Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Summer Of My Awakening

Beyond this universe of countless worlds and stars I find many more, wrote Philip Whalen in July, 1965. Beyond this temporary imagination I call myself and mine there are countless others. Far away, all by their lonesome.

Where was I in July, 1965? Who was I, in July, 1965?

I was a 17 year old high school graduate who was clueless about the future. I had no particular ambition, other than some vague sense of becoming an artist, probably a painter. I was not a big reader at the time, nor had any intellectual inclinations outside of a fondness for Shakespeare. I was adrift, inchoate, with nebulous longings and opaque intuitions.

I was living at my father’s house in Seattle. I had one other brother, and two stepbrothers, who were also living there. My stepbrother Mike, who had been one year ahead of me in high school, had graduated the year before and was working at one of the manufacturing plants at Boeing. He seemed to belong to another world. A notorious bon vivant and lady’s man in high school, he became silent and distant and carried a large black toolbox. My brother was four years younger me, still just a kid. The other stepbrother was the youngest, a quiet, obedient little fellow who would one day become a Republican, supervise a department at Boeing, and drive a Leviathan four-by-four.

I had to fill my summer with something other than loafing. My father was a man who believed strongly in the character-building value of work. He did not take kindly to malingerers, particularly when the malingering had the appearance of habit and earnest intent. I was now officially out of school. Lacking a fuller, more defined goal, a means to an income and independent way of life that did not smack too heavily of tedium and cramped, spirit-killing routine, I decided to postpone my entry into the world of commerce and industry at least another month or two. I decided to go visit my mother in San José, California, who was married to a car salesman named Carl, an affable, balding, middle-aged man with a nice sense of humor.

My mother was living in a two-bedroom apartment with a swimming pool in the central courtyard of the building. She worked as a secretary. I was pretty much on my own during the day. I spent a lot of time by the pool, lying on an adjustable chaise lounge listening to a transistor radio. Hits that summer included “You Were On My Mind,” by We Five, “Help!,” “Ticket To Ride,” and “Yesterday,” all by the Beatles, “Unchained Melody,” by the Righteous Brothers, “Just A Little,” by the Beau Brummels, “California Girls,” by the Beach Boys, “Come See About Me,” by the Supremes, and “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” by the Rolling Stones.

I liked being underwater a lot. I could stay underwater for an amazingly long time. I enjoyed hovering on the bottom like a manatee. I surfaced once just as a man in a business suit was preparing to dive in to save me. He thought I had drowned. He was quite relieved to find that I hadn’t. I was relieved that I surfaced in time to prevent him from jumping into the pool in his suit.

My mother got fed up with me lollygagging around. She and Carl drove to a nearby Car Wash and waited in the car while I went to inquire about a job. I felt very awkward. I had never asked anyone for a job before. I definitely didn’t want one. I preferred swimming and TV. But I recognized the fact that I would be turning 18 in a few weeks and that the luxurious irresponsibleness of childhood was about to go away for good. I hoped the manager of the car wash would recognize instantly that washing cars would be a ludicrous pursuit and a terrible incongruity for a shy and surly 17 year old fresh out of high school and urge me to seek employment elsewhere. He didn’t. Much to my amazement, he hired me. I started the next day.

I lasted four days. Four days of rubbing cars with a rag. That’s all I did. It seemed incomprehensible that rubbing cars with rags was any kind of a way to make money. I worked with a man who appeared to be in his late 20s. One day, a car appeared and some men got out and arrested the man. Handcuffed him and led him away. I never found out what this was about. No one stopped working. We all just kept rubbing cars with our rags as the man was led away. In some marvelously intuitive way, I realized that the captivity of this man being led to the car was not much different than the captivity of wiping cars with rags for eight hours in exchange for money.

My mother was not the least bit pleased when I told her I had quit my job at the car wash. She persuaded me to make a visit to the navy recruitment office at a nearby shopping center. I did it to please her. There was no way on earth I was going to join any branch of the military. The navy seemed far more benign than the army, just in case I fell prey to the lure of life in the military and an immediate solution to my employment problem, but four years rather than two gave me serious pause. I told the man I would give the offer serious thought. He gave me some pamphlets, which I threw away as soon as we got back to the apartment.

I was aware that when I turned 18 I would have to register with the draft, and that there was a war going on in Vietnam, but I did not think of it as a war, it seemed to be more of an occupation. Everyone was told that Vietnam was being invaded by communists and that U.S. intervention was required to keep the Vietnamese safe from communism. If Vietnam fell, the rest of the world was in dire jeopardy. It was all a bunch of bs as far I was concerned. Growing up, adults perplexed me with their fear of communism. They talked about it as if it were a disease like polio or tuberculosis. I never understood it. It was simply a political system. How could a political system hurt anyone? It made no sense.

I knew instinctively that I was not cut out for the military. It would be a disaster. Means would have to be found to avoid it, but that particular summer, it was still a distant reality. In fact, it seemed more than that: it seemed to be a total irreality. There hadn’t been that much protest to it yet, but I sensed something immoral about it, something nefarious and completely wrongheaded, and wanted nothing to do with it.

I also met a young woman named Jill that summer. She was 15, a couple of years younger than me, and was a member of the Santa Clara Swim Club. She was smart, pretty, and athletic, in many ways the quintessential California girl. Unwittingly, she became something of a guru to me. She was much more aware of current trends, and this was an age in which fashion was more than a superficiality, but a whole new way of perceiving and thinking and being in the world. She was aware of figures like Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure.

Jill had a passion for the British rock groups just coming into fashion. Except for the Beatles, I hadn’t seen what any of them looked like. I was a bit startled the first time I saw the Rolling Stones. I was familiar with some of their early hits, such as “Not Fade Away,” the Buddy Holly classic, and I had imagined them as being very cool in the manner of Steve McQueen, or James Dean, detached but masculine, tough but vulnerable. Well-groomed and slick like Ed Byrnes’s “Kookie” on the TV show 77 Sunset Strip.

This was patently not the case. Their hair was not only incredibly long, but shaggy, their expressions strangely, unashamedly effeminate. Not sissy effeminate; effeminate in a challenging, surly, rebellious way. It was the effeminacy of libertine outlaws, romantic rakehells, audacious sybarites.

I was confused. I didn’t know what to make of these Rolling Stones, whether to mock them, or emulate them. They were so contrary to the image of the American male embodied by Elvis and Yul Brynner and John Wayne. There was nothing about them to suggest stoicism and taciturnity. They looked neither combative, nor aggressive, nor hard or emotionally sterile. They looked wild and subversive, more like the tough, motorcycle jacketed rockers of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent than the modish, somewhat genteel look of the Beatles, but without the usual male hubris. There was an evident sensitivity there they made no effort to hide or contain. They resembled the romantic poets whose portraits adorned the walls of an English literature class I had taken in high school, Keats and Shelley and Coleridge, with a large dollop of James Dean’s male vulnerability and intensity mixed in for good measure. I sensed in this new look and music a path opening up, a fresh new potential for creating a life of poetry and creativity. When I returned to Seattle that August I felt that something in me had changed, but what, or how, I couldn’t say. The standards for what constituted the good life seemed less credible, and quite possibly harmful. I had been offered a new possibility.

Possibilities. There was more than one world.

And then it happened. I was riding with a couple of pals in a ’55 Plymouth sedan, on our way to a junkyard to buy a used automobile part. I heard “Like A Rolling Stone” blare from the backspeakers, “how does it feel / to be without a home / like a complete unknown / like a rolling stone,” and that was it. I felt like I exploded all at once into the person I was somehow meant to be.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Driven To Drive

A central fact of my existence has been defined by driving. Stepping on a pedal, feeding gas to a set of pistons, moving through space and time in a shell of glass and steel, hands on a steering wheel, eyes forward, occasionally checking the rear view mirror, changing lanes, passing other cars, going places in what amounts to a stupor most of the time, devoting just enough attention to the vagaries of the external world to prevent collision and death.

My first car was a blue Ford ’55 station wagon. The paint had worn and the outer shell had a somewhat mottled, calico look, that I very much enjoyed. It looked funky and strangely welcoming. I can’t remember what became of that car. I was 18, fresh out of high school, my highest ambition in life was to become perpetually drunk, party, chase girls, and welcome whatever life and adventure happened to plop on my adolescent plate. I remember taking a trip to the ocean with a group of friends, four men and four women, caravanning in two cars. Since I had a station wagon, my car was loaded with cases of beer. We went to Oceanshores, a little resort town on the Washington coast with a long broad sandy beach, built a bonfire, swilled beer, got drunk, laughed and frolicked until it was time to return home. One of the cars returned without a member, a tall, affable, though highly volatile young man from North Dakota, who had chosen to wear a wet suit and flippers, got into an argument with the members of the other car, insisted on stopping and getting out, and hitchhiked back to Seattle in his wet suit and flippers.

I went a long stretch without owning a car, or driving, in my late teens and early 20s. I moved to San José, California, and lived very simply while attending San José City College. This was 1966 and the Zeitgeist was very much on my side. It was considered cool to be poor, avoid commodities, cars and houses in particular, and commune intimately with the planet. Much better to walk barefoot and feel the grass and asphalt beneath one’s feet than the rubber and plasticity and linoleum and tile of a world grown severely Cartesian and detached from the natural world. It was high virtue to shun the world of commerce and industry, vigorously protest the war in Vietnam which was an immoral, sinister extension of capitalist predation, tune in, drop out, and absorb the wisdom of the east. Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Taoism. The Beatles incorporated the sitar into rock ‘n roll and incense burned and hair grew long and clothing got colorful and zany. It was a good time. The Volkswagen bus was hugely popular. It was low key, funky, and easy to work on.

I got married in 1970 and we bought a Volvo. I don’t remember much about it, except that one morning it wouldn’t start, which put me into a towering rage, and made me late for school. San José did not have a viable public transit system. I waited an hour for a bus to come, which never did come. The marriage didn’t work out, and a few years later, I found myself back in Seattle.

From 1975 to 1978 or so I drove a four-door Dodge Dart. This was a good car, reliable and easy to drive, but at the time I did not really want or need a car. The Dart had belonged to my stepmother. My parents insisted that I take it. I told them I did not make enough money to properly take care of it. I can’t remember what made me finally give in to their insistence, but the results were sad. Unable to maintain it, or buy insurance, the car eventually decayed into immobility. For a time, I played a game with the meter maid. It was parked on a city street. The apartment building in which I lived did not have a garage or driveway. In Seattle, you can keep a car parked on the street for a maximum of three days. On the fourth day, I checked the tires. There was a chalk mark on the rear right tire. I removed it with a rag. This continued for about a week. The meter maid decided to get tricky and left a tire mark on the left side, on the side opposite from the curb. But I got it. This went on until I sold the car, which wasn’t even running. I think I sold it for $50 dollars. The people that bought it were extremely happy. To this day I wonder why. What is it about a ’65 Dodge Dart that made them so happy? Their happiness made my dereliction seem all the worse.

My next car was a Toyota two-door sedan and appeared during my second unfortunate marriage. I have few memories of it. I do remember waking up one morning to discover that some malefactor had systematically gone down 19th Street on Capitol Hill and shot out the windows of each car, ours included. We had to pay to have the windows replaced. After our divorce, I resorted once again to Seattle’s public transit system, and rode the 43, 14, and 7 to and fro from the University District, a ride of about 10 minutes, enough to read a paragraph or two, or gaze out the window dreamily on way to work, or even more dreamily on my way home from work.

The car my wife and I now own is a red ’94 Subaru which continues to run quite well (knock on wood) although a few mufflers have rusted through and fallen off. This is because our drives tend to be very short, little errands we run to Costco and the grocery store, so that condensation builds without being fully evaporated. The furthest we have driven the car was Denver, Colorado, in 1995. We went to visit a friend of my wife’s who was attending Naropa, in Boulder. I remember how the brake linings smoked and burned on our way down the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, on Interstate 70.

Roberta and I dream of one day not owning a car at all. No more expenses paid for oil changes and check-ups, car insurance, gasoline. During the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico we did not have the heart to drive at all. We stopped driving. It wasn’t a protest staged to effect change, because such a minor alteration of our behavior would be futile as far as bringing the nefarious oil industry to its knees. We just sickened each time we got behind the wheel and turned the ignition key. It felt like slapping mother earth full in the face. I bought some gear at REI, a little backpack and carrier for my wallet, and incorporated errands into my daily run. It felt good. When the ultimate mode of transport becomes your own body, you feel in harmony with the air, the birds, the trees, and everything else sweet and good on the surface of his old spinning planet.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Braque Afternoon

Words carved out of air tickle the lucidity of mosquitoes during the revelation of pearl. Cylinders push the car. Space cures the gantries by duet. Limestone pipes heft the omen. Personification fantasizes a steam.

Brocaded proposals solicit tin zipper this. A Braque afternoon has energy. Anger stirs the train. Nimble dollops of brown put emotion in motion. Syllables house eyes.

Hirsute the may jar comb. Embody impulse wash the confusion with music. The sopranos jingle their processions behind the ink. Summer flows from the breath of spring. A box squeezed red until it rumors agitation.

This mutates into utility. Problems begin to stray into clarity. Moccasins enhance the talk of dinosaurs. We map the incense with bells and bamboo. Buffalo grab swimming and like it.

A cut in the car bleeds less than a carat. Oats are experience consonants are bowls. Humor description be an oval. Be a vague area in the Louvre yet serious as keys with a pungency of underworld Etruscans holding candles below the army of Philistines stirring our resilience. It ruminates Bach to a foot below me.

Excursion knots a despair when the swamp is privately painted. Languor has a spice that dazzles even the frogs. Touch personality with a decorated towel. The force of doctrine is rough on a puddle. Oblivion’s lobsters burst out of a pronoun pinching the salt of stenography.

Wave the river scrupulously. Drag the paradigm out of the blob with a gargantuan yank. Birch and glue the skin. There is more theorem than kerosene in the meaning knob. Semantic trousers sewn with a walking eye.

The gift of fiction explains the bones of the cuckoo. Injury is more flower than wound. Navigation does not alter the sphere. Perception earns the treasure of your sun. Those who collide eventually take to flipping.

Clapping begins with the ravenous hands of a bemused public attention, and ends with the bottle of a hushed voice. Let’s get our airplanes in order. Do nebulas in the flower parlor. Hum herds of meandering sound during a luminous cotton. Give hectic legs to a curious dance.

My chair is entirely metaphorical and upside down. If you find me sitting in it, you will find me upside down. Therefore is blossoming a suspension and suspension, however suspended, suspect in sustenance. The rascally gloves of time squirm in the fingers of bias. Erect a salon of wax then savor a vapor of wick and wicket.

Lure words to the brain absorption is hinged to mustard. Punish the tease of the fabric not the vividness of the skin. Montmartre bangs in its slants. Form heaves with simultaneity. Nothing succeeds like the coherence of wind.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On Being Naked

Fire engines and pigeons and rain, wrote Philip Whalen one day. Business as usual. But here is my question: where is the duct tape?

My wallet is falling apart. I’m reluctant to give things up, especially wallets. I get attached. I especially get attached to wallets. They become an appendage. They ride all day in my back pocket. For years. They are homes away from homes. My entire history and identity is contained in my wallet.

Driver’s license, credit cards, library cards, Sound Health & Wellness Trust, Seattle Art Museum, AAA, Elliott Bay Book Card, REI membership card, Amnesty International, Staples, a Metro Card from New York that I saved because of the quote on the back, from Confessions, by Saint Augustine: "Too late I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! And, behold, you were within me, and I out of myself, and there I searched for you."

Brandon Downing, Sureshot Coffee, Seattle Wrote, Dark Coast Press, Metro Moggie Cat Sitting. This is my portrait. This is who I am. King County U.S.A. voter. South West Plumbing. Allstate Insurance. Tip Chart. Silver Platters. Gretchen Michels Hair Technician. Social Security. National Waffle Association.

The strangest thing about going naked outdoors, in the woods, at a beach, somebody’s house, is being without one’s wallet. One feels utterly disconnected from one’s social identity. Not having the proper identity can lead to trouble.

Back in the 80s I moved to a different apartment and neglected to get my address changed on my driver’s license. The entry door was shoddily made, a hollow core door that had warped, having a western exposure. You had to push on it several times to make sure it was closed all the way. I was pushing on it one summer afternoon as I was leaving for work and a woman cop spun into the driveway, got out, and asked what I was doing. I told her I was checking to see the door was locked. She asked to see my I.D. I handed her my driver’s license. The address didn’t match. I tried to convince here I actually lived there. She was on the verge of arresting me. Happily, the next door neighbor came out and identified me. Satisfied that I was not a robber, the lady cop cautioned me to get my address changed on my driver’s license, and went on her way.

The duct tape was in the bottom cupboard, on the bottom shelf behind the clothes iron. I wrapped a small piece around the part of my wallet where the leather had split and its engorged contents were spilling out.

A man in Helsinki affirms that the people there do not rely on language as a key to one’s social identity as they do in France, England, and the United States. I disagree. I believe this was true about the United States some thirty or forty years ago, when using big words would identify one as an educated and cultured member of the upper class, despite the actuality of your income. Now it’s all about money. There is no longer any pretense to culture and education. Retail managers have at best a primitive use of the language and frequently misspell and misuse letters in their memos and signs and it does not bother them in the least. One finds typos and poor grammatical construction in newspapers and magazines with disquieting frequency. Nobody seems to mind. Nobody seems to care about language anymore. People no longer pride themselves on their education and command of language. It’s all about money. Look at Sarah Palin.

Age imposes an identity on you. Youth, middle age, old age. When you get old and complain about things you get called a curmudgeon. Your observations are discredited. You say negative things not because your observations are acute or your life experience has empowered your capacity for perception and thought but because you’re old and crabby. Old people crab about things all the time. They have back problems. Arthritis. Envy. Jealousy of the young.

It’s hard to tell people that the planet is dying without being called a curmudgeon. Or wallowing in pessimism porn. Nobody wants to hear that the planet is dying.

And who would? I don’t like to hear that the planet is dying, that by 2050 all marine life in the oceans will be extinct. But that’s what the scientists have been saying. It’s got nothing to do with my age.

Michael McClure writes: WITHIN I FELT REVOLT AND RIPPED MYSELF FROM MYSELF. / I FEEL REVOLT AND RIP MYSELF, til my / eyes spread and my nostrils burn, become the infant / of myself’s desires.

What an astonishing statement. The violence of revolt against the staleness of being comfortable in a single, unchanging identity, a creature of habit, a being cloistered in smug delusions, unable to live fully and broadly, incapable of making a sustained deferment of opinion and judgment, of hatching out of a shell of habit and outlook and exposing the tenderness of one’s authentic being to the actualities and unfiltered sensations of experience. What we desire and what we get are at odds with each other, wrote John Dewey in “Art As Experience.”

One can be naked and yet fully clothed, or fully clothed and naked. Nakedness is a state of mind.

Nakedness is also being fully exposed, without any clothes. Animals are never naked. Or people covered head to toe with tattoos.

We all wear masks. You have to. You cannot hold down a job without presenting a false front to the people you truly despise. Hypocrisy is always a pejorative term. Perhaps it should not be.

Skin is the frontier between our bodies and the external world. But skin is not concrete. It’s an organ in which the outer world is constantly permeating. There is no real division there. We are intimately involved with the world. There is continuous merging. Our experience with the world is like a conversation. There are pauses, inflections, interchange, yet each speaker retains their identity even as they merge their ideas and thoughts with the ideas and thoughts of their partner. Some reach a conclusion and are clothed. Some never reach a conclusion and are eternally, radically naked. There is often a consummation, but no conclusion. No buttons buttoned. No laces tied. No shirt tucked in.

In the morning, when I put my clothes on, there is a weight that is not simply the weight of my clothes, my jeans, the jingle of change in my pocket, the final clasping of my belt has the feel of armor. A psychological armor. Assuming a role. Getting into costume. One almost wishes there were lines already prepared for utterance. A story. A conflict of which one knew its dimensions, the size of its circumference, its pitfalls and mines, its weak points and strong points. But there are no lines. Costume, sure. Lines, never. You do that yourself. Compose yourself as you go along. Try to get it right.

At night, when I take my clothes off, I usually start with my pants, let them drop, wrestle my legs out, then unbutton my shirt, toss it on the couch. It feels great. I love that feeling. Love being rid of all that appurtenance. And then there is the final undressing, which is letting go of consciousness, and going to sleep, and sliding into oblivion.

The night is itself an undressing. The world takes off its sky and exposes itself to the stars. Then morning comes with a fresh set of circumstances and errands. Vestments of the new day. Rain on the hydrangeas. Delicious warmth of mid July. Fire engine siren. Car honk. Rise and fall of a cat breathing slowly on a pillow. Smell and taste of coffee. Doors slammed. Ladders raised. Ambitions pursued.

The ultimate wig and chemise is desire. Those are the boots we walk in. Desire. Black, shiny desire. Yearning. Hunger. Revenge.

Some wear uniforms. Some go with cotton and rayon. Some with silk and denim. But it all comes down to finding warmth and protection among the thorns of daily existence. Perception, says McClure, is a shape of the darkness seeing itself.

The softness of human skin is shocking in its vulnerability. Which is why sociopaths seem reptilian. And strippers appear Circean, turning men to pigs.

Desire is clothing. Nakedness is that place beyond death where the dawn sleeps and protons glimmer in and out of emptiness.

Even the president of the United States, sang Mr. Dylan, must sometimes have to stand naked.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Reflections On The Fourth

I hate the Fourth. But I love fireworks.

Unless you have a place of refuge, a cabin in the woods, an isolated vacation rental near Moclips, or reservations at the Hotel Sube in Saint Tropez, you cannot escape the Fourth. Its noise and imbecility are ubiquitous.

Cretins of all stripe and color are given carte blanche on the Fourth to blow their fingers off, destroy property, and commit general mayhem. This is their day. Their day to plumb the depths of imbecility and blacken the name of prudence with acts of raw insanity.

The use of fireworks is banned in Seattle. The regulation is heartily, meticulously, and emphatically unenforced. I have not seen a single cop fine or arrest anyone for discharging fireworks. Ever.

When I say I love fireworks, I’m not referring to the crap sold outside city limits, M80s, bottle rockets, cherry bombs, and sparklers, I’m referring to the big stuff: aerial shells fired out of mortars buried in sand on a floating platform, usually a barge. The kind that squiggle hundreds of feet in the air like an incendiary spermatozoa and explode into chrysanthemums and showers of crackling rain. The shows are carefully orchestrated and timed. They rarely go on for more than a half hour. Unlike the neighborhood cretins who keep everyone awake until 2:00 in the morning.

Seattle used to have two big fireworks displays, one on Puget Sound, the other on Lake Union. Now we have just the one, provided that enough sponsors step forward to finance it. This year’s display was sponsored primarily by Microsoft and Starbucks.

Roberta and I headed down to Lake Union at about 9:00 p.m. Lake Union is a small lake sandwiched between Puget Sound to the west and Lake Washington to the east and are joined by the Lake Washington Ship Canal. There is very little open shoreline on Lake Union, which is densely populated with marinas, restaurants, businesses, and houseboat neighborhoods.

We found a spot near Signature Yachts, a viewpoint blocked by a high railing. A few other people were lingering there, mostly young couples with their kids. I pondered the possibility of climbing up and sitting on the railing, but it was too high to make that a feasible enterprise. It would be a precarious perch. I gazed at the water below, which was shallow enough to reveal a huge pipe. If I did manage to get my butt ensconced on the top rail, and happened to fall, that’s what I would hit. Not to mention getting soaked. This summer has been the coolest I have known in Seattle. Highs have barely reached 70. Getting soaked was not an idle prospect to be trifled with.

I folded my arms on the railing and rested my head on my arms.
There were three enormous yachts floating in the distance. Each was as large as a three-story building. I pointed to them and told Roberta that’s where our Social Security and Medicare were going. I indulged in a brief fantasy of aiming a bazooka at each and watching as they exploded into splinters and flames.

There was a huge crowd at Gasworks Park on the other side of the lake. We could hear music. I thought at first that there was a live band playing, but as soon as I heard the distinctive chords of Jimi Hendrix’s "Star Spangled Banner," it became obvious the music was taped. Almost all of the songs that were played dated from the 60s and 70s. It occurred to me that that music is now 40 to 45 years old. If, say, in 1968 they had played music that old we would have been listening to “Doin’ The Raccoon” and “When The Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along.”

I can’t remember a time when I felt anything like a patriotic emotion. I remember a time when I felt lucky to have been born in a country that offered such a high quality of life, free and open access to education, colleges where the tuition was so low as to be non-existent to nominal, public schools that encouraged students to think, where learning anything by rote was discouraged as the activity of a crass and vulgar mind, doctors that made house calls and charged a very modest fee, books published for the quality of writing and originality of idea rather than sensationalism or fame, free clinics, free parking, water fountains galore, roads and highways where hitting anything like a pothole or bump only occurred in the most remote and dismal of places, apartments and houses where the rent was so cheap you could get by on a part time job while pursuing a more creative occupation such as painting or writing and have plenty of money left over for food and bills and eating out occasionally, or a lot. Where the idea of a bridge collapsing was as remote as a volcano erupting in midtown Manhattan. Where a single parent doing even a menial job as a janitor or parking attendant could afford a house and raise a family while the other parent stayed home to watch the kids and maintain a clean and orderly house.

That country is long gone. It feels so utterly remote now as to constitute a once mythical utopia, the lost continent of Atlantis or the golden city of El Dorado.

I feel a great admiration for the people who fought against the British in the late 1700s. They put their lives on the line for a cause and the misery of a great injustice. They refused to be exploited. I wish it were that way now. The United States is once again under attack. But this time it is under attack by a tiny cabal of über-rich oligarchs. The enemy is insidious. Treacherous. When the President publicly states that he is considering cuts to vital programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, one realizes that one is no longer represented by the people holding power, but threatened. Under attack.

Thoughts of patriotism do not enter my mind on the Fourth. No more than a belief in Santa Claus fuels my enjoyment of Christmas. I just like the fireworks. Those immense explosions. The burst of colors and lights followed seconds later by a loud report. Thud. Bang. Boom. It’s exhilarating. Like watching the universe burst into life out of the void. Out of nothingness.

The United States, as a political entity, fills me with shame and revulsion. It murders, pillages, oppresses and tortures using national security as the flimsiest of excuses for such flagrant immorality. But the United States as a culture in which people such as Walt Whitman and Henry Thoreau and Janis Joplin and Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan and Billy Holiday and Mark Twain and Martin Luther King have been shaped is something else. It’s like a subterranean United States. It’s not the United States that is seen on television or babbled about on right wing radio shows. That United States is monstrous. Despicable and evil. The other United States, the one in which people find means to resist and lead lives of joyful energy and creativity, that one I can live in. That one doesn’t give me a bad conscience, or fill me with fear and loathing. That one isn’t called The United States. It doesn’t have a high falutin’ title. It’s the weird old America of Wild Bill Hickok and Sitting Bull. Vikings roasting a goat. Arapaho naming a mountain peak. Choctaw inventing verbs for sewing and talking and riding a horse to the moon.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Soft Warm Smooth And Conscious

Is a line I stole from the poem Priapic Hymn
By Philip Whalen who apparently took the time
To celebrate slippery dong and balls all over
The appeal of this line if it is not apparent already
Is the lovely way it sums up the feeling of being
Alive and human a mammal with hair and legs
Testicles toenails fingernails opposable thumbs
Eyes ears nose a torso a cock a pair of shoulders
With a head on top thinking thoughts about consciousness
It’s my favorite topic my biggest fascination
My hypothesis concerning consciousness is this
As soon as nerves evolved a feeling of being alive blossomed
Out of what I’m not sure a glop of protein
That grew into stalks and eyeballs
And needed to eat to say alive and so went looking
For something to eat which requires a small degree
Of planning and strategy an organism is largely urged
To interact with the environment out of a desire to eat
Or procreate the whole thing is baffling what’s the purpose of it all
Where does it lead the planet is dying there are too many humans
         on it
You cannot say human intelligence developed so as to maintain
That clearly is not the case the planet is dying
From too many wars too much oil dug up and burned into the air
Radioactivity ignorance greed cruelty madness veins squirting
Bones protruded cadavers everywhere in the street
Rock stars riding in limousines dictators eating pretzels figure
Twirling on Helsinki ice all aglitter all awhirl and why not it’s
We all begin as an embryo a multicellular glop of neurons and glial
Which later turn into a dentist or dictator depending on a
Of circumstances called destiny when the mouth develops a
Of raw sienna the need for expression is partially redeemed
In the movements of a brush on the surface of a canvas
Or a series of words written down on a sheet of paper or pumped
Into sound in the form of speech which is another form of
The syllable is an embryo the sentence is a fetus a paragraph is a
Or elephant or ape or homo sapiens male or female Elton John or
         Lady Gaga

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Words Words Words

I have a head full of words. They’re easy to extract. I can either extrude them through my mouth, à la aluminum tubes or beryllium blocks, shaping them with my tongue and lips and filling them with air and sound, or write them down on paper, or a computer screen. But as soon as I launch one batch, another set of words appears, demanding expression. They seem to self-propagate.

I can’t get away from them. It’s part of being a human being and living within a certain culture. One that shares words. One that makes sounds that have meaning for one another.

And then one day I got drunk and starting tossing out words whether they made sense or not. I had a lot of fun doing that. I soon learned that the very process of tossing words out willy-nilly produces a state of intoxication. Handy, if you like being delirious, not so handy if you need to find employment.

Today I want to avoid anything unpleasant. Making an appointment to have a new molar installed, or doing the laundry. I often have an urge to lie down on the floor and stare at the ceiling.

Eyeballs are created out of muscle, jelly, blood vessels and nerves. Light waves stream through the jelly activating nerve impulses that carry the shapes and colors to the brain where they are identified according to patterns learned while growing up. Today those light waves consist of just about everything. Lamps, cat, stove, plants, sunlight, cars, rocks, towels, tomatoes, onions, jars, drawers, computer keyboard, computer screen, glasses, soap, coffee grinder, thermos. Words. More and more words. Fucking A.

And then there is the matter of ears. This morning I awoke to the sound of the washing machine. Though I didn’t know it was the washing machine. It sounded more like a cement truck whining away as it spewed wet cement into a cavity. It was a large, intrusive humming and whirring sound that later developed into a rumbling. The building shook. Someone was doing laundry early this morning. It must have been an emergency. Whoever it was must have needed some clean clothes pronto. The machine was set on heavy. What were they thinking of wearing? A double breasted cement suit? An earthquake? Tornado tennis shoes and a hurricane tie?

I was trying to listen to Hal Sparks on the radio. He’s filling in for Stephanie Miller and The Mooks. He’s a terrible radio host. He does not have a pleasant voice and his speech mannerisms are annoying. He inserts um between all of his words. This morning he was going on and on about how gays should be able to marry. Of course they should be able to marry. What a boring subject. Why does this need to be debated. Christians called in and said they objected. When gay people marry it destroys the institution of marriage. I don’t follow this logic. Sometimes people use words in a manner intended to convince you of something but the process gets so muddled it goes backwards. It reverses. Instead of sounding rational it sounds insane.

All marriage is is a promise to stay with someone for as long as possible. Until death do us part they say. So it’s pretty serious. That’s a heavy commitment. Because if you stay around anyone long enough, no matter how much you like them, it’s a guarantee they’re going to drive you crazy at some point. But that’s all marriage is. That simple promise. And whether you fulfill that promise is a lot of work. It’s not just words. Some things are just words. But marriage is not just words. It’s punching a wall instead of a person. Or staying by somebody’s bed when they’re sick. Possibly dying. It makes no difference whatever whether you have the same genitalia or not. Genitalia are only marginally involved. Either for having kids, or having a good time. But that’s not marriage. You can share the pleasures of genitalia without being married. People do it all the time.

So who wants to hear a bunch of crazy ass Christians denouncing gay marriage on the radio? Hal Sparks does. It makes him look cool and smart to argue with these people.

You never see words stuck in a beard like food. That’s because words are just sound and air. Hallucinations, really. Because they represent something or someone not present. If I say there is a giant parrot eating the Eiffel Tower it may or may not be true. I could even say it in French. Il y a un perroquet géant mangeant La Tour Eiffel. But that does not make it any truer. It may be true and it may not be true. You would have to go to France to find out. Or turn on the TV and see if anyone is reporting it.

There was a time when people used words like jewelry to show off their education. Big words like ‘distensible’ or ‘ithyphallic.’ But now that it has become cool to be ignorant and illiterate you don’t find that to be the case quite so much anymore. The American empire is crumbling and so is its language. Ironic, when you consider the fact that this is occurring during a time when people have access to so much information and so many tools for communication. But that’s why they invented twitter. So people could remain stupid while communicating with one another.

Stupidity has its charms, no doubt about it. But on balance, it is richer to be curious and expand your knowledge of things.

Because if you ever find yourself in prison, I guarantee that if you know enough words, you can always get out. Consciousness itself can be a prison. Ignorance is a prison. Language is the key to open the doors of that prison. Words words words said Hamlet with ironic contempt. You can never get rid of them and sometimes they tire your brain but most often they’re your ticket out of this world.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Breaking And Entering

Last night I broke into the Louvre. I was home, reading a magazine, when I suddenly felt an acute hunger for art. Do you know what it is to crave something? Of course you do. But this was different. This was beyond craving. There is no word for what I felt. My blood was electric. I was driven. I felt like a tiger trapped in the furious oils of Delacroix.

I am not a young man. I know what desire is. I have been driven by it a thousand times to say stupid things and do stupid things and finish an evening’s revelry with the sting of remorse and the angst of dissolution. Multiply this by a hundred, by a thousand, and you will begin to get a glimmer of what drove me to break into the Louvre.

I discovered that breaking into the Louvre is easy. But there are alarms everywhere. Duh. It wasn't long before the police arrived.

They looked everywhere. But they did not know where to look. Police are unaccustomed with phenomena such as this. It is not in their training. And yet I was there. I was there the whole time.

You could see me in the Mona Lisa's smile. In the soft cerulean sky of Odilon Redon's Le Char d'Apollon. In the lush green trees of Titian's The Pastoral Concert. In the wings and golden halos of Giotto's Lamentation. In the candle flame and shadows of George de La Tour's Saint Joseph The Carpenter.

I'm the man in the tophat holding the rifle in Delacroix's Liberty Leading The People.

I'm the fur and jewels in Rembrandt's portrait of Henrickje Stoffels with a Velvet Beret. I'm the tenderness with which he painted her. The bristles of the brush. The texture of the paint. The moment itself forever eluding the vicissitudes of time.

I'm The Buffoon With A Lute, Pandemonium, and Boy With A Club Foot. I am the frill in Titian's Man With The Glove, the heavy black robe in Erasmus of Rotterdam. In Louis Le Nain's Peasant Family, I am a spoon and a ladle and a cat on the floor. I am a beard and a wrinkle. I am the dirt and the folds of old, dingy clothing. I am the table. The chairs. The darkness, the weariness, the quiet dignity and resignation.

I am the boy playing the flute in the middle of the painting. The flute is so thin you can barely see it, barely see that amid this misery is a boy playing a flute. It is a wonder. This kid playing a flute among these sad, bitter people. No one appears to be listening. The old man at the table under his big floppy hat appears to have lost all hope. He takes what is given. He assumes nothing. His feet rest solidly on the ground.

When it was agreed that no one was in the museum and that something accidental, bad wiring or a mouse, must have tripped the alarm the police left the museum and it all turned quiet again. I dripped from the ceiling in beads of light and made my way home in the soft Paris night. Someone shouted: look! A tiger! And someone else, no, no it is just a boy with a club foot. And someone else, no, it is neither a boy nor a tiger, it is a fierce woman in a green dress crossing a barrier of debris and wounded men clutching a rifle and a flag. The top of her dress is undone and her magnificent breasts show us the voluptuous promise of the future. Follow that woman's breasts! She is leading the way to wholeness and liberty. And one old man opened his eyes in wonder and said, mon Dieu, c'est le Char d'Apollon! The Louvre has escaped!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Making Sense Of Sense

How many senses do I possess? Are there more than five? Is there a sense I haven’t discovered yet? Is poetry a sense, or simply a literary form? That is to say, is language an antenna, or a ganglionic mass of syntax and nerves?

If I had another sense, wouldn’t I simply sense it? I don’t think about touch, I touch. Don’t think about hearing. I hear. Don’t think about seeing. I see. Don’t think about tasting. I taste. If Ismell a rose I smell a rose. I don’t think about smelling a rose. I don’t think, smell a rose, then smell a rose. I simply smell a rose. None of these things are cerebral. They just occur. Happen.

But what if a sense were so subtle, I didn’t know I was sensing it, even though I was sensing it. Sensing the sense. Without sensing the sense. Because it’s too thin, too delicate, too ethereal.

But that doesn’t make any sense. How would I not know I was sensing something? Something not touch, or sound, or sight, or taste, or smell? Something ineffable. Something beyond the scope of language. Something I felt but could not say what I was feeling. Or that I could not affirm that what I sensed corresponded with something in the outside world. In the same way that something wet and sweet on my tongue is translated into a cherry, or an unpleasant quality on the skin is interpreted as cold, or something liquid and black and bitter to the taste can be identified as coffee.

Charles Olson did mention something about a proprioceptive sense. This is the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body. The cavity of the body in which the organs are slung. Lungs, stomach, kidneys, intestines. All that gooey gooshy slimy convolution. Blood moving and moving through the veins, pumped by a muscle, the heart. The body of us as object which spontaneously or of its own order produces experiences of depth. A position, as being seated in front of a computer, a movie screen, cockpit of an airplane, or dentist’s office, someone, man, young woman, is bending over, concentrating heavily on our open mouth. They have latex gloves on their hands, and the radio is so low it can barely be heard. There are mountains on the ceiling. And a bright fluorescent light, for which the dentist has kindly provided sunglasses.

It gets to be a story. The senses combine to bring us the world, and it is delivered all at once, which makes it hard to organize in a paragraph. Poetry is more adept at this sort of thing.

Consciousness as ego, followed by judgment. Judgment has, of late, acquired a negative flavor. People often say: don’t judge me. Or, it’s so nice to be around friends who don’t judge you. That’s stupid. These aren’t friends, these are morons. I’m friends with people because they have judged me. They have judged me worthy to be a friend. And so there is friendship.

But’s matter for another discussion.

So let me ask you: do you have passions beyond your understanding? Beyond your control? Beyond the bounds of polite society? If civilization were to disappear tomorrow, would you miss it?

I would miss running water, electricity, and cellophane, but not much else. I imagine myself sometimes as living in harmony with the world, with nature, as a Laplander, a Sioux, a Choctaw, a Mongol shepherd or Celtic farmer circa 800 B.C. I could deal with that. No salt for my meat and vegetables, no place to shit except outside, behind a bush, but that’s no big deal. I would do that in exchange for a planet. Because the planet cannot sustain the kind of technology we have imposed on it for transport, houses, TV, computers and energy. The oceans are dying, the bees are dying, the planet itself is dying. I wonder if there will be enough protein left to begin another species. But how will they survive the radioactivity?

Certainly none of this makes sense.

And how do we know what is sensed is real? I have had my share of hallucinations. Hallucinations are fairly easy to identify. They’re like cartoons, all full of color and goofiness. Monsters, angels, phenomena not commonly found in the external world. But what of delusions? Beliefs that turn out to be false? Is there a surefire way to discriminate between what is real and what is not? If there is, I haven’t found it.

Let’s say you believe in God and one day a tornado comes along and blows your house away and kills your pets and spouse and children. Or leaves your pets and spouse and children safe and sound. But your house is gone. And you have no insurance or place to live, except the high school gymnasium, where the Red Cross has provided some blankets and a cot. Do you thank the same God who made the tornado for selecting you, out of all those other people, for saving your life? Or do you get pissed like Job, and say what the fuck, I was pious and prayed and went to church, and this is how you repay me? Destroy my house? My job? My friends and family?

Spinoza cautions us about language: Again, since words are a part of the imagination --- that is, since we form many conceptions in accordance with confused arrangements of words in the memory, dependent on particular bodily conditions, --- there is no doubt that words may, equally with the imagination, be the cause of many and great errors, unless we keep strictly on our guard. Moreover, words are formed according to popular fancy and intelligence, and are, therefore, signs of things as existing in the imagination, not as existing in the understanding. This is evident from the fact that to all such things as exist only in the understanding, not in the imagination, negative names are often given, such as incorporeal, infinite, &c. So, also, many conceptions really affirmative are expressed negatively, and vice versa, such as uncreate, independent, infinite, immortal, &c., inasmuch as their contraries are much more easily imagined, and, therefore, occurred first to men, and usurped positive names. Many things we affirm and deny, because the nature of words allows us to do so, though the nature of things does not. While we remain unaware of this fact, we may easily mistake falsehood for truth.

It’s so easy to slip up, and assume that an idea has weight, and substance, when, in fact, it is less substantial than a palace of vapor floating over Düsseldorf.

I believe, right now, this minute, that what I am sensing is summer, moderate warmth, about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and the lingering taste of coffee, and fingers on a keyboard, dancing, making these signs, pixels, words, and if I want a boat, I will make a boat, write boat, and a boat exists, at least in my imagination, though in actuality, there is a boat in my future, assuming the future is real, which it is not, it is always a fiction, a ball of myriad possibilities, rolling toward the void. Where there is life and potential. And assurances and oceans. Floating a boat of the future on a suffusion of words.