A Question of Magic

One of my favorite movies is Funny Bones with Oliver Platt, who plays a character that desperately wants to be funny but isn’t. What’s worse, he’s living in the shadow of his famous comedian father, played by Jerry Lewis. In one scene, the father explains to his son, “There are two types of comedians, a funny bones comedian and a non-funny bones comedian. They’re both funny. One is funny, the other tells funny.”

I think there are magic bones magicians and non-magic bones magicians. Both can fool you and both are entertaining. One makes you say “how did you do that?” The other makes you say, “who the f#@k let you out of your bottle.”

This is an important distinction and has something to do with why magic is on my mind lately.

Asking “how did you do that?” is a common response to watching a magic trick. But when you’re watching a magic bones magician your initial response is not “how did you just trick me?” The most common initial response is disbelief, which actually means your very first response is to believe. You question your senses and even your sanity. You don’t wonder what the secret is or what is happening that you can’t see. You wonder when the seams at the corners of reality are going to be sewn back together.

When you watch people watching a magic bones magician, they do things like reaching out to the person next to them to steady themselves, or scream, or simply walk away. They almost always have a physical reaction, bending over, crouching, jumping, spinning, as if they need their body to help them absorb the force of the impact. One of the most innovative things about the street magic David Blaine filmed for TV in the 1990’s, beyond whittling the magician’s presenting premise and need to talk down to almost nothing, was to focus on these types of reaction.

If a magic bones magician is performing for a large audience, the applause comes slowly because people must remember themselves, where they are and the appropriate social response. They gasp; they look at their neighbor to see if their neighbor saw the same things and they wonder if they are dreaming, then they applaud.

The non-magic bones magician may be very skilled, a master technician, even a true sleight of hand artist and a talented entertainer. But almost everyone in his audience believes that if they knew the secrets, owned the proper accoutrements, and practiced; they could do the tricks too.

The magic bones magician makes you ashamed that you ever even owned that Mark Wilson magic set when you were seven and makes you vow never again to pull a quarter from a child’s ear.

When I was in high school I had the good fortune, by pure happenstance I think, to not only work at a magic shop but to meet, hear lectures from, and on occasion receive personal instruction from a group of magic bones magicians. You would not recognize any of their names. If you are a professional magician, you would recognize them all.

You know, I never recovered from that.

Good magicians (whether it is in their bones or not) walk a tight line of dynamic tension between your need and their own, your need for wonderment and their own need to travel secret passages that are near meaningless apart from the presence of those who do not know they exist. The fact that they are willing or actually desire to provide you with wonderment is what sets them apart from con artists. The fact that they have these secrets, some of them surprisingly profound in their wider implications, sets them apart from jugglers or acrobats or flamenco guitarists.

If there are tiers to these secret passages, and I believe there are…at Chilean miner depths, then I suppose I never saw more than a few top levels. But I have never forgotten what I saw there and the things I learned. Most of the time, I keep these things neatly tucked away and don’t think about them much. Maybe I even avoid them.

I generally stay out of magic shops, but if I should happen into one I am overwhelmed with the feeling of loss. It’s not really the feeling of personal loss; it’s a feeling of loss around the emptiness inside most magic shops. The secrets are not there. You can buy every trick in the place and learn them all and you will be a collection of paraphernalia and moves and people will ask you how you do it but no one will reach out for a shoulder to steady them when they watch. If you’re a magic bones magician in waiting, my guess is the first clue will be when you set aside the objects acquired from the magic shop and carry the principles you’ve learned to other things and other frames.

The feeling of loss I experience in magic shops is only personal to the extent that there is nothing in those places for me to recapture. Even if I decided to return to a proper study of magic, the things that I want to understand are not found in magic shops or on YouTube, and they most certainly don’t involve a deck of cards. Some of them are found in books, but only if you know how to read between the lines and past the last page. Still, I am a great fan of all sorts of magic, whether it comes from the bones or not, whether it is corny or stupefying, as long as it honors the places and people from which it came. And I appreciate anyone willing to walk that line of dynamic tension. I don’t care if you’re dressed like Fred Astaire in evening attire and putting together and pulling apart giant metal rings that serve no earthly purpose outside of a magic act, or if you’re dressed like a 1980’s glam rocker, I’ll watch if you’re willing to stand up and declare you’re a magician.

But my favorite magic is magic that happens along the way, magic with very little premise beyond circumstances that appear to be a part of going about our everyday lives. Years ago I was walking down the street with friends. I took the stir stick from one of their coffee cups and made it disappear right in front of their eyes. It vanished. It was as gone as gone can be. They all started cussing and looking around for the stir stick. That must have been eight years ago but those people still talk about it. They had never seen me do a magic trick before then and they have not seen me do one since. The satisfaction of that moment, when everything was right, was worth forgoing a manufactured repeat.

That trick was taught to me 30 years ago by a magic bones magician. That day was not the only time I had done the trick, but I really think it was the moment for which the trick was taught to me and, I have to admit, probably the only time the teaching was earned. I was disappointed to find the method, which to my mind is something like a haiku poem in its beauty and simplicity…even in its meter, described in a recently published book of magic, but that is how it goes. I’m sure it is not its first appearance in a book and I know it won’t be the last. For all their talk about keeping secrets, magicians love to write books and a stunning number have been published over the last 300 years. Despite this, very few secrets have taken up permanent residence in the public consciousness. I think the only real secret of magic that just about everyone believes they understand is the concept of misdirection.

The gap between what most people believe misdirection to be and what it is in all its fullness as used by magicians is part of the pact we (ye ol’ laypeople) make with the performers. We don’t want to know, we really don’t.

The 2006 movie, The Prestige, openly presents a great secret of magic as part of the narrative, indeed, as a completely overt theme within the movie. But it is easy to capture only the implications that float on the surface if you don’t ask the second and third questions and then ask those questions again outside the context of viewing the movie. But most of us won’t ask those questions outside the context of a given scene, let alone the context of the movie or while watching a magician in some other place and time. That is the gift, after all these years, which was given to me by my brief but very intense career in magic and by the magic bones magicians I met. I learned to ask another question. Then, ask another question. Then, ask another question. Long before the poet Rilke taught me to love the questions over the answers, I loved the wondering of how magic happened more than I loved the knowing. I think this is why I would always pick a magician’s biography or a magic history over a how-to book. One is full of questions and the other is all answers.

The one question I never ask is, “How did you do that?”



When I was in the third grade, a classmate named Richard shoved past me as we entered the classroom, returning from recess. Being on the weary side of bullying, I went after him and took him down in a classic grade school head lock, asking…or pleading, “Do you give?” until the teacher, with great disappointment directed toward me, broke us up. Richard was the type to be in trouble often. I was not. My teacher made it very clear, in ways I was and am very sensitive to, that she was not happy with me. Her expression, her body language, even the way she was more physical with Richard than me, told me that I, not Richard, had disappointed her and perhaps even ruined her day. I think her name was Mrs. Freeland.

She took us to the Principal’s office, Mr. Williams. Richard went in first while I sat on a bench outside the office. After a few minutes, Richard began to plead loudly, as if begging for his life. This was 1973 and, clearly, Richard was going to get a swat or three. As Richard was pleading and crying and generally, it seemed, making it difficult for Mr. Williams to apply the spanking, my mother appeared, miraculously it seemed. My mom was a PTA volunteer at the school and her duties, whatever they were, brought her into the front office as I sat awaiting my fate.

The principle’s office door opened. Mr. Williams and Richard emerged just as my mom walked up to see what was going on. Richard was crying, like a baby I thought at the time, and still think now. My mom surveyed the situation and looked at Mr. Williams.

I cannot remember what she said, exactly, but it was in the realm of, “What’s going on here?”

And then I had my very first experience of politics. Mr. Williams smiled a very handsome smile, even though he was not a very handsome man, and said something about boys being boys. My mom then said something I can’t remember but which amounted to telling Mr. Williams that she would let him do his job. Then she walked out of the office, which is, of course, exactly what she should have done.

Mr. Williams invited me into his office, where Mrs. Freeland was sitting in a chair looking not at all happy with the events of the day. She was a very kind person and I now suppose she found this all very distressing.

The Principle, holding a paddle in his hand, gave me a short lecture about fighting and provided a even-when-provoked “caveat” that made me realize that my teacher understood what had happened but was obligated to see both parties punished.

It was at that moment I determined that I would not put on any display of regret or plead my case in any way. I would, I decided, take what was coming to me because, not only did I deserve it for physically assaulting a classmate, but I had put my teacher into a state of distress, which was neigh to unforgivable when your teacher was as caring as Mrs. Freeland.

Mr. Williams asked me to bend over, grab my ankles and look at the doorknob on the door to his office. I remember thinking that this was exactly the way swats had been described to me.

But then, Mr. Williams paused. He asked me to removed my wallet from my back pocket.

Here, we must take an aside: My school, Danbrook Elementary, had been plagued by an outbreak of rubber band and paperclip attacks. It seems many student, almost all male, had figured out that they could use a rubber band as a a sling shot and launch paper clips at a variety of targets, inflicting damage and untold irritation. This epidemic had become so widespread that the principled had declared that any student caught with rubber bands or paperclips in their possession would automatically receive a swat, i.e. spanking.

And so we return to what Mr. William’s thought was a wallet in one of my back pockets as he sought to administer a swat. I was actually the number one supplier of rubber bands to the underground third grade rubber band and paperclip combine.

I reached into my back pocket to retrieve what the principle thought was a wallet and removed a handful of rubber bands.

As I placed the pile of unruly rubber bands on Mr. William’s desk, I looked for signs of an increase in my punishment. After all, not only had I been caught fighting, I was a rubber band pusher. And then I received my second lesson in politics. They both smiled and then Mr. Williams proceeded to administer my swat, for fighting. I did not receive any extra punishment for the rubber bands because, as I understood, my value as a “good kid” outweighed the need to punish me for a crime that was, in terms of being caught, unknown outside the room. I had already decided that I would not “plead for my life” as Richard had done. So I took my swat silently and, I think, somewhat stoically. In a fit of over confidence I reached for the pile of rubber bands after receiving my spanking. It took only a small groan for Mr. Williams to halt my reach.

I knew as I left the office and walked back to my classroom that I was supposed to feel shame or regret, but I felt only pride. I was proud that I had not cried or begged. I accepted my punishment and took it like, well, like a 10 year old human who accepted their punishment.

It was the first, but not the last swat I was to receive in the public school system of old, I am somewhat proud to say. The second swat is another story. Although I don’t want anyone spanking my children (and would, without hesitation, spank them back), I can’t say my swats were detrimental or undeserved. Times change. And, to be honest, I don’t think Mr. Williams was swinging very hard.

Funny vs. Funny

There is a good chance I have made you laugh, chuckle, or at least smile, and a better chance if you have spent time with me in person. I have a good sense of humor. I’m not bragging. I had almost nothing to do with it. Both of my parents are funny in day-to-day life, have good timing and a quick wit and can crack off a good one with regularity. As you expand into my extended family, especially the aunts on my dad’s side, this everyday humor is common and, well, normal. My siblings are funny. My wife is funny. My kids are funny. We have funny going on ‘round here.

But again, it is very very important to note, I am not bragging about this, mostly because, well, I can’t help it. And that is not always a good thing. I can and have made jokes at inappropriate times, or just too often, usually because I’m nervous. More than once, someone has had to ask me to stop joking. I try really hard to keep it in check, not only because a joke is not always called for, but because I have to admit, the percentage of funny against the percentage of jokes can sometimes be annoyingly deficient.

When I see people I have not seen in some time, there is a better than even chance they will mention laughing at something I said on Twitter or Facebook. You have to believe me, while I enjoy making people laugh, it is not something that makes me proud.

The reason for this is, while I’m funny, I am not “funny.”

When I was in college I always participated in variety shows and other performances, but usually behind the scenes, usually writing sketch comedy. One year, during a talent show, a guy named Tom took the stage. He was listed as a “stand-up.” He didn’t bomb, he died. He died so hard there was blood on the stage. He did not receive so much as a chuckle or even a forced courtesy laugh from his friends and family in the audience. We carried him off stage mid-set on a stretcher and put him right into a coffin.

As he regained his senses he chose me as the person he would talk to about his humiliation. I told him I had an appointment for a root canal, but he just kept talking.

He didn’t understand. He was the funniest of all his friends. When he was with his friends, they spent their time laughing so hard their stomachs cramped, usually at something he said. It was true. I didn’t know him very well but he had made me laugh on several occasions. He was funny, he just wasn’t funny. Tom had walked onstage without a prepared act because he thought he could wing it because that was what he did every single day and people laughed.

I took this lesson to heart. Although I did not understand why, I knew that funny in life did not equate to funny on stage. I felt like I could probably put in the work and the time to hone my craft and one day be funny on stage, but I knew I did not have the right type of intestinal fortitude to endure the years of pain.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned why funny in life does not mean funny on stage. I was listening to an interview with Jon Stewart and he explained, as if he knew I was listening, why funny in life did not mean funny on stage. It was simple. Stewart pointed out that on stage, you must provide the set-up and the punchline, cold, from scratch. In life, your friends or other people or the circumstances are providing the set-up and all you have to do is provide the punchline. Boom. That was it. I was never going to step out onto a cold cold stage where nobody was throwing set-ups for jokes in front of me. Writing your own set-up for auditory delivery of funny is really super hard. Much harder than jokes that are simply read…on Facebook or Twitter for example.

I have fun because my goal is always to make myself laugh and if I do that I have succeeded. If someone else laughs, it is nice sugary icing on the cake. I try and do no harm, not make too many jokes or joke because I’m nervous or joke because the room is too quiet. If sometimes I “write” a joke that includes its own set-up and people laugh, well, the percentages are with me. I have to pull it off now and then. It’s amateur luck.

Some of you will understand this as the “do funny vs. are funny,” or “Funny Bones” perspective. It’s an important paradigm in my life, and for more things  than just funny.

So you can stop asking me “Why I don’t…” Now you know. As for why I never tried my hand at writing comedy, well, that is a different type of intestinal fortitude and a different blog post.

Yo-Yo String Theory (from 2008)

At a recent picnic my six-year-old daughter won a yo-yo as a prize for playing a game. But it wasn’t a real yo-yo. It was a cheap give-away, the kind that come in a pack of six in the party aisle. It wasn’t  heavy enough to really work and it didn’t have the right type of string. Undaunted, my daughter tried to “make it work,” determined to master the secret technique. It was useless.  I couldn’t even make it work, and that’s saying something.

Thirty-two years ago the world was in the midst of a yo-yo craze…well, at least the world of 13 year old boys was in the middle of a yo-yo craze. Every single one of my friends owned several yo-yo’s and every kid I knew had at least one.

We yo-yoed as we walked to school and we yo-yoed as we walked home.  We even yo-yoed secretly during school, behind the gym during lunch and even in the hallway between classes, if it was crowded and you were sly. But it was risky business because yo-yoing at school was strictly forbidden. One-too-many students had taken a yo-yo to the eyebrow when some knucklehead attempted to execute “around the world” without looking behind him first. If you were caught using a yo-yo it would be confiscated and not returned until the end of the school year.

Unable to control the urge, all of us had wiped out our yo-yo at an inopportune moment only to have it taken away in the middle of “rock the baby.”  After school on the last day of my eighth grade year I dutifully made my way to the front office to wait in line behind all the other yo-yo fiends to have our property returned, each of us standing there with a tell-tell circle shape in our pocket. While possession was technically illegal, it was use that got you in trouble. I had three yo-yo’s returned on that last day of school. I knew one kid who had eleven given back. That guy was a legend and the only kid I knew who was ambidextrous with yo-yos.

On top of my six-year-old daughter’s frustration with the fake yo-yo was my four-year daughter’s profound disappointment that she too did not have a yo-yo.  It was more than I could take.  Later that day I headed down the street to a large national chain toy store to buy a couple of real yo-yo’s, maybe even three.

Growing up in suburbia, I cannot truly lament the demise of the independent toy store the way those who grew up in small towns can. The closest thing to Main Street I experienced growing up was the strip mall. But a few of those strip malls had small toy stores and what I remember about them was the invitation of chaos.

This was true of many independent retailers in my childhood. Small hardware stores, drug stores, record stores, book sellers, and the ubiquitous catch-all, the Five & Dime. These merchants did not have target markets, merchandizing programs, or marketing campaigns.  They carried too much inventory of too great a variety and it was often unorganized. These stores were crowded with stuff. These kinds of inefficiencies would eventually contribute to their demise, but the chaos was an invitation to linger, explore and discover. Around every corner was something different, something you didn’t know you were looking for until you found it. They were the great-great-grandparents of Target, without the pimped “designer” merchandise.

Walking into the big chain toy store was not an invitation to do anything other than shop efficiently.  The entry area guided me past the help desk and then through a selection of seasonally relevant merchandise before depositing me into a department full of large things, the large item department I suspect. There were playhouses and slides, jungle gyms, an animatronic baby dinosaur the size of a large dog and, lined up like soldiers in the middle of the department, a collection of giant and menacing Dora the Explorer dolls. The dolls were at least three feet tall and perhaps the scariest toys I have ever seen.

Turning to escape Dora’s persistent gaze, I looked up the aisle to my left:  cash registers, party supplies (no doubt, including six-packs of fake yo-yos) and the electronics department separated from the rest of the store by what appeared to be bullet proof glass. To my right were children’s clothes and a smattering of miscellaneous Barbie-pink. I could feel Dora’s culturally ambiguous puppy-eyes shooting darts in my back so I shuffled off to the right.

As I circled the store I peered down each aisle looking for yo-yos.  What became clear immediately was that cross-merchandizing now rules the universe.  From Sesame Street to Disney, the store was full of toys spawned by television and movies. And almost every single aisle contained at least one toy with the face of Miley Cyrus as Hanna Montana on the package. My own children were not immune to Hanna Montana-itis.  While I would receive an outpouring of gratitude for bring home yo-yos, I would be worshiped and adored if those yo-yos included the face of Hanna Montana.

Although the toy store was large and obviously had a significant inventory, I was struck by the sameness of the toys. Looking closer, I noticed that entire aisles were devoted to only one or two brands or several brands from only one or two manufacturers. Apparently, the demise of the independent toy seller had coincided with consolidation in the manufacturing sector.  But aside from the source of the toys, the redundancy bordered on ludicrous. The entire side of one aisle was devoted to professional wrestling action figures.  From a distance, this aisle looked no different than the aisle next to it, which was completely devoted to action figures of every stripe, from Star Wars to desert-ready GI Joes.

I finished my circle of the store and had not seen any yo-yo’s, Hanna Montana or otherwise.   I figured I must have missed them. I tried to think logically. They should be in games or sports, right? But I did not remember a game or a sports section. So I widened my search, walking down each aisle, and soon arrived at an anemic sports aisle with a few bats and balls and hockey sticks, but no yo-yo’s. I suppose the small selection in the sports department had something to do with the three or four large sporting goods retailers within a three mile radius of the toy store.  I moved on, looking for games.

It took a little time but eventually I found the game section, tucked into a corner near the entrance, behind the watchful eyes of the Dora dolls. I paced back and forth in front of the games, looking closely at the area where dozens of small hand-held games were hanging. No yo-yo’s. The customer service desk was just a few feet away so I stepped up and asked the clerk if she could direct me to the yo-yo’s.  She said that, “if we have any,” they would be in the game department, and she pointed to where I had just been.

If they had any? What could she mean by that?  A toy store without yo-yo’s? Impossible. I was about to ask where in the game section I might find the yo-yo’s, if they had any, when another clerk said, “sports.”

Needless to say, I checked both the games area and the sports area but did not find any yo-yo’s.  I was about to try again at the customer service desk when I remembered there was a drug store around the corner. True, it too was a national chain, but like it’s ancestors, the drugstores of my childhood, it maintained a relatively eclectic mix of merchandise.

When I was growing up, even the chain drugstores carried everything you needed to make it through ordinary living. In addition to picking up your prescription, you could buy deodorant, gum, yarn, pretzels, cinnamon flavored toothpicks, a Thermos, a cane, Windex, bean dip, rat traps, bird food, eye-liner, beer, magazines, light bulbs, a can opener, a hammer, toilet paper, a fishing lure, a birthday card, socks, and a scoop of ice cream for a nickel. But best of all, you could not only buy a yo-yo…you could buy yo-yo string.

Yo-yo string doesn’t last forever, especially if you’re yo-yoing all the way to and from school. It wears out even faster if your spending a lot of time letting the yo-yo “sleep” at the end of the string before giving it a little tug to bring it back up. Causing the yo-yo to sleep looks like a magic trick and takes some practice. It’s a required skill for the majority of yo-yo tricks. Among 13 year old boys in 1976, being able to let the yo-yo sleep for a long time and still get it to jump back into your hand was a sign of something akin to virility, and spontaneous contests broke out unendingly.  At the drugstore, every cashier had a stash of yo-yo string that you had to ask for, just like condoms. They came one to a package, ten cents.

The trip to the toy store had been a little depressing, but I was hopeful as I entered the drugstore. Surely they had not abandoned their roots and stopped carrying yo-yos. If there was only one toy on the toy aisle, it would have to be the yo-yo.  And sure enough, as I rounded the display of gift-box scotch and entered the toy aisle, I spotted two real yo-yo’s hanging from a peg. They were the very same yo-yo’s I had owned in countless colors as a kid, one Duncan Imperial, and one Duncan Butterfly.  I felt what was, for the occasion, a disproportionate sense of joy.

They were the only two yo-yo’s in the aisle and I walked grinning ear to ear to the front of the store, where a line of seven people stood in front of a single cashier. By the time it was my turn, the line had grown even longer behind me, but I could not resist. As the woman behind the counter rang up my yo-yo’s I asked, “By any chance do you sell yo-yo string?”


“Yo-Yo string…you know, replacement string for yo-yo’s”

“They don’t come with string? Look, I see the string right there.”

“Yeah, but it will wear out and I was just wondering…”

“String wears out, it’s time to get a new yo-yo.”

Someone behind me in line groaned, so I let it drop. A few days later I still couldn’t get the idea of a toy store without yo-yo’s out of my head, so I sat down to write this essay. In fact, I titled it, “A Toy Store Without Yo-Yo’s. But as I began writing I realized it could not be true. I had simply missed them or, worse case, they were simply out of stock. Poor inventory management? Yes. A harbinger of the decline of western civilization? I couldn’t believe it.  I drove back to the toy store to look again and if I couldn’t find a yo-yo, to ask the manager what the hell was going on and question his or her patriotism.

I walked quickly past the help desk and the seasonal items and as I approached the game section from a direction I hadn’t before I saw them, a display full of yo-yo’s.  They were in a cardboard display unit provided by Duncan, the manufacturer. In fact, most of the yo-yo’s still had the rubber bands around them that held them in place during shipping. The display was opposite the game wall, so my back had been to it during my previous visit.

After a moment of grieving for my now meaningless righteous indignation, I laughed. Yes, the yo-yo’s were tucked away and poorly displayed, but they were there. I picked out an orange Butterfly and blue Imperial, this time for myself.

At first I didn’t return to this essay. I figured it was a dead issue. Had I only turned around on my first visit to the toy store I would have found them. The toy store did carry yo-yo’s. But a small sadness haunted me.

This essay is titled the Yo-Yo String Theory but it’s not about the fact that they no longer sell yo-yo string at the drugstore.  Ten seconds on the internet revealed that I could easily order all the yo-yo string I need, in a rainbow of colors, and it still costs about ten cents a string.  I hope it’s not about nostalgia, though I suspect it is to a great degree. More correctly, it’s about the fact that nostalgia matters to me, now. And by now, I mean, with age.

Macon’s Trash

Macon knew it was his neighbor, Clive, as he approached the trash cans, but he kept the shotgun pointed at him just the same.

“What the hell you want,” he said, “digging in my trash.”

“It’s me Macon,” said Clive, standing up from his crouch and wincing with his bones. “I don’t mean no harm. I’m just lookin for material.”


“Well now, Macon, you know I’m an artist and I work in mixed media.”

Goddamn retirement community, thought Macon. The whole place was lousy with artists.

“Nevermind that,” he said. “You just leave my trash out of it.”

“What do you care? It’s trash.”

Macon had never really given it much thought, but he felt an opinion coming on.

“It might be just trash. But it’s my trash, my history, markers of my coming and going, the good the bad and…”

“Oh Jesus, Macon, you’re going to write poetry about your trash now? Forget it. I don’t need it. And you’d better put away that damn gun before someone sees it and they finally kick you outta the place.”

Once Was

This is the flower
That once was a chariot
That once was a sacrifice
That once was a table
Where soldiers surrendered
A table shaped like a pear
Not a tear but a pear
The table accepted their swords
Weapons without hands are

Even from here I recognize her path

This is the sword
That once was a lion
That once was a snowstorm
That once was a bed
Where women surrendered
A bed shaped like a tear
Not a pear but a tear
The bed accepted their bodies
Women without words are

Now you don’t

If you understand the angle of my chin to mean
The weather will improve

If you choreograph your next three steps
By the shape of my ears

If you examine the wrinkled skin at my elbow
To determine your age

If you wound five enemies with five different knives
Because of the scar on my knee

If you study my hands for any reason at all you should know
These hands are the wrong hands


Dear Gen

In the beginning we paused
We held the possibilities hostage
Made a blood promise
Spit on the grave
And saw that it was good

We wished for there to be light
But the secret held water
We thought we might need later
If the rescuers failed
And the light was set aside

Then we decided that the land
Did not need to be separated from the water
If we gave the fish toes
And the rhinoceros’ gills
But the insects refused to negotiate

Lastly, we invented ribs and tits


First thing is, you separates the good meats
From the bad meats
And give the bad meats to the hogs
They don’t know no better so don’t think on it too much
Then save the good meats for cousins and good company
Of all sorts, church people and such

Give smart attention to the shoes you might wear

Prepare for talking with a visit to the barber
And pick out some long words
With some news of the day, such as floods
But remember there is no need to take the chair for a cut
The barber himself will understand you dropping in for a visit
Even still, a money tip is a good gesture always

Emily, at the Stop and Shop, knows how to tie a tie

Welcome each with a handshake and your eye
Offer punch, point to the good meats
But do not linger too long on any one arrival in the hall
Circle the room, keep everyone’s eye, and check the locks twice
And when the gathered are complete, take the axe from drawer
Then move slowly, with deliberation, and smile

Next thing is, separate the good meats from the bad meats


I once wondered why

He swam in the coffee

Danced barefoot through grounds

Spread beans for his bed

And spoke in such spurts




I asked

“I roast”

He growled

drooling a thin brown line

nosing the air like a hound


He went back to his hypnotist:

the cooling tray

his full moon


When he shows his teeth

I cannot read his intention

So I measure the distance between us


The coffee rains rhythms

Inside the machine

His ears search the churn

His eyes are like the smell of jute bags

wild and dirty

tired and wise


When the coffee falls free from the fire

He howls

Bathing in smoke


I ask

“I roast”

He roars

And I run for the door

too late