Essay – Proust’s Way: Life and Romance in a Search for Lost Time

WHEN I WAS 12 YEARS OLD I READ SOMETHING more terrifying than anything I had read before. The only book series any of the kids in my year ever read of their own choosing was Goosebumps by R.L. Stein. It was a ridiculous pop-horror book for kids. The book that would keep me up for nights was recommended by my librarian after I shared a poem I wrote. She responded with the recommendation that I read Crime and Punishment.  I was twelve. I have since reasoned that this was a punishment in and of itself.

I don’t know if individuals can explain why they like the things they like, or why red is better to most Russians than the color blue. My own theory is that after so many centuries of fighting off the most dangerous armies in history, they have ironically fell in love with the sight of blood. And to a young man, it was the first book that ever made apparent to me that murder and violence is not always motivated by clear-cut villains who sing a song to explain why they’re the bad guys.

In our culture, the villains often have their faces masked, or hidden, covered in black—or they are aliens or terrorists or, for nostalgia, communists, and they’re all reduced to identical thoughts and attitudes and looks. Dostoevsky was the first author I discovered who made the killer the main character; he made the killer a hero. I wasn’t used to that. It changed the way I looked at motivations and my attitude towards simplistic depictions of good and evil. If Dostoevsky changed the way I looked at the nature of good and evil, Proust changed the way I looked at everything.

The more I read the more enamored I was. I was very fond of the Russian literature I read; Chekov, Turgenev, Lertmentov, Bulgakov (especially Master and Margarita,) Tolstoy, Pushkin, Nabokov, and Gogol. The explosive characters, the madness, the psychological complexity, all had a tremendous influence on how I would write novels.

When I was almost finished with this book, I was fortunate enough to go through a profound moral crisis and tragedy. I was put in the same situation as Ernest Hemingway was, at twenty-five, when all the work he had to show for his entire life was lost at a train-station because of a misplaced suitcase. Everything about Hemingway’s formative years that could have given us a better understanding of his method didn’t exist.

Hemingway was the antithesis to the bombast and platitudinous method of Shakespeare and the high drama of Goethe and I never found another writer who could write so gently with such force. The most important thing about Ernest Hemingway was how he made the ordinary seem almost mythic. After I went through pupation I discovered that I had no real affiliation with post-modernism. It seemed to be more focused on what can only be called more form and less art. It was a type of masturbation, a way to use words as a maze to amaze with flair of language and verve of the freedom that came with abandoning the rules of composition. There is a freedom in that kind of work, but cleverness is no substitution for tenderness, and genius is no substitute for beauty and true poignancy.

I had been writing for twenty years when I discovered In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. The first thing to strike me was how understated and natural it all was. There was no sense of bombast or overt melodrama. It is another case in which the deepest of meaning is achieved because life is shown in all its forms and from such scenes so much can be taken.

Proust’s epic is hard to relegate to a category. If I had to say what it was about, I’d say everything; time and space, love and loss—everything in the human sphere of experience.  In Search of Lost Time or alternatively, Remembrance of Things Past, is one of the longest popular novels in history. It comes in at over 4,000 pages. And not a word is wasted.

The importance of the unimportant is a unique characteristic of the French school of romanticism and naturalism among the more prominent of French novelists; Balzac, Flaubert, Chateaubriand. Stendhal. But none of them managed to reach the  heights of literature I had discovered in Proust. It’s a cliché now to say that reading Proust will change your life. However, in this case it has become cliché because it is true. And he does it unremarkably, conversationally, even recounting the seemingly unimportant details of his house in the fictional town he made immortal at the end of The Past Recaptured. The titles are literal.

Proust was a sickly and anxiety ridden man when he turned thirty and had but one newspaper publication to his name. This was before he found himself capable of pulling such a masterful tale out of that famous teacup. In doing so he fashioned what I believe to be the best work of literature of all time. It’s all a disappearing act;  a whole life in one book, wherein there is no death; time is defeated in these silent pockets of eternity in which Proust found that precious hawthorn bush; the sound of skipping rocks, the sound of toast; the heavenly music was the fountain of not only youth, but that which he had found in his search through time and self-diagnosis—a gradual undressing of the superficial and the shallow. The layers of characters fall away until you see bone

Proust not only unmasked himself. He unmasked the entirety of human history. Along with the Geurmentes, an idolized, almost deistic conception for Proust’s French universe made immortal by his hand. Balzac’s The Human Comedy collection is more decorative, concerned more with unedited nature than Proust and external translation, settings, set-pieces; Proust’s setting is the landscape of malleable memory.

His search for immortality became immortal; it is, in this regard, a precursor to Fellini’s 8 ½; both now considered untouchable works of art, beyond reproach. Another interesting fact is the reading within Proust’s books; his characters are always in the middle of one book or another, and art and affectation in the highbrow culture of the period was ripe for satire.

In a book I recently read, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the author [Johah Lehrer] makes a convincing case for the triumph of art over science in demonstrating discoveries of scientific truths in art long before conventional science could verify the discoveries. Proust presaged the findings of modern neuroscience intuitively. He understood the distortions and the way a building by memory could change in color, in form, in location; bringing up the obvious question as to how much of our lives are as we remember it to be. It’s a heavy question, and perhaps the most unanswerable. But tthese ideas are in the back seat, of characters and character moments. The mundane is transformed by its telling.

In Swann’s Way, a peculiar aspect of Marcel’s family is revealed: they come to dinner an hour earlier on Saturday than they do the rest of the week. It’s almost a throwaway line, but resolves itself in a memorable subplot. The lack of over-description, the lack of meaning to the overall plot, and its lack of importance is what makes it so important to consider when reading and interpreting naturalism. Despite the number of scholars who have made their careers discussing and interpreting Proust, he’s not particularly hard to interpret; it’s all right there. If you read the entire story, you’ll find the narrator happy to explain every detail of his conscience. This is what gives Marcel, as a character such nuance. It has been said that every disguise is a self-portrait. And because he says so much, he attempts to hide much more; whenever the story gets too close to the author we are deferred to another aspect of his consciousness, or another explanation. If ever a book was more adequate in describing what it is to be alive, I have yet to read it.

 

Other than that, it’s pretty good.

Essay (Literary criticism) – Lo-lee-ta: The exorcism of Vladimir Nabokov

LO-LEE-TA;

THE EXORCISM OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV

There’s no doubt that literature and writing is a form of catharsis. While that is certainly true, I believe that it can be much, much more. Not only is it a form of healing, or an escape, it can be considered an exorcism. We’ve discussed the biological nature of words and ideas and how they can possess; yet, once possessed, how does one rid themselves of this possession? As we saw with Dostoevsky, his exorcism of the doubt and sickness in himself was possible through Smerdyakov’s suicide in The Brothers Karamazov.

When artists have these addictions and impulses it is not uncommon for them to use their art as a means of exorcism, as a means of ‘killing off’ the part of themselves that returns to addiction. Lolita, as Nabokov once said, was more than his affair with the romance novel, it ‘…was a romance with the English language.’

I think it’s much more than that; it was a way for him to exorcise what he believed, either consciously or unconsciously, to be possession. Lolita was that obsession, that idea. Remember Marco Polio, I illustrated how it could be contracted, but for the purpose of this essay, how can it be cured?

In a course at Yale University in May of 2008, American Novels Since 1945, professor Amy Hungerford spent three lectures talking about Lolita, although the second was a guest lecture by Andrew Goldstone, and only freakin’ one lecture talking about a much more complex book by Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. The first thing she discussed was Vladimir Nabokov’s idea on the autonomy of a work of art, the idea that it could be alive and, transversely, if it could be alive, it could be killed. This reminded me of another of Nabokov’s novels, Pale Fire.

Pale Fire is a lesser known work from later in Nabokov’s career, yet it is revealing. The book is framed as a 999 line poem, the eponymous Pale Fire, by deceased poet John Shade. The poem is between an introduction and a critical study by Shade’s friend, Charles Kimbote; a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Zembla.  This has a close is similar to Nabokov’s own experiences as a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Russia.

In Pale Fire you have can see Nabokov’s identification with the character of a professor. His annotations of the poem reflect his published works Lectures on Literature, in which he writes about James Joyce, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Franz Kafka. He also produced Lectures on Russian Literature, which included Gorky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekov, and Bulgakov. Nabokov was very well read. As a sensitive connoisseur of world literature and essayist, Nabokov shows his acuity and understanding; he understood that art and literature placates a myriad of human needs myriad of human needs.

The best books and works of art allow us to better understand ourselves. By casting Charles Kimbote as a professor of literature in Pale Fire, he inadvertently, albeit subtly, confesses to a guilty secret: although the main character in Lolita may not be Nabokov himself, it is, at least, the personification of Nabokov’s guilt. The confessional nature of the novel is belied by the introduction by John Ray, Jr., Ph.D; in it, a psychologist named Blanche Schwarzmann, is quoted: Blanc is the French word for white while Schwarz is German for black. For linguists, this isn’t even subtle; Dr. Whiteblack. This is thought to be a slight on Freudian interpretations of the novel. I think it could be a playful way of commenting on and circumventing any potential over-analysis of the novel’s content. Nabokov loved these little word-games: a well-known bit of trivia about Lolita is also revealing: Quilty’s mistress is also famously implicative: Vivian Darkbloom—an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov.

Although Nabokov is believed to have gotten the idea for Humbert Humbert’s unique name from Edgar Poe, which may be consciously true, nconsciously, however, I believe it to be an accidental allusion to a more subtle attribute of the relationship between the books’ characters and its author. Quilty, the eccentric counterpart, also falls in love with Lolita. The difference between Humbert Humbert’s reserved obsessions and Quilty’s obsessions are their attitudes; Humbert Humbert is ashamed of his own behavior and sees Quilty as what he is in danger of becoming: indulgent, perverse, hedonistic, and unashamed.

A hint to this possibility is easier to identify in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel, the screenplay being co-written by Nabokov himself.  Kubrick did nothing without purpose and the same is true of his shots. So when you see elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home, it is there for reason, a very precise reason. ou can see the elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home. It’s filled with the kind of artifacts one would expect to find in the home of a history professor’s house—in Humbert Humbert’s home.

The last novel I wrote was written during a tumultuous period in my life. I had struggled with addiction to sleeping pills and painkillers since my early teens and had developed a seriously unhealthy habit. The book was originally conceived about six years before it was written. The idea was to do a story about a con-man; he would go from city to city, always giving a fake name and history, and the idea for the novel was for this conman to forget which of his life stories were true and he gradually forgets who he really is.

For me, the title is the impregnation; it gestates in your mind over time. Once I have a title, the novel is conceptually complete in my head within an hour and then, once I have the book cover, to continue to metaphor, I go through a grueling birthing process. You don’t need to have an outline. The important thing is to have a sense of where you’re going, not the exact directions. What came out half a decades later was Nobody, the story of a slave who kills his master, his master’s wife, and runs away, escaping to the north. Along the way, he encounters many manifestations of his slavery.

For the purpose of this essay, I looked for (and found) a paper from a former student in which Nobody is being analyzed:

The name of the slave Neddy is taken from the Sanskrit term Neti Atma, which means Not Myself. Begins to feel guilty after seeing photos, is tormented by the memory of what he has done (murdered the Master and wife) [sic] … Neddy experiences Nirvana for the first time. … The narrative changes from straightforward prose into fragments of Neddy’s thoughts are right over another, disconnected and out of order. … Nobody is beginning to talk as his thought processes begin to break down.

Begins fabricating stories about who he is, feels ashamed (he is trying to escape from what he has done. … Halfway through the book the author began withdrawing from heroin and morphine leading [to] further paranoia and disjointed images. …

All of these obvious associations weren’t so pronounced in my mind during the writing process; none of it was directly connected to drugs; but each character that acts as an intermediate protagonist (the protagonist itself is not an external person or system) can be seen as embodying characteristics of different feelings related to withdrawal.

I’ve said that one of the benefits of schizophrenia is to understand your subconscious.

On the 22nd chapter, I took my last shot. For the first twenty-one chapters, the novel is somewhat straightforward. Once I started writing while going through withdrawals, it inadvertently became an homage to Dante’s metaphysical journey through hell. Except I didn’t have Virgil as a guide; I had one person, my editor Katie Chiles, a bed and a bucket and a notebook. What came out of that pen was not something one would consider coherent writing, but it changed my philosophy in regards to metaphysical writing in creating the inner-world of a character’s mind. When I realized how this was done, Finnegan’s Wake began to make a lot more sense.

The novel ended three weeks after I took my last shot with the Slave committing suicide. I later realized that this was a way of using literature as means through which one’s demons could be excised; it’s how I externalized the addict and killed that aspect of my character, that slave inside of me.

I didn’t think this was a common practice in art and literature. I believed that Dostoevsky’s externalizations were ways of contrasting philosophical perspectives. While that is certainly true I didn’t know at that point the extent of writing’s. Looking back with this perspective made me further consider the idea that Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha, as the mind, body and soul, were intended to parallel the Christian trinity. When I first shared the essay with a friend, a creative writing major, she thought the essay was incomplete. And it was. Smerdyakov’s exclusion in the representation made his character something else: it made him an antagonizing agent of the trinity and most importantly—the lamb on which all sin is leveed in order that its sacrifice brings redemption of the rest of the flock. It was a thematic echo of the Biblical account of Jesus and it made sense for Dostoevsky to draw this analogy; his whole schtick is the necessity for suffering in salvation—something even casual fans and non-readers of Crime and Punishment know about Dostoevsky by now.

Dostoevsky wasn’t fond of the epileptic bastard and atheist Smerdyakov because Dostoevsky was all of these things: he was an epileptic, his father was murdered by servants, and he was an atheist for a time. As such I wasn’t particularly proud to continue selling all of my nice things for drugs or hanging out in rundown apartment buildings where groups of less dead people robotically move from the floor to the flame throughout the day. And Nabokov, being a charming emigrate and professor in upstate New York at Cornell, surely found himself the object of attention and respect of many young and lovely female students.

In the film, the first sign of attraction occurs while watching a horror film when Lolita grabs his hand. It the book, however, the attraction begins because Humbert Humbert of which Lolita was fond. Another difference is substantial in giving credence to this theory: the hotel at which Dolores and the stage-play by Quilty, which Dolores prepares to perform at her school is called The Enchanted Hunter in the book, a reference to Humbert Humbert; in the film, the play is renamed The Hunter Enchanted. This changes the dynamic between Humbert Humbert and Dolores. The Enchanted Hunter puts more emphasis on the hunt; The Hunter Enchanted puts more of an emphasis on the hunter’s enchantment. By enchanting the hunter, it puts a distance between his condition and his goal; while in the book the focus is more on his goal as caused by his condition. In the book Lolita is only used by Humbert Humbert as a pet name, as prey; she is the object of his pursuit. In the film Lolita is a named used by more than one of the characters and the title change alleviates some of Humbert Humbert’s guilt, making the focus on Lolita as a seductress, not Humbert Humbert as a hunter. This title actually suggests she may be conscious of what she is doing, while the other title is only indicative of Humbert Humbert’s desire. With the combination of these two titles, both of them are responsible for what happens.

This isn’t just the result of Stanley Kubrick’s desire to put a personal touch on the adaptation. Nabokov co-wrote the screenplay so, while it is possible that it didn’t occur to Nabokov that Lolita was a confession when he was writing the novel, it is also possible that, upon reflection, Nabokov realized this and shifted the emphasis and blame to the object of desire.

Vladimir Nabokov was a professor of Lit 312 course at Cornell University in upstate New York. Nabokov, as an aging author and academic, would have been highly susceptible to a friendly face, a flattering young woman. Writers, more so than perhaps any other workman, are particularly susceptible to flattery. And there are some very, very lovely young ladies in at Cornell University.

It’s also possible that this assessment only serves to further demonstrate the problem with allegorical extraction and application in the interpretation of popular literature. Lolita is a great book, a work of art and, as I’ve said, the best works of art mean what we, as readers and evaluators, need it to be. And Lolita succeeds for this very reason; it reminds us that our sin is impermanent, soluble through that unique witchcraft art.

Essay: Art / Language: A Legacy from the Baroque

THE BAROQUE WAS AN ERA IN WESTERN
civilization characterized by various movements in art, literature, and popular music in which broad strokes and generalizations were replaced by intricacies, ornate and self-aware arabesques, bringing out the devil in the details. Traditional ideas were questioned, overturned, and art and architecture underwent profound metamorphoses. Men and women of great ambition fought for the most trivial of positions in what was essentially a political chessboard in which every pawn  decided to wear the clothes of a king.

The word Baroque, as is the case with all periods of note in human history, would be invented later by critics and historians. The etymology of the word has a unique history; it is a French translation of the Portuguese phrase perle barroco, which roughly translates as ‘irregular pearl,’ or more literally as ‘false jewel.’ A similar word is used in Roman dialects to convey the same idea:  barlocco or brillocco. The idea being that, as sometimes pearls are by chance and circumstance shaped differently, more common forms, having no axis for rotation, are in need of a new taxonomic classification. So the irregular forms are baroque pearls. The word’s history may have been influenced by the mnemonic term baroco which serves to denote, in the scholarly tradition, a supposed labored form syllogism.

What would lead historians to classify this period with so unique a word? Originally it was a derogatory term meant to underline what was thought to be affectation and excess, a maligned celebration of self-awareness and anaphoric abundance as opposed to clearer edifice on which stood the sober rationality of the Renaissance. It was first rehabilitated by the Swiss-born art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin in his study Renaissance und Barock; in this work, Wölfflin identified the Baroque as a ‘…movement imported into mass.’ It was a unique artistic antithesis to the edifices of art established by the Renaissance. Originally Wölfflin did not make distinctions between Mannerism and the classification Baroque as modern historians do; he also completely ignored what is now classified as the later phase, the ‘academic Baroque’ which moved into the 18th century. Writers in French and English did not begin to treat our inheritance from the Baroque period as something of great worth until Wölfflin’s study made German scholarship preeminent.

Baroque art began to take shape during the same years that the world’s expanding economies were laying the basis for the age of Western expansion in America and the high-stakes game of duck-duck-goose started accidentally by Europe as a financial pissing contest which somehow provoked the masses, the starving peasants, to rebel and kill these despotic assholes. Despite this, it was a fascinating age of richness in the arts—literary, visual, and musical. This intense circulation of ideas, happening as new national schools took form, allowed for this new age to unite a Europe in a golden age, a golden age in which none living during the age described as golden were aware of this goldenness.

Painting alternated between references to the chiaroscuro (the finer areas of shade and shadow) and the realism of Caravaggio and La Tour and a more purely baroque use of fantasy and color; architecture oscillated between the courageous inventiveness of the avant garde and the traditionalist reliance on the preservation of antiquity’s ideals and philosophies in regards to idea and execution.

In theater, the most spectacular aspects of the stage came to dominate the taste of the period, becoming the models for figurative and architectural expression. If the goal of Baroque art was to amaze the viewer, it was the world of the theater that provided its most successful special effects. This historical and artistic story is lushly illustrated with works by the greatest artists of the period; Bernini, Boucher, Caravaggio, Gainsborough, Hals, Hogarth, Poussin, Rembrandt, Rubens—along with works by minor artists who made important contributions.

The baroque period actually expressed new values in the culture of the arts. These are often summarized in the use of metaphor and allegory, widely found in Baroque literature, and in the research for the maraviglia—wonder and astonishment in the manner of Marinism—and the use of artifices. If Mannerism was first breached with the Renaissance, Baroque was an opposing force with a unique and distinct language.

The privilege given to external forms had to compensate and balance the lack of content that has been observed in many Baroque works: Marino’s Maraviglia, for example, is practically made of a pure mere form—whatever that means.

The prevailing philosophy was simple: an active fantasy and imagination should be cultured, evoked in the spectator, in the reader, in the listener. All was focused around the individual, a straight relationship between the artist and the beholder. Art is then less distant and by definition closer, closer to us and therefore more real.

The increased attention on the individual made possible new methods of approaching art, such as the Romanzo—and, in Italy, this movement was a cultural descent; some believed it to be a betrayal, disrespectful to the traditions established in the Renaissance. Apparently, an age of revolutionary and new ideas, like the Renaissance, was, without irony, used as a basis for what new art should be. This culminated in the definitive replacement of Latin by the more widely understandable and spoken dialect of Italian.

Writers in the Baroque are framed in Siglo de Oro in Spain. Naturalism and sharp criticist points of view about Spanish society are common with conceptista writers like Quevedo, while culterano authors emphasize the importance of form with complicated images and the use of hyperbaton. In Catalonia the Baroque took hold in Catalan language, with representatives including poets and dramaturgs such as Francesc Fontanella and Francesc Vicenç Garcia, as well as a unique emblem book Atheneo de Grandesa by Josep Romaguera. Spanish theater was extensively developed by authors like Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca. Overall, Cervantes is considered the most accomplished author of Spanish literature due in no small part to Don Quixote. In Colonial Spanish America two of the best-known baroque writers were Sor Juana and Bernardo de Balbuena.

In the Portuguese Empire the most famous baroque writer of the time was Father António Vieira, a Jesuit who lived in Brazil during the 18th century. Secondary writers Gregório de Matos and Francisco Rodrigues Lobo were popular too.

Though the Baroque era is most famous for its music, it is nevertheless an era in which many noted figures emerged. Artists such as Rembrandt and Velasquez were prominent during the period. Galileo Galilei was persecuted by the church because of his ideas regarding the universe, and prominent philosophers, such as Descartes, Spinoza, John Locke, and Voltaire also lived and died in the Baroque, and Paradise Lost and Hamlet came from the minds of William Shakespeare and John Milton, respectively.

Music from the period varies in style and comes from many different countries. There is English, French, German, and Italian Baroque music—all of which are uniquely distinct and were utterly new. There is early, middle and late Baroque music—all unique and utterly new.

When compared with its predecessors, Baroque music can be seen as being highly ornate, lavishly texturized, with sometimes affectictious intensity. The music of the period was characterized by a counterpoint and melodic line, being one of many defining characteristics of the period, including the use of basso continuo and the belief in a specific doctrine of affections. The doctrine of affections was a new way for composers to add color and personality to their compositions. Another distinguishing characteristic of the Baroque was the emphasis on contrast:  volume, texture, and pace. The Renaissance was a large-scale, rubbery portrait—the Baroque zoomed in on the picture all the way to the pores.

And finally, a sacred yet secular type of music was now in abundance and used as widely as those of the liturgical musical tradition. Imitative polyphony (more than one line of music) was still, however, an extremely important factor in writing and playing music, while the homophonic method (a musical technique that displays a vast separation amongst the melodic line and the accompaniment) was gaining acceptance and aplomb.

The homophonic style eventually became dominant in all instrumental forms. Musical works containing a continuo—in which a keyboard (usually an organ or harpsichord) and a bass instrument (usually a bassoon or a cello) helped to convey the harmonic support of chords under melodic lines.

Despite the increasing popularity of homophonic music, it occurred amidst evolving forms of polyphonic music. Similar to the composers of the Renaissance, the composers of the Baroque felt that the art of counterpoint was an essential aspect of artistry. Despite the avant garde’s freedom, formalism in imitative polyphony, cannons and fugues, were very popular; another ironic establishment based on what was meant to encourage uniqueness in the evolving characteristics of the period.

It is important to note that opera and the orchestra were both conceived during the Baroque. Around the year 1600—wherein Shakespeare was alive in England—what we know as opera came about because of the desire Italian intellectuals to recapture what they believed to be the spirit of ancient Greek drama in which music played a key role. Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo debuted in 1607, and was perhaps the first great opera. The characteristic homophonic musical style played a significant role in this as soloist vocals focused on the perceived listener’s concentration of a pronounced melody.

By the mid-1600s the orchestra and orchestral arrangements were evolving into a unique and insular entity and one of the offshoot animals in this family tree was the concerto. The concerto is defined by a solo instrumentalist, or small ensemble of soloists, playing in opposition to the orchestra; this fortissimo added another interesting contrast in texture, color, and volume.

Renaissance composers had invented imitative polyphony, which Baroque composers fashioned into the fugue, perhaps the most developed musical form of the era. Bach became the undisputed master of the fugue. Bach’s Invention No. 1 in C Major, written in 1723, points in the direction of all of his magnificent contrapuntal compositions.

As a composer, teacher and performer of the organ, harpsichord, violin and viola, Bach had an astonishing ability to blend a variety of national styles into existing musical forms in an accessible, engaging manner. Composing solo works for organ, harpsichord, violin, cello, and flute, Bach’s extraordinary abilities allowed him to create music that has remained popular and critically acclaimed, being also the subject of the unique and important study Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter—who approached Bach mathematically, as [Carl] Sagan did in his Voyager plates designed to represent humanity to any potential extra-terrestrial civilizations, as math is the universal language.

The Prelude and Fugue in D Major from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier provide an excellent example of his superb craftsmanship and the sort of mathematical approach for which he is now widely known among the modern intelligentsia. His Prelude grandly introduces us to the key of D Major. This sets up an expectant ear, eager for what is to follow: a spirited, complex, and eloquent fugue.

French composers of the era excelled in music written for solo harpsichord. A tradition that had begun with solo lute music was continued with the harpsichord, in some senses a mechanical lute, after the lute fell from favor at the end of the seventeenth century. They delighted in music that imitated the sounds of nature and in the character piece, that is, a musical portrait of a friend, colleague or patron.

Francois Couperin, court composer to Louis XIV, wrote charming and endearing harpsichord music which remains popular. Le dodo ou l’amour au berceau and L’evapore are excellent and characteristic examples of Couperin’s musical ambitions and sensibilities. The first is undoubtedly the musical portrait of a patron’s cherubic sleeping infant. The second would be a description of one of the ebulliently frivolous ladies of the French Court. The first piece is a rondo, a form developed during the Baroque. The first theme, or rondeau—it is here that the tune, from a popular French lullaby, is repeatedly presented alternatively with other material in the popular ABACADA pattern.

Domenico Scarlatti was a Neapolitan who spent the most important and productive part of his career in service to the Queen of Spain. He is remembered for his harpsichord pieces, as Chopin would be, a century later, remembered for his compositions for solo piano. Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas have an enormous emotional range, evoking lyrical mellowness, languid hours, somber solemnity, dazzling pyrotechnics, and cheerful sprightliness. Scarlatti is often considered merely the author of sonatas of insuperable technical difficulty, but this important composer’s real power lies in his dynamic strength, pouring forth in scale runs and elaborate cascades apropos to the overall harmonic richness. In this respect he is a precursor to Franz Liszt and Charles-Valentin Alkan, in his ability to create multiple melodies for soloists.

The solo sonata and the trio sonata were very popular forms of composition with Baroque composers. Consisting of one or two solo instruments supported by a continuo for rhythmic and harmonic definition, the sonatas gave ample opportunity for the soloists to show off their virtuosity. Soloists developed their technique with pieces such as The Sonatas for Violin and Continuo by violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli.

These pieces were published January 1, 1700, and quickly became a standard teaching tool for violin technique and musical inventiveness. Corelli’s Folia Variations offer a rousing example of the musical effectiveness of solid violin technique and of the variation form. The violin begins quietly, builds to a musical climax, and then returns to the calmer atmosphere in which it began.

This unique yearning, this striving and reaching for ever greater, more personal, more pure forms of art is behind every movement for which we have a pronoun. Biologically there may be little in our genome to distinguish us from other members of the primate family, but in the power of our expression we ascend to something penultimate to more than just an animalistic creature of instinct. This period brought admiration once reserved for frauds and magicians to genuine bringers of light, to secular prophets whose work has shaped the world and in doing so left it brighter than it was before.

Humanity wrestles with methods of expression because of what it does for our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world. Once something is understood the natural fear surrounding it diminishes. It is a way to bring us together. It is a unique aspect of character to set out with the knowledge that what will be for us the product of years, perhaps decades of research, drafting and revision, painful deliberation and punctuated periods alternating between cautious optimism and utter desolation, will be born into a world wherein there is a healthy and moneyed community of critics who by definition exist to pick apart the meat of what is, in a very true sense, the offspring of an artist.

Our inheritance from Baroque, that irregular pearl, that charming era replete with unique and important developments in our exploration of expression and the ways by which it can give voice to the unspoken subtleties that have no official language. The scientific, biological purpose to this—in deep time, the time-scale evolution works on—is the ability for these songs, the poems and paintings, the way they bring us together; the stories of ancient India and Mesopotamia live on in a digital, intangible library of information which cannot be burnt down—a permanent, unbreakable, fireproof Alexandria.

Radio waves have broadcast our thoughts and art into space where they continue traveling at the speed of light; perhaps it is the echo of a species alone in a quiet universe of wasted space, or a particularly loud section in the cosmic chorus: regardless, through this process the genetic and biological impulse of preservation is achieved in a way that nature has so far denied us: immortality is the reward for a life given to these pursuits, despite our ephemeral ambitions, these books and portraits and songs are love letters to posterity; a love letter to a love letter in a sea of similar songs unsigned.

Essay: ‘Dreampool’ – The Immortality of Meaning

PHENOTYPIC CHARACTERISTICS OF ANIMALS ARE determined by genes lined along chromosomal loci, slots along the chromosome, where genes compete with alternate genes called alleles. All gene combinations are taken from an ancestral pool which allows for innumerable possibilities in the assemblage of genetic traits. The genepool is a good parallel for the dreampool as both allow diversification in nature and (eukaryotic) ideas, respectfully; and, conversely, the requisite standards found in the structure of language, of alphabets and declension, punctuation, syntax, context and form.

As each animal can be traced to the beginning of life, ideas are built upon past ideas and use other ideas as a foundation for new ideas. Identity and individuality are so defined by the content of the dreampool, as inherited ideas pass from one person to another, generation after generation, from one to the next forever until it is replaced by that which evolves from it and extinction when it no longer applies to the world in which it lives. As living organisms, ideas have ancestors; satire was born in the tradition of Dionysian theatre, where comedy in art began. Satire is from the Greek word satyr; this may be the memetic ancestor from which Orwell’s pig Napoleon would evolve.Those cuneiform tablets are the ancestors of what you now hold, the bound book — itself a descendent from other methods of story distribution which predates written history. Oral lit, ancestral legends.

As eukaryotic ideas contain specific information, as do most books of this variety, for viability and function there is a replacement of new, better thought out ideas; another mimicry of character based alphabets that allow for different phoneme groupings necessary to use predefined terms in the arrangement of new ideas. New ideas, as new hatchlings in a pond, enter into a dangerous and predated world; this is a world of strict competition in the marketplace of ideas, the dreampool; each idea born is another tadpole looking for a way to crawl from the sea like we and on land be much more than what they were; meaningless and non-viable like that tadpole, like a caterpillar chrysalis into pupa, into beauty.

Similarly, our schools put together our dreampool chromosomes; our interlocutor is influenced by contrasting opinions and put to a unique, internal check, a test to which all ideas new ideas are unconsciously put. For a Buddhist aspirant, the idea that wealth is worth the effort to strive under a hot sun daily is somehow errant because of transience, the temporary joy of earthly riches which do not justify the labored suffering for a temporary anodyne, a Band-Aid attempting to cover the wounds caused by need and desire. For a venture capitalist, the idea of wealth and prosperity is very much worth the effort under the sun, and if you find the right one, a Band-Aid can cover a bullet wound.

To a Buddhist aspirant, in the tradition of that Great Monkey King, the jewels do not denote nobility; compassion and moderation does. To the Romanov dynasty, to Queen Victoria—the Jewel, the crown diamond, is worth more than the gross domestic product of many countries. By what machination do we divide the worthy and the worthless? Human beings do what evolution prepared us to do: choose what makes us feel safe, for what makes us feel safe is a genetic response to surviving long enough to pass on our own genetic inheritance, imperfectly translated by a tadpole into a less imperfect frog.

A microcosm of speciation is variation among clade [and subclades]; a macrocosmic evolutionary metamorphosis becomes itself an itinerate species to be tested. Ideas that survive the criticism of individual evaluating interlocutors become predators, predators that seek and destroy other ideas. The idea of evolution has remained alive despite one-hundred fifty years of varied attacks by individuals and institutions having inherited different memetic traits; some of these contain unverifiable yet untouchable strains of dubious wisdom verifiable by instinct and the idea itself. The holder of an accepted idea concentrates on what gives the idea its validity because of what it means, ensuring its memetic perpetuation. This is known as confirmation bias; defined as,

In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirm one’s own preconceptions. 

Ideas found to be un-true by oneself can be just as passionately thought true by another. What accounts for this discrepancy in universal truth without interpretation, meaning without equivocation, and unconditional waivers of possible contradictions? The connection-correlation-conclusion system, what I call The Three-C Truth.

Human beings have twenty-six chromosomes, inherited from an ancestral genepool, to genes responsible for blue eyes or brown, dark hair or fair; the phenotypes of an animal’s genotype which provide the architectural plans for our body. It is obvious in the analogy to consider that for an idea to occupy a position considered truth that one idea, for belief, competes with the alternative idea for disbelief. This competition takes place in the building, not of phenotypic traits, but the building of the thinking individual.

How much of what we choose or select as truth can be traced to the collective culture from which it originated without stuttering or translation, static or contention? The dreampool is an abstraction, the meta-construct of the sum total of a culture’s accepted and rejected wisdom accessible at any time through mental exercise and interlocutor evaluation in regards to what is meaning, what is true, what is objective, what is true for everyone—is there such a thing? Consider: there is one truth beyond dispute; not all truth is absolute.  Ideas are open to interpretation; meaning does well to engender debate about what the actual debate is about.

In most cultures, one of the first books one encounters is the A to Zed, a Bible and a dictionary. The childcare center which I attended had three books which were intended to impart to the average person, young or old, not only what, in my culture, was considered the authority on morality, but a book that defines what the other book about morality—which must be defined by a book not using the term, outside of itself—means with its sentences, what sentences mean and how the true meaning should be evaluated.

As I discussed in an earlier essay on allegory, as I have in the essay preceding this one, what is said is not only gifted an assumed quality based on attaché; it can have a second layer of clothing to cover naked expression. By what standard do we hold information endorsed by others to be true? How much is worth worth? If a book is ‘worth’ something, it is published. The degree of worth determines something more important than the number of units sold: it determines what a person believes they’re worth.

Worth has been the strongest motivating factor behind everything I do: my studies and education; my novels and my essays, and all of my artistic aspiration. Even now, in this very essay, the worth is the biggest consideration because that is what ultimately determines publication. This ambition has changed through time and, with a chip on one shoulder and a devil on the other, it remains. The devil hasn’t quit, but he has gotten quieter.

A book is how we hide a piece of our soul away and survive our death. In my favorite novel, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I think the same desire burns within the character of Marcel (though the book is not autobiographical, it is written by the fictional Marcel at the end) there is this desire to find worth and meaning. Marcel (the character) realizes this as the highest value of the novel—the immortality of meaning, of encapsulating an entire life within one work of art, hiding part of ourselves inside it that it may never be destroyed, that it may live forever.

Before talking about hiding one’s soul in an object, I will first address the elephant in the room.

J.K. Rowling, author of the acclaimed Harry Potter series, introduced a magical object in the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, called a horcrux; this object allows a practitioner of black-magic to split their soul and hide part of it within an object. This allows them to survive a fatal attack, as the part that is hidden lives on.  In the series it is used by the primary antagonist as an attempt to become immortal.

The first horcrux made by Voldemort (a French portmanteau intended to mean flight from death) was a ring; the second one is what made me realize not only what Proust’s real achievement was, but also what a book really is: the second horcrux was a diary. The written word is a horcrux, a horcrux which doesn’t require the splitting of one’s soul, that is to commit murder murder to create, as it did in the work of J.K. Rowling. All artists are magicians and each diary and book, each symphony and painting, all are a means by which we put a part of our soul into an object, objects with survive us. We survive our deaths through this process, waiting to come alive each time a book is opened.

Although Harry Potter and In Search of Lost Time are miles away in style, content, and story, there is a link between the character Marcel and Voldemort; they’re both afraid of death and go to extremes to prevent it. To these characters, Time is something to be defeated, the greatest of all mass murderers. Although their motives for trying to escape death couldn’t be more different, Time is the antagonist. Voldemort loses his life in search of immortality; the reason for its pursuit, for Voldemort, was a means to an end and the end was more power. Proust’s character Marcel has very different motivations.

In the last book of In Search of Lost Time, Time Regained, or, alternatively, The Past Recaptured, Marcel Proust sees Combray rearrange itself and rise into the sky above him. Throughout the series, which may be the first four-dimensional books ever written, Time is the antagonist. It takes away everything he loved; his mother and his father, the fictional town of Combray and the love of his life, Albertine. His mother, his father, the hawthorns he loved so much; but they come back to him, such as the Madeline cake in tea. In the end, he begins the book we’ve finished and, in that moment, Death and Time are defeated; he has survived death through hiding his soul away in a book. And if you want to listen, if you are inclined, open a volume of In Search of Lost Time, and Marcel Proust will speak to you. Across time and space, he’ll speak to you.

The immortal mother theory, the theory that all animals from every species go back to one mother, is compatible with the concept of the immortality of meaning. Different letters can be arranged to produce different expressions in phylum and language. But what is meaning? Does it exist independently of human beings? The answer to the prior question must be the answer to the following: is there emotion elsewhere, in other species? Yes. The answer is yes. Elephants mourn the dead. Alpacas can die from loneliness. Meaning is something that is to be applied after consideration of action, thought, and behavior

Meaning is immortal and requires only sentient beings, who can evaluate, of course, to be able to extract meaning from what they think. The meaning behind the great works of literature, unlike the works themselves, is in the air, intangible, capable only of being recognized, plucked from the ether to imbue our work with light and worth. And it leaves us here, haunting pages, year after year through the ages.

Bite Sized Philosophy, 24 July 2015: Writing

Big questions, small answers: Bite Sized Philosophy for 24 July 2015: Writing

(A little late on this one, was lulled to sleep by the dulcet tones of a Jack the Ripper documentary before posting.)

To be a writer is not a conscious choice I remember making. I liked rhyming words together as far back as I could hold a pen. Just stringing same-sounding words together as a 5 year old, that’s how I started. Original stories wouldn’t be finished until I was 11 or 12. Nothing that I would be consider properly written stories. I made the choice to write for a living after selling a science-fiction stories when I was 17. It was craft, from that point, and to be good at any given craft, you have to see the craft done well. I’ve read a lot, and extensively. Seeing a thing done well helps an aspiring writer, to help them understand what makes great books great books and how to tell one’s own stories well.

To be genuine is as important as it is to be talented, as it is to be hardworking. The quality of hard work is as important as talent because without hard work, none of that talent comes out; it is of no use. I don’t know why I continue writing. It takes forever to do something substantive, and the research and revisions and drafting — this is all laborsome stuff, none of it tremendously fun. When I don’t get something down, however, I feel like a day is wasted. So I feel that I must get something done every day, and I always do; there are on-going projects, one-off essays and – what I still enjoy – writing down words that rhyme, things we in the biz refer to as ‘poems.’

It has a higher calling, that of art, of course, and the literature of a culture greatly shapes and help define that culture. And it is a great source of catharsis for the stereotypical tortured artists of the world. It is one of the most persistent, long running traditions in sedentary human culture, that of chronicling, since the early epic of Gilgamesh and Holisheads chronicles of the English, a source of history from which Shakespeare took ideas for plays and poetry.

If it gives you a purpose, to write, to partake in the creation of art, of whatever form it takes, then it is a profession of nobility and purpose. It is to me personally, and in aggregate, historically. For me, the restlessness of needing to write is like the persistence of having to take a shit. It is a great motivational feeling, leaves you feeling nauseous and uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable when you can’t find somewhere to get it done. It is sometimes a long and painful process. You can feel great relief, even if you’re not always proud of the result. After all, sometimes it’s just shit.

Siamese Solution – short, 22 July 2015

Marie and Jean were conjoined twins born into a society that had never before seen such an oddity: Marie was in control of all physical function, hand-movement, motor-control, and, though Jean had ambitions and desires of her own, as she could feel all of the same sensations as her twin, she could not act on them independently; they had the unusual arrangement that when Marie was feeling kind, she’d let her twin, head poised to the side – on her left shoulder – she’d do what Jean found exciting and pleasurable, but only to the extent to which she found it pleasurable as well. If Marie held a flame to the palm of a hand Jean couldn’t control, she still felt the fire; if Marie had indigestion, Jean felt it in her stomach, the nausea. Though they shared the same physical receptors, their responses to pain and pleasure, what one would love the other would hate, were sometimes wildly inconsistent. As were their attitudes towards the murder of another person.

One night as Jean slept, unaware that Marie was moving through the night – a barely lit figure, a cape and cowl disguising the sleeping head that rested on her shoulder – she had uncomfortable thoughts, images of a woman shouting out and suddenly being silenced. She woke to find herself beneath the cape and desperately trying to move the hands she felt but could not control, as her sister Marie stabbed their mother repeatedly; Jean’s shouting woke their sleeping father, who had been drugged. Marie stuffed the linen cape into Jean’s mouth to stop her shouting, but she was too late to stop her father from over-powering them both, locking them in a small closet, and calling the authorities.

They were put in jail, trial arraigned, and all along – Jean was there beside her, suffering the effects of malnutrition from the prison food, the traumatic stress of being locked away from human contact, and Marie, talking to her jovially at first before, soon tired of Jean’s cries and, finally, refused to write the letters to their father, to say the things Jean most desperately wanted to say; to apologize, to ask for forgiveness. At long last, Marie, annoyed with Jean’s struggles to attempt to take control, began to make a series of cuts along Jean’s mouth, stopping her from speaking; she threatened her inside their cell, threatening to cut the head from her shoulders. So she went quiet until her voice got softer and softer still, and finally her vocal-chords atrophied, leaving her unable to speak.

When the trial came along, Jean was unable to protest the sentencing of her sister – despite what a sentence would due to her, as a feeling, thoughtful human being – as Marie was unrepetant in her mother’s death, and she was unable to speak on her behalf. Her father appealed to the conscience of the jury, asking them to consider the ‘mostly’ silent suffering of Jean, who could not speak, control her sister’s movements, or those actions:

‘Should she – dear, sweet Jean – be put to death along with her sister, cruel Marie? She had no control over the death of her mother and my wife and had she not screamed, I surely would have died as well. I urge you to not put her to death to revenge the death of my wife through the death of my Marie. Is this justice?’

Briefly Available: the first chapter (after prologue) of the Chameleon Mirror “

A NEW YEAR’S EVE

1

“I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. A play, a book? Is it modern?”

Late for our party now, Lain and I, with little fashion to it: we were part of the show. Supposed to be, at least. I imagined Camille, fellow worker, my poor dear. She watched from the skyloft, always moving, pulling ropes. She was pretty and tall and confused, the cute kind you don’t get frustrated with, not the kind that owes you money. I spent a lot of time with her, above that stage, it was unforgiving; unforgiving lights, seemingly asking you the question:

“Shame today, mademoiselle?”

“No, sir Roilet,” I’d say.

Never!

Lying already. Father’d be proud.

It would have been me up there, the horror, in front of the drunks, hanging on the words they knew by-heart and under those lights, those unforgiving lights, the tradition for our family theatre at Rouge Point; just a New Year’s party, really. An excuse to make speeches and reenact the fire of ’68. The new theatre rose out of that dust and rubble.

No one’s sure how it started, that fire. My father maybe, my grandfather? Maybe grandmother, she hated the skin. Of course that doesn’t stop the stories, the myths. The (most common) legend goes:

Three men came in to see the show. Back then, in grandpa’s time, there was no pretense to art or history. It was a high-class brothel, but a brothel nonetheless. Pillars and silk curtains it may have had, but whatever frame you put around it, it was a whorehouse. And these three men came in, in tailored suits and slick hair, nice shoes. They ordered wine and women, not an uncommon order, and were served. They got drunk, but who’s to judge? it was welcomed, encouraged even, by the staff and employees. Drunk customers part with more than sober customers.

Having had their fill of wine and women, they refused to pay, and papa tried to have them tossed. A fight ensued, enlarged by tradition now into an epic struggle, and somewhere in the third act a table caught fire. Then it spread to the curtains, then the termite-infested stage, and within an hour the firefighters were in the parking lot with grandma, who had taken up arms against the flames in her nightgown and curlers, doing battle with the flames.

By the time the sun came up the fire died, but the sun lit only the ruins of grandpa’s theatre, and when it was rebuilt, he left the running of the theatre to grandma, but she had no taste for it. She oversaw its rebuilding, but had little interest in it otherwise. When mother came of age, she rebranded it and tried to make it into something a little more artistic.

I tried mother’s mobile phone again. Because I’m a sadist, apparently.

“Still not answering,” I said.

“It’s after midnight,” said Alain.

“It’s always after midnight,” I said. Always cold.

Twelve-oh-one.

And quiet in the car.

Twelve-oh-one, the clock blinked neon red:

12:01

12:01

12:02

Alain was born Charles-Alain Pinon, a name he hated – so what does one do? what mothers do: call them the name they hate so they’ll know you’re mad. We met at University and lived in Paris, then. A handsome man, Charles. 29 and afraid of turning 30, a cliché to be sure; journalist, critic, on a pedestal of his own design. He worked with me at my family’s theatre La petite illusion (The Little Illusion) – which my mother ran; he was a ‘jack-of-all trades, master of none,’ as he would say: he did the story-boards, set-design, writing, props, arranged the score, the dialogue – all of that fell on him. He stocked the prop store, the character store. I stayed behind the scenes, running backgrounds, pulling props into view for the audience, and generally hiding the frames of Lain’s illusion. We lived in a different time, Lain and I, a romantic past, circling an antique toilet drain, with Madea and Jason, Falstaff and Madame Butterfly. The golden age of tragedy had passed.

We were returning to a canton in Marseille, La Pointe-Rouge – my childhood home, south of an imaginary line someone had to draw to remove. We had driven down the week before, for the Christmas play, and were staying on my mother’s estate. The lines along the road were golden, bright-yellow and blinking as we passed and faster, faster, blurred and then smudged into a long streak, blinking out in the rearview mirror.

It wasn’t a long drive but it got to me. The claustrophobia of that car. It used to be my dad’s, I’m told. I turned on the radio. Static, hissing and scratching between channels; blips of weather forecasts, rain commercials, up-coming shows and local news, announcements.

….From Saint-Roch Mont Fleuri were re–

Lain’s long, twitching, nervous fingers slid an unmarked disk into the rustic, faithful CD player and the static hum ran short, trailing off and in came a moaning violin, a cello, a piano too; a soft voice, somber, Vocalise. Rachmaninoff! soundtrack to suicide, each note a different color, first blue and soft and vulnerable, a symphony of shameful pinks and white, low white, ivory and softer, pouring from the speakers like shy smoke. For Anna, maybe? That coming train; Or was it for Alain?

12:11

12:11

12:12

Alain turned up the heat and turned away, looking from the window into the dark, taking in the sights. The view of the Catalan sea was striking; deep blue. almost black but speckled white like birds’ eggs. A calm sea and a calm sky, still, a perfect mirror where the Earth and Heaven met, where the sky hit the water and turned in upon itself, scattering spare stars across the surface, lighting, if but a touch, that lonely port. Abandoned now. No more war. Not now, at least, just monuments; there will be more. Monuments to monuments, that monolithic road up Le corniche;

La prada first, then not far off, the familiar Le Porte de l’Orient –  a war memorial. And like the war more beautiful at night, in silhouette, exquisite in the dark but dismal in the clearer eye of day, more-so than port Vallan des Auffres, small and popular among d’jeunes; so exclusive in fact no one went.

The coast is famously picaresque; a major tourist attraction in summer months and, as it is with traps, embarrassing out of season, when it’s spoiled. One façade after another, as though a mad God woke from a long nod in a gaudy mood, and decided on a countryside. It met with harsh reviews.

There’s nothing to see but the view.

12:21

“Are you excited?” Lain asked.

12:32

“I suppose,” I said. “Mom enjoys it all. Getting drunk and burning down the stage.”

He laughed.

“Someday, it’ll be all yours,” he said. “You’ll have to burn it all down too, someday. My question is, would you put the fire out?”

I wouldn’t. I remembered a quote, I’d burn the world to the ground if I could be Queen of the Ashes.

“Play Madame Butterfly.”

12:41

Un bel di, vedremo

            Levarsi un fil di fumo…

Such beauty, such colorful and velvet words ,so vibrant and trembling, and red! a red rose… Alive and pulsing, passionate vibrations — the type of music that might lullaby a mad God …

Sull’estremo confin del mare.

            E poi la nave appare…

I put the call through again. No answer. Again, no answer. Again and again and again. Lain hadn’t noticed this errant behavior, listening to the music. I called her private phone.

Poi la nave bianca

            entra nel porto…

“She never answers,” I told Lain. “It makes me wonder. How does she become busy? She never answers the phone. She doesn’t answer the door.”

… romba il suo saluto.

            Vedi? È venuto!

“Don’t you know,” said Lain, “women of her stature and repute have people on hand, you know, to be busy for them in.”

I laughed.

“Have you tried the desk?”

I nodded.

“I’ve never gotten through to anyone at that place,” he said.

“My mother thinks,” I said, “she thinks that if the line is always tied up, the caller will assume the place is busy. If it’s busy, then it’s open. Someone’s there. She leaves it off the hook when we lock up! If it’s always busy, then someone’s there, and if someone’s talking, that means two! Then it’s a great place to be! Exciting! Packed! Phones ringing! If people were able to get information about the hours, the shows, the schedules, they wouldn’t know anything about the place.”

Io non gli scendo incontro. Io no…

            I know.

            Mi metto là sul ciglio del colle e aspetto…

“I’ll give that to her,” I said. “My mother knows how to work the Chinese cheese.”

12:49

“What the hell is ‘Chinese cheese?” Lain asked.

I laughed. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

“Mother calls some customers Chinese cheese, the customers who ‘ne peut pas dire un hamburger de bifteck.’”

Translators note: ‘The difference between steak and hamburger meat.’

“So, you don’t have to put any real effort into it?”

“Exactly.”

E aspetto gran temp

            e non mi pesa…

            La lunga attesa

            I tried to call again. Marie Callas in one ear, phone in the other. I hoped she wouldn’t answer. That creepy voice-mail picked up, the automatic voicemail with the passive-aggressive robot voice. I let it finish.

            “Answer your God damn phone woman!”

E uscito dalla folla cittadina,

            un uomo, un picciol punto…

The familiar sights rose out of the darkness. Lain paused the music before the next verse started. The square was dark, lights off at the boutique and the rental stores, for ties and coats, even dresses, ties. My mother ran that too. Poor Camille, so shy. I wondered if my mother noticed it wasn’t me. Camille’s about my height, but a little taller, and skinnier with longer hair, down to her shoulders with bangs. And mine, sigh, says mother, sigh, ‘It’s just too short. Girls your age should have long hair. You don’t want to look like a boy, do you?”

Do you? DO YOU? DO YOU?!

Lain was gathering his things, headphones, pens, that valise, that stinking horrible old valise he wouldn’t throw away, ugh. It smelled. Cabbage and soup and age like a derelict house, stained with ashes and scuffs but he wouldn’t throw it out. I gave him a new one, for his birthday, and it was authentic leather with elegant trim (white and pleated) and it matched the writer/artist character he went for so well. He never used it. Ingrate!

S’avvia per la collina.

            Chi sarà? chi sarà?

“Your mother hasn’t answered?” a kind question. If you see someone quiet, when they’re going to a party, they’re having a situation. Say something.

It was 1 am.

“They’re probably too loud to hear it,” I say. I call again.

“Busy, call me back!”

“We’re about there,” I say. I put the phone in my purse.

“They’ve probably already started. I imagined Tragos, that poor Janitor in his goat costume. It’s an old tradition, and it goes back to the first performances. They sacrifice a goat (Tragos) before a performance, to the Gods. For a good review I assume.

“It’s a tradition, Renette. Like the Romans did.”

We could see smoke over the trees that broke around the corner.

E come sarà giunto

            che dirà?

“I guess they’ve started,” says Alain. He seemed disappointed, adding: “I really wanted to talk to Falstaff. “

We pulled into the parking lot. It was empty. The back part of the theatre was on fire. The theatre production had been big, a deep-space show, lots of moving boards; we had to use pulleys for each measured distance. It was a lot to burn down. I imagined them lined around the drapes, my mother leading the mob. Petrol along the edge of the sets, the sliding boards, and Renée was there, a timid stagehand, to watch each little scene, each background she had painted, each knock-off Turner, but she tried. She had to watch them burn.

Che dirà?

I locked the car doors. Alain slung his bag over his shoulder. The lobby was dark, and I thought everyone must be gathered by the fire in the back. There was a lot of scenery to burn. All of Renée’s little trees, her birds, those pastel skies.

1:11

The parking lot was overflowing, full of familiar cars and colors. But the lights were strangely dim despite the fire in the backlot. A packed house, it seemed, but eerie and quiet. Lain had his headphones on, still listening to Madame Butterfly. His yaourt was spot on.

(Yaourt is French slang, to yogurt, to mumble lyrics you don’t know).

No one was at the desk in the lobby. We went to the worker’s entrance. Locked! Someone I didn’t recognize looked my way then ran. A burst of fire lit the sky. The ground shook, we backed away from the door as the glass shattered in the frame and rained on the walkway in front of us, sparkling and glittering in the light. It was beautiful.

Lain shook me, jarring me back into the moment.

He reached into the empty frame and unlocked the door. We ran in. The carpet was dim but visible, a low red, crimson almost. There were two doors to enter at either end: one to the Director’s box, the other to the gallery (the auditorium, the seats.) The seating gallery was staggered, a raked gallery, rising upward, so two inclined paths led toward the proscenium arch. I looked into the auditorium; the stage was lit, the house-lights were down, but the seats appeared to be filled. And they were; each seat had a dead patron watching a stage of actors, dead as well, on their backs–in full costume and masked, quiet. Lain had to shake me again:

“You have to call your mother,” he said.

No answer.

“I’m trying!”

“What should we do?” he said.

“I’ve got to call Emergency-12,” I said. I didn’t know what else to do.

“Fuck that!” he said. “I’m American. Nobody does violence like this except Americans. Not like this. Nobody does over-the-top violence like Americans.”

We walked up and down the rows of seats, each audience member glued into their seats – literally, glued and not the good way, their hands and arms along their armrests.

“We have to do something?”

“I’ve got priors,” Lain said. “It’s up to you.”

The fire was encroaching the stage and two more thunderous jets of fire let loose. I thought of my mother on stage in that Paris theatre.

“They’re going to blame me,” he said. “I know it. This is fucked up. This is something I’d do for a story.”

I put in a call to Emergency one-12.

“Emergency,” a voice said. A more human passive-aggressive robot. “Police or ambulance?”

“Both,” I said.

And it begins …

“Troy has fallen.”

What?

“Troy has fallen…”

12:59

12:59

1:00
_______________________________________

1

A NEW YEAR’S DAY

1:00

“Troy has fallen!”

MY MOTHER DRESSED AS CLYTEMNESTRA, HEAD of poor Tragos in one hand, a prop-sword in the other.

“Troy has fallen!”

The crowd erupts like Spartan whores, a sea of glittering flammable faces smiling, applauding, whistling.

            Clytemnestra was the wife of King Agamemnon, a queen – my mother loved the role. Queen and executioner,

The plastic sword fell silent along the cotton head of Tragos, our poor Janitor in drag, on hands and knees.

Off it comes and so the head rolls down, down, down, off the stage into the gallery. A thespian scoops it up:

“Happy New Year!”

“Happy New Year!” comes the echo.

The crowd erupts like Spartan whores, a sea of glittering flammable faces smiling, applauding, whistling. The gallery of poorly lit tables on floor-level rose in my imagination. The clapping, smattering politely, died away in my memory. The sirens and lights approached ever faster.

            My mother loved the role, the Queen. Queen and executioner:

And so the plastic sword falls silent along the cotton head of Tragos, our poor Janitor in drag, on hands and knees.

Off it comes and so the head rolls down, down, down, off the stage into the gallery. A thespian scoops it up:

“Happy New Year!”

“Happy New Year!” comes the echo. It echoed in my head. I could hear the sirens coming, then. Lain had put himself in the least suspicious looking spot, and sat on the sidewalk in front of the visitor’s entrance. He tucked in his shirt, combing his hair. He took off his headphones, put his things in the prop-store, his cabbage smelling valise and sketches. He threw away his cigarettes, too. Such subtlety in his guilt. He kept quiet as I tried to explain it to the police, why a burning backlot wasn’t a cause for immediate alarm.

“It’s a tradition,” I said. “After the Christmas play, we celebrate the new season by burning the sets.”

One officer was walking around taking photographs. Another with a flashlight, coordinating with the fire-truck that had arrived to put out the fire. Only the backstage area had been burnt. The stage, for the most part, had survived. The audience, all of them creepily sitting up-straight with their eyes pried open. Row after row, adults and younger members of the audience, men and women. Young boys and girls.

The police officer was polite enough. Lain was questioned separately. I was hoping he told the truth.

“What’s your name, miss?” the officer said. He looked at me keenly, scrutinizing my expression.

“Renette, sir,” I said. “Renette Brisbois.”

“Are you from around here?”

He must have been new.

“I grew up here,” I said. “I went to Lycee Montgrande, the drama-school. I went to University in Paris, with my friend. He works with me here.”

“This is your theatre?”

“My mother’s,” I said. “I just work here. Me and Lain–” he gestured. I nodded. “Yes, him.”

“How can we get in touch with the owner?” he asked.

“My mother,” I said.

“What’s her name?”

“Mme. Nanty,” I said.

His eyebrow rose. He knew her, I assumed. I was surprised he didn’t know where he was. After that it was a much smoother conversation, he was more helpful, less suspicious of my every answer.

“Do you have someone to call?” he asked. “Where’s your dad?”

“I don’t know,” I said. He let the matter rest.

“We’re staying on Mme. Nanty’s estate,” I said. “Is there anything else we can do?”

He handed me a copy of the information he took down and gave me a number to call if I heard from my mother. It hadn’t hit, how surreal it was. A gallery full of up-right patrons, eyes wide an attentive. What a play that’d make! And Lain had the same idea, I saw: he sketched it as we drove back to our apartment. Madame Bovary’s wailing recommenced.

Chiamerà Butterfly dalla lontana.

            Io senza dar risposta…

            And down the peak the scenes ran in reverse. We eased down the monolithic peak at Le corniche and not far off La prada, then the familiar Le Port de l’Orient. Monuments unto monuments. Soon they’ll make all monuments to better monuments, more articulate and perfect in testament to their art, each a better reflection of expression and aesthetic than the last.

Me ne starò nascosta

            un po’ per celia…

            “Your grandfather went to the war, didn’t he?” asked Lain.

E un po’ per non morire

            al primo incontro…

            “He was part of the Resistance,” I said. “What that means to me, to the French, is that he refused to serve good food to the enemies. They didn’t get the true Parisian experience. That whole story, the burning of the theatre, that was blamed on soldiers. I think my father burnt it down.”

He laughed.

“My grandmother, or my grandfather,” I said, “they hated running the place. My grandmother was insulted by it all. Working in a theatre, you really get to see the depravity of people. You think you know?”

“I’m American,” he said.

“Point taken.”

“So your father burnt it down?”

“What?”

“You said your father burnt it down,” he said.

“No, well, my grandfather. I think he burnt it down. For attention.”

“No press is bad press,” he said. He let the matter rest.

Ed egli alquanto in pena

            chiamerà, chiamerà…

            The sun came up behind them, the monuments, each more ghostly in the dark. It looked much better, backlit by the sun, each new light that fell upon it spoiled the view. And the lonely port was getting busy, at least busier, and then where we started along the row of façades, one after the other, Vallan des Auffres. So exclusive, still no one there. How different everything is in different light!

I nomi che mi dava al suo venire.

            Tutto questo avverrà

            te lo prometto…

            “Are you tired?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said. “I hate to say it, but it–wasn’t it–it was inspirational. That whole thing, wasn’t it? Theatre-lens: the audience is forced to watch, like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, with their eyes pride-open with little lid-locks. The whole theatre, crazy. I’ll never forget it.”

I agreed.

“I wish we could hold an audience like that,” I said. Poor taste, but true. “You have to exaggerate the violence just to keep them awake now.”

“‘Too many notes, too many notes.'”

            Tienti la tua paura,

            io con sicura fede l’aspetto…

The sun was up now, and with it the sea its wild hair tussling, breaking at the helms of ships and swimmers, the Catalan, it had been black but blue now, light and clear. Little skiffs were on the water, boats, some modest and quite old. Kids playing along on old wooden piers, dangerous really, and such a drop off. A line of homes and cobblestone. Smoke rising into the air, the birds were up and singing. Lain was asleep, the sun catching the top of his dirty-brown hair, that sleep-crust in his eyes, that big bottom lip. An insane little drunken angel, my Alain. And he timed that song that way, Madame Butterfly…

There was nothing to see but the view.

Bite Sized Philosophy, 20 July 2015: Skepticism

In academia, a student is often brought to answer a uniquely pressing question: what lends credibility to one person’s ideas over the opinion of another person, if both are of equal standing and repute? Experts are commonly those who have achieved repute and influence due to a demonstration of understanding and practical application of their ideas in their field; someone who has demonstrated their understanding through application  is still subject to peer-review, like all academics. So once they pass through the review-process and have the esteem of a university or educational group, do they become the experts from which we, without skepticism, accept the ideas and foundation of a reasoned structure and work within the structure put forth by said expert?

Continue reading

On Inspiration – 24 July 2015

Inspiration is a great motivational force in the creation of art, in the performance of duty, in writing and painting and music. We hear about the Muse, Calliope for writing poetry (there are nine according to Hesiod — including Clio, discoverer of history and guitar. Seriously) and we assume that all great art is great because of inspiration, genius, or prodigious skill. Mozart’s music is often seen as inexplicable works of effortless talent and ability. This may be true of some of his music, but it does a disservice to what was surely the product of a life of endless hours of practice, time, and effort put towards the creation of such works as Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and his piano concertos. It makes an excuse for any failure on behalf of the practitioner of creation, to think that all such work is the product of nature’s endowment, an endowment not afforded everyone at birth. It is an excuse.

This assumption of prodigy can misplace the admiration in the creation of such work: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, took nearly 20 years; of course he had great natural talent and ability, but talent is nothing without being willing to put that kind of effort into a work of art, to spend that much time getting it right. Surely there was great inspiration behind the movement that brought those works to our attention, but to admire only talent or genius is misplaced: the admiration of study, hard work, and dedication should be just as important.

If everyone in the business of creating art was waiting on the dictates of the muse, we’d might have less terrible artwork but assuredly we’d have less great works too. less works we assume to be the products of great inspiration and motivation. Inspiration, then, is less a divine flourish that spills purely and perfectly onto a page and more of a constant factor in pushing someone towards the completion of their work. Do not wait for Calliope by the time she arrives, you should be too busy to notice. After all, no great work of art has ever been accomplished by thinking really hard about it. 

Essay: The Doctor is Sick – Dissecting Dostoevsky (2015)

FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY IS NOW PARTLY MYTH.
He is perhaps as popular in the English speaking world as he is in his native Russia. His work is that of an exaggerated naturalist by tradition and a psychologist in practice. He is deservingly famed for his intensive, microscopic analysis of the human condition and the psychological insight that is be found in his more fleshed out characters… Continue reading

Bite Sized Philosophy, 16 July 2015: Happiness

A subject about which I know very little, but as an American, I’m perfectly comfortable discussing shit I don’t quite understand.

How brief our joy, how long our sorrows. Today I’ll be discussing something I know very little about: celebration and happiness.

Happiness is the moment, or a series of moments, punctuated, for me, by longer, more boring stretches of reality, when there are no story arcs, no great movements or performances, no lasting impact or appreciation. For me, the moments of happiness that I’ve had have been mostly of the chemically induced variety. But I’d like to think I get it. I’ve been happy before. I’m sure of that. We have this abstract idea in our minds that happiness is an insoluable mystery, something that can’t really be quantified or labeled with precision. Maybe it can’t. Maybe it’s like love, and like love it does more to service fountains of bad poetry and song than anything, but we celebrate our happiness because of its brevity, because it strips away the bars of our civilization and lets us return to a more innocent time, a time where we didn’t have a multitude of different threads going on in our heads, when we didn’t have schedules and due dates and deadlines, when the moment was all there was and, for what we knew, the moment was all there’d be. I’m sure I thought that once, that what I felt like in the moment could somehow be preserved, either by continuing in the indulgence that brought the feeling to me, by loving and feeling loved in return, by making music and sharing it with friends, making love and sharing it with friends. By writing stories, a long and arduous process, and sharing it with friends.

To me, the happiest moments of my life have been moments shared, since they, in their rarity, are made more punctuated by that novelty, the novelty of unfamiliarity. What becomes the every day, the common, the grind, whenever something you love to do turns into that, a common drudgery, it loses the spark of the moment, the happy isolation in a self-deceived state of well-being. If you have sorrow in your heart and on your mind, it tends to embue everything you touch. It is a type of muck, a slime that clings to the ink of the stained person whose imagination calls it out. And the words of happy people are trembling and ecstatic, embodying the moments, celebrating their brevity, and when we read of these moments, of any moments of intensity, whether sorrowful or happy, when we reflect on them, when we think about how large they loom in mind after years and years have passed, there is a diminishment of the melancholy they might have held, and a celebration to be sure that, for one moment, we were together, and in that moment together, we were, if briefly, happy, whatever it meant, if it meant nothing, we could say, as Eric Idle sang in The Life of Brian: Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it. Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true. You’ll see it’s all a show, keep ’em laughing as you go, just remember that the last laugh is on you.

Essay: Hagiography, the Mary Sue, and Sherlock Holmes

MARY SUE NOVELS ARE MUCH MALIGNED IN
literary circles and among the intelligentsia. It is also the first idea a non-writer has for a story. Because of a very unique psychological blind-spot called self-bias, it is natural for us to believe in the quality of our uniqueness and the intensely interesting aspects of our lives. Because of this, it’s hard to convey our memories with the emotion intended because that emotion is unique to us. Our importance in regards to our own story is profound and without doubt… Continue reading

Poem: Another Yesterday

Breathe
Awake
A little stroll
another day’s assembly rolled
Off the line for but a time
And La, de, da it goes.

Sunshine
The quilt of day
Under which the children play
Breathe
A walk
A little talk
It cannot last they say
and our tomorrow will become
another yesterday

Sunshine, the quilt of day,
Under which the flowers lay
Breathing, a walk
Nobody’s talk
It will not last they say.
All tomorrow’s in the end
are our dead yesterdays.

Light in strands bejewel the lawn
The birds red morning’s wake up song
The crickets chirp away
Languid sky the clouds sail by
Around a carousel of why

Laughter, someone’s in the room
Flares through the night like fireflies
Amidst the pearl studded sky
The moon in golden fleeces by
For all lived and nothing die

Flowers in the windows bloom
A sonorous song and cheap perfume
The lilac down the wall
Yesterday the sun was read
Today turned opaque purple dead
Stars look through their narrow holes
In the Heaven by the Foal
Another off the line has rolled
Only to roll again, again,
That stone on the back
we beggar’s call sins

Another yesterday appears
A figure in the future reared
The shadows of tomorrow leer.
Vague shapes silhouettes and gray
To like a doll’s face wither fray
There goes another day,
And one more is gone

How long is the song before,
the sojourn life our last detour
The door creaks shut and
there, alone,
Into our silent catacombs
Our Sleeping Chamber just below
To go
The undiscovered country and the row
Turns nothing day is gone
Back where we beings all call home
Those silent dust filled catacombs
Into that category gone
Jump rope and etch a sketch
And songs
Barbershop quartet sing alone’s
Children’s laughter, rum-tum-tum
Daffodils and bubblegum
The flowers fall under the Sun.

The Make-Believe Ballroom – Full Novel (2004)

THE MAKE BELIEVE BALLROOM: A Novel (Full text, from 2004)

_________________________

For those who think, “It has to be better somewhere.
And for those who know it’s not.
Book 1

The book can produce an addiction as fierce as heroin or nicotine, forcing us to spend much of our lives, like junkies, in book shops and libraries, those literary counterparts to the opium den.

—Philip Adams

If all else fails, tell the truth. If that fails, write a book about it.

—Roger Solomon Manwell
Prologue

Of all character traits, emotional and psychological, insanity and a sense of humor are the most human. Few penguins have been observed telling knock-knock jokes. Beavers are likewise humorless creatures, if, of course, you exclude the sinister comedy that is their lives. They’re furry little construction workers with shitty jobs, short life-spans, and their eloquent log homes have little retail value. Raccoons are thieves and lions are lazy, but only a human being can be a maniac and comedian and get paid for it. Crazy lions don’t get shit. No one laughs at Llamas. Except crazy people.
Is that what makes a man a man? The knock-knock jokes and whoopee cushions? Is it those eat the can of donkey spleen and salamander testicles for the grand prize television shows? Is this what it is to be man, grandest creature of all, Homo Sapiens? What would Freud say about that kind of shit? What sets man above the other creatures? Pi, Pies in the face, super soakers, aids, super computers, philosophy and nuclear war? The mind has always been my obsession—the reasons, the why’s, you know, the philosopher’s alibis.
Beavers share a common bond with men. We’re both silly creatures. We’re silly enough to be duped into monogamy, but every now and then our mates catch us being men. That always leads to trouble, for beavers and for men. We’re knotted like a thick blonde braid with these working-class quadrupeds. Makes you want to sing, doesn’t it? Ah, singing. Singing is a beautiful thing, in humans and in nature, but there are few animals capable of playing the piano.
Is that what it is that separates us? Our grand symphonies and operas? Indeed, more to me has been said of God through Ave Maria than the Bible or Koran or Bhagavad-Gita. Surely there is mania, subtle, poetic and graceful mania, in these masterworks of human thought. There is a bit of mania in music, like the Vedas, spiritual chants, Voodoo ritual dances and primitive drums. Insanity can be beautiful. Insanity can be noble.
Insanity is apparent in other areas of nature, of course. There are faint traces of it in other animals, but to a lukewarm degree; it’s rare to find a zebra in a book depository building with a bolt action rifle looking to start some shit. They’ve got those hooves, hard to grip a rifle with a stumped up foot, you see. But a human has the ability and the inclination to do this. They have the beliefs to justify it. It is just as easy for them to justify their beliefs as it is for me to justify mine.
Nothing interests me more than these peculiar bipeds. It’s easy to condemn them as irrational creatures with a penchant for doing incredibly stupid and crazy shit. Exhibit A: Mardi Gras. It sure is fun though. I’ve been arrested at Mardi Gras a couple of times. You might’ve seen me on the episode of cops dedicated to Mardi Gras. The show staggered the imagination. Outlaw bandits ran around with flopping tits, covered with fancy, multi-colored beads. They rolled around on the ground covered in piss, vomit, and alcohol. God bless America.
Swimming pools are hard evidence in support of my argument. Anyone that spends more than ten minutes in a man made puddle should be sent to the corner to think about what they’ve done. They should be removed from their home for their third offence. No soup for them, either. They will learn the error of their ways or die. Murdering someone because they like to go for a swim is a bit extreme, but they have to learn somehow.
What am I trying to say? You could ask. Simple: human beings are wonderfully insane creatures. There’s something fascinating about how the circuitry of a burnt out mind works. I imagine dark rows of bluish diodes shifting about with occasional sparks like lightning bugs in tangled trees. This was my obsession.
This is what brought me to Herman.
I’ve invented a simple test to determine whether or not you’re insane. If you fail this test, you’ll probably enjoy my little story. If you pass it, I don’t like you. Tell me if this sounds familiar:
It’s three o’clock in the morning. You’re hungry, bored, and having trouble getting to sleep. You put on your robe, tie it, and head downstairs to look for some food. You open the fridge. You explore behind milk cartons, jugs of tea, tin-foiled covered bowls from yesterday. You find nothing. You give up and return to your room. This is normal. Food is necessary.
Thirty minutes later, you repeat the process, thinking, “Maybe I missed something.” This is not a reasonable excuse. This is not rational. Congratulations! You are insane.
Ever contemplated the origin of the cosmos while taking a shit? If so, once again, you are insane. Interesting person, perhaps. Insane, definitely.
Put this book down and look around. (You have to pick it back up or you’ll hurt my feelings. Could you live with that on your conscience?) If there are any signs of swimming trunks you must commit yourself immediately for the safety of your family. Do it for the kids man! The kids! Would you want them to turn out like me? For heaven’s sake man, something must be done. It’s a shame that there are people that share my outlook. What do I want to do with my life? Waste it. Waste it and enjoy wasting it. I’m ashamed of being human, and proud of it.
My grandmother is a kind woman. She had five children and, when my grandfather had open heart surgery, she had to support them all by working twelve hours a day and six days a week in a cotton mill just to buy them shoes and keep them fed. She had no concern for herself and wore the same rotted pair of Reebok’s for at least fifteen years before we got her a new pair for Mother’s day.
She was just a wee lass when the Titanic was swallowed whole by the hungry gullet of the sea. In the summer. we walked around in her fenced in yard to look for June bugs. We’d tie their legs to a stick once we found them just to watch ‘em fly around in circles. She collected porcelain angels and did her crossword puzzles every night. Other than that, she played a mean harmonica. I’ve never met a more superstitious person. In twenty seven years, she never missed a day of church. In keeping with the law of the Lord, she never cursed when angry; she spelled the words out. Sometimes my uncle was an ‘a double s.’
She thought a cross could keep her toilet from overflowing. Some quiet nights she stood in front of that American standard porcelain God shouting, with her crucifix held in front of her, “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!” I couldn’t make this shit up. Superstition is a pure distillation of insanity.
Sorrow, regret, loneliness, heartache – all wonderful traits for human beings – but apparent in other animals. Regret is hard to see in the lower animals (you know, the animals that are too dumb to wear clothes and work at McDonalds) but it’s there. My grandmother’s cat, Entae, a runt of a black tabby with a gimp leg, had to be Italian. She exhibited a lot of common human characteristics. Other than cat food, she’d only eat ham and lasagna, spaghetti, rigatoni. Baloney was out of the question.
After eating about eight bowls of lasagna one night, I believe she regretted it almost as much as my mother, who had to truck down the stairs at three in the morning with a plastic baggy bought with the sole intention of scooping up cat shit and other less friendly bodily excretions.
There is more insanity at work here than you might notice at first glance. Let’s examine: there is a company, made of men that launched, funded, and marketed a product to be used primarily in dealing with cat vomit. The logic behind this is staggering. Staggering.
How could this come about? Let’s muse. Want to muse with me? Come on, I’ll be nice. One day there are three young business school grads on a train. They see three cats form a small circle and vomit ritualistically all over their patent leather loafers. A day which will forever live in infamy.
“My god!” says Grad I to the other two with a slack jawed gape. Tiny tendrils of drool dangle from his mouth.
“What did he do this time?” Grad II questions.
Grad III just sits there with a blank gaze. He stares at the birds for a while. “Durrr,” he adds emphatically.
“We could make a product designed for dealing with this situation!”
“Out of what?” asks Grad II. Grad III is still staring across the horizon with a doleful look on his face.
“Little trash bags!” he said.
“Brilliant! We could paint little paws and bones on them. It’d make millions. People love buying stupid shit for their pets.”
“Ahh,” the third one nods in agreement. Together, Grad I and Grad II make Grad III the boss. He sits at his desk and just agrees. His employees consider him ideal for upper management.

I have an uncle that believes dogs have the power to talk, but instead use psychic powers to make people think they’re not talking.
After a cursory glance at daytime television, it becomes obvious that people have little concern for the fact that they only have about fifty years to live. But they’re content to use the one life they’re allotted with spray on hair treatment and boots that turn into roller-skates.
This is a massive universe, staggering in size. Some say it’s terrible, some say it’s wonderful, and some just drink beer, play the lottery, and pay little attention to social matters.
Some believe the universe is wonderful because it brought forth life. There are others that believe it’s terrible for this very reason. Any man that spends a significant amount of time in an IRS building will have little humility before the wonder that is life.
Omar Khayyam had it right in The Rubáiyát:
A moment’s halt – a momentary taste
Of being from the well amid the waste
And Lo! the phantom caravan has reached
The nothing it set out from, oh make haste!
This perspective of Miss Milky way seems to be lost on men who spend their days concerned with raking in as much money as possible so they can have nice cars with digital surround sound and a little voice-operated flip-down DVD screen that can’t be watched while driving. They don’t have peacock tails or feathers, but they do have voice-operated flip-down DVD screens and they work just as well and serve the exact same purpose.
I’ve spent most of my life watching and judging others. No, I’m not Christian: I’m just interested in human behavior.
There is nothing as horribly entertaining as insanity at its most terrible and fabulous: dancing. Dancing is a seizure with style. There’s nothing more insane. Dancing has to be the craziest of all human inventions. More terrible than the atom bomb, more insidious than the first pointed stick someone thought would be nice to fling at a rabbit. More ghastly, perverse, and demented than the sequel to Caddyshack. It chills me to the bone just thinking about it. To the bone.
If our culture is ever unearthed, billions of years in the future, after every single car with digital surround and flip down DVD screens has been buried under thousands of pounds of earthen ash, I pray that a vastly superior alien culture never comes to Earth and stumbles upon Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Richard Simmons. What would the vastly intelligent alien races with pointed ears, glitter, and rhinestone collars think of us then? They’d be laughing from Sirius to the other side of Andromeda. This haunts my dreams.
If we’re ever to move forward as a species, I think that it’s vital, important, pertinent, imperative, necessary and essential to seek out and eliminate every single VHS recording of Michael Jackson’s Thriller just so we don’t embarrass ourselves in front of the other galactic civilizations. What would they think of us then? All our toupees, plastic forks, glide on deodorant, and little cell phones with catchy ring tones can’t beat away the fact that we’re dying and doing a poor job at it. Dying is a lot easier and less complicated than we make it out to be and a lot more entertaining than most people give it credit for.
I always wanted to think that humans had a higher purpose than the other animals. Because we could use microwaves and laser printers, we must’ve been ordained with some important task in life. I don’t know, something more special and fulfilling than playing checkers or slinging burgers out of plastic windows. Could that be our purpose? Life is temporary; plastic lives forever.
After years of research, I found humans to be the least intelligent of all creatures on the Earth.
Every day after work, paid slave labor really, I walked down the walkway with grime and dirt all over me, covered in dust with blood on my elbows. My cat would be asleep in the grass. Just lounging in the sun without anxiety pills, nerve medication, cigarettes, opium or Dairy Queen. She had no care or worry about paying her light bill or the cat across the street with the great personality and caring eyes. Nothing. The sun, the grass, and the occasional grasshopper is enough for her. She is not cursed with consciousness.
My neighbor’s cat would be stalking mine. A dog would wait for the right moment to surprise attack on the cat too occupied with my cat to know what was about to happen. Of course, there are drawbacks to being forever carefree. Cars. Cats are often hit by cars. Humans are often hit by cars. Cats still come out on top. In lieu of the fact that they just get hit by them and don’t have to pay for them beforehand, they win.
If you didn’t laugh at that, you’re communist.

So, ladies and gentleman, what higher purpose do we have? Working at a fast food joint doesn’t seem to be a divine business venture. Functional, yes. Divine? Far from it. And, for some reason, I don’t believe that popping pimples has much to do with the Glory of God or the penultimate destiny of the universe. Call me crazy, but I don’t see how this really matters in the grand scheme of things.
This talk of insanity reminds me of something a friend used to chant when presented with something he didn’t understand: “Crazy? I went crazy once. They put me in a box. The worms ate through the box. I hate worms. Worms make me crazy. Crazy? I went crazy once. They put me in a box. The worms ate through the box. Worms make me crazy. Crazy? I went crazy once…”

Why lapse into this rambling inanity now, you could ask. Halfway through the story, the necessity of this small squib of a prologue will become apparent. This story is about an old man whom many in our small redneck mill village believed to be crazy. Crazy? I went crazy once…
A cousin of mine once wrote to the senator of our great state of South Carolina. She had a wild theory about why everything, as she put it, was kickin’ up dog shit:
“Dear Mr. Man in Charge,
Ninety-nine percent of children that get involved with drugs, gangs, violence, and small after school republican groups, have ketchup in their system. Coincidence? I think not.”
There has yet to be a reply. Sad sad sad.
She lived alone in a small box-like apartment. The same kind of apartment Herman lived in. Apartments in some parts of the south are ground level, like homes, and have front porches, back porches, and a clothesline divided up between the houses. They’re made of brick and insulated but dank. These are the kind of apartments that always leak when it rains.
Herman Prince was a guitar, dobro, mandolin, fiddle, piano, saxophone, and music theory teacher. He spent a lot of time in front of his house shouting at pigeons, begging them to have some of his bread. I once saw him using tape and cardboard to fix a broken window on his car. The first time I saw him, he was using a lucky rabbit’s foot to scrape ice off his windshield in the winter. He drove around town in a noisy station wagon with rust speckled along the doorway. The muffler always dragged the ground behind him.
Ordinary, maybe not. But what is ordinary? Ordinary is just a kind word for boring.
My dad introduced me to Herman on a long and lazy day in May. My friends had graduated and I was stupid enough to ruin my future on a whim by telling one of my teachers to give a donkey a blowjob for a bucket of baloney. What a waste, but no matter. My life was going nowhere and I was glad. I couldn’t picture myself in a dim grey cubicle pecking around on a keyboard with a tie and a suit. I couldn’t picture myself doing that. I couldn’t picture myself paying thirty grand to go to college just so some pompous blowhard could read to me. And I’d just quit my job. No school, no job, no money, no friends – everything I’d always wanted.
There are certain confessions I’d like to make before I continue. If you’d rather skip to the story than listen to me moan and groan about everything, I welcome you to find the first chapter and start there. Chances are, however, if you do that – something bad will happen to you.
I was born and raised in the American south. For the record, I’m writing this in an outhouse with crayons on the back of a box of cereal. Though we are often stereotyped as insignificant hillbillies, we pride ourselves on being insignificant hillbillies. We have little technology and only a dollop of intelligence amongst us. Yes, it’s true. We’re all crazy ass religious nuts with more shotguns than teeth. We all vote republican and have sex with our relatives. I take offense to this. I have never voted and I could care less about religion.
Yes. Everything you’ve heard is true. Even the things that cancel the other things out, or the things that go on to say that there are a number of reasonably intelligent and sophisticated people running around in the south with clean clothes on.
Yes. It’s all true. We all sit around on the back of pickup trucks with a piece of straw in our mouth, petting a coon dog and plucking a banjo while maw and paw ride horses to the general mills store to get feed fer the chickens. That’s our culture, ain’t it? You’ve seen the movies, read the books, and heard about the absurd backwood odysseys that often crop up in the south where everyone has an outhouse. Want a true shock? Like the kind you have in those dense mystery novels when the harder than stone heroine with the tortured past finds out her brother did it? I’m writing this on a computer in a room with electricity! And by the grace of God, we have indoor plumbing. I don’t even own a banjo.
Our town sits between two big cities. These big cities have a combined population of eight to ten thousand. They have all the fancy eating places like McDonalds and Burger King. We have curb markets and family owned grills that line our littered streets. Main Street consists of three churches, a tennis court, a basketball court, a gym, a family owned drug store, City Hall, a doctor’s office and post office. We’re also proud of our traffic light. Yes, one traffic light.
This town is beyond boring. It’s like an English speaking wasteland where forgotten shadow figures lurch through the barren streets at night, asking for money or cigarettes, just wanting to keep their lives going. We go through robotic motions every day, and that’s our life. We just live and die and disappear. No news reports or memorial services, just cheap caskets and plastic flowers. We live like hungry robots wrapped in skin, burning under sweet Sol, going through the motions ‘til we die or get murdered for twenty dollars.
These gravel roads are dark, packed with rotting houses, heavy with fog and garbage. People around here get on drugs because there’s nothing else to do. Few of us could afford college even if we wanted to go. That’s for folk with fancy high school diplomas and people that go on to do big things with their lives. Going to college has nothing to do with learning. No one goes to learn; they go to get a piece of paper that says they’ve learned. One of our graduates, God how we’re proud, became assistant manager at a cotton mill on the outskirts of town. He even climbed his way to the top of the retail world when he was featured on a billboard. “You’ll be grinnin’ when you try our linen,” the sign read. Pure class.
Everybody knows everybody in this town. Most spend their time walking up and down Main along the littered sidewalks, or filing in and out of churches. There are thirty five churches within ten square miles and one library. This is not a healthy ratio.
As such, Herman was infamous in our little town. Of course everyone said he was crazy. “He never stops talking,” they said. “Good guitar player, though,” they added. “I heard he makes really nice birdhouses,” some gushed. It was true. He made and sold birdhouses of high quality, hand painted, lacquered and varnished. On Saturday’s he had yard sales for his birdhouses. For a couple of dollars extra, he’d even sew a name on a small cloth and hang it from the perch for the name of your bird. Still, rumors buzzed like bees.
I’m guilty of the same thing. I’ve made up rumors myself. “They say that man has the largest…” Why did I do this? For attention? To have someone know that I was alive? I really don’t know. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not anything, actually. Just one of those lonely shadow figures that creep along the fog-lined streets at night, watching other strange faces light up in the dark with burning cigarettes, speckled along the streets like fireflies. Just looking for my home, for something to keep me going. For something to make the struggle worth it. And that is what I’m doing now.
Herman was the grandmaster of crazy, my father said. Apparently, continuous talking is enough to make somebody crazy. Spending twelve hours a day in triple digit heat for two hundred dollars a week to pay for TV’s and name brand shoes, however, is completely logical. It’s normal. Of course it is. You’ve got to pay for designer slacks and stylish shoes, paper napkins and nice collections of jewel studded carrying cases with certificates of authenticity at low low prices, priced to own! Get yours now!
There were maybe five or six two star cafes in our town, since Taco Bell and the other high class eateries were too classy for us. The one hotel that graced Main Street was set ablaze by the owner in order to collect the insurance money. He’ll learn, in prison, that in order to collect the insurance money you have to have a policy. If you’re going to be dumb enough to break the law, you should be smart enough to know it. Wal-Mart wouldn’t even be caught dead in our tiny town. Not even the Wal-Marts that dropped out of high school would come about.
So, how did I meet the grandmaster of crazy?

I grew up with my grandparents and didn’t meet my father until I was a grown man. I met him and found out he was a talented guitarist, artist, and pothead. He told me his father played, his father’s father played, and his father’s grandfather played. So I had to play. I had to be better than they were. And of course, I knew Herman was a guitar teacher and I knew how crazy everyone thought he was. There are people around here who think I’m crazy. Especially because of one rumor that suggests I danced around on my front porch in a wedding dress while a strange Hispanic man laid under me and filmed the entire sordid affair with a cigar in his mouth and yellow spandex draped around his exotic shoulders. This isn’t entirely untrue. (The dress wouldn’t fit and the young man stole the camera. You just can’t find good help these days. And plus, I started the rumor.)
So, my dad arranged a meeting for us.
It was sometime after noon when the alarm clock rang. My dad was going to take me to Herman’s house sometime around two. I would drive myself, but I had an unfortunate accident involving my car, a liter of vodka, and a swing set. I’m not proud.
No one was home when I opened my eyes. I threw off the covers and stood at the window for a minute or so yawning. It was too early for me, and I didn’t really feel like showering. Thankfully the heat had dropped under ninety degrees.
Thank God for small favors and favors for small Gods.
The sun drifted wistfully over the mill behind our house and the deck in our backyard. Even Sol had overslept.
“It’s ‘alf past five already,” I imagined Sol saying to the stars when the intergalactic alarm went off. “Oh bugger, better put the kettle on.” And so Sol rolled out of bed. Even stars have to pay the bills or God turns off the light. He has the power to do this. We know it. Sol is a clever girl and knows it too.
Whether or not our sun is male or female, as of yet, is pure speculation. However I refuse to believe that a male sun could keep up such a long commitment. Unfaithful buggers.
It had been a late evening for Sol the day before I met Herman. The moon didn’t show up until sometime after ten. Sol complained to Alpha Centarui A and his twin sister, even Wolf 359 popped in for a bit. His solar system didn’t support life. He always bragged about being able to sleep late. But he always brought Sirius, the biggest prick known to man. “I’ve got a G2V spectral type,” he boasted. “I am the brightest star in the galaxy, you know. It’s cool, you want to have sex with me. I get that a lot.”
“What about Canopus?” Sol asked. “Canopus has certainly put on weight. Vega, now she’s a big girl.”
“Canopus? Vega?” Sirius laughed. “You can’t be serious.”
Sol and the Local Group resisted a ridiculous word pun and went back to their game of poker. Giant solar flares threw mammoth cards.
“No!” he shouted. “You’re not serious, but I am! How terrible that must be for you!”
“Makes you want to go Nova doesn’t it? Sometimes I don’t want to get up in the morning.”
“Well, take your pills,” the neighborhood chimed before they lugged back to their sleeping worlds.
“See you on Thursday,” said Sol. “We’ll play pool.”
I imagined that Sol and the Local Group had an understanding. The first and most important rule: never invite Sirius to parties. The second and not quite as important rule: never let the life that relies on us know that we know it relies on us. “If life knew we were aware and conscious, it’d be devastating,” Sol said. “They would always want us to perform odd jobs and we’d never get any sleep. Not that we do anyway…”
“Some days,” thought Sol as she spun above her blue-green water world, “you just want to pack it in.”
Today was a day like that for Sol and for me. Many months had passed since I was voluntarily fired from my job, and getting up before lunchtime was a chore. My dad tried to get me another job, some sort of volunteer work, but I don’t do volunteer work unless I’m being paid for it.
The money was good enough with the old job to provide all of life’s little necessities: cigarettes, Tylenol, books, hot wings, my nerve medication (some sort of anxiety ailment that causes my chest to hurt all day everyday), a pint of vodka or six. The work didn’t bother me. I just woke up one morning and felt like Sol, sans the billions of dependant life forms. I just had one: a seventeen year old brother. He said I could quit if I wanted to as long as I could still pay his cell phone bill. As long as I paid that, he said, we had no qualms.
If I hadn’t quit my job, I never would have met this aging miser. I would’ve met him sooner, and after we agreed upon a time and location, he stood me up. As an eighteen year old with a large nose and no cash flow, I know what it’s like to be stood up.
The only peculiarity about this: we agreed to meet at his house. The next time we spoke, he told me he forgot how to get there. Then he asked who I was and why I called. He asked me if saw Hank to tell him he was waiting for his call. I told him I’d keep a look out. He forgot how to get to his own house. This struck me as clever, intentional or not, so I went home to play a bit of chess with my brother for a while.
The next day, after another scheduled meeting, he stood me up again. Only this time I figured I could leave a trail of bread crumbs and he’d be able to follow them over the meadow, through the woods, and all of that gibberish. My father didn’t like driving back and forth to the same ground-level apartment complex every day. Gas costs an arm and a leg and grave robbing is illegal. So my father was pissed.
He wasn’t too fond of Herman even though he urged me to take lessons from him and “admitted” his “savant like musical talents.” I didn’t know if he disliked him out of wounded pride, because my father was a one timer failed guitarist. He admitted his “savant like” talents. My father thought a savant was a mix between a genius and a retard. Those are his words.
He admitted that he was a very kind and caring person, but he hated him. Why? How can you hate a kind and loving person? It’s easy, actually. People do it all the time, everywhere. It’s easier than knowing them
My only real worry was that he would eat all of the bread I took such pains to place. I was chased around by a few cats, some pigeons. A strange man in an electric wheelchair even followed me around shaking his crooked finger at me for being wasteful.
“People are starving!” he yelled. He slammed his high-end scooter into over drive and bounded towards me at the blistering speed of five mph.
“So are pigeons!” I responded. “And they don’t have the evolutionary advantage of skipping round to the Fast Stop to pick up a loaf, now do they?”
The man shook his head and trudged on. I knew him, otherwise I wouldn’t spend so much time trying to pretend to be clever with him. He went to the same mental health department as I did some odd months back, and he always complained about the coffee. They never had coffee at our anger management meetings. This, he said, was the main problem. My anger management class really pissed me off. I was glad they were out of coffee. Those people kicked around in bunny slippers with their brains wired together by Thorazine and lithium. Coffee was the last thing they needed.
My old companion on the motorized wheelchair used to work as a forest ranger before his brain collapsed. The police reprimanded him and sentenced him to two months in our wonderful upstate institution.
As the story goes, one day the man saw something that made his brain try to gag itself. In the woods, men are sometimes forced to resort to horrible things in order to survive: eat their friends, wipe with poison ivy, eat at Arby’s. The survival instinct is there, a strange knack we inherited from our tree climbing ancestors. The old man came to the conclusion that deer somehow planned to murder him while he slept. He barricaded his doors, set traps. He realized then that he never wanted to work with deer again.
When the arresting officer found him downtown, butt naked with a pair of antlers in his hand and covered in deer blood, the man jeered, chortled, slapped his hands and sprung to his feet. “They don’t taste good!” he shouted. “They never come to help with the plumbing!” This quip secured him a couple of months in our famous hole in Columbia. Now he’s in an electric wheelchair. Just spends most of his time riding around town, picking up pecans, shouting at strange men that leave curious trails of bread along the roads.

When Herman didn’t show up, my dad took me home and parked his truck. It idled in the driveway, shot off tendrils of smoke from the rusted radiator. My dad jumped from the torn leather seats, littered with empty Tylenol bottles, roaches, and shotgun shells.
“One more time,” he said, “and we’re done with him. Just because he wants to visit the old folk’s home, he thinks we have to wait on him. He can forget that shit.”
My dad dragged my heavyset amplifier out of the back of his truck, set it on the splintered blacktop that ran beneath his feet, and lugged it across the sidewalk to my front porch. He stood there with me for a moment. He took his hat off and rubbed his balding head just to give me the fear of hereditary disease. It always worked.
“Here’s a pack of cigarettes,” he said. “Don’t tell your grandmother I’m buying ‘em for you. She’d tan my hide if she found out I was givin’ you cigarettes. Now practice son, practice and you might be better than me someday.”
“A lofty goal,” I said. “Come by tomorrow. I’ll leave a message on his answering machine about his no-shows. Clever though they may be.”
My dad nodded, flicked his cigarette in the tall grass that lined the porch. It bounced beside my cat, startling her, and she darted across the yard. She hid under one of the run down automobiles my uncle worked on in the yard.
I dragged my amplifier into the living room and, already tired, I dropped it beside the door and kicked off my shoes. My grandmother sat under the lamplight in the family room, inking tiny blurbs into one of her massive crossword puzzle books.
“Where you been?” she asked. She sat her crossword on the stand beside her aged recliner. “I made vegetable stew and you ain’t even wait to finish it. Why you always runnin’ off with that old fool anyway?”
“Because he’s my father,” I replied. My brother walked through the living room with a friend. My grandmother removed her glasses and sat them by her crossword puzzle.
“What’s up, faggot?” my brother asked. He sure did love and respect his big brother. I felt like I was more like a father because I tried to teach him things when he was stolen from his mother.
“Ha,” he said, giving me the finger. “What’s up?”
“My blood pressure,” I shouted. I flung a candle holder at him. It slapped the wall and spilled onto the floor as he darted aside.
“You missed, lefty,” he said. “We still gonna check out your telescope when it gets dark?”
“If it gets dark, sure.” I looked around. “Things are not what they seem.” I vocalized the Twilight Zone theme.
He disappeared out of the room with a slight chuckle. I heard him flip the switch on his video game system as it plugged into him again. My grandmother turned her attention to me.
“I know he’s your father and you want to spend time with him, but he’s a bad man. He ain’t never have anything to do with you and now he’s back actin’ everything is fine. We took you in and raised you when he ain’t want nothin’ to do with you.”
“At least he doesn’t beat me every time I say ‘damn’ or ‘hell’ or even ‘pissed.’ He might not be much of a father, but he’s a good friend and that’s more than Stanley will ever be to me. He doesn’t beat me when he catches me with a cigarette, either.”
“Because he doesn’t care about you,” mother said.
“He had a funny way of showing it. Most people say I love you with flowers or candy, not with drop cords and leather straps across the back.”
“He bought you everything you wanted.”
“And he never gave me the only thing money couldn’t pay for: just a little time. He could’ve at least thrown a baseball with me or watched a movie. Anything would’ve made me happy. Instead he puts me in the back room and fills it full of toys, enough of them to hide me completely so he wouldn’t have to spend any time with me.”
“After he had that open heart surgery, he couldn’t get around like he use’ta. He was always hurtin’ and too sick to get out of bed. You know that, Thomas. He had emphysema.”
These talks happen all the time, but my grandmother is a good old lady. She spends most of her time in the recliner by the lamp in the living room with a word puzzle, like her mother, a glass of tea, her cat Entae, and some country and western music going. She played a damn mean harmonica just like her mother.
At night she watched Wheel of Fortune without fail, then dusted off the collection of porcelain dolls her mother left for her when she died When my mother dies, I’m going to steal all of her dolls and leave them in wicker baskets all over the state. I think that’d be a good gesture about her nature. She was content, but had to have her tea, her crossword puzzles, and her cat. It seemed to me that she needed them as much as I needed cigarettes.
She didn’t much care for my real father, as my grandfather didn’t before he found the bucket and kicked it.
My real mother became pregnant with me at the tender age of fifteen. My father spent most of his time playing guitar and smoking pot, so my grandparents thought him unfit to be a parent. They even went so far as to draw up a restraining order against him.
Since my mother was on heavy doses of cocaine while pregnant with me, my grandparents tried to adopt me when my mother gave birth. They couldn’t then, but after child services came to the house and found me in a baby pool in the living room and my mother in the bedroom asleep, they stuck me in an orphanage as the slow machine of bureaucracy churned. Interestingly enough, the only side effects of being a cocaine baby is never having a heart rate under 160bpm. Fun stuff. I can never relax. It seems like my heart pumps not blood, but cocaine.
After a couple of years in an orphanage in those tiny beds and stark white burgundy floors (all the walls were white and all the floors were a shiny sort of burgundy), my grandparents adopted me. My grandmother is my mother and my great grandmother is my grandmother, the lady that tied strings around the legs of June bugs in the summer.
My surrogate father, after being released from the orphanage, beat me like a rag before he died. If he hadn’t died, I would have killed him myself. He never let me stay out with friends or smoke. And every time I brought home a grade lower than a one hundred, I’d be tied to the same radiator and spanked. He tied me and my brother down because he had emphysema and it was hard for him to chase us. Sometimes, just to fuck with him, we’d run in his room at night and throw water on him just to run around until he tired out.
He didn’t let me stay out later than ten on school nights. This is enough to warrant murder in and of itself. He hated my friends and kept me from them out of spite. He never let me go anywhere, he never let me do anything, and he spent all of his money just to keep me happy in my tiny bedroom full of toys I didn’t want bought by people that didn’t want me to begin with.
“I don’t want to argue with you again, Thomas,” my grandmother/mother said. “There’re some hot wings on the stove if ya hungry. Some mashed potatoes on the table, too. But get out of the way, my stories is on.”
Within minutes, she was wired to the television again, nodding with glassy eyes. Entae dozed on her lap.
After supper, my brother and I played a game of chess, listened to some music, (Chopin, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis) and then went to look through my telescope. I sat on the deck for a while with my brother as he looked through my telescope.
I had just stubbed out a cigarette when my grandmother bumbled down the back steps by the deck. “Telephone,” she shouted. She piddled toward me in a floral muumuu. For people that have never been to the south or been around a really fat man, you may not know what a muumuu is. A muumuu is a towel with delusions of grandeur.
“Thanks,” I said. She handed me the phone and started back for the house. “Bring it in when yer done with it,” she said. “If you leave it off the hook, it’ll go dead.”
“Hello?” I said into the phone.
“I was on my way,” Herman’s rapid voice explained. “I got sidetracked when I saw bread all over the road. That bread looked nasty, so I assumed that old man had been tryin’ ta feed the pigeons that dirty stuff. But the pigeons must’a hurt that poor old man’s feelings or something and ran him off. We can’t let the pigeons get sick, buddy. We can’t let that happen.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Pigeons are quality birds. That much is true.”
“Pigeons is good birds. After I got all them crumbs up, I went to the grocery store and got some of that San Francisco bread – the fancy stuff. Cost me damn near five dollars, but it was worth it. Them pigeons sure liked it. And no self respecting pigeon could’a ate that other stuff.”
I’d spent days wandering around in the summer heat carrying a guitar case like a bum, but I could at least take solace in the fact that somewhere a group of lucky pigeons enjoyed an evening of fine dining.
“You should come over tomorrow, bud,” he said. “I ain’t got nothin’ planned. Nothin’ special anyway. Just sittin’ round, pickin’ for a while.”
“What happened?” I asked. There’s one problem when it comes to meeting someone that isn’t there: you can’t pretend to forget your wallet when the check comes.
“I would’a called ya yesterday bud, but I had to go to church and God’s only open on Sunday.”
“And the day before?”
“Scooby Doo marathon.”

I despaired, hoping all the while that someone somewhere on Earth at sometime was doing something more fun but enjoying it less than me.
It’s all fine and good to be lazy, though. For one thing, I’m just glad I didn’t have to dig any more ditches for some head honcho construction tycoon. They fired me for not showing up and – this might be important – also for being linked to a small case of arson involving a tractor, a bundle of plywood I was to carry, and a bunch of random janitorial utilities that had cropped up around outside the mill where we were digging the tunnel. The case is still pending because, as my lawyer suggested, I plead insanity. I had certified papers to prove it too. Captain Smug Asshole down at the probate office will have to pine over the lost opportunity to ruin the life of a youth just looking for a good time.
It was an overcast Tuesday afternoon with damp grass from the day before. My dad pulled up in front of our house and honked the horn of his ragged pickup truck. I put away my drawing, and strode toward the truck.
A few little girls with young girl braids jumped rope in the yard in front of Herman’s – a mirror home to his, precise and exact. We pulled into the section B driveway of the Leisure View apartment.
The Leisure View apartments resemble cupboards with small front porches and littered, tiny front yards and low ceilings. The best thing about living in such a neighborhood is everyone is too embarrassed about where they live to come and borrow sugar.
Herman’s apartment looked just like all the others. They looked like small brick Lego blocks connected together. People from up north say they look like houses because of the fact that they’re shaped like them and only have one floor.
A slide with overgrown grass beside it lay in waste behind a rosebush and the water of a small baby pool with a yellow alligator’s face on it bobbed and swayed with the trees as they sang their song of approaching rain. A rusted mailbox drooped beside a birdhouse with a wooden redbird atop it – on which the number 11A stood out in stark black print with white trim.
My dad turned off the truck and it sputtered to a stop. “I’m tellin’ you,” he said, “he’s about five or six shades past crazy.” I looked at his apartment for a moment. For a moment I thought of all the stories we’d been told about him. People treated him like a homeless man even though he never asked for money, and people would hurry to avoid him in a store.
“Crazy?” I asked. “You forget who you’re talking to. I spent a month in the rubber hole.” I lifted my shirt. “See?”
“There’s a difference,” my father said. “You’re that other kind of crazy. The smart-ass-spends-too-much-time-by-himself type crazy. It’s not a destructive, pathological type of mania. Your mother has it, but you just take shit too far. All Herman does is flap his lips.”
“Lips cause nothing but trouble anyway,” I said.
“What about eating?”
“Exactly.”
He turned his head and chuckled, looked across the battered sidewalk.
“You shouldn’t try to cut things out of you anyway, boy,” my father said. “You’re not a qualified surgeon. We don’t want you to get busted for practicing without a license. We’ve seen it before, you know.”
“Wasn’t your brother arrested for something like that?” I tried not too laugh. He knew what I meant.
“Yes, Thomas. My brother, your uncle, was arrested for practicing proctology without a license.”
We looked at each other for a moment. After that moment, we decided it was that funny, but agreed not to talk about it anymore anyway.
An old man stood in sandals and a tank top in one of the other yards, bent over the hood of a broken down Corvette with grease up to his elbows. With a walker, at a steady pace, an old woman combed the streets for cans to recycle. Everything seemed normal, save for a strange group of Janitors that stood smoking cigarettes at the end of the road. They seemed unprofessional to the extreme; their threadbare suits looked like costumes. Same uniform, hat, and yellow glove dangled from their back pockets. Bunch of bums really. My kind of people.
“He’s a nice man,” my father said. He lit a joint and passed it to me. “Try not to have a panic attack this time.”
“No promises.”
“He’s really lost his shit, but he’s as nice as they come. Especially since that wreck. He’ll talk your fuckin’ ear off, man. Don’t pay him any attention. He never makes sense. Just nod and force a smile and take one of your pills.”
“That shit dulls my brain,” I said. “And I’m southern enough as it is.”
“You know, he’s full of almost half enough shit as you.”
“It’s that bad, huh?”
My father laughed, saying, “he’s a good teacher. Ah, somebody should just give him a joint and calm his ass down.” Those little squiggly lines of heat beaded off the sidewalk. “Man it’s hot. I’m going to pick up some more xanax’s for you. You wanna have a few beers later on?”
I passed the joint back to him, inhaling, going, “Ah…”
“You gone drink with me or not, boy?” he asked. He took the joint, put it to his lips. He wiped the sweat off his forehead, saying, “Well?”
“Nah, conflicts with my medicine. Makes my chest hurt.”
“Well, I could use a few. Maybe that would settle me. I’m about to run man, so, just don’t get too personal with him, you know? He’ll never stop calling, coming by whenever he wants. It doesn’t matter to him. Take everything he says with a grain of salt; watch out or you just might step in bullshit. He makes shit up for no reason, man. Just don’t ever feel sorry for him.”
“Thanks for the advice,” I said. I got out of my dad’s camouflage truck, amp in one hand, guitar in the other, and headed toward the door.
“See you later,” my father said. “Make sure you give him the ten dollars or he’ll hound you forever. And,” he added, “if it’s at all possible, try to get your head out of your ass long enough to get some sunshine. It’s been too long since you been out of that house anyway.”
“No promises.”
My dad pulled out and turned around in the turnaround at the end of the road. Steep, wooded banks rode up on both sides of the road. I walked along the long brick sidewalk, up to the door, dropped my amp and guitar.
As of this moment, the element of surprise and suspense must be lacking in this little squib of a story. To up the suspense, maybe I could gun down the kids at the playground, take their bikes, hop in the car across the street, kick the old man in the throat, and laugh derisively as I barrel down the back roads with little regard for life or limb as a fiery explosion licks at the charred fender of my smoking muscle car. What will I do? Will I open the door? Will anybody give a shit either way?
Stay tuned. Continue reading