Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It's Not so Bad

 "I enjoy convalescence. It makes illness worthwhile." George Bernard Shaw

I got sick last night and had to stay home from work. It was no fun, Sitting home alone not able to eat. Groggy, Falling in and out of sleep. But what I got out of it was a chance to sit for a while and reflect. Recharge. Look out the window at the windswept day and appreciate the forsythia for its flash of yellow heralding the change of season. I tried to get up and do some work, really I did. I am about to bring out a book, LATITUDES - A Story of Coming Home,  and there are the details of finding an editor, book designer and publicist to tackle, but my pounding head made it all but impossible to do anything except just be. The pressing issues of the day just fell away. When the kids came home, I was there for a change, wandering around in a semi-daze. They burst in the door.
"Daddy, Daddy. i won the hula hoop contest."
"Manis broke his arm at lunch."
My son gave me a high five. Don't know why.
I felt like I could appreciate their budding personalities, bright cheeriness, their chatty news of the day's triumphs and tragedies. Then my wife walked in and she looked good, one of these working women you could get the hots for. It was one of those awakenings that you get. Despite your moans and groans, life has been kind.
Things makes sense when you least expect it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Going Over the Banks in the Warm Days of Youth

"It's such a beautiful day Mr. XXXX. Can we skip one day and go outside to play frisbee?"
"Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble."
"Oh, come on, Mr. XXXX. It's so nice out. Please.  Please."
"Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble."
The young man's voice firm and sure of himself. The old teacher's voice low, hard to make out. This was the exchange I heard today at my desk on my planning period. I thought: "His voice is loud and sure because he knows he is in the right." And yet, I winked to myself, the teacher's reaction at the old foolishness that will surely never get its way. The young man, on the side of life, vitality, truth as it always will be, uncontainable and pure. The old teacher, on the side of the culture, postponed gratification, compromise and death. This is the dialectic that we face every day in the trenches in school, holding the line, especially in the warm days, against the knowledge that what we do is an artifice, an essay on the living in the world that men and women do. Young people, especially the ones about to break free, know what they know, that they are part of the great stream of life going over the banks into the greater world never to return again to the sheltered, stagnant pool of childhood.
And yet, I thought it wasn't so long ago that I swore eternal allegiance to the former view and war on the latter. Here is a quote from Birdman, my first novel. I only quote my own work because it is a shock to me and shows the divide that is a working hazard of the subterfuge that I call the writer's life:

"Kagan looked to the birds, perchers, songsters, blown by the wind and content to sit in the early and late days of the lingering sun, faith in perpetual sustenance, sharp-eyed observers of the moribund and settled; the snares and architecture of man-built cities only served their free purposes."

I like to think that there is a way to live in both worlds, functionally adult and responsible in my role as teacher, father, husband, and yet holding onto the knowledge and the certainty of youth that the sabbath is  for man and not the other way around.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Wake-Up

                                                            The Wake Up

 (First published in Tumble, by Anthony Caplan; May, 2009) 

The lady in the brown scrubs behind the plate glass glanced quickly at the black security guard by the vending machine, setting off an unusual ring tone on his phone which reminded Daigle of his father’s funeral in Louisiana, a day Daigle had not recalled for at least five years. When Alejandro had driven away from the swampy St. Bernard parish churchyard that afternoon in a mini-van, wearing flip flops and sunglasses, carrying the briefcase with all the important documents pertaining to Babylon Burgers, Inc. and Cayenne Chalets, LLC, it had left Daigle bereft in the inevitable slough of despond. Daigle had struggled in the intervening years, not understanding exactly what he was intended to do.
Daigle could see a man in a Pittsburgh Steelers tee shirt and a greasy baseball hat nodding off in the back row of blue plastic bucket seats. The shiny chrome armrests rang with loneliness. Daigle stood and paced to silence the voice, the high-pitched woman who complained of her child’s abduction and consequently of the ransom. Daigle understood that he would never silence her. He had not slept in several days, to be fair, but found it strange nonetheless to be pressed into service here, in the emergency room of St. Joseph’s Mid-Coast medical center in downtown Portland, Maine.
“Mr. Daigle.”
“Come with me.”
A round man in a Hawaiian shirt led Daigle down the hall through the push doors.
“My phone’s ringing.”
“You can answer it,” said the nurse.
Daigle was relieved.
“It’s not my usual ring tone.”
“Yeah. That happens to me,” said the nurse. “At least you got network.”
            “Hi there, Charles.” It was his Aunt Rose, his mother’s sibling, the ugly sister. She lived in Florida.
            “Don’t give me that shit about tickets to Disneyworld, Aunt Rose.”
            “Why not? You sick or something, Charlie?”
            “I got some kind of thing in my eye. I’ll talk to you later.”
            “You all I got left, Charlie. Quit messing with that cocaina.”
            “She’s got nothing better to do,” said Daigle.
“Who’s that?” asked the nurse.
“My Aunt Rose.”
The man had him on a medical bed. He pulled the curtain. Then he unwrapped the duct tape and sheet around Daigle’s head.
“What happened to you?”
“Poked in the eye. Little Chinese bastard.”
“You lie here. The doctor will be around shortly.”
“I don’t have no coverage. I told her that already.”
“You’re not going to have an eye, buddy.”
“That’s okay. Take it out. Hurts like a son of a bitch.”
When the doctor came, they were not into wasting time with him. Daigle reconciled himself to his plight. He sank into a reverie while they wheeled him away somewhere. The doctor, a tall man who looked like a professional tennis player, with a strong grip as he shook hands with Daigle, tried to explain the procedure they would carry out, but Daigle wasn’t listening. Instead he was revisiting, as he often did, the pantry in Leon, Nicaragua, with its stores of fruits and cool in the heat of the day. Daniel Ortega was on the radio and the Pope’s imminent visit had inspired the maid. She was singing some church hymn in the kitchen. The bananas hung down; their green skins to this day signified to Daigle some promise of sorts, still unrealized. There had been a moment or two of peace, his mother sleeping off what must have been weeks of partying with the Sandinista youth. Daigle, her only child, alone in the pantry while the maid prepared breakfast and sang to herself a song.
Camino de Jericó
iba un hombre de camino,
lo asaltaron y quedó
maltratado y malherido.
Camino de Jericó.

            The Pope left. His mother and he went back to the ashram in Tennessee, where his father and Alejandro met them. They’d made money with the first of the Babylon Burger restaurants in downtown Knoxville, and had bought shares in a Lear jet. Daigle quietly lost that sense of well being symbolized by the green, Leon, Nicaragua pantry, on long flights between Knoxville, New Orleans and Portland Maine, the site of the subsequent franchises.
            The Lear jet had a long whistle before take-off. His father was usually silent in these moments, head and upper body oscillating in some kind of prayer. Alejandro would turn around and say something to the window apropos of nothing so that Daigle could hear in the seat behind.
            “A fanatic heart, Charlie. A fanatic heart.”
            For a long time Daigle had wondered whether he meant a fantastic heart, referring to his father’s physical strength. He could do pushups for hours, sometimes with Alejandro sitting on his back cross-armed for effect. When he’d had the heart attack, the hotel concierge had seen him drop to the floor of the lobby of the Sandy Lane in Barbados and begin to do military pushups in his guayabera and faded jeans in a last ditch effort to restart the failing organ. Daigle imagined him passing away mid-clap, falling upwards as it were, towards heaven.
            Slowly he came to, and he saw the nurse conferring at the foot of the bed with the doctor who carried a clipboard. It was dark in the room. There was an IV in his arm. He was hungry. The voice in his head was still there.
            “Charlie,” the doctor said, approaching the bed. “We’ve had to operate on you as you know. The damage was extensive. The good news is that we were able to cauterize the nerve and stop the bleeding. The bad news is that we’ve had to remove the eyeball.”
            “That god damned bastard blinded me.”
            “Well, we have a wonderful prosthetician on staff and she is already at work fashioning a replacement for you. You’re lucky, actually, Charlie.”
            “I’m telling you.”
            As soon as he could he stumbled out of the hospital in the middle of a morning in July with his new glass eye in place. He sat behind the wheel of the Chevy Nova and twisted the mirror to look at his face. It was scary, the dead eye, the brokenness he felt inside. He rifled through the glove compartment searching for that lozenge container. He licked the inside and the little bit of bite settled his stomach, almost enough to get his mind off the situation. Where to go? Back to Orchard Beach and find Soopee Lee and try to get his money back? No. That money would be spent by now. And Soopee would just as soon shoot him as talk reasonably. He didn’t have a gun otherwise he’d shoot Soopee and rid the world of such vermin. But he didn’t know if he could shoot. That was his shooting eye gone now. He’d have to practice first. Such a ridiculous state of affairs. He wanted to call Aunt Rose. A ticket to Disney World would be just right. Walk away from it all.
            He pulled into a parking lot. His head was killing him. The woman was shouting, demanding recompense. He had a prescription for painkillers and just about enough money to get some. But what he thought was a Rite-Aid was actually a sign for the South Portland Church of God the Father. Clearly he would have trouble getting the prescription filled here. Out of a sense of sheer stubborn malevolence towards himself, Daigle proceeded inside, pulling the door open by the large metal knob. He was greeted by a musty smell as of old carpet at the seashore. The spare wooden pews were empty. Daigle sat at the back and appreciated the silencing of the woman. He could stay here until the pain ceased and then commence again. Surely God the Father didn’t mind some snoozing. He lay down, but lifted his head nervously when he heard a creak. A man in a priest’s collar, old and stooped, exited the vestry. He was so old; Daigle doubted that he could see him as he walked down the aisle towards the cross.
            “Hi there, father.”
            “No. Charlie Daigle.”
            “Scared the crap out of me, son. What can we do for you?”
            “Nothing. I’m just resting. I’m in a bit of pain.”
            “Well, what happened to you?”
            “Oh, my God. Where to begin, Father?”
            He walked over and sat himself down in the pew next to Daigle. They stared at each other, checking each other out. Daigle admired the sags and lumps on his nose. He was obviously a drinker and was probably under the influence.
            “You’ve been abusing yourself, son.”
            “In what way, Father?”
            “I would say drugs.”
            “That’s right.”
            “Ha, I guessed right.”
            Daigle told him the story of Soopee Lee, whom he thought was his friend, attempting to cheat him of several grams worth of speed and stabbing him in the eye when his perfidy had been pointed out to him.
            “You seem to be getting over it.”
            “I’m actually still quite ticked.”
            “You don’t show it.”
            “Well, this is church. But I would shoot him if I could.”
            “An eye for an eye. Not the right way, son.”
            “It’s my fault. I mean, nothing can bring back this eye.”
            “No it’s not your fault. You need another chance.”
            “I think I do, Father. That and some food.”
            Daigle thought that perhaps he was due for some good luck. The priest reached into his pocket and pulled out some crumpled dollar bills.
            “There’s a McDonalds down the road.”
            Daigle knew there was a catch coming. He waited.
            “An opportunity to serve others can be the best medicine for the soul, son. We have a group of after school kids, teenagers. Monday through Friday. They need adults in their lives. Show them you care. You can start by telling them your story. Do you think you can do that?”
            “I’m all over that, Father.”
            He drove back downtown and had a tuna melt and some French fries at a diner. At the hair salon he sat and read People magazine, contented that he could catch up on the lives of Whoopi Goldberg and Mario Vargas Llosa. A line of thunderclouds dropped their load and the electricity cut off. The woman cutting his hair asked him what his job was.
            “I’m in after school counseling,” he said, trying out the sound of the words.
            “Oh that’s good,” said the woman encouragingly.
            “Yeah, I’m trying to stay clean. I’ve had a drug problem myself.”
            “That would make it hard,” she said. He shot her a glance with his good eye in the mirror.
            “Keep your head still, please.”
            Later, the sailboats out on the water moved with a slow gracefulness.  Daigle envied them their stateliness and simplicity. He wanted those things in his life. He didn’t know if there was a God. He wasn’t sure about the larger picture. But he wanted to move through time like a large white sailboat in the bay. No more jerks and starts like a crazy one-eyed beetle.
            Back in the church, the parking lot was full of the kinds of vehicles kids in vocational settings would drive, old, low-slung trucks, high mileage Buicks, spray painted, mud-spattered, clueless. The priest cleared his throat.
            “We have a visitor here, today, Charlie’s thinking about working here. He’s had a long and interesting career. Why don’t you introduce yourself, Charlie?”
            The group of kids slowly settled down as Daigle walked up by the altar. He leaned awkwardly from one foot to the other, thinking of the right words.
“I used to be just like you guys. No. I take that back. I’m still like you,” he said. His struggle for an honest frame for his experiences interested them. They became quiet for the most part. He looked up. He saw kids who were hard to look at; a lot of them looked like they’d always been and always would be in one kind of trouble or another. They looked back at him, gauging the level of pablum they were used to getting, the girls more patient then the boys.
He leaned his head down and poked the eye out.
“Look. This is what can happen to you,” he said.
“That is wicked sick,” said a boy.
“Pass it around.”
Daigle told them of his most recent loss and what he made of it, a lesson, a wake-up, a call to change. There was no refuge in anything but in God he told them. And then he talked about prison. He’d had the most freedom of anybody in the planet, but he’d chosen the prison of drugs because he was terrified, he said, of freedom, of the way you could get lost and nobody know or care. He grabbed a Bible from the altar and opened it. It opened to Job 11 and Daigle read.
Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?”
Daigle thought this summarized neatly his gist and put the Bible down.
“No you can’t,” he said. “Sometimes you think you need a little help, a little boost. But don’t do it. That’s what I’m here to tell you. You will get a poke in the eye. It’s your wake up. That’s when you’ll reach out for help and hope He hears you.”
Daigle thought he would stop there. His voice, surprisingly, was cracking and he thought he might cry. Some of the girls were very pretty and looked like they might also cry.
“Mr., uhm, Charlie. Quintana’s took your eye.”
This was spoken by a girl in a brown tee shirt with a double chin. She stood up and looked to the door, revealing the profile of very large breasts. Daigle was awe-struck. He walked to the door and pushed it open. Down the street from the parking lot went a mud-spattered truck and the back of a head Daigle could see was clearly troubled. Several of the kids assured him, without looking directly at his face and the hole where his eye used to be, that they would get back his eye. Quintana, apparently, was a jackass who had no friends. This was in the nature of a vow they took before they departed.
Several of the kids stayed behind while Daigle sat in his car. The girl with the brown tee shirt and double chin said she thought he could stay in the church, as it was unlocked.
“That’s what I was thinking,” said Daigle from the car.
“I know. You ain’t got nowhere to go,” she said.
Daigle reached out his hand to touch hers, but she was already walking away.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Just Another Day

America's budget busted space agency, NASA, has staked out new territory for itself convincing the Earth's lunatic fringe that the world will not end any time soon. A video posted by NASA last week, narrated by Don Yeomans, head of NASA's Near-Earth Objects Program Office,  seeks to dispel predictions that Doomsday will happen later this year. This latest round of apocalypse warnings are based on interpretations of the Mayan calendar, along with reports of a giant, invisible planet called Niburu headed our way, solar flares and magnetic pole reversals. They have all featured prominently in blogs, websites and movies recently, heightening the frenzy of the crowd catering to end of the world fantasies.
The two and a half minute video features Yeomans taking down the apocalyptic flights of fancy one at a time. The Mayan calendar does not end in 2012, just a cycle of Mayan time; a planet hurtling our way would never go undetected; solar flares are normal, etc. His calm demeanor is only broken once, when he breaks into laughter at the idea that thousands of scientists around the world have been conspiring to keep the existence of the rogue planet Niburu secret so as to not set off a global panic at our imminent demise.
Is this a worthwhile endeavor for NASA to be embarked upon? While not exactly pushing the boundaries of the known universe, perhaps dispelling the cobwebs of misinformation and ignorance here at home might not be a bad brief for the cadres of scientists and experts who are now wondering what will become of the space agency in the face of austerity measures. Unless Newt Gingrich gets elected this year on the platform of establishing a Mars colony, we might be seeing more NASA video production along similar lines in the years ahead. My hunch is the kooks will call it a conspiracy and get on with the business of scare mongering. How ironic that the real planetary threat whose existence would entail getting off our behinds and doing something other than hoarding cans of Spam, human induced climate change, is called a hoax.

(photo credit: Don Davis/NASA, Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Muddy Slog to Easy Street

Things are going well, thanks for asking. The snow we got last week works out perfectly, keeping the ground cold enough despite the mild winter that the apple trees won't start budding too early. The sun gaining intensity every day and that melting runoff everywhere, from the roof, in the road, makes it feel like the whole world has turned the corner at last. Good times are just ahead.

The economic data shows the winds of the recession abating as well, although here in my town, home sales are still at a crawl, and many are predicting a rough town meeting season coming up this month as many are still having a hard time meeting mortgage payments. It's a muddy slog getting to easy street.

But the mood of the country is upbeat, just look at Obama hitting on all cylinders, whether it be domestic politics or the international arena. Used to be, the wise rule of the leader, they said, was reflected in the bounty of the berry harvest and the lushness of the nut crop in the trees. Now we look at the stock market flirting with new highs to measure our well-being.

And let's give Obama his due, the economic policies of the stimulus were responsible for putting a brake on what could have been a major global bank run, and we're starting to see that turnaround today. The Republicans are not going to be able to run on doom and gloom this fall, which means that they will have little middle ground to coalesce around as soon as their primary campaign is done. Many, including myself, have suggested that Obama and his policy advisers have had a hand in dragging the Republican primary season on beyond its shelf life by throwing red meat to the social conservatives in the way of the "access to contraception in Obamacare" issue when they announced the new policy directives last month.

And it has borne spectacular fruit in the final death throes of the Rush Limbaugh phenomenon, as this veteran master of hate-filled vitriol, and the unacknowledged leader of the Republican right wing, seems finally to have hoisted himself by his own petard. Barack, in effect, set the play in motion, baiting the dragon, then rushed to the damsel's side to rescue her last week, calling Sarah Fluke on the phone to comfort her after her bruising by innuendo. This has to be one of the most masterful moments in recent Presidential history. Kudos to Ms. Fluke for not accepting the Rushster's apology.

Obama is demonstrating a rare political maturity as well internationally, and the whole world may have us to thank for electing him. You're welcome, Benjamin Netanyahu. The North Koreans have announced they are throwing in the towel peacefully, chalk one up to the rule of law. And thanks to Barack, we may have also held off the dogs of war in the Middle East for the next few months anyway and therefore prevented a nuclear showdown which might have thrown the entire planet into tilt. This latest diplomatic coup has been done masterfully, under our noses, without major Camp David meetings or attention-getting policy speeches, which has allowed the parties involved to save face.

Between Hillary Clinton and himself, the Obamaites are right now running the table. Wake up America, we are in the midst of an historical moment. One that bodes well for our children.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rush Limbaugh -- The Price We Pay for Freedom

A silver sun, white snow, some free time on a Sunday morning. What could be better? We certainly live in a prosperous time, despite the hardships many of us face. The inalienable rights we enjoy to choose our own paths and by and large make our own way in the world is an unprecedented freedom in the long history of mankind. Of course those rights were hard won; we cherish them and are reminded of how precious they are when we look around the world at people struggling to attain the levels of well-being as a country that we have. There is however, an unfortunate history of allowing pragmatic and economic considerations to trump what would be our natural inclination to aid nascent democracy movements in other parts of the world. Many would argue that democracy is not right for everybody, that there is no certain proof that freedom is appropriate for some men and women at any given point in time. But look at the villagers in China this week who were finally allowed to hold free and fair elections for their village leaders. The language they use to describe the experience, the elation they feel at finally freeing themselves from the corrupt officials who ran things their way for so long - it reminds us that people everywhere do long for the same things. Of course in the macro sphere, the Communist party bosses in Beijing will not let local village chiefs, no matter how they were chosen, hold up the land acquisitions that are fueling that country's massive and some would argue out of control industrial development, as former rice paddies give way to factories and worker housing. But freedom, in the long run, has to be more conducive to a utilitarian development that benefits the greater good then a top-down model that decides by executive order when and where things get done, even if the autocratic model is certainly more efficient in the short term.
If I was party boss though, I tell you what I'd have done long ago. That Rush Limbaugh would have been off the air in about 1992. It's amazing that it has taken this long for advertisers to repudiate him, as many are doing in the wake of the latest in an eternal line of his egregious and hateful slurs, calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a slut last week for speaking out in favor of access to contraception under health insurance plans. It's typical of his bullying and mocking ways to try to shame someone into silence. It's what we have instead of outright censorship, the bullying on the airwaves that has been dominated for so long by right-wing bigots like Limbaugh. Say what you want of his stance in the health care debate regarding access to contraception, and I for one am interested in a genuine public discussion on this topic, the methods the right has used, employing loudmouths like Limbaugh to herd people into agreeing unthinkingly with positions on topics as disparate as war in Iraq, tax policy, women's rights, etc., have only done democracy a disservice by coarsening the public's ability to discern. His apology yesterday can only be seen as a self-serving ruse to save his skin now that he seems finally to be on the ropes in the arena of public opinion.