Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pondering "Self"

Keep your hands to yourself!
Behave yourself!

"Pink Mirror" by Anita Patterson

Find yourself,
Lose yourself,
Take care of yourself,
Let yourself go...

Self as ego,
Self as soul,
Self as illusion,




Self and Not-Self -- all we know.

"Lone Man" by hotblack

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Nightmare in Perspective

What need have you to dread
The monstrous crying of the wind?

That line from a poem by Yates had run through Jax's head several times and finally he'd said it out loud, quoted it in anger to his ward, his six-year-old half brother. Nightmares, for God's sake! couldn't Jordy see them for what they were? Just the random firing of neurons, the human brain unwinding before finally descending into deep sleep.

Jax, on the other hand, had plenty of reason to dread the wind which could scoop up roof tiles and scatter them all over the yard, break off tree branches and drop them with a tremendous thud on top of his new flatbed truck. That wasn't what Jordy worried about though. To Jordy the wind was some kind of invisible monster out to get him, a murderous beast with icicle teeth and a tongue made of fog that wrapped itself around you, lifting you up and carrying you off to live forever and alone in a tower by the sunless sea.

That poem of Yates' had been told to Jax by his new girlfriend, Bryn who'd studied literature in college and was sexy in an odd sort of way with her thick dark hair that formed its own ringlets without her having to mess with it. She was somewhat skinnier than he generally preferred but her lips were full and sensual. She had these weird kind of slanty eyebrows and eyes that were blue but such a dark blue that they seemed almost black at times. He'd been making love to her for the first time when Jordy'd woken up and screamed that the wind monster was trying to kill him. "Go to him," Bryn had said and Jax had done that with resentment steaming out of his ears. Jordy had been sitting up in bed, strands of his tawny hair sticking up like wheat straws and his blue eyes wide with terror. "There are no goddamn wind monsters, Jordy," Jax had hissed and his little brother had stared at him in shocked astonishment. Then he'd started crying, softly at first and then not so softly and Jax had understood that his night of lovemaking was ruined by the hysterical imagination of a child he'd been more or less bullied into taking custody of.

After that, he and Bryn had gotten it on during their lunch hour. They worked for the same local newspaper -- he as an in-house computer technician and she in the art department. Their tryst had taken place at his house and afterwards while he was in the bathroom, Bryn had gone into Jordy's room and put something that looked like a pale-colored shell or stone in the center of his pillow. "What's that? Some kind of  magical witch trinket?"he'd asked but Bryn had laughed at him. "There's no such thing as magic, silly," she'd said. Then, since they were already five minutes late, they'd rushed out to his truck and driven off to work.

Jax had ended up with Jordy after their dad and Jordy's mother, Marianne, had gotten themselves killed in a car accident. He'd been twenty-two when it all happened, fresh out of college and had just landed the job at the newspaper. Jordy had been almost five. "We can put him in foster care," the social worker had said, "but he'd be much happier living with someone he's related to." Jordy was in school all day and in day care til six after that. Jax had even arranged to have Jordy baby sat during part of the weekend. Still, it wasn't easy and Jax found himself cursing whatever gods or agents of fate had stuck him with the burden of parenthood before he was done sowing his proverbial wild oats.  Fortunately Jordy played by himself a lot, making up pretend games or drawing with colored pencils which left Jack free to surf the Internet, watch TV or do repair work on the duplex they lived in. The main problem was the nightmares which interrupted his sleep and, more importantly, his sex life.

However, one morning, after a very windy night, Jax woke up and, as he was showering, realized that Jordy had slept through the entire night without waking even once.

"So I guess you finally wised up and realized there's no such thing as a wind monster," Jax said, shaking cocoa puffs into Jordy's bowl.

Jordy said nothing, just accepted the bowl of cereal his brother handed him.

"You hear me?" Jax prompted. Sometimes Jordy's preference for disregarding attempts at conversation seemed openly disrespectful.

"The wind monster's still alive," Jordy said, "it just can't hurt me anymore."

"Oh yeah, why's that?"

"Because the faeries protect me."

Jax stared at his little brother for a moment. Jordy sure was different from the way Jax had been when he was a kid. Probably the result of Marianne's genes.  She'd  been into some kind of art -- sculpture maybe. "Whatever," Jax said and reached over to turn on the TV.

After Jordy's nightmares stopped, Jax, once again, began to invite Bryn over to spend the night. He never asked her to come for dinner because he didn't want her getting ideas about marriage and becoming a stepmother for Jordy. Right now, good sex was mainly what he was after. Commitment could come later, if it came at all. Bryn didn't own a car so Jax had to transport her which meant leaving Jordy alone in the house for about twenty to twenty-five minutes, something the social worker had said was a no-no. But, twenty measly minutes? How could that possibly matter unless there were pedophiles lurking around the house which Jax was almost one hundred percent sure there weren't.

After about a week of nocturnal lovemaking, Jax noticed that Bryn always went into Jordy's room before he drove her home. "You got a thing for kids?" he'd asked, leaning against the door jamb and jiggling his car keys in the pocket of his jeans to demonstrate his impatience. Bryn didn't answer but  she smiled at him so beguilingly that he'd gone over and kissed her on her soft sensual mouth. That mouth of hers; it more than compensated for her breasts which were on the small side, though nicely shaped. "Mini-melons," he'd called them once, but Bryn had frowned and said nothing -- too embarrassed maybe. After that, Jax was careful not to offend her. He wasn't ready to break up just yet -- not until he'd enjoyed some more of those sweet lips.

Spring turned to summer and Jax sent Jordy to day camp. After about a week one of the counselors took Jax aside and told him she was concerned because Jordy tended to go off by himself and play pretend games instead of participating in the various camp activities.

Jax shrugged. "Well, he's never been much of a joiner."

"Do you think he still misses his mother and father? the counselor persisted.

"Yeah, I guess," Jax conceded. In truth he had no idea what Jordy thought or felt; he was too busy with his own life and, frankly, the kid seemed to like hanging out by himself.

 "Have you considered taking him to a therapist?" the counselor asked.

Jax felt himself becoming annoyed. "Done that already," he said, "Jordy wouldn't talk to him so we quit." As he walked away, Jax thought he could feel the counselor scowling at his retreating back. "Fucking do-gooder," he muttered under his breath.

"Do you still miss Mom and Dad?" Jax made himself ask during a dinner of pepperoni pizza and tossed salad.

"I miss them," Jordy said slowly. "But I have a new family now."

"Good," said Jax and helped himself to a third slice of pizza and a can of beer.

In late June, Bryn announced she was quitting her job at the newspaper. "And going where?" Jax asked. He felt petulant over the fact that she could apparently walk away from their relationship so easily. "Home," was Bryn's response. "And where's home?" Jax realized he knew very little about her except for the intimate details of her anatomy. "Far from here," Bryn said and she smiled in a secretive way that exacerbated Jax's annoyance but he was damned if he'd let her think he gave a shit. "Well, bon voyage," he said, smiling painfully, and proceeded to saunter off.

About a week after Bryn left, Jordy disappeared, wandered off apparently while he was at camp. "He was over by the brook one minute and the next minute he was gone," wailed the counselor who'd been in charge of Jordy's group. A police search of the camp's perimeters yielded no results.

Jax was more distraught than he'd ever been in his life, more upset than when his dad and Marianne had died, more upset even than when he was fourteen and his mom and dad had gotten divorced. He felt guilty, too, because he knew he'd never even tried to be like a dad to his eccentric little half-brother. He wished Bryn was still around to distract him with her mass of dark hair and her warm, soft lips. Thinking of Bryn he remembered how she'd always gone into Jordy's room and the thought entered his mind that perhaps she'd secretly wanted a child so badly she'd actually kidnapped Jordy and taken him to wherever it was she lived. Should he mention this possibility to the police? Or was it just a crazy notion, a wild accusation he'd live to regret?

A few days later, Jax did tell the police and it turned out that Bryn must have been using an alias along with a fake social security number because there wasn't a single shred of evidence that she existed anywhere on the planet.

After all the furor over Jordy's disappearance had died down and the police quit looking for him, Jax decided to sell his house because living there and passing that empty bedroom every day seemed just plain morbid. As he was packing up the stuff in his bedroom, he discovered a book of poems by William Butler Yates, the same book Bryn had quoted from the very first night they'd had sex. Leafing through the book, he found the poem. It was entitled "A Child Dancing in the Wind." Jax had never paid much attention to poetry unless compelled, academically, to do so but now he studied the poem:

Dance there upon the shore;
What need have you to care
For wind or winter's roar?
And tumble out your hair
That the salt drops have wet;
Being young you have not known
The fool's triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won,
Nor the best labourer dead
And all the sheaves to bind,
What need have you to dread
The monstrous crying of the wind?

It seemed to Jax he gotten the meaning of the last two lines wrong. Yates wasn't putting the kid down for being too young and stupid to understand real danger and real sorrow. Yates was saying that little kids shouldn't have to experience horrible things, little kids should be free to dance in the wind and let their hair go all wet and wild like the kid in the poem.

Bryn had understood the poem's meaning, of course. probably she'd understood what Jordy was going through, too -- better than Jax had anyway, a lot better. He hoped she really had kidnapped Jordy. The kid would be a lot better off with Bryn. Whoever and whatever she was.


Friday, May 18, 2012

Some Enchanted Grandson

My seven-year-old grandson, Mikalh (pronounced me-call), has a tendency to walk off unexpectedly in order to execute some plan he hasn't bothered to inform anyone about. No, he's not being defiant; it simply hasn't occurred to him to share this information prior to his abrupt departure. He does this during dinner time at home, at restaurants, at parks, while shopping with his family, and (I'm guessing) in his classroom at school.

"Mikalh, sit down!"

"Mikalh, where are you going?"

Mikalh's eventual response usually begins with "I'm just..."

He is an avid reader and will attempt to cross the street with his face buried in a book he just can't bear to put aside. The adults in his life find themselves in the odd position of having to remove his reading material -- by force, if necessary. After all, learning about jousting in the Middle Ages is not really worth the risk of getting hit by a car.

new religious symbol
Mikalh recently invented (though clearly does not care to attend) the Church of Caution. At this place of worship, the parishioners are united under one creed which can be summed up as WATCH  OUT! When entering or leaving the church, each person must pause reverently before a large yellow caution sign and touch his fingers to it. Perhaps Mikalh envisioned this new faith as a possible refuge for his own occasional recklessness.

Because of his hyper-fertile imagination and innate compassion, one must practice censorship around Mikalh when speaking of incidents that may provoke fear or anguish. Of course it's impossible to remove every single negative influence from his immediate vicinity. Consequently, during a casual walk around the block, the sight of a cat with only one eye elicited heart-breaking sobs. A massively stupid TV program featuring zombie parasites made going to bed an ordeal for Mikalh and everyone around him for days on end.

Fortunately, Mikalh is accompanied on his way to his room or to the bathroom by the family dog, Xavier. Xavier is an unlikely combination of Labrador and Corgi -- a barrel-shaped sausage with flimsy kitty-cat legs.

"Is Xavier your guard dog?" I once asked Mikalh.

"No," he replied, "Xavier can't guard me; he's my love dog."

Mikalh and Dad
Mikalh does not, in appearance, resemble his mother or his two Nordic-looking older brothers. He looks like his father who is half Native American and half Irish. Thus, in summer, Mikalh's skin turns a rich, incandescent brown, a color which fades gradually during the winter months. His large dark eyes slope down a little bit at the outer corners. His expression is full of curiosity and wonderment. His laughter makes me think of a thousand glass wind chimes set in motion by a summer breeze. When he's angry, his scowl is deep and threatening, so intense it's almost comical like a caricature of unadulterated fury.

Mikalh possesses more costumes than he does clothes and has a whole closet devoted to them. In addition to the typical superhero regalia, he can outfit himself as a pirate, an astronaut, a king of Narnia, Perseus of Greek mythology, a zoo keeper, a race car driver, a cowboy or some odd combination of garments representing a newly-invented persona. Sometimes he will construct accessories out of various objects reclaimed from the recycling bin. Sheets of cardboard, egg cartons and tin cans become weapons, breast plates, masks, etc.
Cowboy Mikalh

Last Wednesday was his seventh birthday and Mikalh and I went out digging for dinosaur bones among the stunted prickly pear cacti and copious ponderosa pines at the rim of one of our town's numerous canyons We didn't find any fossils but had a good time nonetheless. We examined various insects (mostly varieties of ants) and watched a woodpecker disappear inside a hole in a tree trunk. We sniffed the sap of a ponderosa pine and determined that it smelled like butterscotch. Somewhere along the way we lost the large pumpkin scoop we were using as a digging tool.

As with my other two grandsons, I look on Mikalh's presence in my life as a unique treasure bestowed on me by the gods. Being the grandmother of this extraordinary child is both a solemn duty and an abiding pleasure.
Rowan, Mikalh, Devin and Xavier

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Guilty Pleasures

Guilty pleasures. Shouldn't that be an oxymoron? Isn't guilt supposed to outweigh pleasure to the point of cancelling it out? apparently not.

At my age, merely remaining alive and in relatively good health is, I suppose, a guilty pleasure. One of my closest friends died two years ago of cancer; another close friend has just been diagnosed with that disease. My daughter suffers painful flare-ups of fibromyalgia. Yet here am I in my late sixties complaining of nothing more than hearing loss and a few twinges in my shoulder and knees.

No, don't talk to me of karma or God's will. I have seen too many good people suffer, too many assholes live out their narrow, peevish lives to a ripe old age.

If it were possible to bargain, I swear I would take some of the pain my loved ones have suffered, give up a year or more of my life to prolong the lives of those who died young with so many unfinished projects, so many unreached goals.

Instead, I sit here drinking my morning coffee and imagining I'm about to write something airy and amusing or else heavy with significance.

Survivor's guilt, I suppose it's called. To justify my continued existence I should be able to contribute something more meaningful than a blog post. I should put on my cape and dash out to save people's lives. I should invent something. Discover something. Spearhead a new crusade.

Instead I sit here sipping coffee, anticipating my morning exercise class (a reprehensible indulgence since it probably adds years, or at least minutes, to my undeserved healthy old age).

Here's an analogy:  if I were walking to the store and discovered a paper bag full of hundred dollar bills, would I keep it?

The truth is, I'd probably give some of it away and keep some of it. I'd probably buy a love seat for my tiny apartment -- a red one adorned with pillows sporting various ethnic designs. I'd sit on it every morning, curled up comfortably, coffee mug in hand. Looking out the window, I'd observe the hustle and bustle of the working world. I would think of those I love who are suffering or have suffered, pondering the great unfairness of it all, and -- even so -- enjoying my guilty pleasures.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Some Reflections on Moral Ambiguity

The right thing and the wrong thing. Determining which is which often depends on which guru you follow, which experts you believe, what your church or country club endorses...

Some wrong things seem obvious. Beating your child, for instance, although the Old Testament clearly condones it. Helping yourself to something that isn't yours, although quasi-historical characters like Robin Hood put a different slant on that. Is it okay to rob a thief? Is it absolutely altogether clear who owns what? If I stole some ancient pottery shards from a museum and gave them to the tribe whose ancestors made them, would that be the wrong thing to do?

Here in America murder is illegal but the majority of our states have capital punishment. And we send young people overseas for the express purpose of killing other people. So, whether or not killing people is right or wrong depends entirely on which people you kill and under what circumstances you kill them.

Cigarettes have been killing people for years yet I've never heard of any tobacco company CEO being imprisoned. Or executed.

Some people thing that having an abortion is a form of murder. I'm not saying it is or isn't. All I'm saying is that killing, in our culture, is not an absolute wrong.

Falling in love and/or having sex with someone of your own gender is wrong if you take the Old Testament literally. This is the same Old Testament that says it's okay to beat your child senseless (Proverbs 13:24, 23:14, 22:15), to engage in incest under certain circumstances (Genesis 19:30), or offer your daughters to be raped (Genesis 19:8).

What if there really is no such thing as a priori right and wrong? What if right and wrong are human-generated concepts?

Determining right from wrong really isn't that easy. Maybe the gurus and experts have made illogical and unsubstantiated claims. Maybe they have a hidden agenda. Perhaps your church's doctrine is outdated and your country club buddies motivated by personal gain.

Maybe the choice is ultimately up to you. Perhaps it requires you to think carefully, entertain possibilities that are in conflict with your most cherished beliefs. Maybe it requires that you imagine yourself (insofar as possible) in someone else's shoes. Perhaps it requires that, instead of moving with the crowd (your crowd), you act entirely on your own.

What can you do in the face of moral ambiguity? After listening, checking facts, consulting your imagination, utilizing both critical thinking and compassion, you make a decision that (possibly) will help some people and harm others. You aren't one hundred percent certain that your choice is the best one. But, in the absence of absolute certainty, it's the best you can do.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Parody of a Homily

Homeless Hank woke up with a shrieking, blinding headache which wasn't at all unusual. He also discovered that a thorny twig had cut a new hole in his ragged, reeking jeans and penetrated all the way to the skin of his thigh. "Shee-ut," said Homeless Hank as he spat on his fingers and rubbed the blood off the wound. Then he said it again. "Shee-ut."

He looked around at the discarded empty bottles to see if maybe it might be possible to soothe his aching head with a hair of the dog but every damn one of them was empty. Homeless Hank merely shrugged his shoulders because empty was what he'd expected and he'd have been shocked senseless if he or any of his drinking buddies had allowed a single drop to remain. About three feet away from him, Bourbon-faced Bob was snoring louder than a hog with a megaphone and, further on, Willy, the Loon lay so quiet he might have been dead and maybe was which would be a blessing since Willy's neurons were so tangled even Harry Houdini couldn't have undone them.

After several attempts, Homeless Hank rose to his feet. His eyes ached horribly but he used them, nonetheless, to take stock of his surroundings. He was pretty sure he'd ended up last night in one of the inner-city parks but there weren't any benches anywhere around or statues of famous people or picnic tables or paths to walk on. In fact, the grass as far as he could see was wild and uncut, swaying gently in a light breeze. "Must be some type of wildlife preserve," Hank thought but he couldn't imagine how he'd gotten there without a bus token, much less cab fare.

In the far distance, Hank thought he could detect the sound of running water. It could, of course, be one of those auditory hallucinations but it wouldn't hurt any to check it out.

He lumbered and stumbled through the tall grass, making dents, snapping twigs and flushing out birds and bush rabbits. The sound of rushing water grew louder and finally Hank arrived at the bank of a narrow swift stream, clear as glass and twisty as a roller coaster track. On impulse, Hank stripped off  his tattered, filthy clothes and plunged into the water. The cold shock zapped him like an electric current all through his body and right up into his sorry excuse for a brain. Hank dug his toes into the pebbly stream bed so the current wouldn't knock him down but it did anyway and Hank found himself flailing and struggling until he remembered he could swim and, summoning all his alcohol-depleted strength, pulled himself up onto the bank.

Exhausted by his struggle, Hank lay down next to a clump of maidenhair ferns. Dappled sunlight, filtered gently through the branches of a broad leaf oak, warmed his body and pretty soon Homeless Hank was fast asleep, buck naked in a strange land.

The first thing Hank noticed when he woke was that he was wearing a costume. It had to be a costume because nobody -- except maybe hippies -- dressed that way. What he wore was a dark green tunic over a pair of loose-fitting brown trousers. Kind of like martial arts pants, only lighter. In fact, the feel of the cloth was unlike any fabric Hank had ever touched before, much less worn. Too cottony to be silk and to silky to be cotton. Meanwhile the rank-smelling clothes he'd been wearing were now dripping wet and draped carefully over a nearby branch.  "What the hell?" muttered Hank.

Then he saw the tiny man with the pointy ears and iridescent wings. "Bound to happen sooner or later," Hank mumbled.

"What?" the little man asked. "What was bound to happen?"

" know...the DTs," Hank said irritably.

The little man's laughter sounded sort of like the rushing waters of the stream. "You think I'm not real then."

Hank was about to say "Hell no!" but then he stopped himself. He thought of something one of his foster mothers had said to him, over and over, when he was very young. The memory of that gullible little boy caused Hank's eyes to fill with tears. "You here to grant me three wishes?" he asked the little man.

"Of course. What else?"

"Not that I'm objecting, you understand but why me?"

The little man laughed again and this time there was a note of scorn in his laughter. "Silly human -- there is no why? There is never any why?"

Homeless Hank pinched himself  on the arm, then closed his eyes and counted to sixty. When he looked again the little man was still there, waiting. The skin of his face was like cold porcelain and there was no trace of warmth in the expression of his vermilion eyes.

"Okay," said Hank, "I'm ready."

And now, dear reader, I'm sure you are preparing to have Hank, incorrigible loser that he is, wish for a magic whisky bottle that can never be emptied, followed by a lake of vodka and a marble fountain spouting red and white wine. If so, you are about to be disappointed.

"I'll have a horse," Hank said, "a good one, thoroughbred stallion, fast, strong and no more than two years old."

The little man snapped his fingers and a beautiful roan horse appeared. "And your second wish?"

"Another horse, a mare this time, same type, same condition as the stallion."

Again the little man snapped his fingers and instantly a chestnut mare appeared. "And your third wish?"

"All the gear I'll need for riding -- saddle with stirrups, reins and whatever else a horseman's supposed to have and make everything of the best quality." The little man snapped his fingers again and a pile of top-quality riding gear lay at Hank's feet.

"Thank you kindly," said Hank but the little man had already vanished.

When Homeless Hank was seen riding a thoroughbred stallion and leading a comely mare out of what had, once again, become a city park, people who knew him could scarcely believe their eyes.

"You wanna tell me where you got those horses?" a city cop demanded.

Hank smiled. "You heard that old saying, haven't you?  One of my foster mothers used to say it all the time -- If wishes were horses, beggars would ride."

"What the...but...that's not what it's 'sposed to mean," the policeman fumed.

"No," Hank agreed, "but that's how it is," and he rode away into the sunset.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Stranger's Mother

Sometimes I'm certain I don't know her. The woman who notices every stain and smudge on the stove and kitchen counter tops. The woman who keeps five different personal schedules in her head and is able to coordinate them with the apparent ease of a professional juggler. The dedicated mother who walks the middle path between authoritarian and permissive parenting. The woman who puts together a nutritionally-balanced meal while her head is throbbing and every part of her body screams in pain. The woman who, all on her own, has mastered the art of the personal essay. The woman whose mother appears bemused and sometimes a little bit dotty.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl with blazing curls -- a little piece of the sun. A child who created mythological pantheons at the age of two. A child whose vocabulary and weaving of words was extraordinary. This child did not concern herself with orderliness. Or chores that had to be done. Fantasy always came first. Her mind was a marvelous tangle of fairytale vines. Storytelling defined her world. When presented with a jigsaw puzzle, her imagination turned the assorted pieces into cookies and tarts, while Lincoln Logs became sausages to be served at the royal feast.

I knew that little girl. I celebrated her creativity. I bribed, cajoled and threatened her into half cleaning her room. I encouraged her passion for social justice. I punished her for dressing the cats in doll's clothes. I nagged at her to choose something besides one of the two preferred dresses she insisted on wearing to school. I challenged her to "cowboy up" and stop whining over every small discomfort. Together we explored the children's classics and created unique costumes for her to wear on Halloween. We invented "Darth Vader's Underwear" jokes, thumbing our noses at the forces of darkness. That little girl perceived me as competent, almost omnipotent...

until she didn't anymore.

We are never the people we started out to be.

A baby becomes a child, the child a teenager, the teenager a grownup, the grownup a wrinkled geezer or enfeebled crone. Many transformations happen along the way. We are never the people we started out to be.

Sometimes love survives these transformations; sometimes it does not.

Teenagers are sometimes cast out of their homes; elderly parents are sometimes neglected.

Sometimes parents and progeny quietly drift apart...

I look again at the woman scrubbing the burners on the stove, the woman who has just completed a humorous and insightful blog post. Suppressed laughter sparkles in her blue-green eyes because her youngest son has just said something unintentionally funny. A ray of the westward-slanting sun makes sparks of her bronze and copper curls. For a moment, I see my grownup little girl. I smile at her and think, "Ah, yes, I know you now."