THE GRID AND THE COMPASS

There’s been some publicity about the GPS in the brain. Actually, the information about grid cells has been around for a while — grid cells are a certain kind of specialized cells that keep track of where things are — edges and spaces. So old that maybe even a paramecium might have such a basic sense. How else could it find food or evade danger? Sort of parallel to grid cells are compass cells that keep track of which direction you’re facing, somehow able to tell north from south which is why birds have these cells, which they use so much for migrating. No doubt homing pigeons have them, too.

And there’s a third kind of map in the brain cortex, which is that of the homunculus that keeps track of where in the body things are being felt. It’s not realistically proportioned but is inflated where there is a lot of sensation, and contracted where there is less. It changes over time, depending on which senses are developed and used.

She read all these things online, sitting at her computer in the stripped-down studio apartment where she was writing. An aunt had left her enough money to quit all jobs and find out where her talent and capacity really was. The more she economized, the longer the money would last. Of course, the writing might eventually pay, but there was no way to know because the world and its willingness to pay was always changing. She had no control over that.

She was not the kind of writer who had trouble with writer’s block, but rather the problem was so much material in a kind of soft and pressing avalanche, that she had a hard time keeping it under control — structured — so she tended to write short pieces which she assumed would later fit together into something else. By suppertime, she had about used up her energy and attention span.

That’s when her attention wandered across the alley to the other apartment building, which was a little more luxurious and even had a balcony. She could see though the slider doors into the apartment itself when it was lit in the evening. The occupant was a man, middle-aged, a little more stylish than the norm. Even his leather jacket was more creatively designed and embellished. It was not black or red or brown, but a deep forest green with some kind of silver studs — flowers? buttons? — in a line along the yoke. When he shrugged it on in the evening, he picked up a small video camera, sometimes a camera bag, and then he would be gone for hours. She never saw what it was he shot because his monitor faced in. There was only a play of light on his face.

Often this guy had company, always male, generally stylish, often a little younger, but never kids. Once in a while a distinguished-looking older man. They talked a lot and that make her envious. Sometimes money changed hands, which made her curious. Isolation was the only thing about her self-imposed regime that she didn’t really like much, but it was necessary since people would never keep their distance from a writer. They all wanted to know what you were doing and then meddled in the process. They always thought it was about popularity, approval and publication.

Once she broke her routine to attend a play opening and reception for her friend, a college roomie. She got out her trusty forest-green dress with v-neck, long sleeves, and seam-pockets in the full skirt so she could carry her car keys and credit card case without some kind of bag. She didn’t like paraphernalia. It was a good play, everyone loved it, and the reception crowd was friendly. Normally she was a wary person, but this time she relaxed and had some good conversations. Then she spotted that unique leather jacket and realized it was exactly the same forest green as her dress. The silver embellishments along the yoke turned out to be dime-sized paw prints. She’d never seen anything like it, but tried not to stare. Watching him across the lobby was not much different from watching him across the alley. She didn’t stay long. She did find out his name, but not much about him. People shrugged. Once she saw him glance at her and then his companions shrugged.

It was weeks before the man showed up — not in person, but on her email. He didn’t seem to know her by sight, to recognize her as his neighbor and spy, but asked if she ever wrote narrative for vids. She admitted she had. Then he wanted to know if she were easily shocked. She thought she was not. She wondered whether he was talking about sex. She thought that as a writer all human experience should be observable without moral comment. Nothing happened for a long time. Then one night late he turned the monitor around so she could see it, though she wasn’t prepared — didn’t have binoculars. It was a good-sized monitor, but mostly what she saw was shape and color.

“May I send them to your computer?” Yes.

She was entirely surprised.

He was doing ride-alongs with emergency responders: cops, fire, ambulance, animal control, the zoo including their nursery, private fanciers of pigeons and other birds. But he wasn’t looking for “cute,” or “shocking,” or even newsworthiness — just trying to see reality with a fresh eye. He went down along the river. He attended an urban pow-wow. Somehow he managed to film the street kids who came just before dawn to use one of the civic pride fountains for a bathtub. And there were animals she hadn’t realized came out so boldly at night: possoms. foxes, an occasional deer and since cougars go where deer go, now and then a big cat. He had a fondness for police horses, their sly snatches of sweet clover on empty lots, their bored napping with one hoof tipped up while the humans talked. In the Mexican part of town, he had captured deadly flurries of cockfighting.

If all human experience should be observed (really — ALL?) shouldn’t animal life also deserve objective regard and consideration for what they were? Are we or are we not fellow animals? He made vids of the Humane Society’s pet cemetery where people had spent money for elaborate markers and care in perpetuity. On the counter in reception were animal-shaped receivers for money. Then the cyclone-fenced kennels of dogs, some begging to get out and play, others curled and sleeping, a few slavering and smashing against the wire in a frenzy of killer instinct. Out back there were piles of euthanized bodies, big and little; mottled, fuzzy and smooth. He was quickly removed by staff.

She made a rule. In the very early mornings she would do her own writing because that’s when she was at her best. Then lunch and a nap. Only then would she try to understand the vids as they came to her, provisionally edited. Her own writing was in part about boundaries. She understood that a grid, which is a source relationship locating where one is, could also become a cage that forbade venturing into unknown territory. She began to see that society, in its desire to keep order, kept trying to confine life, to put a leash on it, to train it into convenience, index it. The vids were against that. They were arguments for flight, for testing boundaries at every point of the compass. So her rule was not idle.

But did she want to fly? He forwarded some footage of sail-kiting, paragliding, on the Columbia River gorge where people were soaring in the thermals alongside eagles. Very exciting. Very expensive. The great contradiction of feeling most alive when close to death.

She wrote: “It escapes both the grid and the compass because now you are in the grip of wind and land.” That’s when he came over to her building and knocked on her door, both of them full of adrenaline. The next morning, very early after he had gone, she wrote a sonnet. She had never been able to do it before, but now she saw that it was only a word grid and compass. She could use them to fly. Now she was really writing.

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