Monday, January 27, 2014


                 Seamus  Schneider,  dancing  on  the  skin  of  the   earth, pedaling furiously in the rain, the drenching north London rain, a pair of garden shears balanced on the handlebars, wondered  how he  managed not to lose his balance. He presented a spectacle  to the  passing  cars. The people in these  vehicles, if they noticed him at all, must have thought Schneider represented  the  current shabby state of the  nation's  affairs. As soon as one hit the  M-25  things  improved, less  likelihood  of  terrorists  or lunatic  fringe  members disrupting one's journey. Then  one  was home and all of this was just more spectacle on the telly,  bread and circus for the working classes.
Schneider knew that he presented this sort of spectacle.  It would  have been all right for a younger man, but he was  getting pricklier as he got older and further afield. And the rain  never stopped.  But  he  didn't mind the rain as  much  as  the  blank, passive  stare as at a goldfish, the beefy sneer,  the  wide-eyed momentary sojourn. The worst of it was that they, the  ubiquitous they, were inside in cars and he was outside on an old  bicycle. If  anyone  had enquired, Schneider would have  insisted  on  the preference  of being on the outside looking in, but if honest  he was compelled also to ask himself where in the hell he thought he was going, and on a bicycle no less, purchased from some  hoodlum at the Brick Lane market.
He  once had believed, and the vestiges of this faith  still trailed  about  him  like  flotsam,  that  the  fetish  for   the acceptable  curriculum  had  long  ago  ruined  society.  But  he possessed not even the token of his passage, if one did not count the  wife  and  the bicycle that both tied  him  to  a  seemingly ceaseless rota in this former sink of empire.
The  shears were not his. They were only an encumbrance  and getting  harder to handle with the rain bearing down. The  shears belonged  to Lawrence. He knew him only as Lawrence. Schneider wondered whether Lawrence was  a man of the cloth.  He  wore  civilian  clothes  and  affected  a   neutral, standoffish  benevolence, but Schneider would have put  money  on his  being a vicar. Not that he'd ever known any  vicars.  But  Lawrence  worked from  the  Flower  Lane  Church of England.  The  secretaries  in  the  Good Neighborhood Scheme offices, in the Flower Lane church hall - the elderly  women perpetually undergoing aerobic classes as if in  a circle  of  hell  next door on the  basketball  courts, treated Lawrence with the sort of respect due to a representative of God on Earth, but Schneider was never quite sure where he stood vis a vis Lawrence, let alone God.
The rain continued to fizzle in the air for a short time and at last stopped. Good timing. Schneider pulled up on the sidewalk to check the directory. He was not far off from his  destination. Thin-lipped  women with overgrown, sour-faced children  in  prams
congregated  suddenly  outside shop fronts, in some kind  of  mid-afternoon ritual of which he was ignorant. There was  dissolution in  the  air. He could see it in the faces of  people.  Schneider welcomed  the  prognostications of global disaster made in  the  popular press.  He longed to have been right all  along  about things.  Bring on entropy, ye men of learning, said Schneider  to himself.
He  pushed  the bicycle along the sidewalk. Rows  of  houses were  empty, just this side of complete abandon, for  sale  signs teetering  eerily on the overgrown patches of weed and  brambles. Stray  cats  made dashes for cover across the  street.  Schneider
checked the directions Lawrence had scribbled on a piece of  Good Neighborhood Scheme stationery. The house was at the end of  the street.  Thick, woody brambles overgrew the picket  fence.  Paint was falling in jagged patches from the front door. Schneider rang the buzzer. It still worked; he could hear it sounding inside. He heard  footsteps,  and then the door opened.
"Mr.  Isaacs?" enquired Schneider.
The man, an older gentleman with a yellowed moustache, lanky thin  hair  combed  across the scalp  and  black  framed  glasses, studied Schneider with a blank expression.
"Yes?" he said.
"I'm from the Good Neighbor Scheme. Here to cut your grass."
 "Oh, yes. Seamus. Yes, yes. Come around the back."
"I've got the bicycle."
"That's  all  right. You see, I've been done by  the  bloody doctors  for cancer. Haven't been keeping up with  things  around here like I used to."
"You are here to do the back lawn, aren't you?
"Anything you need done," said Schneider serviceably.
 "Yes. Well, my name is Ron. Ron Isaacs. You can come  around the back, Seamus."
Schenider  pushed the bicycle around by the back  gate.  Ron was holding the gate open for him.
"What line of work are you in, son?"
"Oh, I do a little bit of everything," said Schneider.
"It's absolutely dreadful the way this government is  running the country into the ground, isn't it?"
"Oh, yeah."
"I  know it's hard for the lads to find any sort of  steady work. I'm a roofer myself. Worked in the trade for 25 years. I've always been active. When you're a roofer you're always active."
Schneider set the bicycle against a rusted oil barrel.
"But I've been done by the cancer," added Ron.
The backyard was a scrap heap, piled high with rotted planks and  assorted timbers, rusted pieces of machinery set  among  the grass. A small brown dog barked at the kitchen door.
"All  right, Lady. It's been hard for her with the grass  so high, you see," said Ron.
He opened the back door and the dog ran out on stiff  legs into  its former fields of glory, yapping and jerking  into  the thicket.
"There's a hedgehog in there, you see," said Ron.
Schneider  took the shears and snapped them open and  closed once or twice, loosening the hinge.
"You need some oil for that," said Ron.
"What I need is a decent lawnmower," said Schneider.
"You can use mine," said Ron, stepping over and removing the canvas from a push mower that looked like it hadn't been used for decades.
Ron  was fairly alert for an old man, thought Schneider,  as the two of them adjusted the blades on the mower and tried to  get it to work. But then suddenly his eyes would  lose  their focus, and he would seem faded and gray, the spark gone. He  went
back  inside the house with the dog, letting Schneider  carry  on alone.
Schneider was glad for the mower for one big  reason, and that was the dog turds he kept coming across, slicing wet and sliding  between  the blades. He would have hated to  go  through them  with  Lawrence's shears. Somehow the dog got  back  outside again  and was running around sniffing the gory remains  of  the past. The dog was on its last legs. It relished being alive and then seemed to founder, like Ron, staring into the tall grass in memory of the ancient prey, the hedgehog. The sun was out now, and steam was rising from the grass  as Schneider  worked.  He  kept coming across rusted  tools  in  the grass, pliers and wrenches. He wondered if Ron would miss them. Probably not. Ron appeared with a  cup of  tea for him. Schneider took the cup. Ron smelled strongly  of tobacco  and  some sort of medicinal odor Schneider  could  not identify.
"You're doing well," said Ron. "I would have done it myself, but you see I've been done by the cancer. This is the scar  here, see?"
Ron lifted his shirt to show Schneider the scar, yellow  and grisly  like  an  old  rope burned into the  pale  folds  of  his stomach. Schneider sat on the concrete porch by the back door and drank the cup of tea. Ron folded his shirt back in his pants.
"How long they give you?" asked Schneider.
"Two weeks or two years. Nobody knows for sure. I've already ordered  my coffin." Schneider looked away, unable to take  Ron's stare.
The radio was on in the kitchen, broadcasting  Parliamentary Questions.  The Leader of the Opposition was blasting  the  Prime Minister.  In  the  same way death rebuked life for not fulfilling its campaign pledges. It showed in Ron's stare. He was  talking  about  his career as  a  roofer.  He  had been responsible  for the introduction of neolite, an  asbestos  tile, into the Wembley area. Schneider listened with interest. The  man was  making  a  summation of himself.  Schneider  was  witnessing something  important. 
"Say,"  said Ron. "Maybe you can help me cover the  roof  of the  shed. It's been leaking all winter, and I'd like to have  it covered."
"Sure,"  said  Schneider, looking over at the  shed. It was leaning dangerously against the side of the house. He thought there  was no way Ron could be serious. But he was.
 "This  was my motorbike here. Used to get around  everywhere on her."
Ron  was peeling plastic off the motorcycle in the shed,  revealing  a fairly new Yamaha 250.
"...ride her down to Bournemouth regularly. I'll sell it  to you if you like."
"I don't know. It's certainly a nice bike."
"Does seventy on the motorway."
"How much would you want for it?"
"Three hundred quid."
Ron  went  back  inside, vital with  the  old  struggle  for survival  gurgling  once  again in his veins  despite  the  large proportion of his insides riddled with decay.   Schneider  thought  he  could use a motorcycle.  Man  the  wanderer,  homo  migratorio  was Schneider,  sailing over the grass, rolling down the  street.  He never  wanted  to  end  his  days  with  the  stink  of  his  own decrepitude  in his nostrils. Schneider believed in the  practice of  mobility.  Luckily, the wife was not yet  settled  back  into local society. Schneider would not give her the chance if he  had his say.
There  was  an  old rake of Ron's he used  to  pile  up  the cuttings. Then he snipped the brambles back from the edges of the lawn.  Lady would have the upper hand once again in the  struggle for backyard supremacy with the hedgehog.
"You've got to help me with the shed now," said Ron,  highly excited. Lady yapped loudly around his heels. Schneider felt like going home before the rain descended again. But he knew he had to help  Ron. It would give him an infusion of strength to  work  on the  shed.  He was already rolling out the sheet  of  plastic  he intended as a covering, trying hard to control the shaking in the hands that had once introduced neolite, the miracle tile, to  the Wembley area.
Ron  and  Schneider  worked at covering the  shed  with  the plastic. Ron led the way down the narrow alley between the  house and the shed. Together they threw the plastic over the shed. Then the old man insisted on climbing the ladder while Schneider  held it steady below. Schneider could see the arc of the man's life as he  climbed  the ladder, his vanity and strength just  enough  to keep away despair. Ron tried adjusting the plastic.
"Hammer, please," said Ron. Schneider handed up the hammer. Ron  began to hammer. His trembling hands made  it  hard for him to get the nails into the rotting wood. 
“Why don't you let me do it?" asked Schneider.
"That's   awright,"  said  Ron.  Schneider  could  see   the condensation  forming  on the inside of his glasses.  The  hammer slipped and crashed to the floor. Schneider picked it up, letting go  of  the  ladder.  Somehow Ron got down off the ladder without falling. Sschneider was grateful for that. There were some  nails  on  the  floor  and
Schneider  went around the shed with them, reaching up to  hammer the plastic down to the rotten siding of the shed.
Ron watched.
"Good. Well done," he said, wiping his glasses.
Schneider  was sick. The whole idea had been to give  Ron  a sense  of pride in himself, and he'd had to go and do it himself. Schneider tried to make it up by coming inside with Ron and meeting his wife. He  had  a difficult time looking at Emma. Her  lower  teeth were missing and her legs were swelled from poor circulation.  She was otherwise a cheerful, ebullient sort of woman, and  Schneider saw  how much the two loved each other. She told Schneider  about her  two  sons,  both wonderful fellows,  one  an  accountant  in Watford. Schneider wondered why they didn't help out with cutting
the lawn if they were so wonderful. 
"Seamus helped me cover the shed, dear. It should keep  dry now," said Ron.
"Oh, that's very kind of you," said Emma. "How much do we owe you?"  she asked.
"Nothing.  The scheme pays me. It comes out of  the  council budget."
The  two  of them were Labor party  supporters,  old  style socialists.  Ron had campaigned for the local  Labor  candidate, but  someone in the neighborhood had stolen the  billboards  from the  front lawn. Schneider thought a decent interval  had  passed and made to go.
"About  the  motorcycle. I'll get back to  you,  Ron,"  said Schneider  as the old man showed him to the back gate. They  were best of friends now.
"What price did I quote you, son?"
"Two hundred," said Schneider. Ron's eyes faded to gray.

The  rush hour traffic was growing menacing and  threatening to  whip out of control. Soon Schneider would be home, but still he  cursed and made faces at the cars,  hoping  indignation would keep away misfortune.

Anthony Caplan's latest novel, Savior, will be published April 18, 2014, on Amazon's Kindle by Harvard Square Editions. Read a sample on his website at:

Monday, January 20, 2014

Is Social Media a Waste of Time?

Social media is mostly a waste of time. Okay? That's a given. Like the name implies, it's about social, so don't look for maximum efficiency or optimizing output or gaining knowledge or insight or wisdom or anything of the sort. It's about hanging out in the virtual realm and feeling connected by a shared investment of time and energy. If you don't have time or energy, and who does really, then you shouldn't be wasting it with social media. And just as you were getting comfortable, (or tired of) Facebook, comes news of its imminent demise. Teenagers are dropping it in droves, and, if they are anything like mine, picking up instead with something that beats even Twitter for innocuous seeming, ego-inflaming inanity, Snapchat, which allows them basically to send smart-phone self-portraits a la wacky celebrities to each other with commentary that pushes the envelope for meaningless.
But once in a while I get a share on Facebook that makes me sit up and smile in self-recognition, or I see photos of the children of a friend I knew way back in the day and I think, wow how time has passed and I click like or I write a comment showing, I hope, my continued allegiance to a bond that would otherwise exist only in my head. Is that valuable? Enough to keep share prices of Facebook at a decent level, methinks. Yes, it's strange times we live in, when our validation as social beings comes in such a diluted, vacuous medium. But, is it really so strange? Why do people paint, or create stories, or design stuff to hang on the end of their noses? Most of the time it's a waste of time, but in the aggregate it creates a culture that moves us forward and keeps us busy and even might teach us a thing or two once in a great while, maybe every ten to fifteen years.
Basically, and this is probably not apparent because I'm pretty decent at this,  I'm trying to convince myself that writing this blog is a worthwhile endeavor. Who am I pleasing with this, is there anyone edified by my occasionally witty (but mostly witless) rants? I don't know. But it's what we do.
Knowledge alert -- I'm reading The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil in which he argues that the slow pace of cultural change will be forever a thing of the past once our brains are enhanced by computer aided implants or AI which will change us irrevocably because the artificial intelligence will be able to improve and redesign itself at an ever accelerating rate until ultimately we infuse the entire Universe with our intelligence. Probably by 2100. Okay that is probably a horrible paraphrase, but I'm trying to understand this important work with my puny human brain and my so-antiquated system of words and human language and messy Neanderthal intuitions.
I have mixed feelings about this model of how we leave ourselves behind, but do I see it coming to pass? Oh boy do I. Just look at how willing we are to inhabit a virtual realm and how it seems to be okay by us as we drop ordinary, face-to-face human contact. And yet, and yet. Perhaps we will be saved by our shared penchant for time wasting and doing silly things like send silly photographs of ourselves and our cats to people we hardly know anymore. We seem to enjoy the sheer entropy of the social sphere. I don't know. I want to talk to somebody about this book and how it's changed my life. I bet there's a forum on Goodreads.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

As If Resilience is a Muscle

I took some time off from the blog over the busy holidays. Sometimes it feels good to not say anything and lay low. There's a perverse sense of satisfaction in keeping that part of the brain quiet, as if silence knows best in the end. Getting back in touch with that sense of finality, the mother of all thought, a very Buddhist kind of place beyond the contradictions, the choices, all the issues we deal with on a daily basis.
Now that we're through the Christmas season, we're in a  quieter stretch of the calendar. It has its unique pleasures. Today was one of the ugliest of New England days. Gray wet skies just spitting that slush in a fine mist that the weathermen call a wintry mix and coating every surface with ice, the kind that bends the birch saplings to the ground and scars them for life. Still it was nice. Took the dog for a walk and he had his head up smelling for things over the snowbanks that he couldn't see. Inside the house was crackling warm with the wood fire. A good day to read after the basketball games and the house cleaning, the sheep fed and the chicken shed door freed from its icy clamp.
It's an in-between season, a time for quiet reflection and gathering strength. I heard an interview with a man, a safety expert on the radio who said we need to formulate a script in our heads for the emergency times, the lockdowns, the unimaginable scenarios we prefer not to think about. As if resilience itself is a muscle that we need to exercise. I tend to think we will be fine. I have a sense that in this quiet time, family time, reflecting on the good things and keeping a still focus, there is exercise and preparation enough for any bad times if indeed they are coming. I hope we are more like maples and less like birch. The ice storms will not break us. They haven't yet.