Cowtown

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I should have known I’d make a good fool the first time I put on that stupid fucking paper ice cream cone hat.

Summertime in this thriving strip mall/dying farm town is rough. There is nothing much to do—all of the kids that can afford to fly home and sleep 12 hour nights in beds they don’t make do so. The rest of us look down the barrel of three hot months that smell like manure (the dying farms), chemical-laden asphalt (from the all the new parking lots and shit) and exhaust (from the interstate).   You know, come to think of it, the first wave of departures in June doesn’t feel bad at all. It’s nice to imagine life without racket of dum-dums at the fraternity next door—a dying fucking tradition anyway, I mean, Jesus, how do you have ONE fraternity? I guess you just have to come to Cowtown for that.

Cecilia and I had been broken up since late spring and I knew she was lurking around for the summer, not because she couldn’t afford to go home, but because she had real bad issues with her stepfather.   And possibly because she wanted to stay close to me.

I’d been working at “The Scoop Soda Fountain” in the town’s only “Legitimate (Mini) Mall!” for a few months when I was still dating Cecilia, so when she appeared that day in August with her mascara all smeared, trembling under the Food Court’s enthusiastic AC, Clarence hollered a greeting before he saw her state. Then he ducked his head and shouldered close to me. I was sweating, suddenly, standing over the sorbets.

“I think that’s your cue, dog,” he whisper-ordered, and since he was my boss, I folded up the hat and by some pre-arranged drama narrative arc, met Cecilia at a sticky round table off to the side.

She cleaned herself up and tried at a smile and I’m half-southern, so I had to smile back, even if I felt like sprinting for the north exit. But as I felt my face muscles work, I was seeing, in my mind, the night that Cecilia tried to throw herself into traffic because I broke up with her (I broke up with her because she had broken up with me, fucked this corn-fed wide receiver and then convinced me to get back together). And right at that same moment at that sticky table, I swear to God, a faux-farmer (actor, I imagine) in cartoonish overalls walked by leading a very well-groomed, very cute Holstein calf on a leash, swarmed by cooing toddlers. And Cecilia did this thing that she knows how to do where she giggles in a perfectly delighted, impulsive, young way, right through her red eyes and over her smeared cheeks, and I don’t care if you just lost your pet calf, you smile.

So I smiled.

And she leaned in and hooked my wrists and wrestled our noses close and started in on a monologue that combined erotic promise and tearful plea and I felt my heart sink and other parts rise and then Clarence appears with a banana fucking split (there was an actual cherry on top) singing in his goddam gospel baritone “Reunited—and it feels so good,” and Cecilia is smile-crying now and I took a spoonful of hot fudge that she pushed toward me to earn time because I’m pumping my brain like brakes gone out to stop this and then, I swear to God, Sinead O’Connor is singing through the mini-mall megaphone speakers (so I can’t even blame Clarence), “Nothing Compares,” and Cecilia doesn’t even have to work at it anymore, Clarence is watching, big arms folded, nodding along, and some large stroller pushing mothers who have parked for milkshakes are weepy and grinning at us and I know that the following chapter of time in Cowtown—however long it turns out to be—is going to feel a whole lot more torturous than the summer ever did.

And so I kiss her.

Food Bank

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I never shied away from the fact that I was a rotten shit in high school and I have tried my best not to hide behind the fact that all of my buddies were, too. That’s not any excuse—even our behavior had been due to peer pressure, that’s a bullshit copout, and I can’t even claim that. Just a kind of free floating permission to be as wild-ass as we could be, an unspoken game of one-upmanship to see who could push the envelope the furthest before the apathetic teachers or staff actually took action.

 

Solomon Brazier smoked a bowl in the back of Spanish class, blowing tokes into his sleeve. Polyester wrapped Mr. Abrams sniffed and looked confused but that was about it. Carlton Chivers tagged the door of every classroom with his Flash! nom du guerre, then moved on to every single teacher’s desk. He pulled this caper off within a week. Jenny Strongbow pasted the answers to a chemistry quiz on the back of geriatric Ms. Genevive’s suit jacket so that as she walked around, telling us all that she was “watching us like a hawk,” she delivered the answers to each student. Jenny stripped it off her back without any guile on the way out to lunch, just tossed it in the wastebasket, chuckling.   Avery Short chased a freshman down the block, blacked out drunk at midday, and slammed a metal garbage can down over him, told him not to come out till after school and the poor little dude didn’t.

 

Anyway, there is a lot to be said about the kind of public education that not only allows this type of behavior to be the rule, but that inspires it. I mean, looking back, I know we were rebelling against the busywork nonsense and radically outdated textbooks and crappy instructors and rain of asbestos. At least on some level. Not a conscious one at the time, to be sure. Shit, we were too immature to organize a house party (so we drank in the park nine times out of ten) to say nothing of some kind of political statement.

 

I had a lot of time to think critically about my high school self and the retroactive politics of delinquency. The line at the food bank twisted around the front of the joint and down the alley, but before I even had gotten in line, I saw him—Mr. Greeley, junior year algebra, quivering in a frayed track suit, gripping a cane like with impossibly huge, white knuckles.

 

Because, see, what I remember most about Mr. Greeley is how soft-spoken he was, how much of a pushover—no, it’s what we did to him that I remember most. It’s another round of self-delusion to say it’s because of who he was—the garbage we dished out is on us.

 

Like when he got his small yellow Datsun painted with a local plumbing company’s ads to earn a few extra bucks, presumably, and eight of us picked it up during lunch 3 days running and dropped it in the middle of the intersection. He had the ads stripped away and we left his car alone except for breaking into it to smoke doobies.

 

We did shit like sell weed out of the door of his classroom like it was a dope house, stared him down when he got a tiny touch of indignation about it.

 

Like drink fat mouthed bottles of Mickey’s malt liquor openly, burping like frat boys while he tried to teach a formula to the four earnest kids listening.

 

Like the day that I came in half-cocked on Mad Dog and Mexi herbs and wrestled three desks over to and out of the third story window while he was dealing with Sam, a sensitive, tiny nerd that we all tortured, in the hallway.

 

That last one was what finally did it, I guess. He came back in, shaking his head, left hand out, subconsciously guiding Sam toward his seat. That impulse, I see now, of guidance, of the desire to share, actually, to help lead us toward knowledge and growth that we spit on and threw back at him because he was a shy, decent cog. Ah. Anyway. When he took stock of the fact that three of us were standing desk-less, he didn’t understand, then he did—but only that our desks were gone—and then he rubbed his head like he was trying to get a fire started up there and wordlessly pointed to the hallway.

 

I’d spent a lot of time thinking about Mr. Greeley, actually, as I worked my way through gigs grant writing and needed algebra to help me with Microsoft Xcel and didn’t have a lick of it. I came to arrange it so that Mr. Greeley stood in for all my crimes of the era—every diss of my mom or dad, every freshman shouldered or punched, every gram snorted, smoked or sold, every rotgut 40 oz of malt liquor hard to the liver that was still in the process of growing back then.

 

And at the food bank, 15 odd years later, an out of work grant writer wannabe rock star, I watch as ancient Mr. Greeley reaches his knobby claw out at the first station to the cocky young buck probably doing his community service for a DUI. I can barely catch the harsh whisper that Mr. Greeley lays on the young kid when he reluctantly leans in a few inches, but I hear the kid’s honk of a dumb young voice—nope, that’s it man, one onion per—and look behind the kid’s tribal-tattooed elbow and see the crate bursting with Vidalia yellows and the kid returns his moon face to his big smart phone.

 

I suppose I told that kid to give Mr. Greeley a Vidalia yellow and that I probably didn’t do it nicely. I recall that I was invited to leave the establishment by rubber-aproned ex-con types not too nicely. I hope that Mr. Greeley cooked whatever it was he wanted the extra onion for. I hope he didn’t somehow recognize me.

 

I hope he doesn’t remember me at all.

Bluffing

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Bluff was the location of the wildest and most consistent parties and, also, there was the tradition of “bluffing” to shove one of your buddies off the “bluff” at the most unforeseen moment. The irony is terrible that neither definition of “bluff” actually applied. It was a cliff. Period. A one hundred foot plummet off an upward-tilted lip of earth adorned with clover and dandelions at the far end of a county park, out of earshot of the parking lot even without the roar of sea winds that muscled up the ragged, rocky face of the cliff and stirred drunken teenagers’ hair in interesting ways. And, therefore, faking a shove off it was a lot more like a threat.

 

Bluff had been played on the girl once. She went out there as a freshman, which even among freshmen, was considered a pretty foolish thing to do. The crowd she rode with was peppered with other first year students clutching warm cans of Hamm’s like they were talismans, but mainly it was sophomores and juniors and even some seniors. Because she was appropriately wary of this crowd—getting good and cracked on an early Friday afternoon—she instinctively moved to the highest part of the bluff so she could observe everyone present, but of course this put her back to the open air at the edge of the cliff. When one upperclassman girl distracted her by inquiring after her peculiar ethnicity in that innocent and moronic blonde suburban way (“Ohmygod yoursooocute whatareyou?”), a redhead rocker chick with a hatchet face and leather jacket that would go on to die with a needle stuck into her arm at the ripe old age of 17, grabbed the girl and shoved her hard toward the edge. The redhead had good purchase on the girl’s backpack strap, so she probably wasn’t in any real danger, but nonetheless she shrieked, a spurt of piss got away from her, and she both vomited and began to cry when the redhead released her, disgusted.

 

The girl had come a long way since that freshman afternoon. She was a legal adult, however burdened with a handful of AP English essays before she could kick high school and the awful postcard town full of phony white people goodbye. She had lost her mother to a man named Ramon from Florida and her older brother to an IED in Fallujah. She still had her taciturn father that turned the engines of the town’s luxury SUVs inside out seventy hours per week, and her best friend, a wickedly smart film buff named Arthur, and a string of ex boyfriends that got more embarrassing the more she reflected. And so she tried not to. She tried to be mindful and in the moment and breathe, like her Buddhist auntie Celine had taught her once. That’s what she was doing the night of the last high school party she ever planned to attend, fittingly back on the bluff in the deep black of a late April night.

 

She had been there enough times with boyfriends or Arthur or on her own that she knew just where it was safe to place her feet without danger of the winds whirl-whipping her away into an ugly swan dive. She stared out at the obsidian ocean, seagulls like small triangles of cotton jagging about, using the force of the winds for swoops and ascents. She tipped a sip of German pilsner into her mouth and didn’t spit it out when the hand slid like a boa over her hip because she’d known it was coming.

 

His plot for dealing with her after having raped her in the bathroom at his parents’ Christmas party—she would always smell potpourri and asparagus piss at the most unwelcome moments—was to treat her as often as possible like his girlfriend. Of course she didn’t take to it and, for months, would slap him away, shout him down, spit at his giggles, but she’d found with time that all of that only made it worse. People quickly believed that no guy so adorably smitten and devoted despite her rejection could be guilty of choking her out and having his way with her over a toilet. And when she did stop protesting, when she let him put his arm around her in public, he thought it was victory. And he cooed cruel triumphs in her ear about what he would do next. And she could feel that this was the night that he would actually try.

 

His forearm was around her waist and his hand palmed her thigh through her jeans and she could smell the animal in him. She sighed, as if in resignation and ducked beneath his arm, coming face to face with him, albeit three inches below where he now stood on the lip of the bluff, his back to the sea and desolate song of the gulls. Behind her she could hear the inane squeals of drunken girls and false bravado of drunk boys boom and shatter in the loose thicket of Evergreens where the keg was planted. The sickle moon lit the white of his narrowed eyes and one canine tooth as he half-grinned. She shook her head, as if at herself, and slid one hand demurely onto his crotch, which responded with instant heated expansion. Before he did it, she knew it because she’d seen it happen, against designer wallpaper a year earlier: his head tip back in pleasure. She pushed hard, but didn’t have to. His eyes snapped back in time to catch hers and she’d be lying to this day if she denied the burst of pleasure in her brain, the flood of dopamine that followed the image of his going, his cry erased by the wind. She stayed and finished her beer, but didn’t peer over. She knew she couldn’t see anything at all, way down there on the dark violence of those rocky, sea-smacked shores.

How to Slip Your Cage

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For survivors of Narconon and the Church of Scientology

First, pretend to be delighted that you get to enter. If you buck and fight, it will only end in your blood spilt and a longer time until you are ultimately free. If you buck and fight, they will take the violence out of you and turn it against you so that your first couple of days in the cage will be spent on the ground (not that there is anywhere else to be) and in agony—trust me, I made the wrong choice. So you must enter willingly, will forth a tear if they don’t flow naturally, act relieved to finally be getting the help you need.

 

Second, do not look for a comfortable place to arrange your body. You will not find it. There are no chairs, no bunks, not even so much as a ledge to perch your ass upon. You have a floor and walls with the uneven roll of hand-hewn log cabin, so leaning your spine against them is no relief. You have to figure out how to sit on a dirty wooden floor in a way that doesn’t produce agony or, if like me, this is impossible—with all the bruises and scrapes—you have to learn how to sit through agony. This is probably the best thing, so in that case, if you need an extra dose of agony to create the necessity of sitting through it, disregard step #1.

 

Third, eat the vitamin blasts that they push on you through the cracked door as if there were the most delicious fucking snack you’ve ever tasted. Suck down the horse pill capsules like they are pieces of your lover whom you can only save by devouring. Feel the gritty work of those capsules in your abdomen, the slow slink of a hundred doses of vitamins into your veins. Trust not that they are good for you, not in their claims that they will silence the voices in your head or extinguish the gnawing need for dope, but trust that compliance is your only hope of escape and so swallow those fuckers.

 

Fourth, defecate and urinate in the bucket. Do not succumb to urges to paint arcs on the dark wall. It will not spite them because you will be forced to live with the stench and ultimately clean it up. Do not succumb to this also because it will make you appear yet more deranged and will extend the time you spend in your cage.

 

Fifth, when they bring stacks of paper to sign, sign. Do not ask questions and do not try to read the tiny font in the weak light that slices a rectangle around the door. Do not attend to useless thoughts about your rights, or lack thereof, or the meaning of your signature on those many pages. Refusing to sign, or asking questions or trying to read the tiny font, even, will probably earn you another blast of vitamins and another day at least to consider the foolishness of resistance.

 

Sixth, when the voices get louder, listen closer. Because here’s the thing: the voices are your own. And even if they’ve landed you in a lot of trouble in the past, when you’re locked in a cage breathing feces in the dark for long enough, jailed by people with blind faith, no mercy, ballpoint pens and vitamin blasts, the voices will begin to serve you instead of betray you. The voices will tell you the truth: that these people are not going to let you out until you deny your voices. That these people are not going to let you out until you profess that your cravings for dope have subsided.

 

Seventh, if the voices guide you, obey them. If they say to scream out in agony, do so. If they say to scream for mercy, do so. If they tell you to mutter gratitude to your captors, do so. If they tell you to remain silent for long stretches, do so.

 

Eighth, when you no longer expect the door to open, expect the door to open.

 

Ninth, when the door opens, remain still and make an attempt to smile.

 

Tenth, when they ask you if you think you are ready to come out, tell them you think you need just a little bit longer.

WASHINGTON BULLETS

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I’ve never come across a document of any kind that reflects upon the incredible irony of the Washington Bullets NBA franchise.  Ok, so team owner Abe Pollin saw the light and changed the name to the “Wizards” in 1995, claiming the assassination of his friend Yitzhak Rabin as the final straw in scouring overtones of violence from his team’s name.  First element of irony: the final straw was not the ridiculous level of inner city violence in DC., but the death of an Israeli politician. Second element of irony: The Clash put the song “Washington Bullets” on their bestselling super anti-imperialist 1980 album Sandinista! possibly to shine the light on U.S. policy emanating from DC, though The Clash have claimed innocence about that.  Third element of irony: this is what passes for gun reform in America: changing a basketball team’s name, versus, say, passing legislation or addressing the root causes of conflict in the inner city. 

 

I got to thinking about this, of course, because of yesterday’s supernova ballyhoo about the depressed, unarmed mother who drove her car to the White House and got smoked by volunteer (thanks to the shutdown) DC Police and Secret Service Officers.  I half-watched the colorful wheels of CNN and MSNBC spin while I cooked dinner.  Every congress member interviewed regarding the shutdown of the government was first asked where they were and what they saw of the violence yesterday.  The shooting took most of the time of each segment.  And no doubt in the days to come we will hear the depths of Miriam Carey’s life and the composition of her demons spelled out with the flair of prime time inquiry.  This offers the possibility of a look at mental health treatment, so there is a silver lining to the prurient blender we’ll be watching. 

 

But I couldn’t help but think if I were a black or brown inner city resident of DC, I’d be a little cynical about the intensity of coverage.  I imagine I might say to myself, Can you believe this shit, self?  A shooting right HERE in Washington DC!  Then I’d cackle but it wouldn’t feel funny and I’d probably want a drink. 

 

In 2011 there were 78 homicides by gun in Washington DC.  Of the victims, 2 where white.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Miriam Carey has gotten more attention than any other black victim of gun violence in our capital.  I wish for her and her orphaned child that somehow her death might at least light that up on our collective radar.   

CHOCOLATE GRASSHOPPERS & IMPLICIT MEMORY

 

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Saturday afternoon at Café Racer, my son tasted a chocolate covered grasshopper, proffered by David George Gordon.  I tried to take this as evidence that he was growing up, finding new stores of bravery for the art of experimentation and adventure in the world. 

 

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Dr. Daniel Siegel is a giant of a thinker, theorist, researcher, psychiatrist and therapist and you can’t attend a single course in applied psychology or family therapy without hearing the instructor make reference to him and in many cases take you on a glowing oratory tangent.  He’s impossible to hate and so far as I can tell, he’s impossible to question.  He’s on the cutting edge of neurobiology, memory, child development and about six other related fields.  Also, for the record, he writes for the layperson so anyone can scoop up one of his fascinating books like The Whole Brain Child.

 

One of the things that Dr. Siegel writes and speaks about consistently is “implicit” memory.  To put it simply, these are memories that happened before we were conscious and able to develop “explicit” memories.  You can’t call up an implicit memory by sheer cognitive ability.  There are ways that implicit memory gets called up or “triggered.”  Many people don’t understand this but it can govern your emotional life, nothing less.  Have you ever found yourself inexplicably furious or inexplicably sorrowful at the drop of a hat?  Chances are that something triggered your implicit memory: a dead cat on the side of the road, for example, or a father reading the paper at a restaurant where his young daughter sits across from him clearly waiting for his attention.  And it doesn’t have to happen instantly—you could glimpse something like this and not be walloped by it emotionally for hours, or days. 

 

Since learning something about this, I have found myself gaining a great deal of ground.  I was extremely fortunate in that my education around this coincided, more or less, with the birth of my son.  Because everybody gets knuckle-balled with implicit memories when they have a kid and if they aren’t aware of the way the brain works (which most are not), they are going to be baffled and scrambled by their emotional life for a while. 

 

So when my infant son cried out at night and my own chest got tight and anxiety went up, I understood: I was left alone to cry myself to sleep when I was his age.  When my son gets pushed around the playground, my rage is so hair-trigger that I start looking for a dad to fight: I was a sensitive kid told to “use my words” and was not the Lord of any Fly.  So as the time approached for Pax to start preschool (today), I was not as confused as I would have been about my emotional state—but I’m still struck by the intensity of it. 

 

Pax told his mother the other day, “I’m going to cry so much they won’t let me stay at school,” which made me want to hyperventilate.  My own mother’s response was amusement that he had learned to be “manipulative” already.  My mother did step up and offer herself as the courier to preschool for the first week, which was tremendously kind.  What my mother did not do was actively recall under what circumstances she left me alone in a preschool classroom.  I can only assume from my own anxiety and blues during the days preceding Pax’s entrance that I was terrified and felt abandoned.

 

My son left the house with his grandmother this morning in a shark-print raincoat twirling and chattering.  He came back dirtier but in a similar state.  I don’t know if my mother is executing a “re-do” of her own style of parenting 33 years wiser, but she’s doing something right.  I doubt that Pax will lose his breath when his own child’s lower lip quivers at the notion of striking out into school—or anything else in life. 

 

But maybe each time he sees an insect eaten, an implicit memory of his father will warm him from within?   

The Blind Alley & the Mirror: A Dream

 

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I turn down an alley, aiming to enter wherever it is I am going through a back entrance.  The typically grimy and dumpster-cluttered stretch lays before me, fire escapes climbing the dripping walls like metal spider legs and shards of cardboard thrown like oversized blank playing cards in puddles.  It appears this is a blind alley, which causes me to wonder when and why someone constructed a wall to seal it because it was not always this way.  But as I approach I realize the alley has always been blind, only there’s a long, tall mirror that stands against the wall so that normally it reflects you coming as well as the opening at the other end.  But as I draw nearer, I see the mirror has tilted forward, the top right corner catching on a loop of rusty wire so it hasn’t fallen, but it’s leaning toward the ground, reflecting only the dirty blacktop, which is why, of course, it looked as if the alley had been blinded/sealed.  As I approach the mirror, it undulates, as if it’s just plasterboard mirror glass with no backing and now it’s cracking and small pieces are falling off and I realize I’m in my underwear and have this enormous, possibly deadly item in my hands and am dancing around with it now, trying to figure out how to let go of the mirror in a way that will keep it from slicing me to ribbons.