320. Humility

“Practice humility”, said the Wise Man.

“Why?”, said the Whys Guy.

“Wisdom encompasses humility. Without it you cannot become wise.”

“I guess I was absent the week that lesson was taught.”

“No, you were present. It’s a lesson taught everyday; you’ve just chosen not to learn it.”

“Ouch!! That stings, Wise Man.”

“Antiseptics usually do sting as they cleanse the filth in your wounds. Be grateful for the sting.”

“So, you are saying four things here:  I am wounded. My wounds are filthy. Your truth serum stings as it cleans my wounds. I should be glad of the pain.”

“Correct.”

“So why don’t I  feel these wounds instead of just your stinging antiseptic?”

“You have chosen to defend the wounds and guard against any more. Your vigilance makes you numb to the spirit but keen to the flesh.”

“I thought a spirit needed to be vigilant.”

“Your vigil is defensive, actually keeping the spirit outside you. Be vigilant in pursuit of the spirit.”

“I  can see I’m going to lose this debate.”

“You lost it a long time ago, Whys Guy.”

“When was that?”

“The day you mistook cocky for confident, swagger for faith. They are not even close to the same.”

“There’s that sting again. Sigh! So, what do I have to do?”

“Surrender your false pride to find your true worth.”

“Man oh Man!! Just stop being who I am, huh?”

“No, again Whys Guy, you have mistaken who you are for what you do. You have mistaken the actor for the role he plays.”

“I’ve been a smart alex all my life, Wise Man. Jokes, puns, funny stories, impersonations, word play, outrageous booty dances…”

“I know. I’ve seen the act.”

“Oh yeah, you are the Wise Man.”

“The act is not who you are, Whys Guy.”

“This is gonna suck.”

“Sting. It’s the reverse of novacaine. You will need to increase your pain reception and build tolerance.”

“Pain will set me free?”

“Honest suffering will lead to deeper understanding of who you are.”

“So who am I? It seems so silly to be asking this question after forty years of adult life.”

“You are creative and compassionate and funny and connective to your fellow man.”

“Okay, but this isn’t cutting it with my closest loved ones. They know the actor and see the void between me and the act. It hurts to see the sparks and know all that static shock spirals out of my choices.”

“Stay true and humble to the who.”

“That’s like telling the guy without a compass to keep on walking to True North.”

“You have a moral compass for everyone else, don’t you, Whys Guy? You don’t hesitate to judge others and point out where they are wrong. You’ll figure it out.”

“So the beginning of wisdom is shutting up?”

“Yes, a wise man once said… nothing.”

“Let’s see– my life should be blank white space, the polar bear in a blizzard?”

“No. Baring your soul should be a silent, private exercise. Purifying oneself is not sexy or entertaining. It is bloodless surgery of the putrid soul.”

“Amen to all that, Wise Man. Uh, I’m hearing Bob Dylan in the alleyway…”

When the rain is blowin’ in your face
And the whole world is on your case
I could offer you a warm embrace
To make you feel my love.

When the evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years
To make you feel my love.

I know you haven’t made your mind up yet
But I would never do you wrong
I’ve known it from the moment that we met
No doubt in my mind where you belong.

I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue
I’d go crawlin’ down the avenue
No, there’s nothin’ that I wouldn’t do
To make you feel my love.

The storms are raging on the rollin’ sea
And on the highway of regrets
The winds of change are blowing wild and free
You ain’t seen nothin’ like me yet.

I could make you happy, make your dreams come true
There’s nothing that I would not do
Go to the ends of the Earth for you
To make you feel my love.

“That’s nice sentiment, Whys Guy, but it amounts to nothing more than an emotional breath mint.”

“Wow, Wise Man, I thought it was powerful and meaty. At least a strong appetizer if not a full meal.”

“It’s all promises, nothing more. Glorious potential sacrifices, nothing more. Don’t you see?”

“I guess so. This is hard.”

“Yes, hard like a diamond. Because it’s so hard, it can be cleft and cut into a hundred brilliant facets. And through each facet God’s light can penetrate and dance prismatically, reflecting His beauty and glory in you, His creation. You must be like that, Whys Guy.”

“I can hardly breathe. I feel like a soggy sponge not a diamond.”

“This is how we’ll know God visited you. Your sponginess will firm up as God squeezes the mess out of you. You were, after all, made in His image and likeness. You sucked up all the nastiness  by traveling your spineless ways along the mucky seabed of sin.”

“Wise Man, you are killing me.”

“Just your stupid pride, Whys Guy. It needs to die at your own hand, though. If I kill your pride, it will only grow back as shame avoidant narcissism. Ten times worse.”

“So I have to stand naked and wash my underwear in the town square fountain at noon?”

“Strangling one’s pride is a private, daily affair. It grows back overnight, you know. The process is more like a daily shower with God’s word washing over you, you know?”

“I don’t know anything, Wise Man.”

“Good. That is the beginning of wisdom.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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319. Parking Tickets and Murder

So back on Pine Street I had on-street parking in front of my run down building, and I parked the old Ford Falcon there 95% of the time. However, one morning as I was coming home from work, some punk college commuter had wedged his/her little weasel vehicle into my semi-designated parking space, forcing me to park down the block  on a meter near Bruce’s up and coming restaurant. I was torqued off as a ghetto dweller could be. When you don’t have much and someone takes the little crumbs you do have, well, dang it, you need to hit something. I hit that meter with my empty hand as I pulled it out of my empty pocket. Not even a slim dime for the meter could I find. I stomped off indignantly and humiliated that I didn’t even have a dime. It’s much cooler to act angrily undignified, however, than to fall to your knees in front of a blank faced parking meter, crying “Why? Why?”

The next time I looked at my car, there was a $3.00 parking ticket under the wiper. Ahhhhh!!! Now I was bolt bustin’ mad!  I tore up the ticket and said to no one, “I’ll never pay this stupid ticket. I’m the victim here. The punk stole my spot and I get the ticket?  Ahhhhh!!! This is America. I am going full Liam Neeson, and I will find you and keel you, punk!!” It was a very dramatic though pathetic solo performance on the uneven brick sidewalk with crabgrass growing out of the joints. (I was nominated later for Best Public Jerk Wad Tornado Hissy Fit by a male at the prison talent show.)

Some time elapsed as I pouted in my wet emotional diaper, chafing at the cruelty and injustice of this world. A formal letter came from the City of Richmond, telling me that my $0.10 meter fee which had turned into a $3.00 ticket was now being billed at $25.00 plus court costs. I could appear in court at such and such a time on such and such a date if I wished to contest it, or I could simply concede and pay the $25.00.  I was rebar bending, steel girder grinding mad. I was going bankrupt over a stupid parking violation. I didn’t have $25.00 to pay the incentivized ticket, so I resolved to go to court and contest the whole thing.

About a week later I showed up in District Court and tried to educate the cranky old judge before me. He simply said, “Pay the ticket. There is nothing else to do. Add the court costs. Next.” I was numb and in shock. I was up to $77.50 in unpayable fines. If this had been a stock instead of a debt, I’d be rolling in the dough. I’d have run around town collecting these magic tickets to wealth. But it wasn’t and I wasn’t, because ‘FuzzyWuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he?’ I hung my head down and shuffled to the cashier’s window. I told the guy there that I didn’t have any money and was unsure of what else I could do.

He told me, “Well, you can appeal it, basically roll the dice. If you win, no cost. If you lose, it’s double.”

“Heck, I can’t pay what I owe to begin with, so let’s go with double or nothing. So if I lose and can’t pay….?”

“Jail.”

“Lovely.”

The clerk filled out a form and I signed it, affirming I’d appear in a week to appeal my conviction to another judge.

A week later I realized while I was reading a textbook on Renaissance Art or Greek Philosophy that I was late for my appeal. I quickly tried to make myself look respectable. An impossible task on any day. I knew at least I should dress for jail. I chose tight and durable material that would send the right signals to hardened criminals when they asked me why I was in the slammer.

Image result for prison bully pictures

[“Yo, kid. How long? What for?”

“Sixty days. Parking violation.”

“That’s funny. You ought to try for the annual talent show. That’s some prime material there.”

I imagined my prison street cred would be solid from that point forward.]

I hopped on my bike and coasted to the court, unable to afford another parking violation, I was being ultra-cautious. I walked around naively hoping my legal fairy godmother would show up and cut me loose. I went from one official court person to another trying to find which courtroom my fate had been decided in. I also wondered about my bike being locked up to a utility pole for two months. Not likely to be there when I got out of the Big House.

Finally I was directed to Courtroom 3 where a trial was in process for a rape/attempted murder case. I was blown away that I was even allowed to spectate. It was pretty tough stuff going down in there. I knew something was off, but I was not going to get right back up and risk alienating, i.e., pissing off another judge. So I sat respectfully till there was a lull in the action. I quietly tip toed out of the courtroom and sought clarification from another clerk.

“Oh, yeah. The judge already dealt with your case first thing.”

“I was late due to a near death experience…”

“He threw it out.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, expecting that it meant I was going to be thrown out to the human wolves in the penitentiary.

“It means it’s legally done, over, cancelled, kapoot, nada, gone, dead, etc.”

“What about court costs, community service, probation, parole, restitution?”

“Kid, it’s done. You lucked out. How your parking ticket crap ended up on appeal ahead of a major felony is like fairy godmother stuff. Now get out of here, you lucky bastard!”

I was stunned by this mis-miscarriage of justice. I was released into society almost unscarred and maybe unrehabilitated. Suddenly my clothes felt too tight as I remembered I could breathe freely again. I wanted to break out in a victory dance right there, but I reconsidered I could be arrested for lewd and lascivious booty dancing in a government building. I wanted to be humbled by this stroke of luck, but I also wanted to get that parking spot punk thief and jack him up like Liam would…. “Don’t ever believe that this is over, Bucko.”

 Then again, maybe I should just swallow the humble pill. They only cost a dime.

 

 

 

318. Pine Street

I lived upstairs on Pine Street in Richmond for a year or so while I was in my sophomore year of college. That whole block has since been torn down and redeveloped into modern campus buildings. Back in the 1970’s it was a bleak block of row houses. Ours was a wood frame with an add on kitchen out the back. Our kitchen had been built over a sloped first floor roof. The resulting floor was so slanted that, even when quite sober, you’d toddle downhill in agreement with gravity. If you were intoxicated, everything was fine; you just had to lean again the house lean. Simple. The back kitchen door/ fire escape from the death trap led to a steep set of wooden stairs facing due east and busy Belvedere Street. From the top step I’d sometimes smoke a cigarette and laugh out loud at the huge sign over the used car lot on Broad Street. It featured a slick mustachioed sales cad, Mad Man Dapper Dan the Used Car Man and the saying, “I’d give them away but my wife won’t let me.” His face seemed to view all of Richmond, as if he were some Middle Eastern despot watching for moral failures in the populace.

“Dan, you are the man. I trust you, Dude.”

It still cracks me up to imagine an evening in Dapper Dan’s company, cigar in one hand, bourbon in the other, telling tales of great car deals and trips to exotic Roanoke. “Boy, the things I seen and dun can’t be cataloged  by a million monks in a million encyclopedias in a million years. You know, I just love that word, MILLION.” Fading like old black and white photos, my memories sort of bleed into one another as my neural pathways move in together to cut expenses in retirement.

AbandonedHousesFinal

We had no air conditioning, of course, and the Richmond summers were the equivalent of hippopotamuses in weather terms– big, fat, wet, sloppy, and dangerous. The wiring would likely have melted if we’d tried an a/c window unit. So we would climb out on the porch roof facing Pine Street on hot nights and drink a few cheap beers while we listened to music blast from inside. It was often a pathetic portrait of perspiring almost, nearly, slightly, okay dammit-ghetto ennui. Our porch roof aligned with the rest of the row house porch roofs all the way down the block, until the line jutted out to the sidewalk at the up and coming new restaurant and potted palm tree bar called Bruce’s, with skylights in their roof. Well, it was not out of the ordinary for one of my crew to walk down the porch roofs past sleeping neighbors to wave in on the diners through the skylight. Later, the diners might see us as they came out to get in their cars. We were not hassled as much as we deserved to be but merely shooed away like annoying city pigeons. College communities have a high tolerance for the ludicrous, I have learned.

Often while listening to Clapton or Hendrix or the Beatles, we could watch people doing things on the street or sidewalk that they thought no one else could see. We had no television and this was in the dinosaurlike pre-personal computer age. One boring rainy night my roomie Jeff and I were in our porch roof positions beneath metal awnings as a couple came out of the above cited restaurant/bar, walking slightly sloppily. It was clear that they were tipsy. The man opened the door of the dark sedan in the rain and his Betty Boop jumped in to the passenger seat, giving me and Jeff a clear view of what was about to go down. The tipsy strange man started the car and the windshield wipers began flapping. The car remained in park while the passengers got into gear.

Jeff was picking along to the Beatles “I Want You” on his black and white Fender and amp as we glommed on to the steamy car action unfolding in front of and below us.  We laughed as the couple began some rather heated making out and mutual fondling. Jeff cranked up the volume and continued picking, “I want you, I want you so bad, Babe. I want you so bad, It’s driving me mad, it’s driving me mad.” Though the impassioned couple could not see or hear us, they complied with clumsy choreography on the beat. It was amazingly synchronized even though this was in the pre- music video era. All live action.

Let’s just say that the steamed up couple reached a crescendo as the guitar raged into the curtain of droning summer rain, pounding out an urgent beat on the aluminum awnings above us. Jeff shifted with the bridge to “She’s so heavy, heavy, heavy, etc.” while the wipers worked in time like a metronome.

We thought it couldn’t get any funnier as the song ended and Jeff set his guitar down. We stood up and clapped for their performance. I suppose our dual stand up against the stained yellow light behind us caught Betty Boop’s eye. She lifted her head up and made a most amazing face.

We couldn’t hear the scream but we saw her mouth open and her teeth bared. Obscenities were mouthed through the steamed up window.  In just a couple of seconds the sedan lights came on and the car peeled away without looking any which way. I can imagine it was an awkward verbal ending to a their gymnastic achievements.

Well, that is a great story to tell when folks mention compromising positions, but I feel like Mad Man Dapper Dan when I repeat this double indiscretion. I have no cigar or bourbon, but I feel like a sleazy used car salesman anyway. I suppose that conviction is caused by some decency knocking on my conscience’s door. If I answer it, I might wind up in jail. Just turn the lights out and stay quiet. (In a whisper voice… “I’d give them away but my wife won’t let me.”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

317. Don’t Call Me Cupcake!!

Joel and I walked into the coffee shop together. Barristas Becky and Cali noted that we were both wearing shirts that were pink or coral. We did a two step for their entertainment and a little shuffle. I suggested that the girls wait on him first since at his advanced age he does not have long to live. They complied.

Then Becky wanted to take our picture, not sure why. Posterity? Security?  We declined. Then she offered us free cherry cupcakes if we would model them, since they were pink and matched and it was very girly.

Image result for girls taking pictures with smartphones

We posed happily yet wearily. Not really. I just wanted to type that. “They were weary of the world, these two world weary soldiers from World War II.” We sat down at Table 1, seats A and B.

“Are you going to put this in the blog?” Joel asked as he chomped into a chicken salad wrap.

“Maybe, if it gets legs and walks farther into my deep twisted cortical brain center and passes through the ulterior medulla matrix.”

Looking a bit edgy over his round lenses, “Don’t go all psycho babble on me, please!”

“Easy, laddie Buck.  Did a hornet fly up your butt this morning? You are not your usual jovial soap bubble self. Where is my Bubbles?”

“You know most people just write about what happened in their rather dull days. It’s not challenging or disturbing, but you have to twist everything into knots… No wonder that guy on Facebook was so upset with you.”

“Don’t start, Joel. He was a Trump supporter, which is sort of like being a proud jock strap.”

“Yes, that’s true. I just don’t feel like being agreeable today. I’ve been living in a motel room for the past four weeks while contractors gut my house.”

“I thought you were gutless and therefore unguttable. That’s impressive. Which motel?”

“You can’t put that on the internet. I could be robbed or bothered in some way by the nitwits who read your blog drivel. Then I’d have to sue you for exclamation of character.”

“I wouldn’t use your actual room number.”

“No!! Out of the question.”

“Now Joel, just because your pantyhose are in a wad does not mean that you can insult the vast millions of good people who read my blog devotedly. What did you do to get so cranky?”

“I don’t want to tell you.”

“I see. Do you want me to guess out loud? Three, two, one. Okay, Uh hum: DID YOU GET BEATEN UP AT THE DRAG QUEEN CLUB AGAIN?”

“Shhhhh, stop it! For goodness sakes!! I have a reputation to uphold. If you must know, I hit myself while pulling up a stake in my yard this morning.”

“You hit yourself with a stake or were you trying to drive a stake through your heart to kill the zombie Dracula who sometimes rises in your chest when the moon is full?”

“No. It was a metal stake for surveying purposes. And it hurt.”

“That’s a lot of self loathing.”

“It was an accident, a clumsy and unfortunate mistake.”

“So now you want to turn your disfiguring physical pain onto the helpless and shiftless who are littered around the urban landscape here?”

“You are referring obliquely to yourself?”

“Yes, Jedi Knight.”

“Well, it does soothe me a bit and it’s too early to drink liquor.”

“Hmmm, liquor has the same impact as expressed anger. Do you think alcoholics are merely folks stuck in anger mismanagement then?”

“Possibly.”

“I find chess to be a nice way to sublimate my antisocial tendencies. I go to war with 16 plastic pieces on 64 squares and no one gets hurt. Except sometimes I get carried away with a checkmate and hit myself in the face with the very stake upon which I wish to impale my opponent’s king.”

“Well, that’s all very good for you, but I don’t play chess. It’s too cerebral. I could hemorrhage.”

“I know. You like a good glass of brandy, gooey cheese, the cat on your lap, and your sousaphone on your shoulder farting out “When The Saints Come Marching In”.

“Yes, at the end of a long, productive day I find comfort in that setting.”

“Studly Do Right.”

“Are you mocking me?”

” No, I have been mocking you for ten minutes now. Mock, yeah, Bird, Yeah. Mockingbird, hey everybody have your heard…”

“Andrea, I need your assistance. This undesirable lunatic is mocking me.”

Andrea, “Joel, he’s your friend.”

“No he isn’t. He’s a coffee shop stalker. A blog terrorist.”

Andrea, “You came in with him and I understood you took a cute cupcake picture with him. Becky told me.”

“Oh dear, please don’t post that on the internet. I have a reputa….”

“Shun to uphold, we know, we know. Just one thing, Joel.”

“What?!!”

“Don’t yell at me, cupcake.”

“Don’t call me cupcake!!”

“Look, I think all this living out of a motel is killing you, man. You need to get off the road or you’re gonna wind up like Willie Nelson– stoned, cold broke and hotly in debt to the IRS.”

“What I need is for you to leave. Don’t you have anything to do today?”

“Community service hours, Buddy. I got that TUI last month, remember?”

“Oh Lord, forgive me. What is a TUI?”

“Texting under the influence, of course. I was walking and texting when I ran into a blind man walking his dog. We tumbled. His dog’s leash got wrapped around a baby stroller somehow and away they ran, the dog, the baby in the stroller, and the pregnant mother. It was not a pretty sight.”

“And the blind guy?”

“He didn’t see a thing.”

“Andrea, for God’s sake, do something!! I beg you.”

“I’m sorry, Joel. He is in the top five of our customer rankings.”

“Well, I can get my monkey bread delivered on Fridays.”

“Joel, you’ve got to stop beating yourself up.”

“Aaaahhh” Joel exits trying to unhear the recent world weary words he just heard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

316. The Prom Blast

Rarely do I dwell on the past. I’m talking like forty years ago. I enjoy visiting yesterdays for laughs. That’s about it. So today I am not missing what wasn’t there to begin with; rather, I am chuckling at how adolescence moved like a morning fog over our lives, making some obvious things seem mysterious till the sun of adult life burned it away.

In my junior year, which turned out to be my last year of high school, the Prom was the irresistible buzz, a siren’s song of sensual delights. Oddly, that spring awkward teen boys and slightly more mature girls paired off as if by some biological cue. Dates were needed to go to this magical evening of enchantment in our high school gymnasium that had been transformed from a mere basketball court into a fairy tale castle that beckoned for perfect knights and ladies to promenade through the gates. Oh Teen Glory. Oh Holy Adolescent Grail!!

I rented a powder blue tuxedo and got my hair cut. I think I bought my date a corsage, though I had no idea what a corsage was. I managed to have a bottle of champagne tucked away for later with two wine glasses. I made dinner reservations at a lousy steakhouse in D.C. that had an interesting name, then spent most of that Saturday washing and waxing my dad’s Oldsmobile Belmont 88 till it gleamed like milk fed veal in a vat of Oil of Olay. If you leaned on any part of the car,  you’d slip off immediately. I Armour Alled the fake leather upholstery so much that you could slide right out the other door if you moved too quickly along the bench seats. Yeah, “Stairway to Heaven” played on the FM radio dial through tinny speakers. It was perfect, just like my girlfriend was, before I realized that perfect does not exist. All this vehicular preparation allowed me to ignore the fact that I was totally unprepared for a real live mature date that might require some class and an air of confidence.

But what could possibly go wrong?  I was triple dating with my two buddies, Steve and Bernie, and their very pretty girlfriends. I’m stretching, but I think the girls’ names were Sonja and Denise. Denise was in the Prom court, so our logistics had to be precise. Steve and Bernie showed up at my house halfway through a case of beer by mid afternoon. I was going to be the designated driver before that term had been coined, which is odd since we were all 17 in 1973. What I didn’t realize at the moment was that Steve and Bernie were even more self conscious than I was about getting into our rented monkey suits. I guess beer makes a tux fit better.

My next door neighbor Richard had no girlfriend, but he had good weed and a flair for the outrageous. He rented an outfit that could only be described as a cross between Elvis and a bull fighter. His blonde hair was permed and he wore make up. It was the 1970’s and glitter rock was on the uptick. His “date” was another friend, Dwight in a wig and a plain blue dress. He was a homely looking girl. Oh, and he had a purse that held more weed, I think. They had some pictures snapped with unnatural smiles on their faces. The neighbors peeked at their antics as if they were staring at the end of civilization.

So driving with two embarrassingly drunk buddies is awkward even when the stakes are low. But on this most magical of all adolescent nights, the stakes were very high. Steve and Bernie clowned for one another to ease their social awkwardness. They busted me out as I drove across the 14th Street bridge into D.C. and up to a dark steak house. A valet took my dad’s shiny car from me. I had no idea what was going on, but I kept my cool. The maître de seated our party next to the kitchen. I didn’t even have to tip him for such thoughtfulness.

We started to order, when Bernie’s girlfriend realized she had to be back at the school in about 4o minutes, the time it would take to drive there. Several incomplete sentences were uttered but not answered. Everyone ordered and then Bernie and Denise took off in my dad’s shiny Oldsmobile with the champagne in the back seat, leaving me with drunk Steve, his angry girl friend, and my bewildered girlfriend. The waiter was confused about serving dinner. We tried to explain the stupidity of our situation. I don’t think such a campaign of stupidity had been launched in D.C. since Wilbur Mills had almost driven into the tidal basin with the Argentinian stripper Fannie Foxx the previous year. Oh, the good old days!

For two or three hours we sat, waiting for Bernie, my dad’s car, my champagne, and the Prom Princess whose beauty had caused all this cursed affliction. We ate quietly with long pauses and sighs and speculations. Cell phones were decades away. We were so lost imagining the ecstasies our classmates were enjoying at the big show. Finally Bernie and his  date showed up with sparks in their eyes. They had been to the magic castle and had drunk my champagne on the way. “It was good, Dude.”

The waiter brought their cold meals to them and they hurriedly ate. The staff could not wait for us to leave, nor could we.  I felt as used and abused as an Amish mule.  I drove as fast as I possibly could out of D.C. as time slipped away. It was a sad song experience, like Mc Arthur’s Park… “someone left a cake out in the rain, I don’t think that I can take it cause it took so long to bake and I’ll never have that recipe again…”

We pulled in and jumped out of the shiny Olds as the last song was being played. We had managed to miss the entire extravaganza. Two girls cried joyless tears. Richard and Dwight were a hit as they walked out of the gym all smiles.  Oh the Glory lost. The unholy Grail was not in the gym as the house lights came up, revealing a basketball court with awkward paper decorations everywhere. What a blast!

 

 

315. Waiting for Mohammed

It may seem strange to have a chess partner who is a young Libyan man in Turtle Town, but that’s what the deal is.  Mohammed hangs out at the coffee shop most afternoons. His mother functions as a cross between a social worker and pied piper for the lost ones who congregate around the town square. She is passionately kind to the disenfranchised and very sweet to her son, Mohammed.  I have no idea what their back story is, how they came from London to the U.S. No idea. I do know tenderness when I see it, though.

Anyway, I often wait for Mohammed to show up so that we can get in as many games as possible. We don’t talk that much, though he told me he is a poet. We thank each other at the end of every game– win, lose, or stalemate. Smiles and a handshake. “Good game.” “That was fun.” I tend to mutter Marvin Gaye lyrics while I play… “only three things for sure– taxes, death and Trouble.  Trouble man.”

He says some odd things at times.  A while ago he asked for free advice. (He knows I provide therapy.)  “My advice to you is not to ask for free advice.”

“Oh.”

Lately he said, “I am wondering if God exists. Check.”

I said, “Good, keep wondering. It’s a critical question to answer. Uncheck, you booger.”

“Why do you say that? Do you believe in God?”

“Yes, I do, but whether you do or do not believe, your answer will form a core belief and inform you about your purpose and meaning in life. Check.”

“What does that mean? Not the check, I follow that.”

“Well, have you ever seen a house being built from start to finish?”

“Sure.”

“So one day there is an empty plot of ground and someone starts dreaming and designing a lovely structure that will fit superbly on this spot. A surveyor stakes out the foundation one day and sets the corners. A while later a backhoe operator digs the footers for concrete. Eventually you get a detailed structure. Check.”

“I don’t get it. What does a house have to do with God’s existence? Uncheck.”

“Well, it’s an analogy to building a faith system. Once you break ground, (in your case it’s deciding if God exists) you begin building a structure of beliefs that connect to one another.”

“And what if I decide God does not exist? Check.”

“You still build a structure, a belief system around that core belief.”

“Oh, I thought belief systems were religions.”

“Religions are belief systems, but so are paths in science and political systems. Communism and socialism and fascism are all political belief systems that are not religions. In fact, they often outlaw religion or restrict it severely. Uncheck.”

“Hmmm. Gaddafi was religious, but he was also a total dictator.”

“Yeah, he was sort of a mutant combination of being the tribal chief, president for life, thug godfather, and well, let’s see what Hollowverse says….

“Gaddafi was quite taken with the principle of democracy. To him, multi-party, representational democracy was not truly democratic–nor was a dictatorship, though he was widely considered a dictator. And perhaps he was, but regardless, only three years after Gaddafi orchestrated a bloodless coup in Libya, he stepped down as Premier of the Libyan government, re-titling himself “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,” and instituting a complex series of self-governing citizen bodies with titles like “The People’s Committees” and the “General People’s Congress.”

“Yeah, that’s a delusional belief system. ”

“He was a very bad man for a very long time. Check.”

“Yep. I wonder if he believed in God? or if he thought he was God?”

“The thing about God that stops me from believing is the evil in the world. All these innocent people who are abused and killed. Where is God for them?”

“That’s an old complaint lodged against the idea of a good, loving, all powerful God. Why would He allow evil to flourish? Uncheck.”

“So evil makes me not want to believe in God.”

“Uh huh. That’s evil’s job, though, to eliminate hope and belief in a better world. Evil destroys and pollutes and desecrates. Like Gaddafi. Because he caused so much evil, does that mean that good does not exist? God, on the other hand, if you believe in Him, originates, creates, purifies, redeems, saves. He heals what evil perpetrates. Mate.”

“I don’t think I believe that. Not the checkmate. I get that.”

“So how do you explain beauty and the order of nature? Do you think it’s all the random outcome of a bunch of random stuff? And when you see extraordinary kindness like your mother shows, how do you explain that? Did compassion for one’s fellow man just evolve out of a mud puddle like pollywogs?”

“I don’t know what are pollywogs?”

“They are evolving frogs, uh, tadpoles. It’s a stage between the frog egg and the mature frog. Actually… like you, Mohammed. You are evolving into your final adult form. Seeking the answer to whether God exists or not is part of your spiritual/intellectual growth.”

“You think so?”

“Sure. I remember reading that every thinking person must answer three questions. 1. Where did I come from?  2. Where do I go after I die?  3. What should I do between those two points?”

“I can’t answer those questions yet.”

“That’s okay, Tadpole. Did anyone every tell you that you look like Chico Marx?”

“No, who was that?”

“Groucho Marx’s older brother. Have you ever seen a Marx Brothers movie?”

“No.”

“You’re probably better off without the Marx Brothers experience.  Let’s just say they were some crazy comic brothers back in the day.”

“Do you think they believed in God?”

“Yeah, I do… at least they had to believe in miracles because their movies were incredibly stupid, and yet they made a good living from being silly.”

“Maybe I could do that too.”

“Mohammed, stand up comedy and you… I’m not seeing it.”

“No, here is a keeler joke:  How many Tunisians does it take to change light bulb?”

“You got me. How many?”

“Whole country.”

“Where’s the punch line, Mohammed?”

“Don’t you remember Arab Spring?  The Tunisians changed leaders like old light bulb.”

“Oh, yeah. Keeler, man. Let’s stick with theology.”

“But why?”

“Cuz you’re killin’ me.”

 

 

314. the silent man

He doesn’t say much, so it’s hard to tell if he’s thinking or what he’s feeling. His is not so much a poker face as it is a deflated basketball face. It seems that he used to have more substance on the inside that pushed his chin out and cocked his mouth into a confident smile. More bounce. Back then his warm eyes promised more to come. Now he spends an inordinate amount of time staring into his phone, barely tethered to family and friends, like an absent minded astronaut doing a space walk in the zero oxygen environment of black space.

“I’m going to eat in the bedroom tonight.”

“I’m going to bed now.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow night.” And he disappears into that black void beyond gravity’s pull. It’s a weightless but joyless place he goes, and it chips my heart every time he does.”

She is left with behaviors as the evidence of what lies within her almost champion’s heart and head.

“He’s kind and caring… my anchor, but I need him to be the captain of the ship. It’s easy to take an anchor for granted, you know. It’s out of sight and just barely attached. You don’t realize it’s even there when it does its job. In a crisis you pray that it will hold firm… but it’s hard to love an anchor.”

“He’s in chronic pain, tired, and deflated. Yeah, there’s that deflated idea again, where you have to slam the ball down to get it to come back up half as high. Underinflated, hmmmm, like depressed. But let’s not fix anything, no.  I don’t want to be a nag, but I won’t be a doormat either. I’ve done both before and neither worked out. I love who he is; I just don’t get to see much of his who. All the whats bog us down.”

“I’m all over the place with emotions and words and actions. I’m the pilot, the cook, the look out, the medic, the mechanic, fire police, security, accountant, and I swab the ship’s deck. I need him to step into the captaincy, you know, assert some authority.

“Sometimes it’s like playing with my old Mr. Potato Head. I start with a blank slate and give him arms to hold me, cuz I need hugs and touch. I’m a feely kind of girl, you know. Hugs are my drugs.

“Then I’d snap in those smoky eyes I long to fall into. It used to be automatic that I’d see his soul jumping like a pair of dolphins in those deep waters. I can’t find that accessory today, only sad or tired or glazed over eyes in today’s toy box. Mr. Potato Head, I need your soft hands to hold me. I need your strong arms to draw me into that cove where dolphins leap in tandem.

“You’re gonna need more tissues. Honk!!! Sniff. Sigh. I have a buy one get one free coupon for tissues.”

“No thanks. I get a perverse pleasure out of paying full price for things.”

“I’ll give it to your wife. I’m sure she loves a bargain.”

“Oh Yeah.”

“I have three fathers. You know my birth dad left when I was two. He went back to his native country and the familiar world where he was someone of notice. For over forty years I had nothing but radio silence, not even a pop or static on the line, as his blood flowed through my veins. However, my adopted dad showed up big in my life, and I couldn’t have asked for more. I think about that often. When I felt the empty space pull on my soul, I leaned into my Father God. He never left. He’s always held me together when I felt my seams breaking. He sent my adopted father to stand in the huge scarring gap my birth dad left behind.

“Funny thing is I’ve had three husbands also. My adolescent husband abandoned me along with the truth, dignity and the American Way. He chose the past also, where he was someone special. He burned the truth as a sacrifice on the altar of his self-indulgence. He grew like a pimple on my butt. So incredibly annoying and demanding.  Just like with my dad dilemma, I fell into God’s loving arms, exhausted and shattered. Again, My God Jesus walked as a husband with me, filling in the abyss until Chuck and I started the sequels to our first marriages.

“Chuck is the good sheriff who shows up and brings order in the bad cowboy town. I was so hopeful that he’d keep growing, sharing in my life, and not just settle for safe streets. That old song plays in my head about standing by me. I need that so much.

“Stand by Me” by Ben E. King
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
Oh darlin’, darlin’, stand by me, oh stand by me
Oh stand by me, stand by me
If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
And the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
And darlin’, darlin’, stand by me, oh stand by me
Oh stand now by me, stand by me, stand by me-e, yeah
And darlin’, darlin’, stand by me, oh stand by me
Oh stand now by me, stand by me, stand by me-e, yeah
Whenever you’re in trouble won’t you stand by me, oh now now stand by me
Oh stand by me, stand by me
Oh stand by me, stand by me
And that’s where I am today, with that old song playing in my exhausted heart. I know God held me in His hands till my True Dad showed up and made it all work. In faith I have to believe He is doing the same with my True Love.

313. Boyz in the Woodz

How many stories took place in the woods across the street from my childhood home in the suburbs of Alexandria, Virginia? It was a no man’s land of wonder and risky adventure for me through early high school,   actually until my frenzied focus turned to cars and girls from other neighborhoods. The Woodz were only about 10 acres of hard clay ground that dropped into a creek bed and were cost prohibitive to develop in the cookie cutter housing tracts logic of the 1950’s. Hemmed in on four sides by nearly identical brick box houses, someone owned it but no one built on it,  unless you count forts made from leaves and sticks covering holes in the ground, lit by candles. It was a great place to play army games and have snowball fights when we were little, or to make out with a girl while smoking a cigarette in junior high. There was also a well worn path next to the stream where kids would run and ride their bikes. We knew every inch of those acres. If someone hid a Playboy or beer out there, well, it was liberated for the proletariat comrades’ edjumakation.

Before the families on that side put up fences, the high field was open for community grazing for baseball and football games. One level area was used once a year for the after-Christmas community bon fire, hosted by the never sober Leroy King. All that open ground enabled boys who were up to no good find many escape routes from their misdeeds, like pelting cars with snowballs and stealing Christmas light bulbs just for the challenge of maybe getting caught. Of course there was a rope swing over the deepest drop of the creek that was so often dry. I broke my wrist there in 3rd grade, I think. My playmates continued to swing over me, trying to hit me with spit for points as I lay groaning and in shock in that dry creek bed. But it was worth it all to have a cast on my wrist for two months. You see, we kept track of who had how many stitches and broken bones. Everything was a competition where a reasonably cautious kid didn’t have a chance. A broken wrist was easily worth fifteen stitches.

Across the Parkway was another patch of woods, maybe 7 acres, that separated a row of houses from the school yard and baseball fields. We cut through friendly yards– the Murrays, the Audettes, or that family with five girls– Hope, Charity, Faith, Smite and Vengeance–when we needed to. There were two old homesteads tucked into those woods, so technically they owned those woods. Now the poor miserable Rileys rented their shack and floated an old bathtub boat in the small pond behind their rundown abode. Bad stories told in whispers wafted from the Rileys like skunk stink. A horrid Steven King novel could have been set there. The other dwelling was a decent farmhouse with a nice large garden. No one knew their name. I don’t recall vandalizing their garden or trick or treating there,  but I remember being chased off and told about trespassing. Hey, there was no fence and we were on the prowl.

But the granddaddy of all the woodz lay beyond Kings Highway. It ran for a mile or two south and a mile or more west. Eventually it ran into federal property with missile silos and serious double fences long before you could reach the Coast Guard station on Telegraph Road. Something shady was going on there behind SECRET signs, like aliens in jars of formaldehyde weird.

Anyway, the older we grew the more deeply we explored those woods surrounding Ben Mae Manor. We caught spring peepers in the ditch beside the road. In the snow we’d track animals and one another by following footprints. We also stole apples off an old dude’s trees farther down Kings Highway. It was rumored that he shot rock salt at kids who trespassed. That suburban myth  just added to the excitement of snitching apples. On the other side of Kings Highway was St. Mark’s Church. This was also the back way into the ball fields. Another homestead sat there with a few goats and chickens and beehives. Who could resist hitting the hives with rocks?  We couldn’t. Stirring up the bees ended our boredom temporarily.

Near that spot I witnessed one of the coolest Crocodile Dundee sort of things ever, and this was before he was even invented. A seven foot black snake slithered out of a big brush pile where some trees had been bulldozed for parking space behind the church. One of the baseball team kids’ dad grabbed the tail of that snake and snapped it like a long bull whip. All of us astonished boys watched in amazement as the snake’s head went flying by without its writhing body. That event was a lunch table tale topper for years afterwards.

“I mean the head flew by with the snake’s mouth open, trying to bite the air! And its body just squirmed grossly with no head. Blood squirted out like ketchup bombs all over.  Are you gonna eat those fries?”

In junior high my neighbor Richard decided we needed a minibike trail to the Hayfield Farms community, a mere four miles south and west of our starting point. A group of us determined to blaze a trail of glory and promptly got to cutting down trees and uprooting bushes that were in the way. It was a fall project that didn’t last too long. We probably blazed about 200 yards before we petered out and settled for a camp out in the woods. Later on older boys built real woodzy cabins down there for parties of the psychosexual variety. The age of innocence was over but not forgotten, all hail the joyz of the boyz in the woodz.

 

312. Facebook Fascsim

Hitler and MussoliniI just finished my first Facebook Fanatic encounter. Wow! It was creepy and felt like a bar fight from a different time zone via Skype. I briefly opined about my least favorite human being, Donald Trump, and a highly educated, erudite scholar sucked on to my whimsy like a leech. It was actually funny from my side, but I am troubled that Professor Righteous is grinding his molars tonight instead of sleeping peacefully. An old friend once shared the saying, “That guy is so tight that you couldn’t pull a pin out of his ass with a John Deere tractor.” Here is another example of such a vacuum sealed  tightness. I posted a brief snarky comment about the Trumpster being an insult to thinking people and smart dogs, and my cyber adversary took off, accusing me of calling him a stupid dog; me being a liberal; not a Christian; a hypocrite, and more. He even said that I was Trump-like in my rhetoric.  Well, I asked him, if you find my impersonation of the Great One insulting, why cling to the original, Mr. Logical?

Man, it was fun. I teed up twenty words and he wrote an angry reactionary dissertation like a mad golfer hitting a jumbo bucket of balls. I speculate that he’s probably still seething with rage against these meager snarky comments. I wish there were a way to cash in on words generated by others on the internet. From one jokey line of mine, this guy made himself a running joke of a thousand words or more. Vitriol makes a bad salad dressing, Dude. I don’t care how good your olive oil is. He is still chewing on the rubber worm bait, thinking it’s some opening shot in the Revolutionary War. No chance.

Charlie Chastiser got his panties in a wad. And being a moralist of the first order, he declared war on all the folks who did not agree with his extremism or the Donald. It was great stuff, lessons in rhetoric and logic were self soothing for him. But guys like that worry me. I fear that his vain attempts to rally the troops will fail and he will wind up in a movie theater with a legally purchased submachine gun and kill everyone who came to see a mildly spicy chick flick starring Ben Affleck… all in the name of National Purity. He has swallowed the poor victim pill and can now justify all genocidal tendencies. In the post-homicide interviews with his neighbors and coworkers, they will say things like,

“He was a very intense man who broke the decaf pot when it was introduced as an option.”

“He was very neat and punctual.”

“His desk was immaculate… but I didn’t really know him well.”

“He had a cat.”

Inside the loner’s mind he monologues to no one…

“Surely others cannot have value or meaning when they fail to toe my Fascist line. And I wouldn’t have to be a Fascist if they would just do what I expect. So, logically, I must exterminate them in the name of my superior beliefs. I am, therefore, a modern knight killing in the name of a just cause.”

It’s a scary world, blogistas. Don’t trust me, please. I am not a reliable source. I prefer good stories to great ideologies. But do trust your own assessment of weirdos who cling to ideology like a lab monkey clings to its wire cage mother’s breast. Something is wrong with such fear driven intensity. It promotes survivalistic reactions, an “us versus them” mentality.  The Donald is good at channeling this primal anger. He bloviates against the Chinese, as if they are a monolithic group of same think.  The Yellow Threat. He blows hard against Mexicans, as if they are all greasy rapists  posing as lawn care technicians in high brow neighborhoods just waiting to pounce on Republican housewives. The Brown Threat. He knows, because, you see, he has talked to one Border Patrol agent in New Mexico once. And that is gospel, after all. God Bless America. The White Threat to the multicolored world.

Image result for xenophobic pictures

To reject xenophobia is not an unpatriotic act nor is it a soppy milk toast liberal position. Being xenophobic does not make you a red blooded American either, whatever that is. Immigrants built this nation. Some came legally as slaves or railroad workers. Some came illegally by jumping ship in the harbor. Some came through Ellis Island. But please, do not believe the mythology that everyone came with good hearts and tears at the Statue of Liberty. After all, she didn’t get here from France until 1886. And let’s not forget that some U.S. citizens were here to begin with. Our Native People tried to stem the flow of the self righteous and better armed European illegals who used the self serving rationale that they had a God given right to occupy “unused lands”. It didn’t turn out too well for the Native Peoples, but let’s not dwell on that ugly chapter of U.S. history. No, America would never again relocate other people groups based on fear or greed until the Japanese were interned in WWII. Xenophobes have feared Catholics, Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Germans, Jews, Mexicans, Moslems, Russians, etc. over the past two hundred years. It’s the same old “us vs. them” reaction steeped in fear of the different.

[Rick is such a good neighbor, hardworking, honest, decent Christian man.]

We can thank The Donald for digging up the immortal head of the Hydra so simple minds can play with it again. This week’s feature is “Phobia from the Planet Xenon”. Feeding the hate and fear machine will always draw an audience… just like horror movies manage to continue their tradition, reproducing faster than mice. However, every so many generations the throttle gets loose and a majority sate themselves on easy to digest propaganda, no hard chewing required. In that dark world dentists and minor office clerks become judges, jurors and executioners, all quite legally, thank you very much. The xenophobic genie is hard to get back in the bottle once uncorked.

311. Scotch

Long, long ago, 42 years to be exact, I traveled through England and Scotland by train, taxi and bus, losing articles of clothing and my high school ring along the way. It’s not hard to lose things unless it’s a misbehaving two year old that you’d like to drop off at the mall, but then everyone jumps up and says, “Hey, you can’t leave that kid here.” Anyway, on the train ride north from London I recall a 15 year old jockey who looked 12 offered to buy me a pint of Guiness. Yes, he was legal age to do so. He drained his and I gargled and gagged on what tasted like a coal miner’s tobacco juice spit. The kid won by six furlongs, roughly 1,320 yards.

I rolled into Edinboro, Scotland a couple of days before New Year’s Eve of 1974, i.e. it was still 1973 and I was still 17. I toured the city and the castle up on a prominent hill and wandered up above the Firth of Forth past wild heather. It was a harsh beauty that far north, but softer than what I was told existed way up in true Scotland, where true Scotsmen wear kilts. The accents grew more primal along the latitudes also.  I bought a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat and matching scarf in Cooper Tartan (to fit in) and wore them with my old bomber jacket, bush jeans and blue suede sneakers. It was a memorable look that still makes fashionistas wretch. I think I stuck out like a butt blister Yank.

 As luck would have it, I met three Australian guys at the youth hostel. We got along immediately. Two of the guys were on their tour of Europe before returning home to university. The third was their old mate, Rob Campbell, whose family had moved to London several years back. Nice girthy guys with meat on their bones. It felt comfortable to have new mates. And so, as New Year’s Eve approached, we decided to celebrate our good fortunes with large quantities of scotch whiskey. Off we went on Princes Street acting like we knew something, like we were princes of a sort.

So many liquor stores to choose from and so little time. We walked into one that seemed affordable and asked for scotch. The proprietor smirked, “Which one, me Buccos, we’ve got over two hundred types. You want single malt or a blend?”

“Uh, (trying hard not to look as stupid as we were) how about the one with the pirate on the bottle?”

“Ummm hmmm. That’s rot gut but cheap, one pound twenty.”

“We’ll each have a bottle then. Cheap is what we’re looking for. And pirates.”

“Aye, matey. Here ye be.”

We walked along and took piratey swigs from our bottles, pretending it tasted good when it actually tasted like smoked ammonia from an old rubber hose. When we got back to the hostel, many of the guests were gathered in the expansive basement kitchen, including an old, very drunk, white bearded Scotsman in full kilt regalia.

 He was from the north of Scotland and nearly unintelligible with his brogue over a quart of scotch in his belly. He hiccupped, staggered and swore aggressively. He was down to maybe six active brain cells, which were jumping off of him like fleas on a drowning basset hound. We called him Scottie and he answered our probes.

Of course one of the Aussies asked if he wore anything under his kilt. The old man made a mean face and squinted at us, and then peed on the floor.  He slurred, “What do you think, mate?”

We howled with laughter and made sure to avoid Scottie, the mean drunk from Glasssszzzzzgoooowwww. He was going to be very sick in the new year, and stinky damp. Off we went to find rare adventures on Princes Street. And I ‘m sure we had some fun times, none of which I can recall. I remember vaguely meeting some girls and going to a club or pub or something…. I became separated from the group, although I might have simply fallen asleep while they moved on. In any event I was many furlongs behind my new friends and very lost in Scotland. (I remembered being in the same predicament once back home on a summer’s evening. I crawled into a dry storm drain and slept on a bed of dry grass and leaves, maybe a snake too. I believe I survived. ) So I decided to bunker down for the night in a dark doorway, which I did for a few hours. Eventually a foot patrol cop woke me up and directed me elsewhere, just like that line in the Who’s song, “Who are you?”

I woke up in a Soho doorway
A policeman knew my name
He said “You can go sleep at home tonight
If you can get up and walk away”

I staggered back to the underground
And the breeze blew back my hair
I remember throwin’ punches around
And preachin’ from my chair

Well, it wasn’t like that. I simply started looking for landmarks and trying to regain cognition. I turned the focus key but nothing happened in my brain. I staggered around Edinboro on New Year’s Day like it was a ship tossed at sea. “Oh it’s a pirate’s life for me.” Like most bad ideas that later turn into good stories, this one finally ended.  I rode the train back to London and stayed with Rob for the rest of the week. We had a romping good time doing things I still cannot publicize until my deathbed confession. I don’t believe I’ve had any scotch fur many long furlongs since then, Mates. No regrets.