Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Free as a Bird

“Prithee, go in thyself, seek thine own ease.
This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
On things would hurt me more.
But I'll go in. In, boy; go first.
You houseless poverty -- Nay, get thee in.
I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
O, I have ta'en Too little care of this!
Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.”
“King Lear” ACT III Scene 4
William Shakespeare
(image from

With ribs on the barbeque and my wife visiting family in Panama I have room to experiment with cooking. Cooking is hard to play around with when you have a family, because it necessitates hiding your mistakes off stage. A real man grills with charcoal. Gas is for pussies and interior decorators and book critics. With gas you may as well be cooking on a kitchen stove, playing it safe. With charcoal, with its quirks and treachery, a manly man can take a very expensive cut of high grade meat and destroy it in front of everyone through pure unmitigated incompetence. . It’s a high wire act without a net. Failure is not tolerated.

After many defeats, including the creation of a astonishing ceramic made from a marinated beef brisket I might have sold to NASA for space shuttle heat tiles before they closed the program, I have made progress and I think that this time I’ve got it figured out. The true southern method takes six hours of slow cooking. As with writing, I am not prolific, reaching for quality over quantity. If you care about it - Give your guts, swing for the fences, no matter what.The ribs are about done, and the sauce is toasting on them. They look the way they should. I think this time I’m going to get it.

I walk over to my little garden to pick a couple of tomatoes to eat on the side. On the paving stone is an earthworm, caught in the sun. It's probably a survivor of a failed fishing trip, one I gave clemency to and released into the tomato patch to till the land. As I gather him up gently he panics and twists wildly, not knowing me from a hungry bird. As it hits the soil, it feels its element and digs, pushing its phallic head into the wet earth. If it had been a centipede I would have killed it without pity. I wonder what worms know of the world. What does the Universe look like to a worm digging in the soil? Do they pass on knowledge to each other? Worms, and animals must be mystics.

Carlos Castaneda is an American anthropologist who studied under a Yaqui Indian sorcerer named Don Juan and wrote a series of books about it. In one such book he recounts the brujo Don Juan taking him to meet a lady sorceress who specialized in changing people into animals. She gave Castaneda a hallucinogenic mushroom and changed him into an earthworm. He said the experience was not what he would have expected. Far from feeling weak, or blind ,or frightened, he felt like a giant, throwing the very earth aside, reveling in his mighty earth worm strength, a king in his world.

I bring back the tomatoes and wash them off and slice them. I set the table with the tomatoes, and a bottle of beer from a batch I brewed myself in the garage. The ribs are done. "So how are they? A major or a minor masterpiece?"My kid renders his verdict. Two greasy thumbs up. It’s a major.Soon the ribs are half gone and squadrons of mosquitoes have radioed in our position. My son asks me "Are you living the American dream, Dad?"

I made the ribs with hard learned technique. I grew the tomatoes in a garden I planted myself. I drank the beer I brewed myself. All this in the tiny backyard of a house I more or less own myself, if I live long enough to pay off the mortgage, something which rarely happens anymore. This was the life I dreamed of during the hard times in Panama. "Well,” I say, "It'll do."

Why am I always fearful? There is a mysterious line in "Macbeth" when the witches are plotting to destroy the Thane of Cawdor's soul. "And as you all know, security is mortal’s chiefest enemy." Looking around, I really get that. I have what I wanted, what most men in the world want. But it’s all so fragile. So easy to lose. I'm not at peace as I thought I would be if I ever did all right. It blows at any seam. This is the truth of everyman, from the humblest farmer, to the cruelest dictator. You can lose it all in a blink.

I had a dream the night before. In the dream, myself and some other person, contrived to rob a bank at night. We broke in, artlessly and foolishly, and it turned out to be a supermarket. I beat on the marble wall with a frozen chicken as the cops came in and rounded us up. I was handcuffed and lead away, laughing at my own stupidity. Light hearted. Then I realized - I would go to jail. Worse, I would lose my security clearance and my job. My family would be destitute and thrown out into the street. I was wild with panic. I woke up in the dark, looking up at the ceiling, thanking god that everybody was right where I had left them, and it was only a dream. All was right with the world. I was still employed. But, what fear and dread. One of my characters, Nixie, says to Father Delmar that long ago she had fallen into a hole and couldn't get out, that the world is full of these holes. You're minding your own business and you fall into one of these holes and suddenly you lose it all.

There was this show on MSNBC where the news man would work with the police to catch online child predators. They would set a trap and a rendezvous. Some old goat would show up at the nice suburban address, while Daddy and Mommy were away. We'll have the place all to ourselves! We'll play hide the salami! As he came in the door - it was always a man - the newsman and camera crew would appear out of the shadows and the man's face was on national television. He was nailed. Publicly nailed. Certainly these guys deserve what they get, but still. There is something frightening about seeing a man's life suddenly implode in front of your eyes. To know that his nightmare is real, he won’t wake up from this in the dark and sigh and mutter a prayer. His life is over, and he will never recover from this moment which will be shown to his wife and children, and his mother and his boss and co workers and every employer he will ever call on after he is fired. His life is over. The look in his eyes of absolute and genuine horror, the whining panic in his voice as he pleads helplessly with the camera man, trying to cut a deal. He’s fallen in the hole.

In the morning, off to work to the job that feeds my family and makes tomatoes and beer and ribs possible. Not a job I love. I've had those jobs, but they didn’t pay and I had to give them up. It was heartbreaking to give them up. This is a labor of practicality. A day’s work for a day’s pay. A stop at the mail box on the way out. A movie from Netflix. A pile of bills. The bills don’t terrify me the way they did in the past, because I'm sure I can pay them. The crows are fussing because high overhead a brown tailed hawk that lives behind our house is circling in place like a little fighter plane. Everybody is in the same boat. Even birds and animals.

A crow is shrieking something at me, and the other crows take it up. For a moment, with my handful of bills I feel a pang of envy. What would it like to live like that again, with no possessions, no debts or any particular purpose except to be good at being a crow? Everything you own is everything you are and you can carry it all on the wind? I know that life. I had it once.

There was a time, long ago I did live like that. No possessions or debts. Nothing that any sonovabitch could take away, no hole to fall in. I lived communally with my spiritual family, my tribe, and we were tight. We looked after each other. We rose and fell together. It was a very limited way of life in a way; to have so much of your life managed by others, which in away isn’t so different from what I do now. There was freedom and no freedom at the same time. I don’t believe in Adam and Eve, but I think if there were, life would have been like that for them. But the problem is you can’t live in the Garden forever. You have to come out to be fully human.

In American culture, failure gets a bad rap. We Americans are obsessed with success. Consequently we get ourselves pinned down by so many things. I've been keeping many secrets from my son. If I were honest with him, I'd tell him the world is far more dangerous than he knows. I'd tell him that failure, and occasional public humiliation are a key part of his experience and a necessary thing. The world will trap, fail and torment him and he will have to find a way to flourish in the midst of bullshit and become a man of some depth. Success will not teach you how to feel what others feel. It won’t get you in anybody's skin. Failure does that. There is a beauty to be found in some kinds of failure. When you have failed spectacularly at many things, and have learned how to pull yourself back together and start over, without loss of true pride, other people will begin to look different to you. You'll see the lines in the faces, the quaver in the loud voice and the uncertainty behind the eyes. People will begin to look beautiful because you'll begin to see that everybody is pulling a hard fight. Some of them are better at hiding it, but it’s there just the same.


  1. I think we mistake failure for compromise. I think we believe that there is no value in learning how to negotiate between our desires and reality and finding a viable half-way mark.

    It's a shame, because even on a purely biological level, it's all about coping with environmental realities and surviving.

    Personally, I'm trying to learn that the art of negotiating the compromise is indeed an artform.

    Hugs and thank you for another brilliant post.

  2. As usual, Garce, I don't know whether to laugh or cry at your post. A little bit of both, I guess. Your mind ranges so widely - you make so many connections that others miss - you leave me a bit breathless.

    Do you really think that only failure can enable empathy? Can't you look at someone who is on top of the world, and imagine what it feels like?

    And Nixie - do you see her as a failure? She's survived. She has found true love, for a time at least, which is all anyone gets. Ultimately, she makes a sacrifice that saves another soul. Hardly sounds like failure to me.

    The odd thing is, I've been reading and talking with you about Nixie for so long, at this point she seems more real than a lot of people with whom I interacted today.

    You make my head spin. In a good way.


  3. I feel like I"ve just been dragged through the brush backwards and need to take a deep breath to gather my wits.

    Empathy through failure alone? I disagree. Yes, I've failed at many things in my life. I have a million shortcomings and I often wonder why anyone would want to be near me at other times. Yet, I've had some amazing successes too. Maybe I've just lived THAT long. My empathy has very little to do with me. It's the other person, character, I sink into, strive to understand from the depths of my soul and theirs.

    Another interesting, thought provoking post, Garce.


  4. Hi RG!

    I think what you say about compromise is true. Failure and compromise are not the same. We just do what we have to do. The person I was in the past could never deal with or manage the things I have to deal with now. On the other hand, the person I am now could not live that life again.

    This is why if there is an afterlife, I think it will be reincarnation. We are all of us so many different people in the space of a lifetime.


  5. Hi Lisabet!

    "Do you really think that only failure can enable empathy? Can't you look at someone who is on top of the world, and imagine what it feels like?"

    I think failure and success are two different poles. It would be interesting sometime to do a blog them on success and its unique pitfalls. Failure forces you to dig deep in yourself. It forces you to have faith in the future. Success is when the things you dreamed off have happened, but then you discover the problems of hanging onto it. I think that may be why there is such a high mortality rate among rock stars.

    "And Nixie - do you see her as a failure? She's survived. She has found true love, for a time at least, which is all anyone gets. Ultimately, she makes a sacrifice that saves another soul. Hardly sounds like failure to me."

    Nixie is a success, but she went through a lot of failure first. She develops heart. She has to become the kind of person who can feel compassion for someone else after what she has become. Now that would be an interesting theme to explore, raw compassion compared to matured hard knocks compassion.

    "The odd thing is, I've been reading and talking with you about Nixie for so long, at this point she seems more real than a lot of people with whom I interacted today."

    Now THAT's a compliment. Nixie and I thank you.


  6. Hey Jude!

    Yes - but you HAVE empathy. You've acquired it through the ups and down both. That's why I hope there's an afterlife. It seems liek such a waste to acquire some measure of wisdom and then just oblivion. I can;t believe it.


  7. Wonderful post. You can cook ribs at my house any time, dear!

    As for empathy, when I look at other people, it helps if I remind myself that we're all born and we all die. What happens in between is variable, but not as monumental as those two big events. We all have that in common at least.