Cover Me Up With Roses—Song by Ken Clark
Cover Man—Song by Ken Clark
Kiss Me With Your Mouth Closed—Song by Ken Clark
Why Otters Hold Hands—Poem by Bill Walsh
Lily Pads—Watercolor Triptych by Cindy Shute
Cover Me Up With Roses—Song by Ken Clark
Cover Man—Song by Ken Clark
Kiss Me With Your Mouth Closed—Song by Ken Clark
Why Otters Hold Hands—Poem by Bill Walsh
Lily Pads—Watercolor Triptych by Cindy Shute
People ask me why I retired.
Towards the end of my teaching career I had grown to detest grading freshman essays to a degree that had become life-threatening. I had to do breathing exercises, calmness meditation, and plead with the gods for fortitude before I could even look at those folders. I had to be careful not to put them in stacks for fear of cardiac arrest at the sight. And even then I had to proceed with palpitations, trembling, cold sweat, and shortness of breath. Like my regular attributing of malevolent motives to inanimate objects, it was a response out of proportion to the cause—but I was powerless to change it.
Since sitting in my office with those papers in the creepy late afternoon began to feel terrifying, I tried the evasive maneuver of taking (a few of) the hated folders to the library where I always had the third-floor faculty lounge to myself with a view over the campus and Vernon Street. One day, after I had taken twenty slow deep breaths, opened a folder and read the first, thankfully grammatically complete, sentence ten times trying to get it to catch, I saw across the way a man enter the back door of my building, Manget, and I knew he had come to kill me. I didn’t know why, or who he was, I only knew it was so.
So you see, I had no choice. I slipped out the west utility door, and kept going.
I once wrote a very bad play, with good characters. Not morally good, you understand, just real. The play of course went nowhere but the characters took up in my house and wouldn’t leave. They crept into my bed, they hogged the bathroom, ate my food, smoked my stuff and drank all my wine. They had nothing to do and were massively bored. They had no past to inspire nostalgia, and no future, unless I gave them one, but I had lost interest in them and knew the only way to get rid of them was to forget them.
But how much luck have you ever had trying to forget something?
It was somewhere between a bad marriage and a haunted house. They hung around for a couple of years. I didn’t really forget them, I just got so used to them I stopped seeing them, and when I did, they were beginning to look transparent, with whole sections of their bodies missing. A couple melded into one. They had had emotion in the early days—hostility, resentment, ambition—but now the fuel was spent and all I could feel from them was a sickly malaise. They took up in corners, under tables, in closets. One went outside and never came back. I think he’s in the shed. And sure enough, as they withdrew I did fall into the habit of forgetting them, more or less, and they became too insubstantial to really have a presence in my mind.
Except for one. The grandfather. He settled into the back room, and I closed the door for good. I have no idea what he does in there, but I think he just waits, knowing that whoever forgets the other first wins.
September 17, 2018
In my experience it is the least imaginative people who have the most passionate—even violent—desire to eradicate what is alien to them and enforce conformity to their worldview. You might say, that is almost a definition of “unimaginative.” Among the various defining characteristics of the “imaginative” mind, to me, empathy stands foremost: the ability, or proclivity, to imagine being someone else. Is is a quality essential to the storyteller. To the novelist, for example, being someone else is not just a requirement of the job, but its great joy. Escape from the constant Iago-like whispers of ego. Escape from personality. Escape from yourself! In the current political warfare I am sometimes asked what side I’m on. It’s a hard question to answer when I’m sure our having devolved into teams is itself the problem. We are unable, or unwilling, to imagine how the world looks to someone different from ourselves. We say, you either see the world from the random, accidental, selective way I do, or you’re a non-entity. Or face endless torture in some afterlife for your brain’s failure to be wired the way mine is. Nothing less would suffice for the egregiousness of your having a take on reality that I don’t understand.
To the Anastazi—“When the world becomes evil, you die.”
Please don’t kill the messenger, or consign me to Hell for the very thought—but I think we’re there.
The essential ethic of Christianity, and of all ethical systems, is love—manifested in many ways, but critically in tolerance and support for our fellow travelers. So why of all people do “Christians” exhibit it the least? Because they have polluted their religion with politics. Christianity, which replaced paganism in a world growing ever more socialized and sedentary, is supremely about living cooperatively and harmoniously in complex social systems. It isn’t about the endless continuation of your climate-controlled subdivision life with your clones. Hatred of other people, inability to conceive of their conception of reality, dwelling in the noxious trenches of tribal bickering, will destroy us. Quit watching that propaganda! It is only for people incapable of thinking for themselves. The whole point of it is to keep us divided, keep us hating and blaming each other, so a few people can get rich off of us before the end.
September 24, 2018
The Garden. Everybody always asks me about the Garden.
It was real. I guess. No way to prove that now. And very beautiful, of course. I didn’t know that then—you have to know what not-beautiful is first.
The best part of it, I would say, was the part—and I honestly don’t know how long it lasted—before I met your mother, because the best part of anything is anticipating it, and believe me, in those days I shivered with anticipation constantly. Of what, I didn’t know, but that was the joy of it—not just that something was missing, but deliberately missing, and it was up to me to fill that hollow place with whatever I could devise. That was how I knew the Garden wasn’t all, and I went looking. Since there was for me no way to distinguish between finding and inventing I found myself looking for something I already knew within me. I imagined her, or felt her, can’t say which, but I could say her now, because whatever I was in pursuit of had calved from me, or me from it, and we were entities. I could have poured my energy into realizing that part of myself. But I chose not to. One thing you can say, she got me up and looking around.
In my forays through the secret ways of the Garden I could always sense when I was near her, but it was a long time before I saw her, or materialized her—how can I know?—and then that moment: when I came around a curve in the path and saw her standing there, waiting. Nothing I have ever seen in my life could rival that first vision. She was as real as me, this exact, perfectly other thing, and I could see my own wonder reflected in her eyes, and could sense her wonder at whether she was imagining me.
I had never felt, and will never feel again, anything like the feeling when our bodies first touched, and interlocked like two halves of a whole. I wish I could, and not merely remember it. But you can’t ever feel anything again, even Paradise, only know that it had its time.
You will have noticed this yourselves. It is our fate.
People have made up stories about a snake, but if there was a snake it was the one within us: our leaving the Garden was inevitable and foreordained the moment we faced each other. And the best thing that ever happened to us. I welcomed it—the chance to define what I was through challenge and toil—to develop the higher powers, ingenuity, creativity. Not that life, especially in the early days, was easy. It was not. Looking back, I don’t know how we survived. I’ll spare you accounts of what we ate in those early days. We made shelter for ourselves, and learned to find and grow good food, and had many years—long years, some of them. We saw you children grow up, and really didn’t know how to proceed in finding you mates—never mind that. We multiplied. We submitted to time, and after so much of it I could barely see the woman I had first seen that radiant day in the Garden in the woman before me now who had shared my life. As always, I could see the reflection of the same thoughts in her eyes, and of course there was no way to see ourselves but in those mirrors.
Love? Well, yes, love, but it took a while for that word to crystallize, for the need of it to be clear. And now we have taken love to its very end.
All these knowledges—of love, of time, of loss—and now the greatest of them all, just ahead.
The blessing inherent in us from the start.
October 1, 2018
Speaking of socialization, a good book to check out is Against the Grain by political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott. A re-interpreter, Scott has surveyed recent archaeological findings to present a new vision of the emergence of the ancient state. The book (along with his earlier ones) has been much discussed, so I’ll just say—read it if you want a counter-view to the textbook assumption of the state, with its drudgery, taxation, bondage, disease, ecocide, and a small elite class milking everybody else—as progress. It’s very refreshing.
Also depressing—because it naturally inspires the question: what is the best way for human beings to live?—while leaving the reader suspecting that the answer or answers to that question are now socially unreachable, and that the only destination we are progressing toward is collapse.
And in a more profound way, not depressing—because as this book reminds us, collapse is the rule not the exception, and why would we be any different?—but latent within collapse is opportunity.
It’s tempting to romanticize the hunter-gatherer lifestyle which five or six thousand years ago was the alternative to the earliest states, even if those people did sell their brethren into the slavery required to run the state, and the hunter-gatherer way of life couldn’t exactly have been a cakewalk itself. But you will come away from this book convinced that being a nomad beat being a peasant hands-down, and dreading the “Hunter-Gatherer Cookbook” and new lines of loincloth casual wear in California which are sure to come if Scott’s ideas, and their inevitable misinterpretation, catch on. Scott persuasively argues that hunter-gatherers didn’t turn into states in a linear, progressive way, but in fits and starts, with the sedentary lifestyle long preceding, and not always evolving into, the earliest states.
But here’s the big idea I was left with: what if the formation of states wasn’t an improvement, but a disaster that led to the simultaneous emergence of bureaucrats and the brutalization of the human spirit? One is reminded of Thomas Hobbes’ famous description of human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”—though, writing in the 17th century during the English Civil War, he meant it as a hypothetical description of just the opposite: humans outside of a “social contract.” He had a point.
But are those our only choices: stockpiling beans or the kafkaesque paranoia of the deep state? This is too big for me, but the question remains—what is the best way to live? What does it mean to flourish, to be happy? Sorry, I don’t know. I can only say that my deepest intuition of human existence is a bottomless flowing current with the distractions of our surface lives keeping us mostly from the insights, joys, and terrors of the depths. But providing unhindered access to those depths, and the resulting liberation from ego (an invention by which we subjugate ourselves to bureaucrats, including the one in our minds) are indispensable to any real human fulfillment. Preventing that fulfillment is of course the primary goal of bureaucrats, especially those in the edifice of “religion,” who have been provided by the modern world with a means of achieving that prevention more effective than slavery.
Sometimes it seems we give up too much for too little. But clearly there must be harmony between our autonomy and our participation in a social contract. These days we don’t have a clue where or what that zone might be.
October 10, 2018
Doers and Bureaucrats
Out of the billions of people who comprise the human race, a few actually do something. They are doers.
The rest spring into action once a doer does something—to follow, criticize, study, rank, label, catalogue, legislate, anthologize, punish, reward, or interpret, and in most cases collect the proceeds. They are bureaucrats.
Anybody who tells you that what you think, do, write, or feel has already been thought, done, written, or felt is a bureaucrat, because they keep up with that shit. Everybody knows it’s all been thought, done, written, and felt.
And anybody who in any field of endeavor—for example, art—tells you always do this, never do that, avoid this, imitate that, is a bureaucrat and doesn’t realize that when you can list rules of creativity you are dealing with a dead art form. Bureaucrat intelligence is never original but primarily the ability to detect a match, or the lack of one. Thinking like a bureaucrat turns the continuous flow of reality into compartments and consigns the meaning of life to the superficial. The joy of life, sometimes its terror (can’t have one without the other), is discovering something for which there is no compartment in your mind. Bureaucrats will have none of that.
And speaking of technological utopianism, it is the illusion that life is essentially composed of segments, and that we could live forever going from one to another; that, as long as we have the elements we want in a situation, life will be full and good. But who could have foretold that the heart grows old? In fact, our existence is an arc—like everything it moves from a beginning to an end, which is the source of its meaning. The idea that technology can change the terms of life (cure death!) is as vacuous as any utopianism has ever been. Life as we experience it is impossible to continue in an unchanging state. Nature kills, and tries again. This is why most older people, if you ask them if they would do it over, say no. They would prefer their progeny to do it for them because this is how nature works: death and rebirth. Even if that creates horrors of its own in the Little League bleachers.
But can people living on planets untilted on their axes, and therefore without seasons, conceive of rebirth?
Please don’t accuse me of believing that humanity divides cleanly into doers and bureaucrats. It is that choose-your-team way of thinking I most detest. We are all both, sequentially and simultaneously. And it isn’t only the brick walls you hit in all bureaucratic structures, but the bureaucrat within your own mind, that thwarts you. The only healthy thing about that little executive in your cranium is that in trying not to identify with it, you have to come up with something else to be. But I will say, I think it’s better when the something else you come up with originates outside the system rather than within it. “Within it” awakens the image of “movements.” Movements in a complex society are as inevitable as the tides, and can be constructive, but they come with a lot of collateral damage. People will sell their souls to be part of something, and often look like lemmings in retrospect, and the movements they so passionately followed contrived and doomed.
Bureaucrats keep the house in order, yes, but they are also dangerous. Since they can’t do anything original they feel it is their right to tell other people what to do, and the way they end up with the money reminds you of a black hole. Even God warned about them:
The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
Ezekiel 34: 1-6
Ancient Israel, modern America—what has changed?
The higher on the food chain you go, the less you see what is below you, and the easier it is to dismiss its suffering. Bureaucrats make it too easy to prefer an abstraction over real human feeling, too easy to justify cruelty with a creed—as in the slaughter of innocents followed by “God is great!” Or hiding from the evil around you in air-conditioned churches. And if left to evolve unimpeded, like a rotting fish on the beach bureaucrats grow too easily into fascists.
A million examples—but for brevity, consider Jesus and the Scribes and the Pharisees, not to mention the Romans.
Or the Spanish Inquisition.
Franco’s falangists and Garcia Lorca.
October 17, 2018
I love the metaphor of playing the hand you’re dealt. It fits well enough and accommodates perfectly the famed unfairness of life we lament so—but which a moment’s reflection reminds us there would be no game without. Unfairness is the infinitesimal hitch in the joinery that breeds reality. It’s the key that unlocks something from nothing.
It really doesn’t matter who wins.
The person we think we are is only the hired help—the ringmaster, not the circus.
Our reality, so we think all reality, is about us—but taking yourself seriously will get you nowhere: you are not the star: love, hope, fear, loneliness, revenge, regret, relief, hatred, despair, and amazing grace are. The playing out of a hand.
Some people say, I never have any luck, as though there were such a thing. They don’t think, I’m playing, which is so lucky it’s miraculous.
Plus, you have to remember the obvious: the best games are the ones with the greatest movement, the greatest surprise, the greatest change. In other words, the best story. Starting with high cards and playing them predictably out isn’t an interesting story. Starting with high cards and blowing them like a hayseed lottery winner, or being outdone by the shrewdness of a weaker player, is. People have to be “storied” to be interesting to other people: they have to have overcome something, found the value or treachery of something, had a narrow escape, a change of heart, defeated their own pride, survived danger, learned something, achieved something, and so forth. You can’t hoard your life, you have to spend it to have stories. And the more miserable the experience, the better the story. No poverty is greater than having no stories.
Everything constantly changes, we all know that, but we’re usually too busy resisting that inevitability to be grateful for it. Spring doesn’t last—neither does youth, the bloom of a flower, a happy time, the innocence of our offspring, a sunset, a thunderstorm, or an adventure. All the things we consider the best in life, not to mention the worst, do not last, and if they do they are subject to death by routine. But none of them would exist if it weren’t so. It’s not just best that way, it’s only possible that way.
Things have to come to be things, but they also have to go.
Beauty, love, happiness don’t just break your heart because they don’t last, they exist because they don’t last. You would have no way to be aware of a flower that always bloomed.
We’ve got a problem with the way we see eternity. The problem is that there is no “we.” Just a collection of “we’s” hired for the day. If we always existed, we wouldn’t exist.
People say, you are the author of your life. But your life is the author of you.
You are your story.
October 20, 2018
Sue and Babe, Aunt Annie, and Em
They were sisters and lived together three houses down from us on Woodfield Drive. Mama was good friends with them. Daddy leaned towards Babe—no, not what you think, but because she was a highly personable, masculine force of nature who could build a house. She wore a toolbelt as naturally as any man—back in the era when she wasn’t trying to say anything by it, she just needed it. Sue was either a widow or divorced, I’m not sure which, and had a son about my brother’s age, and Babe was unmarried. I loved them both. Later, another sister, terminally ill, came to live with them bringing her brilliant son who was my age. He was into chess, electronics, arcane literature, and not throwing and catching things. I was into airplanes, Alistair MacLean, James Bond, and throwing and catching things.
Babe owned a beauty shop downtown by the Tiger Theater and I delivered a paper there and collected once a month. I enjoyed going in there—what other kid could or would?—drawing fawning clucks from the hens in mid-beautification or dunked over backwards into sinks or sitting under those sci-fi cones—amid that smell—that pungent chemical smell of the beautician’s dark arts.
Babe was friendly, outgoing, funny, always a joy to see. Everybody loved her.
Thank God there was no word for what she was. Well, actually, there was: Babe.
Aunt Annie is a ghost to me. I can’t have seen her more than three or four times in my life, on our rare visits to my great-grandparents’ house in northwest Birmingham, but it was enough to leave me with a faint mental image of a pale, thin, bunned woman in a black dress. I can’t remember when she died, but I can hardly have been in double digits.
Funny, I’m not really sure whether she was my great-grandmother’s (Mu’s) or my great-grandfather’s sister, but it was one of them. She had her own room, where the children were forbidden to set foot, and worked at a department store downtown. She would walk down to the bus stop every morning and take the bus to work. In the afternoons she would reappear. She paid half the mortgage, and her share of household expenses. Of course she ate with the family because she was part of the family. My memory is very, very dim, but I don’t remember her as melancholy or morose. She talked, she laughed, she played the part of Aunt Annie quite well—in that age when parts for women were few. I think she read a lot.
In my experience Abe was right that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. She was the spinster sister but had made peace with her fate long ago and was living her life. Like Mu, she was deeply religious—I mean, Mu used to cut out the whiskey and lingerie ads from the newspaper before the children could see it. Certain sections of the Sears catalogue were banned as well. I’m thinking these images weren’t that lurid in that age; no matter—children had no business looking at pictures of grown women in their underwear. Some might argue they still don’t, but it’s too late.
Grandfather (as Mama called him), a tall, taciturn man with an odd whimsical streak, a builder of curious weathervanes and windmills in the labyrinthine back yard, a coal mine inspector, memory tells me was not Mu’s match in piety, but maybe since in all his years of work, the one day—the one day!—he said he just didn’t feel like going in to work and there was a cave-in, he should have been. The chiropractor who in treating his bad back had dislodged the blood clot that killed him put chiropractors on the family black list for two generations. I still harbor dark misgivings and have yet to visit one. Like everyone, Grandfather treated Aunt Annie with respect and unquestioning inclusion. She was just Aunt Annie, a member of the family, and beyond that, nobody cared.
Maybe it’s still true, but that was an era, certainly in the south, when unmarried sisters lived with their siblings, odd grown men lived with their mothers, elderly parents often had a room in their children’s house, and there was no shortage of “bachelors.” What strikes me today as I think about it is that these situations were not noted as unusual. Clear categories for what today we would doom with a name, as well as assisted living facilities, were absent. And without categories, usual is just what there is, and nobody thinks about it. Maybe it was my innocent perspective, but I’m not aware of having absorbed anything judgmental from the culture either—though Amanda Wingfield’s evocation of the spinster “stuck in some little mousetrap of a room” has persisted in my head all these years since my first reading of The Glass Menagerie in the seventh or eighth grade when I was hardly a literary man and it wasn’t a great play or great writing or anything southern, it just whacked me.
Someone should have warned Adam—the mischief starts when you start naming things.
Let us arise and go now, and live without categories.
October 28, 2018
At the Bank of the Lethe
At the bank of the Lethe I remembered the longago day when we went our separate ways. We divided into four groups in the vast valley and drew lots for which compass direction we each would follow. I was grateful that my people didn’t get “north.” I was never one for cold. The valley, as I said, was vast—we had sight of each other for two days—but not endless—and finally one group melted into the distant mountains and the others into the horizons, and we were alone. Life, in all its folly and futility, happened, with nevermore a trace of news from the others, who of course eventually decayed into myth. Many among the young came to doubt there had ever been others.
Standing there with my patient but adamant attendants, looking into the dark creeping current, I remembered that day, and many others, as unreal now as dreams. I tried to think of what marks I had left upon the earth, but found it hard to concentrate, and knew it didn’t matter.
Everything I was, had been—even “I” itself—would be wiped away and irretrievable, leaving perhaps phantom traces of deja vu or odd disturbances around my favorite haunts perceptible to the hypersensitive. It seemed very sad but could be no other way.
If these vague hauntings of reminiscence were real and I had stood here before, maybe many times, if the erasure of memory erased everything but the erasure itself, if I were destined to start anew, I wouldn’t know it. And what difference would it make if I had regrets?
I shared these thoughts with an attendant (hence the words before you), and now kneel to drink—
November 5, 2018
“Why Otters Hold Hands”—From Bill Walsh’s soon to be published poetry collection,
Fly Fishing in Times Square.
Atlanta writer Bill Walsh directs the Reinhardt University MFA Creative Writing Program. This poem strikes a note of longing, especially in those watching the twilight of childhood in their youngest kid.
Why Otters Hold Hands
I want to live in a small town like Lakewood,
where the fastest thing is a sailboat without wind.
I want to know the world is safe for my daughter,
that I never have to share my failures, a place,
where, if I ever lose my religion again, someone
will return it to my house, ring the bell
and if I am not home, they will leave
it on the mat. I want a kid selling scout popcorn
or Christmas paper to stop me at the grocery store
and I want a kid on every corner selling Kool-Aid
from a card table, and a kid asking to rake my leaves.
I want the woman down the street to wear her bikini
while pushing the mower. I want a parade through town
every Fourth of July, and I want Friday fish fries
at the church. I want to hear my daughter singing
in the shower while I’m cooking spaghetti, straining
the angel hair while she’s crowing like Iris Dement,
lost to herself, having forgotten the rest of the world can hear her.
I want to sit at the kitchen table, listening, just listening.
There’s so much, and yet, I can never have it again:
Dora the Explorer, helicopter rides, or watching a documentary
on The Life of Otters, how we laughed
at the Dog Fails on YouTube, scrunched up together on the sofa
eating popcorn with too much salt, dripping with butter,
and drinking Cokes on a school night.
I want my daughter to walk with me
in the mall and not down the other side
like I am an alien, the family embarrassment
who mortifies her. Because,
this morning, at the cross county meet
my daughter shooed me away when I stood too close
to the school tent talking to the other parents.
Loosening up, the girls stretch, run wind sprints
toward womanhood. There’s no chance of her winning this race,
just work on your best time, I told her. She shooed me away again.
I know this is the future, what I haven’t quite prepared for.
There will be other, more important, races, I want to say.
The field is stacked with nearly two hundred girls,
most giggling about something the parents don’t understand.
As she pushes forward through the crown of girlhood,
I remember the otters holding hands while sleeping
so they won’t drift apart.
November 10, 2018
Of the infinite points of interest the universe offers for our dazed consideration, one of my personal favorites is the vision of the furthest galaxies Hubble has shown us. I read that the most distant yet detected is some 13.3 billion light years away. The Webb telescope will also use gravitational lensing to see even farther, also use infrared light. It’s as though you had a way to look into your own past, to your childhood, your toddlerhood, your infancy.
Like everybody—well, maybe not everybody—I have soaked up and pondered these images, sending my little brain like a chihuahua into the cosmos. Compared to us, which everything to us is, it is all immense, and a sense of that immensity so recently in the evolution of human thought has been a game-changer. It has decisively changed the parameters of what and how we think. Because these galaxies are there, and so far away, it is no longer possible to think like a medieval person, or a person of the Enlightenment, or your grandparents. The first time—and I believe it’s not far off—that life or evidence of life is found anywhere beyond earth, in our own solar system maybe, in the cold dark oceans of exomoons perhaps, will be an even greater change and will irreversibly alter our relationship to meaning. People centuries hence will find it impossible to recreate our unknowing state of mind, just as we can only project our own mentality onto the victims of our historical fictions. Of that post-life-is-common state of mind I have a foretaste, but like many things not likely in my lifetime, that’s another story.
What’s fascinating to me is looking right at something and not seeing what it is. Alas, I think it is true for everything.
Of all things, time is most bewildering.
Things sprawl in space but also in time. We are seeing that young proto-galaxy as it looked 13.3 billion years ago, when the universe was in diapers. We can only imagine, literally only imagine, how it has evolved, grown, merged, collided, who knows? since that longago time. I get a rather euphoric feeling sometimes as I’m navigating this surreal world, as though I’m seeing what was as what is—seeing the seemingly current reality but aware of it as long past at the same time. I’ve been experiencing this sensation throughout my life, but these space-based telescopes have given me a new way of thinking of it. Yes—it is as though I’m seeing everything on earth through a scope billions of years away, where everything is happening and has happened at once. The inexplicable feeling is the closest thing to freedom I know.
I’m starting to feel everything’s like that.
In philosophy they talk about the problem of the one and the many—the ultimate reality claim-war between the generic idea of something and its many examples. They also talk about the “hard problem” of human consciousness. I think the two are interconnected. Consciousness isolates us from everything that is not us—in other words, creates “us.” From that fateful moment when we first suspect we are different from what we will later call “Mother,” until we lay our trophies down at the end, we’re on our own. We are all people, but what good is that in the dark night of the soul? Even the closest people to us are some distance away, and it is that lapse, when the perceived becomes the act of perception that permanently divides what we see from what’s there.
And the reason love, friendship, and peer review are so important.
November 21, 2018
At first God was among us and told us what would happen and how to handle it. Then at some point he didn’t seem to be there anymore and whether he ever existed at all became a philosophical debate, passed down orally by what we would call later a priest class. Of course, the future return of God was their overriding belief and teaching.
We passed through a desert, a lifeless place where corpses had been placed to decay, and marveled at the profound peace and beauty of it. If God had been with us, he no doubt would have told us of the subjugation that awaited us beyond that serene nothingness, but all we had were priests who darkly wondered who had put those corpses there and only insisted that the important thing was to keep believing what we believed.
Maybe they sensed that those who were to enslave us would despise what we believed, and would set about forcing us to believe something else. It’s not so much that they succeeded as we just got tired.
At some point—I can’t say exactly when because there wasn’t an exact when, and pieces of me lived on in other people and in the memories I had engineered upon the earth—I died, and had a vision of an archaeologist of exceptional brilliance, millennia later, who would sift through our remains and arrive at the ingenious conclusion that these people had believed in something called “God.” Since it was such an abstruse abstraction, as with Einstein at first, very few people were equipped to understand it. That would come later when the mechanism of human thought creating form was more commonly understood. But then, things only got worse as our brilliant investigator deduced the concepts of worship, salvation, damnation, prayer, and other inscrutabilities, and tried to elucidate the purpose of some silver artifacts.
Two broke away from one in a daring move, and created the plane—then three rebelled and gave us space. These processes were called “time”—which by its nature is filled with woe. Reality is an infinite set of possibilities, inherent in nothingness. Thinkers who followed in the archaeologist’s footsteps would discover the question: why did “he” do this? Why did “he” step out of pristine unity and create good and evil?
Which is more brilliant—the ingenuity of the primitive mind, or the later finesse of its decoding?
November 30, 2018
The Fascination of Cruelty
I recently re-read Blood Meridian and fell under its spell again—but this time I read it as a symphony. A very dark symphony, its stark matter lushly rendered, filled with thrilling minor chords and powered by a relentless vision. I absorbed the book not as facts or history or reality, but as a work of human imagination—probably about as close to reality as Beethoven’s symphonies are to whatever inspired them.
Life reduced to survival, and the depravity engendered by those ruthless necessities, are fascinating ideas for those of us in our armchairs to contemplate. Certainly McCarthy was fascinated by them, and seemed to feel that only they were worth the pain of art, and his rich creative exertion seems to mock our smugness and comfort. He claimed to recognize only literature that deals with issues of life and death, dismissing Henry James and Proust. I can’t agree with him there—I think there is only you, a pencil, and paper, and everything is fair game—including artists on whom nothing is lost. I know that after finishing Blood Meridian this time the last thing I wanted was something else like it. Some Dagwood and Blondie maybe.
This is not to say it isn’t important to be reminded, with some regularity, of the true nature of our DNA.
I know everybody from Aristotle to Stephen King has weighed in on our fascination with the horrific, and mostly the explanations revolve around our recognition of these inclinations in ourselves, with some kind of vicarious thing going on. Like sports are supposed to stand in for war, our fictional monsters are supposed to free us from being the monsters ourselves.
Great—except, I’m sorry, but the monsters are us.
I hate cruelty. I really do. To the point of nausea. But I’m also drawn to it like crystal meth.
First of all, we have to admit we wouldn’t be where we are today without the depravity within us. And of course it’s only “depravity” from a perspective in respite from it. People point out, for example, the injustice of stealing Native Americans’ land. Where? On land stolen from Native Americans. Which they now “own.” Everything we have of any value is because somebody at some point fought for it, and died for it and because of it. I have no intention of letting go of the ideal of the value of human life, or the sublimity of spiritual quest—I think these things are a part of human nature and perhaps our evolutionary destiny, but they certainly didn’t come first. Human nature is the product of millions of years of evolution and isn’t going anywhere.
Blood Meridian is very realistic. McCarthy delivers the landscape, the cold, the desolation, he paints picture after picture, he depicts human beings as unsentimentally as it is possible to do—living without law or refuge beyond the gaze of God in an environment where only force and cruelty have any effect, and there is no compensation or redemption. He researched Glanton and his scalphunting gang and read Samuel Chamberlain’s memoirs and knows his topography and textbook Spanish and has the best ear for dialect of any writer today. But the book is pure invention. I mean, it’s a book. That, not its subject matter, or its Faulknerian rhetoric that only he can get away with, is its greatness. The load he puts on your mind through the extraordinary exertion of his own.
And of course there’s The Judge. Like Anton Chigurh he flirts with the supernatural. But what is supernatural but a matter of magnitude? Of evil, we say, but more likely something beyond good and evil. The ending of Blood Meridian is perfect because of its mystery and its leaving the dirty work to the reader. We don’t know what happened in the jakes, but we heed the advice of the man not to go in there, and have been given plenty of ways to guess. I’m sorry, but I’m not at liberty to discuss some of the things I have imagined. McCarthy gave us the depravities of Glanton’s psychopaths, and those of the Comanches—delivering a mortal wound to someone and sodomizing them as they die, slicing off the bottoms of people’s feet and leaving them in the desert, people flayed alive, the massacres, the baby tree—but he leaves that one for us. Whatever it was, it got the Judge dancing.
Genghis Khan is fascinating. And I wish I was sure which was stronger—my horror at his titanic cruelty and violence, or my attraction to it. He was a bad man. Ew! God, I wish I were him. Wait a minute! I’m not supposed to say that. I take it back. I don’t really want to slaughter whole towns for their refusal to surrender, or for their agreeing to for that matter—he killed them all—or boil people alive, or kill a mother’s children in front of her just to savor her agony, or pour molten silver into the eyes and ears of people I don’t like, or use human shields, or claim I was sent by God. I really don’t. Something in me just needs to know about it. He killed millions. And found it gratifying. What’s that like? You can have the monsters. Give me people, cruel with passion and glee, because they enjoy it.
No, I’m not one of them.
Unless the world destroys everything I love, slams every door in my face, and leaves me to die.
Then I make no promises.
December 10, 2018
Beans and Water
The enemy was not the horde surrounding the compound on the horizon, but boredom. And beans. You might say, we were rich in survival, poor in spirit. Our mantra had been, we will survive, we will win, we will pass on our DNA, but nobody told us how meaningless that would be. The leaders had cornered all the Spam. I consoled myself with the thought that they were just as sick of that.
We also had powdered milk, and water of course. You need water to survive, but tell me again why you need to survive? Are beans and DNA really better than death? We took sips of water through the day, gagged down beans and that milky puke, and hacked up the hours into brittle packets of minutes, dreading the night, dreading the winter, dreading survival. At least we had sex, you would have thought, but nobody had the stomach for it.
As for the horde, the question was whether they had weapons. Or rather, how many. We had binoculars and had seen what looked like the glint of some rifles, but we didn’t know if those were all. We figured if they were fully armed they would have overwhelmed us by now. Or maybe they were just waiting us out, knowing we would eventually run out of food and would have no choice but to emerge with our arsenal. We would kill many of them, but they would kill all of us. But for what gain, with the food gone? And obviously they had food of their own. Our weapons? If you have weapons you need something to kill. Many proposals charged the air in those days.
They had food of their own but the fear was that they had degenerated into cannibilism. Maybe they wouldn’t kill but enslave us, keep us alive for food. But maybe they hadn’t reached that point and would starve before us. And when they were decimated we could come out and finish off the survivors, except for maybe the breeding age females, and take what they had.
Many wanted to attack now, preemptively. Kill them all and take our losses. But that would drain our ammunition—and then do what? Go where? Some said enslave them. But then we would have to feed them. Or just imprison them and let them starve. But who wanted to watch that? And really, why bother? They would starve without our help. No matter what ideas arose, we kept staying in the compound and eating beans. All logic ended there, even if there was no future in it.
We just had to let go of the idea of future altogether.
Other voices began to say, surviving is not living: life is more than beans and ammunition. And you can’t argue with that. They won converts, but like all priests there comes a time when you have to deliver. The food of life, they said. Okay, the food of life—if you would kindly tell me what that is exactly. You can’t eat it or see it or touch it or feel it so what the fuck is it? Nobody seemed to know. Or remember. Or imagine.
And the beans and water were getting low.
December 15, 2018
Nabokov said, “One cannot read a book; one can only reread it.”
So when one of my MFA students suggested we read 1984, I didn’t think, “yes, our dysfunctional times, veering toward totalitarianism, demand that we revisit this indispensable classic”; I just thought, “okay, why not have another go at it and see what I make of it now?”
Like most of my generation, I read 1984 in high school, when it was part of the flux of fascist dystopia we all absorbed. Of course since its publication in its inverse year, 1948, its themes and phrases have been digested by the mainstream imagination and remain triggers into one of our favorite nightmares. But the truth is, beyond “Big Brother” and “Newspeak” and “Thought Police,” I didn’t really remember much about it.
Orwell was too obvious and didactic for Nabokov—but then, Nabokov didn’t care for Dostoevski, Pound, Conrad, Faulkner, Hemingway (except for “The Killers”), among many others, either. And indeed I would more highly recommend Bend Sinister.
Still, I found 1984 engaging. It is didactic, extremely, and the characters are more functions than people, and the action is more simplistic and predictable than a dystopian lashing unmitigated by humor should be (give me Brazil)—but for all that, the narrative pulled me right along, and forced me to reckon with the hideous ideas.
During the Cold War there was a lot of paranoia about the Russians—supposedly infiltrating our schools, our government, our Boy Scout troops; we created an image of them as superhuman masterminds, but when the Soviet Union fell, we saw the bumbling and inept side of them. Not that we should underestimate the Russians, God knows, but bureaucracies by their nature generate ineptitude, and conspiracies need gross exaggeration to survive. I’m not saying their recent subversions to our way of life are not worth taking seriously—far from it—only that the human need for villains makes us vulnerable to being carried away by the allure of nefariousness.
So I see the nightmare at the heart of 1984 not as a warning of what could be—because I don’t think it could—but as just that, a nightmare.
The human brain, in dramatizing its deepest fears and insecurities, creates in its own image, and projects super intelligence onto its pet villains: the mad scientist, the evil genius, Lex Luthor, the Illuminati, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, “the Russians,” Putin, Big Brother, Satan, what have you. Like your kindergarten teacher who knew if your eyes were closed at nap time, or God who listens to your thoughts and can see you going to the bathroom, our villains have some version of telescreens and microphones everywhere and know all about you and tirelessly scheme to control you. Don’t think they don’t.
Only, nobody’s that smart. Orwell knew how effective a constant pummeling by propaganda can be. It still is—witness political advertising and the 24-hour belching of agitprop from our “news” outlets. But I think what drives it is not so much an omniscient Big Brother as economics. Each side thinks the other side is spewing shit and their side is delivering “news,” and there’s money to be made from that. If we started getting along with each other they’d be out of a fat-cat gig, and millions of people wouldn’t know what they thought and would have nothing to do. News outlets have every incentive to keep our dysfunction and mutual mistrust alive, except for its undermining the foundation of our society but, hey, that’s abstract.
Then there’s Newspeak, a purged and fabricated language that curtails reality by eliminating vocabulary. But it actually works the other way around. Language is a folk phenomenon: it is created by a vast communal process that we don’t understand at all. The grammar comes straight from the wiring of the brain, as inevitably as thought, and if a word or idiom is needed, one appears, very rarely coined, but mostly provided by the collective human consciousness that always has something to put in the blank spaces, God knows how. Many speculations about humanity in the far future feature the “hive mind”—a term our recent information technology has invigorated, even if most of that technology is proving more effective at separating than joining us. The hive mind is far more credible to me than Big Brother. Noah Webster got a few patriotic spelling changes to stick, but no one has ever succeeded in dictating language.
Winston Smith comes to understand that reality is created in the human brain. To me this is self-evidently true, and though to Orwell the idea is the key to hijacking and controlling another’s mind, I see it as a liberating new way of contemplating human experience, intuitive and counter-intuitive at the same time. There is no reality, only individual renderings of it—whatever “it” is—and what your brain creates is your reality. If you think you’re a very stable genius and your hair-do is fetching then, for you, you are and it is. If you think you aren’t worthy of love, then you aren’t. Like the old story of the kid asking his father if Santa Claus was real. “As long as you believe in him, he is.”
By the time we get to the end of 1984, the book has beaten us up so badly we just accept the horror of the ending. We’ve been teased with the idea that the only way one can “win” in this hellish world is to die with one’s hatred of it intact, and we’re expecting our hero to pull this off. But he doesn’t.
Man is not the master of his fate, nor the captain of his soul, and there ain’t no light.
It does seem that in any complex social system something like fascism is inevitable, but I don’t really see the incentive in reducing people to soulless, emotionless, joyless automatons. The whole point is “power,” O’Brien the evil mastermind says—but you make people do what you want, and buy what you’re selling, by manipulating, not destroying, their emotions. But nightmares don’t need to make sense, and this one really did make me think about human nature: what we believe as an ingrained function of our consciousness, self-perception, and personal experience—how our believing can change and why it mostly doesn’t—how it is commodified by others.
I will say, Orwell got me bad on one thing: how O’Brien destroys Winston Smith’s belief in love by making him arrive within himself at his willingness to throw Julia to the wolves to save himself. It triggered one of my worst nightmares: my own O’Brien saying, “you will be buried alive forever, or your son/daughter will be. You have five seconds—choose.”
Now please don’t tell them in Room 101 I said that. I’ve always had a deep-seated terror (see above) of bringing to life my deepest fears by imagining them clearly.
Orwell is also right that it takes a lot of work to be stupid. If you work hard enough at believing something, you will succeed.
December 20, 2018
Mystical is just what you don’t understand yet. Unfortunately, that’s everything. And yet we all —scientists with the “laws of physics,” cause-needers with “God,” mystics with “enlightenment,” nihilists with “nothing”—proceed from the same presumptuous assumption—that the universe is intelligible. Yes, nihilists too, because what exactly is there nothing of?
This is presumptuous since, as we all know, the essence of reality can’t be expressed in language at all. Of any kind. Language cannot contain or 1:1 represent reality—it is only a local gambit of trying to hold down reality long enough to get through life. That it more or less works for that purpose does not automatically mean it explains everything. A thing, and talking about a thing, are not the same thing.
Freud said there were three “I’s”—but I think there are hundreds, maybe infinite ones. The main question is whether there is a base “I”—and whether that is a “soul.” Science says no, Buddha says why ask?, all my life experience says no. Just as God gets stronger the stronger your army gets, and not the other way around, the “truth” will come from whoever controls language.
The fight over abortion, for example, has nothing to do with the “value of human life”—which the fate of the unwanted in our society richly demonstrates—but is really a fight for the idea of meaning. Or, if you will, God. And a fight for the idea of God is a fight for boundaries, for discreteness, for a designed pattern, for clear lines—life and death, right and wrong, us and them—and a fight against the conception of a continually evolving reality with no mastermind, where boundaries are porous, ruled by odds, and the shadow world of potential reality co-exists with the realized and can’t be separated from it. This is the thought pattern the modern world is tending toward and I have no doubt will ultimately take for granted; I accept it because the evidence in my own life overwhelmingly says it is so—and the evidence that it is not so, basically non-existent. You might say, I know it intuitively. Which brings us to intuition. The word, since it is the one placed by those who deny it, has negative connotations. Bureaucrats are constantly trying to put us on teams. Or in generations. Or ethnicities. Or income brackets. Or sexual identities. Anything where you can check a box and give them their beloved data. I don’t see “intuition” as something in opposition to something else. I see it as something, like potential, or dark energy, that co-exists with everything else—a pervasive dimension of human experience—the part that can’t be described empirically—that is, most of it. All of the great scientific advancements come from intuitive insights, from original ways of thinking. Of course you can subject these ways to empirical metaphors, brilliantly, productively, just like a machine can harness steam or electricity, but the thought precedes the architecture. We are discovering not the nature of reality, but the nature of how the human mind is structured—except of course there’s no way for us, the thinkers, to separate them. So if we want to say the way we think is equivalent to the abstraction of “the nature of reality” we can, but it’s an intuitive leap. The God I can’t believe in is the standard bureaucrat one; the idea I can’t accept is that everything is planned. How does that idea not horrify you? I make the intuitive leap of suspecting that the interface of the human mind with reality is a part of something else, that there is a larger context, or we wouldn’t keep going after it—a “God,” if you will—that it makes sense.
The same leap made by science.
January 17, 2019
Reflections on Hell
Hell is, I think, not a particularly attractive place. Yes, there’s something in human beings that longs for God, but there’s also something that longs to be rid of him, like taking out the surveillance cameras—and in Hell you can do so. The fact is, you can actually do okay down there, once you learn how it works, and resign yourself to a constant struggle to protect your stuff. As in earthly life, people gather in bars and talk about how meaningless everything is—only there, it really is. And you realize that meaninglessness is, take it all around, not that bad—in fact, better than being trapped with meaningful people on earth who talk only about money, status, consumption, “them,” and football—a royal flush of the dullest topics known to man. Thank God they all go to their own gated Heaven.
Some people in Hell figure there have got to be better Heavens than that, and toy with envisioning them and imagining “good”—but nobody really buys it. “Good” is like an unstable particle—never makes it enough past possibility to really be a part of the show. Plus—for eternity? What a sick idea. What in the hell are you going to do with all this eternity? It’s just not right. There you are, with all this time stretching out before you when it was time itself you most longed to escape. The fact is, eternity is not an endless horizontal endurance of time; it is vertical, inherent in everything that is. We think time and space are absolutes waiting for shit to happen in them, rather than the byproducts of the shit happening itself—then when the shit is happening, tailored to that particular shit and not even non-existent when not, because that makes non-existent sound like the opposite of existent, which it’s not, because it’s not anything, even if that sounds like the opposite of something. It’s only there when needed. It’s a sad truth that we really can’t know anything about nothing because we turn it into something by trying.
And nothing is our salvation. What they thirst for in Hell.
January 23, 2019
Certain intermittent experiences in life have the redemptive power of making us realize how extraordinary all this is. It’s extraordinary that the universe exists. It’s extraordinary that we’re in it. It’s extraordinary that it extends infinitely in all directions from our particular perspective and that each grain of it is not even a grain but a universe of its own teeming with miracle and possibility. To reduce the extraordinary nature of life to routine is a sin. And a sin is something that makes you unhappy.
It’s fortunate that these experiences are intermittent, because if they were constant we wouldn’t be able to get the grass mowed or just generally appreciate the human experience in all its joy and horror. Maybe to some transcendental consciousness the extraordinary is the ordinary, but for us, our lower position on the food chain is a gift, and those rare gleams when we see the ordinary as extraordinary what make life worth living.
These moments are often inspired by an encounter with another human being, whether in person or via his or her influence, but can be sparked by anything, a return to the sylvan Wye perhaps, and grant, or require, an escape from ego and a surrender of our rutted mindset. That may be reward enough, and maybe isn’t even distinct from recognizing the extraordinary.
I recommend Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees as something that did the trick for me. Wohlleben is a German forester who like any naturalist is gifted with uncommon powers of observation, and for whom walking into a forest is like hanging out with his family. The book is scientific but intended for a lay audience, discursive and informal. Drawing on his own observations and recent research he portrays the forest as a community, the individual trees engaged in darwinian competition, but able to communicate with and nourish each other and fight off threats. They can feel pain, thirst, and can aspire and fear. He takes you underground, he takes you into the canopy, he explains trees’ symbiotic/competitive life with fungi, their interaction with insects, birds, and other creatures, and their relationship with the landscape they half live in, half create.
Naturally I was drawn to this book because I have always felt a deep admiration and awe for trees. I guess you would have to call it love—innate, involuntary, not unlike what I feel for dogs. There is something regal about trees, something the very antithesis of petty and hasty. They are impossibly beautiful creatures who experience time in a different way than we do, slow by our measure and dignified, which is no small part of their majesty. The butchers who come through to cut them away from power lines horrify me, and seeing any tree cut down gives me pain.
Wohlleben keeps it all scientific enough, but by the end of the book he has confirmed my lifelong intuition of sentience and emotion in these august beings. Those invested in an unnegotiable worldview, in this case the mechanistic, reject any such idea. Trees don’t “talk”—they send electrical impulses through their roots. They aren’t “social beings”—they’ve only evolved certain mechanisms. They don’t “warn” their neighbors—they release chemicals.
Okay. But consider the outsider considering us—explaining every mechanism, every chemical reaction, every electrical exchange, but understanding nothing about the experience of being a human being. They call this the “hard problem of consciousness.” The fact that it’s a “problem” betrays the prejudice built into the inquiry itself. It’s simply that we haven’t come up with a mechanistic metaphor for it yet. And won’t have anything but a metaphor when we do.
The essence of the universe is its mystery, our own essence the drive to absorb and share it. We need that mystery as much as food and water; the interaction of our mind with the cosmos is the food of the soul, and extraordinary. If something thought all this up, you’ve got to admire how it knew exactly what to leave out when it made us.
Now for The Inner Life of Animals.
January 28, 2019
What the Dog Next Door Did Last Night
February 1, 2019
We landed on GML-973b to look for life. All the sensors were chaotically responding, but after four expeditions onto that bleak, copper-tinted, featureless surface, we hadn’t found a trace.
I can say that those expeditions grew increasingly dreadful. The sensation is hard to describe. It wasn’t fear, really—nothing felt immediately threatening. Nothing felt immediately anything. It was more like what I have often, in dreams, foretasted the afterlife to be: sequestration in a cold dim cell without access to any emotion, and nothing beyond. Dead. Moldering. You might say, a feeling possible only in dream, haunted by a permanent sense of that anemic half-reality.
GML-973b was 10 AU’s from its star, and maybe it was only that. Maybe hope is inversely proportional to distance from energy source.
I know I wasn’t the only one who felt it, nor was I the only one who found myself slipping into dark pools of distraction. When I looked across the vast distance to the other crew members I could see it in their hollow eyes. As though something had engaged us. Our own communication shriveled almost to silence.
We found nothing, and knew we were running out of time, and the Captain proposed another expedition—to drill: we could go down about fifty feet. I say “proposed” because he was only half committed himself, and none of us wanted to contend with even the prospect of venturing back into that suffocating gloom.
But duty prevailed, and I joined a party of four with the equipment and we selected a spot about sixty or seventy yards from the lander. We set up and engaged the drill. The tailings spiraled out like worms and I didn’t look at anyone for corroboration of the sound I heard. I only wanted to believe I was imagining it, collect the sample, and go.
Admittedly our lab capabilities on the lander were limited—but none of the information, if you can call it that, made any sense at all. Beginning about a foot down there was something in that sample we had no way of assessing, let alone comprehending. Nothing that was or had the potential to become even the simplest organic molecule. Instead, all the instruments were—I don’t know how to put it—excited. But they weren’t functioning normally so we had no way to understand it.
I was feeling increasingly desolate and detached. I’m sure this was true of all of us. Our interaction was reduced to only the minimal gestures needed to survive.
When at last we lifted from the surface and I watched GML-973b sinking below us and gradually resolving into the ponderous mercurochrome-colored globe it was, I felt the loneliest feeling I have ever felt in my life.
As we neared rendezvous with the ship, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was there only because I expected it to be, and I knew I would carry that loneliness until the end of my days.
The universe was not the same universe.
And the question no longer would be where, but what, is life?
February 4, 2019
Creativity, of course, in solving the central problems of life—food, clothing, shelter—and then when it has solved them and moved on to the new central problem of life—having something to do—is the mother of all innovation. I’ve been fortunate never to lack for things to do—but that’s mainly because I didn’t exactly have the career path I once envisioned, and turned out, hilariously, to be only me, and have had to be “creative” in compensation. This is why I’ve always seen creativity as pathological.
But I don’t mean that in a bad way.
It is only through the fending off of assault that we can grow. And for life forms, growing seems to be the thing.
As we go through life we build or accrue or attach ourselves to structures, material and mental, that become familiar, and, eventually, stifling; creativity is the force that replaces them with others, so creativity and destruction are synonymous. Or, more accurately, simultaneous. To be conservative is to prefer the existing structures to what would replace them. Often with good reason. Often not. Which is why conservative people fear and mistrust creativity—it carries the latent threat of forcing them into the most taxing of all labors: reorganizing their mental architecture. I guess creativity is good because the opposite of it is not destruction, as I said, but boredom—though in the end we probably all feel the need to build a hut where we can have a little peace of mind, and grow wary of creativity, in spite of its rewards in its season. See Yeats’ late poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”
When I think of creativity I think of Flaubert or Beckett—the words tortured out of them—leaving a record of the cornered human soul’s only recourse—the re-arrangement of the elements around it in its hut. Or Pynchon, with his brilliant and voluminous mind, together with a major case of logorreah. He has to keep making the words come out (like a shark must keep swimming) because he dare not stop. He is Beckett’s nightmare. Of course, Beckett is Beckett’s nightmare.
Creativity is just the dance you do when life is shooting at your feet.
And has its own agenda and annihilates the creator in the process.
February 13, 2019
Religion is born from oppression, and the message is always the same: reality is not what appears but something else. Since oppression is negative energy, the being who does not believe in appearance absorbs the negative energy and turns it into strength. Energy is energy, and is not to be confused with how it is applied. The job of religion is not to provide “answers”—there aren’t any, or at least we’d better hope there aren’t—but to enable this energy transfer, to make accessible the “something else”—that is, to give magic. Salvation, enlightenment, a heightened state of mind, the realization that we are eternal energy in a temporal world, the will and concentration to transcend entrenched habits of thought, however you phrase it. Things you can’t achieve by talking. Religion in modern mainstream America, which is all talking, plays hardball to prevent exactly this realization, to limit imagination and coerce a subservient state of mind. It has completely lost its mystery and magic—or, in other words, it has been stolen by bureaucrats. Whenever the essential quality of something is not what you do or give or create or share or love, but what you believe, and imitate, it’s all about being in the club. It’s political. I recognize that the church provides an important social life for many, and does a lot of good, and concerns itself with the ethical part of us, but I define good as raising our own consciousness above the predatory, self-serving, and petty, providing sustenance to the hungry and thirsty, clothing the naked, comforting the sick and oppressed, not trying to get them to believe something. The church should not be a club; it should provide the magic the human spirit needs, and leave it at that. If it can’t do that it’s just a glorified Lions Club. It errs gravely when it gets specific. The church should not try to explain anything, and it damn sure shouldn’t be involved in business or politics. I cannot even conceive of anything more perverted than “prosperity gospel.” I’m always disheartened when I see a religious argument that tries to “prove” something. That it’s an argument at all means they lose. The church has no business meddling with rationality. It’s incapable of it. The concept of “Bible study” proves that.
Yes, I believe in the separation of church and state—not exactly for the reasons the founding fathers who still viscerally felt the turmoil of the past couple of centuries did—but because the church corrupts itself when it allies with the world of mammon, and the state corrupts itself when it cultivates any group to milk. In other words, corruption ain’t going anywhere. So nobody needs to be taking the high and mighty route. If they do, it’s an act. Unfortunately, we all love a good play.
The heart of Jesus’ message was that it is what is in your heart that matters. The experience of the spirit, not the following of rules. For a people in oppressed circumstances he tried to convey his sense of a higher state of mind and he tried to make it as simple and unrulebound as possible. Rules are made by bureaucrats to control people. Good luck finding a church that believes that. The Scribes and Pharisees are still firmly in control. When is the only time in the gospels that Jesus got angry? Businessmen being where they didn’t belong: in the temple.
The scripture the clergy should most follow is the one they most ignore: Shut up and know that I am God. Psalm 46 (my rendering).
February 21, 2019
Tasha met me at my cubicle door, cheerfully and affectionately, and I felt immediately better. As always. Coming through that door never failed to provide a rush of much-needed endorphins. Ah, my girl.
Hey baby, I said.
Hey. Ready for a glass of wine?
Oh yeah, I said. Bottle and a glass already by my chair. She was a master of timing.
Hungry? she asked.
I will be. What you got?
I was thinking of a cauliflower/sardine casserole.
Drew! You’re supposed to laugh. I used to be able to make you laugh.
You make me laugh? Don’t make me laugh.
Actually, I’ve done something rather wonderful with an eggplant.
In private, I hope.
Baby, all I have is private.
What will you do when I’m gone?
You pick the strangest subjects. I don’t know. I don’t think there’ll be a me after that. At least not this me.
You’ll take up with somebody else.
I can’t understand why you spend so much time on unpleasant things that never happen. You must have some extra stress today. Have some more wine.
I poured another glass, and rubbed my eyes.
Ready for something to eat?
No, I said, and leaned my head back and closed my eyes.
You just need a little relaxation. I want you to let everything go now. Picture a room, dark and stuffy, and full of poisonous air. We’re going to open all the doors and windows—got it?—and let in the fresh air and the light, and the fragrance of jasmine and gardenias. Isn’t that nice?
I could only grunt. Because it was. As always. Then some piano music started, and I guess I made a little noise.
Remember that? Oh, don’t worry, baby. I’ve got all your memories in a safe place.
I lost myself for a while.
Shall we move on to your entertainment? she asked.
I guess, I said resignedly, then killed the wine and put on the gloves and headset.
What’s brewing in there?
I’m too tired to think, I said. Why don’t you surprise me?
Oh, give me something, she said. Don’t you care if it’s good for me too?
Okay, I said. Future scenario. The music changed to something techno-minimalist. No, not so—whatever that is. The music became nostalgic again. Yeah. And it looks too—I don’t know, hard-edged or something. Yeah. More like that. Maybe more, you know, flowers, misty fields, shafts of light in the forest, whatever—
Got you. My nostalgic guy.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s it. And the people: good-looking. Not Hollywood, just good-looking. Yeah—
Children break my heart.
Okay. Our hero?
Oh, an explorer, I guess. The Amazon or something. And there’s this woman—
If only you were jealous.
I don’t do jealous, baby.
I know. Anyway, it’s way in the future.
A clever word for the past.
And he finds, like, a lost city or something. And he starts decoding their language and discovers this elaborate thought system—
Please not aliens.
No. Not aliens. Just a lost way of thinking—the key to mastering ego and greed. Just as he’s, you know, falling in love.
Ah! Enlightenment and love.
Yeah. And he has a lot of sex.
How about some kind of rivalry?
His brother. They’ve always been ideological opposites, but mainly the brother has envied his brilliance. But now he figures out what he’s on to, and sets out to suppress it, or destroy it—
More like steal it. And not a brother. Brothers should be—brothers. More like somebody from the administration who recognizes it as a dangerous idea—
Yes! Steal it. But not him—his Machiavellian wife, who immediately sees the potential in it to make a lot of money. Package it and sell it. So she hires this plumber she’s having an affair with to kill him—
But his woman figures it out—
A harrowing chase scene—
But all the while our hero is beginning to understand there are only infinite versions of something there are only infinite versions of.
If you say so. But definitely lots of sex.
Yes, yes. Just leave it to me. Oh! I enjoy this. How about this for where he meets the girl?
Oh, I moaned. Oh God, that’s perfect.
Are those tears in the corners of your eyes, my romantic guy?
I dabbed my eyes. Of course not. And—ah—the plumber? When we get there, I want to be him. You know, just until—
Yes, my liege. Now just relax, let it all go. That little guy in the control room in your brain? Send him home—with pay—and I’ll make everything good. Real good.
She always did.
March 1, 2019
A Step Over
I’m writing this down, discreetly, because in a very short time I won’t be able to. It’s not that I won’t remember it—it won’t exist.
I think of those people who always read the ending of a book before they start, or go to websites that tell you the year you’re going to die after you fill in their blanks with all your secrets, and I don’t understand how anybody would want to do that. It’s obviously better not to know. Ever. My God, are we going to engineer our way out of the very mercy of time?
Probably—but it’s no matter to me. I don’t have that luxury. After ten years at the Shing Clinic, I know.
I can’t say it was Dr. Shing’s position so near but still this side of that murky line between legitimate and pseudo medicine that attracted me—bottom line, I needed a job—but it was partly that. In my experience those lines are mostly political, and the truth is, the man was so brilliant, his unconcern for his reputation so genuine, and his devotion to his patients so complete, I was honored to work for him. Not to mention the trust he placed in me. I would not betray him. These words should stay in your keeping forever, if that’s possible; and if not, certainly while that man lives. Here.
When I started at the Clinic it was the time, you will remember, when the Priola virus was first appearing. Of course we still don’t understand this wasting disease, and the fact that it almost solely infects those immersed in electronically constructed worlds was not scientifically, but soon enough popularly, construed as causative. Recent research is, in fact, beginning to find some connection between the sedentary radiation-saturated lifestyle bypassing so many evolutionary entanglements with the natural world, but there’s still no proof. The only thing known is that the disease is one hundred percent fatal.
Dr. Shing had never, from childhood, believed in a unitary reality—I think because with an instinct one can only call genius, he had been aware of the multiplicity. Through experience. The experience, he would say, we all share—but not the awareness. The human mind hides its tracks, and strives with the ferocity of survival to sustain the illusion of a single self. The exception being minds like Dr. Shing’s.
So it was inevitable that he would make the study of the parallel planes of reality, and the role of the internal DNA mechanism to respond to its circumstances and adapt, his life’s work. The medical degree was only a necessary logistical step. He practiced a conventional enough form of medicine, but behind that screen devoted himself from the beginning to his true work.
I’m not sure how many terminally ill patients I ushered into adjacent lives. Dr. Shing’s work, as I’ve indicated, was an elaborately guarded secret, all word of mouth in a small circle. I’ve come to understand how he agonized over the ethical question in the early days, and still does, but he remains adamant that no one but the patient him or herself, and a small circle of trusted staff, would know. The family would pick up the body, as with any death, which I suppose is what it was, and that would be an end of it.
True, as for me I was never a fan of the extro-world, nor much a one for exercise or natural experience. But that hardly makes me unique. I was shocked, but not surprised, when I contracted the disease, and had an ethical quandary of my own in debating whether to write this. I can only say, I had to. And stress that it is for no other eyes than your own.
Dr. Shing is a compassionate man. He threw himself wholly into my case. It took him four tries to find a me with no Priola, in a plane reasonably redolent of this one—more or less the same principal people, whatever “same” means.
I offer you the consolation that I will certainly be I—and you, you—at any given time—and that all I’s and you’s are illusions anyway.
They have never been what lives on.
April 29, 2019
I’ve always been impressed with the thoroughness of death. You would think, with so many things to die—people, places, ideas, moods, eras—one or two might have slipped into the cellar at just the right moment and been overlooked. But no. Death overlooks nothing.
Having reached the years where the intervals between major losses grow ever shorter, and one no longer even tries to resist the knowledge that loss is life’s great theme, I find that accepting the transience of everything is easier than when I was younger—out of necessity, or resignation, or the detection of the sublime, or just fatigue. I’ve had a few pretty close to home lately, and the fire at Notre Dame cathedral caught me completely off guard.
We said goodbye yesterday to my old friend, with whom I shared a soul to soul relationship and with whom for so long I stood in the same relation to death, that distinguished abstraction—but no longer. Her loss, like all losses, moves it one more step out of the abstract and into the real—an event that shows you, like a shady peddler opening his trench coat in an alley, your own mortality.
Notre Dame is one of those monuments of tortuously achieved hardly believable beauty and eloquence we realize, seeing its fragility, that we need to be permanent—to whatever extent that word has meaning for us. We are not psychologically prepared to lose it.
In the midst of all this, I happened to hear the song “Stardust,” and I had a very poignant version of the thought I’ve had many times in my life—that time redeems everything by rendering it into story, that all emotions, even the most unbearable, the most ecstatic, decay into poetry. I can imagine, before the dying and expanding sun engulfs our watery little pebble, our story, all of it—because poetry overlooks nothing either—echoing around the deserted old neighborhood before floating off as stardust to mingle in new worlds. It makes you wonder how we even conceived of the word “permanent,” since no one has ever seen a single example of it.
Hoagy Carmichael’s tune has been recorded something like 1500 times since its original recording in 1927, and after Mitchell Parish added the lyrics a couple of years later. It’s hard to find anyone in 20th century music who didn’t record it. Coleman Hawkins to Dylan. Sinatra. Willie. But the version, for me, is Nat King Cole’s, and that’s the one I heard.
It is impossible for me to hear that song without welling with nostalgia at the days that are no more (death), and the accompanying perception of the sublime (poetry).
The haunting melody, the not quite sentimental lyric, Cole’s silky voice, combine to remind us that all days become the days that are no more, that all things pass, that even the greatest love, the greatest anything, leaves only a song, forever lingering in a place you can’t quite reach.
One of my favorite (of many) dishes in my sojourn in Germany many years ago was a delectable workingman’s concoction called Pfeffersuppe, which featured black peppercorns. It was from that soup, I think, that I learned the proper use of certain spices—not to pervade the dish but to supply the unexpected surprise.
So it is with love, beauty, joy, and the nostalgia that laments their transience. A warm pang best enjoyed sparingly.
Life and death are the inhaling and exhaling of nature. They are ordinary. The fact is, we die continually in our lives and there is no central consciousness we can call ourselves. To lose the specific consciousness of the person we assume ourselves to be is nothing to fear—we do it every day, every moment of our lives. What endures is not consciousness “of,” but consciousness itself.
“Me” and “You” are like beauty—they can only exist if they do not last.
We are stardust.
April 21, 2019
Most Unfavorite Words
I’ve long felt the essential particle of utterance is more the phrase than the word, but in truth a phrase is just a long word. Funny how we reduce the fluid mystery of language to words. Like anything posturing as separate, words are illusions. The reality is the thought, a bloom of meaning in the boundaryless flow of continual perception and response we call life, for lack of a better word, and of which language is only a crude translation.
For all that, words are actually fascinating inventions, and give us something to do. We wouldn’t have crossword puzzles, for example, without them. We couldn’t play Hangman. Of course there are words. I just used some.
In book reviews I refuse to read past the first appearance of the word “magisterial”—and in fiction I cannot go any further than the first time a character “munches” something. These are honest prejudices, formed over a lifetime of reading, and remind me that there are certain words, like foods (squash casserole) or smells (the dying of summer) or sounds (unmuffled motors) or colors (blood blister red) that one simply finds distasteful.
I’m not much of a lister, but I do have certain unfavorite words and I thought it would be tidy to put them in a column. I do not pretend that the entries are exhaustive—they’re just the ones I thought of today. Many others lurk in the weeds, like copperheads.
Some people no doubt will be puzzled by my list. Why not puke or snot? they will ask. Because it’s the marriage of distasteful meaning and the hideousness of the word itself that earns its place on the list. Sometimes more the meaning, sometimes less, but always the word itself. I didn’t say the “sound”—it’s more than that. The sound is just a perfect metaphor for it, but the word itself has aged into a ripeness where maggots crawl in it. Puke and snot may mean unpleasant things, but they aren’t hideous words. Monosyllabic Germanic expletives rarely are. They help us get through life.
I offer my most unfavorite words. What are yours?
April 18, 2019
In the list of precise and fortuitous factors that enabled life on planet earth—the Goldilocks placement, the liquid water, the magnetic field, the tilt of our axis, our large moon, our location within a minor spiral arm of the galaxy, and so forth—one of my favorites is the presence of the gas giants beyond our orbit in the solar system that deflect cosmic missiles. Particularly Jupiter, which can also sling them toward us, but we won’t dwell on that. I’m more interested in the idea of being eaten.
But before getting to that, I must pause to consider my spiritual-minded friend, who sailed right past the word “fortuitous.”
A word which, because its sense is evolving, has two meanings. When it comes to how we got here, happenstance does not make my pious companion’s list, so for her, via an association with “fortunate,” the word means felicitous. For me the word retains its original sense: happening by chance rather than by design.
Chance and design: for me a difficult, no, impossible, distinction to make because I simply can’t force myself to trust assertions made without knowledge. “Intelligent design”?—how unsatisfyingly anthropomorphic. God created man in his image? The opposite is so obviously true I suspect a misperception of ancient inflections. Intelligent design is a natural enough idea to contemplate, but beyond the reach of the human mind. And anyone with eyes can see that if there is any such thing, it operates by randomness and chance. Like contemplating what was “before” the universe. Sterile ideas, unable to add anything to our understanding, and when we mistake them as endpoints in thinking, they have the potential to obstruct real inquiry.
So I’m picturing this asteroid, cruising along in what seems like endless space, until it wanders into a bad neighborhood: and there, like Cerberus at the gates of Hades, waits Jupiter. Oh shit, the asteroid thinks. And rightly so—because it’s nothing but a long fall from there.
It must be terrifying, getting closer, accelerating, the giant gaseous blob filling more and more of the field of vision until the massive wall of stormy clouds is all there is. You are already a part of it, before it eats and digests you, just as you are already a part of the tiger before it absorbs you into itself—making you part tiger and the tiger part you.
And think of brave little Cassini! Intelligently designed to be ultimately a part of Saturn, and carrying it through.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of, being eaten, because it’s the theme of everything. But the eater is changed too. I wonder if the consciousness of the eaten persists somehow, as a part now of the entity it feared, or loved, or tried to outrun—or rather like a drop of water being eaten by the ocean—no longer a drop, but still water.
Do the molecules that comprised us when we died retain some memory of the consciousness they once hosted as they melt back into the ground and wait for their next assignment?
If, as my spiritual friend would say, we reunite with God at the end, then what is there of us left? And why would we want anything to be?
Intelligent design is just the teleological perspective in new clothes, an attempt to mitigate Darwinian brutality. “Creative evolution,” “élan vital,” “life force”—they all reflect the intuitive need to supply what empiricism can’t, but since there is nothing to point to, or measure, or comprehend, as always the attempt to meet science halfway has no chance of succeeding.
I’ll grant you, the idea of inert elements becoming complex sentient life forms by sheer chance, over I don’t care how many billions of years, is a stretch, but so is the idea of some celestial being at a drafting table. Personally I give the former a 49% chance, the latter 51%.
That’s as far as I can go with intelligent design.
April 9, 2019
They gave us a cellophane-wrapped sandwich, our choice of a mealy apple or green banana, and mercifully a cold canned Coke. Some of us were standing out on this little balcony during the break and she was there, the woman with whom I’d had a brief public exchange, not that I had any actual interest in whatever issue it was, having been suckered into it. The point was, she had disagreed with me in some meaningless conference moment, and something about that made her, unlike the others, real.
I walked over and leaned against the parapet beside her.
“What’d you get?” I asked her.
She lifted a corner of her kaiser roll. “Hard to say,” she replied.
I peeked at mine. “Doesn’t seem to be moving,” I observed.
We went off to find a drink after the last panel. She seemed as relieved as I was not to be bored anymore. I got a beer, she a Long Island, and as we sat down I laughed. “Why’d you pick on me?” I asked her.
“You just happened to be there.”
“Can you reproduce now what I said and what you said?”
“I can’t even reproduce why I came here.”
“Go ahead and tell me about Raul before we go any further.”
“As chance would have it, Raul just vacated the premises. No more Raul.”
“What? You got a Raul of your own?”
“Well, a Raulette.”
“I’m sorry. Is this recent?”
“About a week ago.”
“Well. Imagine that. And I was wondering if we were going to have anything in common.”
“I would have preferred something else.”
“Something besides they need room to grow?”
“Did he say that?”
“Of course he said that. He didn’t elaborate on what would be growing.”
“Some shameless tart, no doubt.”
“I would never be that lucky. Smart, beautiful, gives to the poor. Has a daddy who makes all things possible.”
“Have you met her?”
“Yes, before I knew I was meeting her. A couple of months ago.”
“So she’s been around.”
“Sorry. It’s just that I can relate.”
“Not some random dick?”
“Hardly. A perfect Ken. Gives to the poor—and a black Porsche and a cleft in his chin.”
She gauged me in silence. Then: “So you’ve met him.”
“Like you. Briefly. Before I knew I was.”
“I don’t suppose you caught his name.”
“Yes, but only because it didn’t fit him. Harold.”
“I don’t remember.”
She laughed. “Ralston.”
“I’m just curious. Did your ex go on a trip to the Galapagos?”
I stared at her. “As a matter of fact—”
“Oh my God.”
“Wait a minute. How did you—”
“It just wasn’t your thing?” she said.
“I sort of wasn’t invited.”
“Imagine that. I really don’t want you to tell me her name, but you’d better.”
She laughed and leaned back in her chair, looking at me. “It’s all molecules,” she said, and offered her glass.
She had become familiar, just like that. I laughed too and we shared a toast. “Hungry?” I said.
“Sure. Why not.”
A waitress was passing. “Can we have a menu, please?” I asked her.
She took one from the cluttered and just-vacated table next to us and handed it to me.
“Thanks,” I said.
April 2, 2019
I ran across the term wabi-sabi somewhere sometime ago. The article I was reading offered a brief definition—something like, a Japanese aesthetic or world-view emphasizing transience and imperfection—and I was intrigued.
I thought about my own and other people’s tireless labor to master the things around them, to organize, perfect, and shield from the workings of time, and of my own, and their permanent frustration at the impossibility of it.
Fighting time is the most unwinnable of all battles, and those who devote themselves to this combat—that is, all of us—must endure a life of stress. Again, except for a swami or two, all of us.
I remember looking up from the article and seeing the messy corner just beyond my feet. Wires and cables sprouted from a hole in the floor and went on their erratic way. A spider had found the confusion cozy and the filaments of her web with exoskeletal remnants of her meals shimmered in the morning sun. The paint job on the molding could not be called high-quality, and a wad of dust seemed inevitably lodged there. In an epiphany I saw that this was the natural way things developed, and the scene had a beauty and perfection of its own that we are trained not to see as such, but to fight. I also thought that if you did fight it, and came up with something spiderless and antiseptic and well-painted, disguising all reminders of entropy, you would have replaced interesting with dull, and spent too much of your vital life energy on a fruitless task.
Now don’t get me wrong. The aesthetic of wabi-sabi does not embrace clutter and filth—in fact, the opposite. It kind of depends on how you define them. Personally I’m easy on clutter, but I don’t like filth, even if I have resigned myself to co-existing with it. I’m not saying that my interest in wabi-sabi led to a wholesale adoption of its tenets; in fact, my interest in nothing has led to a wholesale adoption of its tenets; and I’m not saying I would leave the dust wad there forever. I’m only saying the dust wad had a certain artistry, and that wabi-sabi inspired me, and forced me to confront a hard truth I’ve known for a long time: some things bring no satisfaction when they’re done, only dissatisfaction when they’re not. I wondered if that could be reversed.
In other words, another intimation that habits of thought may be, no doubt are, only—habits of thought. And maybe can be identified and replaced. I say “maybe” because every spiritual teacher and self-help guru since the beginning of time has urged us to do that, but going hand to hand with a lifetime of conditioning and habit and rutted thought patterns, and winning, is, as we all know, nigh impossible. But there’s something to be said for at least being aware of it.
Because—what is “perfect” anyway? It’s an abstraction based on nothing we’ve ever seen or experienced. Maybe we should divert our energy from the abstraction to the world actually before us. We try to hold things static in our culture. Look at our obsession with youth, canons, halls of fame—but maybe we should concentrate on the whole film rather than the publicity stills.
And recognize the desirable, the beautiful, the perfect in the entirety of things—that grow, age, rust, and fade.
A change of perspective from the one forced by bureaucratic thinking to one virile and more original.
And maybe find ourselves free of material obsession.
And forget the pre-worn jeans. You can’t fake it.
March 26, 2019
Imagining something, hearing about it, speculating about it, trying to prepare for it, are not the same as experiencing it.
Of course I knew that. And I knew I knew it. And I knew it was something that must be perpetually re-learned. We always believe our projections. But projection and belief—are they not the same?
The difference in this instance was the magnitude. The fact that those who have undergone the procedure invariably fall silent—effectively disappear—should have been a signal, but this decision, once you make it, is the end result of such a long and intimate process it won’t stand for anything that undermines it.
But now, I ask myself, if I had known what was in store, would I have done it anyway? And the fact that the answer is almost certainly no, says less about me than about the nature of time. Time, in its ingenious way, separates motive from consequence. If we knew what was coming, we wouldn’t do anything. We would decline to be born. Not knowing drives the universe.
Of course I knew the procedure was “unpleasant.” And an earthquake is “inconvenient.” But I also knew it took only twenty-four hours. Yes, even seconds can be eternities, but I felt I could handle twenty-four hours. Others had.
Impasse propels life, those points where the status quo and the escape from it are equally unbearable. Du mußt dein Leben ändern. From the unknowable, random, multiple menu of possibilities we call the future and that don’t exist we create the knowable now. When we are ready.
Simply put, I was there.
I find that naivety amusing now.
The place was beautiful, serene. Nothing cold or metallic, none of the trappings of the medical. A comfortable room, windows open on all sides to a lovely landscape, a stream just outside, a vernal fragrance in the air. The attendants young and attractive, tastefully dressed. The table, hardly a bed, was far from cozy, but apart from the padded straps and the trough at the foot end, not suggestive of the torturer’s board. All necessary, I knew, but declined to ponder the details.
Derobed down to only me and comfortably fastened, I began to feel the first tremors of fear. The agreement I had signed stipulated no release from beyond this point. No matter how hard I begged. Fear is engineered into the organism, and the organism was the crux of the impasse.
The insertion of the drain tubes into my two heels was more an affair of pressure than pain. I’d been assured they had deadening agents for this, and they did, but still it felt like I had cleared the first hurdle. Ha.
They lowered the apparatus, a long bar like a fluorescent tube, to about a foot above me, just behind the crown of my secured head. They didn’t say anything, they just withdrew, the room became dim, and it began.
There is no reason even to try to describe the twenty-four hours that followed. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t—the details are mostly lost in the anesthesia of trauma. It began with a feeling like a saw cutting into my head, followed by the excruciating inching of the bar down the length of my body. You can say twenty-four hours—you can say blabblabblabblubba—it’s all meaningless.
I had not known such agony was possible. Physical, of course—as every system, every organ, every cell was cleansed of its contaminants, every pathogen, toxin, parasite, blood clot, infection, all inflammation, plaque, decay—the bar pushed it all down, the agony increasing exponentially with every tortured millimeter. But spiritual too. The process dug into the sealed depths of hopelessness, despair, self-loathing, the primordial terror that powers our souls, and freed it all in a flood that felt like suffocation. If any offer had been made to escape, to stop it, to die, or better, never to have been, I would have taken it as a drowning man would have taken air.
But none was.
When the bar reached my abdomen, the (I saw later) thick, black, viscous tar began to ooze from the tubes on my heels, feeling for endless hours like something about to rupture.
I don’t know how the end finally came, but when it did I felt the last surge in my burning feet like a gathering boil, and I could hear the hot sludge gurgling and slopping into the trough. It had a foul odor, and that took my attention for a while, until I could finally understand that the pain was gone.
I fell into something more trance than sleep and stayed in that state for a long long time. I guess. I didn’t care about time now. And it felt that what had been purged from my body was me—not me, because here I was—but the burden of me.
The thought of defiling my body in any way was not horrifying but simply impossible. I loathed the thought of anything passing from the material world into me. And no dread can compare to the dread of me coming back.
And then I was left to contemplate what in no way I could have prepared for: what to do now. How does one comport oneself as a spirit?
I had to laugh at the question.
Everything was rhythm and possibility, and a fragrance—I don’t know what else to call it—showed me where.
March 19, 2019
Disagreement and Existence
On the saddest day of my life, my mother’s funeral (well, a tie with the day of Daddy’s), I spoke from the heart in giving her credit for being the primary molding force in my life.
Through argument. Good, healthy, fruitful argument.
When I was about fourteen I began to trust my own thoughts. I have no idea how or why, it’s just what happened. As it has for many. And for the rest of my teens and into my twenties, Mama and I often had epic disputations over religion, race, politics, what have you, but mainly religion. Daddy absorbed it all, but didn’t weigh in. He brought home the bacon and handled the fishing, fixing, and building; Mama covered the spiritual end of the spectrum. Her father, Granddaddy, was a Methodist minister, and Mama, who played piano in his churches (they moved every three or four years), when she was a teenager, was a straight-line, standard Methodist. She and Daddy later became Baptists and gravitated to a more “spirit-filled” church, but that’s another story. They say Methodists are Baptists who can read, but I don’t remember them renouncing their literacy when they made that move. They also say the difference between Methodists and Baptists is that Methodists acknowledge each other in the liquor store. I don’t know about that—Mama was a teetotaler, and Daddy, in claiming the inestimable prize of Mama, became one.
The point is, I challenged everything I had absorbed to that point, and it was through these strenuous debates that I learned how to think, and figured out how to figure out what I think. I like to believe, now, that I provided some of the same service for Mama, even if I by no means won her over to my way of thinking. She and Daddy, especially after Daddy’s brush with death when he was about sixty, and a transformative religious experience, became more, not less, religious. But before all that, two things about our ideological slugfests stand out. One, Mama was as passionate and stalwart as I was; there would have been no benefit if we hadn’t both been. And two, it was all conducted in an atmosphere of unconditional love. You could say, it was only possible through unconditional love. We loved each other very much. Mama not only did me the ultimate honor of listening to me, she was the granite wall that always bounced back something solid, and created me.
Solitude is good. So is community. As I was fortunate in my parents, I’ve been fortunate in friends all my life. I’ve always been grateful for it and never taken it for granted. I enjoy the nourishment of a broad range of personalities, all of whom provide now some species of what Mama provided in my formative years: something to bounce against, in the way a dolphin’s sonar works, and I was thinking recently this is how I know myself. Through interaction. A quantum thing: I am forced into being by being known.
These reflections have led inevitably to the question: what would life be like with no other people? Well, we wouldn’t exist, but this is a thought experiment.
I enjoy solitude, enormously, and couldn’t survive without it, but after an extended period of it, things get weird. I begin to suffocate and psychically decompose. Life begins to feel like Eraserhead. Something about the very neural contract of my existence begins to feel dubious. I seek company.
But what if there were no company?
Would I—could I—even be conscious? Would I have language (same thing)? Would I ever feel the inclination to make or do something just to make or do it? Or would I just sit there like a sea anemone? Would I create imaginary companions? Would I develop an inner scolding and censorious consciousness with whom I would fight all my life? Would I try to change? Would I set goals? Would I be afraid of the dark? Would I be afraid of the light? Would I sense death? Would I long for it? Would I ever laugh? What would I do if I found a mirror? Would I experience love, hate, guilt, regret, wonder, or any emotion? Surely, wonder. Or would I need a Mama for that?
Adult life for me has been a quest to find what I didn’t invent—urgent, the alternative being the dungeon of solipsism.
March 12, 2019
I was as surprised as anybody by the 2016 election. I just mean the fact of what happened; like most people, I didn’t see it coming. As the descendant of what I believe many still call southern white trash, I took a special interest in that electoral statement—not the central buffoon in it, just the statement itself—and began trying to understand it.
I read memoirs and fiction and articles by and about this class that had re-surged to power, and by trying to inhabit that mode of thought—an exertion called empathy—I did come to recognize some of my own thinking as unexamined and self-serving, and began at least to feel the heat of that intense emotion I had thought alien. People just find it disagreeable to be looked down on, written off, especially as they feel what once made sense to them dissolving, and the circumference of their own possibilities shrinking. It is the perfect climate for a demagogue who tells them what they want to hear without the slightest means, or desire, to supply it.
Now I’ve just finished Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which I found eye-opening—not so much for its telling me things I didn’t know, as for making me face things I already did. A reviewer in National Review called it a “dreadfully stupid and lazy book . . . badly written, poorly conceived, and incompetently executed.” It is none of those things—and the vicious dismissal, true to the spirit of our times, served only to confirm that the book had hit a nerve.
Mostly the book argues for the hypocritical predominance of class, from the earliest colonies to now, in classless America, focusing on the people excreted by Europe who have gone by many names, white trash for short. Isenberg’s agenda is revisionist, an attempt to see these people that everybody else always has been and still is only too ready to discard as unsalvageable barely human vermin. White Trash is not sentimental, but one can detect the author’s empathy, or at least her desire for fairplay.
We can’t have that. We’re not giving up a permanent class of people to look down on without a fight.
Isenberg quotes a famous LBJ observation:
I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.
I’ve lived most of my life in the South, sharing with Quentin Compson a love/hate relationship with it. I lived through the Civil Rights era, and have always been aware that the hostile reaction of many white southerners to the idea of upward black movement was exactly the fear of losing a default class of people to be better than. And I marveled at how politicians turned those feelings into political capital. Why couldn’t poor whites and poor blacks see that they were in the same boat, and maybe even—outrageous idea—row in the same direction? No, they made enemies of each other, which enabled their mutual true enemy to rob them blind. The Great Society legislation, as LBJ prophesied, turned the South Republican, and I marvel today at the relative ease with which Republican politicians have turned white southerners against their own interests.
White trash started out being forced into circumstances where it was barely possible to survive, then being despised and blamed for their backwardness and sloth. When Thomas Jefferson rhapsodized about the “yeoman farmer,” he didn’t mean them. When the ruling class embraced the self-validating “science” of eugenics, they did.
It was not until well into the twentieth century that the following concept seems to have occurred to anybody: white trash are not backward, therefore ostracized, ignorant, denied opportunity, and despised—but ostracized, ignorant, denied opportunity, and despised, and therefore backward. Isenberg cites Henry Wallace’s belief that if 100,000 children from poor families and 100,000 children from rich families were put into a situation where they all received the same education, food, clothing, care, and protection, the result would prove the equality of human potential.
The eugenics mindset, obsessed like all elitist mindsets with “breeding,” has crumbled before the science of genetics. Wallace was right. Like seeds falling on barren as opposed to fertile ground, DNA lies latent until it falls on ground where it can realize itself.
Vestiges of the older South live on all around us, and it’s hard—and reading White Trash is no help—not to feel the human misery that saturates every inch of this intense and exploited land. A sharecropper’s cabin, or a decrepit trailer, are good coffeetable book fodder, but only when unpeopled and sanitized of their pain. Making my way through this modern techno-world like everybody else, I am never without some awareness of that pain, and equally aware that nobody outside its touch has the slightest trace of sympathy for it, or desire to understand it. A few years ago I wrote a response to a book entitled Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession by Chuck Thompson (https://likethedew.com/2014/02/26/thinking-about-the-south/#.XH_qbC2ZMQk, if anybody’s interested) in which he joined the pile-on of the mob in despising southerners, and even though I share his distaste for many of the thought patterns in the South, I don’t see any shortage of them outside the South, and am still appalled at the callous hubris of that book. Isenberg’s book reminds us that it’s nothing new.
I’m white trash. Scots-Irish. My progenitors were pushed down the eastern seaboard and ended up in Alabama. There is no reason I shouldn’t be an emaciated face in a Walker Evans photograph. Wait a minute—yes, there is: the post-war boom, in which many families like my own were able to get a foothold in the middle class, with access to economic opportunity, socialist advantages like affordable nutrition and health care, and liberal giveaways like the GI Bill and tax-supported higher education, and other quaint examples of this country actually investing in its own people. Funny how well I and my cohorts have done. How much we’ve given back. The DNA was just waiting. And it hasn’t even been a hundred years since the well-bred were seriously discussing sterilization.
Or consider the progress of African-Americans over the last century. I know, I know, there’s a long way to go. But after directly experiencing the changes in my own lifetime, I can’t help but be a half-full guy. Once, like white trash, considered subhuman—now, free, creators of a brilliant and vibrant culture, and when given opportunity, great contributors to our common society. Poor blacks, poor whites, poor anybody. Cut off the oxygen and they can’t breathe.
Daddy worked hard, but that wasn’t as important to the upward movement he effected in his life as the opportunity to work hard. He felt he owed much of what he accomplished in life to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. And now unions are attacked by politicians cheered on by the very people who stand to lose. When capitalism is the operating system, many things are good, but one never fails: the rich get richer, and the poor fight over the scraps.
And the rich blame and hate the poor for it. And hire politicians and preachers to justify it.
And the poor don’t like it. That, I understand.
March 6, 2019