A Rahsaan Roland Kirk Rescue

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Let’s say it’s the summer of 1976 and you’re a lost soul, maybe in the throes of a nervous breakdown[1], an impoverished graduate student who washes dishes Monday through Saturday and buses tables from 9 to 1 on Sundays.

You’re so poor you can’t scrape enough scratch to purchase textbooks, so you check them out of a university library that is mostly subterranean, even though you enter through its reflective glass facade on ground level.  The library is, in the words of TS Eliot, an “objective correlative” of your failure as a human being, a painful reminder of your stupidity, sloth, poverty, and cowardice and provokes what back then was called the heebie-jeebies but now is known as a panic attack.

In other words, your problems are elitist. You’ve had acquaintances killed in Viet Nam, your father’s generation fought in WW2, but to you, renewing a library book is the equivalent of identifying your next of kin. It’s pathetic – but not worthy of pity – no, this level of mental weakness deserves derision, mockery, or at the very least, tsk-tsking, sad head shaking.

Anyway, that’s how you feel. You feel ashamed and lost.

And that’s when you become re-acquainted with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whose album The Return of the 5000 Lb. Man is like a floating device flung from a blind, half-paralyzed lifeguard.

landscape-1464713250-rahsaan-roland-kirk-gilles-petardRahsaan’s recent problems are more profound than yours. Blind from early childhood, he’s recently suffered a stroke that has left one side of his body partially paralyzed, so he’s had his tenor saxophone modified so he can play with one hand. Kirk was famous for playing more than one instrument at once, two saxes and a nose flute, but obviously, those days are done, yet, good God, you’d never guess that the tenor solos on 5000 Lb. Man are coming from the horn of a one-armed man.

Side A begins with a song called “Theme of the Eulipians,” begins with sound effects, faint whistling, footsteps, muted conversation, and then a beautiful melancholy harmonica tune and a tinkling piano over which someone named Betty Neals recites a poem – but, hey, this is a blog, not a book of essays; listen for yourself.

So you’re awash in a sea of melodic jazz until this:

This improvisation diminuendos into a swinging interchange between bass and piano.

The main melody returns, and surely it sounds like the songs ending, but it’s not; we get this framing coda:

You’ve been temporarily saved by a song, a warm song, and you aren’t about to forget it.

You can listen to the entire thing here, but better yet, go buy it:


[1] For a full-bodied definition of this mental malady, click here.

Ants and the Karamazovs

the author fleeing from an ant attack

the author fleeing from an ant attack

I’ve spent June with the Karamazovs.   In the literary category of most-fucked-up families, the Karamazovs rank right up there with Faulkner’s Compson clan and the mother-and-son team of Mr. and Mrs. Oedipus Rex.[1]   With the Karamazovs, we’re talking a toxic Freudian stew of father/son rivalry; religious/existential angst; vigils over putrid, decaying corpses; parricide – you name it.

paperbackFlipping through the yellowed pages of my 1957 paperback, I’ve been hanging out in monasteries, crumbling estates, filthy hovels, roadhouses, and prisons. Dostoyevsky’s celebration of suffering dwarfs whatever current troubles the reader tends to be enduring – in my case defending our household from an invasion of sugar ants (Monomorium pharaonis).

That’s right sugar ants, or, if you prefer, pharaoh ants, hordes of them, hundreds, if not thousands, marching dutifully in single file until they make the vertical descent from windowsill to counter top where they break up and swarm into earthbound clouds of tiny six-legged locusts.

If Dostoyevsky’s world is God-haunted, our bathroom is Darwin-haunted, man-versus-beast, and am I ever outnumbered, pitted against a very insidious, well-adapted enemy equipped with three types of pheromones, remarkable navigation skills, nesting strategies that subdivide colonies into non-competitive satellite campuses. To make matters worse, the colonies of these ants contain many queens, making it more difficult to eradicate a colony.

Monomorium pharonis with sugar crystal

Monomorium pharonis with sugar crystal

Sugar ants are tiny, a mere 2mm, about the size of a gnat. I first noticed them in the sink, feasting on a careless dropped dollop of toothpaste, so I guess you could say my carelessness caused the invasion.[2] Anyway, dispatching this first wave was as easy as retrieving tissue and wiping the intruders away. “Ha! Let that be a lesson,” I thought.

What I didn’t realize is that these fallen scouts had left a well-marked trail of pheromones pointing out to kinsmen the path to my sink. My next strategy was to spray the counters with peroxide, which instantaneously dispatched the unwanted immigrants, and I thought the puddles might act as a moat to dissuade others from visiting, but then again, I was mistaken.

The third strategy was successful. I mixed some Borax powder with fig preserves, placed the concoction on a piece of cardboard, and laid it on the counter. Man, what a cluster feast. It looked as if they were drunk, hundreds of them, inert, seemingly stuck, but still others were marching in single file, going and coming beneath the windowsill and through the screen.

That night I was shocked to discover that except for a few dead non-souls stuck in the preserves, that they were all gone, and the morning after no one returned, and now it’s been two days, so I am on the verge of declaring victory. Praise be for that slow acting poison borax, which the workers took home to their queens, who ingested it and with those royal deaths, the colony ended.

So now I can return in triumph to the Brothers Karamazovs — Dmitri, Ivan, Alyosha — and to the illegitimate Smerdyakov, whose stunted, dim-witted mother Lizaveta Papa Fyodor had his way with, impregnating her with the offspring that one day would put an end to him. In other words, return to a world far less organized, wholesome, and, dare I say, moral than the ant colony I destroyed.


[1] AKA the House of Cadmus.

[2] Or as Dmitri Karamazov might say, “”We’re all cruel, we’re all monsters, we all make men weep, and mothers, and babes at the breast, but of all, let it be settled here, now, of all I’m the lowest reptile.”
Karamazov-Banner

Mind-Forged Manacles

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C’est l’Ennui!—l’oeil chargé d’un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d’échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
—Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!*

Baudelaire “Au Lecteur”

In our culture of hyper-stimulation, silence has become the rarest of commodities. In the evening of an overcast, humid, post-solstice sabbath, a siren swirls off in the distance while some unseen high-pitched mechanical blower/sandblaster/particle-collider keens like an instrument of torture.

To me, a native of the Lowcountry, summer’s official beginning is a sad occasion. The best weather is already behind us. The drip drip drip of days will winnow with less and less daylight as the ambitious resolutions of early June melt in the heat like wax sculptures – the hot tub not repaired, the school work delayed, the evenings, mornings, afternoons dissipating inevitability into oblivion.


*It’s the soul-stunting boredom – an involuntary tear in the eye.
Smoking the houka, he dreams
of gallows. Reader, you know this exquisite malady.
You, hypocrite reader – my soulmate – my brother!

very loosely translated by I-and-I (who assures you it sounds great in French)

Ennui, by Askerov

Ennui, by Askerov

O, woe is me!

Even though I have access to an array of Robert Altman films I can stream instantly via Netflix, Nashville is not available; the beach that is exactly .32 miles away is teeming with vulgarians, the gorgeous vista behind our house muted by the cloud cover.

Bill Clinton, you can’t even begin to feel my pain!

clintonfrown460

Perhaps, the decadent, entitled, whining dissatisfaction sampled above stems from my disinclination to seek out silence. The East has provided us with techniques to subdue what zen masters call “the monkey mind,” i.e., the brain’s tendency to flash from idea to longing to memory the way a spider monkey slashes from tree to tree to tree.

spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi)

spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi)

One of the many beauties of Buddhism is that it provides its practitioners a regimen of exercises that transforms the mind – to switch metaphors – from murky strom-tossed waters into a glassy pool that reflects things as they are. Buddhism relies on self (not supernatural) reliance in the paradoxical quest to annihilate ego.

“If you understand real practice, then archery or other activities can be zen. If you don’t understand how to practice archery in its true sense, then even though you practice very hard, what you acquire is just technique. It won’t help you through and through. Perhaps you can hit the mark without trying, but without a bow and arrow you cannot do anything. If you understand the point of practice, then even without a bow and arrow the archery will help you. How you get that kind of power or ability is only through right practice.”
― Shunryu Suzuki, Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen

Jeff League: Bonsai Tree with Blossoms

Jeff League: Bonsai Tree with Blossoms

Oh, but if right practice were only that easy! The changes are oh so slow. After all, according to Buddhist teachings, it’s a regimen that may take lifetimes rather than weeks to perfect.

Plus, the Faustian temptations – the webs (worldwide/ otherwise) that stretch out to snare us. Why assume the half lotus when I can watch reruns of What’s My Line? on YouTube or channel surf with a television monitor that provides images that seem more wonderful than the flora and fauna outside my window?

Not to mention the restive hardwired desires for sustenance and sex.

Nevertheless, as the adage goes, charity begins at home, and right practice is ultimately a matter of self will. In fact, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus offers a superb example of the dangers expressed at the beginning of this post – the tendency to shrug off the profound for the superficial, to squander precious moments in fruitless distractions. Remember, Faustus sold his soul to achieve greater knowledge, to understand how the cosmos functioned, yet soon enough started wasting his powers in trivialities, e.g., playing magical tricks on his adversaries and conjuring illusions like Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships/And toppled the topless towers of Ilium.
The 16th century equivalent of computer porn.

5 D. Fausti Buhlschaft mit Helena aus Graecia

Of course, the mind itself consists of the most delicate of chemical balances. What we so naively consider our substantial selves is an illusion conjured by a delicate mixture of amino acids, monoamines, acetylchlorine, nitric acids, etc.

A hit of illicit acid or a doctor prescribed dose of Prednisone can transform the seemingly substantial you from Jekyll to Hyde, begging the metaphysical/existential question who or what am I?*

Certainly, successful meditation must alter our brain chemistry in some mysterious way that leads to serenity. Here’s an anecdote from Ram Dass (aka Richard Albert) on the subject:


*Note to former students: Cf. Raskolnikov, Harry Haller, Stephen Dedalus, Oedipus, Hamlet, Othello, Emma Bovary, Milkman, Willy Logan, Merseault, Elizabeth Bennet, Raskolinkov, Mr. Kurtz, Dorothea Brooke . . .

In 1967 when I first came to India, I brought with me a supply of LSD, hoping to find someone who might understand more about these substances than we did in the West.

When I had met Maharajji (Neem Karoli Baba), after some days the thought had crossed my mind that he would be a perfect person to ask. The next day after having that thought, I was called to him and he asked me immediately, “Do you have a question?”

Of course, being before him was such a powerful experience that I had completely forgotten the question I had had in my mind the night before. So I looked stupid and said, “No, Maharajji, I have no question.”He appeared irritated and said, “Where is the medicine?”

I was confused but Bhagavan Dass suggested, ” Maybe he means the LSD.” I asked and Maharajji nodded. The bottle of LSD was in the car and I was sent to fetch it. When I returned I emptied the vial of pills into my hand. In addition to the LSD there were a number of other pills for this and that–diarrhea, fever, a sleeping pill, and so forth. He asked about each of these.

He asked if they gave powers. I didn’t understand at the time and thought that by “powers” perhaps he meant physical strength. I said, “No.” Later, of course, I came to understand that the word he had used, “siddhis,” means psychic powers. Then he held out his hand for the LSD. I put one pill on his palm. Each of these pills was about three hundred micrograms of very pure LSD–a solid dose for an adult. He beckoned for more, so I put a second pill in his hand–six hundred micrograms. Again he beckoned and I added yet another, making the total dosage nine hundred micrograms–certainly not a dose for beginners. Then he threw all the pills into his mouth. My reaction was one of shock mixed with fascination of a social scientist eager to see what would happen.

He allowed me to stay for an hour– and nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever.

Although we must cast a skeptical eye on anecdotal evidence, logic itself suggests that we at least give meditation a try, even if it yields something less than guru-dom. If it can help us shed delusions and rediscover wonder in the everyday, why not take the plunge? Meditation is religion neutral – the Southern Baptist and Shite Muslim (they have more in common than you might imagine) can practice meditation in honor of their respective deities.

It has in my negligible experience helped me to focus outside of myself to discover a certain interrelatedness, and the twenty minutes it costs can be scheduled between texting and checking emails – sometime during the evanescent day’s decline into darkness.
Just try to make sure you’re somewhere quiet.

photograph by Judy Birdsong

photograph by Judy Birdsong

Mere Facebook, an Apologia

Not surprisingly, academic naysayers galore bemoan the rise of social media in general and Facebook in particular, claiming a host of pernicious consequences resulting from people spending an inordinate amount of time on their computers, reducing our magical three-dimensional world to an impoverished digital approximation.  These sociologists complain that Facebook junkies stare at gifs of waterfalls rather than hiking down a trail to see one in person, post “happy birthday” on Nana’s wall rather than driving to the nursing home to plant a real kiss on her wizened cheek, or worse, spew typos in cliché-ridden porn tropes while engaging in virtual Facebook Messenger sex.

What r u wherein?

In addition, those carping Cassandras of the Ivy Towers prophesize ultimate unhappiness for inveterate clickers because Facebook usage promotes barren competition as sedentary souls compare their lives with others’.  They vie to amass “the most likes ever” while ruing that rather than sailing to the Bahamas on that glistening Yacht with Brittany and Madison, they’re stuck in their cookie-cutter so-called luxury apartment with nothing else going on on a depressing Sunday afternoon.

Okay, point. Here’s what my Facebook friend Francine Foxworth had for breakfast this morning: Vegan Vanilla Waffles with Vanilla Maple.

Vegan+Vanilla+Waffles+with+Vanilla+Maple+Cashew+Cream+|+Edible+Perspective

Whereas this is what I had

No_65_Spam

Anyway, these academics claim that Facebook tends to further isolate yourself from others who see the world differently, i.e., it entraps you in a Fox-News-like echo chamber in which you’re bombarded with links to uncritical blog posts that claim that Bernie Sanders is winning the Democratic nomination or the Sandy Hook massacre was staged by the CIA or that women actually prefer bald men like John Malkovich to thick-haired hubba-hubbas like Richard Gere.

gere

In other words, reality can be distorted.

Yeah, but, I believe that even if some of these negative theories are true, the pleasures that Facebook bestows by far counterbalance any negatives.

For example, virtually everyone who changes her profile picture is deemed “gorgeous” by at least one person.

So Pretty!

So Pretty!

All newborns are “beautiful” or precious”

So precious!

So precious!

Plus – and this is really great –Facebook’s  transformed the relative pronoun “this” into a powerful force of good or evil depending on its context.

This man:

600full-wink-martindale

This:

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So, I say keep on posting, keep on peeking, keep on crowing. Believe in yourself.

betty boop facebook

 

 

Five Reasons I Feel So Effing Fortunate

  1. There’s no way I’m going to die from Huntington’s Chorea.
  2. The Atlanta Braves are not going to lose a playoff game this year.
  3. Unless something unbelievable happens, I won’t have to endure an image of Chris Christie raising his right hand to take the oath of office.
  4. The statute of limitations has run out on lots and lots of my crimes and misdemeanors.
  5. I can beat the computer at chess, if I set the preferences to the me-vs-Willow-Palin setting.

 

moore Willow

 

The Bernie Brigade vs. Bill Maher

Bill Maher
Besides the pathological, farcical triumph of Donald Trump, the most interesting aspect of this election cycle for me is the passion and devotion Bernie Sanders has elicited from a considerable slice of the electorate. Sanders, as we know, speaks passionately about inequalities in income distribution and the degradation of the environment with little modulation in a tone that I would call hectoringly shrill.

His catalogue of campaign promises includes universal healthcare, free college tuition, and breaking up banks, but as far as I can tell, he hasn’t laid out detailed plans about how he could accomplish these goals. His plan, if you could call it that, is starting a revolution, which in a country where a majority of citizens squander their days staring into “mobile devices” and don’t even bother to vote, starting a successful revolution seems about as likely as Franklin Graham being chosen as the grand marshal at a San Francisco LGBT parade.

However, it is emotion, not rationality, that drives the most fervent of Sanders’ supporters, and if you ever speak out against their saint, or even question some of his premises, you can expect a tsunami of invective expressed in metonymic vulgarities likening you to genitalia.

Take the comedian Bill Maher, a former Bernie supporter who has now accepted the inevitable and thrown his support to Hillary. Here is a sampling from the comment section of the website Cosmoso’s post entitled Watch: Bill Maher Shows His True Colors, Calls Bernie’s Plan ‘Santaism’.

First the clip.

Now a sampling of comments:

Linda Carrico: “Dick Head.”

Vince Travis: Bill Maher is just another over 0pinionated asshole and he says what he what thinks his viewers will lap up and call him a very smart feller when in actuality hes a very fart smeller because like I always say opinions are like assholes everybodies got one and they stink (sic)

John Pugs Licitra: I have whatched your show for years…I have always found it informative and entertaining…after tonight, go fuck yourself, and your time warner paycheck… I’m so dissapointed to see what a fraud you are!!!! SHAME ON YOU, John Licit! (sic)

Rather humorless reactions, you might say.

No telling what Louis CJ has coming after this argument by analogy:

I keep going back and forth. Sometimes I think the system is so deeply fucked up that somebody as disruptive as Bernie — maybe he doesn’t even do a good job as president but he jars something loose in our system and something exciting happens. I mean, Hillary is better at this than any of these people. The American government is a very volatile, dangerous mechanism, and Hillary has the most experience with it. It’s like if you were on a plane and you wanted to choose a pilot. You have one person, Hillary, who says, “Here’s my license. Here’s all the thousands of flights that I’ve flown. Here’s planes I’ve flown in really difficult situations. I’ve had some good flights and some bad flights, but I’ve been flying for a very long time, and I know exactly how this plane works.” Then you’ve got Bernie, who says, “Everyone should get a ride right to their house with this plane.” “Well, how are you going to do that?” “I just think we should. It’s only fair that everyone gets to use the plane equally.” And then Trump says, “I’m going to fly so well. You’re not going to believe how good I’m going to fly this plane, and by the way, Hillary never flew a plane in her life.” “She did, and we have pictures.” “No, she never did it.” It’s insane.

Dripping jackhammer!  Quivering Quim!

The Zombie Apocalypse Blues (We’re All Gonna Die!)

Zombie Apcolpse

 

Born six years and ten months after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I am old enough to remember looking up at the stars above the steeple of the Methodist Church across the street from our rented house to see if I could detect Sputnik inching its way across the night sky.

We’re all gonna die!

Five years later, I would crouch underneath my desk at Summerville Elementary School as we practiced surviving a Soviet nuclear attack.[1]

We’re all gonna die!

A few months ago, I huddled beneath a Harkness table with high school students as we practiced surviving an assault from a deranged assailant.[2]

We’re all gonna die!

* * *

In the swirl of everyday events, it’s sometimes difficult to see strange occurrences as nothing more than mundane. In our particular culture, mass murder has become mundane. I’m not at all surprised to awaken to the news that some disaffected religious fanatic or marginalized bigot clad in body armor has decided to take out his grievances on complete strangers. Chances are that the murderer here in the United States is a native-born citizen of the-home-of-the-brave-and-the-land-of-the- free. Chances are he feels unaccepted so decides to throw a tempter tantrum.

Now, even the loneliest of the alienated can commune with fellow disaffected psyches on the Internet, cross-pollinating hatreds. Omar Mateen, our butcher de jour, actually checked his Facebook page during the carnage to see if the shootings had gone viral. Despite his having sworn fealty to ISIS right before the attack, I suspect that repressed-queerness, a tyrannical father, and high-school unpopularity had as much to do with his rage as geo-political/religious fanaticism.   Maybe he didn’t get enough positive attention when he was growing up. Now, he has gone viral, achieved infamy, set the Internet ablaze by obliterating the lives of his victims, their families, and friends.

Meanwhile, Congress is unwilling to ban the sale of assault weapons to people on no-fly lists, the Republicans have nominated PT Barnum-Meets-Mussolini, the Democrats a woman with a 55% disapproval rate, forest fires roar and oceans rise as satellites galore orbit the Earth keeping tabs and providing entertainment that features zombie apocalypses.

We’re all gonna die!


[1] Did they do this in the “separate-but-equal” African American school across town?

[2] Did little colonists in their one-room schools practice for a possible Indian attack?