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The Dark Engine

Through most of my 20’s, I lived in New Hampshire (and occasionally, Vermont). In New Hampshire, at night, when you look up at the sky, you can see a lot of stars. After many nights spent looking up at those stars, I began to realize that there was a whole hell of a lot more darkness than light. The more I thought about space, the universe, and our place in it, the more I realized that 99.99999% of the universe is inimical to anything that I thought good: life, love, hope, laughter. If you were dropped naked, at random, almost anywhere in the universe, you’d be dead before you could even recognize you’d arrived. We are, literally, the astronomically improbable exception in a universe antithetical to life.

But it was even worse than that, because there’s also this thing called entropy, and it’s boss. The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy always increases, it’s the only inexorable force in the universe. Anything you might do, any work you might effect, any force you might exert to counter this force just screws you over even faster, driving the universe that much closer to its inevitable terminus, the state of “heat death,” its final, constant, maximal, and homogeneous state of entropy.

(All pics in this post are clickable for bigger versions!)

Last known image of my unadorned right arm.

Last known image of my unadorned right arm.

You can imagine the universe being in a particular state right now, and you can imagine that particular state (just for continued cosmological funsies) as being a dot on a phase space diagram of all possible universes. Once second into the future, the universe will be in another state, but we can’t predict the exact state it will be in, because we can’t predict the future. What we do know, though, is that the field of all possible points for the universe to be next, is constrained by the need for the universe to be in a greater state of entropy. And so you can imagine this enormous graph over time this monstrous shape of all possible ways for the universe to play out over time, but whatever this evolving shape, it can only ever terminate in the single point of maximal entropy. Wherever we are now in that diagram, and whatever shape the timeline of the universe does ultimately take, we only know it’s guaranteed to terminate in that one guaranteed final destination of heat death.

When we talk about phase diagrams and shapes that pull in or constrain or attract other shapes to their own shapes, we call those shapes “attractors”. Entropy’s the ultimate attractor. It pulls everything toward itself. When humans stop being orderly systems and succumb, finally, as we all must, to the 2nd law, we call that state death. Death is when the order-keeping systems of your body fail, cells breach, thermoregulation stops, you begin your slow dissolutive journey toward dispersal into your environment. In other words, there’s your ultimate attractor right there: death, disorder, ruination, chaos, dissolution. It doesn’t matter what you call it, really, because what it means is that no matter what you build, love, care for, or believe, that’s where all any of this is going to wind up. Go directly to jail, do not pass go.

It’s true, I wasn’t a lot of fun at parties in my 20’s, but, even so, I felt like I had to be missing something. I felt like I must have reached the end of the road that my liberal arts education had set me on. That what I’d arrived at was not some staggering vision of the Ultimate Truth, but the inevitable terminus of the intellect. A world apprehended solely through the intellect? Of course it was going to be pretty bleak. There was nowhere left to go, except away from my own mind and its pitfalls, and, maybe more significantly, away from New Hampshire and its terrible, beautiful nighttime skies.

My arm after Session 1, 4 hours long, just the line work.

My arm after Session 1, 4 hours long, just the line work.

So just before I turned 30, I came to Boston, where I intended to live, have fun and have what, in my idiocy, I called a Normal Life. I was going to have as much Normal Fun as I possibly could, and forget about all that stupid intellectual nihilistic bullshit and LIVE goddammit. I was going to rage so fucking hard against the dying of the light!

This life choice very nearly killed me. Oh I had some fun, but it was a fun stained with rage. I was angry about a lot of things, not just my own philosophical peregrinations. I took this rage out on myself and those closest to me, until I was completely alone, and all I had left to show for my philosophy and my escape from it was an empty apartment full of bullshit to distract me from my problems and my poor exercises in judgment.

Unfortunately, one of those things in my apartment was a book called Darwin’s Dangerous Dilemma. I never did read the whole thing, but I did read enough of it to become convinced that just the very idea of Evolution is maybe one of the greatest insights anyone has ever framed for understanding how … just everything works. The basic idea is that there’s a bunch of random shit happening, and then one of the random things that happens is a random thing that manages to replicate itself and persist over time. But because random shit is happening all the time, random shit happens to this randomly generated self-sustaining, self-replicating thingie itself, and sometimes that makes the random bit more or less able to replicate itself and persist over time.

This little nugget explains not just life’s appearance and increasing complexification, but also the existence of the universe itself, the free market, human relationships, society, the persistence of ideas and memes over time. It’s pretty remarkable, not just for itself, but for its elegant simplicity and obviousness, once you see it. You get to wondering how we ever even missed it, you know, as a species.

It also delivered me right back to where I’d started, to what I wanted to avoid thinking about ever again. All those terrible intellectual abstractions came out of the mental steamer trunk I’d locked them away in, each ready to titter and say, “See, I told you so.” Because what I saw, and what I still see, when I look at the principle of evolution is that one word “random”, which sure sounds an awful lot like “entropy” to me.

Detail from Session 2, which was 2 hours long. Shading on skull complete.

Detail from Session 2, which was 2 hours long. Shading on skull complete.

Another detail from Session 2, showing some color and clock hands have been added.

Another detail from Session 2, showing some color and clock hands have been added.

You can imagine all the beautiful wonderful tapestry of life lying like a fabric across the world, but the machine that stitches that tapestry is one of randomness, of entropy. I imagined this Dark Engine that undergirded the world and drove the universe forward to its inevitable death. Somehow, through sheer accident, good things do happen, and life happens, and joy and love, but driving it all forward with remorseless, unceasing vigor, is this Dark Engine, the secret machine that churns not just at the heart of the cosmos, but behind the thinnest skin of every passing moment. Not only do we emerge from darkness and not only must we return to darkness, but we are all of us and everything by darkness driven.

I never made peace with this and I never let it go, but, now that I have found someone who loves me, and someone with whom I can share my life, and not feel so alone or so tormented, now that I’ve found a lovely woman who gives me a smile in the morning and a smooch each night before I go to bed, I find I don’t mind the darkness so much. And if entropy and randomness and the heat death of the universe can somehow add up to me having a nice visit on this Earth for a little while with her and all my other friends and all the other delights of the living world, eh, I guess it’s not so bad. I guess you could say I’ve made a truce with that Dark Engine, a nonaggression pact maybe. It seems like the best anyone can hope for, right?

And so but that’s most of what my tattoo is about. There are some other little riffs here and there, like the blackberries at top, which are a reference to one of my favorite poems, and there are lots of sinuous viney growing things, because I have always loved those shapes and forms of nature, and there are flowers because of how I feel like I’ve blossomed since I’ve emerged from my own private darkness, and maybe a couple other private bits besides, one of which hasn’t even been added yet…

This shot and the next two are all different angles from Session 3, and as far as I've gotten, as of this blog post.

This shot and the next two are all different angles from Session 3, and as far as I’ve gotten, as of this blog post.



It took a long time and the patience of and skill of a wonderful artist, Roz Thompson at the Boston Tattoo Company to help bring this vision to life. When I initially came to her, I didn’t really know what I wanted. I had some ideas, but she’s the one who helped me zero in on getting this idea for incorporating the Dark Engine into the piece. That’s what those gears are supposed to represent, turning things up from the darkness at the bottom, up into goodness and fruition and light up at the top. It’s also a sketch of my own personal narrative, up from darkness, through the grinding gears of a difficult marriage, up into sweet flowers and fruit. And it’s also like a badge of the hard-won knowledge I’ve earned just for making it this far. And on top of that, it’s the shapes and forms of the natural world that have always been such a comfort and joy to me.

So there’s the answer to the question I get asked the second-most whenever people see my tattoo for the first time, namely, “does it mean anything?”

The answer to the most asked question is much easier: yes, it fucking hurt.


There’s this woman at work. I don’t know her very well, but I know her name. She’s what you call a passing acquaintance, which to me actually just means, “someone you say hello to when you pass them in the hallway.” I’m sure that’s not the actual etymology of “passing” in this context, but I’d like it to be, and, anyway, I digress

When I first met her, her hair was all about the same color. But now it’s all streaked with whites and grays. I just realized this a few days ago when I happened to see her riding on the same bus as me. I had to resist the impulse to go up to her and tell her how beautiful her hair is, because I actually hate it when someone points out my own grays. But it really was beautiful, and in a way that’s a little hard to put into words. I found it beautiful because of what it meant, I guess. It meant she’s survived long enough to have grays. She’s been marked by life, and I just think this kind of earned beauty is extravagant and precious and rare. You’ve lived, you’ve made it this far, you’re still going, you’ve been around in this body long enough for life to leave its stamp upon you. Like spending an afternoon in a coffee shop, and how the aroma of coffee clings to your things for hours afterward, those of us with grays, and scars and other marks, we’re redolent with the stories life has bestowed upon us.

I have a few scars. There’s a nearly invisible scar on my chin from the time I was five and running around with my underwear on my head, and since it was covering my eyes, I couldn’t see the corner of the open closet door before I ran into it with my chin. There’s the scar on my left hand from when I was nine and I slipped in the rain and hit something sharp on the ground. There’s the one on my head, just behind my scalp line from when I was drunk in college and never mind the details of that actually. And there’s my newest one, from when I had an accident in the kitchen and sliced through the adductor tendons of my right thumb. These are my little stories, and they, along with all my interior scars and the accumulating changes and small destructions occurring by the minute (DNA, skin, collagen, need I go on), are all part of my big story, my favorite story, the story of my life.

Why am I telling you this? Because, as I write this, I’m just a day away from getting another mark: my third tattoo.

I got my first when I was 21, the summer after I graduated college, just one of the pieces of flash art on the wall in a Kentucky studio. Young, white, semi-affluent kids were just starting to get tattoos for the first time, and I jumped directly on that bandwagon as quickly as I could. Back then, the only other people waiting to get tattoos in the studio were truckers and bikers. The older lady who gave me my first looked like she could have been a truck driver herself.

The second tattoo I designed myself, and had it applied by a kid in Nashua, New Hampshire, because, back in 2002, there still weren’t any trustworthy tattoo studios in Boston, where it only became legal in 2000.

I don’t regret either of my tattoos. In part, this is because, on both, I stayed away from any design that had any particular meaning to me. Well, the second one is a moon, and the meaning of that is, I like the moon. I figured that was a safe bet. I figured I would always like the moon. I do still like the moon, and I do not doubt, thirteen years into having it, that I’m ever going to wake up and be like, “The fucking moon. What a piece of shit. I can’t believe I got a tattoo of that stupid thing.” I also feel like I learned something I *really* needed to learn from having tattoos: permanent isn’t so bad or scary. Even if I ever do come to feel a twinge of regret over either of my first two tattoos, I’m confident now I’ll just see them as scars, as records of who I’ve been and what I’ve lived, and that makes it easier.

Realizing that is what gave me the courage to decide to make a more meaningful tattoo this time. Ok, it’s not just meaningful, it’s actually going to be positively fraught with meaning. The images that will make it up will be a story of where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and what I believe in. That’s my story, or maybe just one of them. It took a long time to figure out what I wanted it to be, and I had a little help.

First I shopped around online to see what other people were doing with tattoos, and then I thought about symbols and imagery that would possibly have meaning for me. Nothing really clicked perfectly, but I did start to gather a body of concepts and ideas that spoke to me. When I had a list of elements that I was pretty sure I wanted to include, I looked at online examples of as many local artists’ work as I could find. Finally, at one of the last shops I checked out, I found one artist who I thought might fit for what I had in mind.

I contacted the artist, and over the past six weeks, we’ve emailed and met and reviewed ideas, iterated and put something together that… I AM SUPER EXCITED BY. It’s going to be awesome, and it’s going to be me, and it’s going on my arm tomorrow, and — ok, well, wait, that’s not strictly true. This is a big, complicated piece. Tomorrow, I’m just getting the outline, and that’s going to take about three hours. Over the coming weeks and maybe months, I’m going to have to keep going back and getting more work done on it. The artist estimates about 10-15 hours total.

So I’m writing this a little bit for me, because I want to say goodbye to my unadorned right bicep. Here’s what it looks like today, and this is the last time it’s ever going to look like that, for the rest of my life:


That’s me, and that’s a part of me that’s about to change. Forever. That’s a little scary, even though I know I just said “permanent” wasn’t scary. A friend of mine asked me today, “Do people get tattoos because of who they want to become, or is it because they want to mark who they are?” I think for every tattoo, for everything we do that leaves a mark, that answer is different, but for me, it’s a little bit of a reminder that change is part of life. That you have to say goodbye to the way you’re comfortable with things being, and choose a new way for things to be. It might be a mistake, it might be an indelible mistake, but you can’t let that keep you from making choices.

So for me, now that I’ve had more time to think about it, I think I’d answer the question like this: I want to keep becoming who I am, and this tattoo, when it’s finished, is going to be an excellent daily reminder of that.

The Wheel and the Inclined Plane

Nineteen days ago, our backyard looked like this:

(You can click on the pictures to see bigger versions) This made me sad because, just a little over eight weeks prior to that photo, I’d drawn up the beginnings of a plan to return to gardening after a 30+ year lacuna. I emailed my plan around to the other residents of our condo, they rubberstamped it, and then it snowed. And kept snowing. And then it snowed some more. By the first day of March, Boston had officially had its snowiest winter on record. Most of the snow had stopped by the time that photo was taken, but we were also having an unusually cold March, so all that snow, all 108.6 inches of it, all nine feet of it, took a long time to melt.

Still, I carried on with my planning, through the long cold tail end of winter. I shopped for raised bed materials, I learned about what plants to plant together, and what plants would keep pests away. I shopped for interesting herbs and vegetables, and I ordered seeds. E and I went to Home Depot and stocked up on tools and supplies. I drew up my garden map, ran it by Farmer Andrew, and revised it, and then revised it some more. E even surprised me with a gift of a couple tools I hadn’t thought of, but which are definitely going to get a lot of use. Surely by Easter weekend, I thought, I’d be able to build the garden.

The biggest variable to me though, was how to get enough soil. In the very early stages of this project, I thought we’d just go to a gardening supply shop and pick up a bunch of bags of soil. But as I did the math, I eventually figured out that I was going to need 1.5 cubic yards of planting mix (50% loam, 50% compost). A little more quick back of the napkin math suggested this could mean well over a ton of soil. Not going to pick that up in bags at the nursery. I called around and eventually found a place that could deliver that quantity, and on a Saturday too.

As Easter weekend rolled around, though, the forecast looked like cold and rainy. Not a good day to have a shipment of dirt delivered, which I would then have to cart by wheelbarrow from the front of the property a hundred feet to the back of the property. That was a little disappointing. I was starting to get a little worried about when I was going to get my peas in, since they like cooler weather. What if this was one of those years that skipped spring and went straight into the heat of summer? I was starting to wring my hands a bit, but then last Monday the forecast for Saturday looked like warm and sunny, a perfect day for gardening, or, at least, for building a garden out of nothing at all. I called the soil delivery place and arranged for the 1.5 cubic yards to be delivered yesterday morning. They told me they’d come by between 8 and 10 am, and give me a call when they were on their way.

So, yesterday morning I woke up at 7:30 and had just started breakfast when the phone rang at 7:53: “Our driver will be leaving in 5-10 minutes.” I rushed through my breakfast, and started bringing the tools out to the backyard, which now looked like this:

IMG_5891 2
8:30 rolled around and I started to think maybe I’d misunderstood the nature and purpose of that phone call. Maybe the driver wasn’t on his way directly to my place, maybe he had other stops to make, though I couldn’t really understand how that would work with a dump truck. I stopped waiting on the front porch like an overeager puppy and went out to the backyard, staked some lines, and started digging out a rectangle. I’d talked to a couple other people about what to do with the ground that I was going to put my raised bed on top of, and googled it extensively, and opinions about this step were pretty mixed. In the end, I didn’t really decide what I was going to do after a little exploratory shoveling.

Our house is a gut renovation, and the backyard was completely re-landscaped as part of that. Mostly they just gave it a new lawn. The sod only went in a few weeks before we moved in last fall. Perhaps since it was so new, the sod actually came up pretty easy, in convenient sheets. I figured just turning the sod over would be enough. By the time I was finished my 4×12 rectangle of future awesomeness looked like this:

Before I finished that, though, the dump truck arrived (license plate MULCH7). Our driveway is too narrow for a fat car, let alone a dump truck, so I directed the delivery guy where in front of our house to drop the dirt:

I didn’t know what a yard and a half of soil looked like, and when I saw it there, I quailed just the tiniest bit. It looked like a lot of dirt. It looked like a dirt monster. I mean, I knew it would be a lot, but this was going to be a lot of work to move. It was also pretty wet, so it was going to be fairly heavy. Nothing for it, though. I left the pile of dirt and went back to my sod, finished that up, then went to the next door neighbor’s backyard. The neighbor is a gardener and landscaper and I’d already arranged to borrow a wheelbarrow from him. He had two in fact, and left them both out for me to choose from. I picked the older, smaller, metal and wood single-wheel model, over the larger plastic, two-wheel model for a few reasons. For one thing I had a couple narrow spaces on my route that I’d have to pass through many times, one of which came awful close to a fellow condo resident’s Beemah. For another thing, a single wheel, while it might take more arm strength to steer, would likely give me a little more maneuverability. Finally, it was just such a handsome, well-worn, well-loved piece of equipment. For this last reason alone I probably would have chosen the single-wheel, neglecting all other factors.

I got to work right at nine, alternating between hauling dirt, and building the bed around the dirt as I went. First I built 3 sides of one square, rolled the barrow back, inverted the barrow to dump it, then repeat. When the pile of dirt started to get too big at its base, I’d build the next square:

By the time I’d moved twenty-two wheelbarrowsful of dirt, I was starting to get a little bleary. I was also a little overwhelmed because at 22 wheelbarrows, I was still maybe only about halfway done. The sun had also come up enough that I was no longer in the shade 100% of the time. I took a little break and took this picture:

I went inside, fortified myself with water, a snack, and some sunblock. After 10 minutes I actually felt pretty refreshed, and went back to it. Except now I had a major problem. I’d closed off my squares too soon. I still had at least another 20 barrows to go, but no good way to just dump the barrow into the piles I was making. I thought about shoveling the dirt from the barrow into the boxes, but that seemed horribly slow and inelegant. I was kind of stumped and discouraged for a few minutes. I went into the basement and looked around for ideas. So glad I did, because I found a perfect, sturdy piece of plywood. Except it wasn’t just a piece of plywood once I picked it up, it was my ramp.

At first I tried ramping the wheelbarrow up to the top of the four-board-high backmost square. That didn’t work so great. Too steep a grade, too tough to pivot the wheelbarrow up and over to dump it. So I moved moved some dirt around, took off two boards, and now I had a perfect setup:

This second half of operations was nowhere near as speedy as the first half, but it helped me get the job done. I had to spend a lot more time fussing with the soil as I offloaded it, and time fussing with the boards, taking them off, putting them back on. But, eventually, after 45 full wheelbarrows, I got the dirt from one place to another, more desirable place:

Now our backyard looks like this!

Today I planted my peas. I already have tomatoes, basil, and peppers starting indoors, and lot of other seeds ready to go when the weather gets just a bit warmer. I also have aches where I didn’t know muscles existed. The backs of my fingers even ache. I googled how much a yard of wet topsoil actually weighs, and it turns out my original estimate of one ton was way under. I actually moved somewhere between 3500 and 5000 lbs of soil yesterday. It amazes me how much the work one human can do gets multiplied by the simple expedients of one wheel and one inclined plane.

And it amazes me that I actually have a garden again. I’m so excited!


It’s been almost four years since I wrote this post, bidding Facebook farewell. Over the past few years, as I’ve occasionally reconsidered this decision, I only had to go back and re-read that blog entry.  The facts of the matter never changed, and those facts, to me, looked like a mountain that I just didn’t want to climb again.  Every one of the reasons I list there still holds true, and they’re all still good reasons not to be on Facebook.  In fact, if I started climbing that mountain, I’d no doubt find it’s even higher than I originally thought, and that the mountain has grown over the past four years.

But, for now, I’ve just decided that rather than climb that mountain, I’m just going to build a little cottage at the foot of it and be ok living in its shadow for a while.  Maybe someday an avalanche will come, maybe the mountain will collapse taking everything and everyone with it, but…. maybe not.

The thing is, there are a lot of people I’d like to stay in touch with, and FB seems like the best way to maintain that particular grade of low-level being-in-touchness that I’m looking for.  I don’t want to call Random Guy I had algebra class with and have conversations with him a few times a year, but it’s nice to see that he’s doing well, and if he ever goes on vacation somewhere I went on vacation, it’d be nice to Like his photo or whatever.

And yeah, I’ll probably be blogging here a bit less. This blog, like all blogs I think, is a bit of a dinosaur.  I’m not abandoning it completely, and I’ll still use it for longer stuff that I don’t feel like posting on FB.  But the writing is on the digital wall, folks, the era of the blog is long gone. Sometimes I feel elderly just telling people I have a blog, like telling people I still haven’t replaced my rotary dial phone or complaining about how hard it is to rent VHS tapes these days.

It’s not that big a deal. I just felt like I had to say something, somewhere, here.  One of the first people who received a FB friend request from me yesterday replied with, and I quote, “!!!!!!!!!!!!” so I just felt some kind of explanation was due.


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