In the eighth circle of hell, the false prophets walk backwards, unable to see what's ahead of them. Friday night, I swipe the side mirror off my Nissan Sentra and can no longer see what's behind me. No major loss. I've never been particularly interested in what's going on back there anyway. There's some evidence to suggest there's no such thing as the past or the future, only the present. The evidence that suggests it is this: It just kind of feels that way sometimes, doesn't it?
Friday night, I meet Carl at 1418 coffee shop in Downtown Plano. J and I used to live here, just down the street. One day I asked the owner why she called her coffee shop 1418. I figured it was an important historical date. A major turning point in the course of world events. Something, perhaps, had happened in Spain.
"Oh that?" she said. "That's just our address."
For all intents and purposes history doesn't exist. Being a person who lacks intentions, who lacks purpose, I might not have even noticed had it not been for the fact that none of this seems to be going anywhere. It only makes sense that it didn't come from anywhere either. When I see Carl Friday night it's been four years since we've talked.
"Sorry I'm late," I say. "I swiped the fucking side mirror off my fucking Sentra."
Every few years I like to check in with my friends to make sure nothing interesting is going on with them.
"Same old?" I say.
"Same old," they say.
When Saturn returned six years ago I was a little surprised to see it back again so soon. Once around the universe. Had it really been 27 to 29 years already? I couldn't help noticing that things were more or less exactly how Saturn had left them. A little warmer. It was kind of embarrassing.
"Maybe try one more time around?" I said. "Two if necessary? Three's too many."
Friday night, Carl and I sit at a table outside 1418, by Avenue K. When trucks go by we pause our conversation until they get farther down the road. Then we pick it back up again where we left off. It's a skill we've developed slowly over the past decade and a half, sometimes pausing our conversation for years at a time.
"Same old?" I say after a Harley Davison rumbles past. And Carl just sits there picking the cardboard sleeve off his cappuccino to-go.
I clear my throat.
"Same old?" I say again, a little louder.
Other than returning every 27 to 29 years like loosey goosey clockwork, the other thing Saturn is famous for is scarfing down his own son like a meatball sub. Goya painted a picture of it two hundred years ago. It's bothersome.
"Three decades and this is what I get?" I imagine the son thinking just before Saturn bites off his head.
Some things, I've noticed, aren't worth the wait.
After Carl tells me about his recent diagnosis- non-fatal but certainly life-altering, the type of diagnosis that makes you question not only your future but also your past- I can't help wondering if this is the part of my life when things start getting pretty fucking weird. J's grandma is a 92-year-old. She says every time her phone rings somebody's dead.
I rub my face with both my hands and make a low groaning sound into my palms. Then I say to Carl, through my hands: "Anything else I should know about? Now's your opportunity."
Recently I've been going on these long walks through Bob Woodruff Park, the nature preserve by my house. I started walking a few years ago after getting a troubling health diagnosis of my own. My doctor looked at my test results.
"Yikes," she said.
I had the blood pressure of a septuagenarian, the LDL cholesterol of a man twice my size, the potassium of a fourteen-year-old girl.
"Maybe there was a mix up at the lab," I offered. "Sometimes when the technicians at the lab get frisky with each other after hours, they accidentally spill some of the vials and the blood gets all mixed up and it can lead to some pretty confusing results later on."
My doctor looked at me. Then she asked me how many drinks I have per day. After that I started walking regularly, cutting down on sodium, taking a daily dose of zinc. I didn't know what zinc did. We had a big bottle of it up in our cupboard. Gummi version. They tasted like orange-flavored Sour Patch Kids.
"It's zinc time," I said and popped a few.
I was hoping that if I could get everything else in my life under control that I could let my drinking stay a little out of control, if you know what I mean, that I could do a sort of half and half thing.
"Everything in moderation," Geoff Dyer says in Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It. "Even moderation itself."
"Wait, you're not doing a half and half thing, are you?" my doctor said a few months later when my numbers hadn't changed, had gotten a little worse, actually.
"No," I said.
After that I quit drinking. Then, a little later, I unquit drinking, just to do a little test. Then I quit drinking again, the test results having confirmed certain suspicions I had about my drinking, mainly that I was doing it again. Then I unquit drinking again for a while having kind of forgotten that I'd quit drinking, the whole thing just sort of slipping my mind. Then I bought a book about quitting drinking. Then I quit drinking again, except this time I meant it.
Friday night in Bob Woodruff Park- four weeks sober, my blood pressure that of a reasonably healthy fifty-year-old, my zinc-levels that of a South American mineral mine- I pass a large group of geriatric power-walkers dressed in reflective track suits and Nike visors, all of them walking backwards, pumping their elbows side to side, swinging their hips.
They say the happiest people on Earth are the ones who lose track of time while the most miserable of us slog through our lives minute after minute, second after painful second. It strikes me as a glaring oversight in THE GRAND DESIGN OF THINGS. Someone up there really got that one backwards. Monday morning I check my phone and it's 11:34am. Later I check my phone again and it's still 11:34am.
"Is it just me?" I think sometimes, "Or has the plot started dragging a bit?"
Recently I started meditating. I don't know how to meditate. I looked it up online a few years ago in an attempt to meditate away a hangover. According to the website, all you have to do is not think about things. Perfect, I thought. I hadn't been thinking about things for thirty-two years.
"What color should we paint the living room?" J asks.
"I'll meditate on that," I say.
"What are your 2022 business objectives?" my boss asks.
"I'm currently in the meditation phase," I tell him.
An escalating crisis in Ukraine: I'm meditating on it.
A devastating diagnosis for a friend: meditating on it.
A minor car repair that requires professional know-how and factory-direct parts: meditating.
Back when I used to go to church every week, they would ask for prayer requests. Now, a decade-long non-believer, I am asking for meditation requests.
"Whatever totally fucked up thing is going on in your life," I offer my brothers and sisters. "I am willing to not think about it for you."
Wednesday night, J and I go to Ikea and shop for furniture at unbelievably low prices. We follow the arrows through the sections. Bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, office, miscellaneous items. We imagine this is our bathroom. We imagine these are our miscellaneous items. A tera cotta patio planter. Broccoli-print potholders. A glimpse into our future's interior decorating design scheme. We're going TOTALLY MODERN. It's like walking around inside different versions of your life. I read a news story a few years ago about some kid who re-arranged the arrows inside an Ikea and kept hundreds of innocent shoppers trapped for hours.
Somewhere in the home office section I spot an elderly couple walking backwards through all the filing cabinets and drafting tables, pointing out favorite pieces, writing the bin numbers down on bright yellow sticky notes.
When you buy your furniture at Ikea you're saying, about your future: "Who knows?" You're saying: "Let's wait and see." You're saying: "The certainty of this coffee table being a meaningful part of my life five years from now is not something I'm willing to bet more than $27 on." An anti-clairvoyance. Some super thrifty shit. We spend the evening assembling particle board cabinets and oversized desks. My desk is the size of a kitchen table. I know because it is a kitchen table. It's called THE LISABO.
"Doesn't exactly seem made to last," Graham says when he comes over Saturday afternoon and the thing is already showing signs of normal wear and tear.
I once had a backpack from this hippy dippy backpack company in Portland. It cost me $200 and came with a warning label. "This bag will breakdown over time," it said. "Just like you."
After I spot another backwards walker in Bob Woodruff Park Friday afternoon, this time a guy who looks frighteningly close to my own age, I yell, "That's it!" and Google: "Why is everyone walking backwards all the sudden?" I'm directed to a popular article on healthline.com. Title: "Walking Backwards: The Mind and Body Benefits."
Walking backwards, I learn enhances body awareness, decreases boredom, improves walking technique and form, helps you get out of your comfort zone. Sometimes all it takes to get out of your comfort zone is to start acting like a fucking nutjob. Not as easy as it might sound.
"Even if you are well acquainted with walking forwards," the article warns. "You will still want to approach walking backwards with caution."
The writer recommends a starting speed of 1 mph.
"If you feel a little out of control," she says, "try bringing the speed down."
Sunday is the day of our Lord but Saturday is the day of Saturn. I drive to Downtown Plano to get drinks with Josh at the Filmore pub on 15th. Lacking a side mirror, I am forced to incorporate some fairly advanced over-the-shoulder glances into my driving technique. I whip-pan back and forth like an Edgar Wright movie. What's behind and what's ahead smash cut into a pretty disorienting picture of What's Going On. I was raised to be a man of faith. Now I change lanes willy nilly and hope that everything works out for the best. I've heard that a proven technique for walking in the opposite direction of a large crowd is to refuse to make eye contact with anyone. A path will always present itself to those of us who are most oblivious to our surroundings. There are, you may have noticed, a lot of successful idiots.
At the Filmore, we sit at the bar and Josh orders a Whistlepig neat and I order a water with lime and no ice.
"Water with lime, huh?" Josh says.
"And no ice," I say.
When it comes, I squeeze the lime into the water. It gives it a little extra zing.
Ever since Saturn returned a few years ago, I've noticed that these little meet ups aren't quite as much fun as they used to be. Nothing's ever quite the same old anymore. Everything's always kind of fucked up. I guess I should have seen it coming. In my defense, though, I've never seen anything coming. Everything has been a huge surprise. After another whisky, and then another whisky, and then a few more whiskies, Josh tells me about his recent unemployment, his father-in-law's stroke, his dog's battle with face cancer.
His wife, he tells me, had her hip replaced.
"Which one?" I say.
If you feel a little out of control, try bringing the speed down.
Recently I read an article in a business magazine. It said that the way to establish dominance in a business meeting is to say, at some point, "Let's all take a step back here."
In an attempt to establish dominance in other areas of my life, not just business, I begin encouraging everyone I know to take a step back from whatever it is they're currently attempting to move forward with.
"Are we ready?" the waiter at Outback Steakhouse asks.
"Whoa whoa whoa," I say. "Let's take a step back."
"Find everything okay?" the checkout person at Target says.
"How bout we slow it down?" I say. "How bout we take a step back?"
"So, what's new with you?" Josh says Friday afternoon at the Filmore, after telling me about his wife's new hip, the left one, now a space-age carbon fiber socket that sets off metal detectors and has to be replaced every 27 to 29 years depending on how much hip activity she engages in.
"Okay, listen," I say. "This is the part where I'm going to have to ask you to go ahead and take a big ol' step back."
There is no problem so big or so small that I am not willing to take a step back from it. And after taking a step back from it, taking another step back. When I leave the Filmore an hour later, bright-eyed and sober, overly hydrated, bored out of my fucking mind, I walk backwards out of the bar like a bank robber making sure nobody gets any bright ideas.
In the beginning was the middle. And in the middle was the middle. And in the end was the middle too.
Last night there was a tornado in the area. Or the signs of a tornado. A rotation. The wind between the houses sounded like a Boeing 747 jet engine.
"Don't worry," I yelled at J. "A real tornado sounds like a Union Pacific freight train."
Your odds of dying at any given moment are .00001%. Your odds of dying at some other moment are 100%. According to recent data from the CDC: Slightly higher on Saturdays.
One night in Bob Woodruff Park, I came across a man looking through a child-size telescope. One of those bright red plastic ones you can get at Target for $25. I asked him how everything was looking up there. I was a few weeks sober at that point and feeling chatty. It was a nice night. Clear and cool. The kind of night when you can see impact craters on the surface of the moon. The man put his hands on his hips, squinted up at the sky, and shook his head.
"You want the good news?" he said. "Or the bad news?"