I Think I’m Losing the Battle for My Soul

I don’t pretend to be an expert in geopolitical intrigue. And I don’t want to be. But I wish the United States government had listened to me after 9/11 and had decided not to invade Iraq under false pretenses. And I wish the military had not listened to a draft-evading narcissist yesterday when ordered to assassinate the leader of Iran’s elite military special operations. I find it interesting (and deeply disturbing) that the cheetoh-in-chief dismissed virtually everything the intelligence community told him about Russia’s interference with the 2016 election, yet he was so sure of the intelligence he received about Qasem Soleimani’s involvement in previous killings of Americans and plans to kill more that the chief-electorally-installed-egotist ordered the Iranian’s assassination.

Does the morally bankrupt imbecile who inexplicably is the most powerful human being (using the term loosely) in the world not understand that state-sponsored assassination may tend to generate in-kind responses? Or does he truly believe he was installed by God to his undeservedly powerful position and, therefore, is not subject to retaliation by mere mortals?

I was not a fan of Qasem Soleimani. I could not even have told you who he was before the news media informed me of his assassination. His death diminishes me only to the extent that John Donne suggested in his famous poem, For Whom the Bell Tolls. That extent, though, is considerable.

Will humankind ever truly appreciate that murder, whether called assassination or the wages of war, is an affront to the concept of humanity? The current occupant of the White House surely will never understand a concept so abstract. I loathe the man with every fiber of my being. I wish I didn’t, but I do.

Posted in Anger | 2 Comments

Mind-Jaunts on the Second Day of the Two Thousand Twentieth Year

Every day is an anomaly. A mistake. An error awaiting correction. An aberration requiring repair and embarrassed explanation. A deviant eccentricity causing constant adjustments to the concept of normal.

There is no normal. Normal is a fantasy based in delusion. Normal is a reverie clothed in a fabric woven from rainbows, daydreams, clouds, and fine dust from a long-extinct volcano. Normal is a weird hallucination, a pretense toward typical, which exists only in minds twisted to believe in the ordinary. Ordinary is a state that cannot occur when life is so utterly unpredictable, as it always is.

At any moment, it is possible I may decide to radically change my life, and then act on that decision. I may become a vegetable farmer whose “farm” consists of a horse-drawn cart filled with soil in which I plant my crops. I might coax the horse that pulls my cart to take me to the Mississippi delta, where I could siphon water from the Gathering of Waters to quench the thirst of the cucumbers and squash and tomatoes and okra that reside in my cart. There, I could decide to make vegetarian tamales, hawking them as cures to the moral and intellectual maladies of the twenty-first century.

I could break into the homes of wealthy descendants of plantation owners, hoping to avoid armed guards whose only jobs are to keep wealth out of the hands of the undeserving poor. I might decide to become a modern-day Robin Hood, fashioning my persona after my own interpretations of Greek gods that never existed, but should have.  I might leave gifts of tamales for those pillars of wealth and enemies of charity, confusing them with concepts of philanthropy unfamiliar to them. But in return for those gifts, I would take food and clothing and deeds to properties they never intended to share with anyone but the progeny they considered the rightful heirs to their modern-day thrones.

Ah, it’s all magical thinking, I know, but that’s what makes daydreams and fantasies and wishful pondering so appealing. In our dreams, we can have absolute control over matters beyond even modest influence in the real world. Our fantasies can set us apart from the grinding realities of finding enough food and water to make it through another day. Fantasy. I wonder if the roots of fantasy are, indeed, hinged to a deep desire to exercise control over the uncontrollable? I believe they are. We dream because reality is too coarse and harsh and painful without something to ease the anguish.

I like the idea of slicing through the tether that binds me to a place. One one hand, there’s comfort in the familiar, the dependable, the reliably constant. But there’s stagnation attached to that invisible rope, too. Arms and legs and brain get stiff; they calcify and begin to look and feel like barnacles attached to ancient fishing piers. They ache to be free, almost an impossibility; the attachments are primitive and permanent, curable only through amputation or amnesia.

Decisions have consequences, many of them unintended, unanticipated, unpleasant, and unhappy. Yet they can have happy repercussions, as well. When we make decisions, we weigh the pros and cons of our options and select the one we think best. But it’s rarely the best decision; it’s only different from the others we might have made.

A decision to become an itinerant vegetable farmer is no better nor worse than a decision to procrastinate about making a life-altering decision. Yet procrastination can be life-altering, as well. Consequences, or the lack thereof, are stitched together in a quilt that looks and feels like it was woven from apologies and fear. That’s what drives us, sometimes. Fear. And regret. And attempts to repair the damage done by decisions; or the failure to make them.

If I had all the time in the world and no responsibilities to fulfill, I might make an avocation out of learning all there is to know about the ancient Greek and Roman gods. Apollo, Cronus, Zeus, Hades, Heracles, Morpheus, Eros, Glaucus, Triton, Pan, Uranus. Gad, there are so many! I admire the ancient minds that created those magical powers in magical forms. I could spend time creating my own stable of gods. I could conjure my own religion and seek followers who would buy into understand the concept. No, I really don’t want to delude even the extremely gullible. I find that offensive in the extreme. People should not manipulate others in such crass ways, the way modern-day evangelical preachers convince their adherents to believe utter nonsense (and to give them money in return for being duped).

Oh, hell, now I’ve gone and done it. I broke the magical spell that was propelling my early-morning fantasies. I’ve let anger with con-men interrupt my reverie.

Wow, I think this is one of the longer pieces of semi-incoherent stream-of-consciousness drivel I’ve written since starting my break from the blog. I could have just adapted one of the shorter pieces I wrote during my hiatus; but, no, I had to launch into a mind-bender. Maybe I needed that. Maybe I just wanted it.

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Beginning Anew

My temporary break from posting to my blog ends with this post. Between December 18, my last post, and this one, I’ve written twenty “drafts” that could have become posts had I chosen to make them public. And they might still see the light of day one of these day. Regardless, I’m glad I took a breather.

Today, as I considered posting again, I looked back to see what I posted last year on New Year’s Day. The two posts I published that day represented distinctly different positions on the spectrum between despair and confidence. In one of the posts I acknowledged that my diagnosis of lung cancer could, conceivably, have been a death sentence. When I wrote it, I felt alone and unable to identify anyone with whom I could talk about my prospects and my feelings without either encountering an artificial “you’ve got this” attitude or unending tears.

The other post on the same day was not a lot more hopeful to start, but it evolved into a hope that I, and the rest of the world, would change. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” I wrote, quoting an aphorism I believe represents the most hopeful attitude I could have at the time.

At this moment, I’m leaning more toward the hopeful than the desperate. That’s a good thing.  And as I begin this year, I contemplate being more active, more practically inquisitive (versus impractically inquisitive), and more engaged with the future than with the past. We’ll see how things work out as the year evolves.

To anyone who encounters this post, whether a regular visitor or here for the first time, I hope your 2020 exceeds your most joyous expectations.

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My Final Post for A While

This may be my last public post for a while. That doesn’t mean I won’t write, only that I won’t necessarily share what I’ve written. Considering the extremely low traffic to my blog and the almost non-existent feedback I receive (what I get I truly appreciate, but it’s really very, very slim), the effort I expend in making my posts more readable just isn’t worth the energy, to me. I’d rather devote what little stamina I have to more volume than to more “perfection.” Plus, of course, I might want to invest time and energy to making my posts more appealing to a broader audience, an audience that might give me more feedback. Chicken and egg stuff, you know.

Lest my few loyal readers think otherwise, I’m not complaining about your lack of feedback. I just think my time might be better spent creating new content than repairing what I write. And I’ll always have something to share, when the time is right.

That having been said, let me go on to the post that will stand alone for a while.

I miss pieces of my life that seem recent until I start to measure their distance from the present. Twenty-seven years. Eighteen years. Thirty years. Forty years. Twenty-one years. Those distant moments were close, once. Those fresh experiences aren’t fresh any more, though they feel fresh and new and invigorating. How is it that time can get away from us? How can we stumble across many years without realizing it? How can we waste time by failing to remember those moments? Time is in short supply; I can say that with absolute certainty. We don’t have much of it; we never realize how little is available for us to spend in matters of absolute frivolity and impossible meaninglessness.

One piece of my life I miss involves someone who once was my friend but who disappeared from my life. I won’t go into any more detail than that; it’s not necessary. But that vacancy remains open and empty, as if something had just been excised from a place in my heart. There are more than one, of course. People disappear from our lives all the time. But some of them leave traces, outlines, comfortable resting places that are no longer pleasant in their absence.

I wrote just the other day (was it yesterday or the day before?) about loneliness. It’s still with me. It occurs to me that pieces of me went with my friends, the ones who disappeared. I wonder whether they ever think of me? One of my favorite pieces of music is a song by the Moody Blues entitled “Your Wildest Dreams.” The verse that always grabs me is this one:

I wonder if you think about me
Once upon a time
In your wildest dreams

The important stuff of the day, like the impeachment of Donald Trump, doesn’t resonate with me at the moment. More important to me are the connections, both lost and current, that keep me grounded to a world that matters.

I hope I am thinner and in better physical condition by the next time I post here. That may be a while. I don’t plan on “easing up” on my food intake nor do I plan to focus on exercise until after the first of the year. And I won’t starve myself, nor will I push myself to the limits, when my regimen of better health begins. But I will engage, sometime before long. And maybe my more attractive physical appearance, when all that’s done, will generate more interest in what I write. I don’t plan to become famous, but I wish what I write mattered more than it does. Both fiction and rants like this one. And poetry. I’m really a bad poet, I fear. But I’ll keep writing. I will write until I can write no more. But I won’t necessarily share it as if what I write matters. I’d rather not delude myself in that way.

 

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Trampling Cultures in the Name of Temporary Pecuniary Joy

I read an article this morning about the impending demolition of the last remaining structures in what once was Dallas’ “Little Mexico” neighborhood, an area its residents called “La Colonia.” At its peak, 15,000 people lived in the area. The neighborhood was full of restaurants, grocery stores, bars, shoe repair shops, and myriad other businesses run by and that catered to the Mexican-American residents and the others who gravitated there. During the last several years, wealthy developers have snatched up houses and shops, usually demolishing them shortly thereafter, replacing them with glass and steel skyscrapers. The land beneath the old houses became extremely valuable as more and more expensive buildings were built. The character of most of the neighborhood changed quickly, though pockets of the old community remained. Those pockets struggled to retain the look and feel of the old neighborhood, but the efforts were destined to fail. Money swept the residents aside, forcing them to disperse into the wider community; the close-knit Mexican-American community spread into a gossamer-thin veil that has almost dissolved into…what? Memories and pride; things that cannot be buried under money and abject greed.

The glass and steel condominiums and parking garages for flashy cars and the ritzy shops that sell overpriced goods in homage to greed and gluttony have no entrenched identities. They are temporary compartments where misplaced pride and meaningless wealth are stored. They will disappear in time, too. But, unlike La Colonia, they will have no foundation upon which rich cultural memories can be built.

When cultural touchstones are ground into glass, it’s not just the abused culture that suffers. It’s all of us who can no longer see and feel and taste the deep connections members of that culture once had. We have our memories of such places, but they, too, will disappear in time. Our faded memories serve no useful purpose to those who follow us, for those memories will become vapor before they can inhabit the minds of the future.

Mexicans. Italians. Jews. Germans. Czechs. Indigenous peoples. Japanese. Chinese. We claim that we are a nation of immigrants. But only for a while. Only as long as it takes us to erase cultural identities and replace them with a homogeneous, spice-less, bland, superficial crust of doughy, wet flour.

How is it that the only satisfaction we seem to value is the pride built on variations on a theme of genocide? We all should have meaningful stories to tell about our heritage. We can’t, though, when the only heritage to which we cling is built on vanquishing those who might challenge our superiority.

Somehow, some way, I will turn this morose reflection on the shame of American civilization into something of value. That’s my job for today.

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Witchcraft

I awoke to witchcraft this morning.

I witnessed the effects of heat traveling through wires protruding from wounds in the wall. The heat caused water to boil and chickens’ eggs to congeal and harden in response. Heat from another source, a black box with glowing red eyes, attempted to melt a metal pan, instead searing its cargo—slabs carved from the carcass of a dead pig—and rendering the animal’s fat into frizzling pools of popping, sputtering liquid.

As I gazed out the back window, I saw strips of water, crystallized by cold air into shapes crafted by Frank Lloyd Wright, clinging to the surface of the wood deck as if the boards were ice’s saviors and patron saints. I envisioned the expanse of wooden strips as a massive shrine, a temple built in dedication to wiccan worship.

Warm air poured from slits in the floor, filling the house with comfort that’s out of place when the weather is as cold and brash as a murderer’s scowl. Roasted beans, ripped from bushes in South America, exuded an odor at once offensive and alluring, as if a high temperature had transformed the beans into pellets imbued with aromas of skunk spray and the sweet smell of Aphrodite in heat.

Magic swirled around me, a whirlwind of wizardry that permeated my soul and transported me to a time far, far in the future that never was and can never be. Light, spilling from glass orbs on posts and inverted teardrops, filled the room and washed away the invisibility adhering to my eyes.

Suddenly, the sun hissed and a blinding light pierced the veil of grey clouds that enshrouded the house witchcraft inhabited. Witchcraft fled, but it hides among the molecules of bright, fresh air; it will return, bringing with it wonders too impossible to accept, too fabulous to believe, too intense to ignore.

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Hush

I am a dormant volcano. A raging inferno
whose fuel, spent in spectacular displays
of fire and molten rock, has disappeared
into the center of the Earth.

I may be, in fact, an extinct volcano, one
with no recorded eruption in written history.
My source of magma may be gone, sealed
off from the power of heat and pressure
so that an eruption is no longer a possibility.

But I may not be a volcano at all. Just a pimple
on the surface of the Earth, a silent, harmless
replica that mimics a grim snarl asserting
power over the landscape.

No, occasional explosive outbursts, though
no longer as frequent as they once were,
offer evidence that the danger has not passed.

Those periodic eruptions suggest I still am
an active volcano, just not as fierce
and as fiery as I once was.

I would rather be dormant or extinct.
I would rather know the heat and pressure
have, finally, escaped into the atmosphere,
leaving me serene and harmless.

I would rather be the site where extreme
patience exists in harmony with dying
memories of detonations more
violent than the sun is bright.

Power sometimes is silent and still.
Explosive bursts of fury can pale in
comparison to the tranquilizing
intensity of absolute calm.

That’s what I’m after. I want to leave
the disruptive nature of fierce motion
to atrophy, replacing it with quiet calm;
a hush so powerful that
sound withers in its presence.

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Someone Else Thinks Inside My Head

Several of his friends regularly commented about Skyler’s writing, frequently expressing amazement at how vividly his words painted his characters’ thoughts and physical surroundings. “It’s as if you were there, behind his eyes, recording every detail,” Ophira O’Malley said to Skyler one bright January morning, as the two of them waited for their warm drinks and hot rolls.

The smell of coffee and cinnamon filled the tiny New York City neighborhood bakery where they sat, sunlight pouring in through the huge picture window and bathing their two-top table in welcome warmth. Outside, the crisp, almost cold, morning air urged pedestrians to hurry to their destinations.

“I am,” Skyler said.

“You are what?” Ophira’s blank face registered nothing.

But her gaze seemed to Skyler to reveal confusion.

“I am there, behind their eyes, recording every detail. I become the character in every sense. I mean, I remember things that never find their way into my stories, like what their mothers called them when they were babies. And I remember bat mitzvahs and the funerals of their great aunts and…sometimes I even remember what it was like having sex with a character’s wife earlier in the day.”

Skyler stopped talking, his bright blue eyes piercing Ophira’s dark brown windows, searching for signs that she either understood or thought he was out of his mind. He could not tell what she was thinking; the springy curls of her orange-red hair distracted him from her eyes. She was a beautiful enigma, he thought.

“Okay, I get that you get ‘in character’ when you’re writing. But, pullleeeaassse, remembering sex with his wife?” Ophira’s sneer and dismissive chuckle irritated him.

“Fine! Don’t believe me. I didn’t expect you to get it. I had just hoped…”

Ophira continued her assault on Skyler’s revelation. “Is that sex surprisingly similar to the sex you had with Darlene the night before we met?” Ophira’s accusatory smile and cocked head told Skyler he was right. She still did not understand.

“No, the sex is completely different. Seriously, Ophira, I don’t just get ‘in character.’ I become the character. Skyler is gone, replaced by the character.”

Ophira’s eyes narrowed, as if she was trying to process what he had just said. “You’re serious, aren’t you? Explain that. What do you mean ‘Skyler is gone’?”

“I mean, when I’m seeing the world through a character’s eyes, I am that character. Not that I think I am that character. I am that character. I don’t even realize Skyler is writing about him. I am that person, not a character in a story. I have a history that’s totally different from Skyler. I remember going to synagogue as a child. Me! An atheist! Going to synagogue! And, with one of my stories, I remember an event in my character’s childhood; he doused his little sister with alcohol and lit her on fire. She never told on him. She was blamed for her own injury.”

“Except for the look on your face, I’d say you’re screwing with me. I…I…I just don’t know how to respond.”

“I’m not looking for a response. I just want someone to listen. And to believe me. I think I actually become different people. Several at a time. Whoever is in my stories. I become them. But somehow I function as Skyler at the same time. I know this sounds crazy. Maybe I am crazy.”

Skyler thought he saw empathy and compassion replace skepticism on Ophira’s face. Finally, he thought, someone believes me; I can share this with someone else.

But Skyler had been wrong about people before. And, he recalled later, he had been wrong about Ophira.

***

Ophira O’Malley’s death was ruled accidental. She had slipped while standing on a subway platform, stumbling off the platform and down onto the tracks just seconds before the train roared into the station. The motorman told police he saw nobody with Ophira when she fell off the platform; it was just a horrible accident. Skyler Clark learned about the accident from Jerome Davis, the police officer leading the investigation and Skyler’s friend of fifteen years. Davis called Skyler, who was attending a writers’ workshop on the upper west side at the time, less than half an hour after Ophira’s death.

Two weeks after Ophira’s death, while Skyler was writing in the character of Guatemala Coombs, a wealthy New York City drug dealer, Skyler saw it. He saw a wire stretched across the platform, the far end tied to the middle of a piece of two-by-two lumber. Ophira stepped out of the stairwell and crossed to her usual place on the platform where she waited for the train. Just as the train approached the spot where she was standing, Guatemala jerked the wire. The piece of lumber caught on the tips of Ophira’s spiked heels. Guatemala pulled harder. Ophira lost her balance and plunged onto the tracks just before the train passed that point on the platform. Guatemala reeled in the wire and the little piece of lumber, wound the wire around the board, and walked away. No one by Guatemala saw what happened. Ah, but Skyler saw it; not as Skyler, though. For he had become Guatemala.

***

I could continue, but I won’t for now. This is post number 3001 on this blog. I should celebrate by having a sweet roll. Absent the availability of a sweet roll, I’ll have avocado on an English muffin.

 

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Modesty or Something Like It

Am I being modest when I insist on wearing a shirt to the door when I answer a knock? Or is the issue really embarrassment at my physical appearance? I suppose I could try to imagine that I inhabit a much more attractive body; how might I react to the knock at the door if I discovered, when looking in the mirror, a lean, muscled man displaying six-pack abs?

I might tend to grab the shirt, even in the case of that magical bodily transformation. If no shirt were readily available, though, I suspect I’d be willing to open the door anyway. But absent the bodily replacement, I would insist on grabbing a shirt from the laundry hamper; something to cover the embarrassing evidence of my undisciplined—make that nonexistent—exercise regimen and dietary restraint.

What, exactly, is modesty? Is it an expression of puritanical morality? Does it express sexual repression and a deep-seated fear that one’s body is a magnet for—or a breeding ground of—carnal appetites? I suspect there’s an unhealthy mixture of all the above in one’s sense of modesty. And I don’t like the concept of modesty in the least, though I have to admit modesty flows through me like a river. In my case, I suspect the majority of my modesty stems from embarrassment, with remnants of puritanism and carnality rounding out the mental malady.

A quick search for definitions and synonyms reveals what I feared: much of the meaning of modesty rests with that puritanical world view. Both Merriam-Webster’s dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus equate modesty with shame. Roget also suggests pudicity (a new word for me), which in turn associates with meanings for chastity and modesty. Shame. Chastity. I knew it!

The naked body, or even parts of one’s body, exposed to sensitive eyes is an affront to humanity, to Christianity, and to all of God’s creations. Horse pucky. As I’ve said many times before, the naked body, whatever its condition, is a lovely thing to behold. That having been said, mine would be dramatically more attractive with a visible six-pack, but that’s beside the point. The human body, like the bodies of animals whose beauty we admire (think horses, dogs, cats, whales, dolphins, ad infinitum), is a thing of natural beauty. Those other animals don’t seem to have to deal with modesty, do they? That’s because they have not been infected with irrational thought processes related to their physical appearance, sexuality, and such.

I know some people, perhaps many people, do not agree with my assessment of the human form. I’ve heard more times than I care to remember statements like “I don’t want to see the naked bodies of a bunch of overweight old men…” Typically, I’ve heard such statements in connection with individuals’ distaste for public swimming pools and spas and saunas. Frankly, that upsets me because the statement is wrapped in such unapologetic, thoughtless, non-compassionate, unfeeling judgement of people who may or may not have any control over their appearance. It irks me. And when someone makes such a statement, I think much less of them than I did before they uttered that stupid remark. Okay, enough of that trip down a side road that’s not part of this trip.

I admire, conceptually, nudists. I’d like the opportunity to sit and talk with nudists about their views on nudity and the human body to learn whether my admiration is well-placed. I don’t mean having the conversation in a nudist colony; I’m afraid I’m not sufficiently courageous to do that. I mean sitting, fully-clothed, in someone’s living room or at a table in a bar, with  a round of drinks in front of us; a comfortable, non-threatening environment. I’d like to understand whether they, like me, think fear of nudity is a remarkably silly human construct. And I’d like to know whether, to them, it’s the “freedom of movement” or some other physical attribute of nudity they find appealing. Just, in general, why they do what they do (which is, as I understand it, to disrobe in the presence of others who hold the same views). I probably shouldn’t express admiration of nudists until I understand them, right? So I’ll retract my statement of admiration until such time as I have the opportunity to confirm whether such admiration is justified.

Nudity and modesty are not synonymous, of course, but they are (or can be) related. Just as nudity and sex are not synonymous; but they, too, are related. Unless my logic is flawed, I think I can legitimately state that modesty and sex, then, are related, too. That may be the odd linkage in humans that drives modesty. “If I show too much of my body, or view too much of another person’s body, sex is sure to follow.” Right. The logic in that is convoluted and measurably wrong.

One of the first times I wrote about my thoughts on nudity, I said, “I’m not brave enough to assert my right to walk naked into the grocery store, but I am brave enough to call into question the legitimacy of the social fear of, and reaction to, nudity.” I’m still not brave enough to go into the grocery store without clothes. I’m not even brave enough to venture into a nudist colony to explore nudists’ thoughts on nudity; I want them to come to me, in the comfort of a living room or a bar. That’s a pretty lousy attitude; I don’t want to feel uncomfortable…I’d like you to feel uncomfortable for me. Well, if there’s any courage in the room at the moment, it’s in admitting one’s flaws. Yeah, searching for something to redeem myself; not finding it.

Is this post about modesty or it is about nudity? Or is it about something else? I can’t seem to figure it out. It began as a treatise on modesty. It is ending as a treatise on confusion and shame. Not exactly the most spectacular way to start the day, but it will have to do.

 

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Memories of Physical and Emotional Pain

I once was referred to a neurological specialist who, the referring specialist doctor said, would attempt to “replicate the pain” I had earlier felt in my neck and shoulder. Instantly, I decided against accepting the referral because I did not want to feel that pain again. The intent, of course, was to determine the underlying cause of the pain. But I was satisfied that the pain that had caused me to see the referring specialist had dissipated. I had no interest in learning whether it could be resurrected. Frankly, I was afraid it could be brought to life again but could not be killed. So I opted to hope for the best. Fortunately, that decision worked for a good eight or ten years before a similar pain returned on its own, without being “replicated” by a specialist.

When a similar pain occurred again, only then did my recollection of the original agony begin to approximate my experience so many years before. No matter how much I might have wanted to remember with precision the way that first pain felt (though I think I’d rather forget), I could not do it. Physical memories are like low-resolution snapshots taken with old cameras, their lenses smeared with soot and dust. They don’t capture reality for later replay. They approximate an experience, but lack true clarity and precision. And they are sometimes augmented or diminished by wishes or biases. They are not real; they are the products of the imagination, trained to paint a new portrait of an old experience, without the benefit of sight or touch.

If a person has ever experienced excruciating pain, I would argue that he or she simply cannot replicate it through memory. The person can’t feel the same agony felt when the pain was real. That awful pain refuses to have its photograph taken for physical replay.

I think memories of mental anguish, on the other hand, can be recorded with absolute fidelity, the equivalent of the very best, most precise Hasselblad camera in the hands of a highly experienced photographer. Two experiences from my younger years convince me of this. When I was in college—the first full semester after I began early, in summer school—I felt more lonely than I had ever felt before. It was a profound, debilitating, loneliness. I lacked the social skills to meet people and develop friendships. The isolation I felt was almost too much for me to bear. I considered suicide, thinking the only way I could escape the pain of loneliness was to take my life. I remember that sense of profound loneliness today. When that memory finds its way to the surface of my consciousness, the pain is just as acute as it was then, though now it is thankfully a memory instead of an ongoing experience.

Another experience was my first “true love.” I thought I had found my soul mate for life. Our relationship lasted for quite some time, but the time came when she decided it was over. I fought the decision, as if fighting it could have changed it. The pain of that ending was almost as excruciating as the profound loneliness. I can feel the memory of it today, just as acutely; unexpected abandonment by someone least likely to intentionally walk away, knowing how devastatingly painful it would be. A punch in the emotional gut so hard it could forever change the way a person feels about relationships.

I’ve often wondered why painful emotional memories can surface with almost exactly the same degree of mental agony as the original, while physical memories of pain never replicate the original experience. The closest I can come to explaining it, without exploring what people with expertise in human memory and human experience of pain have to say about it, is that mental pain and physical pain are utterly different beasts. While they both may involve physical changes in the body’s chemistry or electrical impulses, they must be fundamentally different. And perhaps physical pain reflects the potential of mortal danger, while mental pain reflects only emotional distress.

One of these days, I’m going to do more than ruminate and craft unsupported theories; I’m going to actually read results of research into the differences between emotional and physical pain. I’m almost certain such research must have been conducted and reported. And it’s possibly quite easy to find. One need only look. Maybe.

 

Posted in Emotion, Memories, Pain | Leave a comment

The Attractive Discomfort of Gatherings

I can’t seem to get my mind off Thanksgiving. We had planned on inviting my sister-in-law over for a non-traditional meal of some sort or, maybe, a restaurant meal with a non-traditional menu. But that went south when we learned she had other plans involving cooking a Thanksgiving day meal for friends. When another friend learned we were looking for non-traditional restaurants open that day, she jumped in and invited us to join her group, including others we know, for a traditional Thanksgiving day meal. That was very nice of her, but we really wanted something unusual; plus we did not want to impose on a meal that already had been planned. So, we did our own thing. We went out for an Indian buffet. And it was good. We enjoyed it immensely.

Still, we were essentially alone. Just the two of us. Unlike most people in our sphere, we were not inundated with family and friends for what one website calls “arguably the most celebrated holiday in the US and it may be the most important dinner of the year.” We had one invitation to that most celebrated holiday, and that was almost after the fact. I shouldn’t complain, though. We didn’t issue any invitations, aside from the one to my sister-in-law, to have anyone join us. So what is it that makes our Thanksgiving celebration so different from the vast majority of others? I suppose it’s the same thing that makes our celebration of Christmas just as unusual. We are, by and large, not very social people. We don’t tend to attract people to us; people don’t automatically gravitate toward us. We’re not top-of-mind to other people when they plan celebrations. The only family that’s “close by” is my sister-in-law; she had her own thing. My blood relatives are far, far distant. And they either have their own families or they have friends who arguably are closer to them than family or, like us, they are not in the least social.

I wonder whether detachment or aloofness or whatever it is is a genetic trait or whether my upbringing contributed more than genes to my tendency toward isolation? I guess I won’t know the answer to that question; it’s one of those questions without a reliable and dependable answer. Any answer would be a guess, based on opinion and bias, not data and scientific analysis.

I miss family gatherings. The most recent one I attended, my brother’s eightieth birthday celebration, was enjoyable but it was not the visibly joyous occasion I associate with the concepts of family Thanksgivings and Christmases I see in other families. The more “traditional” families celebrate familial bonds in a way I equate almost with worship. In our family, we don’t seem to treat our bonds quite the same way. Our relationships are more subdued, less boisterous, and not so openly emotional. We don’t seem to be so visibly moved by family connections. I say that, even though I feel those strong emotional bonds; but I don’t openly show it because I’d likely be the only one and that conspicuous display would make me, and those around me, uncomfortable. Because we, as a family, tend to conceal our emotions to the extent we can. I’ve always felt I might be the only one among my siblings whose emotions are eggshell-fragile. That’s not true, though. I’ve seen evidence I am not completely alone in that regard. And I’ve seen evidence in others that emotional displays are just uncomfortable all the way around; so I try to keep mine in check.

This post began as a rumination about Thanksgiving and the fact that ours, the one my wife and I spent together, was a bit lonely. That loneliness and isolation translates into most other days of celebration. We might join with others in our church (a complete departure from our entire adult lives until now) for a ritual celebration, but it doesn’t go beyond that. We’re not really part of the “family,” so we aren’t invited to participate except in a superficial way. Until, of course, I slip up and mention our plans to be alone. I do not want to join a group as a means of assuaging anyone’s sense of guilt; they have no reason to feel guilty and I have no reason to be the solution to their undeserved sense of regret for having failed to think of me in the first place.

I would like to find others who share our situation and invite them to join us in a non-traditional celebration of sorts on these lonely holidays. But my wife is not particularly enamored of the idea; perhaps she is even more of an isolationist than I am. We’ll see. One day, I’ll insist. And then we’ll see if others are equally reticent to join a group for which they do not feel an especially strong connection, loathing the idea of being the recipients of pity-by-social-invitation.

 

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Transition to Acceptance

The sky is turning bright pink in the east. Earlier, it was orange and the trees against the horizon looked black, as if they were shadows.

The day broke in beautiful form. But then I made the mistake of opening a news website. I’m an idiot. A quick glance at the headlines distracted me from the orange horizon and the intermittent thin ribbons of dark grey clouds. Rage erupted in me like a geyser, or a volcano, prompting me to write a lengthy diatribe describing the people who are, at the moment, afflicting the aggrieved. We, the people are the aggrieved. I wrote a rather lengthy post in which I explained that I had modified an adjective into a noun and I called for some rather harsh treatments of the aggrievers.

But then I stopped. What good could it possibly do? So I returned to the sky. The now pink sky. The sky whose orange brilliance was visible, I’m sure, while I was writing about the ill-will I wished would befall certain people. Now, though, I am satisfied that a record of my thoughts exists. It’s not in a public place, but it’s in  a place readily available to me if ever I feel a need to ratchet up my blood pressure and cause every muscle in my body to get tense and ready for a fierce struggle. I would rather not feel that need.

Now I don’t need to ready myself for battle; neither verbal nor physical engagement. Now, I feel a desire (maybe a need, but I can’t differentiate between the two at this moment) to soften and to erase every hint of stress from my mind and my body. I want to be in love with the world again. I need to embrace and be embraced. I want to appreciate the horizon, morphing from pink to tan, fading into beige.

I want to erase “want” and replace it with “accept.” That’s it; I accept the beauty, even the hideous beauty, of the world around me. There is no ugliness; there is only another form of beauty, a natural mirror image of the perfection we see, tinted with imperfection and stunning brokenness. The Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi is a world view in which imperfection and transience are valued and considered beautiful. That’s the world view I readily accept as a replacement for the one that once occupied my mind. Easier said than done, of course.

There’s an inexplicable beauty in accepting everything in our paths and in our lines of sight. Not only accepting, but embracing and appreciating even the broken pieces of life and humanity. If I could feel that sense of acceptance and appreciation all the time, I would be more content with who I am. I could accept even the unlovable pieces of myself while trying to replace them with aspects worthy of love. That is, perhaps, the hardest part of acceptance; giving up the war against aspects of oneself that are unlovable.

I find fault with too many things and too many circumstances. Rather than complain, the best response to displeasure is to seek the lessons from experience. What will it teach me, if only I am willing to listen and contemplate? I do contemplate well, I think, if I give myself a nudge in that direction. Sometimes, though, I react instead of allowing my contemplative self to emerge from the wreckage of an unpleasant experience.

Goddamn it! Almost imperceptibly, I slipped from acceptance to fault-finding. And then to anger about it. This transition will be harder than I thought; it has always been harder than I thought.

Posted in Acceptance, Anger, Self-discipline, Serenity, Wabi sabi | Leave a comment

Molly Ivins Documentary

Last night, we had dinner with a friend. She served us wonderful chili and treated us to a documentary about Molly Ivins entitled, Raise Hell: The Life And Times Of Molly Ivins.  I have been a Molly Ivins fan for years. I cried when she died; not because I was a fan, but because I felt like the world had lost one of the bravest and most articulate observers (and critics) of politics whose words I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

Several years ago, I received a solicitation, asking for donations to help fund the development and production of the documentary we watched last night. It was one of the only such solicitations I recall thinking was unquestionably worthwhile, so I donated. I don’t know how much; probably a very meager $10 or so. Regardless of how much I donated, though, I am glad I did. That having been said, on reflection after watching the documentary last night, I think the work could have been much better.

In reflecting on what we watched last night, I think too little attention was paid to the substance of Molly’s writing in favor of picking one-liners from her writing and videos featuring her. I understand the rationale behind using the one-liners; they are powerful and funny and memorable. But Molly was much more than a talented writer and deliverer of one-liners; she was a brilliant thinker and writer whose words should make us think about what we are doing to ourselves by electing the likes of Trump and Pence and the Congressional stooges who give the two men their undying loyalty, even after rightfully labeling Trump as utterly unfit for office. But that’s another story.

Despite my morning-after disappointment, I enjoyed the documentary and I think it’s worth watching. My point is that it could have been much better. But if I think it could have been much better, why didn’t I get involved in making it? Good point; I’m being a Wednesday morning quarterback, the sort of person who doesn’t have the wherewithal to do something myself, so criticizes someone who does. Yech!

As I consider who might be a current-day Molly Ivins, I can’t come up with anyone. The only one close, in my view, is Rachel Maddow. However, as much as I enjoy watching and listening to her, Rachel isn’t as “pure” as Molly in the sense that Molly focused on right and wrong, whereas I think Rachel focuses on right and left. Molly wasn’t afraid to be a heretical liberal, arguing against popularly-held liberal positions (through, for the life of me, at this moment I cannot think of a specific example). I lean far left, but I believe in discriminating between right and wrong. Just because something is embraced by the “left” does not mean it is “right.” That’s why, occasionally, I do not vote straight ticket; sometimes a Democrat is so utterly bad that a Republican is preferable, even though the Republican’s views might conflict with mine.

Back to the documentary: Something that occurred to me during the film, but was on my mind more afterward, was the fact that Molly adopted a strong Texas twang and behaved in stereotypical Texan style (she even mentioned her boots, pickup, beer-drinking, etc.). I think she had more of an impact on conservative Texans by behaving like them than she would have had had she behaved and dressed like the stereotypical Smith graduate (she was a Smith graduate, although certainly not the “stereotypical” one).  In that way, I think she connected with people who otherwise might have dismissed her entirely. She never presented herself as better than others; she never suggested her education and the family she was from made her a better person than “shit-kicker cowboys.” That lesson might be one today’s liberals could learn from. I tend to see or perceive an attitude (through dress and demeanor) that says “I’m smarter than you” when liberals engage with conservatives. And, to be honest, I often feel that way because I cannot for the life of me understand how a person who otherwise seems intelligent can possibly hold certain political views; I assume the “otherwise seems intelligent” is an erroneous perception on my part.  I have to try to do better.

***

I’ve been up since around 4:00 this morning and have written a poem I plan to read tonight at Wednesday Night Poetry. But after thinking about what I just wrote, I may revisit the poem; not because it relates in any way to Molly Ivins or politics, but because it may be too high-falutin’ to have any value.  Back to the drawing board and then, later, perhaps back to sleep.

 

Posted in Film, Politics | Leave a comment

Elbow

Elbow McMaster stood facing the front door, poised to spring upon the woman the moment she entered. His eyes, fixed on the peephole well above his eye level, noticed a momentary interruption in the light on the tiny circular glass view port. Elbow’s legs tensed and bent ever-so-slightly; he crouched in preparation for an attack. The sound of a key entering the lock was barely audible, but Elbow heard it and he leaped into action. As the door swung open, he lunged at the woman’s chest. The instant his taut body touched hers, the woman grasped him with both arms and pulled him to her. Obviously, he thought, she was expecting this.

Of course she was. This was a daily routine. Every day, at almost the exact same time, Elbow lunged at Caroline as she entered the house, home from work. Elbow’s tail, wagging furiously, swatted Caroline mercilessly and his tongue licked every bit of exposed skin from her face to the base of her neck.

But that was yesterday. Today, Elbow’s watch at the front door lasted much longer than usual. The sun’s light in the east windows of the house peaked, as usual, just about the time Caroline usually got home. And then, over the course of an hour or so, the light began to dim. As the minutes passed, Elbow nervously shifted his weight from one side to the other, keeping his legs in condition to spring the moment the door opened. But when darkness fell, Caroline still had not arrived home, so he knelt on the carpet in front of the door, resting his legs. Still, he kept watch, waiting for Caroline to arrive.

Around ten in the evening, Elbow heard a key entering the lock. He sprang into action, ready to cover her with dog kisses. But as he flew through the air at the figure entering the front door, he sensed something was different. This was not Caroline! This was Caroline’s friend, Mona! Elbow turned his head to the right and barked, just as his shoulder smashed into Mona’s chest.

“Oh, Elbow! Oh, boy, I’m sorry I’m not Caroline! I’m so sorry!” Mona kept her balance, even as Elbow ricocheted to the floor from her chest. Mona put her arms around Elbow and hugged him close to her. Tears flooded her cheeks and dripped onto Elbow’s furry back.

Elbow knew the meaning of tears. Caroline had shed tears when her friend, Skip, had left one morning and the police came that night to tell her he wouldn’t be coming home. Elbow knew Mona’s tears meant the same thing.

“Elbow, Caroline’s not coming home. Caroline was in an accident, Elbow. You’re going to come live with me now, boy.”

Elbow’s tears didn’t flow as easily as Mona’s, but they flowed, nonetheless. He hung his head, then raised his head high with his nose pointing to the sky and wept the way dogs do, with a low mournful howl.

Posted in Fiction, Writing | 4 Comments

Writing Like a Curative Drug

I once wrote, during a period of personal introspection and social observation,

Writing is like a drug; it can be a cure or an addiction.

A lot was missing in that simple statement. One missing piece concealed the danger of spare language.

As I reflect on that assertion several years later, I still believe what I wrote, but my attitude about writing has changed somewhat. I think it can be both a cure AND an addiction. It can be a treatment just short of a cure. And it can be an irresistible craving just short of an addiction. Would I have been more accurate to have written the following?

Writing is like a drug; it can be a cure or an addiction or it can be both. And, it can be simply a treatment just short of a cure or an irresistible craving just short of an addiction.

The simpler statement, “it can be a cure or an addiction,” presents a more powerful statement, but it conceals part of the truth. The statement was not meant to misrepresent reality, but unless one reads between the lines, it does. That is an attribute of a lot of writing, especially poetry.

Poetry, in its spareness and its economy with words, carves away explanation, leaving scraps of unsaid description behind, unable to disclose what was in the poet’s head during the writing of the poem.  On the one hand, that raw, skeletal, glimpse into meaning requires the reader or listener to think, filling in the unsaid words with her own. On the other, though, the remaining words can mislead the audience by omission (or, rather, the audience can allow itself to mislead itself).

In spite of my tendency to use thirty words when five will do, I believe economy with words is a more powerful way to communicate ideas. It is a more powerful way to engage emotionally with the reader or listener.

But, in the wrong hands, spare writing can be intentionally misleading and dangerous. Take, for example, the current administration. Quite aside from its raging current of blatant lies, the few trickles of truth tell only parts of stories we need to hear; parts that, without explanation, lead to erroneous conclusions and positions that have no basis in reality. Feeding empty heads with these lies and these trickles of truth, the administration molds unthinking people into weapons of evangelical disinformation. The “base” becomes a propaganda machine.

To  confront and overcome the disciples of evangelical disinformation, we need writing that looks and acts like a curative drug. Short, spare, simple, and catchy; attractive words that serve as bait, followed by short, explanatory words that overcome the lies with inescapable and irrefutable truth.

The explanation seems so simple. But it is almost impossibly hard. The power of words grows exponentially in parallel with the intellects of the people who read or hear them; their power is muted and smothered when confronted with stunted intellects. And that is the problem we face today. What curative drug can break through a shield formed by ignorance?

Posted in Lies/disinformation, Poetry, Politics, Writing | Leave a comment

Commitment

From time to time, I am surprised by the source of my own questions. This morning, for example, I asked (through Google) how Mexican per capita household annual income compares to that figure in the United States. I would not have had that question but for stumbling across something mostly unrelated; an article that asserted (or was it just suggested?) micro-businesses account for the primary source of income for large proportions of family incomes in impoverished countries. The article implied that “jobs” are few and far between in many countries and, therefore, people create or maintain their own tiny businesses to provide at least meager sources of income.

Before I go on, I wasn’t surprised by the facts and suggestions and assertions; I was surprised that they became sources for some questions I did not have when I awoke this morning.

At any rate, the article and my subsequent question led me to the website for an organization (a company, I assume) called CEIC. CEIC was founded in 1992 in Hong Kong by “a team of expert economists and analysts.” CEIC is a research organization that collects and analyzes macro-economic data from countries around the world. Some of those data and those analyses are available on the organization’s website; more data and more in-depth analyses, I suspect, are available for sale. But that’s an entirely different topic, so I’ll return to my area of interest.

According to data available on the CEIC website, the  per capital annual household income in the United States was $31,454 in 2018. In Mexico, the figure for the same year was $2,782.32. So, the per capita household annual income in the U.S. was more than eleven times greater than in Mexico last year. I knew the difference would be significant, but the size of the difference stunned me.

If my income were reduced to one-eleventh of what it is today, I would either starve or go on public assistance or both. “But the cost of living in Mexico is much less than it is in the U.S., so it wouldn’t be that bad,” some might say.

Sure. Housing in Mexico does not cost one-eleventh the price of housing in the U.S. Nor is the cost of transportation or food in Mexico equal to that fraction of the cost in the U.S. The bottom line is that the economic lives of the Mexican people at large are radically different from the economic lives of Americans. An article in Borgen Magazine discusses food poverty in Mexico, reporting: “In 2008, 18.2 percent of Mexican residents lived in food poverty. Food poverty is defined as not earning sufficient income to purchase nutritious food, even if the total income is used.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service reports on its website that 11.1% of Americans lived in “food-insecure households” in 2018. Granted, the data are separated by ten years and by definitions that may not completely correspond to one another, but they offer some interesting (and painful) insights.

I was surprised that the percentage of people who live in “food-insecurity” (I’ll adopt the USDA term) in the U.S. is not even double the percentage in Mexico. Given the enormous income disparity, I would have thought Mexican food-insecurity would be many times greater that American food-insecurity.  I am sure there are reams of data that might help explain why my surprise is unfounded. I wish I knew where to get those data and how to interpret them so I might better understand what, to me, looks like an inexplicable discrepancy. In the absence of both access to the data and the knowledge to properly analyze them, here’s where my mind is going: the vast majority of what I’ll call “excess wealth” in the U.S. goes toward non-necessary expenditures. We know it doesn’t go toward savings; the last figure I saw said U.S. savings amounted to less than nine percent of income, on average. And if memory serves, the Mexican savings rate is actually far greater, somewhere around twenty percent.

So, without the benefit of information and analytical skills, my take is this: Americans engage in wasteful, frivolous spending at a far greater rate than do Mexicans. Back to the source of my original left turn into economic research: if Americans were to divert just a portion of their frivolous spending toward lending money to micro-businesses in Mexico (and many other countries), it might go a long way toward reducing those disparities. I’ve been doing just that for a few years by making loans through KIVA. But none of my loans have been made to micro-businesses in Mexico. I’ve made loans in Peru, Ecuador, El Salvador, Columbia, Solomon Islands, and the U.S. All of the non-US loans have either been repaid in full or are being repaid. The only one for which I’ve not yet seen any payments is one I made for an agricultural enterprise in the U.S. While I feel good about doing what I’ve done, the amount of money I’ve lent through KIVA is truly embarrassingly small.

After this morning’s excursion, wading through data I don’t entirely understand and making conclusions I can’t entirely defend, I feel compelled to do more than I have done. But will I do as much as I think all Americans should? No. I won’t. Because, like almost all Americans, my personal comfort and desire for personal and familial financial security is greater than my concern for those who are less fortunate. Some people might say, “You’re being too hard on yourself; you should be proud of yourself for doing more than many do.” I would respond by saying, “No, I’m not being hard enough on myself and on everyone else who has the financial wherewithal to help lift up others and who choose, instead, to “invest” their money in luxuries and other non-necessities. ”

But maybe I am asking all of us to be saints; and I don’t believe in saints. I just wish we all would do more than we have done. I know many of us donate food and clothing to help impoverished people and we may give money to organizations that help people find temporary shelter or even longer-term housing. While that’s admirable, I think longer-term solutions are better “investments” in humanity. Micro-loans can help people generate their own income, buy their own food and clothes, and secure their own housing.

So far this morning, I’ve spent my mental energy comparing the economic behaviors of the U.S. with its Mexican counterpart. The problems of poverty are global. They will require global intervention if they are ever to be solved. And this rambling rant won’t even begin to make one iota of difference; it doesn’t even make me feel good. It doesn’t even strip away some of the feelings of outrage and impotence and sadness that accompany the recognition that we live in a world that is so far from imperfect that it might be the model for inadequacy.

Ach. There’s no value in beating oneself up for one’s failings. The best way forward is, always, a commitment to do better and to do what one can. And so I close this unhappy diatribe with a promise to do what I would have others do.

Posted in Economics, Poverty, Rant | Leave a comment

Transformative Places

Wherever we go, when we settle in we take on attributes caused by the place. We change, at least a little, to reflect the way a place we live changes us. And often, maybe usually, we don’t recognize the change in us until later, perhaps years later.

As I reflect on the statements above, I wonder whether they are true. Do the places we live really change who we are? I think they do. Maybe we don’t change at our core, but we adapt to our new environment by changing enough to better fit in or to more clearly differentiate us from the people around us. It may be our vocabulary or the way we pronounce words. It might be the way we acknowledge people we encounter (or, conversely, stop those acknowledgements). But the changes may be more fundamental. We may become more conservative in our thinking; or more progressive.

Moving from the hustle-bustle of a high-energy city to a more relaxed rural environment can have the effect of smoothing our engagements with other people. We might become more accustomed to light traffic; return trips to freeway traffic might become more stressful to the changed person we have become.

At the same time these changes take place in us, similar changes take place in people we leave behind in other places that have changed us. And changes take place in people in our spheres, people who settle in other places. The places change them in big and little ways. Even modest changes in them and in us can create gulfs between us. We don’t grow apart; we morph apart. We become different people. Different from one another, yes, but different from our former selves, as well.

What about the ways in which places change those around us? We don’t all respond to new places in the same way, so I may change in ways very different from the ways the same place changes someone else in my life.

Graphs and charts and instructive images would be far better at articulating what I’ve been trying to say than what I’ve said. Unfortunately, I do not possess the wherewithal to express myself graphically; well, I do, but not in ways that would be informative in this discussion. When I get uncomfortable with where I am, physically or emotionally, I attempt to lighten the environment with humor; it rarely works.

Perhaps I would have been more successful at expressing my thoughts if I had stuck to specifics about me. Instead, I’ve attempted to describe in the abstract a set of concepts that I’m not quite sure I understand sufficiently to explain.

I should return to writing fiction. I know more about the world inside my head than I do about the physical world, the world in which I dabble in reality. Fiction is easier on the brain and the heart. It’s easier to control than reality; reality seems to have its own agenda, quite apart from anything over which I might have control.

I could live quite comfortably in an imaginary world, a place in which I can transform challenges into solutions. Problems into opportunities. Fear into anticipation.

The imaginary world is a place, too. It can have the same transformative effects that the real world can have; I suppose one simply has to believe.

Posted in Change, Essay, Philosophy | Leave a comment

What Once was Vibrant

For the only time I can remember, this morning I pondered about how my emotions may have changed during the course of my sixty-six years. A piece of semi-autobiographical fiction (is that even a realistic category?) I began writing last night triggered this contemplation, I think, but it could have been something else or a combination of other thoughts. Not that it matters.

What matters is that, this morning, I consciously considered the possibility that my emotions today differ significantly from my emotions as a teenager or a young man in my twenties and thirties or, for that matter, as an adult well into his fifties and early sixties. My emotions today feel different. They feel like they belong to someone else, someone more resilient and stronger in some ways, but more fragile and more easily broken in others. I think the type of emotions to which I refer will be obvious from my words so far but, in case there’s any question, I refer to negative emotions; fear, anger, anguish, grief, heartache, sadness, and so on.

Having experienced grief on several occasions, both as a child and as an adult, I think the emotion has been distinctively different at various points in my life. Unfortunately, I am not quite sure my words can adequately describe the differences, but I’ll try. In my early youth, grief at the death of a pet dog or cat was intense but relatively short-lived. I think the loss of pets caused as much a selfish sense of  loss as real grief. Perhaps it wasn’t true grief; perhaps it was just intense melancholy.

Later, the death of relatives to whom I was not close caused feelings that may not have been grief at the loss for myself, but sorrow at the loss for family members who were far closer than I to the deceased. Later, my grief at the death of my parents about a year apart, when I was in my early thirties, was intense and raw and long-lasting. Their deaths, especially my mother’s death, left me feeling that a piece of myself was gone and I would never be able to retrieve it; it was as if that piece of me existed only in the the relationship we had. The emotions that spilled from me during those times seemed to question whether what I was experiencing was real, too.

My sister’s death several years ago caused pain and grief and a sense of acute loss. And I felt the same vague disbelief that she was really gone. But I remember finally feeling the reality that death was a natural part of one’s life; that loss and the pain that goes with it were inevitable. Yet I remember, too, thinking that nothing can prepare one for the death of a loved one. I remember thinking the unthinkable; how, if my wife were to die, I would simply be unable to go on.

More recently, friends and acquaintances have died. Their deaths hurt, but the understanding of death’s inevitability seems to have grown in me. Deaths seem more shocks to the system than emotional cataclysms. But that may be because more recent deaths have not been close family members.

I’ve written so far only about grief. The same kinds of transitions that have taken place in my experience of grief have occurred in my experience of other emotions. It’s not that my emotions have dulled. It’s more that they have adapted to the reality that I have no other option than to experience them; like death and the grief that accompanies it, they are inevitable. But that inevitability seems to have built a shell around me in a way, protecting me from the devastation that some emotions can leave behind. In that sense, I think I am more resilient, more able to deal with negative experiences. Yet I feel strongly, if that shell were to crack, the protection it provides will vaporize in an instant. That’s where my sense of greater fragility comes in. It’s as if I know I can take just so much but, if the shell breaks, as it were, I might not be able to survive the anguish it unleashes.

So far, most of my thoughts have surrounded negative experiences and the traumatic emotions that accompany them. But I think the same maturation (if that’s what it is) has taken place with more positive experiences. Joy, once a sense of unbridled elation, seems to have been tempered by the years. And gratitude, awe, happiness, optimism, hope—virtually all positive emotions—seem to be less intense, less overpowering, less exciting. I guess that’s true for the same reasons that the negative emotions have changed; my experience has taught me they don’t last, they aren’t necessarily the life-changing experiences they may have felt like in times gone by.

As I contemplate these observations about my emotions, I feel more than a little regret that, from the vantage point of this bright morning, they all seem to have dulled. Their sharp-edges no longer hurt as much nor feel as good as they once did. The vibrancy of youth seems to have drained from them, leaving emotions whose vitality is restricted by the wisdom of experience. I wish my observations were temporary and wrong. I miss feeling the energy of powerful emotions (though I know I still experience powerful emotions, just not in the way I once did). Perhaps this woeful treatise on the maturation of emotions is simply the product of an unusual mood. I hope so.

Posted in Emotion | Leave a comment

The New Realm

“Lance, would you please get the ax for me? It’s getting close to dinnertime and I need to get Little Johnny ready for the roaster.”

Lance looked up from his crossword. “All right, Suzanne, just let me finish this last little section.”

Suzanne scowled. “Okay, but hurry it up. He’s gonna take a good hour to cook and I still have to get him ready to go in the oven. We won’t be eating until after 7:30 at this rate.”

“Okay, dammit! Just a minute.” Lance stood abruptly and stormed out the back door, slamming the kitchen door behind him.

Almost as quickly as he left, he was back in the kitchen. “Here,” he said, thrusting the ax in Suzanne’s direction. “Anything else before I get back to my crossword?”

“Well, yes. You could go find Little Johnny for me. He’s probably on the swings.”

Lance sighed a long, woe-is-me sigh. “Sometimes, I wish we’d just buy our meat at the store. Some folks do, you know.”

Suzanne’s face flushed and the volume of her voice increased two-fold. “Yeah, and we do, too! Most of the time. But you know as well as I do that we don’t always have a choice!”

Suzanne drew a file along the blade of the ax, putting as sharp an edge on the tool as she could. As she tested the edge to ensure it was razor-sharp, she watched her husband go back out the door in search of her youngest son.

Familial cannibalism had been one of the hardest things Suzanne had to get used to when she entered the New Realm. Where she had come from, the only cannibalism was in stories or textbooks about a time long since passed. In her old environment, no one ate human flesh any more, especially one’s own progeny. But things were different in the New Realm. In the New Realm, cannibalism was as common as ice cream on a slice of pie. In fact, in the New Realm, people who refused to practice cannibalism were treated like pariahs. They could be imprisoned if their failure to conform put the social order at risk.

The New Realm arose, in a convoluted, roundabout way, from New Malthusian Theory. New Malthusian Theory espoused the position that human population must be self-limiting. That translated into a limit of two children per heterosexual couple reaching puberty. There were plenty of exceptions, with prior approval, but most people just got used to the idea that, if they had more than two children, those beyond two would become nutritional supplements before their thirteenth birthdays.

Suzanne, unlike the vast majority of other New Realm denizens, did not grow up in the New Realm. She was born and reared an Originalist, a child of the Old Realm. Her entry into the New Realm was the result of an accident in which the two parallel dimensions of the Milky Way galaxy collided for a split second. The chances of such a collision, in which the dimensions could take place at just the right time and location to result in dimensional travel, were about one hundred trillion to one. But, like the lottery, somebody has to win that experience. So it was with Suzanne.

“Johnny, get out of those clothes and come get in the sink. I’ve got to wash you up.” Suzanne eyed her youngest son, ready to repeat herself as she so often had to do to get him to do as he was told. But Johnny immediately began to disrobe, dropping his clothes on the kitchen floor.

“Johnny, what have I told you about putting your clothes away?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the boy replied, stooping to pick up his shirt off the floor. “Can I just hang them off the back of the chair?”

“Yes, that will be fine. Just hurry up, son.”

Johnny dutifully took off all his clothes and hung them on the back of a kitchen chair. He put his shoes on the chair seat and stuffed his socks in them.

Suzanne picked up the nude six-year-old and sat him in the warm water in the big farmhouse sink. The boy giggled and said, “It’s warm!”

“Yes, it is. That’s to wash off all that little-boy dirt from your little-boy body!” Suzanne laughed as she scrubbed the boy with a sponge.

When she was satisfied he was sufficiently clean, she rinsed him off with the sprayer head, picked him up, and set him down in a plastic clothes basket, filled with towels, on the floor. “Dry yourself off real good!”

When the boy was dry, she picked him up again and took him to the preparation sink on the other side of the kitchen. On the counter, next to the sink, sat a contraption that looked a little like a combination of a guillotine without a blade and a set of stocks. She placed Johnny face down, his neck in what would have been the guillotine’s neck hole and his arms in the stocks. “Okay, Johnny, get comfortable.”

Though her face didn’t betray it, Suzanne’s guts were in knots. She hated beheading her children. It didn’t matter how many she had done before, it was always hard to do it to another one. But that was just part of living in the New Realm.

***

At 7:30, Suzanne pulled the roasting pans out of the oven. [All right. This will have to wait. I’m not quite yet able to write about carving the meat for dinner. Maybe this doesn’t have to be quite so graphic.]

 

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A Nonfictional Account of a Wednesday

Yesterday’s productivity exceeded most days’ output, but only because we forced ourselves to visit Lowe’s with the aim of buying a replacement stovetop-oven combo. We managed to select one to put on order, but first we will have an installer come out to determine whether it will “work” in our space. Assuming it does, we will complete the order at the advertised sales price (said sale ends today). And Lowe’s will order the stove for delivery and installation. Would that the process remains so simple and straightforward. Having dealt with Lowe’s before, I don’t dare hope for it. I’ll just wait to see what happens.

Because we were in Hot Springs yesterday around lunchtime, we decided to dine at Taco Mama’s, where we can get one of our favorite dishes: a “taco salad” that includes shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, black beans, grilled chunks of lengua (tongue), and a scoop of guacamole, all drenched in a jalapeño ranch dressing.

Upon returning home to the Village, we prepared ourselves to drive over to pick up friends and take them into Hot Springs for Wednesday Night Poetry at Kollective Coffee. The female of the pair, Brenda, had written a poem that I had encouraged her to read at last night’s event. And she did. And it was a hit. There was more. Another writer friend I did not expect to see was already there when we arrived; she read a story that also was a hit.  I opted to sit in the background and watch; though I had a poem I could read in a pinch, I didn’t want to. I wasn’t pressured to (thanks to an unusually large number of readers), so life was good.

This post will be one of two (I hope) today. In the second one, I will force myself to write fiction. Perhaps.

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Mental Health and Healing

When my creativity wanes, as it has of late, I notice gaping holes in my imagination. I suppose those are synonymous. What I notice more acutely is that there’s a very strong correlation between my creativity and my sense of emotional well-being. When I feel creative, I feel something akin to giddiness. Even when that creativity expresses itself in writing about subjects that most people would consider dark, if the writing is good and creative, I feel good. When I feel unimaginative and incapable of creativity, I feel bad. Not physically bad; emotionally bad, as in sad or depressed or despondent.

I don’t know whether to ascribe causation to the correlation; does creativity cause giddiness or does giddiness trigger creativity? Does sadness muffle creativity or does a lack of creativity spark depression? I know this: when I’m feeling down, for whatever reason, my writing suffers. It’s not only dull and unimaginative, it’s wooden and shallow, as if it were written by a robot. If I were smart, I’d simply not write when my mood doesn’t correspond with being creative. But I’m not smart; I write anyway, despite being dissatisfied with my output. And that dissatisfaction probably prolongs my sadness or depression or whatever this drab mood might be called.

Fortunately, in real life. I can fake it with considerable success. Usually, I can mask my feelings pretty well, presenting myself as reasonably upbeat and happy. Not so much in my writing, though. My writing divulges my attitude, though not necessarily directly. When it is dull and lifeless and seems uninspired, it was written during a period of depression (that’s probably not the right term, but neither is sadness; dull disinterest may be more like it). Because I am obviously so close to it, both the mood and the writing associated with it, I may be able to read it better than others. Other people may not find the correlation so obvious; they may not see it at all. But I can’t imagine they wouldn’t; when they read dull, limp, tedious, sluggish, uninteresting words that morph into min-numbing paragraphs, I think they must see something is amiss with my normally effervescent personality. I can still joke around, even in the midst of darkness.

One day, I may randomly select samples of my writing, separated into two collections. One will be the “up” writing and the other will be the “down” writing. I would take those collections to a competent psychologist or psychotherapist and ask that an assessment be undertaken, based on the writing. I wouldn’t be surprised to be told the writing suggests a person suffering from a mild case of depression; nothing to be worried about, but an affliction for which treatment might be warranted.  Of course, I might find that the mental health professional’s qualifications don’t qualify him or her to judge whether one’s writing is creative or unimaginative, in which case everyone’s time will have been wasted.

If I were ever to sit on the proverbial psychiatrist’s couch, I’m afraid the slightest encouragement to “let it out” might unleash a torrent of tears so intense and voluminous that we’d both drown. But maybe not. I don’t want to find out.

***

My tendency to respond in the affirmative to a request to undertake a project has once again put me in a position of  having a great deal of my time absorbed in pursuit of objectives in which I have only passing interest. That propensity can result in a person feeling overwhelmed and unable to plan his own life to the extent he’d like. My desire to be able to decide, on the spur of the moment, to take a road trip has again been squelched, thanks to my failure to say “no.” I could kick myself in the groin for being such a “yes” man. Maybe relinquishing that freedom, though, will be good for my mental health. Maybe it will force me to build creativity even in places where creativity doesn’t normally flourish.

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Listen

Listen to the sky.
That’s not the sky, it’s an echo of your emptiness.

Listen to the horizon.
That’s not the horizon, it’s a sigh of hope.

Listen to the river.
That’s not the river, its a murmur of possibility.

Listen to the soil beneath  your feet.
That’s not the soil upon which you walk, it’s the whisper of love.

Listen to the crashing of waves in the sea.
That’s not the crashing of waves, it’s water’s musical embrace
of grains of sand.

Listen to the lyrics of wishes, set to music.
Listen to the hum of potential.
Listen to the melody of kindness, washing
like an acoustic tide over humanity.

Before you speak, before you howl, before you scream at
the hopelessness swirling all around you, listen.

Listen.

Listen.

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The Core Within and Other Matters

I wish more people would read and listen to poetry. I wish they wouldn’t dismiss it as linguistic egotism. I wish they would try to listen to it without judgement and disdain. Instead, I wish they would try to hear and feel the emotions carried in the words. Poetry conveys emotion better than prose, I think. I say that even though I prefer to write prose (perhaps because I’m far better at prose than poetry). But poetry is more powerful, more magical, and it plumbs more thoroughly the deepest recesses of the soul—if there is such a thing as a soul. If it’s not the soul, then it’s the core of humanity; that source of decency and goodness and unadulterated morality I believe resides in all of us, if only for a time.

Depending on the poet, of course, poetry has the capacity to feed a longing for connection with humanity that once was, I think, as common as the air we breathe. But over time we have become hardened and skeptical of anything that has the potential of revealing emotional soft spots. We have allowed ourselves to fill those tender spaces with scar tissue made from pain and broken promises. The desire for connections to humanity has withered, transforming into a thirst for control and a need to avoid emotional engagement.

People tend to be afraid of poetry, fearful they will not understand or appreciate it. And they won’t if they don’t allow themselves to be transported by words. The unfortunate fact about poetry, like all literature and all attempts at communication, is that much of it is garbage. But like its literary brethren, bad poetry can—like spoiled food—quickly be recognized and discarded. Too many of us seem to think we have to taste it and ingest it and pretend to enjoy it, even though we sense it is not good.  Once we get over that false obligation to enjoy even poetry we find off-putting or offensive or utterly self-absorbed, we can enjoy the good stuff; the stuff that fills us with joy or tears or understanding.

Perhaps there’s a better way to judge poetry than “I don’t know poetry, but I know what I like,” but I don’t know what that might be. I do not believe poetry is meant to be dissected, its dismembered corpse explained in cold, clinical terms. Poetry is meant to be felt, like a lover’s caress or a blade ripping into one’s midsection.

***

Today, I am presenting a workshop on Point of View (POV) for writers. I cannot for the life of me understand why I thought I would enjoy doing that. First person. Second person. Third person. Limited. Omniscient. Objective. Subjective. Unreliable narrator. How to avoid “head-hopping.” In some ways, the topic bores me to tears. In others, I know I need periodic refreshers just to make sure I don’t make mistakes…unwittingly. But I rather enjoy breaking the “rules” of writing, though. Like interspersing second person with third person limited. I do not like third person omniscient, though some great literature has been written from the third person omniscient POV; e.g., 1984 (Orwell) and The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne).

***

I’ve written several more vignettes that might, someday, merit more work. They might even warrant efforts to turn them into short stories. Or, they could find themselves comfortably ensconced in one of my several dozen novels yet to be written. Who knows? I don’t. I don’t pretend to. I’ll just keep writing.

One of my vignettes could find a place in a “bodice-ripper” in a decidedly modern setting. Illicit love affairs seem to be the “go-to” topics to grab readers’ attention. Though, admittedly, I’m not particularly interested in readers’ attention. The real world is what captures my imagination. But it’s not capturing it particularly well this very moment, so I’ll stop writing and, instead, go manufacture breakfast.

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Recalling Darkness

Two years ago today, I wrote a post on Facebook that, in both immediate and distant hindsight, I realize did not belong on Facebook. But at least Facebook reminded me it is still there. It may not have belonged anywhere. But I want to make a permanent record of that post, and a few of the responses it generated, as a reminder that I’m not alone in my occasional/frequent periods of darkness. There are people I don’t even know personally who care and who matter.

The Post:
December 1, 2017: It’s rare that people use Facebook to convey serious thoughts, thoughts that once might have found their way to the “masses” via blogs or newspaper editorials or mailers distributed by the thousands through the mails. And that’s a shame. Here we have one of the most remarkable opportunities available to humankind, and we use it to post pictures of food. God knows, I’m guilty. But do we not consider the amazing power of social media? Really? When was the last time you read a post from someone who was contemplating suicide? A post from someone who has made up his mind, but desperately wants to be persuaded to change it? When did you last see the final post from a woman who simply found and was abandoned by the wrong man, over and over and over again. Facebook can handle those experiences, but it’s so damn full of innocuous photos of dogs that the ugliness doesn’t get through. It’s not reported. It’s ignored. Tonight, broken dreams and ugly wishes and stale ideas are on my mind. I’m not writing from my own mind’s eye, but from the perspective of people who might feel forgotten in the hustle-bustle of the world in which we live. People who need someone to say “no, you DO matter and you must come have Christmas dinner with us,” or “let’s go out and break tradition into a thousand pieces and find a Pakistani restaurant for lunch on Christmas!” Despite what I’ve written, I’m not hopeful. I’m depressed and withering at the thought that we’re living not in difficult, but demented, times. But God could I use a laugh! A heartfelt, throaty laugh! Maybe it requires practice. I don’t know. I’m living tonight in a mixture of gratitude and despair. I could use a hug or a kiss or two tickets out of the United States of America. But where to go? Seriously, where to go? Everyplace has its ugly challenges. Even this little piece of real estate in my brain. Maybe its issues are the ones that will cause the mighty statue to fall.

Some Responses:
Elle wrote: Many of my FB friends write deep, serious posts- from the horrendous state of politics to suicide attempt/depression and mourning/loss. I (and many of my friends) comment every time, thanking them for their courage to share their difficult experiences as we hope to provide some uplift , or simply to tell them we are here to listen. The human experience is so complex with a spectrum going from pain to delight- so I am acknowledging their struggles even though I may not relate. Many people read posts without commenting because they do not know what to say/write/reply but I can assure you that your posts are important. I read them (at least most of them– FB is a dangerous time-stealing vortex that I tend to avoid when I have tight deadlines). I can see that the future may look grim at this time, especially in this ugly political climate, but hope needs supporters. Have you ever thought about volunteering with children? Knowing there’s a generation behind often make us want to fight harder or just live to hand down decency and a kindness-oriented value system that seem to be on the decline. Also, youth/innocence is a powerful trigger that force us to rethink and reshape who we are. If you could find a job in a library or a school (as story reader, crossing guard, or maybe as short story teacher/workshop), you will discover a different world that will give you a new take on life. And if you are ever in California (the San Diego area), I would love to have you over often to cry and laugh about the craziness of life.

And I replied: Elle, I’ve often thought you are among the select group of people with whom I’ve connected on Facebook that I’d really like to meet. Your sensibilities are so closely aligned with mine that I consider you my “water sister,” as it were. I thank you so much for your words of encouragement and the incredible generosity with which you share ideas and offer consolation….I love you without ever having know you face to face! Yes, I’d love to come laugh and cry and share ideas with you. And, of course, please know you have an open invitation (including your entire family) to visit us in Arkansas! We have suite awaiting you and I look forward to meeting my “soul sister” in person.

Bev wrote: I don’t know, John. You write some pretty serious stuff here. 🙂 Actually, I think I may be guilty of writing quite a bit of serious stuff — enough so that a few times I’ve actually had someone tell me “you’re better than this — you shouldn’t be talking in such a negative way about your life!” I don’t think I hold back too much — well, perhaps just a little. I do have some pretty dark thoughts that I don’t share because I feel people don’t really want to go there — or it feels too painful to know that I’m thinking such things. So I am protecting you from my darkness. How do you like that? 🙂

Janis wrote: John, I feel you. My thought is, even though we don’t always write about it, I’m guessing many of us feel the pains of loss, fear, anger, sense of abandonment, etc. Most of us, however, aren’t courageous enough to share those personal experiences or ask for that virtual hug. I love that you care.

Phil wrote: I’ve always thought of fb as a cocktail party rather than a salon. I just don’t think it rewards gravitas, it’s not the right forum, stuff just vaporizes too quickly. I think this kind of reflective effort is better suited to blogs.

Two years before those exchanges, I wrote another, shorter, piece that I call my “cry from the darkness.” Here it is:

December 1, 2015: I remember, when I was in college, I’d sit up all night with friends, arguing and debating issues that had no answers. We would do our best to solve the troubles of mankind and, occasionally, we’d find the solutions. They were drowned in beer by the next day, though, so we couldn’t recall our magical solutions. In hindsight, the solutions were so damn simple: sit up with friends, talking about the problems facing the world. Have a little beer and think on the problems of humanity. Eventually, the problems disappeared. That’s the way it ought to be now. Goddamn it, let’s all just sit and talk and drink our way to loving one another.

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Entanglements

My thoughts this morning comprise a jumble of unrelated and incomplete ideas that careen through my mind as if they were running from something dangerous. They stumble and fall and bounce off the inside of my head as they flee whatever it is that’s trying to capture them. I think the caffeine in my coffee may have been concentrated. The hyper-juice may have  bypassed my digestive system and sped directly into my brain, causing thought-mistakes to spread like wildfire on a gasoline farm at the peak of harvest season.

There’s no point in trying to write a coherent essay or, for that matter, a piece of incoherent fiction. My fingers refuse to strike the keyboard in an orderly way; they follow my brain’s instructions, which demand a chaotic drumming of the keys. But even my fingers worry that my brain may have been hacked by a virus for which there is no known remedy. I can tell that my fingers are concerned by the way they repeatedly mis-key letters; they may be sending me a message, in code, that something is amiss.

The snarl of entangled ideas that spilled through my fingers this morning touch on subjects from spiritual deficits to the unintended consequences of urban re-zoning. I tried and failed to write about starting new holiday traditions in the absence of progeny to carry them on. And I attempted to document the loneliness of holidays spent in the absence of friends and extended family. My derailed efforts also included a dark fiction story about a prisoner who escaped after being treated like a fierce animal and tortured. None of those endeavors yielded tolerable results, so my angry fingers began stabbing at the keyboard; the results, such as they are, stand on the screen in front of you.

I’ll restrain my fingers now. There’s nothing to be gained in giving them free rein to express themselves as they see fit. They might divulge thoughts I must keep to myself, lest I reveal patterns of lethal intent or libidinous desire or savage behavior of one form or another. I’ve spent two and a half hours in wasted efforts to produce something worth reading and, instead, I produced this. Ach.

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