Magical realism

“They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.”

                                                            — Oscar Gamble



My car clock says “11:35,” so I know it’s 10:50.

Clock broken? you ask.

No indeed. The clock runs like clockwork. My car is 19 years old, so my clock is a sturdy little thing. Then why the wrong time?

Well, see, just after Daylight Saving Time died a deserved death (it’ll come back zombie-like in March, but for the moment we are living in God’s Own Time Zone), I was at a stop light and decided to change the car clock. As was common in the previous century, the clock management device is two buttons that can only be operated by something small and pointy, like a ballpoint pen.

I had a ball-point pen. I inserted it into the appropriate portal, and began to change the clock. But I was distracted, and my pen slipped several times.

Then the light changed.

Three weeks later, I was taking my wife for a spin. “Your clock is wrong,” she noticed. “Yes it is. It’s 35 minutes fast,” I said. “I can fix it,” she said. “No” I said, “I like it the way it is.” “Why?”

That was a good question. I always knew what time it was, but it required a little bit of remembering and little bit of math. Why would I memorialize a mistake? I could fix it easily enough.

It’s often hard to know where to go


I like living in an imperfect world. A perfect world would drive me crazy, because I myself am imperfect. And I do like a little bit of confined chaos from time to time.  But that’s not why.

I have enjoyed mystery novels since childhood; the woman across the street had bookcases filled with them. She let me browse freely. I tried Agatha Christie, but the plots were over complicated and the writing humorless. Sure, she wrote early enough to claim all the really good plot devices (murder by a dead man, murder by an entire group, murder by the narrator), but it was still a slog.

Other, better writers followed: John Dickson Carr, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin. And at some point I understood why mysteries were so satisfying: No matter how confusing the mystery, there was always a solution. A locked room? There are a dozens ways around that, some involving thread, glue and an accommodating keyhole. A shifty suspect has an airtight alibi? Witnesses could be mistaken or suborned. No obvious weapon? Have you considered a dagger made out of ice?

Whatever it was, there was a solution. The world could be appear to be turned upside down, but there was nothing to fear. The detective could puzzle it out and explain the solution to a roomful of suspects. “Grab him, Stanley!” Order restored.

I used to do treasure hunts for adults. I went on a few, but I was not that good at deciphering clues. (That was a huge disappointment). I more enjoyed writing the clues. I had my own rules about clue writing: They had to be hard, but not too hard. The answer had to be simple and, once decoded, easily acted upon. And they should be pleasing in their own right, funny or clever or vaguely philosophical.

I didn’t like disorder for its own sake; I liked disorder I could control. My clock has not stopped; it keeps excellent time. There’s a secret to figuring it out.  I had both the mystery and the solution.

So, to probe a little deeper, why did I only like mysteries if they were self-created? But I didn’t. I love stage magic, and I don’t really try to figure the tricks out. Given my liabilities, it is probable the magician is aware of my guess, and has devised the trick so my guess gets exploded when the mystery is finally revealed. I have a friend who does magic, and he routinely amazes me. I never ask how the trick works.

I don’t mind mysteries as long as someone knows how they’re done.

Is that a useful landmark? Or an insect?

I spend time outside a fair amount, although not as much as I used to. To be in nature is to be surrounded by mysteries. Plants thrive or they don’t. They take on strange shapes, snake along the ground or stand straight and tall. The insects are uncomfortably large or so small they are indistinguishable from dirt. And say, what made those holes? Harmless voles or poisonous snakes?

I don’t know, but I know that somebody knows.  I live in the Bay Area, so I believe I could stop the next available hiker and get a learned disquisition on the breeding habits and dietary preferences of marmots or hawks or the California black bear (Ursus americanus). I am so grateful to scientists and their dedicated inquiry into the multitude of mysteries in the universe.

I also like natural aphorisms. “Leaves of three; let it be” is almost a koan.

But there are mysteries beyond the ken of science. “What is gravity” has never been definitely answered, and people have been working on it forever. And “why are we here?” — definitely outside the remit of science.  “Where do we go when die?” undoubtedly has an answer, but only dead people know what it is. I’m old, but I ain’t dead yet.

There are two kinds of old people — those who think about death constantly and those who never think about it. The second group is much more evolved, much more able to live in the moment, much better at appreciating the wonders of life. Probably a lot of vegans in there. I am in the first group. I think about death every day. I am not, as they say, getting any younger. True of everyone, of course, but some of us are aware of  the actuarial tables.

Star clusters? Snow stains? Bullet holes?

I wonder if I get to ask the Grim Reaper a few questions. He owes me that, I feel. He could maybe sit in my living room for a few minutes. I could offer him some grapefruit juice — that sounds like Reaper-friendly beverage. Or we could go for a ride in the car. I could find out about gravity. We could have a discussion about the meaning of life; being Death, he probably has some insights into that.

We could go up into the East Bay hills, and find an overlook with a three-bridge view. I could ask him whether there was a Mrs. Reaper, and little Reapers running around the house. But I shouldn’t assume; perhaps he’s gay, or something of a lone wolf.  Being the incarnation of death might not go down well down a first date.

“What do you do for a living?” “I kill people.” “Who?””Everybody.”

So we could chat, and eventually he’d have to say, “I’m sorry, but time’s up.” And I’d say, “I hope you’re not going by that clock.”

He’d look embarrassed.

“Man, that clock is 35 minutes fast.”

“I thought your wife had fixed that.”

“Nope. I think you missed your chance. You’ll have to wait until my name comes up again.”

And then he’d grimace and disappear is a miasma of purple smoke.  Had I cheated death? No, although I did mislead him. Just me and my car clock. There’s a reason for everything.


Turtle or rock? Living or dead?



Photography by Tracy Johnston

Things that other people can’t do: Michelle Mizera