Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Los Quatro Dientes

I watched my girlfriend get four wisdom teeth pulled today without general anesthesia. It was pretty punk rock.


She did of course have lots of Novocaine shots and nitrous oxide, but was completely awake and aware for the process. She reported that, from this and past dental experiences, the nitrous doesn't have much of an effect (which wasn't the case when I had nitrous for a root canal). She was very nervous about the procedure beforehand -- understandably.

When you're with someone for any length of time, or even, potentially, a short amount of time, there's the inevitability of bodily events. When we lived together in Oakland, CA, I was showering once when I heard her make a godawful scream in the kitchen and ran out, wet and naked, to find that she'd lacerated her finger accidentally pretty deeply with a pulse-blender that had retained some latent energy. Although I was able to photograph her gory wound, dress it and reduce the bleeding, and drive her to the ER, I was overcome by squeamishness once they got her prepped for stitches, so had to wait in the waiting room while they patched her up. Before the wisdom teeth removal -- something she just hadn't done at the usual time people do it (late teens/early 20s when still on parents' insurance) and then had put off for years and years, despite pain -- I'd wondered if my squeamishness would rise up when being her support person at the extraction. It's always a little embarrassing.

Oddly, I wasn't squeamish at all. It's of course difficult to see someone you care about in distress or pain, but I think having been through two childbirths of two different baby mamas was good preparation. I was able to watch the dentist draw from his tray of tools (some very simple, almost medieval-looking), syringes, and gauze with a kind of naturalist's detachment, while also wincing a few times when the gf cried out at one point, or a distinct tooth-cracking sound filled the air (twice). But it was also very amazing to see the dentist's hand come away with his glorified pliers and a gleaming, bloody tooth was placed gently on the tray. She did all four teeth in one sitting. Due to insurance not covering it and the fact that her teeth were small and not bony/impacted, they had decided on the awake approach. She put on some Britney Spears (!) in her earbuds and powered through it, like I had powered through a root canal with nitrous, Novocaine, and Queens of the Stone Age's Songs for the Deaf -- but that was only one tooth.

I had brought a book to read -- physical anthropologist Tim D. White's Prehistoric Cannibalism, which raised a few eyebrows in the dentist's office -- but wasn't able to focus on it as they methodically removed the top wisdom teeth (fairly easily) and then the lower ones (a bit more of a struggle). After the procedure they put all the teeth, wrapped in gauze, in a tiny white envelope like something the Smurfs would send letters in. I told the gf I was impressed, and took her to the supermarket to get post-op comfort stuff. Her mouth was full of blood as she spit some out in the supermarket parking lot. Took her back home, got her settled, and she fell into a deep and well-deserved sleep. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Gainesville Story: a Harry Crews Appreciation


This is about Harry Crews, the South Georgia-born writer whose career peaked in the 1970s and who is known as the grandaddy of grit lit (Southern literature about ordinary, working-class people written by those very same people). 

This is Part One of a multi-part series about eventually moving from California to Crews' birth state, getting inspired by the 2016 biography (the first) about Crews -- Ted Geltner's Blood, Bone, and Marrow, making pilgrimages to Gainesville, Florida, and Athens, Georgia, and more. 

I'd like to note that in 2004 I wrote curricula for a class I was gonna teach in Contemporary Southern Literature for a junior college, featuring Crews, William Gay, Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, and Chris Offutt. Brown died suddenly while I was still finalizing the class (I heard about it from Tom Franklin), and both Gay and Crews died in 2012 (one month apart). While I was (and still am) a big fan of grit lit in general at that time, and I like all those writers a lot, Crews has always especially spoken to/resonated with me, and I think he and I share a similar wiring in how we view the world. When I hear him write about "the black twirlies and free-floating anxiety" I know exactly what that feels like, and he and I have shared similar battles with things. I imagine I will reach a saturation point with my Crews obsession, so I am interested in the future in doing some archival work around Gay and Brown. It's kinda fun, being a detective and trying to understand someone's life via what they left behind, who they touched, and what, if anything, their experience as sentient beings amounted to.

Part One.

A Gainesville Story: a Harry Crews Appreciation


I sat in the darkness of my motel room and thought about the darkness in, and of, my life. 

The motel room was in Gainesville, Florida, where I’d come for a few reasons. I’d always wanted to come to Gainesville for its punk scene and its quality of being an archetypal college town in the Deep South, the type of place I’d wanted to visit or live since I was in my twenties. I’d been living in Atlanta, and Gainesville kept calling me to her. It was also the home of my favorite writer, Harry Crews, who set many of his books in the town and, to my amazement, gave his home address publicly in a 1973 book he wrote. It was the fictional protagonist’s address, but I was astonished he was just so open about it. And lastly, I wasn’t getting along with the girlfriend in Atlanta, I had a little bit of money, so via the always-interesting Greyhound and the cheap, depressing motel room, I found myself in town. 

I was tired upon arrival because I walk everywhere and had been carrying not one but two heavy backpacks (after Gainesville I had to take another Greyhound up north for a funeral), but it was exciting to be in Gainesville, so my first order of business was going straight to Lillian’s Music Store, a favorite haunt of Harry’s when he was alive.

It felt great when I sidled up to a barstool and rested my arms on a battleworn bar where Harry had sat. When we have idols and people we are fans of, we tend to see them as larger than life, but when you meet them or see where they lived, you see they are people just like anyone. The world becomes smaller somehow, more accessible. I drank a Whiskey Sour in honor of Harry, who I’d read liked that drink because that way he could get some fruit in his diet. The drink arrived fruitless and incredibly strong, but it felt great after the rattling vibrations and general grunginess of Greyhound and then a walk in Gainesville heat and sun from the station to the motel, wearing pants and two socks on one foot so I didn’t get a blister from my cowboy boot. (At one point, walking from Greyhound to motel, I felt like I might pass out or need to rest in the shade of a tree, but I soldiered on, checked in, and I tell you, nothing tasted better than a cold can of iced tea followed by a grape soda bought for 75 cents each from a moody vending machine, and then a dip in the debris-strewn, semi-neglected pool. The chlorine killed the bus bugs and the swim gave me a second wind.)

I’d planned to see some of Harry’s haunts, at least the ones that still existed, his home, and maybe the building he taught in at the University of Florida when he was alive. Harry’s official biographer’s publicist had called me a “Harry Crews superfan,” and I guess I was. My mom, in a bit of parenting that was perhaps questionable but ultimately life-changing, got me a Crews book, Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, when I was all of maybe eight or ten years old, knowing I liked martial arts at the time and after she read the first few pages on a whim in a bookstore. That particular book has very adult things going on in it, such as a woman raping a wounded man, two gay men raping the same man, an attempted abortion via a very unique way of terminating a pregnancy, a pedophile karate student, and other acts of sex and violence. Hardly the best stuff for a young, sensitive kid, but my mom trusted my maturity and in those days we were free-range children. I loved to read and even then I knew I was reading something from a very talented, very unique, singular author who spoke with an honesty and perspective that resonated with and impressed me. My love affair with Southern writers began early, and I still think as many do that there is something particularly above average about Southern storytellers, a grittiness, candor, and way of forming narrative that produces some of the world’s best writers. Crews was the granddaddy of “grit lit” and as an adult I had things in common with him: generalized anxiety, a dislike of Sundays, a fondness for drink, and a love of the female form. I had been talking with Crews’ biographer about the possibility of getting a posthumous book by Crews called Bone Grinder to see the light of day, which would feel like more of an accomplishment, if I helped in some small way, than even getting my own novel manuscript, The World According to Geek, published. To be a Crews superfan it seemed required I visit Gainesville. 

 

 Lillian's Music Store: not a music store (neither instrument nor record) but a fantastic, New Orleans-style bar Harry logged serious time at.

Lillian’s was a cool, New Orleans-style bar, dimly-lit and smelling of time and oldness, with a 13-foot stuffed alligator, an alligator head with bead necklaces in its mouth among the bottles, and overhead fans. I had experienced a lot of death lately and was having drinks for different departed people I’d known or admired: a best friend (cancer), my girlfriend’s close friend (cancer), two bassists (Grandaddy and Black Flag, stroke and cancer, respectively), a friend of my dad’s who was like an uncle to me and knew me my whole life (cancer), and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden had just been found dead, from suicide. The world was losing good people. But drinking a drink each in honor of people is a good way to get too drunk too quickly, and once I start drinking it’s a hard thing to wind down and turn off, like a machine with a faulty off switch. I explored Gainesville, walking around and drinking all the way, ending up at an intimate music venue where I saw a bunch of excellent prog-rock bands for $5. Things get fuzzier from there. I remember walking back to my motel room and eating kim chi with a switchblade before falling asleep. 

The Gainesville Post Office, where Harry must've sent off many works to New York City publishers.

I woke up on Sunday morning with a sense of anxiety I always get on that day for some reason, coupled with a manageable hangover and more anxiety from the heavy drinking. I missed my girlfriend and cats. I missed my children (one of the reasons I liked Crews so much is he tragically lost a child to a drowning accident and I lost two children not to death but to an ugly and traumatic custody battle). Intense, humid heat made me feel overly emotional and I had a heat rash in my armpit that hurt. But I put on some sandals and walked the relatively short distance to Crews’ house. 

 

Harry Crews' driveway, which was such a powerful experience for me it felt like a sacred space I had to flee from. Floridian heat is an animal all its own and I had enough salt in my hat to season a meal.


Seeing where he lived a good portion of his life and wrote at was an emotional experience. There was a Beware of the Dog sign, but the gate was open and I could’ve just walked down the driveway to the house. I didn’t know who lived there now, if the house stayed in Harry’s family or had new residents. I’d read so much and done countless hours of research that it felt exhilarating to be at what felt like a near-sacred location. My life was peppered with reading Crews stories at various points and I’d read almost all of his prolific body of work. When I lived in California it seemed like Gainesville was far away and a place I might never get to, but I was here. I felt myself getting weepy and like I couldn’t stay anywhere near this location for long, as if its power was so great that I had to get away from it. There’s a scene in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road where a man living in a terrifying and bleak post-apocalyptic world finds a hidden sextant like sailors used in the old days. It is such an undamaged, beautiful object to him from an earlier, pre-apocalyptic time, and so unexpected in such a ravaged and depleted world that he does not take it, but reverently and gently places it back where he found it. I felt like that at Crews’ house. So I walked back to my motel and felt blisters forming on both feet from the sandals, trying not to cry for every and no reason as the Spanish moss that is everywhere in Gainesville hung like tinsel on a dying Christmas tree from the tree branches. 

I've met author Dave Eggers and know he's an intensely private guy (like many authors) -- Harry gave his home address (!) in his novel The Hawk is Dying.

At the motel I sat in the gloom and thought about my life, where it was going and how relatively hard it was. I had moved to Atlanta the summer prior and had been unable, month after month, to find work, despite going on countless job interviews. I was like the last person picked for a sports team, over and over again, and fell into the pattern of being a finalist for positions, but always rejected. It was beginning to take a toll on my psyche, because we are social animals and need not only money but an identity, a way to contribute to society, and a sense of belonging. I was like the drifter in Crews’ karate novel. 


I lay on the bed and turned on the tv and the channel it happened to be on was a documentary about a rural impoverished village in Africa. A young girl had no friends in the village and clung to a white plastic naked doll. She had to get water each day from a well. I only watched a few seconds before thinking of my own estranged daughter, and thinking how hard life was, this African girl’s in her way and mine in my way, and I started weeping. I was also thinking about a news report I’d heard about a whale beaching itself and dying because its stomach was full of plastic shopping bags and it had starved to death. The world, the ocean was getting destroyed and I felt empathy for species going extinct and whales eating plastic and little girls with no friends in impoverished villages. I’d picked up a local Gainesville newspaper earlier and saw the headline LOCAL MAN SHOT IN THE FACE. The funeral I was going to up north was for an impoverished man who had died alone in his home in rural New Hampshire and hadn’t been found for two weeks. The world just seemed a very depressing and hostile place. But I got the tears out and meditated, trying, like the drifter in Crews’ karate novel, to tap into an inner place of resilience and equanimity. I blew cold air on my painful armpit rash.

When you are going through hell, Churchill said, keep going. I think this is something found in Crews’ work as well, and my mom had noticed about me early on that I was sensitive, but also strong. The girlfriend was worried about me because I was traveling alone. Worried about me getting too drunk, being victimized, doing something crazy or stupid. She knew I walked on the edge, drawn to fantastic dark places. Traveled by Greyhound with ex-cons and people in trouble, stayed in humble lodgings, walked through neighborhoods others wouldn’t go in. But I was okay. Alive. In another McCarthy tale, No Country for Old Men, a man is alone and wounded badly and has the calmly sociopathic Anton Chigurh on his tail. I wasn’t wounded and I didn’t have Anton Chigurgh after me. Harry Crews tried to kill himself once with a hunting knife and lied about it after recovering in the hospital, saying he got in a knife fight. But he ended up dying of natural causes, and he had a challenging life at times. Pema Chodron once said that we are continually taken to the brink of annihilation so that we can see and remember how resilient we are. This wasn’t rock bottom for me, because rock bottom is infinite and I knew I had to keep perspective. There were little girls in the world with no friends and only a dirty plastic doll to cling to. I had a life others wanted. I was just having a spell of the black moodies, that little pairing of anxiety and depression that can be a killer, but can also be managed. I needed to get in the moment, be fully here, fully present. I needed to be a warrior, not a worrier. Humans are so funny: we get what we desire and then figure out ways to feel unhappy. Maybe I needed to suck the glop out of a raw egg, wash it down with bourbon and Louisiana hot sauce. Harry Crews did that and said it made him ready to eat nails. Or maybe I just needed to make friends with the sense of loneliness and ennui I had. Go to a punk show. Get bit by a water moccasin, wrassle an alligator. Something. 

University of Florida, Gainesville. Lovely, massive campus with a lake in the middle and gators in the lake. Harry taught Creative Writing for years. He was the first person in his family to graduate high school, and went on to become a university professor. Not too shabby. 


Outside, the sky darkened and rumbled and the rain came and ran like blood. I went outside and watched the lightning, listened to the storm, and saw a rainbow faintly in the sky. A crazy man outside the motel room kept repeating, calmly, articulately, methodically: “Whale friend. Shark friend. Bear friend. Barracuda friend. Pelican friend. Seal friend. Monkey friend. Whale friend. Shark friend. Bear friend…”

Larry Brown, a former Marine and firefighter who taught himself to write, called Harry a “mentor and friend." Harry is like a friend who tells the truth and cuts through all his, and your, bullshit. There’s no other way, Harry might argue.

On the Greyhound out of town I sat next to man who told me it was his son's birthday. I said Happy Birthday and asked how old. "He would have been 4," the man replied. He had a cheaply-done tattoo of the boy's name on his leg. After some plaintive silence I told him about Harry Crews and how Harry had lost a son to a tragic drowning accident, and his excellent essay "Fathers, Sons, Blood." The bus rumbled on. 



Next: Part Two: Feeling happier in life, I visit the Crews Archive, University of Georgia, Athens, 11/11/17. Belly o' the beast. An in-depth look at Crews' unpublished novel Grinder

http://bloodboneandmarrow.com/


Monday, September 18, 2017

Article on solarizing a local elem school

I have an article on page 5 of the current (summer) Energy Efficiency issue of the Georgia Sierran. Check it out. 💡

Dedicated to my friend Zach D, who worked in the solar industry and passed away tragically earlier this year at the age of 43. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Unforeseen Consequences: Economic, Racial, Tribal

The great Bernie Sanders, too smart and idealistic to be an American President, impressed me during his run for office in 2016 by talking about unintended consequences of high-level political decisions. This is impressive thinking because it shows a sense of nuance, complexity, depth, and even counter-intuitiveness: American politicians, even ones who apologize for mistakes or admit changing their thinking on an issue, often go into a rhetorical bravado that we claim we want in them -- confidence, vision, direction, strength, etc. In other words, leadership. But many don't cop to seeing how some ideas, however good they look on paper or however in vogue they are at the time, produce unforeseen, unpredictable, and negative consequences. (Bernie, if I recall correctly, was talking about American foreign policy, occupying foreign lands, and the unintended consequences thereof.)

I've been thinking about unintended consequences a lot lately in light of our current political scene, with its horrific emboldening of American white supremacy and the way white liberals are shocked-- and people of color are not. Two things come to mind: unintended consequences of the Clinton-Gore years, and UCs of the Obama-Biden years.

Although the right and even the "alt-right" have demonized the Clintons over the years, with a fair amount of mistreatment, misinformation, and BS, it's fairly apolitical to admit that Bill Clinton's pro-business presidency and his signing of legislation overturning Glass-Steagall is a direct cause of the economic meltdown of 2008. Glass-Steagall had long enforced a division between speculative, obscure, at times manipulative Wall Street machinations, and the more-straightforward economics of Main Street: mortgage lending, home ownership loans, etc. Glass-Steagall existed in the first place because America saw that mixing the two financial worlds could wreak havoc on the economy, but Clinton overturned it, and, while not showing immediate impact, lending to high-risk borrowers in the early 2000s and obscure, illegal Wall Street operations (think of Michael Moore asking random Wall St. people what "derivatives" are in his Capitalism: a Love Story) led to the "economic downturn" or outright Great Depression of 2008 and onward. Sure, the Clintons have long been picked on and targeted by the Right, but overturning Glass-Steagall was risky in the first place.

I am not just being academic and abstract here: at the time it hit, I was working at a junior college in California -- normally insulated from economic ups and downs, bubbles and bursts -- and had my pay cut exactly in half, for the same exact work performed, absolutely unrelated to performance. That stung a bit. I once heard the Clinton-Gore years described as a almost a decade of peace and prosperity -- but what about the UCs down the road?

Another UC is more relevant to the ugliness going on today at contested sites where white supremacists and their resistance are squaring off. The Southern Poverty Law Center published an intriguing report a few years ago showing how membership in hate groups -- largely underground, mind you, as this was pre-Trump -- was fairly steady/predictable during the Dubya years, but rose dramatically during Obama's double term. When I look back on how we arrived at a rise in neo-Nazi and white supremacist hate groups in the US -- emboldened of course by Trump's campaign and presidency -- I can see, with only the hindsight of retrospectiveness, how it didn't happen overnight. This had been brewing for awhile, and it was only when Trump became President that the festering wound exploded open. This is not to say that we shouldn't have had the precedent of a half-nonwhite President or that Obama did anything wrong by being himself, just that the last 9 years have shown that America is still a deeply racist, even bigoted, country, a certain faction of whom detested Obama simply because he was the first nonwhite President. But why are we surprised? America was founded on the genocide of one people and enslavement of other. You can't accomplish that without a sense of supremacy, or at least righteousness.

I was talking with a friend who is a dyed in the wool Democrat about current events. We were talking about how anyone defending Trump at this point is defending his white supremacy. My friend called it racism, but there's a difference between racism -- which I think we all struggle with to some degree -- and the deeply intolerant, violent bigotry going on today.

But what is racism at root? What is bigotry?
Is it not tribalism, with all the good and bad that tribalism imparts?

I've long been a fan of the film Quest for Fire not just because it was a surprisingly accurate portrayal (for the time) of the co-development of different pre-human and human groups in the Stone Age, but because it illustrates something that exists even today: human beings are at different stages of development. In QFF, we saw four distinct groups: totally fur-covered hominids representing a blend of simian and pre-human qualities; cannibalistic pre-humans (with a surprising amount of ginger hair); Neandertals (the film follows this group the closest); and the Cro-Magnons, anatomically modern humans who both laugh at the primitive Neandertals but also show them how to make fire from scratch. The Cro-Mags are the most advanced.


We have to be careful, living today, with two things: thinking that white culture represents the most advanced form of culture that other cultures are striving/struggling to attain (for this is basically white supremacist thinking), but also becoming so bleeding heart that we think Darwinism applies to all of nature except for humans. Am I defending Social Darwinism? In a way, yes, but in a way, no.

It's always amused me when I see a liberal-mobile plastered with stickers on it defending liberal causes while also displaying Darwin's fish. I do agree that, unlike just about everything else in/of nature, humanity has some control over how it fashions the (socio-economic) game of survival, and we can't be so cold-hearted as to see people struggling in this game while shrugging our shoulders and saying "well, that's just nature, nature's rough." Because often who struggles is people of color and people of disadvantage, be it historical or current. (Yes, I know, there are poor whites, disadvantaged whites, poor Jews, etc.)

Also, while we've designated "first" worlds and "third" worlds and "developing" worlds and ways of forming a hierarchical human society -- education, health, status, and monetary power are key indicators/divisors -- we need to remember that, just like in QFF, the most advanced tribe has its problems, the lesser-advanced tribes have their strengths, and feelings/perceptions of superiority and inferiority can arise. The 1990s and onward saw the rise of Political Correctness and gains made by nonwhite cultures, tribes if you will, and with the election of Trump in 2016 we saw a hostile and significant pushback to these gains.

So it's like Mr. Byrne said: Same as it ever was.
Tribes at different stages of development, with much hostility betwixt them. Where's Rodney King when you need him?
Poor John Sayles: his films have been stolen -- er, borrowed from -- twice: Return of the Secaucus Seven became the baby boomer film The Big Chill, and his Brother from Another Planet was a film dealing with racism-vis-a-vis-sci-fi long before District 9