dan piepenbring

They convene on weeknights, primarily, brandishing their standard-issue magnifying glasses and sheathed in embroidered herringbone cloaks. The Grandmaster purchased the cloaks from a garment-district wholesaler who remains their number-one fan. No one can speak to the provenance of the magnifying glasses. Following introductory remarks from the charter members and a review, courtesy of the cleric, of the last meeting’s minutes, they link arms, forming the polygon of their choice, and examine what they have come to observe. Most of the Association’s members have nine-to-fives (systems analysts, waterproofers, landscape architects), but a few are able, through some sleight of hand (trust funds, corporate sponsorship, magnanimous grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities), to pursue examination and observation as a full-time career.

They are a stately bunch, solemn, hardworking. Few have ever heard them belch. They exchange observations in the delicate, measured tenor of TV’s golf commentators:

“The specimen is common in color, but uncommon in mineral content.”
“It has that essence, that sublimity of which—”
“Minivan brake lights.”
“Mmm, quite. Fedoras.”
Maquiladora-produced polymers. Artisanal cheeses.”
“A pigeon’s breast.”

Charter members wear kid gloves. One finds charter members on occasion at the laundromat, humming, doing loads of gloves. Folding them and such.

Sessions favor inert, inanimate, inorganic objects of most any size. (A splinter cell of apostates sometimes observes things in motion, and abstractions, with mixed results.) When observational conditions are less than optimal, the EAO makes judicious use of a painter’s white drop cloth. This they wash with the gloves.

Their findings they publish triennially in a peer-reviewed journal, Examinable Phenomena. Nobody denies the caliber of their scholarship. Their approach to annotation, however, is frequently disputed. In an end- and footnoted world, no one savors the sweet linearity of internal citation.


As a public service, the EAO offers pro bono counsel to that overwhelming percentage of the populace that does not have time to observe, does not wish to observe, or does not observe well. On Saturdays, from a well-appointed, plywood lean-to at the corner of North 5th and Kent, the EAO dispenses advice to all comers, aided by a shiny supercomputer. The waterfront view affords many observable things, which are, during off-peak hours, examined.

“Hi there. Nice herringbone cloak.”
“Thank you, citizen. May we help you?”
“I hope so. I’m looking for something that’s . . . fun. Fun to own.”
“Fun to own?”
“Yeah, exactly. I’d like to be, uh, with the thing, owning it, and be able to think to myself in all honesty, Hey, wow. I’m having a good time.”
“A good time possessing the thing.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“ . . . We’ll see what we can do.”

At the terminal, bouts of typing, punctuated by disjointed attacks on the
return key. The EAO supercomputer, very new, groans and sputters. This is, of course, just for show—its microprocessors know the answer before one-seventeenth of an eye-blink has passed.

“Try a dog. Or several dogs. Dogs are, our research has shown, terrifically fun to own.”
“Dogs, eh?”
“Right. Dogs or American flag lapel pins.”


The Grandmaster lectures a hall of Boy Scouts on the virtues of the EAO worldview.

“Ours is a very virtuous worldview,” he says.

As a kind of parlor trick, he announces that he will do one thing, and only one thing, at once. He investigates a mole on the face of a boy in the audience for twenty-three minutes. Then he compares and contrasts the EAO worldview with the Buddhist principle of mindfulness. He warns the boy that the mole may be cancerous.

The Grandmaster is warmly, though not well, received.


There are nightmares: What if, for instance, one runs out of observable things? What if one rises in the morning to confront a whole world with nothing new to examine? What if increased observational diligence reveals an absence of meaning in things, or such a superfluity of meaning that one has no choice other than to mistake it for meaninglessness?

There are homespun remedies: the observation, at one’s bedside, of a smooth stone, or the handling of many such pebbles whose edges the ocean has had its way with. The hewing of order from chaos. Masturbation.

For emergencies only, there is the EAO Suicide Hotline, which is not toll-free but is nonetheless handily affordable. “Try to view things in a positive light, positively, with positivism,” recommends the therapist’s prerecorded voice. “Rather than construing your life as increasingly devoid of meaning, imagine it as increasingly freighted with meaninglessness. Suspire.”


Charter members and the more pride-ridden inductees boast of their crackerjack attention spans.

“What you experience on Adderall,” they say, “I experience on nothing whatsoever.”
“In an age of multitaskers, I am a votary of monotasking.”
“I refuse to conduct myself in the contemporary state of division. I am fully present in a world demanding partial presence.”
“I sometimes feel that, with artificial stimulation, my powers of observation would so concentrate themselves that telekinesis would obtain, and by examining our planet I would cleave it in twain.”
“Pay attention, people say. If attention were actually a widely accepted currency, I could always afford to pay. I would be the richest man on earth. Or among the richest, more realistically.”

The Grandmaster, meanwhile, still attempts to do one and only one thing at a time, monotasking at its most elemental. His body’s regulatory and stasis-maintenance processes, involuntary, thwart him.

“Damn you, body!”


A boy nears the lean-to—his dark-wash jeans hug his slender calves, the soles of his canvas sneakers worn away nearly to zilch. Having examined, before, many pairs of worn-down canvas sneakers, the EAO derives trouble by inductive reasoning. Still, needing the business, they tolerate his approach.

“Sorry, guys, but I just hafta know: do y’all ever observe yourselves?”
“How very twee.”
“ . . . Well, do you?”
“You’re not an enterprising youth, are you?”
“Just a question, man. Just a simple quest—”


Many men vie to enter the ranks of the EAO, with its reasonable annual membership rate and prestigious gilded business cards. The association’s name looks very nice on a curriculum vitae, especially alongside the names of different associations. But it is a rare breed of man, as it turns out, who holds the moxie, willpower and mania to withstand many hours of examination and observation, even when he is the examiner and not the examinee.

Auditions are rumored to last for days. Drinking water is forbidden during interviews, but a shallow glass is permitted in which the aspirant Examiner may dunk his fingertips and, so dampened, wipe his eyes and ears. Initiation rites tend toward the fraternal and the homosocial. The less said about these, the better.

Rejects join the Rotary Club, or the Navy.


“Greetings, Examiners, Observers, et cetera. I seek venues suitable for seduction. Your aptitude may be of some assistance, as I’ve looked high and low, to no avail.”

“Whom, or what, are you wishing to seduce?”
“A lady.”
“I see. Is she a friend? A ‘former flame’? A colleague?”
“She is a complete and utter stranger.”
“Mmm. Understood. Hold.”

More perturbed button-pushing near the EAO computer, the whir of a solid-state hard disk, the consultation of the network (Chicago branch, via Honolulu annex), the ransacking of data banks. On bond paper, in the Official EAO Typeface, verdicts are furnished:

Q2 (of): LADY

  • Elevator shafts
  • White sand beaches
  • Florence
  • Pumpkin patches
  • Vistas
  • Tanning salons
  • Horse-drawn carriages
  • The internet
  • Rallies for left-leaning causes
  • Rooftops
  • Certain models of automobile
  • Outer space
  • Wine bars
  • Public transit
  • Yoga class
  • Meadows
  • University dormitories
  • The dance floor
  • Parmelee, South Dakota
  • Moments of silence
  • Receptions
  • Fender benders
  • Waiting rooms
  • Police auctions

This analysis has been rendered in the Official Typeface of the Examiners’ Association of Observation. It is thewy, hoary, and will, if observed and examined without scruple, prove almost eternally fascinating. Enjoy it. You cannot reproduce it.

“Hmm. Your classification system is not without its flaws.”
“That is true. That is very true. I must concede that ‘suitable venues for seduction’ have, by and large, eluded us as observers. It’s not that we haven’t seen it done in these places. We just haven’t been able to replicate the results ourselves.
“I should also note that, in the event that your seduction succeeds, almost none of these venues will double effectively as ‘suitable for intercourse.’ You’ll need to seek a separate venue for the intercourse, and move from the former to the latter with your then-seduced lady. Venue-wise, seduction and intercourse are almost entirely exclusive, substantial observation infers.”
“So I’ll need the list of ‘suitable venues for intercourse,’ too, then?”
“Correct. But that would take weeks to compile, even with the latest supercomputing technology and the synergy of the network, both of which are at our disposal. I suggest you just ‘wing it.’”
“Well. Thanks for the tip. I guess.”
“All in a day’s work, citizen.”
“Say, while we’re at it—could I trouble you for an admission application?”


What can be said of the Grandmaster? Precious little. From an early age, his life lent itself to tranquility, and he allowed the lending to occur, and did not collect interest. He is not very dynamic at parties, which he attends rarely and briefly, slinking into corners and clasping his gloved hands. He putters with his magnifying glass, searching the bookshelves’ rows of spines for back issues of Examinable Phenomena. (There are none, typically.) Once, at a party, he became drunk and sniffed a man and there was an encounter:

“You’re sniffing me.”
“Right. I mean—hmm. I’m sorry. You use my ex-girlfriend’s detergent. Did you know that? Your shirt smells of her shirts. Your socks of her socks. May I ask which detergent you use?”
“Um—Gain, I think. Maybe Era. Not Tide.”
“Thank you. This will make it much easier.”
“Rough breakup, eh? Been there.”
“Exceedingly turbulent. The love of my life, gone forever.”
“Oof, my brother. Oof. I hear you. Recent?”
“Twelve years ago.”
(Then to the minibar and ice bucket for a prolonged freshening of drinks.)
“Can I just ask you, with all my frankness mustered, if you ever get sick of it?”
“The observing? Oh, God, yes. All the time.”
“I suspected as much.”
“It’s observing. Much of it is tremendously dry. Have you ever visited a desert? It’s drier than a desert. Many deserts have water underground. One can dig there and reach aquifers, to slake the dryness. Very little slaking, though, in the observation business.”
“Would you ever consider changing?”
“Smart. Very smart and sly of you, to have worded your question thusly. Saves me a lot of face. Because, yes, I would consider changing. I would, and do, and am presently considering. Enacting change is another matter entirely. That would be truly magisterial! And though I am a magistrate of sorts, know that I’m the least magisterial magistrate you’ll ever observe.”

The Grandmaster is the object of great public sympathy. He has no nine-to-five, and it shows.  In studying his cyclical existence, his tenacity so aimed as to be aimless, we see too much of our own lives, and grow sadder. Then we realize we are observing him, and chafe, and apply powder, and vow not to step on his toes like that again.

We are very fond of him—as we are fond of some families’ pets, who roam the neighborhood.


In Chinatown, on and off Canal Street, merchants hawk knockoff EAO magnifying glasses with faux-oak grips and faux-brass frames.

“Rawlix, Rawlix, Rawlix, Eeyo Glaas, Rawlix . . . ”
“What’s that vendor saying?”
“Rolex, Rolex, Rolex, EAO Glass, Rolex . . . ”

The Association, cloaked, observes the false magnifying glasses with real ones for seven continuous hours, and finds the former deficient.


Here they are again, here they go on the corner, convoked by the Grandmaster. No, they are not shiftless youths. No, they are not religious zealots. No, they are not protesting anything or collecting names on any petitions, offering uncapped ballpoints with ingratiating smiles to passersby. No, they are not executors of a free giveaway, there are no food samples or cheese cubes with cocktail swords or toothpicks running through them, nothing at all arrayed on platters. No, they are not homeless or panhandling or busking. No, they are not a performance art ensemble or provocateurs or anarchists, they will not gauge the reactions of those around them as part of a psychological experiment. No, they are not embedded journalists. No, they have not been loosed from the asylum. 

They’re the Examiners’ Association of Observation! They’ve circled up around today’s object, they’ve linked arms as confrères:

“In no way does it resemble last week’s quartz wristwatch.”
 “Brownies. Or, hold—blondies.”
“Certainly reminiscent, in the geometrical quality of its edges, anyway, of several cakey desserts. But not of cake.”
A hush, persisting for many minutes.
“A sensation not unfamiliar to sufferers of beriberi.”
“The bulb-like impertinence of shallots, the life-giving blush of resuscitators—”
“Anagrams of ‘aardvark’—”

. . . And so on, nouns proliferating into the twilight.

Yes, they are the Examiners’ Association of Observation, now in their twelfth certified year of operation. Their Grandmaster is spellbound, their charter members’ gloves pearly like the gates of Heaven. The indulgent, rococo pleasantries of their ceremony go unchecked. They will do what they will do, boys will be boys. Are these tautologies, or problems? Both, perhaps. Can any of us think, given the company they keep, of “better,” more productive pursuits to suggest to them? We have our more diverting pastimes, from which we derive fulfillment on these boundless afternoons and evenings. Spouses, for instance—we have those, whereas, among the EAO, the incidence of bachelorhood is flabbergasting. You see, then, what becomes of man without woman.


Dan Piepenbring lives in Brooklyn, where he's an editor at the Hotel St. George Press. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The American Scholar, The Lifted Brow, Significant Objects, Identity Theory, PANK and The Pinch, from which he received the 2009 Fiction Prize.