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

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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

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tremendum

Image: CometWhat happens is, as a kid you search for signs of what is making the world move. The central facts seem spooky and you suspect some indefinably freaky cloaked center to it that is not friendly. The hunch is that all this grandness is by its nature momentous and somehow terrible. Well, it’s provably an arc of the retrograde variety. Firm, thrumming, electrified flesh reduces to a spotty beige bag filled with articulated goo, and in the last days the cranial vault houses an increasingly assertive id, discomfiting many. But these are remote, fabulist phenomena. They can’t be named and kids don’t fear them, there is a vague wonder and kind of dread, but nothing as concrete as fear. The Grand Inevitables are in evidence, but as kids we can’t begin to guess what they signify. We drop ants into hot tar and note with interest that they do not seem alarmed. We skin our knees and, denied the gift of invective, scream like maddened banshees. We don’t know we are young and whole, our faculties fastened together with seamless joinery and a sprayed, fragrant patina of skin so form-fitting it seems literally impossible it will ever become the rubberized paper we see on the old and mustachioed. We move somnolently about in the sun and rain and are violable and happy without knowing we are happy. We don’t know we are violable. We’re incautious. A gun goes off and a kid is taken away from the world. You there; you step out onto the street in front of your high school and a passing van clubs you to death, or you are dragged 60 feet beneath a Volkswagen Beetle, as happened to a fresh-faced Happy-Go-Lucky in my high school. More frequently the pattern comes clear during 3rd grade recess. Betty or Amber or Lisa bails off the swing in a high, thrilling arc, her arms windmilling through the blue at dreamy half-speed. While you watch the girl you secretly adore, your half-smiling mouth agape, the little bench dances back on its chains and smashes your teeth. When I was six I was made to understand that the whole of the flat earth under my Keds was actually a round rock, a rock resting on nothing, a rock so enormous that at any given point of contact it seems as flat as a table. It’s not flat and at rest. It’s round and adrift. Adrift. A floating rock amid an endless field of other suspended rocks, unspeakably gigantic, drifting around like debris. Only a floating rock! Our whole ‘World’! 1966. I laid me down on the lawn in our sunny side yard, legs shaking with a pure vertiginous panic, and dug my fingers into the sod. For all the good it did.

Chance of Mist

our beloved betaan

My cubicle colleague calls out
“I have a cat story for you”.
She rounds the corner into my little fabric-covered veal pen
and starts in.
There is an old cat on her cul-de-sac,
statuesque and stubborn.
In the wee hours it is causing her patio motion sensor light
to blare into the dark.
Suddenly my eyes inappropriately mist.
One day I shall be old and infirm and confined to my bed.
The memory of this idiot anecdote will come to me,
limned in platinum, as will an unbearable synaptic snapshot
of the dull carpet of this office, the gay laughter of my office mates,
the stink of burned coffee and the numb deciduous trees
right outside that dust-streaked window
shivering in sunlight,
My colleague sees my eyes watering and recoils.
Walks back to her ergonomically pristine computer chair.
Surely this is the carpal tunnel of love.

Your Femur In the Next New World

Femur Fever

we shall continue to strive

Cosmologists, physicists and math wizards assure us we shouldn’t be here.  We so shouldn’t be here it can almost be persuasively argued that we aren’t here, that we are, in effect, virtual. And our brief, present reign is characterized by ingenious and puzzling bits of joinery.  Our touching terror of loose ends has us piecemealing all kinds of things so that no awkward termini need affront of discomfit us.  Sidewalks meet streets, travel for blocks and then stop, or as we say, end. But where a sidewalk ends you will likely find some bit of machined urban planning, some formed appurtenance, a thing.  The thing has a design function; it is to mitigate the ending of another thing of purpose. Walls meet floors, buildings conjoin, and the seam-centric work of human planners bespeaks a generalized belief that we have arrived and are determined to capably glue the parts together into a familiar whole.

Quantum Field Theory features, among other mild insanities, the snap-crackle-pop appearance of ‘virtual particles’ that appear very briefly and then annihilate. We are that, in our shirts, blouses and tasseled dress shoes, in our hats and coats and shorts and unembarrassed corduroy ensembles. The insensate scalability of Time makes our duration as individual Things infinitesimally, improbably brief. And yet we are materially indefatigable. The Law of the Conservation of Mass says that the quantity of matter is unchanging through all space and time; matter cannot be created or destroyed, only moved around; horses become apples, become clouds and comets, become wondrous drifting interstellar smoke. This means, among many other things, that the bone running down the middle of either of your thighs will specifically inhabit the roiling undercrusts of the Earth in eons to come, and thereafter the silent bell jar of deepest space and time. Sentence fragment. Your leg bone and Jayne Mansfield’s head will survive every cataclysm, every Big Bang yet to come. Hers is not such a special head but for the lore it wears like an especially difficult hat. It’s no more or less momentous than your leg bone. Your femur.

You will leave your consciousness behind. Strike that; reverse it. It will fly quietly out of your cooling carapace at the moment of your heat death, a warm tiny vapor gone to some unrealized quantum brane or maybe to the clear air over your living room carpet and the startled bridge players there. But your lovingly machined parts, in describable pieces or in atomized clouds of Stuff, will inhabit this Place. In 600,000 years your femur will be someplace on earth. Know. Is it true that infinite time naturally yields the realization of every single possibility? Intuitively it seems so. Given the fullness of time, then, you can stare up at the Crab Nebula, or cast your gaping glance to the general vicinity of idiotically distant z8_GND_5296, and know you are there in a thrilling present tense.

Gawp all you want at the Hubble Deep Field. * (sighs distractedly with something like frustration while biting a burnt veggie burger) * We awaken only very very very briefly and then are cast out into Everywhen. Why do we awaken? There are no purposeless moving parts in this machine. What is this for, cognition? The other animals procreate and eat and flee their adversaries without it. Why do we need it? Why awaken at all?  Is our immeasurable little snap of wakefulness the door we have to hurry through? I think it is.

Big Deal

Liz-1953

Okay, so the autumn sidewalks are littered with the crispy husks of the dead, these dumb survivalist earthworms. Darwin’s champions. They lay around like the fallen, as if there’s been a desperate and cinematic battle of some kind. In fact they were caught out in the sun. With the rain they came out to revel, and were trapped on the sidewalk when the cloudburst passed. These things that have survived every extinction event the exhausted cosmos could throw at them don’t have the sense to go home when the rain stops. There is clearly a mechanistic virtue in stupidity and self-abnegation. These guys preceded the dinosaurs and handily survived the Flood despite having not been invited aboard Noah’s Yacht. It would have taken them another three years just to make it up the gangplank, drowning everyone.  Our temporary perch atop the food chain is clearly more Sears-Roebuck than ‘what a piece of work is a man!’  If these crispy idiot worms can both precede and follow us, what good are we. Period.

On the bus the older woman regards with furtive, fleeting, desperately curious glances the baggy pants teen drooped like a weakened sunflower over his phone, his neck parallel with the floor as he smiles thinly at something on the little screen. We lavishly imagined but do not have rocket cars, nor moon bases. There was one jet pack at the LA Olympics. This is the actual future. We have supernaturally fabulous telephones. This says what needs to be said about us. What would moon bases have said? ‘Escape! Explore! Live! Climb You Sonofabitch!’ Our pouring the intellectual magic and firepower of the race into telephones says ‘Enough, already. We’re not going anywhere’.

Liz Taylor acted her ass off in Butterfield 8 and the Albee movie, a couple of for instances. In the end (in the middle, actually) she couldn’t act her way out of a moist paper bag and embarrassed us with her perfume commercial.  She doesn’t owe us anything and g*d rest her. But that heavily painted moment at the very end of National Velvet? When she catches up to Mickey Rooney and stands alongside him in that garish sunset? The long shot? The music blares shamelessly. That is what they should have sent on the now-interstellar Pioneer, our metalloid message in a bottle. Heartbreak should have been the keynote of that message. Not a golden LP with Brahms or whatever. Barely sufferable bittersweetness and heartbreak. Liz and Mickey, kids at sunset. And the horsey.

Sea birds drift with casual purpose above a dawnstruck ocean, like bugs. More languid, though. They screw and they eat. These are the kingdoms, animal and plant.  From dandelions to squid, we’re not the serfs, we’re the kings, all of us.  But let’s not wave our scepters too grandly. Screw and eat. It’s still glory.

An office complex is festooned with pink ribbons. Cancer Research Supported Here. The ribbons are our testimony.  Why do we cling? This eyeblink hardly merits all this art and chatter. This is likely only a staging area. We awaken, see that we’re awake, and are shown the door. The door is set in the ground. Then some time later we’re adrift in ancient space and maybe later still reconstituted into extragalactic flowers or monsters or bacteria. We’ll see each other again under another sun and not realize it.  As explained with heartbreak and gusto by Frankie in the Rodgers and Hart resurrection tune Where or When.

Diana Ross? What happened? Why did she sing Upside Down? Whence her mojo? ‘I Hear A Symphony’? ‘Where Did Our Love Go’? What the hell happened? In her disco period she couldn’t even keep time. Did we do this to her?  Her and Liz? Or was she all along riding on the wings of song with not much of her own to offer? When the songs died out from under her she fell, Icarus with big staring eyes. Do you know where you’re going to? Wasn’t it me who said nothing good’s gonna last forever?

a cloud of gnats in summer air

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a cloud of gnats in summer air
transfixed I watch them gather there
they do not spin and will not toil
these laggards make my blood to boil

night birds invade a fragrant clearing
their evensong offends my hearing
the pines a twilight belvedere
o humvee smash me out of here

a millipede, a leaping stag
the crawly one will make me gag
the other one I’ll tranquilize
and give him beveled glass for eyes

school of fish in a mountain lake
I pray thee lord their souls to take
I pray then give the flesh to me
I’ll slit them till there’s naught to see

the lord hath given us dominion
rear sight elevation pinion
trigger guard, extractor spring
lift up our hearts in firing.

a fox asleep in honeyed sun
awakens my vacation gun
the violets hearing no report
are painted by my day of sport

unlettered man on jungle path
I offer you a bubble bath
some Western Civ will salve your soul
and see you to the Super Bowl

a velvet dark has fallen full
as lovely as a tractor pull
the fire throws a wondrous light
that underscores your underbite

Let’s contemplate the vault of stars
and ravish all our candy bars
this night we dream, the world renews
a bear craps in our hiking shoes.