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Fractal #38: The Gentleman in Harvard Square

He sat in the cold on a dilapidated wheelchair, leaning heavily on his one good but crooked arm. As we walked by he caught Joan’s eye with an urgency that seemed beyond the standard panhandler’s flat appeal. From the way his mouth hung lopsided and slightly open I assumed the disability that twisted him had also garbled his speech. Whatever he was trying to say to Joan, though, made her stop in front of him. He pointed to an empty container of soup and plastic spoon on the sidewalk beside his chair, and then fluttered both hands towards a trash can. Joan picked up his empty bowl and tossed it in the can then turned back to him. He gestured for her to come back, come closer. She glanced at me, then approached. He gently took her gloved hand in his, and pressed his lips to the back of her hand.

The Hazards of Desire

Joan under a panama hat
What you see really is what you get. (click to enlarge)

To keep these ideas at a certain level of generality is the safest course. I mean to say that most of us are familiar with what we mean when we talk about desire. And it’s not the same as want or need, is it. It’s not just a deeper, or stronger, or brighter or heavier type of need. Desire comes from a place in the brain that is not necessarily driven by anything we can talk clearly about. If anything, desire is controlled by the breath, and in turn controls the breath. And that may be some clue to it. We don’t want oxygen, and to say we need oxygen is a bland way of saying that without it, our revels are ended. So as I breath, desire breathes me.

1982: An accident with the arrow

A dog, a baby and a boy. It was summer. Somebody thought he was an archer. (click to enlarge)
A dog, a baby and a boy. It was summer. Somebody thought he was an archer. (click to enlarge)

But one day in the summer of 1958 I was playing in the backyard with a bow and arrow. The arrow was a real one, with a sharp metal tip, a target arrow which I had acquired from another kid in the neighborhood as part of a carefully calculated exchange of trade goods. It was one of my most prized possessions. I would draw a target on a cardboard box and launch the arrow over and over again, increasing my distance from the box only after I was successful at hitting it consistently.

This particular afternoon for some reason I decided to shoot the arrow straight up into the air. Maybe simply for the thrill of it. Watching as it reached its apogee and faltered, slipping over on its side and then gathering back the speed it had lost as it streaked back down to stick with a satisfying crunch into the lawn. I did not know my grandfather had quietly walked out to inspect my mother’s flower garden. He was a gentle man, slight of build and bald of head. He was also deaf.

I launched the arrow, watched it rise, and then saw my grandfather standing on the lawn with his back to me. I was paralyzed with fear. I couldn’t shout. I closed my eyes, and in that moment probably came as close as I will ever come in my life to praying.

The arrow landed three or four feet behind him. I don’t remember anything else.