One odd aspect of the past four years is: How like the behavior of an-addict-in-withdrawal the behavior of “The Swamp” has been, after the moment the people of the United States said they were sick of being “enablers”, and wanted “The Swamp” gone.
In case you are wondering, all the people of the United States, even those in rural areas, know far more about addiction and being “enablers” than they ever wanted to know. You might even say we have become experts, against our will.
Some (like myself) “experimented” with drugs in 1969 and saw the “experiment” turn horrid, and only escaped a clawing beast through extreme efforts, and the Grace of God. Others (like those who knew me) trusted me and became “enablers” because they trusted someone (me) who was lying through his teeth. But eventually “enablers” wake up, and confront the addict with so-called “tough love.” They basically tell the addict they are not going to put up with their bullshit any more.
I went through this experience as a teenager, fifty years ago, and felt I had been “saved”, and that the bullshit was over and done with. I thought it was in the past. It wasn’t.
In 1972 I felt I could could convince my fellow hippies drugs were bad, but they wouldn’t listen. Then I tried to convince fellow poets, but they wouldn’t listen. Then I tried to convince my daughter’s boyfriends, but they wouldn’t listen. My failure is brought home by the legalization of marijuana, the use of which is self-destructive.
For those of you who want to argue, I am preparing a post which will make mincemeat of your stupid, simplistic logic with irrefutable evidence marijuana does undeniable harm. My evidence will reveal to you that your infantile logic has hurt teenagers terribly, and you are not going to escape punishment in hell, unless you shape up your act, and do so damn fast. But I digress.
The point of this particular post is that the United States has been forced to learn about drugs. Millions of children have experienced drugs, simply because they are disobedient in classrooms, even at age five. Currently drugs are the most common form of death among youth under the age of nineteen. The problem is huge.
Because I, as a Childcare Provider, have seen children as young as age five hurt by “helpful” drugs, and have seen daughter’s boyfriends (and my daughters like only the best), made stupid by drugs, I am no fan of drugs. I am about as anti-drug as you can get (with the exceptions of the drugs coffee, nicotine and beer; they are bad for you physically, emotionally, and mentally; but do not cause the spiritual harm other drugs do.)
How dare I? How dare I state a marijuana cigarette harms the spirit and a tobacco cigarette does not?
Only a fool asks that question, for the evidence is obvious, but I shall answer that question in my forthcoming essay. The answer will shatter the fools. But, for now, I’ll just state fools just ask me that question because they are trying to distract this essay from it’s conclusion.
And the conclusion is? The United States knows all about addiction, and about all the ploys addiction uses to keep the enablers enabling. We’ve been putting up with this shit a long, long time.
I myself now donate a “double-tithe”, which means I donate 20% of my income to “churches” after donating another 30% to local, state and federal governments for activities which I hope are spiritual, but sadly sometimes are not. I am not a rich man. After I’m done donating I live at the the upper edge of “the poverty level.”
Of my “double-tithe” 10% goes to an urban church I sometimes attend, because I tired of local, rural churches which resembled comfortable country clubs and preferred oblivion. The other 10% of my tithe goes to a small rural church which deals exclusively with rural drug addiction. Drug addiction is a big, big problem, in my neck of the woods.
I really enjoy attending a rural church full of addicts who are fighting their addiction. I’m not allowed to tell you the details, but often fellows fail, and are ashamed, but struggle back to their feet to try again. And as they describe all the embarrassing details of their flopping about like a fish out of water, I often think these men are superior to Washington D.C politicians, or Mainstream Media, or Hollywood stars.
Why? Because, in their excruciating honesty, an addict confesses how he behaved when he tried to escape claws clawing him back. Often they do so with rare humor, and, on the verge of tears, you find yourself laughing. The ridiculous behavior they describe is strangely familiar, and something easy to forgive, for we recognize we all do it, in our own way.
Their behavior also seems strangely familiar because it is exactly, (even down to absurd details), how Washington D.C. and the Media and Hollywood has behaved, since Donald Trump was elected by the American people.
The difference is that addicts are addicted to a drug, but Washington DC and the Media and Hollywood are addicted to fame, money and power. But the withdrawal symptoms are exactly the same.
There is another difference that makes the drug addict superior. The addict confesses his addiction is a problem, and can make you laugh at how, even as he rejects his problem, he fails to escape it. His imperfection makes him lovable, humble is beautiful, and you want to help him (or her) all the more. Politicians and Media and Hollywood are equally addicted. but never confess that they are.
They are addicts, but insist we are the problem. Should we enable them?
. ADDICT SONNET
As long as the poor addict gets his fix He can blend in with the freedom-loving, But, when he’s deprived, that is when he picks The ruthless path, and his greed starts shoving Kindness aside, until desperation Leaps from ledges. Oh, the poor millionaires The day stocks crash worthless! Oh, poor nation Founded on sand! For a man’s secret cares Are the idol he worships; the wooden god, Which has no power to stoop and uplift A fallen man. Therefore don’t call it odd When the high fall, even as a great gift Appears within those who seemed to be low. As ruin draws nigh Love’s power will grow.
Considering a vaccine for the Corona Virus is not available, and requires a considerable time period to be adequately tested, other helpful drugs need to be considered. Two, hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir, show great promise.
Hydroxychloroquine costs roughly a half-dollar a pill, while remdesivir costs well over a thousand dollars a pill. In terms of the good of the common man, obviously hydroxychloroquine is preferred, for it is affordable, and does not stress health insurance payers, or government taxpayers who pay for the treatment of the poor. That is simple capitalism, based on common sense and not greed.
What has actually occurred is not simple capitalism, but rather a combination of big business and big government, typifying what common people call “The Swamp.”
The company which created remdesiver, Gilead Science, invested a lot of money in creating remdesiver, and they don’t want a competitor which has a drug which costs a thousandth as much. Therefore they invested in “influencing” (bribing) politicians, especially those on the board which determines what treatments work best, combating the Corona Virus. This board, called the “Panel on COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines”, has three co-chairs, and two of them have financial ties to Gilead Science. At least five other members of the board also have “financial ties” to Gilead Science.
I would hate to suggest greed can corrupt those who have power over the well being of their fellow man, but I put three dots before the link below to avoid a certain suppression of the link. Remove the three dots to connect to the article
I don’t want to go into the details of the corruption of science, but if you are interested in such details, here is an article on the “Watts Up With That” website. (Again, remove the three dots to make the link work.)
Rather than going into the details of greed, I’d just like to point out greed is immature behavior. This is not to confuse it with “success” and “prosperity”, which are things that are beneficial to mankind. Success and prosperity allow generosity, which is the opposite of greed.
When I think of greed at its worst, I am reminded of a sort of horror I felt eavesdropping on preteen girls on a childhood playground, and overhearing the petty way they gleefully became backstabbers. There was nothing nice about how they sought to humiliate a peer. Then they noticed me watching them, and saw the abject horror in my face, and only then did it occur to them to feel a little bit ashamed. It took a non-girl to budge the girls from their catty yowling.
In like manner, perhaps it takes a non-Swamp Creature to make the Swamp Creatures feel a little shame for their greed. Greed has distorted them into characters more like pre-teen girls than anything I would call “manly”. They are stuffed shirts, and a sissy remains a sissy even if he is a billionaire.
People will not depart from unspiritual behavior, and quit greed and embrace generosity, and reject pseudoscience for Truth, as long as they dwell in a support group where everyone pats each other’s back like a chorus of frogs singing in a swamp. Sometimes it takes the non-support of shame to make a person so sick of their own behavior they stop behaving badly.
How pitiful are the greedy, who cut The limbs they sit upon. Such fools destroy The very hopes they crave. Love’s door is shut And they deny themselves soft sunbeams of joy. What will it take to wake them? They brew a cup Of bitter dregs with polluted water. Must they weep like Midas did to wake up? Be faced with King Lear’s cold and dead daughter? If they hoard and burn all wood they will learn Hearths grow cold though they focus on fire, Yet cold has the ability to burn When one stacks the wood of one’s own pyre. God needs not punish; instead He must save When a man works so hard to dig his own grave.
How pitiful are the greedy, who cut
The limbs they sit upon. Such fools destroy
The very hopes they crave. Love's door is shut
And they deny themselves soft sunbeams of joy.
What will it take to wake them? They brew a cup
Of bitter dregs with polluted water.
Must they weep like Midas did to wake up?
Be faced with King Lear's cold and dead daughter?
If they hoard and burn all wood they will learn
Hearths grow cold though they focus on fire,
Yet cold has the ability to burn
When one stacks the wood of one's own pyre.
God needs not punish; instead He must save
When a man works so hard to dig his own grave.
When I look back over my education one thing I rue is my lack of gratitude, at the time, for teachers who did their best, and helped me in many ways, but who I felt compelled to reject. Twenty-twenty hindsight allows me to see that, even if their human imperfections made some degree of rejection inevitable, they still elevated me to the level where I became capable of rejecting them. Were it not for their labors I would never have become so high and mighty.
Not that I was actually high and mighty in worldly terms, but when you are seventeen you are a living legend, in terms of your own awareness. You have your whole life before you, and anything seems possible. You are less liable to be resigned than you are fifty years later, when you’re looking backwards.
One thing I looked forward to was freedom. School seemed like a jail and teachers like jailers. I failed to appreciate what discipline had done for me. Instead all that I could see was opposition, a power holding me back.
There are certain disciplines in life which feel like opposition, but which actually keep you uplifted. A good analogy is a tug-of-war. The opposition seems to be pulling the opposite direction from the direction you want to go, but if you let go of the rope you fall down. I assume it is for this reason that freedom often is not so sweet as it appears from the window of a jail cell. Partners think life will be easier after a divorce, but some later see how the opposition kept them upright. Men in the military crave the day their enlistment is up, but some wind up drunkards once they are free. Jailbirds wind up back in jail.
My teachers in Scotland were taskmasters, demanding far more from me than I felt was kind. But by demanding more they achieved more, and I saw I was capable of things I would have never known I was capable of.
One thing I had no idea I was capable of enduring was an intensely structured routine, where nearly every minute of every day was allotted to specific activities. There never was time to dawdle and dream, although I felt dawdling and dreaming were prerequisites of poetry. I often would march to my housemaster’s office and announce I’d had enough, and that my creativity was being stifled, and that I had to leave the school, only to be intellectually out-argued (and perhaps intellectually bullied) into accepting the fact great poets had overcome great hardships, and “that it is through struggle ones character is honed”, or some such thing. I actually have an old diary-entry describing such an episode:
Tuesday, October 13, 1970 As of now I am supposedly turning over a new leaf. If the past is anything to go by the only leaf I turn over will be the one I’m writing on. Yesterday I skipped a triple period of Physics so I could do my Economics and I got caught. It seems it is a federal offense in this school. I went to have a long talk with the housemaster. I couldn’t tell him what a drag Physics was because my teacher is his wife. So instead I bullshitted about how all the work is piling up and is crushing my creative writing (he is my English teacher). Time for Chapel FIRST PERIOD, I have a work period now, but think I am going to write in this before I turn over my new leaf. …is crushing my creative writing. The housemaster went on to tell me how many great writers wrote under fantastic pressure and how I would write no matter what if I was serious. Then he told me how important Physics is; not that I need it, but it would be great to have in my general knowledge as it involves a completely different type of thinking. Stop it! Stop it! Have mercy on this poor child. I know all that. Why do you think I took Physics in the first place? It’s just that I’m so tired and I wanted to quit Physics so I could have a little time to think. Yes…….I’m lazy…….I know I could do it all…….but it’s so much work and I love sitting around thinking…….Yes……Yes, conscience…….I’ll give it another try…….Yes, a new leaf……. Shit. I almost ducked my personal responsibility that time. Fuck the Housemaster. Fuck my weak will. I hate it when they are right.
The cheerfully schizoid nature of a-mind-facing-discipline is easily recognized by any jogger who has ever faced a steep hill. He owns a split personality; two voices, one of which states “keep going” and another which says, “quit.” It is the job of teachers and coaches and drill sergeants to encourage the “keep going” and discourage the “quit”, so that the jogger or student or recruit gains the great joy of “breaking through the wall” and experiencing a “second wind”. However in an odd way it is the duty of a poet to heed the voice which whispers, “quit”.
This is not to say that poets are quitters, nor that they are undisciplined, but rather that their discipline is often a sort of anti-discipline, a sort of antithesis to a thesis, seeking a synthesis. In the case of a jogger facing a steep hill, poetry asks the unwanted questions, “Is this necessary?” and, “Is there an alternative? Can I go around rather than over?”
Such questioning is not welcomed by a tyrant who wants all his troops goose-stepping in time, but my New England heritage included Henry Thoreau’s statement, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer,” and Robert Frost’s poem that ended:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
Consequently I was in some ways brought up to be questioning, and even rebellious. My opinions mattered, just as my vote would matter when I came of age. This made me audacious in a way that now makes me cringe. I gave far more respect to my own first impressions than to the teachers I was meeting for the first time.
For example, I somehow managed to be tricked into attending a boarding school without having the slightest clue what such attendance entailed, and therefore was utterly appalled by the fact young men were basically disowned by their lazy (or busy) parents and thrown into the custody of strangers. This British system might be centuries old, and have roots reaching back to ancient Greece, but I, at age seventeen, did not approve.
I hadn’t been at the school much more than forty-eight hours when my housemaster ended his English class by filling a final fifteen minutes by requiring us to write a poem. He likely expected a couplet or quatrain of doggerel, and not what I scribbled:
FIST OF A SCHOOL
Hunger’s lonely turmoil Lives in flickers In the eyes. Feel the acne burning boil, Hair-cut, knickers… The baby cries.
Do not cry out alibis. Afraid of the rush You crush Your baby born strength. You’ll go to any length To hide: Drag your finger Nailed across Your blackboard pride. Your chalkish finger Points away But if relaxed It may say What burns inside.
So echo on down corridors, Prison tread on lonely floors, Oblivious of other shores.
Next time that you hear your voice Bleating what you didn’t say Remember whose subconscious choice Locked you up inside this way.
One nice thing about that school was that, rather than the class-size being roughly twenty, as it was in American Baby-boom classrooms, I think that class consisted of seven boys. Therefore I was able to scrutinize the teacher as the poems were handed forward, he leafed through them, and was given pause by the length of mine. After a further pause, as he read it, he shot me a smokey, piercing look. Likely he was thinking something along the lines of, “This chap is bloody talented, and is going to be a bloody handful.” At the time all I could see was that he wasn’t entirely pleased, and therefore was different from Audley Bine, who was more than entirely pleased by my poems, and would clap his hands and shout with glee as he read them.
Fifty years later I still like the poem, as it is a first impression. If there is any Truth in it, is the Truth of an honest child stating, “The emperor has no clothes.” It is not as judgemental as it may appear, for it is not directed towards the English Schooling System as much as it is directed towards my acceptance of such discipline. In fact, when I later went over the spontaneous outpouring, I couldn’t alter a word of the verse, but fussed over what the title of the poem should be, and one title I toyed with was, “For Myself, And All The Other Castle Prisoners.”
However it seems obvious the above poem is not the writing of a young man who is aware he is in need of discipline, and is grateful to the older men willing to supply the discipline he needs. Rather it is full of questions about the wisdom of the discipline. Such questions are related to the voice which whispers “quit” when a jogger faces a steep hill.
In one way this put me in competition with my housemaster. In a tennis match I was on the side of the net called “quit” while he was on the side called “be disciplined and keep going”. I’m glad he won most matches. For example, when I said, “Shakespeare’s archaic English is too difficult to read and I want to quit”, he demanded “Keep going”, and, just as a jogger has a “second wind”, I suddenly understood Shakespeare was brilliance personified. Shutters were thrown back and I gazed out over an amazing vista. However once in a while I’d win a match. I’d say something like, “If Shakespeare had only done what his teachers did he would have never been any different than they were, and they are not remembered as brilliance personified.”
My relationship with the housemaster was nothing like my relationship with Audley Bine. Audley Bine flattered me, which encouraged me to write more, but the housemaster was no more inclined to flatter than a drill sergeant is. Instead he was all about discipline.
In some manner the very reality of discipline creates a duality: The disciplinarian and the disciplined, which can initially look like a slave-driver and the whipped-slave. Because no man likes the indignity of being a whipped slave, discipline can create a resistance; a counter culture. The discipline of my housemaster created a sort of underground among the student body, wherein what the housemaster called good was called bad, and what he called bad was called good. If you obeyed and did your homework you were called a “suck”, which was a shameful label among the boys, but if you didn’t do your homework (and especially if you escaped punishment), you were a “skiver” and were greatly admired.
This duality struck me as stupid. It was too simplistic, and ignored the subtlety of reality, yet the teacher-student, boarding-school dichotomy was the reality I had to deal with. I got in trouble with the student body as often as I got in trouble with the housemaster. For example, when I was a “suck” and and disciplined myself to study Shakespeare, and abruptly saw the bard’s genius and raved about his writing, part of the student body regarded me with pity, and as a hopelessly mistaken lost-cause. On the other hand, when my reputation among the student body soared as a “skiver”, simply because I had detoured from a legal “community service” in a nearby town to a pub (which refused to serve a seventeen-year-old) and chatted briefly with a red-headed girl (who refused my advances) and teachers then learned I had strayed, and I wound up in trouble for my unsuccessful (and therefore harmless) detour, my housemaster regarded me with pity, and, if not as being hopelessly mistaken, as being disappointing. But me? I pitied both the student body and the housemaster. They were not as high and mighty as I, the poet, was.
This brings me back to where I began, which was, in case you have forgotten, the high and mighty attitude a seventeen-year-old poet has, even when he is in desperately need of discipline, not only from his teachers, but also from his peers. Fifty years later I am thankful for the advice I received from both sides of the duality, but at the time I only saw I was getting shit from both sides.
Neither side really cared for what I cared for, which was poetry. The next question should be, “But what is poetry”? Oddly, neither side wanted to face what mattered so much to me. My housemaster might rave about Shakespeare, and the student body might rave about the Beatles, but in my eyes they did so on a superficial level, and not on the deep level I felt I did. I wanted to be the next Shakespeare, or the next Beatle, and wished to blow the brains of mankind with the power of dazzling beauty. (Such aspirations are quite possible, when you are seventeen).
While I was outrageously arrogant, I was often unaware I was outrageous, for instead I felt misunderstood. Neither side of the teacher-student duality understood me, and I sought understanding by plunging into poetry. A blank page was sort of like a mystical crystal ball I looked into; I didn’t see blankness, but rather shapes which required expression. And the more misunderstood I felt the more prolific I became, until I think I must have been annoying to my housemaster. I was like a person who is too talkative and won’t stop yammering. He didn’t want me handing in damn poem after damn poem all the time, when I was suppose to be studying Milton’s “Samson Agoniste“. At some point he had to crack the whip and discipline me into doing the work required, if I was going to pass my A-level exam.
Of course, no English teacher is entirely comfortable with crushing the aspirations of a young writer; it just doesn’t sit well and pricks their conscience; they’ve read too many tales of bankers bloating while poets went unfed, too many tragic tales of poets dying young. They become a little uneasy when they are the one crushing the poet, even if the little punk deserves it.
While my housemaster was no Audley Bine, and likely felt the last thing I needed was any encouragement, he did make a little space for me and my damn poems. For example, he created a ten week poetry contest, which I promptly won because I was the only student who contributed every week. (The contest surprised me because I was unaware any of the other boys wrote poetry). But I suspected the contest might be an activity contrived to keep us boys out of trouble in our spare time, which there was precious little of, at that school (and we did enjoy our trouble). Most of our time was not spare, and was focused on the thing called “An A-level”, which, as an American, I’d never heard of before, and which therefore seemed quite meaningless.
Also the overworked man somehow found the time to produce a literary magazine, which I suspected made the struggling school look more prestigious. I wasn’t inclined to submit anything to it, as correcting my spelling sounded too much like extra work. However one day my housemaster came up to me and said, “I hope you won’t very much mind that I restructured one of your poems. It is too long when you only have one or two words a line. I think it scans as well with eight words a line.” I actually did mind, and explained I wrote it the way I wrote it so people would know how to read it, and he responded “Readers are not as slow as you assume,” and then handed me the magazine, opened to my poem:
Sunrise comes softly from somewhere below To the land that the moonlight was keeping; A coolness in the stillness where the thinking is slow In the land where the children are sleeping.
Oh how I wish the fog would go And how I wish a wind would blow Away the mist and blinding snow That keeps me here alone.
Sometimes I hear waters stretching away Beyond what I see through the mist, And in dreams as the blackness grows into gray I remember the color it kissed.
Oh how I wish the sky would clear And how I wish she would appear To sweep away my muddled smear That keeps me here alone.
I’m dreaming of sunrises gilded in gold, An in-between lavender sheen, And I know I won’t find it if I do what I’m told For harmony’s never been seen
And sunrises cannot be sold.
I blushed with pleasure, seeing my writing in actual print, with all my misspellings corrected, but also felt a vague sense of alarm, wondering why my housemaster chose a song that said so clearly, “I know I won’t find it if I do what I’m told.” It seemed a sort of standing challenge to all teachers: “I will not obey.”
If God ever grants me the time to write in detail about that school, a major focus will be the escapades of the boys. “Skiving” worked hand in hand with the discipline in a way difficult to describe, involving the tug-of-war principle I mentioned before. The discipline alone would have been too dry, and the boyishness alone too irresponsible, but together they created maturity, although when I first arrived and first looked at what was going on, both sides seemed utterly mad.
For example, when I first arrived at the school I had a fierce will to “get back in shape”, which involved exercising, eating, and quitting tobacco and amphetamines. (Oddly, I didn’t see marijuana as a problem). Amphetamines were easy to quit, for beyond strong tea there simply weren’t any available, (nor was there any marijuana), but quitting tobacco wasn’t so easy. Though I cut back on my consumption of tobacco from fifty cigarettes a day to three, at one point my diary mentions, “I haven’t quit entirely; it seems to be a social necessity at this school”.
Tobacco was forbidden at the school, but, my very first morning at the school, the student who was in charge of orienting me led me astray. There was a period of roughly fifteen minutes after we were dismissed from breakfast before the bell rang for the first class, allotted for collecting books and papers, but my guide turned out to be a “skiver”, and rather than showing me where to store my books and papers he took me down a bewildering maze of alleys and passages, down in the dungeons of the old castle, past black furnaces and dripping pipes, with everything dimly lit by dirty thirty-watt-bulbs and draped in spider webs, to an obscure back entry where the garbage was picked up, and where a group of roughly twelve young addicts desperately puffed at their “fags.”
The “skivers” seemed to very much like taking an ignorant American like myself under their wings and showing me how to break the rigid discipline, but my point is that every single cigarette was in some ways an escapade. And the skivers wanted to pack every day with escapades. When we were sent off to run four miles cross country, the route took us out of the eyesight of teachers, and stuff happened. But, if I digress into the wonderful topic of youthful escapades I’ll get lost and forget what my point is; my point being that there was a tension between teachers and students to begin with, even without whatever it was my poetry involved.
At this point I’ll skip ahead six months, from the growing gloom of the autumnal solstice to the blinding brilliance of spring’s. I am skipping all the hilarity and pathos of the ups and downs created by the tension between teachers and “skivers”, and arriving at a sort of high point.
Last chapter I described how becoming “straight” nearly led to my suicide. Getting “in shape” physically and mentally was not enough. One must also face a side of life neither physical nor mental, and get “in shape” spiritually, but this is hard to do, if you are an Atheist. As an Atheist it is hard to see anything can exist beyond the physical and mental. Your logic bars the door. However the process of poetry is a battering ram that can break down such doors.
One does not have to believe in spirituality to get in better “shape” spiritually. I know this because I have yellowing diaries and books of old poems, and can see that, even as I became somewhat ruthless with my logic, and more and more of a hard-bitten Atheist, I was becoming more spiritual. Eventually this culminated in a wonderful ecstasy.
I need to stress this high point, because it is followed by a confession, admitting a downfall. However a downfall needs to have some high place one is falling down from. Too many confessions are poisoned bouquets of blame, pointing away at other people and smearing them as being causes of the downfall. Too seldom is credit given to the processes and people who uplifted one to the high and mighty stance, which they later down-fell from.
As one’s physical “shape” improves one gives credit where credit is due, and hopefully thanks one’s coach or drill sergeant. As one’s mental “shape” improves one hopefully gives credit to their teacher’s. But who does one thank as their spiritual “shape” improves?
If one has the good fortune to have a priest or pastor who is helpful rather than harmful, that person will refuse to take credit, and instead will point at the sky and say, “To God goes the glory.” But such talk, as I passed my eighteenth birthday, made me want to puke. I sneered at believing in some Santa Claus superstition. I believed in Truth.
Fifty years later, I have come to the conclusion God doesn’t care what the hell you call Him, and that an Atheist who honestly seeks Truth may accidentally be more worshipful of God than the pretenses of a hypocritical priest can ever manage. Therefore an honest Atheist may get blessed even as a priest prays in vain. That is honestly the only explanation I can come up with, for the ecstasy I was blessed with.
If I bored you with the pile of poems I produced beforehand, showing the work which led up to ecstasy, you would see little respect for God, and nothing short of contempt for religion. Because I had grown up in a wealthy town I was well aware of the misery associated with money, and was disgusted with people who would do cruel things to gain such misery, and cling to such misery, and prefer such misery. I stated, (without any idea of how to get there), that an alternative to misery must exist. And my process for seeking the alternative was “poetry”, which, as I defined it, was to not seek money and to not prefer money, and rather to seek Truth, Love and Understanding.
Religion failed to further such a search, in my teenaged opinion. While I didn’t call religion “the opiate of the masses”, I did come right out and say the rich could not remain rich if the poor rioted, and it was the business of priests to keep the poor from rioting. Therefore priests were part of the process that misguided the poor, turning the poor into mere cogs in a machine that kept the rich sleek and comfortable. Priests were part of that exploitation, and sought money and preferred money, and priests therefore preferred misery. I preferred poetry, and joy, and human happiness. To me such idealism seemed an obviously preferable and superior goal, a “Truth”, and anyone else, who preferred cold gold instead, was a nincompoop. A priest was suppose to aim mankind towards sainthood, not turn people into cogs.
The problem with such radical ideas is that there are plenty of ordinary people who don’t have the slightest desire to riot. They just want to do a day’s work and receive a day’s pay, and raise happy families in humble homes. As long as they are left alone, they could care less about the miserable debauchery the rich invite into their mansions. If the rich want to suffer, that is their business. This complacency, on the part of the humble, struck me as in some ways being a problem, yet in other ways struck me as wisdom.
It’s surprising how many things in life can seem like both a problem, and a wisdom. As my young mind attempted to grapple with such issues it created symbols in poems which argued and swirled and fenced and danced, in a dream-like and perhaps sometimes psychotic way, as I attempted to see what the Truth was.
Fifty years later, I see such scribbling as the footprints of a spiritual search. Young poets may superficially dream of being published, and crave fame and acclaim, but in my opinion the deeper and realer reward they get is that they get in “shape”, spiritually. And the sign of such an attainment is sometimes ecstasy.
My personal ecstasy hit me on a sunny and windy Sunday just before Easter break. I’d done well on a series of exams, and that filled me with a sense of well being. Not that the the discipline of relentless cramming ever truly ceased, but it did let up a little just after exams, and “a little” felt like a lot at that school. In fact I have never gotten as much from “free time” as I did at that school, where there was so very little of it.
Sundays began with the same blasted hand-bell jangling down the hallway, rung by a teacher who was a kindhearted choir director, but a sadist when it came to that bell. We got to sleep a little longer on Sundays, a half hour or perhaps a whole hour, but I never felt it was any later. I’d learned to do a lot without truly waking up: Use the bathroom, wash my face, comb what little hair I had, dress in the damn uniform, make my bed, and trudge down stairways and along hallways to breakfast, where I actually awoke.
By spring I had contrived to upgrade my amphetamine addiction from tea to coffee, and, while consuming as much food as was available (never enough, though I put on weight) the coffee stirred my creativity, which included my sense of mischief.
The “skivers” were always plotting their greatest coups during Sunday breakfasts, planning to ask teachers for permission-slips to spend their afternoon free-time studying species of lichen on mountain heights off school grounds, when in fact they planned to go visit a pub. I derived great pleasure from hearing of such plots, even when I was not invited, and was honored that I was trusted and not deemed a “snitch”. However before such debauchery was possible we had to go to chapel and pretend we were saints.
I was in the choir against my will, for the supply of talent was very limited, and I had made the mistake of singing in the shower, when I first arrived in September. Most everyone else was in the choir against their will as well, and I think that included the choir director. He was a man who appreciated music greatly, but knew he himself was not gifted, yet was forced to pound away at a piano while attempting to discipline mutinous schoolboys into producing some semblance of holy hymns. Often the result was such a cacophony of discord that I couldn’t help myself, and dissolved into helpless laughter. What made it all the funnier was that the choir director, whose piano-playing was dubious to begin with, could be counted upon totally disintegrating when things went wrong, and to pound out five or six very-wrong chords in a row. Of course the “skivers”, rather than helping the poor man avoid such embarrassment, would try to provoke such breakdowns. Usually this involved substituting a rude word which happened to rhyme with a holy word, in a holy hymn.
On this particular morning the choir did well belting out our first hymn, which most of the boys liked. For an Atheist, I was strangely stirred by certain hymns, and this one had a fine bass part, and let one express joy, in a sense bellowing, “I feel good this morning!” It was the old hymn that begins, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning I sing my song to you!”
The next hymn, however, was a complete shambles. It was a hymn where one or two boys could be depended upon to substitute the word “fart” for the word “heart”, but for some reason spring put mischief into the choir, and it sounded like I was the lone “suck” who actually sung the word “heart”. The entire rest of the choir were “skivers”, and sung out the word “fart” in four part harmony. The choir director then set a new record for the number of mangled chords he could clash in a row, and I had to sit down, flushed and streaming tears of shaking, silent laughter.
Sometimes laughing got me in trouble, and even once got me punished with a “caveat”, but laughter always seemed good for me and to improve my mental health. As an Atheist I even found it a little disconcerting that church could heal me and make me feel so much better, even if the healing was by unorthodox means.
On this particular morning I went unpunished for laughing, but did have to go to the locker room after chapel and put on my rugger shorts and then run around a fountain in the castle gardens for a half-hour, paying my debt to society, for a half-caveat I’d earned for some other infraction. (I can’t recall what that crime was.)
Jogging on a spring morning was not bad, and actually I enjoyed it, running backwards and shadow-boxing and generally turning the punishment into play, which was easy to do when you only had a half-caveat, and far harder for the truly dedicated skivers, who had to run around that fountain for hours.
After jogging I took a shower, which was blissfully long, compared to the hurried washes of weekdays, and then I heard the great news, as I got dressed: The British Postal Strike had ended, and all the mail from old friends in America, going back to the dark days of January, arrived all at once. I got quite a heap of envelopes, and ripped them all open without reading any, for I had the selfish hope someone had smuggled me a marijuana cigarette, but I was bitterly disappointed. Only then did I face the letter I’d saved for last, which was from a girlfriend I hadn’t heard from since October. She was not verbal, preferring to express herself with paint, and what she had sent was a hand-made card with a drawing.
My girlfriend and I had pragmatically agreed that a year was a long time to spend apart, and that we could remain friends even while dating interesting people, if we happened to meet any. In October she mentioned a fellow I knew named Dave. This caused me a paroxysm of jealous despair, as I figured Dave was richer, smarter, and better looking than I, and I was therefore “dead meat and history”. In November I was equally honest, and mentioned a red headed girl I was failing to seduce in the nearby town. I sent a few more letters, but had received none, and then the silence of the Postal Strike descended. I figured things were over between us, and we’d become that bankruptcy former-lovers call “friendship”, however, in the world of my poetry, the fifteen-year-old girl took on a symbolic, epic stature, and strode about like a goddess. But now an element of reality had crept in, for the goddess had sent me a card. It was a magic-marker picture of a tree with our initials carved in it within a heart, and a girl looking at the carving and smiling, and the single word, “Remember?”
I walked to lunch all warm and fuzzy, and was less interested than usual in the plots and planning which skivers were hatching for the afternoon. I was unusually disinterested in excitement, because I was unusually interested in serenity. For all my talk about Peace, Love and Understanding, I felt this was the first bit of true Peace I’d ever seen in my entire, fucking life.
After lunch I walked down to the ocean, walking in an odd way. I swung my arms, but they didn’t alternate. Both arms swung forward and then both arms swung back, and then I’d gambol a bit, like goats and sheep do in a pasture the first warm day of spring. My good mood was getting out of hand, but I went with it, rather than attempting to discipline it out of existence. My hiking became a sort of dancing, and, as easily as a schoolboy whistles while walking barefoot on a summer road, a song came to me, and required words. Here are the words, without the song:
Sunshine’s shining When a wild wind’s whining. They madly mix me By baffled beauty. Big, bad billows Of blue sky pillows Spin my head around; I fall to the ground. I see through the window But cannot get in.
Tree top’s talking The forest’s walking Quick to and fro, As they’re in the know. Great glad gusting I find I’m trusting The infinite sky. I do not ask why. I see the wind blow But cannot get on.
Do you ever try to try try try Grab a bolt of wind and fly… Why…? Wind! Wind! Wind! Whooosh!
Sunshine arrows Blow laughing sparrows Like leaves in the sky. I do not ask why. My knees are laughin’ Like a new born calf in Green by cow who lies; The calf only tries. I see the answer The question is gone.
We’re not the ones who run away a way. They make up rules and cannot play… Hey…. Wind! Wind! Wind! Whooosh!
See the sea gull; It climbs clear cloud walls And hear the wild cry And do not ask why. I know what the wind knows: Some day I’ll be gone.
As a young Atheist I possessed all the equipment I needed to cynically dismiss the above ecstasy as merely a “good mood”. Back in those days the word “bipolar” hadn’t been concocted, and instead the now-scientifically-discredited concept of “manic-depression” was all the rage. So I could sneer at my own joy as merely being “manic”, as if I was mentally ill, (in which case illness is something to die for).
If I’d been religious it might have made sense that, when I smiled at God, then God smiled back at me. However my Atheism made things far more difficult and abstract, yet the simple fact of the matter was that when I sung to the sky the sky sung back to me, and when I sung to the trees the trees sung back to me, and so on and so forth until I was drunk without whiskey, stoned without marijuana, and tripping without LSD. Just as a jogger, after fighting against pain, is rewarded with a “second wind” that makes running remarkably easy, and just as a scholar, after all the agony of cramming, is rewarded by facing a test with every answer easily at hand, so too is a spiritual seeker rewarded with an ecstasy.
Some might complain ecstasy is not lasting and fades away, and isn’t like gold you can hoard in a miser’s vault. But it is more lasting than gold, which robbers can steal, for it cannot be stolen. Nor can it be lost in the way we forget other things we crave.
I have a good appetite, and have craved thousands of meals, but do I remember many? For that matter, I have been lustful, and have had quite a number of orgasms, but I remember few, and for the most part all I remember about lust is that I want to do it again. Ecstasy is different, for you cannot forget it, even when it never happens again.
Ecstasy is a sort of milestone, marking a certain progress you have made on the spiritual path. A milestone does not say what the road ahead will hold. In my case the road ahead held a downfall, but I don’t want to spoil this chapter by going into details of that valley of the shadow. Let it suffice to say I had arrived at a very high place.
How high was it? Well, I am ordinarily shy, and reclusive, and when I sing I am most comfortable in a shower when no one is home. However for months after I experienced my ecstasy I was quite comfortable singing in public, and while walking between classes I’d burst into song.
How high was it? Well, where some need guns to battle the world, or gold, or political power, or lipstick, I reached into the arsenal of poetry and prepared to battle the world with sheer joy.
Audley Bine’s appearance in the sanctity of my home struck me as an imposition, but I also knew it would be futile to protest to my mother. He didn’t have to put on his very-good-student face very much at all to wrap her around his little finger, for he was a man who had graduated from Harvard, and also could speak with a hint of an upper-class accent, and these two things automatically raised a person in my mother’s estimation. It also didn’t hurt that my mother’s grandfather was also a Bine, and she and Audley may have been distantly related. They also may have shared some unspoken common heritage due to the steep decline of the Bine family fortunes. Audley was a go-getter clawing his way out of poverty, and my mother was also a social climber. Though she’d been born poor, I thought my mother saw herself as a sort of Eliza Doolittle. She had cultivated a faux-English accent, and was thrilled at the prospect of moving to England for a year to mingle with the upper classes.
Though facing an unwelcome mandatory retirement from Harvard, my stepfather had accrued sabbatical time which he still could access, and discovered Oxford University didn’t mind that he was over seventy. He was therefore going there as a guest-lecturer, and also to study differences between English and American law. As he, my mother, and my two younger siblings lodged down in England, I was scheduled to be shipped north for a postgraduate year at a boarding school up in the northeast tip of Scotland.
In only six weeks my life as an American suburbanite would come to an abrupt end, and I had a sense there were things I wanted to finish. The last thing I wanted was some old person around the house getting in my way, and Audley struck me as old. Though only twenty-six he struck me as a person-over-thirty who I shouldn’t trust, and perhaps even a “narc”. He wore a sports-coat even in hot weather, which was definitely a bad sign.
I gathered from my mother and oldest brother that Audley needed a no-rent situation to help him through a lean time between his graduation from Harvard and his first paycheck. He had landed a job as a teacher at a boarding school up in New Hampshire. I liked him less for that, for I had an involuntary aversion towards most teachers because, in my opinion, all but a few teachers I’d known in school were unfriendly, unsympathetic, unimaginative, and some were downright nasty. Rather than help me learn teachers seemed an obstruction to my investigations (because much I wanted to investigate was, if not taboo, beyond the bounds of ordinary scholarship.)
It was difficult for me to express exactly what it was I was studying, or what it was I wanted to “finish” before I left for Scotland. Some things were admittedly crude; for example I wanted to “finish” my virginity. But most things were problems I sensed in a largely intuitive manner, involving how my community of suburban teenyboppers might survive in a world that seemingly wanted us extinct.
Suburban towns of that time felt under no compunction to make a place for the children they created. The town expected you to depart, either to college or Vietnam, and the only reason my idea, (that a community of youth might like to remain a community,) was not deemed laughable was because it never crossed most people’s minds.
I felt that such a heartless attitude was part of an old world, but that I was part of a new world which was going to replace such heartlessness with Truth, Love and Understanding. My blithe naivete seems a bit ridiculous, fifty years later, but I honestly believed I was living through a sort of spiritual revolution. Problems might surface, but problems could be solved. One of my favorite occupations was to sit around with my friends and solve all the world’s problems.
One of the world’s problems was pills. Despite my gross ignorance concerning the difference between a drug-high and a natural-high, I had only to look in a mirror to see that pills were not healthy. Admitting this simple fact forced me to admit that the purveyors of pills were liars.
Pushers always gave pills some sort of romantic-sounding nickname such as “strawberry starshine”, and advertised them as being “a real mellow mescaline”, when in fact most often they were amphetamines, barbiturates, or worse: One pill was called “black dot”; it was described as being “peyote”, because it made one vomit (and hallucinate after vomiting); in retrospect I think “black dots” were likely rat poison. Such pills were gobbled by trusting youths at parties, and dealing with the consequences of such indiscriminate trust was part of my life.
Even though I myself very much liked amphetamines, we all knew “speed kills”. We could see how swiftly certain musicians aged from album-cover to album-cover, and I didn’t like seeing similar aging starting to effect my seventeen-year-old face. Around the time Audley moved in I had decided to quit pills, and to stick with smoking leafy herbs, and also to eat more, regain lost weight, and to get back in shape by lifting weights.
A second problem was far more complicated than merely quitting an illegal drug. It was an awareness that sprang out of my enjoyment over hearing others “tell me their story.” I became aware that my community of teenyboppers were predominately from broken homes.
This realization came as something of a shock to me, for when my own parents separated in 1964 divorce was a rarity and I felt ashamed to be from a broken home. That shame became such a part of my life I didn’t notice times changing. In six short years divorce had become so commonplace in wealthy suburbs that less shame was involved. The divorce rate had leapt from 0.5% to nearly 50%, and in some cases divorce was even taken for granted. I heard kids ask other kids, “Your parents divorcing yet?” What was formerly unmentionable could be freely discussed, and being able to talk liberated me from the shackles of shame.
However this is not to say my peers were happy about divorce. Divorce didn’t seem to involve the Peace, Love and Understanding which was our ideal. In a way (which I think few saw) it was our parents who were choosing an “alternative lifestyle” when they renounced traditional marriage, and we supposedly-radical children were actually the reactionary conservatives, in that we wanted to embrace some sort of wholesome fidelity.
Of course the subject was not all that simple. Some, both men and women, very much liked the idea of gaining the pleasures of sex without the responsibility of marriage, while others wanted a love that was true. Some disliked marriage because they saw their parent’s unhappiness as being caused by marriage, while others saw their parent’s unhappiness as being caused by their parent’s failure to behave married. And me? I tended to be wishy-washy, and to see both sides as having their points. To be honest, I was more interested in getting others to “tell me their story” than in standing in judgement.
This landed me in uncomfortable situations, for in “telling their story” people tended to badmouth and backbite others. Then a second person would “tell me their story” and it would involve badmouthing and backbiting the first. I called such situations “triangles”, and they made me very uncomfortable, for I felt a pressure to take sides. Taking sides was not the same thing as the “Understanding” I desired.
In a sense the two sides were like the two sides of an arch, and required the “keystone” called Understanding. Without the keystone the two sides fell to a heap of rubble and made a mess, but with the keystone the two sides held each other up. This was something I could see but could not grasp, yet I was aware that at times I myself could be the keystone, though I wasn’t aware how I did it.
For example, one unpleasant aspect of using drugs was a certain paranoia it involved. This was especially apparent when a person at a party left a room for a while and then returned. There would then be an awkwardness, as if the person had been talked-about-behind-their-back (and fairly often, but not always, they had been.) It was as if a societal ice had formed while they were away, requiring a societal icebreaker. I tended to be the icebreaker, even when I myself was the person who had left the room. Often it involved merely filling the returning person in on what-they-had-missed, thus allowing them to get back into the flow of the conversation, but at the time I had no clue how I did it. I just recognized misunderstanding was occurring, and intuitively ended it.
I also intuitively knew that the strength of a community is based upon building understanding, and felt an urge to strengthen the foundational understanding of my own gang. As the end of the summer approached this urge became akin to desperation, for I knew our teenybopper community would need to be very strong to withstand the challenges presented by a suburb which basically wanted to throw us all out.
Therefore I was pleased to hear my mother and stepfather were leaving for England, to reconnoiter the situation where they’d live and work, in and near Oxford, and after that to tour Scotland. They’d be gone a month, and I was looking forward to being the king of their castle while they were gone. I felt it would be a great opportunity to develop understanding in my community. My mother begged to differ, for where I saw “developing community” she saw “one big party” and envisioned holes burned in her carpets. Therefore she went out of her way to cramp my style.
First, she put her car in the shop and loaned my stepfather’s car to my oldest brother, leaving me without transport. Second, she gave me a list of chores, such as mowing the lawn and packing things away (as the house was to be rented while we were overseas), which seemed unfair to me, as she was burdening me with the chores of a castle while denying me the benefits. She told the live-in maid Margie to keep an eye on me. Lastly, she invited my oldest brother to stay, as well as Audley Bine, which crowded my space.
It did not seem to occur to my mother that I might not be the only one facing a “Senior Summer”, a final time free before plunging into a less-than-appealing future. Audley Bine was also facing an end to liberation, a switch from the company of brilliant minds at Harvard to the company of boring boys at a boarding school. All my mother saw was a very serious-seeming and sensible Audley who nodded at all the right times and only smiled when it was proper. (Where my mother saw great promise in Audley I must admit I didn’t think the fellow looked too promising.)
The first sign my initial impression might be incorrect occurred even before my mother and stepfather left. I’d gone trooping down to my bedroom with a group of my friends late at night, with everyone chattering like a flock of grackles, and once in the room I’d shut the door and opened the windows, to let the songs of summer frogs and owls in, and the smoke out. Just then the person closest to the door made a “hisst!” noise and raised an index finger. There was an instant silence, and then we all heard it: A tapping at the door, as if someone was knocking with a single, pointed finger. Swiftly all illegal substances were removed from view, as I sauntered across the room. After an appraising glance about at my friends all looking guiltily innocent, I opened the door. There stood Audley, wearing his very-good-student smile.
I fully expected some version of, “Could you keep the noise down; I’m trying to sleep”, but what he whispered was, “Could you sell me a nickle bag of Mooner?”
A friend nearest the door laughed, and then turned to explain to the others, “He wants Mooner!” The tension in the air dissolved to palatable relief. Part of 1970 was the experience of seeing many people you thought of as “straight” switching sides and “turning on.” I could hear my friends beginning to exclaim about the phenomenon, and the words, “He wants Mooner”, being repeated, but I was the one who faced going to jail for selling drugs, so I was not so quick to drop my guard. I brusquely asked, “Who said I had Mooner?”
That seemed like a fairly safe recommendation, but I was not about to reveal where I kept my pound hidden (down in a heating duct accessed by removing a grill on the floor). I simply reached in the pocket of my jeans and handed him my personal supply.
Audley looked at the plastic bag. “That’s too much. More like a dime than a nickle. Here. Let me remove some.” He then stepped further into the room and opened the bag on the flat top of a bureau, produced a packet of “Zig-zags” from a pocket of his sports coat, and with impressive speed and deftness rolled three cigarettes, which he handed to me. Having impressed everyone with proof he was no novice, he handed me five wrinkled one-dollar-bills, pocketed the rest of the marijuana, nodded, and left.
Despite this evidence, I still entertained the view that Audley was an intellectual and likely a “dweeb”, (though I deemed a dweeb who smoked pot better than a dweeb who didn’t) but that view also needed to be adjusted, shortly after my parents left for England.
The fact Audley wore a sports-coat in summer weather seemed part of an effort he made to present himself as being more wealthy than he actually was, and put him at odds with my gang. We scoffed at fashion. Around a year later signs began appearing on the doors of restaurants, “No Shirt. No Shoes. No Service,” and I always felt that sign was a personal affront. My view was that feet were far more healthy when bare, and that sunshine and dryness killed athlete’s foot, whereas shoes nourished the fungus. Furthermore we often visited Walden Pond, and the readers in my group liked to quote how Thoreau stated a man only needed two pairs of pants: One to wear and one to wash. Audley’s belief that how you “presented” yourself mattered was in direct conflict with our belief that it was what you were on the inside that mattered. Therefore it was with some relief we noticed Audley drove a battered Volkswagen bus that looked like it cost him fifty dollars.
Fifty years later I’ve noted such buses are nearly always portrayed in movies as a form of hippy-transport painted with flowers and peace symbols. Few actually were. (Many hippies couldn’t afford paint.) Hippies coveted the buses because they were very cheap even when brand new, and much cheaper used; they endured for years and could be repaired with a hairpin, so there were a lot of cheap Volkswagens floating about.
They were not a powerful vehicle. Whenever I saw one slowing down to pick me up hitchhiking I always felt a little guilty, for their air-cooled engines were so pathetic that I always felt the added weight of my body would force the driver to downshift, going up hills. Audley’s was especially ancient, and seeing him drive off in the huffing old wreck in the morning made him seem especially mortal and humble. But one afternoon we heard the far-off approach of a roaring car that squealed around distant curves of our country road, getting louder and louder. It was definitely not a Volkswagen. I was lifting weights outside with my older brothers, and we stopped to listen to the approach with interest.
My stepfather’s house had a circular drive with six apple trees in the middle, and the weights we lifted were in a turnaround off the circle by the garage. Abruptly, flashing bright orange against the green summertime background down at entrance, appeared a Lotus sports-car, which swerved sharply in and came around the circle six times faster than I’d even seen a car go on that circle, and then lurched to a halt in front of us. Audley was in the passenger seat, radiant and beside himself with laughter. The driver, a tall, elegant-looking young man with styled blond curls, swung out of the other side and walked over to my brothers, who were standing apart from me. He talked briefly with them, and they both shook their heads and jutted their thumbs over their shoulders at me. The man looked at me, and I thought I detected a trace of incredulity flicker across his face, before he walked over. “I’ve tried some of your Mooner. Excellent stuff. I’d like a lid.” He offered me a very crisp twenty and a very crisp five.
I hesitated, measuring the man. He wore a golf shirt rather than a sports-coat, but something about him oozed wealth and privilege. I decided a narc wouldn’t be so rich, nodded, took the money, and walked off thinking I was committing robbery, for usually I charged only twenty for an ounce.
I did notice one odd thing about the man’s sports-car as I departed. It seemed to have bits of cornstalks stuck in odd places: Behind the side mirrors, and in the grill, and hanging from both the front and rear bumpers.
As I returned with the contraband Audley was finishing a story that explained how the Lotus wound up in a cornfield. Audley seemed very enthusiastic, and appreciative of good driving where I thought bad driving must be involved. Rather than negative about failing to negotiate a curve Audley was extremely positive about avoiding a stonewall and a tractor. The driver inclined his head modestly, and then they hopped back in the Lotus and roared off.
I decided Audley likely wasn’t a dweeb. Dweebs don’t roar about in an orange Lotus.
The third bit of evidence that Audley wasn’t fitting my preconceptions was actually the start of our friendship, though one would think it was a good beginning to enmity, because it sprang oddly from the fact Audley liked to do yoga in silence in the morning, while I liked to bellow songs at the top of my lungs in the shower. As we passed each other in the hall outside the bathroom, me dripping in a towel and he slightly cross-eyed because his yoga involved trances, there seemed to be a gradual recognition that we went to a similar mental landscape, albeit in highly different ways.
As far as I was concerned yoga was a way to make your joints hurt; if I was going to seek such pain, I’d do stretching exercises before I lifted weights. Yet it was obvious Audley did it to get stoned. Not only were his eyes slightly crossed after he did yoga, but he leaned against the wall of the hallway as he walked. I found this intriguing, because getting stoned in any way, shape or form interested me. (I even tried out sitting cross-legged for five whole minutes, one time.)
What intrigued Audley about me involved the fact I seemed gifted, and could apparently do things without any discipline whatsoever. I’m not sure what first caught his attention; perhaps he overheard me improvising words to a song in the shower; in any case he became interested in my scrawls and doodles, and found them theoretically impossible. I wrote poems without any corrections (often with spelling mistakes) which Audley felt should have required six or seven drafts. To Audley my creativity seemed effortless, a fruitful trance that didn’t involve first sitting cross-legged, or controlling my breathing, or twisting my mind into a repetitive mantra, or any such discomfort.
Actually, after thinking about it for fifty years, I think my so-called “gift” involved huge discomfort, a discomfort greater than the contortions of yoga, a discomfort that went on and on and on for twelve years, a suffering which could make even subjects I delighted in become agonizingly dull, called “public schooling”.
Because my home was full of books I learned to read early, and therefore started grade school early, but being younger than others couldn’t make “Dick and Jane” interesting, or make classmates read any faster. Where the text read, “See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!” a classmate would stutter and mumble, “Sss-suh-suh. Eee-eee. See. Duh-duh-ih-ih-kuh. Dick.” By that point I was flipping ahead, and when my turn to read came I had no idea what page we were on, so the teacher assumed I couldn’t read at all, and put me in the slow-group. (I don’t really blame the teacher, who was dealing with baby-boom classes of over twenty-five small children.)
In essence I was on the wrong page on the first day of school, and spent the following twelve years on the wrong page. Rather than gifted I think I was lost, but, whatever I was, it was boring as can be. I had to find some way to keep my brains entertained. Therefore I developed my ability to doodle and scrawl rhymes. It was not effortless, for it took twelve years.
After I graduated it might seem that, without the reason to doodle and rhyme, I would stop doodling and rhyming, but at times life itself became as boring as algebra class, and I felt the same need to keep my brains entertained. To some degree I may have done it to also entertain my friends, in the same way I entertained my back-row buddies (who were as bored as I was by algebra class), but it didn’t really matter if anyone liked it. It was a joy in and of itself, and I did it because the person in need of laughter was myself.
Then Audley would wander by, and perhaps see a notebook on the kitchen counter opened to a page like this:
Such doodles stopped Audley in his tracks. He was fascinated, and whenever I was writing (in various places around the house and yard) he often came drifting up behind me, to look over my shoulder casually, and to ask what I was composing. Depending on my mood (or what drug I was on) I might be unwelcoming, or a chatterbox who volunteered far too much information, but Audley always listened with his very-good-student smile.
One time I was looking over a long poem called, “Exercise In Expressing What Hasn’t Made Itself Clear.” It was a mess, moving down one side of a page, sideways along the bottom, and upside-down back to the top, using up ever bit of available space with either writing or garish illuminations:
I was very dissatisfied with my effort, sneering at the page, but Audley wanted me to read it to him. I made various disparaging statements, but he insisted, so I read the entire thing.
It was actually fun to read to him, for he’d interrupt and ask me what I meant by certain statements, and then ask me to read the passage again. Also he’d exclaim or laugh, sometimes even shouting, and then I’d stop and demand he explain what he was making noise about. After I was done on this occasion he said, “Read part twelve again,” so I read,
Take the time To be together Then cry a little Sigh a little Raise a little hell. It will work in in any weather And in every case I know It works out Well. Take some time for understanding. Give a little reassurance to a friend. Protect yourself but leave him standing. He may be the Alka-Seltzer in the end.
Audley commented, “That actually has a unique meter. Dum-de-dum-dum. Dum-dum-dum-dum. But it seems familiar somehow. How did you come up with it?”
I laughed, “It’s from ‘Deck The Halls’. The Christmas Carol. You know, fa-la-la-la-lah fa-la-la-lah”
He looked astonished. “Why’d you chose that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. The poem just seemed to be getting too down, too heavy. I thought I’d lighten it up a bit.”
Audley chuckled, “So you stuck in the tempo of ‘Deck The Halls’?”
“Yeah. It’s hard to get too serious when you’re going fa-la-lah”
Audley shouted a laugh and shook his head. “You have no idea how fucking amazing that is. Look here.” He jabbed a finger on the page. “You don’t even correct a word. You just write down a complicated meter like it’s a grocery list.”
I scoffed, “It’s not complicated. It’s practically a nursery rhyme”, and Audley looked at me incredulously, shaking his head.
It is a very nice thing to discover, every now and then in life, that someone thinks you are a genius. But I had mixed feelings about Audley’s admiration, for I didn’t feel I was the genius. What I witnessed when high was the genius, whereas I was the incapacity, the one constantly attempting, and constantly failing, to show what I saw.
Despite being young and naive I did suspect some sort of ulterior motives might be involved in Audley’s praise, however Audley wasn’t the sort who sweet-talked when face to face, and badmouthed behind your back. Word leaked back to me he was going around and telling people he had discovered the next Robert Frost.
This was a bit embarrassing. Also I didn’t much like the concept of being “discovered”, when I was the one doing the exploring. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella might be able to say they “discovered” Columbus, for he couldn’t discover America if they didn’t fund his ships, but my discoveries didn’t need ships. Not that I worried all that much about who got credit for what. Occasionally I might feel a passing wave of drug-induced paranoia, and fret about people “stealing” my ideas, and be hit by the urge to copyright everything in sight, but then I’d remember copyrighting would involve bureaucratic paperwork, and I’d be repelled. In my book paper was for poetry. Lastly, there was something absurd about the idea of copyrighting a poetic vision; it would be like attempting to plant a flag in a sunrise and claim the dawn in the name of a mortal king.
But it was difficult to dampen Audley’s enthusiasm. When he was hit by an impulse one tended to be blindsided and carried away.
For example, one day I had a whim of my own and, because I had no car, was planning to hitchhike to the trolley to go into Boston to its dilapidated waterfront to see my sister, who worked as a secretary in a warehouse on a pier that had an old, sunk, wooden fishing boat tied to it, (which I thought was “really cool”), and also to check out “Andre the seal” at the new Aquarium being built as “urban renewal” a couple of piers down the waterfront. It seemed a simple enough schedule, but then Audley stepped in.
Audley first asked me where I was going, and kindly volunteered to drive me to the trolley, but then decided, before we were halfway there, that he might as well drive me all the way in to Harvard Square, and soon afterwards stated that as long as I was in Harvard Square I should meet a Harvard poet he knew. I found the change to my plans bewildering. One moment I was going to see my sister and a harbor seal named “Andre”, and the next I was going to meet a genuine Harvard poet.
I was a little in awe. I’m not sure what I expected; (perhaps an austere old man who wrote with an eagle’s plume).
Audley’s Volkswagen bus puttered up to a seedy old building and jolted to a halt double-parked, and he flew out the van’s door and trotted up two flights of stairs to a stark apartment with almost no furniture, with me taking two stairs at a time to keep up. He barely paused at the door, banging loudly on it three times before bursting in without waiting.
I was very impressed by the poet, though unfortunately he was too occupied to grant me an interview. He was busy suffering, walking about with the back of his hand pressed to his forehead, striding swiftly yet aimlessly from window to window, looking out and up at the sky with an expression of anguish.
Audley instantly forgot all about me, instead trailing the poet, making sympathetic noises. I stood politely waiting in the stark living-room as they passed to and fro, to the far bedroom window and then to the kitchen window, repetitively. After a while standing hat-in-hand grew tiresome, so I looked around. The couch seemed to be the front bench of a car, and the coffee table in front of it was an old steamer trunk with brass trim. On top of it was a pamphlet of poems, so I sat down to scan the pages.
Much of the poetry seemed to employ gimmicks, such as sheets of pink paper, or the word “I” spelled in the lower case, and much seemed written in the tremendously stoned state wherein the inconsequential seems profound; a butter knife seems as amazing as Shakespeare. For example, one poem was the single typed word “stars” with typed asterisks strewn over the rest of the page. There were also some simple ideas made difficult, when I thought poetry was suppose to be the other way around. However there were also some very nice images, and I was intrigued by the word “Avalon” that appeared here and there, used in a loose and unspecific way.
Suddenly I noticed the footsteps had ceased crossing back and forth in front of me, and glanced up to see the poet looking down with his arms folded and a challenging look in his eyes, almost as if he was daring me to be critical of his poems. Instead I innocently inquired, “What is Avalon?”
A brief, smokey look of respect filled the man’s eyes, and he answered, “It is where you are young.” Then a look of anguish began to fill his face, and his eyes lifted to the far wall and looked through it to some distant space. “Everything is green there.” Then he raised the back of his wrist to his forehead and went staggering off.
I excused myself shortly thereafter, but as I took the trolley over the river and then underground to the Boston waterfront I found my mind had become more fertile, due to this meeting with a genuine Harvard poet. The person seated across from me in the subway might have wondered why I kept mouthing the word “Avalon”, but by that evening I was busily doodling. Soon Audley came by, curious about what I had written. It was a poem about yearning for a lost childhood, and began,
Swim on up the river And Avalon is mine. The water’s moving five miles While I do four point nine.
“Perfect!” shouted Audley, making me jump. Then he looked at me innocently and said, “Proceed.” I ventured on, and several stanzas later read a stanza that stated,
I think I was in Avalon Before my memories end. I wonder if my place was saved By some pre-fetus friend.
Audley gave another shout and burst into delighted laughter, pounding his knee.
I felt a little indignant. That stanza was not suppose to be funny. “What are you laughing at?”
“Pre-fetus”, gasped Audley, “Pre-fetus”.
“What’s wrong with “pre-fetus”?
“There is no such word.”
“No, you made it up. You coined it, but it’s perfect, I tell you; it’s fucking perfect,” and with this Audley vented an odd whoopee, like a cowboy.
I regarded him a bit coldly; my poem was about a significant philosophical question, (whether there was life before birth), and here he was getting all sidetracked by a dumb word. However as I watched his enthusiasm I couldn’t help but smile. At times Audley single-handedly seemed like a congregation of about fifty, all shouting “Amen” at a preacher’s every utterance.
Audley and the Harvard poet and Avalon had coalesced into a thought-form my mind played with, yet it was only one of the many thought-forms drifting through my parent’s house while they were away. My oldest brother Halsey had other friends, and though he himself didn’t talk much he often would improvise elaborately at the piano for hours on end in a way strangely like a sermon, creating thought-forms without words; the piano became the background music of that time.
Also my other older brother Hurley appeared out of the blue, about as opposite Audley as possible, for he was in violent reaction to orthodoxy in all its forms. (He’d been the most practical and “square” member of the family, a pillar of strength midst the ruins of my parent’s divorce, but all that ended in a flash when my mother remarried.) He had a black girlfriend Iris, (which shocked many, both black and white, back in those days), and Iris was warmhearted and had a loving laugh and was kind to me. The keystone of Understanding brought Hurley and Iris together despite a vast gulf, and furthermore the two of them got on well with Audley, which made no sense to me, for the yoga Audley followed was orthodox. Hurley was more in the mood to throw all rules and regulations out the window. However the keystone of Understanding brought the two men together, (perhaps because Hurley didn’t entirely reject discipline; he was disciplined about disliking disciplines). I liked to sit back and watch them debate whether rules were wise, or whether rules were merely an invention the wealthy used to control the poor with.
The only person-over-thirty in the household was Margie, a fifty-year-old live-in cleaning lady and cook from Canada my mother had employed for seven years. She had a ne’er-do-well husband with a “bad back” and six grown children, whom she visited in a poorer part of Boston every weekend, but during the week Margie had become part of my family. With my parents gone she felt an unstated responsibility to keep some semblance of control over the household, and if I was sitting on the couch with my girlfriend watching TV I could expect her to be a nuisance, coming through the room with armloads of laundry though it was after dark. She felt it was urgent that she chaperone because she had seen some of her sons forced to marry girls they had gotten pregnant, and she wished to save me from a similar fate. She also wanted to save Hurley and Iris from such a fate, and, when they went arm-in-arm into the woods behind the house with a blanket, Margie promptly trotted to the edge of the woods and began calling Hurley’s name. Hurley tried to ignore her, but when she persisted, calling and calling, on and on and on, he became annoyed and walked out of the woods stark naked and demanded, “What the heck do you want!” Margie ran back into the house as fast as she could.
I felt sorry for Margie and went into the kitchen as she had a cup of tea and four cigarettes. (She actually did this every day at “tea time”.) As we talked the spirit of Understanding walked into the room, and even though she was a person-over-thirty we had an amazing conversation.
Margie was a Catholic, and had a peculiar relationship with my mother, for she had remained faithful to her husband where my mother chose divorce, and she disapproved of birth control and abortion while my mother approved. Before my mother remarried they had been two women attempting to raise their separate families of six children with unhelpful husbands, one in a slum and one in a posh suburb. Neither could have made it without the other. My mother liked to see herself as the charitable one, helping Margie with immigration paperwork, and helping her get false teeth when her entire face swelled up, but there was no way my mother could have worked graveyard shifts as a nurse without Margie watching her children at home.
After four years my mother’s remarriage changed things. My mother had come to dislike Margie, as she became aware Margie didn’t approve of remarrying, and this dislike hardened when she became aware Margie told my Dad what his children were up to, which seemed like “spying” to my mother. As a consequence, at the end of the summer, Margie was going to be out of a job. This gave our chats a certain poignancy. This woman, who had been part of my life since I was ten, was going to vanish.
On this occasion Margie put down her teacup and casually wondered what drug Hurley and Iris were on, and, without anger, began to ask me what being “high” was like. She seemed particularly interested in hallucinations, and I did my best to describe them, whereupon she surprised me by describing similar hallucinations she had experienced without the help of drugs. She took me back to her youth.
She had been living in a London slum in the 1950’s, on a street which still had not been entirely rebuilt after the Blitz, in a house they had to evacuate from time to time as a UEB unit came by looking for an unrecovered and unexploded German bomb under the street. This danger was especially stressful as she had many small children and was pregnant yet again. She was clinging to her faith in her husband’s ability to provide, but he was breaking that faith on a regular basis. Because his back was bad she had signed him up for correspondence courses, but when the lessons came in the mail he scorned them. Finally it hit home to her that her man was not going to step up and be the hero she saw, buried deep inside his bloating beer belly, and that was when the wave of emotions and hallucinations overcame her.
The thing that was surprising to me was that she didn’t find the white walls turning colors and moving particularly unpleasant, nor did she stop caring for her children. Somehow she got the family back home to Canada, where they could at least grow better food than post-war London offered, and then she left her children with relatives and immigrated down to Boston, initially as a green-card worker just for a summer, and then moving her husband and children down when Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” promised better welfare than Canada had. One way or another she “got by”, and now, at long last, even her youngest was grown.
She was going to miss my family, which in a sense was her second set of six kids, but in another way leaving was going to be a relief. She lit another cigarette, and mused that for the first time in many years she’d have some time for herself, cocking her head to listen as Halsey began playing on the piano in the background.
I lit a cigarette of my own, appreciating yet another thought-form drifting through the household, and wondering if there might be a poem in it.
My own gang of teenyboppers like to come by and hang out, slightly in awe of the “old people” (who, besides Margie, were all under twenty-seven), and I never knew what sort of conversational chemistry might occur. I didn’t even know who might be home when I got home. I only knew that something marvelous was occurring. Our household became like no other home I visited. No one got too stoned or too drunk, nothing was ever stolen or broken, dishes were washed and the lawn even got mowed, and the entire time wonderful conversations were occurring. The Understanding I so deeply craved seemed to have moved in, and I yearned that It would feel welcomed and stay.
Even my girlfriend became involved, which seemed impossible because she was so very “straight”. She came from a solid family where her parents were able to argue without divorce being an option, and in some ways I liked keeping her separate from my hippy friends, as a secret serenity I could go to, to escape the turmoil and wildness of non-stop partying. I could depend on her parents to be strict and keep me from getting her in trouble, but suddenly they slackened the reins, and she shocked me by being less “straight” than I ever expected. For example, though she wouldn’t take drugs, one August afternoon we went swimming at a lake, and to my astonishment (and joy) she swam topless. However what shocked me most was an understanding I witnessed occur, which I had deemed utterly impossible.
My best friend, (one of the Three Musketeers I was part of), did not at all like my girlfriend, and she did not at all like him. They were irreconcilably different, part of a “triangle”. He was a “bad influence” and wanted to be free to take any drug and pursue any lust, and wanted me equally free, but she felt such “freedom” was addiction and slavery and would make me sick. The moment they set eyes on each other their eyes narrowed, and I felt sad and helpless because I liked both of them. When they arrived at the house at the same time in separate cars, I’d squirm. Yet so great was the Understanding flooding through the household that August that they decided that they could both like me without glaring so much. They could agree about something after all. Perhaps it was due to the fact I’d very soon be gone, in exile in Scotland. The sight of me packing perhaps prompted them to drop their differences, but to me it was nothing so simple. There was magic in the air.
Not that there were not differences, even with a persistently agreeable person like Audley. He did things I objected to. One was that I felt he tended to over-improve; Audley didn’t know when something was done.
For example, one time he sat down at the sheet of paper I laid out on the living-room table during parties, picked up some pastels, and with about twenty strokes of the chalks produced a beautiful landscape, in only thirty seconds. It was a rainbow over green hills, but what was most marvelous was how he captured the phenomenon of falling rain made silver by sunlight; it was mostly done by leaving the white paper white. I told him, “Stop right there,” but he insisted upon going on. I told him to stop a few more times, and then gave up in despair as he destroyed the picture with additions. He made funny “ick” and “eww” noises as the drawing grew worse and worse, and finally, when the rainbow was brown, he looked up at me sheepishly and admitted, “I should have stopped.” However he then bellowed laughter. (There was something about the atmosphere of the house that escaped recriminations).
Somehow it felt safe-to-be-open in that house, and one way Audley contributed to that that sense was to counter my self-disparaging remarks with affirmative encouragement. I didn’t always like this, for sometimes the origin of the disparagement was a person I respected. Yet, without the critic present, Audley would leap to my defense, indignant any should be so crushing towards a sensitive poet like myself, and he would verbally demolish the other person’s disparagement.
To be honest, I didn’t entirely mind hearing how those who criticized me were insensitive barbarians, especially when the absent people being rebuked were my sometimes-scornful older brothers, but on the other hand I loved my brothers, and felt put in a “triangle” that lacked understanding. However, for the time being, the understanding I was gaining far outweighed the lack-of-understanding I sensed was also present.
Perhaps the most destructive thing Audley did was to tempt me with drugs when I was trying to quit. Not that it took much persuasion; my spirit was willing but my flesh was weak. I recall at that time I developed a hacking cough, and one day, in disgust, I dramatically shredded a pack of cigarettes in my girlfriend’s back yard, but then, within fifteen minutes, found myself hurrying down the street to buy a fresh pack.
It was easy for Audley to lead me astray; all he needed to do was crook a finger from the doorway of my older sister’s old bedroom, and I’d postpone mowing the lawn. He liked to sit cross-legged on his bed and hold court, as I slouched comfortably in an armchair, looking out through a big picture window at sky and tall white pines reflected in a dark forest frog-pond, only forty yards away.
I recall Audley smoked a water pipe from Nepal that looked like it cost four times as much as his Volkswagen bus. It was made of sterling silver with an ornate, etched design, with inlaid turquoise and red coral. Our conversations went places I greatly enjoyed, no matter what we discussed, and often he would want to see what I’d written that day.
Audley was appreciative of art even when he was straight; when he was stoned he could be downright absurd. For example one time he asked me to read a poem I had decided was far too belaboringly mushy, and was disgusted with. It went like this:
Ah, cry wind. Sigh wind, And people say you blow. And learn, summer sun, To burn someone Before its time to go.
Anger grows, Throws Caution to the wind.
Frustration burns Turns Everything dry.
and we haven’t sinned…..
…Wind sighs Sun fries People catching Butterflies And pinning them down Unsatisfied To have them around. Wanting Control.
The wind cools the sun While the sun Warms The wind.
We haven’t sinned.
Butterflies Beautify Sparkle the land Touch the sky.
Couples lie Blue sky Butterflies Wind sighs Dew cries It’s time for sun to go.
Why is it we want more? When at sea you seek the shore But when on land we yearn for waves again… …Daddy shaves again Removing his animal hair Thinking if it isn’t there No one would dare Ask him to share His world With the wind And sun And he won’t have to run From the natural Animal.
We’d smoked a hefty amount of Mooner before I read the above poem to Audley, and Mooner was strong marijuana (for those days) and Audley was very stoned. He made such a racket as I read the above poem it became ridiculous. I read it slowly, with pauses, and he filled the pauses with yells and whoops, but what seemed like going-too-far to me was that each time I read the word “butterflies” he’d make a cooing noise, all but clasping his hands and prancing about on twinkle toes. I was getting used to his demonstrative behavior, but if I’d had friends around I definitely would have been embarrassed. I blamed the Mooner. (To be honest, Audley wasn’t the only one acting oddly; I was reading with the panache of a rock star on a stage.)
Besides performing poems I also liked to just talk about things, for Audley was a walking encyclopedia of historical trivia, especially when it came to incidents in the lives of famous people. It seemed he hadn’t just read one biography about a man such as Beethoven or Napoleon, but ten about the same man, and therefore he knew scores of factoids about their darkest moments, which made what they overcame all the more thrilling.
I had far less to offer in return, but he seemed fascinated by how my mind worked, how I arrived at conclusions without needing to undergo the bother of researching in any ordinary manner. Audley would ask me questions and get me wondering about things I ordinarily never thought about.
For example, what some called my “creativity” actually seemed a sort of “following”. My mind worked with connections that stated, “If A, and if B, then it ‘follows’ that C will result”. In other words, I was not the creator, I was the follower. This seemed weird, when I thought about it, for what was I following? Something good, or something bad? I had no idea, and if pressed I likely would have been wishy-washy and answered “both”. Sometimes my mind wandered towards hell and I felt queasy in my gut and “heavy”, and then would veer towards heaven and feel uplifted and “high”. But I didn’t feel all that creative, and rather that I was “following” a stream of logic, almost as if I was taking dictation as muses spoke.
Audley would make a great fuss and say what I was doing was impossible, when it seemed like no big deal to me.
For example, Audley would poke fun in a friendly way over how I refused to spell words correctly, even when he told me the correct spelling multiple times. I insisted on spelling “disgust” as “discust”. He got all psychological about it, and stated some bad teacher had stunted my memory-skills, for I was downright mulish when it came to refusing to memorize. I had to agree. I had flunked learning new vocabulary words in French 1 classes for four straight years. Something about learning by rote made my skin crawl. Audley stated I displayed “avoidance” and “resistance” and various other psychological things, due to “trauma”. But a few minutes later I would blow him away with my ability to remember, when I wanted to.
For example, one time we were sitting about on the back patio with my friends, having the sort of wandering, free-association conversation which smoking Mooner generated, and the talk moved from topic to topic until someone burst out laughing, and they wondered how on earth we had begun talking about the cooling power of hats in hot sunshine, and wound up talking about the ability of a Voltswagen bus to climb hills carrying a heavy weight. Everyone was very stoned and suffering amnesia and had no idea, so I explained our progression:
Hats and hot sun had led to the topic of the tops of ears being sunburned, which led to other ear-injuries, which led to deafness, which led to Beethoven, which led to Beethoven playing a piano with all the strings broken, which led to how hard it is to move a piano to a repair shop, which led to describing loading a piano into a Voltswagon bus, which led to describing how an overloaded bus had to downshift to first gear to get over a hill.
After I was done describing our progression I noticed Audley looking at me with his jaw dropped. “How the fuck did you remember all that?” he exclaimed, “You can’t even remember how to spell ‘disgust'”!
I suppose the simple answer is that how to spell ‘disgust’ didn’t interest me, but what-followed-what did. It doesn’t matter if you use the word “follows” or “consequences” or “progressions” or “reaping-what-you-sow” or “Karma”, we are all like meteorologists and want to know what the weather will be tomorrow, and, if possible, we want to control that future. We may not control the weather, but we want to avoid starvation by avoiding planting thistles, if we want to harvest wheat.
Of course it is easy for me to say that now, fifty years after the fact. At the time I was just facing the end of a wonderful summer, and didn’t want it to end. My mind was casting about desperately for ways to keep the teenybopper community and wonderful household I was part of alive.
If you are to have any hope of altering the future, you need to look at “what follows what”. Scientists call this “cause and effect”, and religious people call it “reaping what you sow” or “Karma”, but I just called it “what follows what”. I simply was exploring, seeing where things took me, following some boss called “creativity”. I myself had no idea what might next be produced by my pen, and Audley found my production fascinating, for apparently I was freely accessing subconscious images it was, according to his books, very hard to access. At times the images in my doodles were more interesting than the words, and one time Audley insisted on getting a xerox copy of a illustrated poem containing a surrealistic, quasi-Salvatore-Dali example of “what follows what.”
It made me uncomfortable when Audley desired xerox copies of doodles and became very intense, in his desire to figure me out. He’d want to know why, in my doodles, I had certain things turn into other things, and what my symbolism symbolized, when I had no idea and no answer beyond, “It followed.” However he’d keep questioning, poking and probing with cross-examinations until at times I felt like some sort of laboratory rat. I just wanted to do what I did without thinking about it.
One time an issue involving staying-home-versus-leaving-home was preying on my mind, and I produced a troubled poem which ricocheted around four topics: Staying home; Staying home but preparing to leave; Leaving home intending to bring back a trophy; and Leaving home for keeps to make a new home somewhere else. To me it seemed that no matter what choice you made you would wind up someplace where you had to make the four choices all over again; no home was permanent; no jail could keep you from eventually escaping through the bars by dying, and after death I could see no reason one didn’t face the same four choices all over again in a different sphere, and my poem concluded:
You can never be completely together until you die Because you can’t give up Until you’re completely together.
Audley looked at me with a disbelieving half-smile, and inquired, “Do you really believe that?”
“Um…well…it just seemed to follow…”
“Have you studied any Buddhism?”
“Studied any philosophies involving reincarnation?”
“Um…well…there is that Crosby, Stills and Nash song that goes, ‘We have all been here before.’ What’s it called? Deja Vu?”
Audley laughed. “And that is the extent of your research. And yet here you scribble a poem that traces the concept of Nirvana not being achievable until one gives up on the rounds of dying and dying and dying over and over and over again.”
Sometimes I worried about Audley, and even felt a little guilty about the possibility that my poetry was driving him mad.
However, even when research is aimed at high things, (and Understanding is a high thing), such research can be quelled by a limitation called “time”. And we were running out of time.
Things started to come to a head as the end of August approached and Audley began packing, to head off and teach at the boarding school in New Hampshire. He stopped smoking pot and grew more serious, and even a little sad.
I fought off my own melancholy by planning a final party in the woods, but my gang of teenyboppers all seemed busy shopping for school clothing the day I went out to gather dead branches for the fire, so I spent an August morning in the woods all alone.
It was hot even in the shade, and the paths were dusty and parded by dabs of sunshine. I noticed the dabs moved, though the air was still where I worked, and when I paused and looked up I could hear a slight breeze stirring the treetops. Into my head came the beginning, “Walking through a forest where the wind won’t go…”
It was a beautiful patch of forest, on the divide between the Concord and Charles rivers, and had seen many come and go over the centuries. An old Indian trail crossed the land; Henry Thoreau had hiked the landscape; farmers had made a living there and later failed, and left prehistoric, red-rust-iron tractors with trees as thick as my thigh growing up through their archaic engine blocks, and also left cellar holes and an overgrown corduroy road through a boggy place. All these things seemed part of “my” woods, but when I looked over at our fire-pit I saw dead leaves blown into it, and even a few fresh forest weeds overhanging its edges, and had the sense I too was a fleeting phenomenon, an object to someday be regarded with nostalgia. A louder breeze stirred the treetops, and stirred my creativity, and when I got home I sat on the patio and wrote down what I’d been humming to myself.
When I was done Audley said, “Amazing.” His mouth was around two inches from my right ear, so I jumped a foot. I wasn’t sure how long he’d been watching over my shoulder as I wrote. He continued, “I don’t see how you can do that: Five stanzas with only one correction.”
“Oh, it was pretty much done when I sat down. I wrote it while I was walking.”
“And you remembered it all?”
“But you can’t remember how to spell ‘disgust’.” Audley shook his head, and didn’t give me time to defend myself. “And, by the way, that’s not how you spell ‘corduroy’.”
I responded, “And, by the way, you sound like a teacher at a boarding school.”
He winced, and then replied, “Well, I suppose that is what I now am, or am about to become. And you are about to become a student at a boarding school in Scotland. Are you ready for that?”
“No fucking way. I feel like a coward. I’m only going there because I don’t want to earn a living. What I really need to do is write a hit song. That would earn a living real fast!”
Audley didn’t get much peace and quiet to do his yoga in, the next morning, because I was using up all the hot water writing a hit song in the shower.
If Audley had really wanted to become fabulously wealthy he would have quit his job at the boarding school and dedicated his time to making me fabulously wealthy, as my agent, but instead he lugged his suitcase out to his Volkswagen bus and went puttering off to New Hampshire. Little did I know, but with him went a level of appreciation I have never since received, for my doodles, in fifty years.
Shortly after Audley left Halsey also left, in my stepfather’s car to pick up my parents at Logan Airport. I can’t say I was in a welcoming mood to see them again, though I did my best. After all, it was their house.
I could tell my mother was actually quite pleased to find the house was not only still standing, but quite clean. (We’d used copious amounts of air freshener, and had the windows open all summer, to hide the smell of smoke.) Not only was the lawn mowed, but the first fallen apples of fall were removed before they rotted. However she did not praise, and instead simply had to comment how our weather was inferior to the weather in England, which was weather which was never, ever too hot or too cold.
I found myself quietly grinding my teeth. My mother had a way of saying things in a practiced manner, and I knew she had her comment about the local weather worked out before the jet actually landed and she actually knew what the local weather actually was.
My younger brother and sister arrived home only hours later, after spending a summer at my father’s farm in New Hampshire. My little sister had an uncanny ability to merge into whatever culture she was with, and her accent caused my mother to exclaim, “Whatever has caused you to start speaking in such a ghastly manner?” I writhed, because my sister’s faux-New Hampshire accent was nothing compared to my mother’s faux-English accent.
My mother’s dislike of all things American seemed so extreme that I thought she was something of a traitor. I saw loyalty and patriotism as good things, because Understanding grows through time. The better you know people the more you understand them, but in my mother’s case familiarity seemed to breed contempt. Where I was grieving over the thought of leaving the teenybopper community I’d grown up midst, she was rejoicing over leaving the awful town behind.
Not that I couldn’t understand her wanderlust. I myself had a hunger to hitchhike away from the more sterile aspects of suburbia, but I had also glimpsed a way to end the sterility, with Truth, Love and Understanding. I wanted to stay and work on what I had, but my mother seemed seduced away by people she didn’t even know, but was infatuated into believing were better. Everything English was better, to hear her talk. She was so besotted it seemed useless to even reason with her, and there seemed no way she could understand how I felt about leaving the town I called home.
Therefore I cursed silently when I saw her pausing over my notebook, which I’d foolishly left open on the dining-room table. I had started a new page, and there was nothing but a short poem and some doodles in the upper left-hand corner, but I expected nothing appreciative from her; nothing like Audley’s reactions. When she read my poems there was never any humor over my spelling “disgust” as “discust”, but rather a wincing horror beyond disgust, and she was so troubled by such spelling she never commented on a poem’s passions, even to call them “ghastly”. I was pouting at her as she read, grouchily thinking to myself that no true American ever uses the word “ghastly”, when she utterly astonished me by looking up and stating, “You know, though you spelled ‘evening’ and ‘paradise’ wrong, I rather like the sentiment in this one. This phrase, ‘To be fair to the other side’, is especially good.” As she walked away my jaw hit the floor, and I walked over to the page to remember what the heck I had written.
I scratched my head. It seemed the Understanding still lingered in the house, and perhaps my mother had caught just a whiff of it. But then I heard my younger siblings exclaiming in delight. Rather than taking a jet to England they were learning we were going the old fashioned way, by ship, aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2. This made me feel grouchy, as if we were in some way being seduced, and were selling out. I even felt a little ashamed. It was not that Understanding was deserting us; we were deserting Understanding. We were turning our backs on the most beautiful thing, for gaudy glitter and glamor.
Disgruntled, I slouched off to borrow my stepfather’s car to drive to town for some hotdogs, and then headed out to friends and a campfire in the woods.
Only nine came to our final party in the woods, and only four stayed until dawn. It was a somber affair and a chilly night. I had the strange sense the “underground” had seen it’s summer in the sun, but now had to go underground again. I fear I was not much fun to be with, and bewailed the way people had turned their backs on the most beautiful things.
Most of the young woman in my gang had been strictly forbidden from attending such parties, as parties earlier in the summer had become legendary, but there was was one young woman there who may have been as young as fourteen, yet decided I could use a gentle scolding. She suggested I should count my blessings. After all, a trip aboard a luxury liner wasn’t exactly the end of the world. I sighed and thanked her, but it was the end of my world.
The next few days were a blear of packing. Even my notebook of poems-on-graph-paper got packed away and locked in a storeroom. Even when I thought I was done I was asked to help others. I caught a cold and smoked too much tobacco and was miserable, until, on the afternoon before the dawn I was to depart, two cars arrived, one dropping off my girlfriend, and the other driven by my best friend. They’d both come by for a final farewell, which would have been awkward enough with each all alone, but seemed especially awkward with the three of us together. What can you say? All words seemed stilted.
Just then it occurred to me I had something that would spoil if packed away for a year, and asked them if they would help me use it up. It was a birthday present some ill-advised person gave me when I turned seventeen. Wine improves with age, but champagne does not.
They agreed to help me use it up before it went bad, and I snuck the bottle from the house. (Though the drinking-age had been lowered to eighteen because of Vietnam, I was still too young to legally drink.) We casually and innocently walked around behind the house to a steep slope overlooking the frog-pond, and I shot the cork at the frogs.
I actually didn’t approve of alcohol, seeing it as an obsolete drug used by people-over-thirty, which likely explains why the bottle was passed around as if by soldiers, and became empty so inappropriately swiftly. And then it was like the spirit of Understanding came out of the house and down the hillside to us. The triangle gained three keystones. My girlfriend and best friend, who long had been worst enemies, became utterly charmed by the brilliance of each other, and together we three laughed. Lord, did we laugh.
Somewhere up among the bureaucrats of heaven, the angels in charge of keeping records sat up straight. Something unusual was happening on earth. Three teenagers, who had absolutely no reason to laugh, were rejoicing. Why? Because being what they were in that moment in time, brief though it was, was enough.
And then, it was over. My best friend drove off, and I borrowed my stepfather’s car to drive my girl friend home, and we sat in the car in the night outside her house to say good-bye for ten months, at least.
For teenagers, we’d been very pragmatic about the chances of our relationship surviving being an ocean apart. We’d given each other permission to date others, if interesting prospects appeared, but promised to remain “friends”. All that remained for me to do was to say some baritone adios, hopefully more profound than, “Don’t take any wooden nickles”.
I completely blew it, because all that came out of my mouth was unexpected sobbing. Once I started I couldn’t stop, as my girlfriend regarded me in frozen alarm.
Why did I cry? I think it was because deep down I knew that once you turn your back on beauty, it can be a long haul before you see it again. Turn your back on Understanding, and do not expect reason, or for life to make sense. If I’d had more guts at age seventeen I’d have stayed, but I lacked such guts, and I left.
As I drove I-95 south through the New Hampshire night I had to shake my head, recalling what an amazing year 1969 was. In April, 1969 I’d been on the same highway, but over a thousand miles further south, hitchhiking to see my Grandparents in Florida. I came to a place where I-95 was not finished in southern swamps festooned with Spanish moss, and had to cut across country to where I rejoined another completed section of I-95 further south, traveling narrower and more curvy roads through a landscape of sharecropper’s hovels where plows were still pulled by mules. I was picked up by a battered, old, green Ford pickup holding a grizzled black farmer and his grandson. It was, (according to my diary), “ride eighteen” of the twenty-six it took to reach my grandparents, but in my memory it stood out as the best.
All the way south northern drivers had warned me about southerners and blacks and especially cops in Georgia, yet this was my second ride with black southerners. The first was three brothers who warned me to watch out for northerners and whites and especially cops in Georgia. (When I eventually was picked up by a cop in Georgia he kindly warned me to watch out for southerners, northerners, blacks and whites.) But the black farmer didn’t warn me about anything, and instead asked questions and told brief tales and laughed a lot. He’d been in the Army, years earlier, and knew not all white people were bad, and seemed to be trying to demonstrate this truth to his grandson, (who silently regarded me with round eyes, as if I was from Mars). But what I remember most is how quickly our nervousness melted to understanding and even friendship, though it was the brief friendship of a hitchhiker.
All twenty-six rides were like that, examples of people’s goodness and kindness, for even people’s distrustful warnings about others were a demonstration of their caring and concern for me. The world seemed full of beautiful people. In my memory the United States was bathed in some sort of beautiful, purifying light.
Some later equated 1969 and its so-called “Summer of Love” with sex and drugs, but the twenty-six rides involved no drugs and no sex. Therefore, in my mind’s eye, I separated 1969 from hippy drug-dogma. When I hitchhiked in 1970 the rot had already set in and the experience seemed different, and strangely tainted by filth. Therefore I cannot claim the evidence that drugs are harmful was not there.
If I’d been wiser I would have quit drugs sooner, but I was a fool. I found drugs very attractive, but even at the start my stomach felt a queasiness, an intuition which should have alerted me. I suppose I needed to suffer to learn, but by the end of 1972 I had become a rabid reactionary, and felt that for every good there is a push-back of evil, and that the purity of 1969 had been betrayed by tricked people, (among whom I included myself), and that drugs were the Trickster.
Drugs were a devious Trickster, for it was impossible to call “getting high” anything other than “high”. I had a terrible time attempting to convince friends that what they could see was obviously “high” was actually a sort of optical illusion. I couldn’t find the words, (even though, where my friends might be excused because they suffered amnesia regarding the “high” they had experienced, I had notebooks full of reminders that prevented me from forgetting, which I could refer to). It was a source of great frustration to me that my reformer’s-zeal sounded so prissy and preachy, and that I was the object of scorn.
One problem was that people desired objective science. They still do, but even after fifty years of research and amazing technological advancements the human brain remains a shimmering, flickering map of a billion pathways, like a busy city seen from above at night. Certain general areas can now be identified pertaining to certain emotions and certain activities, and it can be seen whether it is “rush hour” or not, but the structure of individual thoughts and of crucial insights remain hidden in the complexity. Understanding remains what it was fifty years ago, more subjective than objective. The best way to understand a mind is to use it.
Therefore, to explain the difference between a drug-high and a natural-high, I resorted to poetic symbols and analogies, which are not scientific and can be dangerous. I would say “A drug-high is like X while a natural-high is like Y”, and my observations could be scoffed down in flames with the two words, “Prove it.”
For what it’s worth, after decades I came up with the symbol of an arch with a keystone. Before the keystone can be put in place the two sides of the arch must be raised, and it takes considerable energy, in the form of disciplined concentration, to keep the two sides from falling, but once the keystone is in place all that energy is freed, for the two sides support each other. The sensation of having freed-up energy is pleasurable, a “high”. When a person does something as simple as a crossword puzzle they are presented with a problem and are enjoying the “high” of finding answers.
Often, once an arch is completed, one doesn’t need to think of it any more. Learning to walk or drive a car involves considerable concentration, but later we walk or drive largely on a sort of autopilot, without thinking about what we do. In fact at any given moment our awareness is a laser focus on one spot, even as an enormous amount goes on in autopilot in our subconscious. Millions of individual arches involving millions of keystones are involved, and major arches are built of countless smaller arches.
Besides times of building there are times things need to be taken down. A useful analogy is a desk that gets so messy it becomes impossible to work, so work must cease and a new work, cleaning-the-desk, must be done. While this can be experienced as a pleasurable event like doing a crossword puzzle, it is often experienced as a depression of sorts. We’d rather eat than wash the dishes. We are creatures of habit, and prefer doing what we enjoy, and some of the greatest crises of our lives involve stopping what we enjoy, and doing what we don’t.
Using my analogy of an arch, this involves removing the keystone of an old arch. Immediately the energy of the two sides is released. One had better be prepared, for otherwise the arch collapses into a heap of rubble and much energy does little more than raise a cloud of mental dust, (which may be a good thing, if the old arch was a bad habit causing serious problems). If one is prepared, one has some sort of new-and-improved arch they are trying out (perhaps very tentatively). In other cases one may backslide, reverting from a better behavior that feels new and uncomfortable to old, tried-and-true behavior that has negative consequences.
Like all analogies, the “archway-keystone” analogy has shortcomings, but one thing I liked about it was that it explained why a drug-high was negative. Drugs removed keystones in a higgledy-pigglety manner, freeing up energy without regard to what arches were involved. I noticed that drugged people were initially very “liberated”, in that they were able to abandon old ideas and accept new ideas, but at times this merely meant they were suggestible, and willing to accept new ideas that seemed downright dumb. The discipline of careful thought was abandoned, and, in the long term, rather than carefully crafted new thoughts they tended to backslide to the old. Consequently they were able to say “drugs haven’t changed me”, when change in fact is a crucial component to growth, and failure-to-change is the fabric of frustration, and even madness.
To be honest, left to my own devices, I would have destroyed my physical brain with drugs in the manner some of my closest friends did, for I would have tried harder and harder to get high and stay high until the damages became too great. I can’t take credit for the fact I could compare being on-drugs with being off-drugs, while reviewing old notebooks, because I wouldn’t have ever quit. The grace of God did the quitting for me.
The first period off-drugs was due to my stepfather, (who could see what drugs were doing to students at Harvard). He tricked me into going to school in Scotland. I thought the school would be “far out” and “groovy” because it was in a castle, but when I got there I discovered it was like joining the marines. In my view there was far too much exercise and far too much study. There were no drugs available and no way to run away, as I couldn’t figure out how to hitchhike across an ocean. Then, when I finally returned to the States, I could see my friends had been strangely damaged, but instead of blaming drugs I blamed President Nixon.
The second period off-drugs was due, strangely, to my incorrect conclusion that what was damaging friends was economic pressures, which could be solved by making heaps of money buying drugs very cheaply and selling them sort-of-cheaply, which involved me in an escapade aboard a “borrowed” yacht, and two months at sea with no drugs.
Even despite the evidence I received by being able to compare periods on-drugs with periods off-drugs, (which was a blessing and likely saved my life, if not all of my brains), I refused to blame drugs, and therefore went to hell a third time, perhaps experiencing what scripture describes as being “given to your sin”. My notebooks show me learning things the hard way:
Even as I insisted upon being stupid I recall my conscience nagging me, and also I kept being quietly harangued by incidents in reality, such as someone walking up to me in Harvard Square and handing me a pamphlet that had been kicking around since 1966:
At that time Meher Baba’s face had a habit of popping up unexpectedly, for example briefly in the movie, “Woodstock“, or midst pictures on the cover of an album by Peter Townsend. Meher Baba was definitely opposed to drugs:
“Tell those who indulge in these drugs (LSD, marijuana, and other types) that it is harmful physically, mentally and spiritually, and that they should stop the taking of these drugs. Your duty is to tell them, regardless of whether they accept what you say, or if they ridicule or humiliate you, to boldly and bravely face these things.”
As I started to toy with the idea of going to India I discovered I would not be welcomed by Meher Baba’s disciples unless I had been off drugs for six months. At first this meant I simply wouldn’t visit them, though it had become increasingly obvious to me drugs were failing to get me as “high” as they once had done. The problem was that I had become completely dependent, and without marijuana I couldn’t get “high” at all. Therefore, (though I knew I could quit as I’d quit twice before), quitting drugs meant I’d face a gray time (I had no idea how long) when I’d have to go without the very poetry which the Trickster had used to attract me to drugs in the first place. The fact I eventually went through a gray period without poetry may not seem like much, (especially among those who deem my poems a good reason to rush screaming from the room), but in retrospect it was one of the braver things I’ve ever done.
I went through this chaos between age sixteen and age nineteen, and it was during this time Audley went through a similar upheaval, and also was the time we became friends.
I eventually decided the Trickster was especially effective right after 1969, because there was a sort of afterglow due to the “natural” event, an event which was some sort of worldwide “revival” or “jubilee” or perhaps what they call a “darshan” in India, and people on drugs noticed this effulgence and gave drugs credit when drugs deserved none. In 1970 I simply and naively decided a “revolution” had occurred and the world was changed forever, and I went wild.
The second half of my senior year of high school turned into one, long, accelerating party, and I barely graduated. The parties extended into the summer, as if everyone knew their time living pampered in a wealthy suburb was drawing to a close, (not one of us could afford to even rent a house in such a town), and everyone wanted to have one final, crazy binge. There seemed to be an underground network that determined whose parents were away, and that house would be where the party was; in a wealthy suburb hard-working parents deserved breaks and could afford many vacations, and therefore many homes became available; sometimes I attended three or four parties a night, unsure what town I was in by dawn. When I looked in a morning mirror, the face I saw I looked nothing like the youth I was in February, when I placed sixth in my weight-class in the state wrestling meet. My face was becoming a papery hue of ashy gray and I’d lost fifteen pounds, though I was thin to begin with.
While I cringe slightly, looking back and seeing debauchery and decay, it is important to remember the Trickster was aided and abetted by older people, (some merely fools but some truly evil), who stated we were “expanding” our consciousness. I truly felt I was a pioneer on the frontier, and that, if I was clumsy, it was because I was inexperienced, and that further experience would result in further learning. Jimi Hendrix’s album, “Are You Experienced” (1967), made me feel a sort of smug pity for those who were not “experienced” (although the hit “Purple Haze” was not about drugs; it was about a dream, and was written before Hendrix tried LSD). The problem was that drugs involved amnesia. It is hard to learn from experience when you can’t remember what the experience was.
The sense I had at that time was that the inner world was especially loaded with inspiration. I could hear it when guitarists freed themselves from the constraints of sheet music and simply improvised. Therefore, on one hand, I wanted to be free from constraints, while on the other I wanted to record the improvisations, which imposed a new constraint. I had fascinating talks with people who wondered if attempting to record, write-down, and in a sense make-a-map of the new landscape was detrimental to exploration of that landscape. Some suggested my note-taking meant I was “up tight” and failing to “go with the flow”, however it was in my nature to keep notes. I asserted the notes themselves were a sort of musical instrument like a guitar, full of poetry and art that spilled onto the page spontaneously. During parties I’d place a large sheet of paper on a table with colored markers, so people could improvise what came into their drug-addled brains, so we could remember later, even after the amnesia set in.
I especially liked getting to know others better. It seemed like I’d spent years on my best behavior, walking around prim and proper and constrained, while secretly and deeply desiring to get the hell out of town to some place where I could be myself; now suddenly people were more open and honest. Even some “people-over-thirty”, (a term-of-scorn originally aimed at old, gray communists at the Kremlin (1964), but later a catch-phrase covering all “square” adults, used by radicals such as Abbie Hoffman)(1968), turned out to be people-over-thirty who were interesting. When parents came home unexpectedly early and discovered their children having a party some surprised me. Where I expected such parents to blow a gasket some sat down and talked, telling interesting stories about how they came to be wealthy. A few even smoked marijuana, which struck me as shattering all rules and preconceptions.
Despite all the joy of all the parties I sometimes felt deep exasperation, because people didn’t all improvise beautiful music or pontificate profundity. Some seemed purely focused on the physical sensation of a “buzz” or “rush”, or on the gluttony of the “munchies”, or on how hard it was to order fast-food when they were so stoned that they couldn’t read the illuminated menu above the counter, (they got lost in the menu’s dazzle), and my exasperation leaks into my notes:
...My friends: They all are saying
Things they've said before.
Deep inside I'm praying
They'll say a little more...
We were so stoned,
I mean really wreaked,
And everything was so funny.
We walked into this place
With all these librarian
And they were all
STARING AT US
And we were really stoned,
And we started laughing
And had to leave!"
More more more more!
The stuff they see is such a bore.
Unless they stop to investigate
They'll feel so small
And break and fall
And it will be too late...
For those who doubt the veracity of my claim (that I kept scientific notes which included noting my increasing frustration), I’ll include a picture of the page that held the above fragment. (Proof that the notes were highly scientific is that they were inked onto graph paper.)
Freudians informed me my frustration was due a thwarted sex-drive but, in terms of sex, while I felt sheepish about my lack of experience, I simply lacked the craving others had. I recall walking into a party where everyone was naked and painting each others aroused bodies with day-glow paint under black-lights, and, after watching for a while, I decided the conversation had no intellectual merit and was downright boring, and left to find a better party. I felt no tugging lust or hankering, and while some shamed me, and I myself felt embarrassed for being “sexually repressed”, I was merely innocent. Now that fifty years have passed I think that rather than “repressed” I may have possessed a degree of something called “purity”, and should have been praised for incipient spirituality, rather than shamed.
Not that I was a saint; I did have a girl-friend, and we did experimentally “fool around”, but the petting was secondary to our other problems and disagreements, one of which was that she didn’t approve of drugs and most parties, a second of which was that I often would rather write poetry than talk with her, and a third of which was that I had around seven other girlfriends.
I think these “other women” simply recognized my innocence made me sexually nonthreatening, and a good confidant. They were all a year or two younger, and a few years later might have represented a considerable temptation, but at the time I can honestly say they were more of a bother, like little sisters with problems that seemed to be all fuss and drama. I endured hearing their woes about boyfriends, and also hearing their boyfriend’s woes about them, but I’d rather be out with a couple pals my age, driving about pretending to be full of braggadocio like The Three Musketeers, when in fact we were quite shy. My pals were a year older than I, and sometimes we’d become competitive in terms of physical prowess, or in terms of our prowess in sweet-talking girls from the windows of cars, or in terms of our artistic prowess. I’d often feel inferior to them, which was odd because I had a girlfriend and they didn’t, and I had seven girls seeking my advice, while those same seven girls were a bit wary of my pals.
This all stewed together into what I suppose was our “community”, or perhaps “gang.” It was a precarious association, because we had no place of our own, and there was a vague awareness that the wealthy suburbs wanted us ejected, because we were in fact too poor to live there, without our parents. Perhaps no other community on earth rejects youth to the degree those wealthy suburbs did, (although scripture speaks of a Canaanite god “Moloch” which demanded child-sacrifice). To me going to Vietnam seemed a sort of child-sacrifice, and even going to college involved the shattering of our community, which had existed since kindergarten. All in all we felt unwanted and unwelcome, which in an odd way pushed us closer together and made our community stronger.
Besides finding houses where parents weren’t home, we found a place out in the woods. There was several hundred acres of overgrown farmland where the towns of Lincoln, Wayland and Weston came together, and, though developers had plans to turn the area into a country club and vast golf course, for the time being we called it our own. We even entertained plans to somehow get rich quick, and buy the land. Perhaps it awoke some ancestral memory of times when the young simply moved further into the woods to start a farm of their own, but we moved out into the forest and had parties out where no one was bothered by us. The parties were wonderful barbecues, with people playing guitars and flutes in firelight, involving long conversations, some deep and some whimsical and full of laughter, until birds serenaded the green light of dawn.
Unfortunately word spread about how nice our parties were, and each party was larger and more successful, until several hundred people showed up. This caused parking problems along suburban streets, and caused suburbanites to be dismayed by long-haired, garishly-dressed strangers entering and departed the woods via their backyard trees. Back in those times a party was deemed successful if the police showed up, but our biggest party had the officers from three towns wandering the midnight woods, meeting lost youths who also wondered where the heck the party was. To me this suggested our “community” had a problem, accented by the fact that after the biggest party the parents of seven young girls strictly forbid their daughters from ever attending such parties again.
I wanted to get away and think about the problems that were surfacing, but got no relief. This was in part due to my being a sort of missionary of the counter-culture, which was in part brought about by the fact my business of importing fireworks from the inner city to the suburbs evolved, in a perfectly natural way, to importing drugs from the inner city. (Suburban marijuana at that time was heavily laced with alfalfa, and a cigarette would barely get one high, whereas marijuana from the black, urban neighborhood of Roxbury was “the real deal” and earned the suburban nickname “Mooner.”) While I saw little difference between fireworks and drugs (they both let you see pretty colors) the law begged to differ, and the risk I blithely faced was considerable jail time, which led me to scrutinizing people and wondering if they were “narcs”. At the same time it became widely known, “Mooner is the best stuff”, and friends were constantly introducing me to strangers, young and old, some of whom had never smoked marijuana before in their lives.
I had a strangely developed sense of responsibility about the mental health of novices, for a criminal. Some novices were as young as thirteen, and I worried they couldn’t handle the “expansion” of their brains. At worst I suppose I was selfishly afraid they’d “spill the beans” and land me in jail, but I’d insist that if they smoked that they first smoke with me, so I could oversee and guide.
I suppose it was because I was a “guide” that it came to pass that when someone was suffering a “bummer” or “bad trip” people brought these suffering souls not to a hospital or parent or priest, but to a seventeen-year-old me. I was cock-sure I could handle such cases, and this arrogant attitude was furthered by the fact I was strangely good at waking people from their bad dreams. I’m not sure how or why, but I just was unafraid of their schizophrenic states, and jollied or bullied or distracted them from the mental ruts they were in. In one case it was as simple as taking the bummed-out person outside to watch some fireworks; the dazzle in their eyes made them utterly forget whatever their nightmare was.
Another time a girl was slouched on her haunches in an incredibly ugly way, with her head between her knees, softly wailing, “I’m ugly.” She was repeating, “Ugly…ugly…ugly” when I intruded, “You’re not.” I was so firm about it she sat up straighter and looked less ugly. “I’m not?” “No, your not.” She smiled, and didn’t look ugly at all, and just like that her “bad trip” was over.
One time, before school let out, some younger students had come rushing up to me exclaiming “Agatha is bumming out! Agatha’s having a bad trip! If the teachers find out they’ll call the police!” I had no clue who Agatha was, but went where I was led, and saw a girl in a chair, her back against a wall and her arm folded, pouting with her jaw thrust out, wearing an olive-green army jacket and looking very militant, as she glared out from under hair that hung over her face. I dragged a chair over and sat next to her and folded my own arms, looking sidelong at her. Her friends all watched anxiously from the distance. After a while the girl looked sidelong at me, and I smiled and inquired, “Something wrong?”
“Yes, They’re annoying me.”
“They keep saying I’m bumming out!”
“I’m not bumming out!”
I laughed, And Agatha looked at me sharply, and snapped, “Why are you laughing?”
I said, “I’m laughing because, if you’re not bumming out, it means they are the ones who are bumming out. Just look at them. I think they are.”
She looked over at her friends, who were all gnawing their nails and looking very worried, and then looked back at me, and then a wonderful smile slowly spread across her face, as beautiful as dawn. Then her friends, of course, could see we were both smiling, and all were immensely relieved, and they all started smiling as well. I stood up aware my reputation as a bummer-buster was sustained. Once again I was a super-hero who had saved the day, through doing next to nothing.
By summer I was finding the business of doing next to nothing increasingly tiresome. Particularly wearisome was the fact my stepfather’s old house had two wings, a parent’s wing and a children’s wing, and my friends felt walking into “my” side of the house without being invited in, or even ringing the doorbell, was part of the new world, a world without property or borders. I often had dinner with my parents, and would walk down to my bedroom expecting to retreat and write, and instead would discover between three and seven members of my “community” in my bedroom, eager to see me. I never told them to buzz off, but at times I wanted to. I suspected they were using me, because I always had Mooner and was generous, (and in fact my records show I never made money as a “pusher”, because marking-up prices was “exploitation”, and not something one did to one’s friends.) I also suspected they were using me in another way, liking the way I did “next to nothing”, but never doing “next to nothing” in return.
What was the “next to nothing” I did? I couldn’t find the words, and even poetry was failing me, and poetry was “next to nothing” personified. I felt in touch with something hugely important, but unable to grasp it. And perhaps this is the most wicked evil of the Trickster. He allows one to glimpse a shore from a ship moving the wrong way: The energy that allows one to see is gained by knocking out keystones that enable one to grasp. I was unable to grasp what was happening to me, but knew I wanted to grasp.
One event struck me as a sort of final straw, or perhaps as a pebble that precipitated an avalanche. It involved a time I was being one of The Three Musketeers with my two buddies. Lord knows what pill we were high on, but we were on a hill overlooking a small lake, looking down on people by the shore who seemed very tiny as we felt absolutely giant. And while in this exalted state my two buddies became involved in a competition about who was more huge, in intellectual terms. One would say, “Aristotle said…” and the other would counter, “Yes, but Plato said…”
I stood back and felt small, for I knew little about poetry and nothing about philosophy; I knew who Shakespeare and Robert Frost were, but poets like Keats and Shelly drew a blank. Philosophy seemed boring and useless to me, so I had no interest in Camus or Nietzsche, yet my buddies seemed like authorities because they could name and quote people I knew nothing about. I felt younger and less educated and quite inferior, in this boyish competition, yet I had something they lacked. I had “next to nothing”.
There was no getting around a simple fact: No one really liked the poetry they wrote, while mine had won an award. It was handed out during our graduation ceremony. It came with no money and involved more trouble than it was worth, for though my best buddies tried to shake my hand and congratulate me I sensed they resented my five-minutes-of-fame. In the strange, competitive world of adolescent youth I was guilty of a crime, for I had won with “next to nothing”.
I couldn’t fathom what I sensed; I could see but could not grasp. In a troubled mood I just wanted to get away and think, and followed a whim, loading up my backpack and leaving town.
My hitchhiking wandered west across upper New York State and up into Canada, with my aim not a particular place but to “get away.” However I had the definite sense 1970 was not like 1969. Perhaps, because my hair was longer and my skin was less rosy, a different sort pulled over when I stuck out my thumb, but I had the sense some sort of push-back was occurring, opposed to the sheer beauty of 1969. The world did not seem full of beautiful people. The beautiful light was still shining down on the land, but clouds were gathering.
I can’t truly tell of the details of that trip, because the notebook dedicated to that trip was lost, but perhaps my recollection of how I came to lose that notebook will give the flavor of the journey.
Back in those days crossing the border was usually quite easy. The official would ask you if you had anything illegal, you would reply you didn’t, and that was that. However the young driver of the car stuffed with young men I was hitching a ride in, heading back into the United States, became sweaty. He was nervous because he had three cases of illegal beer in his trunk. When the bored border-agent asked if the driver had anything illegal to declare the driver, for some guilty reason, replied in a strangely strangled tone, “No, but he…” and he jabbed a thumb back at me, “…is a hitchhiker”. The border agent seemed to wake midst a yawn, looked at me with interest, and inquired, “Do you mind if I look in your pack?”
What could I say? I very much minded, for I had drugs in my pack. However I hoped he wouldn’t find them, as they were secreted in the aluminum tubes of the pack’s frame. So I said, “I wouldn’t mind at all,” and swung out of the car and handed my pack to the man. And then, before I could reach back into the car for the overnight bag that held, among other things, my notebook, there was a squealing of tires and the vehicle whipped away. The young driver who had demonstrated compassion when he picked me up had run out of compassion, and had left me in the lurch.
As I turned back to the border agent my mind was working very fast. I didn’t want him to search my pack, and my mind intuitively seized upon a way to stop the search. I looked the man in the eye, as he looked after the swiftly vanishing car with a perplexed look, and protested, “They drove off with my other suitcase!”
The man looked at me with a sort of vague horror, as if I was presenting him with a problem he didn’t want to deal with, and his immediate response was to shove my backpack into my arms, swivel, walk into a little office beside the road, and slam the door.
As I walked south from the border, chuckling and feeling a bit smug about the fact the pack I shrugged up onto my shoulders hadn’t been searched, I couldn’t fail to notice that two men, the driver of the car and the border agent, had both turned their backs on me in roughly thirty seconds. Two men had seen me as a problem to avoid.
Not that I blamed them. As I turned to walk backwards, dangling my thumb out at a long string of cars, every car that passed without slowing represented a person who saw me as a problem to avoid. Most couldn’t be bothered, and the cars that slowed were the kindly exception to the rule. But there seemed to be more kindness in 1969 than 1970.
What was so very different? There was something about 1969 which didn’t involve anyone turning their backs on anyone, and instead involved seeing “everyone is beautiful in their own way.” 1969 was like the keystone of an arch that brought both sides together and freed up energy. Was it something so simple as “Love”?
By the time I got out of a car by the toll booth on the Massachusetts Turnpike, back in my home town, I was aware my trip had been a success, in that it was full of adventure, but an utter failure in terms of “getting away”. In 1969 I had escaped my boring town into a wonderful world of especially kind people (because that is who picks up hitchhikers), but in 1970 I seemed to be seeing the same problem my hometown had, in different people, no matter where I went.
In fact one 1970 ride set the record for the fastest I ever traveled while hitchhiking. A big, burly man had “pegged out” his wide, swaying Cadillac (over 120 mph; 193 km/hr) on I-81 between Watertown and Syracuse, New York. He was jovial, and kept telling me, “Relax, kid. What’re you so tense for? Here, have some more whisky.” The whisky didn’t help. I was tense because I didn’t like the way the big car floated and drifted and was never quite in the center of the lane, and I was also tense because, while 1969 witnessed the freedom of falling shackles and chains, 1970 seemed to be a constant reminder that how you used that freedom might kill you.
The toll booth was about as far as I could get in town from my home, and it was around three AM. I shouldered my pack and faced a six mile walk beneath streetlights, from pool of light to pool of light, up and down hills. Now, fifty years later, such a hike, without dinner and without sleep, would probably kill me, but at the time I disparagingly muttered to myself over what bad shape I was in.
Such disparagement was uncommon in my poetry, but all through my diary entries, which is likely why they required separate notebooks. The poetry spoke of hope and high places, while the diary spoke of how I needed to shape up and stop being such a damn fool. As dawn broke, and I trudged up the front steps of my home, I was in the mood to reform. I felt burned out (partly because the final ride had been from soldiers on leave racing to get back on base before they were AWOL, and they were handing out No-dose (pure caffeine) like they were mints, but the pills were wearing off). I needed food and water and most of all sleep, things my mother was good at providing.
My mother was up early, and, much to my astonishment, when I walked through the door I faced her ire. Before I could say a word I learned that, while I was away, she had heard a noise after she’d gone to bed, and when she walked up to my end of the house she discovered a party going on, and that the air, as she put it, “reeked of marijuana”. When she asked my friends what on earth they thought they were doing, they blamed me, insisting I had invited them. Then she folded her arms and tapped her toe, as if demanding I explain.
I was too tired to explain, and anyway, the only explanation I could think of wouldn’t have sounded good: “When I said I was leaving town they must have thought I said you were leaving town”. I just winced annoyance and shook my head in disbelief and spread my palms. Then I swung my pack from my shoulders and turned to head off to bed.
She added, “Please keep the noise down. A friend of your brother’s is sleeping in your sister’s old bedroom.”
“Oh really? Who?”
I winced again. The lady made no sense. She got all bent out of shape when my nice friends were in her house, yet felt it was perfectly fine to put one of my brother’s creepy friends into the bedroom next to mine.
In any case, that is how Audley Bine became my next door neighbor.
One gift my parents gave me was a sort of idealism that doesn’t seem like a gift. It can seem like a burr stuck in your hair, as this old world can be hard on idealists. Not only do others disappoint us, but we can disappoint ourselves. For this reason many who started out idealists become cynics; the softhearted become hardhearted; optimists become pessimists; the faithful become faithless.
To me such a response always seemed a weakness, and even a sort of sell-out. What sort of idealist quits just because the going gets tough? One should persevere, and have high hopes:
Of course, being so hopeful and optimistic, even in the face of proof such behavior is unwise, did make me a bit of a sucker and a chump. But my parents again set an example, for even when their idealism went down in flames (in the form of their intensely acrimonious divorce), the same stubborn unwillingness-to-compromise (which perhaps led to the divorce) made them stubbornly unwilling to compromise on their idealism after their divorce. Even in the smoking wreckage of a crashed marriage they stubbornly persisted with their views and insisted they were correct, which I found very embarrassing, as a teenager, but which I also respected as a powerful reality, even though I didn’t understand it. Therefore it is only logical that I would follow in their footsteps, and remain true to the dual-idealism I inherited, despite all evidence idealism was unwise.
For example, most bosses initially felt lucky, when they hired me. I possessed the so-called, “Puritan Work Ethic”, and had high standards for my self, and was an athlete and enjoyed working hard. But bosses discovered I also had high standards regarding the behavior of bosses, which made them feel less lucky and made me look less desirable. Eventually, (and quite often so swiftly my rise and fall was like a yo-yo’s), our employer-employee compromise would become untenable, and divorce (IE: Getting fired or quitting) became unavoidable. As a consequence I worked over a hundred jobs, and have great experience concerning bosses, and have acquired reams of knowledge about all quirks and foibles bosses may have. I also have no pension, for I never found a boss worth a compromise of longer than two years, let alone the soul-selling duration-of-decades required for a pension. As far as I’m concerned, any person collecting a pension is either very lucky or very weak. They are lucky, if they lucked into a worthy boss, and they are weak, if they stayed working all those years for an unworthy boss.
Eventually I discovered self-reliance mattered, and the best boss was my foolish self, and I became “self-employed.” Of course, once you are “self-employed” you still have bosses, but they are called “customers”. So you have to add another hundred bosses to the total I have worked for. I may not have a pension, but I do know a thing or two about bossy people. In fact I know much more than the fellow collecting a pension, for he compromised and worked for the same boring boss for thirty years, whereas I have worked for two hundred bosses. I deserve some sort of master’s degree. The irony is that the fellow with no experience gets a pension, as I, with all my wisdom, get little respect and no money.
What have I gained? It is a difference traced by the poet William Blake, which led him to call a first book, “Songs Of Innocence“, and a second, “Songs Of Experience.” It is a product of the pain of a burr, like the irritation of a grain of sand in an oyster’s tender places producing a pearl. In effect, it is proof hardship has meaning, and that you are getting something deeply significant out of life’s struggles, other than filthy lucre. It suggests the meaning of life, and of spiritual progress, and of real “gain”, is not measured by money.
One sad thing I’ve seen in those who retire, (in some cases far younger than I), is that despite one [or two or even three] fat pensions, they are often dead within a year or two of retiring. There are of course many exceptions to this rule, but such deaths happen frequently enough to be concerning. It as if such retirees realize they compromised too much, and worked their entire lives for emptiness, and the disillusionment kills them.
I don’t know much about this disillusionment, because I failed to live such a compromised life longer than two years, (and loathed those two years, during which time I joined a union, and discovered I then had two bosses at the same time). However I can speak with authority about how to get fired or quit, and how to never get a pension.
This seemed a totally useless authority to speak with, and a worthless wisdom to own, when I was a not-so-young, penniless man of 37, and still unmarried, and quite lonely. Where others bragged about increases in income, I could only brag about getting by on less and less (so I did so, for a man must brag about something). Even those who liked me tended to laugh at my idealistic attitudes, deeming me a mere mad poet. Therefore they were alarmed when I abruptly announced I was about to marry, and not marry a single woman either, but rather marry a woman with three small children.
To be honest, I saw no evidence even my closest friends thought the marriage was a good idea, or would last as long as a year. To some the idea of a person like myself being even a tenth as responsible as a husband and father has to be was not laughable, because it was too painfully embarrassing to even consider. After all, if I couldn’t even work for a boss, how could I possibly work for a wife?
Fortunately I had met a woman who on some level was as idealistic as I was, and who also didn’t care about money. Not that she didn’t enjoy the good life, when it was possible, but when the good life retreated from the present tense far into the foreseeable future, she was strangely unperturbed. What did she care for more than money? She cared about children and family, and she’d been through hard times that taught her that you can have the delights of children and family without a cent to your name. Consequently money had slipped downwards, in terms of importance, on her inward “list”.
As we talked we discovered we were on the same page, in a way impossible to describe to those who measure with money. We agreed a beer sipped in love was far superior to champagne without love, and agreed about fifty other things, and all that agreeable agreement occurred during the first hour of our first date. This hour astonished me, for usually I found dates painful, and the talk so stilted and ludicrous that I usually wanted to escape the woman more than I wanted to seduce her. But this woman was different. As I recall, we talked non-stop for a solid week, every chance we could, and, rather than wanting to escape, I wanted more.
We eventually agreed that love is so important it deserves a capital “L”, and this “Love” can also be called “God”, and that, compared to God, money doesn’t matter. We also decided to marry, after only a week. But we knew people would think we were crazy for deciding so swiftly, so we didn’t tell anyone else. We waited a whole three more weeks before announcing our decision. Most people still thought we were crazy.
It is one thing to talk the talk, but another to walk the walk. I have a sense my more cynical friends, (and at this point maybe I should demote them to “acquaintances”,) were sitting back amused, awaiting my humbling, as “the shit hit the fan”. And, to be honest, I myself was afraid of the same, for I’d been through humbling and embarrassing infatuations before. But this relationship was different. We deeply disappointed the prophets of doom. Then, as if it wasn’t a big enough challenge to provide for three children, God gifted us with a fourth, and then a fifth.
At this point I should probably answer the question, “If I couldn’t even work for a boss, how could I possibly work for a wife?” The answer was that we were “Pluggers”. We just kept plugging, never sure we’d come up with the next month’s mortgage or even the cash for groceries. Always the work appeared and the money was earned, often at the last possible moment, which was what we expected, and had faith would happen.
In the eyes of some acquaintances our attitude was irresponsible. It required a faith they lacked. They suffered from a “burr under the saddle” called “insecurity”, and felt that all responsible people should compromise greatly to be “secure”. They stayed with deplorable bosses for “the health insurance”, and for the “pension”, and for other “benefits”, but we were free of such chains and quicksand. Our security was Love with a capital “L”, and while Love may not have given us lemonade when we only needed clean water, we seldom truly suffered, and usually blithely breezed through reefs and shoals, somewhat to the annoyance of those who suffered awful jobs they longed to quit, and who dourly predicted (and perhaps even secretly desired) our certain shipwreck, because we didn’t stick to the jobs they were glued to.
This is not to say we sat back very much at all. Pluggers must plug, and that involves hard work, even when the work does not pay very well. Faith involves far more sweat than sloth does.
I think this is actually a very American attitude, perhaps derived from the experiences of settlers, who horrified the Native Americans by arriving in destitute droves to farm (and destroy) their hunting grounds. America’s “Homestead Act” merely made official a phenomenon that was ongoing.
But such settlers often failed. They were expected to live for five years on their “free” land in order for the government to officially deem their ownership “legal”, and government statistics show roughly half of such settlers could not complete the five years. One sees little material success in characters such as “Pa” in the “Little House On The Prairie” books, as they move from failed homestead to failed homestead. What impresses me more than success is the amazing lack of security such settlers faced, uprooting themselves from former lives to face American wilderness, and conditions of extreme hardship.
American settlers had great (and often unrealistic) faith in their own ability to produce a lush, bumper crop from, in some cases, semi-arid wastelands. Their attitude was in some ways the opposite of those modern men, many of whom are meekly ensconced in the modern welfare state. Many modern men apparently trust cringing, and distrust daring. But what was this thing I call “a settler’s attitude”?
An “attitude” is often a difficult thing to intellectually describe, and this is especially true because “Pluggers” don’t tend to be intellectual. However that which you cannot say in words can sometimes speak in songs, and the spirit of American settlers echoes in their music, and in their song’s humorous attitude towards misfortune.
For example, In “So long, It’s Been Good To Know You“, Woody Guthrie sings,
The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed, An’ that dusty old dust storm blowed so black Preacher could not read a word of his text, An’ he folded his specs,
an’ he took up collection, Said:
So long, it’s been good to know yuh; So long, it’s been good to know yuh; So long, it’s been good to know yuh. This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home, And I got to be driftin’ along.
In the older ballad “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” a verse croons,
Well they soon reached the desert where Betsy gave out And down in the sand she lay rollin’ about While Ike in great tears looked on in surprise Sayin’, “Betsy get up; you’ll get sand in your eyes.”
But one song that (to me) best encapsulates the attitude of settlers springs from the unlikely root of a priest of the Church of England, George Herbert (1593-1633). Among other things he collected proverbs from other lands (“outlandish”), and seven years after he died his collection was published, and we derive from it some sayings we still use, such as “His bark is worse than his bite.” One saying we no longer use is, “To him that will, ways are not wanting,” because it morphed into, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” which first appeared in the English publication “The New Monthly Magazine” in 1823. It was then picked up by the humorist singer-songwriter “Handsome Harry Clifton” (1832-1872) and became a song heard in English music halls in the mid 1860’s, and then crossed the Atlantic and moved with settlers out into the prairies, after the American Civil War.
This life is a difficult riddle For how many people we see With faces as long as a fiddle That ought to be shining with glee. I am sure in this world there are plenty Of good things enough for us all And yet there’s not one out of the twenty But thinks that his share is too small.
Chorus: Then what is the use of repining, For where there’s a will there’s a way, And tomorrow the sun may be shining Although it is cloudy today.
Do you ever hear tell of the spider That tried up the wall hard to climb? If not, just take that as a guider; You’ll find it will serve you in time. Nine times it tried hard to be mounting And every time it stuck fast But it tried hard again without counting And of course it succeeded at last
Do you think that by sitting and sighing You’ll ever obtain all you want? It’s cowards alone that are crying And foolishly saying “I can’t” It’s only by plodding and striving And laboring up the steep hill Of life that you’ll ever be thriving Which you’ll do if you’ve only the will.
Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining
Although it is cloudy today.
Laura Ingalls Wilder (of “Little House On The Prairie” fame), used the above song to happily conclude her most harrowing book, which described a railway-town’s near brush with starvation when blizzards and deep drifts cut the town off from trains, from January until May, during a particularly brutal Dakota winter.
But what is fascinating about the attitude Wilder describes is that it was not the typically American, Horatio Alger (1832-1899), concept of “rags to riches”, epitomized by Alger’s best-seller “Ragged Dick” (1868). Rather it was opposed to such ideals of material success, for “The Long Winter” basically describes an entire town of fugal, moral individuals reduced from riches to rags. Their reward was not a fortune, nor a pension, but merely to survive to see another spring. And what do they do in that springtime? They sing.
This Plugger’s-response resembles the “Whos of Whoville”, in Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (1904-1991) best-seller “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” (1957). After the “Grinch” had stolen every materialistic proof of Christmas, the Who’s still gathered to sing. I can remember sitting in my father’s lap on Christmas morning in 1957 and having that brand-new tale read to me. Over a decade later, as a teenager, I’d argue (only partially in jest) that Geisel (AKA “Dr. Seuss”) was a great American poet, whereas most of my fellow poets, in our snide groups at snide colleges, sucked the split lips of our artificial suffering with a moribund mentality that produced only snivel. Dr. Seuss, despite the genuine suffering of his own life (his chronically-ill wife eventually committed suicide) produced a bright, cheerful children’s poem that influenced America. Why did it have such influence? Because it described what Laura Ingalls Wilder also described in her best-selling children’s book, “The Long Winter”.
And what is that?
It is that there is something worth singing about in simply surviving to see another day. Life is beautiful and precious, in and of itself, irregardless of whether you succeed or fail. In fact the burr of suffering seems strangely beneficial, for it proves that Life persists in spite of adversity, and that Life is indomitable and unquenchable and independent.
Laura Ingalls Wilder left the third verse of Handsome Harry Clifton’s song out, when she quoted it to end “The Long Winter.” The third verse goes:
Some grumble because they’re not married, And cannot procure a good wife; Whilst others they wish they had tarried And long for a bachelor’s life. To me it is very bewild’ring, Some grumble, (it must be in fun), Because they have too many children, And others because they have none.
Then what is the use of repining, For where there’s a will there’s a way, And tomorrow the sun may be shining Although it is cloudy today.
The fact of the matter is that there is always a reason to complain, if you look for it, but if you take that road you may miss many reasons to smile. On the Path one faces a choice between complaining or entertaining. In a sense it is a situation that reminds me of a Junior High School dance, (which were gruesome experiences, for me).
I would stand on one side of the gym, with lots and lots of beautiful young woman on the other side, and be miserable. Lord! If you could put this old man’s mind back in that boy’s body, I would have skipped across that gym happily and asked girl after girl to dance. Sadly, I instead found reasons to complain. In fact I was so miserable I often wondered why in the world I ever went to such events.
Usually, because I was prone towards being a one-woman-man, I ignored all sorts of opportunity, because there was a particular girl I was fixated on, and she usually was already dancing with some far taller boy who actually grew peach-fuzz on his upper lip, and had grown above five feet tall. I was four-foot-ten, which put me at a disadvantage, [except in “slow dances”, when my face would have been buried between young woman’s breasts.] [Man, Oh Man! If I could put my old man’s mind back in that boy’s body, I don’t think I would have called being-short a “disadvantage!”]
Probably I should leave this subject, before I get myself in trouble. I only bring up dances because in a way it is like looking for a job. Just as I hung back in the Junior High dances, finding reasons to complain despite the lovely girls across the gym, I found reasons, when young, to avoid even attempting to look for work.
Rather than a particular girl across a gym I was infatuated by, who made all other girls worth disdaining, there was a certain job I was infatuated by, that made all other jobs worth disdaining. And what was that job? It was “poet.”
Now the funny thing is that, when you are looking for work, you never see employers looking for a “poet” in the Want Ads. A poet wants to express himself, but that is his work, and not another’s. Others have other work, different from “self-expression.” Therefore, if a poet expects a paycheck, he had better learn to sing while washing dishes.
This was something I learned before I got married. However I would be remiss if I didn’t say I was thirty-seven before I became so wise. Earlier it was agony to push myself out and apply for a job. It was like crossing the gym and asking the most undesirable girl in the universe to dance, and to be honest I sometimes couldn’t do it. I’d rather be homeless and sleep in my car.
How odd it seems that I later found it fun to apply for jobs. I didn’t care if I got the job or not; I just found it fun to fill out the job application in a poetic way, and then watch the face of the fellow considering me as he glanced over the form, interviewing me. Even if I wasn’t the man for the job, the interviewer had fun rejecting me. We’d laugh and tell stories, and I like to think the interviewer never had so much fun rejecting an applicant, before he met me.
I learned this art the one time in my life I was on unemployment, in 1985. I’d only receive $32.00 a week, (or nine hours of pay, at minimum wage, $3.35/hour at that time), and in order to receive this paltry amount I had to provide proof, to the government of New Mexico, that I had looked for work in three places the prior week.
I never actually applied for the job of brain surgeon at the local hospital, but I did apply at other absurdly impossible places, and discovered it can be fun to ask, even if rejection is inevitable.
This was a revelation to me. It was like discovering it is good fun to cross the gym and ask a glorious girl who would never dance with a shrimp like you for a dance, and finding out, even though she will not dance, that you can talk and laugh and learn, all the same. And rarely, (but often enough to lift your spirits), the girl will decide, what the heck, she will dance, just one dance. In like manner, some employers will sometimes hire you, if only for just one day.
“Just one day of work” is not enough to satisfy a person who feels insecure without a pension and other benefits, but it is a bonanza for a drifter living hand-to-mouth. The person who wants “security” and “certainty” misses the bonanzas the insecure understand. As odd as it sounds, the people who are “secure” and “have it made” are missing bonanza after bonanza after bonanza. Blessed are the poor.
Most “Pluggers” don’t intentionally seek to live “on the edge.” They simply were born into childhoods without a silver spoon in sight, and things such as “security” and “certainty” have not been their lot in life. They may hope for the perks of the privileged, the same way many hope they will win the lottery, but such things are like an apple dangled in front of a donkey to keep it plodding forward. Most Pluggers doubt they’ll ever really reach and taste that apple, and therefore the real reason they have the strength to keep plodding on can’t be from the apple they never reach, but rather from the bonanzas they experience, which the “privileged” know little or nothing about. Blessed are the poor.
There is something counter-intuitive about the statement “Blessed are the poor”, for we tend to associate the word “blessing” with wealth, bounty, riches. Wrong.
This is difficult to say, and will sound clumsy as I write it, but it has been my experience that the poor are richer than the rich. Why? Because nothing matters more than contact with the One who blessings come from. In fact blessings themselves have no worth, compared to the One who gives them.
In other words, the Plugger has a heightened sense of what constitutes a “blessing”, due to living so close to the edge. One doesn’t truly appreciate a glass of water until one has been parched by the desert sun. Therefore a person with “security” has a dulled awareness, whereas a Plugger has his awareness heightened. Not that some Pluggers can’t become so discouraged that they become bitter people, but many experience “coincidences” and develop what the “privileged” deem superstition, but which the Plugger feels, often in an unspoken way, is a communion with the One from whom all blessings flow.
I should probably leave this subject, before I get myself in trouble. I only bring it up to explain the difference between putting your faith in a pension, and putting your faith in something far better, something besides money, something I vaguely called “freedom”, waving my arms inarticulately to the west and pointing at a cloud.
Most Pluggers have a hard time intellectually stating their stance. After all, most are responding to circumstances beyond their control. To people who have a cushion of wealth, and the leisure to construct a stance, a Plugger seems like a person who can’t take a stand or even make a point. A Plugger points like a weather vane, constantly shifting. For a Plugger does not think man controls the climate; he responds to it. He is like the captains of the sailing ships of yore, very respectful-of and responsive-to the wind, whereas the man with money and security and a pension thinks he has a stink-pot cabin-cruiser which can plow straight upwind and ignore all weathers.
Now, if you capitalize the words “wind” and “weathers” in the above paragraph, you can perhaps glimpse how a Plugger might be responding to their Creator, in a manner which might be inarticulate and even unconscious, but which the Creator might notice. And, if you were a Creator whose nature was love, who would you respond to? The Plugger responding to You, or the wealthy with all their attention away on their portfolio, counting the stocks and bonds in their pension like a miser counts cold coins?
This is not to say Pluggers don’t long for comfort, and a life of ease, but they can sing and dance even with such gratification indefinitely postponed.
This brings me back to the early days days of my marriage, which I now fondly recall, but which were not so easy to struggle through, at the time. What is good to recall is the amazing faith my wife and I had that we would “get by”, and how that faith was not misplaced, for we did “get by”, (though I should perhaps use the words “squeaked by.”)
Now that I am older and wiser I look back and roll my eyes. I say rude things, like, “What the fuck were we thinking?” Yet we sailed through situations like an elderly woman on a tricycle passing through a terrible ten-car-pile-up on a major downtown intersection without a hair in her bun jarred out of place. In retrospect one cannot look at such history without mentioning unscientific things such as “guardian angels” or “the grace of God” or even, “Manifest Destiny”. However, somewhat amazingly, we each thought we were very practical, and the impractical one was our beloved spouse.
In retrospect our quarrels were delightful, (for our reconciliations created two delightful babies), but, moving on to the specifics, our quarrels were about very interesting stuff, although I don’t imagine the elite really think about such stuff. Unless you have ever faced an empty refrigerator, you cannot deem groceries a topic worth much attention, but I and my young wife had a yearly quarrel, which I will dub the “Harvest Quarrel.”
During the summer we had too much work: I, as a landscaper, and my wife, as the small town “Recreation Director” of the local playground and swimming pool. As winter approached her work vanished, as did mine, (after I made a final bundle raking leaves). We were shifting from having plenty of groceries for our three, then four, then five children, to having none. The stress of this situation resulted in the yearly “Harvest Quarrel.”
The quarrel had two fascinating steps, wherein at first my my wife displayed a flippant disregard for groceries, and then I myself displayed the flippant disregard.
The first step involved the fact that, even after working in the gardens of others all day, I always found time to have a garden of my own. Besides producing a paycheck, I produced actual food. I would proudly dump dirty produce in my wife’s clean kitchen, and she wasn’t always appreciative. Some of my fresh produce went into delicious dinners, but a shocking (to me) amount seemed to barely pause in the house before heading out to the compost pile.
I had an old-fashioned belief that my wife should be like my mother and grandmother, who had Great-Depression-aversions to seeing even a scrap of food wasted. My grandmother was especially good at making the labor involved look easy, like something she was doing on the side with her little finger, while focused on a more interesting conversation, either with a person working with her, or on the radio. She preserved food while berating the Red Sox for losing again, her work deft yet unconscious, like a taxi driver manipulating through intense city traffic while discussing politics.
During summer’s surplus, when food was cheap, my grandmother canned vegetables in glass jars, or pickled them, or made a sugary jams of fruits. Refrigeration was not necessary. She knew all the old tricks for preserving food, such as corning beef or turning cabbage to sauerkraut, and where to store onions as opposed to where to store potatoes, and had various pantries and cellars delegated for the storage of food. By the time winter rolled around she was ready. Children were incorporated into this bustle, and I don’t recall grumbling much about it, and at times enjoyed it. My mother might stop at a farmer’s market and score a bargain on a big basket of past-prime shell beans, and this meant I’d sit with my siblings on the back porch shelling them, separating the bad beans from the good, talking about whatever, watching the twittering chimney swifts soar overhead as summer clouds built in the sky.
If there was any grumbling involved, it was about wasting food. Woe unto the child who didn’t finish their dinner. Garbage went to the pig, (or, if you had no pig, to the pig farmer, who made money on the side picking up your garbage), and when the pig was slaughtered “everything was used but the squeal.”
So much was this constant activity part of my grandmother’s make-up that even when she was old and my grandfather had saved enough to allow her to be a lady of leisure, she could become restless. When the herring were swimming upstream in the spring she seemed a bit offended no men brought her pails of silver fish for her to salt down in big crock-pots.
My wife was not the same. If I plunked a pail of fish down in her kitchen she did not look the slightest bit delighted. The same went for heaps of grubby carrots or dirty potatoes. Only occasionally would she make some jellies or jams, seemingly more for amusement than out of any sense of necessity, and when I brought baskets of red and green tomatoes in before the first fall freeze they sat around on just about every downstairs windowsill, ripening and sometimes rotting, on their way to salads or sauces or the compost pile, but never to canning jars.
This rubbed my fur the wrong way at times. Call it my Yankee heritage if you will, but I just felt winter was a danger we should prepare for, and always was very busy splitting and stacking wood in the fall. My wife could make me a little crazy, for she wouldn’t even rush out to shop before a major winter storm. She preferred to shop right after the storm, and the one time I accompanied her I could see her point; after a storm the store was wonderfully quiet and there were no lines at the register. I could also see her point about tomato sauce; it was much easier to pick up a jar at the market than to can it yourself. All the same, it just didn’t seem right.
I got my revenge by rubbing her fur the wrong way, in my own manner. This occurred when my landscaping was officially ended by the first fall of snow. Even if there were still leaves on lawns, they were buried by white, so I’d put my rakes away and sit by the warm fire, and gaze dreamily out the window, working on a poem about falling snow. After months of hard work it felt good to just compose, but it drove my wife crazy. We had no income, and I was just sitting there, nibbling an eraser. She’d interrupt my composing with some inane question, such as, “What about groceries?” I’d say, “I thought you just bought groceries yesterday.” She’d respond, “But what about next week?” I’d heave a deep sigh, for I knew it was time for our yearly Harvest Quarrel.
It did no good to say “calm down”, for those two words never work, and indeed often have a strangely opposite effect. It also did no good to point out that if she had canned like my grandmother she’s have no worries about groceries because she’d have months of food on the shelves, because if I said that she’d just point out that if I was like my grandfather I’d have a job that lasted through the winter. Neither did it do any good to wax spiritual and preach that we should have faith in God, because she would open her Bible to “Proverbs” and quote, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man“. Lastly, it was equally unhelpful to suggest that if I was left alone to complete my poem about falling snow the result might be a one-hit-wonder that would make us rich, for she would just say I had already written a hundred wonders, and I should be out selling them.
She gave me no peace, and became a complete burr-under-the-saddle. My Dad advised me women look better if you “make them lively”, and I was succeeding in making her lively. (She became especially lively if I used the word “harangue.”) What I actually wanted to do is write about the peace of falling snow, and find a rhyme for the word “silver”, but it was always obvious that only way I was going to get the peace and quiet necessary was if I went out into the snow and drove through it. That was always the conclusion to the Harvest Quarrel.
What then happened always amazed me. I’d very soon come clumping back into the house with snowy boots, shoot my wife a smug look, and say, “I start work at six tomorrow morning. Happy now?” Then I’d go back to the fire, pick up my uncompleted poem about falling snow, and again begin nibbling my eraser, well aware my wife was itching with curiosity.
What amazed me was the ease with which I found work. There had been other times in my life work wasn’t to be had, and I’d roll my eyes to God wondering what He expected me to do. Other times I rolled my eyes to heaven with a different, happier expression, when I found work with amazing ease, and these were those other times: I’d look down a heartless street steeling my nerve to go to business after business, expecting to experiencing painful rejection after painful rejection, but the very first place would hire me. It happened with surprising frequency, and always felt like the part of a cartoon where someone charges a locked door, lowering their shoulder to smash it down, and just as they reach the door someone opens it.
Not that the jobs were good ones, but I’d lived on the edge so long that heights no longer bothered me. Where some fret about a pension thirty years in the future, I was more concerned about today, and more willing to let tomorrow take care of itself. Also I was less sensitive about rejection, less prone to burst into tears when a job wasn’t available (although that might be an interesting tactic), and less willing to morbidly dwell upon the offence of being refused. I was more curious about other people and midst this curiosity was more able to utterly forget myself and my own problems. Perhaps I was like a sailor who has seen his ship can come through a storm unscathed, and who no longer feels he can only sail in sunny weather.
In fact, when I looked in the mirror, I realized I had changed. When I walked into a business my demeanor was different, switched from overly sensitive and doubtful to cheerful and confident. Nor was it an act. I definitely had in some way matured, and in some ways I now got jobs too swiftly; I now liked job interviews, and, when I had been happily contemplating a couple weeks of interesting discussions with managers over coffee, it could be disappointing to only experience one interview, before getting hired.
It did puff my ego a little to be able to assuage my wife’s worry about groceries so quickly, but it was hard to be too swelled up, as the pay was usually so minuscule that it took some adroit budgeting to make it to spring. We’d have to run up a tab until April, wherever we could. Also, when I sat and thought about it, I really couldn’t take much credit for changing. The “School Of Hard Knocks” had matured me.
But who was the professor? This question seemed more interesting to contemplate than my poem about falling snow, and the page of the notebook in front of me filled with stray doodles, and the scribbled numbers of sketched budgets and altered schedules.
Such a silent guide You are that I never Knew it was You leading me to follow Your lead. But black sheep are not so clever As they believe. When my heart grew hollow I turned away, and thought I was leading Myself, but who is really the professor When slings and arrows leave students bleeding In life’s School Of Hard Knocks? Yet how tender You are; how patient, as with the pace of snails I learned. I called my guide, “my own Free Will”, But captains are not the ones who fill sails Like fat bellies. I blundered on until My free will finally learned how to dance. Your silent love is what leads this romance.
I should probably stop there, but need to add a coda to finalize the theme about “burrs”.
I think that one thing that makes the attitude of a Plugger so much more upbeat than that of a worrier, (who frets at a threat to a pension far in the future), is a Plugger’s simple discovery that good things come in bad packages. A Navajo friend once wrote, “Boot camp is a very good thing to have happen only once in your life,” which is an essay in only fifteen words; IE: Certain discipline may be as palatable as cod-liver-oil, but turns out to make you feel better in the end. The pains, bad tastes, foul smells, and itchy burrs are the curriculum of the School Of Hard Knocks, whether or not you believe there is a Professor in charge of how such discipline is dispensed.
Once you have been through such burrs even once, and see that you more than survived, but were actually strangely matured, then burrs in your future seem less repugnant. You are made able to face situations, which once filled you with dread, without fear, or with far less fear. Not that you don’t know enough to come in out of the rain, but if you must stay out you are singing in the rain.
When I walked into a business my demeanor was utterly different when I was forty, completely changed from an overly sensitive and doubtful 18-year-old’s. Some jobs were demeaning, such as folding and collating pages of inane pamphlets containing bosh and humbug, but I could sing in such rain. My fellow workers tended to be “temps” (short for “Temporary Contract Labor”) who worked for less than the regular workers, without benefits, and the regular workers tended to resent temps. But temps were interesting people to talk to, for they tended to be down on their luck, and usually there is a good story behind a downfall. However despite their downfall, and despite being exploited by bosses and disdained by regular workers, temps didn’t retreat in self-pity, nor expect welfare and charity, but rather were the sort who would work a rotten job to claw their way out of their poverty. They were true Pluggers, and I saw a hidden benefit in jobs that had no benefits, for I got to interrogate and interview interesting Pluggers I otherwise would have only a slight chance of ever meeting. The odd thing was some of these people had no idea anyone might find them worth interrogating and interviewing; my interest was something that lit them up; they blossomed under the feeble sunshine of my innocent, simpleton queries. Such a flowering, under the dingy light of forty watt bulbs, made me look over my shoulder, for I knew I’m not so bright, and I wondered why their faces lit up. From whence came the light? It intrigued me, yet, even as this intriguing stuff occurred, all we were doing was folding and collating pamphlets of guff.
This is not to say I didn’t yearn to be out in the falling snow like a boy yearns to escape Algebra class, but so did the other temps; you could see it in the longing light in their eyes as they passed a window. We were all in it together, and there was a sort of camaraderie reminiscent of that seen in soldiers in deplorable circumstances, which led Wilfred Owen to write, “I too have seen God through mud.”
This brings me back to what I stated earlier, which was, (in case you have forgotten), “There is something worth singing about in simply surviving to see another day. Life is beautiful and precious, in and of itself, irregardless of whether you succeed or fail. In fact the burr of suffering seems strangely beneficial, for it proves that Life persists in spite of adversity, and that Life is indomitable and unquenchable and independent.”
The problem with such a realization is that it robs you of some motivation. Once you realize you already have what is most valuable, namely Life, what more do you need? Why even get a job, let alone a pension? Beethoven proved beautiful music doesn’t even require the ability to hear. Nothing is necessary for happiness but Life.
Fortunately Life does contain burrs, which direct us. Your beloved will bring you a concern which, if you have a heart, you will respond to.
Just as my young wife brought up concerns, disturbing my content as I sat by the fire contemplating falling snow, she could disturb my content as I enjoyed folding and collating pamphlets of guff, by urging me to get a better job. Even when minimum wages were raised from $3.35/hour when we met to $4.25/hour when she was first pregnant, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t that we were greedy; we were running-up-a-tab at the market, and on our utility bills, even with me working full-time. Running-up-a-tab was a parachute that slowed our decent, enabling us to survive until spring, (when I’d make $10.00/hour landscaping). But if you made too little in the winter your parachute would be too small, and when you hit spring you’d be up to your neck.
Therefore I, (and indeed most “temps”), required “overtime” to get by. Once you worked over 40 hours your pay would be “time-and-a-half”, (shifting from 4.25/hour to 6.38/hour.) I freely confessed this requirement when I was first hired, during the initial job-interview, not minding much if being so demanding meant I wouldn’t be hired. Yet sometimes it was what got me hired. The boss had some job he urgently needed done in a big hurry, and he desired people who would work overtime, but his regular employees not only might be unwilling to work extra hours, but might have the “benefit” of an earned vacation coming up. In such situations “temps” stepped in to save the day, but, once the day was saved, “temps” would be promptly laid-off. Unemployment may seem a cruel reward for a job-well-done, but I could only fold and collate so long before the work got stale, and I tended to depart such jobs whistling, and looking ahead eagerly to the next chapter.
If I was in the mood to complain then looking for work would have been a burr, and getting laid-off would have been a burr, and my wife’s concern would have been a burr, and I could have been very sour. And I confess there were times I was sour, usually first thing on Monday morning. However I did notice my mood was mysteriously better by Monday’s midday, and a hundred times better at age forty than it had been at age eighteen. Furthermore, being in a better mood about burrs seemed to bring benefits hard to explain. It made sense that an employer might be more likely to hire a cheerful person than a person who radiated shyness and fear, but I seemed to sense a more amazing aspect was involved.
Call it a superstition if you wish, but I felt the “burrs” were actually the prodding of a Good Shepherd’s crook.
It is said God can be hard as steel and soft as butter. The earlier times in my life, when I couldn’t find work no matter how hard I tried, seemed a sort of hard-as-steel time of tough love, as I was educated by the School Of Hard Knocks. For some reason it didn’t make me feel angry at God, but rather utterly dependent, like a small child wearing pajamas with feet. However I also felt that was the normal state of the cruel world. I didn’t expect any soft-as-butter stuff, and was deeply mystified when I went through a time when I was hired wherever I applied.
One autumn, after my wife and I had been through our typical Autumnal Quarrel, it occurred to me, as I stomped out the front door, that it would make life easier if I got a job within walking distance of my house. Both my truck and my wife’s van were old clunkers, and it seemed likely I could save both on gas-money, and on the bother of dealing with break-downs, if I didn’t commute. The problem was that I lived in a small town with few businesses, and the economy was poor. But a friend had told me I might try one place that hired temps for the Christmas Rush. It was a New-Agey place I wouldn’t ordinarily consider, a business that bought herbs and spices in bulk quantities, and broke them down into small packets and jars to sell to retailers.
I figured I’d test my luck; if I was on a streak of getting hired the first place I applied, I might as well try a place roughly a half mile from my front door. I walked in and filled out an application there. My luck held. I had barely walked back into my house when the phone rang, and the owner asked if I could walk back for an interview. It was a bit of a drag to have to make a U-turn and walk back when I was planning to sit by the fire, but burrs are burrs.
I got the job, of course, but the interview struck me as wonderfully bizarre. The first question I was asked was, “Did you know a mad poet from Harvard named X?”
It just so happened I did know X, and for a time had considered myself a close friend of X’s, over a quarter century in the past when I associated with such crazies, and wasn’t a responsible father of five. I had been a senior in high school and X was a senior at Harvard, and we associated with pot-smoking intellectuals and had amazing conversations about wildly speculative things that one doesn’t usually bring up, at a job interview. To be honest, the question seemed a trick question, and I became very guarded. But honesty compelled me to answer, “Yes, I knew X”.
The second question was, “Do you know what happened to him?”
X was one of those flamboyant people who you may not want to partner with, but who dares things you don’t dare, and goes places you don’t go, and therefore, even though you don’t want to join them, you want to know where their flamboyance led them. I too was very curious, (and secretly fearful X had died in the horrible AIDs epidemic of the 1980’s), but could only answer my future boss with, “I don’t know. I last saw him in 1976, and our last phone-call was in 1984. Later I heard from a friend that he had headed south to join the Sufis of Washington D.C., around 1985, but in the decade since I’ve heard nothing.”
My future boss looked very disappointed, but hired me and told me show up at nine the next morning to learn the ropes of the herbs and spice business. He arose, and I arose, and it seemed the interview was over, but then, as if to explain something, he hesitated, and then added, “X told me you were the greatest poet since Shakespeare.” Throttled by astonishment, I couldn’t think of how to reply. I’m not sure what I said. Likely it was something dismissive. Then I walked home through the snow.
That was a strange walk, in the falling snow. I mean, how many job interviews do you walk into, for some simple job such as packing herbs and spices, without any sort of recommendation, where you get an unasked-for recommendation from someone you lost contact with over a decade in the past, who might even be dead? Not that the recommendation that I was “the greatest poet since Shakespeare” had anything to do with packing herbs and spices. I’d long ago learned poetry had little to do with feeding yourself, let alone feeding a wife and five children.
I’ll confess the strange interview did stir a hope in me that our interview was one of those “chance meetings” you read about in the lives of authors and poets, wherein they are “discovered”, and rise “from rags to riches” overnight, publishing some sort of “one-hit-wonder”. But this was not the case. We never spoke of X or of poetry again. However there was a strange, unspoken understanding: We had shared-roots in a wild past when mad poets were especially free, and didn’t need to work Real Jobs.
We did have some interesting talks, but I was far more interested in him than he was in me. I learned that when young he had a vision of learning of herbs and spices that could be wonder drugs, perhaps even finding a herb which cured cancer, and that he had labored long and hard, studying botany at Harvard and even travelling to the Amazon, seeking herbal mysteries, but that when push came to shove, and he had a wife and daughter to support, such study didn’t pay the bills. The herbs and spices that paid the bills tended to be mundane things like powdered Cinnamon and Garlic. To make a living he imported bulk quantities of things not locally grown, to sell to people who required smaller amounts.
Someday I’ll hopefully do a better job of describing what a wonderful job I lucked into, because I was too lazy to fix my limping truck and become an ordinary commuter. But for now I’ll give a couple examples of how wonderful the job was.
One of his best sellers was cinnamon. He sold several types, and four-inch-sticks and three-inch-sticks, but most people wanted the powdered stuff. It came in two-hundred pound barrels. Most households, when they buy powdered cinnamon, want to buy one or two ounces. A restaurant will desire perhaps a pound, and a busy doughnut shop ten, and even a frantic bakery will desire at most twenty-five. No one wants to pay the price of two-hundred pounds, even though the wholesaler basically doubles the price, selling to the retailer. My job as a muscular poet was to man-handle barrels most cooks can ‘t budge, and then break-down the contents to smaller packages.
The second example is bay leaves. All cooks understand the positive effect a leaf or two of bay can have on a soup or stew. However bay does not arrive from Turkey a leaf or two at a time. It arrives in huge, fragrant bales, weighing at least fifty pounds.
My first job, my first day of work, was to manhandle a huge bale of bay-leaves, and then break it down, and amidst the sweet, rustling aroma of this occupation I did not think of the customer, who would receive tiny packets, but rather I was transported to Turkey. Perhaps it was only because I, as a landscaper and farmer, was aware a lot of hard work went into picking and drying and baling and exporting the leaves, but the scent as I worked was evocative of a landscape I had never seen and of people I had never met. Images drifted through my imagination. It was much better than folding and collating pamphlets.
My family approved when I came home smelling of bay, but I was less popular when I had to deal with enormous amounts of garlic powder. For the most part my work involved around twenty everyday herbs, which likely produced around ninety-five percent of the business’s profit. But besides those twenty barrels of herbs there were perhaps a hundred others, holding mysterious herbs I had never heard of. When I filled orders I was swift to learn where to go to find Cinnamon, but sometimes at the bottom of the order there would be an item I had never heard of. Then I would have to search through the barrels in the back of the warehouse for a pound of some such thing as, “Saint John’s Wort”.
My boss’s wife was a bit scornful of such items, because “turnover” was so slow. If you bought a bale of some obscure herb it might be five or even ten years before it was sold, but my boss would not listen to his wife, and would reorder. He seemed to like being an herb-and-spice-place that had the items other places lacked. Also his insistence seemed to be like my own poetry; a thing he did even if it wasn’t profitable; a thing connected to his original reason for focusing on herbs and spices.
I could sense, my first day on the job, that I should be careful when bringing up a question such as, “What is Saint Johns Wort good for”? My boss’s wife would snap, “Absolutely nothing,” and my boss would look meek, and button his lip. It was obvious she was a burr to him, just as my wife was a burr to me when I wrote poems about falling snow rather than looking for work. And he was a burr to her, by insisting on restocking, just as I was a burr to my wife by insisting on writing poems.
I think it was during the first week that I discovered that, among the obscure items he had in the barrels in the back of his warehouse, he had burrs. Or not the burrs, but the root of the plant that made the burrs, called “Burdock”.
As a landscaper I tended to see Burdock as a rank and obnoxious weed. This was not only because, when my daughters happened to get burrs in their hair, tears resulted, but also because the plant could spring up with amazing vigor, with a tap root which made carrots seem small, and leaves nearly as fat and wide as Rhubarb’s. Here is a Burdock jumping up between my garden’s Rhubarb and Asparagus:
It is hard to be fond of such a rank and persistent weed. My Asparagus and Rhubarb have strong roots which are perennial; there are cases where grandchildren have fed off the plants their grandfather planted fifty years earlier, but burdock is a plant that can invade such a long-standing patch and, with roots equally vigorous, weaken the desired crop. It is hard to see such a burr as desirable.
Yet my new boss was making a small profit selling such roots. This of course piqued my interest, but unfortunately I asked my question when his wife was in earshot, and heard the brusque reply, “Absolutely nothing is good about Burdock.”
I already had concluded that, but was trying to escape my prejudice. My escape occurred soon, due to the fact the warehouse had a tiny “retail shop” in the front of the warehouse. It produced less than 1% of the business’s profit, but I had the feeling my new boss liked talking to people about herbs and spices, and the “retail shop” was more of an excuse to talk than it was a way to make money. However he was out, and I happened to be the only person available, so I had to deal with a customer though I knew next to nothing about herbs and spices.
The customer was a lady from Japan, where burdock root is often used in their cuisine. However she was not looking for fresh and tender roots, suitable for cuisine, but dried roots, for a tea that she claimed had amazing benefits. I became her student, as she praised burdock, but I became her professor, when I told her it didn’t need to be imported from Japan. After I sold her a pound of the dried root, we stepped outside and I pointed out a few examples of the invasive weed.
Some businessmen might think this a bad policy, for she would have no need to buy dried roots, if she knew she might harvest them from her own yard. All I can say is she did return, from time to time, over the next five years. For that is how long I lasted at this job as a “temp.” It was not a steady job, but one I could count on being steady before Christmas.
As I stated before, it would take another post to tell the tales of this on-again-off-again job. But this post is about the benefits of burrs.
Now it is twenty-four years later, and I am running a Childcare, and part of our haphazard curriculum is a course on “the benefits of Burdock”. Usually I am not officially on duty when this class is taught, but kids find the sight of an old man working in the garden more interesting than what my staff has planned, and they often come drifting over to pester me. Because my hard-working staff can use a break, I often involve the children in my work, (at times having them cheerfully make mincemeat of child-labor-laws, for example when I have to move a hundred bricks). Other times, for example when I am weeding, I weed less, and create a spontaneous curriculum involving what weeds are very poisonous, such as buttercups, and what weeds are edible, such as chickweed. At some point I always seem to involve them in digging burdock from the garden, and saving the roots.
These roots must be washed:
And then, (after trouble which always occurs when small boys have control of a hose), I show the children how to remove the bitter outer bark of burdock root from the slightly-sweet inner root:
Then they munch. I have a rule, regarding wild foods, which states that they are allowed to spit out anything they don’t like, which is a freedom they seem to enjoy. (Also I become very stern, and put on my most ferocious glower, regarding eating any wild thing without first asking me if it is edible.)
I’ve learned there is no accounting for children’s taste. The most fussy eater may demonstrate a peculiar fondness for some odd plant like Burdock, while the most voracious child may detest the same plant. Also a child who initially spits out a plant may, after watching his small peers munch away and ask me for second helpings, be seen surreptitiously picking up the root he cast away and giving it another chance, or, if he can’t find it, may whine to me for a second helping. Lastly I’ve discovered a sure-fire way to get kids interested is to tell them they won’t like the plant, because “only grown-ups like it.”
I don’t talk much about the medicinal benefits of a plant like Burdock, that I first heard about from the lady from Japan. For one thing, our society seems too focused on pharmaceuticals, and for another thing, the ownership of such knowledge seems a gift to me, and I am not particularly gifted in that regard.
I’ve known people who have an uncanny and often unconscious ability to prepare salads and stews that make people feel better, and cause the recipients to state “you are a natural chef” or “you put love in your cooking”, without thinking the cook is an herbalist or some sort of witch-doctor. But I sense a gift in such people. I think the gift likely has ancient origins, dating from when we were a nomadic people living off the land. Unfortunately the gift, like all gifts, can be misused, (in which case it may be withdrawn), and there are also fraudsters who lack the gift but are gifted in selling snake-oil. During the time I was involved with selling herbs and spices I met some New Age types who managed to make the entire topic of herbs repellent and downright disgusting, because their poorly-hidden desires seemed to be all about orgasms and hallucinations. Just as I like poetry yet avoid poet-societies, I’m interested in herbs but generally avoid herbalists.
Because I lack the true gift, I tend to be more pedantic and scientific, and conduct secret experiments, involving only myself. For example, my son might visit, and notice a glass of greenish sludge by my coffee cup at my computer. Wrinkling his brow, he’ll ask me, “What the heck is that stuff, Dad?” A bit evasively I’ll reply, “boiled Burdock root.” A bit of a smile will cross his face, and he’ll be unable to resist asking, “And?”
There’s no way around it, and I have to confess the secret: While wandering the web and reading about Burdock root I chanced upon a claim it “stimulates the hair follicles of the scalp.” My old follicles could use some stimulation, in my humble opinion, so I decided to conduct an experiment, keeping it secret because I don’t want people to know I am vain. I told my son that so far I had noticed nothing, which is a good thing, because such experiments can backfire and cause immediate baldness. He chuckled and walked away shaking his head slightly.
I sat back and contemplated the blessing of burrs. Even if my thin, gray hair doesn’t start to explosively grow, (making me look like a large dandelion gone to silver seed), it seems the weeds of my life later are revealed to have actually been herbs, and the burrs that made me uncomfortable moved me to my benefit.
Life is far more complicated than our puny minds can grasp, even when we attempt to control it and to guarantee ourselves fat pensions. Repercussions cause repercussion’s repercussions, with events clicking like complicated shots in a game of billiards, with complications clicking onward even years later. When I talked with the mad Harvard poet X at age sixteen, who could foresee it would land me a job at age forty, or that the job would result in me teaching little children about Burdock root, at age sixty-six?
As I thought about it, it seemed those who fixate upon control miss a lot. They miss bonanza after bonanza after bonanza. It seemed better to be a Plugger, leaving control in the hands of the only Mind that sees all repercussions.
As for me, I just do what comes next, and what came next was to start writing something titled, “A Burr’s Blessing.”
Perhaps it is because I’m getting old, and the closest I get to adventure is paying my taxes, or having some body-part such as a tooth or kidney removed, that I have developed a strange longing for the trouble I used to get into as a young man. Back then, (especially just after various women had the good sense to not marry me), I had no reason to settle down, and was able to take despair (and freedom from responsibility) and use it to become a sort of desparado.
Because I liked to write, I was a sort of prissy desparado, as desparadoes go, but there can be no denying I lived life on the edge, and occasionally fell off. I was very downwardly mobile, and not the sort of person many would think was a “good prospect”, and one thing I learned was how badly one can want love. I was too proud too beg, and therefore seldom saw the human charity of spare change clinking into my cap, and instead expected nothing but shunning from my fellow man. To win a smile from someone made my day. But, even when I didn’t deserve a smile, and none were forthcoming from my fellow man, I had a sense God was with me.
Not that I didn’t grumble, but if you read the poetry (psalms) of King David you see he too grumbled a fair amount. I believe such grumbling counts as prayer, and also believe such prayer is answered. True, when you are in a run of bad luck, cruising for a bruising in a way where you deserve your bruises, you don’t catch many breaks. If you sow thistles you will reap a crop of thorns, and therefore your life may not look like an answered prayer. But when you are actually in those shoes the smallest thing can be a blessing, like a warm beam of sunshine finding its way through storm clouds to your shoulders.
That is what I want to capture, if I write about my days as a drifter. But I recognize a danger, as I go through my notes and play with rough drafts. The danger is I may create a “pity-party”, or a smudge of resentment, or even glorify something I should be a little embarrassed about. I want to avoid all that, and instead to show that there was truly glory in the hardship, but it sure wasn’t me. It was a sense that even when life is at its loneliest, you do not walk alone.
Jesus actually stated he did not come for people who had their act together. He came for the people down on their luck, and perhaps that is why the people down on their luck seem to meet Him more than millionaires. (Also perhaps that is why some millionaires become so decadent, so they too can fall into the gutter and discover the kindness of God.)
Not that I’m in any hurry to get back to the gutter. What I desire is the sense of glory that strangely goes along with having nothing, perhaps because one inadvertently and unintentionally is renouncing the world, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
Last summer I wearied of a church that seemed dulled by complacency. That church seemed a place where no one had any problems, (or pretended that.) Outside its doors there was a serious drug problem, but people didn’t really want “that sort” coming in the doors. Church was a hide-out, a safe sanctuary where people escaped such problems. So I headed out the doors, more interested in places where people had problems, and were facing the issues of “detox” and “rehab” (two words that were not in the English dictionary not all that long ago.)
People who go through “detox” and “rehab” face something called “recidivism”, which in the old days we called “backsliding” or “falling off the wagon.” In fact some addicts and drunkards use shelters and halfway houses as a way to get back in shape, to regain their health so they can go on another bender. This is very discouraging to those who want to help people escape addiction and become “useful members of society.” However it was noticed that the recidivism rate was much lower at halfway houses that employed God. This is discouraging to atheists. In fact I recently heard a person joke, “The only people who are Christians are perverts, addicts, and Republicans.” God may have gotten a chuckle out of that, but cynicism doesn’t seem to stop Him.
In any case, I far prefer going to a church full of street people, who are going through hard times and are down on their luck. They may not wear Sunday suits, nor look like people whose prayers are answered, but they know what I was talking about when I wrote, “the smallest thing can be a blessing, like a warm beam of sunshine finding its way through storm clouds to your shoulders.” Their faces light up, as they talk of mercies from lives few envy.
You hear unexpected bits of wisdom, as you listen. For example, In my life I’ve met people who prayed for something, drummed their fingers impatiently, and then, when the prayer was not answered, stated it was irrefutable proof God does not exist. So I expect such a response from people. Yet I recently heard a person explain the phenomenon roughly like this, “It had been a long, long time since I talked to God. He really liked it when I came back, but He knew, if He answered my prayer, I’d forget all about Him in a big hurry, all over again. So He kept me talking.”
Another recovering addict told a tale that made me chuckle. He had been working very hard to arise from the ashes and get his life back on track, but his financial situation was in complete ruins, and various bill-collectors were in no mood to be merciful. He (with his wife’s support), had done all the right things, taking more than one embarrassing, menial job and going to the bill-collectors and attempting to arrange payment plans to get back on track, but, even working two jobs, the pay wasn’t enough. Therefore he pushed himself further, and attempted to get a good job despite his criminal record, honestly explaining his situation and offering to take drug tests. He deemed it an example of God’s mercy shining through a human being when he actually landed a good job, for twice as much pay as he had ever earned before, but the job would not start for two weeks and then he’d have to go two weeks before he got his first check. That was too long for his landlord to wait. Although the recovering addict and his wife had paid the current rent he still owed back rent from months before, and had only managed to make a few ten and twenty dollar payments on that back rent, and still owed $1,200.00. The landlord had been patient for months, and served an eviction notice: “Pay up in ten days or move out.”
This dropped the recovering addict to his knees, but as he was praying he heard a crash outside. The old man next door had backed into his wife’s car, and she had no insurance, nor the money to fix it. The former addict fought off the temptation to use the misfortune as an excuse to get high, and bent the fender back out enough for his wife to use the car. Then he went to work at his two menial jobs, wondering where his wife and he were going to move, as he awaited the start of his better job.
After hanging on in this agonized manner for the ten allotted days his landlord had given him to come up with the rent, the old man next door came up and handed him a check for $1,200. The neighbor did have insurance, and that was how much the insurance company had paid to repair the dent. But the man’s wife said, “The car drives just fine. Let’s use the money to pay the rent.”
And that is the tale of the dent that paid the rent. It shows the mysterious ways in which God may answer prayers better than any sermon.
Whenever I stop posting my “Local View” posts you can be fairly certain that there is something going on in my life that I don’t want to talk about. I like Local View posts to have a Norman Rockwellian character, and to reflect my belief that God is in everything and everyone. Even when I gripe and grouch, I like to do so in a manner that makes people smile. I want to cheer people up, not bring people down. Unfortunately a wrench gets thrown into the machinery of cranking out optimism, from time to time, and then I go silent.
What stuffed a sock in my mouth most recently was an addiction in the family, involving a daughter’s ne’er-do-well boyfriend. He kept his distance from the family, and seemed to want my daughter to do the same, and while there were signs all wasn’t well, the family respected their right to live life as they chose.
Unlike the cartoon character Andy Capp, (which is an English, drop-the-“h”, play on “handycap”) the boyfriend couldn’t maintain a “working addiction”, and the family had to step in and help, especially after my daughter had a baby. Initially addiction was suspected, but vehemently denied. And…..so it began.
I don’t feel as much shame is attached to such misfortune as there used to be, but addiction certainly is not a problem people smile fondly at, or an event that Norman Rockwell portrayed on the covers of the old Saturday Evening Post. It is a level above boozing, and no laughing matter.
The only reason shame is not as involved as it once was is because addiction has become all too commonplace. In truth it is indeed shameful, because it involves the humiliation of the human spirit. Not only is the addict far less than they might be, but all those closely connected are dragged down as well. Vast amounts of time and money are frittered away on a sidetrack which produces nothing but grief, exasperation and rage.
The only true escape from the shame involves a compassion that feels unnatural, for it is not soft and mushy and sweet, but hard as iron. Call it “tough Love”, if you will. It seems ambiguous to us, for we equate understanding and mercy with gentle people, with the kind nurse who tucks us in and allows us to stay in bed. Escaping addiction is more like the snarling sergeant who boots us out.
The escape is also ambiguous because it involves accepting even while refusing to accept. In many cases the hardest part of dealing with a problem lies in admitting you have one.
In order to feel compassion towards addicts it is helpful to confess that we too have shortcomings. All but the greatest saints have things they don’t want to give up. People who feel they are well balanced, and who are too smug about it, run a risk of seeing fate come along and stagger them. We are well balanced until we are abruptly fired, or robbed, or the stock market crashes, or there is an earthquake or hurricane. All sorts of things can knock us off balance. Our kindly family doctor has to do it to people all the time, with the word, “cancer.”
It is hard to feel compassion towards an addict because they qualify as one of the things, (one of the earthquakes or hurricanes), that come into the pleasantness of life and disturbs the peace. We stroll into the living room to watch the TV, and discover they stole it. Then they lie, and claim they didn’t do it. Rather than compassion, we want to strangle.
It is hard to have pity, but the fact is that an addict is living in a state of constant earthquake. If they don’t get the next fix, the walls come crashing down. Even if they go to rehab, and get through the initial physical withdrawal, and are “clean”, the urge to backslide is constantly prowling around like a roaring lion living in their back yard. Is that not pitiable?
Many former addicts say they never truly escape addiction. They are still an addict even when they have gone without drugs for decades. That is not merely pitiable, but, in the case of those who escape the tyrant, it is heroic. Sadly, it is also unnecessary, and could have been avoided, by never starting in the first place.
One addiction I have personal experience with, which is less destructive in the short term than others, involves tobacco. One is able to be a so-called “working addict” in such cases, and one seldom steals TV’s for the next fix. However, when one runs out of cigarettes, I know, from personal experience, it is no problem at all to drive through a howling blizzard to buy the next pack. (Or to smoke the stubs of filthy butts from an ashtray.)
In the case of a “working addict” the dependency can even become part of ones ego, like a fancy hat one wears which all identify with being “you”. FDR had his long cigarette holder, and Winston Churchill his cigar. People (or most people) didn’t scowl at them and sneer, “addict.” However they were. I have wondered what efforts had to be made, in wartime situations, to get them their next fix. Were flights diverted to bring Churchill his cigars?
Churchill so identified with his cigar that one time, when 45 seconds were scheduled in his frantic wartime day for a propaganda photo, he made sure to have a cigar clamped in his bulldog mouth. The photographer was ushered into the room to take the picture, and felt an immediate dislike of the cigar, and had the audacity to snatch it from the great leader’s mouth. Churchill looked at the photographer with an expression of incredulous fury, and the photographer snapped the picture. What a great shot! “You don’t mess around with Jim.”
In essence, to confront an addict is to mess around with Jim. It is to snatch the cigar from Winston Churchill’s mouth. It is to cause an earthquake in the life of another, and when you do such a thing it is a declaration of war, and you are a fool if you do not expect an earthquake in return.
In such situations it pays to ask a simple question, “Is it worth it?” In the case of Winston Churchill, it paid to put up with the stink of his cigar, (except in the case of one photographer who got a great picture). Cigars made The Last Lion content, allowed him to not only concentrate on greatness, but pay all his bills and live to be over ninety years old . Importantly, he likely spent less than 0.1% of his time thinking about his next cigar. (Speaking for myself, I can say that when I was most busy writing I could smoke an entire carton of cigarettes without even thinking about smoking).
In the case of addictions like heroin the equation is very different. Few are able to maintain the precarious balance of a “working addict” for very long. The “monkey on their shoulder” gradually grows into a gorilla. It is not a very gentle giant, either. It demands feeding before all else. A crying baby comes second. To snatch the cigar from the mouth of such an ogre is downright dangerous.
Not that addiction shows its true face, at first. At first addiction gives you the smile a police officer sees, for whether you like it or not you are the “gestapo”, and the addict is of the “underground”. Your honesty makes you “oppressive”, while their deceit makes them “noble”. Just as there is honor among thieves there is a bizarre, back-stabbing brotherhood among addicts, wherein a person who tells the truth is a “rat”, “an informer”, or some other astonishingly unflattering term for “an honest person.”
An addict is largely a liar, and the person they fool most is themselves. I know all about such self-deception, because for forty-five years I promised I’d quit cigarettes “soon.” However it still came as something as a surprise to be lied to so sincerely, so frequently, and so fluently, as I was lied to this summer.
Fortunately I don’t expect much of my fellow man, after so many years, and rather than the lying making me irate, the lying just made me double down. This occurred because the lies were expressed in the form of excuses: “Why I can’t pay the rent”, “Why I can’t get a job”, “Why I can’t get up in the morning”. The answer to all such questions is, “Because I am a druggie”, but that is the last thing any addict wants to admit. It is far easier to blame society, and blather on and on about an unjust or perverted third grade teacher, than it is to face the fact you yourself are the slave of a lousy, little chemical.
What I did was to supply solutions, when I heard “catch 22” logic such as, “I can’t get a job because I don’t have a car, and can’t get a car because I don’t have job.” Faced with the comfortably convenient couch of such snug helplessness, I got the young man a job, and I supplied the ride to work. When he couldn’t get up in the morning, I could, and drove to his place at 4:45 AM, and rousted him out of bed like a drill sergeant. It took me a lot of time and effort, but had some slight benefits. Rather than pasty-skinned, he developed a tan; also he developed an appetite and put on some muscle. Rather than needing to wheedle for money he felt the self-esteem of a pay-check. So far, so good.
However an addict and his money are soon parted, ( I have heard it said that “cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you have too much money.”) Rather than a paycheck solving problems, it suddenly makes it harder to get out of bed, harder to get to work, and harder to keep the job. Also he couldn’t pay bills despite the paycheck. Explaining this strange twist of affairs drives an addict to concoct an entire new network of lies, in the form of new excuses, which tend to point the blame away from the self to others.
This strategy can only work if the “others” don’t compare notes. If you can keep them from talking to one another, or find a sole person you can trick and bully into being your “enabler”, such excuse-making can prolong your miserable deceit, but if you are dealing with a healthy, cheerful and honest family who all are out to help you, they do compare notes, and your deceit is doomed. With the innocence of children questions get asked, excuses don’t add up, and the walls come closing in, as a thing called “accountability” starts to expose your lies, one by one.
Many addicts have been through this downfall a number of times. When their deceits are exposed, plan A has failed and they move to plan B. They move on to tearfully confessing their addiction, and even going through the motions of attending AA meetings or rehab groups, but sometimes even such emotion is little more than grandiose drama and a cynical ploy. Some know the routine so well they could even run the rehab groups. It is just one more lie. Even when they promise to enter a detox, it may be an act.
It is when you get them to the door of the detox center that all the smiling and nodding, all the tears and all the the tugging of heart strings, all bluster and all blame,and all the other make-believes of lying may abruptly cease, and you may suddenly find yourself face to face with the big, ugly gorilla that rules the addict’s mind. No way are they going to step through that door. No way are they going to face the agony of withdrawal. No way are they going to honestly face their problem.
It is then they are at long last honest. They tell you exactly what they think of you, and also of all your lame, prissy, holy-rolling efforts to help them. Then they storm off in a huff.
Let them go. I once stormed off like that, and no one heard much of me for years, and during those years I cleaned up my act. True, I wasn’t addicted to anything terribly unforgiving, but it did seem necessary to get away from my past to learn what I needed to learn, and I’m thankful I lived in a free country that allowed me to do it.
The problem with addicts is that they often don’t stay away very long; they often call home quite soon, from jail, repentant and asking for bail. Again they are telling the lies, tugging the heart strings, (or perhaps, if they are a spouse or lover, even blustering, and threatening to tell some intimate secrets you’ve foolishly shared with them.) It is as if they want to employ the line from Robert Frost’s “Death Of A Hired Hand“: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Don’t take them in. Don’t be taken. Tell them, “Detox or no talks.”
Not that detox helps, in and of itself. For many addicts Detox is a warm bed in January, three squares a day, and a place to regain strength and stamina before the next binge. Even the detox places, who are prone to inflating their success rates, confess terrible rates of recidivism. The typical rate of relapse given is between 60% and 70%.
At this point it is important to draw a distinction between the secular and the religious. The secular detox places get all the government funding, and can be amazingly ineffective, while the religious places are far more effective, and are not allowed to get any government funding. (It is just a glaring example of the government perversely funding what doesn’t work.) In the case of some inner city Detox centers, involving the more vicious addictions such as heroin, a pathetic 2% of the addicts actually stay off the drug when they depart, whereas the Christian “Teen Challenge” Detox centers sees over 60% succeed in staying “clean”.
(In terms of gathering statistics, the secular groups always include “all” centers when stating success-rates, while the religious centers make sure to exclude secular center’s rates, when stating their success rates. Go figure.)
When attempting to explain why the religious groups did better, the secular centers noticed the religious groups involved confession and soul-searching. Talk seemed important, and the secular centers got the idea that, besides “Detox”, “Rehab” was important. And indeed there was an improvement in success rates, once tax-payers were hit upon to fund further time for addicts in warm shelters and half-way houses. However the statistics still showed the religious Rehabs did better than the secular Rehabs.
This annoys people who feel God should be banned from government. However it does suggest that that there is something about an addict turning to the sky, during the screaming agony and nausea of withdrawal, and pleading to the heavens for help, that draws some sort of mysterious healing down. Of course, God likely knows the mention of his name causes some to break out in a rash, and therefore it is likely better to substitute the word “Truth” for “God”.
Truth is the opposite of a lie, and, as addicts are such consummate liars, Truth is a sort of antidote to what is poisoning them. Or that is the best I can do to explain why Bible-thumping holy rollers succeed, where highly educated doctors and psychologists and social workers and billions of dollars fail.
Not that a truly ingenious addict cannot milk the religious organizations just as effectively as they leech from everyone else. Just as they know the right things to say to a degree where they can run a Rehab group, there have been addicts who have been pastors. But such liars eventually falter; there is something about the hell of addiction that is corrosive to the sense of hope that keeps humans going, and eventually the lies drag every addict to rock bottom, where the options are either suicide or the honesty of a desperate cry for help.
That honesty is not a thing you can make an addict do. You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. The drinking involves the despairing torment of burning thirst. It is a state a person must find for themselves, but those who have fallen so low often speak of remarkable events, and of experiencing unexpected, inexplicable compassion.
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. 2 Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. 3 Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live…” (From the start of chapter 55, the Book of Isaiah)
It is a truly remarkable thing to witness a soul step over the threshold from a dark landscape of lies into the broad, open vistas of Truth. In essence, it strikes one as impossible. A complete skumbag? Become a rose? Fat chance. But then you see it happen. You see this fellow who formerly would pawn his grandmother’s teeth cheerfully scrubbing the floors in a soup kitchen. And then, when you see this, you simply have to wonder, “What the heck happened to you?” Sometimes they might tell you, but sometimes they keep it to themselves, because they don’t want to sound weird.
Catholics are big on confession, and there does seem to be some element of confession involved in stepping over the threshold. When you are living a lie, a way to kill the lie is to confess, which is why such stress is put on this part of the first chapter of 1 John:
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
Of course, because the addict tends to see you as a narc and as the gestapo, he doesn’t have much of an urge to confess. Pressed in that direction, he will fight like a cat fights a bath. He may despise you, and look at you with eyes of unabashed hatred. That may well be your reward for trying to help. You can lead a cat to water, but you cannot make it bathe.
But what is the alternative? Pretending you don’t see through the lies? Pretending you can trust when you cannot? Pretending a person can ever honor his own word when his only obedience is to a gorilla?
Sometimes your only choice is to throw the bum out. Perhaps you are not the one who will uplift. Perhaps the cat has its own way of washing, and doesn’t need your bathtub. Perhaps the addict will clean up on his own. However you do not help an addict by enabling the addict to continue his deception. Sometimes by pushing a person towards a crisis in the gutter you are pushing them towards the threshold of salvation.
And in the end that is how things ended this summer. The young man told me in no uncertain terms that I am a meddlesome jerk, a spiritual hypocrite, and a home wrecker. (Addicts seldom blame themselves.) It was up to my daughter to chose whether to follow him or not, and she chose not to. Next thing I heard the fellow was in jail. Not a happy ending, at this point.
And that is why there have been so few “Local View” posts. I have been busy totally wasting my time on a young man who doesn’t seem worth the time of day. And I wonder how much other time has been wasted in other lives, by the stupidity of addiction. Drugs seem a weapon used by our enemy to weaken us. Every day I hear about drug deaths, even in our quaint and rural landscape.
But I cannot end a Local View in such a depressing manner. But what can I say? It would take a genius to make a cartoon out the way that addiction is turning good, intelligent people into beasts.
Well I’ll be. America has already been given that genius, and has had a great symbol of how vices turn people into jackasses, ever since 1940. There is no mystery in it, for we’ve known for 76 years. Why then does the entire nation seem so determined to turn itself into a jackass?
Perhaps it is a sort of payback for the fact some Americans once got wealthy sailing clipper ships and selling opium to China. What goes around comes around. Or perhaps it is a trial that will make us a better people in the long run. There can be little doubt that those who survive addiction have an awareness of human frailty and of evil far greater than those who haven’t been through the hell. They know when compassion merely enables and when compassion is life-changing. Perhaps, if the drug epidemic doesn’t destroy us as a nation, it will result in a core group of solid people who know all the wiles of liars, are seldom fooled, and who love the Truth.
Back on January 17, when just beginning this blog, I wrote a piece called “Attention Surplus Disorder,” thinking I was witty to come up with the name. However lots of people thought up the name before me, as I found out when I ran a search on “Attention Surplus Disorder.”
Yesterday Rush Limbaugh apparently used the phrase, and when someone with that many listeners uses a phrase like that people use their search engines, and I can get an accidental hit on my old story. Then I get curious about what made the person do such a thing.
Apparently it was due to a story in the Wall Street Journal, suggesting drugging boys doesn’t improve their grades.
I am such a cynic! My immediate thought was that some pharmaceutical company didn’t donate enough to Obama, or else the government is worried about paying for four million children on drugs. Otherwise such news would be suppressed.
To me drugging children has always been appalling. If it is such a crime to spank a fanny, how can it be good to spank a brain?
I’m fairly certain I would have been put on those drugs, as a boy. The mental gifts God gave me are a two-edged-sword, and often are a flaw. However this seems to be a rule with gifts. They are our best and our worst.
My brain likes to leap from topic to topic. This is called “range” and “scope,” and it can be a good thing when it brings several topics together in a way that works. When it doesn’t work, my mind just jumps to a new topic, and no one can see how I made the jump.
For example, when I was a boy the curve on the number “5” reminded me of the curve on a fat stomach. Math teachers were not interested, and did not want to hear how “fives are fat.” They wanted to know where the heck my homework was.
I pity teachers who have to control twenty or thirty kids. However drugging active boys is not the way to go.
Boys need, and often don’t get,
A.) Lots and lots of exercise.
B.) Proper nutrition
C.) At least eight and likely ten hours of sleep.
D.) Time away from TV and video games.
E.) A basic framework in life that is stable; IE less moving from town to town; less divorce and switching parents.
F.) Within such stability, boys need “wild time.” IE Unsupervised sports; Time in fields and woods rather than groomed gardens and parks.
G.) I can’t believe I left this until last. Boys need a Dad.
Just do that, and a lot of the problems vanish. As I’ve described in two posts:
W.C. Fields is said to have been the first to say, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit,” and I have to admit that, while it may not be the most altruistic of statements, it does describe the way humans respond when they find themselves cornered in any sort of debate.
Kids do it all the time, when caught breaking rules at the Childcare on our farm. I can hardly blame them; for many of the rules are State Laws made up by people who want to bubble-wrap childhood. For example, any toy higher than the height of my knee must have a six-inch bed of woodchips beneath it.
That is a rule begging to be broken, because children love to climb. I too attempt to circumvent the rule, because I have no desire to buy or shovel woodchips. Therefore I seek to avoid the State Law by purchasing very short toys, however the kids still manage to break the law by stacking the toys up into teetering towers and then climbing them. This forces me to be one of the frowning teachers who, in my own boyhood, we rudely called, “The Gestapo.”
Of course, there are a whole bunch of other State Laws that force me to be a rather prissy Gestapo, as Gestapi go. I can’t treat kids the way teacher’s treated me.
I’m old enough to remember when teachers were allowed to haul you down to the principal’s office by your ear. One teacher, (who had the wonderful name of “Mr. Lynch,”) was said to have grabbed a misbehaving boy, dangled him upside-down by his ankles, and lowered him into the wastepaper basket. I never actually saw him do this; he’d done it once in the distant past, and word spread from boy to boy across time until it reached me, and I did not want to test the man’s reputation: I behaved remarkably well, for a small hooligan, in Mr. Lynch’s class.
Nowadays, of course, Mr. Lynch would be swiftly fired. I am asked to care for children in a kinder, gentler fashion. For example, word recently dribbled down from on high that so-called “Time Outs” were no longer an acceptable response to a misbehaving child. Instead something called “Redirection” was urged.
This puzzled me. Wasn’t a “Time Out” supposed to “redirect” a child? For that matter, wasn’t tanning a child’s hide with a willow switch supposed to “redirect” the child? What was this exercise in semantics intended to do?
Semantics don’t change the reality. At times using the word “redirection” is a bit like a glowering police chief informing a surly suspect that their “failure to communicate” requires “an attitude adjustment.”
Kids are kids, and they need to learn their limits, and the way they learn is to test their limits. Children are downright scientific as they test. Even when they do things for the fun of it they are a researcher, eager “to see what happens.” When Johnnie pulls out the chair as Susie sits down, it is a laboratory experiment, and, among the other observations he jots down in his mental notebook, is the observation that steam comes out of the teacher’s ears, as he gets “redirected.” Calling it “redirection” doesn’t change the fundamental fact that the teacher is laying down the law.
The law doesn’t really seem to matter a hill of beans to a child. They have a desire, and a rule stands in the way, so they break the rule. This actually doesn’t bother me all that much. I like the fact humanity strives to overcome limitations. I just don’t want the kid to get hurt. Therefore I, as the ruler, have lots and lots and lots of rules, at my Childcare.
In the eyes of many children the main advantage of rules, (it seems to me,) is that rules can be used to get other kids in trouble. If Johnnie has the wagon Susie wants, and gets tattled on by Susie for driving it full tilt into the pond, then he gets redirected, and Susie gets the wagon.
Children are constantly coming before me like little lawyers, and I am the judge. When they bicker about who ought have a certain toy, I, with the Wisdom of Solomon, decide we should cut the toy in half. Even three-year-olds know sharing-the-wealth is a stupid idea, when it destroys the wealth, and they break my law by refusing to break the toy, and instead resort to more sensible sharing. In the same manner, it is amazing how swiftly children patch up a quarrel when you exile them to opposite sides of a playground: Moments before they were shouting at each other, stating they were not going to invite each other to each other’s birthday parties, but now they suddenly are creeping and sneaking, just to get back together.
Of course, when there is a real danger of them getting hurt, I have to adopt a different demeanor. For example, my personal Childcare Law #727B states that flying machines will not be tested from a height above the child’s own shoulders, and that leaping from the peak of the barn to test out wings is strictly forbidden. When I spot a child attempting to break that law, I might be chuckling on the inside, but on the outside my brow darkens like thunder. I don’t say much, and do nothing, (and therefore break no State Laws,) however the children bite their knuckles and say, “Oh, Oh.” The difference is in my demeanor.
I actually think it makes little difference if a child is “redirected” or caned. They both can be equally ineffective, or effective, depending on demeanor.
For those who like to quote, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” I can only state I attended an English boarding school for a year, at the very end of the time when caning was allowed, and saw first hand that, among many of the boys, being whipped was more of a badge of honor than a deterrent. Not that boys wouldn’t try to talk their way out of punishment, if possible, but if caught red-handed, they were proud of the machismo they (to some degree) displayed, and when, afterwards, other boys demanded, “Show us your stripes,” they did not hesitate to drop their trousers to show off their welts.
It is no longer politically correct to drop your trousers in this manner, and anyway, where is the glamour of showing off the wounds of “redirection?” People who wished to make childhood kinder and gentler have robbed boyhood of one of its simple pleasures.
(As an aside, Winston Churchill experienced an above-average amount of corporal punishment, even to a degree where the other boys wished he’d stop antagonizing teachers, however he was what he was: Rather than surrendering to the dictatorship of the headmaster he would…well…look like Winston Churchill.) (I suppose nowadays Winston Churchill would be put on Ritalin, likely when he was six months old.)
Speaking subjectively, I found the good side of corporal punishment was that it was so swift, and when it was done you had served your time and were free. You were forgiven. Whatever your transgression was was forgotten. You walked into a new day, cleansed of all guilt, (until the next time.)
It was the adults who suffered. I didn’t believe it, at the time, when they said, “This hurts me more than it does you,” but it was in some ways a very real truth. Adults (supposedly) know more about cause and effect, about reaping what you sow, about “Karma,” and they worry about what they may reap when they strike a child.
When I passed my 21st birthday I inherited a small amount of money. It was just enough to do what you did in those days, which was to emulate the Beatles. Airfare to India was $650.00, so off I went, to “seek.” One thing I found was an explanation of the Karmic consequences of corporal punishment that would make any parent think twice, before spanking a child.
As it was explained to me, Karmic law states that when a child is spanked, all the bad Karma the child would have earned from their transgression passes to the parent or teacher punishing them. Even if this law is merely a superstition, it might be a good thing if adults feared that being cruel to a kid might get them “Bad Karma,” (especially if they feared a fate worse than having “a millstone tied around their neck,” and being chucked overboard in a deep, green sea, as was suggested by Jesus.)
(Not only would they be slower to spank, but also I think they’d be slower to drug a child. For the life of me I’ve never quite understood why smacking a fanny is deemed worse than smacking a brain.)
However I have learned both spankings and drugs are unnecessary, if you know how to frown. Your demeanor has power. But what exactly is “demeanor?”
“Demeanor” is an intangible indicator of whether you are in trouble or not, with a fellow human. What is most surprising is how little it actually has to do with being sensible. When a beautiful blond smiles at a young man, all is right with the world, but when she glares, he starts hopping about like a cricket in a skillet.
We like to believe that men get better at being sensible as they get older, however I’m not entirely sure they do. What is so sensible about George Washington wearing that silly white wig? What is so sensible about Abraham Lincoln wearing that silly stovepipe hat? A future president might have a tattooed tongue, and what would be the sense of it? I myself think fashion is rubbish, but have to confess my wife halts me as I’m heading out the door on a regular basis. She looks me up and down, pats my hair, adjusts my collar, hands me a Kleenex, and tells me to zip up my fly. So I begrudge the fact that even I get shoved around, by what the world calls “correctness.”
To children correctness is largely a game. Superficiality is dress-up, and they have no trouble donning Washington’s white wig or Lincoln’s stove pipe hat; one moment they are wearing the armor of the past, (a cardboard box,) and the next they are wearing the space helmet of the future, (a cardboard box.) Adults tend to be indulgent about such disregard towards the current social norms, however when the weather gets hot, and the child strolls by wearing nothing at all, the current generation utterly freaks out.
Such was not always the case. Nudity comes and goes with the strange regularity of other fashions. In the 1930’s and 1940’s the French were scandalized because the English allowed their children to “paddle” naked on beaches; these same French were determined to “civilize” African women by forcing them to wear blouses in jungle heat, only to start going topless on their own beaches after the Africans complied.
In the same manner many of my own generation have swung from one extreme to another. As a young, somewhat prudish hippy I never was all that comfortable with the nudity which was the norm at certain pools and parties, and was informed on a regular basis that my discomfort was proof I was oppressed by irrational inhibitions which I ought to overcome. Now, (perhaps due to what occurred at some of those parties,) I am informed I ought suspect every person who comes within fifty yards of a child at our Childcare.
The laws concerning “background checks” are quite strict. It does not matter if I am hiring an old friend to come by after my Childcare is closed, to help me shovel stables and milk goats; I must tell him to get a background check and be fingerprinted, which takes both time and money, and is somewhat offensive to boot. Even more offensive are the names that can pop up during a background check. Perfectly harmless people are labeled “predators,” and mixed in with the truly foul people who likely ought not even be allowed out on the street.
For example, if you are a red blooded fifteen-year-old boy, and mess around with a eighteen-year-old girl, she might end up on the dreaded list, but if you mess around with a fourteen-year-old girl, you might end up on the list. It is no joke to be on that list, either. You are likely to receive hate mail and death threats. All in all, it proves we are undergoing a backlash to the “free love” of the 1960’s, and may be moving towards an oppressiveness that could make Puritans look liberal.
The reality that social “correctness” can go through such enormous swings, even during my life, tends to suggest many laws are not commandments written on stone, and may explain why some small children don’t take laws all that seriously. Not that one small child won’t be completely horrified and scandalized if another walks by buff naked, however that same moralistic tot might take toy scissors and shave the head of another child’s Barbie Doll, five minutes later. Adults must step in and draw lines.
I usually skip the bother of explaining the logic behind my rules, when I lay down the law. I try to avoid saying, “Because I said so,” because using the word “I” involves me. I find it is better to speak of “the Law” as if laws were some alien power, separate from me, like gravity. It saves a lot of time ordinarily spent arguing. However, if I have the time, I actually like listening to the arguments of little lawyers.
In a strange way the manner that children argue gives me hope. It demonstrates that down near the core of the human spirit is a huge desire for freedom that balks at any sort of limitation. “Something there is that does not love a wall.” The fact that this may lead to anarchy and boyish bullshit does not belay the inherent beauty of the impulse, and understanding the forces behind boyish bullshit and excuse-making not only helps me understand children, but also Climate Scientists.
Most people, when they are honest with themselves, must confess that when they were young they were not entirely honest with their elders. Many can even confess they were proud of their dishonesty, for they saw adults as the Gestapo and they themselves as the French Resistance. Among some boys honesty itself is seen as a sort of betrayal: One must not “tattle,” “squeal,” or be an “informer.”
While it is good fun to hang out with a gang and consider yourself a member of a counter-culture, there arises a sad day when one is faced with the onerous prospect of increased responsibility. Perhaps one is working at Floppy Burger and gets the chance to do twice the work for a ten-cent raise, and accepts a promotion to the position of “Assistant Manager.” On that day one discovers a remarkable thing. The other workers abruptly regard you with suspicion, for you have sold out and joined the Gestapo. Suddenly rather than inventing excuses you start to hear them. Rather than dolling out bullshit you receive it.
This downfall happens to the best of us. Even those who attempt to avoid ever graduating from college, or who join some group which attempts to avoid responsibility and forever blame the responsible, (such as some labor unions,) tend to go home and find they have children of their own, dolling out bullshit. Even George Washington had to give up revolution and become a president.
Once you accept responsibility then other responsible people, such as your own parents, stop looking so unreasonable. One starts to see that there are reasons for rules, and rules stop seeming so oppressive. One can even feel grateful for some of the rules they had to endure, when young.
However one doesn’t want to go overboard, and forget the reasons for the rebellions of youth. If one is totally accepting of the limitations and disciplines that exist, one loses something important: Freedom. While it is true that freedom and discipline walk hand in hand, and “freedom isn’t free,” if one becomes too conventional imagination gets stifled, and one is also likely to accept some erroneous belief, such as that the sun goes around the earth.
One discipline I rue rebelling from involves Math classes at school. Math just wasn’t my cup of tea. I have since had many occasions to regret I learned so little in thirteen years of Math classes, and if I awoke and found the past fifty years were a dream I likely would do differently. However that would mean I would turn out differently. Rather than a writer I likely would be a mathematician. However that was not my fate; my mother didn’t raise me to be no mathematician. (Even if she had attempted it, she likely would have failed, for it doesn’t seem to be in my make-up.)
I think each child is born with a gift, and one reason they rebel is because we are trying to make them be something they aren’t. In my case Math classes were trying to discipline my mind into a square peg for a square hole, when the shape of my mind was nonlinear.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t do Math, if I gritted my teeth. I recall that, back in third grade, the entire concept of division made absolutely no sense to me, and the teacher didn’t help me by calling it “backwards multiplication.” Then, after strenuous contortions of boyish logic, division suddenly made sense, and the golden flash of realization that then flooded my skull seemed to light the entire room. It was definitely a very enjoyable sensation, however it was a very long run for a very short slide, and I found there were other ways to experience the same flashes of inspiration. Other ways were, to a person of my psychic make-up, much easier, (and led in the direction of becoming a writer.) Therefore I took the route of least resistance, even when it involved a lot of resistance to Math teachers. I pity those teachers. The only reasons they put up with me at all were that Math was a required class, and also I provided a certain comic relief.
As the years passed I am ashamed to confess the depths I sunk to, to avoid the disciplines of Math. I mostly hid behind my book while looking out the window, however when necessary I copied, cheated and lied. The lying helped me hone my skills as a creative writer, and involved the bullshit teachers must endure when they ask for homework that cannot be produced, because it doesn’t exist. The silver lining was that, by being forced to explain what doesn’t exist, I learned some principles of both Physics and Religion.
At reunions former classmates have since told me that my excuses were often the most interesting part of Math class. For me, however, it was agony, and the clock never moved slower than it did waiting for Math class to end, hoping and praying I could escape without needing to come up with yet another excuse. In fact one of my first poems was written in Math class, describing how slowly the clock moved, and was called, “Math Forever.”
Bullshitting wasn’t merely a matter of making things up. One had to tread warily, for some teachers did not take kindly to being lied to. There was the necessity of charm, tact, humor, and believability, which, among other things, has helped me spot others who stretch the truth, over the years, and has made me suspect Climate Scientists right from the start.
However Climate Scientists are good at Math. In any debate with them, I was at a distinct disadvantage, if I allowed the subject to move towards Physics. Fortunately I could fall back on all my experience in Math classes, and adroitly steer the subject away from Math with baffling brilliance. (It’s a skill and an art: I’m sure some of my Math teachers wondered how in the world, when they asked me for my Math homework, they wound up talking about their childhoods.)
Some might wonder how and why, considering I was so unskilled with Math, I could have the nerve to criticize a Climate Science that was so highly mathematical. The simple fact of the matter is that wisdom does not require Math. Shakespeare likely would be puzzled by any modern Math beyond basic arithmetic, however his depth of understanding resulted in works that have shaped and changed people all over the planet, including some who don’t even speak English, for centuries.
What is that “depth of understanding?”
My personal view is that “depth” is an extra dimension gained by being broad minded, and having the ability to grasp a concept some find difficult to grasp: The concept that there can be more than one answer to a single question, and that it is possible to accept both answers simultaneously.
The simplest example of this is the fact we are not formed as a Cyclops, and instead have two eyes. By using both eyes at the same time we gain a depth perception neither eye has by itself. We gain an extra dimension by holding two views.
There are all sorts of dull and tedious people who insist there can only be one answer to a question. Included are policemen who are extremely frustrated when they get ten differing eyewitness accounts of the same event, and historians who wade through the winner’s and loser’s differing versions of a battle. In attempting to arrive at a single “version” of what occurred, they inadvertently winnow out what allows an extra dimension, and in the end arrive at the myopia of a Cyclops.
Life is full of events that have different versions. For the fun of it, imagine a dullard historian interviewing a husband and wife just after they have made love, and then writing a history about what occurred. Obviously he will have two highly different versions of what occurred, and will need to cancel out all conflicting testimony. After canceling out all the differences he will either arrive at the conclusion that nothing happened at all, or concede there was an exchange of a small amount of bodily fluids. This will be a correct, and scientific, history. It will also miss a large part of what just occurred.
For another example, simply look at some small object across the room, such as a thermostat on the wall, and line up your thumb so it blocks your view of that object. Often you will need to close one eye, because your thumb is too small to block the view from both sides of your nose. If you block the view from your right eye, your left eye can see, but if you shift your thumb so the left eye can’t see, the right eye can. Then ask the stupid question, “Which position of the thumb blocks the view?” Or the even stupider question, “Which version is correct?”
Obviously the questions are to blame. They are simply inadequate. However it is amazing how often people get sucked into choosing between one version or another version of history. Often they take sides, or get so frustrated they reject both sides, when the truth of the matter is that both sides have validity.
I think I began thinking about this stuff due to the fact I loved both my parents, but they went through a particularly ugly divorce involving two very different versions of history. The simple fact I refused to take sides broadened my mind even as their minds remained one-sided, until I had a sort of marriage in my skull even as they enacted divorce in real life. I gained a dimension they lost.
This “depth of understanding,” which I gained in a small way, is what Shakespeare had in a Great Way. It allows you fathom human nature. It also fills you with a thirst to hear different versions, even when they conflict with versions you have already heard. You listen to story after story, and “story” is five-sevenths of the word “history.” Beyond that, very little Math is involved at all.
History holds a golden hue, which we fail to notice during the drudgery of our day-to-day disciplines. People sometimes scorn that gold, claiming it is a delusion, caused by a sort of amnesia that sets in, causing us to forget past pains, but actually it is the other way around: The pain in our current situation blinds us to the gold which is all around us. Only when that pain is gone does a woman think she might like to have another child, or a man think he might like to start another business, or climb another mountain. When we speak of “twenty-twenty hindsight” or even use an expression such as “absence makes the heart grow fonder” we are recognizing the golden vistas history allows us to glimpse. Even people who despise history books and historians often like to open an old photo album, and simply remember.
When seen in this light the expression, “when seen in this light,” is seen in a new light. It is a phenomenon many can relate to, however we are running headlong into a problem. This golden light is a light science has yet to measure. Cameras cannot record it, thermometers cannot measure it, tweezers cannot tweeze it, and therefore to even broach this subject is to leave the firmly grounded rock of science and venture out onto the treacherous quicksand of pseudoscience.
Because I don’t want to go there, I simply won’t call it science. I’ll call it nostalgia. I likely should leave it at that, however it is my understanding English is a limiting language, because it only has one word for nostalgia. Other languages go into greater detail, recognizing the nuances of nostalgia by using different words. For example, in one language (Japanese?) remembering-your-mother-after-she-has-passed-away is described by a different word than remembering-your-mother-while-she-is-still-alive.
To demonstrate the strange power of nostalgia I will bring up two things from the past that were a royal pain, back in the day, but that now can make old-timers smile. The two things were two knobs on the side of an old fashioned TV set called “vert” and “hoz.” They were necessary because the “picture” (IE; Video screen) of old fashioned TV’s had the annoying tendency to flip or warp in a manner difficult to describe to modern youth, but which requires no description to old-timers.
This annoyance made no one smile back in the day. The only reason mentioning the “vert” and “hoz” knobs now makes old-timers smile is because such problems seem so much simpler than a computer virus. The only time an old-fashioned TV crashed was when someone pitched a beer bottle at a commercial.
However sometimes the “vert” and “hoz” knobs failed to stop the screen from flipping and warping, and when this was occurring during the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series, it called for desperate measures: Sometimes the problem could be fixed by giving the TV set a firm but not-too-firm whack on the side.
I was good at TV whacking, as a youth. People may well have said, “That Caleb Shaw may be no good at Math, but he sure can whack a TV.” It may have been the only reason my girlfriend’s father allowed me in their house at all. Looking back, the main reason that some lacked this skill was because they had too much respect for the delicate circuitry of a TV set, and when they dared whack a TV at all, did so in a tentative manner that was barely more than a gentle tap.
I have no idea why giving the circuitry of a TV a jolt stopped the picture from flipping and warping. Perhaps there was a build up of static electricity in the cathode thingy which was released by the whack, however I had no pretentions that I was any sort of TV repairman, nor that I had a clue how the gizmo worked. Despite the fact I, as a teenager, tended to brag and swagger about all sorts of things I had no business acting knowledgeable about, it never even occurred to me that I ought pretend I was an expert on TV’s.
Therefore it amazes me that some psychologists have the audacity to pretend they understand the human brain, after using electroshock or drugs to basically give a person a whack on the side of the head. The circuitry of a brain is far more complex than the circuitry of a TV, and just because whacking a brain may stop a mind from flipping gives the whacker no right to state he knows what is happening, or why whacking works.
This is not to say psychologists can’t save lives. Lonely people need someone to talk to. Misunderstood people need understanding. The mentorless need mentors. However this is not science; it is kindness. To pretend it is science is to step across an invisible line into the landscape of fraud.
There is a temptation to make a science out of psychology, because certain patterns of human behavior seem recognizable. Though Chaucer created the Wife Of Bath back in 1375, she reminds me of a lady who served me burgers back in college, and though Shakespeare created Falstaff in 1593, Flastaff reminds me of a guy I worked third shift with, in a cannery. Certain characters are like certain weather maps, and provide us with analogs we use, and give us the sense we can predict behavior in the same manner we can predict the weather.
However every forecaster knows that all it takes is some stupid butterfly flapping its wing somewhere, and two maps which start out nearly identical can come to quite opposite solutions. In the same manner two people, both resembling Falstaff, can reach a fork in the road where one is redeemed while the other progresses steadfastly on to their tragic demise.
Human being are, in fact, chaotic systems, and when we deal with chaotic systems we need to be humble and say something difficult to say, namely: “I connot predict the future with 100% certainty.” This is not to say that, when we meet a Falstaff, we ought loan him money, or that, when the sky gets pitch black and thunders, we should ignore our raincoat. We are allowed to forecast, and in fact it is our nature to forecast; we just need to be prepared to be wrong, and not get all crabby about it when it happens.
It is when someone is dealing with a chaotic system, and puts on a white coat and pretends to be sure, and to be able to speak with scientific certainty, that the fraud enters in. They are claiming to have authority they lack, and are setting themselves up for a Falstaffian fall. Unfortunately they see some short-term gain in their pompous buffoonery, money to be made and power to be gripped, and they often hurt others in the process of acting out their tragedy.
In the case of psychologists, bad ones can clamber up onto pedestals and claim to be experts, pontificating upon “predatory behavior” even while they themselves prey upon the most vulnerable and hapless members of society, bullying meek clients with thinly-veiled threats to incarcerate them and subject them to cruel and unusual punishment without trial. In the process they destroy the reputation of good psychologists who do save lives, and the public gradually gets so disgusted that it may even pass a law such as the one passed in Texas, which had to be vetoed by the governor. (That law stated that when psychologists gave testimony as expert witnesses in trials they had to wear tall, pointed, wizard-hats, complete with stars and moons.)
To conclude, we need a different attitude when dealing with chaotic systems than the attitude we adopt when dealing with Math, and Climate Scientists have failed to adopt this attitude.
For the non-mathematical reasons mentioned in the first two parts of this essay I distrusted Climate Scientists as soon as I became aware they had staked out a certain turf to call their own. First, they were pretending to be certain about a chaotic system. Second, they behaved in a manner that resembled Falstaff. Third, their versions of history shifted like sinister shadows amidst the golden versions of history I knew. Lastly, they somewhat snidely stated I couldn’t know anything because I didn’t know the mathematics of programming modeling into computers. I think it was that last thing that really got me riled up. Perhaps it is pure egotism, but I have never taken kindly to people who tell me I’m stupid.
Fortunately I enjoy debating, and my hot temper is nicely balanced by my ability to fearlessly apologize, which tends to keep my opponents off balance. Of course, keeping your opponents off balance is totally unnecessary, and not anything you want to do, if you are debating in good faith, seeking to find the Truth. It is only necessary when your opponent is slightly immature, and perhaps behaving a bit like a jerk.
When three-year-olds come to me like little lawyers at my Childcare, they tend to be slightly immature, but completely sincere. Often they are arguing about a relatively worthless object, for example, a mere stick, one of hundreds of sticks in our woods. I scratch my head in wonder, aware the reason for rage is not the stick, it is the principle of the thing. Who “had it first,” and who “started it,” matters a heck of a lot more than the stupid stick does, as the tots bellow jaw to jaw, eyes bugging out and veins bulging and skin turning purple. Fortunately they are so small it is comical, and not only does my sense of humor kick in, but also fondness comes welling up from my heart.
The same sense of humor kicks in when I am dealing with people who ought be old enough to know better. There is the same illogical tendency to drift from the subject at hand to who “had it first,” who “started it,” and whether or not I have the IQ of an opossum. It is a big mistake to move in this direction with me, for it is a movement away from Math, which I struggle with, into landscapes I’m more familiar with.
Some day sooner than I like I will stand before my Maker, and He is likely to ask me, among other things, why I spent so much of the last ten years quarreling with Alarmists. I fear my first response will be that of a three-year-old: I will point my finger and say, “They started it.” As I recall how things developed, such blaming is actually the truth. Initially I was not arguing, but rather merely asking questions. My questions had to do with the Medieval Warm Period, and the Viking colony in Greenland.
I knew a fair amount about those Vikings, due to my love of history. (My brain is full of interesting trivia I collected when I should have been doing my Math homework.) I knew those Vikings raised cows, and grew barley for beer, in an environment where it currently is impossible. Therefore when the Medieval Warm Period was abruptly “erased” by Climate Scientists I had questions. When I got answers they were the sorts of answers that do not give you a sense of peace, but rather make you restless with many more questions. For example, I was told the Medieval Warm Period only occurred on either side of the North Atlantic, and no where else. In order for this to occur some new and interesting rearrangement of the Gulf Stream and the Jet Stream would have to exist, and persist for decades and even centuries, and I was curious about this unheard-of weather pattern. At this point I started to get the impression my questions were unwelcome.
This struck me as unusual, for it had always been my experience that scientists studied obscure things no one else was interested in, and often felt misunderstood and starved for attention, and when someone actually asked a question about what they were studying they either fainted in shock, or else were so overjoyed about finding a listener that you couldn’t get them to stop talking, once they started. To receive a cold shoulder instead made me instantaneously curious.
I suppose it involved the same principle as playing “hard to get” involves. When I was in high school, and a girl spurned my adolescent grins, my older brother told me to stop being so friendly, and to utterly ignore the girl. To my complete astonishment, the ploy worked. Of course, I didn’t have a clue what to do next, but at least I had her attention.
When a person becomes evasive, we immediately wonder what they are evading. When Climate Scientists and their Alarmist groupies stopped answering questions I developed a curiosity I might otherwise not have possessed. The situation then became odder, because they turned out to be Falstaffs who loved basking in the spotlight. They wanted attention but didn’t want it; they loved looking wise but didn’t want certain questions to be asked. They were like James Bond strolling into a casino, sticking out like a sore thumb at the same time they were secret.
It was at this time people who knew their Math, such as Steve McIntyre and Willis Eschenbach, first began asking questions and first ran into the evasiveness that eventually resulted in stonewalling and the need to employ the Freedom Of Information Act. However for a person like myself, who knew little Math, the evasiveness took the form of The Snoot. Just as a psychologist might haughtily state, “You can’t possibly understand; you haven’t studied psychology,” I increasingly heard the news that I couldn’t possibly understand, because I am a moron.
Well, I admit that, but even a moron has the right to ask questions. Then I ran into the evasive tactic of using jargon and big words an ordinary person doesn’t use. However, due to my love of writing, I have a rather large vocabulary for a moron, and even when I didn’t know the meaning of a word, I could always ask what it meant. For example, the first time I heard “dendochronological” I was silenced and had to back off, but, after a pause, I persisted, pestered, (and even when the answers were evasive I could Google the word,) and I wound up exclaiming, “Oh! Tree rings! If you meant tree rings, why didn’t you say so!” I then discovered that haughty people do not like it when you simplify things they are haughty about.
The question, “Why do you use the word ‘dendrochronological’ when you could say ‘tree rings’ ?” is admittedly drifting a bit off-topic from the actual topic of tree rings, but so is the topic of whether I am a moron or not. So is the topic of whether or not I am “a shill of Big Oil,” “ a ditto head,” “a wing nut,” a “useful idiot,” or any of the other interesting gobs of mud I’ve found flung my way. Fortunately I’m not the sensitive young poet I once was, have a thick skin, and also think it is good fun to devise sophisticated and witty insults to reply with. In fact I’ve been told I’m fairly good at the sort of insult you have to scratch your head over, before you realize it is an insult. (We used to call these “polar bear traps,” for a polar bear trap is a sphere of frozen fat with a coiled piece of steel within. As the fat melts in the polar bear’s stomach, the steel springs out straight and kills the bear; in the same way, some sweet words only stab you when they are digested.)
However descending to the level of mud slinging, even when it is gussied up with charm, gets tiresome, and asking real questions and getting to the real Truth turns out to be far more interesting and rewarding in the long run. That is why I was always so swift to apologize, (even when no one apologized for calling me a moron,) and returned to innocent and sincere questions.
An amazing thing happens when you do this. You learn. You can even learn a little Math. Not much, I’ll admit, but enough to get by on.
One technical word that backed me off, in the beginning, was the word, “albedo.” For the Alarmists it was a sort of magical word that explained everything. I ran into it due to my interest in Vikings, and the amount of ice up by Greenland. The more I asked questions about “abedo” the more questions I had, and the more annoyed the people I was questioning became. They wanted to strictly focus on the Arctic Sea, but I wanted to explore the Antarctic. Then I asked an annoying question about the albedo of the Arctic land masses when they are covered with snow. I think this was annoying because it turned out freshly fallen snow has a significantly higher albedo than rotten ice, and the people I was talking with had neglected to include the albedo of vast stretches of tunda, from Finland to Sibera to Alaska to Canada, in their calculations. Then I asked about the albedo of flat, open water, when the sun sits low on the horizon, as it does in September at the North Pole, and discovered water has a higher albedo than ice does when the sun is that low. This was annoying because it suggested the opposite of what Alarmist theory suggests; rather than absorbing more sunlight, open water would reflect more sunlight.
It was not necessary to develop a counter-theory. Using “doesn’t-it-follow-that” questions would suffice. For example, your question could be, “If freshly fallen snow has a higher albedo than ice, and the northern hemisphere has just had its greatest snow cover in recent history, doesn’t it follow that…”
Asking so many questions was great fun, for I learned all sorts of interesting trivia, for example I learned that salt water behaves differently than fresh water when both are chilled to thirty-three degrees. However it was also fun because I discovered I was putting Alarmists on the defensive, because most had not done their homework. There were a few who were as eager as I was to learn new things, and these few were wonderful to talk with, but most behaved as I once had behaved, facing my Math teachers with undone homework, and I found it great fun to have the tables turned, and to watch them squirm.
One neat thing about being a Math teacher is that you get to assign homework, without having to do it. Simply by asking questions I was demanding answers that involved the sort of work that people who delight in Math find joy in, but others are made miserable by. For example, asking about the “area of albedo” involved finding the surface area of the globe north of eighty degrees latitude, between seventy and eighty degrees north, between sixty and seventy degrees north, and between fifty-five and sixty degrees north. While someone like Willis could figure out such things on the back of an envelope, the Alarmists I was questioning tended to turn an interesting shade of green.
I wasn’t asking these questions to cause trouble. I had simply turned my globe upside-down, and realized Antarctica had sea ice at the latitude of northern Scotland. I began to wonder if sea ice at lower latitudes had a greater effect than ice at higher latitudes, because the sun has greater power at lower latitudes, and there is more of it to reflect. After all, albedo means very little when the sun is on the horizon and weak, or even has set. I decided the word “albedo” was insufficient. There needed to be a word for the sunlight that actually was reflected, and, because the Alarmists I was questioning had no such word, I decided the word ought be coined, and ought be, “calbedo.” (Not derived from “calorie,” which would be sensible, but rather from “Caleb,” because I am vain.)
Once your questions are along the lines of, “Isn’t the word ‘albedo’ insufficient, and shouldn’t there be a word such as ‘calbedo’ in order to…” Alarmists tend to be in full retreat. They haven’t done their homework, and the best they can do is defer to authority, pointing at the gobbledygook of computer code they themselves don’t understand, and insisting that it proves something you can’t understand. This debating technique is often seen among three-year-olds at my Childcare, and usually takes the form of, “My Daddy is bigger than your Daddy.”
This retreat is also a form of evasiveness much like the behavior of Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Honest people do not need to evade in such a manner.
In conclusion, without Math, and only asking questions, it is possible to arrive at the conclusion that Climate Science, at the very least, is not a thing that is “settled” to a degree where we ought to invest in what it concludes. The buyer beware.