Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Perils of the Heart (Fiction Excerpt )

Chapter One: The Hitch Hiker

Since you asked me what I was doing out here hitching a ride in the cold, I’ll tell you. Just turn up the heat, please. And thanks for the ride. Funny how I don’t feel so cold when there is no hope of warming up. Put me in a car though, or in somebody’s living room, and right away I feel cold. Outside I just get used to it, or numb. 

It’s a long drive to Albuquerque, and if you’re going that far, I’ll take the lift.

So yeah, I'm going a long way in this weather, and my reasons for being out here are ... complicated... I guess you could say. It's a long story. If you want to hear about it, I’d be glad to tell it, but you will need some time. It looks like the day is still young, and the drive will take a while. 

Now, I’m going to lay it out for you, not editing so much. You seem like a pretty smart guy, so I won’t spare you the edges. 

Back then, before all this started, I had gotten through school, I had a pretty good job, was married, stable. Not exactly happy, but getting along if you know what I mean. The bills got paid and I was responsible. I lived in a big city, not like this place. I mean here there is nothing but sky, lava flows, red sandstone, and wind. The winds just never stops blowing. But it’s where tumbleweeds like me end up.

You can be as sad as you want here, but everyone is so busy trying to survive they don’t encourage your staying that way. Thanks for the heat by the way. That feels good. I forget how cold I am.

You need to understand something: there is a wild way of being that runs counter to sensibility. Because it cannot be tamed, living like this leads to trouble. I guess that’s where I went wrong, as some people would see it, or right, as my heart tells me. But following something as tenuous and insubstantial as the heart has led to my standing here, by this road, alone, unforgiven by almost everyone who knows me. It is cold and I have nothing left, nothing, that is except memories and a certainty that I had no choice, that I would do it all again if I had it to do over.

It was a dream, of course, and its effect on me was no less that being struck by a truck or lightning, only you couldn't see it. It was like the solar flares that no one can see until they show up as shimmering curtains of light in the atmosphere. You can't see or touch them, but they are there, as real as rocks, nonetheless. This dream took hold of me in a stranglehold. Either I would follow it or I would die. Simple as that.

Pardon me. I just need to blow some warm air into my hands here. Whew. I get the shivers sometimes. OK, where was I?  Like most things, though, dreams can grow cold after a while if you don't care for them. When it was still alive, on fire, I felt good. 

And dreams often lead to people. One of these was a woman, and we met as a blue moon rose red over the rocks on a high plateau New Mexico. I had a flask of tequila, and she sang a song about tequila making a woman's clothes come off. She meant it to be funny, but all of a sudden I felt that stranglehold again. The body has its own language sometimes and it rises up to lay down the law, deliver that old ultimatum. All that mattered was that moment and the rushing rivers of chemicals and electricity. I felt like I would die from the thrill of it or perish from the denial of it. It wasn't going to go well either way, as far as things staying the same.No matter what happened, the thought of her was there, in the background. It would not leave me alone.

To Be Continued...

[From here, the story switches to the driver's (a straight-laced college teacher) perspective. He is taking the long way home and has no idea how this story, told by a hitch-hiking transient, will affect him.]

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hamlet, Fortinbras, and the Third Way

As the years go by, I notice that more and more of my peers, mainly middle-aged white guys, are retiring. I guess that’s what many white men (and women) get to do at this age. Some of us don’t get to do that and have to go on making a living to support kids in college, old cars that need repair, pay for health insurance, rent, and bags of bulk beans to cook over a modest campfire under the local bridge.

My peers, needless to say, sometimes puzzle me with their smug complacency. I (the somewhat bitter wage-slave "I") want to slap them; I want to DO something, anything. But I (the better "I") want to understand them too, to see how this self-absorbed soaking up of comfort is possible and figure out what to do about it.

So, these lucky ones, I have noticed, tend to share a kind of passive tolerance of the way things are. “Hey,” they say, “Things look fine to me. What’s your beef?”

One of them, who is quite educated, at an Ivy League School no less, and, not so surprisingly, is fond of quoting and pontificating on the merits of hedonism and passivity. He says things like, “There a have always been wars and alpha dogs and injustice and pestilence; they are the ways of this world. It’s best not to trouble yourself too much with them. Plus, who am I to tell anyone how to do things? I just don’t know for sure what is best.” They point to such great philosophers as H.L. Menken who wrote “Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on ‘I am not too sure.’"

We can call this figure Hamlet.

Well, of course, I think. Who knows anything for sure? But is that an excuse to sit and do nothing if you have even the slightest inkling of what is happening to our fellow humans or our lovely planet? I will not enumerate the litany of crises facing humanity in the coming years. If one peeks, even briefly, at headlines, one sees a careening disaster in motion. And here, one can either despair and opt to be skewered on the horns of hedonism or nihilism. Or one can act, sometimes rashly, inspired by such thinkers as Edward Abbey who writes “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”

A logical extreme of this worldview is Fortinbras, the "man of action," the "Decider," if we want to invoke a recent president.

In other words, one might be tempted to look at the question of reflection vs. action and answer it with an either/or argument: either “I don’t know what is best to do, so I will do nothing,” or “something must be done, so I’ll do the first thing to comes to mind, right or wrong.”

In spite of this particularly Western way of understanding things, one can imagine a third way, a both/and of reflection and action. Some people criticize meditation as “navel gazing,” but the Dalai Lama doesn’t see it that way. He says “the most important meditation is critical thinking – followed by action.”

To my mind, there are few icons of literature who embody or characterize this complex, paradoxical, dynamic process. 

Even without the telling detail of a name to go with the idea, I like avoiding the horns of a dilemma with a third way. It’s a both/and kind of thing, a dynamic system of thinking and action. 

Of course, now we have to figure out what he means by critical thinking, and, sadly, that is not something that is a priority to framers of educational policy – teachers, yes, but not policy makers.

Maybe, when I retire, Hamlet, Fortinbras, and I can chat and then do something good. I'd like that too. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

An Easter Invocation

This April is a month of anniversaries. A good friend, a loyal dog, and my mother all died in April. Last year I crashed hard coming down Mount Lemmon; I am still stiff and sore and feel the old man from that one. I have often wondered why T. S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, but now agree, even if only by coincidence.

The leaves are opening here in the desert. Ground squirrels, desert spiny lizards, rattlesnakes, and bees are all more active as the days heat up. The semester has hit its crunch time before summer break.

You could call April the month of growth and remembrance, a month of paradox. I like that because I don't think I can have one without the other.  Dying and opening.

The hard aspects of my life -- having had to work menial jobs to get through college while my peers ran off to basketball games, feeling the pacifist misfit in a culture gone mad with violence -- have given me eyes to see those who are normally off the media radar. I know what it is like to sell newspapers standing on a median to indifferent and comfortable drivers in their air conditioned cars. I know what it's like to work all day and then have to write a paper on a hoity toity poem. I know what it is like to feel invisible, even if that invisibility has been white and male.

I know it and now need to remember it. Lately I have to confess, I want to give up, withdraw, fade away. I feel tired and discouraged.

Yet, when I step past that ennui, and fill the hummingbird feeder, clean out the fountain, listen to the voices in my students' papers, I find a flicker of will to go on.

When I look for it, I find the elusive, fragile, enduring memory of needing help, help only someone in my position could offer.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Standing Again On the Doorstep of Summer

Mesquite and palo verde trees are blooming, and the semester is winding down even as the days heat up. It will be in the 90s today, pushing a hundred later next week. Full blown spring with a taste of summer.

As the days go by, I wonder what I will do with this summer. I always hope that I will write something over the summer, maybe even publish something.

Instead, I have written vignettes that turned into blogs that a few people read, but don't really care about and would not pay for.

So, why do I do this? What's my story about writing? I am trying to figure out what I have to say, what I think, what the thread is running through the chaos of my life, for starters.

I am also trying to shape, or form, who it is that resides beneath the waters of my unexamined psyche. I write to blow off steam too. I write to rant. I should be nice to my bride, but I am not. She is not so happy with me and I am not so happy with all the things she wants to do with my time. I keep running away.

Summer makes it worse. It's hot and tiring. I do manual labor because we are not satisfied with what we have. We are building a house and planning to live in another place. One home, one place, is not enough. Always moving, always hungry.  

Will I finally wake up and begin to focus on the short time I have left on this earth? Or will I continue to act as if I will live forever and continue to put things off "until I have time?"

The "I'll get to it later" way of thinking has resulted in piles upon piles of stuff in my home and office. I am a hoarder of bike wheels, jackets, and bike shoes. I have too many socks. Too many loose ends.

That's the way it is. I need to look straight at it in the hot, clear light of summer. I hope the heat will burn off some of the fat in my thinking, my fat habits. We'll see how it goes.