In order of magnitude

Bayo at the gym always pulls into the parking lot with 90s rap thumping out of his car. You feel the beat before he comes into view, then as he parks, people look over, recognise the song and smile at him. He is in his late forties with a salt and pepper beard, and I am often surprised by how many people sing along to his golden age nuggets.

Last week, he came in playing Hit ‘Em Up by 2Pac. That got a huge response from the loitering crowd and I thought about how decades after 2Pac’s death, we were still listening to this track. Tupac has been dead for 26 years, and people who were born long after will still be bopping their heads to this song with all of the anger blooming off it.

A diss track is a curious act of perseverance because of how long it takes to create. Tupac Shakur was shot in November of 1994. He was in prison from February to October of 1995, and the song was recorded and released in 1996. In that time, Tupac, mostly in jail, had to write the lyrics, find a producer, sample songs for the hook, and get a group of three other people to sing verses on it; all while maintaining sufficient fury to keep the project moving forward.

After the song was completed, when they got together to shoot the music video–which involved a full crew, video editors, location scouts, costume designers, impersonators for Puffy and Biggie and probably caterers–I wonder if 2Pac had a moment of peace waiting to shoot a scene where he looked around at this mass of people he had gathered in the warehouse studio and said to himself, “I am no longer upset but I’ve made such a banger so it’s too late to back out now.”

As always happens when I think of 2Pac, I remember he was in his early twenties when all of these happened (23 when he was shot, and 25 when he died). And even though he had tasted love, death, and fame, and the struggles of creating art and of inequality, perhaps one can be forgiven at that age of excesses. Now, if someone does something particularly annoying like cut me off in traffic, in the time it would take me to drive to a safe spot so I could tweet about it, I’d have lost my train of thought. But there’s no telling if someone tried to kill me, I might memorialise it in an expletive filled song and would even make time to record a clean version for radio play.

***

There is a Bloomberg interview with Donald Trump where he is asked by the interviewer, as a follow up to saying the Bible is his favourite book, what one or two of his “most favourite” Bible verses are. He flubs the question, he doesn’t want to talk about it, it’s too personal.

But it is kind of a trick question, right?

Like what is your favourite Bob Marley song. If you say, “Redemption Song,” people scoff, “Pfft, everyone knows Redemption Song,” because you only get credit if you mention a song that only someone who says Bob Marley is their favourite artist would know.

Poor Trump, imagine if he had said John 3:16 or Genesis 1:1, and worse yet, had gone on to misquote it.

The same thing happened to me once, and when I pulled out a part of a popular psalm, my answer was met with mockery.

Since then, I have been on a search to prevent my own bible trap moment; to find the right obscure quote to drop when I am cornered. Now when people ask me about my favourite verse, I raise my head to the sky with a beatific look on my face, and say barely audibly, “2nd Timothy 4:14.”

Don’t worry if this is not immediately familiar, I will give you all of the context you need.

Paul had been a ranking member of the Pharisees. He had spoken to God and at least two heads of government, been blinded, bitten by a snake, shipwrecked, had held on a piece of wood and drifted at sea for days, been publicly flogged, stoned and left for dead.

After all of this, Paul, at 60, was in prison, writing the final letter of his life to Timothy, his mentee and adopted son.

He could see his death approaching and had a feeling in the back of his mind that this letter would at least be read aloud to the immediate congregation at the next church meeting, and maybe distributed and read by millions of people around the world for centuries later.

Paul packs the letter with parting lessons. He talks about shame and suffering, he says he has fought the good fight and finished the race. But an unknown man, Alex, had done something to vex Paul, and in his dying days, Paul could not let it go. So at the end of the letter, sitting at his desk, with calluses on his hands, scars on his back, chains on feet, he couldn’t resist:

“Finally let me tell you,” Paul writes, “Alexander the metalworker did me wrong. Only God can judge him.”

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Us v Them

There was a time when I was younger when I would make bold declarations like, “I could never date someone who doesn’t read.”

My reluctance to say things like that now isn’t because of a change in my preference of who I would date, but more about the way the declaration was made. At 20 what did I know about the word ‘never’.

So I’m on this date, in the getting to know you phase, and my partner is asking all sorts of questions.

I twist a fry into the ketchup cup and put it in my mouth.
She says, “What kind of stories do you write?”

“Mostly slice of life, small interactions, that sort of thing.” I lick some ketchup from the corner of my mouth.

“Do you ever write animal stories?”

I shake my head.

She continues, speaking softly, as if to herself. “If you wrote an animal story, I would read it.”

I think, where does someone who only reads animal stories fit into this whole “never date one who doesn’t read” thing?

And how would you go about judging what category they fall into?

Later, I come up with a test.

 

Once upon a time, there were two cockroaches that lived in a compound, James and Cletus.
Well, there were more than two cockroaches in that house, but these are the two that we know and they were friends.
They had both lived around the same house their whole lives. Cletus was born in the dark recesses of the bedroom, hatched out of an egg cylinder behind damp clothes.
He spent most of his time darting under the bed, behind the wardrobe, eating paper and fabric. On rare occasions, a crumb would fall out of a snack plate. He would snatch that up, rubbing his forelegs together with delight.

James was born outside the house. Past the back door, along the wall where the sewer pipe enters the ground is a patch of soil that never sees any sunlight. It was in that muck that the egg cylinder that held James was laid. He emerged as a nymph under the patter of rain, scrambling, confused by the elements. All his young life, he was beaten by the sun, buffeted by the wind, swept off by the rain, until he mastered them. He saw himself as a self-made roach and did not let anyone look down on him.

The bedroom had an air conditioning unit installed in the wall. A rectangular hole held the appliance, padded on all sides with newspaper. It was in this crawlspace, one coming in and the other going out, that James and Cletus met for the first time.

Cletus had grown up indoors amidst plenty. He was non-confrontational and welcoming. James who had lived the hard scrabble life saw this, and sensing no challenge from James, approached him without aggression or ill will.
They became friends, because there was no reason for them to be enemies.

For weeks, they would meet every day in the crawlspace and decide together where to explore. They would run on the window ledge then leap in tandem, wings fluttering, slide down the curtain, canter along the wall, under the door, into the next room, nestle behind the TV stand and frolic in the warm exhaust of the electronics. If outdoors, they would dig under fallen leaves, forage in the trash bin, eyes darting, legs skittering, stumble upon a discarded meal and gorge themselves.

They would dash past other roaches, waving feelers as they ran. Stopping for breathless introductions.
“This is my friend from outside,” Cletus would say. And James, ever the clown, would do a mock bow, to show he wasn’t entirely without manners.

It was a happy life.

One day James asked, “So what’s up with you and Linda?”

They were crouched in the corner of the kitchen, pulling pieces off a lump of bread they had dragged there.

To get there, they had come through a hole in the ceiling, scrambled down the wires leading to the fuse box. Cletus leading the way, showing James the shortcuts, how to get from room to room without being seen.

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” James said, “never mind.”

Cletus pushed a crumb into his mouth, chewing on it in silence. “You know how it is. We grew up together, hatched in the same wardrobe. we pretty much live together. If I try to make a move, she just laughs like it’s a joke.”
James listened, giving Cletus time to say everything on his mind.

“It’s the closeness curse.” James said.
He thought about it for a minute.
“You know what you should do?” he said, putting his front legs on his friend’s shoulder. “You should move out. Create some distance so she sees you as an outsider.”

“I will even make it easy for you. You can move into my apartment, try it for a few weeks, and then approach her as a different person.”

So it was that Cletus moved out to live as a cockroach in the sewers and James moved into the house.
Cletus spent the first day getting used to the new place. On the second day, it rained and as the waters rose around him marooning him on the highest object in the room, he came to terms with the privilege in his life and admitted he was not cut out for this.

When the morning came around, he packed his belongings into his little hobo bag, said goodbye to the wet room, and high-stepped it out of there.

Cletus waded through the mud to the side of the house. He hauled himself up the wall of the building and climbed inside through the kitchen window.

He hadn’t even finished climbing to the ground before he saw two cockroaches cuddling in the warmth behind the freezer. He was tired and bedraggled. Cletus approached them with caution, then moving faster as he got a closer look at them. Yes, it was the only two other roaches we’ve mentioned in this story: James and Linda.

Cletus flipped out, started cursing. He went on and on spewing a creative list of B-words, like backstabber, betrayer, bastard, until he was winded.
When Cletus paused to catch his breath, James said, “I thank you not to use that type of language in front of my future wife.”

“Your wha-?”

James ran towards him, antennae swinging and butted him with his head.
They wrestled, Cletus unable to hide his surprise that this was happening to him.
Cockroaches are resilient creatures. They can hold their breath for forty minutes and live without a head for up to a week. They can survive nuclear winters, feeding on ash and radioactive waste but they are undone by what might be considered a design flaw.

James went low and swept the leg. Cletus tumbled over and fell onto his back.
By evening, Cletus was still lying on his back. He was lightheaded from hunger, his legs kicking weakly. He could hear movement beyond the periphery of his vision. He tried to wiggle his body towards the source of the sound.

“Hello? James? Look, I’m sorry. Just flip me over and I will leave and not come back. Linda? Is that you, Linda?”

 

 

When she is finished reading, she does her face like the thinking emoji and asks, “What is the moral of the story?”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” I say.