Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Age of Innocence

The Boro Drive-in Theater
Coming of age in the 1960's and early 70's, my siblings and I were entertained by the simple things: dinner at the A&W drive-in restaurant, or taking in a double-feature at the Boro Drive-in Theater. One night on a whim, my parents decided to answer our questions about those stationary flashing red lights we saw to the south every night. We drove through the unlit back-roads of Rehoboth and Seekonk. It took a while, but we eventually pulled into a gravel parking lot at the base of the radio towers. We were so excited to find the source of those flashing red lights that we saw every night.

On another occasion, we drove to nearby Attleboro to find the source of the festive searchlights, traversing the night sky. It turned out to be the grand opening of Mars Bargainland. Long gone now. I remember that we walked through the store, but left unimpressed. Back then we were freer to explore our world without fear of imminent danger. At the age of ten -- my son's current age -- I would ride my bike two or three towns away, just to explore and maybe stop at Bliss Brothers Diary for an ice cream in a waffle cone.

Maybe some form of innocence comes along with country life and living in a small town. There's a scene early in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," where Longfellow Deeds is in a law office, being informed about his substantial inheritance. He hears firetruck sirens from the street below and runs to the window. The suits in the room get a chuckle, as if Longfellow had never heard sirens before. When you're from a small town though, a siren usually means that someone you know is hurt or in trouble -- neighbors are actually neighborly (sometimes.) -- but the hardened cynical city folk thought innocence was humorous.

"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town"
Innocence is nothing to be scoffed at. Innocence is sight without looking through discriminating and judgmental filters. Innocence and naivete are precious, because they are so ephemeral. When innocence fades away, it is often replaced by cynicism, as this aging curmudgeon can testify to. Now my task is to try and maintain my son's innocence for as long as possible, or at least until he is better prepared to see some of the sights and human behaviors that cannot be unseen, or unfelt. Justin is wonderfully empathetic and caring, and always perceptive of others' feelings. I just want to make sure that his own precious nature is protected along the beginning of his journey.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Talking Entropy Blues

The eternal breakdown. Humans love to create order out of nature, with their roads and suburbs, but nature eventually retakes its acreage. Roads break down with the cycling of the seasons. Rain beats upon the rooftops, and moss grows on the north-facing side. The leaky roof at the bookstore doesn't get better over time. It gets worse, with the water finding new ways to leak onto the wood floors. Water is one of earth's most powerful agents of erosion. It carved out the Grand Canyon and all the little canyonettes. The power of water. It can cut through rocks, and entire civilizations.

We get shorter as we get older, because our spine starts to compress. Our feet, nose and ears get bigger. All part of breaking down. We all succumb to gravity eventually. While I was busy living life, my own physical being and faculties have been breaking down. I can't eat the foods I used to. My eyesight is fading like old Polaroids. My knees ache more with every rainfall. And don't get me started on my sleep patterns.

With the popularity of crudities like  Cruz and chumps like Trump, one could easily believe that the end is near. We're witnessing the breakdown of our own society, and we're all fiddling with our smart phones, as the world burns down around us. Maybe my passion for Bernie Sanders is just another way of trying to impose some sort of order in this crazy-ass country of ours. No one values intellect anymore, and reality has just become another entertainment show.

The desire for order and meaning is a purely human characteristic. Some people believe that religion and faith in a higher power gives their lives meaning, but the truth is that we create our own meaning in our meager lives. Even your religious belief is a creation to make sense of this chaotic world.

It's maddening to think about the past and future and our microcosmic place in all of this. In the grand scheme, we're not even a blip. About 1.2 billion years from now our sun will flare up and swallow up the earth, before it becomes a red giant. Most of us are not even cognizant of the fact that we're on a rock hurtling through space at a speed of nearly 67,000 miles per hour. Never mind that our solar system whirls around the center of our galaxy at some 490,000 miles per hour.

I'm just trying to carve out my little calm corner in this chaotic universe. My time is limited, but my love is unlimited. My life is filled with meaning: Raising my son, putting good books into the hands of waiting readers, and continuing my quest to become knowledgeable and enlightened, two unattainable but worthy goals. Even gazing at the stars, or talking to the neighborhood crows fills me with a sense of a life worth living. Chaos is unavoidable, but it's up to us to find the meaning in our own lives.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Nobody's Perfect

Certainly not me. 

Philosophy 101: Plato's theory of forms. Plato Caliente believed that reality was composed of two realms. The first is the physical world that we observe through our senses. The other contains the perfect forms of everything we see in our physical world.  These perfect forms are like the master copy that all the other copies are made from, and these master copies exist in some other dimension. These forms are more real than their pale imitations in our own world.  

I grew up attending a United Methodist church with my family. The Methodist organization would sometimes change our pastor at their whim. One of these changes was warranted though, because our minister was discovered to be having an affair with one of his parishioners. We shared our minister with another church in nearby Chartley, and the harlot was from that congregation. Our pews were filled with blued-haired old ladies. No harlots to choose from there. That pastor moved on, but his ex-wife stayed behind to become our new minister. There were a few rocks thrown by owners of glass houses, I can tell you that much.

I once attended a wilderness survival school in New Jersey. Yes, New Jersey. The school was run by author and nature boy, Tom Brown, Jr., who was taught by "grandfather," an Apache Indian. I hadn't thought of Brown as any type of guru, but a.) I was surprised to see that he was a cigarette smoker ("Grandfather wouldn't approve.") and b.) I was more shocked to see him put out said cigarette on the side of a tree, while showing us squirrel tracks.

Growing up, we see our parents as infallible. Sooner or later, usually by the our teen years, we start to see their mistakes and misinformation. (Hell, my dad voted for Nixon!) We start to see their humanity. Parents. Teachers. Everyone fails. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't look up to people or have mentors. We should just be aware that we all have human failings. We're imperfect, and I don't think that there is a perfect form of me in another dimension, with straight A's and an awesome haircut.

Perfection is certainly something to strive for though. It is the model of the essence of excellence. The fulfillment of all positive possibilities. For thousands of years, many creatures across the spectrum, search for a mate with perfect symmetry. The better the symmetry the more likely the mate has a healthy genetic make-up. If one eye is over to the side, then their offspring may sport that same sideways look.

Many of us stress over our perceived need to be perfect, trying to please parents, bosses, even children. Mistakes are lessons to be learned. Steps on the path towards higher wisdom. Perfection is unattainable -- it only exists inside of our imperfect minds -- yet it should always be aimed for. If we fall short, we pick ourselves back up, dust ourselves off and jump back into the fray. No retreat, no surrender.

"Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right there in the imperfection is perfect reality.” -- Shunryu Suzuki

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

That Which Cannot be Unseen

Anyone who has spent time on the internet knows what I mean by the title of this blog. Hell, I can't scroll through my tumblr feed without seeing at least a few disgusting and offensive images. Even while investigating something such as history, the researcher may stumble upon images from our cruel past.

At the bookstore we also sell books online; mostly academic stuff. Last week I sold a book entitled War and Genocide by Doris L. Bergen. The subtitle is A Concise History of the Holocaust, so you can imagine what images might be contained therein. I couldn't help browsing through the textbook, and looking at the pictures, most of which I had never seen before. One of the most shocking elements of the photos were the captions, such as "The soldier sent this photo to his girlfriend" under an image of a muddy trench filled with emaciated dead bodies.

The one image in the book which will haunt me, is that of a Polish pastor, about to be shot in front of the grave he has just dug. The view is from the butt of the soldier's rifle, as if the photographer was attempting to be creative. The pastor is still wearing his clerical collar and  his shirt sleeves are rolled up. His stance clearly says, "Fuck you Nazis! Go ahead and shoot!"

Back to tumblr: I follow a few sites, mostly highlighting weed and wilderness, but about a year ago one of the sites had posted a photo a young Iraqi boy, no more than three years old, wearing his striped shirt with the collar and shorts. He is on a table in a hospital and the top of his head has been blown off by an mortar explosion. The image is horrific enough, but his father is weeping over him with a grief most of us will thankfully never know.

I cannot forget that image of the young boy and his grieving father, and I don't want to forget it. It seemed totally out of place on that tumblr site, but it dug a hole into my soul. I told a friend at a cafe that I was reading a nonfiction book about a young boy's murder in the ghetto, and his response was, "Why would you want to read that?" I suppose I could say, as Barbara Bush said, "Why should we hear about body bags and deaths. Oh, I mean, it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?" Actually Babs, I would hazard to guess that you're mind is not all that beautiful. You gave birth to a war criminal, after all.

Some colleges are now issuing trigger warnings to students, so that they might be warned ahead of time about any material in the class that might offend them, or waste their beautiful minds. Who will witness the horrors of the world, if we all close our eyes? I look at the photos of the atrocities from the holocaust, and I'm aghast that anyone could be a denier. My co-worker told me that her uncle is a holocaust denier, but she doesn't talk to him much, because he's deaf. I responded, "I guess he's deaf in more ways than one."

In Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," they create triggers in young Alex, so that he will become ill rather than excited by the prospect of violence. After a film filled with violence and rape, Alex is now cured...or is he?

Alex, being cured of his violent tendencies.
I don't think it's healthy for us to ignore or become inured to the cruelties in this world. I'm a cynic. I don't believe that there's a shining mansion on the hill awaiting us in our future, although I can think of a few mansions that could stand to be razed. [Isn't that a contradiction in terms?] Unfortunately, cruelty is part of human nature, and religion doesn't seem to help, since about 98% of our prison population identify as Christians. In fact, some of the most horrendous acts in history were done in the name of religion.

There is both cruelty and great kindness in this world, and sometimes the balance shifts more heavily towards one side or the other. We must all do our own part to live the creed that love is the most important thing. That's what I told my son the other night, so don't make me wrong.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Cat Came Back

...the very next day. We though it was a goner, but the cat came back...

Farm life exposes one early to some of the harsh realities of life and death. My dog regularly caught rabbits while we walked through the fields and woods behind my house. He wouldn't toy with them, as a cat does with a mouse. He would go right for the gut, and start chowing down. Eventually, I preferred to hike without a canine companion, because otherwise I wouldn't see any wildlife, or if I did it would be eaten before my eyes.

We had a couple of beloved collies when I was very young, and one of them walked into the woods, when it was old and started to feel unwell. My dad walked through the woods for hours and hours, calling for that dog, but the dog was never seen again. My father said that he had gone off into the woods to die. How sad is that, wanting to walk away from those who love you, so that you don't burden them in your final hours.

But the cat came back the very next day. We thought she was a goner, but the cat came back...

...and fed her kittens even though her skull had been split open by a car zooming down Dean Street. My parents brought the box of her newborn kittens out onto the porch and the tortoise-colored mother cat  nursed them. The look in her damaged eyes told us that she knew the inevitable outcome of this summertime tragedy. My sister and I both looked into the box, but what happened afterwards is not a clear memory. My parents obviously had to ensure that the cat and her kittens were put to sleep. I can only hope that my dad drove all the way to the vet, and didn't decide to stop by the river.

These days, we'd be the type of family who would just happen to have a lactating wolverine on the premises. The kittens would thrive, being nursed by the vicious, yet motherly wolverine. We would become YouTube stars, and the unlikely bond between kittens and carnivorous beast would be passed around by multitudes on Facebook, including MY MOM!!

My favorite cat was Kittykins. I adopted her from a family, who didn't want her around, plus she was being bullied by the dogs in the house. I adopted her, named her "Kittykins" and she was with me for over ten years, traveling across the country a few times. She is still my only pet to have had her portrait painted. When she had to be put to sleep due to kidney disease -- aka old age -- I had to leave the room. I balled my eyes out. Kittykins wasn't coming back, nine lives mythology or not.

Kittykins - her official portrait.
Pets are perfect examples of unconditional love. We feed them, and give them shelter and they would take a bullet for us. Well, not a cat. Cats are a certain kind of pet, and the kind of pet that always suited me well. Not too much pampering or care is required. We could take or leave each other as we desired. There are two cats in this house, but they are not my cats. They are relegated to the basement, for furniture safety purposes.

Animal companions provide something that other humans are usually too busy to bother with. They'll sit with you when you're in tears, and ask what the problem is, sometimes with a furry paw gently touching your cheek. Dogs will walk in the rain with you, and protect you from predators. Cats will pass on their feline wisdom and then take a nap.

The animal tragedies of my youth are some of my most haunting memories. I never grew the hard-shell exterior that would inure me life on a farm, slaughtering rabbits on the weekend, and dealing with dead sheep in the pasture. I was just a sensitive boy, lost in his sketchbooks, in need of unconditional love. In fact, I'm still that boy.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Self Abuse

In our bookstore we have categories -- of course -- and within self help, we have self-grief, self-addiction, and self-abuse. 

It's a common adage that one must love oneself before one can love others. Self-love. Isn't that the same as self-abuse? Not in this essay. Self-love can certainly include touching, but self abuse could also be used to describe how one might use their mind as a psychological punching bag. Why do I have such a difficult time forgiving myself for many events and situations that I have no control over? These are all rhetorical questions, because if I knew the answers I'd shave the top of my head, and become the next Dr. Phil.

The holidays were crazy-busy at the bookstore, which put me behind on the calendar of events, which is the paper and online calendar, email blast, and event posters. I said I'd go into work for a couple of hours on Saturday, voluntarily, but my wife had been sick all week, and I never seem to have enough time with my son, so I opted out of going in. I then proceeded to beat myself up for failing myself. I'm not talking pummeling myself à la Ed Norton in Fight Club. I'm talking about giving myself a mental torture treatment, instead making a decision and moving on.

Ed Norton, perfecting the art of self-abuse.

I was scolded by my ex-wife after returning our son on Sunday, for not adequately helping him with his homework last week. I had misunderstood the assignment, but that's no excuse. That call put me off my reading for the night -- reading interruptus. I closed my eyes, and tried to find my happy place, but I had lost the map. Instead, I ended up winding my way through Sombertown for the rest of the evening. It's impossible for outsiders to know what you're going through. You may carry the look of anguish on your face, but they don't know that in your mind, you're being stretched on the rack, water-boarded, and left to dry.

I try not to live in the past, but I am connected to all of my past pains. It's certainly an unhealthy attachment, but I obviously have a lot of pain yet to be purged. I still hurt inside from my own perceived wrongs against siblings, parents, friends, and spouses. Sometimes I am, without a doubt, my own worst enemy. If one doesn't want the pain of past memories, then one should choose the right behavior initially. Easier said then done, for most of us I would hazard to guess. Why isn't there a category within self help called self-control?

I don't need New Year's resolutions. I need daily affirmations, because I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!...sometimes.

Stuart Smalley, facing his inner demons.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

It's Cool to be Conscious

I keep misreading my blog title as "It's Cool to be Couscous." I suppose one could also say it's Rockin' to be Rice or Bitchin' to be Basmati, but being conscious and awake is my goal every present moment. It's too cold being comatose. I'd rather dance through the flames of life, than lay down and surrender to age and aches. I could have entitled this post "The Post Holiday Blues," but I'm not falling for that again. Besides we still have New Year's to get through. "Get through" makes it sound like a jail sentence, but it's just work.

Couscous is not Concious

This Friday -- New Year's Day -- we will have our annual 20%-Off-Everything-in-the-Store!! sale. It's just a ploy to get customers in the store, but it sometimes works. Bookstores cannot really afford to have sales, because we barely make a profit to begin with. Even Amazon has yet to make a profit, but their aim is not to sell books -- their aim is to crush any and all competition, and profit from your personal data simultaneously.

All is not lost. The days have started to get longer, although the sun still refuses to shine. Bastard. There was some snow spitting out of the clouds yesterday, accompanying the cold rain. I had no confidence that it would stick. A snowy blanket over the neighborhood would sooth and calm me. The world would seem cleaner and quieter for a brief time, and then -- like anything worthwhile -- it melts away, leaving behind mud and grime. Spring is at least three or four moons away, and even then it is sometimes too shy to reveal itself until May or June.

I've heard tell that adventure is not all it's cracked up to be. This is probably the same source that says rich people have the same problems as everybody else. Adventure is in the whip of the beholder, I suppose. For some people, just being a husband and father is adventure enough. Others want to hit it big in Vegas and paint the town red, or maybe burnt sienna. Stepping out is never advised. One must eliminate desire and any hankering for the danger. A life of quiet desperation is the overarching theme of modern man.

As I get older, I start to feel the ache of all those lost adventures. I've put my whip and fedora away, in exchange for a book and an armchair. But my mind is still is still trekking over hill and dale, and even moving through dimensions. I have a wonderful son, who not only fills my life with parental adventure, but he reminds me of my priorities in life. No skipping off to the casino with the rent money. No shaking my booty with the straw-haired widow next door until the cows come home.

So far I've avoided the dreaded cold that is currently moving through our family. Maybe it's my dietary regimen of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or the fact that I walk to and from work every day.  I've seen the ghost of the sun through the clouds the last few days, but maybe we need some kind of sunshine seance to bring that nuclear furnace back into our good graces. Sunshine cures everything, well...except maybe skin cancer.

Sunshine, peeking through the tree tops.