Thursday, December 06, 2007

Café America

“Here you go, sweetie,” said Theresa, setting a pot of tea on the table as an old suit in the adjacent chair looked on. “I hope I put enough water in it.” It’ll be just fine, said the boy with gauges in his ears.

Bearing crooked teeth, twice she asked me what kind of milk I’d like in my sipping chocolate, yet the tone in her voice bore genuine concern; reflecting kindness and not stupidity that drove such attempts at precision.

Meanwhile, a tall, overweight teenager in an unzipped sweatshirt and a mop of a haircut tapped his right foot incessantly on the support underneath his high-top table.

Right now I’m thumbing through what has become quite a large pile of magazines, reaching the point where I know beyond any measure of doubt that I have read every word worth reading on every shelf in this little place – the shelves bearing magazines, anyway. I felt a little sad knowing I’d reached the end.

My phone rang.

“Hi, Ben, it’s Amanda Weston. I’m renting the house you inquired about…”

Kindly enough personality, but it turns out that the “Vacant Room Near Campus - $450” listing is actually a quasi-hospice for recently divorced women. It’s not like this by design, of course, but life has a funny way of turning the innocent into the conspicuous. Two tenants, Amanda being one of them, both women in their early thirties, have taken up arms in defense of Amanda’s home and perhaps the whole of the male gender in the process. Charmed by my emails, she felt compelled to give me a call and see what the chances were that I take up residence right there with the two of them. It was as if they’d extended the olive branch, so to speak. On this day, it was kindness that reigned victorious.

Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

BYU. Iran. Byu...

I found an interesting article this morning regarding the fashion crack-down going on in Tehran, Iran. As you'll read below, the Iranian government has placed fashion gestapo, women no less, on the streets of Tehran to enforce religious (and fashion) law among Tehran's women.

At issue are women who dress too fashionably! The best part of the article was the picture, which I'm sure will bring to mind, at least with some of you, scenes that are commonplace in BYU's Student Center, or the library, or anywhere on campus.

Look at that poor girl! And the look on the face of that old bag who's accosting her for not dressing within the dated view of what a religious authority deems "appropriate." This is priceless.


It all starts with one simple sentence, spoken almost in a whisper, but which has a thunderous effect.

A female police officer deployed in Tehran's latest moral crackdown tells a woman that her manto (overcoat) is too short and infringes Iranian Islamic dress rules.

"Azizam (my dear), good afternoon, if possible could we have a friendly chat, please allow us to have a small chat," the officer, a graduate of Tehran's police academy, tells the young woman.

"My dear there is a problem with your manto. Please do not wear this kind of manto. Please wear a longer manto from now on."

Some are just let go there, but others are escorted to waiting minibuses with dark black tinted window panes and labelled "Guidance Patrol."

A girl in a short white manto whose long hair was tumbling out the front of her headscarf is taken by the police to one of the minibuses on Vanak Square in central Tehran -- an unexpected and unhappy end to her shopping trip.

Another arrested woman is already inside the bus. She begins to cry. "I promise, I promise!"

And the minibus doors slam shut.

Tehran's police have said they are operating a three stage process in implementing the new wave of a crackdown on dress deemed to be unIslamic, which started with some intensity on Monday afternoon.

First, women are given a verbal warning on the street. If the problem is not resolved there, they are taken to the police station for "guidance" and to sign a vow not to repeat the offence. Should this be unsuccessful, their case is handed to the judiciary.

"Sure my manto is short, but there are many others whose clothes are more seductive than mine and they walking by without any punishment," one of the arrested girls in the minibus complained bitterly.

The arrested women will now go to a "centre for combating vice".

Their parents will be phoned and they will bring a longer coat and fuller headscarf for their daughters. If the young women sign the pledge they will then be released.

"We want our words to have an effect on people," a female Iranian police officer, who by law was not allowed to give her name, told AFP before being dispatched to take part in the crackdown.

"Our method is through guidance and via words. We do not face an instance that prompts us to be physical. We do not have any bats or sprays, in the toughest instances we may grab her hand and 'guide' her to the minibus," she said.

"I am doing this it as it is my duty and my job is supported by the religious teachings," another women clad in the black chador uniform of Tehran's female police added.

A girl confronted by the female police for having overly short trousers and transparent stockings apologizes.

"I am wearing stockings but, sorry, they are too light. Sorry I will change them, definitely I will change them. Now can I go?"

Not everything goes so smoothly.

One young passer-by rounds on the police for devoting such resources to moral crackdowns rather than other social problems as the minibus -- now filled with "badly veiled" women -- speeds away to the police station.

"Shame on you, look what you've done! The people's problem is not this, go fix your traffic situation, people are stuck in traffic for hours, go fix other real problems," she shrieks.

There was already considerable controversy inside Iran when the first stage of the "plan to increase security in society" was launched in April.

Many conservatives have applauded the drive, but moderates have publicly questioned whether Iran would be better off tackling poverty and crime rather than slack dressing.

Just before the new crackdown started, popular television host Farzad Hasani grilled Tehran's police chief Ahmad Reza Radan about the drive on his talk show, accusing the police of "not differentiating between people and thugs."

An old woman in a black chador in Vanak Qquare echoed the sentiment.

"Our youth have no peace of mind. They are afraid to go out, they are afraid that if they go out they will be taken to the police. Aren't they saying that there is freedom?"

Saturday, June 23, 2007

theater no. 7


from an old velvet chair

a story by ben treasure


Sometimes the hardest part is keeping my foot on the gas pedal. Once or twice a week I make this commute, forty-three and two tenths miles north to another dead-end job that I’ll end up quitting, though it’s honestly just to tide me over. I usually feel sick by the time I hit the freeway, as if my heart is telling my body that we’re getting closer, her and I, if only for a moment.

It’s been an interesting road since Ellie and I became Ellie, and I. I’ve seen her once since then, though it was only from a distance. She looked happy, talking on her phone as she left the Italian market where we used to shop on Thursdays.

She was walking to her car, her little black Volvo. We used to take that car to the lake shore at night, watching the snow blow over the road as I held her in my arms. Even her countenance that day seemed not to have changed in the slightest, her head drawn downward as she made her way out the door. Each step she took was so calculated, but genuine. This was a contradiction she was so very good at. As her foot hit the last step on the landing she whisked her head back, glancing off into the distance at what I’m sure was nothing in particular. She had a way of making the most casual movements inescapable.

About 15 minutes into my drive is when I pass her exit. I usually try to distract myself enough to miss the sign giving me the one-mile warning, but this never seems to work. Ellie lives in a development of town-homes within earshot of the freeway, just east of the new exit. If I honked my horn on a quiet night she’d probably hear it. Sometimes I actually do.

Our last day together unfolded like a beautiful one-act. We were at an upscale mall downtown, not far from the market where I saw her last. She wore the green stocking hat that I bought for her birthday, along with a long black coat and her tall brown boots. She looked like I always dreamt she would.

We walked through the mall without saying a word. It was when I noticed tears that I started counseling her once more, feeding the usual encouragement and now tired praise. There was so much tension between us that even the doorman noticed, taking careful note to curb his customary welcome. While my words were repetitive, they came from deep within and held their meaning. But on that day, her tears didn’t stop, and I put all of my banter on hold long enough to order steamed lattés from a café in the mall. In the faux alleyway around the corner sat a lone table for two, my chair facing an ivy-covered wall that bisected the back of the adjacent building. Even our surroundings seemed set for a stage.

We sat down across from each other, her hands in mine. And through carefully timed sips she poured out her soul for the last time. I nearly wept as she repeated the words I’d heard so many times yet couldn’t seem grasp.

I love you, Jack. I love you so much.

I love you too, I said. I felt every part of it.

As the moments passed I clung to those words, somehow knowing I’d never hear them again. Close to an hour later as the drama subsided and our conversation calmed, we left that alleyway never to see it again. And as we walked out those double doors and past the kind doorman and into the cold once more, I knew the curtains had finally drawn. It felt like every step I took wasn’t even my own, but just part of the forced march back to the familiarity of loneliness.

A few short miles down the road, things deteriorated and the tears flowed once more. It was the longest drive of my life, and I tried to savor every minute of it. When I was a kid I used to watch these old war films, and I’d feel my heart break at that predictable moment when the boys would leave their lovers and go off to battle. I could just place my eyes in theirs as they stood on the decks of those big gray ships, looking down at love for the last time as foghorns blew and the harbor shrank into the distance. I felt their pain that day in the car, for the snow blew no more and the old seats of our theater began to empty. When she got out of the car she was nearly in hysterics. It was still so scripted and surreal. I swear I even smelled the red velvet of those old wooden chairs.

After dropping her off, I drove the rest of the way home, full of self-loathing and lover’s remorse. Looking for someone to blame is the easiest way to cope, and I blamed her and all she was. I hated her indecision and what it had done to me. I hated it all. The next morning, she picked me up to finalize a fate I already knew. I walked out my door and down the stairs, past my back stoop where I’d spent so many nights. Through her tears, she seemed content to lay my heart to rest right there, idling and parked on the street behind my apartment. Before she said a word, I insisted that we drive a few blocks.

I need this spot for me, I told her. I need it to be free from all this.

She started driving, squeezing my hand in hers. I wondered if she could see through the tears enough to keep the car on the road.

It’s hard because I know what I have to do, she said.

I put my hand on my forehead, letting her drive two blocks further before telling her to turn and park. There was no sense in painting the entire town, every street and corner, with this memory that was about to brand me forever. The street where we stopped was one I knew I’d never frequent. It was in an odd part of town, full of post-war apartments that kept mostly poor, religious folk. I was dressed for the gym, which took my guard down. I got ready that morning like I was getting ready for a fight, for in some ways I was. She stopped and the car in park, her tears running down the shaft of the emergency break. And with that it began to unravel, this time never to be repaired. I told her she was the one I used to draw. I told her about my childhood and everything that ever haunted me. I demanded answers. I fought the tears at first but soon let them flow. And when I made it home, I cried aloud.

When tragedy strikes, it’s funny what you’ll remember. And while many details of that day have escaped me, there are some I’ll never forget. In those first hours after I left her, as I lay crying in my bed, it was her hands I remembered most. I remembered how they looked covered in tears, both hers and mine. I remembered the soft rise between her thumb and forefinger that would show itself when her hand would lay flat over mine. And her right hand had these tiny little scars, the remnants of some domestic mishap that I’ve since forgotten. It was those scars I just couldn’t bear to lose.

That was three and one half months ago. We corresponded for a while through emails, though the tone was always so awkwardly restrained that they offered not solace and answers, but only more questions and pain.

For the first few weeks, I looked far and wide for supporting voices. I wanted to hear people tell me that it would be okay, that she’d come back to me, that they knew her too well for any of this to be permanent. I wanted to hear it all, and on many days I did. Yet I sank deeper inside of an already cavernous hole within myself. My friends told me what I wanted to hear, for they had no other choice. But through all this enabling, I knew she’d never come.

Ellie and I broke for a number of reasons. There were the beliefs, and also the timing and looming circumstance. And then there was someone else. And while it hurts a great deal, I don’t envy him. No, I don’t envy him at all.

Through periods of fatalism and apathy, I stopped trying to change anyone’s mind on anything. I had put my life and all that I valued on the line during those few months with Ellie. I was hoping, really, that my words would convince her to help herself by loving me. Sure, she loved me. But she loved other things, and soon my plan failed, for belief will always trump rationale. As we sat in the café on that cold day in January, I made my last attempt at changing a mind. I’ve since found that beliefs are irrelevant, for everyone has them.

When you lose someone you love, a funny thing happens. As time passes we all learn to cope, putting space between whomever we lost and ourselves. Piece by piece, the distractions fall into place in the form of new thoughts and memories, each one doing their part to cover up what’s lost. And for me it has been no different. Over time, the elements of my miserable state seemed to find their way out of obscurity, each to be addressed and dealt with as I learned to move on. Things changed and life became more comfortable. The new memories have even started to cover up the old.

I imagine it is in this view, in this optimistic light, that Ellie will paint my picture for the rest of her days. She’ll see the man who picked up the pieces, the man who found another meaning. But through all the progress, what she may not see is the man who can’t bring himself to go back to that lake, who still scans the highway for every black Volvo. Or the man whose heart skips three beats and then stops at any woman in a green stocking cap, even when he's half a world away.

The other day I stood in line at the bank, waiting to make a deposit. Work is going well, and I no longer commute past the exit I’ll never take. As I looked over the crowd that day I caught the attention of a little Hispanic girl, of maybe three or four. She cast me a shy stare and a coy little grin as she grabbed at her mother’s skirt, hiding timidly behind it. I smiled and waved slightly with my hand at my side, casting a narrow squint in her direction. She warmed immediately and advanced my way, holding two lollipops in her right hand. From the look of the wrappers, it was obvious that they’d come from the large bowl sitting in front of the station of teller number two. Her mother had probably offered them as a bribe, hoping for cooperation as she finished her business.

As the girl made her way closer, she held a bright and honest smile from ear to ear, showing all six of her very young and still growing teeth. She reached me quickly and tugged at my pant leg with one hand while holding the other outstretched, gripping one of the suckers and offering it my way. Her smile never stopped as she waited for me to accept the gift. I never thought I could be flattered so much by a child, but the rush I felt took me by surprise. I smiled softly.

Thank you, I said.

The little girl relaxed her tiptoed stance briefly, standing kink-necked and smiling. After a brief moment, no doubt seeing through my embarrassment, she took a few careful steps backward. She stood for a second, still smiling through her kind, honest brown eyes, and then dashed off to the safety of her mother’s dress.

She did what she wanted to do, that little girl. And without shame or remorse, she left the comfort of hiding for something she wanted. She made an offering to a stranger.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Howl Goes America

For today the wind blows, and change is in the air.

I stood in the outfield of a public softball park, tilting my head into the bill of my hat. As ballplayers trotted the base paths and stirred the ground, the wind carried the chalky red dirt in all directions. Everyone submitted, even the hardened and weary. It was a howling and circular wind bent on passion and fury.

By the time I made it home, I was so hungry that I'd forgotten to shower or wash until much later into the night. I stood over the bathroom sink, a small basin of white porcelain that sits in front of a large rectangular mirror. I cupped my hands together, lapping cold water on my face. The sink turned dark orange, almost the color of an over ripened peach, sending the blood stained water swirling round and then down.

Something felt a little off from the moment the day began. Last night I sent out a beckoning call for clarity and reason, for having felt their absence I had nowhere else to turn. It's apparent to me that this universe works in strange and mysterious ways, indeed.

I had just fixed a cup of tea. In the front room of my quaint yet predictable apartment there sits a sliding glass door that opens to a southern view, exposing the tops of two young saplings and the roofs of the three remaining houses on the block.

Retribution bit through the air. I heard screaming from the television, forcing me to move quickly to shut it off.

Still more.

All at once, my bedroom door was blown shut. Boom! Then the screeching of the shower curtain rings sliding across their fixture from our second bathroom, indicating only that my roommate had just slid into a warm towel yet offering me no relief.

It was the timing that frightened me more.

I looked outside to the southern sky and saw nothing but the blur of green leaves dancing violently to the rhythm of the westerly gusts against the darkened sky.

Retreating to my room, I shut the door. The wind beat steadily against my window, for it wouldn't be stopped. It couldn't be. And then I heard it, that howl, blowing and whistling through the ducts of our building and out the small vent on the ceiling above me.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Three second trigger

Waves crash

Bombs blast
And so I go

Here I stand
Hands in pockets, black and hooded, standing over smouldering remains of dreams gone by.

I wonder what
How in the name of God?
(As they say)

A Creator has no hand in human indifference. Bewilderment is how I'd describe it best. I watch, distant and embittered as an explosion has already wreaked its havoc. Yet a poor, faltering hand places the pin back in a trigger already blown.

But the wounds already fester! The damage, irreparable and static. And then the smoke.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

12 O'Clock Orange Juice

I have begun dabbling in fiction and creative writing. This is an excerpt from a story I have been working on. It is completely fictional and none of the characters are based on any individual in my life. I'd love to hear feedback.

"Matty! Get out here and help your mother."

"Jesus," I heard her grumble under her breath. Always something with Jesus, even when she brought in the groceries.

Helping my mother with the groceries would be a reasonable request if I was twelve years old, but I'm six months out of college with a liberal arts degree, working at a fucking grocery store. It's twenty minutes to noon and I'm just now rolling out of bed. It rained last night, thank God, and for that I don't feel quite as guilty about my late start. The fact that I made it out from between the sheets before midday I consider a small victory, even if it is just to bring in the groceries.

My mother’s was the first human voice I'd heard since late last night when I turned off the History Channel at 3:00 and put myself to sleep with a doubled-up scotch, thirty-two pages of Dostoevsky and four cigarettes. It was some show about the fall of Troy, I dunno.

By four o'clock I'll probably have three drinks in me and will have finished nearly half a pack of cigarettes. It’s been like that since September. An hour later my mother will be returning from her second trip to the store. Things could always be worse. Just last week when, having nothing else to do and racked with the recurring suspicion that I was getting sick, I decided to "push myself" and stay in bed as long I could last - 2:26PM.

My life, these days, is a concoction of guilt and possibility and the battles they'll have with one another. I run from the shame of not having a job and sucking my parents dry for cash to the few fleeting moments of creativity and optimism that tell me that in ten years I'll be able to look back and laugh. It never lasts, though. Today, I live with my mother. Today I'm pulling in about $40 a week at a part-time job that I'll only keep to keep her off my back. And today won’t be any different than any other since the day I graduated.

I'll probably head into the gym at about one-thirty. After forty-five minutes spent wandering around the Cybex machines like I'm in an obstacle course and wondering if the girl at the desk wants me, I'll probably take off at right about the time the hot brunette in the black spandies heads to her car. I'm always trying to manipulate timing. I'm such a skeeze. But the fact that I went to the gym will allow me approximately two hours of relief to think that maybe I'm not completely worthless.

Showered by three and dressed in something other than cut-off sweats and a v-neck I'll be ready for the day by the time most of my friends have been in the office for seven hours. Jesus, seven hours.

That's my problem and my blessing; I’ve always hated being put on a program. And I despise predictability. I think it kills people, really, and I see most of the friends I grew up with dying slowly.

The typical post-college routine for my old pals has been to take a job with whatever company they puckered-up enough to during their junior year internship. I can just hear the voice of some asshole on the phone, giving them the “offer of a lifetime."

You made the best damned coffee on the third floor and we’re bringing you back to make some more! Just kidding. But seriously, you ran papers and took phone calls twice as fast as that woman down the hall – Carol, or whatever her name is. You know her, she drove that purple Chevy Cavalier, too much eye shadow, always bitching about child-support or whatever. Real pain in the ass but I kinda liked her in a skirt. Anyway, you're a part of the corporate fabric now with all the benefits and a 401k. Carol is on her way home to break the news to her kids. But you’ll save us a shitload of money next quarter so I’m not gonna sweat that. Remember, lots of cream lots of sugar!

“Yes sir," they’d say, after a few nervous “haha's and okay's." And with that their fate will more or less be sealed. But at least they’ll have a paycheck and their own apartment. I forfeited those amenities when I decided to forget about law school in favor of pursuing something I love. That was about eight months ago.

I’ve made it a habit, lately, of avoiding anyone close to my age who has enjoyed any type of success that wasn’t entirely unique in its creation or 100 percent a product of their own ingenuity. Difficult, I know. And while I keep saying that this is because I can’t handle the pathetic inevitability of their situation, lately I think that it has a lot more to do with the fact that I live with my mother; who right now is downstairs throwing dishes into the sink, yelling obscenities because some woman at the grocery store told her she bore a faint resemblance to Republican senator, Elizabeth Dole. This is a customary, mid-afternoon thing for my mother. She took a twenty-minute trip to the store for a gallon of milk and some dish soap and this is what happens. As far as I can tell, nobody else has a mother capable of this sort of behavior; but I’m beginning to see its merits.

It isn’t the first time my mother has gotten the Liz Dole thing, either. Nor is her reaction at all out of the ordinary. She’s been getting that for some time now - I think since the ’96 election. On the night of the Republican convention that year I remember my mother yelling, “whoring bitch!" in the direction of our television when Mrs. Dole made her way to the podium. Through a cloud of cigarette smoke, she watched the business wing of America talk of their plans for increasing the GOP take over. I think she broke a cereal bowl by the time Bob said something about privatizing social security. But my how she was elated by mid-November when Clinton trounced the old man from Kansas. The kitchen had never been so calm.

I have always thought there was something about the kitchen that could bring out the best and the worst in people. Back in college I used to clean the kitchen compulsively on any morning following a random hookup. This is something that would happen with some regularity and it was terrific yet depressing all the while. Freud would probably say something about the kitchen being a place of comfort and some hokey shit about refilling your ego or whatever but I just think it’s a good place to get yourself back on an even keel with, well, yourself. I still couldn’t see any of my friends’ mothers breaking dishes after being recognized – accused, in her mind – as looking like a renowned politician. But that isn't the first part of my upbringing that instilled in me a deep distrust of the sublime and ordinary.