Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's A New World

I woke up this morning in a new world.

Last night, I learned Michigan used to be on the equator. It was completely covered by warm, salt water just 350 million years ago. My attitude toward the Great Lakes and the little town I live in changed overnight.

I live where a great ocean used to be.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shamananana Nanananana

Winter lasts longer on this side of the lake. At least it seems to. And we've been traveling in the ice and snow more this year than we usually do. If I had a ceremony or an incantation that would end the winter now, I'd use it. If I were a shaman, I'd construct a complicated mechanism, a string of batteries maybe, to jump start the sun.

My father died in the winter. He was in a hospice in Mississippi, where he had a warm room with big windows and four beautiful women to change his pajamas and his sheets every night, laughing and singing while they put the old man to bed.

When he lapsed into a coma, we drove over from Houston, and he was still alive, but breathing in a labored way that lifted his shoulders off the bed with every wheezing breath. We sat with him for nine or ten hours, talking to him and wetting his lips with a piece of gauze, soaked in cold water.

I was holding his hand when he suddenly opened his eyes and squeezed my hand, and I said hey, he's awake, then no, he's gone as he died. And I felt that something had just left that body. Took one last look and moved on, leaving me next in line.

For an entire year after that, I had a recurring dream. I dreamed I was being roasted slowly, like a pig in a pit. The strange thing about the dream was it really hurt. I could feel the intense heat from the coals, charring my skin. It took a year for the fire to burn my skin away and prepare me to carry on in my father's place. And he was a very ordinary man.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Unit D

My daughter was home today, complaining about having to get out of bed because the maid was coming. The maid's a woman from Brazil. Her husband's a divinity student at the Adventist college in a little town down the road. He helps her clean the house now and then, making her a maid service or cleaning service I guess, which is what we called our maid in Brooklyn, even though she was just a woman from Guatemala who brought her daughter with her sometimes and showed her maid tricks like storing the garbage bags in the bottom of the garbage can. The word maid was a problem in Brooklyn because my wife was ashamed that a woman was cleaning our house. There were programs on NPR about that in those days. Ways to get by without a maid. We lived with the guilt. Now I don't feel guilty about having a maid, just uneasy about being able to afford a maid when so many people are out of work sometimes, but never when I'm picking up the house before she comes, because I know that without the Friday pick up and the maid we'd slowly sink beneath a rising sea of kipple. When the house is picked up enough for her to start cleaning it, I get out of her way.

This morning I took the kid to Big Boy for breakfast. On the way, she told me if she had been born in the old days we would still be in New York where her name was written in the book. People couldn't move around back then she said, couldn't leave New York the way we did right after 9/11, a move we'd planned to make to the Midwest, made easier by the dust in the air and the smell like a burned out motor or lamp and the scorched pieces of paper that floated into the courtyard of our co-op the day after the towers fell down. That was the day I got back to Brooklyn, drove all night in a rented car, came in across Staten Island with the heavy trucks, ambulances, and military vehicles of all kinds, everything but tanks. The tanks were just in my mind. But I heard the helicopters when the rental threw a rod a couple of blocks from my apartment and I parked it in front of a corner grocery and walked the rest of the way home.

If it had been the old days, we'd have stayed in New York instead of laying in a supply of Cipro and Amoxicillin and flying out to the Midwest, and I never would have put that guy's eye out at the dump. It was about the time Saddam's sons, Uday and the other one, were killed, gunned down or blown up, and right after I took the wood from the kitchen cabinets we tore out to make room for the new refrigerator down to the dump. Right before that, the night before or maybe the night before that I dreamed I was trapped in the basement and the house was on fire, and I was yelling at my wife to throw the .357 magnum through the narrow basement window so I could blow my fucking brains out to keep from burning alive, the kind of dream that stays with you all day. And right after that dream I took the wood to the dump. Long pieces of wood with nails sticking out that I tried to hammer down, but they kept bending and sliding under the hammer and I couldn't get them all out or bent down flat, and I had to be careful not to jam one into my hand when I was loading the wood into the back of my truck. When I got to the dump, the attendant helped me pull the wood out of the back of the truck and throw it over the side of the walk-in dumpster. And when we were almost finished a guy came out of the dumpster, holding his head and saying what the fuck were we doing, and the attendant told him he wasn't supposed to be going inside the dumpster like that. You're lucky you didn't get killed the attendant told him. I could see the guy had a cut next to his eye, and he was sticking his finger through a hole in his baseball cap and saying you ruined my fucking cap. Then he went over and got in his car and his wife was looking at his eye, and I backed out and drove off, thinking they were probably writing down my license plate number, or maybe they would come back to the dump every Saturday and try to find me. But I was thinking maybe he wouldn't have much of a case, even if he lost that eye, because he probably shouldn't have been in the dumpster. But just to make sure, I called a lawyer so he could set my mind at ease. They say when you leave a place you get a unique perspective on it, see things the people who stay behind don't see. All I get is homesick now and then.

At Big Boy, we ended up in a booth next to some kind of old timers' breakfast club, four guys from the local VFW, talking about draft dodgers in the Seventies and a local doctor who did a tour on a medevac plane, flying critically hurt GIs from Iraq to Germany, the kind of old men and the kind of conversation makes you want to say if I get that way please put a bullet in my brain pan. But just to show you how confusing free association can get, I sat there thinking all at once about four or five things, all jumbled up, that I have to put down in some linear way here, because the narrative won't let me tell it all at once. The VFW has to let you use their big, portable barbeque pits if you're a veteran. You just reserve the pit. Tow it home with your truck. Leon told me that at Leon's World Famous Barbeque in Galveston while I waited for my take-out ribs, reading the menu on the wall, reading cold yard bird, a phrase my wife picked off the menu and put in a poem, you cold yard birds, I know the names of poets in high places, while Carmen, whose craziness landed me in the Army, waited for her order, standing alongside me at the counter, wondering who I was. I made the mistake of going to see her at Unit D, you don't even have to explain to anybody what a place called Unit D is about, after she slashed her wrists, and the cops, doing me a favor, figuring me, an officer of a local bank, for a respectable guy who happened, unwittingly, to be mixed up with the criminally insane, took me down to the station and showed me her rap sheet. How were they to know that inside that thick file was where I longed to be?

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Time Machine (The Ice Is Breaking Up, March 2009)

In 1926, the Russian film maker, Vsevolod Pudovkin, created one of film's most famous metaphors by cutting back and forth between images of the ice in a frozen river breaking up and workers storming a prison. The montage starts with the ice-clogged river, cuts to marching workers, back to the river, beginning to flow, marching workers reflected in the water, the water and broken ice cascading down river.

I wonder what a modern day Pudovkin would juxtapose with the river thawing and slowly turning into a torrent of water to create a metaphor for the financial system thawing out. Start with the Spring thaw maybe. Water dripping from the trees. I got a phone call from the bank that holds the mortgage on my house the other day, offering me a line of credit. Cut to a rivulet of water flowing downhill into a stream. Today, the bank offered to refinance my mortgage for free and give me a half-point discount if I open an account and let them deduct my monthly payments automatically. Cut to mail going into mail boxes, people calling the bank, kids trying on new shoes.

I can't wait for the part where the ACDs at the banks start to light up and we get to film those flashing lights on the computer consoles and data flying across the CRTs, images that took the place of tapes spinning back and forth to show those big computers working.  Money piling up in corporate accounts.

The hyenas have started buying "distressed" properties in Detroit, Florida and New Jersey. Cut to those jagged black cracks streaking across the ice.  Millions of people drowning in the cold water.  Bodies swept out to sea.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Power Failure

The power went out in our neighborhood late this afternoon. Still light enough with the shades up to search for candles and the kerosene lamp that was our main source of light during hurricanes when I was growing up. I don't know how I ended up with the lamp. I think I dug it out of my mother's attic when I got back from Germany and moved into the upstairs of an old house in Galveston's historical district with a friend from Seattle. We had some statues and some big scheffleras that looked good in the lamplight. A grey kitten that attacked our feet when we were sleeping. Bach on a reel to reel tape deck I blew my first paycheck from ANICO on. And a big staircase down to the front porch that had a way of ending halfway down, like something had pushed it in against the wall, so I couldn't get out of the house. I slept in a room off that staircase, and later, after I was married and my son was born and we had spent some time in Arkansas making films, when we moved back to Galveston, we rented that same upstairs apartment and my son slept in that room. The ceiling of his closet fell in one night.

This afternoon, I found the lamp oil right off, but it was almost dark by the time I found the lamp and the glass chimney, and some of the time I was looking with a flashlight, its narrow beam highlighting the TV, some books, the top shelf of a closet, and, finally, the kerosene lamp. I showed my daughter how to fill it, trim the wick, light it and adjust the flame, then how to put the chimney on. The lamp oil burns with a whiter flame than the kerosene did, and it has a different smell, but the light is still soft.

When my wife got home, we went out to dinner. For some reason, during dinner and on the way home tonight, the three of us were exceptionally gay.

Echocardiogram

When you see the ultrasound image of your daughter's heart, steadily beating on the monitor next to her bed, you know what it is right off. This is the same heart you saw beating on an ultrasound monitor at NYU eight years ago, a couple of weeks before she was born. Her heart beats slower now, and you can see it in great detail. You see the chambers, the valves opening and closing, the blood gushing in and out of her heart as she lies quietly, watching Stuart Little on a television screen across the room. Her heart beats steadily on and on, while yours races and pounds every time the technician zooms in on a valve or marks something on that picture of the sweetest heart in the world.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Unity

Sitting in my wife's car in the garage tonight, lights on, windshield wipers going, it's easy to see how people get depressed. I'm just back from the store, and had to maneuver past my old 4-Runner to get into the one-car garage. I left the truck's lights on when we came back from the PTO pancake breakfast this morning. Thai soup for lunch. I made the soup last night because I went down to the faculty practice at Northwestern by myself Wednesday, and my wife and daughter missed out on lunch at a good Thai restaurant. I had a glass of champagne at lunch today. An ounce of cognac in the champagne. The same grape. And I fell asleep reading Nial Ferguson's The Ascent Of Money. When I woke up, I knew I'd left the lights on and I knew the battery would be dead when I went outside and tried to start the truck.

This is the first winter we've had a one-car garage. We park my wife's VW in the garage and leave the Toyota in the driveway, close to the furnace exhaust where it's a little warmer. The battery is probably finished. I'll jump it in the morning and drive the truck tomorrow, but I'm not hopeful the battery will hold its charge. Getting my daughter to school Monday may be a hassle, I'm thinking, sitting in the warm car, staring at the odds and ends stacked on the shelf at the end of the garage, above the bicycles and the snow-blower. A yellow sprayer I used to spray nematodes on the grubs infesting my yard back in Wisconsin in a futile attempt to avoid chemicals. The "for sale" sign from the lot we bought down by the beach here in Michigan last summer with the address and the outline of the lot on it. When we bought the lot, down near the water where a Jack Nicklaus golf course is under construction, I distinctly remember saying "how can we lose?"

I grew old reading John Updike's books. I read Rabbit, Run the first time in a reading room at the Student Union of the University of Texas in 1960. I think I puzzled over the punctuation of the title for an hour before I started reading the book. Updike is a little older than me, but close enough in age for us to have seen and done some of the same things at the same time. It was Updike's genius to take his time with Harry Angstrom, to let him live, taking him up every ten years or so when the world had changed enough for new things to be important. Updike saw the end of Detroit coming. And he knew it would not be the foreign cars that undid us, but the easy money, the fast deals and cooked books. If I never quite believed Rabbit was real, I always understood him. I could relate to him as he got older and richer, then poorer and, finally, died.

UPDATE: The jump start worked. The battery held its charge. Fat Boy, my 1993 Toyota 4-Runner, is parked in my driveway, charged up and ready to go, icicles hanging from his shiny grill like frozen snot.

Laocoön



I think I'll hang out with the Greeks today. Take a break from the modern world. Get back to the primordial struggle of man against reptile at about the time we were seeing some possibility of mastering the natural world.

How did we end up where we are? If all that counts is the ineffable quality of each moment, what compulsion turns us away from the moment? What terrible force set the modern world in motion? Wasn't I supposed to live my life all at once, take one deep breath and die?

 




















Thetis knew Laocoön.  She saw him die a couple of days after Achilles fell in front of Troy.  Athena sent the snakes to shut Laocoön up, they say. His mistake was trying to warn the Trojans about that horse. The Trojans thought the snakes killed him for lying and took the horse inside.

Thetis was slandered by Hera, jilted by Zeus, raped by Peleus with a little help from Chiron, and insulted by Paris at her own wedding. She tore Troy apart trying to get to Paris, and she lost her son in the war.

I'd been looking for her for twenty years when I ran into her in London.  I knew who she was right off. She didn't remember me at all.

Monday, March 11, 2013

FLIR



Forward Looking Infrared has been around a long time. I first saw it in use over 30 years ago, cruising along the Rio Grande in an INS helicopter. FLIR has given U.S. troops the ability to see at night without being seen. It has completely altered the nature of modern warfare. It's incredible stuff. It reduces the human beings at the receiving end of a weapon to mere targets on a screen. If it's true, as I was told growing up in Texas, that distant is polite, FLIR makes killing about as polite as it gets.

Contrast that with the kind of killing the grunts in Afghanistan experience, as documented by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington in Restrepo, a little film they pieced together out of video clips they recorded while they were embedded with an Army platoon trying to secure one of Afghanistan's most violent valleys. As much as anything, the Junger and Hetherington effort illustrates the difficulty of using video to document actual combat. It's the kind of video I have to watch a couple of times, then let my memory reconstruct it and fill in the blanks, until I have created, in memory, a complete experience.

I read recently that some researches believe playing kill-or-be-killed war games improves cognition. According to Daphne Bavelier, an assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive science at the University of Rochester, people who play fast-paced games "have better vision, better attention and better cognition." Bavelier was a presenter at a symposium on the educational uses of video and computer games.

I'm constantly running into reports that suggest video game players make the best surgeons, pilots and CAD monkeys.

I guess that depends on the individual. My first video game was Doom, and after playing it for a month or so, I developed tunnel vision that lasted for weeks after I stopped playing the game. It was like walking around, looking at the world through a tube about the size of a coffee can.

Last year, Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker that some of the CIA agents who fly the lethal drones over Afghanistan wear flight suits at work. Mayer's October 2009 article, The Predator War, explores the risks of using predator drones as our weapon of choice in the war on terror.



The New Yorker, October 26, 2009

I don't doubt that video games are educational. And they have real potential for making work more fun.

One of the best games I've heard about was used by currency traders. The traders sat in the cockpit of a virtual fighter jet and gunned down stacks of foreign currency with bullets denominated in dollars to exchange dollars for Euros, Francs or Marks. To buy dollars, they loaded up with a foreign currency and gunned down piles of dollars.

You could develop a Madoff version of that game that helped investment advisors gun down their clients fortunes, and, in the advanced version, gun down their clients themselves, saving them the trouble of jumping out of windows.

Professor Bavelier had some good ideas about ways to "harness the positive effects" of first-person shooter games without violence.

"As you know," she said, "most of us females just hate those action video games. You don't have to use shooting. You can use, for example, a princess who has a magic wand and whenever she touches something, it turns into a butterfly and sparkles."

Put that into the targeting system of an Apache helicopter and you might have something.

And yet, video games -- even the ones that sparkle -- might not contribute much to learning when to act and when not to act. They may develop motor skills, but do they develop judgment ? When to shoot -- and even if to shoot -- is still a judgment call.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Trust



The quinn was saying: "And not sure who you COULD trust in this kind of situation." And me just home from the experience of 5 hours of small-town American healthcare, watching my wife work her way through nurse practicioners, X-ray techs, X-rays and cat scans after her car was hit from the rear by an uninsured driver. She'll be fine.

When we first moved to this little town, a neighbor recommended the clinic we go to. It's run by a religious organization. All of the doctors are missionaries who base here but travel to the underdeveloped world to heal the sick and spread the word of the Lord.

In the waiting rooms I sat in yesterday, I saw loops of Doctor Gupta explaining lung cancer, Wolf Blitzer reporting on the Iranian riots, and a painting of Jesus, guiding the hand of a surgeon. I thought the painting was the most interesting. I couldn't help imagining different versions of it and variations on its theme.

Maybe we could add Moses and Mohammed to the painting. Show Jesus and the other prophets -- peace be unto them -- jostling one another and arguing about how to guide the doctor's hand.

Or, we could show them guiding other hands. The bombadier's hand as he drops bombs on Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima or Dresden. Or the executioner's hand as he tightens a noose, lights a fire or slits a throat. How about a guiding hand at the gas chambers and ovens?

It must be comforting to believe that every slip of the knife is God's will.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Wolf Of Winter

A long time ago, I told my son, I think he was in the first grade then, that Kenneth Patchen's The Wolf Of Winter was about the winter cold killing poor people. I doubt we got into nice distinctions between body and spirit or into the idea that there is a pessimism born of winter that afflicts boys who grow up in the South. A winter depression that settles into your bones and makes it hard to move.

Economic hard times are bound to hit people in the North, in the big frozen cities, harder than they hit people in the South. Finding a way to stay warm, a place to sleep, has to be tough. In Seattle, they open up the public buildings at night and the homeless sleep in the halls. For the poor, winter is hard. During a depression, it's going to be deadly.

The first panhandler of the winter turned up on our street yesterday. It was recycling day, and, in retrospect, I imagine she was working the snow-covered sidewalk for bottles and saw me dragging my little green tub of bottles and cans to the curb.

Her story was one I'd heard before. Just moved into the neighborhood. Family in trouble somewhere. Gas money to get to them. Pay me back in a couple of days. God bless me. Can she give me a hug? We settle for shaking hands.

I've never turned a panhandler down. It's a deep superstition of some kind. The way I buy off the bad luck that stalks me, just out of sight. Like a wolf.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Only A Couple Of Thousand To Go

Scientists have figured out those big lizards called  Komodo dragons are poisonous. When they tear into their prey, the snake-like venom in their bite sends their victims into shock and stops their blood from clotting.

I saw one of those reptiles kill a deer in a film on television once. Some kind of nature show about predators and their prey. It disgusted me. The idea of a reptile killing a mammal makes my blood boil. Probably a hatred that goes back to the garden.



The sight of a killer whale crashing onto the beach to grab a seal is exhilirating. Watching a few lions pull down a water buffalo or a baby elephant is awesome, almost sexual. But watching a 150-pound lizard grab Bambi's mama by her hind leg and tear it off is shocking.

The good news is this revolting reptile is near extinction. Maybe we should create a demand for Komodo skin boots and belts. Speed them on their way. I would not hesitate for one second before knocking a baby Komodo in the head with a club.

The Best Thing About Global Warming

It's going to get the Komodo dragons before it gets us.  Scientists say global warming is killing off lizards all over the world.

Komodo dragons are especially vile lizards. When they tear into their prey, the snake-like venom in their bite sends their victims into shock and stops their blood from clotting. If global warming is doing them in, we may be seeing our first and only proof of intelligent design, or at least convincing proof of the cleverness of mankind.

Here's a Komodo eating a pig. 



According to Jack Sites, a biology professor at Brigham Young University, rising temperatures are keeping lizards from eating enough to take care of their eggs. "The heat doesn't kill them. They just don't reproduce," Sites says. "It doesn't take too much of that and the population starts to crash."

We knocked off the dinosaurs by eating their goddam eggs. Now we're making it too hot for the Komodos to reproduce. Get out there and mow those lawns, people!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I Was Born Way Too Soon


 









A new female condom is coming on the market.

The FC2 Female Condom is made with a soft material for quieter use. Its original version failed to gain a foothold in the U.S. marketplace because it was noisy to use, as well as too expensive.

Too noisy? Hell, why not make them even noiser, but with better sounds?

How about the Flight Of The Valkyries? Or something wet and squishy, like rubber boots slogging through the mud of a rice paddy?