NEAR DO WELL (excerpt) Listening Stops with the Ear . . .

Confucius once said that listening stops with the ear and the mind stops with recognition. And I think this is absolutely correct.
Most people don’t listen to music. I’m talking about really listening, not just singing along or tapping a foot in time to some moronic stadium anthem. I mean something about deep perception, a sort of state of enhanced-consciousness, taking in the tones and styles of the instruments and musicians and their creative processes. I’m talking about listening to the specifics of the poetry, reaching a kind of self-transcendence that lets you go entirely inside the collective bits that comprise that wavy signal, that sinusoidal form that a stereo nearly magically picks up through a needle and pushes out to the paper cones. Most people have never bothered to look at it, study it, or wonder about it.
I suppose most just take it for granted, the way we accept our collective obsession with blue jeans or cheeseburgers. Music just is. But it’s madness (like Killing Joke stomps out) that it actually works. Madness that the differences between horns and strings and percussion are nuances that can be identified.
You might say, so what? You might say, people have more important things to do, more important things to think about.
But I doubt it.
Let’s just get this out of the way up front: Top five albums by The Fall in descending order of greatness:
Slates, Etc.
Dragnet
Live At the Witch Trials
The Hex Enduction Hour
The Wonderful and Frightening World of . . .

When the boss comes back, roaring up in his newly traded-in for Dodge pick-up, he’s soused of course, and we’re busy. I’m cleaning out a sod aerator, tapping a flat-headed screwdriver into each of the sharp steel plug pullers to knock out the packed-in dirt. The boss saunters over to the mechanic’s bench behind me and belches gently. He pulls out his pistol—a little .25 caliber auto thing he likes to carry around in his pocket—and unloads it into the stained wood top of the mechanic’s work-bench while laughing in a wheezy smoker’s cough, his legs splayed to steady himself. The mechanic’s busy up front with a landscaper, so there’s no one to appreciate the bullets drilling into the dirty hardwood of the workbench but me. Tack! Tack! Tack-Tack-Tack! By shop standards, this isn’t much noise but it is rather unsettling just the same. He looks over at me through his boozy grin and I nod at him with a half smile. I add it to a mental list of the earned privileges of the working man. Something to look forward to perhaps.
The boss had been gone all day at his girly show hang-out, one of those masturbation facilities that has girls shake their stuff while men drink and make ridiculous remarks to them, sometimes even over breakfast with the “Legs and Eggs” show.
“Goddamned Monigs,” the boss laughs, poised for my response.
“What’s a Monig?”
“It’s a Narragansett Indian, only they’re more nigger than Indian! Ha ha ha!”
“Ah, I see.” That’s about the speed of it after lunch. At least it wasn’t another “That’s what she said!” joke. Often enough used when there wasn’t a hint of it being properly humorous. Man, traffic was awful this morning. That’s what she said!
This morning, idling behind his paper, under his Jerry Lee Lewis pompadour, streaked with silver, he’d held forth about his solution to the Irish problem, which was, inexplicably, to give Ireland to Scotland.
“Har har har, that’ll teach ’em.”
“What makes you think Scotland wants ’em?” I shrug, not being entirely facile on the topic, but also finding his idea entirely nonsensical. Of course, later on I find out that he’s got some kind of remote ancestry in Scotland.
I’m stuck in the back room with him, washing rental dishes in a small industrial washer that produces a lot of heat and steam. The dishes stink, rammed into green, wire racks, greasy with food residue. But he’s already on to his next topic, knowing I’m a music fan he’s dropped the paper and points out a story about 2 Live Crew. “You know about these pieces of shit?”
“Not my thing,” I say quickly looking at the paper and then away. Though I can’t deny the purest desire to indulge in fantasy about those ladies’ beautiful asses on the cover of that record, the cover image published in a tiny black and white photo in the paper, as if to suggest we should be offended by their bathing suit clad gorgeousness, the smallest one, her hair flying in the beach breeze catches my eye. As Nasty As They Wanna Be . . . as if to suggest that they’re kind of trying. Of course, the ladies face away from the camera, which, you know, objectifies them, and we’re supposed to . . .
“Niggers. These are niggers pure and simple, I’m not saying there aren’t white niggers, there are,” he peeks over his glasses rims at me, making sure I’m paying attention to his high dudgeon, “trust me, but these fuckers are niggers,” his finger thumps in a kind of time with his offensive rant.
He, of course, is much more offensive, as far as I can tell, than anything 2 Live Crew produced. “Me So Horny” is just trashy musical porn from all I can gather. The hooker, the Vietnamese one, ripped off from the Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket saying “me so horny” over and over. I’m not sure I understand the boss’s outrage beyond the fact that they are bold black men making money with porn-influenced rap. There is a stack of trashy and somewhat gooey porn right behind the boss that’s been salvaged out of the dumpster behind the adult bookshop stationed right next door, no less, by his chain-smoking son Kyle. Porn salvaged from a dumpster. So I’m kind of phlegmatic about it. It’s a meaningless outrage, like so much of the boss’s grandstanding. That’s what she said!
But then, I’m also instantly reminded of my own paternal grandad, a typical card-playing, beer-quaffing good-fellow of Providence, spent most of his life at the Narragansett brewery, saying to me one fine afternoon on the parent’s porch, “Take that Bill Cosby, now he’s a nigger, but he’s done well for hisself”. Grandpa’s lesson, was apparently, that in our land of plenty even a man as handicapped with darker skin color as Bill Cosby has opportunity. So what was my excuse?
“These pieces-of-shit should just be lined up and shot!” the boss blusters. This is his favorite solution, and it’s only a matter of time before he finds it the way a ball-bearing rolling the steep sides of a bowl eventually settles in the bottom—he’s attracted to it. This is his gun-toting tough-guy version of “Amen”. Everything he disagrees with or feels offended by should have a bullet put between its collective eyes, and he relishes the opportunity to ejaculate this hot little sermon. You can almost see him fantasizing it behind his steel rims.
“Why? They’re just havin’ fun, you don’t have ta listen to it,” ill-advised, never give the boss a chance to wage his lazy-ass, table-side war against you. You’re handy after all. He doesn’t even have to get up to get himself sufficiently riled. “Plus, they’re making butt-loads of money off it, even banned, maybe because it was banned . . .”
The finger returns to stabbing out his points, “Let me tell you something, you didn’t grow up with these people! You grew up in a kind of Disneyland compared to what I went through. These people are worthless shits, they’ve never accomplished anything, no nigger ever discovered electricity, or invented the lightbulb—these bastids should be shot!” A bit of spittle on his lips, his eyes gleaming over his rims.
I probably could have mouthed this last bit along with him. I even sometimes start repeating it in my own macho-bullshit way, “Shoot the bastids!”, about the Quayle in the Bush, especially. I nod solemnly, he signs my check after all, Richard Morrill.
Boss Morrill often demands you behave the way he imagines he would in your position. Which is most often ludicrously. He loves to cajole you into turning against the red light, or pressure you to take the illegal left across the oncoming lane to pick up the Route 95 on-ramp. When you’re on the phone with people, he’s in your other ear telling you what to say to them, and it’s not friendly, even if you could effectively listen to him lecture you aggressively in one ear and a customer complaining in the other.
“You tell that spic es-oh-bee that we’re gonna call the police and you’ll see how fast they suddenly recall who Ramone is, ees not hee-er, bullshit!” he’s glaring at you, you’ve become the object of his rage.
He wants you to wrap some tape around the chewed up cord on the trap snake and send it back out for rental. People are forever cutting the ground posts off the electrical plugs, because the old houses don’t have ground outlets. We are supposed to put new plugs on them, mention to the customer that we can give them an adapter. But he has you send it out on the next rental anyway.
He laughs about you paying the three dollar disposal charge the garages put on your bill to throw away your old tires, but his old tires are stacked up in the back of the rental facility. He’s getting a pretty good collection of them back there. Better there at least then on the sides of the road where they usually end up dumped by those folks who refuse to be “suckers”.
We’re always counting the numbers of pressure washer spray tips. I have dreams about these tips. They are always getting lost (the quick-disconnect collars don’t always snap right back into locking place, customers pull the trigger and 4000psi of water shoots the tip off the end of the wand—gone!), customers argue they didn’t have all five when they left the shop. Too often, we don’t have all of them, and we send out the units with three or four nozzle tips (someone is supposed to record this on the contract). The boss flips his lid every time they come back with less than five tips. You’d think this would be an easy thing to keep track of, but for some reason, pressure washer spray tips are a never depleting source of the boss’s rage. He both doesn’t care on the front end of the rental, and cares too much about four or five dollar parts on the return.
Then, when he finally cajoles you into behaving the way he demands, becoming the same kind of irresponsible jackass he is, he then presumes you’re the same kind of irresponsible jackass he is!
“I know what you’re thinking, kid.”
But he’s terribly off the mark. I am never thinking the nasty sociopath crap he’s thinking. His thoughts are abysmal. But it isn’t hard to mimic it and I soon learn how to appear as one of the crew, “Monigs! Ha ha ha!”

The main trick to being a really tough-guy, is to affect being unmoved by anything, vileness never surprises, no beauty awes. The idea is to desensitize yourself so much that you kind of shrug off just about everything as exactly what you anticipated. Tough-guys anticipate everything. It’s basically a back-of-the-school-bus skill honed by the kids practicing one-upmanship, starting each rejoinder with the words “That’s nuthin’!” The murder of Kitty Genovese on the streets of New York City, occurring while citizens refused to assist her, pulled their curtains, horribly ignored her pleas, should elicit no more than a shrug and perhaps, “What did she expect?” from the tough guy. Perhaps a few remarks like, “You don’t walk around like that, New Yawk City? Alone? C’mon! A pretty girl—what was she thinking about?”
We have our own pretty Warwick girl, Michelle St. Pierre, recently strangled to death, or bludgeoned, perhaps both, left in an industrial park not far away from this humid, smelly, dish-washing steam bath. I feel like I knew her, but then I get them confused. Those newspaper reproductions of their graduation photos make them all look like a girl you knew from high school—the fluffy hair and the faraway dreamy gaze. The tough-guy attitude on these things is that they brought it on themselves. That St. Pierre girl was not behaving properly. Friends warned her to stay away from the jackasses she was hanging out with, plus cocaine probably.
After reading Das Boot and finally seeing the movie on a double VHS, for a while everything I thought about related to it: the almost childlike pleasure of the hunt, the gruesome futility of warfare, the terror of horrible death those young men endured in that goddamned bubble of air under the sea—of course, not too far under the sea, because the u-boat had limited depth capacity, safely only at a maximum depth of around 160 meters—that really surprised me. Old submarines were not really much in the way of sub marine.
“Tell me, why should I care about a German u-boat?” Boss Morrill turned on me one morning as I was telling him about the movie, which I thought did the book serious justice, “those fucking Nazis killed millions of people, and you’re telling me I’m supposed to care about a handful of them on their goddamned submarine?”
To be honest, I hadn’t thought of it as a story about Nazis just as a story of young soldiers who were expected to sacrifice all for their nation. But I just smiled. My interest was getting at the core of humanity. I’d allowed myself to be moved by it and that was, of course, irrefutably gay. Empathy was something no tough-guy expressed.
“Let me tell you something, my uncles fought those sonsofbitches . . . the problem with you people is that you have no memory—you’re there cheering for the enemy, trying to convince the world that it was just some kind of point-of-view, . . .” he lumbers on, filling the air with his diatribe, hating the film sight-unseen, ready to burn books he’s never read. Perhaps it’s my fault though, I did a poor job explaining it to him. I didn’t anticipate his reaction, somehow, again.
I’m continually writing my mental notes, my stories, my novels for no one, . . . no one wants this stuff, no one asks for it, but, it all goes in my notebook anyway. . . .
To be a proper tough-guy you have to find other people’s misfortune funny. Not just their poverty, or their house fires, but also their diseases are hilarious, because, obviously, sensibly—let’s be reasonable here—you’d never let anything like that happen to yourself. You have a plan, a mission, God on your side, a stack of porn you pulled out of a dumpster. . . .
The tough-guy is just like the old joke about the new army recruit who, when the sergeant says “Two out of every three of you are not coming back from this mission.”, looks at the guy on the right, looks at the guy on the left and thinks, “Ah, those poor bastards.” That’s one of my favorite jokes, seems to wrap up the condition nicely. That seems to me to actually be what gets us through our lives from day to day.
I yank the dishwasher open, pull the steaming hot dishes out of the racks and re-stack them in their green wire holders. Stack them where they can cool and dry on the wooden shelving. I’m sweating terribly. The boss won’t move. As he reads he’s shaking his head slowly in that way that seems to impart he’s imagining how deranged the world “out there” is. I remember reading someplace that the Rolling Stones got arrested for pissing on a wall in the mid-sixties maybe. They were considered very nearly something like a public enemy. Nixon even had it in for John Lennon, saw him as a serious enemy of the country. Some people saw a kind of decline of civilization based around kids with guitars.
Boss Morrill’s eyeglasses are perched about halfway down his nose. He juts his chin out and back choosing when to use them, or not, kind of like the way an old world chameleon might gauge its distance to a cricket. He is always pissed off. It’s basically his hobby. What he’s doing right now is looking for more things to fuel his rage pastime, more junk from the ProJo.
The wine glasses I can leave right in their wire racks and put the entire arrangement into the washer as is. Glasses and wire rack washed in one cycle. A blast of semi-rank steam billows out of the machine each time I open it, adding to the overall state of humidity in this slippery back room, beginning to need a hatch opened, air exchanged, a re-breather pack worn.
I’ve learned to cultivate my hate. I justify it daily. I work myself into that rage frenzy, foaming-at-the-mouth about some outrage or other. For example, a customer who comes into the shop regularly is a small elderly Hungarian Jewish fellow named Imre. Imre drives Kurt—the mechanic—crazy with his specific demands, at least once about how he wants his lawnmower blade sharpened. He only wants Kurt to do it. Imre is convinced the rest of us aren’t doing it properly, aren’t putting the proper amount of care into applying just the right shining razor’s edge on this thing he’s going to roll through his lawn and dirt. When he’s talking to Kurt about this, Kurt is at first polite, but soon he realizes his time is being wasted. Imre plans to spend the day haranguing Kurt about the sharpness of his lawnmower blade. A blade I actually sharpened.
“Kooert, Kooert!” Imre moans, and waddles over to Kurt’s bench looking like Humpty-Dumpty.
I am amazed by the fact he’s actually got a number stamped on his forearm, a relic of the fucking Holocaust.
“Da boyz, dey don’t take da time, Kooert.” It’s fine, Kurt explains to him, it’s just a lawnmower blade. That pretty razor’s edge will be gone as soon as you start cutting with it.
“No Kooert,” and here Imre does something very odd, he hooks the index finger of his pudgy right hand into the top of Kurt’s pants, right behind the belt buckle, and begins tugging, like a child pulling at his mother’s skirt. Kurt disentangles himself from the strange little man who stares through huge bottle-bottom glasses. At this point Imre has not only upset Kurt, but he’s also managed to cut himself on the lawnmower blade. “You see how sharp it is!” Kurt points out to him. Imre is unmoved, “No Kooert, iz not sharp!”
And now, of course, I’m angry at the fussy bastard. When I think about Imre I can conjure up that desire to punish the public. Imre is a Holocaust survivor, and I can’t stand him.
After an hour or so, the boss has switched to flipping through a gun magazine, settling on an article about the relative merits of 0.223 caliber as opposed to 7.65 millimeter ammunition. I prefer this quietude to when he’s reading those goofball home-invasion fantasies that always seem to be packed into these rags the way Playboy has a dubious sex forum, clearly a form of porn. They are always written in a self-congratulatory style, and Boss Morrill takes them at face value. Old folks’ homes are invaded. Patriotic, former veteran, elderly homeowners, pull out their Peacekeepers and rid the world of thugs. I can picture Rooster Cogburn in every such story. But the stories don’t end there. In another popular tale someone has stolen a JATO and attached it to his car. I didn’t know what that meant, so Boss Morrill explained that it’s a rocket attached to overloaded aircraft to help them get into the air. The story continued by describing how this fellow somehow stole one, somehow attached it to his car, and somehow fired it up. The rest of the story was a humorous description of the tires burning off the car and the car being slammed into the side of a mountain. It sounded pretty suspect, especially as the narration was having so much comic fun with it, calling the foolhardy adventurer “Swifty” and discussing how his last moments must have been spent trying to reverse the course of actions that were rapidly to end his life. I wondered aloud if it were possible. Boss Morrill just glared at me over his glasses his good humor now interrupted.
The guys also love the rage they feel when they recount this other story, too many times. You might hear this thing every day for a month. It’s about the Hispanic man who rents a lawnmower and decides to trim his hedges with it. “He sticks his goddamned finguhs unduh the thing and picks it up and trims ‘is fuckin’ hedges!” Kyle is impersonating the action, squatting down, pretending to lift a mower, mimes using it as a hedge trimmer (an awkward idea at best) “It even works for a while, but then, brrrrrzt! He loses his finguhs!” The punchline is he sued the rental company for not having a warning label in Spanish, telling him not to cut his hedges with it, and the kicker, of course, is he won! The guys stare at their audience wide-eyed, waiting for the outrage. “Crazy fucking world!” They tell this story, this obvious urban legend, which contains so many tough-guy axes to grind, as a kind of warning, not just about the untrustworthiness of foreigners, but of the unknowable legal miasma that is, more likely than not, to screw the good hard-working American. And lastly because our liberal society does not require English to be a requirement, and on and on.
Then the guilt sets in, guilt I can’t do anything about. Problems I can’t fix, people in the world, I know, who would kill to just have the water I get to drink every day. So, how dare I complain. I have a job, I have an income! There are seriously poor people in the world. I feel sorry that I, through some cryptic process of random, Brownian-like motion, ended up over here and they over there. I have a rattle-trap of a vehicle, a 1976 Chevy sport van, red, flipped once. I have a second story apartment I share in West Warwick with two mates. My own bedroom is tiny but nice enough, a twin futon, a book pile, a boombox and a turntable, a Sansui—I was talked into buying even though it’s a weird linear-tracking turntable and often has difficulties playing albums that have sides longer than the usual eighteen minutes or so. Maybe I should stop complaining so much, I’m lucky. Though I did get that stinking speeding ticket on the connector to Apponaug, cop was rude too, assuming me a thug. I’m just trying to get by, just trying to get to class. Another fantasy, trying to climb the ladder through the education system.
I load another set of dishes in the steam and greasy chemical stench of the washer. I wish the boss would get the fuck out so I can put the radio on. So I can relax a bit. So I can maybe look over the paper. Monday morning dish-washing is a chore, but I don’t mind it if I’m left alone. There’s not a lot of pressure about keeping busy as long as the dishes are getting done. Kyle and Kurt hate doing the dishes and will stay away from the back room as long as I’m taking care of it.
So keep the mouth shut and do the dishes, don’t argue with the boss. Don’t encourage his hanging around. It is the best job I’ve had so far, hell, I can sleep at night, . . . there are even some benefits. And considering what it costs to pay rent and feed the gas tank, back and forth to the university, (I put courses on credit cards!). . .
I return to my mental notes, these ideas and feelings I scribble in notebooks. These become ranting letters to friends, or superbly self-indulgent poetry and ludicrous missives to girls I really like, who, I no doubt, bewilder. . . .
Frankly, the fast food starts to lose its flavor, and the “freedom” we’re all supposed to be so grandly infused with, so we don’t forget how special it is, like soft-serve dropped straight from heaven into our wide-open, fat mouths, well, it doesn’t seem like much in the way of a life. But, we do get compensated for it. That’s why they call it work, right? And, we kind of allow this, right? We kind of agree to be working our way toward a middle-class. Not just being slaves, but living lives worth living, or at least, maybe looking forward to that down the road. Living lives with value, if we just put the hours in. . . .

More about Insult, Heritage, and Identity

I had already prepared myself for what I knew would be a particular old fella’s outlook on the world. A salt-of-the-Earth type, hard-working, doing it the right way the first time, former prison guard captain and tobacco farmer’s son (pulled tobacco from when he was six to nineteen). He was well in his seventies and looked every day of it, lots of miles. He grew just a few miles outside the tiny brick town of Benson, North Carolina. He married a girl right down the road and traveled to the big city of Raleigh for work for thirty odd years until he took up painting houses and then he ended up all over the triangle area. I did not ask but I am sure he is a stalwart church-goer, likely proud to the core of having spent his life and times in the limited fishbowl of small town life. He likely considers even bagels communist and only missed one or two days of shaving in fifty years. He was quite likable despite his attitudes and predictable rants. I only asked him the leadership style questions, “Do you recommend corrections as an occupation?” No he does not, because “Them prisoners got it better than we do.” “How do you keep from getting drips when you roll that paint?” After a long discussion of technique he added, “not like them Mexicans.” I had NPR on with 1A talking a bit about Paul Ryan saying he is leaving his Speaker of the House position to be with his family. One of the panelists happened to be a lady who took Ryan to task a bit about the timing and possibility of the GOP losing grip on the government, and our old feller took some umbrage at the lady, not some much against her point, but that he was offended by her voice. Women don’t need to be making such comments. And it lead rapidly into a defense of unspoken men in sexual abuse cases. I am ashamed to say I merely nodded along. I can’t imagine there’s much sense in picking a fight with a senior citizen I’ll likely never meet again. But it does irk me that I’m stuck listening to hate and uber conservatism through my politeness, and desire to maintain peace and a job. Why can’t folks just stick to their base of knowledge. Our elderly friend knows a lot about prepping walls and applying paint. He is in no hurry, and sands the walls by hand for several days, collecting every scrap of dust in a dustpan held in his left hand. Occasionally he hums to himself some sparky tune which made him seem like he might be an upbeat sort of fellow, and he occasionally was. But after knowing me only for a few minutes he was sharing his angst about foreigners and young people’s terrible worth ethic. At one point some of the fellows on one of the job sites called me to have me deliver some parts they required, and I hung up the phone after getting the address and jokes, “Well I’ve got something to do!” He piped up, “It won’t hurt ya!”
I didn’t raise my eyebrows, nor incline my head. I merely chuckled and headed to the door with the parts. This is the regular level of hate and anxiety that fills the heart of a tribalistic being. We aren’t alone in this, nor are we especially rancorous about it. I’ve seen it everywhere. I’ve seen the pride and I’ve seen the lack of reason and humanity. I’ve heard the phrase, “You want me to tell you what’s really going on?” along with the more forceful, “Let me tell you something . . . “ most often followed by a rant of tripe so useless and slovenly a KKK march will easily manifest itself before your eyes. Would it be useful to abuse would be KKK grand wizards in the ways of such racists? I doubt it. People see themselves as utterly righteous and no amount of well reasoned argument contrary to their views is likely to dispel that. So how do we convince a lout, or a movement of them, that hate is undeserved and also shockingly heinous?
Our most apparent method is sarcasm and vitriol. And, of course, no one is going to learn to be properly introspective when they are on that sort of noisy and challenging defense. Therefor the opposition to hate, and the opposition to parochialism that feeds generalizations from isolated incidents, cannot simply be shaming. For example it does no good to call trump voters, “assholes”. Some may very well be “assholes”, but it’s not a useful clarification nor correctable quality.
In line with this thought, back in the 80s I used to run a little skeptics chatroom on a local dial-up Bulletin Board System. Despite the fact that the BBS really only serviced a tiny area of the tiny state of Rhode Island, I was often deep in discussions with religious faithful as well as a wide range of pseudoscientific bullshit. I was young and energetic at the time and I think the fact that I, and my few friends of science, utterly failing to convince anyone of much of anything, didn’t quite reach me. I was happily typing away for hours, long-winded and citation laden essays, debunking everything from ghosts to bigfoot to a personal and active god in our lives. All of it largely for nothing. And when I say I did this tirelessly I mean like I was going to get a Master’s degree for it. I worked at this, like it was a kind of beloved job. And I literally was getting nothing for it. Why did I do it? Because I wanted to champion reason and science over nonsense and faith-based beliefs. It took me years to realize that I had had absolutely no effect on anyone that I aimed my diatribes at. I collected Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, I talked to Phil Klass about UFOs, I talked to James Randi about all manner of goofball beliefs. I had sort of hobnobbed with my heroes at the time, but they also didn’t discourage me. I must admit that my interest was a kind of identification with heroes. I became somewhat obsessed. I went back to school because Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan (both skeptics) separately recommended it.
The Amazing Randi had just offered a million dollars to anyone who could prove dowsing worked. Self proclaimed “never-fail” dowsers showed up and were unable to mark the buried pipe with running water in it. Excuses flew, but the fact remained, it didn’t work. Has it gone away? Absolutely not. I will admit I haven’t seen a good ESP, channeling, or hypnosis demonstration in a long while. They’ve gone out of fashion in more recent years, but are likely to return someday when some charismatic celebrity picks it up. And the fact that UFOs are still best known from very old photographs and these days even meteors are caught on digital cameras burning up in the atmosphere you’d think would put a hole in the whole wacky, shitty, blurry thing on a picture UFO shtick, but that’s also bound to keep going. Most recently belief in a flat Earth is on the rise. Do people really believe such nonsense, or do they identify with the counter-culture, distrustful outlook that is so prevalent in certain stubbornly antagonistic folks? It certainly isn’t just a matter of being stubbornly antagonistic though, it has a lot to do with identity. Many southern folk who know almost nothing about actual history, and couldn’t give a shit less about reading a Shelby Foote tome are nonetheless dedicated to the premise that their geographic forebears need their defense. People love a good challenge to a presumed “heritage”. Few things can raise the ire more than an insult to a beloved—if mostly forgotten or entirely unknown—history. In fact, I’d argue that that’s more what the war was about. That’s what drew the soldiers, and that’s what motivates young people to take up arms and suffer tremendous hardships, the insult to identity and heritage. The North expected the war to be over rapidly, portrayed the Southerners as disease ridden and limp, and promulgated the idea that they’d walk right over the hookworm ridden Confederate soldiers.
It ain’t about the politics or the social argument. It’s about an emotional attachment, regardless of how irrational, to an identity. It also provides a solid chance to exercise indignation. Indignation is at least as powerful a pleasure as sex. Few of us can resist the opportunity to wield the righteousness of having been improperly wronged.
So what if dehumanizing insult were not part of a prelude to serious discussion and attempts at progressive change? Is it that hard to turn an economy away from heinous activities without the ridiculous old saw of personal attack? Could war possibly be avoided with a clever turn of negotiations that didn’t require so much fundamental antagonism? In the US, in Ireland, in the Middle East? Is it too much to ask to be aware of the emotional attachment to identity and avoid the potential of rubbing faces raw with childish insult? Probably not, it’s possibly too much to ask to expect human beings to not pounce directly on one another’s most vulnerable aspects. So we reap what we sow every time.

Teaching, Arrogance, Satan, Speaking-up

A couple of days ago I was showing a young work mate some jiu-jitsu techniques. He’s been excited about learning them ever since learning that I teach jiu-jitsu for part of my living. We hauled out a mat in the large newly refurbished room at the business owned by a friend of mine who also wants a chance to do some jiu-jitsu, and I taught him a basic entangled armlock from his back. We did a few of those and a few exercises to get used to ground movement and called it a lesson.
Within a few minutes he was telling me about some personal life details, and I learned he had a daughter through his estranged wife, and that he struggled with this because she didn’t like him near his daughter (not necessarily unusual). He’s a young man, not thirty yet, and very energetic. He wants to come train at one of my usual locations but hasn’t got a vehicle. Not that this is unique, but probably causes some difficulties in fulfilling his wishes. We discussed such problems with life for a little while as well as discussing fighters (inevitably) and his hopes for his daughter. Soon enough, while I was on autopilot, always a bit of a problem when I’m chatting with folks—as often the topic drifts into realms I’m not remotely interested in and I’m just being polite—he begins talking about Satan.
Satan. Satan is apparently in Disney cartoons, as Disney himself was a Satanist and his agenda was spreading the worship of the dark lord throughout America. He stipulated a few moments in various cartoons that I have no connection with nor knowledge of. I’ve neither watched these shows, nor heard anyone in particular pointing out the Lucifer connections. And while I can wholly imagine a lout like Alex Jones selling this wild idea, I hadn’t heard it before. My young friend, we’ll call him Watson, was adamant despite my not having any reaction whatsoever. I didn’t even raise an eyebrow. He rambled on a bit further about Satan and I just said, “I don’t know anything about that.” And I felt like a wimp. I felt like someone who drove by a woman screaming for help in the night. Or perhaps someone who saw a car accident but didn’t stop to see if he could help. I argued with myself in an almost metaphysical out-of-body way. I watched the scene almost separated from it. Why was I avoiding saying anything? Why couldn’t I at least tell him I seriously doubted the material he was spouting had any veracity at all? Was it just politeness?
Later, after a few days had passed and I was chatting with a lady friend, I related this tale and she laughed and said she was sure she would not have bothered either. “You aren’t going to reach him, she said. He’s too far gone. Don’t waste your time. It’s like asking for a headache.” She added, still laughing.
I understand her perspective, but I also feel like I owe some truthfulness to this fellow, this fellow who was calling me sensei (teacher or coach in Japanese) and possibly looking to me for a response. There is an arrogance in assuming ourselves teachers and I worry deeply that that arrogance is unhealthy and wholly unattractive, this is a theme of my existence: the desperate aversion to arrogance.
I have a friend who runs a Karate school, and we’ll call him Earnest. Earnest is an almost maddeningly righteous fellow in his early forties, married with a couple of kids of his own, he’s been running his own dojang for about ten years now and is fairly proud of it. I mean fairly in the sense that it’s fine, in my opinion, for him to be proud of his accomplishments. His righteousness is mostly a kind of Southern Baptist derivative as his outlook is very anti-alcohol (for those of you who don’t know the SB church doesn’t even accept that the ancients drank alcohol they firmly imagine Jesus was offering literally grape juice at the last supper), and permanently oriented on a kind of father knows best and women should toe that line. His art is Korean and he maintains their rank rule for keeping equally ranked women lined up below the men. We’ve spoken to him about this. We’ve spoken to him about many things. And even when he will finally concede a point nothing will happen. He wants to devote to what he thinks of as tradition over the modern social, and American outlook. In fact, recently he had the opportunity to speak to a Korean national with a Masters in Taikwondo. This fellow let Earnest know that the Korean language he was using for the techniques was in fact, no longer in use. Earnest could not have been more pleased he saw himself as the last of a dying breed!
None of this is particularly upsetting to me as Earnest takes classes in jiu-jitsu from me, and allows me to make a bit of money out of his space. He’s a good fellow in that sense and has really never caused me any difficulties. I’ve only been wishing we could improve our circumstances with a bit of an uplift both to the facade and to the attitude we present. Earnest likes to sell his Karate to “families”. It’s not a bad plan as the parents are often there to be with their kids, and if he can lure them onto the mat too he has the opportunity to make a bit of extra money. Where this plan falls apart, in my mind, is in the make-up of his class in which he teaches to all as if he were teaching children. Also adults are often pairing up with tiny kidsies and can’t really work out (as kids require a lot of extra energy and time to sort out their coordination, plus they’re just too little to get an active idea of attack and defense). I’ve spoken to him about this but he’s adamant about doing things his way. And well, aren’t we all? And well, who am I to tell him what to do? And stubbornness.
Built into the Korean term for his rank as teacher is the term father. And he takes it very seriously to behave in an almost fatherly fashion to everyone, no matter how smarmy it may seem. Even to adult people who it would normally, you would think, offend. But, then, I’m a martial artist who no title and no preoccupation with ego. I don’t do what I do to savor some special place in front of people, and I think it’s rather normal that others do. We’re back to the Maslow self-esteem discussion from an essay or two back. Earnest lives his role as karate teacher. He sees it as more than a dance instructor—which is something very similar but better paid—and more like a “life coach”.
As an academic I’ve been trained to back out of conversations in which I do not have expertise. I’ve found that in most areas of the real world in which academics are not involved this a rare thing. Most folks bluster and boldly go where they have no business going. They not only nominate themselves knowledgeable enough to argue, they argue vehemently even without much information. And even when it is clear their voices have no real value or qualification. I’m not sure why this is, but I presume folks imagine (at least in this country) that it’s a kind of constitutional right to be a loud dope. Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones sell lots of product and make tons of money doing exactly this. Neither of those gentleman have any particular expertise beyond entertainment. They simply pretend to because someone thought it would be a good idea to give them a platform (largely to sell stuff).
I don’t say much. I’m not sure why I don’t say much. I think it’s because I mostly am not concerned about things, but there are times when I’m sure we could improve our business (as I mentioned) by altering how we engage with potential customers and how we behave on social media. And by we I mean Earnest. Earnest can be very, let’s say, overbearing. I know why. He grew up a kid who absolutely loved authority. Growing up he loved and revered the institutions and his teachers. As a middle-aged man he is still in contact with some of his high school teachers! And his karate teachers got special worship. They can and never did any wrong. He worshiped these people and is bewildered when other people aren’t as reverent as he is. His reverence is his downfall. Most other people grow up to put institutions and regulations in a particular place in their lives, we think of these things as guidance or advice. Earnest grew up imagining these things were the immutable rules and hoped to join the ranks of the teachers and preachers who he thought of as special learned folks who deserved admiration. I feel badly about needing to tell him that the thing he wants most is prestige and frankly it doesn’t exist. Well, at least not with adults, not healthy adults. But then maybe the sort of adults who still imagine a god-like being is watching over the world and their every action, do expect a kind of “father” figure leading their lessons. This makes me shudder, frankly. I’m not saying there’s nothing to respect in what we do. What I’m saying is that the reverence he seeks isn’t healthy. When he calls his instructions “family” martial arts he more seems to intend to insert himself into their families as a head.
I do suppose we all like to preserve those things we liked best about the occupations we undertake. I like to teach jiu-jitsu the way my teacher taught it even though he no longer teaches that way (he makes more money now with the regiment and discipline approach). In the end, what we do we do for fun, and from my perspective it isn’t particularly important beyond that enjoyment of developing a skill and using that skill on the mat for self-defense and fitness. I don’t see a reason to suggest to my students that I’m a mentor for them beyond that. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve got life advice to offer and all it takes is a quick look at my poverty and reliance on friends for their donation and you can see that the life of a guy making his money from teaching some esoteric skill isn’t terribly rewarding. Incidentally, I have the same trouble recommending higher education. I have a PhD that lead me to nothing as well. And while I still believe everyone should pursue some education (in fact, your voice can’t be taken seriously without some expertise) I can’t pretend that I have any kind of mentorship to offer beyond jiu-jitsu. This attitude is nearly anathema to people like Earnest. He sees his accomplishments in the karate realm as being universally satisfactory for all sorts of discussion and argument. He expects his skills on the mat to translate into qualification for virtually any social or political opinion he may bluster. This makes me cringe. But in our society he’s really not entirely wrong to expect it. We put people who are little more than celebrities, especially entertainers, into positions of power all the time. We ask musicians their opinions on health care. We write articles that reference novelist’s outlook on economics. We ask Wall Street gamblers to talk about the environment. And, of course, preachers with no particular special training, are expected to mentor their worshipers without a doubt and without question. We are full of this misplaced trust in the value of untrained voices. It is normal in America for people to turn to “the man in the street” for a low-down on some event or other. We seem to have an endless appetite for the stupid. The internet, of course, has only worsened this tendency by making it much easier to give untrained and unqualified voices platforms to make noise from. Still I want to tell Earnest to reel in his non-expert reach. Our martial skills are our expertise and that’s it. Of course if someone who I consider a friend, as many of my students become, were to ask me my opinion on a topic, OK I’d provide. But I’d also qualify by saying, hey, I’m no expert in that realm.
I feel like I let the world and myself down by not pointing out certain of these concerns. Satan is not in your breakfast cereal or your kid’s cartoons mainly because there’s no such thing (I seriously can’t imagine how people manage to go through their lives filled with such nonsense). And people who are good at one thing should not assume themselves fit to be replacing your plumbing or treating your health issues unless of course they have experience in those realms. When these ideas are so ingrained and familiar though I’m not sure what particular effect I’m likely to produce. I did once broach the topic with Earnest years ago when I was a bit surprised that he was so eager to give people life advice beyond the walls of his karate school. His response was that my perspective was “interesting”. Which, of course, was his way of dismissing it. I was likely making him uncomfortable and I dropped the topic.
Maybe we get to lead a bit by example. Maybe my Satan seeing friend earlier can learn that I do just fine without worrying about Satan all the time. And maybe my friend Earnest will eventually understand that we can live quite well without garnering prestige at every opportunity. Possibly I too can stop worrying about being the arrogant professor.
Sarah Silverman did this thing on Seinfeld’s terrific little show with comics and coffee in cars and it’s probably something only she could get away with. She told a story about turning to a young woman who was apparently holding her face in a very uncomfortable and unattractive manner and said, “I’m going to change your life forever . . .” and told the girl to relax and smile and it totally fixed her. Anyone but Silverman would have been met with nothing but consternation and stubbornness, probably. But I can imagine the appeal of the friendly life-changing, albeit somewhat arrogant, gesture. If one is right however, and kind, and honest . . . possibly it could work out. Or I’m just asking for a headache!

Identity, Maslow, Desire, Cheap Means of Self-Esteem

Today’s social fuel is identity. I’m not sure why it hasn’t been more clear why we insist on, and sometimes fight vehemently about some sort of identity or other, but it is certain that we mostly can’t stop fussing and tweaking at it. Is it really anything at all? Is it actually just entirely subjective? Is there anything especially important about maintaining and defending a particular identity?
Years ago I took an anthropology course, back when I was trying to identify as a scholar or an intellect, the course taught us that the concept of race is scientifically defunct. What we think of as race is really just a function of over-valuing minor variation usually resulting from too small a sample an individual can compare the breadth of variation with. In other words, we generally don’t have enough people in our lives to really clearly see that people vary on a grade and that when you have enough people they don’t seem to pool into clear groups of black, brown, yellow, or white. In further words, there are more colors, and there are many intermediate shades. What we end up thinking of as race is very often actually only cultural, what we end up thinking meaningful—food, language influences, religion—are really nothing but the fun diversity of life. So there you have it, there is no such thing as race. This speaks nothing about the many great swaths of people who identify as some particular group or other. This they do despite science and despite knowing better because people are loopy about their desires and personal interests (and preferences and expectations and self-image). I contend that much of this is overblown and we spend far too much of our time—especially when young—entirely too worried about it. And of course being incredibly fickle creatures we often shift our allegiances with our chosen sets of identifiers.
Some time back I was thinking of a game of choosing images that represent us. I thought a limit of five would be fine, and not spend too much time on it but pick favorite images. I also reviewed some of what Maslow had to say about human nature. Once you get past the requirements for staying alive (food and shelter) the rest of it gets more interesting. The social level of the hierarchy is next and includes all those things that seem to make us gregarious animals. We after all need to feel loved, and like we belong to some group or other (this is all that identity stuff I’m riffing on). Then the next level is the part that can really create issues, the ego. Here is where the individual starts demanding recognition and starts garnering prestige—at least when things aren’t going necessarily very well. Many of us desire a kind of power, and I’d go so far as to add trust. We want our voices to carry portent. Many folks just assume they do, and this always amuses me. So many folks, especially since, the advent of the internet and the ability to reach so many without much more effort than making a free website (like this one you’re reading).
At the very top of the hierarchy is a kind of unexpected thing. It entirely makes sense to me as I desperately feel like the world is flying by me when I don’t partake. This need is one sometimes referred to as self-actualization and it is manifested as a desire for intellectual growth, development, and creativity. People actually need to work and feel accomplishment, even when it seems so many do nothing but watch others do things through the variety of media sources as well as other forms of entertainment, like sports, or concerts.
The five images I tacked to my wall were as follows: 1. representing my martial interests, and the moment of violent decision taken in the famous Kurosawa film Seven Samurai, this is a photo of the lead samurai Kambei played by the terrific Takashi Shimura charging the villagers with his sword. They were rebelling and this moment brought them back into line to defend their village. Their fear is understandable, the bandits are well armed, and strong, and they are not trained, and have a low chance for success. Kambei loses his temper just this once, and it is enough to impress the rebels. I often wonder if I have this capacity. When people walk away from my enterprises I rarely consider force as an option. Of course, I’m rarely in a position of life and death either. 2. Sonny Sharrock playing a big jazz-box of a guitar. Sharrock died quite a long while back and is probably best known for his blistering lead work on the Space Ghost Coast to Coast theme, but he was a jaw-droppingly innovative and creative musician who had developed a way to make the guitar behave like a saxophone, which is an instrument he meant to play, but ended up playing guitar. I read that at one point after having played with the likes of Miles Davis and a variety of other impressive stars of jazz he was working as a chauffeur for children at a private school. He’d stopped doing music and became this rather shoe-shine level laborer. It wasn’t until a musical friend of his realized where he was that he was revived and put back where he belonged. Blowing people’s minds with his incredible guitar work. I dreamed about him one time. In the dream he had me working on a harpsichord (an instrument I’ve never touched nor been interested in) because, he said, it would help me develop my knowledge. I also love his story because of the hope that is contained in great skill. He could have gone to waste, but his powers helped raise him out of the morass. 3. It is just a photo of Monty Python (‘s Flying Circus) in their heyday. They are young and accomplished, doctors and lawyers among them, but beyond that shockingly hilarious writers and performers who worshiped the Goons (the comedy troop including Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe) before them. It’s one of those fantastic things. I found them entirely accidentally as a grade school kid. We couldn’t receive much PBS where we lived, and so I only saw them when I rode my bike up to a friend’s house (Sean Harrington) who shared a love of guitars, and whose folks made beautiful pottery on a lovely property that I wish I had. He also had two gorgeous older sisters that I worshiped. We’d make crazy masks in the pottery studio and watch Monty Python. I still recall the very first skit I saw involving sheep nesting in trees and trying to fly. I also adored their seventh unofficial Python member Carol Cleveland who was not above showing a bit of leg and being saucy in various skits. The show was absurdist and I realized that that was my idea of humor. I have no idea to this day why that kind of humor resonates with me and absolutely not puns and slapstick, but it is the case. Taste is a function of familiarity and desire, I believe, and so I wanted to be more like Cleese, Chapman, Idle, Palin, Jones, and Gilliam (the American) much more than I wanted to be like the Three Stooges for example. Soon I’d find out about Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A film I’d desperately try to memorize whenever it occurred on Public Broadcasting. It’d always be very late, and very hard for me to dial in on our shitty black and white box I’d perch on my knees to hold onto the loop. These days, of course, I have at least two copies of it, but I have not forgotten the grail-like quality of that movie. 4. So many of these photos are from movies. And this next one is no exception. It is a behind the scenes still from the old Creature From the Black Lagoon movie. And while there are dozens of possible shots of Julie Adam’s lovely legs swimming with the monster, my picture is of the monster and a stand-in in a passionate embrace, actually kissing. This is of course a statement of nothing but sweet sexuality and little more. You don’t need to know. I fear too often we leave sexuality behind as something that we cannot handle. We’d rather not know that we are wired for sexuality and that it is one of Maslow’s needs. It’s just not stipulated as such. Sex is necessary and beautiful and clumsy, and sometimes quite awkward, but I won’t have it lied about, or debased. Without it you’re likely to be insane. 5. Henry Miller smoking at his desk. Already an old fellow, and having lived a life of mostly unrecognized poverty, I love Miller. I don’t always love his outlook or his stories. I am sometimes left surprised at how low he paints himself. But as time has gone by my love for him his blossomed. Originally I considered him unreliable and uninteresting, but I was a silly kid. It took becoming a grown man to realize his genius of tell all narrative. Also, and this cannot be overstated. He’s a senior to almost everyone we loved in the twentieth century. He’d out-Kerouac’d old Jack long before Jack was able to tie his shoes. The beatnics were kids to him. He was more than a generation older than Burroughs for crying out loud. He walked the world’s major cities and forced himself at the tables of so many people, he even traveled to NC and spoke admiringly of the underclassed blacks here. He wasn’t always benign and delightful, but his fearlessness and devotion to the writing arts is still inspiring. He even speaks of driving around Narragansett, Rhode Island and playing with ladies he found there, while my grandparents were nursing at their mothers’ teats. It’s a considerable body of descriptive work, most of it autobiographical and much of it having been banned at some point or other for being ferociously open about sex.
So that’s it my five images of what I hope to Identify with, and not a scientist among them. I suppose I see science as an occupation, and don’t think of it as a hero’s landing place. Certainly there have been stunning examples of incredible scientists who have changed the world from Darwin to Fleming to Borlaug and educators and popularizers from Einstein to Sagan and beyond. But frankly they don’t stimulate me the way the artists do. I respect Snodgrass’s work on the morphology and physiology of the insects. I respect efforts of hard working scientists, but I think of them as mechanics. I’m a mechanic too. Doctors especially are mechanics. And maybe if I allowed ten photos I’d have a few mechanics in there. Academics like artists of all sorts from visual to musical to martial are often boxes of broken cookies emotionally. And maybe I unfairly impugn their personalities unfairly as they should know better. Their grasping for the self-esteem of Maslow’s hierarchy seems worsened by them even knowing who Maslow was. I don’t forgive them their clamoring for the stage.
In the end identity seems a bit superfluous and is obviously not something you can just declare. You are what you do. No despot famous for the murder of his citizens can claim to be a peacenik and no draft-dodger a fearless hero under fire. Just work, just do, and eventually you’ll forget all about your all important identity.

Getting Lost, Old Loves, More Death, Keeping Doors Open

Years ago, a lovely friend of mine who later married my best buddy Joey, and is sadly no longer with us, dropped me off after a cute date holding hands in a dark Audubon park, and promptly got herself horribly lost on the non-street lights, narrow, labyrinthine country roads of Greene, Rhode Island. Today problem solved with online GPS, or even a quick call to her friends. But in those days the lovely damsel was utterly frustrated with a dwindling supply of fuel and no clue as to which direction to take as she meandered around pitch-black, forested scenery, littered with deer. What was not lost on her was her affection for this scene in virtually every horror film, and she was becoming more and more certain that she was about to be captured and fed to a Cthulhu-inspired creature deep in the forest, her spiky punk hairdo, her pixie boots and all—gulp! She escaped such fate and as luck would have it got back on course by herself, what remarkable self-reliance! I’m not sure we enough celebrated her happy capabilities of grit and determination in the face of such overwhelmingly unlikely odds. Though Rhode Island is a rather small state, you’d be surprised by the long stretches of uninhabited midnight wilderness.

I made her tell me that story a few times, and laughed a lot, which angered her not a little bit, but not as much as when I doubted her story about some friend of a friend who got a spider in her ear. That one really pissed her off. Ellen, as this was her name, was dearly terrified of spiders–like many folks–and they were something of a devoted focus of her existence. I enjoyed her stories of lacing up combat boots and outfitting in ski pants just to venture into her basement in case of some flimsy spiders which she imagined rubbing their little tarsi in anticipation of jumping on her. Of course, as a goofball young man, I took great amusement in buying little plastic toy spiders and decorating her place with them.
In those days I was desperately trying to get my paws on her, and while she never directly turned me down and enjoyed basking in my affection for her, it never culminated in anything resembling actual sexy girl and boy play. Still the hopes I had always kept me coming back as she fueled a lot of fantasies, with her beauty, she had nearly golden eyes, and enthusiasm for much of the same entertainment I enjoyed, including Clive Barker stories, and Evil Dead and Hellraiser films.

In stories I wrote for her, she was sometimes heroine but more often damsel-in-distress. She’d sometimes give me a call after receiving a new installment to chat with me about various details, clarifications, and sometimes, I think, just to get me to say certain things I’d written.
As chances would have it, she died before all of us louts. It still shocks me to think about it, as I’d been talking with her on my crappy phone. She was a night person, and I am often sound asleep by nine, and at some point I didn’t pick up the phone. We always think there will be more opportunities. We can’t fix it. Her health was deteriorating rapidly and she wasn’t helping it with her general recreational habits. Her favorite was Robert Smith of The Cure, and I spun some old Cure for her in memoriam recently. Whenever I see Bruce Campbell doing his Ash character in newly created Evil Dead spin offs I think of Ellen.

I was chatting with my Dad recently and he told me a story about having dinner with some old friends, one of them a fellow he had not seen in thirty years. Those sorts of numbers used to seem so weird, but now that I’m in my fifties thirty years can float off your shoulders like brushed snow. Granted that was a lifetime ago, and I would barely recognize that version of myself, and would probably never be able to befriend him, but the point is if I get to live as long as my Old Man, maybe I’ll think the same of myself now. His old friend Rick had sad news for my Pop in that his darling of a wife called Sue had passed away a few years ago. My memories of her were vague but delightful. She was very pretty, and very funny, full of smiles and freckles and sweetness that my family generally never expressed.

Sue had, however, orchestrated a girlfriend for me when I was just fifteen and incapable of much in the realm of social behaviors. I was as polite as I could be with the lass, of whom, I was uninterested in. I was surrounded by fifteen year olds at school all day, and so I longed for anything but. Her name is long gone as well as her face, but I do remember she was remarkably tireless and tried very hard to befriend me. I left the house.
I went wandering on those dark twisty country roads that would so unnerve Ellen years later, but provided me my relief and calm. Sometimes on such walks you could see massive owls perched in old oaks overhead. You could also see possums and skunks and foxes and deer, of course. Houses were spread out in those days, things have changed some in my folks neighborhood in that development generally always follows, chopping into the land (all of it formerly farmland anyway, even areas now nature preserves). In this area, there are also endless family graveyards with state plaques on them designating their historicity. I still have dreams sometimes about these places, firmed up with huge retaining stones, but eventually those slipping out of place and the graves unkempt and worn away. More fodder for imaginations as good as Ellen’s and mine. I walked and walked and had nothing but time to kill. A tiny brook meanders through the forest in back of the properties, and under the road and then up into the Audubon lands across from the Gowdy residence. Back then old Hank was still active, he’d have his dojo in his basement and he was famously teaching jiu-jitsu to a cadre of weird folks who found him. I also did jiu-jitsu, but closer to town, and my teacher and old Hank did not see eye to eye. One time a pair of friends of mine got into a tussle. It was a moving dirge of a fight, things were thrown, bodies were hit and kicked and bled and sweat on, but we kept walking. The two young men never ceased beating on one another and it never came to a point where one would capitulate. My brother and I, also capable of such fights, though I was much bigger, watched the boys, thoroughly entertained by them. Hank Gowdy drove up and rolling down his window he flashed a badge at us. He sternly told us if we were interested in fighting we should come to his school. I was bewildered but knew who he was and called him sensei, the now very well known Japanese term for teacher. At the time though it was like secret code. Gowdy’s heavyset face seemed jarred. He was a massive fellow, and had fought in WWII. It was the only time I’d ever have contact with him. Somehow my calling him sensei eased his mind, and he may have said a few more things, but he drove off in an El Camino. I passed his old place a house I wish I had now. I think we had misunderstood his approach, I think he honestly wanted us to be his students. He wanted to teach us the arts. But we already had contact with his contemporaries who had directed us away from him. I wish I’d have gone to his place now. I always wonder about these biases we get from people we eventually find are based on personal chafing. My teacher in town eventually would disappoint me as well. He would insult my father, who basically built the damned dojo we used with his own hands and money.

And it becomes important. People quickly forget the passionate gifts, the devotion and help. They like to think they did everything by themselves. It’s even in the Tao Te Ching that you’re supposed to let people imagine they did things themselves. Lao Tzu saw that as the greatest of leaders. I’m still struggling with that totality. There comes a time, in my experience, when people, much like children, need to be reminded that they are not as clever nor as self-reliant as they imagine.

After a long uneventful walk I came home to find that the party was still going (my folks so rarely entertained that I didn’t really know what to do) so I crept into a car and fell asleep. I heard later that I’d really disappointed, not the young lady who had been brought to become my friend, but Sue. Sorry Sue. I was a dope. Sorry to everyone, I’m often still a dope. Sorry for not picking up the phone. Sorry for not visiting with Hank. You see we close these doors ourselves too. We build our own fences and walls and then we cry about not being able to escape them. And time is running out.

Yevtushenko, The Bible, Death, Sex, Poetry

I hadn’t realized that Yvgenny Yevtushenko was dead. I’d been carrying around Bratsk Station in my bag and my car, my pocket, for years. Kind of meaning to read it, but instead dipping into it over lunches and other idle times when I could, almost randomly. It kept making me feel like I needed to journey and to document and to write, and of course, to have a lady on my . . . shoulder, but my expectations are multitudinous and eventually drive away the ladies with various disappointments.

It was over wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? All really in need of moving on from. Despite my skepticism of our modern concepts of “closure” and self “forgiveness”. Everyone nods and everyone has the same smile they have when they find out you’re in the hospital, having your heart adjusted with electricity. Hope that works out for you, is the look, hope that all works out for you.
As a child I didn’t read the Bible, nor had anyone implored me to do so. My family was fine with a God but Mom and Dad weren’t interested in anything organized. At some point, in Pennsylvania someone gave me a massive illustrated Bible that I thought was beautiful, but Mother’s look of consternation and her tight-lipped “Who’s that from?” was not lost on me. I tried to read it, but found the language impenetrable—necessarily so according to Pasteur—but as a youth I soon tired of attempting to make sense of it. And as a teen knew that there was no such thing as gods. This despite my mother’s terrifying insistence that a disembodied head floated about her bedroom. It occurred to me that Mom did a lot of drinking. So I became a skeptic early in self defense and had no use for fantasy until much later in life. A devoutly pragmatic youth always, I read nature books and Audubon guides as well as war memoirs. Later on though, it became distressingly clear that our lives and our arts are dedicated to the ancients. Reading Herodotus, Homer, and the Bible were dramatic steps in increasing knowledge of where our hopes and dreams and expectations are taking us, and the cyclical nature of our short-wired lives. Philippians chapter 2 verse 5 is a sweet, very Buddhist statement about removing yourself from the purpose of your actions and keeping others ahead of your interests. Reading the Bible is a big help, just not from a devotional perspective. Parts can be read as novels, other parts as attempts at history, just as other ancient texts lay foundations of culture.
America, though, we largely discarded the Buddhism of the world. The very central theme to open market is that if everyone is as selfish as possible then the system should carry on with the best and the most cost-effective (cost-effective: consider it) winning the game out of a kind of wholesale disregard for environment, neighborliness, or love. We are an active and proud refutation of the concerns of community. Our religious folk are arrogant warriors with their feet firmly planted on the ground they anticipate dying to defend, they spoil for fights, and they find fights. Modern Christians have forgotten that their dead are awaiting the Second Coming and instead all their spirits are already somehow in Heaven (also not a biblical idea). It matters not, the religion caters to the desires of the masses and continues to fight equality and progressive solutions. Religious businessmen put Bible quotes on their cards and use the congregation as a captured market. In America, arguments rage about whether or not Jesus rejected riches and rich people. Rich people build their own churches and commission pious artworks that include their likenesses to be arranged in the church as a “gift”. Insane politicians have paintings made in which they, with heretical aplomb, are pictured hanging-out with the lord. I always laughed. I thought our best and our brightest would always prevail.
A year before Yevtushenko passed Jim Harrison did, just weeks after he appeared on a popular food centered television show. He seemed tired and possibly beat. I loved seeing him just the same, but mourned his passing, rushing from bookstore to bookstore collecting his works that spring, and reading much of them in the ensuing months as I worked on a comic novella.
My lady tried to maintain her good cheer. She tried to celebrate the highlights with me. But her patience with poverty wore thin (I could not help her buy a house and then it became clear I would not be wanted in her house). The last straw was when I walked away from a supermarket job that sapped my strength and my dignity. I didn’t get fired, but had a minor tiff with a customer. A chubby East Asian lady who didn’t understand it was my first shift, and that I was left there basically unaided. I couldn’t see what she pointed at and she seemed to think I was deliberately playing dumb to avoid selling something to her. It didn’t help that it was hard to communicate, and it didn’t help that I was only seven hours into the actual job (the rest of it had been online training, and book knowledge).
The lady had been campaigning for her sister in the south. I joined her for a day of campaigning as well. We lost. Our presidential candidate lost. The nation was plunged into a darkness of jerkishness. I tried hard to soften the blow. The accusations of the winning candidate were that the election was rigged if he lost. It soon went the other way, the rigging it now seemed clear existed but it existed to favor the lunatic who made the claim.
Depression, sleeplessness, paranoia, an afib heart . . . later. And I was caught with another woman, having a wonderful time. Pleasure had been well outlawed, and that sort has always been the reality and the bane.
It occurs to us all that the interest and reality of the world is in those items we seek to confuse ourselves with as wrong. Certainly killing is wrong, but killing is every one of our most popular stories. Tolstoy kills Anna. Dostoevsky makes us love our killer Raskolnikov. Why do our lovers own our pleasure? And when they no longer want to make love what are we to do? What advice is there that is actually useful? None. Love and death are the central problems of our lives and it is clear we haven’t a goddamned thing for them. Those frozen “good luck with that” smiles.
The new president has many affairs. His affairs, covered on television, garner tremendous ratings. The people apparently adore his philandering. Even the right-wing religious seem nothing but titillated by his extra marital dalliances. Twenty years ago they were rabidly pursuing and succeeded in impeachment of the president. This time however, we hear that he represents Sampson from the Old Testament.
I don’t care if people have affairs. I feel like it’s really none of our business. But this president is accused of threatening the ladies to maintain their silence, and then plying them with piles of money, like some kind of thug from a bad noir film. It seems utterly without sense. How is it this wealthy playboy, responsible for nothing in his life, answering to no one, ignorant of all human endeavor and accomplishment is somehow the champion of so many?
In Bratsk Station Yevtushenko rambles delightfully around. Poetry it seems to me is the ultimate manner in which to continually interrupt yourself. It is one of the finer ways to represent the mental ministrations of thought and sensory stimulation. It was 1967, the prelude to a dramatically difficult year for the world. Upheaval in America was outrageous, race riots, assassinations, a public irretrievably divided on a longstanding war in a foreign country that had delved into unthinkable atrocities, and a president who loved nothing as much as law and order, who would even declare members of The Beatles public enemies.
Mom would yell, Nixon is a stinker. Nixon is a liar. We have that right, she once pointed out. We have the right to say these things. Though that’s about it. It amuses me that so many despots worry about the opinions of their subjects, as if saying “despot” means the situation immediately becomes dangerous for a despot somehow. Largely we do nothing. Nixon said that things aren’t illegal when the president does them. The current president buffoon hasn’t said that yet. Maybe he doesn’t need to since the precedent has been set.
Knowing that so many wonderfully brilliant people are gone eases the impending death of the rest of us I think. If even David Bowie has to pass away, if even Carl Sagan, if even the gloriously beautiful airline attendant dies in the crash . . . well, I guess it’s OK then, it really is a kind of leveling there, death cares not about us. It ignores our beauty our accomplishments and our intelligence. It is shocking that way. Of course, birth ignores all that too, but we aren’t known at birth. We have no consciousness. No ability to create our religious to save our souls. I’ve been immediately delving into internet tools to find deaths. Doug Kenney, Stephen J. Gould, Yevtushenko and Jim Harrison, are no longer with us, of course. Sex and death being those free things we have so little control over. I’ve put aside the Alice Munroe I was reading, I wasn’t ready for more suicides. I’ll tip my hat to her skills, but move on from the mediocrity of the inevitable end.
The poem seems to me the best means of constantly interrupting ourselves.