The storyteller has shoes that are very specific sort of worn.
They have little grey patches in strange places. On the edges and flat parts. They aren’t the parts that touch the world usually. They are the parts where artists are taught to shade in to show shadow. I try to imagine how the world touched him to make those marks — they are so uniform, so perfect. They’re not the kind of marks that come from a scratch or a slip or any of the other pieces of individual crookedness that we show every day in the way we walk, sit, stand, or turn around.
These shoes are the sort you stumble across in a second-hand store. The sort of shoes that have only been worn once, or never at all. You pick them up and think “these could just work, I might just be able to wear them”. Then put them back in the bin and walk on.
I imagine the shadows might come from neglect — from being rubbed back and forth against other shoes in various bins and displays. Rinse repeat rinse repeat.
That could be them. His shoes could be salvaged from a vintage shop or a second hand bargain bin somewhere.
Or they could be worn like this from nothing. They could be chapped from walks from public transport or cars to a desk. Then they sit wet and patient, scratch the back of a calf. Stroll to the toilet. Stroll to get coffee.
A few years ago I bought a bracelet that tracked my steps. Told me how many I took every day. At first it was 10,000 a day, 15,000 a day.
During this time depression found me. I walked less, went out less, lived less in general. One day I looked up and my bracelet told me I had taken less than 500 steps that day.
That might be the way his shoes are worn as well. They could be the sign of quiet feet walking careful steps, but not too many. The heels are as proud and square as the day they were made.
This could be it as well. There is nothing else about him that shows the daily violence that might inflict a different kind of wear and tear.
I look at my shoes.
Black boots covered in scuff marks and mistreatment. There is a piece of a leaf stuck in one of the cracks that lacerate both toes. I am not active, but I move through this world violently. I always have.
His do not have that. The rest of him is soft and well cared for as well. His body is curved in places, his nails are even, from here I see no callouses.
But he holds himself like a troubadour or the ringmaster of a circus. His soft fists sit on his hips, he swirls a pretend sword about his head. His beard is wild and unkept in places like the mane of a scraggly lion.
But scraggly lions are still lions. Tonight he is a lion and he holds us in awe as he speaks in roars, huffs, and slow rumbling laughs.
He draws the tension. We feel the stories he has brought to us lovingly.
He is fierce, they are fierce, he is soft and gentle, they lull us.
By the end of his story about stories little fragments are tumbling out and we are laughing.
He is a canny and tricky lion. He is as smart as the woman from the story, as fearful and ferocious as her husband, as old and magnificent as the living mountain and as mysterious as the fey.
Above those worn shoes he creates a world and invites us in.
Laughing we go following this lion in worn and quiet shoes.
A story about everybody and nobody and full of things that never happened but that happen all the time.
Wemet before I noticed you.
Everyone has a you, I think. I hope they do. Even after everything that happened I hope that. There is no you, and there are many yous. I hope you understand that.
You were wearing that jacket you wear — you know the one.
I know it well. I see it below your hair and above your legs, filled with your body, in so many places where it isn’t there now.
Our love had many silences. You are a connoisseur of silence. You teach me about the power that they hold.
When I first noticed you I was busy filling the silence with words the way I do. Running away with the telling of myself the way people do.
Sometimes the story is told by the teller for the teller. Especially the stories you tell when dating, to attractive women.
These stories let you take the fragments of your life and piece them together in a way that pleases you. You can smooth the rough edges off, connect things that weren’t connected, insert grand designs behind aimless wanderings and blind hope. These stories help you remember what you once were or what you believe you can become. You can feel yourself and how you want to be in that telling.
I tell many stories like this.
That time you were in your jacket — the real you — I was doing this. But then you said something. Do you remember what it was? I will forever.
Then I wasn’t telling my story anymore. The scuffed spot it used to be was silence.
The first silence.
For a moment.
Then into that silence came you.
I listened to you. To your face and your eyes. The way your lips would tense.
I wonder what the way you angled your head meant. Is this something you do? Or just something you did just now?
Your hands make points. But they also calm you with small soothing movements.
You’re showing your passion, but it makes you nervous. There are parts of you that are hidden and that you want to hide. In that moment I want to see those parts.
You shrug through a point.
“Of course this might not be true.”
I shake my head.
“I think I get it. Please keep going.”
Then into that silence came Us.
Us became a ship to me. The way the sounds on a ship are not the sounds of the ship, or the sounds of the ocean.
They are neither, they are both. They are neither both nor neither.
Love is like this.
You ride on top of something, inside it, carving a path through it and being born lovingly along by it, sometimes even being beaten by it in moments of perfunctory rage.
Out of that silence something grew.
Too much is said about sex already so I won’t bother too much — but that was where I found our second silence.
You’re never more naked than in the moment after you orgasm, the moment after sex with someone. You are never more exposed. You can tell so much about the feeling between the two people in that moment.
Most people rush to fill that silence.
“Was that ok for you” — said a lot when I was younger.
“It was incredible.”
“Oh for me too.”
Sometimes it’s just a look that breaks the silence. A shake of the head and a laugh.
One time I lay tangled with a lover in a hut looking over the beach breathing reluctant and sticky tropical air. She looks at me, raises her eyebrows a fraction, blows out a breath and the silence shatters.
You and I sit in the silence of each other.
I feel your breath and mine filling the space between us. For ten minutes we are waves crashing over each other on a shoreline. Sometimes we breathe perfectly together, sometimes your breath rushes up behind my slowly moving wave, sometimes we fall out of time but stay perfectly in time as the ocean does. We barely move but crash together and I see spray in the sunshine between us.
I ask you if you felt it.
“It felt like waves,” you say.
After the crazy cascading sex is the sound of watching someone wake up and smile. The rectangle around your face getting smaller as you close your door, getting larger as you open it. The way your laugh bubbles out of you even as you try to swallow it.
It’s the third silence that sits between two people who share an ordinary life together and the thousand moments of the commonplace that slide between them every day.
All of those thousand things … they are bright now. They ring out metallic, velvet, rough and smooth in a way that things have never been.
An ordinary life shared honestly and joyfully is no longer ordinary.
In my days with you I felt like my eyes were more open than they have ever been. I pay more attention to life. I am always searching for moments to bring you that are beautiful, strange, intriguing, or curious. I bring you these tiny scraps at the end of the day or send them to you in messages. You are always the first person I want to know about everything.
I realise this means my life is more beautiful, more strange and intriguing, more curious.
In that silence for the first time I do not mind ordinary — I long for your trivialities and hoard my mundane moments not letting them breathe until I hear your point of view.
As much has been said about sex, well just as much has been said about arguments. So I’ll leave those as well.
There is nothing to fear from an argument. They are loud, they storm, but they lead back to a better silence.
Maybe some of the second type of silence — that’s always good when you’ve been fighting and need to make up.
This is something else.
This is the fourth silence.
I want you to think of that great work of fiction Captain Ahab. Think of him pacing out his madness on his ship, burning with hatred and the longing for revenge on the white whale that crippled him — Moby Dick.
Think of his eyes above the foaming green and blue ocean — what does his silence sound like?
When he looks at the sea — the only thing that can deliver what he needs to him, the only thing standing in the way.
His only ally and the greatest conspirator against him. The one who carries him to his goal and the one who beats him mercilessly back and hides everything from him beneath the waves.
That’s the silence between us now.
“I told you.”
“You’re not listening.”
“I never said that.”
“I don’t think that.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
Furious and far away. Watching each other make the same arguments over and over across an ocean that has no horizon.
That fourth silence between us.
As bad as that is it’s not as bad as what comes next. The smallest of all the silences, number five.
You hear it in the moment after you sigh the sigh that says you have said everything you can think of saying and before the breath you take for words that never come.
How many loves, great and small have tumbled into that space and died.
There are no waves there. No storms, no screaming, no wind. There is only that tiny silence squeezing you, me, Us so small that it becomes massive around us.
We become smaller and smaller inside it. Our connection turns to pain. The good moments make no sense anymore — they are only a reminder of their opposite.
The sixth silence is nothing.
The silence of social media and messages. The sound of rampant miscommunication and struggles for connection. I send you a message at 3pm and you don’t respond until 10am the next day. I tell myself “fine, I shall not respond for a day”. We try not to write things that make each other angry.
So we revolve in this stupid artificial thing humans have created teaching some algorithm somewhere just how stupid people can be.
I lay on the red sheets of my bed three days since we last spoke. It’s 12.30am and I read our messages to each other over and over and over.
You come online. I wonder if you’re doing the same thing.
I type a nonsense message — “sdasnagsisdagoiunasdgi” and then delete it without sending. I do this so you’ll see that I’m typing. I hope you’ll type back but I also want you to know that I want to talk to you. Even in my silence.
You go off-line.
I delete the messages, delete the pictures of you on my phone. Anything to stop picking at this open wound.
But I remember your pieces by heart — yours were the words that I obsessed over so they hang there for me like a pentimento that runs in my mind over and over.
I forget my side of the conversation so this endless tape is only of you — questions without answers, answers without questions.
Your frustration and anger worsening, the tightness between us growing, flashes of our old connection and friendship. I can’t remember what I did in the spaces in between. I can only see the trajectory.
Things going downwards. Turning in on themselves.
Silence. I chase sleep.
The next morning I get up late. Walk into the woods as the sun sets.
I try to breathe deeply and find a way to open eyes that can’t be bothered to look for the beautiful, strange, intriguing or curious anymore.
Surrounded by this I sit down and try to force my eyes open to remind myself that they are mine. They are not yours.
I notice the way the leaves turn a darker and darker green as the light fades. I see a concert of colour and shadows deepening and stretching out around me. My eyes are open.
The colours are gone.
The woods in front of me are grey, black, shades of dirty white. Above me the sky holds a soft blue inside its black but in front of me the leaves are quiet.
I go back the next night to watch it happen, again the night after that. The colour crowds in and then it snaps to grey, black, and white.
You can never see the moment it leaves entirely. One moment it is there, the next it is not.
The shape is the same, exactly. The leaves are still leaves, the branches still branches, the bark is still bark.
Love is like that. One moment it’s painfully vivid and bright. The next it’s not. The shapes are the same but the colour is gone. It never happens when you’re watching.
Sometimes it happens by itself. I have woken up in the middle of the night and feel someone asleep next to me feeling more alone than I have ever felt alone.
That night I long for it without knowing. I urge the colour out of us, do everything I can to shatter it, get angry, get passive aggressive, get depressed. Yell at you, deliberately misinterpret you. Anything to stop the colours so I can finally look at a memory of you without being cut by it.
But the sun sets at its own pace.
There is no speeding it up.
There is no slowing it down.
So we both wait until this thing that grew in the light between us, out of that first silence, dies. Because it’s too painful to let it live anymore. We take tiny glimpses of it. Discover it’s still alive. That the pain is still real. Look away. Wait until it’s gone. Urge it to end. Hope that tonight the sun sets on it for good.
I do this badly.
I try to hold onto it. Fierce and angry trying to keep you in my mind until it hurts too much and then turn the other way like a man twisting in a fever.
All this may seem to be recent but we have been lionising idiocy and ignorance for far too long for this to be a surprise.
Welcome to the age of the Holy Schlub.
King Ralph and President Dave
When I was young I was a big fan of two Hollywood movies.
King Raph and Dave.
At the time I didn’t notice the connection between the two but looking back it’s pretty clear.
In King Ralph an American lounge singer takes over the British throne after the entire royal family die in a freak electrical accident.
Despite knowing nothing about being king Ralph, played by John Goodman, is genuine and likeable. You root for him as he wins everyone over with his straight-talk, everyman charm, and “common sense”. He solves the conflicts in the story by staying true to his roots and shows up the “know it all” experts as out-of-touch.
In Dave small business owner Dave Kovic is acting as body double for the US President. But after the president has a stroke the chief of staff tricks Dave into becoming the real commander in chief.
Despite knowing nothing about being President Dave, played by Calvin Klein, is genuine and likeable. You root for him as he wins everyone over with … well you get the point.
At heart they are the same movie.
At first I thought the stories were fun. I liked the idea that anyone could step up and take on a task as big as running a country. I liked the idea that anyone who cared enough could be a leader.
These are great messages and I still like these ideas.
But what I don’t like is the way these movies portray ignorance as a strength.
You are not a bad person if you are not informed about an issue.
Nor are you stupid if you have not spent the time and effort required to be an expert in a field.
But it doesn’t make you a good person either. It especially doesn’t make you better than someone who has.
But this is what we are being told more and more often.
In this world the Holy Schlub who knows nothing about a subject isn’t equal to the experts — they’re better.
We know they are better because the Holy Schlub solves complicated problems experts can’t.
They do this by deploying “common sense”, even if they knew very little about the subject.
In the process they embarrass other people whose expertise, knowledge, and experience they reduce to a punchline.
There is a ludicrous scene in Dave where the titular character calls his friend to ask him for help. He has to cut more than $650 million from the budget so he doesn’t have to cut funding to the homeless.
During the scene the friend tells Dave that it “doesn’t make sense. If I ran my business like this I’d go broke”.
In a meeting afterwards Dave demonstrates that you don’t need experience in government to fix something as complicated as the US budget. A single friend who is an accountant and good old common sense will do.
I don’t know why but after writing that sentence I want to yell “yeee haw”.
In King Ralph the titular Ralph throws out diplomacy when meeting with the leader of Zambizi.
In a scene that hasn’t aged well he throws etiquette out the window, greets the King with “yo!” and bonds over beers and darts before the two end up throwing spears together in the courtyard.
It’s tempting for me to write my concern off as my own joylessness but I am still concerned.
Media commentators today barrage us with the message that scientists, politicians, and other experts are out of touch.
They lack the mystical “common sense”. You know better than they do. You might actually be their superior.
What else could Michael Gove have been saying when he told the public to ignore a laundry list of experts but instead to “trust themselves”.
The Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular shows of the last 20 years. Commentators have declared it the show that “made nerds cool”.
Despite this many of the jokes are about the genius scientists being out of touch. The show’s only “normal” person — Penny — is constantly called on to help them with their issues.
To do this she uses he “street smarts” and … you guessed it … common sense.
In one scene Sheldon, a character who has a genius-level IQ, asks Penny for advice.
Her confusions about this mirrors my own and she replies; “this is about science why did you come to me”.
This is played for laughs but it’s a bloody good question.
Time and time again a Holy Schlub and their common sense come to the rescue of the show’s geniuses.
Instances of this trope in popular culture are growing.
It’s no coincidence we are also seeing this idea rise in the real world.
In the UK the population rejected the advice of experts and voted to Brexit. In the US groups of people said they elected Trump specifically because he wasn’t a political expert. Across Europe people are rejecting the advice of doctors leading to a 400 percent increase in measles cases from 2016 to 2017. In real numbers this means 5562 children dying in Romania, 5006 in Italy, and 967 in Greece. There have also been recent outbreaks in the US — a country that declared measles eliminated in 2000.