"Good taste is the death of art." Truman Capote

"Good taste is the death of art."  Truman Capote
Check in at The Cirrhosis Motel with your host, freelance literary loiterer and epicure, Dennis McBride

photo by John Hogl

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Toilet

I can’t recall when my toilet first started talking. I don’t remember hearing it say anything for the first few years but that is understandable as one wouldn’t normally be alert for that sort of occurrence. Anyway at some point I found my attention being suddenly drawn to a soft but clearly audible ‘swoosh- whoosh’ sound that was sort of halfway between a flush and a sigh. It usually began with a short muffled ‘whooshing’ sound that filled the house. At first I found myself listening for it on a level that was somewhere below awareness but as it continued my curiosity and interest became more focused. It was a second hand toilet which I thought could have something to do with it. I called a plumber to check for a leak or disconnected line, anything that could account for it but he couldn’t find a thing wrong. The odd thing was the sound itself. I gradually became convinced it was not without meaning. It was usually declarative, even slightly intentional, like wind going through a tunnel but occasionally it would be more questioning like wind before it finds a tunnel, kind of a searching sound. At first I entertained the thought of ghosts but I’d never heard of a toilet being haunted, but then I thought who’s really to say that there aren’t ghosts wandering around with low self esteem. Then one day, suddenly and rather unaccountably, I turned to the possibility that it could be something trying to make contact from a parallel universe. After all the toilet does sort of resemble a small wormhole and what makes us so complacently sure that contact from aliens will always come from a spaceship in the sky or some rhythmic mathematical logarithm of prime numbers on a government oscilloscope. Besides there was often a faint but frequently suggestive tone of hostility in the sound which if you thing about it would be perfectly understandable if someone was always flushing into your universe. But then if that was the case you would think the response would occur fairly frequently after flushing but it didn’t. Of course that doesn’t prove anything since for all we know the other universes could be as peppered with passive aggression as ours is. To be honest I didn’t really know that it was talking to me. It could have been a public announcement and I wasn’t able to figure out what it was trying to say or make any sense out of it. I mean it’s sort of ridiculous to expect that you could understand a toilet when most of us can’t even communicate with each other. It was just miracle enough for me that it talked. Anyway, as absurd as it seemed to me I couldn’t get the idea of a parallel universe out of my mind. It was some time after that before it finally occurred to me that if something was trying to make contact perhaps I could also try and communicate from my side, in fact it gradually began to seem to me that I as least had an obligation to try. I waited till my next day off and after breakfast I picked up the straight-back reading chair from my living room and set it a foot away from the toilet and, feeling a little self-conscious, sat down and then lifted the lid in that matter of fact air with which I would customarily lift the phone receiver to my ear. It seemed that I should begin in a formal manner and then I remembered about prime numbers. I decided to flush the toilet numerically in prime numbers so I began with one flush, then two, then three, and then five, followed by seven and nine and then I moved my chair a few inches closer to the white porcelain bowl and lowered my head so it was right over the opening and then projected loudly, “Hello, my name is Dennis. I speak to you in peace for all mankind.” I felt a sharp thrill surge through me, kind of like what Alexander Graham Bell probably felt when he first spoke into his new telephone wire, “Mary had a little lamb.” I waited a few minutes not really expecting any response while I started to think about what I should say next when I saw a tiny bubble rise from the bottom of the toilet. I tried to suppress a small irrational excitement inside. I realized that it didn’t prove anything scientifically even though the fact that it was only ‘one’ bubble made it a prime number bubble. I continued looking into the toilet somewhat expectantly but nothing further followed so I decided to increase my efforts. I lowered my head just inches above the bowl and said sharply and clearly, “I’m speaking to you from the planet Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy,” and then in an attempt to give a kind of cosmic latitude and longitude said, “We are 2.2 million light years from the Andromeda Galaxy which is our nearest neighbor galaxy. Ours is a blue green planet, the third from our Sun and one of nine that circle it.” I continued, “We are a fairly recent species and basically friendly in a sort of self interested way if not threatened or frightened and everything is going well.” I didn’t want to tell them how Anne Frank had said we were “basically good at heart” and then have them find out what happened to her or how we treat the homeless. This seemed like a time to put your best foot forward. I was ready to take a break when I saw the three incredible small bubbles rise up in quick succession from the bottom of the bowl. Three! they were prime number bubbles! I lost my balance on the chair. Christ! I couldn’t believe it. I just sat there dazed for some time letting it sink in. I watched for over an hour but didn’t see any more bubbles so I lowered the lid and closed transmission. The next morning I got up at nine o’clock feeling excited. I went to the toilet and lifted the lid and looked in. Nothing! Nevertheless I gave three flushes and then after a half an hours silence I decided to go shopping and do some errands. I returned at noon and opened the front door just in time to hear the last part of an ‘oosh’ sound. I rushed to the toilet and lifted the lid but nothing followed so I sat down next to it in my chair and watched diligently for about thirty minutes and when nothing happened I got up and fixed a small lunch and then distracted myself with some needed housework. It was while I was running the vacuum that I was suddenly struck with the realization that I had been gone on my errands exactly three hours. My earlier prime number flushes had been answered in three prime number hours! They had probably sent the prime number two hour transmission while I was gone. I unplugged the vacuum cleaner and ran back to the toilet and sat down with a tingling excitement in my stomach and chest. I didn’t know how I was going to contain the sharp edged excitement running through me for the remainder of the next three hours. There were still, of course, shallow pools of doubt circulating through my mind. I knew Stephen Hawking would jeeringly dismiss it. It all seemed too wildly improbable but then I thought so was last nights dreams and the Hippopotamus and Betty Lou Heltzel’s breasts on our second date. Besides a deeper sense told me I was close to pushing the laws of probability beyond chance. I knew something utterly remarkable was happening. An anxious anticipation took control of me. I had always been nagged by the sense that I was a part of something I could not see. A restless corner somewhere in my left hemisphere was always trying to make sense of tumors and ice cream sandwiches, new born kittens and missing children. It all seemed too thoughtlessly brutal and buoyantly playful to be merely thoughtlessly brutal and buoyantly playful. I felt on the edge of knowing something large and unimaginable. I occupied myself with cleaning till about five minutes before three went and sat down in my chair by the toilet. Three o’clock came and went without a sound or bubble. I told myself they didn’t have to be absolutely punctual what with time dilation and light speed being relative and all but as the silent minutes lengthened into twelve and then twenty my concern changed to a sharp disappointment and by four o’clock I settled into a quiet despair. I got up and went back to cleaning the kitchen feeling a little foolish and finally grateful that I had not told anyone about it yet. I was scouring the sink when a sudden sharp ‘whoosh’ filled the air. It startled me. I looked at the time. It was exactly five o’clock. I stood there a few minutes confused, uncertain what to make of it. Then it came to me like a revelation. I had miscounted in my excitement. They had already sent the proper transmission an noon. Five was the next prime number after three! I was struck with a wild joy. I dashed to the toilet and returned five flushes and then laid on the couch to let my amazement sink in. After a while I tried to sit down to dinner but the continuing churning excitement inside diminished my appetite. I kept thinking what if it happens at seven, what if it happens at seven! I had over an hour to wait and decided to calm myself by laying down on the couch. reading. The next thing to enter my awareness was a deep throated growling sound filling the air. It began in a low register bass note and then a treble and then flowed into a sharp loud ‘swoosh.’ I looked at the clock and felt the hair rising up on the back of my neck. It was seven o’clock! “Jesus Christ,” I yelled, “Holy Mary!” My heart was beating as fast as a hummingbird. I could hardly catch my breath. It was clear to me now that I had passed the laws of ‘probability’ and ‘chance’ and was dealing with an event of staggering significance. I didn’t know what to do. This now felt to big to keep to myself any longer. I had to talk to someone but I couldn’t think of anyone safe. My neighbors were deeply religious and I couldn’t take the chance of my toilet ending up as focal point for ‘rapture’. Then I thought of my friend from work, Merle Hadley but I remembered he was somewhat unstable and would probably call 911 as he frequently did when he got excited and I didn’t think that would be a suitable place for a news leak. I finally settled down a bit and eventually decided that it would be judicious to keep this to myself for the time being. Then a new dilemma presented itself to me. I felt the rather urgent need to pee but somehow it no longer seemed appropriate to use the toilet. It‘s odd how seeing something in a new light can force you to alter your habits. I tried to reason my way around it but it was no use. I had experienced a paradigm shift with my toilet and could no longer bring myself to use it for its former function. It was a considerable inconvenience but I knew I’d have to drive the three blocks to ‘Chucks’ all night Texaco. After I returned from ‘Chucks’ I was sitting at my desk writing some notes on the recent events when I began to experience a creeping uncertainty of fear. It gradually occurred to me I had no idea who or what was trying to contact me or where it would lead me and then I quickly recalled the horrible experience I’d had just answering the personal ads. Then my mind wandered to my physical safety. My God, I’d just been walking up to the toilet as thoughtlessly as a child to a swing. Suddenly my mind’s memory banks began swiftly searching through my fear files. I saw those hideous screeching long-limbed creatures that came to destroy us in H.G.Wells ‘War of The Worlds’ and I remembered Spock saying to Capt.Kirk, “We are being pulled into a zone of darkness by an unknown force.” I hadn’t even considered that I might be lowering my head into a porcelain event horizon and flirting with the deadly crushing ‘Singularity’ at the center of a wormhole. I had a moment of terror, imagining how many missing children on milk cartons might have been swallowed up like little Hansel and Gretal’s into dark toilet ovens. I made my way over to the couch and laid down and did some deep breathing exercises until my wild fears disappeared. I began counting down to eleven o’clock which I knew could erase all of doubts lingering shadows. A few minutes before eleven I sat down next to the toilet. My shirt was damp with sweat under the armpits and my pulse was racing. At 10:59 my eyes fixed on the second hand. I watched the steady sweep of its movement as it passed four, six, nine, ten, then eleven and then it hit the twelve as the astonishing double ‘swoosh, woosh’ rose up out of the perfect white hole. I sat there trembling in a state of nervous joy and ecstasy that was beyond excitement or amazement. It carried with it a kind of absolute knowledge that seemed to exist outside the mind, prior to the mind. Now I simply knew. I stared into the toilet with a mixture of reverence and awe, a kind of ‘grand unified theory’ feeling that Einstein must have felt. Then, finally collecting myself, I flushed the toilet eleven times to confirm having received transmission and said, “This is Dennis. I am going to bed now and will resume in the morning.” Then I added, “Good night.” I went upstairs to bed exhausted and fell quickly into a deep sleep. I was in the middle of an unsettling dream in which newspapers could speak and were blaring out the news of terrorists attacks and stock market fluctuations from eve newsstands when suddenly I woke up inside the dream to a voice that felt un-tethered to anything. It said,. “Your soul is still stubbing its spiritual toes on pebbles. However you are not entirely to blame. Just as there is no end to prime numbers there are infinite universes and yours and the one next to it are being used for reverse, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies." The voice paused and then continued, “Haven’t you ever wondered why perfection is always in plain sight and just out of reach ? Your greatest spiritual achievement are your balloons, which you use to sell cars. When you cease using balloons to sell things we will return.” I awoke instantly as though commanded back to consciousness. I knew there would be no more messages. I got up in the dark night and put on my bathrobe and went downstairs and sat by the toilet for a while in silence, an altar in an empty church. A deep formal quiet came over me. I got up and walked outside into the back yard and looked up at the immense stars above me.

Monday, April 11, 2011

American Suicide: A Story Problem You have multiple problems as you approach middle age: crippling arthritis, an artificial hip that confines you to a wheelchair, you have a history of clinical depression, you are laid off your job at Meier & Frank (a Portland department store) after eighteen years due to downsizing cutbacks; you can only find temporary jobs that do not provide health insurance so your savings are drained to pay for health care and prescribed medication. You are living in continual exhaustion. You are being evicted. Your van is being repossessed, and you file for bankruptcy. But you are a resourceful, independent person surrounded by wonderful support from family and friends. Solution: A week after having your role celebrated as a contributory family member at Thanksgiving dinner, you “choose” to kill yourself. There is a suicide every 17 minutes in the United States.* This suicide statistic entered my awareness around the time I happened to run across an article on a local suicide in our state’s most prominent newspaper, The Oregonian. The treatment in the article’s coverage rang some immediate alarm bells for me. It seemed to lack an expected measure of journalistic inquiry in addition to containing some rather questionable assumptions, and I found myself prompted to read it again with more focused attention. William Temple once accurately observed that “unless all of existence is a medium of revelation, no revelation is possible.” This essay is my attempt to reveal that, despite the passage of time since the story was originally published, what happened to one women’s life was not irrelevant, but deeply revelatory, and its resurrection is an attempt to illustrate its importance for us; to slow down, contemplate and even arrest briefly the accelerating speed of our own transience, the insistent gathering weight of our own irrelevance. Imagination is our fundamental moral faculty. It is central to grasping the nature and meaning of a significant event. The American poet Richard Hugo pointed out, “our great failure is our inability to imagine the suffering of others.” These reflections are dedicated to the real people who every 17 minutes make their premature departure. This was the headline on Nicki Dyer’s suicide in the Sunday Oregonian in December 2004: “Independent to the end. In pain and jobless, but refusing to lean on family and friends, Nicki Dyer chooses death.” The headline had all the qualities of a star-spangled American anthem, including the stoic oath of silence. All it lacked was musical accompaniment. The article presented us with a real trooper, with her “dignified resignation” and “self-reliance” who finally “chose” the stiff upper lip of death. Something seemed buried above ground in this tragedy. The article would have you believe that self-reliance and pride in the self is expressed in choosing to kill yourself, that independence of spirit is manifested as suicide, that somehow it was her strength of character that destroyed her. With such strength, who needs weakness?! When choice is examined more closely it becomes complex. To choose freely is far different than to choose under duress, negating what the spirit of the definition of choice implies. Do we choose what we’re going to choose? Choice is more a concept than a fact, and a fuzzy one at that. You draw your bath water to a temperature that is comfortable to you, not to one you chose to want. We are not radically free, after all. In addition the term choice is too often used to dignify where we have landed, or to blame others for where they have landed, as a tool for manufacturing a plausible and rewarding narrative about reality, life, self, and our place in the universe. This helps us to lessen and tolerate the insecurity and chaos of life, avoiding awareness of the variety of trap doors we’re all standing on. The disturbing questions move in like an ominous weather front hanging over everything about Nicki’s story, but the largest and loudest is the absence of anger over what was happening to her. Where is the outrage, the indignation from those who knew and loved her? It is not the overall absence of any trace of justifiable rage in the Oregonian article, but chillingly, even from Nicki herself (excluding a single emotional outburst at work). Why was everyone consenting to what was happening to her? According to the article, Nicki Dyer possessed the character traits of independence, self-reliance and pride, while also surrounded by a wealth of supportive family and friends. These are the ingredients for buoyant optimism—a recipe for having a nice day and a nice life to boot—not for suicide. In fact, Nicki’s suicide seemed a non sequitur. The article was not covering a minor problem like her failure to adapt to a style of living different from the one she was accustomed to. The hidden truth was that Nicki Dyer dissolved in plain sight, in front of everyone she was close to. Pride is about what you value, what you want to display. Suicide is the polar opposite of pride; it is default control; the individual’s powers being inadequate or insufficient to meet one’s own needs. It is about the soul not receiving its due. The article’s illogical treatment of Nicki’s painful story described a matter/antimatter do-se-do square dance of tragedy, pushing the limits of common sense into a gradual tsunami of reason gone mad, turning the crucial accuracy of language into a crude stone tool. Isn’t the purpose in all of our “purpose-driven” lives to be alive, to live? Worse, as disturbing as the article’s spin was on this particular suicide, having it go unchallenged in the largest newspaper in the state of Oregon—was even more so. The truth is that as far as pride and self-worth are concerned, we’re all hard-wired to avoid the rejection of losing face, of not living up to the standards of those who have the power to withhold love and caring, or to affect self-esteem. No one’s comfort zone extends too far beyond a sense of personal safety. Ultimately we’re all wimps. No one climbs Everest naked, and pride and independence can serve as barricades against fear, failure, complexity, despair and death, just as suicide can. The place where we are most equal is in our fundamental powerlessness. In his book The Soul’s Code, James Hillman observed that “The very ground of relationship is dependence, not independence; it is the very ground and motive for what authentic relationship requires.” Contrary to the article’s headline, “independent to the end,” Nicki was dependent on a necessary measure of comfort and safety, a sanctuary that enables us to feel that life is worth living. She was surrounded by support that was, in reality, inadequate or insufficient to meet a need that all her independent determination and self-reliance was also unable to provide. In fact she was dependent to the end—on someone to actually get the message that she was in real trouble. The irony is that we’re all dependent to a significant extent on others for our autonomy and independence. We tend to think that we are the sole authors of our thoughts, opinions, ideas and feelings; that they come out of a “nowhere” somewhere inside us, emerging by magic from a “self.” But the facts of reality are that feelings—like the impulse to commit suicide, or the complex forces underlying individual “character”—do not happen in a vacuum, but are produced out of the context of a large, webbed network of relationships, comprised of one’s biology, personal history, family, friends, community, race, country and culture. We have less control over who we are and how we think of ourselves than we think we do. Underlying all ethics and morality is the sense that we matter, that what happens to you as an individual matters and that leads, by some hidden mechanism, to a truth in the head and heart that others also matter. We send messages to each other all the time even if we don’t want to or aren’t aware of it, and much of how we value ourselves comes from the messages we receive from friends, family, community and country. What is ultimately allowed to happen to us can be one of the strongest messages conveying if and how much we matter, often driving us to insist too strenuously that we do matter, sometimes with too much distorted “pride” or “independence.” Nicki couldn’t afford health insurance. The deeper irony is that no one really needs health insurance. All we really need is health care. She was given the message that her health and welfare were not of intrinsic, irreplaceable value, a message coming from a culture and community currently existing in a human ethical coma. It is easy to understand how society’s recruiting officer for self-reliance and independence is so successful when there is such a deep and legitimate desire for independence in all of us. Who doesn’t want to lace their own shoes, butter their own bread? It is easy then to make the leap to thinking we are, or certainly should be, in command of our own fate. We completely buy into such an untenable position even when it is obvious that the three wolves of nurture, nature and economics—whose formidable powers are ultimately beyond the control of the individual—can huff and puff and blow our coherent, orderly straw houses down, a fact that should, by itself, call our simplistic beliefs of choice and independence into question. Such facile concepts are not just a leap of faith, but a leap of ignorance. One of our most important critical faculties—maybe our most important—is the ability to distinguish between what is inadequate and what is sufficient, and suicide points to a profound absence of hope. What if the source of hope and optimism is limited to oneself, and one’s resources the only really acceptable place to seek it? Imagine carrying such an overwhelming burden of hopelessness and pressure in your psychic backpack that you wanted to end your life—and then not being able to fully reveal it to those closest to you? Nicki’s refusal to grasp the ropes or lifelines thrown to her begs the question: why did she not reach for and grab them? The words choice and independence do not supply an answer, but instead point back to the question: what was really offered at those private exchanges between family and friends, and in the context of what personal histories between the participants? What were the lifelines that were actually thrown to her, were they within her ability to grasp, were they insubstantial or thrown too late? We seldom jeopardize our own survival. After all, the Titanic’s survivors rowed away from the people in the water, not toward them. But aside from that, there are excellent reasons for being hesitant to ask for aid. To reach out and really ask for help is to call enemy fire to your position. To even consider being deserving is to invite a direct hit of that criticism, of the shame and fear that is reserved for anyone with the inevitable scarlet “V” on their breast: anyone viewed as a victim or who has failed the self-reliance test. And this despite the truth that Nicki had contributed to the best of her ability. Nicki’s story contains not only a heroic display of individual determination, but also an indictment of an invisible virus in our culture that seems intent on encouraging self-destruction in order to salvage an acceptable sense of self. In such a culture, our innate need for a sense of our own independence and self-reliance is turned against us, creating a painful, isolated reality others cannot or will not acknowledge or even care about, and where we must endure and face far too many challenging situations and conflicts in solitude. Serious research is revealing how our emotional states impact the way our brains process information; we think differently under the sway of different mood states. It is easy to imagine how it could take far less than the significant sustained stress that Nicki endured for life to change from a promise to a threat, to make one lose the small degree of actual freedom and self-sufficiency that we do possess, to feel there’s no place outside of the “independent” self to really turn to. It is beyond the farthest reaches of reason to assume Nicki was feeling anything other than emotionally feral; buried alive on the day of her death, or even the weeks (months, years?) leading up to it. We don’t think so much as we feel, and to live without an income adequate to provide basic, vital human needs is to live in a continual urgent emergency that over time becomes a form of drip-torture. By casually suggesting that Nicki “chose” suicide the article assumes a degree of autonomy that is unrealistic for someone experiencing her pressures and circumstances. Suicide usually reflects (excluding the legitimate assisted suicide issue) the opposite of choice, the absence of alternatives. The act’s awful power is that you don’t go to it, it comes to you. When we cannot adequately respond to an assault on our dignity, our failure deepens the indignity and indignation. Instead of feeling free to respond with honest feelings of fear or frustration or even anger, it is easy to understand Nicki feeling compelled to show gratitude, to acknowledge a gesture’s thoughtfulness rather than its inadequacy. If we put ourselves in Nicki’s place, we can see how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to permit herself to even feel anger—much less voice it—to those who were always there at the edge of the swamp with condolences and praise for her “independence;” those whose version of support was well-intentioned and consistent with the forms we are taught to recognize as representing support. It is hard to scream, “where is the lifeline?” even when it seems obvious that, neck-deep in quicksand, support has no right to appear in any other form but a lifeline. All of this is not even to mention the hidden anger one harbors for being forced to turn the arrow of blame back at oneself. Neither Poe nor Kafka could have devised a torture as clever and subtle as having the victims of cruel circumstances victimize themselves by accepting entire responsibility. It is unfortunate that anger has become so suspect in our age of “anger management.” There is much interest and counseling on how to control and dampen anger, how to disarm it, detour it, talk it away, reason it away, educate, meditate, pray, love, or medicate it away—even gene therapy or taser it away—anything but how to listen to it, much less validate it. And what is the “red badge” of self-reliance, anyway? What is it about “unable” and “disabled” we feel so compelled to disgrace, to reserve for the cellar of shame? We all have limits in a surplus of varieties—psychological, emotional, social, sexual and financial—so why do we insist on avoiding them, as though the human spirit is somehow excluded from functioning within anything resembling limits? There are many ways I could justify and rationalize the Oregonian article's point of view on Nicki Dyer’ suicide, but I can't accept or excuse it, or give it my consent. It is too important to be framed in the lame plea of the “serenity prayer” for help in accepting those things we cannot change, or to be viewed in the sanitary pastime of a moral debate, or as an ethical or political lapse of judgment where it can sneak in under the radar clothed in the respectable convention of traditional values, which do not trigger the mind’s defenses or draw the gasps of shock or horror that tanks or teargas or terrorist’s bombs would. For me or anyone to sanction this article’s spin gives a pass to a laziness of sympathetic imagination that impairs our humanity. The thinly veiled hysteria that surrounds our love of “independence” and “self-reliance” is fool’s gold viewed through a carnival mirror, a deadly recipe whose ingredients would only be chosen if one were coerced by harsh circumstance and the absence of authentic support alternatives. There are cruel illusions involved in overestimating the degree of control we have over our lives, while ignoring and discouraging any examination of the overall systems in which we live our lives, those forces outside of our control. The Oregonian's article inadvertently evokes comparisons with Rachael Carson's classic “Silent Spring” or even Jack Finney's “Invasion of The Body Snatchers” by illuminating the slow but growing erosion of that elusive something which is central to what it means to be a human being. Without that we lose the ability to allow what is most vital about us to play a role in how we perceive and treat one another; we lose touch with those things that make our individual and collective importance possible, like the relative measure of comfort and safety we require to feel life is worth living. By itself, Nicki’s death asks the question of whether there really is a social contract that exists outside the criminal justice system, that covers the welfare of the village inhabitants, or does it respond only to those suspected of misbehaving? Community of meaningful connection is only possible when we can openly share our lives with safety, when we can protect the intimacies and fragile security which we are genetically driven to need. When we can’t it increases our separation as well as our anxiety, mistrust and suspicion. The pendulum that swings in our lives between independence and dependence is regulated by a sense of trust, in feeling comfortable and confident that our own efforts can be effective in meeting our needs, and should we fail, that others can be relied upon to assist with or help provide for our needs, to preserve the integrity of the self. We live in a country and culture where the pendulum is stuck, rusted into a dangerously unrealistic position of self-reliance that socially engineers tragedy. It doesn’t take a global positioning satellite to locate the dead end of Nicki’s life. She was a victim of repeated doses of devastating bad luck and crucial disappointments. How was she to believe she had innate worth and value outside the proud, reinforced confines of her own mind, to feel she was more than a human hubcap, when all the efforts of her life’s checks were returned for “insufficient funds”? To try to rationalize and explain away her tragedy is to explain away our own humanity. If we can advance the concept of death with dignity, why shouldn't we begin to explore the complex of tangibles and intangibles that constitute life with dignity? We have become a warp drive, super speed, digital culture of high tech rationalists and realists whose batteries are too weak to show us the way, to illuminate the surrounding dark.. This is not just about a “political” position we can “agree to disagree” on. If we cannot find our way out of this dark empty box, we’re all going to die inside it. It really doesn’t matter what flag you wave or what anthem you sing. If the critical needs of the people in a country don’t come first, the needs of the country do not deserve consideration. They are not worth even a backward glance. This tragedy is not only about the fate of Nicki Dyer but about an abandonment which is systematically woven into the fabric of a culture that has surrendered the idea of anyone being of intrinsic and irreplaceable value. A human being, an American, one of us was destroyed through acts of omission and commission, in a culture we are creating. Her story demands and deserves to be looked at closely because it points back to the heart of our culture, the health of our social values, our way of life as “the greatest nation on earth.” It is not just another story of someone falling through the cracks, failed by the system. It is a story of an individual’s free fall through the system itself, in the quicksand of the public sector as well as the private sector, a landscape with no human sector, revealing it to be one big, wide-open abyss, waiting for anyone.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

god talk God Talk God Talk“We are the leopards. Those who follow will be Jackals and Sheep and each shall think themselves the salt of the earth”Guiseppe di Lampedusa ‘The Leopard’Each night before I sleep I turn to Jesus. I say, I’ve failed again. Then I turn to Buddha, I wink. Dennis McBrideGod groaned, shifted uneasily, pulled the cover up and turned slightly onto his left side back into a shallow sleep. Labored breathing preceded a small cough. He turned to his back and a weak smile turned into a grimace, which only partially faded. After a while he inched over to his right side, the corners of his mouth struggling, and then in the middle of a deep sigh, he coughed, sputtered, and abruptly rose to his elbows, his hazel eyes flying open. “Huh! What!” he muttered. He stared blankly for a minute, then relaxed as he realized he was in his familiar futon bed under his favorite quilt with the picture of Bambi and the great Stag. He lay back down and leisurely glanced over at the cosmic digital. It said l99l. He felt an annoyed confusion rise up to threaten his usually limitless calm. He knew he’d set the alarm for 2875. “What the hell’s going on?” he said, louder than he’d intended. Then it hit him sharply. “They’ve been praying again,” he said suddenly to the empty room, “God damn it, they’re all praying again! The damn fools have started another necessary war in my name. Where the hell...” The door opened slowly. Biman Chan, the century clerk, entered quietly, “So sorry to interrupt, I just wanted to see if you, too, had been disturbed.” “The others, too?” God inquired pointedly. “Not all,” said Biman, “Just Allah so far. I haven’t been able to check on Buddha, but I didn’t hear any sound passing his room.” “Well, you needn’t bother,” said God, “He never gets inconvenienced. There’s a lesson in there about choosing your words carefully when it comes to job descriptions. All that emphasis on Karma and the Void worked out just ducky for his sleep. Well, where is it this time?” “I’m afraid it’s in the Middle East, “ Biman said quietly. “It seems there was a dispute about land and oil and… “Christ,” God interrupted, “I just don’t understand it. I left more than enough of everything for everyone. All they had to do was limit their numbers, wait for the next harvest, and divide things up. Instead, they’re strangling the soil, turning my blue air brown and reproducing like lemmings hungry for the sea. Be fruitful and multiply does not mean screw your way to mass suicide. And this abortion thing is becoming a luxury dilemma. They’ve got to get a handle on this, this... what do they call it?...” “Fucking,” said Biman softly. “”Yes, fucking,” said God. He started to continue, but Allah appeared at the door, dark, stern, aloof, then bowed perfunctorily and entered. “I, too, was awakened for the same reason you were and could not help overhearing your voices. Personally, and though I mean no disrespect, I have always felt that Jesus committed a few significant errors with his slight-of-spirit performances. I mean, what could the poor multitudes think, being fed with next to nothing, the lame and blind cured by command, even the very dead raised. What could they think but that there was no real need to conserve, abundance was behind every bush, within eventual reach of all. No! They need to be told they’re in the hard place, and they need to be controlled severely to survive in it.” “Excuse me, did you say ‘Lord’s place?” inquired God happily. “No. Hard place. I said hard place,” Allah replied sternly. “Oh,” said God sadly. “Anyway, I just don’t understand why they’re so afraid of running out all the time.” God rose from the bed, went to the closet and picked out a dark brown bathrobe with green trees on it (the closet revealed a fondness for earth colors, extending even to brown underwear) and started back to the bed, then hesitated, took the robe back to the closet and picked out a rare blue one with polka dot stars on it, then returned to the bed. “I mean, I told Jesus to tell them there was nothing to fear, you know, to take heart, so to speak.” Allah eagerly interrupted, “But even Jesus despaired when he was there, and again, I mean no offense, but you may remember we discussed this at that first department meeting before the beginning, the one where Buddha came up with that idea about desire causing suffering. I recall him saying that he had reservations about just how much the mind should be allowed to...” “...know of a future without seeing it,” said Buddha, entering softly. “The mind is a dangerous place for a tree house, especially when the vision is impaired,’ is what I believe l said, and in all honesty, I’ve yet to be convinced otherwise. And, incidentally, I was misquoted on that ‘desire causing suffering’ thing. I said it’s not getting what you desire that causes suffering. You can see how sloppy quoting can put a whole wrong spin on things, and if you doubt that you can talk to Jesus.” His wonderful eyes searched the room and lighted upon a soft wide satin sofa which he eased himself into. “And incidentally, Allah, you’re wrong. I believe the messy fact of the matter is, they’re not going to survive, and they desperately need to be shown how to do that.” He turned to God. ‘You put them in time and kill them with random abandon, and you wonder why their main suit is scarcity. I try to teach them to relax, to steer them inward toward abundance.” “Oh, is that what you call it?” God interjected, his voice rising. “I go to all the trouble and no small expense to come up with a stellar sparkling creation, and you teach them to ignore it. What’s the point in a parade if no one bothers to look? Meditation, hogwash!” “You’re taking this much too personally,” said Buddha. “I was merely trying to teach them to cope with your creation.” “Cope,” interjected God angrily. “Life is a gift, not a chore.” “Evidently you haven’t read the latest Stanford studies showing rather conclusively that mildly depressed people see reality most accurately. It turns out that your dubious gift of thought is used mostly to sustain positive, self enhancing illusions about the self and its fate. And then there are the one hundred thousand suicides a year, by conservative estimate, I might add, since you refuse to release the books. Evidently the mind is a dangerous thing to take for a walk.”“Which simply shows,” interjected God, “That they’re not seeing reality at all.” “Exactly my point.” said Buddha. “You’ll remember I was in favor of full enlightenment at the start. None of your frantic evolving schemes. But no, you had to give your little soul things a mind of gradually increasing awareness, which is a recipe for a mess at best. And, as if evidence was needed, the twentieth century is exhibit A. One hundred million of them killed by their own hand.” “All right,” said God. “I admit their faith seems to have faltered a bit, but...” “Faith,” said Buddha, frowning. “You forget how little your little people are. They can’t see that far. Do you thing it’s a coincidence that your impetuous little land mass America puts ‘In God We Trust’ on their money? There’s your faith, and as for your sacred world and nifty Nature, they’ve turned it into a dollar and they are spending it. You’ve been sleeping through much of this century-- when the gods are away, the people do not play, they destroy. It’s what your attachment to them blinds you to. It’s the suck and pull of the want. They can’t handle it.” “That’s really quiet nearsighted of you,” said God. “You forget they’re still in infancy, learning to walk, so to speak. The brain is still a planted seed, mind is just starting to sprout mind, they don’t even know what it’s for yet, still using phrases like heart and head, thought and feeling.” He shook his head back and forth sadly, then picked up a tray on his nightstand full of macaroons and daisies and ate one of each, then offered it to Allah, who politely declined. “I’m fasting this week. I’m afraid the war took more out of me than I’d realized, so many losses.” “They were just being obedient to your will,” God gently prodded, reaching for another macaroon before offering the tray to Buddha, “Which, if you don’t mind my pointing out, is a bit humorless.” “A bit too uniform and severe is the point, I believe,” interjected Buddha, refusing the tray of macaroons and daisies. “In fact, you might want to look into the connection between the severity of your image and the magnitude of the losses that have so grieved you.” “I see nothing improper in my image. After all, I’m merely trying to keep up with God,” responded Allah, his aloofness unraveling slightly. “I refer only to some of the more extreme measures you’ve taken,” replied Buddha.“The cutting off of hands for stealing, killing for adultery, applied only to women, not to mention the general enslavement of the female half of the species. My heavens, that’s Middle Ages psychosis. What part of sick is it that seems to escape you? Want and need, food and sex, that’s the very fuel of your cherished magic show. You punish people for being obedient to the deepest vital impulses of your manifest will. I fail to see even a hint of heart or a trace of understanding in your attitude...” “That’s just because,” interrupted Allah, “you are so cavalier about the gravity of existence. On closer examination your celebrated compassion turns out to be a thinly veiled stoic indifference. It is because the conditions of their existence contain such strong and terrifying forces that severe regulation and control is called for.. And besides, God started it all with that Old Testament rhetoric, ‘plucking out eyes that offend’ and such. And then I heard about those Commandments, a whole list of things they must and mustn’t do. Well, I could feel a morality and fear gap developing. All of his people were scared straight and I was falling behind. What else could I do?” “Don’t throw the blame back to me,” yelled God, putting down a half-eaten macaroon. “I was merely trying to set examples, a kind of guideline for good behavior.” Buddha cleared his throat suddenly, did a small swift clockwise swivel of his stomach, then deftly lifted his majestic weight off the satin sofa and ambled over to the tray of macaroons and daisies. “On second thought, those daises look irresistible, I mean almost irresistible. Now, as far as this talk about proper behavior, I’m partial to the poet who said, ‘Those who worry about morality ought to.’ What was his name, Hugh, Hewitt, something like that?” “Hugo, Richard Hugo,” said God. “Frankly, I’ve never entirely understood poets; silly alchemists always trying to turn gold into Gold. Hugo was often subject to dark spells of irreverence. Still has them, refuses counseling.” “Good,” replied Buddha. “Squirrels and poets should stay away from counselors. Their urgent ways are attendant to their needs. They require support, not correction, which is the problem with much of your ethical hygiene, too antiseptic. Remember that fellow, the Christian missionary and ornithologist, I forget his name, tried to publish a book entitled “Good and Bad Birds of North America.’ Well, you get my point.” “No, I’m afraid I don’t,” said God, slightly irritated. “I think you’re treating a serious matter rather lightly.” “On the contrary,” responded Buddha, “You’re the one who has made a relatively light matter deadly serious.” “Life is deadly serious,” said God, his voice rising, “I made it that way. Life is a masterpiece, a great painting that...” A voice from the hallway interrupted him: “...That was painted by a blind man in a wind tunnel with Alzheimer’s.” It was Janis Joplin. “Pardon my intruding, but I can’t resist souls in heat or anything else for that matter, which by the way is why I so loved the Big Bang, the whole universe in heat. Radical theater, a bit pretentious, but delicious fun. Incidentally, Buddha, I quite agree with you about the counselors and I would add gurus and prophets to the list. Like I used to say, never listen to people who tell you what you are doing on the physical plane, they are not on it.” Janis sauntered in, -small, olive dark and cat-electric in a blue aqua low cut with brilliant rainbow-colored pearls. She walked quickly over to Buddha with a puppy-like incessance and brushed his soft white cheek with her red lips. “Hi, hon, was passing this way and just decided to stop off and spend some of this interminable time with you.” Buddha’s soft cheeks glowed with the color of red blood coursing through live veins, his serene eyes sparkling with the joy of seeing what one wants to see. “What a dear, dear surprise,” he said, elated. “Come sit here by me. You’re a jewel in the void.” Pleased, she sat next to him. He continued, “I was just discussing the demerits of artificial decency. It’s always deadly in prescribed doses.” “Yes, I overheard you in the hall and rather agree with you,” said Janis. “Do you mean to stand there and tell me that you don’t believe in morals?” said God accusingly. “Precisely. I can only stand bad taste when I’m in love, and at present I’m not.” Janis replied tartly. “The ones who cause most of the trouble down there are the ones who never go off the block, whose souls never go to the deep, frightening, wonderful, unnamable places, never let themselves have any experience unless it can be talked about in public, to approval. The cowards in the dirty white hats who made it all the way to death without having a near-life experience. I recall Jesus saying after he returned that there were people down there who should never have been people.” Buddha continued, “It is true that he was just not himself for a long time when he came back, taking that bottle of Jack Daniels to his room and not coming out for a week. Never really has returned to form. Still wanders the halls at night muttering something about ‘hopeless damn fools’ under his breath. He took the whole thing too seriously, too personally.” “Frankly,” said God, “It wouldn’t do you any harm to take things with some personal investment. Your airy indifference is annoying to more than a few. ‘Cosmic cop-out’ is how you’re referred to behind your back. I ran into Abbie Hoffman in the mess hall a while back, and when your name came up he said something about ‘the sensitivity of a dead Republican.’ You should be more concerned about your image.” “Abbie is like so many heavenly activists,” said Buddha, “Still bitter because their cause died before they did. Anyway, I think you confuse indifference with detachment. They’re not at all the same.” “Frankly,” said Janis, jumping in, “I think you’re both kind of stingy with your sandbox, all your ‘do’s and ‘don’ts and taboos. At least Brahma and Vishnu throw in a little novelty and spice things up, though I admit, Shiva gets carried away sometimes.” She stood swiftly and performed a crisp twirl, then went hurriedly into a one-two-three, one-two, two-one variation resembling a fused fox-trot- jitterbug-waltz, stopped suddenly and bowed from the waist. “Reality is a filthy tyrant in tight pants, and now I’m late for my nails appointment. See you around campus, ta-ta” She did a hop-skip through the door, down the hall, humming a baroque blues version of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ Allah arose with a ceremonious disgust, “I find such displays disrespectful and disruptive. She should remember her station, which reminds me, I have a department head meeting with Mohammed. Seems he’s worried this women’s movement is getting out of hand, and I quite agree. Good day.” He straightened his dark tunic, turned stiffly and left. After allowing the silence to linger a while, Buddha remarked, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but he’s always had a problem. He’s so...so...” his hazel eyes turned green and scanned the ceiling, “I don’t know, so religiously joyless. Must have been something in his childhood. “ Buddha shook his head and sighed as Biman Chan entered hastily through the door. “Pardon again, please. I was asked to convey a message from Talowa; could lower your voice, they’re having a meeting in conference room C, down the hall.” “Talowa.” Who the hell is Talowa, and who are ‘They” said God. Biman blushed slightly, “Talowa, Tanka, Kithcie Manitou and Waken. They are American Indian Deities--the Lakota, Iroquois, and Ojibway tribes. More are due to arrive shortly.” God looked suddenly disturbed, like a janitor who’s just had his mop bucket overturned on work already done. “Well, tell them to keep their door closed if they’re so fussy.” “Very good,” said Biman, turning to leave. “What are they meeting about?” said God in a matter of fact voice, trying to mask his curiosity. “It’s concerning Reclamation, sir,” said Biman. “Reclamation?” said God abruptly. “What’s that?” “Well,” said Biman hesitantly, “it seems they feel that you have received preferential prominence of late, and they want a fairer representation. ‘Affirmative Action’ is what they call it these days. It seems they feel things were in better shape down there before the white man brought in (Biman’s voice trailed off as he mumbled) your presence.” “Pure ridiculous insolence,” bellowed God. “It’s just that something more controlled and responsible was needed than that ‘Great Spirit’ stuff. They’re just being adolescent. They can caucus all they want as far as I’m concerned.”Biman heard him mutter ‘pesty savages’ under his breath as his voice trailed off. “Very good,” said Biman, bowing. He turned to leave, then remembered something, paused and turned back. “There is one other thing. The Archangel Michael is requesting a leave of absence. He’d like to return to earth.” “What, again? He was just there. I distinctly recall...” “Uh, that’s just it, sir,” interrupted Biman. “It seems he’s, well, sort of fallen in love.” “Love! Love!” said God indignantly. “My archangel? What ridiculous nonsense ? He’s supposed to be there on divine missions, not playing around in their tragic romantic mud puddles.” “All I know,” said Biman, “is that he said something about finally finding genuine innocence, an absence of, I believe he said, toxic sophistication. A woman he met in a bar, something about having rabbit ears on her TV and fake paneling on the walls; knotty pine, I believe he said.” “Well you tell him I want to see him up here first thing in the morning,” said God firmly. “He’s become as attached to the world as a drunken Buddhist. No offense to you,” he said, turning to Buddha, “it’s just an expression.” “Very good,” said Biman. He turned to leave and bumped into Janis, who was absent-mindedly inspecting the backs of her nails as she entered the room. “Excuse me,” said Biman, embarrassed. “Oh, don’t be silly,” Janis exclaimed, smiling, “especially in front of Buddha. ‘No accidents,’ you know.” She winked at Biman as he hurriedly left. “He’s really very cute. Wherever did you find him? By the way, I heard Lucifer is in the house and may stop by,” she said, beaming mischievously. “That’s enough” said God exasperated, “I do not have to put up with him. He is not welcome here. We have to retain our standards, our professionalism.” God rose and began pacing nervously back and forth in front of the picture window, fidgeting with his bathrobe belt. His right eyelid began twitching spasmodically. “He can go somewhere else. There’s plenty of nice...” A solid clear transcendent voice halted his. “I believe you’ve confused the kingdom of Heaven with Alabama l955.” It was Lucifer. He appeared suddenly at the door and stood firmly under the transom, tall, slender, and serenely self-assured in a smooth maroon suit with a purple silk shirt and lavender vest. He moved in with a casual authority toward the most seductive soft chair. An old unending smile teased around his lips, revealing a kinky tenderness, a religious, sensual, tranquil greed. He owned his will, and he relished the possession. He sat down. “How are the good old Gods this delicious day, everything under control?” God felt a painful hate rise up inside like molten lava, but managed to subdue it into a feigned curtness. “I’m quite well, thank you, I always am.” “Good, good,” said Lucifer loudly, “I wouldn’t want it otherwise. I just stopped by to pay my respects.” “Well, I’m thoroughly delighted,” said Janis, her face flushed with excitement. “”You’ve always been a kind of psycho-spiritual Zorro to me.” “Thank you,” said Lucifer growing taller. “Well, I’m not interested in your respects,” said God adamantly. “Frankly, “I’m not interested in your company, or in having anything to do with you,”“Oh come now, don’t be so modest,” Lucifer responded casually. ‘Light and darkness, goodness and evil; I, the Lord God, do all these things.’ Isaiah! Ring a bell?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” replied God awkwardly. “Dear Buddha,” Lucifer continued, switching his attention, “forgive my delayed acknowledgment. How very good to see you.” “Likewise, I’m sure,” said Buddha graciously. “You always add to the festivities.” Lucifer gave an appreciative nod and continued, “Now where were we? Oh yes, perhaps God would assist me in shedding some light on the dark subject of Shadow.” “What Shadow? What are you talking about?” said God, still annoyed. “Well,” said Lucifer, “let’s start with the fact that I can never seem to find a room here at the Royal Parnassus. I was told by an inside source that it is a result of your instructions. If that is the case, I don’t know what to think. It’s either pious posturing or very bad manners. In either case, you should be ashamed.” “Ashamed!” exploded God. “I don’t have to listen to this blasphemy, and I would add, since that sort of brings up the subject of bad manners, you were not invited here. I would not want to be where I was not wanted.” “Oh, it doesn’t bother me,” said Lucifer happily. “I’m used to serial denial and rejection; it’s my favorite invitation, though it usually centers around sex and money.” “Sex is sacred, and you’re right for once, you’ve done enough damage in that area.” said God accusingly. “Sacred! Damage!” said Lucifer, amused, “I’m just adding balance to your sloppy sanctimonious creation. While placing yourself at the center for top billing gives you excessive prominence it also creates confusion. They take their cars to a mechanic, their pipes to a plumber, their clothes to a tailor, their shoes to a cobbler, pets to a veterinarian, money to bankers, hair to a beautician, teeth to a dentist, bodies to doctors, their minds to psychiatrists, their souls to priests, but they’re shamed into hiding their sexual needs from commerce. That’s not merely irrational, it’s controlled hysteria. “That’s disgusting,” said God indignantly. “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion,” said Lucifer, “Which, by the way, is more than you gave to your poor little humans.” “What do you mean,?” asked God sharply. “I mean Freedom” said Lucifer. “Your Christian thing has made most of them emotionally and spiritually frozen. I know a woman in St.Louis who has spent most of her adult life at home. Won’t leave it. Thinks she’s escaping your omniscience. ‘Santa Claus God’ she calls you to her therapist: making your list and checking it twice. But we’re getting back to shadow again. What I mean to say is that most of the lives down there have all the risk, adventure and dull excitement of a Christian taffy pull.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about with this incoherent babble,” said God, his voice starting to rise. “Furthermore, I don’t have to be ashamed of my treatment of you. There is no delicate way of putting this, but as things worked out, I’m Good and you’re Bad.” God stiffened abruptly, straightened the collar of his bathrobe and looked out the picture window. “I do not have to have anything to do with you, nor do I....” “Excuse me,” said Biman, entering sheepishly. “Begging your pardon again, but the Muse is outside and would like a moment of your time.” “Now?” said God, annoyed. “You mean she just showed up unannounced? Have her come back in the morning, and next time see that she calls for an appointment.” “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Buddha. “If you’ll recall, that is part of her job description. She has an inherent aversion to schedules appointments and reservations. I humbly advise, if you want to know what she has to say, you’d better receive her when she comes. ‘Now’ is all she understands.” “Oh, very well,” said God dejectedly. ‘Ask her to come in, but just for a few...” Before he could finish, she simply appeared, barely visible in a long quiet dress of white silk and soft blond woven straw, her amber eyes glowing from out of short brown hair and fair skin. She spoke with a calm assured firmness. “I won’t detain you long, as my business is brief. I just want to turn in my resignation, effective immediately. Things have not lived up to my expectations, and I’ve decided to move on to larger pastures.” “Larger pastures! Resign!” said God, incredulous. “What’s the meaning of this? It’s...why, that’s absurd, irrational. I insist you see one of our therapists before we have any further discussion,” “I’m sorry,” said the Muse in a soft sure voice, “but my mind is made up. I have no need of a therapist. Psychology is to experience as diagramming sentences is to poetry, not without application, but essentially irrelevant at the deeper levels. You see, one day I just stopped and looked at myself in the mirror. I saw my soul’s scar tissue in the sagging skin and sunken eyes. I knew I just couldn’t go on any more on anti-depressants and dying hope, its simply no way to live. The worst poverty I’ve found is of the imagination. I mean no disrespect, but you’ve either made a tragic oversight or there is a significant problem in your quality control. I’ve only been able to get through to one-tenth of one percent. For the rest it’s all a frosting Hallmark hustle. You should see the dreadful picture of Jesus that hangs in sixty three percent of the homes. He looks like a cross between a chairman of the board with a perm halo and a well-behaved hippie.” She moved wearily over to the ornate dining room table, sat down sadly in a straight-back chair and continued. “One typical evening last week, before I made my decision, I was in Des Moines, Iowa, and made a random stop at a home in the suburbs. I found the father sitting in the living room with the children. I went up to him on the couch and whispered slightly behind and below his right ear where the tunnel bone to the mind is. I said, “You’re alive,” pause-nothing. I raised my voice, “You live now, you breathe in and out this minute and the time is coming when you won’t.” Pause--nothing. ‘The woman next to you with the small small child who anchors you to this world; loosened, all loosened and lost.’ Then I waited and watched, watched for a sign, just a hint of awareness, a flicker, a small twitch in the ear, anything. Slowly something began to happen inside him. He opened his mouth and said, ‘Honey, would you switch the channel, Jeopardy is on channel eight!’ “From there I went to a college dorm and found a sophomore in his room alone. I whispered in his ear, ‘When the wind blows the trees argue.’ I went around to see the front of his face -- nothing. I lost my temper and yelled, ‘You idiot! There is summer on earth, be amazed!’ Still nothing. His mind returns to his last basketball game. I realized he was as good as hopeless. It was hopeless! I could make it snow gold and they would just worry about driving in it. It seems everything has gone from bad to desperately bad. And after this last war, a ‘desert storm’ mentality took hold in the popular culture, creating a kind of widespread pathetic sub-species. It was shortly after that when I made my decision.” “I just don’t understand,” she continued. “Their little clay-baked reality is so much shorter and homelier than fantasy’s alternative twirl. I’m beginning to think you may have made a mistake in not setting them free from the knowledge, I mean the rumor of you. I think the imagination’s poverty is tied to not being able to get to their own experiences, to find their own truth about their own experience. They are instructed, urged, and threatened how to think, feel, and behave from the beginning, so that in the deep layers of the mind they mistrust and fear the self. Their authentic heart is stillborn. What could be a vital alive radiance becomes a cold gray unsure ness. They end up trying to take cues for existence from others. Culture finally overwhelms them. The price they pay for staying huddled around the campfire’s group safety is not to know the wonderful unexplored forests of the self. When they wander away from the warm fires and the insecurity rises up, they feel the fear as a weakness rather than a call to deeper strength, and they scurry back.” Slowly the Muse rose from the table and walked over to God, who was sitting on the side of the futon, his head between his knees. She tossed an envelope next to him. “I hope you will not take this personally. I know things take time, but I can’t wait any longer. My self esteem is at minus two-hundred and falling, and I need to attend to that before the damage is beyond repair. I’ve written an acceptable cover story for press release, so you needn’t worry about the publicity, and I’m sending you one of my new grad students to take over. Mira. She’s my favorite understudy, long dark hair and eyes that flash bright sparks.” She looked out the window at the constellation Orion. “Well, I see that I’m late for an interview. I have to run. I’ll keep in touch. Good-bye.” With a flurry she vanished. Biman had remained motionless in a corner of the room while she spoke, trying to be invisible, but now began to feel a self-consciousness as silence filled the room following her departure. He made his way to the entrance, stepped out, closed the door quietly and stood in the hall shaking his head in a slow back-and-forth motion. “It is no wonder there is such confusion and sadness down there,” he thought. “They have been parented by dysfunctional Gods. But then, they, too, haven’t had it easy, to have to do it all from nothing, no role models. It’s really a miracle that it works as well as it does. Still, it is sad. Perhaps if he hadn’t made them in his image, or at least waited until it was improved. But then, they are still evolving down there. I suppose you have to start somewhere. I guess you just have to have faith that it will work out eventually. Faith is trickier here, though, when you’re face to face. It’s not good to see too closely. That’s a blessing I think they’ve overlooked down there. True mercy is not knowing. Oh well, it’s not my worry,” he thought gratefully. “Two thousand more years and I’ll be retiring. Get a little cottage over on Alpha Centauri, out near the edge, quiet and peaceful.” He looked at his watch. “Almost time for the late movie,” he thought. “ ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ tonight--been looking forward to that, always lifts my spirits; Atticus, that good lawyer and father, on the porch with Jem and Scout, shedding gentle wisdom.” Then he thought of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. “Life should learn to imitate art better,” he said softly, out loud, shaking his head sadly. He continued walking quietly down the hall talking to himself in a low voice. “I think I’ll get a dog for the cottage, an Irish sheep dog or one of those little brown and white terriers. And maybe a cat. Yes, I’ll get a cat too.” Posted by Dennis G. McBride at 4:25 PM 0 comments if (window['tickAboveFold']) {window['tickAboveFold'](document.getElementById("latency-8337808677688900035")); } Saturday, February 26, 2011 essays 1-Predicting the Present in America--2. An American Suicide Predicting The Present In America Notes from a Non-Participant in The Front Lines of Ignorance Introduction I didn’t actually learn about the events of 9/11 till nearly three months after the event. Through a combination of circumstances of both accident and design I found myself with an opportunity to conduct an experiment—namely how to be a modern day ‘information’ Robinson Crusoe’ without an island, in fact in a rather large metropolitan city. All I knew was that something somewhere had happened and I decided under the urging of some perverse inner imp, to see how long I could maintain that virginity. I would eliminate radio and television, avoid the newspaper headlines in stores, wear earplugs in public and deliver stern warnings to friends to say nothing to me about ‘IT.’ I woke up slowly around noon on the day of ‘9/11’ and still lying in bed called the mail order Co. to see what had happened to something I had ordered more than two weeks ago. They put me on hold to check my order and had me listen to the broadcast of their choice. It happened to be news. Before I could protect my mind the searing image of something about terrorists and people jumping out of the windows of burning buildings was engraved into my memory. A sudden force of emotion rushed through me. I threw the phone down in rage and kept it at a fairly inaudible distance till the lady returned and I finished my business. Next, I called the phone Co. to check on my last bill and heard a recording saying that they were closed due to the National emergency. I resisted the impulse to turn on the radio or television. I did not know who had committed the act or what the act was, or what their motivations were for doing it, but it suddenly seemed to me that they had released something that had been silently residing and growing both within me and the world, a loud scream of frustration, anger, and rage, that had finally become articulated into visible tragedy. The first uncensored feeling to rise up in me was, ‘Maybe, at last, everyone’s in the same boat. Maybe we can finally get America’s attention off the ‘business as usual’ stock market (that Frankenstein creation which doesn’t cope with ‘uncertainty’ any better than its creator) and onto human agendas? Maybe a thunder and lightening voice has parted the clouds and yelled down angrily, “nobody needs health insurance, all they need is health care”! While I was lying there wrestling with curiosity and the urge to turn on the TV and contend with the spin cycle of emotions I knew that would generate I found myself suddenly interested in the space I was occupying, its feeling. It began to feel like the vitality of my awareness was being enhanced or sharpened in some way, imagination given access to new possibilities, a cocoon containing a kind of infinite permission that had formerly been hidden. There was a kind of giddy lightness in this novel ignorance, an almost illicit sweetness that seemed to carry within it new aspects of reality ordinarily denied to us. I decided to continue my quarantine of ‘current events.’ What I didn’t know suddenly seemed as important as what I did know, just as negative numbers have a function in math. It felt as though I had discovered a secret form of occult happiness that hovered in those dim borders at the far edge of imagination’s yearning, teasing me like a ghost wind. I began to feel like a spy in reverse, carrying an important secret without content. On the third day, while I was taking my daily walk, someone stopped me in his car for directions, asking me if he was heading west. It surprised me somewhat when I had to tell him that I didn’t know. After he drove off, it occurred to me that the only west I knew was what was west of me, where my west was, and as I turned, so did it. I felt suddenly thrilled that the universe had placed a private little subversion inside of me, my own unique unnatural center in the natural order of things. I began to see how tissue thin the mind’s autonomy really is: how often we were pushed, pulled, and directed by remote control, reducing the intellectual freedom over many parts of our lives to that of a Wells Fargo security guard, a plastic, inflatable, all purpose human being. Our mind is continuously being subtly raped, involuntarily violated, seeded by other people’s thoughts, ideas, events, music, or random conversations. I remembered back to my childhood years as a church acolyte when they told me things about a God and a Jesus I could not know they could not know. What a rare and precious thing it is, and how hard won, just to know ‘what happened when you left your room and how it really felt.’ The powerful pressures which surround us, both intentionally and unintentionally, tell us which way to go and what to do when we get there. They would rather ‘your’ life not be the focus of your life. They want you to substitute appropriate response for authentic response, to get on with your life’ by leaving it behind, to simply fit into the world as it is, like a carrot or head of lettuce or a chair. we all have our own private map of what makes us feel sad or happy, nervous or relaxed, excited or bored, along with our own private ‘treasure chest’ of fantasies. They are our ‘true north’ and if we lose touch with them it is not a small loss which is why the continual struggle to be the author of our own experience is so vital. ‘Author’ means authority, authorizing your own response to your own experience, becoming your own Pope, Judge, Mailman, News-anchor, and President. For example, I have been patiently waiting through the interminable dreariness of sports to see one real miracle, just once. I wasn’t waiting for the last place team to upset the first place one, the weak hitter to hit the home run with bases loaded, I was waiting for that player who would suddenly turn with the ball in his hand and put it in the opponent’s basket, someone who would say, ‘what the hell we’re forty points ahead,” or just “why not!” I went through the library’s entire history of sports journals, newspapers, and biographies, even Ripley’s ‘Believe it Or Not’ and there wasn’t a mention of anything even remotely suggestive of such a miracle. I haven’t seen this miracle for the same reason you don’t see people in the bowling alley trying to leave as many pins standing as possible. In many ways it would be a more challenging game, requiring more refined dexterity, but they aren’t aware that tradition and unconscious competition have programmed them. It’s literally ‘unthinkable’ not to compete, partly because you never feel the chain collar around your neck till you move away from the stake and you won’t move away from it because ‘the most skillful manipulation always appears as choice to those who are targeted.’ The only way you’re taught to play the game is to win or lose. No wayward, spontaneous, playful impulse ever whispers in your soul’s ear. Still, there is no future in giving up so I’m still waiting patiently for the miracle and as long as imagination is part of us, there is hope, because that’s its job. The imagination is always running a concurrent, alternate history to what is going on around it, like that girl who lived up in a tree to protest logging. The best part of us is often up in a tree somewhere refusing to come down. I realized I’ve never felt proud or possessive about my country, that I do not live in a ‘Country’ I want to be mine, but in a fiercely competitive urban landscape that generates tension, conflict, and anxiety as efficiently as if it had been designed for it. Personally I am sick of our serious Gods and serious Devils, our serious Democrats and serious Republican sitting in their serious Roman Senate refusing health care or housing to their citizens, who are unable to see, acknowledge, or care about realities that others live in. I’m sick of people assuming they have the right to conscript me because it’s the place on the planet I happen to find myself trying to survive in. I am sick of our obsession with ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence,’ of always needing to ‘blame’ or ‘excuse’ and of the surplus of contemporary hazards surrounding living and loving and needing in a society preoccupied with an overly sanitized version of emotional- psychological hygiene and fears of co-dependence, sick of a culture that can’t seem to do anything well aside from weapons, microwave ovens, and surveillance technology, whose taste and offerings in nearly everything from the erotic to politics is mostly unfriendly, hostile, alienating, or just plain bad, and I’m sick that I’ve had the misfortune to live into another period in our country when the ‘scoundrels refuge’ of Flag waving has become the political equivalent of the Hula-Hoop. America is a ‘business warrior.’ It is in a hurry and its power is real and thoughtless and frightening. Its response to those who can’t keep up is the small, inconspicuous plastic containers for donations at supermarket checkout counters. The inadequate always seems to be sufficient here. Three times as many children are committing suicide now as compared to thirty years ago. They see people living in shopping carts and tents, executions challenging football as the national pastime and only competing for our attention with the race to seduce and manipulate consumers, or build more and bigger prisons. These children see a medical system that is not organized to simply deliver health care, but rather a confused nervous system that can’t decide if it wants to check the blood pressure in bed 5 or the day’s receipts. This is the fact and the evidence, what America wants them to swear allegiance to!? wants God to ‘Bless – an America that is handed back and forth between family dynasties, from ‘Roosevelt’s’ to ‘Kennedy’s’ to the ‘Bush’s’ like it was some kind of ‘Bonanza’ ranch that Ben Cartwright was going to pass on to ‘Hoss’ and then ‘Little Joe;’ an America where elections are sudden death business transactions, business ‘Gunfights at an O.K. Corral,’ It is not Okay. I recently organized an event for children who were reading poetry that they had written, and a nine year old boy named Wes Bently read his two line poem, ‘The Empire,’ ‘Ask the repetitive Empire for food. It will answer “no.” What had really happened on 9/11? Literally not knowing I decided to compound my ignorance by hazarding a guess. The famous attorney Clarence Darrow said his job was to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ Well, apparently the comfortable have been afflicted. We have been attacked I presumed by some members from a neighboring tribe, whose serious God did not like our serious God partially because out God was richer, stronger, and more powerful. Someone said accurately that, “we can only be as savage as we are absolutely serious.” As I walked about I saw flags flowing in profusion decorating sorrow’s random parade of anger and fear. The anger and fear are not new but now they have taken shape like a newly formed team with bright uniforms that has just found a worthy and needed challenge. But all this begs the question- Was everything OK the day before this happened? Where was our attention directed the day before, besides Wall Street? What was our anger directed to, besides the few remaining ‘Welfare’ recipients? It seems somehow important to separate people who die in any country from that country, to eliminate connections that are not deeply central to the powerful event of death, or at least make them peripheral. A songwriter recently wrote, “someone’s dying in Canada, and the leaves are drenched with rain.” What’s important is the dying and its echo of leaves drenched in rain’ not the accidents of geography. Shouldn’t flags everywhere be flown at half mast everyday for those everywhere who perish from less overtly violent, less deliberate, acts of commission or omission that range from exposure, homelessness, malnutrition and hunger, uncovered illness, to the infinite, invisible effects of poverty, which are an undeniable product of our ‘Democracy in action.’ I happened to learn later that the President said, “You are either for us or against us.” The President needs a lens adjustment. If, between wars, any young soldier were to go to a nearby phone booth and call this Veterans Dept. and inquire if he and his ‘sacred’ family would be guaranteed health care in the future, following his service years, he would be told ‘No, it’s not part of the plan.’ The soldier is really just defending a large corporation that doesn’t offer benefits. Such a country with its obsessive ‘narcissus’ anthem chanting ‘mirror, mirror, on the wall, whose the greatest nation of them all’ is not really a homeland at all, it is just another land mass where those without stock options or adequate income are trying to survive amid flag waving that is the political equivalent of the hula-hoop. To ask only ‘what you can do for your country’ and not what it does for its citizens is an idiots quiz. My deep feelings about any country with such a ‘plan,’ a country that wants it citizens to serve it but refuses to serve them is anger, as it would be in any uncaring abusive relationship. Unfortunately ‘anger’ has become suspect in our ‘therapy age.’ There is much counseling on how to dampen anger, how to disarm it, detour it, ignore it, talk it away, reason it away, educate it away, meditate it away, pray it away, love it away, and gene-therapy it away, anything but how to listen to it. And terrorism, where does it live? Terror arises when we are exposed to either subtle or stark threats to vital areas of our well being we can’t respond to adequately or prevent, the mind and body’s absence of shelter and privacy, repeated frustration or blocked access to needed health care. It is not only what happens to us but what seems likely to happen. - the recurring cancer of worry around problems without solution,’--- “ I can’t pay the rent,” “The letter says they’re going to shut the heat and water off,” “They said we aren’t covered,” “Regret to inform you that you don’t qualify,”... Are not all the mental and emotional states of pressure, stress, and hopelessness which those conditions produce a drip torture form of terror?! Then what about ‘rage?’ Can’t most rage be ultimately traced back to a deep sense of powerlessness, loss, or humiliation in some form or another, of having eaten Alice’s mushroom that makes one smaller. Anger, violence, rage -- aren’t they all loud, searing messages of pain or wounds that have gone unacknowledged, damaged lives that have not been seen or cared about? Violence is nearly always a response to an intolerable situation, to love that has been denied in some material or spiritual form. While violence and rage and anger is not the face of love that we have been taught to recognize, it is, nevertheless, love speaking, loudly, from its other face of profound, intolerable disappointment.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Elephant Batters Train

DHAKA, Bangladesh - An elephant whose calf was knocked down by a locomotive blocked the next train that passed and pummelled the engine until it could no longer run.

After banging her forehead against the engine for 15 minutes, the elephant walked off into the jungle, leaving about 200 passangers stranded for more than five hours, reports said Sunday. The incident occurred Friday night at Vanuygach, 120 miles northeast of Dhaka. The extent of the calf’s injuries were not known.

Boy In The Back Row, Baseball Cap On Backwards

Okay, I told you I’d return,
but that’s all I said, remember!
Nothings really changed,
except the money changers are everywhere
and everyone’s fallen into step,
Homo-erectus become Homo-homogenous.
Well, this is it, I’m back, and that’s as far as it goes this time.
No walking on water, no healing, no disciples, no mountain sermon.
What did you expect anyway, with me hanging on that cross
bleeding to death? And you, what did you do? Weep and pray!
I didn’t want to start a religion! just get the nails out,
take me down, mend my wound, a little common kindness.
No! This time I’m going out for shortstop,
and I’m going to be so fucking good
you won’t believe your eyes.

Hating Walt Whitman

“the only modern poet not to experience discord when he encountered the world.”
(overheard at a literary cocktail party.)

Article in the paper says, ‘Little league manager hangs self’
He had written to his wife that,
‘It wasn’t over my jealousy of Gehrig or Stengel, or Ruth.
It was that son of a bitch, Walt Whitman.
It doesn’t have to be explained, and if it has to be it can’t be.’

on page 3
‘Man found dead in empty lot.’
A note in his jacket pocket read,
‘Dearest Jim, I will never take my love away from you.
--P.S. I want you to come in my mouth.’ Love, Debbie.
Next of kin said he had been despondent since a woman had
left him for a celebrated scholar of Walt Whitman.

on page 8,
‘Woman jumps to death from fairgrounds Ferris wheel.’
Friends said she was an un-recovered alcoholic and had been
depressed after reading a biography of Walt Whitman.
The couple in the chair behind her said
‘she just kept rocking back and forth repeating
‘Lincoln, lilacs, and liquor’ over and over
and muttering something about ‘Dooryard’ and ‘Bloomed’ and ‘a blooming idiot’
and then she just jumped.’

In the obituaries it was noted that
‘Reginald Waters, famous local author of romance novels
died Monday of what was an apparent heart attack.’
He was found slumped over the unfinished transcript of
his latest novel in progress, ‘Rape, A Romance.’
He had evidently been working on the dedication page
which read, ‘to that god damn spiritual adept, Walt Whitman,
may he rest in anything but peace.’ His publisher declined comment.

An article in the celebrity section reported ‘Valuable manuscript found.’
“A diary of the late Dorothy Parker discovered by relatives.
opened in character with, “its easy to know fairly young
that you wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with
T. S. Eliot but it takes a lifetime to hate Walt Whitman.”

(For Spaulding Gray, Dick Sanders, Verlena Orr, Pat Thomas, Kurt Vonnegurt)

Knowledge

(for Andrea Yates)

They pointed at her,
“Witch,” they said.
Sarah was not a witch,
did not know anything about witches,
but the people who had always known her
who knew what she looked like, where she lived,
knew that her name was ‘Sarah’
said Sarah was a “Witch”
though they knew nothing really, absolutely nothing,
about being a witch or what a witch was,
except that it was the right name for their fear,
and they knew nothing, absolutely nothing,
about what it was like being Sarah, the way nothing,
absolutely nothing, can be known
about being another from seeing another,
by saying ‘another,’ saying ‘Sarah,’
but those who had no idea what a witch was,
who could not by themselves have imagined
one single thing about a ‘witch’
nevertheless believed she was a witch,
measuring the circumference of her guilt
with the tape of their ignorance
and those who called her witch, (and so) made her ‘witch,’
the way God made light saying ‘Light,’
said she had to be put to death by fire.

They did it because they could not feel the fire
the way you cannot feel it when someone
else’s hand touches the hot fire.

Sarah is given a last glass of water before the fire is lit.
She puts the glass to her open mouth and swallows.
Of the water and of herself her mind can follow either no farther.
She does not know who she is, where she came from, or where she is going.
She does not know what the water is,
or what it does inside her body,
her body, which she knows, really,
nothing about either,
except that the water she is swallowing
will not put its fire out.
She knows that.