again and was able to sleep soundly for the first time in his short life. God, how she cursed herself for having waited so long, for having kept Eric in such a brutal, terrifying environment!

At first it was just a couple of slaps every now and then, and Ted was always sorry afterward, so Fran allowed herself to believe that he really was going to get better about things, that he was going to get some counseling, but then he went on graveyard shift at the plant, sleeping during the day, refusing to see a counselor on the weekends, and as Eric grew older Ted's violent outbursts grew not only in number but in brutality--a couple of slaps turned into a bunch of slaps, a bunch of slaps turned into fists to the chest, stomach, and face, which evolved into slamming her against walls and choking her, sometimes knocking her down to the floor where, until the night she'd sneaked out of the house with Eric, he'd begun to give her a couple of kicks to the side...

Fran was, for a moment, so numb with the weight of her thoughts that she didn't even realize the merry-go-round had stopped until she noticed that Eric was standing outside the circular gate of the ride talking to a little girl who looked to be around seven or eight.

"Eric!" she called to him. "You stay right there."

Better watch it, you, she thought. That's how kids wind up with their pictures on the sides of milk cartons. "I only turned away for a minute," says the mother/father.

She quickly exited through the gate, sprinting to where Eric and the little girl were still standing.

"Hey, you," she said, taking Eric's hand in hers.

"Hey, you!" he replied, giggling.

The little girl seemed to hear someone calling her, said a quick good-bye to Eric, then turned and ran--but not before shoving a piece of paper into Eric's hand.

"Who's your friend?"

"I dunno," said Eric. "She was telling me 'bout her hand and her mommy." He offered the piece of paper to Fran.

It was some kind of special fair pass. On the front were the words: Good For Two Free Readings! The back read:

Each line, be it in a hand or face, masks another; lines hidden within lines, a secret Hand beneath the surface of the one with which you touch the world and those you love. It is only in the secret lines on the hidden hand that your true destiny can be mapped, and only one who possesses Certain Sight can make an accurate reading. If you're content with mere showmen, then please take your business to any of the fortune-teller tents--but if you want the truth, see Madame Ariadne.

Fran smiled at her next thought. "So, kiddo, wanna get your palm read?"

"Wha's that?"

She turned over Eric's hand, sticking the tip of her finger into the middle of his palm. "A lady looks at your hand and tells you what's gonna happen to you."

"Aw," he said, grinning. "I saw that on a TV show. It was neat."

"Does that mean 'yes'?" She couldn't resist tickling his palm.


She tickled him a little more. "C'mon, answer me."

In a way, he did: He used his other hand to indulge one of his favorite past-times--tweak her nose. For a moment they froze that way, Mother clutching her son's hand, the son clutching his mother's nose.

"You let go," said Fran, her voice comically nasal.

"You first."

"I'm the mother and I say you go first."

"You started it," said Eric, grinning from ear to ear.

"True enough." Fran let go of her son's hand.

"Ha! I won, I won!" squealed Eric, releasing her nose.

Fran rubbed her nose. Eric had quite a grip on him for his age. "Okay, Okay, you won. Now, you wanna go and get your palm read?"

"Sure. It'll be like on TV."

This is homelessness:

Don't you have a friend you can stay with?

Uh, I'm used to being alone...
There are too many people in my house already.
My mom's sick, and might stop over.
I have kids.
I don't have kids.
I have a boyfriend, he might get jealous.
I have a girlfriend, she might get ideas.
My dog gets jealous.
My schedule is very irregular.
My schedule is very set.
I'm working 9 to 5.
I'm working odd hours.
I'm not working.
Can I buy you a sandwich?

I know a great agency...they do referrals to City Shelter.
At City Shelter they have beds.
At City Shelter they have classes.
At City Shelter they have food.
At City Shelter they have listings for apartments.
At City Shelter they can help people like you.
At City Shelter they have showers.
I've never been there, but I've heard they have it.
City Shelter can't be that bad!
Doesn't City Shelter do referrals?

Why don't you ask your priest?
Why don't you ask your mother?
Why don't you ask your clinician?
Why don't you ask your ex-boyfriend?
Why don't you ask someone else?
Can I buy you a sandwich?

I'd like to rent to you, but you don't have a job.

You're too old.
You're too young.
You aren't a veteran.
You aren't on disability.
You don't have references.
You have too many references.
You aren't a student.
You've got too much schooling. I can't understand you.
You're not too well educated, you don't have a degree.
You're not working class.
You're not professional class.
You're not the arty type.
You're the arty type, I don't trust you.
Can I buy you a sandwich?

Expect nothing to be as advertised.
Expect to be treated as if you're ignorant/HIV-positive/violent/schizophenic/addicted.
Expect to be offered dangerous and addictive drugs by mental health professionals.
Expect to be referred to a 12-step group if you so much as admit to liking beer.
Expect social service agencies to tell you there are no programs that will take you unless you either consent to being medicated or to go into a drug rehabilitation program.
Expect social service people to expect you to give them total control over your life.
Expect to lose a tooth or two.
Expect to never get enough sleep.
Expect to be always tired and anxious.
Expect to gain some weight.
Expect to get in trouble with the law.
Expect to age a few years.
Expect to have your old friends/shopkeepers/bartenders shun you.

Expect to have people say, even though you've gotten enough carbs that day to fatten several hogs at the soup kitchen, and would much rather have a good nap in a safe place than eat another calorie for the next several days, because they want to feel as if they've done a good turn:
Can I buy you a sandwich?

I did something today that took, for me, an immense amount of courage. First, I called my parents and asked them for help with a financial matter. Dad didn't hesitate to help and we made plans for me to come out to their house tonight. That done, I went home and took a nap. When I woke up, I drove the 40-mile stretch of road in the black-interiored Chevy Blazer and got to my parents' house safely.

When I arrived, Mom, Dad and I sat outside to enjoy the cool night air of Tennessee. We talked about T-cells, The Da Vinci Code, bugs and how to be rid of them, Dad's experience of baking a cake and taking a hot bath in India many years ago, and my curent job. Mom went inside before us, but Dad and I remained outside so that he could finish his cigar and I could smoke a cigarette. Nice conversation.

Dad and I finally went inside, when we could no longer stand the mosquitoes, so he could write me a check. We sat down on the living room couch to talk some more until he got up to boil himself some hot water for his bath (the gas had been shut off in a mix-up with the gas company and hot water was not yet available in the house). While he did that, I meandered over to the family computer and called up E2. While he busied himself at the stove, I brought up one of my write-ups and quietly decided that now was the right time to read it to him.

I told him that I wanted to read him a story I'd written some time ago and would appreciate his undivided attention. I waited patiently, nervously for him to set the pot to simmer and he finally took a seat beside me. Mom came in before I started reading and sat down, too, curious about this odd occurance: dad and son sitting in front of the computer together.

And for the next half-hour I read "I now understand wood" to both my mom and dad, aloud. At the time I just wanted to show him my appreciation for his helping me tonight, but by the time I was done reading, I realized that I had wanted to share with him an appreciation which ran much deeper.

I maintained my composure through all of it, until I got to the very last paragraph. At that point I read nearly every word aloud between tearful gasps and sharp intakes of air. It was one of the most powerful father/son experiences I'd ever had, reading that story back to him, a story which was about him.

When I finished, I looked at him and said, "This story only scratches the surface of the many ways you've touched my life and influenced me. And I meant it when I said that you are my hero, that I aspire to be like you. I can not thank you enough for all the incredible things you've shown and done for me in this life. But there ya go."

He was silent for many long seconds and then said, "All this time, I sorta took it for granted when you said that you were a writer. But, my God, son. You are a writer! That was..." his eyes filled up with emotion as he paused to find the right word, "Thank you."

A hug has never felt so good as that one. Damn, I'm a lucky man to have the parents that I do.

Ha! In rolls a summery month with huge clouds and rain galore! Here I am back at work again, trying to do a job I don't understand for people who don't care.

For anyone who's following, I managed to get my Tv Tuner Card installed whilst absolutely cacking myself that I was going to break my computer. I also managed to jack into my parents internet connection so I can use it for free when they're not on!

I also purchased the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring computer game, which is bug tastic! Oh well at £10 it's not the worst thing I've ever played.

I had such an amusing weekend, on friday it was the champagne breakfast at the college my girlfriend goes to. This is the last day of lessons for the upper sixth and consists of going down to Riverside Park in Winchester at about 8 in the morning and getting hideously drunk/high depending on your choice of relaxant. Then, anybody who can still walk tries to walk across town back to college to go to lessons. Just before the hangover kicks in, everybody goes out in the evening as well, resulting in feeling particularly rough the next morning.

I was at work whilst my girlfriend was at the champagne breakfast and I got a call about 2 in the afternoon...

Hey.... Gav....Itsh Alex! Help. I'm pissed! M'lost, there'sh whipped cream in my hair, booze all down my front and I jus threwup! 'v been thrying to get home for.... 3 hours! m'lost! Wait!....... It's the skatepark! Pish... m'back where I started... m'gonna try'nd get to the stayshun 'k? She you later! We're going out tonight! Yay!

Oh dear God.

For the last year, I’ve been fishing Long Island Sound. This is something I am both proud and ashamed of. My sole reason for taking the job was that I needed money and couldn’t find anything else, but it’s had repercussions on my personal and spiritual life. Being a lobsterman, or any kind of fisherman, is not your typical nine-to-five. It’s a way of life. It’s living under the influence of tides and weather, things that most of humanity either ignores or works around.

Being the Sort of Person Who Imagines Things, I like to imagine that I am becoming a creature of the sea myself. I have absorbed the smell of fish, to the point where I can hardly smell fish at all. You can smell it in my hair even after I’ve had a long, thorough shower, and you can smell it in my work clothes even after multiple washings.

The rhythms of my life have changed, as well. A lobsterman is pretty much guaranteed to be the first person up in his neighbourhood, every morning. When I ride my bike down to the dock, the streets are deserted. And I have no real daily or weekly schedule. We fish when we need to, for as long as we need to, as long as the lobsters are running. Our routine is ordained by lobsters, the Moon and the wind.

I love living like this. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, and it doesn’t pay very well. But of all the many jobs I’ve had, I think this is one of the best. It satisfies almost every criterion that I have for considering a job a good one. It puts me in a natural, dynamic environment, where I can feel the rhythms of the Earth’s life, away from humans and surrounded by more natural animals. It provides me with constant challenges, and gives me the satisfaction of performing a real service. I provide food for people. I am unbelievably proud of that.

I used to be a farmer. It’s the same feeling, whether you’re growing food or hunting it. Other people manage people, make TV shows, move people’s furniture from one house to another. These are fine jobs, and I’ve done them all in the past. But a farmer or a fisherman has the single most important job in the world - getting food.

Being a lobsterman is better, though, if you like a job that challenges you physically. You spend the whole day scrambling after runaway pots, tying lines with your ass hanging over the back of the boat, untangling snarled trawls, and running back and forth to keep everything going. There’s a lot of lifting. There are ropes to catch and lobsters to band and bait bags to fill and the occasional mechanical problem to keep you thinking. Every day I work, I go to sleep feeling the day’s work in my entire body. It’s a good sort of exhaustion.

But the best part is just being out on the water. Although Long Island Sound is hardly the wild heart of the sea, there is enough weather and wildlife to provide the fisherman with a dazzling variety of experiences. In our pots I’ve seen squid eggs spider crabs brown crabs horseshoe crabs hermit crabs dogfish bluefish sculpins sea robins mantis shrimp rays skates jellyfish strands kelp periwinkles bass clams and lobsters. I’ve been knocked around by the wind and the waves, and I’ve seen waves washing right over the deck while we bounced around like a toy boat in a four-year-old’s bathtub game. I’ve fished in fog and in rain and in the sun. On a mostly cloudy day, you can see the sun breaking through clouds and lighting up the water from a mile off, and it comes moving towards you slowly and the only thing you can think is that bit in Genesis about God moving over the face of the waters doesn’t HALF say it.

This is why I like my job.

But I am ashamed, as well. I’m ashamed because Long Island Sound is not what it used to be. I’m ashamed because we have been overfishing the waters of the world for far too long, without a care for the future of our species or any other. And we are finally beginning to see the consequences. We see them everywhere. Ask any fisherman, anywhere in the world, how his recent catches compare to those of his childhood. It will put a damper on the conversation, to say the least.

The History of Lobstering in a Nutshell:

250 years ago, you could pick up lobsters on the shore. You would wade through the surf for a few minutes, scoop up as many bugs as your basket could hold, and bring them home to cook.

200 years ago, before canning was invented, there were four-foot lobsters in Long Island Sound, and fishermen would catch the bugs with hoop nets and sell them in the markets to people who couldn’t afford real fish.

150 years ago, the first lobster canneries were built. Within a few years, there were 18 lobster canneries in the US, and dozens of fishermen began to fish for lobsters full-time. The wooden lobster pot was invented right around this time, and there was never any lack of lobsters.

20 years ago, professional lobstermen would measure their catches in baskets per trawl. The lobsters weren’t four feet long, but they would often weigh several pounds. The lobstermen would fill their boats’ holding tanks in a few hours of hard work, and be home before lunch.

Last winter, we were happy if we came home with five totes of lobsters after working all day, and the overwhelming majority of the catch was just over the minimum legal size.

This season is just starting. So far we’ve seen nothing but minimum-size keepers. Yesterday we came home with two totes. That’s roughly a hundred pounds of lobster. We spent the whole day on the water. Trawl after trawl came up empty. Again and again we would pounce on a single lobster, only to find that it had eggs or was just under the minimum size.

We throw these back. Modern lobstermen are aware that there aren’t many lobsters left, and they take pains to ensure that there will be future generations. Lobster pots do not harm the animals they catch, and they are required to have escape vents that “short” lobsters can easily use to escape (after having a nice, free meal). The truth is that even a full-grown lobster can wriggle through these vents with a little effort, and a few of them do get away. If short lobsters are still in the pots, we just throw them back with no harm done - we gauge all the bugs to make sure. Egg-bearing females are also released. And as far as I can tell, nobody cheats. Even the most self-centered lobsterman realises that the future of the industry depends on there actually being lobsters to catch. Just in case anybody gets greedy, the EPA does random checks on our catches. Of course, nobody likes being checked up on by the government, so the EPA guy doesn’t get invited to the lobstermen’s parties, but really we all get along. Mostly the lobstermen steal from each other more often than they cheat the regulations.

Still, there’s a very good chance that all this worry over the future of lobsters has come too late, and doesn’t go far enough. Some lobstermen will admit that the only way to make sure the lobsters can bounce back is if the government tightens up the regulations and decreases every lobsterman’s allocation. This has already been done in Maine. Other states don’t depend on the lobster industry as much as Maine does, so it hasn’t happened there yet. It’s going to have to happen. The lobstermen won’t do it voluntarily.

The problem is that lobstering is not very profitable. I know this may be hard to believe, since lobster is one of the most expensive meats you can buy, but lobstermen don’t make a lot of money. Nobody is going to voluntarily fish less than he is allowed to and take another hit to his profits. When you’re finding it hard to pay your daycare bills, you have no medical insurance and there are a dozen things on the boat that need to be replaced, you don’t volunteer to make even less money. You do what you have to, and hope that things will work out. None of the old-time lobstermen have the option of looking for another job. They’ve been doing this all their lives, and it’s the only thing they know.

And me? Technically, I have that option. Realistically, the only jobs I could probably get right now would be the kind of job that kills your spirit through constant attrition. I did those jobs for far too long, and I was miserable. I can’t go back to them. I want to be out on the water, riding the waves and the wind. So, despite the fact that the future of the industry is uncertain, and despite my wife’s constant complaints that the house smells like fish, I am going to stick with this for as long as I can. I will continue to be proud and ashamed, and do whatever I can to help the lobster populations rebound so that I can be more proud and less ashamed.


"Have you logged onto E2 lately?" she asks.

I have not. I am a coward.

I knew what this meant.

Something new was there.

So I checked.

It was there. It was brilliant. It was emphatically her.

It was infinitely painful.

I've never told her how it all makes me feel. The confusion. The jealousy. How petty I feel when I see these glimpses at her soul. Her past is here, cuts of it, displayed for everyone. I read and wonder. I recall conversations...and wonder if perhaps she lied. Not that it matters one way or the other. Done is done, and over is over.

Still I keep checking. Its like the cut in your mouth you keep tonguing. And each time it still hurts, and I realize I'm just fooling myself about the whole situation.

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