434. Indefatigable Joy

Image result for tornado pictures aftermath

Some days, hombres, are rough around the edges and wrinkled in the middle.  Today is such a day.  Alas, a big snow storm is brewing and the snowblower won’t start; nothing new there. Still, I yanked and yanked the pull cord and sprayed and sprayed starter fluid (ether) around the carburetor intake to try and overwhelm it with fumes to ignite the fuel or the operator. The thing looks  brand new, and it should since it just sits in the garage like a super model all year until we get a whopper snow storm, which is due tomorrow. Now you might say that I have had all year to fix the thing since it performed so poorly last winter in the historic 33 inch blizzard. But to know me is to hate me when it comes to being proactive. I am actually tempted to just lie down and breathe the ether for a while, perhaps even pretend I had a quiet stroke to distract my wife from guilting me for my incompetent indolence. And who could blame her? I don’t enjoy being helpless, but I can’t get all bent out of shape about life’s little irritants. I never wanted to be a twisted pretzel.

I had two computer cords to return to our former internet service provider and forgot both of them on my way to work this morning.  No big deal yet. They are fining us $150 for early termination, despite ten years of being a faithful customer. Shake it off, I say. Then as I unlocked my office door, my key snapped in half. The business end looked back at me like a silver snake in a hole hissing, “Have a niccccccce day.” I had to laugh out loud. At least it locked in the open position. ‘Could be worse’, as my buddy Steve says. I called Nancy’s Lock and Key and told them my plight. “We’ll get to you by the end of the day.” Reassured, I nearly skipped over to the corner coffee shop for a blueberry muffin and medium coffee, but the barrista was sluggishly slow to wait on me. He had a kidney stone to birth and looked like a man menstruating for the first time: pale and weak.  I felt very fortunate not to be him.Image result for pale pained faces male

I got back to my office just in time to open my lap top but not check my phone messages. My first appointment guy walked through my door; only he was the wrong guy. I was expecting Bill and here was Jim. Uh oh, another snafu for me. I began to stutter my explanation to Bill and to figure out when to reschedule and when to feel stupider and incompetenter, when I thought, ‘Hey, I have one voice mail to check. What if that is Jim cancelling? What are the odds? 90 to 1 maybe.”  I checked my voice mail. It was Jim cancelling. Pow!! Due to the expected blizzard tomorrow, his company had moved all meetings up to today. Victory was mine!! It was a perfect triple win-win-win. Except I still had no snowblower that worked. Sure, it was shiny and good looking in a eunuchy sort of way, but completely  impotent.Image result for broken snowblower pictures

I sat down with Bill and then the next three clients. Zoom, zoom. The day was flying past as the wicked nor’easter approached from wherever nor’easters approach. I felt like I was in a poorly written novel that was limping toward some sort of denouement. Things were getting resolved too easily, and oddly enough their tension seemed to give me empathy and focus for my anxious clients. For some inexplicable reason, I felt no worries or dread at all. I did feel some pressure on my bladder, though. As Archie Bunker didn’t say, “You don’t buy coffee, you rent it.” How Great Thou Art played on AccuJazz, Will Bernard at the guitar. Man! Everything fit so nicely. Even if I had no faith, I’d have to by two o’clock on this day or be a complete heretic. “Hallelujah to ya!!” I felt like yelling to somebody, anybody. If you can’t be smart, be Irish.Image result for st patrick's day celebrants pictures

I realized that I was choosing joy as I dodged metaphorical bullets. Then I wondered if I were experiencing the placebo effect of belief in good outcomes, thereby ensuring good outcomes. Was I placeboing my  self?  (Don’t you hate when someone turns a weird noun into a verb like that? Like Tebowing or tuxedoing. It’s downright smarmy.) No, I was actually just accepting the brokenness around me with a light heart, a bouncy helium heart without mania rocket fuel involved. My back and leg still hurt as usual and my taxes are not quite ready for my accountant, but I am choosing joy over pain or guilt and embarrassment.Image result for joyful faces

Maybe yesterday’s mini lesson on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit actually produced some fruit in me.

The Fruit of the Holy Spirit is a biblical term that sums up nine attributes of a Christian life according to Paul the Apostle in his Letter to the Galatians: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance (patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”Image result for peace images and picture

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413. Whitetitlement Disorder, Z63.55

 

For years I didn’t even know I had this disorder. It’s a silent form of corrosion that grows in your gut darkly, similar to prostate cancer. Its scientific name is amygdalar sclerosis, which means “hardening of the amygdala”.  Sure, with an enlarged prostate you have to pee more often, but that’s a function of age, right?  And age alone is not a disorder. But amygdalar sclerosis is tricky, sneaky, internal subterfuge.Other white men may have it and not know so if they are surrounded by other white men who drink coffee or beer, or if they don’t spend time among the diverse people types who inhabit this changing country of ours. The symptoms may include but are not limited to the following:

  • intolerance of change that does not directly benefit them
  • a cloying fear of minorities as a group but not necessarily as individuals
  • disturbing nightmares wherein younger minority males hijack the white man’s car
  • self aggrandizement that seems justified by conveniently arranged facts or myths
  • feelings of superiority wrapped in flags of state or religion or economic theory
  • excessive fear of becoming a minority
  • an “us vs. them” mentality, black or white, all or nothing thinking frameworks
  • a longing for an imaginary idyllic past where law and order always worked while June Cleaver did not.

 

392. Baltimore Up

Gravel roads led to a rutted dirt cart path. The taxi bounced. I could see the headlights of a tow truck coming at us out of the low sulfurous landscape. ‘Maybe this guy does know something after all.’

“Sunzofbitches goin to make another $200. Someone ought to stop this.” He pulled slightly out of the truck’s path but with palpable reluctance mowing over the hip high river grass. We bounced. The gun bounced. Nevermind. My sense of reality had long ago dribbled out of bounds while jogging earlier in a sketchy neighborhood. Here we were in a modern day “gunslinger versus cattle rustler” story where the cows and horses had been swapped out for cars and vans. A showdown at the AAA corral lay just ahead. Someone’s gonna die tonight in Baltimore, I just know it.

In the headlights’ beams I saw an outpost, a double wide trailer surrounded by a fence that seemed to be 14 feet tall. Unscaleable. On the other side of this monstrosity I saw my van, an innocent victim in a concentration camp. An old Asian man squatted in front of the gates, a mysterious gatekeeper who could have been in Vietnam or Cambodia guarding POW’s. Deniro again came to mind, The Deer Hunter. We were going back to Saigon to rescue our Pennsylvania village buddy from a final game of Russian roulette.

“That’s my van,” I uttered, hardly believing that this whole taxi experience was real.

“Want me to ram it?” my diligent but deranged driver asked. I was sure he’d do it.

“No, I want to do this legally, ya know. The cops are not on my side already.”

“Suit yourself, man.”

I got out and walked up a half flight of stairs to the skanky trailer. Cheap paneled walls on three sides of a small room forced you into the fourth wall, two inch thick bullet proof glass with a silver speak hole. Many signs  were pasted there. The only one that mattered read, “CASH ONLY”. A large woman in a sparkly black cocktail dress came to the other side. Her hair was too black, jewelry too big, and she had only a few of her own teeth.

I tried to contain my rage. “You stole my van and I want it back.”

“Thir, there’sth no need for hosthtility. I justht need two hundred dollarsth cash and you can have it. Thimple.”

“This is piracy. You are thieves preying on baseball fans…”

“It’s $200 tonight. If we sthore it for a day, it’sth thhhhreee fifty.”

My head was exploding with rage. I thought I’d maxed out but apparently my earlier rage had carved out new caverns for extra rage capacity. “Aaaghggrafrickinshashkamuffinboogerschnatzelcrimeneay!!::”

“You won’t take a VISA?”

“Nope. Cash only.”

“It’s after midnite and I’m paying a cabbie to hunt for my car that you stole…”

She gave me absolutely dead eyes heavily caked in mascara and blue eye shadow. Even in my rage I knew this woman was a permanent resident in this hell. I was merely visiting.

“I’ll be back. Don’t sell it while I’m gone cuz I’m sure that’s totally legal too.”

“No need for tharcasm, thir.”

I got back in the cab. Marty was incensed and feeding off my bad energy. “I can shoot that lock off the gate. Nobody’s gotta know. I got nothing to lose.”

“No. Let’s go back into the city and find an ATM.”

“Okay, man. But I could…”

“Do it!”

We bounced back out of the swamplands and back toward the orange mercury vapor lights of Baltimore.

“Shit like this is why I’m going to Denver. It’s getting harder and harder not to kill someone. I think there’s an ATM on the other side of these warehouses if I remember correctly. I’m turning the meter off by the way. The rest of the ride is on me.”

“Thanks, Marty.” Suddenly that woman’s speech impediment was stuck in my head and I wondered if I should have said, “Sanks”. My joints were coming unglued. I wondered if I could even remember my security code, 3791, the four corners of the pin pad. Okay, I can do this.

Mercifully we found an ATM that only charged $2.50 per transaction. I withdrew 100 times that to cover the pirate extortion, Marty’s incredible ride, and expenses along the way home. Actually, after I got back in the cab, I realized that I’d have no cash left, but it was going to finally end.

We drove back to the swamp land auto concentration camp. I tried to not speak to the cocktail ostrich woman behind the bullet proof glass. I can understand why they need it now. It had crossed my mind to borrow Marty’s .45 and drop some lead, but I reeled my rage back in.

“Show this receipt to Kwang Lei. He’ll unlock the gate for you.”

Utter contempt beamed back and forth between us to no avail.

I started my van and slowly drove out of the compound as Kwang Lei locked it behind me. Marty wished me well and led me back to Pratt Street, then he honked his horn and was gone. I was exhausted as I  pulled into the hotel at 2:10 a.m. My wife was awake. We scooped up our three sleeping girls and settled them in for the two hour silent ride home.

I composed an incendiary editorial in my head on the way home. Eventually I did type and mail it. I retold the sad tale of modern thievery and concluded almost Biblically, “I tried to find even fifty good men in Baltimore, but I could not. So I’m gathering Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Frank Robinson, and Boog Powell. We won’t look back as God sodomly nukes Baltigomorra to nothingness.” I don’t think they published it.

The sun was coming up as we pulled into our driveway. I looked behind the yew bushes for No Parking signs and went to bed. The waking nightmare was over.

 

 

 

 

368. Porn Eyes

A provocative title, yes. Sadly it’s a common reality for many men of all races and demographics that they are porn addicts. Can’t live through a day without a mind numbing hit of deadly eye candy. Like any narcotic or other compulsive behavior, the pleasure thrill leaves early on in the unholy hajj toward the heights of heavenly bliss. The addict’s creeping eyesight is corrupted by a toxic mind that constantly hungers for another shot of porn. In psychic sand storms, beautiful naked images are mindlessly devoured like so many potato chips, peanuts, or any other junk food binge vehicle. The thrill is gone, man, so taboo themes creep in to super charge plain old sex, similar to how one spices up plain chips and dip as the taste buds retreat. You know, you can’t taste salt after your taste buds are over salinated. This is not news. It goes back beyond Sodom and Gomorrah, cuz those dudes were already good at perversion by then. That was not their first rodeo.

“You are the salt of the earth”, said Jesus. “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Overconsumption does not lead anyone to appreciation. Rather it creates the gross state of numb boredom and waste.

It’s a shame, a Great Dismal Swamp of Shame, that men who have gorgeous, sexy wives will self gratify and slowly alienate their legitimate, available, and willing love partners. Instead of growing a garden of intimate bliss and planting vines of deep sensuality, these dead-eyed men strip down vibrant sexual subjectivity into its inanimate objective parts. Their fantasized playmates have no names or personality; they only have parts… like car parts– cams, pistons, fenders, carburetors– that do not connect into one, God-made love partner. They become cyborg robots in emotional junkyards, replacing parts. All day long they replace parts. Or act like reductionist chemists who reduce a tomato into 32 lifeless components.

See, it’s easier, so much easier to exchange parts than to engage the breathing, thinking, feeling whole person in an atmosphere of patient love. Such fullness requires more work than any poker game; whereas porn is simply a broken down man hypnotically slamming a broken down slot machine expecting something different, as he pulls the handle and watches the images spin. Uh oh, you lose again… because you cannot win this or any other addiction game. Every time you use, the goal posts move farther away as your spirit deflates further.

I remember a gang of boys in high school who stole cars; parked them in nearby woods; and then stripped the wheels, tires, stereo systems and any easily removed accessory from the raped automotive carcass. Eventually they were caught and prosecuted. Turns out one of the cars they had stolen belonged to a government employee whose national security-linked computer was locked in the trunk. The Big Boys of law enforcement helped local cops bust the gang of thieves. Just like porn addicts, these gangsters did not know how valuable the whole was. They just saw replaceable parts and greedily pulled them off stolen cars like hyenas rip apart a fallen zebra.

Are you sad yet? This plague is tragic because it does not have to be. Are there more porn addicts or alcoholics? Porn by a long shot. Google Porn Addiction Statistics  and then Alcoholics Statistics and prepare to be blown away by hurricanes of disgust. God made human sexuality in all its glorious complexity; simply disgraceful men made pornography, which is the corruption of beauty and love. The root word of pornography is Greek, porne, which meant prostitute. Graphy still means writing, but nowadays it means documenting with video. Likewise, Porn still conjures up the viral spirit of prostitution.

Porn is easy to find but hard to lose. Graphic carnal knowledge and ecstatic imagery is a mouse click away today, my friends. In my youth it was magazines in the woods that had been smuggled out of some kid’s father’s stash. You had to work hard to see the forbidden fruit in those patinated days. Expropriated magazines radiated more than plutonium in trash bags hidden in a hole covered by leaves. If a porno Geiger counter were available, one could find the stash by listening to the beep-beep-beep rising in pitch and frequency. The magnetic display needle would slam against the highest setting as the sex detective scanned the woods where young boys played with plastic guns and sticks and Playboys. Invisible energy leeched out, seeped out, wafted out of the trash bag container poisoning young male minds. Rotting carnality just an arm’s length away, the shiny nude photographs eroded innocence as surely as cancer erodes whatever it touches. Objects outside of any relationship, culture, or code jump out at the viewer– an oyster nailed to a tree; an owl flying through a hospital ward; a baby in prison. Impossible to unlook or forget these images once tattooed on a revolted conscience.

We knew some dads even had 16mm porn movies, but that was way too complicated to attempt rigging up.  We knew about the drive-in on Palmer Highway. Triple X movies were all they showed. I blogged about that adolescent, rooftop experience in an earlier post. The triple X porn movie on the drive-in screen was not memorable, however. The wild police chase and narrow escape with my buddies was etched into my grey memory matter. I smile and savor old memories like that one. On the other hand, the porn addict is haunted by his old violations and perversities, unshared and utterly alone. And that is another aspect of porn use that is not immediately understood– it isolates the addict from real intimacy and isolates him from himself. Instead of connecting to others deeply, the addict uses airbrushed images of perfect others to remain perfectly disconnected. The shame cycle is simply ramped up by repeated failure to escape the addiction. Self disgust mounts and more porn is used to escape the negative emotions caused by the addiction to begin with. Pornography strip mines the soul’s majestic mountains.

And just in case you think that church doors filter out streaming porn from genuflecting male minds, the stats are just as bleak for Christian men. Viruses don’t care if you go to church, and Porn is a billion dollar virus industry.

 

360. 1461 [Days]

In case you were wondering, the title is not a phone number I found; it’s 4 years of days plus one day for leap year. That’s how long I’ve been at this blog business. Averaging 90 posts per year or one every 4 days. Whoa! If this wound up on paper, I could be sued for wasting trees and contributing to global warming. I could also be charged for corrupting miners, except I have never written for or about miners– coal, gold, salt, silver, copper, nada. Internet loitering is not a crime yet. But I plead guilty, my honorable blognoids. I have loitered in cyberland and wasted over a thousand hours in the passionate pursuit of purposelessness.  Yet, never has posting felt like forced duty at the gym or reluctant treadmill time. No, I find it therapeutic to blather into the blogisphere as my life sputters by.

It feels like I’ve been at this a lot longer, but my trusty WordPress stats confirm it– four years. Over 300,000 words easily since most of my posts come in around 1,000 words, my self imposed limit. Along  the way I learned how to import pictures that I scammed off the internet. What a difference that made. I’m a fairly visual guy and love finding images that seem to connect with my eccentric words. Some folks go about with metal detectors and find metallic treasures in fields and stream beds. I go about with my image detectors, my eyes, in search of connective visual tissue. But for me a tiny 8 watt bulb lights up when I find a picture that adds energy to my impoverished, eccentric words, caged in horizontal lines.

Centric means to be in the center or central. Ec & centric means to be off center or outside the circle of centeredness, often taken to mean ‘unconventional and slightly strange’. Outside the box, over the top, in one’s own orbit, marching to the beat of a different drum, etc. Yeah, no argument from me. Looking at my body of work, or is it play?, I’d have to conclude that it constitutes a strange stream of consciousness that sometimes flows uphill, backwards, nowhere, and everywhere; spiraling inward and outward across the limits of time and space. I have written about penguins, vodka, birds, flowers, dogs, gila monsters, coyotes, hitchhiking, God, prison, health, age, youth, music, art, innocence and experience, coffee nation, immigration, politics, love, faith, forgiveness, death, plumbing and the list goes on and on. Why?  Many reasons. I like language. I enjoy writing. I like to entertain, maybe even educate, folks

When I worked as a construction laborer in the early 70’s, I felt there was more to life than shoveling dirt and gravel all day long. I remember reading The Brothers Karamazov that dark winter and feeling deep intellectual and spiritual pings on my soul’s sonar. The messages were not acutely articulated. It was more like whales barking across the ocean. That was the same year I took my trip to England and Scotland, ’73-74, without a plan. I simply followed magnetic fields that drew me elsewhere. At the time I attributed my spontaneity to freedom and nonconformity. Looking back I give God credit for protecting me from my own arrogant stupidity.

Later on I went to college because my closest friends were going. I fell in love with learning and with my future wife, who had odd concepts like goals and structure and discipline. Whew!! I am still amazed and grateful that we continue to travel life’s path together. And still those sonar pings keep hitting my soul, telling me to be elsewhere, beyond this moment that I usually enjoy. Not alone necessarily but elsewhere. I guess it’s the same old wanderlust that led me away from safety and routine in the first place, deep into wooded acres and far across forbidden perimeter roads. Hearing my mother say, “Don’t….” often led to a desire to inhabit the prohibition, unsupervised by adults.

The Gravel Pit was fenced off from our ball field and elementary school yard. Of course older boys had created openings for us to pass through. When The Pit was operating, we’d sit on the surrounding banks and watch the big machines load dump trucks with orange sand and bank run gravel. Duly impressed by the diesel smoke, the loud thuds of a load, and the rumble in the earth as overloaded trucks ground gears across dusty roads. We’d ride out bikes across hillocks of hard clay and jump gullies eroded by years of heavy rains. Days had no numbers then, no end was imaginable beyond one setting sun. Watches and calendars were for adults to worry with. We pursued lizards and turtles and snakes, squirrels and possums, along with the secrets of becoming a young man. After the last employee left the Gravel Pit, we’d inch down like forest creatures and explore their vehicles and sit in backhoes and bull dozers. We were  in awe of the raw power they possessed. Yes, we trespassed but did not vandalize. It was more like going to a museum or an amusement park. We displayed boyish reverence for these enormous clanking monsters.

 They were huge and powerful, and we weren’t… yet.

Richard Cooper had a Suzuki 90 cc motorcycle that he’d ride like a bat out of hell up Dorset Drive and across the school grounds, down into the Gravel  Pit. No helmet. No license. No tags. It was the 60’s, man. I was often on the back of the overloaded machine, hanging on for dear life or any life at all. I have a vivid memory of chasing down a ground hog that was too far from its hole. I caught it under a basket and had no idea what to do next, so I let it go. The outcome did not matter so much. The wild chase, the breathless hunt, the exultant thrill were all that counted. We weren’t huge and powerful, yet.

At nearly 60 years of age I can roughly calculate how many more days I am likely to experience in this life. 7305 if I live to see 80. I’ve never calculated my expiration date before, but I can’t say that any more. So, happy anniversary to me, Burrito Man. Live big but practice humility. It’s easier to carry than shame.

 

358. Oh, No, Toto,Come Back!

Way, way back in my memory bank vault, third shelf on left side, halfway down, is a story that still stings to recall, though I have no real guilt about it at all. It fits under the damp tent of family shame, I guess. Kind of has that putrid mildewed odor in my memory nose.  You be the judge.

My dad’s sister, her husband and their brood of six kids lived in Hawaii for many years during the late 60’s, I think. They had previously lived just ten miles away from us in the burbs of Northern Virginia when I was young, and our families interacted regularly. (I liked my Uncle Jim.  He worked with the Corps of Engineers. He was a kind man who smoked a pipe and laughed genuinely.) My father’s irascible mother would visit both homes the way a ping pong ball visits both sides of a net when she came down from Boston occasionally. “Kitty” was her name and she was the original pretentious piece of work, creating drama where none had existed prior. An emotional pyromaniac, if memory serves me accurately.

Aunt Jean was the hard pear that did not fall far from her mother’s tree, but she strained to be as far away as possible. Intellectualism was her passport. Conflict her train. Acceptance her destination:  To be approved of  by those whom you approve on the spiral staircase to the ivory tower’s penthouse. How very prepositional. Impulsive and free flowing in a pre-hippie era. She longed to talk about books and ideas with my dad while putting up with my unintellectual mother.  Jean had green hair in the freakin’ 60’s.  Granted, it was a hair dye chemistry error, but she wore it like a proud leprechaun until it grew out.

Anyway, the family was coming back to NOVA by way of a cross country drive in a big van, starting in California and ending on our doorstep. They asked my father to pick up their little dog Toto at National (Reagan now) Airport and convey the neurotic little terrier to a kennel. Simple, right?  However, you have to get some background description of my father to understand what follows. He was not an engineer nor was he a great problem solver. He served in the Army at the end of WWII in England and then Germany. He told a story of catching a mouse in his barracks and telling others not to kill it. “Then the damn thing bit me.” In a mouse’s thimble, that was my father.

One time we borrowed a neighbor’s truck and drove into D.C. to pick up a dining room table and chairs that my mom bought from a coworker who lived in a swanky apartment overlooking the Potomac near the Watergate. My dad did not tie anything down in the bed of the truck though we had rope, and as we bounced across the Memorial Bridge in pale orange mercury vapor light, the extension leaf bounced up and out of the truck, landing flat on the bridge where the next fifty cars ran over it and pulverized the damn thing. I ran back and picked up the gravel encrusted table leaf. When we got home, my mother cried in absolute frustration and disappointment. We did not have a lot of nice things, and she put so much psychic energy into the few high profile things we did own. See, if  you have a nice carpet in your living room, you rock. My mom liked images and mirages.

 

 

 

So now you are ready for the main point. My sappy sentimental dad could not find it in his milksop heart to take Toto to the kennel. The dog was in absolute panic mode after flying from Hawaii to L.A. to D.C. in the belly of a huge noisy plane without Xanax. He brought the dog home in its cage and tried to comfort the poor thing in our living room. No good. No sir. We had a wide eyed, panic stricken terrier on the loose in a totally foreign environment.

Just then one of my brothers walked through the front door and Toto hit that hole faster than any NFL running back in modern history. He shot across our yard, through the intersection, and zipped out of sight in the woods beyond the Parkway as the summer sun set. At least he was heading west, I thought. Hawaii is west of here.

There were no words. That dog probably ran until it had a heart attack or seizure. In any event Toto was a total goner, and sentimental JJ was left with an empty cage full of dog guilt. It was bizarrely funny and painfully tragic at the same time. The awful wait began. Dread built. Excuses were rehearsed.

A couple of weeks later, lo and behold, the van with our cousins rolled up to our house. Nervous greetings were exchanged. They may have sensed that we were not so glad to see them. “Come in. Come on in.” And as they gathered in the living room, Jean said, “The kids can’t wait to see Toto.”

That’s when I left out the front door… a little slower than Toto had rocketed away. But I knew I could not endure the shock and horror, the guilt and shame of dogicide. Toto’s blood was not on my hands. Still I imagined the interaction that went down as everyone gathered around the damaged dining table.

“Toto ran away.”

“From the kennel? How?”

“No, from here. You see, I brought him here because he was so upset…”

“You? What? The dog is gone?”

Six kids start crying as voices turned metallic with anger. I don’t like the squeak of fingernails on a chalkboard, so I could not have handled the symphony of discord that must have erupted.

“Oh, no. Toto, come back!”

353. Christmas in Prison

John Prine is an old favorite of mine. I bought his albums as a teenager and saw him once or twice in concert back in the day. “Angel from Montgomery”, “Illegal Smile”, and “Hello in There” are songs that have held up well over the decades. But “Christmas in Prison” has always held an ironic  place in my memory banks, especially the first four lines. What an unlikely pairing:  the season of redemption, grace and joy with the place of justice, punishment and separation.

It was Christmas in prison
And the food was real good
We had turkey and pistols
Carved out of wood

And I dream of her always
Even when I don’t dream
Her name’s on my tongue
And her blood’s in my stream.

Our singer persona is lying in his rack dreaming about the love of his life. I imagine it is a sweet torture for him to digest his Christmas meal while longing for his fair lady with unquenchable desire. Inmates still care and long for love too. Though he never tells his crime, it’s certainly a serious felony to be in a prison that features a searchlight and gun in the big yard. The reference to eternity suggests that he’s a lifer. Perhaps he’s a killer.

Wait awhile eternity
Old mother nature’s got nothing on me
Come to me
Run to me
Come to me, now
We’re rolling
My sweetheart
We’re flowing
By God!

His paean to desire begins with hope, I like to think so anyway. As he  works the figurative language, we get a strange description of a smart woman who is super sweet, maybe too sweet to digest. I’ve never done a picnic in the rain after a prairie fire, but I imagine the opposing energies could be interesting if not unforgettable.

She reminds me of a chess game
With someone I admire

Or a picnic in the rain
After a prairie fire

Her heart is as big
As this whole goddamn jail

And she’s sweeter than saccharine
At a drug store sale.

Okay, not a great poet but he’s a convict, found guilty of doing something very bad. His words are consistent with his setting and character.  His sweet torture, like an addict shooting up again, hoping for the original dragon ride that hooked him, leaves only a drop of blood and an empty syringe, full of disappointment. The chorus loses hope the second time around as he calls without an echoing response from his love.

Wait awhile eternity
Old mother nature’s got nothing on me
Come to me
Run to me
Come to me, now
We’re rolling
My sweetheart
We’re flowing
By God!

Actually, he’s not rolling or flowing anywhere. He’s doing hard time. I remember doing prison ministry twenty five years ago. Two or three of us would go to the county jail once a month and spend 90 minutes with a dozen or so men in orange jumpsuits. All of them had release dates that were measured in weeks and months. Still, Christmas in county jail is no picnic. About half of the population is on psychotropic medications that are dispensed from a cart, like the cookie cart at nursing homes. They are anxious, depressed, and sometimes psychotic. Who wouldn’t be while in jail for the holidays?

The search light in the big yard
Swings round with the gun
And spotlights the snowflakes
Like the dust in the sun
It’s Christmas in prison
There’ll be music tonight
I’ll probably get homesick
I love you. Goodnight.

I recall one fellow I met with individually. He had a six month sentence for trying to buy cocaine from an undercover stinger. Jake was losing his mind as Christmas came before his release date. “I can’t do it, man. I’m paranoid that the guards will set me up or one of the other inmates will plant contraband in my bunk. They don’t want me to get out. I’m freakin’ out.”

Image result for pennies in prison pictures

The next visit I had with Jake I took 180 pennies and made a pile on the steel  table between us. “What’s that for?” he asked. “Well, it’s your sentence, 180 days. What I want you to do is count out the days you have already served.”

He complied, and as he did so a smile broke out on his somber pale face. “Man, I only have twenty six days to go. No problem. I got it.”

I was amazed at how such a simple visual could connect with someone’s hopeless restlessness. Jake actually got out a week early for good behavior merits, but the jailers didn’t let him know till the day of release.

Wait awhile eternity
Old mother nature’s got nothing on me
Come to me
Run to me
Come to me, now
We’re rolling
My sweetheart
We’re flowing
By God!

He was a messed up kid from a messed up family. At least he got out by New Year’s Eve. I saw him off in his civilian clothes. He seemed just as anxious about his freedom as he had been about his incarceration.

Which brings me to the birth of Jesus, the redeeming savior of mankind, who cancelled our human nature debt and set the captives free from Hell’s grip. We cannot forget that crucial fact or take it for granted unless we want to be singing the blues in a jail of our own making. Not all prisons are bricks, bar, and mortar structures. Some are edifices of anger with spires of  pride. Some are sad swamps of grief and regret. “I coulda’ been a contender”, said Brando’s  boxer character in On the Waterfront. No matter. You have been set free by grace. Enjoy the reprieve. We’re flowing by God.

 

 

333. Plumbing Adventures

It’s an odd topic, I’ll grant you that, since I am not a plumber nor much of a handyman. Some men are born plumbers; some achieve plumbing training; and others have plumbing thrust upon them. [Malvolio said something close to that in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.] I am in the last category. (I know how to call a plumber. “Hey, Plumber Boy, come here. Closer.  I sprung a leak and I need you to fix me up”, or in a raspy Janis Joplin voice… “I need you to come on, come on, come on,  Take it! Take another little look at my sink, my sink now baby. You know you’ve got it, if it don’t drip no more.”) Okay, that tangent is getting awkward for everyone. Time for some plumbing dope. It stops even hard to control neural and verbal leakage.

This morning as my wife and daughter scurried about responding to Work’s siren call, two things stood out: the first one I have already forgotten, and the second one was that the sink in our master bedroom was leaking, a lot.

The Wife: “I don’t need this. The Gestapo at work are now logging precisely when we swipe into the building and we’ll be written up if we’re a minute late. I’ll just eat breakfast in the car again. Forget the fact that I have to work at home every night to keep up with the kids’ IEP’s.” (I can attest to the veracity of this last statement. My bride’s face has the equivalent of a tanning booth cathode ray burn from her laptop’s screen. I’ve been shopping for computer sunscreen ointments, but these have apparently not been invented yet. I am concerned, however, at night after she shuts the laptop down, that her face continues to glow like a fog-covered moon in autumn.) “I’ve had too much of tirement.” She says, ” I need to get to that re- prefix and soon… Will you look at the vanity downstairs and turn the water off? Oh, and the hair dryer stopped working this morning, of course.  Ahhhh!!!”

(I could attest to the truth of that statement as well since only the right side of her hair was dry. It was a different look that might work if she were a 20 year old punk rocker with blue hair.)

“And don’t forget to let Johnnie out before you go.”

(That’s what I forgot! Head slap.)”Oh, and we’re out of coffee, so can you pick some up in Greencastle or at your coffee shop? I like Sumatran.”

“Yeeeahhh.”

“Yeah what?  Yeah, you heard me? Yeah, you agree with me? Yeah, you’ll check the sink?  Yeah, you like my hair, which I know is not true, so don’t even try that. Yeah, you’ll let the dog out? Or yeah, you’ll get the coffee?”

“Yeah, all of that. Yup. I’m going to write it down this very instant.”

“Okay, I’ll see you tonight. Don’t forget to pick Jess up after choir and send that insurance check off, okay?.”

“I, uh, dang pen won’t write… Let’s see. Number one is, uh, let the dog out. [Yeah, fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on you again.] Okay, bye.”

Silence.

Fear rising.

Nothing but blank checks bouncing across my brain’s screen saver.

Alone and scared. Clothed and Afraid.

“Oh no. I sense my memory banks are all bankrupt!  Wait, I remember something about coffee. (I have to pee when I get nervous and when I’ve had too much coffee.) Oh, yeah, let the dog out to pee. Got that. Oh, and let him back in. I guess that’s understood. If you go to the bathroom it’s a given that you will come back, unless you have a seizure or die there. Actually, I did have a seizure in the bathroom, this very bathroom almost exactly 12 years ago. Wow. This is like an anniversary peepiphany for me!! I may need to re-assess my opening claim and claim a different sort of plumbing competence.

“I will boldly plumb vaguely connected concepts, tiny and tenuous threads of relevance. I will get the dope out. I’ll solder the disjointed joints. Run the gradients. Snake the trapped. Flush the commodious. And hook you up with high pressure hyperbole.

Plumb, verb with object:  to examine closely in order to discover or understand:

to plumb someone’s thoughts. 
“Yeah, baby, baby, baby!!! Who’s the Plumber Boy now? Excuse me for just a second. I need to get up and shake my plumber butt around. Whooohooo.!!! Shake, shake. Oh yeah. Cue up “Macho Man” by the Village People. Where is my toolbelt? “I want to be your Macho Man.
“Okay, focus. Breathe deeply and slowly. Remember your yoga intention for the day. I wrote that down on a yellow sticky note upstairs, I think. OOoooh, the list. What was next?
“The sink. I sink I can, I sink I can, I sink…huh, looks like this big gray cap nut is loose.”  Turn, turn, turn. “Hmmmm, let me dry it out and see if the drip is done.”  Wipe, wipe, wipe.
Silence as the dehumidifier does its magic. An hour later our hero, me, slides a baking dish beneath the pipe.  Two hours later not a drop in the dish. Victory is mine. I let out a powerful exhale and strut around my bedroom like Mick Jagger singing “Midnight Plumber”…
Did you hear about the midnight plumber?
Everybody got to go
Did you hear about the midnight plumber?
The one that shut the kitchen door
He don’t give a hoot of warning
Wrapped up in a black cat cloak
He don’t go in the light of the morning
He split the time the cock’rel crows
Talkin’ about the midnight plumber
The one you never seen before
Talkin’ about the midnight plumber
Did you see him jump the garden wall?
Sighin’ down the wind so sad
Listen and you’ll hear him moan
Talkin’ about the midnight plumber
Everybody got to go
Did you hear about the midnight plumber
Well, honey, it’s no rock ‘n’ roll show
Well, I’m talkin’ about the midnight plumber
Yeah, the one you never seen before.
Ahhh, delirious Amen.
 
 
 
 

 

318. Pine Street

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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 against 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.Image result for boys scrambling on city roof pictures

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.i want GIF

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.Related image

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.”)Related image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

292. Give Me A Hand

Years ago, I think it was 2003, I worked all summer with a machete that I’d brought back from Honduras. I whacked brush and small trees with the machete. Even tried to kill a ground hog with it, but the critter was too fast for me. I swung it over and over with my right hand, so much so that I over extended the tendon on the outside of my right wrist. It still bulges a bit from the abuse to this day. Anyway I wrapped it in an Ace bandage and tried to draw it back in where God intended that tendon to be. Then I went back to my classroom for the twenty second year of teaching seventh grade English. With an average of 135 students each year that adds up to nearly three thousand 12 and 13 year olds. Let that stat sink in for a long moment before you judge me and my tenuous grip on sanity.

So the first day and week of school began much like every other year– homeroom, lockers, schedules, rules, etc. All the kids try to be good and engaging in the first week until they run out of steam. Then there is real homework to do and the old excuses bubble up… “The Police had to come arrest my dad for drinking and my mom for hitting him with a skillet.”

“Billy, I know that’s not true.”

“How?”

“Because your dad is the principal and your mom works with my wife. Didn’t they tell you?”

“Entrapment! I move to have the proceedings sealed and thrown out.”

It wasn’t long till one of the inquisitive kids asked about my wrist bandage. I gave the bait answer, “Oh, it’s a long story and unbelievable, so why bother telling you. No one would believe it.”  There was a nearly audible “THunk” as the asker and those in earshot heard my baited answer. “Oh, no, tell us. We’ll believe it.”

“It’s too fantastic. I can hardly believe it myself.”

“Come on! We promise.”

“Well, okay, but don’t tell the kids in third period. I can tell they are not believers. They aren’t as mature as you guys.”

“Okay, okay. What happened?”

“Well I was in England this summer, and you know how they drive on the wrong side of the road and all?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“So I rented this MiniCooper at the airport and I was driving around London just trying to get used to the gears and being on the right side while shifting with my left, and I came up to a turn. I needed to make a right hand turn but I couldn’t find the signal bar for the blinkers, you know?”

“Uh huh. Whatdyado?”

“I foolishly stuck my right arm out the window to signal, but since I was driving on the left side of the road and traffic was coming at me on the right my hand was  ripped off quite violently by a passing car’s rear view mirror. It literally cut my hand off, leaving me with a bleeding stump.”

“No way!!”

“Yes. I told you it was an incredible story. Do you want to hear the rest of it?”

“Yes, but no lying.”

“On my honor…. So I was in a pickle with only my left hand working and a fountain of blood gushing at oncoming traffic.”

“Whatdyado?”

“Well, did you see that movie Speed, where Sandra Bullock has to drive the bus over 6o miles an hour or the bomb will explode?”

“Yeah, that was a cool movie, but you didn’t have a bomb.”

“I know, but I thought that if I could drive at a fast enough speed, the air pressure would push back the blood gush from my stump.”

“No way. That’s impossible.”

“Well, luckily for me I was not a negative thinker, so I accelerated to 8o kilometers per hour. That’s metric.”

“How fast was it?”

“I think it equals 66 miles an hour in American speed, but anyway once I achieved this speed it was like I had a tourniquet on my forearm. The blood stopped spurting and I could drive around looking for my hand.”

“You mean it was still stuck on the other car’s mirror?”

“That was my only clue. I recalled it was a red late model Jaguar, so I drove about London at high speed looking for the car with the bloody hand on it.”

“Where did you find it?”

“Unfortunately, I did not.”

“But what about your hand?  It’s right there. How did you get your hand back on the bleeding stump?”

“Because I had driven an ambulance during the Spanish Civil War I knew that transplanted limbs have a brief window for attachment. So after 25 minutes of high speed hand chasing about London, I rushed in to The Royal Oaks Hospital in Chelsea by Earl’s Court. It’s an older hospital but well known for its transplant successes.”

“You mean that is not your hand? No way. It looks just like the left one.”

“I agree. The surgeons did a great job matching skin tones I thought. This hand actually came from an accountant who was killed in a tragic auto accident in Surrey. He was completely crushed by a cement lorry, all except his right hand. Fortunately for me had signed the British donor card just days before. How ironic is that?”

“I don’t know what ironic is, but I think you’re lying. How can we tell it’s the accountant’s hand?”

“I don’t question you. It’s pretty fantastic, I know. But here’s the test:  when the hand gets near a calculator, it’s like he can’t help himself. He starts trying to add figures. Watch. Bring that calculator near the hand slowly. I tell you it’s like phantom pain only it’s not.”

“I don’t believe you, but here’s the calculator.”

Suddenly the bandaged hand starts to twitch and type out wildly on the calculator. The kids jumped back.

“See, I told you. It’s like he’s still adding from the grave. They say he was very dedicated.”

“No, that’s you doing it. You’re lying. Take the bandage off.”

“The surgeons said I had to wait six weeks.”

“When is that up?”

“Next Monday, as a matter of fact.”

“Okay, we’ll see who’s lying then.”

The weekend came and went. As I was preparing to go to school that Monday, I remembered the deadline. Hmmm. I found a black Sharpie pen and made a dotted line around my wrist and then wrapped it with the bandage, knowing I’d be called out soon. As soon as I got to homeroom the kids swarmed my desk.

“You said it was today. Let’s see the scar.”

I slowly unwrapped the bandage until the bare wrist was visible with the stitched Sharpie line.

There was much howling and gnashing of teeth. “That’s fake. You drew that. Those aren’t real stitches.” But by then it didn’t matter. The legend of The Hand had been birthed.