Neil and the Soul of an Artist

(About a 5 minute read)

Neil was raised in a tiny settlement in the San Luis Valley by artists.  The San Luis — over a mile above sea level, and the largest alpine valley in the world — is Colorado’s poorest region.

Because it’s so poor, the cost of living is moderate, and maybe it’s the cost of living that attracts the artists.  More than 500 working artists make their homes in the Valley.

Yet, because artists are quirky people, it might be more than the cost of living that attracts so many of them to the San Luis.  It could be the miles of open space, for instance.  Or the huge elk herd, the bald eagles and the sandhill cranes.  Or perhaps even the stars — for at night, the sky above the San Luis explodes with the music of light.

Neil’s parents were not religious people but they sent their son to church each Sunday.  When he was 13 or 14, he rebelled.  He told his parents he hated church, didn’t believe a word of anything he heard there, and was a confirmed agnostic.  “Good”, said his mother and father, “You’ve learned everything a church can teach you about life: Nothing.  We could have told you that ourselves about churches, but we wanted you to figure it out.  You can stop going now.”

When Neil turned old enough for high school, his parents decided he needed a better school than the one in the settlement.  So they packed Neil off to live with his grandmother in Colorado Springs and to attend Palmer High.  There, in his first art class, he met Sarah and Beth.  The three shared an intense interest in art and quickly became best friends.

It was Sarah who introduced me to Neil.  Sarah was regular at the Coffee Shop, and the two of us now and then shared each other’s company.  At 16, she was poised, sophisticated, and self-confident.  She liked to flirt with older men, even though she knew, as she put it, that she “couldn’t let it go anywhere”, and she once told me how much I disappointed her because I wouldn’t flirt.  I felt like a killjoy, and wrote a poem about her to make amends.

Sarah, Beth, and Neil spent hours together each day.  They seemed more mature than many kids their age.  For one thing, both Neil and Sarah held themselves much like adults, and all three of them would look you right in the eye when listening or speaking to you.  For another thing, there were seldom conflicts between them, and the three friends were remarkably free from adolescent dramas.

Back in those days, I heard enough adolescent dramas to fill a social calendar.  I had somehow stumbled into the role of confident for many of the kids who hung out at the Coffee Shop.  Sometimes, up to a half-dozen kids a day would confess their woes to me — pretty much one kid after the other.  Yet, I understood their need to talk and never rejected them.

Most of their stories were about sex and relationships, and some of the stories were painful to hear, because there were kids who kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  Yet, even the kids who didn’t repeat their mistakes — kids like Sarah, for instance — still seemed determined to make an allotted number of foolish mistakes, for how else do people learn?  I quickly discovered the role of confident was often more depressing than rewarding.

Through-out high school, Sarah, Beth and Neil remained as best friends, but when it was time for college, they parted ways.  Each went to a different university, and while Sarah and Beth stayed in contact with each other, Neil dropped out of the group.

I recall Neil was 22 and back from college when I ran across him one evening at the Coffee Shop.  We chatted for a while and I suggested we go to a restaurant for something to eat.

We ordered beer with our food, and were soon rambling along from one topic to the next.  A few beers into the evening, Neil decided to tell me how he lost his virginity.  “Was it Sarah?”, I asked.  I knew she’d been sexually active from the age of 16, and given their close friendship, it seemed logical to suspect her of having been his first partner.

“Not at all”, Neil said, “I wasn’t ready for sex back then, and I knew it.”

“I’m curious how you knew that about yourself.”

“I don’t make really important decisions up here”, he said, pointing to his forehead, “Instead, I go with what my soul tells me.”  He looked at me quizzically.  “Do you believe we have a soul, Paul?”

I didn’t want to sidetrack us into metaphysics, so I said, “I believe I can understand what you’re getting at.  Do you mean something like your sense of yourself…of who you are…of what’s right for you?”

“Yes!  That’s close!  I knew I wasn’t ready for sex because the opportunities never felt right to me.  None of them passed the soul test.  I didn’t want my first time to feel wrong in any way.”

“Was it ever hard waiting?”

“Sometimes.  Everyone else was having sex, and I wanted to have sex.  I was always horny.  It’s not like I wasn’t.”

“So what happened?” At that point, I wanted him to cut to the chase.

“Last year, I finally met the person I knew was right for me.  We met in a bar, but we weren’t drunk, and everything just clicked.  I knew she was the one.”

“Did you have sex that night?”

“No.  I called her on Thursday, a few days later, and we got together that Saturday.  I wasn’t in a hurry.  I knew it was going to happen.  I took her to dinner, and we went to her place afterwards.  That’s when I lost my virginity.  And I was right to wait. I was vindicated.  It was beautiful, Paul.  It felt perfect and it was beautiful.”

“Was it her first time too?”

“Oh no!  She was 26 last year — an older woman, and experienced.”

“Are you two still together?”

“No”, he said, “We never got together as a couple.  That wasn’t something she wanted or I wanted, and we understood that about each other from the start.  We’re friends now, but we’ve only had sex that one time.”

“I’m very proud,” he went on, “that I waited until everything felt right…until I knew it was right.”

“Not many people do that, Neil.”, I remarked, “Did your parents raise you to consult your soul?”  I had a strong suspicion at this point that Neil’s parents, both artists, raised him to pay careful attention to his “soul”.  It seemed like something artists would do naturally — perhaps even do necessarily.

“Very much so.”, Neil said, and he went on about that for a while.  But I wasn’t really following him at that point.

I’d begun to feel the beer and my mind was wandering back to the days when Neil was in high school and I was something of the neighborhood confident for a third of the kids at the Coffee Shop.  Neil had made the decision that was right for him and come out shining.  All in all, his story was one of the best I’d heard then or now, and I felt grateful to him for sharing it with me.


This post was originally published July 7, 2008, and was last updated April 23, 2017 for clarity.

Late Night Thoughts: Plumbing, Girl’s Diaries, Old Age, Real Men, and More

(About a 8 minute read)

Yesterday began bright and sunny.  Then in the afternoon, it began clouding over.  When the air chilled, the squirrels absented themselves, perhaps sensing the coming storm.

Eventually, the wind rose and the grass rippled.  Pink blossoms of the redbud tree swayed against the greying sky.  A few drops twitched old leaves.  Then, for a half hour or forty-five minutes, no more drops fell.

Finally, the rain came in earnest.

It’s still raining now in the wee hours of the morning, a moderate rain.

◊◊◊

Mikolas was from Czechoslovakia, back in the day when it was under Soviet control.  He had managed to escape to West Germany, and then immigrate to the United States.

Some years after he came to America, his toilet clogged up around two in the morning.  Mikolas opened his phone book, and found a plumber who advertised 24 hour emergency service.  The plumber dutifully came out and unstopped Mikolas’ toilet with nothing more than a common plunger.

To Mikolas’ amazement, he received by the end of the month a bill for $50, which would be about $225 in today’s money.  Mikolas was struck by the genius of the man.

Consequently, Mikolas bought a plunger, and began advertising himself as an emergency 24 hour service.  Perhaps a half dozen times a month he would be woken up by a phone call.  “This is Mikolas.  How may I help you?”  If the problem was anything other than a stopped up toilet, he would say, “All of our crews are out on calls at the moment.  It will be a few hours wait.”  No one would want to wait.

But if the problem was a stopped up toilet, Mikolas would earn $50 that night.

◊◊◊

Some years ago, as I recall, a team of social psychologists undertook to study teenage girl’s diaries from the 1950s and 1990s.

They found many similarities, but also that the ’50s diaries significantly mentioned the girl’s concerns with self-improvement.  The girls were writing quite a bit about getting better grades, cultivating virtues, such as kindness, and developing their skills, such as sewing.

The ’90s diaries had a different focus.  Diets, body-image anxieties, cosmetics, fashions, and what the boys thought of them.

◊◊◊

It is arguable that advertising has a greater impact on culture these days than does literature.

◊◊◊

Slower thinking in old age?  Perhaps not!

A few years ago, a computer simulation of old and young brains by scientists at Tübingen University in Germany suggested that older people might be processing information as fast as younger people — but just more of it.  That is, as you age, you have more information to sort through before you can respond to something, which gives the appearance of thinking slower.

The study was conducted in 2014.  I have just now finally digested it.

◊◊◊

Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself you have built against it.  — Rumi

◊◊◊

“Failures” aren’t failures if you learn from them.  They’re progress.

It seems to me there is little or no progress in politics these days.

◊◊◊

My second wife was, on her mother’s side, a direct descendant of a samurai — or more properly, in her case, a bushi — family that had been hatamoto to the Tokugawa shogunate.  To call her family “samurai”, she told me, would be a demotion in Japanese terms.  They were bushi, warriors.

Her family of warriors had at one time owned most of the land that is now southern Tokyo, and they were still quite traditional in some ways, despite that her mother had married an American.

My ex-wife’s grandmother thought that her granddaughter should be raised as a traditionally as possible, and taught her many of the ancient attitudes, skills, and customs, such as what it meant to be bushi, and how to wield the ko-naginata, or women’s pole sword.  Since her grandmother was Tomoko’s primary caregiver growing up, Tomoko spoke no more than two dozen words of English until she was 16 and immigrated with her mother and father to the United States.

Tomoko — whose name was spelled uncommonly to reference the “To” in Tokugawa —  in many ways retained her grandmother’s teachings into adulthood.  Nothing made that clearer to me than the day I wrote my first poem to her.

Until then, I had written exceedingly few poems in my life, and I had kept none of them, so Tomoko had quietly concluded that I simply lacked any inclination or ability to compose poetry.  Then, about 12 years after we’d met, and two years into our marriage, I found my poetic voice.  Or at least, one of my voices, and I wrote a poem to her.

At the time, I was in the habit of buying her flowers on Fridays and having them delivered to her work, because she worked weekends.  So that Friday at the florists, I attached the poem to the flowers.  Then I returned to my business, and worked late until perhaps ten or eleven o’clock.  When I got home, I was shocked to find Tomoko had been crying.

It was quite unusual for her to cry, and perhaps you can imagine some of the thoughts that immediately ran through my mind when she said she was crying because of the poem!  “My god, was it that bad!”, I said, trying to cheer her up.  However, she didn’t laugh, but began explaining to me something that in it’s own way shocked me even more than her tears.

I’ve forgotten exactly how she said it, but the gist was that she now regarded me as a “true male”, a real man.  That puzzled me, of course, because I was not in the habit of doubting my masculinity, and I had assumed she wasn’t either.  But when I got to questioning her, the truth came out.

In her mind, she had never doubted that I was most of the things she expected in a man of her own class, but since I had never shown any inclination or ability to write poetry, she had assumed I was lacking in the one thing left that was necessary to make me a “true male”.   A profound sensitivity to what it means to be alive.

For Tomoko, any old male could be, say, brave, because any old male could be dull enough to not feel the intensity of life.  How could you call such bravery “true bravery” when all it might amount to is giving up a life you don’t cherish enough anyway?  She had never doubted that I was brave enough in that way.  But in her view, it took a true male to be brave while yet acutely aware of being alive.  My poem had struck her as sensitive enough that I now qualified as capable of feeling life intensely.  That is, it wasn’t entirely the poem itself that had moved her, but the intensity of it.

All of this was such foreign thinking to me that my fascination with it almost overwhelmed my shock at realizing she had up until then thought of me as somewhat less than her ideal male.  I felt a little resentful that she hadn’t told me any of this before.  But that night proved to be the beginning of a change in our relationship.

Tomoko had experienced various forms of abuse during her childhood which had almost certainly left her with a nearly full blown borderline personality disorder.

She was brilliant, and would, say, do calculus problems in her head to stave off boredom during her idle moments, but she couldn’t control her volcanic rages.  There is no real cure for BPD, which involves permanent alterations to four areas of the brain, and back then, there was no effective medication nor therapy for it, either.

So her periodic rages never went away, but during the lulls between them now, Tomoko’s respect for me — which had, it turned out, been almost perfunctory by her Japanese standards — profoundly deepened, she displayed an openness to me that hadn’t been there before, and she even became, for the first time, wholly devoted to me.

I wrote a number of other poems to her after that first one, but none of them brought about any such unexpected revelations as that first.

Suzanne and the Nature of Abuse

(About a 7 minute read)

I’ve heard models described as vacuous airheads, but that doesn’t describe Suzanne unless someone can be both a vacuous airhead and an intelligent, creative, buoyant, and artistic woman.

I believe she was all of 14 years old when she first modeled lingerie for Victoria’s Secrets, the catalog and store company. She couldn’t have been much older because I met her when she was 16 and she was no longer modeling by then.

Over the years, Suzanne has revealed a persistent talent for getting fired from employments, so I strongly suspect she was no longer modeling by the time we met because Secrets had refused anything more to do with her. She’s not a vacuous airhead, but she is dysfunctional.

The story I’m prepared to tell you today concerns Suzanne, Victoria’s Secrets, and her abusive boyfriend. I’ve already introduced Suzanne and Victoria’s Secrets, so I’ll turn now to the boyfriend.

Meet Jeff*.

He’s one of those males who prey on women much younger than themselves. Jeff is 20 years older than Suzanne, and very few women his own age have ever sustained an interest in him. Jeff can be charming. He can be witty. He can be exciting. He can sweep a naive and inexperienced girl off her feet. Yet, most women see the looser in him. So Jeff has learned to specialize in the young, naive and inexperienced women he has some chance of getting.

Once he gets them, he doesn’t know what to do with them. He turns the affair into a drama, the drama into a tragedy, the tragedy into a nightmare. When you take some fish out of the water, their colors at first fascinate, then fade. Latter, the fish begin to stink. Any girl who lands Jeff sooner or later learns that in a relationship, he’s a fish out of water.

Young people almost invariably overestimate the odds in their favor of significantly changing someone, and especially they overestimate their odds of changing a lover. Maybe that’s because they are always being told by their parents, preachers, and teachers to change themselves, and so they assume it actually works when you tell people to change themselves.

In truth, the only person likely to change someone is the person themselves. And even then, seldom, if ever, is a person capable of a fundamental change: It’s not in the nature of water to become stone, nor of stone to become air.

In the few years Jeff and Suzanne were together, Suzanne wanted two things, both absurd. She wanted to change Jeff against his nature. And she wanted her own nature to bloom. The latter was absurd because Jeff had her under his thumb and was abusing her emotionally, psychologically, and physically. No one blooms under those conditions. At best, they merely endure.

If you yourself have seen a few abusive relationships, you know they are all alike, except for the details. The only detail of the relationship between Jeff and Suzanne that surprised me was that Jeff apparently never tried to keep Suzanne from seeing me.

I’m clueless why he didn’t. It’s a classic pattern of abuse that the abuser tries to prevent his victim from having any friends who are outside of his influence or control. But through much of the time she was with Jeff, Suzanne saw me almost daily. It’s true she seldom associated with me in Jeff’s presence, but we spent hours together while he was at work or off somewhere else. That sort of thing normally doesn’t happen in an abusive relationship.

Suzanne would look me up almost every day. We’d then go to a coffee shop, a movie, the mall, “The Well” — which was her favorite nudist resort — or we’d go hiking, or drive around Colorado for a few hours. Whatever amused us.

Once, we even went to Victoria’s Secrets. That was three or so years into Suzanne’s relationship with Jeff. That day, we’d gone to the mall.

When we were passing the Victoria’s Secrets store, Suzanne wanted to go in. The racks, of course, were full of lingerie, and Suzanne excitedly asked me to choose three sets for her to try on. She then took me back to a dressing room where she stripped and modeled the sets for me.

Christmas was a month off, so I asked her a lot of questions about each of the three sets, including which one felt the most comfortable — if I’m going to give lingerie to a woman, it damn well better be comfortable, especially at Victoria’s prices.

Looking at a young nude woman is at least as fascinating to me as watching a beautiful sunrise. Yet, I’m not usually more than moderately attracted to most young women’s sexuality. Their sexuality is more likely to depress me than to stimulate me, although I’m not quite sure why. At any rate, I certainly do not make a point of telling young women they aren’t all that sexy to me — I have my life to protect! So that day I told Suzanne, “This is a lot of fun for me — watching you model that sexy lingerie. If I’m having so much fun, think of how much fun it would be for Jeff! Why don’t you bring him out here?”

Suzanne didn’t answer immediately. When she did answer, her voice had gone strange. There was a tone in it I’d never heard before. In a way, it was a little girl’s voice. But perhaps it only sounded like a little girl’s voice because she was having difficulty controlling it. She said, “Jeff wouldn’t like it. If I did this with him, he’d call me a slut.”

We fell into silence. Then she began taking off the last set of lingerie in order to get back into her own clothes, but she was trembling.

When you abuse a woman, you prevent her from being true to herself. At it’s core, that’s what abuse really is — it’s unnecessarily preventing someone from being true to themselves.

Sometimes it comes out in ways that are large enough and important enough to easily describe. Like the woman whose husband prevents her from developing her musical genius so that the world looses a classical pianist. But much more often, abuse comes out in ways that are harder to see, such as when a woman trembles in a dressing room because her lover will not, or cannot, accept her sexuality whole and complete, just as it is, without condemning it.

Those harder to see ways are as criminal as the other. You don’t need to beat a woman to abuse her. You can just as well kill a person’s sense of themselves, their self-esteem, their self direction — by a thousand tiny cuts.

By the time I met Suzanne I was too old and had seen too much wickedness to harbor any fantasy that I could reason with her into leaving Jeff. I knew she was confused beyond reason, frightened into uncertainty, blinded by her feelings, and emotionally dependent on him. So, I did the only things I thought I could do, which were never that great nor enough.

For the most part, that amounted to just accepting her for herself.


*The Jeff in this story should not be confused with the Jeff in 50 Shades of Jeff: Profile of a Promiscuous Man.  The two “Jeffs” were very different people in almost every way imaginable, although they knew each other.

Note: This story was last updated on April 20, 2017 for clarity.

The Gifts of AL Remington

(About a 4 minute read)

It was difficult to beat Al. I think I only did it once. Or, maybe, I didn’t. Maybe I just came close. He was strongest in the endgame.

If you let him get that far — and it was hard not to — he had you beat.

Al said he learned chess when he was in the army, stationed in Greenland, with nothing else to do but his job and learn chess. By the time I met him, he was in his 60s, still enthusiastic about the game, and the man to beat at the Coffee Shop. He was a gentle man, reserved, modest, but exuding an air of dignity and confidence, much like a good father or grandfather. In his 60s, he drove a dark blue Cadillac on wet days and rode a Harley when the sun was out.

One day I discovered the Coffee Shop didn’t purchase the chess sets it had on hand. It was Al who did that. He would search garage sales for abandoned sets, buy them, and bring them to the Shop. He had to do that over and over again because people would loose pieces. But he didn’t mind. It was his hobby.

I think it must have been Al who got “everyone” — at least a third of the regular customers — playing chess. There were always two or three games going back then. Half the regular customers were kids and most of the kids were taught the game by Al. That is, someone else would usually teach them the basic moves — then Al would teach them the art.

Not just the art of chess, but other things too. He taught kids how to win graciously, how to loose without animosity, how to be fair (he’d spot the less skilled players a piece or two), and even how to keep a poker face. He never lost his temper, he was always encouraging, and he taught values. For instance: There wasn’t a kid at the Coffee Shop Al disdained to play, nor one he disrespected.

Several of the adults who hung out at the Shop were uncertain characters, but not Al. One man, Tim, was only there to proselytize the kids for Christ and had no other point in befriending them. Another man, Jeff, in his mid-thirties, was obsessed with getting laid by teens. A third man, who called himself Attila, dressed immaculately, neatly trimmed his white beard, and pretended to have wealth and connections. He would come every day to the Shop with his son, who he’d named Khan, and who was 15 and had lost his spirit. Attila would speak about Khan as if Khan wasn’t present and sitting right next to him: I’ve never in my life heard a more verbally abusive father. Unlike those characters, Al cared for the kids.

Al never told you he liked kids, but he did. He’d surely raised enough of them: Four biological children, two or three adopted children, and a number of foster children. I figure teaching them chess was Al’s way of raising up the Coffee Shop kids. He spoke to me several times of his belief that playing chess developed good, solid thinking skills. But he never quite said he considered himself on a mission to help the Coffee Shop kids. Saying something like that wasn’t Al’s style.

Al died at his home a couple years ago at age 72. I read his obituary to discover he was a minister. He hadn’t spoken of that; had never proselytized me; nor — so far as I know — had he proselytized any of the kids. I guess that wasn’t his style, either. Instead, he just served others.

Nowadays, I drop by the Coffee Shop once or twice a month. The kids Al and I knew have grown up and moved on. No one today plays chess. The adults sit with adults and the kids sit with kids. Maybe that’s the way people feel it should be.

I was reminded of Al earlier today by a comment Ordinary Girl left on another post. She mentioned how adults stay away from kids for fear of being thought creepy. That got me to thinking of how Al, born in 1933, belonged to another generation — one that had a stronger sense of community and wasn’t so set against mixing the ages. Yet, I wonder how kids are supposed to grow up with few adults in their lives?

Are they supposed these days to learn what they need to be a functional adult from Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and advertising? It seems to me we too often leave kids these days to be raised by the media.

Somethings we can only learn from another person. Things we cannot learn from a book, a movie, the television, popular music, or a video game. Somethings we must learn through our interactions with others. And some of those things that can only be learned through our interactions with others are very important. I discovered when I hung out with teens that many teens had what struck me then as a thirst to hang out with adults. I suspect they needed encouragement, insight into themselves, support, and affirmation, among other things. Those are not things we easily get from a book or movie.

Yet, it’s not a one-way street. I believe there can be tremendous benefits for an adult to having kids in his or her life. For one thing, watching a new generation grow up, seeing it go through the same things you once went through, can give you an invaluable perspective on life and a profound acceptance of your own aging.

I’ve come to believe any society which separates the generations will sooner or later pay a price for it. It even seems to me unnatural. I doubt any previous society has headed as far in that direction as ours. And, to me, it is all part of the larger break down of genuine community. It seems our societies are becoming increasingly fragmented, and I am unsure where that will eventually leave us. I rather hope Al’s generation is not the last to mix ages.


Note: Al was a grand- or great grandnephew of Frederic Remington, the painter.

Late Night Thoughts: Poetry-Readings, Weltanschauung, Love, Abuse, and More

(About a 10 minute read)

Silence

You’ve spent the day into the night alone
When the moon suddenly rings
Like china dropped on a tablecloth,
Startling you.

◊◊◊

Lori decided to organize a poetry reading.  She persuaded the owner of a downtown restaurant to lend her his back patio.  Then she designed some fliers and printed them up.  Meanwhile she was going about lining up people and their poems.  When the night came, she strung up some tiny colored lights, lit the candles she’d bought for all the table tops, and turned out the patio’s main lights: A good flashlight would do to spotlight the poets.

A fair number of people showed up, but not much went well after that.  Several of the poets had weak voices that didn’t carry to the back tables, or even much beyond the front row.  Some of the others had written abominations.  Lengthy, long poems, for the most part, that lectured you on their author’s feelings, but failed to produce any feelings in you.

The most common problem, however, was that so many of the poets had shown up fully prepared to read their poems.

You can do a lot when sounding a poem.  You can dramatize it, you can chant it, you can swing it, you can sing it, you can cry it out in pain.  You can even sometimes drone it  when that adds to its meaning — but however you perform it, you shouldn’t just read it.  It’s not the newspaper.

Fortunately, the whole night was saved by a single poet.  A young woman rose up and tore something about love and the abuse of intimacy from her chest that she flung across the patio like sheets of windblown rain.  You almost cried for her, a stranger, even as you stood and pounded your hands together.

◊◊◊

Weltanschauung, or “worldview”, is such a grim, heavy, ponderous term that I am fairly convinced Immanuel Kant invented it around 1790 at approximately three o’clock on some cold morning — typically our weakest hour — while sleeplessly suffering from a near fatal case of indigestion brought on by an all-too-heavy Prussian Winter’s meal of greasy sausages and sauerkraut the evening before.

The concept, in my opinion, is pretentious and incorporates only the thinnest shred of psychological insight — the insight that most of us think we have a more or less coherent view of the world.

Do we really have a single coherent worldview, as Kant thought, or do we, as Whitman suggested, “contain [contradictory] multitudes”?

I’ll go with Whitman.

◊◊◊

My first wife was stunning.  To be sure, she couldn’t drop jaws, not quite.  But she could audibly hush a room just by entering it.   And that’s how I first noticed her.

One day, two weeks after classes had started, Jana walked into the dorm cafeteria for the first time.  She’d transferred into our university a couple weeks late from the University of London, and when she entered the cafeteria that day it was the first time anyone had seen her.

Of course, it wasn’t as if the whole, huge room of a few hundred people went silent.  But the noise level did sink so much that day that you could suddenly pick up clear snatches of conversations from all the way across the room.  And heads turned.

When the group I was eating with — males from my dorm floor — had recovered their voices, the speculations naturally began in earnest.  Who was she?  Had anyone seen her before now?  What floor did she live on?  And, most importantly: Was she the first, second, or third most beautiful woman in the dorm?

Why does our noble species of super-sized spear-chucking apes always rank things?  Isn’t it enough to say, “She’s gorgeous”, without having to say, “She’s the most gorgeous”, “The second most gorgeous”?  Why?

I opted for third most gorgeous.

As it turned out, Jana’s new home was on a women’s floor that we’d scheduled a party with for the following month.  I showed up around eight that night, and started making my way through the women folk.  That is, I start circulating with the objective of systematically saying “Hi” to every woman at the party, one after the other, and regardless of whether we’d met before or not, until I’d said “Hi” (or more than “Hi”) to every woman who was not too preoccupied with an alarmingly glowering boyfriend.

Naturally, my aim at that age was to get laid, and I was perceptive enough to know that could often enough be accomplished simply by “working the numbers” in order to find the women who had also come to the party with an aim of getting laid  — a perception that by the end of the second semester would result in my being voted in a meeting my floor’s “Whore of the Year”, a title of unquestionable distinction and honor.

The alleged distinction and honor, in my case, was marred only by the fact that my competition consisted almost entirely of engineering students. Almost to a man, they were good, decent people.  But surely to a man, they were socially awkward.  As socially awkward as they were smart.  And, as just about the lone male on the floor in possession of at least a single social skill, I would have won that title even had I never picked up a single woman all year — just for being willing to talk with women!

Towards midnight, all I could show for my efforts were some platonic conversations with a few women I was genuine friends with. They were generally long conversations because I’d lost focus on my objective (beer will do that), and I doubt now that I made it through all the women at the party.  It was about then, however, that I noticed Jana sitting off by herself.

After our introduction that night, we started dating.   Yet, for all my alleged worldliness, I felt insecure and intimidated by her beauty.   She was, after all, the most gorgeous woman I’d dated up to that time in my life, and I was quite unsure of the extent or depth of her attraction to me.  Add to that, I was nowhere near her class of physical beauty.

Of course, by thinking of her as a class or two above me in beauty, I was comparing myself to her, ranking her and me, and I didn’t have the wit or insight at that time in my life to grasp that my comparison was one of the roots of my insecurities.  For had I not compared myself to her, ranked us, and then taken that ranking seriously, I would not have thought of myself as inferior to her in looks, and felt insecure because of it.

It all came to a head on one of our dates when Jana and I were sitting in a late night deli that was packed because the bars had just let out.  Jana was wearing a cheerful T-shirt with a cartoon frog on it.  Beneath the frog were the words, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince Charming”.

My consciousness kept returning again and again to those words, wondering if they had anything to do with me — which, of course, is routine for consciousness.  That is, it’s always trying to figure out what something has got to do with one’s self.

Finally, my simmering insecurities boiled over, “What’s with the shirt?”

“The shirt? This shirt?  What do you mean, Paul?”

“Umm…I’ve got to know.  Does that shirt have anything to do with me?  Am I one of your frogs?”

Jana burst out laughing.  It was the biggest laugh I’d gotten from her yet.  Fortunately, she wasn’t laughing at me.  She was laughing at the idea I might be a frog to her.  “No”, she said at last, “I wasn’t thinking of that at all when I put it on tonight.  I just grabbed the first thing in my closet.”  After a thoughtful pause, she added, “Besides, I’ve been thinking recently that you might be my Prince.”

◊◊◊

Have you ever had a friend who contacts you only when he or she is down and troubled?  A friend who perhaps never seems to want your advice so much as they want someone to dump their feelings on?  I think most of us have had such a friend at one time or another in our lives.

Here’s another question:  Have you ever read a poem — an excellent poem — about such a friend?  It seems to be a rare topic in poetry, doesn’t it?  Yet it’s such a common experience in life.

Davy D’s recent work, An Hour With Jake, is a masterful treatment of the topic.  The craftsmanship alone is excellent: I couldn’t find a word that I thought needed to be removed, nor a word that I thought needed to be added.   And the words are true, on occasion almost clinical in their accuracy.  But there is nothing brutal, nothing ugly in Davy’s poem. There are even touches of humor.

Davy not only looks at his friend Jake’s behavior, but at his own responses to Jake.  The result is greater richness and depth.  Here’s an excerpt:

scripts roll.

his, a tale of how
his wife,
his dog,
his work colleague,
don’t understand him.

mine, a crafted questionnaire
designed for glibness,
adding to the
self-help deception.

Poets ought to be experimental, in my opinion, willing to take a risk, and never expecting themselves to produce one masterpiece after the next.  That makes it all the more rewarding when one composes an excellent capture, as Davy appears to have done here.  An Hour With Jake.

◊◊◊

In my experience, there are at least four kinds of love.  More, if you subdivide the four.  But one thing they all have in common is that they are affirmations of something.

Sometimes they affirm something as narrow as sex, and sometimes something as broad as life itself.  But each way of loving is a way of affirming, and each way of affirming has the potential to — to one extent or another  — renew us.  I would suggest, if you are weary, seeking some kind of rebirth, great or small, then find something or someone to love.

◊◊◊

Do all forms of abuse have any one thing in common?  I think if they do, it may very well be this:  They are all behaviors that risk unnecessarily alienating us from ourselves.  That is, they tend to derail us from being true to ourselves, from being authentic.

◊◊◊

The most often way I write a poem is to sound it out loud, again and again again, as I go through the process of composing it.  I think a lot of poets must do that.  It has its advantages too.

When you’re stuck, blocked, and can’t think of how to get the creativity going again, it sometimes is sufficient to simply start sounding words and phrases in new voices.  That is, pick a persona — perhaps the way a friend talks — then sound out whatever words come to mind in her tone and rhythm of voice.

I once met a woman who was traveling the country.  For reasons I’ll never know, I imagined she was some kind of hero wandering ancient lands who’d brought tales from afar to my pathetically small village of thatched huts.  She had a way of speaking, that woman, and I tried to capture her voice in a poem.

Who Comes by Far

The horizon from the highest hill is the useless
Edge Of The World when you don’t travel.

You meet people who come by far,
So they must be heroes; so I believe you’re a Rider
Passing to the Sun’s Door…though you tell me,
You once knew so cold a land the clouds froze
And fell from the sky, and the People
Wore heavy skins.

Still, I look at your hands
Warm and dark with the candle,
And can barely imagine
What I’d think their color by Dragon’s Fire,
Leave alone the morning sun.

Then you turn in our shadows as if to say,
You’ve begun your liking of me,
So tonight you’ll stay.

Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

Late Night Thoughts: Infatuation, Invention, Creativity, Pragmatism, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

It snowed last night.  Not a light, romantic snow either, but a heavy wet snow that piled up to seven inches on some of the tree branches, bowing them, sometimes breaking them.  Now and then a mass of snow would fall from one of the trees overhanging my cottage and land on my roof, sounding like some large animal had pounced on it.

◊◊◊

Most of us in America have been taught the difference between infatuation and love is a matter of duration.  If an attraction endures for a long time, then it’s love, but if it’s fleeting, transient, then it’s infatuation.  But even when I was in high school, I knew that was a greasy idea.

Because of Janet.

I met Janet the second semester of my freshman year, and I became infatuated with her the day after I met her.  That infatuation lasted five or six years, but I never mistook it for love.  I knew almost from the first moment I noticed it that it was infatuation. What I didn’t know was how to shake it off.

◊◊◊

Some years ago, I made a genuine, serious count of the most profound insights and creative inventions I’d discovered up until that moment in my life.

I went at it in earnest, left nothing out unless it was too minor, insignificant to include in the count.

There had been about a dozen.

Yet everyone of the ideas had been discovered by someone before me, someone whose work I was ignorant of until after I re-invented the idea myself.

And each of the inventions had, each for its own reasons, come to nothing.

“Thank you for writing up your proposal, Paul.  We appreciate the hard work you put into it, but we decided yesterday in an executive meeting not to pursue your idea.  Frankly, we don’t see a major market for it.  People will never purchase in droves a plastic card allowing them to make long distance calls from any phone”.

Two years later.  “Hey, could you tell me what these things are?”

“Oh, those are something new.  Seven-Eleven just started carrying them a couple days ago.  We call them, ‘Phone Cards’.  Buy one! They allow you to make long distance calls from any phone.

“Why are you crying, Sir?  Can I get you a towel?  Um…maybe a few…?”

“No. no. It’s too late, my shirt is already soaked.  It’s just that…that I’m so happy for you!”

“Sir?  Sir, I’m going for those towels right now!”

◊◊◊

I once thought creativity was a by-product of intelligence, but someone emailed me links to a few articles on the subject a couple years ago in what turned out to be a rather creative attempt to open the way to romancing me.

Seems creativity has been a subject of scientific study for a bit over 30 years now, and that it has little enough to do with intelligence.  There’s a kind of minimum threshold of sorts, but it’s not high, and if you’re smarter than that, then you might or might not be a creative person.

One of the scientist’s major findings: Especially creative people have brains hard-wired for it.

The woman who emailed me the links, by the way, ended up after a few back and forths, emailing me one of the most lengthy, vicious, and creative attacks on my character and life-choices that I’ve ever read the first few lines of before deleting.  Seems she was a wee little bit peeved to learn I was really, genuinely committed to celibacy.

◊◊◊

A month back, my young, 22 year old friend Sophie asked me “Why is sex shameful?  Even though I know in my mind there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I still feel shame.  Why is that, Paul?”

“Why are you asking me, Sophie?”

“Because you know everything, Paul.  You’ve told me so yourself!”

“Oh, that’s right!  Yes, I did.  But I forgot to mention to you that by ‘know’, I meant ‘I have an opinion about it’.  For me, you understand, those are the exact same things.”

“You’re such a real man, Paul.  Such a real man.”

“Thank you so much, Sophie!  Your lavish praise is so annoying.”

“Just get on with it.  What’s your opinion?”

“Well, I do know there used to be an hypothesis in anthropology and evolutionary psychology.  Maybe it’s still current.  According to it, sexual shame evolved in us as an instinct in order to facilitate male bonding, which allowed us to live in larger, more survivable groups.”

“Figures.  It’s always about you men, isn’t it?”

“This time it’s about you women, too.  You see, the notion is that our evolving feelings of shame meant couples quit having public sex.  And that meant male friendship bonds were not as often broken by the sight of another male getting it on with a delicious, desirable female that every other male jealously wanted.  Obviously, the anthropologists had you in mind, Sophie, because you’re so delectable!”

“I am NOT loaning you my money, Paul! Not a dime!”

“Delectable. Kind. Compassionate. Caring…”.

“Shuddup Paul!”

◊◊◊

It is so often necessary to see less truth in order to see a deeper truth.

 ◊◊◊

A few days ago, I was on my way to the corner store when a homeless man approached me with a smile on his mostly toothless face, and a whiff of alcohol on his breath.  “You look just like Arlo Gutherie!” He said.

Truth, it was he who looked like Arlo.  You could see the resemblance despite how his face had been warped over the years by the occupational hazards of long-term homelessness.

We carried on a lively back and forth for twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes.  It was a real conversation, too.  I made a point of that.  When I myself was homeless, the one thing I missed the most was being treated like I actually existed.

◊◊◊

It seems to be an American cultural trait to address problems pragmatically, except for human problems.  Back in the 1930s and ’40s, fatal, crippling, and maiming automobile accidents were almost as common as women in a coffee shop are today.

The problem was tackled with scientific precision.  Hundreds of studies were done.  Then change was brought about by dozens upon dozens of innovations.  Guard rails installed at key places.  Road curves redesigned to make them safer to negotiate at normal speeds.  Seat belts made mandatory.  Driving tests required before licensing.  Air bags.  Child safety seats.  And so forth.

None of the innovations was, by itself, anywhere near to being a solution to the problem.  But each innovation reduced the problem by perhaps as much as 1% or 2%.  And like drops of water filling a bucket, they began adding up.  Today, tens of thousands of people still die on the roads — there is much that remains to be done — but the carnage is not even close to what it once was.

That’s how Americans, at least until recently, tended to approach most problems.  Pragmatically.  But the exception has always  been “human problems”.  Then the Puritan rears up in us.  We become, not pragmatists, but moralists.  Not rationalists, but irrationalists.

Unwanted teen pregnancies, substance abuse, rape, homelessness, poverty, joblessness, scientific illiteracy, declining middle class incomes — these are all problems that could be solved almost overnight in relative terms.  Solved, or at least ameliorated, reduced to their lowest possible frequency, if only we would approach them with sustained, pragmatic efforts to solve or ameliorate them.

And some of us wish to do exactly that.

But apparently, not enough of us to matter all that much.  The Puritans, the moralists, for the most part have the upper hand in America.  We put men on the moon within a single decade of pragmatic effort, but we can’t even get effective comprehensive sex education taught in most Southern public schools, and all too many public schools in the rest of the country.

It isn’t sex that’s shameful.  It’s moralism.