Tuesday, December 27, 2011

WHATEVER!

whatever
so rude, so dismissive
whatever
so easy, a conversation
stopper.
whatever
your words, your feelings
don’t matter.
whatever
is like saying
“fuck you!”
“you don’t matter!”
WHATEVER!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Forgetting themselves


the mindful are not so
mindful
forgetting 
tons of dharma
tons of karma
themselves
oblivious to the moment
the bliss-filled 
moment that arrives suddenly
out of nowhere

Friday, November 4, 2011

PARANOIA IN THE HALF-MOON LIGHT


my shadow jumped out
from the corner

of the cemetery road
and it spooked me.

I laughed and fell
into a dream 
fearless
of love

fearless of the moon
and the half-moon light

sparkling 
in the wet black sand

dripping diffuse
warm and blue

teasing out love
pulling down the tide

sweeping me off

my feet 
until they
danced.

I gave my nakedness 
to her beauty.

I am that willing
I am that overwhelmed

no longer afraid
no longer paranoid

in the half-moon light.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Greed: The Real American Dream


At my college graduation in 1984, a candidate receiving a degree in American Studies stepped up to the podium for his diploma, and someone in the audience proclaimed loudly, “What the hell can you do with a degree in American Studies?”

I had taken an American Studies course, the “American Dream,” as part of my training as a journalist and Communications major, a degree for which one might have asked the same question. Still, I remember thinking, “What an asshole.”

Thankfully, I found my study of our “you-can-have-it-all” myth eye-opening and took the enthusiasm from that one course into my work as a journalist and found it helpful, if not enlightening. It gave me a newer, more critical perspective on our ad-driven, commercial culture, where standards are measured by how much you earn or own rather than by your character or how much you contribute to the welfare of others.

I’d enjoyed a semester of uncovering the many layers that go into the often vague definition of what that dream is supposed to be. Is it a house in the suburbs, a family, a beautiful wife and a new car? A steady job? A climb up the career ladder? That was about the extent of my dream when I started college. It’s become so much more than that now.

The term is so flippantly tossed around, and those who use it seem to assume that it’s the same for everyone. But it’s not. My dream isn’t about money. It’s about something more than that. I’ve learned to live small and work hard to be a helpful presence in my community. My American Dream is simple: Small is beautiful, and people are more important than money. 

That same year, another questionable degree, the highly touted MBA, began arriving in newsrooms across the country, turning down the money meter and pinching editorial departments. If you wanted to make real money, you got an advanced degree in business. That was the way to go. 

With MBAs, came tightened purses, reduced expenses, and newspapers were soon inching up profits from the desired 12-15 percent to the more wealth-inducing, newsroom-destroying 20-25 percent. 

The resulting clash between the advertising and editorial sides of the enterprise, of course, could only end in disaster for journalism. More and more, the strength of editorial decisions was given over to the ad department, and newspapers, now big money-makers, became a vehicle for promotion and propaganda. Sticky ads began appearing on the front pages, pasted over the tops of headlines and stories that some sorry sap editor and reporter busted their asses to produce for the front page.

“We have to do it,” said a local publisher once when I complained of the practice, “it’s the only way we can stay competitive and make money.” I argued that he should let the editor decide what goes on the front page but it fell on deaf ears.

It marked the beginning of the end for newspapers. Money killed newspapers just as much as advances in digital information exchange. The more money owners made, the more they tried to squeeze out profits, laying off workers, demanding more and paying less to those who remained, the more irrelevant newspapers became. To be accurate, it wasn’t just money but “the love of money,” as greed is described in the Bible, that killed not only the news business and the quality of news but other industries as well.

Greed, the love of money, became a 1980s mantra and the guiding principle in most schools of business, and we all bought into the idea that more is better and that we can live large while the rest of the world starves or ekes out a living; it was a message that permeated every level of American culture but apparently one that only really worked for those who had massive amounts of capital. The rich, of course, got richer.

Even the once-sacrosanct newsroom, bedrock of free speech, protected by the First Amendment, where stories on government or corporate corruption could be written “without fear or favor,” couldn’t compete with money—or people with MBAs. It became an extension of the ad department.
  
The people on Wall Street know this better than anyone: Money—not just money, but lots and lots of it—talks. When it concentrates into fewer hands, however, there will be trouble as witnessed in occupations around the U.S. these past several weeks.

A Facebook friend, an activist for human rights, posted the following comment, pointing to the rage of Occupy Wall Street, and challenging The Nation Magazine’s recent bright cover, which listed selected occupied cities in the U.S., over which were the bold blood-orange letters: “Wall Street Invented Class Warfare.”

I don't buy that!,” he wrote. “In my humble opinion, when the Founding Fathers wrote & codified a Constitution which initially granted and protected ├╝ber rights and privilege to ‘white, male property owners’ - [that] created class warfare.”

In other words, white male property owners who codified rights and privileges allowed only to a select few more than 200 years ago created the class warfare evident in the Occupy Wall Street protests. My friend’s comment raises both the issue of privilege and race, not just class warfare, which can be enforced through the validation of greed and ownership as promoted in American culture.

Class differences have always been a factor of American life, even though we like to imagine there aren’t any class differences, and if there are, all you have to do is work hard and be smart and you’ll get rich one day too.

Wall Street showed its disdain for the common person long before its operatives looked down their noses at protestors marching in the street below while sipping champagne on the balcony above. That image played on YouTube was Wall Street’s “Let them eat cake” moment, when it became screechingly evident that indeed there are class differences, and that perhaps soon the mighty, and maybe a few others, will fall.

Class warfare keeps us divided but it isn’t the root issue. 

More fundamental even than class warfare is greed, which permeates our culture, from Wall Street to Main Street. Of necessity, the whole system must implode, it will by nature destroy itself, unless we learn to live within our means. Greed, like pride, as the Good Book says, always leads to disaster. Some are saying it’s already too late.

Greed is the root problem. I’ve always thought of greed as having more than you need to live, which is probably too narrow a definition. By such a definition, we might all be guilty of greed. 

I say this as a person who owns absolutely nothing. I have nothing but my skin and bones, and yes, I’d like to have more than I do now, yet I'm still willing to learn how to live with less. In  the future, I suspect, that’s how things will be. I doubt we’ll ever see such an explosion of growth and wealth as the U.S. experienced in the years following WWII. 

Americans are today more fat with more wealth than any nation in history. Blame Wall Street all you want but in many ways we also are to blame for thinking there is never enough.

Greed permeates down to almost every detail of our lives, from the cars we drive to the houses we build, enormous, monstrous things. That we continue to manufacture and drive gas-guzzling cars is but one example of not only our pride and lack of thrift but a lack of imagination, an odd unwillingness to think beyond the endless waste brought on by cheap fossil fuel.

It’s in everything we do; so entrenched is it that we can’t think of a way out, or imagine that another way is even possible. 

Endless growth, unlimited growth, bigger and more are better, all these were never meant to be more than a bubble, a hope gone delusional, that we can continue to strip the planet clean of its resources and think that it will never end.

The “American Dream,” as it took shape through the ‘80s, had to end; it couldn’t go on forever, an ever-expanding economy to drive a lavish lifestyle unlike any the world has ever seen and one that could in no way go on without finally breaking down. Greed gets a reckoning. Sooner or later, it takes everyone—the guilty and the innocent—down.

It won’t be long before the disenfranchised, the hungry and the poor, the angry homeowners who have lost their homes to the bank, begin tearing down the ramparts that protect and insulate Wall Street from the commoners.

Meanwhile, for those who still hope, it’s time to re-scale the dream, think smaller and lessen our impacts, as has been suggested for nearly 40 years by those who saw this upheaval coming. It’s time to think about how to live with less.

A friend said recently: “I just have this feeling that suddenly everything’s going to get really small really fast.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean we’re going to have to start depending on our neighbors. Thank God,” she added, putting a hand on my shoulder, “we’re in a good place to do that.” 

Yes, we are in a good place, where there’s water, healthy agriculture, and people who care. Will the system break down as my friend imagines? It sure looks that way.

These days I don’t worry so much about what I’m going to do with a degree in Communications. I’m happy to have a roof over my head and food to eat, and I look forward to getting to know my neighbors better as the world economy and Wall Street falter, verging on imminent disaster. §

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Through the window of a train


Mom called me about two weeks ago to ask if I’d like to come to a party she wants to throw for a bunch of old pals. She called it a “Geezer Gathering,” made up of high school friends from more than 50 years ago. 

“No, not really, mom. That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun,” I said.

“Well, would you consider coming down to help me set up?”

“OK, sure, mom. I’ll go to your geezer gathering.”

So, here I am, riding the train somewhere between Lompoc and Goleta, two hours into a six and one-half hour journey on the rickety Amtrak rail to the Santa Ana station, not far from mom’s old Victorian home in Tustin where she plans to have her party.

The ride along the pristine California coastline is hypnotic, the noise of the train and chatter of passengers are muffled by a modern take on “The Music of Thelonious Monk” jangling through the ear buds plugged into my laptop.

Even with this technology at my fingertips, I feel “old school.” No tablet, no Blackberry, no iPad, just a clunky old laptop and cheap cell phone with pay-as-you-go service. No special features anywhere on my person—unless you’re looking for something non-digital.

The train is generally a good ride, if for no other reason than you don’t have to worry about driving or paying for gas, the view is nice, and you have the option to tune out the world if you like, indulge in a book, bury yourself in a computer, or take a nap.

Today, I ignore the passengers as much as possible. I don’t feel like being social, even though I’m generally a social person and feeling a touch lonely.

A cute but annoying little girl swings her legs in the aisle, supporting herself on the seats in front of me, she pushes up with her hands, lifts her weight and swings. Her grandma eats donut holes and looks at the rugged coastal terrain through the window.

For some reason, today’s view from the train evokes a nostalgic kind of hope, the sort of hope I knew and indulged more as a younger man, when the world seemed larger, filled with new and endless possibilities. As I get older, I’m sadly learning, the possibilities seem to get narrower, and less inviting. I’ve noticed how much more difficult it is for older, boomer types like myself to get too hopeful, especially now with the economy as doubtful and uncertain as it ever was, but even more so as we turn gray and decrepit. 

But today, if it’s not hope that I’m feeling, it’s at least the suggestion of something like hope, a mystery, any way, that isn’t shrouded and foreboding but perhaps even gleaming, putting a different—if not new—light on things.

The Pacific, under the heavy marine layer, summer grey and wet, pops in and out of view through the train window, the misty morning holding down the coastline under a white blanket of timelessness. It’s hard to tell time in this coastal purgatory of summer mist. Is it still morning, or afternoon?

In either case, the landscape of scrub oak, green cypress, marshes, and sea birds dropping into view out of the mist brings me back to the present moment, the only moment I know that has any real possibilities, as I look out the train window. 

I’m amazed at the long, long line of old fence posts tilted and worn, no rails between them, holding nothing, just standing awkwardly erect, one after the other, for a distance that seems absurd. It’s a ghost fence that runs along the tracks between the train and the ocean below. What could that fence line have been built for? How long has it been standing like that with nothing to hold or keep out?

I’ve got other absurdities on my mind as well. Amber said we should end our love affair. We should try living as roommates, she said, until one of us decides to move. I’d like to move; so, I guess, would Amber. Neither of us can really afford it. We’re both broke. 

“Get out now!” a friend told me. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t.”

I thought he was being alarmist, a little melodramatic, as friends can be when they’re watching out for you. I didn’t know that he’d gone through a similar breakup. I didn’t know that he also had kept separate rooms in the same house with his former girlfriend—for nearly six months. 

“It was fine until she started fucking the guy she left me for in the room next to mine,” he told me. “You better get out when you can, dude.”

It’s only been a few weeks, and now Amber has moved in her 12-year-old son, and asked me yesterday if I’d thought about finding another place. It’s a good idea, she suggested. It’s nothing personal, she assured me, and I believe her, it’s what’s best.

As I look out the train window, and ponder the flight of a distant heron, the message sinks in: It’s over, it’s time for me to move on, and I’m a lot older now than I was seven years ago when we started, the possibilities for lifelong companionship narrowing ever more precipitously. Ah, the end of another conjoining of minds and bodies that could only wrap themselves into a tangled web of tears and unhappiness instead of blissful companionship.

“We’re not right for each other,” she said. 

All those years, we kept pushing the wrong buttons, couldn’t seem to find the right ones, and each time it got so messy and hurtful and confusing. 

“I don’t want you to feel sad,” she said.

I wouldn’t feel sad if I wasn’t a bit touched, hounded by a confusing mix of the cynic and the romantic, always hoping, always doubting. It’s a curse, really. I don’t know where it comes from but the tension between hope and doubt seems always to bring my relationships to ruin. I do feel sad.

As the train rolls on, I can feel myself moving on, drifting, searching, hoping, doubting.

“So, are you gonna find yourself another cute hot young thang—huh?” teased a friend after I’d told her that Amber wanted to separate.

“I’m not looking, really. I’m happy to be a free agent, that’s all.”

She moved her body close to mine and put her lips next to my ear: “You like young pussy, don’t you?” she whispered.

I gagged. Well, that’s not the only thing, I stammered. 

Amber’s young, and beautiful, no doubt, but she’s smart and caring and—for some damn reason, we don’t get along very well. We agree on that. We’ve had some fine moments amid the turmoil and troubled times. I’ve seldom felt the difference in our ages, only when the occasional stranger mistook her as my daughter. Sex wasn’t the only thing that kept us together.

Still, it feels absurd, in a way, if not entirely liberating, to be moving on, at least at this point in my life, where I’d like to be more settled, and it becomes clearer by the moment that my days are numbered. I try not to think too hard that life is short, or at least not get morbidly obsessed with the idea, just acknowledge the fact, that I’m older now. I’m no spring chicken, as mom likes to remind me, and it’s quite possible that I will remain alone. 

No one my age wants to be alone. I learned this a long time ago from a friend, a monk, whose entire life was dedicated to celibacy and solitude.

“The thing I fear most,” he said of death, “is that no one will notice that I’m gone.”

Even in his solitude, he wished not to be alone. Even in that final separation through death, he wished to be remembered.

I had high hopes, and so did Amber, that we could work things out, work through our troubles and stay together until the end—and be remembered. Along the way, perhaps, we both knew it wasn’t going to work, but we’re stubborn, and kept at it, and maybe, in the end, our stubbornness is what brought us to this painful juncture.

Now, I’m left with this thought: “Why did I hold on for so long? Will I soon be living in a trailer park, sad, lonely, broken up and finished like so many other geezers who grow old and die in their aluminum cages without so much as a hint of their loss?”

Or what about this thought: “Will the white blanket of timelessness that obscures my view of things and seems to rule my mind lately be swept away, as the coastal breezes outside the train window now lift the misty veil, to uncover lighter, more hopeful possibilities? Are any possibilities left?”

The damned romantic and cynic in me are at it again, stirring up the ridiculous inner tension between hope and doubt. Where do these feelings come from? My Buddha nature, governed by so many Western follies, is too weak and immature to overcome the turmoil, but I can at least feel it, breathe it, and observe it. That I can do. I don’t like it, but I can do it, even though I’m not Buddhist.

Frankly, I’d rather drink beer. I’d rather go to my favorite bar, Schooner’s, and sit comfortably, get blissfully shitfaced, and then quietly observe and meditate. It’s probably not the best way to practice mindfulness but I’ll bet Alan Watts would approve. 

At the geezer gathering, I’ll be co-host with mom to a party of older folks, people in their 70s who are much closer to the precipice than I am, whose view of any sort of timelessness or aloneness is probably much sharper and more poignant than my own. Perhaps that precipitous view is where the romantic and cynic in me may actually, one day, finally find common, quiet ground.

Like my monk friend, in death I fear not being remembered; in life, I fear being alone.

I look through the train window into the distant fields where farm workers hunch low from the waist to pick strawberries. I ate a piece of strawberry with my yogurt this morning; it was surprisingly sweet and delicious. The breeze outside has broken the white sheet of marine layer into patchy clouds and blue haze, a perfect August day. The beaches must be crowded by now. The train barrels down into L.A. §

Friday, July 1, 2011

I may be poor, but I'm not destitute


I know enough about poverty in the U.S. to be something of an expert. I earned less than $9,000 last year, the year before that was less than $5,700. 

That’s money earned with hard physical labor. I don’t qualify for unemployment and haven’t for years.

It’s not something I’m proud of; ashamed is more like it. In the U.S., being poor, unemployed, or underemployed, even during rough times like these, is like wearing a badge of dishonor. You don’t advertise or talk about it. You suffer it—quietly, because no one, really, wants to hear it.

Or, when they do, they seem to have little clue about what it means or how it actually feels, what it does to your sense of wellness, to your sense of place in the community.

“I couldn’t live on that for a month!” a friend recently declared of the $9,000 I earned last year. Then, he smiled, and said: “In a way, you’ve got an advantage over a lot of people who’d probably kill themselves if they had to live on that small of an income.”

I didn’t know what to say. It seemed like a compliment. I couldn’t be sure. Perhaps it was a slanted reference to some kind of resourcefulness that the poor are supposed to have when money’s scarce and steady decent jobs with living wages are difficult, if not impossible, to find.

Or maybe it was an unintended commentary on the shallowness of people whose lives are so fully defined by what they earn, what they wear and what they buy that they must kill themselves when those things are no longer within easy reach.

If so, it suggests that greed has made fools of us all. We thought we could have it all, but guess what? We can’t. 

I felt sad for anyone who’d want to kill himself simply because he had to live on less. I may be poor, but I’m not destitute. I have friends, I have my health, and that’s plenty, but I’d sure like to pay my rent on time.

I no longer have to juggle my bills; I simply can’t pay them. I live on a wing and a prayer. I’m as resourceful as I know how, but without my friends, without Amber, I would be destitute.

Still, it hurts to be poor.

I get a queasy, sinking and embarrassing feeling each time I drive through town, for example, in a truck that chokes and sputters from an exhaust system that’s about to fall off the chassis. I don’t know a damn thing about trucks. I’d fix it, if I knew how.

I hope no one sees me when I drive through town, the only way, really, to get to work, but they do, and they laugh. I’ve observed them, my own hometown people, laughing at me.

“Hey, your truck smells like gas, really bad,” remarked a village elder recently as I approached my truck parked in front of the liquor store, where he lounged on a plastic chair, resting from his daily rounds through town.

“Yeah, I know. Thanks,” I said, hopping into the small, rusting and disheveled 25-year-old Toyota truck cab. He shook his head in disgust as I turned the ignition. It did smell bad, fire hazard bad, and it choked and sputtered as I drove away. 

What could I do? It’s been hard to pull enough money together to buy parts. I need the truck to transport tools to the farm every day. I need the work. I’d take a bus but the bus doesn’t go to the farm, and it would be impossible to carry my tools.

I’ve thought about asking the boss to give me an advance but I don’t like doing it because it just puts me further behind and I hate the feeling of trying to catch up. I don’t like indentured servitude.

I traded some garden labor with a mechanic friend for repair work on my truck. He’ll do the work if I buy the parts. He doesn’t like working on cars but he’s a good friend and he wants to help out. I spent a couple of days weeding, trimming and potting plants in his back yard and earned about 12 hours of mechanical labor in trade.

In the off years, when steady work as a journalist or editor hasn’t been available, I’ve picked up work as a laborer, growing blueberries at the farm and installing landscapes. In fact, in this economy the best job prospects for the unemployed are the military and farm labor.

I’ve already done my military service and I’m grateful for the benefits I‘ve received from it. I picked the latter opportunity, which, as it turns out, isn’t too bad. I like it. Unfortunately, farm labor doesn’t pay that well.

I’ve been lucky up to this point. At 52, I’ve managed to stay mostly healthy and I enjoy the physical labor. But it’s beginning to tell in ways that I never expected in my 20s and 30s, when such work didn’t seem to hurt as much or as long as it does now. The aches and pains are the same, plus some new ones, but they don’t go away very easily, and it takes longer to get things done.

I’m not complaining, but I worry sometimes how much longer I can trade hard physical labor for truck repairs, food and money.

“Jesus!” I declared recently to Amber’s and my own dismay, “Do you realize that in 20 years I’ll be in my 70s?”

“Do you have to talk like that?” she responded.

I don’t like it either but the realization that time passes more quickly with each day hits hard when you’re past 50 and broke and few jobs are available. Like many boomers of late, I have to ask: “How will I support myself when I’m old?”

“A lot of people mistakenly think you’re my sugar daddy,” Amber said recently.

“I am, sweetie, I am your sugar daddy.” 

Where do people get these ideas? I haven’t paid my share of the rent in more than two years, not since the economy tanked. It’s been hard on both of us, but mostly on Amber.

“Maybe you could get a job as a bartender,” she said, offering encouragement. “You’re good with people.”

Not really, not that good, I think. I’m an angry white person, a displaced cynical journalist, who’s beginning to understand what it means to live on the financial fringe, to be an economic outcast. If you don’t have money in the U.S., it’s assumed that you’re not a player; you’re little more than a sorry loser.

I’m not saying that’s the way things really are, I’m not saying I’m a loser, but it feels that way sometimes. It feels that way when people laugh at me as I drive past in a smelly, choking rust bucket. The looks I get seem to say, “Why don’t you just fix the damn thing?” 

I love my truck and I’ll get it fixed as soon as I can, as soon as my finances allow, and I probably could grow into a likeable bartender. I’ve got other friends who’ve spent their best years tending bar, who would teach me how, but I like what I’m doing. I like growing plants.

Unfortunately, no one tips at the farm.

“When you get the money,” my mechanic friend said, “you’ve gotta replace that leaky exhaust system; it’s really bad to drive around like that. That’s how they used to kill Jews.”

He was born and raised into a Jewish family and says things like that when he gets frustrated at my apparent lack of concern about odorless deadly gas leaking into my truck cab.

“Don’t worry, Larry, I drive with the windows down. Soon as I get some money together, I’ll let you know.”

One disadvantage of being poor, I guess, is that even if you don’t want to kill yourself, you’re much more at risk of dying from hazards such as leaky and broken exhaust systems, or bad tires and brakes, or, as in the case of so many uninsured men and women my age, from unattended ill health.

I’ve been fortunate and I count my blessings for my health, for friends like Larry, and for my partner, Amber, who has picked up the slack where I’ve been lacking. And for the healthcare assistance the Veterans Administration offers to indigent veterans like myself.

The feeling of contributing little, or sometimes nothing, is the most devastating part of being poor in the U.S., especially for a man who is supposed, at my age, to be easing into retirement and living the “good” life, driving a nice car and smoking expensive cigars.

I blame mostly myself. It’s not just a bad economy that’s made things tough. The choices I’ve made have also been a factor. I’m not a “player.” I hate corporations and people who think they’re superior because they wear suits. Were it not for the lack of adequate financing, and feeling bad about it, I’d say my life is pretty good. Why throw it away simply because I’m broke?

“You’ve gotta be yourself,” Larry said as we sat in the garden one recent afternoon. I lamented the lack of a steady, good-paying job. He said: “Not everyone can work the nine to five routine, put on a coat and tie and play the game.”

Think of all the poor damned souls who have sacrificed the better part of their selves just to make a buck, he added. They’re mere shells, not fully realized individuals, even if they do have money and all the toys to go with it.

On the other hand, I thought, how many fully realized individuals do you know in the U.S. who earn less than $10,000 a year? In India, maybe, but not the U.S. Americans are definitely not enlightened when it comes to living on less.

I’ve recently picked up extra work writing for two online publications but it’s tough to get the juices flowing sometimes, especially after a day of working hard in the field, especially in the midst of harvest; and the pay for writing and editing doesn’t appear to be what it once was when print dominated readers’ attention.

Still, I push myself the best I can and try to make the most of my opportunities, and learn to live with less. 

Recently, I managed to get enough money together to fix the thermostat, which was causing my truck to overheat. Larry patched it up, put in some new plugs and wires, and said, “OK, let’s turn it on and see what happens!”

I turned the key and she started up without a hitch, and the temperature gauge held steady on the cool side. Great, I thought, at least she’s running cool and on four cylinders now instead of three, thanks to the new plugs and wires.

“Oh Jesus!” Larry cried. “You can’t drive this thing. Turn it off!”

The fuel pump’s gone bad, he said. It’s leaking like crazy. We drove to the auto store for the third time that day, each time buying more parts which, when added together, came to a total of more than $150. 

It may not sound like much but it’s a bundle, and a burden, when you’re struggling to pay the rent. Being poor certainly has its pitfalls, none yet that are worth giving up my life for. I certainly wouldn’t kill myself for a reduction in monthly income of $9,000 or more to less than $1,000.

Yet, it hurts me bad when Amber asks: “Are you going to have your share of the rent this month?” And I say: “Well, it’s not looking too good, honey, but at least my truck’s running.” §

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

You fly, I'll buy


A couple of guys in shirts and ties board the train in LA.

“Yeah, sure, we could probably add another million dollars in sales if she didn’t have such a volatile personality,” says one as the pair finds seats across the aisle. “She’s a diamond in the rough. She’ll be all right.”

“You’re too soft on your people,” says his companion.

“Yeah, well….” He starts to hem and haw, and concoct a story.

He’s too soft, I think, just as his companion says. He’s probably a lousy manager, no worse than I’ve ever been. I hate managing people. I’m too soft too, like this guy who’s trying to tell a story about giving people a chance.

His companion stops him and counters: “If you create goals, with clear-cut objectives, and set a timeline….”

“I know, I know,” the other interjects, unwilling to hear what his companion is going to say.

I try to listen over the rattling of the passenger car, the frequent whistle, and announcements from the conductor over the intercom, but it’s impossible to hear what he’s saying.

My instincts tell me he’s not saying anything; he’s bull shitting. “What a waste of time,” I think, “put on a shirt and tie so you can spend the day making up stories and kissing people’s asses.”

Time stops for me on the train. I don’t’ do business. I stop, and listen, and watch people; and daydream.

The only diamond in the rough I care about is the one who’s supposed to pick me up at the end of the line tonight. She’s not happy with me; at least she wasn’t the last time we spoke several days ago. I’ve been gone four days and haven’t heard a word from her until this morning.

“I’ll pick you up tonight. Will you be buying sushi?” she wrote in an email.

I wasn’t sure I’d have a place to call home. “You fly, I’ll buy,” I wrote back.

In any case, there’s really no need to worry about home now. The train, as it runs, takes care of all my worries. What else can I do but sit back and enjoy the ride? §

Friday, April 29, 2011

Whose measure of a man: Acceptance


“Acceptance,” she said as she walked through the door of the coffee shop.

I was sitting at the front counter of the cafe, on the seat closest to the glass door that opens into the place, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper.

“That’s the word I’m getting for you,” she added, closing the door behind her and putting her hand to rest gently on my shoulder. “Acceptance.”

I hesitated a moment, shifting my attention from the usual fare of global catastrophe, cataclysm and revolution, to focus on her word.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“It’s cleaner, cleaner than love. Love is too messy.”

I’d been going through another one of those “looking for love in all the wrong places” phases of my life, and this woman had sensed it, verbalized it and brought it out into the open, where I’d been trying to hide it.

“What’s going on with you?” she had asked me. I was shocked by the question because at the time she was a new acquaintance, a new possibility, and I hadn’t said anything too personal. We were still casual in our conversation and she was an attractive, dynamic older woman who seemed confident and happy with herself.

“What do you mean?” I’d said then as well.

“Ah,” she said, putting her hand on my shoulder, which she did often, not in a suggestive but in a gently reassuring way, “we’ll talk about it when you’re ready.”

I was ready. “I’m going through a breakup,” I told her.

She explained that she was an “intuitive,” someone who can sense problems in people’s lives and give them something to work with, words like “acceptance.”

“Acceptance?” I responded, feeling somewhat skeptical, having believed that the answer to any problem would always be “love,” even love that might be breaking and falling apart.

“Yeah,” she said, “it starts with you. Think about it: There are no conditions, no judgments, just you and acceptance. It’s totally clean.”

I wanted not just acceptance but love too, which, after she pitched her new word began to feel heavy and weighted, just as she described. I felt a protest against letting go of love.

“What about love?” I said.

“What about love? Look at you. What is love doing for you right now?”

“Lots,” I said, shifting uneasily in my seat. She found the chair next to mine and faced me. “I’ve gone to the moon and back on love,” I said, remembering better days.

“You’re such a romantic. That’s what gets you into trouble. Love is making you miserable right now. Try acceptance.”

She got up from her chair and patted my shoulder as she left to get her coffee and go to work. “You take care,” she said.

Acceptance, I realized as she parted, would mean letting go. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. I wanted to feel something. “Acceptance” left me feeling almost hollow, where love, even love that had gone sour, made me feel something.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to let go of love, the more free I felt, the less tied down to emotional outbursts and long days of sadness.

She was right and whenever love becomes a challenge I seem to find much comfort in acceptance: of the way things are, of how I am and how others are, and letting go of the demands of love, which can get ridiculously foolish and loud and confused.

Those who marry say that the institution is a bulwark against what doesn’t work, a citadel of promise to withstand the failures of relationship, even the failures of love, to the point where love becomes a duty, or a burden.

Acceptance is cleaner. I’ve always been suspicious of things that are “cleaner,” but it seems to work well in those moments when what we love does more harm than good.

Yet, I’ve also experienced freedoms in love that acceptance can’t seem to match. That’s the romantic in me speaking again, of course, but the world doesn’t become fecund and fertile merely through acceptance. Or maybe it does. I think it takes more than that.

And maybe it isn’t love, either, that fecundates the world. But the world dripping in the wet fertile stuff of life seems loaded with more color and possibility than simple acceptance. I don’t really know. I like both.

Perhaps it’s a combination of the two—acceptance and love—that give each their power to liberate. §

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Whose measure of a man Part III


When mom recently told me a friend had “died in his sleep” and asked if I was coming to the memorial, I didn’t think I could make it. My first reaction was to stall for time.

“I don’t know, mom….”

I worried about responsibilities at home: The blueberries need tending; they’re getting their first flush of ripening, the harvest is merely days away, and the plants need a lot of care right now. Besides, I don’t earn much as a grower and I can’t really afford to lose any working days right now.

“I’ll buy your tickets,” mom offered.

When she said that, I realized this was about more than finances and whether I could afford to attend a memorial. This was about family, even though I’d not kept close contact with my friend for years. His mother and mine are like sisters.

“Let me work out a few details, mom, and I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

As I made travel arrangements, I thought about him, and how we had met and changed over the years; he and his brother had played on my father’s Little League team more than 35 years ago and our families became fast, lifelong friends.

Growing up, he was cute and cuddly, the pudgy little guy with a winning smile, and the ladies cooed over him. He was a precocious boy who wasn’t afraid to rough things up with the older boys; he could be fearless and full of laughs, and we older kids worked him over pretty good.

His mother, like most Italian women and the women who knew him, doted on him.

He grew up into a man of formidable size, the kind of guy you would like to have on your side whenever you need a hand moving things around or keeping peace at the bar. Fortunately, he didn’t hold any grudges against us for tormenting him when he was a kid.

We didn’t stay in contact much as adults, mostly we knew how well—or not—the other was doing through our mothers. Yet, whenever we crossed paths at occasional family gatherings, he always met me with his huge disarming smile, a handshake and an embrace.

I saw him last at my own father’s memorial less than three years ago. He greeted me warmly as always, and had his own two boys, who appeared to have more of the devil in them than he had at their age. I noticed that he’d put on weight; that he’d probably been drinking a lot; his face was white and puffy. Perhaps he’d been under a lot of pressure, I remember thinking.

Mom said things had gotten pretty bad for him at home until finally his wife of more than 20 years demanded that he get out of the house by the first of the month. Unfortunately, mom added without a hint of irony, the day he was supposed to move out is the day he died.

He checked out in his own special way, I thought. He was having troubles with his heart, mom said, when I questioned her. The doctors had been running tests on him, but hadn’t yet received the results.

“Are you sure he didn’t die of an overdose or something?” I asked. “That just seems awfully young, mom. Dying in your sleep? At 44?”

“I don’t think so!” she declared, sounding surprised, even perturbed. There wasn’t any talk of drugs or an overdose.

***
I reflected on my own discomforts at home and how many times I’ve experienced misery in relationships past and present, how I’ve failed as a man to act as my father had under pressure: with respect, humor and grace, seldom with anger and never with the sting of bitterness, though I know he felt that as well. I’d seen him lose his temper but never his composure or dignity.

I thought about how many times I’ve felt sick to my stomach, dread rolling through in huge heavy waves, and wished I could flush it all down deep into the earth, expel it with one giant emetic purge, wished that I could run swiftly away from the rancor and fear of relationships gone awry, but I stuck with them and suffered indignities because I didn’t think it was manly to run.

I didn’t want to be like my biological father, who it seemed to me, quit when the family he created put demands on him that he wasn’t ready to meet. He became a flyboy. He fled, spawning more families along the way, leaving more fatherless children in his path.

I swore that I would never do that to my child; that I would never flee from my responsibilities, that I would break the cycle, and try to be a meaningful manly presence in my daughter’s life. I stayed physically close but fled in many other ways.

I’ve always tried to be like my stepfather, who clearly chose to stay close to his adopted family. Luckily, he found a woman who loved him, whom he could also love, and children he embraced as his own.

I haven’t been quite as lucky. I’ve picked relationships that haven’t always been good.

I thought of the countless days I hated myself for choosing to be in relationships that rocked me the wrong way, that felt more like kicks in the groin than the bliss of union, relationships which made me feel more miserable than happy, made me think about death more than life, and the many sleepless nights of feeling unwanted, undervalued, or worst of all, not needed. I thought about how these things can turn a man upside down, so that everything he owns, or thinks he owns, comes spilling out of him and the only thing he has left is to turn him self upright, or to collapse into a heap onto the ground.

Sometimes, after long struggle, a man decides he’s had enough, he runs out of gas and gives up, he quits, counter to everything he was taught growing up, things like stepping up to the plate, as my dad used to say, or standing in the gap and “manning” up, or taking it in the gut now and then to stay honest. A man, a good man, can’t be a lone actor. My friend needed his family and they needed him but I think it was too much for him.

Only after quietly assessing my own countless failures, and adding to them heaps of stress from unmet family obligations and a bleak outlook such as my friend’s was I able to understand how he might have taken an early leave of his family, just when they seemed to need him the most, the boys especially.

How else can you explain the sudden death of an otherwise healthy man?

***
At the memorial, odd bits and pieces of his story leaked out through people’s comments—he was having a tough time and had recently come to the Lord—and I felt bad for my friend, for his mom and his two boys. I hadn’t any idea how things had really gotten for him over the years, but from the sounds of it, it must have been pretty rough.

My friend had been out of work for years, he had lost his house and wasn’t making it, and was borrowing money from his mother, according to mom.

His oldest boy, barely into his 20s, had just gotten out of jail for drug use, and an addiction to heroin. His younger boy had been showing signs of trouble, “acting out,” as they say, but seemed to have found a place among the evangelical youth at the church where the memorial was held.

His wife was apparently having trouble staying sober. She, of course, appeared deeply troubled, not only by death, but by a myriad of doubts and struggles that weren’t entirely clear but evident in the sadness of her face, a sadness that seemed unrelated to death, and more to do with they way she lived her life.

An old man with a walker raised his hand to speak at the memorial. He was having trouble breathing as he worked his way down the aisle to meet the pastor presiding at the front of the church, an industrial building converted into a worship space.

My friend had apparently made acquaintances there and expressed interest in its programs only in the last few weeks before his death. Mostly, he came to bring his younger son to the church’s youth group.

The old man grabbed the microphone to talk about my friend: “Five weeks ago,” he said, whistling as he exhaled, “he came to the church here…bogged down…a defeated man…and I asked him to come up here…to pray the prayer of repentance with me…and to take Jesus into his heart.”

It had made a tremendous difference in my friend’s life, the gentleman said; he was a changed man. “Something’s different,” my friend reportedly told him, “I feel different now.”

It feels unnatural to me for a man of his youth, with two boys to watch out for, and possibilities still waiting, to suddenly die.

I’m still taking it in, still feeling the sad undercurrent of dark secrets that leaked into the memorial service, the terrible grief of an inconsolable mother, unattended, sobbing and convulsing, still wondering at the widow’s selection of music to open and end the service, which told of “new beginnings” and jilted love.

I’m still wondering if the oldest boy who just got out of jail will stay off drugs and do what he promised his father during the service, to make him proud and be the man his father wanted him to be, the kind of guy, as one person said, “Who would give you the shirt off his back but you’d better not ever try to take anything away from him.”

If a boy can learn that from his father, if he can learn to be both kind and tough, he’ll be off to a good start in life.

The young man sounded sincere, and there were men there, including myself, who witnessed his declaration that he would get it together and do right by his father. With his jailhouse-shorn head, he even looked up, as if peering into heaven, as if his father was right there looking down at him, and promised he’d be the man now and watch over his mother and little brother.

I was touched by his bravery.

But who will hold him to it? Who will hold him accountable? Which man present at the memorial will make sure he keeps his word? Some of the men themselves seemed utterly lost, or distracted and uncertain, medicated, numbed to dull grief. One or two men stood up to let the boys know they’d be watching out for them, men who were closest to their father.

It felt good to hear them say it; and I know that at least one of them meant what he said.

In some ways, however, the women who spoke at the service seemed to be the stronger sex: “If you need anything,” said one pointing to both boys, “you know that I’ll be there for you.” It’s the same sort of strong declaration I would have received (and often did receive) from my own mother’s friends.

The most certain to speak, however, those who were not plagued with doubt or grief, were our evangelical hosts. Between stories about my deceased friend from those who knew him best, our hosts let us know in no uncertain terms that because he had recently come to Jesus, he had found peace and was now with God.

“I know, that I know, that I KNOW!” the youth pastor howled, assuring the boys and their mother with a steady, pastoral gaze, his arm raised above his head, holding his bible, “I KNOW that he’s in a better place.”

It felt weakly reassuring. I didn’t want to hear about a “better place,” and wondered how anyone could know that my friend was better off now. And I wondered about his family and how much better off they were. §