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Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Giant Sand Where God Lives

The mushrooms had just started to kick in when I saw the storm roll down the canyon toward me.

I'd driven out to the Saguaro National Monument (now a National Forest) in my first car, a sand colored Volkswagen Rabbit I'd named "Shadrach,"expressly for the purpose of tripping out in the desert. Out here, surrounded by the petrichor and the smell of the creosote and the slightly alien looking giant saguaro reaching their huge arms in supplication to a darkening sky, I felt like I would have the kind of experience I'd been looking for. I'd often said to my friends who asked me why I still lived in Tucson, long after most of them had moved to bigger cities and better things, that "God lives in the desert." Just ask the Jews. Just ask the Muslims.

The line of rain, a grey haze billowing like a sheet across the sky, seemed to move slowly. You always think you have plenty of time. The closer the rain comes, the tougher it is to tell just how far away it is. The hard dividing line between rain and sand becomes fuzzy and indistinct.

There was a sound, like a few people sucking in air between their teeth, moving my way. A few people became a group. A group became a crowd, then a mob, now all shushing each other, running toward me. A few drops plashed my face, and then it was upon me. Hammers, buckets of water, soaking my clothes, my skin, the earth. I felt the strong urge to get to higher ground. The part of my brain concerned with bodily safety was rapidly shutting down, but it must have managed to remember that flash floods were a real concern in this area, and was able to send up a subconscious signal flare through the star bursts that were starting to explode in my frontal lobes. I clambered up a hill, over shifting shale and dirt that was rapidly churning into mud beneath the onslaught, until I found an outcropping of rock under which I sheltered, shivering in my wet clothes.

It dumped. It plummeted. The heavens shouted rain down on the desert until the visibility decreased to only the few feet just beyond my primitive shelter. Thunder clapped and boomed, but I remained entirely unconcerned about my safety. Wind hooted and moaned, driving rain into the mouth of my little makeshift cave. I laughed.

Then, it was over.

The sun came out almost immediately on a disheveled and ravished scene, I stepped from the cave, dripping and cold, and felt my skin tighten as I started to dry. I stood on a rock, my heart quiet and full of light, and looked down into the valley below where my car was parked. The air still glistened with moisture, and the low sun made a rainbow from where I stood right down to the car. I swear. Mushrooms or no, that happened.

The same kind of ramshackle grandeur, the aloneness that isn't lonely, fills this song.The tension that mounts as the storm rises, the sun that opens up on the hook between the verses. This isn't the song of the storm, but what comes after, the still, small voice that speaks in the quiet when the storm has passed. Imagine the voices stuttering to a halt in your head, imagine the sun coming out, imagine the darkness that is coming, has gone, is still to come.

Howe Gelb - "This Purple Child"

Enjoy

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Pop Goes the World

If I stood on the concrete outside the boxy, modern-looking fine arts complex at Canyon del Oro High School northwest of Tucson, and looked south toward Mexico, I believed I would see it, that it would be the last thing I would ever see: a flash of light as the nuclear missiles from Russia detonated over Davis Monthan Air Force Base. It was 1988, I was 17 years old, and I believed that the world was about to end. Not in a couple of days, or a week, or this year, or before I graduated. Today. 

The madness of absolute certainty had gripped me that morning. Awakening from a dream perhaps, or maybe after church youth group the night before. I wasn't sure where the idea had come from, only that it was unquestionably true. I could feel the truth of it humming in the center of my chest, fizzing around the edges of my brain. I was glorious with it. The day glowed with edges and shadows sharper than the usual razors of Arizona sunshine. 

The fact that everyone went about their days without panic, with no sense of the horrible destruction about to rain down upon us, only served to further confirm my knowledge. I couldn't tell anyone, of course. They would never believe me. I had been given this knowledge, not because anything could be done, but as a gift, from God. I could say goodbye to the people I loved, my friends and family, I could ask for forgiveness for my many sins, offer my paltry soul to Jesus for safekeeping, and die, hopefully instantly, in the fiery inferno descending on us all from the clean blue sky. 

I was one of the lucky ones.

I walked around in pious, giddy sorrow for almost three days, joyously mourning every person, every beloved thing I came in contact with. My heartfelt farewells at every parting with every friend might have raised a few eyebrows, were I not already a little (a lot) weird. Nobody probably gave my doe-eyed departures a second thought.

It was the end of days! Finally! No more depression. No more unrequited crushes on almost every woman I was friends with, had ever met, or had read about in a book or seen on a screen. No more the inescapable weight of guilt every time I masturbated to pornography, skipped class, wrote poetry instead of doing homework. No more impossible to fulfill expectations of success, and, finally, no more "potential." I would never disappoint anyone ever again. I would be free. All God had to do was kill the world.

I wondered, briefly, if there would be a mix of the bloody biblical grotesqueries I was so fond of reading about in the Book of Revelations, the ones my youth group leaned on when they wanted to spice up bible study, and the hard science fiction of nuclear holocaust I knew so well from television and movies. Would Jesus come before or after the mushroom cloud? Would the Devil ride down from his kingdom in the air on a Soviet bomb to do ultimately fruitless battle with angels and principalities before he inevitably succumbed to the powers of Good?

Not my problem. Here come the jets. 

The hardest thing about prophecies that don't come true is the moment of double vision where two worlds exist simultaneously. There's the world where the prophecy is going to come true, absolutely, without question. This world is luminous with meaning, fraught with portent.

Then, superimposed over this world, off by just the fraction of a degree necessary to require a choice between them, is the other world. A world in which none of that shit is happening at all. This world has the benefit of continuance, but it is terrifying in its uncertainty, and it is meaningless, 

One morning a few days after my vision of a world cleansed in nuclear fire, I woke up and realized that it just wasn't going to happen for me. The bombs, despite my hopes, were not going to fall. Jesus wasn't coming back, no matter how bad tensions in the Middle East got. I saw the world of prophecy, and the world that was, and I knew I just didn't have the energy to sustain that kind of crazy. I started going to class again. I thought about applying to college. The sun continued to rise. 

All of this is to segue into this song by Scritti Politti, It's called "Overnite" and I'm pretty sure it's about someone who believes the world is going to end. I've done my research, and nobody else seems to subscribe to this theory, nor are there interviews with its author, Green Gartside (the "Green" of "Tell us about it, Green" in the lyrics), confirming it, but none of that matters. The guy who believes, against all evidence, that the world is going to end via nuclear conflagration in the middle of his senior year of high school clearly isn't looking for validation. It's just a theory, and a beautiful song. As the song says, "Check it out."

Overnite - Scritti Politti

When I was seventeen (Tell us about it Green)
There was a world to know about (Check it out)
Everyday she'd call me (What'd she say?)
Is it over yet? Do you love me?

Overnite - and while your troubles away
Under the stars up above - I'll build you another day
Close your eyes - I'll be home before it's light
And all the tears you cry - will dry in the dead of night

And now I'm in between (Tell us about it Green)
It all became a mystery (Check it out)
Everyday she calls me (What does she say?)
It is over yet? Do you believe them?

Overnite - and while your troubles away
Under the stars up above - I'll build you another day
Close your eyes - I'll be home before it's light
And all the fears you have - will die in the dead of night

Someday - maybe soon - we could show them a way
I would love just to watch it falling
Oh my pretty one - show me a way

Overnite - I heard a satellite say
There'll be a wind from the west - to blow all your dreams away
Close your eyes - and maybe before it's light
Oh all the hopes that you have - will die in the dead of night




Saturday, June 4, 2016

Muhammad Ali

Before I learned I was pale and skinny and weak and strange, before the other boys taught me my place on the playground, I believed I could be dark and strong and funny and fast. I believed I could be like Ali. I could sing sweet and sting sour and make 'em all laugh as I beat 'em down. I was five years old and every time Ali clowned Cosell, that pinched little man in a suit, every time he got in front of a crowd and told them who he was and then proceeded to prove it, I believed I could be what I wanted to be.

He was mine, too. I loved his big mouth. I loved the way he moved, faster than I could see. I loved that he made my parents angry when he talked about the world, even though I didn't understand what he meant most of the time. I loved that he fought. I, afraid of everything, loved that he feared nothing. He would get punched and stand up, fall down and stand up, get booed and stand up. They'd take his title and he'd stand up and take it back. Over and over. He believed he was a man and demanded others treat him as such. I wanted to be a man like that. Funny, fast, strong, unbowed, unafraid.

I still do.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Real Men

My sister, arbiter of all things cool, her 18, me 11, informed me that the lyrics to "Little Red Corvette" were "dirty." I was singing along in the car, probably getting most of the words wrong.

"Underneath, where you can't hear it, they're singing, 'Real men call back.' It's about gays." She was, as always, absolutely unassailable in her rightness. She declined to educate me as to what the "Trojans" were about, but seemed to believe that the line about "horses" was so obviously filthy that no explanation was needed.

Now I was intrigued. I found myself listening even more carefully with nervous excitement, straining my ears to hear the subconscious assault on my burgeoning sexuality. Once she'd said it, of course, it was obvious. I mean, just look at him! Thigh-high boots and hair piled to heaven, purple lamé and eyeliner. He was terrifying and thrilling. That high pitched voice sang a siren's song of debauchery.

The graffiti at my elementary school already read what they'd say for years afterwards: "Scott Williams is gay." The slurs could not be have been more laughably far from the truth. I wished I was gay, just so this aching longing I seemed to have almost constantly carried around in my chest for the Jennifers and Christinas of my class would go away. I loved women in a way that crippled me and left me entirely unable to speak to them. I dreamed of becoming a girl, just so I could sit comfortably with them, talk to them, listen to their secrets, brush their long, shining hair. Just like the rest of the girls.

And didn't the kids have a point? I knew I wasn't like the other boys, obviously. I sang to myself. I cried too easily. I was "sensitive." I moved around like I wished I was an elf (the gayest of all the mythical creatures), and my hips swished, just a little, when I walked, no matter how still I tried to hold them. I wanted to write stories and poetry, for God's sake! When I turned thirteen, in lieu of the sex talk, my parents straight out asked me if I were gay, presumably to avoid having me lie to them more than I did already. I may not have been gay, but I was clearly something.

I went through a lot of confusion, for years. Maybe I was gay, and just didn't know it. The girls I liked clearly caught a whiff of whatever it was that made me strange - desperation, loneliness, a little bit of fey weirdness - and steered clear. So I went looking for sex and affection wherever I could find it. It didn't help that there were plenty of older men who didn't hesitate to take advantage of a horny, confused teenager with a penchant for self-destructiveness. It took years, and a move across the country, to figure even some of my issues out. But through it all, almost without even knowing, I had somebody showing me the way.

Prince showed me you could wear eyeliner. You could swish a little, or a lot. You could be soft spoken and scream and then destroy a motherfucker with your guitar. The girls could love you. The boys could respect you. And vice versa. You could sing about purple bananas and God and sex and nobody could say shit to you if you believed in yourself. You didn't have to explain yourself to anyone.

I never heard the voices singing "Real men call back." But Prince showed me real men - real people - do whatever the hell they want. I'll miss him more than I can say.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Morning Routine

My morning routine:


  • Wake up to my phone (current alarm: "And You And I" by Yes, mostly because it starts off nice and mellow and I like to wake up gradually)...
  • ...except that really it's the cat waking me up by sitting on my head about five to ten minutes before the alarm actually goes off. She would like to be fed.
  • Kick the cat off my head. Dog tries to eat the cat as she jumps down. Scuffle ensues.
  • Calm the dog. Kiss Katie good morning before she drifts back off to sleep.
  • Feed the cat while holding in an almost crippling morning pee (work those kegels, kids!).
  • Finally pee.
  • Fumble through the dark hallway down to the front room, draw the curtains, lay down my yoga mat on the floor, and proceed to read a bunch of articles on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr. 
  • Give up on my timelines after I realize it's only been six hours since I last looked at them and everybody in America's still asleep, while my international crew are still just getting up. Set my timer for yoga (I use Insight Timer. It's got good sounding bells, the timer allows me a lot of flexibility in setting extra bells so I know when to switch positions, and it does this totally non-spiritual badge system that gives me gold stars when I use it everyday, which tickles the part of my brain that needs a "good boy" from some kind of authority to stay motivated).
  • Do yoga. I practice Sivananda style yoga and have on-and-off for the past 24 years. The cat usually obstructs me as best she can by draping herself fetchingly across the mat until my excessive movement disgusts her and she leaves to stare moodily out the window while I finish.
  • Meditate. I do a simple Zen exercise of counting my breaths which is about as complicated as I can handle. 
  • Shower, weigh myself, shave, and listen to music or a podcast.
  • Get dressed. By this time, Katie's up and watching the morning news. We don't have cable, so we're stuck with the major network news shows, all of which seem to be staffed and written by cretins (in the case of the Today Show), out-of-touch squares (in the case of CBS This Morning), or bores (Good Morning America). We've settled on the squares, for now. I could do with quiet or music, but Katie seems to need the structure of the same thing happening at the same time each morning to let her know what time it is. Periodically I yell at the TV when the squares say something particularly out-of-touch or banal.
  • Eat breakfast: yogurt, blueberries, and honey.
  • Kiss Katie goodbye, all the while lamenting the need to leave the house instead of staying home and hanging out, because work is for chumps. 
  • Head downstairs and out into the world.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Time and Sleep

A. lives in the apartment above us with her possibly older brother. "Possibly" because both brother and sister have reached that indeterminate age where time has done most all it can to you for the moment, and the ravages of the years pause or plateau, leaving the body, damaged certainly, and much the worse for wear, but still somewhat serviceable, to go on for a little while unmolested. In looking at them, it is impossible to distinguish their ages. He may be older than she, or vice versa.

We often hear them come and go, walking around their apartment, and Katie and I speculate, both on the layout of their apartment (a constant source of speculation in New York City), and on what they might be doing. Walking - yes, certainly - but why are they walking to and fro at eleven at night, or four in the morning, or even the middle of the afternoon? Why do they tread above us, causing the ceiling - our ceiling, their floor - to creak and groan in protest? Why do they pace the length of the house, and which one of them is it doing the pacing? 

What keeps them awake on their constant rounds, pursued by what unknown hauntings at all hours? Is it regret for their mutual spinster- and bachelor-hood? She seems happy enough when we greet her on the occasions we meet. Are they lonely, with only the stale bread of their long companionship to comfort them? Or are they merely walking off the tiresome wakings of the aged, when sleep slips from beneath their eyelids and leaves them bereft and abandoned in the silent darkness, and they must walk the halls and bedrooms, searching, hoping to coax sleep back into their beds before the sun rises to begin another day. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Follow Up to a Dust Up

After being harassed by a small group of kids (late-late teens) doing the usual raising-money-for-our-school-team scam, I was surprised at how potentially violent it almost got - one of the kids actually smacked me. Well, really, it was more a little slap on the back. Which is no big deal on the face of it: people get touched involuntarily all the time in this city.

I have to fight against my tendency to catastrophize incidents. It may be just how I'm wired, but my brain tends to want to connect my experience to larger trends in the world. I had a small epiphany when I realized that my (very small) dustup occurred on the same day that presidential candidate and professional clownshoes Trump cancelled one of his rallies due to his "fear of violence" from protestors. We'll leave aside for the moment that the people most of us are afraid of attend his rally as supporters. Is there a change in the zeitgeist? Is a long suppressed violence rising up to once again pervade our culture? Are the black kids in New York City finally losing their cool over gentrification, inequality and racism, and taking matters into their own hands?

Nonsense. Honestly, that's crazy talk. The world is not becoming inherently more violent. Some days are tough for some people, they might have been going through stuff I don't know about, and if that's the worst thing that happens to me this week, I'm having a great life.

That being said, I was furiously angry, albeit about 5 minutes afterwards. It takes me a minute to realize exactly how I feel about a thing. Regardless, I spent most of the night forgiving them, which is an easy way of saying something very hard to do. The one thing I did think of that made me feel somewhat sympathetic towards them was, "God, kid. Don't touch a white man in public without his permission! What if somebody sees and calls the police? Suddenly you're on the ground in a chokehold and both our nights are ruined, mine because I've got to go down to the station and fill out a report, and yours because you might be dead. Get smart, man!"

I was still mad, but at something entirely different. They were a little hasty, a little stupid, but nobody deserved to go to jail, and for damn sure nobody deserved to end up dead. And yet, that had been a very real possibility for them if things had gone too far south.

It just put some things in perspective, is all.