A Lib Confesses

A Lib Confesses

I’m an NPR guy, okay? Yeah, I got beat up by the bike rack in 7th grade like most nascent liberals, earned my stripes like the rest of my lot – by being ill-advisedly sympathetic at the wrong time (see Homebuilders Association of Northern California versus the Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp). The bully, who I’ll here call JK, had kicked poor little big-butt Tony Matthews so hard in the ass during a soccer game in PE, the force had actually lifted Tony off the ground. I’d reacted spontaneously and unwisely, earning my adolescent “Bleeding-Heart-Soy-Based-Bonehead’ creds by briskly hollering at JK and eliciting from him a promise he would meet me after school. “Naw, we don’t hafta meet,” I’d actually said in those first panicked seconds of sobriety, attempting to de-escalate. Think that worked?

Stingray in the Stingray Day

When after last period I went to retrieve my Stingray with its sparkly banana seat and faux-wood-knobbed 3-speed stick shift (litigiously positioned to bludgeon my groin in the event of even the most minor biking mishap), JK was there grasping the handlebars of my beloved. This weasel-faced bully was about half my size and so homely I found myself actually pitying him (see?!) in the seconds before his surprisingly practiced fist introduced itself to my left cheekbone. Could I have taken him? Yeah. I could have taken him for a short run by fleeing like a panicked rag doll. But I knew he and his two minions would quickly catch and thrash me with renewed vigor. That’s right, he was backed up by henchmen, or henchmiddleschoolkids, more precisely, though to me at that moment they looked like grown bruisers with police records. While the two assistants stood in the background smirking with their arms crossed, JK struck me in the head once, twice, Three Times a Lady. There was no ceremony, no verbiage, just a dreamlike minute whose sweep-second hand took its sweet time rounding the face of my cheap ‘takes a licking’ Timex. POW! two three. POW! two three four five six seven……hoo boy glad that’s over the future pessimist exulted…..POW!!!

The blows fell with a stunning blunt force that to my utter surprise did not mimic the slappy-sounding, easy-to-shake-off punches one saw on TV all the time. I vividly remember thinking, as the punctuated jabs landed with the sickening sound of skin smashing into skin; “Shit! This is nothing like I imagined!” From that moment on I understood that were I recipient of a Kojak or Mannix-quality beating in real life I would likely not survive it, let alone straighten my collar and make out with a beautiful woman afterwards. Huh UH. The next day I walked into Ms. Stone’s math class with a face so swollen my cheek stood out in my peripheral vision, a nagging omnipresent reminder of my humiliation the previous day. “Hey, what happened to your face, Wing?” JK chided when I walked in, and from the back of the classroom Tony Matthews giggled with the rest. An early dose of The Bitter Medicine. I looked shamefacedly at Ms. Stone and the concern in her beautiful eyes made me love her anew. But that’s another column.

Mug of a Carpenter

Later that same emotionally misbegotten lifetime, I of course became a member of NPR; the broadcast maypole around which we mercy-dispensing Libs delightedly prance in our forest-green tights. I love NPR. My ex-girlfriend (read: wife) and I pledge to them semi-regularly, and in pitiable dollar amounts insufficient to earn us the coveted NPR Grail, or mug, as it’s known to the unwashed. I depend on NPR’s deep reporting, interestingly unpredictable interviews, and frontline real-time dispatches to help augment my world view, which is informed by the twin lights of mercy and fairness.

Having said that, I can tell you that when I turned on my car radio the other day and the NPR team were murmuring soporifically about salad or human rights or some such, I reflexively punched the AM button for escape. Sometimes the radiant self-congratulation of the NPR gang makes me want to go out and shoot an endangered Snail Darter in the legs. There, I said it.

The Left! Look at us! (those of you who are sick of looking at us, look away) No wonder JK beat me senseless by my newish Schwinn! Was it this quality of mercy that so strained the Romans that they simply HAD to beat up our Guy? Oh, and speaking of Christ, how did the ‘Left’, whose goofy public policy positions actually reflect New Testament teaching, lose Christ to a Conservative movement that has not only armed the Lord with a machine gun, but seems to crap on His less-advantaged sheep with impunity? I’ll tell you how. It’s a little something called Freedom; a much-maligned and tactically abused concept. Freedom is a cult here, I would suggest. It is safe to say the U.S. is beholden to a cult. Do we need deprogramming?

How May I Help You?

My friend David, with whom I discuss much, once asked me out of the blue, “Do you think the Socialist experiment in Europe has been a success?” It’s one of those Great Questions whose discursive answer-seeking can sum up so much. As I said to David that day, “…it depends”. What does our race want? What are people for (all thanks to Vonnegut) and how shall we address this exalted animal? How shall we comport ourselves in this dumb, brutish life, whose pageantry includes both creme brulee and slow beheadings? Shall we build elaborate systems to ensure that no individual goes unfed, unsheltered? Arguably, yes. In the U.S. , where Modern American Liberalism is practiced (vs Classic Liberalism), a microcosmic outcome of this seemingly sensible and Christ-like philosophical practice is the awarding of a little tin trophy to every kid on the losing soccer team. Yes, some of us see a merit-based reward system as barbaric, or at least unnecessarily hurtful to the little boob who can’t kick a ball when it’s right in front him, and should be taught that ineptitude can also be rewarded, and handsomely. Or should the goal of our species be individual excellence? To be superb, a roman candle fulfilling in absolute terms as much of ones human potential as possible in the time allotted, whatever that may be? Arguably, also yes. What else are we gonna do with our idiot’s eyeblink of a life down here on this meaning-starved wet rock in the middle of literal nowhere? I mean, we got the overcomplicated neural firings, the opposable thumbs, the inexplicable qualia. It’s not like we’re simply very expensive dogs. Having been handed all this largesse by the Big Bang/Giant Bearded Man in a Terrycloth Robe (to summarize the two most popular hypotheses), are we really just supposed to stand down and shade each other from the sun? That’s it? Are we self-actualized, pinnacle-seeking animals, or cosmic social workers adrift in a poetic vacuum, placed here against indescribably remote odds to be at rest, absorb the moments, and see that no one starves? Your answer will depend largely on whether you live in a cardboard box or in a three bedroom house with a mortgage.

Coming Clean

Okay, I’m gonna come clean, as they say (or used to say – and seeing it in type I understand why they stopped saying it): I get Conservatism. At least, I grasp their once doctrinaire embrace of Freedom as an undervalued social compact whose role in history has been that of a golden thread weaving in and out of a shit-smeared burlap onesie. I do understand the inherent common sense and actual human glory that inheres in the Every man for Himself model. In the heat of an argument I once yelled at my conservative nemesis that the U.S. has a “cult of Freedom”, by which I meant we hold people hostage to the idea of Freedom, and in policy debates consider top-down systemic attempts to alleviate suffering a blow against absolute freedom. What good is this double-edged Freedom if it doesn’t help anyone who is suffering?

Eugene Delacroix-La Liberte guidant le Peuple

Lady Liberty’s wardrobe malfunction scarcely registers as she leads the revolutionary French in Delacroix’s famous painting

True Freedom can be shown to leave people worse off, from a public policy standpoint, when Freedom is invoked to push back against government policies that seek redress for the helpless. Seeing Obamacare’s mandate as a blow against Freedom seems absurdist on its face. Christ in his mercy would surely have forced such an issue in the interest of decreasing suffering. The Lord didn’t give a shit about anything but saving people. But, this Freedom thing; it is the natural state of affairs in the universe, like gravity, the weak nuclear force, and so on. Does it exist apart from or somehow loftily above our questions about suffering? Is it a Golden Thread?

It’s a fact, oft-noted, that the Conservative aspirational model that posits a human life as a pinnacle-seeking enterprise is simple Darwinism (tactical Bible-thumping aside). And that is not to denigrate the term. Still another name for it is Freedom (yawn). Does an animal in the wild give up his taxi to the wheezing guy next to him when it’s pissing down rain? Nope. Is that a bad thing? Only if you’re the wheezing guy with walking pneumonia. Contrary to the religious posturing that is anymore an essential amino acid in the GOP’s political DNA, the party that champions individual accountability and liberty (within the party’s own curious limits, it must be said – wombs and pills still fall under the Heisenbergian “both wave and particle” purview of Freedom’s High Priests) is the party that favors the Shaggy Ol’ Laws of Nature as a design for living. And they don’t even like animals as much as we snuggly Libs do! Can you imagine a platoon of Republican PETA militants angrily breaking into a cosmetics lab and liberating the helpless test beasties? If you ever see that happen you can bet the rescued Maybelline rabbits will make their next appearance on a rotisserie being brushed with clarified butter.

Libs are philosophically the opposite and apposite. They want to lend a hand to the poor, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed; a decidedly anti-nature way to go about things. Animals in the wild are as free as freedom gets, and they screw and eat each other with thrilling/disgusting abandon (respectively). So it’s a little odd how feverishly Liberals venerate the natural world given their total abandonment of that model when attempting to retool civil society as a Play-Doh equality factory.

The Paragon of Animals

Big Bill Shakespeare described a human being as “The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.” We are probably that. Oughtn’t we, then, encourage one another to stand and fight with all our exalting means, and not succumb? I’ve taken my shots at Conservatism, have gotten hot under the collar just looking at the way their chins interact with THEIR collars. And they are a fat, slow-moving target at a glance. But I think I do understand that the heart of TRUE and unpolluted conservatism is not contempt for the poor and the downtrodden, but contempt for a culture that doesn’t see them as the Paragon of Animals but as lost ninny children who will never find their way. A Conservative can be the most ardent humanist you’ll ever meet in this regard. And I get it. Homelessness and hopelessness and poverty and the desecration of the human spirit – these are real, misery-sowing, ongoing diseases that need a dose of burning disinfectant. But awakening the latent immune system inside a human individual, arousing the army of antibodies placed in us to overwrite our weaker nature and to buttress our better one – surely this is part of the cure, if only a small part. Yeah, we’re only animals. We’re not beings of light, but we have a strange capacity for renewal that isn’t explicable in the Darwinian model. We have the ability to incandesce.

Freedom Isn’t Boring and May be a Two-Faced Biatch

It does come down to Freedom, I’m afraid; an uber-American noun so laden with baggage it looks like an Eastern Airlines scab on Skycap strike day. Freedom? Haven’t we long since become bored silly by that numbing word, inured to its deeper, almost religious meaning by the stupidity of today’s polarizing shitheel discourse? Today’s Conservatives champion “Freedom” but many of them throw the word around so recklessly it amounts to disrespect for what is a sacred state of being. Take for instance the “Freedom Fries” the House of Representatives cafeteria began serving in place of French Fries when the Gauls had the balls to equivocate at the U.S. decision to lay down a generation-screwing dose of shock and awe on the already massively f****d people of Iraq. I mean, Freedom Fries?!

I don’t know that King John at Runnymede had that kind of semantic b.s. in mind when he momentously (if a little reluctantly) signed that piece of parchment in 1215. Freedom is not an invention, and neither a discovery. It’s like oxygen. But here in the States, where it is as ubiquitous as actual oxygen, “Freedom” has the same spoken narcoleptic firepower as the words “beige” or “Jimmy Fallon”. Freedom is the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights and Dr. King’s defiant march from Selma to Montgomery, and is absolutely central to every incandescent quality that makes us unique among the animals, that makes us human. Freedom isn’t an optimizer in a speech. It’s an element of the biosphere the “lower” animals don’t even notice. We’re higher animals, though. We owe it to ourselves to notice.

The Crackers and the Lorax

So, Conservatives? I understand that not many of you are raging bags of homophobic racism, but a few of you are. Dump your crackers in the public square, they’re screwing your mission. And your patriarchal ovum-diddling. WTF? Freedom, right? There is no Half-Freedom. For our part, maybe some day soon we Libs will stop glad-handing the Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ mustachioed, forest-defending cuddler that pit family members against each other for a time in the Pacific NW where the demonized logging business put food on many many families tables. Kids were suddenly questioning their parents’ working in the devil’s business, sawing down trees and upsetting the Lorax. I have yet to meet a Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp or laudably ancient tree that merits starving out a hardworking family of human beings. We’re the paragons, not that dumb little cross-eyed shrimp. Time and the universe stretch out forever. The shrimp will be back, as will the tree. Let’s get real.

Final nagging note to Conservatism from a smug Liberal weenie. You’re right – the Freedom of the human being may qualify for Grail status, and all barriers to its hegemony should be thrown aside. But Freedom isn’t curbed by government policy that reaches out to the dispossessed and downtrodden, those imprisoned by circumstances. On the contrary. Policies that alleviate suffering give thinking Hobbesian animals the possible respite they require to avail themselves of the graspable rungs of precious Freedom’s ladder. To put this in awkwardly scriptural terms, the means to grasp Freedom is to Freedom itself as John the Baptist was to the Savior. Just sayin’.

 

Trump and Circumstance: Making the Case

Trump and Circumstance: Making the Case

From sea to shining sea, the republic is taking a cold shower. And whether one partakes of said shower to snap out of a drunken fog or to come down from erectile servitude, it’s a bracing habit to adopt, a reboot. Jefferson famously said we would need a good revolution every so often to keep the national motor humming and lubricated, though he wasn’t so far-seeing that he used the word “motor”. But he may have been talking about Trump. The New York Times’ likably clear-headed conservative columnist David Brooks went so far as to characterize the current madness as the possible beginnings of an emergent new political movement, though in my view that flatters the restless sea of knuckleheads who have taken up Trump’s “cause”, or “causes”, or “Tourette’s Outbursts”. Full disclosure: I may be one of those knuckleheads.

Open Carry on 5th Ave

What the hell is going on? We know damn well what’s going on. A billionaire Alpha-Loudmouth has entered the field and we’re enthralled. Why? Our Tom Thumb pundits, seated around their nonsensical, outsized pundit tables, marvel aloud at the wildness of this electoral season, shake their shellacked heads in half-grinning wonder and offer non-stop analysis, or at least enough verbal flatus to keep the methane-fueled news cycle from collapsing like a foul soufflé. Trump is a gift to the media, who normally have to overgrill the staid facts of the Body Politic to get this kind of juice. Suddenly Hilary’s EmailGate (or whatever the hell they’ve been calling it) seems quaint and cozy. Is the press really going to bird-dog Hillary about her e-mail server when the likely next leader of the Free World is saying stuff like, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters”? Trump is a gift, and I don’t mean that sardonically. Yes, he bloviates like an inebriated 5th grader, hollers unanchored nonsense for the record, and wears the squinting, pursed facial expression of a guy preparing to be slapped. But in the current field of jackanapes and anointed bots, he is a change agent like no other. Trump is our Jeffersonian totem.

Room

Your high school social studies class with its bland descriptions of the three branches of lockjaw, I mean government, might have predicted this, though it seems to have caught the Fools on the Hill completely off-guard, variously stammering and posturing. Pipsqueak Harry Reid has been seen haughtily crossing his little arms while the Republicans run to and fro, rubbing their spotty hands together and worrying that Trump may make them look bad. Seriously. Conventional wisdom says Trump is the hideous Republican creature the GOP deserves, the freak-synthesis of all their wrongheaded Tea Party-cajoling and class warmongering. Trump is no more a Republican than Senator Mitch McConnell is an underwear model. Trump is an apolitical freak, a Talker on the stump without handlers, a script, or a lick of sense. It’s enough to pleasantly jolt the chloroformed American electorate into a sitting position. And why shouldn’t we be excited? You don’t have to like Trump to adore what he is doing – taking a hatchet to “American Politics” and the palsied wraiths in D.C. This Trump veneration is not a protest movement. It’s a mad rush for anything that looks like a cracked window in a room filled, for a hundred years, with suffocating smoke. This unlettered billionaire dimwit in purple silk tie and almost endearing lower middle-class flyaway comb over is a trickle of air in the sealed and smothering Room of political discourse in this country, and we’re clawing over each other to draw a breath. I mean, did you hear the crowd at the Fox-hosted debate on March 3? It sounded like a gallery of Mixed Martial Arts enthusiasts with beer bongs. The Donald seems to have awakened the collective electoral Mr. Hyde whose latency has actually long been threatening to kill our political spirit from within. Now that Trump has reanimated the once-supine corpse of American electoral politics we may see a little action.

Reflux Pageant

The Iowa caucuses were the canary in the coal mine. In that first so-so contest of the 2016 Presidential Decision, with the nation watching to see if a blabbermouth know-nothing billionaire could really win any of these state contests, the sanctimonious, worry-faced Ted Cruz “beat” the amusing curiosity that was Donald Trump. Cruz then swaggered up to the microphone and, dripping with the stilted theatrics of a just-elected 7th grade class treasurer, regaled us with the sort of gasping E Pluribus Sputum that characterizes the very worst of this country’s dumbass political tryouts. Sure that he was at the very beginning of a steamroll, Cruz wheezed and barked his way through a wave of clenching self-congratulation in Iowa while his wife, who is reportedly thrice as smart and gifted as her hubby, looked up at him with that American Political Wife expression of adulation. This is a mold we have long been aching to break. Every election cycle is a reflux pageant of cloying dullards saying nothing nothing nothing (nothing3) in a rain of colored balloons. This cycle promised to be no different. Then came the aptly named Trump.

Rogues and Pogues

Let’s glance quickly and dismissively at the other candidates and the howling vacuum into which the Donald has inserted himself. Hilary stands to become our first woman President, she of the over-rehearsed sing-song and scary doll cheeks and vaguely North Korean pant suits. Really? Her? No she didn’t kill Vince Foster (though Trump might if he saw him on 5th Avenue) but do you, reader, not have a brilliant and informed and articulate powerhouse of a woman in your sphere who couldn’t better Hil by a country mile? Ted Cruz, what to say? If you wanted Grandpa from the Munsters to be president you should have voted him in back in the 60s when his show was a hit. Marco Rubio – the Cuban Robert Redford. Some of his advisers are quietly suggesting he drop out before the Florida primary so as to avoid the embarrassment of being drubbed in his home state by a shouting new yorker with a rooster on his head. Rubio did handily win Puerto Rico, though. Stop the presses. John Kasich is said by all who know him to be a stand-up guy and a gifted politician. There is, however, a mild charisma deficit, such that he vanishes if you look straight at him. This could prove tactically beneficial in an international stare down – but at the end of the day a President who vanishes when you look at him is probably bad for the brand.

Taxes Toast

And then there’s Bernie…the unrepentant pinko from Vermont with the puzzling Brooklyn accent. He wants to give us everything for free by raising a few taxes on a small subset of industrialists and bluebloods. Hey, it works in Europe (more or less). Oh wait, that’s why we broke up with Europe a scant 240 years ago. We had to shoot our way out of that relationship. Yeah, that nasty split was all about dough. An old story. Come to think of it, the American Experiment began as a tax protest; colonists in politically incorrect loincloths and face paint throwing tea into a harbor, to be exact. As national pastimes go, tax hatred in the U.S. is second only to the consumption of canned peaches in heavy syrup. So…feel the burn. HELL yeah, we want free college and health care here in the states, but raising taxes on anybody here to pay for that stuff? Um, that’s Stalinism, bro. Besides, the tiny trillionaire cabal Bernie is determined to soak for the free stuff the rest of us will get? They’re the management company that maintains the White House. We love you, Bernie! C’mon, we’ll call you a cab.

Trump is not Republican excess personified. The truth is simpler and more interesting than that. He’s a cursing, self-contradicting, boorish, racist, Pope-poking genie who, whatever happens this election cycle, is never going back into the bottle. Now the GOP Backroom Brain Trust are openly cooking up a Kooky Convention plan to steal any possible victory away from Trump at the 11th hour; red meat and a vindication for the millions who are aligned with Trump simply because they can’t stand the deal-making machine that is now so publicly determined to stop him. Yes, the genius Republicans are hurriedly shoveling vitamins down the neck of their own insurrection.

Grab some popcorn and sit back. They may well have to take up torches and chase our new Candidate Karloff into the nearest burning windmill to wrap this strange little episode, but at least we and our fellow villagers will be able to look at each other with wild grins and say, “Wow! Wasn’t that something?! Let’s do it again!”

Go Donald.

Rocks ‘R’ Us

Rocks ‘R’ Us

The known universe, for all the cosmological head-scratching it engenders, is essentially a very large, mostly empty void in which rocks of various sizes are suspended. I mean, rocks are the theme. Yes, there are science-fictional doodads out there; quasars, gamma-bursts, binary systems, a gaping, galaxy-starved maw called the Boötes Void (if you can imagine). But as our homely and expensive deep space probes make their lumbering way through our solar system, looking eagerly (if stiffly) around at the remote scenery, it’s basically rocks as far as the eye can see. Further, even. Of course our Earth is a rock, which is belittling if you’re in the wrong mood. All our human prehistory and history, all our important and heartbreaking wars and cataclysms and revolutions in thinking and Alexanders the Great, the eons-long morphing of the Trilobite into the Tax Attorney; everything that has ever Happened, effectively, has happened on this rock. And it’s not a very large rock, as these things go. Our Everything is twenty five-thousand miles around the middle. You call that a planet? It sounds more like an interminable road trip.

But our rock is special; an anomaly, as near as we can tell. It’s hot and roiling on the inside, wet and cool on the outside, and wrapped delicately in a shawl of atmosphere that makes her look positively coquettish from, say, the annoyed and painfully chapped perspective of Mars. And thanks to all the subsurface thermal confusion our Earth is a world-sized piñata stuffed with the most dazzling candy.

aptly named azurite

aptly named azurite

By arrangement, my pal Eddie swung by last Sunday. My daughter and I hopped in our car and followed him out to the Gem Faire at the Earl Warren show grounds. He was eager to walk us through the wonderland he’d adopted. We pulled into the parking lot and joined a thin line of stragglers making their way to the giant flying saucer that is Earl Warren’s grandly titled Exhibition Building. I’d more or less gone along for the ride, as is often the case on the road to Damascus, expecting a quaint oddball experience to match the implacably strange Earl Warren environs themselves. I’d seen gems and stuff before, turquoise and coral and the dust-covered geode in the benighted corner of a roadside curio shop. Outside the flying saucer a small sun canopy sheltered several long tables piled with ropes of rough-hewn minerals in all the peaceably mad hues of the inner earth, beads and stones and chunks of matter like pieces of a rainbow dusted with powdered sugar, all these strings of rock erupting copiously out of shallow plastic tubs, draped like seaweed over the edges. Hands in pockets, I glanced with bemused judgment at the charming Gem Faire Folk gathered round and pawing the stuff, and in an instant had joined them.

A Murmuring, Mineral-Maddened Mob

Entering the cool cavern of the Earl Warren Flying Saucer, one is already swept off ones pins by the vaulted, curvaceous ceiling, and sense of having walked willingly into an edifice normally associated with jittery abduction scenarios. We walked in from the comparative quietude of the show grounds outside into a hubbub of bustling stone-age commerce. The immense discoidal cavern divided longitudinally into 5 or 6 long rows of dealer/collectors in their booths, the various species of Gem Faire Vendor as jarringly displayed as the piles of rock decorating their traveling shopfronts.

Orange calcite. They don't taste like they should

Orange calcite. They don’t taste like they should. And neither do Gem Faire security folk appreciate the curiosity

There were the inevitable bald tat-folk with their chiseled painted arms and mineralized occipital ridges; graying soft-spoken southwestern sorts in bola ties and safari-skirts, quietly and passionately explaining the chatoyancy of their polished kyanite; and naturally the hyper-kinetic rock preachers with topiary beards and earnest eyebrows, holding forth with missionary fervor on the metaphysics of vibratory healing.

Some of the booths looked like full blown mineral mini-marts, with pricey-looking tiered displays and show-offy signage, others were charmingly low-key, shallow cardboard trays filled lovingly with unvarnished azurite pebbles so heart-meltingly, affectingly blue they test one’s hard-won faith in an accidental universe. Hundreds of exhibitors, dealers and self-taught gemologists paced with calm or canny expressions behind displays of crazy merchandise that in a previous epoch had been buried deep in the world’s feverish gut. Aziz, a gentle giant with a squinty kid’s grin of contentment, strode happily about his lair (Elegant Healing), a jaw-dropping display of large format natural wonder, beautifully displayed on several large tables like objects fallen from space; tetrahedral quartz obelisks large enough to stare through, gorgeous polished crystal spheres one would hoist and gaze into if one could only get past the amiable but wall-sized Aziz, rosy clustered amethyst points, light-throwing crystal skulls, grimacing and fiery even by the wan fluorescence of the distant overheadfixtures.

Baltic Honey

There were dealers who worked mostly with jewelry, but jewelry that Zales wouldn’t know how to market; rings and pendants and bracelets featuring inset chunks of lushly colored rock from an underworld most of us don’t ever think about. I stopped in front of one booth (Liliana International) that displayed finely featured Russian Matryoshka Dolls, ornate lacquered boxes, and most freakily (to me, anyway), jewelry made from lustrous, irregularly-shaped gobs of amber; fossilized tree resin. It turned out that this was all Baltic Amber, prized in all the world. The Baltic Sea region is crowded with the stuff, the leavings of an enormous ancient pine forest that poured out its lifeblood in the Jurassic and lies in repose under the Baltic seafloor, the ossified honey-colored globules bobbing to the surface and clacking ashore in the hours following a storm. A forest under the sea floor is just a wondrous thing. A pleasant but slightly dour Ukrainian couple, Engineers by training, moved slowly about behind the display, answering questions with furrowed brows and reflexively saying “May I help you” whenever anyone slowed. The little blobs of amber were everywhere, like honey droplets, many of them encasing tiny embarrassed Jurassic bugs in eternally splayed attitudes of accidental amber entrapment. I stared for a long time. “May I help you?” Finally I remarked to the gentleman behind the counter that he had a lot of amber. He looked at me with a worried expression, saying finally. “I am an amber dealer.”

Rocky Road Good

While browsing one booth clustered with a nicely displayed mixed bag of crystals, gems and minerals (The Original Way), a young couple approached, she in what looked to be a deerskin mini-skirt. Just sayin’. She was admiring a large, layered piece of mica, and asked the young man running the booth what healing properties mica possessed, a question he answered with a striking genuineness. When they left I spoke to the owner, Jeremy Massel, a young earnest guy with a tasteful rock hanging from his neck, a thatch of black hair and a slightly wonderstruck expression. “As a kid I would pick up rocks from the ground. ‘Ooh, a shiny rock!’, you know? I once picked up a rock and could feel it vibing in my hand. Later I got interested in the healing properties and the metaphysics.” When Jeremy was later casting about for what he might want to do to actually earn a living, he remembered his love of rocks and crystals. The rest is history. Or geology. His display and selection is one of the most colorful and varied in the Gem Faire, and he is psyched to be talking about it, to be sharing about the whole thing, his dealings with mines and miners, his growing knowledge of gemology and geology, his work bringing beautiful and resonant stuff to light from under the Earth’s crust. He travels up and down the state spreading the mineral love, boxing his rocks, throwing them into the truck and hitting the road. He’s wandered as far afield as Quartzsite, Arizona, a veritable Mecca for the gem-obsessed. So how’s it going? “It’s been a process,” he says. “And it’s the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done.”

Pyrite and the Power of Limits

Eddie wants to show us the final few displays in the other building, the adjacent Warren Hall. I’ve known Ed for a very long time, since we were teens, and he has never been mistaken for a flinty-eyed rationalist. But he is his own brand of rationalist, an elliptical rationalist, say, and can hold forth on the ineffable with a grounded eloquence that will turn on the lights. I can’t count the times over the years he and I and his brother David have yammered excitedly on about this or that phenomenon or implausibility, always circling back to ground our questions and suppositions in the actual. Because plain vanilla Actual has, so far, outstripped our attempts to even begin to get our arms all the way around it, it is so freaking immense and filigreed.

For all that, I was a little caught off guard when Eddie began showing up at group gatherings increasingly festooned in amethyst and dangling crystals, more often than not producing a prize spear of quartz from his jeans pocket and frankly describing its effects. “When I moved to my new house, I unpacked some crystals that had been given to me as gifts years earlier. I’d always appreciated their natural beauty, but I didn’t really believe any of the mumbo jumbo. I went to the Gem Faire out of mild curiosity. I bought a larger quartz crystal there. I discovered that when I held onto it for a while, I very much had a feeling of it amplifying my thoughts and personal power, bringing clarity, focusing my intention.”

These primoridal creatures once haunted your science text. Now you can buy them like marbles

The primordial trilobite once haunted your science text. Here they are profferred in boxes

In Warren Hall we were wrapping the afternoon. Stella found a demure little amethyst bracelet she adored, and Eddie surprised her with the crystalline geode she’d earlier been mooning over. Ed introduced us to an exhibitor named Dave, a friendly and grounded and uber-knowledgeable guy, surrounded in his space by some of the most intriguing and startlingly wondrous rocks and things I’d seen that day; piles of fossilized trilobites, Moqui Marbles (natural accretions of iron around singular grains of riverbed sand – iron pearls, basically), orange calcite as temptingly citrus as mandarin wedges on a summer day. And at the far end of the display a couple of geometrically perfect cubes of found crystal pyrite that look like they might’ve been machined. But they weren’t, they just grew that way. All of nature is, of course, an exercise in golden ratios, Fibonacci sequences and radial symmetry; a purely accidental Big Bang Bonanza underwritten by a seeming superstructure of reality-preceding math. Too much woo-woo? Take a long look at a head of Romanesco broccoli and think hard. I point out the “wtf” pyrite cubes to Eddie. “I’m trying to allow the analytical and scientific aspect of myself to be open to the idea that consciousness came first, before forms and systems. I’m open to the idea that intelligence of some sort exists all the way down at the molecular, atomic, and sub-atomic level.”

Okay, then! We know the score. Ghosts? Nope. The useful vibrations of a silicon-oxygen tetrahedral atomic latticework you can keep in your pocket? Naw. Subatomic proto-consciousness. Pshaw! An exploding singularity from which all reality sprang in a millionth of a second? HELL yeah! Now that’s science! Look, whatever may be troubling you, daub it with a light coat of empiricism and watch the clouds part. Show the people a graduated cylinder and they will believe what they are asked to believe. It’s a fact. You want a real flight of fancy? Never mind the Boötes Void. Aim your peepers a little lower. You won’t believe what’s down there.

Roses are Red, Violets are Blue; St. Valentine Went Through the Ringer for You

20150603_195902

Love is in the air. What’s worse, civil authorities have warned that, thanks to prevailing winds, this free-floating toxic event is headed our way. Instructions on the sealing of windows and doors have been issued on a short-wave emergency frequency and the population is being advised to stay inside. Ha ha, lol and rotflmao (I think). Just kidding. Love isn’t really in the air. It’s in our jeans; or at least it parks its sports car there. Or is Love more than sex, more than the procreative impulse, more than blind animal instinct, more than careful coupon-clipping for discounted twelve-packs of Kirkland Bacon-Flavored He and She Body Grease at Lustco? COSTCO I mean! (sorry).

People; IS there such a thing as love, or is Love just another frightened and distancing ritual devised by the wildly misguided species that believes Olympic Luge is a sport? From our exalted position at the top of the food chain we humans are a haughty bunch, believing ourselves miles above the “lower animals”, the helplessly copulating grab-asses in the rest of the animal kingdom who hook up in the wild without so much as a how-do-you-do. We snicker like naughty school kids when we see dragonflies engaged in sexual congress while flying through the air, secretly marveling at how amazing that must be, except for the tiresome arm-flapping. Are we really so different from the African Elephants whose lumbering sex rituals we watch for hour upon mesmerizing hour on YouTube while nursing a series of too-strong rums-and-coke behind drawn curtains? No, I say. You want to see a lower animal in the throes of the procreative instinct? Go stand in the greeting card aisle at CVS the night before Valentine’s Day and observe the defeated males, rumpled househusbands and strutting hair-product hipsters alike, as they stare forlornly at 60 feet of pink folded cardstock. It is positively heartbreaking. Watch with your hand over your mouth as the hapless Y-chromosome victim selects for his beloved an $8 electronic “novelty song” card that screeches colorfully when opened. She’ll love it! Shake your head in goggle-eyed wonder as the doomed nitwit then augments that ruinous purchase with a romance-spurring bag of Sour Gummy Hearts plucked off the “impulse buy” rack at checkout. It’s a wonder we are still able to populate the Earth.

First Spat

But if Love is just an edifice of our own invention, why are we so enamored of it? Why is it so central to the very idea of being human? Since speech and song entered the human culture some two million years ago, Love has been the dominant theme of human expression. Yes, humans’ first heartfelt Ur-language would have sounded like anguished, phlegmatic grunting, and the songs were probably pretty crummy – maybe only a little better than One Direction. But the paleontological record suggests that what we now call Love followed quickly on the heels of language, as did face-slapping, cheap-bouquet-mockery, and the then grotesquely glottal “does this light covering of hominid fur make me look fat?” Love and language! It was as if some inchoate, utterly human quality had been patiently waiting through the tormenting eons to be freed by language itself. Thus liberated from its silent prison, Love as an object, something to define and articulate, entered our world. Of course all hell broke loose. But there was a guy in an annoyingly floppy burlap robe-thing who once made it his mission to unite young lovers and, in the climate of his time and place, raise a bold middle finger to the Establishment in doing so. Have you heard of him?

St. Valentine – Mischief-Making Matrimonial Martyr

In the late Third Century the Roman Empire was throwing itself a party, and then some. Romans were it. Their footwear laced fashionably up the bare lower leg, their tunics were nicely tailored, they had tactless orgies at will and ate hoisted leg of lamb all day while laughing inexplicably. And who wouldn’t laugh? These guys ruled the known world. They also wore their hair in an ill-advised cut that today would be called “baby bangs”, as in “oh my goodness,that @#$%&! hairdresser gave me @#$%&! baby bangs.” At that high point in Imperial Rome’s La Dolce Vita period, the Empire’s armies were constantly at war, clobbering their enemies with spiky clubs and spears and whatever else they could lay their hands on, the battered Roman soldiery both brutalizing and brutalized in the name of ruthless world domination.

Into this milieu strolls our star-crossed hero, the Patron Saint of Hallmark, Valentinus. He is said to have been a Christian priest who lived under the Emperorship of churlish, war-making, anti-Christian Emperor Claudius II. In that period it was known that unmarried men were the preferred Roman soldier, and were more likely to be drafted into the bloody expansionist Roman juggernaut. Bachelors on the front line were known to do fierce battle without reserve; without the implicit hesitation of, say, a husband and/or father, who may reasonably be imagined flying into battle with combat tactics more informed by a desire for personal survivability than unfettered bloodlust. So Valentinus went about his business, and he reportedly stayed very busy. In order that more young men might be spared the rigors and death of war (and just incidentally be brought into the monogamy game at a time that permissiveness and polygamy were fairly common), Valentinus made it his business to marry, in secret Christian ceremonies, as many earnest young Roman couples as he could wrangle, scurrying around on foot in the Age Before Uber.

I Do

This was, understandably, a bandwagon many starry-eyed young couples were eager to board, and his scheme met with some success. Though these marriages held no water in the eyes of the Roman court, Valentinus’ efforts threw a wobbler into the momentum of the Roman war-making machine, and before long he was, of course, arrested. Claudius, a baby-bangs jerk straight out of Central Casting, gave Valentinus the usual stark choice of dumping his faith or being beaten with clubs, then stones, then finished with a sword. “Do you choose death over renunciation of your foolish faith?” Since our guy is today known as Saint Valentine, we can guess at the refusenik’s reply. By several accounts, the evening before his execution Valentinus was approached by one of his jailers, a hope-filled fence-sitter named Asterius, whose beloved little girl was blind. When Valentinus healed Asterius’ daughter of her blindness, the jailer was thunderstruck, and wept tears of gratitude and joy, but was unable to save our mischief-making love martyr. When the young girl awoke the next morning, Valentinus was gone, having been, as promised, thrashed outside the city gates unto death. But she found a note he’d left her. Thanks to her new friend she was able to read it. History has forgotten what the note said, but he’d signed it, “From Your Valentine.”

Love is Approximately All You Need

Today this selfless love bug’s sacrifice has metastasized into a 2 billion dollar annual orgy of Caring here in the U.S., centered around the yearly commemoration that bears the poor guy’s name and the ritualistic mob-purchases of Candy, flowers, jewelry, and enough poorly chosen Valentine’s Day cards to fell an old-growth forest. If his desiccated body bits weren’t spread over thousands of miles of church naves and reliquaries, I can imagine St. Valentine roaming our Sour-Gummy-Hearted world with arms outstretched, not zombie-like but in an attitude of imprecation; “Really, you guys?!”

It’s kind of a mess. Where is the Love? Is it All Around? A Many Splendored Thing? Full disclosure: I’m deeply in love and so are you, and love isn’t just the foolhardy invention of a self-enamored, smartass animal species in a benighted little corner of the Milky Way (which incidentally only looks like a tub full of stars swirling down the drain, but is more importantly the birth spot of Brubeck and Mel Torme, to name but a couple of other saintly personages native to the neighborhood).

Love is no more an invention than the wheel. It’s a discovery, a revealed element, like arithmetic. 2 + 2 = 4 everywhere in the universe, whether or not this plain fact is given voice. In the purely mechanistic view of reality, we may well wonder: what is love for? Not sex, but Love itself. Procreation can happen without Love. Is there anything in the evolving, mechanized omniverse that isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary? The evolved heart is a muscle with rooms. It moves the exhausted blood through the lungs for the life-giving pick-me-up of oxygen, which is then handed around to the rest of the living body like candy in a parade. That’s what the heart is “for”. Likewise, the tongue tastes, the fingers grasp, the crazy wetware of the brain apprehends. What, exactly, does Love DO? We partake of it whether we know it or not, whether we want to or not. We didn’t come up with it ourselves. Goodness knows it often visits us when it is the very LAST thing we want. So it’s an organic thread in the dense fabric of All This, an unsung footnote on the Periodic Table. What is Love doing here? Ours is not to question – but inquiring readers want to know.

Yeah, there are mishaps. In the early eighties Burt Bacharach and his then-wife Carol Bayer-Sager went to a showing of E.T. with their pal Neil Diamond, and we can suppose lobby-witnesses shrank in terror at what they knew these three might concoct once exposed to Spielberg rays. Of course the songwriters were sufficiently moved by the film and its co-dependent, diaphanous, indefinite-article excluding alien, to write and unleash upon the world the 1982 glycemic seizure “Heartlight”. So things can go terribly wrong (true story).

But by and large Love is a mystery, a marvel, and a deep mine of gold; the sort you plummet into after dark with a stifled scream if your flashlight has failing batteries, say. Oh, and sex? I have to go with Bob Hope on this one: “Three beautiful women were frantically banging on my hotel room door all night. Couldn’t sleep a wink! Eventually I had to get up and let them out.”

 

SB Sentinel Vol 5 Issue 3 Feb 12-26

fix my brother you goddamned bore

pat and snow

universe, omniverse, reversible four dollar belt,
you bore you bore you bore you bore
great endless room, bales of fire
holes to nowhere, mystery moons, rocks with rings
synchronicity, curved space,
twelve million miles a minute
doesn’t sound so fast when you put it that way
maybe the whole thing is phony
not wondrous, phony
just another car wreck
the physics of flying glass
“a comet is a ball of ice”
will you just shut up
does that look like a ball of ice to you, moron
don’t you ever say that again
don’t you ever dare say that again
mystery mystery mystery mystery
now we’re made of swarming dots
greek atomism in an un-ironed smock
elemental bits surrounded each by a void
says it right here
“surrounded each by a void”
wouldn’t you know it
when you go looking for them
the bits are nowhere
no wait they’re everywhere
where are they right now
we are not made to know
the table stops your hand from passing through
that’s enough
not for me it isn’t
I’m looking for my swarming dots
they comprise us, shouldn’t we be looking for them
then you find one of the dots
platonic singularity
its theme is uncertainty
thanks for nothing
no wonder ancient statuary looks so pissed
the machine is on tippy-toe and dizzy
my doomed little brother got arrested
why did you call the police
will he always have a sharpened chicken bone
jammed into the roof of his mouth
why did you call the police
you care for him, oh that’s it
sic the machine on him
he needs the tuned machinery
of a pummeling institution
i’m afraid
i can’t pull back far enough
to reduce this to inconsequence
all this awe and mystery wheeling around
giant clockworks with singing dolls, caesium, noble gases
why are there underwear sales at Nordstrom
what has that to do with the curvature
what has that to do with the archangelic blossoming
why did the chicken bone
penetrate my little brother’s hard palate
he was maybe three
why did you call the police
I don’t want parity or justice
i just want a machine
approximately as merciful
as it is fucking huge and stupid

 

pulmonary

life as we know it_frankenthaler

flirt – helen frankenthaler 1995

air is drawn into us by a fluttering membrane
an autonomic bellows
okay, a tympanum of muscle
a muscle-floor, honestly
it bisects us longitudinally
keeps the sub-basement below the belt where it belongs.
vein-threaded muscle-floor distends and relaxes vertically
so? so the careful admixture
(nitrogen. and oxygen!)
flows into diaphanous skeins that depend,
like two weary undershirts,
from a forked hanger.
what we breathe is borne downstream
into the body’s countryside
by river and burbling brook
sometimes by a silver
thread glinting through reeds
this year’s Intelligent Design
is a nesting doll of grief and wisdom
you will inhale a gnat
taking that life inside your own
though the gnat-horror of this intake
is likely not experienced as poetry
nor is there any evident design ingenuity in the episode
when that mechanic on the aircraft carrier deck
sanguine in his jumpsuit
got sucked into the fighter jet nacelle
was glory given to McDonnell Douglas
with upturned palms and murmuring lips
not that we know of
but when men are sucked into engines
the talk does turn to vessels
this is the murmuring lip talk
“we are but vessels…”
the gnat is herself a vessel
brimming with the busy ur-citizens of this comic romp
the cells are likewise jammed
with mitochondrial filigree and magic jelly
but here we’ll stop the regress
before it gets disgusting
or so wondrous we slide distractedly off the interstate
the grinning overweight boob
with the unshaven chins and kind eyes and ear buds?
who always boards babbling and laughing?
today he’s accompanied by a beautiful, unblemished young girl
he sleeps heavily against her, his bear arms
movingly clamped across her torso
his paw clutching her right shoulder
hard to describe
he’s leaning sidewise and half-twisting
the angle is awkward, supplicant and shameless
a drowning man’s embrace
but you’ve heard that one before
her eyes are glassed with moisture
the whites darkened, Bergman on the tarmac
she stares straight ahead like Bergman
occasionally kisses his forehead
she seems about to weep
she’s beautiful and inexplicable
he awakens blinking like an enormous grizzled kid
she speaks to him
in a high, impeded register
hollering around a swollen, unanchored tongue
stammering indecipherably
her brain fibre compromised.
she is just so beautiful.
this is not a reasonable realm
but a room-temperature cauldron
or an entrapping wind tunnel
whose swirling spicks and specks
we grossly misapprehend
with each buffeted breath and gesture

lost and alone II

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth

Christina’s World – Andrew Wyeth 1948

i see a long journey
a pale ribbon of road, as Nevil Shute wrote
i’m stumbling along its shoulder
my age confounds me
i am not what I expected
Arrow of Time defeats our predictions.
are you what you expected
you’d better not be.
i said you’d better not be.
i wish you’d tried harder
and I wish I’d tried harder
how can I tell you to try harder now
i can’t because I’m a phony
when my jaw moves you hear a dog barking
this morning an unshaven guy and a wall-eyed woman
spoke loudly at the bus stop
coherently but loudly
the guy wore a camouflage baseball cap
in a jungle he would be loudly visible
but for the area above the squamous suture
the wall-eyed woman appeared to have
pinned her hair up in the dark,
or angrily or vengefully
or while running for the bus
these careless choices haunt us
wrong turns don’t always shatter bone
often the denouement is a sly flattening
a doctorate in the next room
who laughs till he cries, for instance
all the day long
meanwhile our bland nuclear furnace
describes a Euclidean arc above us
a prancing ass we have to crane our necks to see
and then we’re blinded by it
celebrated fire dips out of sight
rises elsewhere
serenaded by poorly programmed songbirds
with blank expressions
ma’am make of the dawn what you will
write your crappy sonnet
your daybreak is a coordinate on a circle.
there I said it.