Mother reading to her child from a children’s ecology book. Thus, a text even a child can understand.
Mother – We live on a planet that rotates around the sun, creating a balanced system. The day is balanced by night, cold is balanced by hot, rainy and snowy days are balanced by sunny and dry days, the oxygen we breathe in, given to us by plants, is balanced by the carbon dioxide gasses we and other animals expel, which the plants absorb. You see, balance is the operating system for everything on the planet, including us. We’re active during the day and rest at night, we work hard but balance it with play. Spring and summer are balanced by fall and winter and we adjust our activities and diets accordingly.
The precocious child interrupts.
Child – Mother, if everything is balanced, didn’t cutting down most of the trees create an imbalance? I mean, with deforestation happening at the same time petroleum production was exponentially being increased, causing billions of tons of additional greenhouse gasses to be expelled into the atmosphere, didn’t that throw the whole system out of whack. Didn’t we need more trees, not less, to absorb all those gasses? Doesn’t that explain the planet’s climate issues?
Mother – My, you’re a smart child, but whether you believe that or not depends on your political affiliation.
Child – Wait…what?
Mother – It’s hard to explain. You see most people learned about climate change from a politician, so the party that opposed him automatically assumed he was an ass. You see, Democrats and Republicans balance each other out, making sure nothing ever gets done.
Child – Don’t politicians pay attention to what the science is telling us?
Mother (rubbing her eyes) – Well, they don’t like dealing with unpleasant realities, unless it’s something they can bomb, so science doesn’t matter all that much. It’s one of those unexplainable mysteries.
Child – How can that be? Don’t they enjoy and appreciate modern conveniences like everyone else, all of it coming from scientific advances? Doesn’t it smack them in the face all day long?
Mother – Yes, but they’re more focused on obtaining power.
Child – I see, but once they have power, wouldn’t they focus on the science, then?
Mother – You would think so, but no, they continue to focus on business and power.
Child – That doesn’t make any sense.
Mother – I know dear, but when you’re focused on obtaining money and power, that remains your focus. Otherwise you might lose power.
Child – So if they were to focus on science and reality, then that would remain their focus?
Mother – Yes, I’m sure it would.
Child – So how come they can’t see that?
Mother – Because the people who vote them into power are focused on the same thing, obtaining power.
Child – I’m confused. How can they get power?
Mother – Well, they believe they’ll have power by association from the people they voted in.
Child – But they don’t?
Mother – No, because once they’re voted in, they continue to focus on keeping their power.
Child – So let me get this straight. The planet is kept in balance by the forces of nature, but people are balanced by power, a system that never accomplishes anything.
Mother – -Essentially, yes. But people are also subject to the same laws of balance. Our bodies are balanced around a certain temperature and pH, for instance, but when we focus on power, we tend to focus on ourselves instead of being in balance with our surroundings, and thus we don’t take much notice of how destructive we can be, such as when we overpower some of the planet’s natural systems and throw everything, like the climate, out of balance.
Child – How can we be so powerful when the planet is so big and we’re so small?
Mother – Because we’re a part of the planet, just like the microscopic bacteria in your gut are part of you, and we’re no different from any other species. All species would unwittingly take over the planet and destroy it if they could because they don’t know any better, but fortunately the forces of nature keep them in check. They are, in their own way, focused on power, too, as each individual carves out its territory and tries to procreate, like us, thereby inadvertently increasing the size of their population as a whole.
Child – How come these forces don’t keep us in check?
Mother – They’ve been trying to, through diseases and droughts and even our natural tendencies, such as fighting wars (which come down to more power struggles), but we have more abilities than most species – we can drill for oil and build machines and create medicines, for example, and overcome those forces.
Child – Okay, but if the planet is a balanced system, wouldn’t it eventually have to find a way to humble us and bring us back into balance, otherwise it would all break down and come to an end?
Mother – Yes. It’s like when a person drinks too much and they get a hangover. Most people take it easy the next day to bring their bodies back into balance, but if they don’t, if they keep drinking, then their bodies become increasingly unbalanced and eventually they become diseased and die prematurely.
Child – So climate change is just a symptom of a disease, and the disease is our imbalance?
Mother – Very good, that’s correct.
Child – Doesn’t that mean we’re doomed if we don’t change and learn to live in balance with the planet?
Mother – It would seem so, but no one knows for sure how that’s going to unfold or when.
Child – So will I have a safe planet to live on when I grow up?
Mother – It’s hard to say.
Child – I don’t like this story.
Mother – No one does.
Child – But if we know all this, why doesn’t anyone do something about it before it’s too late?
Mother – You already know the answer to that.
Child (mulling things over for a minute) – Because they’re focused on obtaining power?
Mother (nodding) – Yep, power and politics and self-interest, and waiting for someone else to do something.
Child – I see, which accomplishes nothing and lets our natural tendency, to obtain power and grow the population, to continue.
Mother – Exactly.
Child – So there’s no stopping this unless we recognize who we are and install a system to stop us from destroying ourselves, since nature won’t be able to do so until it’s too late. I guess we need to get people focused on balance instead of power.
Mother – That’s right! You’re so smart. Maybe someday you’ll be a senator, or even president of the united states, then you can put in the necessary regulations.
Child (excited) – Then I can get the power!
Mother and child look at each other sheepishly.
Child – Balance takes work, doesn’t it?
I think what Kip understood was that when I was behind the bar, it was similar to him being in the ring with all those eyes watching and waiting to see if I would crack under the pressure.
On the night of his fight, however, everything moved smoothly thanks to Graham’s medicine. Graham sat at the end of the bar like an old tamed dog no one took notice of, hiding behind his graying beard and Tiger’s baseball cap and expecting only heftier shots in exchange for his gifts. He gave me a few valium and the air became as wonderful as water, bodies moving and conversing around me as cheerfully as swimmers on a hot day, their eyes encircling the bar with forgiveness and charity instead of waiting to ridicule any failure. I, too, became as graceful as a boxer, like Kip, counterpunching with words instead of jabs for those clamoring around the bar desperate for their next drink, waving a bill or twirling their empty glass or bottle for my attention. Someone yelled, “Medic,” and everyone laughed. It didn’t matter. With Emily amongst the crowd they didn’t have a chance. All she said was, “Dean! Dean! Dean!” while pounding on the bar, easily hoarding all of my attention.
Unlike her and Kip I’d always avoided scrutiny. I didn’t want any attention unless it came from her. She did seem to take pleasure in watching me work, giving me hope that being Nub’s bartender might be enough to make me acceptable to her after all, though she knew nothing of my usual dosage from Graham.
Someone yelled, “Doctor Dean,” and I raised my head from the draft I was pouring and yelled to the crowd in general.
“Where’s the fire?”
“Down my throat,” came the reply.
They all became dependent, beautiful birds hungry for my service. I thought I would burst into tears from the camaraderie enveloping me. I soaked it in like heat waves of emotions. As long as no one uttered an unkind word I’d keep the beer flowing and we’d ride out half the night together and be better prepared for the rest of it, as long as Graham continued to offer his wares. Without him the bar became a cage and the crowd an enclosing wall with more incoming jabs than I could handle. Whenever that happened I knew what Kip would feel like in the ring if he started to lose, the humiliation of crumbling in front of the crowd, the fear of shame, the thought of it – all those eyes penetrating like needles. A few rum and cokes kept them at bay, barely, unlike the consistent zone of bliss Graham’s gifts delivered.
“Dean,” someone yelled, “let’s get a line of buckets going?”
“Only if you spontaneously combust.”
“I always get caught,” I said, “whenever I do something illegal. I swear, you don’t want me with you unless you want to spend the night in the slammer.” I’d been off drugs for a while and the last thing I needed was to spend the night with a drunk looking for a prostitute. Not that I’d lost the desire to always be high. I still wanted to live in a place where the fairies came out at night and I could laugh at their antics till morning. I’d just woken too often to find that the fairytale had come to an end, leaving me to fend for myself when the sun came out, and there was no avoiding the sun, so I was taking classes when I could and trying to figure out how to function when confronted by the light of the day.
He sat back and spread his wings across the back seat. For a moment he was a mile away. “So you never take any risks,” he said. “I guess that’s why you drive a cab.”
“I guess so.”
He sat up again and hung his whiskey bottle in front of me. “Here, have a sip, you need this more than I do.”
“I can’t. Like I said, I get caught at everything. The last thing I need is to lose this job for drinking. I guess taking risks has been beaten out of me.”
“By who, you’re old man? He the one who beat you?”
“No, no,” I said. “I was speaking metaphorically.”
He sat back again. “I see…metaphorically. You don’t live around here, do you?”
“I do now.”
“You’re too clean, metaphorically I mean. You go to college?”
“How’d you end up here? You wanted to see how the other half lived?”
“Something like that.”
He waited for me to elaborate. I didn’t want to explain it and end up in a longer conversation.
When we stopped at a light I could hear him breathing. Traffic was light; I was thankful when a car came up and idled beside us, an SUV with shaded windows. The man’s silence unnerved me. The light changed and we started up again.
“Life seems more real here,” I said. “It’s raw, people are people without the games.”
“People are people,” he repeated. Then he sat up close again. “Let me tell you something, it’s all games here, too. You want raw? Give up your cab and your income and live on the streets. Or move to a third world country, see if you can survive in the middle of a war, or find some bush people to live with in Africa. You’re a long ways from raw.” He sat back again.
“I suppose,” I said.
“No, no, no,” he said, interrupting, coming close to me again. “On second thought, you’d never make it in those places on your own. You know what a guy like you should do?”
“Join the Peace Corp. You’d get raw, but you’d have the security you need.”
“Sounds like too much work to me. I’m comfortable in my cab.”
He collapsed back. “Too much work,” he repeated, and then he almost shouted. “No women, no whiskey, no Peace Corp, just a comfortable cab man.”
“Works for me.”
“Wow, we need to get you laid.”
What the fuck is wrong with this country?
If our society consisted of a small group of people just starting out in this new world, we’d individually pay the local doctor on an as-needed basis for our care. As costs skyrocketed because of new technology, taking on more difficult to cure diseases instead of letting each other die, we’d probably come to the reasonable conclusion that we might all end up in the same boat someday, so why not pool our money with small contributions to cover everyone in our community, insuring help awaits us should we need it. So simple, so easy, providing security and happiness for all (thus giving rise to the concept of community). Only the local curmudgeon (there’s always one) and his extremist nutcase brother, would oppose it because they’re pissed off about their state in life and have vowed to love to hate.
Luckily they are the extremists – they’re not supposed to be leaders. Reasonable people should tell them to fuck off.
Then Bob comes along and says to himself – being the entrepreneur that he is – boy, if I could get everyone to pay me to manage this thing, I could make a lot of dough. Being a capitalist society, Bob convinces our small community that he could do a better job than our bureaucratic government at making sure everything runs smoothly and that no one is unfairly abusing the system. Fine, only no one seems to notice or mind that healthcare costs increased even more because Bob now needs his 20 percent.
So this is the system we’re stuck with, that we actually accept as sensible, as long as everyone works for corporate America. If you’re an artist or musician or self-employed or a part-time worker, etc., you can choose to buy into Bob’s system if you want to, just don’t use it. Because if you do, Bob will probably drop you. After all, this isn’t a healthcare system, it’s a for-profit business set up to make Bob wealthy, and Bob decides whether or not you’re a good customer. Bob decides whether you live or die. Fuck you Bob.
I’ve been without healthcare for about a year now, having been inexplicably dropped by shit-bag Bob probably because I put it to use while passing a kidney stone the size of Mount Rushmore. So instead of reapplying, and thus having kidney stones deemed a pre-existing condition, I’ve been waiting for Obamacare to kick in to avoid being so easily dismissed. Soon I’ll be covered again, unless certain politicians have their way.
I swear, if it wasn’t such a hassle, I’d move to a more civilized country, probably a European nation that offers healthcare to its people and is progressively involved in making the world a better place, one that trumps our so-called great number one nation in just about every category minus the ability to repeatedly bomb – or shoot - the shit out of everyone on the planet.
We all know that Obamacare was a republican plan that came out of the right-wing “think” tank the Heritage Foundation. But republicans now oppose this approach. Why? Because a democrat pushed it through. There’s no other reasonable explanation.
If Obama was a republican, the majority of republicans would be supporting Obamacare, and I’d bet most democrats would oppose it for not being Medicaid for all. This is what politics does to us. It turns us into fucking morons that would rather destroy ourselves and vote against our own interests than give into the opposition. So because of politics – because of the desire for power – healthcare becomes a manufactured crisis we fight over while millions go without, allowing some to actually die.
Luckily our national media is determined to dig up the truth and keep us all well informed. Only they, too (with the exception of NPR), are a for-profit business which can’t afford to piss off the half of its viewership that have bought into Bob’s fucked up system, so instead of investigative reporting they ride the wave of social opinion and trivial trends to put on a vacuously hollow show. A website launch fails, so obviously the President should be dismantled and put away and his agenda burned and banned; Obamacare is unsurprisingly flawed – even the President doesn’t understand it all, so his opposition refers to it as his Katrina moment and the media goes along with this comparison as if it had an ounce of fucking merit; few people sign up for the new system amidst all the chaos, so they deem it a colossal failure because we’ve become so sensationalized that we can no longer understand human fucking nature.
Let me explain it. I’m as lazy as a drunken sloth on an extended tropical vacation, hoping beyond hope that I’ll win the lotto so I can maintain this luxuriant lifestyle. Except that I’m too damn lazy to go buy a ticket. I procrastinate. I don’t do anything until I absolutely have to because I’d rather be sipping a chilled margarita on a secluded topless beach than filling out frustratingly tedious forms on a website that will, essentially, do nothing for me except add to the mountain of bills I’m already struggling to pay.
When the website launched the last thing I was going to do was jump on that bandwagon of fun when so many others would be doing the same. Certainly there’d be glitches galore. I wouldn’t stand in line for a new fancy phone or any other high-tech device either, knowing it’s just a matter of time before the problems surface and corrections have to be made. And why sign up right away when the insurance doesn’t kick in the next day? Might as well wait. So of course the sign up numbers are lower than fucking low. Does this really need to be explained? Is the media so beholden to sensationalism as a product that they’ve lost the last remnants of whatever integrity they might have once had?
Some actually call this liberal media. If it was liberal it would focus on raising intelligent discourse in this country to what is progressively better instead of appealing to the status quo low. The evening national news has thirty minutes to inform us of all that’s going on in the country and around the planet. With so many global events, from war to scientific progress, it must be a struggle to decide which stories to squeeze into such a short time spot.
So what do they broadcast with such precious limited time? The other night they chose to include the immensely important information that McDonald’s – a skanky restaurant that feeds rot gut slime to the masses – is installing a new drive-through food lane to better handle the mindless herd. My head nearly exploded from the incredulity. Why the fuck don’t they report on who is standing in the way of progress? Who is it that has spent the last six years doing everything possible to bring this country to a fucking halt? Who is fearful of change, who has stood against everything Obama, the man this country voted into power, has tried to do?
Or how about a nightly report on what we are doing to combat global warming, an event so troubling that most people live with a fear in the back of their minds that their children might not be left with a survivable planet that can sustain them full-term? This is holy shit fucking news that we seldom hear of until something huge happens like a massive glacier breaking apart or another storm of the century rips through or the occasional report on the sad state of the dying polar bears, and even then global warming is only mentioned as an almost apologetic aside.
We don’t need a nightly report to cause panic and fear and depression, but one to remind us, to motivate us, to inspire us to live in harmony with the planet we depend on. As bad as things are, there are many out there pursuing creative innovations that just might solve all of our problems, and they could use our support, but you’d never know it if all you did was listen to the nightly news.
When are we going to ignore the ignorant among us, the Bob’s of the world who believe business is always the answer, that providing needed government services should be for-profit operations – morons like Cruz and Palin and Bachmann, whom most reasonably intelligent people agree are fools – and focus on greatness? We aspire for it, we’re attracted to it. Crowds gathered around Tiger Woods just to see if he could put a ball in a hole, they built a statue for Michael Jordan for doing the same, and we flocked to Grant Park to listen to President Elect Obama speak about hope and change. Since then we have sat back and watched and waited for his greatness to emerge, apparently expecting him to somehow overcome republicans who have decided their only purpose in life is to bring him down, because they believe Bob was right in making profit more important than our health. They’ve dug in their heels and stomped their feet like two-year olds, hell-bent on preventing greatness, because if greatness occurred when they were without power, they fear they’d never get it back.
Oh, and a special fuck you to Mitt Romney. You don’t get to come back and talk about Obama’s “twisted” healthcare system when you implemented a similar system in Massachusetts. You sold your soul to the curmudgeon’s extremist nutcase brother hoping for his vote. People with no integrity don’t, or shouldn’t, win elections. Just ask John McCain. You lost, you’re a loser, so go away, and take your magical underpants and all your money to a remote island and spend the rest of your days rolling around in it, because we all know you’re highly unlikely to do anything of actual value with all that cash, given your sentiments about the poor. The only good you’ll do is give mostly to charities that, ultimately, only serve to promote your own twisted interests. Please tell us, what exactly are you and your previously mentioned bowl of buffoons actually doing for our community? Meaning our united community, as in, the US of A. That’s what I thought. I’ll leave you and all the other Bob’s of the world with two words of wisdom to mull over.
(no offense to any sensible people named Bob).
At the 7-11, Denby bought a six-pack and a packaged sandwich, while I settled for a box of brown-sugar pop-tarts. We sat on the sidewalk next to the store and ate our dinners. I started to feel a little better. I wished everything was as good as the texture and sweetness of the brown-sugar pop-tarts. They had depth, with layers of tastes, sugar and cinnamon and just the right amount of fat in a soft-crunchy delivery. A taste of pure goodness. Such perfection gave me hope. It was like the small stand of trees in a gulch between the houses on the other side of the street, a taste of nature to let us know all was not lost. There was still a bit of hope left. A weed could grow through a crack in the pavement. Maybe I’d find a better job someday. And there would be a woman with layers of textures and tastes, and I’d no longer be in the company of the Denby’s of the world – I swear, when he was around, even the trees stiffened more than usual and tried to keep their leaves from swaying to avoid his attention – and maybe I’d find a way to make my own choices. Back then I didn’t make any. Friends weren’t selected, they materialized and you put up with them the best you could. Some things you tried not to do, like backing a wild animal into a corner or saying no to Denby. I guess that’s the best excuse I have for driving him next to Wally’s trailer.
Shots exploded in the mall’s corridors.
My first instinct was to run, but I didn’t know which way. And then I thought, wait, this is my chance to experience the new American dream. No, not winning the lotto; I could be the hero to take out the shooter and save countless lives. Only I wasn’t packing. I was itching to pull the trigger on a gun I didn’t have. Sadly, I wasn’t prepared to be a superhero. I was in danger of becoming the loser who didn’t have a weapon.
As the shots got closer, I couldn’t move and hugged the wall, hoping to blend in. I kept expecting to see bloodied bodies falling before crazed men armed to the teeth and dressed in long black coats or superhero costumes, but no one was getting hit, and what came next both shocked and excited me. America’s first female mass shooter. The world had long wondered where they were; certainly they had more cause to explode. She had long brown hair and was cute except for her beat red face, flushed with anger. Probably because she couldn’t hit a damn thing. All of her shots were missing. People moved safely along the walls, keeping low to the floor. I was the only one dumb enough to stay put. Soon I’d be the only logical target. I didn’t know why I couldn’t move. My only hope was that the blouse and short skirt sale going on across the hall at the Ann Taylor store would distract her. In fact, the mannequin looked scrumptious. Her ensemble would have been a much better outfit than the uninspired brown slacks and black t-shirt the shooter was sporting. Right next door was a jewelry store, something she could use, and beyond that, Victoria’s Secret, each store presenting everything the shooter was supposed to be. I clung to the façade of a Radio Shack, clearly a store of little or no interest to the shooter, so I felt relatively safe from her attention.
I was proven right, as she zeroed in on the stores opposite me. What she did next, though, made me wonder if the pressure to comply with the stores’ expectations had been too much, because she finally hit a target, riddling the mannequin with countless bullets. Next came the jewelry store, just a few shots, and then Victoria’s secret, where she emptied an entire clip. I’d been so busy checking out the mannequin and watching the action that I hadn’t noticed when the shooter stopped.
She was looking right at me, her rifle pointed between my eyes.
I instantly became painfully aware that I symbolically represented all men at that moment, everything that had brought her to this point. I’d been through all the stages: the boys were better phase, the shy guy, the aloof genius, the playboy, the gift to all women complex, the classic bachelor, watcher of football and baseball and even a little golf, the control freak, the pervert, the couch potato, the macho guy, the good guy, the sensitive man, the listener, the egotistical monument to self-centeredness, blue-collar hardness followed by the soft white-collar professional and wearer of ties, the man with the golden hair, the lover, the protector, the soft-spoken gentleman, the intellectual, the humorist, the poet, the practical joker, the adventurist, the man with the plan, the master of orgasmic pleasure willing to take on all frustrated challenges, the adult man-child, the wine connoisseur, the judger of perfectionism and promoter/encourager of
Barbie-ism, Mr. Cool, the drunken fool, the curmudgeon, the party pooper, the impatient horn honker, the cheap bastard, the friend with the wandering eye, the disturbed artist, the mighty hunter, the vegan animal lover, the nature boy, the dope smoker, the troubled drinker, the hippy, the libertarian (when libertarians weren’t nuts), the wild child, the wounded boy act, and the, “C’mon, you know you want to,” phrase repeater. I’d worn all the hats and played them to some critical acclaim – the history of my many forms all created for one purpose: reproductive success. Not reproductive results, just the successful act. She looked at me with rage, ready to destroy the symbolic source of her anger, all of her frustrations displayed before her in one place.
Deep down I wanted to be a cowboy and express this new form by carrying a concealed weapon, ready for the quick draw in the new American west. Instead I settled for the mild mannered gentleman, weak and lame, leaving me with no other choice. Glockless, I put to use the only weapon I had. I gave her the best puppy-eyed look I could muster. Her gaze met mine and, unsurprisingly, it worked. Women were such suckers. She couldn’t go through with it; she couldn’t take me out. She made a lousy shooter. Only men could fulfill that role after they’d failed to express one of their many forms, rectifying their perceived hindrance by becoming a superhero in their mind, taking out all those who were blind to their hidden greatness. Men were shooters, women receivers. When the targets of their expression couldn’t be hit, killing became their final manifesto, going out as artists of death.
The shooter lowered her gun and stepped toward me. I pulled her close and yes, we immediately kissed. It was glorious. Fortunately I’d watched a lot of John Wayne movies while growing up so I knew how to make women swoon under the power of my embrace, prolonging the kiss. She gave in, she submitted, she was all mine, completely under my spell; she dropped the gun. She couldn’t even react to the approaching march of combat boots. The police rushed in and tackled her to the floor. After they secured her in handcuffs one of them stood up and turned to me and said, “Good job, you’re a hero.”
I nodded. It was true, I was a hero; I’d saved the American way of life from exposure or scrutiny without even using a gun. We could all return to our normal, materialistic routines.
They took her away. They didn’t go far when she looked back, hands cuffed behind her, to meet my eyes once more. “Call me,” she said.
But before I could make any conjugal visits, I woke up.
When I struggle to write, I begin to doubt my intelligence; when the writing goes well – even when a story feels complete – I question its quality because it came from me.
I doubt I’ll ever put the past behind me, not completely, or that I’ll ever be satisfied with where I am at. Given our differences and the hardwired fears that undermine us, I doubt we’ll ever come close to developing a utopian society we’d all like to live in, and more than anything, as a single man, I doubt I’ll ever meet the right woman, or if I do, I doubt it will last. I can’t imagine anyone finding my neuroses or aging wickedness tolerable.
Fortunately there is something wrong with women, so I have an ounce of hope. Every day the news reports the horror of our darkness, the gang shootings with innocent bystanders (often young girls or babies) getting hit, men killing their wives and children in murder-suicides, boys on a thrill kill, women being dragged into the bushes from the train stations in Chicago to be beaten and raped, domestic violence, pornographers reducing them to parts, treating them as lesser humans, as cattle, as objects, as servants, all for less pay. And still they tolerate men - hairy, lumpy, ape-like men.
Friends and family have often wondered why I’ve been single for so much of my life, why my relationships have always failed or why I ended them so abruptly. This is why. Irrational self-doubt courses through my veins like a deforming childhood disease I am forced to live with. Relationships, after the initial lust phase starts to dwindle, are all about getting to know the other person. Why let someone into my personal world only to let them discover those flaws I’ve worked so hard to conceal? It was easier to have one-night stands and short relationships and end them before they got too close. I finally got to a point where I just shut down, recognizing that one-night stands were nothing more than egotistical conquests to make me feel like a man. It was not a genuine life. But then I lost my drug, my drink, my vaccine for negative thinking, my way of eradicating the darkness within us, within me. I used to fool myself that these were moments of love – love the one you’re with – until morning came around and the other side of the balance scale revealed itself. Just as there is no hot without cold, no light without dark, no gluttony without hunger, where there is confidence there must be doubt, and where there is an unhealthy doubt and dissatisfaction with one’s self, there is frustration and all the troubles that steal our focus from beauty and kindness and compassion and wellness for all.
Doubting my intelligence, I was in my forties when I decided to take a series of timed IQ tests available on-line. They were challenging. I had no idea how I had done and wasn’t sure I wanted to know the results. My hand hovered over the mouse, hesitant to click on the scores. This was the precipice, to continue onward through life or roll back down the Sisyphean hill I’d been climbing. I started to pace the floors to consider the limitations of my world. What if they revealed what I’d long feared – that my intelligence was far below average, even mentally underdeveloped? I’d been writing for years but had nothing to show for it. Maybe this was why. Facing the blank page brought out the symptoms (the finished ones often did the same), and every rejection letter confirmed the disease. If the results finally authenticated my mental slowness, my life would be over. There would be no sense in attempting any further accomplishments. I’d have to consider returning to my past drug life or crawling into a bottle, as I had done in my teens. Back then they had given me the excuse I needed for being what I was. I could blame the drugs for my dimwittedness. This self-doubt, this fear that I was mentally ill, had been a storm swirling in my mind all my life.
Lately I’ve been studying Ayurveda, a nature-based philosophy out of India that focuses on balance. They’ve mapped out our different constitutions and appreciate the value of knowing our own nature. How can you be balanced if you don’t know the operating manual for your own unique body, and how it relates to and functions in correlation with the changing seasons? To some degree, or maybe a lot, we instinctively know this. We’re more likely to eat cooling foods in the summer and warmer ones in winter. If we eat seasonally, we’re giving our bodies what they were designed to receive at the proper time, sprouts and greens for a natural spring detox, fruits and greens to keep us cool in the summer, fat and heavier warming foods for the winter, an approach I’m yet to fully implement, probably because, in Ayurvedic terms, I tend to be what’s known as kapha dominant (meaning I’m not one thing but a mixed bag with certain dominant tendencies). Kaphas, I’m told, lean towards sweetness when they are balanced, but can be slow, steady learners, something I didn’t want to hear. I recognized myself in the description and immediately focused on the slow part of that equation. It was true, I can sometimes be slow to get the joke; if you read me a poem go slowly, very slowly, so I can take it in and assimilate the imagery; I have no idea when a member of the opposite sex is interested in me (I always imagine the opposite, given the revolting hairy lumpiness of the male body). It often takes me a while to settle into a new job – I suspect some employers have had second thoughts about hiring me for the first six months or so until I settled in and started to thrive (slow, but steady). I was good at math, never having to take my college final exams because I was so far ahead of the class, but only after an absolute devotion to study. It would take me a long while to get it, and only then could I solve whatever problem he threw my way (a slow but steady learner).
Not knowing my true nature, I’d always focused on the slow, a natural slowness that contributed to my self-doubt – it seemed obvious I wasn’t always as good or as mentally quick as those types who were natural leaders. I made the mistake of comparing myself to them – everyone wanted to be like them – instead of just being fine with what I was. Being a sweet kid, something that almost feels shameful to admit to, was also something that had to be obliterated, sweetness often being misinterpreted as vulnerable, not considered a good quality for a man.
Problems at home didn’t help, with my father passing along some of the emotional abuse he’d inherited from his mother, especially his anger, especially when my mother wasn’t around.
I escaped my father’s world through drugs and blamed everything on them. If asked a question in school, I could answer, how the hell should I know and laugh. Christ, man, can’t you see, I’m on drugs? I don’t know anything. I’m too lost and damaged to function in a civilized society, an excuse I see in every stoner out there using drugs as a crutch to overcome the feelings of not fitting in, of not being good enough.
It’s a feeling you never really lose, especially after altering your mind to escape that reality. I was in gym class playing shortstop and can still see the baseball moving in slow motion towards my ungloved hand. I couldn’t move. I was high on some kind of animal tranquilizer and followed the ball through the air all the way into my bare hand. I threw the ball on the ground and walked off the field. I once went blind while driving down the highway, my body saturated with whatever drug I had consumed. My passengers guided me to a parking lot and took over the wheel. They drove to a field in the country where I waited for my sight to return. The cicadas were putting on a symphony; it sounded as if all the stars in the sky were sizzling like sparklers before they fizzled out. I saw faces melting and walls dissolving; I saw green lighting flashing through a black canvas sky while wishing I would die. I felt body parts go numb, and days later, continued to touch them to see if they could still be felt. I dry heaved, I had chronic bronchitis, I think I had anxiety but I was too high to ever know, my insides were as dank and raw as a back alley dive bar, which is where my mind settled for years. That was my prom, my high school experience, overdosing on chemicals and somehow surviving without medical intervention. You don’t come out of that past with confidence, nor do you easily forgive yourself, even though it feels like a past life it was so long ago.
So as my hand hovered over the mouse, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get myself to cancel the test or shut off the computer. If the test results proved my mental slowness, why bother trying to date intelligent women or meet or even hold onto any intelligent friends. If I’d had any inkling that my score would at least be average my anxiety would have been over. This was ridiculous, I thought. Why punish myself with the results when I could continue on as if I might not be a mental moron? I could try to bury those fears and live in denial and sally forth the best I could as a potentially capable person who might one day actually produce something of value. I could live that lie. Not knowing would prevent me from deteriorating into the depths of despair. But, of course, I couldn’t walk away. I had to know and clicked on the results and prayed – I, disbeliever of religions or any sentient higher being actively involved in our daily lives – prayed for average results. Just be average, I pleaded; I can live with that. When the scores were tallied and came back high, I didn’t care. This didn’t excite me or make me feel proud. Instead, for a brief moment, I was immensely relieved that I wasn’t well below average. That was all that mattered. But the relief lasted only briefly because, like a Woody Allen character, it didn’t take long for the flood of doubts to return – maybe the tests were flawed, maybe they were invalid, maybe it was all a set up for morons like me to get fooled into thinking we were more than we were. It’s hard to change the thought patterns when they’ve been so ingrained, so ground in as to become a part of one’s personality, especially when you know you don’t quite fit into the world that demands we all be the same to ensure our security. We should all learn at the same pace, be quick-witted, be leaders, be a man; we should all be Christians or Muslims or Democrats or Republicans, then the world would be a better place; we should have tattoos or piercings or wear the proper clothing if we want to fit in with the right crowd. If we all thought the same and shared the same beliefs, had the same sexual preferences, the same skin color, the same level of education, the same wealth, the right hairstyle, we could finally live in peace.
We’d all feel comfortable knowing all the people around us think and act like we do.
To be unique, to be an individual, to be yourself, is something we pretend to celebrate. Only we don’t. Most of the time we look down upon what is different and fear the unpredictable. Not a day goes by where someone on TV or radio or in a job memo or through a simple look, isn’t promoting a message of what kind of person we should be. Listen to sports shows, and they are rampant with that phrase, be a man, with all of its implications, and the internet and social media practically exist to chastise the politically incorrect or anyone who doesn’t fit into the desired group.
If I’d understood and accepted my nature, slow but steady, and that had been supported, maybe doubt wouldn’t have attached itself like an out-of-control virus; maybe a healthy balance of doubt could have been established instead. I trust some of my doubt. I’ve known too many writers who believed everything they created was wonderful. No matter how often they were shown by classmates or in a writer’s group what was working and what wasn’t, they never changed. Their work was always the same; they believed it to be flawless, because doubt was an enemy to their vision. But how can there be improvement without question or doubt, if we’re blind to our flaws?
Or if we’re blind to an appreciation of our differences? Being surrounded by an infinite variety of plants, animals, and people, by what is different, you’d think accepting variety would come naturally, but it’s well known we have a natural fear of the unknown; and an inclination for homogeneity – and it is natural – to gravitate to the comfort and safety of the like-minded, inadvertently encouraging the snuffing out of the individual, burying our true natures under mountains of societal debris, to be something we were never meant to be by trying to fit in, which leads, I suspect, to much of the daily ugliness reported by the news.
Watching the events unfold in Egypt, what is lost becomes apparent – that balance between the two sides, unable to celebrate common ground because large groups of people have joined one side or the other, instead of recognizing how much of themselves is spread out over both views. So they fight for homogeneity. America seems lost, as well, republicans and democrats squaring off into ceaseless stagnation, a standoff to get one’s way, everyone joining a side and hating the other even though there is plenty of common ground, with all of this happening at a time when we have who could be the perfect president, a man focused primarily on balance – a mixture of black and white – that personality that wants to please both sides, only to cause both to be angry. He’s too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals, meaning he’s probably doing something right. He doesn’t fit perfectly into the mold either side wants, because no one does. That would be impossible, so we feed our anger, our hatred, and kill time until he is gone; we focus on trivial matters, while all of us live together under a time of unprecedented environmental decline. Someday, when nature has its full say, political differences won’t matter at all.
Maybe we’re just too stuck in our homogenous ways to see it, like the Egyptians, bogged down with hatred and violence toward the other, unaware of how close they could be to creating a beautiful balance. We wonder which direction they will take, when perhaps they shouldn’t take any. What if they sat down and found joy in their differences, accepted that nobody could have their way, that compromise was necessary to find that balance where all personality types could thrive and live peacefully together? Maybe it’s easier to see from the outside looking in. Maybe we all need to step back and take another look, and consider balance as the only long-term solution, for them and for us all, instead of trying to stuff everyone into the same tent, the same religion, the same diet, the same philosophy or politics. A utopian society becomes impossible if it is designed on sameness. It can only be created by accepting what is different.
I’d like to believe it could happen, but I have my doubts.
(I also have my doubts that anyone has read this long diatribe all the way to the end)
It wasn’t my proudest moment. I was young and dumb – the young part being a long time ago – and eating pizza at a restaurant with my friend Jack after a night of partying. We were drunk and high and unfortunately sitting next to a table of farmers who kept talking about plowing the back forty and other activities that sounded hilarious to us.
We quickly profiled them as dumb farmers – being the sophisticated, intellectual giants we were at the time – and giggled at everything about them: their conversation, their overalls and manure-stained boots, the requisite flannel shirts and their grubby agricultural caps. Thinking about where the food we ate came from was beyond us.
Whereas I was always a happy, peaceful drunk, who wished he’d grown of age a decade earlier to experience the summer of love (that would be the 1960s for those too young to know), Jack was a bit of a troublemaker. We both had long hair and colorfully patched blue jeans, looking as if we’d just come from the Woodstock Festival in a VW Bus. I can only imagine what the farmers thought of us. They probably profiled us much more accurately (as clueless teenagers) than we did them, if they gave us any thought at all.
Upon finishing our pizza, we got up to leave, and I have no idea why, but Jack turned to the farmers and said, “If your girlfriends behind the counter were any fatter they’d overflow.” The women making the pizzas were rather large, but the two farmers were sitting with their rugged wives, who looked as if they’d spent the afternoon wrestling steer, so his comments, beyond being disgusting, were completely absurd, which is probably why I laughed all the way out the door.
It wasn’t until I got to the driver’s side of my car before I realized that the farmers had followed us out, looking for a fight. Jack said something I couldn’t hear, and the
larger of the two men responded. He yelled, “Well I’m going to start pounding holes in this car.”
As peaceful as I always was, I also had a history, if I wasn’t too wasted, of refusing to back down (of standing my ground). The concept of walking away hadn’t yet settled into my undeveloped teenage brain, even though the man appeared to possess the ability to easily and nonchalantly remove my head from my body if he chose to bother with such a simple chore.
But I stood tall; I looked at him sternly and yelled back, “Then you’ll be answering to me” (think Chihuahua barking at a German Shepard).
He looked at me the way I imagine an abusive evil stepfather looks at the boy he’s about to pummel into oblivion – completely devoid of fear because of his superior size and immense strength – and said with the force of a Mack Truck, “Well how big are you?” He started around the car in my direction as he spoke (think grizzly bear on two legs ready to maul a child).
If I’d had any sense at all, I would have run for my life. Instead I stepped towards him, overly confident for some inexplicable reason other than the alcohol still fuming in my veins, and said with equal aplomb, “I’m just as big as you.” Although I was no small fry, compared to the farmer my comment was as absurd as Jack’s.
Amazingly, it stopped him dead in his tracks. My confidence must have caught him by surprise. By then the pizza proprietor had emerged from his shop and intervened before anything else was said, asking the farmers he knew by name to come back into his shop, and telling us to get the hell out of there and never come back.
Who knows what might have happened if the pizza man hadn’t stepped in. Maybe the farmer would have overcome his initial surprise and continued his charge.
At that age I had little understanding of how to control my emotions or avoid such conflicts, though I was usually able to do so. Most of the time I wanted nothing to do with fighting. For young men, avoiding fights can require constant vigilance. You never know when someone is going to challenge you, or bully you, or make a false assumption or accusation, and backing down in front of your peers isn’t acceptable.
Fortunately neither I nor the farmer, as far as I know, were packing heat. If he’d come after me, and I’d foolishly continued to stand my ground, well, think Ndamukong Suh dismantling a quarterback. But even if that had happened, I can’t imagine pulling out a gun. Back then, it just wasn’t done, or seldom thought of as a possible action. The Wild West was well behind us. Most likely, I would have taken a severe beating – thanks to my friend Jack – who deserved it more.
Even the craziest, and angriest man I knew at the time, never brandished a gun. He fought constantly and usually won. I witnessed him get his comeuppance once and he left sullen, vowing to come back with a gun to finish the fight. But he never did. Even he thought better of the consequences of killing someone. Fortunately he wasn’t already packing as who knows what might have happened in the heat of the moment. Given the attitudes of gun enthusiasts today, and their support for the recent Zimmerman verdict, I have to wonder if fear of the consequences of shooting someone is eroding. Gun enthusiasts promote responsible gun ownership – proper practice and training on handling a gun – how many of them are trained on conflict resolution, on confronting a teenager who is packing the intelligence of an action movie. I guess they don’t need it if a gun is allowed to settle the score.
At this point, it seems the gun supporters have won, and they’re slowly creating the society they deserve. Maybe they should start practicing the quick draw as the gunfights continue, especially as more armed Zimmermans patrol the streets in the throes of fantasy as wannabe cops. Maybe that’s what it will take before they realize their mistake. After facing the result of our failure to focus on the concept of balance – to prevent our society from slowly swinging toward the extreme – how many of them will start hoping the pendulum of our gun culture swings the other way?