Archive for December, 2012

Habit of Creature

I just got home. I am relieved. I go to my crate. Crate is a nice word for cage. My master laughs that I go in my crate without being told. But it’s the only spot where I won’t be in anyone’s way. I may be absolutely still in my cage.

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Put Your Right Leg In and Shake It All About. Put your Left Leg In- Err- I Mean Your Right Leg, Again. And Shake It All About. Sorry. This is Awkward. And Do the Hokey Pokey. That’s What It’s All About.

There’s a guy who panhandles outside of my building. He’s missing a leg, and has a prosthetic leg, but when he panhandles, he unscrews it like a light bulb and sets it by my front door with the rest of his possessions: a bike, a duffel bag, dozens of plastic bags, a broom handle, an extra heavy coat, three large paintings (watercolor), a sleeping bag, and a bucket. Inside the bucket he puts his leg while he shuffles out on the street in between cars on crutches while they wait for the light to change. First time I saw the leg I thought it was a lamp and thought how useless it is for a homeless man to possess an electric lamp that he can’t plug in anywhere. But it was a leg. Leg or a lamp- reminds me of the leg-lamp from ‘A Christmas Story’. But I guess what’s more useless than a lamp is a leg when your goal is to make people feel guilty so they give you money. That’s his angle. His con. Some might call him a fraud, a sham, an imposter, a charlatan, unveracious, or just plain humbug. Like Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’. Scrooge, if he was driving down the street and saw the one legged man approaching, he’d be haughty enough to roll down his window and say, Humbug! I wonder what would happen if I said to the guy, hey, I know you have a leg, and you take it off when you beg. He’d probably say, So what. Try walking a mile in my shoe. Singular. But it’s not like he’s deceiving people. He’s just embellishing his handicap. He’s emphasizing his weakness, which in the context of pan handling is a strength. It all depends on context. If I’m in a job interview and I am asked what my greatest weakness is and I say that I’m a Perfectionist. I’m not necessarily lying, but I’m leaving out how the perfectionism is grounded in a fear of failure and sloth and a deep-rooted aversion to exerting myself and a history of self-loathing and self-sabotage and self-effacement, and that my ideal of Perfection is impossible to obtain and that’s exactly why I have it, to protect me from actualization of anything real or worthy. But I don’t say that. I say, I’m a Perfectionist, which I harness and temper with a keen sense of efficiency. Or some bullshit like that. It’s not that I’m lying… I’m just expressing in strong terms how capable I am. But that’s the context: being capable in a job interview is a good thing. When you’re pan handling, you’re not convincing an employer you’re capable, but the public that you’re incapable. The best assets one can have are: blindness, paraplegicism, and deformity. The more incapable you are the more capable. There’s a Daoist parable about Crippled Shu who is “a man with his chin lost in his navel, his shoulders higher than the top of his head and his chin pointing to Heaven, his five vital organs all crushed into the top of his body and his two thighs pressing into his ribs”. Basically, this guy’s a mess. People give him enough, out of sympathy, so that he may feed himself. He’s never asked to work. When the militia comes into town rounding up all the able-bodied men to go fight in a war, he’s spared because he is unable. In the end, Crippled Shu lives to be older than everyone in town, because he never has to strain himself or go into danger and nobody gives him a hard time and he always has enough to eat. From this perspective, you can see how missing a leg in the Homeless world is equivalent to having an M.B.A. in the working world. Of course, you can’t see this if you’re blind. And, while I don’t want to suggest that just because you’re blind you’re handicapped, you gotta admit that if you were blind and if you were homeless you would play it up, too. You’d don the sunglasses and look extra incapable. Because the spirit of the season is Sympathy. That’s why Scrooge’s foil is Tiny Tim. You have this helpless, little boy. Horrifically broken and enfeebled and hungry and cold and cute. And Scrooge says- Humbug. What is humbug is that in every performance of ‘A Christmas Carol’ this season, I’m willing to bet, Tiny Tim is being played by an able-bodied person. Maybe this guy could have some work and not resort to street theater if he were offered a position as Tiny Tim. We could tell him to break a leg. No, that’s too real, you need an actor. Like how they had Jake Gylenhall and Heathe Ledger play gay men in ‘Broke Back Mountain’. You can’t have actual gay men play gay men. In a sense, the way the guy brandishes his lack of a leg is like coming out without letting others ask or guess. He forces the fact upon the public with no shame. By placing his leg in a bucket, he takes his leglessness out of the closet. But I guess what leaves a sour taste in my mouth is the way that- after he’s made a killing- he shuffles back to his possessions, re-screws his leg back on like he’s putting together furniture from IKEA, then walks down the street, gracefully, an elegant amble that even tango dancers watch with envy. Maybe it’s a little deceptive. But in the panhandling world, you’ve got the right to put your best foot forward. Or lack thereof. I’m not so different and I’m willing to bet neither are you. We all pretend to be more sane, smarter, stronger, and less evil, clueless, and confused than we really are. In order to participate in society. It’s like a football player who tells his coach he doesn’t have a concussion in order to get back in the game. Or a crippled man in a Nazi concentration camp trying to convince the guards he’s able to work and not be shot. Or an author who (usually) spends forever editing his work and trying to come to a central, cohesive thesis rather than just flying off the handle about something he finds amusing. We try to appear better than we really are. And when it comes to begging, it’s better to be worse and worse to be better. Not having a leg is this guy getting a leg-up in the world. Can we deny him that? Scrooge can. Scrooge thinks the con is humbug. But Scrooge is also performing a masquerade. He has the workers all convinced they need him to own the factory, so they can work. But the truth is co-operatively the Workers of the World can unite and overthrow Scrooge, and take the factory into their own hands. The only thing stopping them is Scrooge’s con, that they need him and his black capitalistic heart to ford the waters of markets, competition, and scarcity. That’s something Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson didn’t talk about when they drafted the Social Contract. “We the People” didn’t include disabled people. It didn’t include women or blacks, the sick and poor. We the People meant like 5% of the population. And as baby boomers in the tens of millions begin to age and require more medical care and attention, values are going to shift and “We the People” is going to mean We the Ones Taking Care Of and We the Ones Being Taken Care Of. The adult undergarment industry is going to explode, just like the baby diaper business did back in the 50’s. We’re all dependent on each other. None of us are living in a state of nature. The world of tooth and fang and claw is way behind us. If society collapsed I would be just as fucked as the guy with one leg outside. The only ones really prepared for a civilization-crushing cataclysm are like a weird breed of rats, super wiry and subsisting on grubs, no interest in Care or Love or Beauty or anything like that. They’re swimming in subterranean wells, their white eyes glowing, ready for the collapse. Me, the guy with one leg, Scrooge, the family from A Christmas Story, the Muslim Brotherhood, animals living in zoos, Vladimir Putin and an obscure group of Nuns living in southwest Africa are all dependent on the continuation of society. On the masquerade. On trading and giving and taking and conning. This all reminds me of the story of how the flamingo learned to stand on one leg. There was a trail where elephants went to and fro during the dry season, carrying nuts and grasses with them as they went. A single flamingo was waiting by the side of the trail, waiting to die, from hunger and apathy. It tried to appeal to the elephants, for them to share their food from a distant land. But the elephants had no compassion. Then the flamingo began lifting up and hiding its one leg, so that it would look dismembered. The elephants took pity on the flamingo and threw him a bone. Other flamingos caught on and now it’s a defining feature of being a flamingo. And thus the origin from whence the jib of hiding your leg for handouts came. But are they really handouts? When I give to a pan handler I derive a sense of pleasure, a sense of power. They’re offering me a service: they make me feel good about myself. That’s an economic transaction, not a handout. There’s a benefit to detriment, a use of the useless. Which makes me think of the story from the New Testament in a different light. The one about the beggar with one leg whom Jesus offered to heal. The guy said No Thanks, and went his way. I’m not sure if it was an allegory about atheists, or what. But I wonder- how did he lose his leg? Would we think of him differently if he was a veteran? If he lost the leg serving this country with honor and valor.  Or, what if he was a drunk, working the same corner as an able-bodied man on his own two legs, and then fell over in front of a car whose tire tore off his left leg right off his torso. And he returned, a broken man, to work the same corner. But- being saved by the grace of God he gave up drinking. But he’s still a scheister, willing to emphasis his (in)capability.

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You Know, That Word Comes From…

“Goulash” stems from the word “osh”, which is Yiddish for soup or stew. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that ghouls came during the winter solstice to feed on the soul of a family’s first born son. To appease the ghouls, osh was placed outside for them to eat instead. It was taken for granted that ghouls enjoyed potatoes. People continued to make ghoul osh, or goulash for centuries, eventually abandoning the superstition but preserving the recipe for themselves.

“Tongs” derives from “toeng”, which is the Latin word for nipple, or tit. During the Spanish Inquisition, metal pincers were used to squeeze the nipples, or toengs of the condemned, inflicting tremendous pain- especially when the pincers were held over a fire prior to being used. The implement of torture is nearly identical to the  “tongs” found in many contemporary kitchens, which are used for grilling, selecting danishes from a pastry case, or turning over asparagus.

Otherwise known as Nipples.

Otherwise known as Nipples.

“Accent” originates from the Medieval Scottish tradition of “sending the ax”. When a traveler came through a territory and spoke with an outlandish tongue, it was custom to slay the stranger with an ax. Afterward, villagers would say to themselves that “the ax was sent”, or simply “ax sent”.  Ax sent eventually became accent, to denote a different way of speaking.

“Sanitizer” comes from San Itizer, or Saint Itizer. A Franciscan monk who lived in France in the fifteenth century, Saint Itizer is the patron saint of germophobes and hypochondriacs. It’s claimed that during the Plague, Saint Itizer disinfected door knobs and broom handles with the touch of his hand.

“Zinc” was born in the age of alchemy. German alchemists, seeking to turn lead into gold, ended up with a white, powdery subtance every time they performed their experiment using their kitchen sink. Being upset but unwilling to doubt alchemy, they blamed their sinks, shouting, Sink! Sink! Sink! With a German accent, this sounds an awfully lot like Zinc! Zinc! Zinc! Which was, then, the name given to the white powder.

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Faith in Faith Itself

“My daughter. She’s… something’s wrong with her. She’s has depression and a lot of anxiety.”

“So you’re saying, she’s anxious and depressed.”

“Not all of the time!”

“…”

“It doesn’t make sense. We love her. We’re trying to help. But nothing works. It’s getting worse and worse. We tried therapy, medication, more therapy. We got her involved in sports, taken her out of sports. We’re doing everything we can and still she’s- she’s…”

“Anxious and depressed?”

“Yes!”

“…”

“I’m just. It’s just. What do you want me to say?”

“Huh?”

“She’s sixteen. Who knows what’s happening in her head. And at school, with other sixteen year olds and facebook and horny boys and vicious girls. I know there’s a lot to be stressed about but it’s not normal, the way she’s behaving. She’ll just, shut down. Build a wall. You can’t get through to her. It’s so, so, frustrating.  We love her, why is she disappointing us?”

“…”

“What do you recommend I do?”

“Nothing.”

“Huh?”

“…”

“What are you talking about, nothing!? She’s suf-fer-ing.”

“It will get better.”

“But it’s only getting worse!”

“And then better. Always does.”

“Not if! Not unless…”

“She…”

“Don’t say it.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“Listen. I’m her mother and I hate to see her in pain. I just want it to stop. For her. Like when she’s sick. I take care of her. Make her cinnamon toast. Bring her water.”

“With mental illness, and, may I suggest, spiritual illness, there’s no analogy to toast and water. You can’t bring her anything that will make her feel better. The best you can do is let her be. Be-there for her. And if she doesn’t come don’t seek her out. At the very very most, you could, maybe, work on yourself.”

“Work on myself!”

“I’m just saying. When you get a throat ache, it’s not the throat’s fault. The entire body’s sick. Your daughter, in this analogy, is the throat. Right now, she’s getting a lot of attention, and is the one experiencing the most visible pain. But the entire body is sick.”

“What body?”

“Your family. Your home.”

“You sonnofa bitch! If I wanted a Freudian quack to default to blaming poor old ma and pa, I’d’ve gone elsewhere!”

“Fine, fine. Forget it.”

“…”

“But I stand by my main point. You cannot fix her. There is no solution. Any solution will just hurt her, more. When someone’s depressed, the last thing they need is a rational reason for why they shouldn’t be feeling depressed. Because when you say they shouldn’t be feeling that way, you invalidate what they are feeling. But a feeling- no matter how irrational- is as real as rain. Who cares if it’s ridiculous, dangerous, or self-destructive. The fact is it is being felt. It has its own truth that no amount of love or reason or medicine can negate. Just let her suffer. It will make something of her.”

“You’ve obviously never had children.”

“Huh?”

“It’s easy to say: let her suffer. If you have never had any children of your own. Try some time. Bring life into the world and watch it grow. Then tell me how easy it is to let her suffer needlessly.”

“What suffering isn’t needless?”

“Huh?”

“Nevermind. I am not a father. But it’s for you to decide whether or not my advice is valid. You came to me.”

“It depends on your advice.”

“Again. I recommend you do nothing.”

“Absolute shit advice.”

“(sigh)”

“Why did I think you could help? They say such good things about you on TV.”

“I think I should take my own advice, and not give any.”

[But the author would like to share his own advice, or rather, the words of another…]

“But the truth is that my work- I was going to say my mission- is to shatter the faith of womyn here, there, and everywhere, faith in affirmation, faith in negation, and faith in abstention from faith, and this for the sake of faith in faith itself; it is to war against all those who submit, whether it be to Catholicism, or to rationalism, or to agnosticism; it is to make all womyn live the life of inquietude and passionate desire” ­–Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life

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The Rest is Just Details

My whole life, I’ve been in love with planes. My earliest memory is listening to the old Superman broadcasts on the radio. They’d say, Up in the sky! Look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! But before they could say It’s Superman, I was already running around my parents’ bungalow screaming, It’s a plane! It’s a plane! It’s a plane!

I would take the newspapers my father had read and fold them into paper airplanes. I’d stuff a bag full of them and walk from my house to a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. One at a time, I sent the planes over the edge and watched them disappear into the water far below.

My dad and I would make model airplanes. They came in little kits, and in those days were made of real metal. We’d spend hours gluing together P-40 Warhawks, A-20 Havocs, and the goliath Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. I wanted to play with them, but I was forbidden. We hung them with fishing wire from my ceiling. They were made to look in-flight, engaged in a dogfight or bombing the hamper.

As a kid I never rode in a plane, let alone flew one myself, because my family didn’t have any money. But in high school I joined the JROTC and prepared myself to enlist in the Wisconsin Air National Guard as soon as I was eligible. There, I learned to fly. Everything I dreamt about flying turned out to be true. I was in heaven. Literally.

When we went to war with Vietnam I volunteered for the US Air Force. To me it was a matter of fact. I didn’t think of it as something to be afraid of or to protest. I completed hundreds of missions and was awarded many medals, honors, and promotions. My specialty was napalm. Really, the napalm did most of the work. But I had a knack for knowing exactly where to put the stuff. Some guys would just follow the coordinates, or try to think logically about where the Vietcong would be positioned. But you can’t do that, not with the Vietcong. Me, I had a gift for looking at a jungle, observing the wind pass over the trees, and just knowing where a fire needed to start in order to destroy everything.

After the war I got a position at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. There I taught cadets the essentials of flight. But I didn’t get to fly much. And since America was still slinking away from Vietnam with its tail between its legs, I didn’t see any chance to fly on the horizon. No pun intended. I decided to quit the Air Force and was honorably discharged. I tried being a commercial airline pilot, but it didn’t suit me- I felt like a glorified taxi driver. When I flew those bombers during the war, I felt powerful, like Superman. I had to find something that made me feel that, again.

In the interim, I got a job working as a spotter for a commercial fishing company. I didn’t expect to stay long. How it works is you’ve got these boats called seiners that move in a circle, dragging a huge net around a school of fish. Once the school is completely encircled, you pull the net tight and it closes from the bottom, meaning the fish have nowhere to go. It’s easy. The hard part is spotting the fish. That’s where I come in.

I’d fly a plane over the water searching for the fish schools and assessing their size and direction of movement. The reason I was good at this job is the same reason I was a hero in Vietnam: intuition. I hate the word and don’t really believe in it, but that’s what it is. Some guys will rely solely on their eyes to identify where the schools of fish are headed. I can just tell, by watching the water, where the fish ought to be. Once certain, I radio the seiners and they run a perimeter around the coordinates. Then, sure enough, we’ve got up to 400 tons of mackerel, tuna, or what have you.

I was a spotter for decades. Across the industry, my ability is legendary. But I grew dissatisfied. I think if I fought the Vietnamese for over a quarter of a century, I’d grow tired of that, too. Also, I’ve come to respect the fish. The way they school is a mystery. They move in unison, perfectly. For millions of years it protected them from predators. Now, with our planes and boats and GPS, they’ve got no natural defense. It’s not like I feel bad for them, or think the commercial fishing industry should sing Kumbaya with Green Peace. It’s just that I don’t get a rush, anymore.

By now I’m entering the winter of my life. I’ve always been sort of a loner, keeping people close while pushing them away. I’ve saved enough money to purchase acreage in the Upper Peninsula. I’ve got a few dogs, a cabin, and acquaintances in the nearby community. I’ve also got my own landing strip, two planes, and a private hangar. For seven years now I’ve flown nightly, not missing a single sunset.

But now when I’m up in the sky, I find myself just wandering. I’ve got no mission, no plane to chase down and no plane chasing me. When I’m up there, it doesn’t matter which direction I go. I find myself just zoning out and leaning on the wheel, letting the sky take me. For a while I thought it was because I needed to adjust to retirement, or because I need a wife. But the truth is, I don’t love planes anymore.

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