My name is Michael Moss, born September 29, 1964. I grew up in Sunnyvale, which sounds like the name some Hollywood executive might dream up for a sitcom. It is, in fact, smack dab in the heart of Silicon Valley, but you don’t have to tell anyone. Three years out of college, I needed an outpost for the confirmation of my personal identity, so I loaded up my dad’s pickup and jogged over the hill to Santa Cruz, a beachside town with dual cases of geocentrism and multiple personality disorder. I was soon to learn the hard truth of the Santa Cruz tradeoff: you live in beauteous surroundings, you lose your employment.
In some ways, I was lucky. From my days as a journalism intern I had a gig writing theater reviews for the Coastal Times, a local weekly, and my publisher was good enough to give me a thirty-story advance. It was through the Times, also, that I rediscovered a childhood passion: baseball, or at least softball. The company team took part in a series of cartoon battles called the Santa Cruz Media League, and my varsity credentials made me an instant all-star. At the conclusion of an early spring practice (which we enjoyed calling a “rehearsal”), we sat under the trees with a twelve-pack of beer and brainstormed names for our newfound franchise. We went through aggressive names (Nuclear Bats, Assassins), animals (Sea Lions, Banana Slugs), then, of course, joke names: Safe Sex, Unruly Beachmongers, and my personal favorite, One Bad Inning. The unfortunate winner was Catch This, which just goes to prove you shouldn’t make big decisions while drinking beer.
And so I met Stacy Wilkes on a softball team with a cheesy name. I really can’t remember when she came; she was just there one day, and I wasn’t immediately drawn to her. She left a vague impression as a bright, attractive woman who drank a lot, couldn’t field a fly ball to save her life, and laughed in a cute, nasal way. She worked in the accounting department of a beverage company on the west side. One Sunday afternoon, we were gathered around a picnic table after batting practice, drinking, yes, more beers, when Stacy and I began an animated conversation about golf. We agreed to play a local course sometime. We never did.
But I took her to the movies. And I kissed her good night. No big deal, but she talked about it a lot, afterwards. I walked her to her car in a half-burnt evening light. She said she had a good time and smiled sweetly, lifted her head just so. I held my hands behind my back and leaned into it. My awkward motions embodied a brand of sweetness she wasn’t used to, and I guess that’s why it had an effect.
Stacy’s work-pal Kenny was in his middle thirties, balding, and possessed a general unhealthiness from too much booze and too much work. But he was a good friend; he had stuck by her after the whole rotten thing with her boyfriend. Kenny knew Stacy better than anyone, and apparently because he thought I’d be good for her, he pulled me aside after the next practice and gave me the rundown.
“She’s not ready yet,” he said. “If you get all heavy right now, she’ll freak out and you’ll lose her. She likes you, so don’t give up, but don’t go becoming her friend. Just be around, and be pleasant, and in about a month go ahead and ask her out again. It’ll work, I’m sure of it.”
Time is out of whack, the world is out of whack. We have no time to think straight, and we all know it, but no one seems willing to do anything about it. Let me take this somewhere.
There are two theories of evolution. We all know Darwin’s. The other belongs to Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de Lamarck (1744-1829). Rather than dazzling you with multisyllabic words, let’s inscribe this on the back of a giraffe’s neck.
Picture a giraffe standing in a field. He is cold. He is hungry. The meteor hit a couple years ago and wiped out all his dinosaur friends, and the giraffe is thinking he’s going to be next, because the only available food is up in those high tree branches and he has been cursed with a short, short neck.
|The original 1995 edition.|
Here’s what Darwin says: Shortneck survives long enough to have some little giraffettes. One of the little guys has a mutation: an unusually long neck. This causes all sorts of ribbing from his school chums until they realize that they can’t reach the tree branches and their basketball player friend can. So they all die off except for Wilt; Wilt makes time with a lady giraffe down the street, and Voila! Weird-looking, well-adapted critters all over the place.
Here’s what Lamarck says: Shortneck looks up at those luscious, green, vitamin-packed morsels and longs for them, aches for them, wishes like hell he had a ladder or a long neck or opposing thumbs so he could just get himself some grub, man! This deep yearning is engraved onto his little giraffe brain cells; from there it travels downward and is cast onto his genetic equipment. If the poor guy manages to last out the winter and find enough strength to initiate a few little giraffelings, the wish is made material and Voila! Weird-looking, well-adapted critters all over the place.
So here’s what I say: The world is changing so fast that we must initiate evolution during our own lifetimes. Either we latch onto Lamarck’s theory and yank ourselves off the freeway, or we become global roadkill. We must invent our own religions – personal, customized religions, religions carried around in attaché cases. And with each religion come rituals, small, regular actions that allow us to slice this too-fast world into manageable pieces. Perhaps then we can pull back from the red line, shoot a few tranquilizer darts into our hell-bent lives and save ourselves.
My Monday night ritual is a trip to the Sunnyvale Community Center, where a large man-made pond stands encircled by lush mounds of lawn. The pond is only three feet deep all the way around, but the dark bottom gives the illusion of lakedom. The package is marked off by a fountain shooting a jet of water ten feet high, stores of blue turned into foaming white. It’s a beautiful place. They have weddings here on the weekends. Around the corner is a six-acre orchard, a relic from Sunnyvale’s agricultural past. These days of late spring, I arrive at the pond a half hour before sunset and walk its perimeter, a wide strip of cobblestone, three times around before I settle on a bench beneath a far-spreading live oak. Peering into its branches, I can see a network of cables and wires, holding it together.
From my seat at the edge of the pond, I watch the Bachelor Ducks, six or seven mallards who have adopted the pond as their home. I am no expert on waterfowl ornithology, but it seems like they’ve come here because all the female ducks have been taken for mating season. They’re like a bunch of pathetic guys in a bar, and I can almost make out what they’re talking about.
“Ah, fuck women, anyway.”
“Duh, I’d like to, but I can’t find none.”
“Shaddup! You know what I mean. This big, beautiful pond, all the bread scraps you want, and not one lousy dame to share it with. What I wouldn’t give for a little hennish companionship. I don’t know why I hang out with you webfeets, anyway.”
“’Cause you ain’t got nowheres else to go?”
“Ahh, who as’t ya?!”
“Bill, Bill – here, have a shotta algae. You’ll feel better.”
“Yeah, yeah. Maybe you’re right. Fuck women anyway.”
If I had an English-to-Duck translator, I would tell Bill to lighten up. Things don’t always work out, and the only real tough part of being alone is if you have something else around for comparison.
It was here at the pond that I discovered the Westfield Community College Choir. It was about a year after my Great Trauma, and I suppose I was looking for a breaking-out party. I was cycling past the art building when a sky-blue flyer called to me from a bulletin board: Singers Needed! After so many years, I was a little rusty, but Mr. Stutz was impressed by my college experience, so he signed me up. I’ve been with them for two years now, rehearsals every Tuesday and Thursday, concerts at the end of each semester.
The light of sunset was fading out and I was getting ready to go when something burst forth from the water. The Bachelor Ducks shot down the length of the pond, off, off, barely over the trees with those ridiculous bodies of theirs. They flew a loose formation over the lights of the car dealerships and circled back around, meaty silhouettes against the blue. I swear, the way they go off like that, you’d think they had one brain among them.
Photo by MJV