Personal Space: The Final Frontier

melkweg

And one other thing; how to walk down the main street of one’s home town without blanching in horror at glimpsed scenes of seemingly ordinary people getting pedicures? Pedicures? Leave aside the timeworn First World/Third World shame reflex. “I mean, in some parts of the world people have no FOOD and here we are managing our CUTICLES and having our shins DEPILATED.” Listen, I’ll see your filthy limbless beggar in Calcutta and raise you one bored, well-off, recumbent shopping maven having her calves massaged as she flips stone-faced through the latest issue of Tipsy Showbiz Toddler. Limbless Beggar; take me away from here!

And yet…and yet. We’re fascinated by grotesquerie, aren’t we? Mesmerized by the morbid? Compelled by the creepy, hesitantly hippity-hopping in the vicinity of the hideous? I’m drawn inexorably to the pedicure mystery, like a fly is drawn to a really good-looking other fly. In awe of the toenail-centric rituals whose imaginings torment my waking hours, I’m sometimes able to work up the courage to sneak a peek through the doorway of one of these pedicure ‘establishments’ as I pass by at a nervous trot. What I have seen, people! As William Shatner demonstrated in the classic ‘Horror at 37,000 Feet’ (not to be confused with his Twilight Zone episode at a mere 20,000 feet some 10 years earlier), a spiritual abyss merely glimpsed is sometimes sufficient to paralyze the visage in a silent but otherwise powerfully over-acted scream.

What I have seen, I say! My brave investigative forays have revealed to me such scenes of spirit-breaking horror as one expects when gazing on the flaming canyons of the damned. Sound the Mission bells! Fetch the holy water and give me a quick shot! Bring me some rotary beads or whatever those things are called! I have seen row upon row of the penitent; supine, eyes closed, pants and skirts hitched up, feet trapped in whirring little machines while throngs of smallish chattering foot-folk hover busily about the lower legs, fussing and plucking and kneading, kneading KNEADING; a Personal Space Blitzkrieg that beggars the imagination YES!

Um, yes. I have intimacy issues. Yes yes yes. I would rather have a fulsome bee beard go angrily wrong than suffer a stranger placing his/her/its hands on my body for purposes of rubbing, knuckling, or doing that two-handed chopping thing I saw once on the Bob Newhart show. Begone professional comfort-wielder with your portable metal table, chipper demeanor and slightly botched dreamcatcher tattoo. Hit the road, foot-handling hellion. And you, muumuu-filling Earth Woman friend of a friend, who at the dinner party approaches in a cloud of patchouli and would massage my temples if only I would stop making like a terrified weasel with the wide eyes and pursed, scream-suppressing lips. Healer, your touch catalyzes in me the shrinkage of many parts and appendages. You want to relax me? You want to repair my troubled soul? Go over there. Way over there. Little further. Okay, that’s good. Now fold up your lil’ aluminum ping-pong table and get out.

I’ll be the first to admit it; I’m unenlightened. A Californian in name only. I’m unnerved by your Groovy Empath friend and his de rigueur 4 minute hug. Why are his eyes squeezed shut like that? And when I release, shouldn’t he? And huggers who solemnly flutter their eyelids and say “C’mere”, or “C’mere, you” while gesturing you closer with waggling, ringed fingers? Huh uh. On the other hand I’m totally cool with an orgy as long as nobody looks at me or touches me or cracks wise about my argyle tube sock. I get enough grief about the argyle from my wife, so lay off. I have rules – too many rules, some would say. “Why the sock? Always the sock!” My wife says. Oh yeah? What of it! That’s what…..of it.

The pedicure may be the nadir of legally-sanctioned, comfort-seeking personal zone annulment, but here’s a close second; those massage places that roll out the face-down padded chair and invite sidewalk passerby to press their frontsides into maroon vinyl and be molested in broad daylight while visiting Japanese and Belgian tourists stare in slack-faced wonder. You sir? The hipster masseuse pivots, points to me; my viscera twist like a wet towel. Me? Oh, please, yes! This’ll be great! Shall I just lie down and press my face into this padded vinyl hemorrhoid donut? Right here? Is this good? Can you touch enough of me? Is enough of my back available to your invasive stranger hands? Can everyone see? Gather round, good people! Gather round, I say! Don’t be shy. Take a close look! You’ll like this, because in about 90 seconds I’m going to turn completely inside out in a fit of otherworldly revulsion. Like an inkfish. Woo Hoo! Massage THAT, soul-patch guy.

We’re desperate for comfort in this town, and in our cash-soaked Western World generally. I mean, desperate! Acupuncture, Rolfing, our collective glad surrender to occasional woodland episodes of extraterrestrial anal probing – these are the signs of socio-structural stress. Santa Barbara alone sports dozens of pleasure domes and they run the gamut from Evan’s Relaxing Station to the thrillingly named Center for Lymphatic Health. Why? Where’s the stress? What was the tipping point? Was it the closure of the Stanley Kubrick Macaroon Shop and its brilliantly overlit single smocked attendant? Earthquake jitters? The fear that your neighbor may own a nicer 100-year-drought shower-bucket? Let’s relax, people. If we stop offering these flesh-and-foot-grabbers our patronage they will likely gather up their sapphire files, pumice mittens and vibrating love bullets and head on to the next little town willing to buy their outlandish snake oil. Go ahead, fools. Step right up and let them rub your shoulders, your arms! Let these charlatans rub the back of your fool necks! Sure, that’ll make you feel better. Oh a little deep tissue massage oughta feel pretty good. Oh, for goodness sake!

I must conclude with a true and horrific story of Personal Space Invasion. For a time I was writing sporadically for a magazine called Healing Retreats and Spas. Incredibly, my gig was going to day spas, receiving the treatments offered and reviewing the experience for the magazine. How I managed this I’m not sure, but it was a writing job and that was everything. That is, until the day I was sent into the Spa Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken, in the L.A. area. When I arrived and introductions seen to, I gestured carelessly at a menu item, began with a bracing swim and segued into a hot sauna. Finally I was shown to a plain, unadorned room, where a fastidious little man in Cambodian casual bade me remove my towel and lie down. Ever the professional, I did as I was told. It was then he produced a large metal pitcher and poured hot milk slowly over my body, from toes to scalp, and proceeded to massage my quickly mummifying carapace. Any curious security camera shooting from directly above would have recorded a stock-still, mortified nude man with the pin-eyed panic-face and fluttering thorax of a hard-breathing gecko making its fight-or-flight preparations, his lithe and quick-moving tormentor scuttling around him with arthropod fussiness and working the victim/client as a crab might its recent catch.

After an eternity of whole-milk drenched mortification and the not inconsiderable kneading of the expressionless little guy in his white button-up Phnom-Pen blouse, I was released to shower, dress and interview my hosts in a stunned murmur. When I finally made my way out to the parking lot and my car I concentrated fiercely on not breaking into a run. It was then I spotted my masseuse. He was sitting at the edge of the lot in a lawn chair under a shade tree, smoking a cigarette, regarding me carefully through narrowed eyes. I’m sure I needn’t add the whole episode was incredibly relaxing.

Milk. It doesn’t always do a body good. You have been warned.

 

*Jeff  writes the column State Street Scribe for the Santa Barbara Sentinel – where an ineptly edited print version of this particular piece can be found this week.

SB Sentinel, Volume 3/Issue 18/Sept 6-20. Page 33

A Reluctant Astronaut

A Reluctant Astronaut

Howard Dean…Howard Dean. Oh, I know! Didn’t he play Andy Griffith’s kid in that Mayberry show way back when? You know, the one with the small-town sheriff, his bug-eyed deputy, and that harrowing barber who never moved his left arm? The show had a whistled theme song, and as you listened every week you’d watch scenes depicting small town life, the sheriff and his kid walking by some pine trees with fishing poles, then the kid skipping a rock across a country pond in a badly edited instance of “This Spoiled Hollywood Brat Can’t Even Skip his own Rock Across a Pond.”

No, wait. I’m thinking of Ron Howard, who went from Andy Griffith to Happy Days to Explosive Onset Pattern Baldness and thence to great success as a Hollywood Director. (Once you have the bald pate and shame-covering cause célèbre baseball cap, you’re just a hop and a skip away from those movie-set headphones and the director’s chair). Howard Dean was the 2004 presidential candidate whose disastrous, un-presidential troop-rallying yell at a political gathering utterly derailed his Presidential chances. What on Earth was he thinking, yelling like that on t.v.?! LOL. And I repeat: LOL! Dean’s poor showing in the Iowa caucuses that election season had inspired him to a post-Iowa attempt at inspiration-speak, and he let fly with a brief “forward march” monologue that concluded with a ragged little victory yell. It was the sort of pitiable yell someone’s dad might bark out in an attempt to appear simpatico with the young concertgoers surrounding he and his soon-to-be ostracized son in the DeadMau5 pit. Well. You know how voters can be. Or how they used to be, rather.

Your Footnote, Sir

By the next day, our blue-chip media, ever in pursuit of Cereal-Selling, were all over Dean with that drily-delivered smarm they hustle out on these occasions. Of course our highly conditioned B.F. Skinner electorate obediently walked its blank figure eight, right on command—followed the media’s signal as certain goldfish will follow a moving flame held near their entrapping little bowl. Within several days, Dean’s televised battle cry had been successfully blown up as a Disastrous Media Gaffe, and the “rinse and repeat” news cycle kept the phony controversy alive until Dean had been thoroughly drubbed out of the race.

article-2375414-1af6719e000005dc-221_638x426

this shit’ll get you fired around here

We like our Presidential candidates to be…Presidential? Anything less and there’s gonna be a dogpile. And that is why the little-known name “Howard Dean” today comes with a footnote. Yeah, he…ran for President, I guess? Oh wait! But how’s about that funny yell, man? Oh gawd. The Dean Scream? LOL!!!

Fortunately, it takes quite a bit more to discomfit We the Weebles these days. We are a rough-and-tumble electorate now. A candidate happily hollering on t.v.? It’ll take more than that to give us pause. A helluva lot more. At this historical juncture it is unclear what exactly will give us pause. Back in January, then-candidate Trump said this: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” And he said it in Iowa. We didn’t even tap the brakes.

Yeah, this most recent campaign season has been one for the ages, our current President Elect having comported himself like an elephant plowing at top speed through a carefully arranged display of Swarovski crystal. So we showed him the door. The door to the oval office. Take THAT Howard Dean. When in mid-January we look at any real-time orbital video of Earth, Real Estate Investor Donald Trump will be the most powerful human being on that large blue ball in the middle of the frame. Embrace the fact.

Chastened

At this writing, our newly anointed President-elect of the United States has emerged from the traditional pre-inauguration field trip to the White House, where he was shown around the nutty-looking mansion and (presumably) given the briefest glimpse of the bored and captive alien they keep in some sort of pen down near the Situation Room. Whatever Trump saw and heard during his private time with Obama, he seems to have been made thoughtful by the experience. And who wouldn’t be? Video of the President-Elect sitting uncomfortably in an armchair next to President Obama had the surreal gravitas of prisoner footage smuggled out of an undisclosed location.


If a candidate for the Second Cashier position at your local Home Depot had been overheard braying that adolescent shite, the jackass would have been quietly passed over for the kid with the retainer.


As a graying, relaxed-looking Obama said his stuff about his and Trump’s reportedly productive and “wide-ranging” private conversation, the unbroken squall of 60 press cameras in burst mode almost drowned out what the two guys were saying. And Trump wasn’t saying much. The seated mogul’s “I really gotta go to the bathroom” body language said a lot, though. The Donald’s manner was that of a chastened scaredy-cat; his long arms hung forward, his dimpled hands variously clasped and drooping, his squinting, sleepless-looking eyes casting about the room beseechingly with a mild vibe of “oh, shit”. Trump and his staff had reportedly been wowed by the scope of the administrative nightmare that is simply Running the White House, not to mention Obama’s Cliff Notes summary of Free World-Leading. There was a lot for Trump to take in. You could see it in his face.

Flaunting tradition, he’d flown to the transition meeting in his private jet, the better to flip the media the bird. The press traditionally accompanies the President-Elect on this jaunt to the transition thingy, chumming it up in-flight, laughing good-naturedly and providing lots of gladdened “behind the scenes” clips of our Fourth Estate appearing human and relaxed with a future President who, once he assumes office, will become their steak tartare, and the brightly shining object of their ratings-fueled henpecking. Well, Trump had been henpecked puh-lenty already, and took the millionaire opportunity to avail himself of his own private jet, thanks. He left the honestly bewildered media folk on the figurative tarmac, choking on expensive jet exhaust, blinking confusedly and fingering their lil’ press pass lanyards.

Sticks and Stones and Puppy Dog Tails

As for what got us to this pass – a lot was said this election cycle that I’m sure the candidates wish they could take back, if only to replace those earlier barbs with the crueler, more bitterly savage screaming they regret having holstered. Trump’s difficulty with extemporaneous speaking, though, meant that his wildly unmeasured broadsides often sounded like escaped brain flatus. From his early adoption and rabid championing of the birther bullsh*t to his flatly stated opinion that “…President Obama has been the most ignorant president in our history”, The Donald’s unmediated, majestically bar-lowering jibberjabber may finally have gone to ground. His stunned expression on transition day suggested as much.

As a nation, we wanted “change”. Why we don’t just dig it out of the sofa like all the other starved losers is anybody’s guess. And as usual, our inability to articulate beyond the Pavlovian election-year sloganeering came to no good. When the “change” mantra gets going we are known to lustily toss the baby, the bathwater, the tub, and the deed to the house right out the freaking window. Blue districts go all red, people seem to change stripes overnight, and our cheap, lazy desire to feign engagement undoes the brutally hard work of those few in D.C. who actually toil.

160127164121-donald-trump-aug-rally-exlarge-169

Jesus, a camel, and a needle’s eye. This picture says a lot,brah.

Yeah, we received the election results with all the freewheeling drama you expect from a well-off First World citizenry. A woman on the Staten Island Ferry hollered shrilly at the news camera and shook her hair. “Hillary deserves to go to jail! I want to see Hillary in Jail!” Somewhere between her work for the Children’s Defense Fund and her having beaten Vince Foster to death with a shovel, Hillary lost this voter. At the other end of the spectrum, a scattered crowd of Hillary supporters, garishly lit by the news camera lamps, were seen tearily shuffling out of Hil’s election night Glass Ceiling HQ like the outcast damned. Which about fits.

Trump’s hot mic “locker room talk” about assaulting women those years ago may have been only that; talk. But if a candidate for the Second Cashier position at your local Home Depot had been overheard braying that adolescent shite, the jackass would have been quietly passed over for the kid with the retainer. And Hillary’s stirring final remarks to all the “little girls”, exhorting them basically to not feel bound to the current “Grabbing Crotches is Power” ennui—it brought home the fact that we want and need leaders who seem like us, but a little bigger.

November Surprise

Trump now just seems surprised. At everything. The nation’s urban outpouring of protest scorn seems to jar him, and the spike in cracker incidents in the wake of his election drew from a visibly shaken Trump the Rodney King-like “Stop it. Just stop it.” Why is he surprised? Because Trump is not a racist, misogynist bigot, is not a deeply tactical Machiavellian despot, rubbing his power-paws and chomping at the bit to assume the throne and eat his enemies.

reluctant

pre-presidential id

He is neither Hitler nor Mussolini. All this cracker activity genuinely surprises him because he is just your ostentatiously wealthy, boorish neighbor who speaks instead of thinks: ”I’m scared of Syrians! Where is Syria? I love to grab women! Oooh, I’m so mad I’m gonna punch ISIS! That Obama is crummy at being President, really crummy! Hillary, you are going to jail, baby!!” Anyone listening even cursorily to the Donald’s 4th grade-caliber pronouncements will know straightaway that he is just a 70 year-old crank in a vacuum with shitty handlers. Oh, and hair like an irradiated rooster. That’s all. He’s not a “nationalist”, “isolationist”, or even a “conservative”. He doesn’t know what those things mean. He’s just a blustering loudmouthed everyman who hated being told he couldn’t do this one thing, and now he’s trapped.

In the fab 60s Don Knotts vehicle The Reluctant Astronaut, an everyman ride-operator from a theme park gets launched in an actual space capsule. After a whole reel of Knott’s particular brand of glandular panic, he manages to commandeer the space capsule safely back to Earth by reverting to his theme park persona, and so losing himself in the astronaut fantasy he becomes a Momentary Astronaut. May the same thing happen to our Donald, who seems awestruck that the thing is really happening. Whether or not he ever wanted the job, we need him to succeed. “We do want to win this. We do want to win it,” he notably murmured with downcast eyes as he and Melania cast their show-votes on election night. He looked pretty darned glum, and later as frankly stunned as the rest of us. So we may have some common ground after all. Let us pray.

The Miracle of the Water

The Miracle of the Water

These questions haunt our age: Why do men with bushy Friedrich Nietzsche moustaches torment us by eating eat ice cream cones? By what strange devolution of studio engineering did the cracking snare sound of 1967’s Penny Lane sink to the mid-seventies signature snare sound – a hand puppet hitting a shoe box? Oh, and how do I stop drinking?

Drinking…drinking. Ah yes! Now I remember. It is, simply put, marvelous. Why on Earth would you want to stop?! It’s practically free, perfectly legal, and an always available, authentically ecstatic experience that puts you immediately in mind of a truth-seeing little magus in a velveteen cape. He is sunk comfortably back into the plush velour of your frontal lobe, lazily scissoring his crossed legs, and by your second drink he is laughingly, and with tiny magus-like ge­­­stures, parting every curtain you’ve ever hoped to see through. It’s all right there, right in front of you; a glorious dopamine countryside whose untended gardens beckon like a mother.

Ice Cream and Nietzsche

no ice cream cone für Fred

And what a feeling it is. What a feeling! You drop the little charge of amber fluid down the inner velvet of the neck and it strikes the tummy like a gushing Peter Max explosion of warmth that is lovelier by half than any other sensation you shall ever thenceforth know. Within a handful of seconds you are seeing, unmistakably, the Next New World. John Cheever, my personal deity and a famous fallen lush (for a time) both decried and helplessly praised “… the euphoria of alcohol when I seem to walk among the stars.” I do believe that about sums it up.

Glass half empty: the predilection for alcohol is classified as a disease. Because what but an abnormal and skewed constitution can possibly explain the desire to feel really freaking fantastic all the time? “I would love to feel really freaking fantastic all the time!” “Yes, well, that is the nature of your disease.”

Really? At this writing (and according to a talking head who briefly held the floor on my car radio this afternoon, if you know what I mean), recent discoveries based on some over-excited twiddling of the human genome seem to indicate that alcoholism is about 50% genetic and about 50% willful. Yeah. Uh, thanks, science. You laboriously teased apart the double helix and that’s the best you could come up with? Hope your beakers and stuff didn’t cost too much.

I’m no scientist (to say the very very least) and a yen for hooch may well be partly genetic, but this “disease” classification of boozing seems to me a little overweening, having sprung, at least in its initial rollout, from our collective altruistic impulse to let the alkies off the hook. “We gotta let these boozers off the hook! How do we release them from this prison of shame? Can we just say they caught a disease or something? A drinking disease! Yeah, that’s it! How else to humanely explain this embarrassing desire of theirs to feel freaking fantastic ALL THE TIME?” No, dear ones. Wanting to feel really really good all the time is not a sign of illness. Quite the opposite.

eddie-and-jeffy-in-throes-of-happy

I dabbled in fire water once upon a time; never quite got the hang of it, though. I started late, for one thing. While my more sensible acne-bedeviled compatriots were skulking around the high school parking lot on game night, gulping from bottle-shaped paper bags, laughing like morons and finally attacking each other in zipper-festooned bellbottoms (this may date me), I was going to Young Life meetings and Bible studies and listening to earnest Believers with diaphanous teen-beards strum guitars and sing about the beautiful baby Jesus. I treasure that time and would not trade it for anything. Those days formed the best parts of me – but it cost me dear. I lost my place on the Practiced Drinking continuum. I never quite caught up. In those days I wore a delicate little gold cross around my pencil neck and walked around in tiny 70s short-shorts I would today severely punish my daughter for even glancing at on the sales rack at Marshall’s. In my Christian finery and Caucasian ‘fro and three-striped knee socks, I was scarier and more off-putting to little children and the general population than the most ravaged vodka fiend. Which is all to say, at a time I should have been practicing my drinking with the fellas, I was diverted by other pursuits.

My high school peer group were not ‘partiers’. While our desperately healthy counterparts were doing the inebriated hokey pokey in the back seats of innumerable cars, we were spending long evenings in the balmy lamplit Baskin Robbins parking lot, doing Monty Python skits and flirting with the girls, all of us wearing those gender-neutral rugby shirts everyone wore then. My later boozy training was imperfect and uneven. I would drink a Bud Light and curl up and fall asleep on the couch. This drinking just makes me tired! It did not occur to me to have another fortifying drink when the effect of the first began to flag. This was in my 20s, and it went on like that for a while.

all ye who enter

all who tipple are not wounded

Once I’d moved into a group house with my longtime friends, you can just imagine how it went. My roommate, an equally inept tippler, would mix a pitcher of Martinis comprised mostly of saline slime dumped from an olive jar. I swore off Martinis for years. When I did finally discover the delights and horrors of hard liquor I was in a band and doing shots and all the rest. How many evenings did I hustle outside to the back yard of our band house to forcefully bark out a variegated mist of pilfered fraternity wine under watchful stars? Many evenings.

Well. What happens is, you grow older. It becomes more and more difficult to lift bags of potting soil without hollering like an animal. At work you exit your sporty little car with difficulty in the covered parking garage, and the inadvertent echoing groan escapes you like a cry for help, unnerving the 20-something gal three spaces away who briefly looks at you the way Anne Bancroft looked at the Elephant Man. Worst of all, the effects of the two day Scotch Squall become sufficiently horrific and unavoidable to give you real pause. I was finally spending a lot of time feeling crummy and not readily bouncing back. I once calculated that if I lived to be 80, I would have spent nearly 5 years of my life feeling out of sorts due to post-drinkum.

It was neither guilt nor shame nor a sense that I was wronging myself or my loved ones (though I was) that gave me the bright idea of stopping: it was the Humble Hangover that unhitched my wagon. I grew to dread them, really; to loathe them. When I stopped drinking, and I did it in a day (to my own surprise and following 25 amateurish years of boozing), it helped that the returns were immediate. I began to converse delightedly at gatherings again, unafraid of slurred inarticulation, I apprehended the afternoons and evenings through 5 rinsed and buoyant senses. I would awaken on glorious new mornings without the feeling that a hot pig was trying to burrow out through my forehead.

I never dreamed it would be that easy to just…stop. But I didn’t count on how positively reinforcing the clear days and nights would be. It’s like the cloud that lifts when, as a kid, you have your last spasm of stomach flu over the toilet, your mom with her cool hand on your back. Then suddenly the nausea lifts, and the feeling of normalcy and gratitude is like the most stridently beautiful sunrise you have ever known. Everything looks gorgeous. Remember getting over the flu?

Friend and neighbor, you have taken care of yourself and your loved ones, haven’t climbed behind the wheel of a car while tipsy, haven’t gone off the deep end. You’ve been responsible with your sipping (mostly), but you’re concerned. Are you a drunk? Are you sick, or worse? I dunno.

But I do know you are not a laggard for wanting to feel really freaking fantastic all the time. Everybody wants that. The desire to feel good is not a disease marker. Thanks to the thermodynamics of feeling good, though, your not unreasonable pleasure-seeking comes with a price tag; gagging flashes of nausea and the dislocating sense you have been scrambled in a transporter accident out near Starbase 11. Society calls this a bad hangover, and it did me in. If you’ve had one too many of those, you can call it whatever you want. You can even call it quits. If that’s the way you want to go, let’s get started. The nausea minutes continue to pile up, and the gilded wonder of a clear-headed morning awaits. Your call.

A Lib Confesses

A Lib Confesses

I’m an NPR guy, okay? Yeah, I got beat up by the bike rack in 7th grade, 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?

 

Bible-Thumping Darwinists

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’.

 

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

not with a bang, but with a bib. yes.

145929814.4CYco4c4.Sh2157HSTfinal

Some nights I’m possessed of a demon energy and I’ll iron a shirt, or two shirts. Other nights we sprawl and dawdle by lamplight and parse the dumbbell universe, a clear and present accident whose wit is often hidden from us, and whose largely inexplicable machinery has the charm of a tipsy blabbermouth mechanical engineer at the office bowling party. When I’m interested in hearing about Poisson’s Ratio you’ll know it, because I’ll be walking away at speed. But you can’t walk away from the universe. It hovers, a leering omnipresence. It doesn’t seem to know it is but a homely, if enormously complicated, machine. You don’t get magic just by adding more gears. The magic is in the wakey-wakey, and that’s us. But the Divine Milieu (as the howling emptiness of space has been called) is an immeasurably vast gulf of envy, and manages to choreograph our desperately fleeting lives into episodes of spirit-killing flapdoodle. You have the Hubble Deep Field over there, and over here you have a grown man masturbating into a cantaloupe. Same system, same entropic hoo-ha, and so on. How? Reality is a batshit sandwich, that’s how. What majesty we can muster is derived from our being able to eat it without blanching. I’m nowhere close.

Dave and I meet one evening at the Famous Fish Warehouse or whatever it’s called, a few blocks up from the beach. It’s one of those enormous restaurant/bars the size of a NASA hangar and tonight it is thronged and seething, the dank air tumescent with excited human congress. The World Series is hollering out of a dozen enormous screens hung about the place, the panicky-sounding, midrange hubbub of the gathered mob in here not unlike that viral Russian recording of the inadvertently-penetrated caverns of hell. Whole families are laughing with mouths full, throwing their heads back so that oral cavities become upturned, toothy vessels of sludge. And we’re supposed to eat around all this eating. Dave strolls ahead to our table, unperturbed.

The scene is alive with the twenty-something species to whom this loudmouth Breugel is a first home. The carefully unshaven young professionals and players lean in their dozens with hunched and easy panache over long glass-littered bars, they jostle and confer and grasp each other, neckties half-undone in front of the bathroom mirror, their short, upswept power hair shifted back on their scalps to show grooveless, Shatnernesque foreheads. They have vivacious but normal-seeming girlfriends and wives for the most part, though once in a while a guy will turn up with a date whose chest looks as startlingly swollen as a new contusion. A lot of the celebrants are wearing backward baseball caps, which on a good day are a thorn. Those that don’t wear backward baseball caps wear those stylish form-fitting club suits that seem carefully arranged to look like unbuttoned after-hours business dress. A few of the guys are sporting the Squashed Insouciant Beanie, the ubiquitous outlier symbol that crushes and droops a little at the apex, suggesting bohemian disarray. The look doesn’t really speak in this environment because everyone knows real Bohemia doesn’t watch televised sports, and so the beanie crowd look like fakes, and they are. The backward-cap guys and after-hours faux-business-dress guys are in their element, though. They make easy eye contact and chit-chat with bartenders and waitresses, and they all look like some version or hue of Ryan Gosling or Ryan Reynolds.

The baseball game has everyone excited. I mean scarily, phenomenally excited. The buzzed young guys and their significant others are wearing the collective ‘fuckyeahtheWorldSeries!’ mask and high-fiving each other, the men jerking their heads around and yelling incoherently every time one of the doughy millionaires onscreen swings a bat or jogs a little across the televised grass. All these wired guys are sporting Establishment tattoos and heroic eyebrows and are laughing loudly. The “I’m here straight from my important job in my unbuttoned suit” guys laugh angrily, like Billy Baldwin or Tom Cruise overplaying drunk because some acting coach somewhere told them that a drunk Young Turk looks at his gathered posse and angrily whips his hilarity-contorted face from friend to friend while laughing. “Haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw! haw!haw!haw! oooh shit, man! Haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!” Their girlfriends or wives could be the nameless and merely competent actresses on endless and interchangeable Law and Shooting shows and limply ironic internet ads; lookalike, neutrally beautiful young ladies with radiant curtain-hair like polished rayon and cackling, nose-wrinkling support laughter accessorized with a possessing paw fastened determinedly on the tattooed forearm of the backward cap.

During this last game of the World Series (all the games of the World Series, really. All baseball games, that is), doughy muscular men, some tallish and paunchy with a mullet-mustache set, throw the little white baseball around and occasionally sprint in expensive panic with their big fannies jumping. When they aren’t called upon to move they can be seen dramatically standing stock still in the outfield, waiting for the little white ball to drop like a speck of cotton from out of the arc lighting. Often the live feed will show a moth or gnat or other innocent fluttering around out there under the lights, unaware of the Moment, and sometimes the wealthy outfielder will drop an incoming ball after having waved away his colleagues, “I got this!”, and when he drops the thing which it is his massively overpaid job simply to catch and hold onto, he’ll chase after it with electric anger, like it’s the ball’s fault, and he’ll pluck it up and throw it towards home plate with all his strength and it’ll usually get about as far as the pitcher who will snag it out of the air and then strut around with angry eyes, clutching the little ball and looking all around. The whole affair is wrought with oddness and ceremony. All the while the “after hours business dress” phonies (there, I said it), and now even the backward-cap gangs in the restaurant are yelling and slapping hands and drinking and laughing and cavorting “haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!haw!”, jerking their angrily laughing faces around to aim and fire their humorless barking at each other. Their potent little drinks have tiny colored straws in them.

Despite my misgivings I find myself wishing I were one of them. As I get older the desire becomes incrementally stronger and, I would suggest, more perverse.  Why didn’t God make me a guy who understands the appeal of sport-spectating and occasional boozing and loudness, a regular guy who can lose himself in this tumult and tribe-think and freeing conviviality, back-slapping with a group of like-minded men and dissolving like a drop in the placid Testosterone Sea? Down another quantum pathway I would’ve played sports in high school and pumped iron, had The Stones on my bedroom wall and not a stylized cartoon poster of big-hipped Elton John peering like an elf from underneath a top hat, I would’ve had one of those thick paperbacks of sports statistics on my bedside table next to my State Championship trophy, and would have followed my dad in his daily brow-furrowed examination of column after column of tiny numbers in the Sports Section, two guys following the stock index. Instead I sat by my Tensor lamp and pored over the beautifully bound and illustrated shiny hardcover of the complete lyrics of Bernie Taupin (thanks, Diana), surrounded by my Revell spaceship models and sketch pads and other such you’ll-never-get-to-first-base folderol. So on nights like this, and they are few, I fall into brief fits of a very potent reverie. Looking around in wonder at the backward baseball caps, I almost say aloud “how did I miss this boat so completely?”

Three guys at the table next to Dave and I are ordering drinks and being handsome and successful with their shaded jawbones and parted hair and general enviability. Enviability is a state, if not a word.  I spy on them in my peripheral vision and occasionally with one of those bold direct glances which, if intercepted, can be quickly reframed as admiration of the exposed duct work and celestially arrayed, dessicated starfish overhead. They’re watching the TVs with interest but no particular fever while they wait for dinner, chatting and laughing normally, holding their hands in Rodin shapes before their mouths as they cant their heads and exchange confidences, as men do in parlors and mahogany-paneled private libraries.

I turn back to Dave and we continue our conversation and about half an hour later I glance over at the guys at the next table and I gasp and I feel my face getting hot. Their dinner has long since arrived, it is lobster, and these three recent exemplars of mellow male reason and coolness are wearing enormous bibs which fasten snugly around the neck and cascade down and over the knees like the drop cloth on a picnic table. In the center of each bib, right over the solar plexus, is a grinning stylized cartoon lobster. I can’t tear my eyes away from these nitwits, and if they’re stupid enough to don gigantic fucking bibs in a mixed gender restaurant, they’re too far gone to notice my staring anyway. Did I not get the memo about the bib thing? I glance around and no one is staring at these vibrant clods.

To my utter amazement the Three Baby Hueys, now tipsy and blinking slowly, their little freak arms reaching with difficulty out from behind their expansive plasticized bibs, begin making time with the black-haired, classily-pierced babe waitress when she comes to check on their inebriated lobster-destroying process. From what should be the genital-shriveling humility of their bib status, they blearily regard her with naked lust and start coming on to her! The guy nearest me actually leans out toward her and struggles to free his bib-ensnared ass-pinching arms. It’s just awful. This is not Robert Pattinson standing around at The Cape in an Alpaca sweater with a hip little bib like a necktie, hoisting a Heineken and laughing at the lobster held aloft in his left hand. This is three grown men made idiotic by their decision to put on enormous castrating bibs. And before my stupefied eyes the hot waitress receives the bib-guy’s advances and warms to him. She is flirting back. SHE IS FLIRTING WITH THE BIB GUY. This is the world I can never join, the world I can’t even comprehend. It moved on without me when they were handing out membership cards. While I was timidly romancing the trombone player in marching band, the high school hotties who couldn’t even see me were just biding their time, waiting for these louche drunks to put on their huge fucking bibs and excite them.

“Dave, check this out,” I whisper urgently out of the corner of my mouth. “These guys are wearing bibs!” It’s less funny to me than fucked up, especially now that I see the waitress warming up. Dave is everything I am not and knows his way around, writes articles for Oracle, is built like a championship swimmer and takes business trips. He haunts the cocktail lounges of Manhattan when he is called there by his urbane, yacht catalog-perusing corporate masters. He glances over at the drunken flirts in their man-bibs and turns back to me.

“Yeah,” he says. “They ordered lobster.”

Koos z’n Bevrijdingsdag

Get Me to the Church on Time! Koos Leads the Way to Monster's Heart

As absolutely everyone around here knows, Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of the undermanned Mexican army’s surprise drubbing of the invading French in the Battle of Puebla. As it happens, May 5 is also Liberation Day in Holland. Bevrijdingsdag, they call it, and I’m afraid it’s pronounced pretty much the way it’s spelled. Judie’s hometown is over there, a cozy village on the Dutch channel coast with the unlikely name of Monster (“Muenster”, I’m often corrected by know-it-all passerby. No. Monster.). From her mom’s house you used to be able to see a glimpse of the nearby windmill, whose name is de Vier Winden, but now the vanes are obscured by other houses. If you strike out in the direction of the beach, though, you’ll find the windmill two blocks away. Walk on past it if you want to hit the beach. If you want to head downtown, though, hang a left and you’ll continue on for an easy 20 minutes (weather permitting) through a long, leafy neighborhood of tidy brownstone row houses, their steeply canted roofs and ordered lawns conferring a certain highly organized tranquility.

When you reach the roundabout at Van Bemmellaan, (or Van Bemmell Lane, if that helps), you hang a right. There, adjacent to the Film Club videotheek you’ll find a bronze statue commemorating Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day), the day in 1945 the exhausted German occupiers left at the suggestion of the arriving First Canadian Army. The statue is a mildly expressionist woman cast in bronze. She faces the nearby beach and raises her right hand in welcome, signifying the massive sea landing further south that finally brought rescue. The Canadians swept into Holland almost exactly one month before the D-Day landings on the French coast.

The Germans had arrived with a bang in another May, 5 years before – the terrified Dutch and German soldiers fighting savagely at close quarters in the previously bucolic forest of Ockenburgh, a half mile or so from Judie’s childhood home. The German guys were trying to advance to the Hague and the Dutch guys were determined not to let that happen, all the uniformed young men clawing and shooting and weeping and falling where today there are swings and slides and climbing structures for the kids, and birdsong. On a clear day you can picnic among the trees. For some of us it’s difficult to transpose the one scene over the other. I’d been raised on the stirring and sanitized war of t.v and the movies; The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes. My G.I. Joe war doll came off the assembly line with a manufactured facial injury and a hint of fraternal smile. War was heck. The movies portrayed muddy, stylized battle, yes, and as a kid I spent a considerable amount of time wondering why they didn’t just throw the grenade as they would a baseball. What’s all this dumb stiff-arming about? The shadowy complications off the battlefield mesmerized me the most. There was covert intrigue and well-dressed men running along train platforms and James Garner in a turtleneck gently crashing his escape plane into a picturesque knoll, and always David Attenborough with his collar turned up. Attenborough’s pensive wartime baby face didn’t prepare me for Koos and Riek’s casually brutal stories of a childhood spent in the midst of a world war.

As kids in the middle of a monstrous and merciless war, Judie’s parents had seen into the abyss. How any kid of that generation who’d seen what they’d seen could survive and grow up and prosper and function – it’s beyond me. Judie’s mom, Riek (Hendrika), is an indomitable, humor-filled dynamo of energy and wisdom. She cleans like a cartoon tornado, is a three night-a-week card sharp, dispenses folksy Dutch wisdom with a raised forefinger and a smile and usually dines in her apron. Koos (pronounced like “cose”) was a particular softie, G*d rest him. A former cabaret performer, he had an artist’s sensibility, and he loved shared laughter. When he found something funny, his face would collapse into a crinkly smile and he would put his palm to his forehead in a silent gesture of hilarity, winking his eyes at you conspiratorially in his own inimitable signal of love and family. Koos was an emotional tinderbox, his heart a barely contained fire. When Judie and I had excitedly told him in the kitchen one evening that I had proposed to her, he surprised us both by bursting very suddenly into tears, roughly embracing me again and again, then turning to his baby and folding Judie into his arms. He was a lovely, gentle man, a bespectacled joker and much-beloved figure in the small seaside town on the North Sea where he’d grown up, which, like all real villages and towns, remains a world unto itself.

But he’d had it rough at the hands of the German occupiers. He was a pubescent everykid when they rolled in and he remembered aloud to me once the scene in Monster’s town square when advance word of the German approach was rushing through the cobbled streets like a toxic wind, uniformed teens in a local Youth Brigade of some kind rushing around in panic and yelling in terror at everyone to get their hands out of their pockets lest they be holding grenades. “Hands out of pockets, hands out of pockets!” he described the scouts screaming in their high kid voices. Once the Germans arrived, Koos and other boys his age were conscripted into killing factory work with little food to speak of, slave laborers assembling munitions. One day Koos walked by a room where several officers were dining. He hadn’t eaten in days. The officers asked if he was hungry and gestured him over, allowed him to eat his fill, laughed and smoked as he attacked the sumptuous foods spread out on the table. They knew the sudden feast would kill him, and it nearly did.

The 5 years between the German army’s arrival and the liberation of Holland were characterized by misery and privation, and many hearts were naturally hardened in that crucible. The stories are many from the winter of 1944 in particular, the Hunger Winter (Hongerwinter) when the occupiers responded punitively to a railway strike called in by Holland’s government in exile. In angry response to the strike, Germany ordered the blockade of food shipments in a disaster that unfolded so quickly the German commander in the area saw the scale of what would unfold and somewhat desperately tried to roll back the orders, but by then the inland waterways, Holland’s famous canal system, had frozen solid and nothing could get through. Tens of thousands starved in a famine so virulent there is evidence it bred epigenetic changes in the next line of Dutch children to be born to the famine’s survivors. My in-laws have told stories about families digging up and eating tulip bulbs for food and capturing birds in the denuded, otherwise useless greenhouses. Riek’s father would leave the family and travel the perilous countryside for days on his bicycle and return with a loaf of bread. Her mother, unable to bear the hungry families that passed by their home day and night, would share her own family’s meager rations, infuriating her husband on his return. “M’n moeder was een heel goed mens,” Riek says today. During the hardships and death of the occupation, an entire generation of Dutch people had their hearts impermeably tempered against Germany and Germans.

It once would’ve seemed impossible, but by the early 1980s a grudging and ragged rapprochement was in the air. German families had been coming to Monster’s beaches for some time (to the occasional shouts and growlings of certain of the Dutch citizenry there) and a field had long since been set aside for their trailers and tents, in the shadow of the enormous berm that separates the shore from the town. But the intermingling of the populations also gave rise to new animus. During the war, Dutch bikes had been confiscated in their tens of thousands by the occupiers, the primacy of the bicycle to the Dutch culture and identity an unknown quantity to the Germans. The nimble mobility of the Dutch, and particularly the Dutch Resistance (Ondergrondse), the largest WWII resistance movement in Western Europe, was an unclear but intolerable threat to the occupiers.

Given the broader horrors that had been visited on the Nederlanders, the taking of the bikes remained, in the post-war years, a curious sore point. At the seizing of 100,000 bikes in July, 1942, the Dutch outcry was such that a Wehrmacht officer’s memo noted that the confiscation was “…a particularly harmful action. One of the worst things that can happen to a Dutchman is that he loses his bike.” As the long thaw between the countries incrementally crawled along, the angry lament for the stolen bikes stubbornly took hold as a sanitized and invective-free rallying cry of post-war national anger against the Germans, singularly hurled at German campers, football supporters, and so on. It was an innocuous, even childish thing to shout, but it contained volumes.

“Geef me mijn fiets terug!” – “Give me my bike back!”

In the early 80s there began a timorous exchange program between a church choir from the tiny village of Mühleip in Germany, and Koos’ choir in Monster. Someone in Koos’ choir knew someone who knew someone, it seemed an idea whose time had come, and arrangements were made. One year the German choir would come by bus to Monster and be hosted and housed, the next year Koos’ choir would be received as guests and performers in Mühleip. The informal, seat-of-the-pants arrangement began with some trepidation on both sides and crept along in stutter-steps. The enmity ran very very deep. But slowly, the ice cracked, a little. The recency of the war made it a glacial thaw. While no actual friendships grew, the two choirs began to see each other not as ciphers or historical symbols, but as flesh and blood, or to put it less biblically, as singers in a couple of small town church choirs. Koos, though, couldn’t let it go (understandably, I think), and during one visit of the German guest chorale he burst out with a comment that may have set the whole enterprise back on its heels; “How about you guys bring back the bike you stole from me!” After some downcast faces and throat clearing the remark was allowed to drift away, like an awkward flume of smoke.

When Koos’ choir next made the trip to Germany to perform and be hosted by their counterparts there, a couple of the German singers pulled him aside.

“Koos, we must tell you something.”

He waited. “Ja? Wat is er?”

The Germans looked at each other.

“Koos, we found your bike.”

“….my bike?”

His smiling German hosts wheeled out a beautiful 10-speed racing bike amid clapping and laughter. They’d painted it Dutch royal orange. When the German group next visited Monster, Koos met the bus at the edge of town and led his pals, in a singular procession, down the winding streets to the church where they would sing together, Koos on his royal orange steed gesturing as grandly as a parade master. It would be the second momentous rolling into Monster of a loud German mob. This one cheering.

The human race has its moments. We’re not stamped by destiny. Happy Liberation Day. (Koosje, je bent altijd in onze gedachte..)