D.F. Work

July 27, 2017

Pyramid of the Sun

 

My purpose for traveling and touring is to revive my sense of being uncomfortably located in the world and mix it with pleasure and some proximity to risk. Each of us has our own equation to determine distance, novelty and danger. More than merely traveling without an umbrella, it’s an attraction to experience places where I don’t feel at home, or even altogether safe. This spring that’s D.F., Distrito Federal, the capitol city of Mexico. Mexico City, has always seemed monstrous to me. There are over 21.2 million people in approximately the same space my current hometown, Houston, uses to house 2.3 million people. To me they all appear to exist in and out of locked spaces jammed and piled on top of one another. The streets and traffic twist on relentless, broken and crowded, and at the same time it feels ephemeral, like being in someone else’s dream, because it is.
For eight centuries, it has endured invasion, all manner of human sacrifice, colonization, political intrigue, corruption, competing cosmologies, calendars, and assassinations. Originally it was built by the Mexica people on the site where an eagle landed on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak as Tenochitilan in the 1300s, it has been invaded by Aztecs, destroyed by the Spanish, then rebuilt by the Spanish expending the lives of generations of “drafted” laborers, it was invaded by the US in 1847, and shelled during the Mexican Revolution. At the beginning of the 20th Century the population of Mexico City was merely 500,000. When the 1985 earthquake struck, nearly half of all industrial jobs were in Mexico City. By then D.F. colonias had spread down the valley nearly to Teotihaucan, and the abandoned pyramids the Aztecs found in amazement. The results of the earthquake collapsed the government and sent the largest spike of immigration to the United States, as well as autocratic internal disbursement of part of its population to other Mexican municipalities. Throughout all of this, D.F. has continued to grow and rebuild the dream of itself out of prior dreams of itself. When I ask directions, I know I’m lost walking through at least five worlds at once with only fragmentary maps of any of them.
The first Sunday I wake up in D.F. I look for coffee. My hotel room is juxtaposed between two radically different neighborhoods. Derecho is the Krystal Hotel on the corner of a tree lined section of La Reforma avenue. Surrounding it are flat glass and marble business towers (I think it is the news and media district), guarded apartments with night managers and nearby work out facilities. Esquierda is a littered street with periodic tarp awning tents set up in front of shops selling bundled newspapers to men who will sell them to cars stopped in traffic. Others sell hot etole, and sugary café con leche to accompany yesterday’s pan dulce. There are rows of men in hooded sweatshirts and cheap down vests eating pan and sipping coffee waiting for the next bundle of papers. A man in a ball cap gives me a choice, café con leche or café Americano, one size, no foam. Veinte pesos. I walk on. I skirt past a man sleeping soundly on the sidewalk next to the subway entrance. Half a block over in the middle is the door to Convento San Ignacio. As I cross the street I notice private guards in black suits holding unslung machine guns scanning the street I’m crossing. There are eight of them and they have the sidewalk blocked in front of the door. There are two black GMCs idling at the curb, the chauffeurs are thick men wearing sunglasses. Laughing precedes three women in formal gowns and their escorts in tuxedoes leaving the Convento. I try to determine if they’re leaving last night’s soiree, or heading to a morning reception. I think the evening wear means the former, but the guards aren’t pleased with me contemplating the details. The aggressive focus of their attention moves me along, down the block where I find the panaderia responsible for the day-olds.
I pick up a tray and tongs and go about selecting my breakfast. There are two women behind an empty glass counter stacked with baked goods. The shop is filled with the sound of the women steadily, rapidly wrapping each pastry in waxed paper. Skillfully they flip and twist the four corners bringing enough pressure to keep the twist, but not damage the conchas, horns, oreas, the ojos. Rip. Twist. Flip. Slide. Rip. Twist. Flip. Slide. Its own music. A knuckle of cookie covered in dark chocolate is what I bring to the clerk. “Veinte.” is all she says. Anything is veinte here. It’s still too early for coffee at the hotel. The twenty-four hour store doesn’t open until seven. The derecho side is dark, gated, and guarded. I return to the calle de periodicos, pay for a café con leche, skip over a pile of opened pharmaceutical samples and head into the hotel lobby.
That’s my level of pleasure wandering between worlds and landing on the cheap. Too sweet coffee and stale baked goods. I wouldn’t do this at home. There my breakfast is healthy, green tea, toast, oatmeal, each item specific, and predictable. I don’t even have to put on shoes until I leave for work. On my sidewalk people take their dogs for morning walks carrying plastic bags for doggie doo. Little dogs, rescue dogs, ill-mannered dogs yanking their owners along. In DF dogs leashed or unleashed don’t bother anyone unless they appear to have food. They seem composed, at ease in their territories. If they don’t have a leash, they have fleas. Tienes pulgas, is an invective that seems to apply only to idioms. No one seems to cares; no one seems angry.

It’s not unbar the front door time, but the few spaces usually occupied by waiting cabs are still given over to parked cars. Taxis don’t go down street unless they’re taking a shortcut to the Marriot. “Proximo” is what our pesos got and we hauled equipaje. This morning the clerk recognizes me. We nod Buenas Dias. In traveling I pay for familiarity. There are fees understood. The bellman is carrying a carton of groceries to the kitchen. Someone seems to be carrying, dragging, pushing, wheeling something constantly. If a restaurant is empty, the meseros stand outside talking the customers in. Unknown items wrapped in blue plastic tarp keep moving through the city like a type of mitochondria. Earlier I watched a man force eight of them into a taxi so filled the driver could only see ahead. I doubt they look behind anyway. People carry groceries in small plastic bolsas. Workman carry lunches in knapsacks. Women carry shoes in large purses. Schoolkids carry their worlds in mochillas. Things are sucio. Everyone’s clothes get sucio. The buildings are sucio. The air is sucio. Someone always appears to be washing something.
These are obvious. The extraneous. What I discover in the safety of early dawn, or from taxi windows. I have no idea what goes on inside the four million kitchens surrounding me. That’s my failure to discover, also part of the price I pay at the hotel for breakfast included. A forced morning smile from a person in a starched uniform disguising the labor that has already gone on to produce the coffee I instantly require.

She will produce a puzzled lenguaje to soften my brutish Spanish. It’s the real communication we both use to discuss our common existence. I can’t ask her about her trip to work, like me she has traversed the pre-dawn streets, but I imagine hers to the opposite kind of travel. I have traveled around as an outsider; she has traveled inside a tunnel. It’s the path workers make from our home to work. We develop a private galaxy of landmarks and habits that allow us to be blind, to ignore what surrounds us and what it may mean other than how it effects our travel. That there is a car wreck means little to us other than prurient distraction and how it changes our route. We ride the freeway or subway of assumption all moving things are either in our way or traveling on our path.

On my commute I care no more about that fellow human being in the Toyota going 64mph when we could all be going 70 than I care about the disposition of the conglomeration of asteroids that used to be called the planet Pluto. We all have to go somewhere we don’t want to go. As much as by some hypnotic sense as anything else we go to our jobs. Perhaps we turn off a car radio, or leave in our earbuds for a few moments as we clock in, we regard our last moments of private freedom before we become that other. The sold one, the rented one, the one in a starched blouse, a uniform, a dress code, a hierarchy of fashion that identifies our value as capital. Our common limited language won’t allow me to share with the woman earnestly presenting me huevos La Revolucion that she’s serving me in my escape from serving someone else, or that her task is linked to a series of pictures of this hotel on Expedia that met my budget and aesthetic to forget where I arrive during the working week. Or that we are in similar routines. Regardless of how mangled my pronunciation, or mumbled my suffixes we manage enough commonality to get the task done.
That’s the language most of us speak, most of our conscious hours. A creole of idioms, slang, stylish slogans, business-speak, and lies that allow us to get a pay envelope. It’s a servile style of speech, no one speaks in their home. A language that says nothing of love, or beauty, or suffering, or poetry, or prayer. It’s the sounds we have to make to survive when we are less than human. Every morning for thirty years I’ve tied a tie around my neck and tethered myself to work. I’ve signed public decency clauses, and more recently public disclosure clauses in my contracts. Once I felt secure seeking tenure, hoping I could have that job for the rest of my life, as my father did his, now I work at the pleasure of an administrator, and accept other duties as assigned. The words have changed, but the meaning remains. Wage slave. It’s what I came to Mexico to forget, to have moments of vacancy, a vacation. What I find instead is a panorama of labor.

Simple labor carrying or dragging bundles, unlocking the doors to the 24 hour store, walking into a service entrance, carrying a uniform home from a night shift, peering out a partially opened door with a machine gun and cigarette, whistling to traffic, tasks flowing like blood in an old man, maids pushing a cart of towels and small soaps, men in drab jackets chiseling paving stones, bored waitresses staring at an empty dining room two hours before closing…the ever present curved broom. This is what makes the world, what made the world.

The next morning, my friends and I travel to Teotihuacan. We’ve hired a driver to get us to the pyramides before the tour buses and package groups. He does. As tourists, we’re as immune to the lost language of the architecture, as we are to the hieroglyphs that surround us. We recognize images of divine Jaguares, or perhaps a were-jaguar, north/south orientation, and guess the rest with the pleasure of puzzling a mystery novel. We join the eons of travelers who began up the ceremonial stairs to summit the Pyramid of the Sun. But we climb with growing ignorance of its purpose, of it’s past. The stair steps weren’t made for climbing, but standing. In its day it would have been a living hierarchy of their world. Splendidly blending all of their knowledge of the worlds of life and death into a ceremony of detailed perfection. Their holy days should have kept their civilization in balance forever; but they didn’t. This “Calazada de los Muertos” was rediscovered by the Aztecs, who named it Teotihuican, Valley of Gods. They arrived understanding perhaps more about the symbology or meaning, but must have been, like us, in awe of the labor. The work.

The hauling, digging, stone shaping man hours to raise an edifice that would slowly blot out a mountain as you approached it. Or move 40 million cubic feet of stone over the legendary cave of the origin of life and then reach to hold the flooding sun twice a year. It was the beginning and end of the time, and on some unconscious level we recognize some of this…maybe even more than the bilingual explanatory plaques. But soon we don’t care. What matters is the act of climbing. The knee aching labor of gasping and looking only ahead to the next stair, and the next. Whether we are climbing or descending is meaningless, if we wear sunscreen or feathers, we’re simply in motion, and in that action in communion with the disappeared people who built the world we are traipsing through. We travel irreverently, at different paces, some of us limping, or laughing if we have breath for it, and periodically most of us facing a crisis of exhaustion.

All that matters is the next step. We are immersed in what Kant called “das Ding an sic”, the Thing in itself. We push our muscles and lungs as much as our bodies will allow to climb the dawn painted stairs. We leave one another behind now pointlessly competing to be the first of the day to reach the pinnacle. Our traveling companionship dissipates. I left my wife below. I look for the safety of my friends for an instant, try to breath deep, then climb towards the sun. As Rilke described the Archaic Torso, I turn my gaze downward, breathing the fiery breath of the cosmos into my legs feeling like marble. If the originators of these pyramids, made sacrifices, cut off human heads, or tore out hearts, I don’t care. My task has no morality, only the tunnel vision of labor. When I arrive, I share that single emotion, a momentary glow, private triumph over time and for being part of the rare line of others who preceded me in uncounted yesterdays.
What I find are workmen.
Their morning ascent started an hour before ours. They carried bundles of rebar and tools on their backs. Their tool bags are already open, steel chisels and sinks spread out near them on stones. As the sun rises they are using five pound sledge hammers to drive long rods of rebar into rock. Plain work, steady effort and focused skill. My father was a foundryman, he called his sledge hammer the idiot stick. His hope was that I would be spared using it to earn a living. He wanted me to wear a shirt and tie like the managers and supervisors who divided his labor into dollars and half cents per hour, who measured his lifetime with a time clock. As the sun rises the Avenue of the Dead echoes with the solid sound of a well struck hammer on stone. I may never know why, but I believe I understand how we climb the pyramid one step at a time.

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Hegelian Timex

October 30, 2016

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Since August I’ve been wearing a watch again. A cheap Timex, my Internet fancy from summer, delivered for less than the price for lunch for two. Periodically I fixate on looking at watches, for a while I tried out their intimate ticking to cure insomnia, one more failed cure. At weddings and family funerals, I wear my father’s Enicar. I bought it in Switzerland; I was fourteen. It doesn’t bother to keep time more than a day. To know today’s real time, I use my phone. My new handsome Timex used to be what was termed a whim, a trifle to look in. Around dawn I woke up on the couch. “The Isle of Dead” that I was watching as I fell asleep morphed into a teenage girl (portrayed by an older actress) who discovers an odd text on hypnotism that entrances adults portraying adults into romantic slapstick. It was Saturday, I didn’t have to make a time clock click, so I tucked back under the covers upstairs. Back in bed Carol & I read our phones in luxurious weekend pace. We were waiting for Junior to come by to explain why the roof leak I traded a months’ pay to disappear, reappeared.

Since August completing simple tasks at my job have been shifting from middling stressful to middling chaotic. Friday my coworker & I shared an AM commute to work with Devo singing along to “DNA Smart Patrol” until we turned at the block the new campus shares with sex workers. Silence seemed inadequate. Stressful and chaotic are relative vocational terms. Confusing innocence with not having done something, I imagine I might be cast as one of the passing townspeople in “Nights of Cabiria”. In reality from, poets to prostitutes, we all get paid, or pay people to act in tasks we don’t want to spend time from our own lives to do.

My job at my new school remains frustrated by temporary technology and backorders. For five days this week I’ve been salaried to waste time walking up and down stairs to check pages at a printer, deliver a form for a signature, or travel one office to another to ask or answer a question. Hopefully I’ll replace myself with devices. Clever machines that are manufactured, and later disassembled, by people invisible to me. Those lives may appear a bit better than the women walking the street in a moral sense, but not much different in a qualitative or quantitative sense. They’ll be abused, abandoned, die early. Everything moving takes us along willing or not.

This year is also the 246th birthday of Hegel. Most of my life I’ve been willful in misinterpreting Hegelian Dialectics as egocentric relativistic analysis rather than a reflection of an absolute bipolarity. This morning that process appears roughly equivalent to memories of a former lover’s expression, sighing the line from J. Alfred Prufrock, “that’s not what I meant…”   Still I’m older than Hegel ever was (longevity being a different relative value). Being philosophically orthodox has currency, but life accrues like tree rings. I’d rather profit by dark parsing with a lost lover than diagraming reflexive arrows, but I can’t now.

What matters in this current now, is the ceiling has been leaking from the room above the library. The leak is real and metaphorical, it’s symbolic, but it doesn’t symbolize anything specific. Who Carol thought to be Junior calling from his habitual tardiness, was a friend explaining their tardiness returning a call with a date for dinner. Time, as Dali depicted it in Tempus Fugit feels less painful than the exegesis of that intoxicated distortion, time is a narcotic.  We hoard time in dreams, cut it like addicts with razor blades and triple balance scales dividing years into minutes, seconds and femtoseconds. We decorate gardens with sundials, astrologically measure out futures on ancient charts of stellar sand, reckon time in disintegrating atomic fountains of combed atoms, crust clocks with filigree, or construct private time machines like my father’s watch. They are legerdemain, illusions to slur perception of our time’s inexorable passage, at best, like a Hegelian dialectic, they allow a transitory sense of correctness. It was now 9:41, but 9:41 has already disappeared. Yet that once misinterpreted lover’s glance continues, she continues brushing back her hair and brushing back her hair, if only to me, only lost without periodization.

The dinner engagement in the telephone call was being postponed due a trip to Brussels, polite domestic disarray, and his Halley’s mind is slowing, dissolving, cognitive slippage. She has forgotten more than I’ll ever…her lyric goes twisting off, a comet disappearing as her past present future. She’s dying by many names, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis. It’s monstrous and horrifies me. The prayer to St. Joseph I memorized as a devout pre-adolescent seemed inconceivable then, now a desperate, sincere sentiment. Even the iconography, a robed figure resembling Santa Claus carrying a lily, come to fetch life from peaceful sleep is attractive. It’s exponentially more attractive than the 1945 Boris Karloff portraying a Greek general opening his wife’s grave on an island quarantined by a disease that can be stopped only by a sirocco. Still the plot’s misguided cinematic fellow travelers will forever share a film of life inhabited by thieves, servants, and a semi-comatose killer in a negligée.

That’s where I fell asleep. Mr. Karloff, expending a last sigh of screen time into his near canine expression of pathos, the sad grimace of television, we the unseen audience, aren’t anticipated to recognize until the ironic last line. “He was only trying to protect us.” He wasn’t such a monster after all, just pretending…another patriarchal titan obliterated as the credits rise to disappear. William Pratt (Boris Karloff) spent much of his time exploring bipolarity of a dialectic inherent in the artifice of monster and victim. His craft was a construction of flickers, nuances, voice tones and eyebrows to encompass intimate loss and cosmic rage. At the films’ end our common factual knowledge returns as words superimposed, in a contrived order for a floating instant, then replaced by the name of the second assistant director, the key grip, part of the union contract with Marx and Hegelian dialectics. Who does work, who profits?

That morning I had been reading [How to Legally Own Another Person] in bed by touch screen phone. The article began nuancing behavior between employees and contractors, then somehow concluded the Saudi Government profited from subcontracting monstrous men to fly stolen planes into 9/11. For a minute it resonated within my experiences (excepting Saudi references), at least the detailed behaviors in the P/L food chain resonated enough to allow me time to contextualize the frenetic running I had been doing for days. We bind people to tasks we won’t exchange our time to accomplish. The pay, the trade of monetized time for real time builds the scaffold. Why do I tie my own tie?

My dialectic shifted with St. Basil’s chapel high noon chimes. I’m not sure if they signify arrival or loss. Junior knocked. He arrived to survey the residue. He wasn’t wearing a hat, uniform, or any branding (or a watch). He looked annoyed and hurried, according to the article, that made him a contractor, or a terrorist. Another exchange, an additional reflexive line. The longer the arrow, the greater the opportunity for interference. I work for a woman, a devout and apostolic believer. She points to a continuous relationship with her personal salvific moral imperative, direct and vigorous. Her prayers get answered by God’s Bullseyes, no deflections. Her information demands obedience, powerful as a shaft of sunlight extending from a divine furnace. Miracles, martyrs, ecstasies and mystics don’t require wrist watches. It’s my contemplative, bent reflexive arrows that require waiting to reflect on what desire means, the lunar pulling that turns, waxes and wanes. My arrows diagram the tenuous.

This morning in my pajamas I think I’d like to have breakfast and I’d like to travel to Bayreuth to endure    the Ring Cycle Festival. Two thoughts, the first simple, requires no historical exploration beyond the blind physiology of hunger. It doesn’t matter if it’s morning or midnight. Bayreuth can point tangentially to Hegel, to my experiences visiting historical localities. Maybe some detail in the geography or architecture will signal an idea. Another diagrammatic arrow strays, points to Nazis.  Did Richard Wagner unconsciously write the theme music for the NADSP? Wagner’s admirer, Adolf Hitler, never missed a production of the Cycle at Bayreuth until he decided to invade Poland. Der Fuehrer made Wahnfried, Wagner’s villa, his second home. I treasured Niebelungen since I chanced on the Arthur Rackman illustrations.  I was just a boy. However even moral imperatives as relative as mine struggle justifying Hitler and Nazi iconography with a vacation impulse.

The reflective arrows for my trip grow a dandelion crowned with 180 degrees of yellow fingers pointing accusingly. I’d be disingenuous to pretend the direct impulse that Dylan Thomas christened “green fuse”, to be catechism or intellectually less, (or even genuinely here). It’s always louche to be irreligious, I can’t be. Theology might be argument, but religion is held in bodies. It’s an instinct, a need to follow backwards, to touch water and light. The shadows set by monoliths at Stonehenge, sun tunneling into Newgrange, stone gates of a bull star, laurel left in the Parthenon debris, crawlspace down in chambers of a Zapotec pyramid, temporary blindness in Muir Wood, Raven’s stolen fire told with salmon on the table, the raw beginnings of Heaven. It’s who we are. I love the Fool, but not the foolish, I know morning’s Hegelian dandelion has exploded in tetrahedral parachutes, floating past recall or recapture.

In another week I’ll be back in a hotel room. Following God, or more likely where God used to be.  It’s the overture that opens the way over the mountain pass, a perfumed breeze after winter. We are so often pilgrims without destination, hearing the hush between stone columns, blinking in a granite pool holding the sun’s circle, hunching on plastic hospital chairs. We seldom find what we’re looking for. We seldom find anything. Old God, my God, why have you forsaken me here of all places? In the muddle of a dialectical as familiar as dead relatives, as aimlessness as looking for a ghost wandering the corridors of the Pollard Hotel. Below me lurk bears and early snow vowing a late summer marriage.

Persona Bones

June 29, 2016

KaTa See

KA TA SEE

Persona Stories

Last Saturday was Persona Day in the Jemez Valley. Two of my favorite poets, Leslie Ullman and Veronica Golos came to support the Friends of the Library. Veronica is excited about her new book Rootworks. Leslie has a new volume Oblique Strategies in galleys. It was the type of casual weekend that only English teachers imagine might be part of their vacations. Bright, skilled writers talking about their experiences writing as other people, everyone on their better behavior, cookies in abundance and literary discourse without having to call on that person who wasn’t paying attention. Genuine poets and home baked cookies I don’t expect much more from life.

Both poets were insightful and responded with the kind of spontaneous interplay that make these type of discussions worth preparing for and having. Veronica and Leslie discussed the complicated ethics, individual techniques, and their personal experiences inhabiting other voices. Then there was snack break and the listeners wanted a writing exercise. It fell to me to provide one. As I gave directions and allowed time for responses, a momentary blank came, and then I heard a voice say “Write down what you want to leave behind.” The voice was mine. It was the kind of unconscious burble that happens under social pressure. You adjust and deal with it, it’s a writing exercise, some disorientation is expected. Forty minutes later we were at a buffet dinner. By noon on Sunday everyone had dispersed. Carol and I had an appointment with a traveling shaman for an afternoon of Ka Ta See, Peruvian bone reading, and soaking in the pools at Giggling Springs.

Growing up Roman Catholic visiting a fortune teller was regarded as a Mortal Sin. It was demonic, Satanic and, the priest added, probably a con. We weren’t even supposed to put coins in the Madame Fortuna machine in the Penny Arcade at the amusement park. I felt guilty if I read the fortune in my cookie. There were some gypsies in town, but they didn’t act like Maria Ouspenskia in the werewolf movies. Religion seemed determined to prevent any contact with spiritualism.  However, when I was twelve my grandfather got lost driving the family to visit the shrine of St. Anne Beaupre. Unexpectedly I had a waxy vision and told my grandparents and cousins in a few minutes we would see a man on a tractor wearing a green shirt and red hat who would give us directions in French, but we would understand them. It happened; everyone shut up about it immediately. After all it was a religious pilgrimage, visions were appropriate for saints, but apparently not as a backseat activity. Silence was my Grandmother’s default setting for children, especially on car drives. She had had experience from the end of the Golden Age of Spiritualism at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Mediums and the Spiritualism Movement were as popular in the Modernist Period following The Great War as “Game of Thrones” is today. In the world just before radio and movies, performance was the only kinetic art form. Magicians like Harry Houdini were the equivalents of rock stars. Vaudeville, tent shows, circuses, carnivals and even riverboats were still the vehicles that brought entertainment to cities and towns. Even simple acts (or complicated ones like Houdini’s) had to be ‘put over’ in person. The actors and musicians may have been bored, but their performances were regarded as genuine by those who watched. For the most part Houdini only pretended to struggle in order to manipulate his audience. He could get away with this because there were no recordings of his act other than gossip, still photographs, newspapers and advance publicity. Each new town was allowed to believe what they were seeing was death defied in their presence. It was harmlessly exploiting the naiveté of the age. Mediums fell into that category of symbiosis, but not perhaps as harmless.

For one preternaturally hot summer I was involved a married woman. The romance was ending badly in final sweaty assignations and denial. She took me to visit a psychic she knew who lived in Kentucky. Not backwoods Kentucky, but a trailer park, a little north of Independence. By night he was a short order cook at the truck stop off the Interstate, by day he would swipe at flies and have visions for $15. He put three small black stones on his head and kept them in place with a stocking cap. He fluttered his eyelids and talked about giant yellow winged Venusian angel creatures whom we would soon contact, he saw a desert where life could breathe ammonia. He didn’t answer my friend’s question about leaving her husband. Opening his eyes, he looked at me as if he knew me. “You’re an only child. You’re the only male heir. You are the last of your line.” Nothing he should have known, nothing I wanted to hear. She asked about my future, looking to see if she were there. “I see arc carbon.” was his reply.

We stopped seeing one another. The following summer, I had a job managing an old cinema. One night I was visiting with the projectionist up in the soundproof, fireproof booth. In a tray next to one of the projectors I asked about the bronze lined stubs the size of bullets. “They make the light…electricity arcs through carbon.”

Sensitives speak things they shouldn’t know into a world that might understand them. It’s an old tradition in nearly every culture. People want to converse with spirits and get their advice about the future. Both literally and figuratively it’s a marginal world. I’ve made a long sporadic study of seeking out practices, seers, healers, spiritualists, card readers and sacred locations. I found it ran in my family. I’m respectful but skeptical, one never knows where lightning will strike.

So Sunday afternoon I sat on the grass beneath an enormous cottonwood and watched a woman toss a double handful of bones onto the woven rug of the world. She held an owl’s wing and walked around in and out of the shade. She began, “This is about what you want to leave behind.”

 

What you see

 

Time Enough At Last

Part Two

In the last hour I’ve reached for my glasses five times. They’re not there. I’m feeling nervous as a racehorse that has to wear blinders. Spooked is the equine parlance for that sense of needing to pull back from something in your periphery that isn’t there. My vision seems clearer if I keep moving my focus, chair to cabinet to wall to my arm then hand then around the room again. Sustaining that initial clarity demands a conscious effort, an effort I can maintain about long enough to identify letters on a Snellen chart during an eye exam. But currently without my glasses I’m at a higher state of subconscious alert. Even though I’m in my favorite chair, alone in a sunny morning in a familiar house, I’m vaguely alarmed, called to vigilance by something near-visible. Sometimes you can see a similar expression exaggerated on men who wait by the freeway exit.

In photographs and in general my expression appears solemn or severe. People often think I’m more serious than I feel. What they regard as deep thought is my struggle to keep things clear. Binocularity and depth perception have always provided a questionable quality to my vision life. I’m astigmatic in one eye and myopic in the other. I perceive detail probably better than motion and distance.  That anomaly made it easier for me to draw things than judge fly balls. Drawing is the illusion of deciding where a line should travel, catching is calculating a fixed point. I became better at anticipating than sustaining. Measured in those diopters was the frustration that shaped my early education. It’s in those minute levels of perception that we effect the habituation of our mental processes.

We construct reality because of what we expect to we see, not what we actually see. Our sensorium is wondrously flexible. We can feel terrified by a wasp buzzing on the other side of a window, yet delight to a lion’s roar on the other side of a glass barrier. We make our own sense. We transform the light reflecting off objects into what we expect to see. Consider the last time you were looking for someone in a crowd. You are going to meet a friend on the mezzanine.

You search faces, scanning for the features you identify as theirs. The other faces constantly disappear; their bodies don’t register as immediate motion. Nearly every object quickly goes out of focus except for the object that isn’t there, your friend. That kind of perception requires conscious, trained effort. When people meet in these situations they generally respond in one of two ways, glee (You’re here!) or dismay (Where have you been?). It’s the response we learned as infants waiting for our mothers. We recognize our mothers first by smell, then develop vision to add meaningful detail to the relationship. We teach ourselves to see.

Over time vision becomes our dominant source of information. Homo Sapiens are constantly attending information in front of them (as opposed to horse’s lateral vision). Without a specific task our other senses tend to diminish in the same way the crowd on the mezzanine diminished. They are present, but we disregard the information they present. Learning to accomplish that is a primary lesson of school, to concentrate on visual focus. A child must first be taught to ignore their instinctive impulses to wander and explore, and then taught to sit in close proximity to other children and focus on symbols. It’s the technological miracle and operatic tragedy of our educational system.

Books and economics were the machines that brought us to this perceptual form.  Public Education as a trope was essentially a construct to socialize children into workers as traditional economies gave way to urban industrialization. As Huckleberry Finn reminds us the disciplines demanded of a schoolboy are fundamentally different from those of a school aged boy. In prior centuries children physically followed their parents around and learned how to survive in the world, parents had to be respected not because of any moral dictum, but because they were the fountainhead of knowledge and survival. Life made immediate sense.

If I ask an Econ student at a community college to define the world. She may describe it in a language of terms beginning with capital, Industrialization, mention choices at the margin, express a curve model, game theory, or any of a number of meaningful perceptual tools. For approximately 80% of families in the world, their economic definition of the world is a little under $10, a few days of food, shelter and tentative safety. For most of that world, siblings are day care and the relationship with your daughter-in-law is your long term care insurance. Family traditions were crucial to survival before religion, culture, or politics. Religion follows food; economic culture follows abundance. The more fundamental difference is some are allowed to consider what they’ll eat for dinner, and others if they can have dinner.

Anyone reading this blog functions in a physically removed yet subtly interdependent world. Collectively we can be effected by the stock market in China, an erratic router, the price of a barrel of oil, the last cell phone message of a deranged murderer, or in my case, if I can negotiate a replacement for my glasses between my doctor 1,000 miles away and a stranger following the policies of an invisible bureaucracy. And all of strands of this web are credited to an unseen economy no one can explain, but everyone believes exists. This symbolic world is a world of perceived abundance and physical disengagement.

My father and grandfathers lived their lives in a small industrial city where nearly everyone still labored to produce products. Their work was physically demanding and required skill and experience they delivered through their bodies. At the end of their work days they could look out on a flat car of steel bars, a two ton milled part, or a rack filled with baked goods. They came home worn, and I don’t recall any of them having difficulty falling asleep watching television. Grampa Hetner could fall asleep standing up “like a horse” he said. I loved and admired their lives, but I can’t live that life, except in a romanticized fantasy.

The city we shared disappeared. The children of the steelworkers who used to go to Waterford Park bet on  futures in Texas and Florida. The next generation of family members suddenly saw themselves as visitors. We became economic migrants, nowhere as tragic as the nomadic existence facing millions of our fellow human beings, but genuinely distressing. In the shift of the economy from manufacture to information we fell into the category of unintended consequence. Capital was redirected, labor became superfluous. But my vision of myself never included a life in a steel mill. The world my astigmatism envisioned was going to be filled with formal language and poetic transformations, and include level of predictable quiet. We perceive what we desire.

Now I’m an at will worker for a second chance charter high school. The tools I carry to work are a pen, a magnetized photo ID, and sometimes a jump-drive which I carry in a company branded briefcase with a book or some poems to read after lunch. I read at two computer screens, go to meetings, answer my cell phone, occasionally use the land line intercom, walk through classrooms, compile reports, plan out details for educational programs and once a month participate in an Internet conference.  Any complaints I have are minor or broadly existential. I’m treated well, my work is engaging and useful, and I enjoy the people I share my days with. The reports I conscientiously compile are randomly audited, otherwise seldom read, in three years they’re archived, and then in five destroyed. My year’s records of meeting notes and observations will be shredded, the dividers will be saved, and the notebook will be refilled. At the end of my day I try to make my office space to look as exactly as it did at the beginning of the day.

My tasks get completed, if I have to come in early or stay late, but I still have a time clock. Many days after work I’d like to go out to drink, but I’m too old for that, so I go to the gym or run (where I may be too old as well). There was only one person older than me who set foot on my campus, mostly I work advising smart, younger teachers and students with hanging thin thread stories. The skills I possess and sell are invisible and conceptual. I’m useful because I can manipulate landscape visions of information into complicated action. When I do it right, I believe the world is a better place. My success has been in part because I am like a racehorse in  one other way, I’ve been over-engineered to one task.

I admire racehorses. That I type badly is a tribute to that affection. As a youth I cut Intro to Typing in night school to sneak off to Waterford Park in time to make the Daily Double. After a brief luckless career as a tout, I abandoned the betting windows, but never the rail. Thoroughbreds are aptly named. They’re born to do very little else than eat well and run on a racetrack. The accumulation of their physical characteristics and hard training that make them a race horse, also makes them worthless in nearly any other equine endeavor. Injuries, falls, collisions, the long term effects of being forced to run dangerously close to other horses, and factor in the now common extension of racing careers, long term side effects of drugs and travel, when they’re through at the track, if they’re lucky, they’re pasture ready. Every May before I sign next my year’s contract I run a slow, serious lap around Memorial Park and ask myself how close I am to being pasture ready.

Having my lenses ruined reminded me how I have been delicately constructed by an extended dialectic that includes the genetics of my birth, refracted light, the class values of a disappearing city, the corporate policies of businesses I do my best to avoid, my learned capacity for enduring sitting still, vague skills in making discrete adjustments to a changing real and symbolic landscapes, my ability to remember and manipulate language…and that my body is on its downward trajectory.

It’s not uncommon for me to wake up on the couch wondering what the outcome of whatever I was watching was. Physical tasks are harder, my joints and ligaments are giving way; HIPA prohibits me from listing all of my nagging ailments. The metrics might be less organized than The Daily Racing Form, but my obituary wouldn’t read much differently from that of a midlevel race horse. Game.

Happily, my optometrist friend sent contact lenses through the mail. I found a place on the Internet that will make me a pair of glasses for $65,no questions asked. In the meantime, I bought a pair of pristine readers at Family Dollar that my wife said make me look European. “What you see” sang The Dramatics “is what you get.”

June 9, 2016

 

IMG_20160609_095649

The Night Cassius Clay Sent Me to Bed

 

The Old Man was working 12:00 to 8:00 at United Engineering & Foundry. It was a school night. We were living on Glenhaven upstairs in a duplex. My father and I were going to listen to the championship fight on the radio in the kitchen before he got picked up. Fighting was one of the my father’s ways of holding on to the world, like showing up for work for fifteen years without missing a day. His was a creed of a body alone at war with the world. Absorb your beating and take your turn, your brief, brutal chance at being even. We try to teach our children the lessons that cost us the most pain to learn. Slip the jab and throw a short right hook to the body. In the Old Man’s bargain, five or six jabs for a liver shot, or breaking a couple knuckles on a heart punch was a fair deal.

Under a bare bulb in the basement is where the Old Man demonstrated the trigonometry of boxing, the family physics of self-defense. On my better days I was a remedial student. We both recognized when the fight came, I was inevitably going to take a beating, the only question was how bad. In its way he thought of a beating as a representative good…being taught a lesson. Bruises build character. His knuckles were misshapen from fitting steel and his nose was broken. I was a cream puff who talked too much, wandered around the public library, and didn’t understand what work was. The first time I tried to pull my head back to avoid a punch he looked at me as if I had deliberately broken a window. It was not going to be like bestowing a Biblical blessing.

Sonny Liston wasn’t liked, but he was understood. He taped and gloved heavy hands with pure violence. He possessed a prisoner’s patience and moved with the bored gait of a mob enforcer. He was inevitable. Dependable as silence.

Cassius Clay disturbed the simplicity of the boxing dialectic. Punching was the tool and taking a punch was the test. Avoiding a punch was weakness. Cowards were revealed in the ring. He believed in “you can run, but you can’t hide.” I don’t think my father ever actually used the word cowardice, but boasting, slipping punches and winning on points he considered legal cheating. Cassius Clay was merely a constantly annoying jab. He was the loudmouth at the end of the bar you wanted to shut up. He was the company man in a short sleeved white shirt who looked through you and laughed as he did time/motion card studies on your job. He was the three card monte guy.

When you feel the punches start to slide off…  (He demonstrated the difference between hammering and peening on my shoulder.)  …then you set your feet. This was his illustration of recognizing your moment of opportunity. It seemed easy at eleven to dismiss this terrible wisdom as real.

When we turned it on, the radio broadcast could have been prattling about Liston’s two one round KOs of Floyd Patterson, or a commercial.  We both stood in the kitchen listening. No beer, no potato chips. The bell rang, the crowd screamed over the exaggerated tone of Les Keiter. He called Clay’s eyes “big as door knobs”. He criticized him for pulling his head straight back. At the end of the first round the Old Man nodded, vindicated. The rounds proceeded, on the radio it was less clear what was happening, except Liston hadn’t killed Clay. I was giddy. By the sixth round Liston was plodding, lunging, and bleeding; Clay was still circling and jabbing, delivering sharper combinations, and taunting the ringside press. His moment of opportunity had arrived.

Sonny Liston lost the heavyweight championship sitting on a stool; my father sat down in his usual chair in the corner of the kitchen. I wanted to hear more about the fight. Cassius Clay, wild with relief, proclaimed himself “King of the World” over and over, screamed “Greatest” as Howard Cosell asked chuckling questions. I wanted the beautiful chaos to continue, it felt like being allowed into an amusement park. Cassius Clay had jabbed and danced the inevitable world into surrender. Maybe I wouldn’t need to take the beating after all.

“Turn off the radio.”

My father said it as if I had done something wrong, as if I had something to do with the outcome of the fight. He was a good parent and I was a difficult child. He never hit me in anger, or complained about my continual problems at school, or made fun of my eccentricity. He took me places; we did things together. I thought of our six rounds as fun in the kitchen listening to a boxing match; we didn’t know we had been fighting. Father and son we listened to a bout of heavyweight boxing and left as mysteriously injured as Sonny Liston’s shoulder.

In my room I turned on the transistor radio I got for Christmas and listened to it under my pillow. It was jabber. Dad left for work.

 

 

Summer II

 

 

 

The End of It

http://youtu.be/UkKo-jXl2CQ    Annie Lennox “Summertime”

It’s a couple of days after Winter Solstice. What sun there is, comes cold, strained, and weak. Christmas feasting is over; I’m tired of liking FB pictures of other people’s children holding toys. There’s low grade despair on the streets as shoppers exchange gifts for bargains. Nobody really wants another cookie, but another one gets eaten. There’s no miracle to believe in or reason for wonder or song. In another age, I’d have been tending toward Romantic melancholy, now I’ll have to content myself with Seasonal Affect Disorder or a call to my Health Care Provider’s Call-In Advisor. Today was the day I found Annie Lennox superb version of “Summertime” and the conclusion to this piece I’d been searching for since the summer ended.
“Summertime” being farthest away seemingly brings it closer, makes it precious in its absence.

Beyond her evocative voice, Ms. Lennox has a pulse of zeitgeist that has kept her a successful pop star (over 85 million records sold), in her various public avatars for nearly three decades. She seems to know in detail what she’s voicing, and is able to sense what her audience is searching for, perhaps before they know it themselves. She remains one of the consummate rock/video artist from the brief golden age of that art form. Each of her video productions displayed her ability to interpret collaborative images into collective portraits that are both emotionally expressive and wryly self-conscious. “Nostalgia” and this version of “Summertime” won’t diminish that oeuvre. Ms. Lennox remains one of the most intelligent and creative of the vocal artists to undertake “Summertime” and this rendition on her recently released “Nostalgia” possesses that mélange of memory and expression that has made faux memoir the form of our current age.

The version I’ve been listening to in a cold room is a pristine emulation of a Blue Note recording from the period of the early sixties. Mid-century style being just beyond the cusp of its current trend, “Nostalgia” comes as a slightly askew interpretation of standards from that period. I doubt this recording will either increase or diminish her stature. It is pleasing and smart, but not overly ambitious. It speaks more to utilizing talents in an interior mode than exploiting them to the pop audience she has attracted in earlier years. She lends her intelligence to “Summertime” and a personal taste in interpretation that has a feeling of historical fiction. She recorded it at the legendary Blue Note Studios and engineered it for a vinyl recording.

This is the only version of “Summertime” from this century I’ve reviewed. I had considered including the pleasant enough Nora Jones/Marian McPartland version, but there seemed more etude than interpretation for my taste… at least not enough to bring me back from my autumn stasis. The Annie Lennox version revived my “Summertime” thought with its subtle invocation of the tradition of “Summertime” as a vehicle, sometimes awkward and other times inspired to carry a complicated cultural sensibility. In some still moments afterwards I can hear the conflicted spirituality of the original George Gershwin /Abbie Mitchell recording. In her singing I heard hints of Miles Davis, and Billy Stewart mixed with a smoky Rudy Van Gelder living room intimacy, longing for a past that could have, but never quite existed.

Perhaps there is a fundamental artificiality in “Summertime” that shivering, bleak weather brings clearer. I’ve been wandering holiday airport lounges. I overheard a stranger’s unexpected intimate confession to a child. I walk my daughter’s dog as frigid evenings empty another day after the holiday’s passing…it’s that long night when summer is a luxurious memory rather than a relentless presence.

Creating both “Summertime” the LP itself, required creating a sophisticated illusion to make the interpretation a real space for the listener. Its tone reminds me of the more intimate Frank Sinatra of “In the Wee Small Hours” (which included “Mood Indigo”, also on “Nostalgia”). Lennox’s version of “Summertime” is a song hinting at a cabaret license, cigarette smoke and violins, serious cynical drinking and a slow, beautiful exposition populated with loss. Like other pop, and rhythm and blues singers such as Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, or Diana Washington, Ms. Lennox has found a mature interest in visiting “The Great American Songbook”.

“The Great American Songbook” is the traditional canon of Broadway and Movie tunes from the turn of the Twentieth Century Tin Pan Alley and ended in the1960s in the Brill Building (or with the invention of Bob Dylan). My travels with George Gershwin’s “Summertime” have deepened my familiarity with many of the Songbook songs, singers and styles that I had regarded as items folded in my mother’s bureau. They are songs that are easily memorable, relatively easy to sing (badly), and capable of enduring interpretation from a wide variety of styles, as my extravagant “Summertime” exercise has demonstrated. However they are mostly adult songs, complicated by experience and reflection. To interpret one, not merely musically correctly, but personally is what provides the challenge for the performer. Recalling Julie Andrews’ “Favorite Things” and John Coltrane’s interpretation provide examples of how much interpretation one of these standards could endure without losing its character. They are a treasury of two generation’s dreams and loss.

However, in the Twenty-first Century a standard like “Summertime” exists in a simultaneous multiplicity of interpretations. Annie Lennox in discussing her preparation for recording “Nostalgia” cites YouTube as a major resource. Ms. Lennox and I shared the kind of sonic research that began this essay six months ago that requires only an Internet connection, headphones and obsessive curiosity. The Internet is a portable research library, with semi-anonymous suggestions, hints, and wild hare tracks to follow. In the realm of language and opinion, the Internet has both sharpened and blurred the differences between academic and amateur scholarship. What were once Reviews of Literature, or anthologies, are now almost impossible to accurately compile because of the constant revision, insertion and invention of information on any given subject. In an area like criticism algorithms rule taste.

In the early eighties I recall purchasing a cassette tape of The Eurhythmics, “Be Yourself Tonight”, from a Boots Drug Store in London; they were breaking out of the hip dance club circuit and becoming MTV stars. Evenings after returning in rainy walks from the tube station I listened to it on a hand held tape recorder. Those nights harkened to the days when as a child I would listen to rock, girl talk, and rockabilly on a pocket sized transistor radio I kept hidden beneath my pillow. Both were relatively the same size, and just a little thicker than the phone I carry around now. The songs played over and over as I puzzled out meanings and nuance quite literally as if I were receiving personal coded messages from nearby space. Now they come to me as lullabies releasing scents of a Proustian memory.

I doubt the androgynous masked Annie Lennox of “Sweet Dreams” would have envisioned such a project as “Nostalgia”; still experience teaches the limitations and adjustments our talents. Ms. Lennox’s chosen repertoire has supported her voice with amplified inflection, style, and gesture. Regardless of her work’s high art aspiration, she’s in show business, in direct descent from the line of chanteuses, who have as Gershwin would have requested, can “put over” a song. What has made the difference is experience has deepened her emotional pallet, and created spaces for her share the spotlight with a song. My supposition is the intention wasn’t to possess “Summertime” the way her persona inhabits songs like “Why” or “Walking On Broken Glass”, rather something else more personally reflective and self-satisfying. It’s the accumulation of loss and disappointment, of age and maturity that makes this “Summertime” an interesting interpretation. It embraces the deep artificiality of the song’s original operatic premise as part of the broader reality of its interpretations.

Eighty-one summertimes have arrived and dissipated since George Gershwin adapted a spiritual fragment into a minor key blues lullaby. Only the song has remained constant in its dreamy dynamic of post card weather, someone else’s hope, and underwritten despair. It hasn’t brought anyone fortune. An almost incomprehensible 25,000 voices have waded in to record its melody and search for a way to negotiate its personal and cultural currents. Like a Christmas tree at the curb, or the string of lights outlining an RV window, an imaginary authenticity brings us past the original meaning, past decoration, to a strange, dark place, not without its agency of beauty.

PART FOUR Let Some Caterwauling Commence

In 1966 along with Donavon’s “Sunshine Superman” and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”, Billy Stewart had a hit with “Summertime” http://youtu.be/Mr7Qq_qUKb0 . It reached 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually became the biggest selling single for both Mr. Stewart and “Summertime”. It joined the legion of warm weather choruses that casually accompany vacations, graduation and summer romances like best friends. The Beach Boys and other surf bands, The Drifters, and Nat King Cole were all part of the transistor radio soundtrack that for three months accompanied Bermuda shorts, burnt hot dogs and the peculiar scent of Coppertone. Generally there was a song rotation of 2’30” songs lauding the bright brief season of navel gazing, and hopefully not only at one’s own.

 

Like secular Christmas carols, summer songs possessed shared cultural pleasures, magical optimism, and the promise of emotional acceptance. When the Summer of Love came along its musical precedence was well established. With that “Why not?” spirit “Summertime” has been recorded with, Theremins, twin guitars, twangy guitars, reggae skanks, jazz orchestras with strings, Hammond B-3 organs, angry pianos, every type of wind instrument from pan pipes to gold inlaid flutes and vocals ranging from smokey to saccharine. Many were experiments that for the promised eternity of the Internet might have found a quiet oblivion. Each interpretation brings its special palette, but perhaps not as much in the way of enlightenment.

In the legion of questionable recordings of “Summertime” here are some of the more eccentric starting with Clara Rockmore’s Theremin version and ending with the esteemed, but angry, Duke Ellington. Some “Summertime”:

http://youtu.be/j0c7p5geJZs  Clara Rockmore,

 

http://youtu.be/fNAFClBagfs Santo & Johnny,

 
http://youtu.be/LFWDpxqrOWU The Ventures,

 
http://youtu.be/JbWg_xKyi-M Herbie Mann,

 
http://youtu.be/j1bWqViY5F4 Charlie Parker,

 
http://youtu.be/q6L34MhPRak Ricky Nelson,

 
http://youtu.be/YlxxmNP2MKw Billy Preston,

 
http://youtu.be/e1nXeaE9og8 Eumir Deodato,

 
http://youtu.be/D7J4YWrZa80 The Zombies,

 
http://youtu.be/mPGG4SL7aFE Lloyd Clarke,

 
http://youtu.be/4JesgKVLqrA Johnny G Watson,

 
http://youtu.be/Tk90QyrkRTY Friends of Dean Martinez,

 
http://youtu.be/fGGJoTmlmAg The Walker Brothers,

 
http://youtu.be/0Rr_6VNF2To Booker T & the MGs,

 
http://youtu.be/5lAQltfRLfM Lawrence Welk, and

 
http://youtu.be/JzG3G4C8jMY Duke Ellington.

 

I’m indebted to John Tangari for his research on variant versions of “Summertime”. If you find you’d like more “Summertime” variations I suggest you visit his site, after that seek your own salvation diligently. http://everygreatsongever.tumblr.com/post/5767727618/30-versions-of-summertime .

Quanah Parker

Quanha Parker

Somewhere between Waxahachie and Fort Worth driving west from my home in Houston to New Mexico I missed a turn and found myself with my map unfolded in my lap calculating the mileage of various legs of hypotenuses to return me to my intended route. I had time, so I wasn’t as distressed about being off schedule as I was at having to add hours to an already long driving day. Between the imprecision of my map and a few false turns on my part, I settled for a series of highway repairs on Rt. 380, if for nothing else, for the novelty. On 380 just west of Denton, Texas and a long hundred miles before Quanah, is a fenced open space with a metal sign fixed to the chain link that reads Muslim Cemetery. Not too far from the graveyard was a familiar roadside silhouette of a cowboy on one knee in prayer while his horse waits patiently. It’s not an uncommon sign, The Cowboy Church [www.cowboyfaith.org] has about 885 churches in the US and Canada. Not much farther I passed a large well-constructed Kingdom Hall that looked as if it used many of the architectural materials common to nearby stockyard auction rings. There are plenty of cattle and plenty of genuine cowboys in this part of the US. It’s a hard business built with long hours, tough weather, and plenty of labor. Animal husbandry is a Biblical occupation. The distance between many of the literal activities depicted in the Christian Bible or Koran is not metaphorical, only technological. There will still be blood, dust and lonely sky to contemplate as part of the day to day existence of many of these families. There were roadside signs for the Full Armor Biker Church, a “Commandments not Suggestions” billboard, I came to a rest area where two old boys had decorated their camper with hand lettered signs proclaiming why “Homos Go to Hell.” Dialing around on the radio I heard a man declare “My wife and I refuse to purchase any item that breaks God’s Heart.”

As I drove towards Quanah, Texas I kept wondering about the Muslim Cemetery.
There are approximately 125 Islamic mosques or religious centers in Texas and 425,000 members, the largest Muslim population of any state. 425,000 out of 26,000,000 doesn’t seem like much of a minority, but it’s still larger than the Native American population left in Texas (by contrast there are over 125,000 members in just the five largest Texas Christian mega-churches). In the Houston area there are nearly 50 Mosques and Islamic Centers, enough that they hardly draw attention. The greater Dallas Ft Worth area has about 20. The remaining mosques are spread throughout the state with about one in every city. Denton had a mosque. The growth of Islam in Texas remained a puzzle to me. In Texas instead of “What do you do?” you’re asked “Where do you go to church?” Perhaps those conversations don’t transpire the same way for everyone. But I wasn’t sure why any follower of Islam would be called to move to west Texas.

Buffalo SkullsBuffalo Skulls
I was wandering through the southern boundary of the now non-existent Comanche nation towards a town named after Quanah Parker. The area where I first became lost wasn’t far from Fort Parker, a small blockhouse fortress built by in 1836 by a Predestination Baptist Community in what was considered “Comancheria”. That fort was the actual location of the infamous Cynthia Ann Parker kidnapping portrayed in John Ford’s, “The Searchers”. Her story inspired a film that remains both one of the best westerns ever produced, but also an intimate and epic consideration of American racism. Following her rescue, and subsequent return, she was famous throughout the Western World as the “White Squaw”. She was a Caucasian woman who chose to leave white society and return to live with the Comanche people. In racist symbology of the Victorian Post Civil War Era of respectable parlors, churches and taverns little could have been worse a worse crime against God, the white race, or culture. Ms. Parker’s plight was to choose the less cruel redemption.

To give the story mythic grandeur the film was shot on archetypal John Ford cinematic locations in Arizona and Utah. North Texas isn’t Monument Valley, Utah. It’s a peculiarly open claustrophobic landscape where it’s easy to get lost, even with a map. The geography rises from the piney Edwards plateau up through the hundred or so square counties in the high and rolling plains to the horizonless table of Llano Escondido. It’s hard dust hillsides, dry creeks, scrub oak, and hay fields that farther west give way to caliche, cholla, cotton and cattle feed lots. In summer its character is even harsher and even less inclined to generosity. This geography was once ruled on horseback by Comanche clans, legitimately feared since they had driven off the Spanish. The warfare between the Plains People and the US Army was a horrific culture of suffering on both sides. Take the worst images portrayed in stereotypical cowboy and Indian movie matinees, think of them re-envisioned in Quentin Tarantino’s nightmare and imagine them happening in 105 degrees, or in a relentless freezing wind.
Quanah, Cynthia Parker’s son with her husband, Peta Nocona, is famous as being the last Chief of the Comanche People. Legendarily he was wounded by Billy Dixon using a Sharpe’s rifle from a mile away (the distance varies based on the source) during the fighting at the Second Battle Adobe Walls. The Sharpe’s rifle was the weapon that allowed herds of buffalo to be exterminated at long distance without causing stampedes, and it is still possible to purchase a Billy Dixon model ($2,885.00). As a warrior Quanah Parker was a formidable tactician, a merciless fighter and was one of the last Native Americans to surrender in Red River War in 1875. He was also a participant in the inter-tribal Sun Dance of 1874 to restore the buffalo herds and the Plains People in the spiritual cycle of regeneration. Participation in a Sun Dance, along with numerous specified and unspecified Native American religious practices, was forbidden by Federal Law from 1830-1923, and was not de facto legal until the1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The terms of peace following the Red River War forced Parker to live on the reservation formed by The Medicine Lodge Treaty.
That was one of the treaties that beginning with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, reduced the lands of the indigenous tribes of the Central Plains from an area roughly two thirds of the Louisiana Purchase (60,000 square miles) to designated portions of Oklahoma. The Red River War had been brought on by Manifest Destiny’s continual encroachment on traditional Indian territories and also by what is termed the great buffalo massacre of 1870. Buffalo Bill Cody earned his nom de guerre for purportedly killing 4,200 bison in eighteen months. Then he said he’d had enough (We all have limits.). Buffalo Bill’s departure notwithstanding in less than twenty years the vast herd of buffalo that ranged in the millions was slaughtered to near extinction for pleasure and to deprive the Plains Indians of food…or both.

Sharpes

Buffalo Hunters posing with Sharpe’s Rifles.
Increasingly since the Civil War the pacification of the Plains Indians” took the form of starvation and systematic destruction of resources. It was like Sherman’s March through a Sea of Grass (General Sherman was actually in charge, but the dirty work fell to Gen. “Bad Hand “MacKenzie). By destroying crucial portions of the symbiosis in a traditional nomadic route, the capacity of that lifestyle to remain viable is ended. Without open range, buffalo and horses the Plains People were doomed to a life they neither desired nor understood.
This statement by Paruasemena of the Numunuu Comanche, one of the signatories of both the treaties and the surrender following the Red River War like much of the literature of that genocide is romantic, brutally poetic, and true… psalmlike in its sensuality and lament.

“But there are things which you have said which I do not like. They were not sweet like sugar but bitter like gourds. You said that you wanted to put us upon reservation, to build our houses and make us medicine lodges. I do not want them. I was born on the prairie where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures …and where everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls. I know every stream and every wood between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas. I have hunted and lived over the country. I lived like my fathers before me, and like them, I lived happily.” October 21, 1867.
Shortly after the resettlement of Plains Tribes on reservations, the US Congress passed the Dawes act that effectively allowed the Federal Government to allocate parts of reservation lands to individual tribal members and sell the surplus to Euro-American settlers. This was one of many measures like Indian Schools, to help ‘civilize’ Native Americans into patriarchal nuclear families. The federal government in collusion with real estate investors planned and actively worked to use its power to force its new “citizens” to abide by the majority lifestyle and mores, and actively sought to suppress their practice of religious belief with armed intervention. They corruptly divided of tribal lands into private property and sold the rest. Quanah Parker is considered the last leader of the Comanche People because following the individual land allotments, the tribal life and culture that had flourished for generations was made practically impossible. Males were considered citizens and liable under Federal and Local laws, while suffrage didn’t come to Native Americans until 1924. In spite of this Parker became a successful cattleman. He hunted wolves with Teddy Roosevelt in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the government from selling more land from the Comanche Reservation, and built Star House that still stands today.

Beyond all that or because of it Quanah Parker became a religious figure.
Throughout his life Quanah Parker, not only refused to convert to Christianity or monogamy, he was one of the early proponents of organizing and protecting the rights of the Native American Church. There are currently approximately 250,000 members of the Native American Church. Quanah practiced his religion until his death in 1911. Native American Church observes rites that have been practiced on the North American continent for centuries. Some ceremonies also employ a sacramental use of peyote. Texas is the only State in the Union where peyote can be sold legally for religious purposes. Unfortunately the Native American occasionally makes news when some Anglo defendant claims he was in possession of various drugs as a religious sacrament. Ironically the sacred aspects of the religion have been appropriated and co-opted to such an extent that non Natives are discouraged from participating in most ceremonies.

I was also driving within a hundred miles of the Mount Carmel Compound of the Branch Davidians. Three members of the Texas Values group who demand the theory evolution be removed from science textbooks and replaced with biblical interpretation live and work relatively near. Texas was also home to Madalyn Murray O’Hair who founded the American Atheists. Continuing west towards Gaines County at the New Mexico Border several communities of Mennonites have resettled to escape the corrupting life in nearby Lott and other cities. Either unfortunately or by Divine guidance they’ve chosen a desolate area in a county adjacent to Clark County where a private nuclear waste dump has recently started disposing of radioactive materials from Los Alamos. I’m not sure which requires greater faith.  If I wanted to find another semi-arid bit of geography where people had felt more empowered by God to act cruelly towards one another, I’d have to drive to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Placing the center of a compass on my location and extending the leg out 150 miles the circle it would inscribe would contain all of these religious activities and white clapboard churches on gravel roads, storefront ministries, and religious home schools with Internet curriculum. This could have been Dante’s dark forest and Quanah Parker could be my Virgil, I felt I was lost in sacred counties.

Inn
From the free range of the Comanche territory to finding a place to dump nuclear waste took considerably less than two hundred years. As a perennial passing stranger, I remain in awe at the variety of intricate systems of belief that hold us in our various places. For the most part I can only believe what I learned as a boy in my catechism classes, that I don’t know, or frequently I don’t possess the same answers as other people. Theology tries to be logical; religion demands to be hard.

There is a fundamental part in us that seems to desire to be connected with things ancient, difficult and mysteriously cosmic, and there needs to be some trial or sacrifice to achieve our worthiness to accept belief. That desire to have contact with something primal fuels many the behaviors we don’t understand in others. We need a parental approval far deeper than the school counselor imagined when she tried to explain why we were disrupting class. Regardless of how it manifests itself, if we don’t somehow believe we are in contact with a genuine touchstone to our past, we are as lost as an old newspaper ad. People share some need to suffer correctly, obedience is somehow wired into us beyond a behavior to merely survive. It is a path to salvation, just as hard as this state highway bending through the villages left outside the storm linked Gates of Eden.  We traverse a series of speed zones built in townships where paradise has been postponed by a cruel variety of reasons and life continues amid the ungodly. Only here there are so many types of ungodliness buckling up with the pavement. When I stop for gas, it feels easy to believe.
A homing instinct for authenticity brings our bodies to places on this earth and allows us to endure and hope to understand. Perhaps it is in rare desolate places that religion seems most attractive. We’re misguided if we believe the people I’ve referred to are somehow primitive or inadequate because they don’t shop at Whole Foods, or employ the heels on cowboy boots for purposes other than style. Nor do I contend that they are privileged to a higher communion with the universe than an elderly widow living in a one bedroom apartment in Philadelphia. If a wrought iron man gets off of his horse to kneel and pray to the sense of order that keeps his allotment of land from spinning away from him whether by godless savages, or a government intent on persecuting his religion, or Stephen Hawking re-calculates the Higgs Boson’s relative value as a dark matter at the simultaneous beginning and end of the limits of our universe in the same frozen posture that has held him for decades, I may need both of those things and more to continue driving lost on this religious highway where theology has been written in blood down the way from the Dairy Queen.

E-Grace (part one)

September 11, 2013

E-grace

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Bride of Frankenstein, Universal Pictures 1935

“Muster no monsters, I’ll meeken my own…” W. H. Auden

The day before Christmas a friend sent me an e-mail requesting me to blog about Teilhard de Chardin. I hadn‘t thought of de Chardin since I was an undergraduate forty years ago. Some of us may vaguely recognize a pop contemporary image of Pere de Chardin as the film character Father Merrin from The Exorcist series of films. [There is a more arcane and perhaps more rewarding intrigue linking  Father de Chardin with papal demonic possession proposed by theologian/fiction writer Malachi Martin,  but I’ll just allude to it and allow Amazon to profit from the passing curious. [Hostage to the Devil ].

A few actual philosophers have reflected a demi-existence as semi-fictionalized characters in film, mostly it’s a typecast for a harmless, hermit.  A notable likeness of St. Jerome and also Martin Buber, I and Thou, befriends the Frankenstein monster in “Bride of Frankenstein” teaches it to speak, smoke and drink, then ironically is destroyed by his own recently civilized “friend”. A relationship only the tortured film genius’ of James Whale and Mel Brooks explored for filmgoers juxtaposed with variant images of the rough stitched Promethean that reaches beyond the limits of responsible science. Theirs is the warning in the first act that goes unheeded.  Philosophers are generally characterized as hermetic, disengaged and often ridiculed. For most American audiences they are European contemplative residue, a curious wasted life. In Romantic literature were the early stereotypes for ‘mad scientists’, individuals who linger in places ‘men should not go’. Faust and Viktor Frankenstein are examples of these demonic scholars.  Mary Shelly’s novel was published anonymously in 1818, and then publically fifteen years later, around the time of the Burk and Hare grave robbery/murder scandal, but fifty years before Darwin. The film “Bride of Frankenstein” was released in 1935, about the same time de Chardin was finishing The Phenomenon of Man, the same year Charlie Chaplin released his last wordless masterpiece “Modern Times” and Hitler became Fuehrer of Germany.

Monsters and comedians are one of the vocabularies we have for describing our subconscious thought to ourselves. Philosophers enjoy a posthumous regard, but generally as authors of aphorisms, i.e., “brainy quotes”. But we seldom think they are expressing what I’ve been feeling for a long time, more often they typify what I’d like to think if I could. They belong in old universities, movies, operas and novels, but even cable television can’t fill a late night rotation with “Top Ten Existentialist Diet & Exercise Programs“. Excepting actual philosophers, philosophy is a conscious activity, like a second language generally approached with uncertainty and a dictionary.

Marshall McLuhan famously portrayed himself in “Annie Hall” rescuing Woody Allen from a pompous bore on line at a movie. Coincidentally McLuhan’s theoretical global village was influenced by de Chardin’s writing particularly the concept of the noosphere. McLuhan was a devout Roman Catholic who initially read de Chardin from a hand distributed proscribed publication.

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St. Jerome removing a Thorn from a Lion’s Paw

Niccolo Anton Colantonio, c.1445

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Marshal McLuhan rescuing Woody Allen

Annie Hall, United Artists 1977

 

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Martin Buber, Charles Darwin and Gene Hackman.

                   

Although he didn’t die of a heart attack during an exorcism, Tielhard de Chardin’s actual biography is almost beyond believable cinema. He also belongs in the group of historical re-explorers like Highram Bingham and Howard Carter. His life was an awkward marvel of adventure, discipline, correspondence, and distance-made-personal as only someone from a religious order, in prison or having multiple affairs  can compartmentalize life. He was a renowned paleontologist participating in the identification of both the forged Piltdown Man and the authentic Peking Man. He was a frequently denounced by the Church he loved, denied both Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur for any publication during his lifetime, but simultaneously a well regarded Roman Catholic theologian who was both heretical and obedient. His theological work was condemned, removed from shelves by some conservative clergy, yet surreptitiously published, translated and distributed throughout the world by others. Among those who privately promoted and simultaneously publically disparaged his ideas was one of the hidden hands that shaped Vatican II, an ambitious, but terribly un-photogenic, cleric named Ratzinger who went on to the papacy.

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The fictional Father Merrin, the real Teilhard de Chardin, and the former Father Ratzinger.

It’s rare in the Twenty-First Century to discuss this heretic, mystic Jesuit. It’s rare since there are, to my knowledge, few Neo-de Chardinists who have translated his ‘transformative’ into something more profitable. The American Teilhard de Chardin Society is sponsored by the peripatetic Union Theological School, while its homepage is hosted at Yale. A membership costs $35 a year, $400 for a lifetime card. The society offers annual awards of $500 for the best research and $300 for the best lecture by a graduate student. No one has claimed either award for five years. For $15,000 one can purchase an original banned mimeograph of Le Phenomene Humain (by comparison a presentation copy of “Howl” recently sold for $75,000). In the tax-free world of religion this isn’t even walking around money. What neo-notion there is, is Progressive Theology which I assume still remains in the untroubled shallows of doctrine. His philosophical work dwells somewhere in the realms of Process Philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell, or in the tiny, exotic hothouse of Christian or Ecumenical Evolutionism. His notions of Omega Point theology may not be a heavy cross, but they’re certainly a complicated cross to bear.

Ostensibly, a request to produce a few hundred words on a philosopher wouldn’t be something I’m historically unfamiliar with, it was more like attending a college reunion. Writing other people’s papers was how I received my education in philosophy and writing fiction. de Chardin along with Hegel, Royce, Rahner, Sartre, Bonheoffer, and Martin Buber were worn tools of obfuscation and utilitarian quotation sources for my collegiate philosophy/theology ghost writing business. What topic can long endure a Hegelian Dialectic or an epistemological scrutiny? If Sartre or Buber wouldn’t provide a bon mote with pith, the cigar loving ethicist executed by Nazis could lend an unassailable, if sentimental, turn to even the most rambling essay. Where in the world of forced contemplation wouldn’t Bonheoffer’s term “cheap grace” be an undeniably summative critique?

Generally in writing philosophy papers my modified rhetorical form was to show a struggle, insert the apropos terminology with a modicum of awkward accuracy and then produce an epiphany. The more genuine task was to present that struggle, vocabulary and appropriate coming to understanding in a stylistic language that mimicked my customer’s classroom character and eradicated the existence of the actual author. That was a fair amount of sophistication for under $50, but my philosophical enterprise then (and now) was guided by a few cynical, but useful precepts:

  1. Writing about philosophy is portraiture for the unattractive; nearly every academic study desires flattery (and by extension the actual academic). In most institutions being an undergraduate professor is more like dulling office work than professing anything. For the most part papers are skimmed, then graded en masse by bored, disillusioned, frequently partially sober professors, who believe they should be doing something more important. For a ghost writer it’s crucial not to disturb that trance; ennui encourages self-deception. Although their professional vocation may be to see through illusion, they are nearly always willing to believe they’ve done a better job than they have, and students have done a worse job than they have. It’s more like a bad first date than an academic discipline.
  2. Philosophy starts with the premise whatever you think you know is wrong, and theology corrects what you thought you believed to be true. Philosophy is truth; theology is Truth.
  3. Common phenomenon in philosophical discourse are investing words with special single use meanings, violating syntax and inventing words, neologisms, portmanteau concoctions, triple-hyphenated-terms, retranslated etymologies and employing italics and parentheses needlessly. Philosophical writing displays the linguistic and grammatical ethics of an ambitious marketing executive. (Norman Denny, one of de Chardin’s translators, described using variant spelling of reflection [reflection and reflextion] to signify two totally different ideas as symbolic of the translator’s task.) One can pass sophomore Philosophy, by failing sixth grade English. Ghost writing success rests in employing as many tortured terms as closely together as possible and understanding the salvific potential of the word ostensibly as the first word in the sentence. No sentence can be too complicated or too dull.
  4. Modern philosophy, theology or religious philosophy are simpler subjects than historical philosophies since they only exist for specific realizations encrusted in self-described nonsense. In the philosophical, publish or perish world, garnering attention or selling a book is an understandably ambitious task.  Imagine when writing about Sartre or Derrida, ect. you are talking to your drunken great uncle, as soon as you repeat what he’s said twice he’ll stop jabbering, otherwise he goes on until one of you passes out. Your task isn’t to debate; it’s to figure out what he wants to hear, rattle your ice cubes and agree.
  5. If you can’t grasp a philosophical text by a close reading of the preface, introduction, and index, the chances of understanding the main themes are slim regardless of the quality of stimulants involved.
  6. Any book or article you have been in the same room with goes into the bibliography. You did use them to reach that crucial point in your thinking. And at the end of the philosophical day who doesn’t find more direction from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel than The Archaeology of Knowledge?
  7. Turn down all offers for short answer essays; you’re writing fiction not poetry.

In the years I wrote term papers the notion of plagiarism was a less negotiable standard of the Student Code of Ethics. My anonymity was the foundation of our bargain. Exposure of academic collaboration held strict penalties for my clients. Currently in our age of social networking, YouTube, apps, Moodle, blogosphere (there are Existential Web Rings among other unpredictable items http://www.webring.org ) and cooperative learning, my lack of identity and ability to finesse a personality struggling to a romantic enlightment on command would be considerably less valued.

Our Internet makes it possible for anyone to be near the information people need to know and a lot more they don’t. It’s an experiential flooding, not a teaching tool in the way libraries once were used to lead students to a particular truth. A library is a dedicated resource more like a labyrinth than a maze. It’s designed, like books themselves, for a kind of communal privacy, and like a book, it’s a self-contained, contemplative structure.  Library collections are focused on preserving and reflecting the architecture of a civilized mind. A private library, like a private art collection, has always been a signal of cultural status and identity. On Beauty, a book length essay by bibliophile and philosopher, Umberto Eco, includes by way of examples of illustrations of beauty, the plan for the Medici Laurentian Library by Michelangelo. It was built over a cloister enclosed by graceful light passing through walls both protectively enclosing and expressing the spiritual and cultural value of books. We can appreciate its form as well as its contents.

The Internet library is an occasionally visible, floating machine that meanders after ghosts; relentless motion seems more important than contemplation. It resembles Borges infamous Library of Babel more than the Bodleian, Papal Lateran, or any research library.  More than occasionally I use the Internet to augment my riddled memory. But usually when I wander around the Internet I’m not hoping for a specific answer, but rather an intellectual satiety akin to overeating.  I become intoxicated with information. Some Internet engine records where I’ve wandered, it tracks my site visits, runs them through its incessant algorithms and begins to silently guide me where it constantly re-calculates I would be attracted to visit and to buy something.

Unlike the libraries I used growing up and  where I occasionally did research for my term paper business, there are no shelves of selected volumes, no peer reviews, no periodicals assigned Roman numerals and consecutive numeration on a specialized topics, no reserves, no special collections, no perfume of aging leather, no soft spoken librarians to ask direction.  In the Internet there is little direct moderation, only a staggering tide of information displayed ten items to a page, and an invisible code that follows every visitor…a mathematical creature like a mirror with a memory…a busy little shop clerk bringing items into your periphery. The noise to shush in this library is in your head.

Ironically apropos of these distinctions I began composing this without a reliable working Internet connection, or a library. Earlier I found a volume of de Chardin in a used bookstore (clean, no notes) and copied a skeletal chronology of him before a server somewhere collapsed. Between composing and contemplating I’ve squandered hours in the ritual of disconnecting, counting to twenty, and then reconnecting the modem. I received direction by invisible technicians from all over the ethnic world of dialects answering my telephone calls of complaint.  I am now, as I was as an undergraduate, surrounded by a stack of a few opened books, some note cards, an erratic memory, insomnia and a willingness to revise whatever I write into something someone can have enough faith in to allow our common constructed epiphany.

Nothing brings me back to de Chardin like a common constructed epiphany.

End part one

Washing the Corpse

July 17, 2010

  

 

“and since they knew nothing about his life

  they lied till they produced another one.”

                                    Washing the Corpse, Rainer Maria Rilke

                                                            [translated by Edward Snow]

Tuesday my friend, Michael Silver Dragon died. He had been fighting his illnesses for as long as I knew him. He had been in hospice care for nearly a year. He was lifelong motorcycle rider; two summers ago he sold his motorcycle because he couldn’t ride anymore. A couple weeks ago he wanted to take me out for drive in his Tiburon. Over the last months he had taken up driving the mountain roads by himself and smoking little cigars while using his oxygen respirator. “I’m going to die soon” he told me” so cigar smoke isn’t going to kill me.” I suggested the exploding tank might; he laughed. It was a hacking laugh that suggested he was whacking things with a hatchet. I went on the condition that he wouldn’t smoke cigars while he was using oxygen. He took the curves and hills a little too fast, and drifted over the  line a bit while telling me what once was down this dirt road, or what Fenton Lake looked like before the highway went through. We laughed a lot with the loud laughter you sometimes hear in bars—that vague coughing sound that usually has little to do with what’s been said, but is releasing something that isn’t being said, but wants to. The paved road ran out and we decided to turn back. He was tired, but wouldn’t let me drive. We stopped in Seven Springs and visited a friend. We sat in her kitchen drinking tea and listening to the brook that runs outside her back door. It was a painterly moment…maybe a little too restless to be Romantic or Impressionist.

A silence fell into our conversation as our friends ate lunch. I looked at Michael and saw suppressed surprise in his eyes. He was lost, but I didn’t know where I should look to find him. Eventually the tea and honey found him and brought him back. Like most return trips we don’t remember many details, that was true of us and soon we were saying good-bye in the library parking lot where we left my car. By chance his wife and friend, Berta, was parking her car to attend a meeting. We all stood hugging and thankful. It would have been a kind perfection for things to have just evaporated into those instants of affection and fullfillment.

But they didn’t.

That is the kind of vignette that makes genuine human character rhetorical. It’s warm, sentimental and allows itself to be contrived by the pathos and a hinted knowledge of death. At this point Michael Silver Dragon is really dead. But in these scenes I have replaced him with my desire to produce an elegiac fictional Silver Dragon. I’m not writing an obituary; rather contriving a sweet eulogy intended to make my reader abstrusely sad, but also to engage in my fictionalization as a form of easy belief. You as my reader must believe this, in order for it to grow to be the truth. I confess to knowing practically nothing factual about Michael. For me he had little history other than our private shared adventures on my holidays and vacations. He could have been my Great Uncle Johnny. The day after he died I was asked to write the obituary. Those dictated facts were a series of revelations, which I suppose a certain amount any obituary actually is, but an obituary is also a symbolic punctuation indicating when the dead receive a new life as adjuncts to those of us who remain and construct memories. They belong to us, like movie characters or pop stars. We build the dead out of need. We shape them as the  poetic corpse washers shape the lies they need to tell one another. This is more about me, about my need to remember and forget the same thing. 

“Not all truth comes in beautiful words; not all beautiful words are truth.”

 Last Saturday morning Berta called from her panic. Michael wouldn’t wake up. Again. He had died several times in the years I’d known him. Yet he returned from the hospital again and again. He had fallen and hurt his neck, he had  pneumonia and he didn’t want to eat. When I arrived I found him twisted awkwardly on his bed. Berta was trying to support his neck. He moaned and pulled at bed clothes and the neck support pillow until his head drooped forward in a posture that made me cringe. Together we lifted and shifted him in their bed. He made noises, but not to us. Then he fell back to heavy sleep. Berta had hospice on the telephone. They were suggesting a hospital bed and neck brace. They were willing to bring them out that afternoon.

Things were collapsing too quickly.

Berta and Michael had scheduled respite care in a facility in Albuquerque so she could go to her father’s birthday party. I was supposed to spring Michael from the rest home the following Saturday. We would eat dim sum, find some mischief, then I’d bring him home. Berta and I surveyed the available space in their home. It would take some significant rearranging, but we could squeeze a hospital bed in somewhere, shifting out her study and furniture .

Things were spinning apart.

We tried giving Michael his medications. It took two of us to try to open his mouth. The pills drooled out on the wild goatee he’d been growing for twenty-five centuries. He was thrashing weakly. He was moaning. The medication took effect, he seemed quiet. I drove 30 miles to the Walgreens in Bernalillo for a foam cervical brace. We got it on him. The collar didn’t provide him any comfort. The hospital bed didn’t seem such a good idea. There were no beds available at the hospice hospital unit.

We’d have to wait for someone to die. 

The next morning Berta called.  A hospice bed on the unit was available. Michael would be transported by ambulance to Albuquerque. It would take most of the day to transport him and get his paperwork checked at the hospital. She wanted to do it by herself. She said she done it so many times, that alone was better. She suggested I come

later in the afternoon.

I drove to Santa Fe to the International Folk Arts Festival for diversion. I wanted to get lost in the crowds and ersatz open market of rugs, jewelry and carvings for a couple of hours. I had a couple of artists I wanted to see specifically. One made fantastic painted resin dioramas of Bolivian peasant life crossing barriers into other realms where they might be suddenly drinking or dancing with devils, angels or skeletons. The other was a Mexican muertos artist from D.F., who carved intricate calaveras on matchsticks. It was the last day of the festival; many of the artists were tired of listening to English. They sat sullenly painting, or dully detailing metalwork with small hammers. I couldn’t find the two artists I wanted to see. By chance I ran into Jacobo Angeles, a wood carver whose studio I had visited in Oaxaca. He was exhausted from shaking too many hands. His English met my Spanish and he turned me over to his nephew. “We have a website.” He handed me a card angeles@tilcajete.org. I bought a glass of iced tea made with all renewable resources. It had rooibos leaves, beet roots and ginger; I had a stomach ache, albeit a healthful one. It served to keep me from being dulled by the early afternoon sun.  There was drumming and dragon dancers were leaping on the plaza as I boarded the bus to the parking lot.

Driving back I found the World Cup final on the radio. It was being broadcast on a Spanish station. With the score zero, zero and cinque minutos left in regular time I spotted my favorite used bookstore in Santa Fe and a place to park. I found a used CD of the master copy of “John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard” and Edward Snow’s translation of Rilke,  A Head of All Parting. These items seemed essential in my immediate future. When I returned to World Cup the game was in extra overtime. Although I, along with the entire Spanish speaking Western Hemisphere, had waited for the elongated scream of “G-o-o-o-o-a-l!” when it happened I wasn’t much relieved. I stopped at the Santa Domingo reservation for gas. $2.59 a gallon. I chewed a few berry flavored Tums and drove towards the hospice hospital in Albuquerque.

Berta called on my cell phone, room #1029.

In Lovelace Hospital if you press the elevator button for the tenth floor any employee on the elevator, or getting on later, first is suddenly silent, tries to smile, then looks blankly away. Modern hospice care is a hospital service, not a dread Hotel Dieu, but quiet, orderly and intensely humane. What judgments the staff makes, they keep to themselves. They don’t use euphemisms; it’s death and dying. They look at you when speaking with you. When I asked at the desk, they knew who Michael was and that Berta was in the room with him.

Michael looked worse than the day before.

He was restless and more jaundiced,

He appeared to be suffering less.

We had had our last conversation.

I smoothed his hair and sat down.

Berta was exhausted and dazed.

We went out to find some dinner,

it turned out to be salads we pushed

with our plastic forks and then threw away.

She drove back home and I returned to #1029.

I sat as the sun was starting its slow summer setting. The hide-a-bed love seat sunk me deeper than was comfortable, but there was nowhere else to go. As distraction I wondered about Walt Whitman’s days as a nurse. How he must have learned, as these nurses had, how to intimately diagnose each detail of approaching death. I wondered how he was able to keep experiencing the buzz and yarp of the world. I wondered what that change meant to him as he walked home, or worried about enduring his persecutions and keeping his position a little longer. Did he still see the great cosmic body transcendent…or like me in this golden evening, seeing it struggling minute by minute, breath by breath, cell by cell, system by system, moving towards absence.

 Four years ago Michael completed translating The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. Having no Chinese, only his ambition translated the notion of wei wu wei.

[ http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/tao-te-ching-of-the-way-and-integrity/856790?productTrackingContext=search_results/search_shelf/center/1 ]

At the party when he finished it, I imagined, he’d discretely disappear along the huts at the Great Wall. But he didn’t, he continued living inside his dying.  Less than a century after the man who was the original author of the Tao Te Ching died, no one knew precisely when or where he disappeared along the frontier of the Empire. There were arguments over his family name, afterwards he was just called Lao Tzu, Old Man.

Michael Silver Dragon McKain (1939-2010)