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Faith and Fortune

In order to save living beings,
as an expedient means I appear to enter nirvana
but in truth I do not pass into extinction.
I am always here, preaching the Law.
I am always here,
but through my transcendental powers
I make it so that living beings in their befuddlement
do not see me even when close by.
When the multitude sees that I have passed into extinction,
far and wide they offer alms to my relics.
All harbor thoughts of yearning
and in their minds thirst to gaze at me.

I’m not much of a person of faith.

My husband is more inclined towards spiritual beliefs, having converted to Nichiren Buddhism when he was 18 and remaining steadfast in practice these nearly three decades since.

I lean more towards philosophy infused by science (“Yeah, sure, buddy, that’s an elegant theory of mind you got there, but if you don’t have a solid grasp of the biological underpinnings of thought, you’re just blathering.”).

But I have been known to pray on occasion. Especially when there seems to be nothing left but faith. Which is probably an awful lot like cheating – or cramming maybe – but like I said, it’s not in my main wiring.

However, feeling like I’m going to short-circuit from befuddlement is present. I am working hard at trying to turn things around for us, but have been having various setbacks. I thirst for solutions to our current situation.

Not knowing what else to do – befuddled indeed! – I started chanting regularly again: Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. A half-hour in the morning and half-hour in the evening. As I chant, the main focus of my mind is on these two parallel thoughts:

I need a door, some door, any door, to open.

How can I be a better person in my current environment?

I’m not chanting or thinking these things to an outside source. For Buddhism teaches the oneness of self and environment; that outer reality can be affected by our inner reality. Another way of saying this without sounding so New Age is that we all have the power inside us to transform our lives.

The most recent thing that needed transformed was rent.

The last week in January I wrote my landlord saying rent would be late, that I would pay it on the fifth. But it turned out that approaching the fifth found me worse off than expected, thinking triage, thinking I’d pay what I could of February rent, which wouldn’t be much, and writing the landlord again saying I would make payments over the next few weeks the best I could, and hoping that would be okay.

On the fifth, I had the day off. Among other things, I chanted a half hour, wrote an hour on a novel-in-progress (The Tulip Tree), and checked e-mail. I went to the Montpelier Food Pantry (Thank you, Montpelier; much, much appreciated!), read with my Everybody Wins VT! student, and stopped by the library to pick up books for the daycare for which I do library outreach each week, bringing books and reading to the kids.

Afterwards I took care of some household tasks and picked up some needed items from town.

Late in the afternoon I sat down to do what I’d been dreading: checking accounts that hardly had anything in them to check, and see what I could pay of my current onslaught of bills, including rent.

I got this welcome surprise: tax refunds had posted, both federal and state.

Now it wasn’t a huge amount by any means. But it was enough, along with what I had, to pay rent in full for the month. I still have many other bills, but it felt wonderful to know that at least our shelter has been paid up for another month.

So not really a door opening fully. Just ajar, just enough to let some light in, and maybe just for this month. But still…

Coincidence?

Like I said, I’m not a man of faith and tend to be cautious in assigning causality. But I did find the timing interesting.

Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

Temple Thoughts

“My name is Temple Grandin. I’m not like other people.
I think in pictures. And I connect them.”

So begins the biopic Temple Grandin. This thought-provoking film tells the story of a woman living with autism. Notice that I used the word “living” and not “struggling” or some other woe is me verb. It is a life and not a battle. In fact, living is too weak a verb. Better to drop the “with” and change “living” to “leveraging.”

This thought–provoking film tells the story of a woman leveraging autism.

Much better. At least to me, since I mostly think in words. Or at least I think I do. Describing how you think seems to lose something in the description. We can communicate how we think, but that’s not the same thing as conveying it. “I think in pictures and I connect them” gives me a better understanding of how Grandin’s mind works. But that’s not the same thing as Understanding; not the same thing as knowing, “what it’s like.”

This natural – yet altogether profound — human disparity is captured especially well in an exchange between Temple and her professor [my emphasis in bold].

Dr. Carlock: Okay. Okay. Can you bring everything you’ve seen to your mind?
Temple: Sure.
Dr. Carlock: Even if it were an everyday object, like, say, shoes?
Temple: I see all the shoes I’ve worn, my mother’s and other people I’ve met. And you have three pairs, one needs a new heel. And I see the newspaper ads and TV ads and… Can’t you?

I certainly can’t. I’m not even that good at basic visualization. At least not as good as I think someone who is good at such visualization would be. Heck, even “thinking in words” may be an overstatement of orderliness regarding my junk-drawer mind. It might be more accurate to say I think in splotches of half-formed reality; a mishmash of a little visual this and a lot of textual that.

Especially lots of text of the hearing kind; that internal voice which is quiet to the world but is reading aloud inside my head what I just wrote. It judges the flow, phrasing, and so on. It’s there, too, with story dialogue, which is usually the first thing that comes to me in writing fiction.

I’m lousy with description, large casts of characters, and keeping time periods, ages, and hair color straight. I have to work hard, and do work hard, at these things. Dialogue, though, comes comparatively easily for me, as I hear it clearly in my head.

If you go inside your  head and think about your thinking, what do you feel is happening? What do you see? What do you hear? Or are those two verbs not applicable to you? They certainly aren’t always applicable to me. Perhaps you have better words; ones that would more accurately describe your experience. Or maybe you might become so frustrated trying to do so that you end up saying, “I just think and thought happens.”

Which is a valid enough statement since it is your mental milieu and no one else’s. As long as you can successfully navigate the You landscape to get your thoughts where you need them to go in order to live a fulfilled life, the route is less important.

But sometimes we focus so much on the aforementioned disparity that we spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to correct our thinking to better conform to normative ideas of thought-processing. In effect, we strive to eradicate a perceived or identified weakness.

The problem though is that sometimes such striving causes us to under-appreciate – and thus underutilize — a strength.

Grandin, however, realized early on that although autism gave her some challenges, particularly social ones, such issues were far outweighed by the gain it provided in the powerhouse visualized thinking it encouraged. She saw things in ways “normal” people didn’t and made conceptual connections that normal people couldn’t.

If she corrected her autism, she would be correcting her brilliance. So instead, she embraced it, leveraged it, as a part of her and became (and is becoming) all the more brilliant.

Temple Grandin is a living example of playing to ones strengths and the movie is a resonating suggestion for the rest of us to do likewise.

———–

JD Fox’s Awesome Opossum Bonus:

Dialogue at work.

Years ago, I took a writing class at college where one of the assignments was to compose a short piece of fiction containing dialogue. The restriction was that each piece of dialogue must be three words or less. I decided to take it a step further and told the whole story using only dialogue. Flaws notwithstanding, I think it still holds up fairly well.

MOOD SWINGS
You’re so young.
Too young?
No, it’s just…
Just what?
I’m just surprised.
Consider yourself lucky.
Are you legal?
Legal enough.
How much?
Fifty.
That’s too high.
Suit yourself.
What about twenty?
You’re kidding, right?
Fifty’s too high.
I’m worth it.
Do you swallow?
That depends.
On what?
My mood, mostly.
What else?
The person.
But you’ll suck?
For fifty, yeah.
That’s a lot.
Fifty’s the price.
I’ve got twenty.
Good for you.
And this.
What’s that?
A bus pass.
And the twenty?
And the twenty.
Hand them over.
Here you go.
Okay, then.
So what now?
Go in here.
Here?
Yeah.
It’s dark inside.
And your point?
No point, I…
Good.
What now?
Pull it out.
Like this.
Yeah. Like that.
And you’ll…
How’s this?
Oh… my…
You like that?
Yeah.
And this?
Oh, God, yeah.
That feels good?
That feels great.
You close?
I’m close.
Okay, then.
I… Oh, Oh…
How was that?
Incredible. You swallowed?
Yeah.
Why?
Because of you.
Because of me?
And my mood.
What does…?
I told you.
What’s this?
Your bus pass.
It’s yours now.
Don’t want it.
You earned it.
Don’t need it.
You’re worth more.
I know.
More than twenty.
I know.
I live nearby.
So?
Want some coffee?
No.
We could…
No.
I mean…
No. Just go.
What about you?
What about me?
It’s cold outside.
I’ll survive.
I know, but…
Don’t worry.
Too late.
I’ll be fine.
Spend the night.
No.
Please.
Why?
I’d feel better.
Oh, you would?
You would, too.
You think so?
I know so.
Nearby, huh?
Around the corner.
That’s convenient!
Sometimes.
It is cold…
Yes, it is.
Well, okay, then.
Good.
Which way?
This way.
Lead the way.
Here we are.
Already?
Up these steps.
What’re you doing?
Take my hand.
Why?
There’s ice here.
Oh. Just don’t…
Don’t what?
Get any ideas.
About what?
What this means.
A warm bed?
Spending the night.
What’s it mean?
You tell me.
Tonight you’re safe.
And tomorrow?
Tomorrow’s another day.
Tomorrow I’ll go.
We’ll see.
I will.
Whatever you want.
I won’t stay.
It’s your choice.
Yes, it is.
But for tonight…
What?
Sleep on it.

Life outside the Rose Garden

So keep your eyes set on the horizon
On the line where blue meets blue

Life outside the Rose Garden

Sick at Thanksgiving, it’s hard to be thankful
for fever, fatigue, and loss of productivity.
At times like this, I feel the virus
mutating my immune system cell by cell.

The next day, today, same bills still to pay
make staying home a pretend thought
stolen from others with sufficient means;
possessors of dreams that do not stay frozen.

How do you keep your eyes on the horizon
when fog banks keep rolling in?
I drink coffee, write bad poetry, and try
to keep things in a less jaundiced perspective:

I have my spouse of nineteen years
plus our dog, two cats, and a fish.

Queer History on Display

 

Queer History Display, Pride Vermont 2014

Queer History Display, Pride Vermont 2014

For Pride Vermont this year I created a display on Queer History. I thought I’d give it some additional life by posting it here along with the content I wrote for it / in it. That specific content can be found by clicking on Queer History Display near the top of this Web site.

As a bonus for weird people like me who think about creativity and how the mind works — particularly the somewhat happenstance  way the mind works — I’ll end with some comments about my creative process in putting it together.

First, though, it’s overall structure was this:

Center Panel: Pictures and text from past Prides, photocopied from old issues of Out in the Mountains, which are archived at the Leahy Library of the Vermont Historical Society. Pages are in chronological order, taped by top edge and overlapping. This allowed a page to be viewed and then lifted to view the page (i.e. the subsequent year) underneath.

Left and Right Panels: Selected Dates of Queerness I thought were important. My husband helped identify some key items I should include, like specific landmark court cases, and provided great insight into past events. His knowledge of queer history was (and remains) invaluable to me and any egregious errors that may be present in the copy I wrote describing such events are mine alone.

In the front of the three panel display, I had three sheets, each highlighting something of significance. Each had props, too!

LIKE SPORTS talks about queers in sports and the good news of more players coming out. Props were originally a basket full of miniature sports balls of all sorts, but people kept thinking they were to take, so I settled on a football taped to the table.

LIKE OUR TROOPS talks about queers in the military and the vileness of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Props were originally four toy jets circling the page, but people kept thinking they were to take, so I settled on one plane taped to the table.

LIKE SMARTPHONES talks about the absolutely horrible post-war treatment of the incomparable — and queer — Alan Turing, who, as father of computer science, laid the foundation for all computer technology. The prop was a toy smart phone, just the one, but still people kept thinking it was for taking, so it got taped down as well.

As far as creation goes, I originally intended to cut up the pages from Out in the Mountains, and tape them in an aesthetically appealing arrangement. But I was loathe to lose the year indication and other information inherent in the pages when kept as a whole. Cutting up the pages was also a more permanent move that I was hesitant to begin. The overlapping pages was an alternative that in hindsight I think ended up being the right decision.

I got important dates from Gary and a host of other sources, then wrote my own copy of such events in my own words. I tried to format such information in a way that was both logical and eye-catching, adding a few images here and there that seemed to fit.

The props — and indeed the stand-out pages — were an eleventh hour thing. Gary and I went to the Dollar Tree store (“Everything a dollar”!) so I could get the 3-panel display, markers and tape for the display. I wandered around the store and saw party favors, like the jets, and that got my mind thinking of doing some one-pagers. I found the balls as well as the phone, there. Or rather Gary found the phone.

I originally hoped to find a toy laptop, but failed to do so. Gary said why not use a cell phone, and it turned out that even makes more sense, as now we live in an age where phones are actually computers. How fitting for it to be used for a prop on a sheet on Alan Turing.

The point of all this creative talk is the consideration that creation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sure, I had an idea, but the idea then got shaped and reshaped by the materials I gathered, which sparked other ideas and so on.

This is extremely important, I think, as sometimes potential writers will sabotage their creativity by saying something like I try to write, but I can’t think of anything to say. But such comments put things in the wrong order. Only the truly gifted start out with a specific — and presumably wonderful — something to write. I believe that most of us start out with a more vague notion of that something and write to clarify what that something is.

And we hope that it ends up being wonderful. Or at least readable.

Our Queer Language

Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

Speak my language

This post is about the difficulty of defining sexual orientation.

But it is also about the struggle to create a decent (that is, successful) resume for a tough economy. Indeed, it is even more broadly about the challenge of adequately presenting identity at all.

The word “queer” seems to be in fashion in Vermont. I see it used by RUI2, Outright Vermont, and many of the people I have encountered, especially youth. Of late I’ve taken to using the word myself, identifying as “queer” rather than “gay”.

The word “queer” of course has a mixed history, being both a pejorative as well as, perhaps ironically, a word of pride. Sometimes its status as either appears to ebb and wane through the decades; at other times it appears to possess both characteristics simultaneously.

In effect, it is a queer word itself.

Yet it also seems to be the best word we currently have.

The LGBT community has a serious letter problem. Or I should say the LGBTQ, or maybe LGBTQAA, or is it LGBTQAAI or LGBTQ*? Indeed, those of us middle-aged remember it as GLBT, the L and G getting switched somewhere along the way.

The addition of each letter is supposed to make it more inclusive, but in a way it defeats itself, especially if we are not careful in our thinking. It reminds me of the debate about adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States, where it comprises the first ten amendments.

We have inalienable rights. The ninth amendment itself is very clear on just how broadly this should be interpreted:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Yet we tend to gloss over its stunningly bold and arguably sweeping statement of the individual and focus instead on the comparatively weak checklist quality of the other nine. Focus to the point that we give those other nine entries in the Bill of Rights some kind of comprehensive status rather than viewing them more accurately as emphatic.

Likewise with LGBT (or GLBT). Its original intent may have been to be more like the ninth amendment in its scope. However, Each letter represents a category that, like the Bill of Rights (with the exception of the ninth), inevitably leaves something out; leaves someone out. So the “solution” has been to add more letters.

But each of those letters becomes yet another unintentionally narrow category – another checklist box – that may or may not quite accurately fit the person. In many ways I am such a person, though I’ve commonly used “gay” as the best fit.

I have had sex with women. Two, actually, which is still plural, but is less than the number of such encounters I have had with men. Still, less or not, that sexual history is part of me. It is also a part of me that I could “get it up” for a woman.

Yet, I do not consider myself bisexual according to my understanding of the word. For the “getting it up” I mentioned has less to do with attraction, arousal, or desire, and more to do with the mechanics of body, blood flow to penis, and the manly urge to ejaculate.

Sure, there was some attraction, arousal, and desire present in the opposite sex encounters, but it was situation-driven rather than because of orientation.

“Gay” seemed to be a closer fit, encompassing my spontaneous thoughts of such things. With a woman I have to deliberately think about whether or not she is attractive, whereas with a man such notions arise automatically and instantaneously.

So I’ve usually described myself as gay.

But for whom is that term necessary? Defining myself as gay does nothing to facilitate my own understanding of self and it does not change my history in the least. I am still who I am, who I was, and who I will be.

Instead the definition is for the benefit of the world at large; an attempt at conveying who I am to others who are not me.

Yet, whatever word I use is going to be colored by the experiences of the reader, who necessarily can only understand it as a category; a category that will not – can never — have quite the same hue as my own understanding of it.

Such is the problem of language in general. It is adequately functional at best and highly dysfunctional at worst. If I say think of “chair”, we are both thinking of the same thing and yet not of the same thing. For your thought of “chair” brings to that particular neuronal firing all of your previous chair thoughts, constructing it accordingly.

Typically such disparity is close enough for government work.

If I asked you to sit in a chair, I likely wouldn’t find you sitting on the floor due to an intractable misunderstanding of the term. On a day-to-day, we can make corrections, too, that alleviate some of that discrepancy by being more precise: “Hand me a screwdriver… no, I meant the Phillips screwdriver.”

Neither my coloring nor yours changes the reality of chair or screwdriver. Likewise our back and forth refinement of such terms only affects our alignment of language to one another and not the underlying object itself being thus referenced.

Resumes present a similar issue. I have certain work experiences I wish to convey. Did I collaborate with team members or did I communicate with them? Did I coordinate that program or manage it? Did I write content or create it?

All of those action words are true, yet they fall short of the elusive whole truth. The unchanged reality of what I have done – the chair and screwdriver of my work history – gets put into a category that limits it, sometimes to detrimental effect:

The employer might assume you can’t do work A because the terms they associate with doing work A are not present in your resume. I’ve been trying – quite unsuccessfully so far – to tweak my resume with each new application in such a way that I can generate a favorable response; one that, in my eyes, more accurately reflects the breadth and depth of my capabilities.

A resume, at its core, is an expression of identity; a work identity. A sexual orientation is another one. And of course there are innumerable others, all of which get continually tweaked during communication as we attempt to convey who we are in the best, most clearly understood, way possible.

Queer is much broader and inclusive than the paint-by-letters of LGBTQA-Z. For me, it encompasses the entire spectrum of gender attraction, identity, and expression. For I cannot think of anything more wonderfully strange and beautifully odd than the underlying diversity that is inherently present by us each being unique.

Of course, that might instill the comment that “straight” people should fall into that category as well, indeed making everyone queer.

Well, yeah, in a perfect world I think they should and think they would. For in a perfect world, everyone recognizes everyone else as being sovereign of their own selves; recognizes and respects that sovereignty.

For now, though, the world is queerly imperfect.

So when I write “queer” protagonists I am writing characters “outside the norm”; however, for them queer is the norm, as it is for me. We’re just waiting for the world to catch up.

What Do You Meana Sestina?

I had a wonderful conversation at La Brioche with Rick Winston yesterday about art, movies and the Sestina, which is his first choice for writing poetry. I also groused about my current underemployment, where I am neither earning enough to live on nor using my skills. Here I don’t mean my poetic skills, although that would be really cool if it ever came to pass that I actually earned money with them, but I mean my more job marketable skills like Microsoft Office proficiency, records and information management, and administrative capacities.

He suggested that in the meantime I could write a poem about stocking shelves at the grocery store. So I went home and did so, using his preferred poetic form. What I thought I would do is share what I wrote, and then follow it with some notes on its formation and where I will go with revising from there.

—————————————————

Grocery Store Lament
JD Fox

My features blank, I am nothing
as I open boxes all day to stock
the shelves. There is so little time
to spend outside of it trying to create
a decent piece of art, a memorable work;
the great American novel or perfect story.

It all makes for a sad story.
Sure I started out from nothing
making life seem like a divine work
but as I take middle-age stock
of my life, I think, what did he create
and why the hell did he spend the time?

Surely no god would waste their time
on such a run of the mill, same old story.
After all, he’d have the means to create
something brilliant from that nothing.
But at the end of the day I just stock
grocery items for the masses; mindless work

that makes it very difficult to work
up the desire to continue my time
here on Earth. I think if I were a stock
I would have crashed long ago, my story
done, the selling price reduced to nothing
with no shareholder value left to create.

Am I doomed to watch others create
while I’m forever stuck performing work
that at the end of life amounts to nothing
but a squandering of this limited time
to give a happy ending to my story?
Am I blood from a turnip: vegetable stock

for the soup of someone else? My stock
in trade compels me to create
as if I might write a breakout story
that would allow me the luxury to work
on my art in something resembling full time
before my American Dream reduces to nothing.

But if this nothing is the lock, stock
and barrel of my time, I hope others create
this epigraph of my work: end of story

————————

The sestina can be an intimidating form. End words of the stanzas are repeated in a specific pattern that at first glance may seem incomprehensible. Even second glance. Hell, even after third glance and reading the Wikipedia entry on it, with its tables and algorithmic charts outlining the intentionally complex form, I’m not sure I truly grasp the mathematics behind its design. But that’s okay, as like electricity, one doesn’t need to fully understand it in order to use it.

I planned on using a table to keep track of my end words, but then I found this helpful Writer’s Digest article on the Sestina. The author, Robert Lee Brewer, mapped out the structure by line numbers, identifying the end words he used and providing a convenient skeleton of the form.

I first picked my six words, ones that seemed to go together thematically for me: stone, stock, time, create, work, and writing. My original first line was I’m a blank state, I am stone, with the thought that I would use later Am I fated to be crumbling stone or maybe Am I slated to be crumbing stone to have a dual meaning of slate. I toyed around with this, even writing a first couple of lines, but decided stone wouldn’t work (nor would writing), and changed them to nothing and story.

Here it should be said that since you will be repeating words, the most useful ones are those having multiple meanings and can be used as different parts of speech (noun, verb, etc). Doing so opens up more creative possibilities and minimizes the chance that you will write yourself into a corner where the line becomes forced by the demands of the form rather than supported by it.

And yeah, admittedly, nothing and story may not seem like much better choices than my original words, having limited definitions and parts of speech themselves. You can use story as a verb, but it is not common. However, the new words felt right, which is sometimes the best gauge for such things, so I went with them.

I Copy/Pasted the poem skeleton into word. Then I used Find/Replace to put my six chosen words into that skeleton. This allowed me the freedom to construct line by line, knowing readily what end word I needed without having to leave the poem to refer to a table. I wrote each line next to its guide:

Line 1-nothing (A) My features blank, I am nothing
Line 2-stock (B) as I open boxes all day to stock
etc.

Then when I finished, I simply deleted the guides, which might be akin to erasing initial sketch lines in a drawing. And voila: sestina!

During revision I will likely change the title to Grocery Clerk Lament, making the title more specific and accurate. I dislike that in this first draft I have both reduced to nothing and reduces to nothing, the repetition here seeming lackluster. Maybe for the first instance I should change it to something like fallen to nothing, or closing at nothing, which seem to go more with stock prices anyway.

Or I could instead change the second instance to crumbles to nothing, or maybe rewrite the line so I can use the verb form crumbling. Both crumbles and crumbling seem to go with American Dream, so either one should work.

I will definitely go through and tighten the lines, though I have read different thoughts on the rules for the form regarding this.

One guide has said the initial line in each stanza should be seven syllables and the other lines ten syllables. Even more specifically, the ten syllables should ideally be in Iambic Pentameter. For those who don’t know, Iambic Pentameter is just a highbrow way of saying each line of ten syllables should sound like da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM.

I’m not much of a counter and probably won’t be that anal. I’ll go with the school of thought that contemporary sestinas do not have to strictly adhere to that specificity of meter and syllable. But nevertheless, there can be a fine line between intentionally not adhering and just being lazy.

Is the line off meter because it really is the best way the line can be written? That is, to write it any other way would do a disservice to the poem.

For such determination, counting and meter manipulation can be extremely useful even if they do not result in a line meeting such specification. Such focus often reveals weak phrasing in the initially composed line. But one can also achieve that end sans counting just by playing around with the line, reading it aloud, and so on, which is more my tendency.

A tendency I would love to indulge more. So if there are any patrons of the arts out there reading this, please consider making a karmic donation to me.

Christmas Day – A Short Story

[Excerpted from a novel-in-progress]

Atari 2600 Video Game Systems were the hot item of Christmas 1977, as everyone in Randy’s third grade class would affirm under oath. But they were way too expensive and a waste of money and no one in the Copperstone household other than Randy seemed to care or appreciate the severe gravity of the situation that everyone, absolutely friggin’ everyone, in his entire school was going to get one and that Randy would be left out and be a total complete loser if he didn’t return to school in the New Year having gotten one.

“Maybe next year, when the prices come down,” his dad said philosophically, being all Father Knows Best during one of Randy’s numerous attempts to reason with him. “And you can stop making that gasping noise, as, believe it or not, you are not going to die if you don’t get one. Now go finish bringing the rest of the groceries in.”

His mom was no better.

“Oh, quit exaggerating. I doubt everyone in your school is going to get a Safari for Christmas.”

“A-TA-RI.”

“Atari, then. Whatever. I’m frankly sick to death of hearing about it. Now get up off the floor like a big boy and go set the table.”

So cold-heartedly deaf were the ears of the wardens of Copperstone Prison that Randy eventually stopped bringing it up, though it would be a lie to say he’d forgotten all about it. Nevertheless, by the time dawn broke and paper shrapnel littered the living room, he had resigned himself to returning to Mr. Fenway’s class disappointed and empty-handed.

Well, maybe not quite empty-handed, as he did get some nifty other gifts like the little trash can of something called Slime, which was exactly – and wonderfully – what it claimed to be. The green stuff oozed through his fingers in the way that, well, slime tends to do, feeling so utterly gross he just had to share it with as many of his classmates as possible.

“You know you can’t take that to school, don’t you?” Mrs. Copperstone reminded Randy as his eyes got a certain gleam in them.

“I know, I know,” he said, even though he also knew from the moment he opened the can that that was exactly what he’d do. It was slime, for crying out loud. He had a kid duty to share it.

All in all it would have still been a decent enough Christmas, especially since Andy – provided Andy’s mom didn’t inexplicably change her mind as she sometimes did – would be spending the night.

But, out of the post-present-unwrapping, barely-past-dawn blue…

“I think you still have one more present left,” Mrs. Copperstone said, causing Randy’s heart to skip a beat. His mind leaped to the obvious and he just as quickly tried to squash that mind-leaping before his hopes could get too far up. His dad smiled. His mom smiled. Everyone full of smiles around a tree obviously now barren of unwrapped gifts.

Randy peered into the void that currently underwhelmed the tree as if he expected some new thing to fall down from the pine branches. He walked slowly around its base, his hand stretched out like searching for a secret door or portal or something.

“Though as I recall, I don’t think Santa put it under the tree,” his dad said.

“You know, now that I think about, I think you’re right. But I can’t quite remember where he put it, though…” His mom paused as did Randy, every fiber of his body listening to her in a way he usually didn’t. She put her hand up to her chin as if she were giving the matter serious thought. Abruptly she pulled her hand away and shrugged. “Oh, well, I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. It’ll turn up.”

Randy swallowed, his heart doing that weird skipping thing again. He started tearing through the house, wildly opening hall closets, kitchen cabinets, and drawers so small that they couldn’t possibly hold anything of interest but needed checked anyway. Similarly with the crowded medicine cabinet in the bathroom.

Under the bathroom sink turned up nothing as well as did behind the living room curtains. He turned up the couch cushions but the only things he discovered there besides general lived-in grime was a couple of stray quarters, a petrified Cheetos, and a cap to a pen long gone.

Randy pocketed the quarters but that was hardly worth a one more present left.

After he had searched almost the entire house and seized nothing of Christmas interest, he stood in the middle of the now disheveled living room glaring at the barren tree as if it were holding out.

Think, think, think he commanded himself.

And he thought, thought, thought.

There was his parents’ room, of course, that he hadn’t searched. But he wasn’t allowed in there. The only other room left in the house was his room, where, despite the clutter, he knew every inch of space and would certainly know if a present were lurking about.

Randy tapped his fingers against his side. Then he stopped tapping as he realized his room technically wasn’t the only room left after all.

Of course, he thought, smiling as he tore back into the kitchen and out the side door to the attached garage. Again with the rummaging through crap, more crap, and yet more crap and still coming up with squat for all his efforts. At length, he huffed back into the house proper, feeling agitated, tired, and his adrenaline spent.

The present remained hidden; remained out of sight.

Out of sight? He scrunched his face up.

Outside…?

Around here somewhere wouldn’t have to mean inside the house.

“Whoa, whoa. Where are you going, now?” Mr. Fargo asked.

“Outsidetochecktheyard,” Randy said in a blast of run-on words and already standing with the front door open.

“In your pajamas?”

“Oh,” Randy said, newly conscious of being covered in little toy boats and anchors that were fine for sleepwear but hardly fit for the public square. “Oh, yeah.”

He headed towards his room to change when his mom called out to him.

“While you’re in there, could you check and see if there’s a stray sock lying around someplace? One came up missing when I did the wash.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Randy said, letting the words flow behind him. Socks. Of all the stupid…

“Of course I don’t know how he can find anything in that pigsty,” he half-heard his mom as she continued to speak, thinking here we go again and starting to tune her out. “I mean, just the other day I was cleaning under his bed, and-“

Randy didn’t hear what she said after the and as under his bed dimly registered. Then not so dimly. He flew to his bedroom on wings of new found adrenaline and dove under the bed.

There it was in plain sight, not even wrapped, the holy grail of Christmas: an Atari 2600 Video Game System.

Despite the prolonged effort of searching that could render many an event anticlimactic, Randy still nearly wet his pants at seeing the gift as an actuality. He was sure Andy nearly did, too, as he excitedly told him – gushed — over the phone about getting the present from the coolest parents ever.

“So when can I come over?” Andy said, his voice vibrating like he was bouncing up and down on the other end of the line, which he most likely was. “When can I? Huh? Huh? When can I?”

“As soon as you quit jabbering on the phone,” Randy said, “We’ll come get you.”

All of Randy’s words may not have been heard as the other line had already hung up.

Buying Life

What matters most is
how well you
walk through the
fire.

The Dallas Buyers Club features an unlikable protagonist.

He is a misogynistic, homophobic, drug-using, straight piece of white trash who is kind of proud of being those things. But there is something about him that makes him likable. And to me it’s not because he eventually has a (slight) human revolution that softens his views of others, although that helps and is part of the based-on-true-life story.

Instead, it is his uncompromising view of — and confidence in — himself that makes me nod in affirmation and admiration, much in the same way I do when I read and reread the late great poet and professional drunk Charles Bukowski.

The general story:

Ron Woodruff (played exceptionally well by Matthew McConaughey) learns he has AIDS, a disease which he had previously thought only affected homos: a “faggot disease“. How would he have thought otherwise, considering the apathetic response of the nation?

At the time the movie takes place, during the reign of Reagan where that misnamed great communicator’s greater silence permitted many to die and many more to get infected, accurate information was not widely disseminated.

The only treatment for AIDS in the US was high doses of former cancer drug AZT, originally shelved because it didn’t work on cancer and had high toxicity. Human trials started being rolled out, and you may or may not have gotten access to even this drug that may or may not work.

There were other things being tried in other countries, vitamins and other supplements as well as different medicines, but they were not FDA approved. They were also difficult to obtain and some of them were even illegal to buy/sell in the states.

But not to possess.

So Ron traveled abroad. He bought them, used them and discovered they sometimes worked. They sometimes didn’t. And they sometimes caused problems. But sometimes they worked. And compared to the known-to-be-toxic AZT, the working / not working ratio proved worth the risk.

A risk he rightly wagered others would likewise be willing to take.

Ron didn’t sell such non-FDA-approved formularies, which would have been illegal. Instead, he sold memberships to the Dallas Buyers Club, which entitled members to have access to the vitamins/medicines/supplements for free. See the clever distinction?

Not everyone agreed with such technical splicing of legality, and much of the movie revolves around that disagreement.

But far more interesting than the basic plot is Ron’s determination to always be the author of his own life. It reminds us that ultimately we are the only ones with a truly vested interest in ourselves. For:

The pharmaceutical company had a capitalist orgasm over bringing AZT back on the market. Exorbitant pricing and rising stock prices made rich people richer. It was a happy, profitable time for the drug manufacturer and its stockholders as they reaped obscene benefits from this latest exploitation of another person’s tragedy.

Doctors might care, then and now, but the nature of research necessarily tempers such caring. In a trial, a certain population gets a placebo. That’s the only way to be sure of efficacy. Like it or not, the most efficient way of determining if something works is for the control group that doesn’t get that something to, well, die.

Death is a good measurement for such things.

Oh, sure, there is surely at least some minimal altruism there that would keep the above two goals — profit and research — from being the only driving forces for the people swept into those two broad categories. I’m not trying to diminish that important aspect of human nature and I certainly wouldn’t be one to go all Ayn Rand.

But there is never just one goal involved. We are far too complex, far too evolved, for it to be otherwise. We all have multiple goals, and more importantly, cross-purposes. Our hundreds of daily interactions and tasks both major and minor reflect that. It is fine for others to champion us, and it is certainly welcome when they do; however, we ultimately should be – and we actually have to be if we are going to survive and thrive — our own, most vocal cheerleader.

When adversity comes your way, do you glance left, right, and maybe upwards praying for a rescue that is always outside your realm of control? Or do you cast your eyes forward and take another bold step, letting the coals burn your feet as they may beneath your smiling face?

Council Catastrophe

Okay, so I blew it.

I’m trying to get involved in local government. So I applied to be an alternate for the Development Review Board and towards that end attended last night’s council meeting so council members could meet me in person along with the other applicants.

It had already been a long day. I finished my “day job” of checking 17 academic papers, did laundry, and cooked dinner. I showered, shaved, and put on my nicest set of clothes that really aren’t that nice anymore but so it goes.

I sweltered inside the council chambers, feeling overdressed in my jacket but unsure if I wanted to remove it since I was sweating enough to be designated a floodplain.

A couple of agenda items were completed and then the council members had each (there were only three) of us stand up and say a little about ourselves. Then they left the room for an “executive session” and came back five minutes later to announce their pick of the two that were needed.

I of course wasn’t one of the two. If it were otherwise, I might have started this post with “I did it”. But as it stands, “I blew it” pretty much sums it up.

Now, granted, the other two had more government experience than me. However, I think what really hurt me is that I did not present myself very well. I mean the kind of not very well where I wouldn’t have picked me either, as painful as that is to admit.

Not being used to a microphone, I started off not talking into it. And when I finally did talk into it, I talked way too fast, rambled, and didn’t make eye contact. Part of it was nervousness and overcompensating for my natural introverted tendency. Also, my eyes tend to go all elsewhere when I’m gathering my thoughts, which I was trying to do for all the good it did me.

I was a right train wreck that went on for a brief, yet agonizingly long piece of time. After the derailment, Council Member Alan Weiss asked me what I thought the purpose of the Development Review Board was.

Here’s where the ability to gather one’s thoughts would have come in particularly handy. And they did gather, but unfortunately they clumped together like wet leaves in a compost heap. When I spoke, words sputtered out of my mouth with the grace of a cat coughing up a hairball.

I knew the point I wanted to make but… well, so it goes.

I was more than a little crushed. Not just because of not getting selected, but because I know I am better than how I presented myself; that I have a lot more to offer than what my village idiot performance revealed.

I did stay for the entire council meeting and found it wholly interesting despite my intermittent self-loathing interruptions of internal dialogue: stupid, worthless, failure, and the quintessential, all-encompassing never succeed at anything.

I worked hard at conquering those internal demons so I could gain from the meeting and not lose the forest for all my rotted trees.

I enjoyed hearing about the affairs of the city and noted the issues each member brought forth. Mr. Guerlain discussed concerns of his constituents about actual crimes versus what gets reported in the police log in The Times Argus. Mrs. Walsh fielded questions about a proposal to use Solar Panels to provide Montpelier with electricity.

There were many other issues that were discussed, including parking on State street, arts funding, and a proposal under consideration by the Development Review Board to build a new housing complex on a lot in a historic district, which would first require approval for demolishing the existing condemned property.

What I found most interesting, though, was Mr. Weiss, who had asked me the question during my botched presentation attempt. He in fact asked pointed questions throughout the meeting; the kind of questions that reminded me of my scholar husband.

Not in substance, as his concerns were different, but in the phrasing.

For example, one such concern of his started with “In Section 5.5. it says…”  where he went on to point out the possible implications of that ambiguous wording and questioning what exactly it would mean in real world application if they took up the proposal it referenced.

My husband’s well-informed opinions are always grounded in thorough reading and research done well before uttering first words on the matter under discussion. You’re unlikely to slip anything by him. He will tear any loose wording and faulty arguments apart. I reckon it’s the same with Mr. Weiss.

It’s the next day and I’m trying to think of how to go forward after embarrassing myself so completely. My mind is still reeling with the lingering yet ever useless “should have’s” that have been resonating since last night.

But the bottom line is “I didn’t” and I do still want to get involved.

So I need to get over my self-pitying self and move forward. I’m not sure what the best way is to do so, but I at least know the right question to ask, as it’s the only question that really ever matters:

What now?

Mountain Climbing

Okay, so it wasn’t a mountain. It was more of a hill.

And I didn’t climb, I walked. Though I reckon the two verbs merge as angle of degree increases. Still, I would be hesitant to ascribe the perhaps exaggerated exertion of climbing to the route I took to the Hubbard Park Tower which was 90% paved road.

But the pavement part leading to the relatively level trail-inside-the-park had an ungodly elevation to it that suited the street names of Hillside and Cliff. Even the final street before the Tower Loop, Corse, sounds enough like curse and course to make it seem readily a part of such spot-on naming.

The frequent changes in inclination here are surely a wonder to behold, but they can also be a challenge to making pedestrian plans. A short and sweet route on Google Maps often gets a reality check that reveals itself to be longer and not near as pie-easy as originally anticipated.

But I kept faith in my chosen path, put one foot in front of the other, and made it to the tower. I climbed — stairs inside, so it is climbing — to the top and took a picture of the new view I had:

IMG_20130830_165518

Kind of a crappy picture, I know.

I did it with my phone and my face reflected back at me, so I couldn’t be sure what kind of view I actually had through its lens. Also, in retrospect, I should have used landscape view. Nevertheless, it gives perspective that a ground-view doesn’t offer and I like the isolated  house or two up in the hills that it captured.

However, the most important thing is that the path I walked took me where I wanted to go. The map may have obfuscated the difficulty involved, but it did not lie. I just had to follow it the best I could and, based on my previous knowledge of maps, I had certainty that my goal would be achieved.

I wish I had that kind of confidence in my other exertions.

I find myself suffused with doubt about my ability to do anything that truly matters. The kind of doubt that looks up a staircase of meaningless infinity and is overwhelmed from taking the steps needed to get anywhere. Indeed, the kind of crippling existential doubt that not only questions the chosen where, but wonders if there is a mattering where to be found.

So much so, I’ve let myself mentally and philosophically languish.

I’ve been in a kind of thought coma that I’ve been having difficulty waking up from. I know I should have deep thoughts, want to have deep thoughts, deserve to have deep thoughts… but one of the problems with deep thoughts is that any single one of them is only arrived at after a journey much more involved and difficult than a jaunt to the tower.

The other problem is the obvious one: the deeper the thought, the less clear what the best route is, or whether the route being taken is a good one at all.

It is like climbing a mountain where your footing not only is uncertain at best, but there is a nagging feeling that upon reaching the summit, if one is even reached, you will cast a gaze in the distance and realize you should have been climbing that one way over there.

I’ve been trying to squelch such depressing and disempowering thoughts, since the alternative is staying way down here where nothing grows and the way over there would still be way over there; we just wouldn’t know it.

On Amazon today, I looked inside the kindle edition of the most recent book by the septuagenarian philosopher Daniel C  Dennett. At the start of chapter one he has a quote by Bo Dahlbom that made me feel considerable — and deserved — guilt at letting my tools rust and my blades dull.

You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands and you
can’t do much thinking with your bare brain.

Philosophical mountains call to me and I think my backpack’s been on the floor for far too long.