30 May 2013

Electric Slumgullion

8:34 PM. Burning off the dross of the day, the sky is undecided. Rain is on the way, I think. But there is music.

Lately I have been looking in the mirror carefully, trying to see who might show up. Or what might show up. See, I've also been unable to shake off the notion that if I had a totem from the world of plants, it would be an onion. I stare into the silvered glass, watching the layers morph and ripple across my tired face.

To have my animal self replaced by a plant is deflating. It should not be, perhaps. We are all of us made of many things, and not all of them mammalian. The identity drawn therefrom can serve as a wellspring of strength, courage, energy. In my case, I fancied my animal self to be Panthera onca, the jaguar. Powerful, enigmatic, and possessed of a shamanic energy I crave and envy.

The jaguar has been scarce lately. I catch the occasional glimpse, but full sightings are scarce like iridium crystals. I hold the totem in my hands, but the eyes are dull. This troubles me.

The jaguar, it seems, has given way to the onion. How long this will last, none can say. All I  know is that the last year has peeled away a lot from my outer surfaces, exposing even more layers within as well as creating the occasional tears. I spend a lot of time meditating on these circumstances. It is important for me to plumb my depths. I have no desire to be caught from behind by things I did not know existed within.

This is not to say that these layers are always serious. While I certainly have the tendency to be too serious, there are things I keep finding that make me laugh, or marvel at the oddities that contribute to the mass of intriguing weirdness that resides in my heart and head.

Case in point tonight: on my way home this evening, I caught a musical snippet on "World Cafe with David Dye"---an interesting radio show hosted by WXPN---that made me sit up and take notice. It was this weird but likeable mix of what sounded like Indian-inspired dance hip-hop party music. I had no clue as to genre, and I missed the name of the group, but I wanted to hear it again. I felt I had to know who, what, and why.

So I turned to our friend the Internet and looked up the play schedule for WXPN. Turns out the music I heard was by a the group Red Baraat, a Brooklyn, NY-based outfit that combines Punjabi bhangra with New Orleans-style jazz, hip-hop, and go-go music. I couldn't even begin to tell you exactly what all of those styles encompass, but I can tell you this: the music made me happy and wanting to dance. And I'm not a dancer by any stretch.

Dig this, too. The leader of the band is named Sunny Jain. Born in the United States, his parents were Punjabi immigrants. He is trained as a jazz drummer. The band is heavy on percussion and brass, including a two-headed drum---the dhol---and a sousaphone.That's right, ladies and gents, a freakin' sousaphone. And the guy who plays it also raps.

I don't know what it is about stuff like this that draws me in. It makes me wish I could play a sousaphone, for crying out loud. It is weird. It is loopy.Which some might say are accurate descriptors of me.

It is this sort of thing that gives me hope for the future, for the world, and for myself. I like to think the one who likes all this weirdness is the poet in my soul, the one hidden behind all those layers, and that doesn't get to the surface as often as I wish. What I heard made the poet smile, making me okay with my weirdness.

I bounced in my chair for a bit, listening to the music and tucking into a digital bowl of electric slumgullion. After all, the jaguar is in there, too. He is hungry, he must be fed.

25 May 2013

Belly Troubles, and the Tao of the Cure

May 24, 10:10 PM. Finally, finally settling down. And the belly is quiet. Finally.

If anyone had asked me to predict how the day would go based on how I felt upon awakening this morning, I would have told them it is going to be darkness and shadows all around. A semi-blind groping through half-lit corridors, looking for a half-open door leading into a room lit by a single weak bulb. I felt downright shabby and feeble. Poor sleep, anxiety, and obligations will do that to a man.

Having a belly that worships the Trickster is no help, either. My gut was expressing some grievance, and it put a certain dull sheen on the day. I had things to do, but no energy or motivation to do them. Some could wait, others could not. Through the fog I was determined to slog.

I think it is no secret, to those who have read this blog on a regular basis, that I struggle occasionally with anxiety and depression. Every now and then the "sheer hellishness of life" (to borrow a wonderful phrase from Jim Harrison) sneaks up on me and hijacks my better nature. I get wound around the axle of the truck that hit me and I find it hard to disentangle myself. Today was one of those days.

The month of May has been an emotional sine wave for me. I have been in hot pursuit of employment opportunities, working on a storyline for a book, and trying to make time for creative endeavors. I have traveled to see my lovely Wee Lass, and had a marvelous time in her company. I have lain awake at night with my breath just short of panting, overwhelmed by dreams and the fear of failure. When I awoke this morning, my belly walloped me with a low-grade murmur of discontent. Everything congealed in the clear light of day.

It wasn't enough to keep me off my feet. But it sure made walking a chore. It made being human being a chore. I was of no mind to spend time in my own company. So the carrying out of tasks for the day was nothing I looked forward to completing. There was no choice.

I ate a little breakfast, forcing it down with a cup of tea while I sat out on the front patio. I count it as a blessing that the weather was gorgeous and cool. The birds were making the right kind of noise, and actually kept my mind from wandering into some darker byways. Still, I was exhausted, sick and sleepy. No way to go through life.

I rested a bit before I left to take care of the major task for the day, a photography assignment that mercifully kept my mind focused (Ha! A photography pun!) and off my griping belly. I read somewhere long ago that it is impossible to be depressed when engaged in meaningful tasks, and in this case a truth. Hooray for that!

Some background, if I may. Many years ago, my physician told me that in my case, stress manifests itself in the gut. Unfortunately, his diagnosis was spot on. It has been a limitation on me for years. Feeling this way has in some fashion become the normal for me.

By the time I finished what I needed to do, it was early afternoon and my body, as wracked as it was, was still giving me indications that it needed calories. With resignation and no enthusiasm I ran a search on my phone for something close, cheap and hopefully easy on the stomach. The closest restaurant it found was a Chinese place I had heard of but never had the opportunity to try.

So it was I found myself standing in the parking lot of a slightly beat-up looking strip center, staring at a window full of picture cards of different dishes, the names written in that faux-Asian script that seems vaguely insulting to me, even though I can't say exactly why. The neon OPEN sign blinked off and on, and with my belly woes and lack of enthusiasm asserting themselves, I almost turned and left. Almost.

Something told me to go in. I was greeted by a sweet older Chinese woman and a low- to no-concept interior decor that had me wondering which kindergarten class had done the honors. I was the only customer in the joint, pondering again if I should leave. The hostess was very nice, though, and I did need to eat. She cheerfully handed me a menu, and I sat down to order.

A small bowl of hot-and-sour soup. A plate of chicken and broccoli on steamed rice, garnished with a single fried wonton. The food was served on a simple white plate. There were no frills.

The food smelled delicious. I sampled the vegetables and a bit of chicken. It tasted...wonderful. It avoided the typical trap of too much sauce, and too thick. The wonton was the ubiquitous crab Rangoon, but amazingly it was good. Crispy, non-greasy, light. I couldn't believe my tastebuds.

The portion was just right. I felt satisfied, not over full. My belly even relaxed, after a few initial protestations. Even though I wasn't prepared to admit it, the cloud hovering over me began to lift. I thanked the hostess, paid my bill and left.

Somewhere along the way home, I began to feel good. Tired, still, but good. The walls began to recede a bit, and the light seemed a little brighter. I finished my errands and went home, reveling in the luxury of a nap I wanted to take, instead of feeling I had to take. It was wonderful.

I don't know what triggered my ascent. Maybe it was the simple passage of time, maybe it was someone being nice to me, maybe it was just a simple plate of food done well and served with charm. Whatever it was, it sure felt good to take the cure. It felt good to find the Way, tricked out in Chinese food.

16 May 2013

Plumbing the Weird

8:45 PM. Long day, much to do, lots of low cursing. Then, more thoughts.

I had a chance to review what I wrote for yesterday's post. I have to say, it was pretty weird. I mean, weird even for me. Why that is, I cannot rightly say.

What I can say is that it is the result of a maxim. To wit, I have been exhorted more than once and by more than one source to write every day. Even if I do not feel like it or am not inspired. Write. Write. WRITE. I've also been told to not worry if it isn't any good, or maybe doesn't make sense. One doesn't even need to know what to write about. Just. Do. It.

So I did. It was difficult. I was in no mood to write, had no plans to do so, certainly had no big ideas laying around in the junkyard of my mind. I went to my computer with the intention of doing some research on some trivial thing I thought I needed, or maybe it was online bill-paying I meant to do. It could have been something important, for all I know now.

All of that is not what happened, as we clearly see. Instead of turning right, I turned left. I zigged instead of zagged. My fingers started typing of seemingly their own volition, I entered a fugue state---that is what it felt like---and about an hour later that story is what left my head and ended up on the digital page. I can describe the episode as channeling rather than writing. Upon completion, I felt drained and exalted.

I also laughed at myself. It seemed so strange, so not where my head was going when I logged in. Often this sort of thing unnerves me and creates a little anxiety. I am not the type of person who easily makes leaps into the unknown, because it is so...well, so unknown. I realize how ridiculous I appear to acknowledge such absurdity.

But there it is, this rare attempt to just write, with no plan, no inspiration, no map. I have no idea what it means, or even if it means anything. This is okay, I think. If I am to make good on my aspirations to be an author I'll have to get used to plumbing weird. I hope I can bring guests.

15 May 2013

Casting Pebbles in the Chasm

Brett sucked a lungful of cigarette smoke, harsh Vietnamese tobacco exhaled out in viscous tendrils that disappeared quickly in the updraft from the chasm. He found the hot brackishness oddly pleasant. He wondered when he would quit the habit after years of fruitless attempts.

The soldier laughed, iron-brittle in the winter air. Smoking would not be what killed him, he knew. So it really held no consequence for him. If anything killed him (and these days, one was never certain that death was final) it would be the stellar black below his dangling feet. The black, or some nightmare that dwelled within.

It was otherwise quiet there on the Rim. His platoon mates were dead, or nearly so, and scattered around behind him. The lucky ones died swiftly, before they glimpsed the horrors sweeping out of the depths into which Brett stared. The not so lucky died screaming their throats raw, plucking at their faces in vain. Brett wondered why he had been spared. There was no telling if he was blessed with fortune or if some other, greater terror awaited him.

His face went slack. The cigarette dangled from a bruised and bitten lip. Perhaps it was blood that held it so, the mere whisper of adhesion holding it in place. The soldier barely noticed. His thoughts were muddled, a smear of action and terror dulled by shock. Cold was creeping in. That minor circumstance troubled him more than he wanted to allow. If the suit was failing, well, then he truly stood not a chance.

A shiver passed up his spine, electric and cold. Training took over. His right hand tightened around the grip on his only remaining weapon, a late model projectile thrower that had turned out remarkably effective against the things coming out of the dark. A tactical refinement that now seemed to come too late to do much good. Brett sighed again. The intake of metallic air, tinged with the smell of alien rocks, brought his mind back to the helmet resting against his left hip.

"I should put it on," he said to the corpses and the darkness, "Gotta be safe." He chuckled.

The sun was going down. That meant the things would be on the move again soon. He thought he heard whispers rising up on the chasm breeze. "Just wind," he told himself. The hairs still stood up on his neck. He flung the cigarette into the void. Sitting still for a few heartbeats, he began to gather pebbles in his left hand. The stone was greenish, with an odd shimmer that was accentuated by the bluish light of the sun.

He filled his hand, then poured the pebbles into a small cone. He picked up a pebble and cast it into the chasm. "I coming for you!" he barked into the blackness. The wind seemed to slow with a minute change in direction. He chucked another pebble into the void.

"And you!"

His voice began to echo. The wind slowed, stopped, then reversed direction. More pebbles flew, vanishing completely in the featureless void. The voice, if that is what they were, grew louder. The sibilant chorus sounded to Brett like the mutterings of lunatics. He thought he heard screams, one of which he could have sworn was something calling his name.

Shadows on the rim lengthened. The soldier cast in a final pebble. There was a shriek from below, rising on the ice-cold wind that had once again changed direction. Something down there laughed.

Brett picked up his helmet, settling it on the grit and blood-encrusted rim that served as the locking seat. The suit powered up, LED's blinking to full go status mode. Only the ammo indicator had dipped into the warning red zone. The supply was woefully short.

Brett sighed. Nothing was to be done. It was move or die. He leaned forward. The suit power surged in anticipation. Brett grinned, a wolfling all alone. "I'm coming for you," he whispered.

The groans and gnashings in the dark grew louder. Brett pushed up and out, leaping off the rim with the gun pointed forward. He dove into the chasm without a sound, swallowed up as if he never existed. There was light, but it never made it past the rim. The things in the dark embraced the soldier, and sang of his courage for millennia.

12 May 2013

Mother Loam

May, blooms unfolding,
Her breath, her blood shaped you
She was your first house!

For my Ma, the earth what gave me roots

07 May 2013

Where the Bodies are Buried

9:39 PM. News-weary this spring night. Troubled, wondering who will be a speaker for the dead.

I reckon this time I might irritate some folks, with the thoughts I can't help but spill. Spill I must, or burst. Or perhaps just toss and turn trying to shake off dreams that make me ill at ease. I listened overly much to the news today, in servitude to its terrible fascination with the burial ground of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. No one in this country wants the body, and the ones who claim him at all cannot and will not travel here to get him.

Not that I recommend they try it, unless they travel under heavy escort, in unmarked vehicles, in the small hours of the morning.

I do not say that because I bear any hatred towards the parents of the bombing suspect. Whatever their respective characters may be---and the news is not favorable---they were not the ones who made the bombs or set them off. So I have no room for hatred of them in my heart. Pity, maybe.

I say it because of what it seems the majority of society feels towards their children, and how society is looking not just for someone to hate, but to hate with savagery. The collective conscience is howling for blood, any blood, as the only justice for the horrific crimes committed by the brothers Tsarnaev.

I understand that rage, intertwined with the need for revenge. Speaking for myself, however, I do not want it to consume me or my life. I want justice, make no mistake about that. But I have a very hard time convincing myself that justice, in some fashion, has not already been served on the dead brother. Being shot multiple times and then having a relative run over you with a car is in many ways worse than a state-sponsored execution.

Which brings me back to the news today, and its talk of where Tamerlan will be buried. Or rather, not buried. So far no cemetery in Massachusetts has agreed to accept the body. Those cemeteries have, I am sure, well-founded concerns about having such a notorious person buried there.

Because the living, or some of the living, would never be satisfied to let the body alone. This desire for revenge or "eye for an eye" says more about the living, however, than it does about the dead. The living sometimes have what seems to be an insatiable desire for hatred and revenge.

The thing is, if Tamerlan had survived, he would be in custody now along with his brother. They both would be awaiting trial and whatever punishment society saw fit to levy against them. And I cannot say I am immune to the notion that they both deserve to die for what they did.

What I do not want to partake of is the savagery that I suspect many want to inflict not just on the younger brother, but on a corpse. A savagery we decry in others, I will add, and one not entirely square with our ideals of due process and decency.

Before you scream and howl at me, thinking me soft and not living in the real world, know this: I do want justice here. I do not defend or excuse anything the brothers did, because there is no excuse or justification. Due process has to be observed if we are to claim we support the system that allows justice to be served without mob rules...because this is a nation of laws.

I also believe that, like it or not, the disposition of the body is the province of the family, not the state, nor the madding crowd. And if we allow ourselves to get knotted up in revenge and hatred then we have given up on living good lives in spite of the awfulness that our fellow men have cast upon us.

I heard a report that an uncle, the one living in Maryland, had traveled to Massachusetts to prepare the body for a traditional Muslim funeral. He said something to the effect that "Everyone deserves to be buried. Only God can judge the dead." I suppose for those who have a belief in a higher power who judges all, that belief will let you imagine any fate you care to conjure up. Some folks might believe he is a martyr, others will see nothing but eternal damnation as reward for such atrocity. Maybe both sides are right, or neither.

Ultimately, it does not matter. If only God (assuming God exists) can judge, then that judgement will be beyond the knowledge of mere humans. If there is nothing beyond this mortal coil, then maybe most of society can rest assured the murderer has no chance at reward, just annihilation.

What matters is what we, the living, can do with the measure of our days. Why do we need to care where a criminal (or monster, by some lights) is buried? Timothy McVeigh, Adam Lanza and even Osama Bin Laden all received burials, of sorts. Does anyone spend their time trying to track those ashes? Does anyone really want to spend their days spitting on the graves of criminals? If so, perhaps those people should step back and decide whose life are they really living.

I personally do not care where the remains of Tamerlan Tsarnaev end up, as I have no plans to visit for any purpose. I understand that many people won't feel the same about the issue; the desire for revenge and catharsis is ingrained in the tribal psyche of us all. My heart aches for the victims of any such tragedy as what happened in Boston, and that will always be true. But as for myself, I'll let the damned lie where they may without wasting precious time and energy on them. I will not allow myself to be pinned to the strange attractor of unrequited hatred.

06 May 2013

Reveries of the Ring

Sunday, May 5th, 8:12 PM. More Tales from the Belly of the Beast.

Memories in the shape of a open loop caught me off guard there in the deli aisle. There they were, lying in their refrigerated splendor, decked out in casings colored a brilliant shade of red. I speak of ring bologna, friends, a humble cured meat that roots me firmly in my childhood.

You do know of the ring bologna, do you not? Show of hands?

I'll understand if you have not. Ring bologna is definitely an old school culinary creation that has usually---in my experience---been far overshadowed by the plethora of prepackaged, presliced lunch meats that most markets carry. I will confess that as a kid I probably ate more than my fair share of such things. Convenience and a narrow food focus saw to that particular fixation. But in many ways, that is over now.

I still like cold cuts, but I do not eat them like I did when I was a child. My tastes have changed. These days a good salad or a bowl of pot beans are just as likely to be found in my lunch bag. This is a shift that I'm sure is good for me on many levels. While I do make a pilgrimage to the deli counter now and then, I have drifted away from a lot of that stuff.

Which makes my encounter with ring bologna on this lazy Sunday afternoon all the more intriguing. I was meandering in search of queso fresco and cotija cheese---my personal frijoles de olla do not seem complete without one or the other---and not really in the mind of meat. I was pushing the cart with purpose, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw them.

I slowed for a better look, confirming my initial impression. Almost obscured by the packages of who knows what hanging above was a humble stack of bright red loops there on the shelf. I stopped to look closer; it was indeed a cluster of ring bologna. My nerd brain took over, noting that technically they were open toroids, cylindrical shapes formed by rotating a closed curve about an axis not intersecting or contained in the curve...

...I told my nerd brain to shut up. This was the grocery store, not a topology lab. I nearly walked away from the case at that point, but something made me pick up one of the rings. When I did so, a flood of memories came to me. My maternal grandmother's kitchen. A plate of neatly sliced coins of bologna laying on the crazed ceramic surface, accompanied by a stack of saltines and a generous dab of mustard. G-maw squeezing lemon into her tea while I sat munching in contentment, making little sandwiches by placing a coin between two crackers.

The memories moved forward in time, summer days when she would come to visit and bring a ring bologna with her and leave it in our fridge. Me in my hormonally induced ravenousness ransacking the same refrigerator in search of protein and calories. Later still, finding a care package waiting for me in my college dorm mail room. G-maw occasionally sent them along with crackers and some sweets, soup and the now famous ring bologna. She would pack it in dry ice to help keep it cool.

To me, those packages represented an anchor. They were something that kept me from always having to rely on the dodgy dining hall for snacks and late-night sustenance, especially when my funds for such things were slim at best. My roommates would look askance at me, cocking the eyebrow and teasing me for having gotten "baloney" in the mail. I smiled, nodded, and did not bother to explain what they missing.

The food itself, I know, would be on many nutritional "bad" lists these days. The usual suspects: sodium, nitrates, saturated fat. But back then, it was food for kings, I thought. It kept me from going hungry, it reminded me of home, and people who loved me. I figured out years later that my G-maw had probably eaten a lot of this very stuff when she was a kid, and in her younger days. She did not come from money, and things like ring bologna were relatively cheap and "rib-sticking". To her, it just made sense.

I felt a little dizzy, swaying there at the edge of the refrigerated case. All those memories crowding their way to the forefront of my mind. The package felt cool and slightly yielding in my hand. All my dietary concerns clamoring for me to put it down, convinced that it was something I did not need. I hesitated, then slowly moved to put the bologna back on the shelf. Halfway there, I stopped.

It was true that I had no critical need for the stuff. But need and want are two different creatures. I scanned the package again, vision overlaid by the ghost of my grandmother in her kitchen, talking to me of everything and nothing. Saltines and savor on my tongue, that I could almost taste in their piquancy. I turned and put the package in my cart. The diet would survive this diversion.

Maybe it is true that you can't go home again, but the heart knows that sometimes the tongue can taste it and the belly can be filled, when we dine in the house of memories.