WHY ASK WHY?

I’M SICK AND GODDAMNED TIRED of listening to cable news hosts asking their guests to explain the reasons why a mass shooter ripped several lives from some innocent community; to divine the thought processes that led to the erasure of life at so profound a level. The time spent listening and watching might be worthwhile if any useful insights were offered. Instead we are fed lists and chronologies and family trees. But any discussion regarding structural and endemic causes is about as easily found as hen’s teeth. Likewise, motives and motivations are sought out to assuage the shock of such outrages as the caging of children, the targeting of a religious faith, or the bungling of a government response to a global pandemic.

What galls then is the hypocrisy inherent in the reflexive, reactionary aversion to hearing someone try to explain why poor people are poor, or why criminals are criminals. People born on the wrong side of the tracks need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we are told. Their failure to do so is their failure to understand the essence of the American ethos, which we are reminded is the frontier spirit, the clear-eyed vision of manifest destiny. Suggest that we spend a fraction of what we spend on empire on education and community investments, and the snorts of derision can be heard for miles and miles. By the same token, conventional conservative wisdom tells us, criminals are by nature thugs, and therefore little better than animals, to which they may be occasionally, unfavorably compared. Moreover, the criminals need not have committed or even been convicted of a crime in order to be described as such. Preferable instead, and so much easier, to lump together the accused and the sentenced alike, the better to tar them all with the same broad brush.

God forbid we seriously consider the suggestion that the application of criminality as a description of a despised demographic is a political weapon that’s been in use at least since the dark days of the loathsome Lee Atwater. Long after Nixon’s death, a member of his administration came forward to admit that they were well aware that by criminalizing cannabis and heroin, they were in effect criminalizing American youth and African-Americans. The calamitous and tragic results were, in today’s parlance, not a bug, but a feature. But no defender of the status quo wants to hear criminals explained; they’re criminals after all, you can tell because that’s what we call them. The very thought of perceiving it any other way would be, for those secure in their comforts, like seeing a looming chasm opening up before them.

We all know the why, or can divine it easily enough from the available evidence, whether or not we care to admit it. It’s just that the prospect of uttering it aloud for some is all-too-terrifying. If the idea of seeing the world from another point of view unnerves you, then that’s your first clue your own worldview is suspect. Understanding the why for too many means seeing the world in a different way. It means relinquishing the habit of seeing the world as the inherited preserve of you and yours. Of the belief that life is a zero-sum game. It means treating the act of sharing not as a duty but embracing it as a joy. Living in the world is hard enough without insisting on plumbing the bottomless well of paranoid fears and sadistic and masochistic addictions we’ve created for ourselves. But the likelihood of seeing the preponderance of my fellow citizens embracing that truth? Well, that’s an evolutionary leap I don’t expect to see anytime soon, or during my lifetime, for that matter.

Although hope, at least for me, continues to spring eternal.

speaking rhetorically . . .

I’m a great fan of the rhetorical question. In fact, it may well be my favorite kind of question. It’s more than a question, you see, but also a kind of dialogue, in miniature. Unlike the typical query, it requests nor requires any response, and yet, paradoxically, suggests and embodies an answer uniquely its own. It is the expression of an idea existing in an indefinite, and suspended, state of self-examination.

Memoir excerpts: Haakim and Festus

Dinosaurs

Haakim and I were sitting at a table at Printers Inc., admiring the rice paper prints on the walls, the intricacies and skilled workmanship of the Chinese and Tibetan symbols. Years ago Haakim had been spirited away from Oakland by a group of Stanford professors recruiting minority whiz kids who might want to transcend their humble origins and play with the big boys. His primary specialty was mathematics. Being Black, and Muslim, and raised without the assumption that pipe-smoking scholars in bow-ties and tweeds knew best, he had been skeptical from the beginning, but had been through and was done with what he called the “corporate trip.”

“What are you working on now?” I asked.

“I’m building a machine that records and enhances psychic energy. I’ve already invested five-thousand dollars, and plan to put in another five. The primary component is a crystal. Hand held, it can act as a conduit for the flow of psychic energy.”

“But the equipment you would need to build something like that must be really expensive and sophisticated. How can you afford all that?”

“Corporations are dinosaurs, and dinosaurs leave huge turds. You’d be surprised at what you can find by scrounging around.”

 

Small Town

The man who had pronounced Pogo dead wore a high-crowned, straw sun-hat indoors, with a holster of tools slung low on his hips, his hands indelibly gray from years of work in oil and grease.

“Where you from, Festus?” I asked.

“Arkansas – you know damn well I weren’t from here – huh.”

“Nice country out there?”

“Yep – and lottsa horses, quarter-horses and such, biggest race track in the world there – Hot Springs, Arkansas – lived there ten years. That was enough, too.”

“ Born there?”

“Nope. Born in Indiana.”

“What town?”

“Hammond.”

“Yeah? I been through Indiana, through Gary. That’s a dirty town. Lotta wild boys in the streets . . .”

“Yep, I know – been through there – ‘cept we didn’t put up with none of it – we go in there with clubs, see? Matter of fact, I got into it with one boy. I told him I’d shoot him, and he knew I would, too. Hell, if I’d shoot my own brother, he knew I’d shoot him.”

Not a flinch from his blue eyes.

“You shot your brother?”

“Yep.”

“Why’d you shoot him?”

“Cause he was messin’ with my wife. Never went to jail for it neither – you know?”

“Why not?”

“Cause my wife, she was a cop. And my brother-in-law was a state policeman, and his father’s a judge. All in the same town!”

“Small town.”

“No, it wasn’t neither.”

“For you it was.”

note to a former friend

If your children see fit to invite me to your funeral, I shall be happy to join all the other souls who’ve made that ritual passage to gather around your freshly dug repository; and while they hang their heads and murmur their lugubrious prayers, and secretly celebrate your passing, I shall, in full and unapologetic view of all and sundry, of those in black collars as well as those in black veils, slowly and somberly, unzip my unwitting fly and with unfettered solemnity, piss upon your gaping and expectant grave.

Fear of Sleeping

He awakened before dawn, in the shuttered dark of his bedroom, the only room in the crumbling mansion not devoid of life, but only slightly less somber for that. As he opened his eyes, he breathed in deeply, deliberately, grateful that he hadn’t died that night in his sleep; thankful that he’d been granted one more day by whatever unknown fate watched over him.

You see, once upon a time he’d noticed that if he didn’t consciously fill his lungs up and empty them completely after, left to its own his respiration became so shallow as to be imperceptible, which frightened him. He imagined that if not attended to, for instance when he slept, his tiny breaths might eventually wink out, like an unprotected candle flame in the wind, taking him along to wherever that last bit of smoke must go. He imagined also that with every deep inhalation and exhalation he took, he was somehow prolonging his life, by gathering into himself more fully whatever it was his lungs craved so much; and by instilling in them the habit, so much so that they would continue to consume it and keep him alive, even as he slept.

Such were the fancies of a man who had spent too much time outside the sobering influences of society. Such were the excesses of an imagination now all too acclimated to the dark, both the inky blackness behind the hundreds of drawn curtains that surrounded him, and the comforting smoky gray he saw whenever he opened his eyes.

Out of habit he reached out and found his cane, although he could have done just as well without it, and found his way to the wash basin, where he commenced his morning ablutions.

The Artist In Me

THE ARTIST IN ME is the conjoined twin of the worker bee in me. We must live together, by Nature’s decree. The worker bee must rise and shine and shower and brush and drive to work and punch the clock and file these papers and dig those holes and put out that fire and punch the clock again and get in the car and drive again and shop for food and fill the gas tank and wash the dishes and feed the pets, and vacuum the floors or pull the weeds, depending on the season. The artist in me must wait and watch while the worker bee balances the checkbook and budgets the month and lists all the things to do tomorrow and check off all the things that were done today.

Nominally in charge, sometimes the worker bee will set aside some time for the artist, but always remembering the importance of the structure that keeps the machine running smoothly. This, the artist would hasten to admit, is only fair.

Sometimes however the artist will, seized by inspiration (a fancy word for creative starvation), stage a coup, and commandeer the ship’s bridge for a while. The worker bee will always step aside and graciously allow this, because he knows the artist is acting neither capriciously, nor gratuitously, and that he is compelled by grave necessity.

Sadly, regardless of whether the artist has seized his time or received it, he carries with him many of the habits of the worker bee. After all, they live side by side. Without realizing it, he often finds himself using the worker bee’s tools to form his art. But the artist and his art are at the same time naturally resistant to his brother’s ways; to the precise, linear implements so necessary to the worker bee, to help him navigate the day, to allow him to steer clear of the many hazards that lurk beneath the surface.

The artist stands before his canvas and maps out his color scheme. He divides it into complementary yet dynamic segments. He considers the cost of his paints, and the paucity of sunlight his garret allows. He wonders how far he will get, or if he will ever finish. Similarly, he sits before his typewriter and wrestles with family trees and chronologies, with story arcs and denouements. He finds himself tiring before he even begins. But how else can he proceed? It all needs to make sense, doesn’t it? Otherwise, he’s left with chaos, and what then?

He has forgotten what he once knew, and what he’s forgotten and remembered many times since: that the best of his ideas are born from chaos. They are begotten within the turmoil of dreams, from the swirl of memories that in turn blend with his childhood fantasies and teenage heroes, from inspirational myths and exciting movies and insightful books and sublime music, all of which at one time or another in his lifetime ignited a spark and then a flame within him, all of which stirred him before he even had a chance to put his finger on why.

Faced with the absence of structure though, he feels adrift: alone and afraid. He clings to the comfort of the idea of a solid foundation, unaware that he is, in a way, a prisoner of it.

But what if his first impulse, the attempt to impose a pattern onto the chaos, is doomed before the fact? Sometimes he succeeds. Sometimes the conventional approach bears fruit. He remembers also that too often the attempt begins well but peters out, stillborn. So what to do?

He has read Breton’s first manifesto, and agrees with him, more or less, but finds him pompous and long-winded. Besides, of what help to the artist can the hundred-year-old musings of a French intellectual possibly be? Then the artist concedes his admiration for the man, and admits that he is perhaps a little jealous.

The artist allows his thoughts to float upon the surface of the question, but then allows himself to sink, to slowly fall until he is resting upon and then deeply embedded in the spongy earth of the seabed. Oddly, he is not holding his breath, but breathing deeply. What if there is a pattern, he asks himself, to be found buried within the chaos? Don’t patterns emerge, regardless of whether they are conjured or unbidden?

We are by nature inclined to see patterns where none (seemingly) exist. We see problems and search for solutions. Addicted to rational thought we look for linear and concrete answers to creative dilemmas in much the same way we set about organizing our day, or in the way we approach a clogged drain, or a malfunctioning appliance. We make lists, sometimes on paper, sometimes not. We enumerate the benefits and line them up beside the disadvantages. We believe a measured series of observations will yield a path forward.

This works fine for the worker bee. But perhaps, the artist wonders, he should be searching for less confining solutions. Perhaps the idea of a solution is itself a misdirection.

No one taught us how to seek out chaos. We’re taught that it’s a dangerous place. But what if invoking the word chaos is just another way of talking about the unexpected? Every day we stumble upon it inadvertently, and are continually startled by its therapeutic effects. The best of jokes catch us by surprise. We laugh, or cry, when we least expect to.

And then we forget. We close the book, and bookmark the page; we change the channel. We resume our normal lives. We fluff the pillow and pull back the bedding. We rise and shine. This is no surprise. It’s where we spend most of our time, within the here and now, between yesterday and tomorrow.

So, we return. But consider, the artist asks himself, that as we do so we might also be re-surfacing, and by the logic of the dream, by the laws of chaos, by virtue of the unexpected point of view, we are by necessity also holding our breaths, wondering, as the weeks become months, and the months become years, where the devil the magic went.

And by we, the worker bee says, I mean me.