328. Vacate the Premises

A few times per year I need to vacate the premises. It gets chilly, plus too much continuous time in Turtle Town, like secondhand smoke, may be hazardous to my health. I know this because short bursts of time in Turtle Town make me a danger to self and others, so it only makes logical sense that longer periods of time simply aggravate the aggravation, gravitating toward a grave situation.  My butt gets deflated and spreads out like peanut butter on a warm summer day. My hips cry out for support, but none comes, not even Tom Brady. My protruding pelvic bones imprint shuffleboard cue stick marks on my leather office chair, skeletal remains are all that remains… or maybe I’m just hallucinating again. If you listen to paranoid clients long enough, you need Haldol too.Image result for person melting in lava

Either way you just know when it’s time to leave town. It’s like knowing when you have to turn off the Neil Young song train before you hang yourself with the power cord next to your I pod dock. [CSI investigator Bob… “Looks like he was listening to Down By the River.”  Ed, “This much sadness it too much sorrow…” Bob, “Yeah, it’s impossible to make it today.” ]  This is just good self care, Blogobblers. So, off we went to the true South, where grits and alligators live in harmony, that is if no ducks connect them. Add one stinking duck, however, and the feathers fly. The duck eats the grits, the alligator eats the duck, and the grits eat… uh, let me get back to you on this one. (Think!! What do grits eat? Alligator poop, that’s gotta be it.)

Last year it was Savannah, Georgia we graced and were graced by. (We  also visited Jekyl Island and the beach nearby.  It was a-gracing maze where the wealthiest Americans once roosted in the winters… Roosevelts and Rockefellers and the Burritos.) Walking around the city of squares and live oaks covered by Spanish moss and sordid gossip, we gaped and gasped and gulped at the jaded beauty of it all… lovely and culturally osmotic how that Southernness crosses the air/skin barrier and gets into your very marrow. In mere moments you begin drawling, “Ya’ll good folk, bless your little Rebel hearts.  Come on and give yo’ Mama a big ole hug. Look at that po’ homeless panhandler, Junior . Izn’t he precious? Give’m a dollar, Sugar. Ya’ll got nuff tea to melt yo sugar? We can double fry that Oreo cookie for you.” After an hour you’re singing Dixie and talking NASCAR with religious fervor. “In Dixie Land make a left hand turn, Look away, away.”

This year our destination was Charleston, S.C.  Folks, I am blog-plugging this city, though they don’t need my plug. Our tour guide told us Charleston is the Number One tourist destination in the USA. I can’t argue with a man who drives two mules and a carriage through a three hundred year old city without hardly watching. (See that? I tossed in a smooth Southern double negative there.) It became clear that Savannah was the little brother, the distant cousin to the throne of this historic bling. Wow!! The old city of Charles Town grew by filling in marshlands that had functioned as the municipal dump. Land was scarce, so many of the Charleston buildings of a certain age are one room wide, three stories high, and go deep in their narrow lots.

 Now you’re with me, huh?  Notice the open porches, piazzas, Baby!  In subtropical temperatures and humidity levels this was a breezy form of free air conditioning. Still is. Charming. Naturally you’d have to get along with your next door neighbors when you hang out so closely without electricity or television.  No wonder Southerners are famous for their nice manners. Sardines are also known for their quiet compliance once laid in tins full of oil, which is what the humidity levels feel like in August in Charleston. I’ve never heard of a sardine bar fight. Have you?

The John C. Calhoun House was beyond words. The current owner has taken artsy hoarding to Olympic levels. Priceless, one of a kind, irreplaceable, bubble over your mind’s cognitive dam as your senses are totally bombarded by perceptions and information. I never took LSD but I imagine its effects would be like a tour of the Calhoun House– psychedelically endless and ultimately unknowable– Tiffany lamps, Russian Czar silver, Chinese incense burners big enough to cook a whole pig. “Yeah, I tripped out there once…like Vegas in a snow globe, Man, or Jimi Hendrix’s walk in closet. Totally trippy and synaptically  sizzling. Words fail, Man. Dig it?”

It wasn’t till the next day at Boone Hall Plantation that the economic engine for all this magnificent wealth stepped clearly out of the antebellum fog. 13 brick slave quarters line the driveway up to the mansion house.

Three hundred and fifty year old live oaks shade the sandy lane but cannot hide the stain of slavery. Hundreds of Africans were run through and run down on this soil, making attempts at  producing rice, cotton, indigo, bricks, pecans and a host of other crops. The extant mansion house was actually built in 1935, so it’s a bit of an anachronism. It’s an odd spirit that settles in after you visit a few of these vacated cabins. They were well built with bricks and ceramic roof tiles made on the plantation when a German family owned it all. It is a strange premise that work will set you free. Where have I heard that before? There is that neat, orderly German thing going on where precise engineering went into producing things while not a drop of humanity was spilled exploiting human beings. A darkness builds as you visit each cabin and realize that the imperial wealth of nearby Charleston was extracted from the sinews and marrow of slaves.

Old-slave-mart-facade-sc1.jpg  The shame is not simply a Southern burden, though, even if Neil Young says it was. “I saw cotton and I saw black, tall white mansions and little shacks…Southern man when will you pay them back?”  Well, just like the darn duck in the earlier allusion, somebody bought all that cheap cotton. And somebody sailed those slave ships. And somebody bought all the slave made products at rock bottom prices. The market place was not the South. It was the disapproving, highly moral, can’t resist a bargain world that kept the slaveholders in business. Hmmmm. How about that? Not sure much has changed since the official end of slavery. The world still chooses to look away, look away, look away from the misery beneath the bargains we capitalized consumers enjoy.

I know that free market folks like to speak of the freedom that capitalism has inspired, how it has modernized and improved living conditions for the masses. I’m just not sure how I’m going to be real with the enslaved workers who made my cheap cotton t-shirts and socks when I meet them in heaven. Someone may have to vacate the premises.

181. Sleet slides down the foggy Russian window pane

Yuk, yuk, yuk!!! The poorly lit gray world outside my warm office setting is dripping down my wide windows. It’s impressionistic sort of, except there is no gorgeous light to set the drizzles dancing with crystallized fire. I expect to see Fyodor Dostoyevski at any moment, mumbling about the Double Man in each human heart, stumbling about in his great coat muttering about civil service clerks in Imperial Russia. But it’s not St Petersburg in 1869. It’s Chambersburg, PA, 2013, two days before Thanksgiving. The odd man at my door asks if the drug rehab place is still here. “Nope. Gone seven years now, my friend.” And he leaves for his equivalent of Siberia. Weird. Maybe he was a desperate soul seeking redemption and, not finding it, is on his way to murder another unfortunate soul in an unheated apartment he shares with 12 others. And away I go trying to make sense of randomness. If not legal or scientific sense, then at least I try to pull things together into a barely plausible narrative.

Illustrations of I.S. Glazunov to the novel “The Idiot” by F.M. DostoevskyWow, how lost can a guy get? (I am referring to the guy at my door not me or Fyodor or you… but you don’t know that.) The Trans-Siberian rehab train left the station about the time Bernie Maduff came off the rails. Wonder how Bernie is doing in federal prison? And then I wonder which side of reality is more drizzly– the near freezing street scene on this side of the guy’s pupils or the backside where his optic nerve almost connects to his burned-out brain’s mother board? The same question can be asked of Bernie– which side is worse B? The prison around you or the prison inside you? And have you seen Fyodor lately? Muttering, always muttering.

I think of eccentric things when I am left unsupervised. My mind is like a shopping cart that randomly rolls along aisles collecting Pop Tarts, borsch, dental floss, pork loin, coffee, peach yogurt, light bulbs, and witch hazel rubbing alcohol. What am I going to do with all these disparate items? Not sure, but I am sure that something will turn up. A turnip, for instance, gotta get one of those. My mind is extremely associative. I glom onto anything that will stick to my throbbing fuzzy gray matter Velcro mass blob-organ. Well, here you go. My blog has hits from foreign countries. You know which country is second to the USA in traffic on my eccentric blog? The Russian Federation. True. Is True, Comrade Blogovski. My stuff is odd enough in the native tongue; I can’t imagine what Russians think. No, actually I can.

My default impersonation voice is the Russian guy. A long time ago my youngest daughter cried out in frustration to my wife, “Mom, why did you marry this man?!!” I gave her my best Kiev accent, “Yessica, it vas long vinter. Your musser vas very hungry, desparrot even. I vas last husband on shelf.” To which she screamed even louder, “Mom, he’s doing the Russian guy. Make him stop!!!” Those were good days. Now she just hits me with a pillow or a puff of contempt.

My wife’s cousin’s ex-husband grew up in Armenia. Conveniently his name is Armen. He used to talk to me at family gatherings, usually in lugubrious Solzhenitsyn-like complaints about American life. He’d sometimes end in a rhetorical question for me. Here’s an example.

“You know in old country, if you vere sick, you got aspirin. Vun aspirin. Now, here, if you get sniffles or aches, you go Valmart and they got pink bubble gum or grape, cherry, or fruit punch Advil, Tylenol, Motrin, ibuprofen, aspirin, and so on. So many you can’t see all of them at vun time. Tell me, Burrito, vaht is bayter?”

Why he thought I had an answer worth hearing, I’ll never know. People often think I am someone or something that I am not. Still, I feel compelled to answer even rhetorical questions… “Ya know, Armen, I think it’s about the heavy burden of freedom. We have a lot of choices, and a lot of choices means that you have to think more. In Old Country you had one doctor, one aspirin, one option. No mystery there. But in America we have a flurry of options. Too many it seems. But I’d rather have too many than only one. In fact, one is not an option, cuz there’s no opting besides nothing. It’s one aspirin or no aspirin. Here we have baby aspirin, 200 mg. aspirin, 500 mg. aspirin, all sorts of combinations with flu or cough medicines, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and flavors out the butt. It’s daunting, true, but at least you get to think.”

“Huh. In old country you got choice as long as you listen to Beeg Brother. We vere Leetle Brother, always. Russia vas Beeg Brother. You no make Beeg Brother mad.”

And some things never change. Our Big Brother is Big Government or Big Wall Street/Corporate America. They set the menu from which we choose. It’s freedom of a sort. What would that look like if everyone drove a black Ford Escort? Everyone had corn flakes and whole milk for breakfast?

Dull, deadly dull. So I want to celebrate creative individualism, the full color spectrum of cough syrup and analgesics. Praise competition that drives performance. Congratulate the visionaries who sorted through thousands of options and arrived at the best one.

On the other side of a free society is dull, drab conformity driven by fear. It’s similar to being addicted to opiates. If you stop or reduce your levels, you get dope sick. Marx claimed that religion was the opiate of the masses. Well, Karl, I’d like to suggest that rigid dogma of any flavor is the opiate of the masses. Whether it’s communism or consumerism, humans drink it down and can’t pry themselves from it. It’s fun watching China these days as they wrestle with their manmade dragons. The coerced conformists give all for the state while the state’s big honking plutocrats drain off billions of free market money for themselves… hey, they’re only human despite all the hogwash dogma.

So if you see Bernie or Fyodor, Karl or Mao, wish them a Happy Thanksgiving/Hanukkah and Black Friday from me.

“Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.“

—Steve Jobs, “Commencement Address at Stanford University“ American Rhetoric (delivered June 12, 2005)