Category Archives: Death

The glance

In Mexico, where my wife and I were vacationing, the girls and young women know how to pack it in and wrap it around.

Mannequins at store in Guadalajara

You can see the fashion cues in the mannequins at the stores, out on the sidewalk, stuffed into tight jeans, the zippers sometimes not zipped up all the way. What the hell, it’s a semi-tropical if Catholic country, and the girls aren’t walking like virgins or saints down church aisles. They are strutting their stuff, if they got it, and not shy about it either.

One consequence of this strutting, of course, is early pregnancy and poverty. You see many young girls either pregnant or with babes in arms or tow, or both. Combine this sad fact with the begging vendors on all sides, people without much education out on the streets hawking wares of all kinds — food, clothes, phones, flashlights, bird whistles, glass stirring sticks, bootleg CDs and movies, you name it — and you’ll get some inkling of how quickly things ripen and then rot in Mexico, how rapidly possibility runs into impassivity.

One day, about a week ago, in Guadalajara, the second biggest city in Mexico — terribly crowded and polluted too — Jen and I visited a couple of museums and then, about noon, sat down in an outside restaurant on a square.

When I entered the restaurant — there are metal rails all around, defining the space — I noticed, directly in my path, a gorgeous young girl, who couldn’t have been more than 18 or 20, sitting with a couple of old folks, that is, about my age and Jen’s. I looked at the girl with obvious interest, and she looked straight back, unblinking.

We took a table next to that where the girl and her party were sitting, and had a beer and snack.

When we left, I looked at her again, helplessly, with obvious interest, and she stared at me as boldly and unwaveringly as any woman has ever looked at me. (Back in the day, women would look at me, you see. But we needn’t go into that at this time. ) The girl swiveled her head and stared at me as if, well, I don’t know. As if I were the second coming of Christ? Or Satan on a stick? Or her last chance at getting out of that life of limited education and income?

As if to say, Hey, old gringo, get me out of here?

As it to say, What the hell you staring at me like that for?

As if to say, Now where if anywhere does it go from here?

I think of a song by Rupert Holmes, sung beautifully by the late Susannah McCorkle, “The People That You Never Get to Meet,” with wistful lyrics like these:

You’re browsing through a second hand bookstore,
And you see her in non-fiction V through Y.
She looks up from World War II,
And then you catch her catching you catching her eye …

Of course, there are a thousand other possibilities that lie behind that glance. What do I know? I’m just an old gringo with all the usual old boys’ habits and longings. I know, as you do, that life is short, and sweet, and fleeting. I know that in a tropical, or subtropical, clime, you do as the Romans, or the Tapatios, do (as Guadalajarans call themselves). You relax, expand, look around, and sigh. You go on with your life, and it takes you where it will.

And you think about
The people that you never get to love,
The poem you intended to begin.
The saddest words that anyone has ever said are
“Lord, what might have been.”
But no one said you get to win.

Now my dear wife Jennifer, who’s been my bride for 90 years, I joked to people in Mexico, says that the girl was obviously mentally defective, perhaps one of those Down’s Syndrome people who don’t look like Down’s Syndrome people. Why else, she reasoned, would a beautiful young girl look at a geezer like me?

No one said you get to win, all right — except what you’ve already won, like your spouse, who, if she’s like mine, is fine, and took some doing. Or the poem you not only intended to write, but did.


Day of the Dead

Here in Mexico (we’re in Ajijic, Jalisco now), they are getting ready to celebrate the Day of the Dead, November 2, or All Souls’ Day on the Roman calendar. But yesterday, as my wife Jen and I strolled around town, we experienced a foretaste of that public mourning and celebration.

We walked 2-3 miles down the carratera, or highway, to see if Jesus and Teresa, a couple we became friendly with, were still running their little restaurant, called La Cocineta (the little kitchen), which offered fresh, handmade ingredients and local fare. We found, in fact, that someone else had taken over and changed the name to El Verde (the green place). After two fresh fruit drinks (30 pesos, or about two dollars), we went across the street to a gated community called El Parque (the park), where we stayed one August a few years back and befriended several of the guards.

We asked after one of them, an amigo named Felix, who was quite a colorful and comical character. He was always ready with a bawdy quip and a friendly hand. He invited me one day to come down the highway to a pasturage he had there, where he kept a cow, a horse, and other animals, and experience the delights of the pajarete. What the devil is a pajarete? I asked.

Upon arrival I soon found out. Felix was milking a cow, squeezing its teats while the beast was shitting. Not to worry, he suggested. The cow was still cleaner than the putas (whores) in the town. I took video of this entire transaction (can’t find the file now, but will look), laughing all the time, it was so hilarious. (See this article for a discussion of the custom of the pajarete.)

You gotta put your hands on the teats, boys, to get the pajarete.

A pajarete, it turns out, was a magical morning drink that included, in Felix’s recipe, fresh cow’s milk, chocolate, coffee, and tequila. Down the hatch! Felix and his compañeros and I drank readily. What a way to start the day!

When we asked yesterday about the man, the guard on duty told us that Felix died about a year ago, just north of town on the highway, in a motorcycle accident. Our hands went to our mouths in shock. We stood stock- or shock-still for a moment, unable to believe or comprehend.

But it made sense after all. Felix was not the kind of guy to go out quietly. He was married a couple of times, I believe, and had kids with several women. (His son Antonio, who worked as a guard at El Parque, too, has a family of six kids.) He swaggered about, telling jokes, laughing and making a merry demonstration of the gold in his teeth. Life was a comedy, no, señor? A divine comedy, if you will. Or a tragic one, if that makes sense.

So as Ajijic gears up for Halloween (celebrated by the gringos, and extended now to Mexican kids) and then the Day of the Dead, we remember our friend Felix, the happy one, as the name suggests, and his short and blazing time on this earth. Salud, Felix! As a happy cat, you may have another life or two coming.


It’s a lovely day for an execution

In Arkansas, “the natural state,” we’re now going through a battle between nature and culture, and it appears for the moment that nature, “red in claw and tooth,” has the upper hand. I’m talking about the Death Row inmates here, whose executions were mandated by the new Republican administration and then stayed by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

DP-State-MapAccording to the Death Penalty Information Center, 31 of our 50 states carry the death penalty. As you may know, a few of these states, like Arkansas before the Hutchinson administration, have a legal, or virtual, moratorium on executions. But the bulk of these bloody red states, principally in the South and the West, may be eager to follow through with the termination of the bad guys on Death Row.

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, as the new evangelical Bible proclaims. Christ in his glory, and his bloodthirstiness, is on the prowl. Of course, as we well know, conservative Christianity and guns are intimate bedfellows, well and lovingly bundled.

What’s saving us as a civilization, so far, is that the pharmaceutical companies, those paragons of civic virtue and restraint, will not sell the deadly chemical cocktails to death-penalty states. They don’t want their reputations stained by blood, after all. Part of the appeal by Arkansas’s Death Row inmates challenges a new law that would keep the manufacturer of these chemicals a secret.

For blood money is hush money, and the shame must not get out. If we as a state, or nation, or people must have an eye for an eye (consider Israel and the Palestinians), then we must keep the struggle hugger-mugger, under the table, decorous, lest we frighten the children, I suppose, the natural heirs, in this natural state, to our own thirst for violence and vengeance. Pass the butter, please, and the sour cream, we simper. Pass that bloody steak, we roar.

Gun control, 2

Umpqua CC students
Umpqua Community College Students being frisked by police on the day of the massacre that killed ten, including the shooter, 1 October 2015.

A story in today’s Washington Post discusses the possibility that in the wake of the latest horrific gun massacre, in Oregon, President Obama may take executive action on gun control. Obama has asked his team, evidently to determine “what kinds of authorities … we have to enforce the laws that we have in place more effectively to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”

Of course, the far-right gun-rights wingnuts think that Obama is something of a criminal himself for proposing restrictions on gun sales and purchases. What he may be proposing now is simply the licensing of dealers who sell more than 50 weapons per year and background checks on purchasers.

To me, an anti-gun nut, it seems quite obvious that this measure in not enough in itself; and that this measure in itself will not keep guns “out of the hands of criminals.” In using this phrase, Obama simply echoes the simple-minded psychology, the naiveté and disingenuousness of the NRA and too many American citizens.

For any of us, any time, could break through the brittle mask of our civilized selves and become criminals. Haven’t we learned anything from Freud and modern psychology? Haven’t we learned from modernist writers, whether Ibsen, Faulkner, Genet, Hemingway, Sexton? Haven’t we considered how violence pervades contemporary literature and art, whether highbrow or low? Have we been deaf and blind to the daily news, which brings us, as Obama says, a new massacre every week or so?

Any of us could become criminals at any time. All of us are born with an innate capacity if not genius for evil, from childhood on. All of us are criminals, in potentia, if not in fact.

So the deliberate naiveté and falseness of the right misrepresent us at our core. There is no simple gulf between the violent and non-violent, the criminal and the bourgeois, the career hitman and the minister or lawyer. Nor is there any reason why we human beings, with our atrocious record of murdering each other individually and en masse, cannot become more peaceable, more reasonable. If only we can calm down long enough to study and unlock our genius for good.


Gun control

The Oregon community college killer, too confused and cowardly to be named,
says the sheriff, was enrolled in Writing 115. Before he began picking off his
classmates, he handed over to one of them, “the lucky one,” a manifesto
of obscure resentments and rages. Whether he was failing or passing
this writing class, who knows? Whether the manifesto contained run-on
sentences, subject-verb errors, pronoun agreement problems, dangling
modifiers, incoherence galore. He killed his teacher, Lawrence Levine, 67,
of Glide, an avid fisherman and good writer. Grandma, a survivor sobs,
He killed my teacher. I saw it. The community will pull together, according
to the mayor. He was wearing a flak jacket, camo gear and more ordnance
than you would need to blow up the entire MLA Committee on Community
College Best Writing Practices. He is said to have practiced with his mother,
toting guns, not pens, the two of them, to shooting ranges, making a point
of squinting and taking aim at the obstacles life presented in their long trudge
since divorce from daddy the Englishman. Kim Saltmarsh Dietz, 59, died
at the scene, a very energetic, very kind, kind soul, according to her ex,
who loves her still, an exceptional woman. Lucero Alcaraz, 19, died too.
There is no sense in talking about it, his father says, though he says it
in Spanish. What is the point in showing our pain? Jason Johnson, 20,
had just begun his first week at the school after passing a Salvation
Army drug rehab program. Quinn Glen Cooper, 18, was funny, sweet,
compassionate, a wonderful loving person who loved martial arts,
dancing, and acting. Our lives are shattered beyond repair, his family
says. Lucas Eibel, 18, an amazing soccer player, had just graduated
high school with outstanding marks. Sarena Dawn Moore, 44, a Seventh-
day Adventist, was among others singled out as a Christian. Treven Taylor
Anspach, 20, a name that might’ve been fresh off the boat,  was one
of the most positive people you could ever know. So too was  Rebecka
Ann Carnes, just 18, just starting on life’s mysterious, shall we say glorious path?
Her beautiful spirit will be enormously missed. May they all rest in peace.

Happy hour

Dreamed last night that I was given an assignment, evidently at school, to write something about happy hour. Maybe the assignment was conveyed to me by a classmate and I lost something in translation, because I had to ask, in class, whether everyone had to write about the same scene or situation. I think the answer was yes, and so I was redirected toward a more neutral scene, perhaps having nothing to do with happy hour.

Mom and Fred
Mom, Mary Zeck, and her younger brother Fred Curtis, back in the happy day and happy hour.

But this idea, and phrase, has deep meaning for me (is cathected, in psychoanalytical language, the way “our song” may be cathected for a happy couple, or a once happy couple, who upon hearing the song wax rhapsodic or nostalgic about everything it means to them. In my family, happy hour was the time from four to six, or five to six, in which we sat down together, as adults, Mom and Dad and the kids, sharing a few drinks and telling family stories.

“Happy hour” is also a reminder that our time on earth is short and our time to be happy as fleeting as the hours. Life is our happy hour, the only hour we have to be happy, and if we miss out on it then we miss life.

Perhaps, I’m thinking, this assignment to write about happy hour is from the ego itself. If I, in my brief life, as brief as yours, am to fulfill the mystery of why I’m here, I must write about happy hour. About my family, that is, and my place in it. About the pleasure of sharing drinks and stories (see entry above about the kinds of stories we told). About the fragility of these times together.

Happy hour. The briefest of hours. The most pleasurable too. It will not last, unless you grasp and form it in memory, or recollection. Unless you write it down, where others too may share its magical and transient charms. This happy hour begs to be a drama, that is, a play. No matter that I’ve written poetry and fiction but not drama. The genre is of no moment, and all moments. And don’t I have plenty of play left in me still?

We’re all crazy

crazy-girlTold a friend at the gym yesterday one of the crazy family tales I’ve recounted here (doesn’t matter which one), and he just shook his head, laughing, and said we’re all of us crazy.

Used to be, in the old days, I reflected, we sent the really crazy family members to the far corners of the compound. They could rattle all day in their chains, and still be fed and occasionally humored and talked to.

Nowadays, my friend was suggesting, everybody is crazy, and they’re all loose in the asylum. They’re not confined to the far reaches, either. You can run into them just about any hour of the day, and they’ll be in your face and roaring in your ear.

In Eureka Springs, this last weekend, at our hotel, a man took from the trunk of his black Mercedes an AR-15 and fondled it, caressed it as a lover would his beloved (my son Gabe told me this story). Glad I wasn’t there. I would’ve opened my big, anti-NRA mouth and got in trouble. Let boys be boys, hey, and fondle their automatic weapons.

In Fayetteville, we just had a human rights ordinance pass, designed to protect LGBT rights, and the losing side, religious nuts and allies, sued the city. Not only poor losers, but unwilling and unable to accept the rising secular tide of fairness for all. It’s all about them, of course, and that millennia-old book of perversions and persecutions called the bible.

Also in Northwest Arkansas, a young man  charged with murdering a jogger said he thought that shooting him, as he ran along a path, would make him (the shooter) feel better. Evidently, it did not.

Of course, it’s not just the crazy family members that we love to tell stories about, and keep in their place, if we can, in the far corners of the compound or the mind. It’s every other living, stretching, talking, gawking, fame-seeking human being on the planet.

Don’t tell me the next time someone shoots up the neighborhood that he was always so kind and helpful, always so quiet. Of course he was, the crazy fucker, he was hiding it all so that when he broke out, fearfully and violently, into the open, his insanity would be all the more spectacular and effective.

We live with insanity daily, and some of it is our own.




Centenarian stories

On 5 September 2015 my mother would have been 100 years old had she been living. Unfortunately for her sake, and ours, she died about 24 years ago at the age of 76 . We have dearly missed Mother, genius as she was of the happy hour, when we would gather, parents and children, and tell happy stories of the old days. In our telling, that is, the days were happy, or the telling was happy, even while telling of struggles and dissension. The tales that Mom loved especially were about her struggles with Grandpa, her husband’s father. Old Grandpa Tony was what my dad called “old school,” meaning that he had very fixed ideas about behavior proper to men and women among other things. And my mother’s behavior did not fit in with Grandpa’s idea of what a woman should be like and what she should act like. My mother’s smoking, especially, enraged Grandpa. He would fume, not with cigarette smoke but with his Yosemite Sam temper, about Mother’s smoking. He would mutter, only half under his breath, so that everyone could hear, including Mother, unflattering things about “that woman and her smoking!”

With such stories we would regale each other, reinforcing types  and stereotypes of the dramatis personae of our family. Yes , in our telling, Grandpa was either an old-school tyrant or villain, on the one hand, or a clown, on the other, whose behavior was so rustic and so boorish that all you could do was laugh at it, especially these many years later.

The clown stories included episodes of Grandfather’s cheapness. He was so cheap, or tight, that he saved everything, for reuse, from newspapers to old bottles to plastic bags. He and Grandma Gertie, children of the old school and the depression, were fervent early recyclers not for the sake of the environment but their pocketbook.

The most comical story, could be, was told by my brother-in-law Russell Murphy. When Russ and my sister Barbara were first married and had several small children and lived in the suburb of Richfield , Grandpa called them excitedly one night saying, “Hurry! Hurry! You must get here before they come!” Before who come? Russ wondered. But he and Barbara and all the kids piled in the car and trundled up to northeast Minneapolis, a half hour or so away, the Polish part of Minneapolis where Grandpa lived. As soon as they pulled up to the curb, Grandpa ran out calling excitedly, “Hurry! Hurry! They’re coming!” And when Russ asked, “Who are coming?,” Grandpa merely repeated, “Hurry! Hurry!” and took them through the frontyard and then the backyard to the alley, where the noise of the garbage truck was approaching. “Hurry! Hurry!” Grandpa repeated.

What they were hurrying for, It turns out, Is the loads of windfall apples under the trees on both sides of the alley. “Hurry!” Grandpa panted. “Or they’ll be gone!” For he knew a good deal when he saw it, son of the depression, grandson of desperation, and his zeitgeist was not in accord with that that of the booming ’50s and ’60s. When Russ and Barb got home with their apples, they discovered a dubious windfall — most of the fruit at least half rotten, much of it needing to be thrown away. For all their labor, both coming and going, gathering and preparing, they ended up with a measly few bottles of apple sauce or preserves.

The old immigrant America, quaking in its impecunious boots, desperate for a few free chances, vs. the booming native sons and daughters, with their spendthrift and profligate ways. C’est la vie, non? Here today, gone tomorrow. And no one was starving.

We would tell these stories, as I say, and laugh uproariously. The distance between them and us! The distance of time, place, and point of view! The hilarity of their rustic desperation!

Of course, the day would come, and has, when our heirs would laugh their tails off telling tales, tall and short, about our eccentricities and peccadilloes. How frightened we were and shrunken! How afraid of every shadow that blew!  Now that they knew what was what, and what was not, they could settle back to their drinks, their food, chewing the fat of this generous land and worrying no storytelling bones.

Time, time, time

Went to the doctor’s the other morning for the first time in a year and a half. Medicare allows an annual “wellness” exam, a run-through of the basic physiological systems, and I was scheduled for 8 am. As usual, though I had a very early appointment, I had to wait. It helped to have my Kindle with me, so I could read and so while away the time. (Mostly I read the Washington Post, all sorts of timely articles about the concerns of the day or, more accurately, the horrors of the day — the murders, the wars, the political nastiness.) But as the wait increased, 20 minutes, 30, 40, and so on, I got increasingly impatient. By 60 minutes, I was ready to bolt. In fact, I’d gotten up and was near the door when I heard my name called.

I was still simmering and told the assistant, who was taking vital signs, of my discontent. “We’re doing the best we can,” he kept saying. Your best, I thought, is not nearly good enough. I sat there, the steam rising, as it does from the head of Yosemite Sam in the cartoons, and slowly simmered down.

A nurse came, then, to draw blood and, at last, the doctor. We talked a bit, and he looked at my mouth, ears, and chest, then went out to get instruments to drain fluid from a swollen bursa. When he returned and started the procedure, first giving an anesthetic, then putting a syringe into the elbow and draining a good amount of yellow fluid, I asked if he didn’t wear a watch. (He was wearing none.)

Why do you ask? he said. Because I’m late?

Just curious, I responded.

I used to wear one, the doctor replied, but it simply got in the way. I do so many things with my hands all day that I stopped wearing the watch. I simply work all day till the work is done.

What a marvelous formula: he simply works till the work is done! Time dissolves for him, not because he’s “in a zone,” necessarily, seeing and hitting everything in sight, like a baseball hitter may be, but because in serving his patients he does everything he can, all day, till what he can do is done.

Dr B is a good doctor, voted top family physician in Fayetteville, in fact, in a recent poll. He’s kindly, humorous, concerned, and thorough — just terribly late at times. Times that may matter to some of us a hell of a lot more than they matter to him. For to the good doctor, time is not an important matter but an artificial construct that may steam his impatient patients … but streams over him like so many sparkles in the sun.

Baseball has been good to me

Beisbol has been berry berry good to me.

So said the comic Bill Dana, in his role as José Jiménez, back in the 1960s, and so say I. José, you might remember, once upon a time, praised the friendliness of the American people towards Latino immigrants. José had gone to a baseball game, and though he could afford just a nosebleed seat out in center field, everyone stood up before the game began, looking his way, doffing their hats, and sang, “José, can you see?”

Naturals' players stretching before the game.
Naturals’ players stretching before the game.

Last night I went to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals game in Springdale with my son Gabe. Because school has begun already, attendance was sparse, maybe 1,500 fans in the seats (out of a capacity of 6,500). We got excellent seats, behind home plate, and sat among a cadre of score-keepers and statisticians for both teams. These young men, some ball players, kept charts and used radar guns to measure the pitchers’ speed.

Our speed, Gabe’s and mine, was measured in beers rather than innings pitched, batters up, or balls and strikes called. We didn’t keep track of much of anything besides the score at the moment and the status of our beer cups. Ended up having three each (local craft beers) and one hot dog (mystery meat).

pitched ball
Our starting pitcher delivers to a Cardinal.

The game loped along, in no particular hurry, and the Naturals beat the Springfield team 5-3. (The Naturals are a AA affiliate of the KC Royals and the Cardinals of the St. Louis Cardinals.) Our seats afforded us a great view of hitter, umpire, and battery (pitcher and catcher). We could see balls and strikes almost as well as the umpire. I took a bunch of photos with my Fujifilm camera, the only hindrance the backstop netting between us and the action.

Sure, the team has Latino players, who may or may not have been welcomed as heartily to the US as José Jiménez, those many years ago. (The last game I attended, two weeks ago, was led off by two solo home runs on the part of two compact Latino infielders, Ramon Torres and Raul Mondesi. Last night, Torres had an RBI triple and scored on a throwing error after his hit. Jorgé Bonifacio, from the Dominican Republic, had a game-winning, two-RBI single in the bottom of the seventh.)

But the biggest impression made, on the field, was by Naturals’ third basement Hunter Dosier, who though he’s having a tough season at the plate, made two spectacular plays at the hot corner, snaring a wicked half-hop early in the game and throwing out the baserunner and, then, late in the game, helping to seal the victory, diving to his right and snagging a bullet, again throwing out the runner with his fast, accurate arm.

infield preparation
Hosing off and brushing up before the game at Arvest Park on a perfect late-summer evening.

So why do I care about beisbol? How has it been good to me? So many people these days knock the game, saying it’s slow and boring. While these may not be the people who say the same thing about classical music, these knocks show a certain blindness to both sports. Those who don’t see the beauty of baseball are not looking very hard — the cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and batter; the chatter of batter and catcher, teammates, fans; the largo and then slap-bang allegretto of the innings; the idyllic pasture of the outfield, the hosed-down, swept-up neatness of the infield. (As for classical music, I’ll address that issue another day, saying for now only that those who pooh-pooh it most probably have hearing, and learning, disabilities.)

I grew up playing baseball, sure, in Little League and Babe Ruth. I might not have been a force of nature in the game, whether catching or playing third, but I enjoyed it. Have always enjoyed playing, and watching, organized ball.

And, way back in my childhood, playing an unorganized game called “fenceball” that my best friend Mark may have invented, where at the local park the batter stands between home plate and pitcher’s mound, facing the screen, and the opponent throws to him. The screen acted as a measurement for your hits, divided into three horizontal sections and three vertical. If you hit the bottom section, it was a single; the middle, a double; the top, a triple; and if you smacked any of the four vertical posts, or the fringe extending at the top, that counted as a home run.

Mark died young, at age 23, in a truck accident. And although he is buried long ago and far away now, on a hillside overlooking the Minnesota River, in a Catholic cemetery (Resurrection) maintained by a faith I no longer subscribe to, I do believe in the power of the game of baseball to soothe, smooth, and relieve our lives of stress and pain. To provide an idyll on a perfect summer day. (Though my son Gabriel Mark doesn’t play or enjoy baseball like his dad, he’s the perfect companion for watching the game and guzzling a few cool goodby-summer brews, toasting the fleeting season and proclaiming, “Hello, Brother Summer, and farewell.”)