In the News

We’ve been getting the Democrat-Gazette newspaper since we arrived in Arkansas almost five years ago, but have been thinking lately of canceling. My wife, Jen, in fact, rarely reads the paper (she and I get most of our news online), and I most often skim through the front pages. The very conservative political posture of the editors (editorial and opinion pages) pisses me off.

But there is one feature, trivial as it may seem, that entertains and amazes me — that’s the narrow column on the left side of the front page called “In the News.” These are very short summaries, or squibs, of bizarre events, which you might call “What Are People Thinking (if Anything)?”

Today’s column, for example, features these items:

  • Ted Walters, 49, of Elizabethtown, N.C., was arrested on burglary and assault charges after telling police he wanted to teach his 25-year-old son a lesson by shooting him in the leg after a family member said he was stealing hamburger and bacon from his grandmother’s freezer.
  • Kim Jones, a police officer in Atlanta, said a patient bolted from a stopped ambulance and ran across five lanes of traffic before being struck and killed by cars, shutting down early-morning traffic for about two hours on one of metro Atlanta’s busiest interstates.
Elizabethtown, NC
Elizabethtown, NC, in all its junky glory.

Ah, my, my fellow citizens! Where do we begin? “In the News” seems to be a primer on how not to act, how not to raise your children, how not to stay sane. Take the case of Ted Walters, 49, of Elizabethtown, NC (population 3,583, pictured at left in a Google satellite image) who shoots his son for stealing meat. That will teach the son (of a bitch) a lesson, won’t it? Except poor ole redneck Ted forgot to consider that shooting someone, son or not, may be a crime and that he may be prosecuted for the crime. I bet that son of a bitch, Ted’s son, was shown a mighty fine example of mature adult behavior in his father as he was growing up. When the dad (Ted Walters, 49) got mad, he’d shoot someone or something, or smack his target, hard: this might’ve been his wife, his co-workers, his friends, who knows. At any rate, I’m sure that Ted Walters, 49, was a fine example of restrained and channeled manhood for his son, the 25-year-old hamburger thief.

Or take the patient who bolted from an ambulance during rush hour. Clearly, he was nuts from the start. Probably a psycho case being taken to the hospital for the insane to be restrained, cuffed, manhandled, and taught a lesson in mature, adult living — you know, the kind that Ted Walters, 49, of Elizabethtown, NC has pursued his entire life. If you weren’t nuts to start with, why would you flee across rush hour traffic in Atlanta, one of the nation’s biggest and scariest freeway traffic jams? Of course, as I suggest, the patient might have feared — more than the traffic — the prospect of being restrained, and sanitized, by the state.

“In the News” might suggest that we are all in this same crazy, leaky boat together. We laugh at the idiots pictured “In the News,” but once we have our belly laugh, and sit back with another story, say how dictators, terrorists, and ideologues are killing all over the world, can we be so sure we don’t act the same way as these loonies — or don’t know plenty of people who do or, given the drop of a pin, would?

Concrete vs. abstract

big ball
This ball is big! (What the hell are we going to do with it?)

Have had occasion to think, re politics and culture in general, about how we might divide ourselves not into sheep and goats (baa!) but abstract and concrete people.

I don’t mean precisely what the great philosopher Madonna might have had in mind near the start of her career, as she sang “I am a material girl, / And this is a material world.” I’m not talking material vs. spiritual, really. (Many people who profess spirituality, sometimes hysterically, are oddly very material. They are set in the material world and yet profess to be acting and yearning for heaven.)

I mean when we meet and socialize, we tend to talk in concrete terms. Mostly, we tell stories — what we did today, what so and so said, how our best friend is feeling blue. We pile up evidence for the story — data, you might say; concrete and empirical facts; sensory details. For this is the world we live in (thanks, Madonna) — both concrete and material. And what are we ourselves if not material creatures?

Well, many of us begin and end there. We are concrete, set in concrete detail; our feet are set in concrete, like a mobster’s. We talk about the sensory world. We act and work in it, pouring foundations, fixing machines, tuning automobiles, sweeping the floor.

We may rarely if ever make the jump from these concrete details, or data, to abstract conclusions — the kind of thinking, or reasoning, that leaves the physical world and enters the metaphysical or more-than-physical. This is just too big a leap for most of us, who remain moored to our particular time, place, and circumstances.

A good friend from Minnesota, who visited recently, talked about the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis. He was incensed not with the protests themselves, he said, but with their method, for the protesters blocked traffic on the freeway and prolonged rush hour.

He was fastened to the facts, fascinated by the facts of the case, and they incensed him. He did not, could not, make a leap from the facts, the phenomena, to all the possible causes or consequences of this political act. (He only knew that blocking traffic delayed arrival at work and pissed people off.) He said nothing about the oppression of the black community. The violence of white cops. The terrific fear and hatred of the black man that the mere sight of one must inspire in too many of those who “protect and serve.”

Had my friend ever protested in public? I doubt it. He was part of what used to be called “the great silent majority,” who bitch to each other and complain but don’t make a concerted, organized public effort to change things.

But why change things when you have ’em good? The friend is retired from 3M, has investments and a pension, a very healthy retirement income, no wife or kids to look out for. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world, or his world anyway.

But thinking about his world would propel us into abstractions, true? A metaphysical, philosophical world where the air is rare and most of us go about gasping. Help, help, help!

Adventure and danger

Took a hike this last Saturday with my son Gabe, granddaughter Ruby, tutee Aneeka (like Ruby, 8 yrs old), and her lovely mother Rupali. We went to Tanyard Creek up in Bella Vista, a stream that plunges down from the spillway at Lake Windsor and winds among the woods. The hike was only 2 or 2.5 miles, but with the girls darting and playing on the rocks and in the water it took us an hour and a half or so.

What a glorious day it was. Lots of people were hiking, as families. Groups of teens appeared to be camping, at least day camping, by the stream, as they hung out hammocks — and then just hung out. Everybody was smiling.

The girls had a lot of fun — Ruby leading the way, charging  on with her hiking stick raised high and Aneeka charging after. Signs along the route warned not to get off the trail, as delicate habitat could be destroyed. But this didn’t hold back the girls, especially Ruby, who is high spirited and not very mindful at times.

Gabe, my son, and I kept calling her back, but she wouldn’t listen. Finally, as we returned to the parking lot, Gabe said, “I admire Ruby’s adventurous spirit.” Which I do too. The problem is when adventure comes to equal heedlessness. Every parent wants his child to be safe and may hold him back for that reason. So there’s a constant tug between safety and security, on the one hand, and adventure and growth, on the other.

base jumping
Extreme base jumping, which may lead, in extreme situations, to extreme unction.

At what point does adventure equal danger, heedless danger? That could be different for each of us. There’s extreme sport, after all, and base jumpers, who fly wingsuits among mountains, through crevices, and sometimes, alas, into the mountain faces. May they rest in peace, and we hope the thrill of the flight was worth the instant annihilation of the end.

Most of us are less extreme. I remember that my one-year-younger brother Bob and I would run away from the car and clamber up rocks when our family motored from the Twin Cities to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We might have been 10 and 11, or 11 and 12. Our parents kept calling us back, but we didn’t come. Were those knucklehead boys about to spill their brains on the rocks? Well, we didn’t spill ’em, though we might have.

As we might have, when older, drinking too much and clambering up on roofs. My brother died of alcoholism, in fact, when he was 46: he’d climbed too many roofs, in effect, and fallen plump down on his head. Drunk once, in the 1990s, at a rented cabin on Lake Superior, I climbed the roof one night, which was pretty shallow, to chase off the seagulls. I had no business being up there, drunk as I was, but there was no mom or dad to bring me down. Instead, my wife and friends encouraged me not to spill my brains, which were, they pointed out, all I had, but they could not compel me to get down.

Ah, yes, let’s adventure on, boys and girls. But not too much booze, please. Nor speeding on the highway. Nice and easy does it, it could be. Let’s get down off the roof, off the high, and see what adventures the mind itself can make.

Angry and ignorant

Following up my recent entry about the GOP and the presidential race, which cited Charles Simic’s article “Age of Ignorance,” a friend posted an article by Fred Schaeffer on Facebook that supports and enlarges this view that an illiterate and/or poorly prepared American electorate is open to extremist views like Trump’s.

Trump exists as the likely Republican nominee for two reasons:

First, Neil Postman’s prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death has been vindicated. It’s not coincidental that Donald Trump is a reality TV star. He is the face of an illiterate America that  gets its “facts” from TV news and talk radio hosts. He is the result of a celebrity “culture” gone wild.

Second, Donald Trump is the creation of white angry lower and middle-class Americans who have come through our educational system that failed to educate them. … They are not moved by facts, but their energy is fueled by overt racism, hate, xenophobia, isolationism and ignorance.

Wow! These are serious charges, but let’s examine them calmly.

Reality TV? About as far from reality as you can get, but sadly becoming too many people’s ersatz or substitute reality. If you sit in front of the TV and drool for entertainment, then you’ll accept any fool business to lift you out of your torpor, your low sense of self. But here comes my own living room billionaire to hire me and fire me, and tell me who I am!

Racism and xenophobia? I don’t know right-wingers who aren’t fueled by these hateful emotions.

My neighbor A prides himself on being a hard man: he runs and works out and has a lean, toned body. His mind is similarly hard. Because he has made it, he says, on his own, without  much help from his parents or advantages in his roots, anybody can make it. Then he cites a list of numbers about murders and imprisonment — “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” in Mark Twain’s words — that prove that black people are responsible for their own sad plight.

My gym rat buddy Z, whom I’ve mentioned above, doesn’t pass on a chance to revile blacks and Latinos — anyone else who looks a little different from him, as if he were the Great White Hope that would save the race from the mongrel hordes! Of course, he’s a gun nut too, ignorant and paranoid about the real threats to America: the main one not being that someone is going to break into your door and slaughter your family but that you yourself in you family, your house, standing your ground, as they say, will continue to be an ignorant right-wing redneck and live with as much imagination and compassion as a zombie.

Yes, my countrymen, the living dead, awakened by Donald Trump and walking around the landscape with their mouths open and their brains shut.

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.