Heat Wave

fireball

It’s September in Southern California, and that inevitably means a heat wave. The air conditioner blasts here in my upper room essentially all day while the fan struggles to keep up. It makes things bearable. They say that the secret to enduring the heat is not fighting it- to just let your body sweat and adjust to a new standard. I’ve gone for that idea from time to time, but today is not one of those days. Today, the rumble of the AC is my constant companion.

What I find remarkable about this heat wave that has brought us temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s is not its location on the calendar or its severity, it’s the comments I hear about it. I don’t mean simple griping. That’s a given. I even find myself uttering the inane, obligatory, “it is HOT.” The comments I find surprising are the ones in which surprise is articulated. “What is happening?” “How weird is this for SEPTEMBER?” “Why is this happening?”

Here’s the thing. We get a heat wave every September. We usually get one in January too, and people get a lot more excited about that one. But then it goes away and gets cold again (as cold as it ever does around here) and February goes back to being especially chilly, and life goes on. It reminds me of an unfortunate reality of man, myself most certainly included. (I suppose that was redundant to reinclude myself, but I want to emphasize that I am by no means immune to this malady.)

Our memories are both selective and short. It isn’t that they are defective, necessarily. Indeed, one of the foremost pediatric neurosurgeons in the country once claimed that the human mind has enough room in it for all of the knowledge discovered in all of the history of mankind. (Accessing that information in a timely manner, as well as inputting it in a timely manner is another matter entirely.) We choose to use our minds this way. We forget, we are surprised, and we gripe in our stunned condition. Yet the heat wave came last year too, and at the same time.

Every winter the news freaks out about how cold it is. Then in the summer they freak out about how hot it is. The populace is right there with them, for the most part. Why are we surprised about things that happen almost exactly the same every year?

We return to the gym and we’ve forgotten that it’s hard. We drive through Los Angeles at one am on a Tuesday and we’re shocked that there’s traffic. And every September and January, we’re surprised at the heat wave.

I don’t know why this is. I only know that I want to remember things. Life is a little less scary that way. The heat wave will come next year too, and I’ll turn on a ceiling fan and get on with my life. Life is full of the unexpected, but it also isn’t.

I suppose it depends on what we remember, and on what we expect.

I’ve read a fair number of accounts of prisoners of war during the various conflicts of the modern age, and those that managed to live through their experiences and return to some sort of normalcy typically agree on a certain principle for looking at the world. It is perhaps articulated best by a P.O.W. in the infamous Hanoi Hotel during the Vietnam War. When asked who were the first kind of people to break in prison- to give up and die- he naturally responded that it was the pessimists. This makes sense, as they never had any hope. However, he was quick to add that the optimists were quick to follow in their footsteps and fall next, succumbing to the horror of their circumstances. This is counter-intuitive. We’re always told to stay positive, and in truth, there is much good to be found in that advice. Yet what he calls optimism others might call denial. Those he referred to as the optimists in prison were always going on about how they would all be rescued by Christmas, and then they would smile and caress their hope as it brought them through agony. But then Christmas would come and the rescue wouldn’t. They would be shattered until they lighted upon another idea. By the spring we’ll be rescued. They would then shift to this being their mantra, remembering that despite all of the bad, they would be out by spring. Then spring would come, and with it no rescue. It required a varying number of crushing disappointments for these optimists to lose it and give up, but they all did. They had hope, but it was imaginary. Their timelines were arbitrary. True, the glass is half full, but if it’s full of antifreeze, you still shouldn’t drink it.

The ones who made it through the war without cracking up or dying were what this officer called the hopeful pragmatists. They were the ones who realized that they had received a beating yesterday, a beating today, and in all likelihood, they’d get another one tomorrow. Their hope was not that every man of them would be rescued- that was impossible. Their hope was not that they would be rescued at a certain point. Their hope was that the day would eventually come when old glory stormed the castle. They had no idea when this would be or which ones of them would make it, but this hope, this true hope, kept them going. They did not succumb to the bitterness of their circumstance by denying hope, nor did they fabricate it. They hoped in what was real, and they remembered what had happened already so they were not surprised when it came again. Eventually, their hope was proved substantial. Rescue did come, but it came long after the optimists and the pessimists had died alike.

Circumstances are hard. It’s hot. We’re unhappy with X, Y, or Z. Putting a smile on your face won’t solve all of your problems in an instant, but neither will carrying  a wounded sense of defeatism. Life is what it is. There’s a lot of beauty around if you know where to look for it. Even in the darkest of situations, there is some good to be found. Even if we don’t know when things are going to get better, they will at some point- either for us or for some of our brothers in arms. I’m not saying don’t hope for big things- great change never comes without that sort of audacity. Only let us remember that it gets hot every September, and then we can deal with it accordingly, without the burden of shock slowing us down.

I want to remember things. I want to be a hopeful pragmatist. Do you?

Heal

Camera

It was a small studio.  Stuffy by most standards, and the decor was by no means interesting.  Gerald wondered why they were even bothering to film this interview, but the boss said she wanted it for the website if it turned out well.  Gerald didn’t even know why they were doing the interview at all.  He wiped the slight perspiration from his bald spot and dried his hand on the pants of his tweed suit as he reviewed his materials.  He gave a passive nod to the cameraman as he passed him, moving towards his seat.

“Afternoon, Dave.”

“Good afternoon, Gerry.”

“It’s Gerald, Dave.”

The cameraman smiled.  Gerald rolled his eyes.

With a final glance at his clipboard of notes, Gerald took a seat and looked over his subject, who was sitting quietly across from him.  Gerald had to hold back a sneer.  He had seen his type before, and he was not a fan.  He wasn’t even a sympathizer.

“You must be Peter,” he said, reaching a hand out, not bothering to rise or smile.  Peter didn’t smile, but he rose out of his seat to shake Gerald’s hand.  “I’m Gerald, Gerald Thomas,” he continued.

“Glad to meet you, Gerald.”

As they shook hands, the interviewer judgmentally glanced over his subject once again.  Peter’s hair was a black mess of medium-length locks that looked as if they had been randomly assembled on top of his head.  His complexion was very pale.  He was skinny.  He didn’t look thirty-two, like he was supposed to be.  He wore tight-fitting pants, not unbecoming of the occasion, but something seemed off about them to Gerald.  Peter’s shirt, of course, was one from his own line.  It had the words “You may think you’re” and then a graphic of a garbage can, then the words “but you’re a” followed by an open treasure chest spilling with gold.

Gerald did not understand the point of this interview.  He worked for a business trends magazine for goodness sake.  Then again, he failed to see the value in most of his articles.  He had been meaning to search out a new job for some time now.  One with a better boss.

“Is the camera on, Dave?” Gerald asked as Peter returned to his seat.  Dave gave him the thumbs up.  There was no one else in the little studio.  The red light on top of the camera blinked.

“Have you ever been interviewed before, Peter?”

Peter leaned forward and rubbed his hands together, nodding.

“Lots of times this past year and a half.  Never on camera.  Usually it’s on the phone, or in person, but for a newspaper or something.”

Gerald smirked.

“Well, it isn’t much different here.  We’ll film everything and edit if we need to.  If we end up using the video.”

Peter nodded and Gerald held his clipboard up and looked at the information he had been given.  It made him uncomfortable to look at his interviewee.  He tried to keep his eyes occupied on the page.

“So, Peter,” he began.  “Heal Apparel.”

Peter slowly moved his head, expecting more of a question.  Not receiving it, he hesitantly spoke.

“That’s my company, yeah.”

“You’ve been running it for how long now?”

Peter dipped his head and shook his messy hair.

“Four-ish years now.  The company started with just me and a battered screening machine, but ‘Heal’ started adding people about a year later.  It only started getting big about a year and a half ago.”

“Hmm,” Gerald grunted.  He glanced up, then shifted his position in his chair, still averting his eyes.  “Yes, your designs have seen a great deal of popularity the last few quarters, so much to the point that there are now knock-off brands selling similar, sometimes identical products to your own.  How do you respond to this?”

Peter shrugged, then laughed.

“Hey, man, if they want to spread the word for us, that’s fine by me.  It’s about the content anyway.  If the knock-offs are saying the same kind of things as we are, then that’s great.  We want people wearing these kinds of clothes.”

Gerald flipped through the sheets on his clipboard, making Peter wait awkwardly while he fished for a new question.  His throat fell into folds as he looked down at his information.

“You’ve experienced quite a rise in popularity the last few quarters- your clothes have.  What do you attribute this to?”

Peter’s countenance turned pleasant and he leaned forward again, rubbing his hands together.

“The message, Gerry.  It’s all about our message.  We’re trying to spread some truth, you know?  That’s what we started this thing for.”

Gerald grunted again, flipping through the pages on his clipboard so he still did not have to look at his subject.

“You have some rather provocative designs,” he said, widening his eyelids, then whistling.  He glanced at Peter momentarily, then returned to his pages.  “Here’s a shirt with a graphic of a noose, a spilling bottle of pills, and a knife.  The text reads ‘We all have our demons.’” He looked up at Peter incredulously.

“Yeah, but there’s something on the back, too.  It says that-”

“Here’s one,” Gerald continued, interrupting, “that reads, ‘Show me your scars and I’ll show you mine; Man is broken, but heaven heals.’”

Peter nodded.

“It’s from a piece of poetry.  My design partner found it when he was-”

Gerald interrupted again, shocked at what he felt was the extremely poor taste of the designs he saw in his packet.  He had read a few sentences about Peter’s company, but he hadn’t actually bothered to look at the shirts until the actual interview.

“This one just has a picture of hands covered in blood with the words, ‘Clean hands are given, not earned.’”

Peter nodded again, leaning back into his seat.

“On that one we wanted to-”

For the third time, Gerald Thomas interrupted his subject.  He removed his reading glasses and spoke in a higher register than he typically did.  He made only small efforts to hide his indignation.

“What sort of message are you spreading, Peter?  What is the purpose behind this macabre and sickening drivel that you put on t-shirts?”

The cameraman peeked his head around from behind the viewfinder, confused by Gerald’s hostility.  Gerald knew that he had crossed the line from unbiased interviewer, but he didn’t care.  They could edit it later, and he wanted the punk across from him to know that not everyone worshiped the trash that his company produced.
Peter cocked his head a quarter turn.

“Do you want to know, Gerry?  Because I’m starting to wonder if you don’t.”

“Oh, please,” Gerald said.  “Of course I want to know.  We’ll phrase it nice for the boys and girls at home.  What was your purpose in finding this company, Peter Harlow?  What prompted you to come up with such innovative and cutting edge designs?” Gerald’s voice was dripping with sarcasm, but it didn’t matter.  The interview would appear in print, but not on the website.  In writing it wouldn’t look bad once he was done with it.

Peter scratched at the back of his head, unamused with his interviewer’s tone, but trying to decide how to best respond.

“Well, whatever the way you asked, you asked, so I’ll tell you.  We started this company for everyone who thinks they’re alone.  For the kids who find a safe place to hide and hold their knees to their chest while they shake.  For people who are so caught up in the chains that they hold onto and that bind them to where they can hardly breathe.”

“For the perpetual boy-men who have a disturbing obsession with the unpleasant?” Gerald scoffed.  “What a bunch of emo crap.”  Gerald checked himself.  He ignored Dave’s disbelieving stare, but he knew that he had to rein it in.  Even he couldn’t make these kinds of comments look passable in his article.  “What I meant to say,” he continued, speaking so as to record a different response, “was… continue, please.  Why did you start this company?”

Peter shook his head, and then he looked sympathetically into Gerald’s glazed-over eyes.  His manner was grave, and his voice dropped in volume.

“I grew up in a screwed up house, Gerry.  Nothing uncommon, I guess, but not good.  I used to go out with my friends any time I could just to get out.  It didn’t matter what they wanted to do or where they wanted to go, I’d go.  Skate park, strip mall, strip club, baseball, church- I didn’t care.  I went all sorts of places, had some random memories.  Just wanted to get out.  I hated life.  Hated myself.  It felt like a crushing weight was bearing into my chest every second of the day.  That’s frustrating.  Frustration only adds to the pain.  Added pain means more frustration.  I got real deep into what people in pain do, real fast.  I started drinking at the age of eight.  Started cutting at age nine.  Fill in the blanks wherever else, you’re probably right.”

Gerald leaned backwards in his chair.  He looked disgusted.

“By ‘cutting,’ you mean…”

“Slashing my wrists,” Peter said, gesturing absent-mindedly with his hands.  “Yeah.”

Gerald looked suspicious, but before he spoke he remembered that he needed to phrase things in a certain way for the transcript.

“Why would you do something like that?” he asked.

Peter shrugged.

“Felt good.  Felt like a distraction.  Wanted to hurt myself, I guess.  Lots of reasons.”

Gerald squinted, as if his subject made no sense.  He suddenly chuckled and threw up one of his hands.

“I guess I just don’t see the allure.”

Gerald’s mirth was not matched in Peter.  The younger man steadily held his gaze, his features patient with the interviewer, but sad also.

“A knife can be the best looking thing in the world, man.  You have to be pretty deep in to know.  But when you’re in that place… it feels like release.  It feels really good.  It’s super addicting.  The only problem is that it’s psychotic.”

Gerald chuckled again.  He began looking around as if he thought someone was playing a joke on him.  No one was.

He looked back at his subject as if to coax him into smiling and admitting that he was pulling his leg.  Peter continued to regard him evenly, if sadly.

“You don’t make any sense, Peter.  How can a knife in your skin feel good?”

“It’s perverse, for sure, but it does.  At least when you’re in that place.  It’s empty and horrible, but it makes such promises when you’re staring at the blade, thinking about it.  It’s like doing something you know you’re gonna regret, but lusting after it anyway.  It’s like jacking off, or-”

“Whoa, what the Hell?” Gerald demanded.  He waved at his cameraman.  “We’re definitely editing this.”

“What are you talking about?” Peter said, visibly angry for the first time.  “I’m not just being vulgar here, you asked me what it’s like; this is real stuff.”

“You can’t expect me to put that in a magazine, kid.  Certainly not on our website.”

Peter shook his head, sighing to calm himself.

“Skip that part, then.  The point is that it’s a temptation, man.  It makes big promises of relieving your pain, of bringing pleasure, but it ends up being a trap, and so empty.  It swallows you up.”  Peter rubbed his arm self-consciously.  “Anyway.  One day when I was twenty-something, doing nothing with my life, something happened.” He shook his head.  “I forget what.  Wasn’t anything exceptionally horrific, I don’t know.  But it was bad enough to be a trigger.  I pulled out a razor blade and started slashing.”  Gerald pushed back into his chair visibly repulsed, but Peter’s eyes were far away.  He didn’t notice.  “As I was cutting myself,” he continued, slowly.  His voice trembled.  “I looked down at my arms… and I saw the shape of a cross.”  He paused, then, and in that tiny room it seemed as if all the world was listening.  He grasped for the right words with obvious passion.  “It’s not like it’s an uncommon shape or anything.  Pretty easy for two lines to make it.  I still have the scar,” he said, rolling up his sleeves and showing his forearms and wrists to Gerald, who frowned.  Peter’s wrists were scarred up and down, many, many times.  It looked like chicken scratch.  “And as I stared at that mark, it got me thinking.  Pictures of all those times my junior high buddies took me to some church ran through my head.  I remembered the things they were always talking about, about a man and a cross, and then it hit me…” Peter looked up at Gerald with conviction in his unwavering eyes.  “Jesus’ wrists bled so mine don’t have to.”

“Alright,” Gerald said quickly, waving his hands.  His chin was tucked down so as to prevent himself from becoming nauseous.  “This isn’t a faith piece.”  Peter just continued talking.

“I did some research,” he said.  “A lot of people think that the nails that went into Jesus’ hands were actually right here, in his wrists.  Between the ulna and radius.”

“This isn’t a faith piece,” Gerald repeated, closing his eyes and waving away Peter’s words.  He started to rise.

“It isn’t a faith piece!” Peter replied, passionately, but controlled.  “You asked me what happened and so I’m telling you.  Why I started my company.”

Gerald shuddered, then looked at his watch.

“You have two minutes.”  He remained standing instead of returning to his seat.  Peter didn’t seem to mind.

“When I had been a kid hanging out at some church, they used to talk about Jesus knowing our pain, taking our punishment, but I didn’t know what that meant yet.  In that moment on the floor of my crappy apartment, I knew.” Peter held out his badly scarred flesh.  “My wrists are clean.”

Gerald eyed Peter suspiciously, gesturing hesitantly with his clipboard.

“They’re not.”

Peter smiled a bittersweet grin that made chills run down Gerald’s back, as if something profound had happened.

“They are now,” he said.  “I never cut another day in my life after that.  I started this company so that people who are still in that place would know that they’re not alone.  That there’s hope.  That you can stop.  Crap like that thrives in the darkness, but when there’s truth put in a way that they can understand, that stuff just crumbles away.”

“Great, thank you,” Gerald said stiffly, practically snatching Peter’s hand for a handshake.  It was obvious that Peter wasn’t finished.  It was even more apparent that Gerald was.

“You don’t have any more questions?” Peter asked, standing as he watched Gerald head for the door.

“Nope,” the interviewer replied, avoiding eye contact.  “Thanks for your time.”

The door shut behind him, and Peter looked to the cameraman, Dave, who shook his head.  The little red light on top of the camera went dim.

All the way home Gerald tried to think of a way to convince his boss that they shouldn’t run an interview about Heal Apparel.  When he went to bed that night he buried the interview under layers and layers of defenses in his well-trained mind.  He slept, but fitfully, as he always did.