All posts by gregzeck

About gregzeck

Greg taught college English many years in 4-year and 2-year colleges throughout the Midwest and abroad. At the same time, he enjoyed a career in freelance business communications, acting as writer and producer of major projects including corporate capability brochures and websites. Semi-retired in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Greg is more active than ever — tutoring, reading, writing, hiking, biking, and — with his lovely wife Jennifer of many years — wining, dining, and entertaining.

Age of ignorance

This is the season of political choices, as we all know. The presidential primaries are hard upon us, and here in Arkansas we also vote for judges and other lesser offices.

Last night my wife watched the Republican debate, in which Sens. Rubio and Cruz lit into the front runner Donald Trump. There was plenty of sound and fury in the debate, evidently, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch, as I loathe all of the candidates. Disgusting to see them all pander to popular taste, Cruz and Rubio trying to outdo each other in claiming the mantle of true conservatism, Trump continuing to insult his opponents as well as the intelligence of viewers in general.

Read an article in The New York Review of Books by the poet Charles Simic, who was born, in 1938, in the former Yugoslavia, where I taught one year (1979–1980). Simic writes about what he calls the “Age of Ignorance”:

In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe. The hucksters, who manipulate them for the powerful financial interests, know that they can be made to believe anything, because, to the ignorant and the bigoted, lies always sound better than truth:

We are less and less able, as a nation, Simic suggests, to distinguish critically between idiot candidates and intelligent ones. Those who appeal most to our passions, fan the flames of our ignorance are those who stand the best chance. Trump has a huge lead in his bid precisely because he “tells it as it is,” that is, resists the pressure to be “politically correct” by spewing out all his venom toward women and non-whites. He will build a wall to shut out all Mexicans. He will deport all Muslims. He will call all women cunts.

Ah, such refreshing views. They are not correct, true, true. They are not true, either. But they fan the flames, and here is Herr Trump, like a new mini-Hitler, perched on the edge of securing the Republican nomination. That ought to do in the Republican party for a good, long while, but if Simic is right our popular ignorance is not about to go away.

As an English teacher, who’s tried to teach critical thinking for a long time, I too am appalled by the lack of clear and logical thought. But apparently it’s way too much to ask of an ignorant electorate, besotted by TV and the mass media, duped by corporate interests, intent only on feeding their fat faces and the fat faces of their children. Oh Founding Fathers, thou should be with us at this hour!

Sleep, sleep, sleep

Sleep — our need for it, our longing for it, our discontent.

When we’re young, we need sleep in order to recover from the school day and all its stresses. When we grow into adulthood, it’s the job and family that impose stress. When we’re old, as I am now, alas and alack, and retired, hooray, it would seem you can sleep as long as you like.

But that’s not my case. I’ve always been a nervous, and perhaps reluctant, sleeper. There’s so much going on — especially in the head. How can we just hit the pillow and close our eyes to it? Life whirls on, in the brain, pokes and prods us, stimulates, suggests something we might have done in the past but didn’t, something we might do in the future.

Of course, this kind of restlessness is pretty fruitless. We can’t change the past by tossing and turning, digging it up like a moldy old potato. We can’t control the future by dreaming of it as a glorious and confirming thing.

I envy those who hit the pillow and it’s lights out. Those who sleep easily, soundly, “the sleep of the just.” Maybe this old phrase, or moldy potato, suggests I am not just, or fair, or moral? Something is troubling me? Some vague sin? Some forgetfulness? Some thoughtlessness? 

Or that I must keep watch, as my name Gregory suggests? (The Online Etymology dictionary glosses the name so: “from Late Latin Gregorius, from Greek gregorios, a derivative of gregoros ‘to bewatchful,’ from PIE root *ger- ‘to be awake’ [cf. Sanskrit jagarti ‘he is awake,’ Avestan agarayeiti ‘wakes up, rouses’]. ) Whether neurotically or morally or whatever, I must keep awake in the watches of the night!

Still, I could turn myself in as a sleep study subject. They’d put wires on my head and have me sleep in a dark room. I’d toss and turn, yank out the wires, scream. Help! help! Are you kidding me? killing me? It’s not worth the measly $75 you’re awarding! Take me back home, where I love to toss and turn in my own bed, keeping my wife awake half the night!

Of course, as the Shakespeare says, “our little life is rounded by a sleep,” or as Emily Dickinson puts it, about the longer sleep we fret and worry to the bone:

A long, long sleep, a famous sleep
That makes no show for dawn
By stretch of limb or stir of lid, —
An independent one.

Was ever idleness like this?
Within a hut of stone
To bask the centuries away
Nor once look up for noon?

Wingnuts

Yesterday, at the gym, I deliberately avoided 2-3 people I know. The common denominator? They’re all politically conservatives: one of them quite nice and understated (X, the trainer); one of them big and stupid (Y, the sportsman); and one easy to talk to (he talks a lot) except when you talk politics, when he foams at the mouth (Z).

Usually, I mean, I say hello, at least, to everyone I know, but I saw these three gents standing together talking, and I determined to skirt them and remain silent.

X who’s about 40, well built, prematurely balding, is easy to talk to, a really nice guy, smiling and helpful to all, especially the old ladies, whose blood pulse he takes (and raises, no doubt) and with whom he chats; but he has the habits of the average Joe — common sense and not much reflection. We’ve talked once or twice about racial concerns, and he seems set in his ways against expressions of political protest, as for the Black Lives Matter protesters.

Z, retired like me and maybe 65, is garrulous, talks all the time, and I kid him that he spends more time on the “mandible machine” (jawing) than all the others combined. He can talk about anything — what we did on the weekend, hobbies, women, travel — but when it comes to politics, look out, for he’s a raving wingnut (right-winger). He loudly, proudly supports the NRA (National Rifle Association), a collection of hard-core gun defenders and promoters, and gets very upset if I say something, even mild, against them. When I say something wild (like “Fuck the NRA!”), he goes berserk, and then starts frothing about the coming hard times when I, and fellow liberals, will go to Walmart and find the food shelves empty! Ha ha! I respond. Ha ha ha! And then say, circling my ear with my finger, Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

Y is another case altogether — a big former U of A basketball player. He’s probably 6’4” or 6’5” and about as dumb as they come. His sole topic of conversation is guns. Though he works, even at his age (mid-40s) as a clerk in a liquor store, he has a piece of property in the country on which he’s erected a tree stand. There he takes up arms, on the weekends, and blasts any animals that come near — deer or whatever. He has multiple guns available, he tells me, so that he doesn’t run out of ammo or miss a kill because of an ill-suited weapon. Aside from this proclivity for guns, and violence, Y is something of a bully. The inevitable refrain I hear when he sees me is, “Hasn’t that deer run over you yet?” For when I told him last summer that I’d bought a new bike and was taking long bike rides, he got it into his dunderhead that it would be funny to see me brought down by a mad deer. (There are videos available online that show bikers being knocked down by deer or antelope.) “Hasn’t that deer twisted you apart yet?”

At a certain point, it’s neither wise nor practical to talk with certain people. If you know, for example, that your ideas are inalienably opposed to theirs, that there’s very little possibility of your talking amicably about things that matter, why bother? Anything that passes between you would be mere time-of-day chitchat.

Whack-a-dad

Had a massage today, down in West Fork. My masseuse lives in the house, an old stone house, with her husband and kid. When I entered, her four-year-old boy greeted me in the office with a rolled up news magazine.

I was thinking, isn’t that great, the tyke can read already, but he assured me, in no uncertain terms, of his real intent. “When my daddy gets home,” he announced, “I’m going to whack him with this magazine!”

“Oh, my!” I replied. “Aren’t magazines for reading?”

“Well,” the kid rejoined, “he hit me first!”

“So you deserved it!” his mom, my masseuse, replied.

At which point, I graciously bowed out of the family feud, went into the masseuse’s room, and disrobed. No sense getting too involved in any one family’s private pathology. If we have to be naked and honest, don’t we have enough of our own?

Golden silence

silence is golden
Silence is indeed golden. And equally rare.

Took Ruby to her school this morning and, so, decided I’d just mosey down the road to do some headwork at the coffee house and work out at the gym.

Went to Mama Carmen’s, on College Ave, a hangout I like, for its good coffee, friendly ambiance, and ample work space. But this morning, I couldn’t get comfortable, either for reading or working on the computer. The first seat I took, a sofa before a coffee table, next to a lamp, was too wallowy and too shallow for working on my laptop. The second seat, at a counter hidden behind a brick wall, was fine for reading a book and marking it up, as I usually do. (Am reading colonial American captivity narratives for their relation to a novel I’m researching.) But in both places loud pop music was driving me mad.

Most Mama Carmen customers are young ‘uns, in their teens or twenties, including I think many U of A undergrads. If they mind the music, they give no indication, as they calmly go on chatting with others or listening to whatever they prefer via headsets. But I’ve never been able to do much headwork with music playing, however soothing or otherwise enticing it might be.

So I packed up and drove to the Pat Walker Center for Seniors, which includes a medical clinic, a meeting room, a lounge, administrative offices, and a gym. I sat, all by myself, in the lounge, which has several long tables with chairs, a few armchairs, and a sofa, plus vending machine and small library. Launching again into the captivity narratives, I was formulating some helpful ideas for my project, when I thought suddenly of the “Magna Silentia” enforced at the Catholic seminary I attended in the 9th grade. Talk about a long time and long space away! The Latin phrase occurred to me vividly: “Magna Silentia,” or the Great Silence.

This was sleep time, after the lights went out in our dormitory and before the alarm sounded to wake us, loud and shrill, for morning mass. No talking, no trivial noise was tolerated. We turned in, prayed, meditated, and conked out.

A lot of water over the dam since Catholic boyhood — personal water, I mean, and cultural. I’ve grown, and aged, and become both more thoughtful and more voluble, able to enter into or initiate conversations with just about anyone, often with a joke to break the ice. But our culture too has gotten louder if not more thoughtful. Just about everywhere we go these days we get Muzak or other pop music designed, I suspect, to fill the ever increasing emptiness in our heads. God forbid we should have to fill that space with something of our own. Let’s just turn on the noise!

So imagine my distress, then, when a troupe of white-hairs shuffled into the lounge and started setting up an event. (I saw tchotchkes on a table, doilied dollies and self-help brochures.) And not content to work in silence, these old folks began discussing, what else, their medical maladies. Their various gastrointestinal distresses, their prophylactics. Oh my god, save me from such twaddle.

Whether juvenile or geriatric, noise is not the natural, or welcome, accompaniment of thought. But then, it could be, thinking, like silence itself, is a rare bird these days. Inhabiting pop culture might be compared to birding: you go out, in camo, and look for hours and hours, patiently, meditatively, for that one rare bird we call thought.

The Mastery of James Joyce

James Joyce
James Joyce, about the time of the publication of Dubliners in 1914.

Have started re-reading Joyce’s book of short stories, Dubliners. Never studied these in a class or taught them, as far as I remember, with the possible exception of the great last story in the book, “The Dead.”

But even the first two stories, “The Sisters” and “An Encounter,” are great in their own way. With a few deft strokes, they nail the relation of a young boy growing up in a country, Ireland, paralyzed by the church (Catholic) and the state (England).

The first is about an old priest, Father Flynn, who has had several strokes and then dies. Told from the point of view of a young boy, his protege, the story offers one of Joyce’s typically sly and elliptical looks into the church. A powerfully Catholic country, early 20th century Ireland was rich in catechismal instruction, in other words, rote learning and unquestioning belief. The priest, retired from his duties after a stroke or two, catechizes the young boy, on the distinctions among mortal and venial sins and “only imperfections.” The boy sees him as a dying old man, in offputting physical terms:

  • heavy grey face of the paralytic
  • lips … moist with spittle
  • pushing huge pinches of snuff up each nostril alternately
  • big discoloured teeth
  • tongue lie upon his lower lip

And yet the boy’s aunt remarks, talking to the priests’s sisters, “No one would think he’d make such a beautiful corpse.”

Of course, Joyce is putting his finger up his nose and thumbing it, too, at the Catholic Church, which already by his day was as good as a corpse.

In the second story, “An Encounter,” the boy encounters another creepy old man. This one is not a priest but some kind of pederast or pervert whom the boy and his pal meet while playing hooky one day. The boys are sitting in a field, when an old man with “ashen-grey” mustache,” bids them good day. He talks about the weather, then the writers Moore, Scott, and Lytton. He suggests that Lytton is not suitable fare for young boys, and then, from “the great gaps in his mouth between his yellow teeth,” interrogates them on how many “sweethearts” they have.

There was nothing he liked better, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair [though] all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew.

After which, “the queer old josser,” as the boy’s friend calls him, moves to the other side of the field and evidently masturbates (no description provided). Then comes back and regales the boy if not his friend (who’s run off after a stray cat) with talk about how bad boys should be whipped.

He said that if he ever found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls.

The boy has played truant in order to have an “adventure.” Though he thought, naively, at first — like most of us, of whatever age, today — that having an adventure meant going to foreign lands, like the sailors on their ships at the quay, he finds out that the “queer old josser” was an adventure in his own right. The kind of adventure that we may not be seeking but that, however darkly or perversely, opens new vistas to us.

Americans abroad

ice cream vendor
Jen on malecon, with ice cream vendor.

Last month, during Jen’s and my visit to Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico, we ate at the highly rated Angelina’s Latin Kitchen. All around us were gringos, almost only gringos, the only ones able to afford the food. A lumpy and unlovely lot we were, we over-60s, feeding our faces, drowning our livers. And then a 15-16 year old girl, dragging her toddler, comes among us selling roses. No one buys. Everybody too busy biting, imbibing. The girl and her kid shuffle out.

Oh my countrymen, my lumpy countrymen, if I were (more) righteous I’d say that before the girl spread her sheets, she should have opened a spreadsheet and planned her future. But I am mad at our privilege, while enjoying it, and mad at the Mexican government, ruled by elites, for not doing anything to help its people, especially with education. Sure, it’s warm down there, and everybody’s outside, swarming, like flies, in the informal economy, trying to figure out, on the spur of the moment, what it’s all about and how to live another day hand to mouth.

red roses
Red red roses, the kind you’d like to give to your lady love …

My gringo friend, who with his wife owns a B &B  in Mazatlan, says that this is the way the Mexicans like it. We can’t look at things totally through our own over-sympathetic, or socialist, lenses, I acknowledge. Or through rose-colored lenses, either. “These people,” as my friend put it, like to be outdoors, like not to be tied to a desk, like to do what their forbears have done for generations before them. So let them wander at 10 pm or midnight, brats in tow, among the indifferent and guzzling gringos, no skin off our behinds.

The Mexicans merely do what their family has done, my friend says, for a long time. It’s not that the government doesn’t support them. It’s that they don’t want to be in school. It’s that they have the short-term, not long-term, view of things. (Kind of like American corporate shareholders.)

God knows many of us suffer from this same disposition — our plan is for the hour at hand, for what we enjoy now, for what’s to be had. Yes, we might have an education. And then have jobs. And money in the bank. But where are we today, and tomorrow, and then the day after? Maybe not on the beach selling knick-knacks or bric-a-brac, but, could be, neither here nor there, wondering where am I, what am I doing, where is all of this going?

The normal impulse is to look away when approached by vendors. We don’t need their stuff, gods know, and don’t want it, however much we feel their need.

Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

trump, lapierre
Trump and Lapierre, the faces of  ignorant bloodthirstiness.

Have a right-wing friend, let’s say acquaintance, at the gym I  attend. We get along fine, laughing and japing, until we get into politics.

I’ve made clear to Tommy, let’s call him, that I abhor the NRA and its bloody gun-promotion at any cost policies, but he counters that statistics prove having a gun at home protects people from intruders. (What did Mark Twain say about “lies, damned lies, and statistics”?)

I suggest that paranoia has intruded into his brain, that his fears are “projections,” much like bullets projected from a gun, which he attributes to others but which come from within. His own fears, that is, represent his fears of the unknown alien or other. (Yes, he makes many racist remarks about Latinos and blacks.)

The other day, we got into it in the locker room, both Tommy and I and a big dumb pal of his, about 6’4″, 300 lbs., a former Razorback basketball player who, at the age of 50, works as a clerk at a liquor store and for pleasure keeps a deer stand on which many guns are mounted. I suggested to Mr Razorback that I would give him a fine book of poetry which he could read in his stand, and he’d forget all about his guns. You will merge and commune with nature, I suggested, and your violent impulses will disappear.

But Tommy, entering the room, heard me inveigh against gun violence and the NRA, and shouted, “I’m an NRA member!”

Bad cess for you, Tommy.

Somehow, the argument escalated, and Tom spit out, When the food shelves run out at Walmart, you damned liberals will have nothing to eat.

Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo! I intoned, for one and all to hear in the sweaty locker room.

You just wait! Tom roared. You’ll starve to death!

Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

Apparently, it’s the “elite” who foist such cultural products as clear, logical, intelligent writing on the masses. Therefor, of course, Tom and Razorbelly will not read such stuff, especially if it comes from political pundits of the center and left. How dare others have gifts and insights that we lack? they seem to suggest. Simply because these elitists have a gift, have studied many years, learned a discipline, including logic. The smug superior bastards!

Cuckoo!

 

 

Story vs. anti-story

Bandidos
The Badass Bandidos (not to be confused with Frito-Lay Banditos).

Why do we tell stories? Why do we read stories? Why do they enthrall us still?

For sure, they’re entertainment; they help dispel the dullness and the lack of action in our regimented daily lives.

They help us while away the time around the campfire and the dark, and scare away the wild animals out there — or in here, in our breasts, where the wildest animals of all cavort and claw, including the sneaking suspicion that our lives mean nothing at all.

Last night, about 11:00, I got a call from an old buddy from long ago in graduate school days, in Austin, Texas, which he calls “Critterville.” Tom regaled me, and bored me, for a half hour with a long-winded story about the time he was confronted, and damn near killed, so he said, by the Bandidos, a motorcycle gang, somewhere behind a strip club. Ah, yes, these critters sucker-punched him, surrounded and cocked their guns at him, all but put a salvo of bullets through his brain, blah blah blah blah blah.

And yet, can you believe it, he lived to tell about it!

It still gets the adrenaline going, I guess, at least his adrenaline, though he now weighs about 400 pounds, I swear, and lies abed all day with multiple afflictions, including now prostate cancer.

I tried to interrupt Tom and direct the conversation to his cancer, something I have experience with, but he said, “Wait, let me finish this story.” So, yes, he finished the bullshit story, which showed among other things his grace under pressure, his luck, his wit, his quick thinking, his involvement in real action at a real point in his perhaps pointless life.

And isn’t that the point of narrative, as I say? To give point to that which is otherwise pretty pointless? To push back the curtain of night and despair, and suggest a myth by which all of us cavemen and critters can live?

And if these are all motives for storytelling, then isn’t storytelling, whether personal or artistic, a lie? Isn’t there a strong motive, in other words, not to tell stories, which seek to memorialize, to justify, to raise up out of the dust, but to tell anti-stories?

In modernist, or postmodernist, fiction, antinarrative is a movement and technique in itself:

Challenging the traditional conventions surrounding the concept of a narrative, an antinarrative makes use of those conventions to call attention to itself and the practices and modes being used to convey meaning to an audience. Many times ironic, antinarratives implicitly question the validity of conventional narrative logic and the structural aspects and strategies of a narrative in general.

To use an example from real life, as we call it, James Holmes, the Joker of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings, wrote his own antinarrative in a notebook that he, like many other mass murderers, kept. Besides doodling and scratching out maddeningly repetitive pages full of “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?,” trying to make sense of his “broken brain,” Holmes pinpointed the motive of his story:

Terrorism isn’t the message. The message is, there is no message.

If you were telling Holmes’ story, how would you do it? Whether a conventional murder mystery, a detective story, a thriller, or a literary effort, you’d use the events of his story but not necessarily put them in conventional chronological order. If your message included Holmes’ own nihilism (“there is no message”) you’d probably shake things up in many ways.

Dad and Barbara

The dear dead ones

What kind of Christmas theme is this? The dear dead ones!

But isn’t it precisely this time of year we think of them when we’re gathered around the giving tree and seated at the groaning board?

Oh, we think, just one more chance to see them, hear them, touch them as gifts are exchanged and platters passed around the table. Just to listen, quietly, to what they might say at such a momentous time as this, the time of sharing and forgiving, when past wrongs and slights, real or imagined, are forgotten and forgiven, when the family coheres.

I think of James Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” in which the protagonist, Gabriel, presides over a Christmas gathering of family and friends, proud of his oratorical abilities. He makes a sentimental speech to great applause but, once back home, sees his wife, Greta, whom he desires, despondent and apart. Stirred by a song she heard at the party, she is thinking of a young boy she used to love, who died when he was just seventeen. Gabriel tries to be ironic with his wife, but his egotism is deflated. Then this final glorious paragraph:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

A time now, this holiday season, to be unironic in our relations, to look each other in the eye, listen eagerly to what the others say, and offer a toast to the living and the dead. What would they be saying, the dear dead ones, if they could? What would we say? Na zdrowie! my Polish father might say. To your health, brothers and sisters, and ours, as long as this enterprise shall last.