Thursday, December 22, 2011

Billie Houtman Caselli Clark 1933 - 2011

Billie died yesterday.

Billie was Valery's mother, of course, but she was much more than that to me.  Billie was a good friend.  She was also the Other Reader of this little journal, leaving just you, Dear Reader, to carry on here, alas.  As I was to her, I am grateful for your eyes.  I cherish yours even as I shall ever miss hers.

There is no rule that says one has to love or even like one's on-laws, but I sure loved Billie.  It is a happy circumstance for me that I met Billie twenty-eight years ago.  I was privileged during those many years--through moments happy and sad-- to love her as a son and, even better, to know her and like her as a friend.  For her part, she accepted me as both from the first moment that we met, and for that I am grateful.  She loved me as one of her own children and, as a friend, liked me enough to ask me to come see her in her final days.  I did, and it was a privilege, much as it will be to deliver a eulogy for her at the Austin memorial we plan to hold for her in the New Year.

Because she was in agreement with Lynda that I am a man of too many words, I am sure that Billie will expect me to keep my eulogy light, loving and above all, short.  Consequently, I am struggling to find not only the right words, but just the right quantity of them as well.  One strategy I have for crafting this short-but-meaningful bit of prose is to go at it several times, trying different techniques to say the things I don't even really know just yet.

One particular difficulty I have with the task is essentially self-inflicted.  Keeping with the notion that I should not do what I cannot stand to see done, I have concluded that the last thing I should talk about in Billie's eulogy would be myself.  Nonetheless, I have a story about how I met Billie that is worth writing about, even if it isn't worthy of mentioning in the eulogy.   Since this journal is about me, I think it is fair, in this context, to be a little self-indulgent.  Besides that, it does have something to say about Billie after all.

I met Billie delivering her daughter to her in a shopping cart.

Valery and I started dating shortly after Billie started dating John, sometime back in 1983.  Billie and John had known each other long before they became a couple, but by the time I met Valery, John was Billie's boyfriend.  He and I did not meet until after I met Billie, but it was indirectly because of him that I had the opportunity to roll up to her for our first encounter with Valery in a shopping cart.

John's family was in the car business in Dallas, and at the time I met him, he was working for a series of Ford dealers across the state, helping them with recruiting and training.  He was on the road a lot, traveling from dealer to dealer.  Because of his position, he was always finding good used cars that he could buy for a song and use as a road warrior car until it was used up.

Then, he'd sell it to a dealer for the remainder and move on to the next one.  He often had more than one car like this on hand, and sometimes he left them at Billie's house, for her use or for Valery or Chris--both of whom had cars of questionable reliability at best--to use.  The cars were always Ford or its upscale cousin, Mercury.  It was, I believe, a Mercury that Valery had borrowed and that she and I were driving when it gave us the chance to meet Billie for the first time.

In fact, it was Valery who was driving, so at first, I did not notice the plume of white smoke that was trailing us down Bee Cave Road as we headed toward MoPac.  But when we got down just past Westlake drive, the engine began to sputter and the now noticeable smoke turned from an ominous grey to a deadly black.  Before long we coasted to the side of the road right in front of a newly built shopping center on Bee Cave Road.  This being Westlake, it was a strip mall, and we were fortunate enough to coax the ailing Merc into a parking space at the far edge of the parking lot.

For some reason, Valery knew that this was the very place where her mother happened to be working that day, painting a sign on a dentist's door in the mall.  How she knew this, I don't know.  How we came to be at that particular mall on the very morning when Billie was there at work, I do know.

It's called synchronicity, and I've written about it often enough not to have to bore you with an explanation.  It's enough to say here that synchronicity was central to my life prior to this meeting, and that this encounter certainly served to provide further support for my belief.

It's worth mentioning that the reason Billie was at this particular mall, painting on this particular day was because that was what she did for a living.  She had an art studio, which she called the Message Parlour in small house (in which she also lived) on Bee Cave Road.  The name of the studio often led to confusion, especially to the men who would stop to partake of her services only to discover to their surprise and chagrin that those services did not extend to the laying on of hands (so to speak) that was expected.

So it was that Billie happened to be hand lettering a sign on the glass door of one of the outlying spaces in the mall when our dying Mercury delivered us to within meeting distance that day.  The distance, though small by comparison with that which had separated us previously, seemed too great for our impatient youth, so we commandeered an empty shopping cart that had been abandoned in the parking lot, loaded Valery into the basket and rolled off in search of her Mom.  When we roared up, laughing and screaming, Billie was just finishing the job, and looked up incredulously at the sight.

I don't recall much about what we said, but I can recall my first impressions.  First of all, she was nice.  I can recall her wonderful smile and welcoming attitude.  I don't know how much she knew about me, but it was probably nothing.  Valery had had a number of suitors in her day, so it was no surprise to Billie to see her with a new guy, I am sure.  She didn't treat me like that, however.  She was open and kind, curious but not prying.  She treated me with such respect that I was encouraged to think that I could meet with her approval as a mate for her daughter.  Good news for the new guy.

I was also impressed with her beauty.  It is fair to say that her profoundly kind and welcoming nature reinforced and compounded that beauty, but in all honesty, Billie's was the kind of pure and natural physical beauty that could take a man's breath away.  And so it did with me.

This experience was not new to me, though I confess that it had only happened to me with such force only once before, rather recently, when I met Valery for the first time.  You'll recall, Dear Reader, of the day when my life changed forever, but until I met Billie, I did not know of the source of Valery's captivating beauty.  Then, all of a sudden, I was face to face with a vision of Valery thirty years on.  And what a fabulous vision it was.

It's safe to say that had Valery had the same experience seeing my father Bill, she would not have been impressed with what was to come for me, physically.  Suffice it to say that although it wasn't much, I had a bit more hair than I do today.  Though I had some semblance of good looks in those youthful days, I doubt that Valery had any expectation of my getting better looking with age.

Seeing Billie, however, I concluded just the opposite about my future Bride.  I knew that as beautiful as she already was, Valery was going to become more beautiful as she got older.  Honestly, it wasn't until I met Billie that I knew just how much Valery would change for the better.  Valery will, of course, disagree with me on this point.  She is not happy about the effect that time has had on her countenance, but in truth, she is even more beautiful and captivating today than she was as a mere youth.

So on that day, as we rolled up to our first encounter, Billie and me, I was doubly fortunate in that delightful vision.  And so it is that today, even though I have lost one half of that vision, I will take some comfort knowing I'll see Billie every day, in her daughter's hands, her face, and in her smile.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Digging Spoon

The Digging Spoon
Rummaging through the silverware drawer in our kitchen last week, I came upon something that reaches further back into my childhood than almost any other object that I own, yet it is still in use in our household today.

This is what I used to call The Digging Spoon.

I had what could probably be called a typical small town upbringing, and like most baby-boomers, I was spoiled by peace and prosperity because my parents had a direct recollection of the Great Depression. It was a common refrain (for Lynda anyway): "I had things so tough. I don't ever want things to be like that for you."

For the most part, this was her modus operandi, but it was also not unlike her to offer a simple (and cheaper) solution to her childrens' needs and wants.  For example, instead of new jeans every six months, we got iron-on knee patches to get us through the school year.  Rather than the latest Spider Man lunchbox, I toted my tongue sammiches to school in a (wrinkled) brown paper bag.

And so it was with the Digging Spoon.  What I really wanted was a shiny red Tonka truck.  What I got was the Spoon.

I don't recall the exact circumstances under which the Spoon was first given to me as a toy, but I can recall going up to Lynda on subsequent occasions as she cooked dinner and asking her for my Digging Spoon.  She would look at me and laugh, then go to the drawer and pull it out, presenting it to me as if it were a priceless treasure on loan, all the while reminding me sternly to be sure and bring it back.

You know, that Spoon was actually a fine toy.  I can recall digging some pretty darned good holes with it.  I used to sit just a few feet from the kitchen door, where Lynda could keep an eye on me from the window over the sink, and dig for hours in the dirt at the base of the big old oak tree that dominated the space in our side yard.  In the hours between lunch and supper, many a secret tunnel were formed and filled in that dark dirt in around the roots of that old tree.

Everyone loves to reminisce about their childhood as a simpler, better time, even if those memories are false.  I like to think that (most of) my childhood memories are true, and even if there is some sentimentalism at work here, that my happiness came from the love my parents had for me as well as the limitations placed on our family's material wealth.  The idea that a humble beginning leads to a fulfilling life is a cliche, but there is some truth to the notion that a more complicated life is not necessarily a better one.

In other words, maybe the Digging Spoon was a better beginning for me than the Tonka truck would have been.  It certainly was simpler.  And, while I can't say that having that shiny new red toy truck would have unnecessarily complicated my life at age five, I am actually glad that I got a Digging Spoon instead.

After all, even though I did get a Tonka truck eventually, I no longer have it.  But I still have that spoon.

However 'real' it may or may not have been, I am grateful for the childhood that Lynda and Bill gave me.  I am glad that they shielded me, as best they could, from the complexities of their lives.  I know now, of course, that while I was living the carefree life of an American child growing up in a small town, my parents' lives were actually very complicated.  They had many practical concerns as well as more than a few global fears.  In 1962, they had a business to run, a marriage to keep together, a family to raise, and, thanks to the Cold war, the very real prospect of a nuclear holocaust to worry about.

I had the great pleasure of growing up without having to worry, for the most part, about the concerns--local or global--of my parents.  And, if I were somehow able to suggest to my parents that 1962 was a better, simpler time, I doubt that idea would have any resonance with them.  I think they would have generally disagreed with the notion that back then, things were somehow better, either in our household, or in the world at large.

We would all, however, agree on one thing.  The Digging Spoon was a good toy.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Nice Hat!

Valery, Madelaine and The Nice Hat
When I was in Venice Beach last year visiting relatives in Los Angeles I bought a hat.

It wasn't an especially unusual or remarkable hat.  It was just one of several dozen piled high in one of many little souvenir shops along the boardwalk.  Or so I thought.

That hat has garnered me more attention than any other single article of clothing I've ever worn, including all of the many hats I've worn over the years.  I'm a 'hat guy' if you will.  I've always liked hats.  I have owned more than a few and have worn them all with some pride at one time or another.

But, something about this hat is different.  Just about everyone who has ever seen me in this hat has taken the time to remark on how much they like it.  That's a lot of comments!  They come from friends and co-workers, of course, but also from lots of perfect strangers--like a parking lot attendant or random people on the street.  Just yesterday while out walking, I saw someone staring at me and when I looked back, he smiled and mouthed, across the busy noisy street, "Nice hat"!

"Nice hat"?  Really?  It makes me wonder what it is that prompts them to make that particular comment.  After all, I am used to standing out a bit.  Some people will comment on my wedding ring (unique and simple) ties (always fashionably thin, thank you Mad Men) or my pen (I have many) or even my watch (a $9.99 Academy special), but this hat has taken the prize, so to speak.

At first, I thought it was because so few men wear hats these days.  But that is actually changing.  A lot of men are wearing hats again, though most are young hipsters wearing some small version of the 'old-fashioned' fedora.  Many men wear the plaid version of that old style, but most wear something very similar to the one I have, which is a simple blond straw hat with a black band about an inch wide.  Oh, and mine has some feathers.

You know, I think it's the feathers.  A small spray of colored feathers are stuck in on the right side, one of which happens to lean over in a delicious feminine curve.  The others back it up with a bit of stiffness.  It's not the kind of feathers, though, just the fact that they are there.  No one else has feathers in their hat.

But what is that saying?  Feathers?  What is it about them that prompts even the parking lot attendant to say something?  What makes a total stranger stop in the street and say "Nice hat?"

For a long time I thought people were so startled by the sight of an old guy in a feathered hat that they couldn't help but make a remark.  And "nice hat" is the first thing that comes to mind, even though they were probably thinking "Are you kidding me?  You look ridiculous in that hat!"

That could be true, I guess.  I never assume that folks are thinking anything but the worst about me.  But that's unnecessarily self-deprecating, especially in this case, after getting so many comments about the hat.  I have come to accept the fact that most folks are actually complimenting me.  But for what?

I've thought a lot about it and concluded that it's about a sense of style.  And it's not like I am a particularly stylish guy.  Ask my brother David or my Bride.  In fact, it's just the opposite.  It isn't about me or my style.  It's about style in general, in the world at large.

I think that people are so hungry for the visual appeal of someone dressed with a sense of style that when they see one, they often feel compelled to make a remark.  I think that it's simply a spontaneous reaction--an irrepressible expression of gratitude--for brightening their field of vision.

"Thanks for standing out!" seems to me to be the most literal translation of "Nice hat"!

Well, it's not like I have to work at it.  In fact, where I work, on a college campus, it is actually pretty easy to stand out.  My hat is more than enough to make me visible, especially when compared to a sea of t-shirts, khaki shorts and tennis shoes.

It's come down to this:  The uniform absence of style in the way that most people dress has us all (even those without a sense of style) hungry for some small bit of visual appeal.  Even though we hardly know it, we are all hungry to 'taste' something bright and fresh and flavorful for our eye.

That's the reason for style in the first place.  It sets us apart.  And that, sadly, is also the reason that so few people have a sense of style.  Most people just don't want to be set apart.  Most people just want to blend in, to become a part of the wave and avoid the crest.  Style is turmoil, and to be different is to be in the crest.  It's where the breaking up of 'normal' creates style.  It is a way of expressing the desire to be different.

I am not only not afraid of being different, I seek it out.  So, now when someone I don't know smiles, waves and says, "Nice hat!" I'll remember that they are the ones I do it for.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Talking to Machines


Hello?  Can you hear me?

These days, thanks to a few popular gadgets it has become fashionable to talk to our machines.

Today, it seems that many of the more forward thinking geeks think that we will soon be talking to all of our machines as a matter of course.  Me, I am not so sure.  

Part of my skepticism has to do with the technology, to be sure, but also with the way we expect to interact with the devices themselves.  The problem is not a matter of communication, but one of tone.  

We have unconsciously adopted a manner of speaking to our machines that closely resembles the way that wealthy classes spoke to their servants during the last Gilded Age. That is, they talked at their human subjects, in much the same way that the generation previous to them had talked at their domesticated animals (and slaves), who were--not coincidentally--their source of cheap labor. The good nobles of that fortunate 'golden' era talked at their human herd as if those sentient beings were possessed merely of the rights of the civilized animal classes just below them.  The effect of that talking, however, has long been known to be largely ineffective.

In the case of the 'dumb' animals, this may be a foregone conclusion.  The donkey's obstinance may be obvious to his master but resistance may not so clear in the case of people or machines.  Oh, of course humans were considered capable of absorbing verbal instructions (or admonishments) more easily than a dog or a cow, of course, but although good behavior from such efforts at control can be expected, it is by no means guaranteed. To this end, methods of discipline (both physical and mental) outside of mere speech, have been devised and long employed with some ruthless regularity.

Why?  Well, a good dog, for example, can be expected to figure out just what his master is talking about if it is a simple concept that directly affects the animal and the master has been consistent about beating it only when it is willfully out of compliance. Similarly, a good butler or maid could reasonably be expected to understand the master's wishes even when those wished are incompletely conveyed or altogether absent if they know how they are expected to perform generally. Regular beatings and repeated humiliations have been shown improve the performance of both human and animal classes but that is the subject of another essay on the dark side of Skinnerian discipline.

So why would we want to talk to our machines, anyway? What do we have to tell them? Anything of any importance?  Would we want to tell, say, the television what channel, or show, or team, actor, etc we want to watch? The elevator what floor? The car when to stop? Why?  Really, are buttons so hard to push?   Are handles and knobs really so hard to manipulate?  Do we really prefer talking to moving our hands?  I don't think so.

Imagine a world full of people talking to things. The babble will more than merely double our sound pollution problem. Already we have filled the air of many of our forcibly confined spaces with the sound of people sharing useless bits of information and far too rapidly updating their statuses on cellphones. Do we want to add to that the drone of millions of gadget-holders talking to the devices themselves? 

And do we really want--can we actually stand--to hear the responses? Talk about pollution!  And, all in that babble will be the same pidgin computer speech that can be often modulated but never improved, like some perverse strain of ancient Latin or modern Creole.

Sure, you can give the machine's 'voice' a feminine timbre and cover it with an exotic name but it's still a blow-up doll on a blind date. That's the geek point, really.  Use her and abuse her. She won't complain.  Personally, I think you'd have gotten better service from a cheap whore a hundred years ago than you will from a personal digital assistant on your phone today. Oh well, at least Siri won't give you the clap.

Ultimately, however, it's just pointless.  Speaking, or rather, talking at our machines, will not have the same effect as our forebears speech had upon the previous two lowest classes in American society.  This is because machines cannot be sufficiently beaten nor humiliated into improved responses and reactions the way that live beings can. 

Machines are infinitely indifferent to our desires, whether they be expressed as subtle hints or direct threats. They innocently fail to understand without fear of consequence. They say: Break me. Dash me to the ground. Grind me under your heel. Run me over with your golden carriage.  I don't care. The apathy of the machine is pure and incorruptible because it cannot be made to care about it's creator. 

Unlike Frankenstein, we are in love with our creation but it will never love us back.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Desert

No seed
No ground
No water
Will be broken.

No scene
No sight
No word
Was ever spoken.

No breeze
No breath
No sail
On this ocean.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Knot

If you will not
listen
you shall not
be heard.

If you will not
share
you shall not
be needed.

If you do not
seek
you shall not
be found.

If you do not
work
you shall not
be valued.

If you do not
love
you shall not
be wanted.

If you do not
hope
you shall not
be here.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hater

Chester is a hater.
If he doesn't hate it now
he'll hate it later.

He hates the light
He hates the dark
He'll hate it when he sees it
And when it's out of sight.

He'll hate it
Before he feels the flame
By crushing out the spark.

There is no why
There is no end
There is no if
There is no when.

Why does he hate?
Is it just his fate
to some deride
and some divide?
Are some hopes
just victims to
eviscerate?

Is it just nature
that made this fool?
Is it instinct
of the cell
that's cruel?
Is mere chance the fuel
in the dual dance
around the pool?

However late
hate came to the plate
Chester the Hater
came later.
In last place
he lost the race.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Raise the Stakes

Who am I
Where I be
Who is you
What you see?

Where that shit
How it be
Who is this
When you me?

Why you been
Who I seen
What I give
Where you mean?

Don't look down
Don't look back
Keep your eye
On that track.

Don't reach up
Don't lean down
Hold your hand
Up the stack.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Moonbeam

Leave your fingernails
at the door
my dear.

Exchange them
for precious jewels
Rubies, Diamonds
Emeralds
Enough to fill it all
up to the top
end-to-end
everyday
until I return
with a moonbeam
to tie them up
in a million-mile string.

Hash them out
in electric coils
flashing from
dark to dawn
Time was a point
till then
the waves squares the line
and the sky
is on fire
with my love.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

100% Recycled

My eyes
roll in the wave
of the wheatfield.

My ears
crack in the thunder
over the lake.

My tongue
sizzles in the heat
up from the pavement.

Breathe me.
I am diesel
corn syrup
gasoline
patchouli
sweet sweet
perfume
for flies
don't set the meat out
in the sun
unless you
like the way
maggots crunch
when you bite them.

Nutty
like sea-foam
appetizers
a thousand miles
from the beach
or a strawberry
or a blackberry.

It's not getting smaller
just
the litter
makes it seem that way.
Go for a Great Pacific Ocean
Patch Kid
100% recycled.

Go back to your sea-foam
sirens.
Tell ASCAP
I won't pay
Download it
to me tube.

I'll be the bad boy
Pirate
Cold-cash cop
you can't play
cause you don't pay
no fair
anyway.

Go back to your sea-foam
cups, Sirens.

100% recycled.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Infinity

This time
has no clock.

This space
has no map.

This matter
has no mind.

This motion is false.
This faith is not devotion.

This time has no end
This place is not frozen.
This light is ever lost
in the ever deepening ocean.

Dream on, dreamer.
Push past petals
falling in dark showers.

You are forever
laid fast
across the even ink sky
even now, writ large
with a billion bacteria
per square life lost.

We carry almost nothing
but baggage.
Stride, silent sherpas
for the hosts
of microbes waging war
like Gilgamesh in our gut.

Feeding vast armies
in the fecal field
we will not live
without them.

Vishnu is no god
no sage from a
chariot of fire,
a mere companion
to the genes
of a billion gods
each pure
infinite
in their instant death.

Outrun by zygotes
splitting and marching
up to the front
for easy slaughter
Vishnu sees
the terrible conflict only
when the assembled armies
are so deep and vast
he feels them pouring in
charged, alight, electric and hot
fissures of blood
open and run red
to remind
the God of
that is all he is
and is not.

Death is not just
for the infinitely small.

Vishnu strains at the dark
eyes lost
as the lights go out
weeping,
one by one.

Valery

Her name
Her being is
Strength itself, though the clay
is not yet set.

She continues to press
and stretch
and mold
her shape is her will
flexible
still seeking shape
as in a mother's
willing hands.

I lean on her now
as never before
I draw her up to new heights
Kissing her goodbye
Wrapping her fragrance
in my arms.

She leaves her fingerprints
deep in the clay
that is my heart
She slips and joins it
patching the fear
leaving a smooth
shaped soul.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Oh Lord, won't you buy me...?

The stock market was down again today.

Both readers are doubtless wondering why I would care, let alone write about this seemingly trivial and certainly temporal fact.  Having resolved some time ago not to wrestle with the quotidian events of life because such musings are out-of-date as soon as they are in print, this observation comes not without some considerable resistance on my part.  Yet I am obliged, I feel, to comment.

Having lived in the shadow of the Great Depression most of my life, I am keenly aware that this Great Recession was coming.  Actually, the shadow was Lynda's, and it was another Depression (not its poor uncle, Recession) that she predicted.

Naturally, I never questioned this reasoning, in the same way that certain children of Dixie never questioned their elders when told that the South would rise again.  It was something given.  A fact of life.  The economy, according to Lynda, was just a figment of the collective imagination, and I have to say, in the course of my life I've never seen any evidence to the contrary.  Now, although the US economy might have been on the rise all my life and most of hers, Lynda predicted with absolute certainty that it would go down again.

Certain, as in, not if, but when.

This assertion is a common characteristic of the Depression generation.  It went something like this:  "Hey!  Save that ______.  Do not throw that piece of _______ (fill in the blank: paper, glass, foil, plastic, steel, wood, food) away!  You never know when you might need it!"

Ok, Mom. I got it.  Even today I cannot throw a piece of foil or plastic away without a certain amount of guilt, and that's even when I put it in the recycling stream!  I know resources are limited, and that shortages will come again some day.  Or will they?

I mean, if it's just a figment of our imagination, why can't we imagine a better economy?  Why, all of the sudden, are investors so damn nervous?

A better question might be:  Just who are all these nervous investors?  Don't they have lives?  Don't they understand that what goes up must comes down and vice-versa?  I mean, if we little people--those whom the 'job providers' have decided to 'go on strike' against recently, presumably to punish us for our insatiable greed and constant need--are expected to stay calm, why can't the wealthy investors?

What causes these wealthy 'investors' to go screaming off the deck of the ship the moment it turns towards the rocks?  Is it pure selfishness or simple fear?  I think it's the latter; it seems that the wealthy simply have a lower threshold of fear than the rest of us.  To carry forward with the metaphor, not having been buffeted by real winds of change, the moment the breeze picks up, the wealthy run below decks, fearful that the wind of change is the precursor of a hurricane that will strip them of their goods.

One basic problem, I believe, is that these days, the question of who is wealthy and who is not has not been answered truthfully.  This failure to make a real distinction between the classes has poisoned the debate by allowing people who make too much to be middle class to nonetheless claim that they are poorer than they actually are.  This is nonsense.  It's time to draw a line.

I believe that people who make more than $250K per year are rich.  There, I said it.

I'll be even more specific.  To all the doctors, attorneys and professional administrators who are earning at least four times the amount of the average middle class family ($60K) and still consider themselves middle class, I say bullshit.  They are rich.  They are not bad people, just richer than they claim to be.

Now, they may not feel rich because they spend four times the average on their too-large houses, their too-many cars, their too-expensive designer clothes and their too-trendy brand-name 'ilectronics'.  They spend all their cash on Louis Vuitton bags and iPads, they avoid paying taxes by keeping their 'real' income tied up in 'real estate' and/or 'investments', and then they claim to be 'just one of the guys'.

Well, I have news.  They are not one of the guys.  They are one of those guys.

Of course, these days, those rich guys have a good reason to be nervous.  All that stuff just makes rich people nervous and afraid.  After all, when the economy goes down, they stand to lose all their stuff...and more.  They have all those investments to worry about.

We commoners are lucky, I guess.  We don't have McMansions, BMWs and Hummers or the latest 88 inch LED HD TVs to worry about.  Most of us are worried about simply keeping our houses, let alone all the stuff inside.  And we don't have investments to frighten us into sleepless nights.  The thought of losing one's job is sufficient for that.

Oh Lord, Janis had it right.  The lovely irony is that nothing has changed in forty years.  Today, if I wish for anything, it's not that the stock market will go up, it's that the whiny scared rich babies that have 'invested' in that Ponzi scheme will lose enough to force them to get back to work.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Of Mice and Me

There was death on the doorstep this morning.

Neither reader--knowing, as they do, of our seven cats--will be surprised by this statement.  Nor was I, having been the recipient of more than one newly or nearly dead small creature at the door in the morning.

Often this 'gift' is only half of said small creature, leaving me curious to understand why.  I mean, which half has been presented as an offering and which half was simply too tasty to leave uneaten?

I am not terribly grossed out by having to dispose of an unwanted half a creature first thing in the morning, and it's not the worst thing I have found on the doorstep.  The carcass (or half thereof) of a small creature is less likely to turn my stomach than discovering a pile of freshly chewed and still-warm-from-the-stomach cat puke.

But this morning, my 'gift' was not upchuck, or newly dead or even half-dead.  It was mouse, and very much alive.

To be perfectly clear, this was not a rat.  Admittedly, I've not dealt with a lot of rats in my day.  The actual number of rats that I've seen with my own eyes numbers around two.  But I have seen rats.

This was not a rat.  It was a mouse.

It was rather large mouse, about six inches long, nose to tail.  It had a light brown coat with a white belly and two very black eyes.  Although it wasn't injured, it was very frightened, likely the result of having been chased by one of the aforementioned septuplet of felines who reside in and around our environs.

None of the cats was present at the door when I opened it, however.  Just the mouse.

And I didn't even see it until after I went out, picked up the cat bowls and opened the screen door to go back in.  That's when I saw it, wriggling under the door and making it's way into the house.

Now, lots of people hate snakes.  And spiders.  Not me.  I don't exactly love snakes, but I won't go out of my way to kill one, and spiders, well, haven't you read Charlotte's Web?  I love spiders.  They eat mosquitoes, and that's just the start.  But this was a rodent.

I hate rodents.

Well, ok, hate is a hard word.  And, to be fair, like many people, what I really hate are rats.  I don't hate them because they caused the Black Death--although that would be a pretty good reason to despise them, I think.  Some say the Plague wasn't actually their fault, they were just carrying the fleas, but I'm not buying it.  I'm no fan of fleas, mind you, but rats are just bigger and nastier and must consequently bear an inordinate share of the blame.

I'm sure this position will not offend many, as the collective opinion of rats is (fortunately) very low.  Not so the general opinion of other rodents, though I doubt we'd find many people who actually like mice, either.  The misperception of mice as cute pink and wiggly creatures that is such a deep disservice to many has been fostered by the proliferation of the little white lab mouse--Algernon, anyone?

Size and furriness notwithstanding, I think that there are very few people over the age of ten who actually find mice adorable.  The same could be said of gerbils and hamsters.  Even though I confess to having had a number of hamsters in my youth, I never liked mice, especially after I saw them being fed to a snake in a pet store once when I was about seven.  Later, when I lived in the country (see my adventures on Maufrais Lane) I saw my first field mouse.  Cute--admittedly--but still a rodent.

So, though I might have written the script differently with more time to think and act, in the spur of the moment, the rodent on my doorstep this morning was destined to die.  Alas.

When I first spotted it, although it was still breathing, it looked like it's heart was about to explode.  It dipped and whipped and jumped around in front of me in response to my whoops and swoops with the cat bowls.  Somehow, I managed to turn him around and head him back out the front door.

In the back of my mind was the thought that I had just summoned the cats for their breakfast.  They were coming--as I turned back to the door a moment earlier,  I had seen three of the four older cats slowly making their way to the deck.

Fortunately for the mouse, my idly approaching hunters were still unaware of the potential to supplement their usual early morning cat crunchies with a bit of blood.  For my part, I sure didn't want to see this mouse get eaten right before my eyes, but I also didn't want it in the house.  So, honestly, I felt no angst about pushing it toward the hungry predators assembling on the porch.  Luckily for me (but not the mouse), things unfolded so fast that I really didn't have time to think much more about it.

As the mouse made his made along the edge of the house where it meets the deck, he was being pursued from behind, not just by me, but also by Jolie, who had jumped up from the side flower bed.  As I pushed the mouse forward, hoping he'd make it to the edge and wriggle under the deck, we came to the corner of the house.  The mouse turned the corner.  I turned the corner.

And there was Bitty.  Our oldest, and possibly most toothless cat.  In a flash--and I'm not exaggerating, it was a blur--she pounced, delivering a classic death blow to the neck of the fast-but-not-fast-enough mouse.

Lord knows that must feel really good to a cat, especially an old one like Bitty, who hasn't the energy to chase her prey much any more.  It actually looked merciful to me.  The mouse went limp instantly and Bitty raced off, head held high with her prize.

Moments later, she abandoned it, of course, in exchange for her 'proper' breakfast.  Later as I got in to the car to go to work, I saw one of the kittens playing with the corpse, tossing it up and batting it around.  I doubt he had any desire to eat it, leaving it instead for our one true blood lusting cat, Diablo, who was perched nearby.

I was a little perturbed by this turn of events, but as I've thought more about it, I am not upset by the death of the mouse.  I believe that all rodents, including rats and their smaller cousins, the mice, are inherently dirty and potentially lethal carriers of disease. That includes squirrels, who make it worse by being cute.  And even though they are not technically rodents, I reserve a special place in hell for  pigeons, who are just flying feathered rats by their nature.  Cf. Tom Lehrer, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.

So sorry little (erm..semi-big) mouse.  But it's the Law of the Jungle.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fire!

Fire!

Apparently, this is what one should yell if immediate assistance is required from people who do not know you.  Yelling "help" is like setting off a car alarm at three in the morning--no one hears it and even if they do, it's regarded as an annoyance (those damn kids!) rather than an emergency.

But yelling "fire" is something that will always get your attention.  Why?

To begin with, fire is ruthless and indiscriminate.  Everyone knows that it does not matter how rich you are, where you live or how much insurance you have.  Fire doesn't care whose house it is burning.  The fear of having one's house burned down to the ground is a deep-seated, primal fear that we all have built right into us, regardless of whether we live in a hut or a palace, in a desert or a tropical paradise.

Fear of fire is as basic as it gets, but fear of what fire will do to our possessions comes pretty close.  After all, to have one's house burn down is to experience denial of one of our most basic needs.  Like dying of hunger or exposure, the fear of dying in a fire is primal.  But why?  What are we afraid of, exactly?

What is in our homes--besides life: people and the animals--that is so incredibly important?  Is it our money?  Our jewelry?  Photographs, furniture or clothing?  Food?  Art?  What do we value most?  Given the limiting constraints of pressing time and minimal space, what will we choose to save?

Is there anything in our houses that we would not trade for our lives or the lives of our loved ones or animals?

I don't think so.  It's a cliche to say something like, "material things don't matter.  What's important are the lives of my family and our animals." It sounds hollow, especially on TV with a camera pointed a some poor person who's just lost everything.  At the heart of every cliche however, there is some truth, and the truth of the matter is that we're all happy to make the deal of a lifetime:  If we may live, the fire may have it all.

Oh, and it will.  The fire can and will have all the possessions, the acquisitions, all the inheritances and every bit of stuff that it chooses.  It can have all the tangible bits of flotsam and jetsam that comprise our lives outside of our minds and experiences.  Fire will take all that is mere detritus, just the barnacles on a hull, living with us but not for us.

Fire can actually be a cleansing, a removal of the waste that surrounds us.

After all, things themselves are here only to break our hearts.  Lost, stolen or destroyed, all things eventually fall from our grasp.  Why then do we reach for them in the first place?  What gives us the idea that we may claim ownership of any bit of matter in the universe other than the atoms and molecules that comprise ours cells?

Remember, we are all but renters in the Big City of Life.  Our quarters, however luxurious or spare they may be are but temporary abodes, a small set of things assembled briefly at a set of coordinates in Cartesian time and Quantum space.

Those things are meaningless outside of the context that binds them together--us.

Like pearls on a string, things are someday to be undone.  Some day the knot will break. All those things that seemed so tightly and permanently bound together in our lives will fall and scatter.  Some we will catch and save, but some will roll out the door and into the gutter and thence to the sewer.  Still others will be spotted and claimed by other Magpies, delighted by the shininess and roundness of their being.

Life is a sieve.  Only those bits that are small enough to pass will remain.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Roots


It's not the fruit it's the roots

tions tunnel under the fence
ous ooze into our gardens
while ious seep
and oughs float
in between hard sums and careful pros,
it's the ates, ites and imes
that define us all

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Marks

It is amazing how ageing evens out the triumphs and tragedies of life.

On the subject of male maternity leave (which both readers may be assured is not something I am particularly focussed on) I happened to hear a fellow on the radio the other day, singing the praises of a new Swedish law that allows fathers to stay at home as long as Swedish mothers.  Because of the law, he claimed, he had been able to witness something that apparently very few fathers do: the first steps of his daughter.

"Priceless" he declared the value of that moment to be, and the implication we are meant to draw from that declaration is that time spent at home with one's family is good, and that the reward for forgoing the payment ensured by employment is a priceless treasure, worth infinitely more than any amount of lucre (filthy or not) gained at its expense.

Really?  Frankly I think that the value of that experience is considerably overrated.  I cannot recall with any certainty the moment that either one of my children took their first steps.  Yet, even though I am pretty sure I was there for at least one of those moments, to tell the honest truth I cannot really recall if I was there for both, just one, or neither.  My memory of the moment was apparently not so precious as all that.

Have I really lost it?  Did I ever have it?  And if I did, did I value it so little as to allow it to get lost in my mind?

I don't think so.  I think that I am just like most people, and most people forget things, even important, amazing, unique and precious, one would swear to be unforgettable things.  And yet, forget them we do.

It's simple, really.  We simply cannot store all of our experiences front and center in our minds, so we move things back.  Even treasures get moved to the attic of the mind, to make room for all the new stuff that is constantly coming in through all the doors and windows in this metaphor, and the attic is a place for forgetting.

So how do we keep from forgetting everything?  And how do we decide what to remember?

It seems to me that the only way that memories are remembered is if we associate them with some physical aspect of the world.  We make a mark.  We can call it a mark, a sign, a symbol, a totem or even a photograph.  Whatever we call it, however we make it, mark making for the purpose of remembering has been a principle activity of Man since the dawn of consciousness.

To remember, we must make a change in the world.

On a stick, to measure the days, months and years; on a stone to chronicle a war or profile a leader; on paper to tell a story to forgetful followers and to stir the imaginations of every generation of humans.  Make no mistake, despite all attempts to make our marks permanent, we know of no way to remember our past other than via the continuous stream of human consciousness.  All marks are temporary, but memories have the potential to live forever.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Most Powerful Force on Earth

What is the most powerful force on Earth?

Earthquakes?  Tsunamis?  Volcanoes, tornadoes or hurricanes?

None of the above.

Some people marveling at the sight of the Great Pyramids of Giza might also find themselves wondering how and especially if it was possible for such an ancient (and, therefore 'primitive') civilization to build such large and impressively engineered structures to such rigorous and seemingly impossible standards.

Such people might even conclude (a la von Daniken) that ancient peoples, with their crude tools and inaccurate measuring devices, would actually be incapable of such physical feats.  They conclude that for the cutting, moving and placing of large stones, ancient peoples would have had to rely upon the technology and beneficence of extraterrestrial beings.

Sadly, these people are seriously underestimating power of the human race.  In fact, they are overlooking the most powerful force on the planet: sustained human effort.  This force, even when applied to mere stones (even very large ones) is more than a parlor trick.  This force is what makes us unique among life forms.

But, how did they do it?  Oh come on.  It's really not that hard to figure out.  They did it with lots of people.  That's it.  Many, many, many man hours.  When each person in a project gives their maximum effort and the number of people is sufficient, feats such as the Great Pyramids are more than possible.  They are downright simple.

As feats of engineering go, without unnecessarily belittling the efforts of the ancient Egyptians, the Pyramids are not as unbelievably difficult as people might--and often do--imagine.  After all, these were just rocks.  True, they were large.  True, they were cut to exacting specifications, transported over long distances and lifted to great heights.

But a pyramid is not a new molecule, a stealth jet, or the International Space Station.  If you can comprehend the truly complex human effort required to build the ISS, why would you doubt the ability of humans to cut, move and arrange a bunch or rocks?

Give the ancients some credit, for goodness sake.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Keep Austin Surreal

This Saturday Maddie and I participated--along with about thirty or so other volunteers--in the second installation of a piece by Steve's public art group, Art on the Way.

Entitled, "Keep Austin Surreal" this mural was created with colored plastic cups locked into a chain link fence.  It is the creation of Austin artist Gary Sweeney, and it is located on South Lamar, attached to the fence between the Bicycle Sports Shop (which is a sponsor of the exhibit) and McDonalds (which is not).



The first ATOW sponsored work, entitled "Barton Barriers" garnered a good bit of attention, due in no small part to a column by 'cranky old man' John Kelso in the Austin American Statesman.  It will be interesting to see if this shows up on anyone's radar this week.

Interestingly, after all that, I actually failed to notice it this morning as I was reading and riding to work on the bus!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My Tattoo

I have a tattoo.

These days that would not be considered a particularly shocking revelation.  However, my mark not only predates the current body-ink fashion trend, it actually stands in sharp contrast to the aboriginal tribal markings, inscrutable chinese characters, butterflies, kitty cats, skulls and the many variants on 'Suzy' and 'Mom' that adorn now so many acres of skin.  My tattoo is, contrary to the trend, small, remarkably discrete and personally meaningful.

Discretion notwithstanding, my tattoo is actually visible, if not obvious.  What's more, it is actually meaningful, though that too would not be obvious until explained.  And, over the years I've found numerous occasions to explain it, having showed it to more than a few people.  I should be clear on this point and say that I have always showed my tattoo off in public places, and to willing viewers--none of whom, I am happy to report, has found it objectionable in any way.  In fact, most have found it to be instructive, which is the only reason I show it off anyway.

I got my ink back in 1973.  This was a day when bikers, not high-school kids, were the ones getting tattoos.  This was also before there was a tattoo parlor on every corner in SoCo, so I did it myself.  No, it's not a prison tat, and I didn't do it on a dare or while on a drunken binge.  To be clear, I've never been to prison, don't 'do' dares and though I may have been drunk on occasion, I have never been so inebriated as to willingly subject myself to the kind of pain required to get a pseudo-tribal marking of any kind.

I have, however, been so frustrated and angry with myself that, for one brief moment, I was sufficiently oblivious to the pain.  In an unplanned instant, in one brief and terrible stroke, I managed to make the mark that I carry to this day.  Actually, it was more of a stab.

The place was Austin High, the time was my senior year, and the event was a failing six-week grade in Frau S_____'s French class.  Now, this was certainly not the first F I'd ever gotten.  Nor was it the first F I'd gotten in that very subject.  This F was especially humiliating however, because after weeks of trying, the failing grade felt like incontrovertible proof that learning French was something I could and would never accomplish.

It wasn't just the F.  It was a confirmation of Frau S____'s complete lack of confidence in me.  It affirmed my fear that she was right.  Some people, she had said, are simply not capable of learning a language.

Though she didn't say this about me or to me directly, I got the message.  Especially when those not-so-subtle jabs were delivered just at the moment when I was perusing my latest red ink-stained homework or test in class.  It didn't help that her passion for French culture was absent from her teaching.  It seemed obvious to me that the only reason she had become a public school teacher was because she claimed to be a native speaker of French.

I had my doubts about that.  She did, to a neophyte, appear to be able to speak French, but given the facts that she did so with the thickest of possible German accents, that she was also the German teacher, and that she insisted, even in French class, upon being called 'Frau' were all clear indicators that she was anything but a Francophile.  This I knew even though I didn't know that her claim to be French was based upon her having been born in Alsace, where residents, even though they are officially living in France, still consider themselves to be a part of Germany.

All of Frau S_____'s prejudices aside, I must take personal responsibility for my failure.  It was my own inability to conquer the language that made it difficult for me to learn French.  Herein was my whirlpool of despair.  Difficult, it might have been, but not impossible it was not.

However, impossible is exactly what I thought it was on that day in the spring of 1974.  "I'll never learn French!"

With that thought in mind and a rapidograph in my right hand, I stabbed the sharp needle-like point of the pen deep into the very center of my left palm.  Just like a proper tattoo needle, the pen injected a small drop of ink in between the layers of my skin, where it remains--barely visible--to this day.

I don't make habit of showing people my tattoo, but it certainly has been useful as a succinct if somewhat offbeat example of how wrong it can be to make an assumption like I did that fateful day.  You see, even though I am not obliged nor inclined to do so under all but the most extraordinary circumstances, today I can actually speak French.

It turns out that I am not one of those people who cannot learn new languages.

In fact, it turns out that there are no such people.  It turns out that anyone--even babies--can learn a language.  Or two.  In fact, it turns out that the reason that babies can (and do) learn language is because they are babies.  They don't know any better.  They've never been told that some people just never learn to speak a language.  They just do.  We encourage them, of course, which is the difference between the way we treat children and adult learners.

Now, to her credit, Frau S_____ was not the only French teacher who made learning more difficult that it might have been, and she was actually a most generous teacher, at the end of the day.  Eventually, she gave me a passing grade for the course, and thankfully so, for due to her ultimate indulgence, I was allowed to graduate by the very thinnest of margins.

Another reason for being grateful had to do with entirely unforeseen events, not the least of which was my little tangle with the law year after I gave myself that tattoo, I found myself living in Paris, holding out my subtly marked hand to allow shopkeepers to sort through the change that I could not identify nor pronounce.

It took a remarkable French teacher to break the spell cast upon me by both my Texas teachers of the language.  His name was M. D_____, and we called him the Dancing Bear because it was his habit to begin every class by singing (and sometimes dancing to) a French folk song.  "Au jardin de mon pere, les lillas sont fleurie..."  Contrast this with the only French song I had ever heard in Texas, La Marseillaise, and you get the idea about the difference in the two approaches.

When I entered M. D_____'s French class, I was one of the worst students, unable to read or write, and virtually unable to speak as well.  I have to say though (not without some pride) that it wasn't long before I had made enough progress to be one of the better students in the class.  Not the best, of course, but certainly better than the worst.  In fact, the by the end of the term, the worst students were the formerly best students to begin with--those straight A girls from high school who could decline their verbs but couldn't muster the courage to ask a French person where the bathroom--erm, toilet--could be found.

So, now, whenever anyone tells me that they are one of those people who just can't learn a language, I show them my tattoo.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Monologue or Dialogue?

Today, the monologue is supreme and the air is thick with angry rants and piteous laments.  The viciousness of this phenomenon is given its teeth by the internet, but the appetite for the one-sided speech has been a part of human experience since we created language.

Although it is tempting to reach for the extreme and claim that thanks to the internet, communications among people these days  are more vain and self-serving than they have ever been, I won't do it.  In fact, the urge to make that claim is part of the reason I feel compelled to say something about it.

Another reason for writing about it is that I may be part of the problem.

This journal--now called a blog because it is on the internet--could easily be described as a monologue, loaded with the very same rants and laments that I decry in what is this, a rant?  Or is this a lament?

Actually it is neither.  It's a part of the group of writings that I have deliberately called my observations and comments, because that's all I have ever wanted it to be.  And that's all it has been, for many years now, a place where I can write down--purge from my overheated brain--my thoughts and observations.

This journal existed long before the internet, and it continues to go on outside of it.  I keep another journal--pen and ink--for observations and comments that occur to me when I have a few moments to collect my thoughts at the end of the day.  And there is the journal I keep in my bag, so I can write when I am on the bus, or in a meeting.

Some of the entries in this journal are rants, sometimes they are laments.  But most times they are boring, quotidien bits of detritus that are more akin to exfoliating than actual writing.  In other words, nothing I'd want to share with others.  In a word, its a monologue.

But this journal is different.  Or at least I hope it to be so.  This journal was intended, right from the start, to be a dialog.  That is, I had a reader in mind, someone with whom I wanted to communicate important thoughts and feelings.  Sometimes these have taken the form of rants and laments, but in that sense that they were intended to reflect my thoughts and feelings, which, like most, tend to run toward the sensational. More important, those words were for someone. Otherwise, why write?

Better, what to do when the reader loses interest or dies?  What does the writer write about when there is no one listening?

The answer is (naturally): the same damn thing we do every night, Pinky.  Of course, technically, it's still very much a monologue, even when I can imagine someone listening.  And, since I do all the writing, the feedback that comes in person from my friends and family is not visible as part of the record.  So despite my intent, the speech is still very much one-way.

This speech, words that I cannot and do not suppress here is, I hope, more and different than a mere monologue.  More in the sense that it is not just a idle or Different in the sense that I intend it for public consumption.  These are not my private thoughts, they are public ones.  They are also not random, but directed to my friends and family.  At first, it was to my mother-in-law, Billie, to my Bride, Valery, and to my brothers, David and Stephen. Now, more than ever, these words are especially addressed to my daughter, Maddie.

Though Maddie does not now read this journal, I suspect that someday she will.  I hope, like any father, that my daughter will be interested in who I was and what sorts of things I thought about.  She has some idea, of course.  While we talk every day, and many of the things I write about actually come from discussions--actual dialogues--with her, there are many questions she will have about me long after I am gone.  This journal may serve to answer at least some of them.

I will not pretend to be writing literature here.  This stuff is raw, unfiltered and as close to moonshine as you can get.  It's occasionally a little rough, and it'll make you gag from time to time, but there are some real good moments in here as well.  That's why I and how I do it, after all.  By keeping in mind that I do have an audience, I imagine that I am engaging in a dialog--albeit a very slow one--and consequently hope to keep this work from becoming too self-centered.

Ok, so it's too late for that.  But, while this isn't exactly a two-volume auto-biography, it's also not a Tweet.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bet Ya

Little is given
Nothing taken
When the two sides
Come crashing together
Again.

Did you think
in your repose
that unsung guilt
would pay
your debt?

Or
Did you think
yourself making way
adding not
deceiving math itself
for your pleasure?

The Balance Sheet
doesn't lie
except
when it does.

You are not
Pure Energy.

You are neither
Made nor Destroyed
A Particle nor Wave
Shadow nor Soul
Point nor Line.

You are not here
You are Lost
When the pen is out of ink
The mark too faint
To make the difference.

Penny bets
Might as well be
Millions
for all the courage you've gathered
for this hand.

Don't tell me, just
Bet or don't.
Go all in
Or just sit this one out.
The table will not
Rot or rust
without your risk.
The table doesn't care
But the cards do.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Work

Yesterday, as I was outside working on my car, a young woman came up to me in the driveway.  She held up a clipboard as she approached, but I began the encounter by shaking my head even before I could hear what she was saying.

She was in her early to mid-teens, I guessed.  Right away, I assumed she was selling magazines, or had a similar sort of scam going, so I was not inclined to even hear her out.  She was undeterred by my negative body language and attitude and kept approaching.  Soon she was close enough and was clear enough in her voice and demeanor to cause me to relent and listen to what she was saying.

She was, in fact, proposing to paint our house number on the curb by the mailbox.  Now, it happens that we have no number there, and it wasn't more than a day ago that I took note of that while getting the mail, thinking to myself that I ought to do that...someday.  This is what I love most about synchronicity, the way that two seeming random incidents are clearly connected.  There's no science here, just feeling, and it's a damn good one.  Click.  Connection made.

I felt the spark, yet still, I was reluctant to go with the flow.  Even as I heard her offer for the first time, I was still in a negative posture and inclination, but in spite of these feelings, I was also somehow opened to her offer.  Sensing this, she persisted and had me look at the images on her clipboard, telling me as she did that her rate was $15 for just the number or $20 with one of the images.

Her images included the Texas flag and a Longhorn, which was my choice.  I offered $15 for the number/image package, and though a bit surprised, she took the counter-offer, saying "Ok, I need the work."

She didn't say 'money'.  She said 'work', like she was proud of the distinction.  She obviously flet that there was difference between what she was doing and merely hustling for money.  As a long-time entrepreneur and worker myself, I really appreciated that attitude.  I said, "Ok, you do your thing and I'll go get the money."

I went inside to get the cash as she set to work, opening her backpack to take out her paints as she knelt at the curb.  She did a great job, painting a black background first, then the white numbers entirely by hand with a little orange Longhorn to the side.  As she worked, I struggled to keep Loki out of her way, and even got her a soda when I saw how hot and thirsty she looked.

It took her all of twenty minutes to finish.  She mopped her brow with the back of her hand as I handed her $20 with a little speech about how she reminded me of myself, trying to sell TV Guide and Fuller Brush door-to-door when I was in my early teens.  She took the cash and listened patiently to the story with a wry smile.  I asked if she'd gotten much work in the neighborhood and she said this was her third job on this street.

As she walked off, I marveled at her courage, strength and attitude toward life.  I believe--and this from my own experience and heart of hearts--that it really is possible to make your way in this world if you are willing to do whatever work it is that it takes to get there.  This young woman has every bit of that.

The Blue Eye

The best scream
is in a snowy meadow
a blinding hailstorm
a hurricane
a tornado
a flood.

Not

in the shower
or the elevator
on its way down
to Hell.

Or is that the Lobby?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting Dirty Daily

If I suggested that either of my readers hazard a guess at my most frequent thought, one of you might be forgiven for blushing, but in truth, you would have overreached in your assumptions about my nature.  Only just, however.  That thought is there, and it is frequent to be sure, so despair not in your conclusions.  Just re-order them.

My most frequent thought would have to be about metal.

This is not news to either Reader, nor would it be surprising even if you had just begun reading this journal. References to my Green Ghia project are beginning to figure as prominently here as references to Lynda, Pierre and Death--respectively the impetus, the catalyst and the ongoing inquiry that have driven my writing for almost four frantic years.  A reader recently commented that I write with a sense of urgency, and this is true.  I often feel that my last word will be my last, and that spurs me to write more, and faster.  Time is not waiting for me to get ready to write, though that's all I feel I've ever really done.

But I am not writing about writing today.  I am writing about metal.

I see now that one of the most delicious and satisfying aspects of working on my car is the variety of metal that I encounter.  Metal of different sizes and shapes, to be sure, but also different weights and gauges, textures and surfaces.  Metal is a delight to touch, to hold, to manipulate, to own, and I relish moment with each piece.  Now I am engaged in the particularly satisfying process of cleaning, buffing, painting and priming all the dirty, bent, rusty and ragged pieces that I've been pulling off the car for the past eight months.  This is where the reverie lives.

As I touch each piece, withdrawing it from it's labeled baggie to examine, clean and paint it, I am drawn into an unconscious state of ecstasy.  I am momentarily detached from the ordinary flow of life.  It's as if I've paddled off into an eddy at the river's bank, able to watch it flow by but also able to rest and contemplate the water itself.

With the steel in my hand, head bent to the task, I feel lost in the warmth of the fire that made the metal; I revel in the resistance that it offers to my malicious efforts--scraping, buffing, grinding, sanding; and I take deep satisfaction from rendering it clean, polished and fresh for use.

Use has a lot to do with my motivation and the pleasure I here describe.  I am not a sculptor.  I am not assembling from the raw materials a new creation, but rather I am like a modeler, putting together what is essentially a big kit.  That the kit has a function however, is a fact that really does drive my intentions.  Or is that, my intentions to drive?

My goal with the Ghia is to rebuild it, to bring it back to life and drive it.  My intent is not to restore it to a new-like condition, or to create a show car of any kind.  What I want is a car that I can drive.  This is a particular make and model of a car that I have intensely desired since I was in my early teens, so the goal is to finally have that car I have wanted all these years.

I could, of course, go out and simply buy a fully restored car.  This might even be cheaper than what I am doing, since I could probably get a really good, drivable vehicle for less than say, $7500 (though $10-12K would bring home a real sweet drive) but then I wouldn't get the satisfaction of playing with all that metal.  And, sure, I could have purchased a car with a little less rust, one a little less to do in terms of re-assembly, but the reasons are the same and, quite frankly, the rust and grime just adds to the fun.

Fun?  Is that what it's about?  Perhaps.  I heard Tom Hanks say recently that if he could have another career, it would be as a tour guide at famous historical monument (he didn't say which one).  He meant that he really enjoyed talking to people and helping them.  In one of my jobs, that's pretty much what I get to do, and I love that.

But, when you get right down to it, if I could have had another career, it might have been as a VW mechanic, busting my knuckles and getting dirty on a daily basis with all that metal.  Would that have been fun?  I don't think so.  I have no illusions about the income and/or lifestyle of the typical mechanic, and I would not have been satisfied with that.  Part of what makes it fun (as being a tour guide might be to the wealthy and famous Mr. Hanks) is the fact that it's not what we really do for a living.  I hesitate to call it a hobby, since I just can't lump what I do of the evenings in with the guy who's building birdhouses down the street, but I guess that's what others see it as.

I think of it as a passion, and the metal is calling to me even now.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Life Itself - Matter over Mind

As I struggle to come to terms with yet another impending death, I must apologize for returning to a theme that I have only recently declared too trite to write about.  Furthermore, I have so far chosen to avoid writing about this particular death, involving, as it does, the other Reader of this babbling brook of a journal, my dear and beloved mother-in-law, Billie. So much for the good intentions.

Billie is dying of cancer.  There is no easy way to put it.  Moreover, she is entering what can only euphemistically be called the final stage of her life.  It's not easy to die, and it's even harder to talk about it rationally.  Valery is leaving this Sunday to care for Billie in what surely seems like her last few months and perhaps even weeks.  Valery is true to her name: strong and willing, without guile or mission other than to comfort and care for her mother.

On the other hand, while facing this death, I find myself thinking about life in general and specifically the notion that we should somehow find a way to end it when it gets too bad.

The 'Quality of Life' is a quite naturally considered to be a big end-of-life issue.  But if you really think about it, it's essentially a false one. This is because after receiving one's death sentence, the quality of life seems very much diminished if not completely and forever destroyed.  It doesn't matter how good your attitude was before receiving the news or even how good it seems to be after.  It's simple:  Contemplating the beauty of a flower is easier--possible even--if you know you'll live to see more flowers.  Otherwise it can be but another morbid reminder of the inevitable: Death.

Given that death is inevitable, why not do the reasonable thing and end one's own life oneself?  Why doesn't this happen more often?  I don't mean suicide, generally, but euthanasia specifically.  Suicide is rightly considered irrational, but all the unnecessary and cruel end-of-life suffering that is endured in the name of Life is not.  The question is, why not?

Issues of mess and insurance aside, it seems perfectly logical (or reasonable anyway) to plan the end to one's life.  In theory, at least, ending one's life on one's own terms at a time of one's own choosing seems to be ideal.  Why then, is killing oneself so hard to pull off?  Why do perfectly reasonable and rational people fail to make adequate provisions for their death or worse, fail to execute those plans?  Moreover, why do so many people, good and smart people all, choose to ignore the obvious, choose to wither away and choose to die in misery and in pain?  Why do we choose to wind it down instead of blow it out?

I think it has to do with biology (the body), not psychology (the mind), alas.  For example, I know that Billie would do her best to die quickly and with grace, but in spite of her best wishes and intents, she cannot control the final force of life--her life even--itself.  She cannot just go to bed and fall asleep. I think, that's a good thing, even it it doesn't appear to be the case.  But why?

My feeling is that it's because, as we all know at some level or another, Life is really much more than mere thought.  Life is more than the body, the heart or the nerves or the blood.  Life has its own agenda, largely independent of thought and emotion if not the body itself.  Simply put, Life simply ends with death, and it doesn't make plans for a soft landing.

This is not a cruel joke, even if it appears that way to those who must watch their loved ones perish slowly and painfully.  It's really just the reverse.  The will to Live is an affirmation of what makes us more than mere matter and gives us meaning that transcends death.

Life is so powerful and so relentless that, could it speak (and when it does, of course, it is through us) it would tell us, it would plead with us, it would reason, argue, cajole and finally demand of us that we simply leave it be, let it rot and rust and run down until it breaks and stops altogether.  The force of life, manifest though it may be in thought, lives in the cells.  And Life at the cellular level holds not to the high ideals of the electric impulses coursing around through the brain.  At it's lowest level, Life is determined--it is only determined--to resist its own termination, the very definition of inertia.  And really, is not all Life defined by this common denominator?

Yes it is.  In the contest between the inertia of Nature and the will of Man, the force of Nature trumps the force of Mind every time. It's a simple equation but perhaps only obvious when finally faced with one's own death.  Sadly, being resigned to the inevitability of death is not the same--not even close--as having the will (to say nothing of the ability) to kill oneself.

This force of Life, this desire to beat and pulse and march and move until there is nowhere left to move, until there is nothing left to march to and no reason to beat or pulse on is neither good nor bad in and of itself.  Life is not a moral force, nor is it an invention of the mind, but an actual physical force.

Yes, I know, of course that this is not a new idea.  Knowing this and in spite of Star Wars' decades-long shameless exploitation of this notion, I still think it bears repeating. Life is so powerful and pervasive that it has literally transformed this planet and, I suspect, the whole of the Universe itself. Small though this little sandbox be--as a function of the cosmos--the Earth is also large enough and potentially inhospitable enough to have represented a significant obstacle to the advancement of life.   Yet it did not.

This planet is not suffering from Life.  This planet is Life.

Life is the unmeasured, the unstoppable force in the Universe. Life is an imperative, inevitable and ubiquitous.  Just as the spread of life on of the Earth was inevitable, so is the expansion of life throughout the Universe.

But it is a mistake--a myth, really--to think that Life started here, and that it will spread out from here.  It is natural to imagine that our collective Life--our Earth--will continue to expand, from this planet into the farthest reaches of space, but that is just because the notion of expansion conforms to our own creation myths.  Of course it does.   What else might we conclude?

I think we can conclude that Life has already expanded.  Life is already everywhere it can be, and perhaps even in all the forms that it will be.

The fact that we feel alone, that we feel like Life is here and only here on Earth is evidence only of our own limited and self centered thinking, and that is a frequently forgotten historical lesson.  After all, it felt right--natural even--to think that the Earth was flat, that Sun revolved around the Earth, or that the Four Humors governed our health.

But as we've learned time and again, feeling right is an insufficient test of reality.  So, we return to test reason again.  We throw out some knowledge as false and begin again, knowing, as we do, that reason is a flawed process.  It's all we have, however, and I think it works quite well.  Even if reason will not give us the satisfaction of always knowing everything, the consolation is always knowing that everything is knowable.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Astromechs

As I pick the bits of grease from under my fingernails on a Monday morning, my thoughts turn from my own busted knuckles and mechanical tribulations to those of today's ultimate 'astromechs', the 'astronauts' aboard the space Shuttle.

To be clear, I have no intention of diminishing the glory of these brave and gifted individuals.  Though their professionalism makes going into space seem safe and perhaps even easy these days, we need only recall the Columbia and Challenger disasters to remember just how dangerous their undertaking inevitably is.  No matter what they are doing up there, these men and women clearly risk their lives with every breath they take in space (and on the rides up and down).  But their role has changed.  In many ways, it has actually transformed from a romantic role to a regular job.

It's no ordinary job, to be sure.  Astronauts, as those of us who have read/seen The Right Stuff will recall, are a very special breed.  But that breed is changing.  Even during the life of the space program, from Mercury through Apollo and on into the Space Shuttle era, we have seen this group--as a group--evolve.  They were originally fighter pilots, hard-drinking men with brass balls.  Now, though I would say that while still in possession of the requisite metal cojones (men and women alike) they are now more often like mechanics than pilots.

To be sure, these young men and women still have the right stuff.  It's just that the stuff has changed. If anything, these amazing people are even more amazing today than the first generation that Wolfe wrote about. They are still among the smartest, fastest and most driven people on the planet.

But now, even though many astronauts cannot pilot an airplane, they all have advanced degrees in something: engineering, physic, biology, nanotechnology.  They still perform science experiments while in space, but increasingly, instead of doing them for a team of scientists 'back home' they are themselves the lead investigators in the tests they conduct, and the data they gather is part of a career that will only begin with these couple of rides into space.  After their time is space, many of these astronauts will return to active research careers in the lab, not semi-public retirement on the links.

However, in spite of their advanced degrees, in order to advance to the further glory that awaits them on their return, while they are space, today's astronauts are often reduced--for want of a better word--to being astromechanics.  Their job, for several hours each day during a two-week mission, is to go outside with a set of tools and bolt and unbolt things.  They spend their days removing damaged/broken parts and exchanging them with new/rebuilt parts.

This is exactly what an earth-bound mechanic does, with the notable exception that an earthbound grease monkey like me doesn't have to worry about bolts frozen by space or concerned that a half-million dollar bag of tools might float away into interstellar space.  I certainly do not need more risk.  Even with gravity on my side, I've managed to lose plenty of my tools in much more conventional ways.

Grateful, too, am I for being at no more risk on a Sunday afternoon in my driveway than a busted knuckle or a blood blister on my fingertip.  Since I always find a way to hurt myself anyway with my little set of metal tools, I am thankful that the damage I can do to myself and the car is, at the end of the day, fairly limited.

Of course, there are many more differences between working on my little Karmann Ghia and the International Space Station, not the least of which is not having to face instant death with a careless mistake.  That's alright with me--master, as I am, of the careless mistake. No, I have no desire to work in space.

Oh well.  While these Astromechs are certainly smarter than me by half, there is one clear advantage I will always have over them--I can drink a beer (or two) while I work.  Cheers!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The World is Now

Well, it's happened.  The End of the World has come and gone.  Dare I say it? We are all still here.

Notwithstanding the possibility that we are all--to a man and including the engineer-cum-prophet who used his fifteen minutes of fame on the Internet to stir up all this fervor in the past couple of weeks--not without sin and therefore all doomed to remain here on Earth, I will take the position that the End of the World is neither nigh nor not possible.  It's somewhere in between.

What would a reasonable person who actually believes in The Rapture have to say about this latest failed prediction?  Of course, it is easy to blame this particular elderly preacher as a false prophet, but such a censure really begs a larger question:  Is there such a thing as a true prophet?  Even larger is the question of what prophecy actually is and why anyone would want to engage in it.

Why, when and where would anyone actually believe the words of a 'prophet'?  Especially these days, when skepticism (can you say birth certificate?) about worldly issues seems to be at an all-time high, who in their right mind would, could fail to doubt the word of a single man concerning the fate of all men?  The faithful?  Really?  Is this a question of faith versus reason?   Or, as the cynics would ask, is the opposite of faith mere folly?

Prophets and the predictions they make faith--even in the profane--seem like folly at best.  For example, we are all frequent critics of the 'Weatherman'.  We happily heap scorn on his predictions of rain, sun and even ice.  To put it bluntly, our faith in Meteorology is anything but steadfast, and for good reason.  A 60% chance of rain just means that 3 out of 5 weathermen agree.  Setting aside our universal absence of faith in the predictions of such mundane matters as rain or shine, the question remains:  Does faith require the suspension of reason?  Is there a reasonable way to believe in any prophecy, let alone an apocalyptical one? This is an old debate, but as recent events demonstrate, apparently it is still relevant.

Some people look at their tea leaves (or coffee grounds) in the morning and read into them the end-of-times.  Some people read into them just another day at the spaceship/office we call Earth.  The real question is whether we see the world as worse-than-it's-ever-been and consequently on the verge of an apocalyptical collapse or whether we see it as the same old world, simply spinning round, the same-as-it-ever-was and on the verge of nothing more dramatic than another day and another night.

On the one hand, the evidence for the end-is-near folks seems to be pretty considerable, what with all the earthquakes and volcanoes and the general malaise generated by the recent economic maelstrom.  It does seem rather calamitous.  On the other hand, it might be argued that this sort of stuff seems to always and naturally occur.  And of course it does.

Prophetic enterprises are built on and embellished by dramatic scenes of death and disaster, especially on a massive scale.  Human drama is entertaining, and massive human drama is even more engaging to the eye and ear.  Consequentially, it is only natural that many people would find the possibility that the end of the world could come on a specific day in our lifetimes to be at least entertaining, if not entirely credible.

Given that entertainment always seems to trump credibility, especially in this case, is it possible for someone to have actually seen this situation for what it was--a publicity stunt at worst and a public embarrassment at best--and yet still believe in the underlying concept of The Rapture?  Or, does believing in the latter preclude the possibility that one could see a charlatan proclaiming the same for what he is?

I think this is likely to be the case, because for the faithful, seeing the emperor naked would require an ironic acknowledgment from them.  A false prophet is allegedly one of the very signs that signal the beginning of the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it.  Don't hold your breath:  acknowledgements of fundamental ironies are not forthcoming from the faithful.

Personally, I don't see any room for reason in the circus tent known as religion, and I'm not just taking pot-shots at Christianity, tempting though this situation has made that possibility.  The whole religious arena--especially now that it is (like porn) the Internet--allows for the performance of the clowns to be taken for that of the Ringmaster Himself.  The result is to be expected: folly.  Now, many good hearted and reasonable people come to the big tent to sweat away their impurities--those inevitable sins--while pretending that so doing is in itself the proof of a good and faithful life.

I believe that there is a third way here. I don't feel compelled to make a false choice between 'doom-and-gloom' and 'whatever'. I see a middle way, one which is actually more commonly adopted than the preternatural fear at the fringes of an admittedly evangelical fundamentalist Christianity or the existential loathing at the edges of supposedly dispassionate reason.  This middle way is not new or undiscovered.  The path is well-worn, and it requires neither Christian anxiety or atheistic apathy to follow it.

It is this from this vantage point--between the two extremes--that we may see and appreciate the world differently than the radicals at the edges.  From here, we can see the world as new each day, full of calamities and virtues both large and small.  From here, we may indeed realize that things--most things--are both good and bad, in some of the places and some of the time.  But not all things, not all places and certainly, not all of the time.

Most of us don't want to disbelieve, we just know better than to make predictions based on little or no evidence.  From painful experience, we know that prophesies both good and bad seldom come true and almost never pay off.  Predictions of doom as well as boom are rightly met with a worldly and weary skepticism.  We are not so weary, however, to think that all predictions are inherently false, just experienced enough to know that things are always changing.  Things won't be--can't be--the same as they always were. Yesterday isn't the same as today.

In fact, for some of us, today is actually better than yesterday.  The number of people for whom this is the case is certain to be small when compared, say, with the number of people alive (or who have lived) but I will argue that that number is both significant and growing.  I, for one, am still optimistic.

If anything is 'as it ever was', it is this.  The line that describes us--people, humans, souls--is an upward bending arc, always changing and potentially, without end.

So no, the world is not about to end.  And no, it's not the same as it ever was.  The world is now.  It is new.  And it's a great time to be here.


Monday, May 23, 2011

The Silver Bullet

These days, it seems, everyone is looking for the answer. Never mind the question. It is the answer we want. And lately, that answer seems to be a 'silver bullet.'

Yes, whether it is the economy or the war in Afghanistan or the Gulf oil spill, everyone is looking for a silver bullet.

The economy? The Washington Post said, "Pass the silver bullet."

Iraq? "Iraq Elections: No Silver Bullet" says The Century Foundation.

Iran? "US admits no silver bullet in US-led drive against Iran" says the AFP.

Afghanistan? "No silver bullet for Afghanistan" says the Guardian.

Gulf oil spill? "...dispersants are not a silver bullet." says BP.

Besides the obvious disagreement in syntax, I have a more basic question: Does anyone have any idea what they are talking about?

What exactly is a silver bullet? Why do journalists, speech and copy writers invoke it every time they don't have a simple, immediate solution to a very complicated, long-standing problem?

Well, the answer to the first of my rhetorical questions is no: most writers have no idea what they are talking about when they say that "there is no silver bullet."

While it is facile to conflate real-world bad things like a failing economy or a useless war with fictional bad things like vampires and werewolves, its simply a lazy way of summing up something so complicated and obviously bad that it can only be compared to a evil and bloodthirsty creature that comes in the night to kill people and steal their souls.

More frustrating than the over-use of this cliche is its mis-use. I have heard people say, "there is no silver bullet that will rebuild the economy." Well, of course there isn't. Bullets, even silver ones, are not the sort of thing that one uses to build anything, economies, houses or relationships.

Or,"there is no silver bullet that will cure cancer." Again, this is a not just another real misunderstanding of the metaphor but its another case in which it doesn't even come close to describing the intent. If bullets cured cancer, we'd all pack heat.

It sounds like a intelligent--dare I say literate--way of saying something akin to "there is no single solution to this very complicated problem/war/situation," but in fact, they are simply being the opposite of intelligent by parroting a false metaphor. Even the image of a silver bullet does nothing to combat economic problems, or ideological problems that are at the root of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does offer up an easy and easily misconstrued image of a solution.

As if a single shot could solve what a million words, images and rounds of real lead ammunition have so far failed to do: end it all.