On Nov. 25 the Duluth News Tribune published an opinion article, ostensibly about over-population, by a writer flagged by the Anti Defamation League for white nationalist comments, and for appearing on a notoriously anti-semitic website.
I have self-published a small book containing 15 essays. They comprise the lion’s share of the 17 essays which Perfect Duluth Day so kindly ran as part of the Saturday Essay series. It is available at Zenith Bookstore on Central Avenue in West Duluth next to Beaner’s Central.
We are migrants, one and all, on el Camino del Tiempo, where even the housebound and hunkered-down awaken each morning somewhere they were not yesterday. We’ve emerged from the mists of history and the dreamtime of an infant’s amnesia, and set forth by wildly disparate means of conveyance toward the receding horizon. Signs signal a tomorrow around the bend, but tomorrow is a ghost-town appearing only on the maps, and you can’t get there from here.
So here we are, and there we go, by bullet train or afoot across the trackless wastes, but always on el Camino. Always schlepping our blood on its way down the generations. Always the short skirts and tight pants of the baby-making dance, and the will to carry on.
I marvel at the elaborate ruses concocted to transport one’s genes down el Camino. Marvel at the termite tenacity of these roadside encampments we call cities. Marvel at the hive-life of our super-organism, striving for a meal and a place to sleep and a place to dance the baby-making dance. I shudder at the nighttime photos from space of our settlements glowing golden. Earth burning like the oil lamp it’s become. And between the cities lies the darkened land, yet to trade stars for streetlights.
You will know the tribes by their bumper stickers. Those watch-your-back talismans affixed to our minivans. We’re social animals, desperate for extended families, but tribalism which served us well in ancient times now splinters a humanity hungry to be whole. The myth of the staunch individualist ignores accomplishments of our collective will, yet individualism is precious, and herd mentality both dangerous and dull. Think of that frightful tribe, motivated by unconditional loyalty, its mindless chants filling stadiums in crude rituals of domination. I’m speaking, of course, about Green Bay Packers fans.
Thankfully, Vikings fans are a pale imitation of their namesakes from Scandinavia, those longboat marauders, as vicious and cruel, it is alleged, as many a hedge fund manager. But the Vikings got over it. They traded their battle axes for Volvos and social democracy. Instead of kidnapping they’re exporting cheap furniture, because Us against Them will get you only so far.
A handful of close friends is a blessing beyond measure. How do we hold onto that without circling the proverbial wagons? How can tribes expand and blend like living Venn diagrams without falling into in-group ethics? How do we “coexist” as one tribe’s bumper sticker suggests? “Don’t Tread On Me,” says another’s, twisting the sentiment of revolution for reactionary effect. A rattlesnake, poised to strike, illustrates the theme. Along with this less-than-veiled threat, drivers approaching our blindside must be warned we are insured by Smith and Wesson, and deputized for vigilante justice. Tailgate at your own risk, and don’t step on my snake.
If I walk west there are mansions along my way, with lawns most green and lovely. As I cross a certain avenue things start to get shaggy, and if on a corner lot there’s a for-sale sign on a cairn of truck tires my diaphragm expands with the deep breath of belonging, and I think to myself — my people!
America, so it’s said, is the land of meritocracy, social mobility, and a playing field both level and just. Here any child can grow up to inherit a hundred million dollars, pump it through Manhattan real-estate, fluff it in the casinos of Atlantic City and Wall Street, and end up leveraged to the balls with the Russian mob.
But the most accurate predictor of where you’ll wind up socio-economically — in America more so than any other wealthy country — is where your parents wound up. Social mobility exists, and was expanded by the GI Bill after WW ll, and cheap (even free) college through the ’70s, but the ladders have been withdrawn over starter-castle walls, and rising stars belie the rule.
A three-person majority of the Federal Communications Commission voted to give control of the internet to four corporations. All but rich corporations will become second-class internet “citizens,” and voices of dissent will be further marginalized. Please sign this petition and call your representative and tell him/her this is not acceptable.
I knew a guy named Aman who had been a commander in the Mujahideen, the predecessors of the Taliban in Afghanistan, back in the ‘80s when Islamist militants were on our side in the Cold War effort to kick the Soviets out of their country. One of the things Aman did back home was defuse Soviet bombs and rewire them for later use — thus his Coke bottle glasses and missing digits. I met him when he was washing dishes in a Minneapolis restaurant with a couple of his cohorts, one of whom, being an example of the crossroads which is Afghanistan, looked like any Irishman you’ve ever met. In those innocent, pre-9/11 days, Aman came into the kitchen one morning, and a young jewish cook said, “Hey, Aman, how’s the jihad going? Have you killed the Great Satan yet?” Aman merely waved his hand, and groaned, “Ah, Jewish,” and from there, as usual, we all got along quite swimmingly. A controversy at the time began when the president, George H. W. Bush, for some reason told the press he didn’t like broccoli, and the local TV station came to the restaurant for some counterpoint. Aman was enlisted for some filming which, alas, didn’t make the final cut, but there he was, our Mujahideen commander, eyes bulging behind thick glasses, ascending the stairs from the cooler with a case of broccoli on his shoulder. Coming to get you, George! God is great! And broccoli.
Blood and bone, rivers and stone, are all of a piece, you see. For millennia we knew this, knew we belonged to the Earth, until some tinhorn prophet came along boasting the Earth belonged to us, a gift from God, of course, of which we’d be good stewards, of course, then all things holy left us, last seen heading skyward, and magic absconded on angels’ wings, up, up and away.
So how’s that working out? Still waiting on the Second Coming, the Third Temple, the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse? Still telling old stories which buried stories older still? Tall tales of a bronze-age god who smote the competition. He himself quite recently smote by the Enlightenment and science. Yet, though we now know the Aurora Borealis is lit by particles, not spirits, mystery abides, and it carries us without needing us while we are needing stories.
Mystery abides. Our planet and the depths of space are but its outward face. Though bits of life itself have been patented for sale, we don’t understand what we’re messing with. As Cat Stevens sang, “The soul of nobody knows / how a flower grows.” We may know chlorophyll and hemoglobin molecules are within a few slim atoms of identical — all the green in nature so close in composition to our own ruddy animal blood, and we can manipulate both until Frankenstein’s monster seems like the boy next door, but mystery abides and it’s going nowhere, whichever new sherif’s in town.
When my wife reads this she’s gonna kill me dead. You see, we’re not into public displays of affection. A peck on the lips at the airport is about the extent of it, and to say we’re understated would be an understatement. But I’ll tell you this straight away, as I often tell my wife: I like her more than a medium amount.
In middle-age I became a novice married man, and we found our balance on the scales of wedded bliss, with my wife being smart on the one hand, and I, on the other, able to lift heavy things. With she being cute, and I able to lift heavy things. With she having miraculous powers to actually consider the future and I, in the moment, lifting.
Fifteen years later we refer to the present as “the good old days,” and I’m still rounding the learning curve of coupledom. We continue to expand our glossary of secret terms and their acronyms, a code uncrackable by the NSA. An abrupt maneuver while driving, most often a U-turn, is known as a “Hang On Deary” or “H.O.D.” Dusk in winter is the “Blue Snow Hour.” Friends of our neighbor have become the biblical “Tribe of Dan,” and our cats have more nicknames than the Gambino family.
“Ships sided against a canal’s side may be touched and
Patted, but sleeping animals should not be, for
They may bite, in anger and surprise.“
— Kenneth Koch
Treat others as we treat those who are dying — with tenderness and kindness — as we are all, at our own pace, dying. Avoid telling others what will happen to them after they die, especially to threaten them, because this smacks of eschatological terrorism. Both idealization and devaluation of another person can be a defense against envy, and putting someone you consider an asshole on a pedestal is doubly troublesome.
Don’t pretend that large groups of people are all the same, as simplistic opinions about others are the source of much grief. There is beauty in diversity, but danger in division, as we can be conquered when divided, and manipulated by irrational beliefs. Beware the competition among various one-and-only gods, it is also the cause of much trouble. It’s best to avoid pretending to know the will of God, and to not pass laws reflecting his taboos. It’s not good to remain in an infantile state, accepting dogma at face value, or to confuse symbolic and literal truth. Of course we are free to believe Zeus runs the show from Mount Olympus if that makes us happy, and does no harm to others.
Old-time music is better than it sounds. Old-time, not bluegrass. Of course it’s futile to argue tastes in music. Foolish to judge the listening choices of another. Folly to debate ones’s aesthetic preferences. But having said that, may I add: bluegrass sucks.
Ha! Just kidding, bluegrass. You know we only tease you out of envy for your fancy shirts, and amazing chops, displayed in those talent attacks had most every solo. And you’ve got as many virtuosos per capita as any genre out there, though they be virtuosos with the souls of bean counters. Ha! Did I say that? Just kidding, bluegrass.
Of course there’s some overlap between the styles, bluegrass having “evolved” out of old-time, around WW II. It’s not like there’s a tidy trench between the two, over which we lob our slurs and brickbats. But for the most part bluegrass emerged around 1945 as Earl Scruggs (forgive him Lord) invented his 3-finger style of banjo picking that, along with fairly specific instrumentation, defines the style. Still, the term “bluegrass” is often misused to label anyone playing that assortment of stringed instruments. There’s a local pop band most always labeled “bluegrass” because of the instruments they play, but it ain’t so. How do I know? They don’t suck.
Sorry. I really should see a shrink about this hot-lick envy. Treat these deep-seated fears of Stetsons and bolo ties. Having spent so much of my life high and lonesome you’d think I’d better appreciate those mountain harmonies.
Most of us emerge from infantile amnesia around the age of three. Until then our memories are catch and release. After that some stick, some don’t, until, alas, we come full circle. Unsettlingly, what we do recall is not the original event, but our last memory of that event, not something etched in stone or set in amber, but fuzzing at the edges and swapping facts like stage props, our solo game of “Telephone” played across time.
My first memory, as far as I can remember, is being held on my mother’s hip as she stood in the water at a public beach on the south shore of Lake Superior. I was looking down her one-piece suit at her breasts. Having never been suckled, this may have seemed a novel and compelling sight. Something worth remembering.
Decades fly by and summers pass like weekends. But between the ages of three and thirteen time was much-expanded. Time lost, but if the trigger’s found it’s not for sure forgotten.
My family moved when I finished kindergarten so there’s a clear line defining before and after. Subtract my amnesiac beginnings and it hardly seems possible a home could hold so much. Here we lived in a frame house with a dirt cellar, damp and spidery. There was a big garden, a half a dozen apple trees and a play house near the garage. This was the center of a universe measured in a few city blocks. Occasionally the quiet would be broken by distant explosions at the Dupont plant, where, I was told, they were testing dynamite.
Long it’s been known the galaxy is a big place, but until 1922 it was thought the Milky Way was all there was. Then Edwin Hubble climbed Mount Wilson and had a look-see through the Hooker Telescope and realized those cloudy objects in the sky called “nebulae” were actually galaxies unto themselves. Later, a telescope named for Edwin himself beamed back the Deep Field images of a polkadot infinity. Ten thousand galaxies in a patch of sky one tenth the size of a full moon. Why weren’t people jumping up and down when we went from a hundred billion stars (no paltry sum) to a hundred billion visible galaxies, as far as the Hubble can see? From a distance you could mistake the Deep Field photos for a sky full of stars, but squint and see galaxy after galaxy shimmering in the void. When I notice one swirling down the drain of time, just like ours, I think, “hey — spiral galaxy — my people!”
Aldous Huxley considered the brain and nervous system a necessary reducing valve providing a “measly trickle of consciousness” shunted from “Mind at Large.” Necessary because you can’t go around immersed in Mind at Large while trying to pay the bills. So we float like croutons on the bottomless deeps, and notice what we can.
“I say we better look our nation searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease.” — Walt Whitman
Sit down, America, we need to talk. But first take off those jackboots, you look ridiculous. And lose that tricorn hat. It’s cutting off your circulation. Besides, we don’t do history here, America, funny hats or no, and attention deficit aside, you’re a mere adolescent of a nation, slow to learn what goes around comes ’round.
These wars have been going on too long, America. The paper flags have faded in the windows, and folks just plain forget. But we are mired in the quag, so what do you say we shutter Empire Incorporated and retrofit some swords into plowshares, some drones into solar panels, retrain some bombers into builders of durable goods? Enough of bankers, spooks, and missiles, always in that order. Enough raining high-tech holy hell on any brown-skins shunning your benevolent intentions. If you were a super hero what would your super powers be, America? I can think of two: blowing shit up, and manufacturing dreams in Hollywood, not to be confused with reality TV out of North Waziristan.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” — Yogi Berra
Most days after work I pick up my wife and we spring her mom from memory care for a stroll around the block. According to my wife’s high-tech pedometer it’s almost exactly half a mile. There’s a view of the big lake, and the weather that goes with it, and for fifteen minutes or so the three of us are happy to be walking, and walking to be happy.
My dictionary’s third definition of “pedestrian” describes its figurative sense as, “ lacking in interest or imagination; prosaic, ordinary and dull.” While, at speed, the crosstown freeways of Minneapolis may not be dull, they are certainly ordinary, it being lost on us that driving seventy miles an hour is a violent act, and this we only realize when running into something. We could’ve toured as daredevils a hundred years ago. But existence in our rolling cubicles is mostly quite prosaic, and life encaged is dull.
When I was three years old my friend and I decided to walk to the Ashland A&W, a mile away and across an interstate highway. Hudda Martenson saw us traipsing outside the neighborhood, and gave us a ride home to strict punishment. Grounded! For three days! This proved walking was a precious freedom, indeed, whose revocation was a penalty most cruel and severe.