The deficit was looming. The next day was thanksgiving. Thank God the Chinese had lent us a turkey. I could not be sure who held the note on the grass outside my window.
The world is a confusing place. Particularly if you stop to think about it.
Unemployment is ten percent. Which really means about one third of the people have jobs. I'm never sure which category I fit into. When they came to ask I walked out the door and down the street. My friend told them I was a gay midget who worked as a dog walker. I do not show up at eight o'clock to push buttons or re stack things. I suppose I'd be most disappointed if the people who make toilet paper lost their jobs. Maybe it is best that they have time clocks and performance reviews.
So there it was. A product with U.S. and H.K. And China patent numbers. All rights had been reserved. And it was stuck.
I've always had this nagging sensation about this world. As if everything I see is a mirror image of reality. Only more so. It is upside down and inside out as well. You can not describe it to somebody who does not know it. As if the simple minded religious zealot is the one who truly understands life and the certifiable, educated, erudite one is missing the point altogether. The person who spends their life studying is the one who does not already know.
It was a little plastic thing. I could not grip it tightly for fear I'd crush the plastic in my hands.
Having lived in China for a few years I did not develop a healthy respect for their engineering prowess. I did develop a healthy respect for their ability to thrive amidst such reckless abandon. Burned out shells of buses at the bottom of the ravine, still smoking, did not phase our driver in the least.
A melting glacier raises all boats. If you live on the shore?
I did not have a plan. How can one plan when the future blindsides us. As the Greeks used to say, we back into it. The past spreads out in front of us. I doubt I had paid it much attention. Or the present. I was always so concerned about the future. Which in hindsight is ridiculous. They say hindsight is twenty twenty. I don't know about that. I feel like I am in pretty desperate need of some hind spectacles. I could call them ass glasses. When wearing them I might clearly see what an ass I've been.
I packed everything I wanted to keep into my car. I gave away everything I wanted my family to keep for me. And I headed north. Without a plan.
In college I had planned to do many things with my life. I have not done any of them. I have done many things I never planned. I think the chaos in my head has grown to unacceptable levels. It leaves me dysfunctional. Although with my ass glasses resting squarely on the bridge of my nose I am not sure that I ever really functioned.
Other people are foils for my own self righteousness. And I am afraid they know it. I do not like other people much. Or at all. When I see them or hear their words, even when I think of them I am reminded of myself and it is more than I can bear. The Dalai Lama says that we can never find ourselves for we do not truly exist. He may be right. I just have not looked hard enough to not find myself.
I arrived at Joe's house in Portland at midnight. He limped down the stairs and I hobbled, stiff from twelve hours behind the wheel, into the embrace of a long lost brother. What an asshole he'd become.
We still remember laying in the middle of the road watching the sun rise after a night of debauchery in college. I suppose my whole life I've been preparing for failure. I sure hope I am ready. It was not the first time I've found myself laying in the middle of the road. I have yet to be run over. Maybe my luck will improve. Then even the Dalai Lama would have trouble finding me.
It is hard to say. Maybe the trip to Portland was a result of the divorce. THE DIVORCE? What the fuck am I saying? My divorce. It was mine. Well. Partially. There were other people involved.
Jesus says you can't get a divorce. In the middle ages one had to bribe a churchman. If that did not work and you had the resources you could go to war with the church for a divorce (and a few thousand village parishes). Now we buy our license to sin directly from the church of state and the nice clerk at the counter tells you how to plead and pray. God's books are well kept in California. I sure hope he will overlook that small bit of licentiousness on judgment day. He is supposed to be a forgiving God. Which is lucky for me. I mean, think about it. The God who came before the Christian God probably would have cut my dick off and taken all my herds for such a grievous sin as leaving a woman and her orphan child destitute and without so much as a milk goat on the fruitless plains. But this kind and forgiving God allows women to bind themselves to banks for food and shelter and to work outside the home to pay their debts. Under the old God they'd have been nothing but a harlot and an outcast.
It was a little, cheap plastic thing. It ran on batteries. Or would have if they had not died. Which brings us to the nexus of events of which I write.
Regardless of what God and his minions at the (Courthouse) thought of it all, it hurt. I spent countless hours on the floor curled up in the fetal position. Sometimes I had the strength to hug my knees to my chest. Mostly I could not even lift my arms. Loss and death and grief are hard. It was a good day if I could bawl uncontrollably for half an hour or so. A rare day but a good one. Then at least I could stand long enough to boil water or floss my teeth.
She had tried her best to be a wife. I had tried my best to be a husband. Neither of us had a fool's hope in special ed.
My father said it was obvious to him when, on our first day home from China, I sat at the kitchen table checking box scores. Our mutual friend Shalom the Chinese Jew gave us six months. What did the blind soothsayer sitting on a pink plastic stool on the dusty sidewalk of a half built suburb of Chengdu have to say as his eyes rolled back in his head and the crowd gathered to hear the fortunes of the old outside countryman? “We'd make it if I kept my mouth shut for five years.”
After the divorce I randomly was advised by five separate amateur astrologers that, based on our sun and moon signs, there was no effin' way. As two of them put it, “Too much!” A third just laughed. Then immediately apologized as he realized how much it must have hurt. It was nice to know that it was not my fault. Or hers. But it did not help me get off the floor.
Personally, I prefer the view given me by my ex step daughter. Shortly after I'd married her mother but before we had integrated as a family, before she started calling me daddy, she had a dream. In the dream the three of us were being chased by a monster. While she and her mother ran on I turned to face the monster. I am not sure if I am writing to you from atop his vanquished corpse or from low down in his intestines.
“Walter! What the fuck does anything have to do with Vietnam?”
“Elliott! What the fuck does anything have to do with China?”
“How did you end up in that bar in a bustling strip mall on a busy side street outside the south gate of Sichuan University on that fateful Tuesday evening?” you ask.
I wanted a beer. Before bed.
You never knew who else you were going to run into at the Zoo. Oh, there were the regulars. The old Australian army medic turned outback guide who once killed a wild boar with a bread knife. The Chinese cook who made the best pizza outside Italy even though he'd never tasted any other. The smugglers and the English teachers and all the other riff raff, foreign and local, that people an inconspicuous, back ally ex pat bar.
“Oh, listen here, son,” Jack would say. “I wasn't the best fighter in Perth...” He'd run grass. He'd driven road trains. He'd been attacked by ghosts. He'd been a union boss. While building a brick wall for a Black Hand honcho in Malaysia he had met Wang Yi. I once walked into the bar ten minutes before opening. Jack had walked out of the bedroom they shared in back with nothing on but a towel. His wife was chasing him around the bar trying to pull it off him. Wang Yi's favorite English phrases were, “Bad man,” and “Shit man.” She said them with gusto. When I first met her she said it with a mischievous grin. Three years later she said it in court, with evidence and witnesses. She got the bar in the divorce but it just was not the same without both of them. They were Ma and Pa to a generation of world drifters and the Chinese locals who shared their wanderlust and curiosity.
Candace owned a beauty salon at the far end of the strip. She and Wang Yi started out as neighboring business women discussing the local news. They became friends.
All the dude ever wanted was a beer. Before bed.
When you move to a new country as a young man... ah, who am I kidding? I will always be a young man. Aries: the sign of perpetual beginnings.
When you move to a new country as a young man... well, it is hard to generalize.
It was deeply ingrained in me from an early age to refer to myself as open minded. Most people I know feel the same way about themselves. Somehow meeting people who eat live monkey brains, regularly buy virgin twelve year old prostitutes and casually spit on the floor of five star restaurants illuminates inner doors shut fast and heavily barred.
I was born and raised (well, raised in the sense that a weed is raised) in small towns. True, they were in California which non natives continually assure me makes them... well... Californian. Moving to a medium sized Chinese city of twelve million? As I said, I just wanted a beer. Before bed.
On my first visit to Chengdu I wandered the northwest quadrant for four days without seeing a white person. I am fairly certain it was the northwest quadrant. North, south, east and west were difficult to determine. We were easily one thousand miles inland and the sun never shone in Chengdu. A friend from a nearby city, a village really, of only four million people, bragged, “We have fifty days of sunshine a year.” That is twice the official count for Chengdu. There is no sunrise. There is no sunset. Only light gray and dark gray. But there is something in the water. Every woman in Chengdu is exceedingly beautiful and every man is short. And henpecked. They say the emperors used to come here looking for concubines. Now there are apartment buildings full of second wives and male prostitutes and it is the homosexual and heroin capitals of China. A great place to party.
I'd been in town for a couple of months. We were sitting outside Carol's by the River drinking locally brewed “Guinness” that tasted like ass and cigarette butts. The cross dressers showed up around midnight. It was only on the third, longer look that I realized the beautiful woman making eyes at me had an adam's apple. Apparently I found out sooner than some. Cross dressers. Foreigners. Outsiders. We had that in common.
It is a disease of the most severe variety. There is debate about when it first afflicted mankind. Research into a wide variety of chemical cures has been ongoing for thousands of years. It is an affliction of the worst sort, degrading the mind, the body, even torturing the spirit beyond the point of repair. It spreads like a virus, mutating from generation to generation but the effects remain eerily consistent. They include insanity, insatiable hunger of one sort or another, inability to sleep at normal hours, fatigue of the body and soul, loneliness and isolation, tears, unexplained bloodletting, destroyed relationships, euphoria alternating with depression.
Those who do not suffer from the deadly invasion often look to those who do as gifted, special. They are admired for the signs of their affliction. There are even some with no genetic capacity to receive the disease who strive to emulate its carriers.
It has a strong voyeuristic quality as if the isolation and insanity it breeds keeps its sufferers from integrating into normal society. They remain outsiders. Observers. They may learn the social tics and customs that allow them to mingle with the crowds of unaffected but the keen observer will notice how others have a subtle reaction, a withdrawal, a stiffening or formal distance in the presence of the afflicted. Yet those most fully infected often end up as social icons. Not so much loved as revered.
Many of the most seriously ill live their lives in isolation or enjoy many failed marriages. Yet others tend to congregate in foreign lands. Or in New York, which is the most foreign of lands.
She captivated me on a Tuesday evening. And held me captive for years after. She's still got the better half of me stored in her attic. Or maybe her basement. We went to the Panda Breeding Center and sang karaoke together. Even the dark gray periods seemed light gray when she was near.
I'd had a dream. It was foolish. I thought I could do right by the world. I did not know how money rots the soul. How could I? I had spent my life reading books that made the world seem a sensible place. These writers should be shot for the worst possible offenses against humanity. It does not make sense. Life has no guiding principle. Purpose is illusory, a memory of a thought let loose on a summer evening on Grandpa's porch.
As the butterfly flits off to certain death I name it beautiful.
I remember Grandpa as a quiet, warm old man who smelled like home and sat at the kitchen table with me for hours. I do not remember a word he ever said. Stories of the grenade he tried to kill my mother and grandmother with do not dent the feeling. The beatings and rapings are a fog far off over a long forgotten horizon. The smile remains in me. I am not sure if it was the forgiveness that made the house so warm or Grandma's cooking. Or just the southern California winter sunshine. I have no doubt that when the warrior in me breaks forth and my mother sinks deep inside her shell the memory of her father is not far from the surface.
She was conceived as the bombs fell on her native land. Time and again she rattled violently in her mother's womb as her eggs were forming inside her own tiny womb. The shock of a bomb exploding leaves a trace forever. I can feel it still in the dead of the night. No sound ever dies. They are swallowed in the great chorus. On a winter night when the moon is obscured, at the darkest hour, listen. Listen one night and it will come to you. Through the arguments, the wars, the quakes and the tempests. The explosion of birth has not ebbed in thousands of millions of years. Only differentiated. The yogis have it half right. The primal sound of the universe is not, “Om.” It is, “Boom.”
Candace told me stories. She and her big brother would hike to school with a pencil and a bag of rice on Sunday evenings. Sometimes her brother would trap a rabbit or they would stop and pick fruit from the trees along the trail. She would often be out of rice by Thursday. Friday's hunger was a normal part of life. Next week maybe she'd save enough rice to last through Friday lunch. Then they would hike home. They raised a pig each year. And there were rabbits and chickens and squirrels. And whatever mom could coax out of the front yard. Hard, wiry vegetables. It is a hard, wiry country. Endurance is highly valued in China. The richest men in Chengdu are brothers whose first business was delivering pig feed by hand drawn cart. By the time I lived there they owned Ferrari dealerships. The Chinese phrase is, “Eat bitter.” A higher compliment cannot be offered of someone than to say, “They can eat bitter.”
Liu Ming is an art professor at Sichuan University. One of the students he was sleeping with finally corralled him into marriage. He drives a big yellow Hummer and parks it on the sidewalk. He'd been a demolitions expert in the army when he was young. He ate chicken bones. “Easier,” he said.
The rule for buildings is that if they are taller than seven stories they need an elevator. The country is full of seven story buildings. The stairwells are lit by sound sensitive lights. When I reach a landing I stomp my feet a couple times and the light turns on. Liu Ming stands at the bottom and snaps his fingers once. The whole stairwell lights up.
In the late seventies Liu Ming was something of a pioneer. He was among the first students to go abroad to study art. He chose a college in Iowa with the word, “Friends,” in it. At the time he knew nothing of Quakers. “Good people,” is all he will say about his four years there. He eventually found New York, Paris and Amsterdam. He made most of his money drawing portraits in a Tennessee mall at Christmas time. Last I heard he had settled full time in Chengdu and was working his way up the party art bureaucracy.
The party bureaucracy is a funny thing. The name is apt. They primarily party. Hard liquor. Beer. Hard liquor shots dropped into full glasses of beer. Meals in private rooms at the finest restaurants with multiple intermissions. Their only real work seems to be to say no until they are stuffed and drunk and then take a nap. They have overseen the largest economic explosion in recorded history.
The British empire was built one cup of tea at a time. It endures to this day in modified form. The sun still never sets on it. The Chinese empire is being built one shot of rice liquor at a time. On the dead bones of a dozen earlier empires.
I do not trust words. They are a reality unto themselves. It is said first was the word. But they have a way of becoming tangled like a blackberry patch. Like a mind so confused about itself that it believes itself to be somebody other than it is. It is said that the self is what we do, say and think. What about feelings? Are they somebody else?
Maybe feeding the boss well and getting him so drunk he passes out is the best way to make important decisions.
It had been a number of lean years for the movement. There were leadership struggles and committee reorganizations. The man was all amped up and on the hunt. The young ones did not quite seem to understand the depth of the plight. For the old guard the vital importance of the movement was never in doubt. It was just that, even in the worst of times it was hard to find young people who would leave their comfortable homes and pleasant entertainments for the dangers inherent in the movement.
Of course there was never any doubt about the central importance of the movement. There was squabbling about the precise nature of the mission. Sometimes it seemed almost every other month a new visionary would arrive to charm the volunteers and the activists and the pacifists. A new group would splinter off but they all knew they were still part of the movement. Even the ones who went off to an ashram in India or had children and spent forty years as spies in the square world, forced to serve the man, begging scraps for the young'uns, were still part of the movement.
It was big. It was on all the continents. In all the capitols. In some cases in the highest ranks of government. Even when they had to purchase things from the man they knew it was only in service of the movement. Their heart was not in it. But they needed the station wagon so they could get the kids to school. It may have been the man's school but in their hearts they knew their kids could tell the difference between the false rumors of the man and the true tales of the movement.
Sometimes the stress of fighting the man was too much. They had to go to Mexico and chill out for a while. Yeah. They flew on one of the man's jets but it was only so they could come back recharged and fight the man some more.
The problems were just too many and the man too strong. But the biggest threat to the movement was that times were good. Some traced it back to the coming of the machines. The machines did a lot of the dirty work so the people could not see as clearly how corrupt the man was. Others thought the machines were saviors. If we could get the East Indians to manage things, the machines to do most of the dirty work and the Mexicans to feed us then we would all be free to stand up to the man, they argued.
Some thought the movement needed man like organization, almost militarism. They started umbrella groups to organize all the splinter groups. The umbrella groups would come in waves every generation or so. One on top of the next. It was sometimes hard to tell the difference between the umbrella groups and the splinter groups. Some of the umbrella groups got eaten by the man as he tried to infiltrate the movement.
The movement is so old now that nobody really remembers who started it or when. That is its special mystique. If it were too clearly defined it could not perform its vital function. If its core mission were clearly enunciated the man would swoop in and eat it whole. So the movement remains a loose agglomeration. Most of its members are part time. Most of its funding comes from people who earn their bread slaving for the man. But just as soon as things get real bad the movement will be only a generation away from finally bringing the man to his knees.
Every day has to begin sometime. This one I particularly wanted to postpone as long as I could. Good things rarely come from getting out of bed. As a matter of fact most of the best good things happen in bed.
You see, it is not life conceptually that I am opposed to. It is life specifically that gives me gout of the soul. Laying in bed with my eyes closed I can fantasize all manner of utopias.
I used to love the company of young people. They were revolutionary. They protested things. They wrote poetry and gave away the books that inspired them. Now they are all either building their resumes or posting things on youtube. Or smoking their parent's medical marijuana. Which is exactly the same as my illicit, unsanctioned, non medical marijuana. Except its got the government stamp. Which is supposed to be the reason we all rebelled in the first place. But now, praise be to Jesus, we simply have to admit to the man that we are incurably ill and unfit for life in this fucked up world and we can get permission under the stamp act to get as high as can be. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. But with weed.
I quit. I throw off the costume of a person. I've met the winners. They are a bunch of assholes. I will remain a loser thank you very little.
I should have something more important to say about life by now but all I've come up with so far is that it is the final heartbreak that kills us. The sooner the better, if you ask me. I would like to write a novel before the last one takes me down. Unfortunately all the good ones have already been written. Fuckers.
A novel needs a story. It needs ups and downs, peaks and valleys and little bit of smooching. And a bit with a dog. When life is one long, uneventful slide down into oblivion what is there to do but howl at the moon and ramble incoherently?
It was a cheap little plastic thing. Clear on top. Unnatural, moons of Pluto blue on the bottom. I had to find a way to get the batteries out. You see what I am saying?
The frantic terror of the womb. The violence of birth. The ragged, rusty sawing of the bonds of motherhood. The war of birth is as dreadful as ever the armies of the mad earth raging across continents, spearing brothers and cousins, burning mountains of lifeless flesh after the festival days of carnage. The mother who sends her son to war but casts a flickering shadow of what she has known.
I do not want to be an artist. I would like to destroy the creative urge in myself. It is bothersome, disruptive. It is violent, insolent, rude, bursting upon the scene at the most inopportune moment. It smashes against my head from the inside, laying waste my schemes and formulations. It takes my knowledge and carelessly tosses it over the edge of the abyss. I carefully construct a day, a year, a life. Each nail in place with crossbeams and double joists. But the creator cannot leave well enough alone. The moment a thing exists it must be destroyed. Material is finite. To create it must be raw not finished.
I seek narrative. In creating a story we say a thing must happen. But life is not like that. Life is a series of confused glances, helpless gropings in the dark, perpetual misunderstandings that pass for knowledge. We believe a thing has happened. We recount all the days of our lives. We insist on the histories we create for ourselves. We tie a noose around our future and hitch it to our past, to places we can never go. We whip the horse of the present and it drags us by the neck from hope to nostalgia, from rage to happiness through all the timelessness of the unborn, unrecognized, cold, unloved, lonely infinite. We meet the other, the fleshy representative of that which is outside. We seek a familiar reflection, a response that satisfies us. We push buttons, turn levers, speak words, flutter eyelashes, change the tone of our voice, our vibrational relations gyrate and hum looking for a match, a harmonic resonance. We beat our drum slowly. We play our pipe lowly. Musicians tuning our instruments together. We tell our stories, past and future. We compose them as we go. We repeat them a thousand times. The thing never happened. Something rang out. A light flashed. We put words to it. The light show, the concert of resounding spheres of emptiness sounding out as they smash into nothing and reverberate until the edge of time.
Life is a pale shadow of death.
My entire human experience is one of containing my fury and despair so as not to allow them to leak out and alienate that small group of people whom I rely on directly for my food and shelter. I would like to be somebody else but all those roles are taken. I would like to hold a mirror up to you so that you could see me more clearly.
If love is the universal language what does porno on the world wide web say about the conversation?
It is a bright and hopeful day when hopeless despair becomes simple despair.
I hope you are getting the picture. You see, it was a cheap plastic thing made in China. The batteries were dead and needed to be replaced. But there was no obvious way to open the battery compartment except by using a hammer. So I was seeking another way.
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