In The Now

In a voice reminiscent of Raymond Carver‘s minimalist realism, Charles Bukowski‘s raw journals of life’s underbelly and Alan Ginsberg‘s poet-political essays, Nick Masesso Jr’s fictionalized, short stories, poetry and prose are funny, insightful and heartbreaking, describing often in non-linear dreamscape narrative with the liquid lyricism of a poet; the love, loss, joy and angst of the fascinating and often mystifying connections of men and women in the intimacy of their daily lives. His writing style is both Anti-Novel and Imagist; fragmenting and distorting the experiences of characters, forcing the reader to build a reality to the story from a disordered narrative, stressing economy of language; writing free, with precision of imagery and clear, sharp language and clarity of expression with precise visual images in musical phrase. – Gino Rossi

Inside A Rainbow

“Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last. Just kicking down the cobble stones; looking for fun and feeling groovy”. - The 59th Street Bridge Song - Simon and Garfunkel

Another Groundhog Day at the coffee clutch; the pretty young women are full of welcoming smiles and cheerful banter as we face off to perform our ritual kabuki dance. “Want your regular Nick? Getting pretty nice out there, eh: they say?”  I swipe a finger across my throat and fake a stab to my heart signaling my favorite drink; the Stab and Kill; two shots of espresso over dark roast; as I retort. “I haven’t been warm in six months and I’m snow blind from the constant sight of white on my ocular nerves. Once it gets forty-two degrees here, which I remind you is ten degrees above freezing, everybody pretends they’re in Cancun. But yea, compared to Antarctica; its swell”.

Bursting through the door as if on cue dances our resident carnival minstrel and Mr. Bojangles impersonator; Gandalf. I wave him over.  He examines the chair at my table like their might be snakes in it; then like an Indian performing a slow motion war dance; deposits his brittle bones and settles in. A flower child wilted; my new friend’s face spans the entirety of the sixties, from the optimism of the Kennedy years all the way through to the breaking of the counter-culture wave with Nixon’s election; the carnality, the violence, the insecurity and the anxiety all register in the deep crevices and wind dried folds of his ruddy cheeks.

He looks a rambling road-weary wreck ready to fold in on himself. I imagine that when he finally falls he’ll go down like six feet of chain. He speaks in allegory with a voice so damaged by a lifetime of frantic screams, weed and nicotine; that when he talks his whole being vibrates; what emerges sounds forced out of a sucking chest wound; made even more incoherent as he devours a brownie and guzzles a steaming cup of Joe.

The hell broth swimming inside the guts of his soul reflects out through eyeballs that glisten like a peeled hard-boiled egg. He is as ugly as a wart on a witch’s nose. He reveals in tones both hopeless and lamentable; of realizing he’d become more interested in the theater than the Play and society has finally caught up to him.

For most, as we age, we have the opportunity to accept who we are, instead of focusing on who we feel we need to become. We relax into being ourselves and our faces start to look like who we are. The world settles into more and more familiar patterns and that acceptance brings diminished anxiety and a higher degree of enjoyment. But for some the struggle never ends and the tension from a grip held more white knuckle firm every decade results in a psyche so pained the faces of those afflicted resemble a tightly woven spool of barbed wire.

And I think about this; as the caps of the lonely, undulating tree stands glow whimsical one after the other and the angled sun rises slowly on the northern horizon; bright rays are reflecting blindly off the snow as a dark cloud that had blotted the sun for a time, creating a wan grey light, evaporates and disappears; a silky white contrail from a jet plane, mimicking the cloud’s dark beast, like my infamous friend as he makes for the exit, meekly dissolves.

Sojourn

“I woke last night to the sound of thunder; how far off I sat and wondered. Started humming a song from 1962; ain’t it funny how the night moves.” – Night Moves – Bob Seger

My wheels flowed like a current through the sticky grey broth of liquefied snow pulverized to slush. As I watched threatening sky cloud fortresses come marching in from the north; pale shards of moonlight back-lit the waning storm that had settled overhead. Craggy snow flurries illuminated by a finger of light from the gigantic full moon lit the horizon where jagged bolts of lighting sheared the sky with sharp salvos of thunder that followed with coursing bursts of ear-piercing static.

Another chattering night dipping below zero on this first day of spring; snow flakes the size of quarters covered the roads so fast the yellow lines became invisible; fear drove beside me on the unlit magic carpet highway; my spaceship and me a wavy hypnotic knot of color moving in psychedelic slow motion. Hypnotized by the western sky purpling to the color of a mussel shell before turning a sooty black; Thor hammer thunderheads swallowed the few remaining stars in the sky

Hyped-up white knuckle slip sliding held me captive when a hazy apparition appeared in the distance coming slowly into focus until I saw the international symbol for help, an upraised thumb. I pulled over and motioned him in. He was a pug faced pear-shaped man with a thick jet-black pompadour, a broken Roman nose and an air of smugness. The crevices around his eyes and mouth turned his face into a clenched fist as ugly as an exit wound.

His most distinguishing feature were two bushy eyebrows that resembled a single woolly caterpillar crawling across his forehead; looking every bit the Joe Pesci character David Ferrie in JFK. He wore a Viet Nam era head cover and the flak jacket armor of a veteran sprinkled with shiny symbols. He was a man as old man as me; but his weathered skin was as tight as a cheap pair of new boots; it moved like cracked parchment and the lines in his haggard face resembled the veins in a marble statue.

He had jagged teeth like a broken fence made of Chiclets; and though he smelled as ripe as the inside of a leper; like cologne with top notes of sweat and had a steel wool voice so graveled you could scour a stove with it; he spoke in italics like a diplomat. “Where you headed” I said. I noticed a bit of the demon in the corner of his eye as he answered. “Sometimes in the winds of change, we find our true direction” he said.

His name was Joe; a Muskogee Indian from southern Michigan making his way on a 200 mile slog to a powwow, sweat lodge cleansing and ceremonial dance affair. Once I told him I knew Russell Means had recently passed over to the happy hunting ground he opened up and we shared a bit of our infamous exploits. I explained why I’d left the cool clear watery ink blue skies and the smell of eucalyptus and honeysuckle of California for the winter bone chill and smoky haze that overlay the edge of Wisconsin’s rugged wilderness.

He had a way of conversing like the downbeat of an axe and smiled with a diabolical grin like he’d just closed an orphanage. He passed me a photo of himself in his prime looking every bit a stiletto in-fighter with a glowering stare that could crack open an oyster. When dressed up like he was in the photo he looked like a well-kept grave.

He seemed to be narcotized and when he produced and offered me what looked like dried beef turdlets; nuggets I instantly recognized as hydrated peyote buttons, I knew why. I washed the gross tasting buds down with a few good slugs from my whisky flask and it wasn’t long before they kicked in like a freight train; undulating my guts like a washing machine.

“Where are your people” I said. “We’re driving over them” he said. “How do you handle it man” I said. “When it gets worse than I want myself to imagine; I pretend it’s a movie I’m filming. I’m in it and directing my character but the rest of it just unfolds; I watch and I film; disconnected. In the end, when I re-watch the documentary, I hope my character was heroic and I can be proud of how he, I, handled the shit-storm” He said.

“What about you” he said? “Me, well, when it’s good; I prevail. Failing that; I survive” I said. He seemed like a really nice person and I didn’t want to offend him, so realizing I may have just dissed his whole ancestry with my survival comment I recovered. “I have great respect for your people’s fight to the death thing. But I’m not a big fan of falling on my sword, casting myself on the rocks or hanging on a cross for anything. Its pride comes before the fall, so, when I’m outnumbered, over-matched or outflanked I just smile and bide my time. There is always an escape if you insist on the move that will bring you there. It’s that Sun Tzu wisdom; if your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate him. If equally matched, fight, and if not split and reevaluate”.

We burned for another fifty miles I didn’t notice I’d driven. I wanted to keep going and travel to the powwow with him; but I had reasons tethering me to my spot for another week or so. So when the next turnoff approached I left him at an on-ramp. As he split on his quest we were both feeling pretty good; both knowing that feeling good was good enough. “Be careful Joe; the water gets choppy out your way” I said. “You too brother” he said.

 

Eat the Rich

“We are what we pretend to be; so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” – Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut 

The afternoon sky was the color of brushed aluminum when a tangerine twilight turned it into charcoal dusk. As evening descended into night the gloaming dove-grey heavens had the macabre formality of a steel engraving. The dark night’s moonlit winds roared in from Canada and blew a banshee typhoon till dawn. The snow devil set down a foot of fluff while I drifted into tender oblivion; dreaming of sunny black sand beaches that would steam my friends and lovers and me like dumplings, when I woke the weather guy claimed wind chills of fifty below zero.

It was a tranquil almost idyllic morning lit by glints of sunlight sending flickers and flashes of reflections glancing up from the white lake; winds had made frozen caps of silvery filigree. I watched fissures among western cloud banks fade from smoky crimson to violet. Donning sub-zero amour for my daily espresso rendezvous at Alley Cats, my chrysalis encased morning feels calved from the atmosphere like an iceberg from a glacier. I sat with the lumberjack clutch this morning, summoned by greetings that were warm and true; attached to faces as pinched as hatchet blades. They look to have shaved with a blowtorch.

Like bullfighter’s; a lot of cape and then the sword, they start conversations in the middle; assured each knows where the other left off; as if coming from no past and having no future. Stress, anger and unspoken pain have taken a toll on each mans face. They work, plow ahead and overcome conflict; they are as tough as sandbags. To call them monotonous conversationalist, debating the virtues of Chevy’s over Ford’s, is to say the poet who penned the Ancient Mariner only needed a moment of your time.

One hundred and fifty odd years ago, just down the meadow from where we sip our black and tan Colombian gold; on these frozen mid-western plains, Sioux Indians met up with a merchant who after refusing them food said; “if they are hungry, let them eat grass.” Months later when hostilities erupted, one remembering Sioux buried a tomahawk in the burgomaster’s head and stuffed his mouth full of prairie grass. These are the descendants of those white pioneering Pyrrhic victors, and like their namesake proclaimed, after vanquishing the foe and losing his soul, “another such victory and we are lost”.

“There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives.” proclaimed Charles Augustan Sainte-Beuve, French literary critic; but here, at the end of the day, the clock never stops and you can either focus on what’s tearing you apart or what’s holding you together. For these American icons; men with bark on them as hard as the trees they murder, the best way out is always through.

Yet with all their zeal for a passionate normality that leaves me cold; their life experience makes them show more empathy, more pro-social behavior, more compassion than the rich, famous winners of the lucky sperm contest, who are less empathetic, less altruistic and generally more selfish. My coffee slugging mates this morning are actors in a modern-day version of a Depression-era Frank Capra movie; and while the rich gloss over the ways family connections, money and education helped, they serve only to denigrate the very things these noble American blade warriors exemplify.

Paralyzed

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done; a little bit of it in everyone; and every junkie’s like a setting sun” – Needle and the Damage Done – Neil Young

As winter’s light struggled for breath last night word shot across the wire with the speed of a late night New York subway train; the spike had taken another great man. Watching fine art go down the drain I was reminded how back in the day we used to say, the only dope worth shooting is Nixon.

“For the most sensitive among us the noise can be too much” was how Jim Carrey laid it down and maybe that’s how Phil Hoffman was feeling, when ensconced alone in his penthouse grave, life lost its fun and there was nothing to be done but break his last balloon and play a last request. Maybe he didn’t notice the Grim Reaper’s death-stank cloud or the overdose hovering in the air.

Maybe it was the ceaseless soundtrack of the city, the song that resounds with disillusionment’s and world-weariness, crackling at the darkness thrumming through modern American life with a quirky syncopation that turns all of us in her wake into ignoble heroes. Maybe it was the phenomenon particular to Americans that ate Elvis, Belushi, Ledger and now Hoffman; too many choices; especially for those plagued by wealth and fame.

This all-consuming dragon of choice is a paradox. Psychologist Barry Schwartz speculates that Americans, having too many choices while others have none; make us both unhappy. If, he posits, incomes were evened out; we’d all be happier. His research into the question results from his curiosity over one of the great mysteries of modern American life: Why is it that societies of great abundance, where people are offered more freedom and choice than ever before, are witnessing a near-epidemic of depression? 

Conventional wisdom tells us that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: He makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today’s western world is actually making us miserable. Infinite choice is paralyzing and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. Ergo: too much choice undermines happiness.

Social scientists named this phenomenon the Pareto Improving Mood after a little Italian guy Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto who figured it out at the turn of the last century when for the first time technology allowed us to eat sliced store-bought bread under electric lights. Now, a quantum leap and one-hundred years later, the ubiquitous cell phone, My-Pad and Blackberry cyborg starter kits have transformer-ed us into cybernetic organisms. Arriving soon are smart watches and Google eyeglasses that will constantly beam notifications onto the periphery of our vision; creating ever more discursive, dyspeptic Terminators.

Maybe it’s not fair to blame anything at all in particular; maybe in an altered state Phillip just wanted to see what was on the other side. Either way; in the words of Blaise Pascal, who was pretty blase about saying it; “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

This brings us to the antidote. My favorite cure has been re-branded and is undergoing a renaissance. It’s called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), available through over 1,000 instructors in every state and 30 countries; with the purpose to practice Pascal’s advice; quiet a busy mind. Many cognitive therapists recommend it to patients as a way to help cope with anxiety and stress. A common dose of meditation and all the off-shoots that implies are popular in this discipline but my favorite is the course in Aimless Wandering. Folks stressed out with their present state of hyper tense mania can revert to the toddler state of mind by, well, aimlessly wandering; always worked for me.

Also being a bit obsessive compulsive and having sampled in excess all the pills, powders and potions of the underworld I can say without a dollop of ego that it all works just dandy. It’s usually not the drugs that kill us but the attending life-style; Seymour Hoffman was the size of a small bus. That said; addiction is bullshit. If one wishes to stop using anything from hair gel to heroin all they need to do is stop. It is a self-administered condition.  

It’s also true that I don’t know a soul who’s not be battered or have a friend who feels at ease. Life, taken too seriously drives us to our knees; so I’m sympathetic. I see life like a boxing ring and have respect for anyone with the courage to step into that squared circle. And, if and when we’ve had enough, all we need to do is take a knee and the referee will call a halt to our destruction. In the ring of life, if we claim addiction; they’ll check us into rehab.

Living on that razors edge is not for the uninitiated or the weak or the silly. Unless one can say, and mean it, that there is no drug, no anything, stronger than my will to resist it, and realize at the same time that a man who can not control himself will never control anything else; he/she best leave the mind altering substances to those who can.

It doesn’t make us less to know what we are not good at; it makes us nearly unconquerable. That kind of character, the kind it takes to know ourselves, takes practice. We re cavalier with it at our own risk. Main-lining any maximum pleasure that can lay us to waste, from drugs to the opposite sex to power and/or money, is to risk overdose. It’s like looking into the abyss and seeing nothing staring back. It’s at that moment that we find our character; and that is what keeps us out of the abyss.

When living in the city, work, relationships or just having to tie my shoes made me supersonic stressed or depressed I’d take Tim Leary’s advice and tune-in, turn-on and drop-out; do some aimless wandering. Like the genius Forest Gump famously said; “you never know what you’re gonna get.”

On the Bus to Crazy Town

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind; Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”   – Signs – Five Man Electric Band

An old desperado and sometimes accomplice obsessed with badgering an unfortunate list of victims with apocryphal urban legend fairy tales promoting fear and confusion; sends me nutso conspiracy porn advocating America as the great Satan; things like W and the Israeli Mossad perpetrated 911, the Boston Marathon bombing being a “false flag” operation and every imaginary mysterious cataclysmic event that the shadow government of the USA is supposedly responsible for; from Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern that started the Chicago fire to the scourge that was typhoid Mary and AIDS. Frustrated with my rejection of his host of wild theories, he sent me the following screed attached to yet another loopy Alex Jones/ Unabomber/ Timothy McVeigh style manifesto.

“Read and reflect (he writes) on another conspiracy fact. It is too bad that you have no conception that history is one giant “false flag” operation and all wars are created by central bankers.  Until you understand that you are no longer my friend.  It is where my road with you forks and divides.  It is where you go your way and I go mine.”

I like a little imperfection of character in my friends. It makes them interesting, unpredictable and human. But this sub-genius logic was so far-fetched even for this fey fellow that I had to check and see if we were under the tidal influence of a full moon. Since we were not; I’m writing it off to a slip-up, a misstep in his medication mixture. Or perhaps; he’s finally gone completely mad.

Normally, when this charlatan posits his wobbly ellipsoidal theories he simply gains my antipathy and knowing from experience that his axiomatic autodidact ignorance can not be overcome with logic; I simply perform a classic Irish exit. But lately his harebrained speeches have come wrapped in a caprese of iconography; conflating Martin Luther King and/or John F. Kennedy  with images of the 911 devastation and other catastrophes; implying that those great men would agree with his cockamamie beliefs and in the process transmogrifying my heroes; requiring I fire a volley across his bow.

To be honest, since I’m five years into my retirement; more accurately described as my hermitage, that warm blanket of seclusion just after my recluse period, and having chosen environs that suit my desire for Country Gentleman status and all the better to write my third novel, I have situated myself in the land of “all you can eat” restaurants; with “my car won’t start weather”; where “do you have jumper cables” can be often heard six months out of twelve; (Is that a six or twelve volt?)  So with time on my hands I don’t mind the distraction of getting on the bus to carzytown now and again for a few stops. It delivers comic relief free of charge; a respite that breaks up the boredom and keeps up morale.

It also satiates my penchant for non sequitur distractions. As Woody Allen opined recently with juicy Jewish angst: “It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself”.

A few girlfriends back I entwined with a beauty that used to enjoy telling me how to think as well and more to the point; how to be. Not unlike my naïve America bashing friend, x-friend I suppose, her methods were equally coercive. Every time I watched the film Jaws and heard the captain of the Orca, Quint, give his harrowing speech about the aftermath to the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis that claimed 600 out of 900 sailors, eaten by sharks, it always reminded me of her.

“You know the thing about a shark, (said Quint), he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high-pitch screaming, and the ocean turns red. And in spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.”

Her penchant was the normal girl to boy manipulation; talk therapy, separating my recyclables and endless focus on her perceived needs; wanting me to think and act certain ways that I suppose in her tortured mind, had I acquiesced, would have made me suitable husband material.  

Besides the logic of the aforementioned lover I wonder why anyone cares what I think or believe in since the first rule of friends and lovers is they come without conditions. Any demands at all smacks to me of the rules for cult followers. Thinking about this and I’m no psychiatrist I landed on the notion that qualifying a relationship with demands for strict adherence to someone else’s imposed dogma springs from an insecurity so profound it would take the security at the DMZ and the Sochi Olympics combined to lock down those demands and vanquish the fear stemming from the weakness of the demanders. 

Thinking back, we are bombarded with demands almost from the outset of life for this kind of religious group like following. Our parents, our teachers, the cops, priests and bosses all practice a kind of control, or try to, that my friend and lover were attempting to foist on me.

I’m fond of saying that no man can tell another what to do. This predilection is supported by the notion that to be truly free a man must tear away each day at his most deeply held beliefs in a genuine attempt to disprove them. Those that remain pass a rigorous test and can be relied on for at least until the sun sets. Tomorrow it’s a thing that must be repeated; that’s the discipline and not for the lazy or fearful

So much of life is filled with codes of belief that allows us to suspend that most important daily test; thinking. Being an acolyte locked into a pre-packaged set of beliefs without examining them daily develops in us over time a stench of hollowness; a strident, stringent unexamined set of beliefs that remove the need to think for ourselves. That most powerful of computers, the human brain, when subject to this ritual, becomes jaundiced and atrophied; preventing us from progressively realizing our inherent genius, best defined as knowing what to do next.

Moreover and insidiously addictive; once we lock on to these beliefs we are forced to carry them around on our shoulders like a weight, a disease that mandates we revert to them when any question of how to be arises; causing us to defend them. Those that do so and I speak for most, develop crazy hard defense mechanisms. One need only witness political or religious affiliations in the world to see that ethos leads nowhere; or worse, to the mess we find ourselves in globally in every argument, every war.

This dilemma, the demand to believe the way I do and think the way I do, lead to the demise of love for that very sexually hot girlfriend and devolved; leaving us connected only by familiarity and contempt; and the loss of lust that fueled our marriage. The same bad ending seems clearly afoot here with my megalomaniacal friend. The pattern of insisting on a kind of false loyalty; demanding your “friends” meet certain criteria of similarity in thinking closes into an ever more tightening and shrinking box; eventually finding themselves alone.

This might seem a harmless outcome and just rewards for those folks but when examining the ethos of isolated loners with strident beliefs from the slayer of John Lennon to every school and workplace shooting, shows us in vivid detail how that strategy ends.

He and she are and will be missed. Until another comes along I’ll guess I’ll just have to make due with the impassioned stories heard at the morning coffee spot; of the ice fishing, hockey and snowmobile adventures of my chilled comrades here in the frozen tundra. 

I’ve seen too many good men who started out young and strong go along to get along and succumb to the RUN DMC lyric “walk this way, talk this way” and be rendered catatonic. Giving in becomes a habit. If we don’t stand for something we fall for anything. Better, for me anyway, to practice the philosophy of Muhammad Ali, who famously said: “I’m not gonna be who you want me to be; and I’m not afraid to be who I wanna be; think how I wanna think”

Anything else is not just giving in; it’s giving up.

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