Thursday, July 31, 2008

Walk softly and carry a big sawed off shotgun

I haven't mentioned that I've been in a lot of physical pain. It may account for much of my crankiness. I was in a terribly good mood for quite a while. All good things come to an end. Oh, that's a cranky aphorism, isn't it? I'm not sure I've even got it right. . .

Tonight I watched "No Country for Old Men" and was rather nonplussed. I hadn't read any reviews, so I don't know what people were saying about it. I'm not sure I'm interested enough to go find out. It's more interesting, in a way, to wonder why it was so well received.

No Country for Old Men was a movie about men. Whether they were psychopaths or not, they were all quiet and violent. Oh, sure, the sheriff didn't seem like a violent man, but when his wife admonished him not to hurt somebody before he left the house, he made a dismissive sound, as if the very idea of not hurting someone was absurd. After all, he was a sheriff.

Ah, the strong silent American male. Was the movie trying to show us how this standard was transforming into something warped? I think that may be true, but to my mind, it was always warped. The West was settled and shaped in violence and blood. Is it less understandable because it's now about drugs and not land? I say no.

I also strongly object to the gravitas of the characters. All these murders, and all we hear are monosyllabic mutterings. All that silence is not strength. It's just silence.

As to my crankiness, it's relevant, for about five minutes after the film ended, while I was searching for what made this film so "important" (okay, I'll have to google it), I thought something along these lines: Has there ever been a movie about women that portrayed such gravitas? I can't think of any. If any reader can, please tell me.

Woman still play the strength or voice of reason behind the men of power, or if the women are in power, they're bitches. If the women are in groups, they're giddy. If the women are up in arms over something, it's the plight of children or family.

I can't think of one film where we hear a female narrator that isn't sentimental or even just foolhardy. Take "Sex in the City", for example, where we hear Carrie thinking about what's she writing. What incredible fluff! I'm certainly not the first person to say this. But it really does irk me. The women in Sex and the City were supposed to "modern and empowered". Ha! They were all totally wrapped up in their relationships to others, especially to men, and they never talked about anything of any seriousness.

When a movie was made about Iris Murdoch, it portrayed her years with Alzheimer's. How fitting. If it had not, we would have seen a couple in which the woman was the intellectual in the family, and we can't have that, can we? No. If we do, the woman usually gets shipped off to a mental institution or kills herself (or both).

I've not seem one movie in my entire lifetime in which I related to a female character. It seems absurd. I know my life is a bit different than many women's, mostly because I didn't have children, but I'm not that weird. Well, some say I am, but I disagree.

Hmm. Lately I've been having trouble ending my posts. I've been having some trouble just writing them, so that makes sense. Here's tonight's ending: The End.

Image note: Catharine Macaulay, historian Arist: Robert Edge Pine, c.1775
I wish I could fly to London to see the show at the National Portrait Gallery entitled "Brilliant Women: 18th century bluestockings".

E-mail from the Clintons

This'll be short, but not sweet. I'm totally annoyed by the e-mails I received asking me to contribute money to cover Hillary Clinton's campaign debt. Why on earth should anyone give her money? The Clintons ought to deal with their debt like anyone else. I had a lot of debt and I didn't send e-mail to people I don't know asking them to help me out.

How do regular people deal with debt? Well,first off, they would sell their expensive property. Just how much property do the Clintons have? I haven't heard about either of them changing their lifestyle because they are in debt over their heads.

But no, the public has to help. The first e-mail I got concerning this asked for fifty bucks to buy a t-shirt that wasn't needed any more because her campaign was over, but the e-mail implied that the t-shirt had some kind of sentimental or possibly future value. Fat chance.

Today's e-mail plea was "from" Bill. He says he didn't get to have dinner much with his lovely and interesting wife while she was on the campaign trail. Now, the gimmick is that some lucky person will get to have dinner with Hillary, if one contributes money. The kicker on this e-mail is that the debt, which is in the millions, is just "pesky". Oh, that pesky debt.

Didn't Hillary contribute over ten million dollars of her own money to her campaign? Again, why should I help out someone that rich? The other night on the evening news, I heard that over 20,000 people a day are filing for bankruptcy. They all have pesky debts, but none of them have sent me an e-mail (nor I they).

I wish I had thought of this tactic. I could have just sent out e-mail at random to thousands of people, at no expense to myself, and avoid bankruptcy. Somehow I think that if I had done this, it might have been viewed as a scam, but who knows?

Hillary and Bill: please stop sending me e-mail!

Roadside attractions

I grew up taking public transportation or walking. When I was a teenager, I walked about a mile to the Long Island Railroad, which would get me to midtown Manhattan in about twenty minutes. My parents did not worry about anything happening to me, and I traveled freely to New York City starting at around the age of 12.

I loved New York City, as you've probably gathered from reading this blog. But I was also fascinated by the rest of America, which was truly foreign to me. I knew New York was different from an early age. I knew that my family's infrequent use of our car was abnormal. And so, for me, when my father asked if I'd like to get in the car and go somewhere, I'd be thrilled. It didn't matter where we'd go because it always seemed like a grand adventure. So many places were inaccessible by public transportation and simply because of that, I found them fascinating. I loved the ugly fast food places, the old diners and bowling alleys. In other words, I loved the outward trappings of suburbia. It was a foreign country that I wanted to see more of.

When I was in my early twenties, I moved to rural Pennsylvania. Twenty minutes away from where we lived was the sprawl that emanated out from Philadelphia. Every weekend, my ex-husband and I would spend all our free time there. He grew up in Greenwich Village and had the same fascination with suburban life that I did. We went to malls, drive-in movie theaters (oh, I miss them!) and played lots of miniature golf. The ugliness of it all was not lost on us, but still we were entranced. We ate at fast food restaurants and whatever new chain restaurants that appeared on the landscape.

At the age of 16, I had not yet eaten at a fast food joint, ever. Then I worked at McDonalds, and I was forced to. I developed a craving for Big Macs afterwards and seriously wondered what the hell they put in that thing that made me want one so much. I still don't know.

Driving across the country when I was on tour, or on vacation, I loved all things kitsch. I loved the ugliness, but now I think, "well, I never had to live in it", for it's true. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I lived in New Hope, a pretty tourist town with strict zoning that kept out sprawl. The place I grew up in had similar zoning, as did the town I lived in before I moved to Maine. Unconsciously, I lived in places where there were conscious efforts to keep the ugliness at bay. So, now I live in the middle of nowhere, where I hear trucks whizzing by all day long, carrying goods to and from all the stores at either end of their journey. And I yearn to get away from even that. I have come to nearly hate everything I once found amusing.

It is the same with things like the "country fairs" that proliferate around here starting in early August. The first time I went to one, the Bangor fair, when I was 15, I thought it was about as much fun as one could have, even if I did throw up after going on a ride. I had never seen a fair on such a large scale. The only game booths I'd ever encountered were on the small streets of Little Italy in New York, during the San Gennaro festival.

In the first years I lived here, I went to as many fairs as I could stand. Now I can't stand them. They hold nothing of interest to me. I no longer want to eat an eight dollar serving of fried dough with sugar on top, nor try my hand at a game that rigged against me (or if I won, pick out some garish stuffed animal). If there is any livestock to see, it's a sorry sight, a couple of kids from 4H standing around with their pet goat or a pig scramble, where children practically kill each other to grab a terrified baby pig.

I once thought it was quaint. What happened? I suppose it's only that the novelty wore off. Nothing more. Nothing less.

But even as I write the above words, I suspect it is more, for that book is haunting me. I stopped being able to see the carnival workers as anything but poor people with no fixed home. I started seeing all the drunken kids who went wild during the fairs and the obese folks who ate all that fried dough. Once the charm wears off, one starts to see what's underneath, the stuff one isn't supposed to see or even think about.

Ah, seeing what's underneath is something of a curse. I suppose someone's got to do it, like the documentary film maker Frederick Wiseman, whose documentary "Belfast", though critically acclaimed, was hated around these parts, for it depicted everything about Belfast (back in 1999, no less) that people wanted to keep hidden. Even I objected, for I felt he was hypocritical in some ways, filming folks talking about multi-generational sexual abuse while leaning up against their beater cars, while the camera crew tooks breaks at the Gothic Cafe, a beautiful place that never once appeared in the movie. But he had a point to make, and a very good one. As I wrote, someone got to see what's underneath, and "Belfast" (the movie) was about that, not a come-on for tourists. Who said it had to be objective anyway

So, I've come full circle here, from Belfast to Belfast. Maybe I'll write a nice post about the town at some point, but not anytime soon, I'm afraid.

Photo note: The Wigwam Hotel,Holbrook, Arizona
I used to find places like this absolutely fantastic. I do like these kitschy roadside attractions far better than yet another row of McDonalds, Wendy's, Dunkin Donuts and all the rest of that lot, but it's sort of like the childhood question, "Would you rather me eaten by a lion or a tiger?" This stuff was only advertising, after all, though it seems creative. Somehow, if it's really, really big it's okay. After all, the same people who think it's fun kitsch or ironic, generally don't like the crap people put on their front lawns, like the back views of people leaning over to pick dandelions, so we can see their butt cracks. But if one blew up those wretched pieces of plywood to 50 feet, they'd be attractions (or even make it into a Whitney bienniel).

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In which I whine and reminisce (as per usual)

I have always had a yearning for home. I left the place I think of as home, New York, and as I get older, it seems that I miss it more, but as I've spoken of before, the New York I yearn for is no longer the same place. Even so, knowing that there once was a Chockfull O' Nuts coffee shop on the corner of 34th St. and 6th Avenue where there's now a huge Gap store and a Horn and Hardart's automat on 32nd St. off 7th Avenue where now there's who-knows-what is like the old timers around these parts saying "make a left where the old Beal house used to be".

I've lived in Maine long enough to now know where many of the old this and thats used to be, but it still doesn't feel like home. It only feels like an insult of some kind. I suppose I feel that when I realize that there are no longer any automats or Schrafft's ice cream shops, but New York is still a big interesting city and this part of the country is now becoming a bit of wasteland without the old places.

It's not that I don't want change. Change is fine in of itself. It's what we're changing into that bothers me. When I went to Princeton a few weeks ago, my Uncle asked me where I wanted to go for dinner and I said "anything but American food", for we don't have particularly good ethnic food up here. We wound up going to exactly the kind of place I didn't want to go to, an anywhere in America American restaurant, the kind with an oversized, multi-page menu containing lots of nothing you've never heard of.

Where once you had to come to Maine to get a one pound platter of small fried shrimp, now you can get it anywhere, and that was the special of the evening. It figured.

As to my yearning for home, it doesn't consist of wanting huge platters of fried shrimp, now that I've lived in Maine as long as if I'd grown up here. Yes, as I wrote in my last post, I miss the farms surrounding Belfast and I hate seeing the McMansions that finally have stopped being built. I detest the garish signs for all the discount stores that have sprung up like poisonous fungi in every little town.

When I think of home, though, I think of family places. These are towns and houses where people grew up or the places where they've summered for generations. I envy people these places. Yes, envy isn't a very nice emotion, but I have it.

When I visited Bear Island, a large part of me marveled at having such a family history. The doors in the main house had plaques saying who had slept in each room when the house was first built. I couldn't imagine staying anywhere where I had such deep roots. I can't even begin to envision what that feels like. I suspect it is a great feeling, though I suppose it can be a burden in some way.

Dick has a family home. His sister lives in the house he grew up in and their mother lives right next door. This is so old fashioned. It occurs to me that outside of poor areas, both rural and urban, relations don't generally live near each other. For the "middle-class", it's not only common for families to be scattered, it's pretty much considered odd for them not to be, as if closeness denotes some kind of dependency.

I used to think this way, though I suspect that some of it, in my case, was a desire to get away from my family (which I would imagine is pretty common itself). But I've never had a home to go back to. My parents sold the house I considered home when I was still in high school, and they both had apartments. When my mother died, there was no place where any of us gathered, and by that time, noone was speaking to each other anyway, so what did it matter?

Recently, I looked at some pictures of the town I grew up in on the Web. I can see that the town has become more urban. And even though I absolutely loathed that town, there were places there that I loved. I wonder what's happened to them. I discovered that the "Poultry Mart", an absolutely fabulous take-out place that had (and probably still does) the best fried chicken and potatoes pancakes on earth (what a combination) is still there, in the same location. I have a large urge to visit, just to taste that food. I kid you not.

I'm chuckling to myself, for I realize that every place reference I've made is to food. There are other places that I've loved. The libraries where I've lived, both in childhood and in adulthood have always been special to me. The library in Hoboken, New Jersey, was particularly wonderful, for it seemed I was the only person who used it. It was my private realm. I often took out books that hadn't been off the shelves since they were signed out and dated in fountain pen. I often would wonder who it was who had read what I held in my hands and if they were still alive.

The original library in the town I grew up in was emptied and a new one built. My father used to rail on about it (and did the last time I saw him, for some reason). It maddened him that it was built in the rich and inaccessible part of town. He doesn't remember that the town did indeed have free public buses that ran frequently. I think he wouldn't have taken one of them even if he knew, for it would have made him look like he was one of the poor folks, not that driving our beat up GMC station wagon looked all that good in the lot besides all the shiny new cars. It didn't help that my father (like myself) didn't wash or clean out his car. Kids used to write "wash me" in the dust that settled on the car, which he avoided driving as much as possible.

I did not grow up in the car culture. I walked to the butcher, the green grocer, the deli, the bakery and the cheese shop (and the "Poultry Mart"). As far as shopping went, I might as well grown up in the 19th century. And when I moved to New York City, it was just the same. Walking home from college, or from work, I picked up my groceries while leisurely strolling home. I stopped at the same places every day and most of the storekeeps knew what I wanted, or at least knew my name.

I suppose this is why I was inordinately happy last month when the owner of the store here in my little town stopped me in the parking lot to chat for a while. I walked away with a huge smile on my face. There is so little community here in the boondocks. I shop at huge supermarkets at least a half an hour away where I never bump into anyone I know and noone will ever remember either my name or that I like Pete's tofu and pork (but not in the same meal).

My car is my lifeline. I hate it. Tomorrow is the last day before I need to get it inspected and registered. There's reason to think my inspection will fail and I can't afford the repairs nor the price of the excise tax we pay here in Maine. I would be delighted if I could hop on a bus or walk to everything I need to do, but it's impossible.

Well, folks, I'll end this here. It's not a coherent blog entry, but I've not been blogging much and felt like writing something. This is what you get. I'm guessing that when the weather starts to feel like Fall, which is not too far away, I'll be blogging up a storm. . .

Photo note: This photograph was taken in 1996. It says that the sign was on 6th avenue between 35th and 36th Streets, causing me to wonder if my memory of where the automat used to be was wrong. I realize that some of you perhaps do not know what an automat is. Is it possible?!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Anywhere, USA

I'm in the middle of reading "The Geography of Nowhere" by James Howard Kunstler. It was written in 1993, which makes it even sadder than it is already, for the forces that are ruining our small towns and sense of community have never abated.

Perhaps now, as the economy slumps, the endless expansion of places to buy things will stop. It's already happening. Unfortunately, what we are left with is many vacant buildings on the outskirts of our towns. Ugly vacant buildings.

I had once tried to rent space in one of the near empty shopping centers. The rent was insanely high and so I did not. Now, of course, there is a small national franchise occupying this space. The rents downtown are barely any better. Who can afford them? The only locally owned businesses that thrive are ones where the buildings are owned by the shopkeepers.

As mentioned briefly in the last post, there are some new shops (if one can call them that). I once thought it nice that zoning in Belfast did not dictate too many things, but now I wonder how they could allow the new atrociously ugly signs. The city council members have scratched their heads for years, wondering why Belfast hasn't grown much as a tourist community. Why would anyone really want to visit it? It's got the same sprawl as any town in America.

Where once there were fields of hay or pastured animals, there are now fast food joints and industrial "parks". The huge businesses (Bank of America, Athena) may be set back from the road and hidden by trees, but their presence is large. At night, where there once was darkness, there is now the glow of lights emanating from the buidings, where workers toil away 24 hours a day in different shifts.

I find it all terribly sad. I moved here nearly 18 years ago and in this time it has gone from a rural area to something not definable. It isn't a suburb, for there's no city it serves. It's just a mess.

I can feel the change in the community (or lack thereof) when I do take a walk there. Once, simple errrands would take all day for one would continuously bump into folks with whom one would chat. If I was in a hurry, I would sometimes nearly curse that fact. Now, I long for those "good old days", not simply out of nostalgia, but because it is indeed a real loss. Many people I know have moved away. Most people know folks who have. They may have sold their land to developers or not, but either way, they moved to places (the majority of them) that hadn't felt the touch of sprawl yet or to real cities, where there were opportunities.

Some towns in Maine have been smart about development. This entire state is a place for tourists. We may not like that, but even our license plates reflect it: they read "Vacationland". As we ruin the beautiful places, this so-called vacationland becomes a no-man's land of the same ugliness that plagues the rest of the country.

I used to argue with young people about the changes that were taking place. "Why can't we have a Taco Bell?", I remember one fellow asking of me. I suggested to him that if he indeed wanted all the conveniences of living near malls, he should move. But his attitude has prevailed amongst the city planners (or non-planners). Let them come! It almost feels like they've given up in despair. Let them come, for we've already failed. Contrast Belfast with Rockland, an hour away, and one can quickly see why there's a sense of failure. Rockland, just ten years ago, was nearly a ghost town. There were sections that felt akin to slums. The sprawl outside the town was unstoppable. Add to that the fact that if one were driving down the coast, another route enabled one to bypass Rockland altogether. What could they do?

Now Rockland is more than thriving. I haven't seen an empty storefront in years. They've got a festival for everything - jazz, lobsters, classical music, blues, and the town itself. There's even a good art museum. People stroll the streets and they aren't just tourists. Folks live above the stores. They sit in outdoor cafes. The train line was refurbished and now one can get there from Boston (or New York). There is so much to walk to that one doesn't even need to rent a car.

Every time I think of Rockland, I want to kick myself. I saw the change occurring and thought "move there", but didn't. I was wedded to where I was. Belfast still seemed like a place of creative promise. Perhaps the final straw, the last nail in the coffin, was an event that went unnoticed by most: there was a building called the "Slack Factory", owned by a cooperative. People rented rooms there, to play music, to paint, or to live (thought that was not really allowed). There was an open mike night once a week, all year round. Next to this building was the bingo hall. They needed more parking, and I suspect they didn't like the strange people who hung out at the building next door. So, they offered to buy it, and a good sum was offered. This cooperative, once a bunch of local creative people, had scattered. The ones that left wanted the money and didn't care about the consequences to the community. There was a fight and the buy-out was put off. Urgent pleas for money went out: if the folks who had a stake in the sale could raise only 5000 dollars, the building would not be razed for a parking lot. The deadline loomed, and they were short some small sum. Within a week, the building was gone, new tar had been laid, and an era came to an end.

The open mike night moved to the UU church, and with that came some censorship. Once, the little "city" of Belfast was named one of the "hippest unknown places in America" by some magazine. Young people flocked here during the summers. Music was played on street corners. It's all gone now.

Or perhaps it ended the day an old friend left her family and farm to work for MBNA. She once churned her own magnificent butter. When she stopped, she revelled in the fact that she could now buy clothes in places other than second hand shops.

Ah, materialism - the streamroller that flattens everything and everyone in its wake.

Photo note: Where in the world is this particular Taco Bell? It doesn't matter.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


We left the house at 6:00am yesterday for our journey to Bear Island, Maine. If we were crows, I suppose it would have been an hour's journey, (though this is just a wild guess and Dick could probably tell me the exact amount of time, but he's asleep).At around 11:00am we arrived at the island, which I feel I ought to capitalize. The Island.

There are almost 3000 (!) islands off the coast of Maine. I had no idea that the number was so high until a moment ago, when I googled it. I knew there were alot, but not this many. 95% of these islands are privately owned.

The idea of owning an island is beyond me. Yet, I remember having fantasies about just such a proposition years before I moved here. I had come to Maine to camp for a few weeks via plane, and while waiting to leave, I noticed that there was a glass display of real estate ads, all for islands, not houses, nor acreage but whole islands for sale, and most of them cost less than the price of a modest house in the suburbs of New York.

At the time, I lived in a tiny house on Long Island (not the one in Maine). For the price of that house, I could have owned my own private realm. I would have no money left over to build a house or buy a boat, but a person can dream, can't they?

I didn't buy an island but I did move to Maine. Unfortunately, I moved up here totally broke and didn't buy property until the prices were driven almost as high as they ever have been (such has been my luck in all matters financial).

But this is not what I meant to write.

I wanted to write about the kind of light (and darkness) that exists on an island. I am pausing here, trying to find the right words, and they are not coming to me. I am terribly tired, but I would venture to guess that this is not why I am at a loss for words. I am not enough of wordsmith, by any means, to convey the quality of the light off the coast of Maine.

Every time I have left the mainland, within five minutes I become awe struck. The water reflects the sky and even when the skies are dark with rain clouds, the sense of spaciousness grows as one gets further from the shore. The boat may be noisy, but the sound of gulls and terns overpowers the sound of the motor (or maybe only to my ears).

Yesterday morning was gray and foreboding, but the gray was tinged with purple, so similar in color to the shakes on the sides of most of the islands' buildings. One realizes, too, just how many shades of gray there are. The rocks, the sky, the dead trees (oh, they are beautiful, those mangled behemoths), the new and old houses, the storm petrels. . .all gray, magnificent gray.

We got lucky, and heavy humidity and fog did not turn to storms. The sun came out brilliantly, quite surprisingly, and the sky was filled with the kind of cumulous clouds that I've always thought of as islands in the sky. Totally perfect. Islands below and above.

And then Bear Island, the Island, small enough to see water on all sides, but large enough to hold a small forest and quite a bit of mystery.

What can I say? I coveted. I still do. There was the "big house", where the family has lived for over one hundred summers. And there was the "kitchen house", which not only held a kitchen but an indoor dining room big enough for thirty people (or more) and still feel intimate. The screened dining room faced the sun setting over the water and held a view of not only the other islands, but the coast of Maine, far enough away as to obscure what I knew was there - the "city" of Belfast, where I used to live (and now have very mixed feelings about). I could not see the new nail salons and the big orange sign of the new Family Dollar Store. Ah, poor Belfast. If one strays from its still beautiful side streets and two lower shopping streets on the water, one could be in Anywhere, USA.

As this evening has turned to night, I realize that the darkness on the island was so much deeper. Here, in my tiny rural village, we have street lights. No, it isn't New York. I can see the stars at night and at some point, around 9:00pm, the sound of cars pretty much ceases. But it is never truly pitch black. It never becomes truly quiet either, for there's always some hum of a motor to be heard, whether it's the cooler in the General Store or one of the trucks my neighbor has in his front yard. In my own house, something is usually making some sort of sound. It may be the sump pump or the well water pump. We've stopped using our furnace (for good, I think), but there's a propane heater and a refrigerator and if one is really sensitive to these things, the sound of the electricity. Yes, it makes a sound. Another thing Dick could explain, but I won't wake him up to say "Hey Dick, why do we unplug the washing machine?"

Bear Island runs what little electricity they use from solar panels (or something - I didn't ask for details). At night, the darkness seems deepened by the quiet. And oh how I long for that kind of quiet. It is like the quiet after a huge snow storm. It envelops me and makes me feel comforted and snug as a bug. I am surprised when I find that many people are afraid of this kind of darkness and quiet.

So many homes, most of them, I'd say, have neither quiet nor darkness. The TV is always on, or the radio, or someone is listening (sort of) to music. The phone is always ringing. When I was in Princeton, I noticed that about a third of the folks on the street were talking into the air, for they had bluetooth devices in their ears. There is no place you can not be reached by others or assaulted with sound.

On the Maine Islands, you're lucky to get any kind of phone service. The mail arrives by boat, every day during the summer (at least on the few islands that were serviced by the boat we came in on) and twice a week during the winter. For those who do have cell phones, they have great excuses for not being able to talk; "I'm on an island." It sounds so dramatic, as if they were cast away and stranded, and not living leisurely and by choice in this wondrous setting.

I have been bewitched by other Maine Islands: notably Swan's and Little Cranberry Islands. As a teenager, I spent a day sitting in the woods of Deer Island, Canada, reading H.P.Lovecraft under the enormous pines. I never wanted to leave.

The same summer I read Lovecraft, I joined a bunch of other kids to rough it on an interior island on Moosehead Lake. We didn't figure out properly how much food we needed and were out by the end of day two, so three of us got in a canoe and started paddling in what we thought was the right direction of the store. Moosehead Lake is big. None of knew how to read the map of the waters or use a compass (skills we should have had, of course). To make matters worse, a storm blew up out of nowhere, lightning and all, and we wound up nearly killing ourselves trying to make it up onto the shore of another typically stoney Maine Island. I am not lying when I tell you there was an old sign that read "Welcome to Devil's Island". Sopping wet and freezing, we crawled our way over the rocks and found a row of burnt out summer cottages fronting a deep woods. We figured we'd sleep in one of them until the morning came, assess the canoe's damage in the morning, and pray someone would come along. Or something. We hadn't a clue.

Before we made it to the cottages, a woman ran out of the woods. She was quite old. She said she had been watching us, and feared that we would not make it to shore. She led us through a dark path to a large house deep in the woods. There were two other old women who lived with her. And then there was this - the ground floor of the house was filled with glass canisters of cookies and sweets. On every surface we saw, there they were. It was insane. We were kids of 15 suddenly thrown into a real life Hansel and Gretal house. The women were thrilled to see us. They went off island once a month for groceries and spoke very little. We were like little children to them. The boy who was with us was of particular interest to them. He had dark skin and dark hair and had the audacity to announce he was Jewish. I have no idea why he did, but one of those woman, I kid you not, parted his dark hair to look for horns. Oh, we were babes in the wilderness!

I remember falling asleep, scared that I had been poisoned, and scared that I would be bitten by bedbugs, for I was sleeping on a bed filled with straw, something I'd only read about in books or seen in museums. In the middle of the night, I had to pee, and went to the outhouse. There was a chainsaw on the floor, with something oozy looking dripping off of it. My imagination ran away with me. I truly thought one of compatriots had been killed very quietly while I was sleeping and certain I was going to be unwittingly fed him or her for a meal the next day.

The next day turned out to be bright and beautiful. Our canoe was ruined. The women told us that we could stay and that Moosehead Lake had a coast guard of sorts, since it was so big, and that after a large storm they generally would come by to check on things. Eventually.

Even though none of us had been cut up and stewed and the women were less terrifying in the light of day, none of us wanted to stay too long. We were grateful when the boat turned up in the late afternoon. They were looking for us. They had checked on the friends we left behind first, who were terrified we had been killed in the storm. They took us all back to the shore. We were admonished for our ignorance and warned against ever trying such a thing again without knowing the basics of compass reading and preparation. It didn't matter. We were all from the city and now that we were out of danger, we all agreed that this would make the best story of the summer once we got home.

And that was certainly true, for here I am, thirty years later, telling this story.

Back then, I was somewhat scared of the darkness and quiet of islands, though I also felt deeply attracted to them. Tonight, it is raining heavily, thunder is cracking and lightning is lighting up the dark night sky. But it isn't so wild or so daunting here on the mainland. We will not be stranded. Tomorrow, my driveway may have some new ruts, but that is all.

I meant to speak of the nature of the light on the islands, but I fell back in time, and remembered some of what brought me to this place called Maine. It is not the place I knew as a child, but it is still is, out there on most of those 3000 islands. Yes, now people have satellite dishes, internet service and cell phones, but they can always say "Service is bad out here" and go about their business, picking blueberries and gazing out at the water, living in a world of enormous light and darkness.

If I lived out there, I'd have a gray cell phone. A osprey might come swooping down and mistakenly carry it away in its talons, thinking it was one very cold mouse.


Photo note: This is not the water off the coast of Maine. I have no idea where it is. It was on the Web, and the description was in a language I did not recognize, which is intriguing in of itself. I looked for a good picture of any of the 3000 Maine islands, and gave up. They all looked too much like picture postcards, or were ads for multi-million dollar homes. I toyed with the idea of putting up a square of purplish gray, but this photo will do. For what, I am not sure.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Strange sight

I hate the phrase "the nature of reality" because, sad to say, I heard my father use it too many times to count. Even as a middle-aged person, I'm still tired of the phrase, or more accurately put, my hackles go up when I hear it (and what's a hackle, anyway?)

I have been harboring the delusion that I'm not interested in finding out what the nature of reality is. If this is so, why does zen interest me? I waffle over this issue. Most of the time, my relationship to zen is simply this: sitting in meditation makes me feel good. Sitting with others makes me feel even better. I enjoy reading the Chinese sutras and don't spend much time or thought trying to figure out what they mean. I sit with the ideas, letting them settle into my consciousness. I have some understanding, but it is something I can't articulate well. I feel it in my bones. It makes me smile. I may be completely deluded about my understanding, but I basically don't care.

Yet, I read much that is completely opaque to me and I find that bothersome. I do feel many of the stories about the encounters between students and teachers to be utterly absurd and wonder why they just can't say what they mean in plain language. If Buddhism is supposed to free people of suffering, wouldn't it be more expediant to make the teachings easier to understand? The teachers say it is both easy and hard, or neither or both or that making a distinction between easy and hard proves one doesn't understand a thing. . .and I sigh. Just say it! Why do we have to work so hard?

But this isn't what I meant to write about. I was thinking about how my vision may have inclined me, as a young child, to think about things such as the "nature of reality". Unfortunately, I would not discuss this subject with anyone, especially my father, for whom it has been his tireless favorite subject and companion, for I was afraid of ridicule.

I was born with a lazy left eye. My left eye wandered all over the place, mostly at the furthest point towards the left. Most of the time I saw double and some times (I was told) my brain would just discard my left eye's information and I would see a single image.

My vision gave me an odd perspective on the world at a most formative age. If I was seeing double, I had to ascertain which image was the "real" one. No one told me how to do this and it was an interesting puzzle. I would often use my forefinger to poke at an image to see if my finger touched it or not. Even while writing this, I notice I write "image" instead of writing "the table" or "the cat". Every thing was suspect, in a way. Was it real or not? If you've ever watched television hooked to an antenna, you've probably seen ghost images at times. That is what my vision is like. On the TV, both images are "not real", in a sense, so it's not of any importance to get it right.

Getting it right is very important. If I get it wrong, I may bump into the edge of a door or ram my car into another one. I may go to pick up a pencil and swipe at air. But I don't. I have learned to judge and, unbelievably, considering my vision problems, have spent most of my life doing artwork (like tattooing) where precision is of the utmost importance. I wonder if I overcompensated for my strange sight by being interested in activities that challenged it. Tattooing, technical drawing, lace making, hand sewing - they all require a tremendous amount of accuracy.

As to reality, well, I used to wonder about the very concept of their being a "real image". It seemed to me, at a very young age, that what we saw was a construct in our mind, and in truth, that is so. We see upside-down, and mechanisms of sight (which I can't explain without reading a textbook) turn the image the right way. Is the world upside-down? Maybe so.

I chose to believe that the image that had more opacity was the real image. But I may be wrong. Again, the truth is exactly in the middle. The left view is wrong and the right view is also wrong. The image in the middle is "correct" and three dimensional. But is it really there, in the middle?

Not in my world. For me, reality is always on the right hand side. The left side, now that some of my sight problem has been corrected (and I wear glasses) wanders around quite a bit. In the morning, there's a whole world of images that I mentally discard. After a half an hour or so, my left eye finally wakes up and starts to behave a bit. Then I have to deal with that ghost image.

I do bump into the edges of things. I can't see the edges of things clearly. It's hazy. If there's any danger involved (like standing on the edge of a cliff), I feel quite insecure. I can not be certain where anything stops, so I stay back.

Some people think I'm overly anxiety ridden or wimpy, but they don't see the world like I do. It is reasonable for me to be a bit more nervous at the edge of a canyon than the average person. I had to walk across a board to get on a boat in the Bay of Fundy once and almost fell to my death in a chasm of seaweed. I learned to drive at the age of 30, when I finally felt secure enough to know I could figure out how far the cars on my left were from me. But, I'm still a nervous driver when I get outside my comfort zone. If it's not rural, I shouldn't be trusted with a car.

I remember spending hours looking at small objects on white sheets when I was young. I would first close my left eye and then my right and watch how the image moved. I learned to control my eyes with all sorts of crazy exercises (which gave me a two year long headache). But still, my image of the world is constantly in flux. So, I had thought, for the longest time, that nothing is real. Our minds only interpret, and they do so with varying levels of accuracy. And there is no way that I can see what you see nor you I. So, is reality fixed? Certainly not!

How do you see? Or hear? Or taste, smell or feel? It is not the same as the way I do, or anybody else's. So, how can we say there is one reality?

I dunno.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The price of Wall-E, gas, frappacino and matching clothes

My thoughts are scattered. There's too much to think about and I'm tired. I just got back from a trip to Princeton, New Jersey, and I'm left wondering whether I am now in the real world or I have just left it. Perhaps the question is wrong. The world I live in; poor, rural and isolated, is as real (or fake) as any other, just as the rarefied world of Princeton is (or not).

My mind is rather stuck on the film I saw, Wall-E. First, I haven't been to a movie theater in years. We got there early and I watched folks fill up the seats, wondering what made them look different than the people I see on a regular basis. Some impressions: Everyone had a decent haircut. They were mostly thin and tanned (but not too much). Their clothes looked new, freshly laundered and pressed. And lastly, their clothes matched. Oh, not to each other's (though that may be true, now that I think of it) but if they wore khaki, they had brown shoes or if they wore white, they didn't have black shoes on.

The theater was air conditioned, which would be true anywhere in the country, I'd imagine, but it was cold, cold enough to have wished I brought a sweater. Isn't there an energy crisis? You wouldn't have guessed it from sitting in this theater. Nor would you have guessed it from the amount of people on the road. The cars looked as new as the clothes (not that that has anything to do with oil prices, or does it?)

Dick and I had been bemoaning the lack of beater cars in Maine. When I drove over the border into Maine, I noticed that we had been mistaken. The laws may have become more stringent, and so the rusted out pick-up trucks are a thing of the past (or a thing of the most off the beaten path roads), but suddenly, I no longer saw such waxed, clean, and shiny cars. After I crossed the bridge from New Hampshire into Maine, I never saw another Prius (which is a shame, for us poor folks need 'em even more).

But back to the movie, Wall-E. This movie cost over 100 million dollars to make. All that for a film with the thinnest of messages. All that for some entertainment (and not even that much entertainment, at that). Think of all the money wasted each year on films. What if that money were put to some humanitarian use? Would it be enough to feed all the hungry? I'm guessing the answer is yes.

Don't get me wrong - I am not against entertainment. I love to be entertained. I watched an hour of dumb entertainment tonight, an episode of NCIS (which provides not a whit of thought provocation). Yet, while watching the highly lauded Wall-E, a film that 97% of all film critics thought was outstanding (and that is a bit scary), I felt the wretched feeling of knowing that there is just so much wealth in our nation, and a good amount of people aren't getting it who deserve it. People like teachers, in particular.

What did this 100 million dollar movie tell us? Hmmm. I ponder. Number one: robots can fall in love! Isn't that lovely? Some critic said that my heart would melt. It did not. In fact, my heart hardened up a bit. I don't respond well to such blatant manipulation of my emotions. The swelling music! The cute little robot hands that held each other! The robot voices that tried - oh, how they tried - to connect, to speak each other's names!

Meanwhile, humans had covered the earth with garbage, became too fat to stand up and drank slurpies all day on a spaceship. Two little lovebird robots woke them from their dreaming life! They went back to earth and planted seeds and everything was a-okay again. The end.

Sorry. This person, who happens not to be all that cynical, doesn't buy any of it. What is the moral of the story? We can pollute and destroy without consequences and that robot love will save the day?

Someone said "It's for kids". If it is, it's still a lousy lesson. And if I were a kid, I would have been bored after ten minutes. Oh wait - I was bored after ten minutes.

Maybe they just needed 100 million dollars more for a thinking person to write a better script.

Okay. Let's move on.

I stopped in Massachusetts, needing a cold cup of coffee. I went to Starbucks, which, believe it or not, does not have a store anywhere in normal driving distance of my home. I bought a "tall" frappucino, which cost me $4.37. If I consider it to be akin to fuel for my body, then I suppose it was a fair price, seeing that gas for my car at this rest area was $4.29.

My entire trip seemed like a hallucination of sorts. I took a short stroll on the grounds of Princeton University, where it is beautiful, bordering on awe-inspiring. But that was but a short respite. The rest of my stay was a blur of malls and roads. They could have been in Anywhere, USA. I've been aware of the de-regionalism of this country for a long time, but the gravity of the situation truly struck me on this visit.

If it wasn't for the company, I could have been an hour from my home. What did I see? Walmart. Target. Borders. Best Buy. And all the rest of them. . .the same food and the same products.

I only hope that the education at Princeton hasn't become as generic as the community that surrounds it. I fear that it may have become so. If we educate our young to appreciate what is outside the box, wlll they accept the boxes that they will live in and shop in?

I'm all over the map tonight. I'll stop here. I want to give every tidbit of reportage above more thought. I may need some prodding. After all, the garden I came home to needs attending to, or at least more viewing. And today, I saw a fledging rose breasted grosbeak near the bird feeders.

I ought to publicly thank the big chain stores for making bird seed affordable to me. Thanks, Ocean State Job Lot!

Photo note: Wall-E and Eve
Yes, they are cute.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

This is but the tip of the iceberg

Tonight, it is hot and humid. The weather makes me think of New York City and the first summer I lived there. I could not sleep in the heat and I would find myself walking for hours. I was inconsolably lonely.

When I saw couples who looked like lovers my heart would ache. Groups of people eating at open air cafes caused me enormous pain. I was sure, at the age of 18, that I would never join the rest of humanity in any of these pleasures. But I knew that I wasn't alone in my suffering. Sitting in a hot subway car in the midst of a New York City summer, one could not help but notice the abject misery of the face of almost every other passenger. This did not give me pleasure. My misery did not love company.

I sometimes thought that my plight (which sounds so melodramatic) was absurd. I was afraid to speak to others. I wasn't afraid of appearing foolish. I just had no idea what to say. I felt like there was an invisible wall between me and other people, made out of glass, that would shatter and harm me if it was broken. I also could read this fear (and longing) in others and sometimes wondered how the world would be if all this fear were suddenly erased. That sense of aloneness that I saw in the city - poof! - it would vanish.

There is an invisible wall that surrounds most people. It keeps others at bay. It keeps others from knowing us. It is constructed out of fear, not glass. Most of us are afraid of being known. We are afraid of letting other people see who we really are. Or more to the point, we are afraid of other people seeing us as we see ourselves, which, for most people, is a construct made up of conditioned beliefs and delusions. Underneath our polite exteriors, so many of us think we're akin to monsters. We can't let anyone know that!

Perhaps it's not that bad, but we can't let anyone see how insecure we are. People with Ph.D.s hide their fear of appearing stupid under talk composed of large words that let you know how smart they are. Men use their size and strength to protect the scared child inside. Women get breast implants to steer you away from how ugly they feel. The list is endless. We go to enormous lengths to do a kind of bait and switch in order to hide the parts of ourselves we don't want others to know.

And if we don't do the bait and switch routine, we might engage in the act of being offensive, in our behaviors and even in our presentations to the world (bad hygiene would be an example) that says clearly "stay away". Then we can say "Oh, look - I'm not accepted in this world."

Perhaps none of this works. It's just all too much, too hard, too painful to live with the vicissitudes of life, with the false notions we have of other peoples' judgments (and the real ones, too). Then we may choose to numb ourselves. We drink, take drugs, overeat or become obsessively involved in solitary activity.

I ask you. What is so scary? What if someone found out you were insecure? What if you said something stupid in the course of a conversation? What if someone doesn't like you?

What's the big deal? The world will not come to an end. The invisible wall will not shatter and destroy you (or the person who doesn't like you).

Life is just too damned short to live with all this fear. Too short. We think, at 18, we'll be over it by 21, and then we put it off until we're 30, and perhaps come to think we've got way too much on our plates, so at 40 we're still living with our childhood fears. . .and on and on. Before you know it, you will be dead.

Painting note: Bull's Eye by Kazuya Akimoto 2003
I have some idea why I chose this image for this post, but words fail me. Perhaps that's good, for you can come to your own conclusions.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

My stuff versus your life

I simply can not understand believing that it's okay to kill another human being over things.

When I say this, most people ask me if I'd let a robber just take my stuff. Yes, I would. I'd rather lose my things than kill somebody, even if they are doing me harm. And to put a finer point on it, just how much harm are they doing me by stealing some things?

Not much, in my estimation. If another is that desperate, I say, go ahead and take it. Don't hurt me. Just rob me.

In my real-life arguments with others, I am usually asked this question, "Do you think other people are entitled to take your stuff?" No, I don't. But I'm not willing to live with their deaths on my conscience. Somehow this irks folks further, as if my refusing to stand up to these imaginary robbers is akin to inviting them in and saying, "Take my stuff", or saying I'm all for total havoc and the looting, pillaging and raping of law-abiding citizens.

Years ago, an acquaintance lived in area of an New York City that was truly dangerous (as opposed to Maine, where the fear is mostly in peoples' imaginations). Guys walked around with visible handguns at their hip or brandished large knives in holsters. She was robbed nearly every week (or not, for they'd taken everything). All she was tired of was the mess that these people would make. So, she bought some heroin, put it on a dish and made some very big signs that read "Please don't steal from me" and "Please don't make a mess" and then "Help Yourself to some Heroin". The amazing thing is that the intruders complied. After a few weeks they stopped showing up, in spite of the free heroin. That last bit is interesting, for it gives credence to the idea that showing compassion can stop the cycle of violence.

If that woman had had a gun, who knows what would have happened. There wouldn't have been a creative solution,that's for sure. And whatever reasons that caused her apartment to be broken into on a such a regular basis would not been examined.

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is a part of the Bill of Rights that protects the pre-existing individual right to possess and carry weapons (i.e. "keep and bear arms") in case of confrontation. Codification of the right to keep and bear arms into the Bill of Rights was influenced by a fear that the federal government would disarm the people in order to impose rule through a standing army or select militia, since history had shown that a tyrant's ability to suppress political opponents was accomplished by simply taking away the people's arms.

I can understand and even agree with the underlying rationale behind this, but today it is an archaic notion, given the fact that we don't have the right to store plutonium or have our own personal stockpile of nuclear devices. Hell, even roman candles are illegal here in the state of Maine.

The right to bear arms never was intended to be a substitute for trained people to promote and enforce laws. Killing people in the course of a crime, people who are not a direct threat to ones' life, flies in the face of nation's legal system, in which a person is guaranteed due process.

But beyond legal arguments, there are ethical arguments to be made. Just as my friend figured out a way to deal with the breaking and entering that went on in her little tenement apartment, if we take the use of force out of the list of possible ways of dealing with those who threaten us, we are faced with the much harder task of figuring out how to deal with crime and criminal in a more creative way.

I know, for a fact, when I've been face to face with those who meant me physical harm, that disarming them with my actions and words worked. Pure and simple. The concepts of non-violent resistance do work, not just in the political arena, but in the area of personal "safety".

Of course, they don't work all the time, but that is not a case against taking the path of non-violence. We all know that the death penalty has done little to keep people from killing each other, but that doesn't keep folks from supporting it.

I am not a pure pacifist. I'm sure that if words failed and my life, or the life of someone else, was on the line, I wouldn't hesitate to use all the force I could. If I had to kill someone to save my partner's life, I doubt I'd hesitate.

But I wouldn't think of myself as a hero, as some do when people kill the bad guys. Life is precious. A crackhead's life is precious (even if they do not know this).

So, I'll continue to argue my point. I have no problem with disagreement.

Photo note: The Smith and Wesson Magnum .44
Dirty Harry's gun

Poetry for the day

With That Moon Language

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them, "Love me."
Of course you do not do this out loud,
otherwise someone would call the cops.

Still, though,
think about this,
this great pull in us to connect.

Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye
that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world
is dying to hear?

We Have Not Come to Take Prisoners

We have not come here to take prisoners,
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.
We have not come into this exquisite world
To hold ourselves hostage from love.
Run my dear.
From anything
That may not strengthen
Your precious budding wings.
Run like hell my dear
From anyone likely
To put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart.
We have a duty to befriend
Those aspects of obedience
That stand outside of our house
And shout to our reason
"O please, O please,
Come out and play".
For we have not come here to take prisoners
Or to confine our wondrous spirits,
But to experience ever and ever more deeply
Our divine courage, freedom, and

Khwajeh Shams al-Din Mouhammad Hafez-e Shirazi, 14th century Sufi mystic/poet
Interesting translation - "otherwise someone would call the cops" sounds like something from a John Giorno poem.

Art note: Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings
by Bichitr (act. 1615–50)
India, Mughal period, ca. 1660–70

We're going to be okay

Everyone seems scared. It makes sense, especially here in Maine, where our winters are six months long. A friend tried to prepay for her home heating oil at $5.15 and the company said they weren't accepting any prepays this year.

A woman at my knitting group said she was wondering if she could cope with setting her thermostat at 55 degrees. We talked about our grandparents, who wore nightcaps to bed. The little joke I made in a past blog entry about huddling 'round the stove wearing fingerless gloves is starting to look like more of a reality.

I like fingerless gloves, wool caps and sweaters. One good thing about the cold is you can layer on more clothes. If it's hot, there's only so much you can take off.

It's the beginning of July and everyone around me is talking about the coming winter. The man who owns the general store here says he will not allow anyone to freeze to death this winter. Is he going to give away oil?

Some folks are buying guns and stockpiling whatever they can, fearful that their neighbors may come over to steal from them. The end is nigh! I don't want to make fun of others' fears, but I feel differently, and I feel it quite strongly.

We are going to be okay. We will not be killing each other, freezing to death or dying of starvation. At heart, people in this country are good, or at least they believe themselves to be. If we know our neighbors (and I think that's important) we can't let them go cold or hungry.

Photo note: Bread line, New York City 1928
I still can put gas in my car, go to a supermarket and buy bread. Not only is there enough bread, but you can choose from a huge variety: white, wheat, 16 grain, sourdough, oatmeal, raisin. . .There's so much bread they throw the stuff away when it's reached its sell-by date. If we are suffering, well, I think we ought to look outside our borders or to our forebears and realize just how rich we are. I say this not to induce guilt, but to introduce a dose of reality, and not just for you, but for myself as well.

What truly irks me is that right-wing talk radio is so negative while claiming to be patriotic. This country was settled by people who helped each other out. WIthout community, no one would have survived. Sure, there were places where the gun ruled, but that was an exception to the rule.

I feel strongly that we are going to be okay. Maybe we'll be more than okay. Is it possible that some deprivation may make people wake up to the more important things in life? Our country is not a happy one. We rate pretty low on the happiness scale (go google that and find the number - Denmark is number one in happiness). What do the people in Denmark do differently? A group of Danes on "60 Minutes" talked about their lives: friends, family and satisfaction with ordinary life. One person said "I think Americans are too preoccupied with getting rich."

What is the average person to think and feel when a "star", whether they're in sports, television, film or music, makes millions of dollars? Or the CEO of a company makes more than any person could possibly need while at the same time, workers at the bottom are being laid off or don't even make a living wage?

We need to get our priorities in line. Meet our neighbors. Care about simpler things. Yes, the price of gas, home heating oil and groceries are going up. It's a scary time.

What if this caused more people to car pool, eat meals together and pool their resources? Y'know, I'd enjoy my life a little bit more if this were true.

If you are a doggedly rugged individualist, which is the other American archetype, you may be headed for trouble. But for the folks who think that this country is typified by neighbors coming over to borrow a cup of flour, share some extra pie or pull together to raise a barn, shovel the driveway for an older person, deliver casseroles to the home-bound, knit caps for cancer patients, and all the other little things we do without thinking to support our communities, we'll be more than okay. We'll be fine and perhaps we'll all be the better for it.

Can you sit with negative emotions?

"How do you respond?!" asks the Zen Master. He bangs his stick on the floor. If it were the 16th century, he'd hit you with it.

Today I have a small stew of negative emotions. They began last night. Instead of meditating, I lay down on the floor, trying to stay with myself, with my body, and not run away emotionally. I did yoga and felt for the places where I was holding my feelings. One tear streamed down my cheek and I noticed my reaction; "do not let yourself cry."

I would have preferred to have cried. The only places I've felt safe crying have been Zen and Yoga centers. What does that tell me? That only in places of serious practice do others not rush to judge, comfort or any of the myriad ways in which we do let others experience the full range of emotions? And even if that is the case, it shows me that I still feel insecure about my "right" to feel what I feel, as long as I do not lay it at the feet of others.

Of course, I am at the heart of the judgment. I tend to think I'm okay only when I'm feeling good. What's wrong with feeling bad? Sometimes it is totally appropriate. But somehow we've narrowed down the times when it's okay to cry to a limited number of experiences; death, life-threatening illnesses and, perhaps if we're only marginally in touch with our connectedness to others, genocide and disasters (which is only more death, isn't it?)

Oh, we can also cry at weddings or if we win a huge prize. I forgot.

I felt a deep sadness last night and it lingers today. I laid upon my floor and asked myself if it was okay to feel my feelings. I weighed and judging them. Was I entitled to my sadness?

Twisting myself in knots over simple emotions, I twisted my body this way and that while acknowledging my pounding heart, the lump in my throat. I tried to stay loose when I would have preferred to curl up in the fetal position and throw some blankets over my head. Sleep would have been a relief, but I wanted to find out how long I could stay present to my feelings.

I have tended to run from negative emotions. I tried to look at them last night through a Buddhist lens. How much of what I felt was based on greed, anger and ignorance? Some. I stripped my feelings down further, throwing away the parts of my thinking that were based on those big three. What was left? Some.

Feeling good is not about being happy all the time. It's about letting yourself be, without judgment and recriminations.

Feeling good, essentially, allows me to experience the "bad" without falling to pieces. Oh, the urge is there! Old habits are hard to break. Very hard indeed.

Painting note: René Magritte, Les Amants (1928) Our nearly universal delusion of separateness causes great suffering.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What I used to do

Earlier today, a guy came over my house to buy some tattoo equipment. Have I ever mentioned once on this blog that I used to be a tattooist? I'm not sure if I have. That in itself is interesting (at least to me).

I started tattooing in 1995 and stopped on October 31, 2007. On the first of November I packed up everything in my small studio, threw it in the back of my car and Dick's truck, unloaded in into an unused room in my house, closed the door behind me and didn't look at it again until today.

I haven't even thought about tattooing. Twelve years of my life spent permanently marking peoples' skin, listening to their stories and telling stories of my own - suddenly it was all over with and it almost felt like it never happened. The only reminder I've had is my own skin, covered with tattoos.

I keep myself well covered. There are people I know who have no clue that I'm heavily tattooed. It's not that I'm ashamed. It's just that it isn't what I want people to see me as, nor do I identify much with the tattoos I have. They tell you very little about me, which may seem odd, but the reason behind most of my tattoos is that I wanted to learn how a particular artist worked. One way to do this is to watch, but the best way to do it is to get tattooed.

And the very best way to learn is to let them do exactly what they want (which reminds me, I have written about tattoos before, in the entry about why you shouldn't get one).

The fellow who showed up today mainly wanted to buy flash, the ready-to-go tattoo images that one usually sees on the walls of tattoo studios. I have books and books of this stuff, even though I tended to do custom work. He couldn't afford to buy the whole lot, so we sat down on the floor and went over each book, page by page. I told him which ones had been popular and which ones were not. With each suggestion came a memory or two (or three or four, depending on just how popular that image was).

The guy's shop is about two hours from here, further north, up near the paper mills and right at the edge of hours of unpeopled timber land. Evidentally, what's popular here is not up there (with some exceptions, but still, it was noticeable). He had no interest in the Bartels flash, stuff that is akin to celtic knotwork but made to look like stone. I practically made a living off that stuff. It was perennially in demand,and transcended any fads. I never minded doing it even if it was flash, for I always did it differently. I loved how I could mess with it in a myriad of ways, depending on what I thought the customer would want, and I would do this without asking questions. It was some sort of litmus test for me to gauge how well I could read a person, and I suppose I was very good at reading people, judging from their reactions.

For some, I did it straight out of the book, in black and gray and looking like crumbling stone, no fooling around. Others got a hint of color. Some wound up looking like pounded metal. It could be made to look like turquoise or lapus lazuli, or even glowing jade. It was always fun. If I could have tattooed with that much freedom all the time, maybe I wouldn't have gotten burnt out.

It's funny how I say that was pure freedom, for I wasn't drawing up my own stuff. From the beginning of my career as a tattoo artist, I wanted to do custom work and had quite a bit of disdain for flash. Ready-made tattoos? Who wanted that? Only fools with no imagination.

What I discovered is that designing custom work was usually more trouble than it was worth. Sometimes I would spent days drawing something up for someone only to have them never show up again. Getting a deposit in this neck of the woods was next to impossible.

I would belabor every piece of custom work I got, trying to find the absolute perfect image, when the truth of the matter is that most folks wouldn't have known the difference if I had settled on the first thing I drew up. On the other side of the coin were the people who were never satisfied, acting like dictatorial art directors without a shred of taste.

One time this couple came in and wanted me to draw up Yosemite Sam holding a diver's helmet. Simple enough, right? Ha. I spent hours on that stupid image. The wife kept asking me to move the arm holding the helmet until the piece of paper was hopelessly smudged and dirty from erasing and drawing, erasing and drawing. At that point, nothing would have looked good. Then I heard her whisper to her husband, "She can't draw. Let's go."

Normally I stayed calm and was polite. But by the time I heard her whisper, I was ready to wring her neck. "Why don't you sit down and draw it?" I said to her, "Go right ahead. Have a seat!" I was standing up, staring her in the eye. Oh, how I wanted to get into a real fight. But they just left, the husband looking kind of sheepishly embarassed. No doubt she gave everyone in her wake crap.

I didn't want to tattoo that image anyway. I may be covered with silly tattoos, but they pale in comparison to some of the truly idiotic things people come up with.

That was probably what got me in the end, all those stupid images. Or maybe it was simply the repetition of them. Y'know, I never minded tattooing a Tazmanian Devil. One time I did a huge one with pot leaves flying out from his whirling frenzy. That was a treat, a respite from all the wolf heads, feathers, sports logos and endless parade of the names of peoples' children that are popular in this area.

The worst, for me, was black tribal armbands. They are boring. They are the epitome of boring. No matter how creative you are, they all look the same (at least the kind folks wanted). And they are a royal pain in the ass. You ever hear that it's considered bad to have an armband that wraps around your entire arm, that according to Indian lore it traps the spirit?

It's a lie made up by tattooists. No tattooist in their right mind wants to do a full wrap black tribal armband. First of all, most of the time it's done on a guy who has a big biceps muscle. He probably has a good tan on it, for he either works outside or gets a lot of sun 'cause he likes to show off his big arm.

So, you got one side of the arm with nice taut skin that's a bit tough. The underside is a whole 'nother ball game. It's often soft and spongy and very white or it has a big gully in it that's hard to work in. One side is easy to tattoo and is the least painful place on the body to get one. The other side has every thing a tattooist hates. Impossible to get taut. Might even have stretch marks if the guy built his muscles too fast. And then there's the fact that it hurts like hell. And y'know, the bigger the guy is, the more of a wuss he is. It's almost always true.

And lastly, guys with big muscles aren't very flexible. Getting to the underside of their arms is quite a task. I would usually put them in the "now I'm gonna ask you the hard questions" position: bent over, arm behind the back and pulled and twisted as far as it would go. I came to discover it was easier to lay 'em on a table to tattoo this spot, but the sadist in me said anyone who wanted a stupid black tribal armband deserved to be twisted into a pretzel.

One shop I know had a sign that read "If you want a full tribal armband: $150 extra. Two weeks notice." I wish I could have pulled that one off. Instead, I just began telling people I didn't do 'em. No Indian folk stories, just the truth. Go somewhere else. I've had enough.

I suppose I had enough of everything. One day I noticed I had a reason not to do almost every tattoo request that was made of me. I started slacking. My machines wouldn't do what I wanted them to do. My hands hurt. My back hurt. My eyes hurt.

Today, I enjoyed talking shop with another tattooist and wondered if I'd ever do it again. I still think the answer is no.

Photo note: If I had gotten more work of this nature, I may have never stopped tattooing. The guy wanted the golden ratio and liked the "non-tattoo-y" work that I sometimes did. If I lived in a high population area, I could have specialized, but no, I live and worked in Bumf*ck, Maine, and so, along with everything I mentioned above, I had to do unicorns, cute dragons and argue with people about the fact that a tattoo didn't have to have a black outline and that I actually meant to not color it in solid.