Archive for February, 2013

The curse of benevolence

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Following are the principles by which I raised my boys. ‘Raising’ them meant washing and cleaning them, filing their documents, driving them to myriad appointments and picking them up after same, buying their clothes and serving their dinners – all while delivering, year after year, a steady, relentless, and doubtless confusing, monologue on these principles as applied to the situations at hand.

1) Happiness is not what life is about. About twenty years ago, in a greasy breakfast joint, before dawn, I became aware of a group of old men surrounding a table in one corner, when one of them began pounding his fist next to his coffee cup, declaring, in rhythm with the blows, “!” Happiness, treated as a goal, leads to haphazard and quickly abandoned effort, coupled with extensive, and pointless, self-analysis. Happiness is a pleasant by-product of purposeful exertion. It’s one of our rewards for pursuing something else.

2) Be true to your art. That is, basically, ignore your audience. Appreciation is fine, and it feels good, but it’s feeding somebody else. There’s one unique, ineffable constellation of cells that comprises you, and if you grow it, love it, respect it, pursue it, being true to it alone – all will follow. If you travel off course, and pursue the applause, you will diminish.

3) Don’t try to be the best. The ‘best’ is both a diversion and a lie. In all things which have a measure – intelligence, beauty, creativity, love, war – beyond a point, comparisons simply do not matter. It’s okay to be the best, if it just happens. But don’t teach yourself to want it. There are suffering kids out there whose parents have coerced them into truly wanting, needing, to be first. They deserve it. Remember, being first makes you a slave to being the best. It’s a huge weight to carry. So let somebody else go there. Just don’t fall below third.

4) Don’t get mad. This is peculiar to males in my genetic line. We need to repeat this a lot. Perhaps it should be the first principle. It’s complex magic, easily subverted. I have often tried teaching it by getting mad. But it’s like a divine law. The ease with which life could be encountered; the joy we could bring to our situations; the hope we could offer in any dilemma – if only we didn’t get mad!

5) Honor and respect your mother. She’s wiped your butt, cleaned up your vomit, and stayed awake all night holding you in her arms. Forgive all her sins. Look at her and love her. See right through everything you’re upset about and see her soul. You’ll never encounter its like again.

6) Carry your responsibilities; fulfill your commitments. Deep satisfaction comes from opening your own shop in the morning, and closing it yourself at the end of the day. But we all depend on each other. The accumulated demands of just being alive are excessive, it’s true, but answer them all, anyway. Be reliable. Be strong. Do the dirty work. Pick up your brother when he falls down.

Information recently brought to my attention suggests perhaps these principles could bear some review. But oh well, it’s too late now.

I care

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

One day, I woke up and being who I am was painful to those around me. It happened because I discovered something I wanted, or I changed my mind about some ideas I had. I don’t know how it happened, really. The important thing is, people who relied on my behaving like myself now find out I’m somebody else. Today, I don’t think I’m going to change (again).

What I can do is: care for the people I love. My first thought was to clarify the new rules; all the new requirements that make up the new me. But I find I’m not about rules and requirements. Those seem to vaporize upon declaration. Unless I am going, somehow, simply not to be me, then here I am. This is scary and hard. I’m afraid of things that can hurt. I think I might lose so much. I try to set up agreements to protect myself. But when I lost my anchor, we all came unmoored. Everything we each most fear may very well happen. It’s either dispute who I am, or live with that. In the end, there will be no dispute.

It’s a little sad and it’s a little lonely, but it’s solid. Maybe it’s just knowing I’m going to die, and I want to hold my face up to God and say, “here, when I finally recognized myself, I was true to it.”


Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

In late winter, where I live, the mud grows an early grassy fur, and the brush starts to thicken. The ground is spotted with Scotch Broom, an invasive species. Not too long now, and each bush will be a boy-high lump of yellow blossoms. These will drip to the soil from their dark green spikes, and reveal hard pods that explode, hurling seeds all over my yard. Scotch Broom will cover my acres in a few years.

Men in these woods have fought the Scotch Broom for generations, with varied and occasionally ingenious weaponry. I come armed with a bent chunk of green metal called a weed wrench. It’s a lever with a set of serrated jaws. It bites into a plant at its base, clamps hard, and I lean. I feel it through the handle up into my shoulder blades – the shrieking and clinging as roots are sucked from the ground. I imagine the plants are tearing bloodied fingernails clawing to keep their hold; dragged out by their feet. One plant at a time. One ‘set, clamp, and bend’ per plant. A thousand plants.

It’s cold these mornings. There’s only the sound of birds, and the scruff and crunch of broken rock as I move toward the next patch of invaders. It feels good. I tire quickly and stay tired. I’m used to that. Sweat soaks the shirt against my skin, and breezes blow cold. I leave uprooted Scotch Broom lying behind me, resting often to review my success.

It’s good, killing Scotch Broom; making way for softer living things. I am weary and aching. There’s a long way to go, but it’s something I can do. Carelessly, I bang my knee on the iron bar. My boots slip on the rocks. My breath disappears in the wind. I am a man on a hillside with a weed wrench, living.


Thursday, February 21st, 2013

For those of us who aren’t insane, it’s tempting to think there’s a willful component to it. Insane people look like we do; speak clearly; get empathetic and engaged like the rest of us. Then they cross some barely perceptible borderline around an idea, and we hesitantly become aware they simply don’t make sense. It’s a classic moment in film and literature. The realization is finally inescapable, and suddenly all sorts of terrible things seem imminent: “you’re mad!”

I’ve been thinking about madness because I’ve been thinking about survivors, whom I’ve been thinking about because a lot of very intelligent, respectable people are publicly saying our civilization is likely to destroy itself. That’s supposed to be the insane proposition: the world is coming to an end!

But let’s imagine the scientists and the engineers actually know what they’re talking about. Let’s imagine that nuclear, bio- and nano- technologies really could, suddenly, even immediately, wipe out everyone. Which side of madness are we on?

Privately, I have been seduced across the border more than once. I know the strange, disconnected feeling of having abandoned the world ‘everybody else’ believes in; like swimming straight out to sea with people lining the shore yelling, “stop! stop!” while only I know there’s a submerged island just a little farther out, and I’ll surely be able to stand on it. It takes courage. It takes faith. It takes a deep, deep sense of self-conviction. It takes insanity.

I believe we’re all complicit in our situation, like in those stories where the future is foretold and even those who, forewarned, take every action to preserve themselves – still can’t. When the inevitable moment comes, it comes. Even the actions we pride ourselves on as ‘progressive’ and helpful – save electricity; give to the Democrat – no matter how we behave, it’s all part of the same self-destructive group conspiracy we perpetuate because it’s the only, normal, thing to do.

I sit and I talk to my boys. No-one is teaching them that real people, right now, are trying real hard to create monsters and machines that can remorselessly and forever destroy them. They don’t know what to do with that kind of information. We’re not here because we’re rational, responsible people. We’re here because we woke up this morning and didn’t really have a choice about it. My boys are thinking about rock concerts and puppy dogs. I’m thinking about survivors.

I don’t know what to do. Survivors have been studied, and it seems they might be different. Somehow, at least it feels to me, there exists a way to address our situation that comprehends it fully – like Alexander with his sword at the Gordian Knot. It doesn’t feel, to me, like we can do this in any way we’re currently trying. It’s a problem: your own children are threatened. It’s not clear how it’s approachable. We may all have to go a little mad.


Monday, February 18th, 2013

I enjoy writing. I enjoy writing here. I’d like to continue. I noticed, when I stopped, I had nowhere else to turn. I am on the other ‘playground,’ to be sure. It’s simple, and simply unrealistic, fiction. It’s teaching me something else I should have learned about writing thirty years ago – it’s not a product, it’s an activity. But still, it doesn’t tell me who I am.

I’m just a guy, fifty-five years old. An American guy, with a little education and a little bit of success, right where so many of us must find ourselves, and I wonder: who am I?

I’m strapped into a smiling, self-confident, quite capable exterior, complete with skillsets and sensitivities enabling me to negotiate any situation you can think of, perhaps more competently as intensity increases – and yet internally I’m a jangling collection of taped-together broken parts, desperately looking for somewhere, anywhere, to pull over.

I pay a little attention to my culture. I know desperation is boring, just another theme in my kids’ cartoons. We all know there’s no ‘meaning of life.’ So I, too, have learned to stop battering at myself, to relax into the practical world as it is; the place that simply exists for me. That’s it, then, and on I go.

But I don’t believe anything, really. I don’t trust anyone, really. If I’m disappointed, it’s okay. I didn’t expect anything more. And I’m exhausted by it. I envy those people who know the truth. I wish I could be a born again Christian or a liberal Democrat. Every thing I’ve ever believed has collapsed into pieces around me; every promise I’ve made, I’ve broken; every dream I’ve had – well, there’s still time, isn’t there?

So that’s why I come here. It’s not fiction, but it’s not quite real, either, because anything written down is just an echo of an attempt. For me, it’s worth trying because I don’t feel like I’m hiding; like if any of the torsos bouncing along on the sidewalk suddenly stopped to take a look – there I’d be. As close as I can be to what I am. Because it only seems to happen when I write it down.

Valentine’s Day

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

I saw a woman I liked. So I packaged myself up and made love to her. She chose me.

She chose me.

A long time later, on a sunny day, I unpackaged myself, and my heart was broken. She never put her hand on my heart. So I left her.

I went around, trying to put my hand on someone’s heart.

I couldn’t put my hand on anyone’s heart.

You can’t put your hand on a heart.