New Year's Eve
Brasstown, North Carolina
Around here, they don't flaunt a glitter-flushed
disco ball over the town square. At midnight,
they drop a possum. You heard me:
I said, "possum." Welcome to North Carolina.
Happy New Year. May your next year outshine
the year of the possum, who was having
a fine year—an anxious and shy year, yes,
but otherwise fine—until he was chosen.
In the name of tradition, entertainment, or superstition,
the well-meaning of our civilization will do
freaked-out things. I submit as evidence the launch
of any new year, like the launch of any cruise ship:
as it leaves the port on its inaugural voyage,
the noise must be extravagant.
In Romania, they wear bear costumes.
In Johannesburg, South Africa, furniture is flung
from windows. Scarecrows burn in Ecuador,
and there's a village in Peru where fistfights settle
the year's grudges. But in Brasstown, North Carolina,
they drop a possum. One nervous marsupial, plucked
from the pines, imprisoned in glass, and dangled above
a mob scene of beer cans and black powder muskets,
then dropped, or "gracefully lowered" if you believe
the spectators, or believe there's anything graceful
about frightening the already frightened.
Here's another story. Instead of a possum,
picture a lion. Rome. The Coliseum.
On one side: a convicted man.
On the other: an appetite, endless teeth.
Everyone knows who will win this contest,
but in the rarest of games, the clamor of the crowd
becomes so intense, the lion startles,
backs away, too scared to attack.
Can you see it?
The captive with a stone in his hand: terrified.
The muscled predator, all claw and fang: terrified.
Do you recognize our story yet? Fear in the circle.
The crowd: poised, ready.
The Discipline Monkey
Today, four men—disguised as medieval knights—
robbed a renaissance festival.
At first, onlookers must have thought it was all
part of the show, even when one of the knights
smashed an axe handle into the face
of a festival organizer, even when the blood looked real.
The crowd must have figured,
at any moment, the King and all his men
would appear, as if by magic.
Any moment now,
Even when the body on the ground kept bleeding.
The King must be on his way to save his kingdom.
What is a kingdom?
For the past couple days, I’ve been cat-sitting
for my friends Justin and Erin.
Justin told me that the cats like to play with an old shoestring.
You drag it across the floor and they think it’s a copperhead
and try to kill it.
But when I try this, the cats just yawn
and look bored.
I call Justin, and he says, You tell those bastards
if they don’t play with the snake, Daddy will come home
and release the Discipline Monkey.***
They’ll know what that means, he says.
I have no idea what that means.
I pass the message along, and immediately feel silly
for talking to two cats about a Discipline Monkey.
This is not the strangest thing I’ve done in my life,
and I’m sure I’d feel much worse if I dressed up as a feudal lord
or a wizard and pretended to be important,
only to be rendered helpless as renegade “Knights”
bludgeoned a man and robbed the place.
And that feeling would intensify,
if no royalty rode in on horseback.
This is how the Greeks must have felt
the day Mount Olympus became just another mountain.
So much stone under so much sky and no one left
to throw sparks from above.
I imagine a “discipline monkey” could be a chimpanzee
who has trained for years to repress his most basic urges.
He can sit still for hours, stack blocks on top of each other,
and if he wanted to, he could evolve, walk upright, feel empathy,
donate a kidney and save someone’s life.
If he wanted to, he could curl his fingers around a flanged mace
and leave a world in ruin.
We are capable of so much good and terrible.
I tell Justin and Erin’s cats
that a monkey can put on the clothes
of another monkey and pretend he is someone else.
I want to believe they’re listening, but who can tell?
But I want to believe, and Charles Darwin once said,
“Let each man hope and believe what he can.”
Is this the thing that sets us apart?
The ability to hope and believe there is a King
even if that King is invisible, or wearing a costume,
or in hiding, and unwilling to be found?
“A Calm Eerie War” Could Mean “We are a Miracle”
Waltz, Month, Amen—
words to the strangest prayer ever said.
Also: an anagram for Matthew Olzmann,
just as Beep forth ethos
contains all the letters of hope for the best.
You can try to do both: beep forth ethos
and hope for the best, but I've found
the former is easier than the latter.
My mom says the order of things is critical.
Cooking, for example, is not about ingredients,
but the order of specific actions combined
with the order of ingredients.
History is complicated like that: a recipe.
To have us standing here, there had to be
millions of people before us. Before that,
an animal had to drag itself from the depths.
So there needed to be a sea. Waves.
Sunshine and carbon. Let there be light, etcetera.
Clouds of gasses, swirling in the blackness
like a shot of cream in the galaxy's coffee cup.
At some point there needed to be gravity.
Let's not discount gravity. All of this heated
to a boiling point and left on the stove until now.
So many things could have gone wrong.
It's astounding that that the world exists.
It's remarkable that we exist inside that world.
Meanwhile, my father, an engineer,
puts labels on everything. The basement storage room
is airtight and alphabetized.
Try telling him order doesn’t matter.
Try telling a man like that there’s not a reason for everything.
Scientists once believed that the expansion of the universe
was slowing down. They were wrong. Everything
speeds up. Everything grows faster and faster apart.
Sometimes you hear the sound of brakes and know
the shriek of glass and sirens will follow.
Because brakes then glass then sirens is the order of a crash.
Just like grapes, sugar, yeast and fifteen months
of darkness is the order of champagne.
And a cluster of energy, followed by voice that rips
the nothingness, followed by a bang, a flash
that goes on forever, is the beginning
of the alphabet. One letter tumbles
after another and if you get them right,
you can say: Astonishment. Put it together
a little differently and you have the Insanest Moth.
Even that moth contains its own cosmos of chance
and possibility. Consider the black witch moth.
There are parts of Mexico where it's believed to be
a harbinger of death. But if it lands
on your door in Texas or the Bahamas,
you might win the lottery, you might be rich.