Rainbows

 “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four” – The Beatles

The phenomenon that has more people born in August than any other month, while more die in January, interests me for the common fact that I was an August baby. The former factoid owes its existence to the proud results of a joyous Christmas season, while the later has more to do with the deadly flu season. Applying a result for it and a finer point to it; today is my birthday.  

As another happy birthday grin greets my morning mirror I pause to ponder the realization that this blessed event seems to circle round more quickly with each increasingly shorter year. I generally spend weeks celebrating this touchstone since it’s just short of miraculous for a whole host of reasons. Far from doing differently this year I am adding to the festivities surrounding this concurrent with another constant, occurring simultaneously, a perennial vagabond surrender to the magnetic pull of the road rolling out and back in again like an ocean wave caressing the beach of my life. I’m pulling up stakes in my beloved California and heading home to the frozen tundra of Wisconsin to be a Packer cheese-head fan and, grandiose and ambitious as it sounds; a country gentleman.

These dual events give rise to obligatory ceremonies of bon voyage; both to the reminisced chronology of the many victories, defeats and glories of these past years and the soul connections of old friends left and to the hello’s of new imagined vistas with ancient undertow. I’ve logged five celebrations thus far, each with a single special person, each pouring more alcohol through me than I usually down in a year. Since these Salons have me awakening woozy at the crack of noon, I’m waiting until I get past them before planning the check list that accompanies relocating, mundane tasks that escort leaving a routine worn deep these thirty-four years. 

Once we get past 20,000 days alive we’re bound to be polled on our acquired sage wisdom; posited in questions mostly having to do with what has been learned; variations of the same query: What’s the one nugget of knowledge I have stored in the vault I’m willing to impart? What mantra can the petitioner add to their daily meditation?  It’s hard to resist that fifteen seconds of fame when all lean in to gauge your response to this question and since I’m known for engaging in a juicy pontificating, even when not asked, I’ll have at it.

What I’ve learned, which isn’t far off from what I always wanted and mostly got, is knowing that the best revenge is to be happy and have fun. Since this punch line often lands with a thud I’ll reach for something more profound and add a warning that may please no one. Despite what religion, politics, consumerism and what we felt when first meeting that last great love would have us believe and strive for; there is no perfect happiness. As Charlie Ponzo, my great friend and barber for twenty years till’ I decided to go full Monty and shave it all off, rapped about our past, present and future for the better part of two and a half hours, the notion emerged; perfect happiness is just a place we visit.

By pure luck and marrying wisely he’d just returned from a vacation at the Ritz Carleton in Paris, widely considered the finest hotel in the world. It wasn’t the $300.00 bottle of champagne that greeted him and his wife in their ninth floor suite (the tenth floor is reserved for royalty and celebrities) or the view of the Eiffel Tower out his balcony perch, or the orgasmic dining or the topless nubile nymphs on the beach overshadowed by hundred million dollar yachts that dotted the harbor at St. Tropez that made the trip and the story special. It was that a kid from the projects had landed in that place after having come from just plain Oakland.

Even when we experience what appears bad or evil or wrong; things like poverty and ignorance and violence, we know without them we wouldn’t have a steerage mechanism to good and loving and right. It’s not perfection, which we can experience in moments, but the balance of knowing, based on opposite experiences, just how grand a thing can be, while those born into the luxury Charlie was passing through will never get as high; since for them it just another day in paradise.

There is no perfect happiness, no pot of gold at the end of some imagined ultimate rainbow. We can only get as high as we’ve been low. In this somewhat crazy round about alternative universe it’s the good times that make us happy and the bad times that show us just how happy we can be. 

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American Man

“Ain’t got nobody; that I can depend on”. – Santana – No One To Depend On

In the wake of Robin Williams demise a scene from Oliver Stone’s film Platoon came to mind. Charley Sheen’s character Chris, fresh from the world and struggling mightily to hack his way through the dense jungle of Vietnam with a machete, unaccustomed to the heat and stress, passes out. Willem Defoe’s character Sargent Elias revives him and advises with the line; “you’re humping too much gear troop”. Those words and their meaning show a metaphor for the life of American men; more so for men than women, since we are protectors; down to our ID. While women have no less than a half-dozen friends to phone and commiserate with when they are having a bad day; all my brothers and the angst shared, hurting real bad inside from existential loneliness specific to men, cover it up.

So brothers; be careful how much emotional baggage you upload; we don’t download it; we hold it in. At some point we reach our limit. Once we hump too much angst our falling out can easily find us sitting next to Robin Williams with a pen knife in our hands and a belt around our neck; or, like Phillip Seymour Hoffman; a needle in our arm; and who after all wants that? 

Some say we are selfish and think of ourselves first; never realizing that by using our inbred survival apparatus, keeping ourselves safe first; we stay strong in order to protect the pack. Like Sheen’s Chris, by carrying too much emotional baggage and falling out, we can no longer be of help to anyone else in the clan, and another warrior must stay behind to tend to us; further weakening the tribe. Like the surgeon too emotionally involved begins to succumb to his compassion and sees the humanity of the body under the sheet instead of the disease ravaging it; he soon falls apart.

Dogs and Lion go off alone when hurt to either heal and return to the pack or pride in their role of protector, provider and pro-creator. Dogs, so not to burden the master, die nobly; silent and alone; as does the Lion, who, once mortally wounded, draws a circle around himself with his own blood to attract the hyenas that will pick up the scent, come a cruising and tear him apart; an act of samurai seppuku, suicide; just like Robin Williams.

Men are forced out of the pride like young Lions as soon a their nut sacks drop to face the world alone. For men, masculine maturity is a lonely thing to own; for men maturity and despair go together. The isolation of masculinity is merged with much iconography, the cowboy, the astronaut, the gangster; almost ever hero in the past fifty years has been a figure of loneliness. Current pop culture is even more extreme; it celebrates not only the lonely man; it despises men in groups. Like every Judd Aptow film, men in group friendships are depicted as idiots. While American men struggle to overcome the mental cholesterol buildup of the psychic toxins of divorce; women simply switch the channel to Oprah. Men hold back releasing and sharing their pain; we are taught to hold our angst stoically, to keep it close, to keep us sharp; where we gotta be.

Niobe Way, professor of applied psychology at New York University and the author of 2011’s Deep Secrets; Boys, Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, has peered into the chasm under boys and young men and found emptiness to be at the heart of what is called the “boy crisis”. “We have all these boys with so much to give, so much love, so much for them to offer the world” she says. Becoming a man means leaving behind your family and your friends and striking out on your own, and therefore growing up means shedding connections. For Way, the transition from boyhood into manhood is a transition into isolation.

This critical disconnection has costs. Way’s research shows that the male suicide rates correlate precisely with the loss of friendships. At age nine the suicide rates are the same for boys and girls. Between ten and fourteen, boys are twice as likely to kill themselves. Between fifteen and nineteen they are four times as likely. From twenty to twenty-four; five times. Masculine maturity is a lonely thing to process; and this isolation runs contrary to male biology. Men, every bit as much as women, require connection for basic happiness. “men come into the world with this empathetic, rational need and they are treated as if they don’t have it”. Way says. In periods of vulnerability the male suicide rate spikes. During the most recent recession the suicide rate for men grew at four times the rate for women. Divorced men kill themselves nearly 2.5 times as often as married men while there is no difference in the rates between divorced and married women.

The contempt for male friendship is a cultural failure on an epic scale. Without friendship life simply isn’t worth much. Friendship is essential not just for a personal sense of well-being but also for society in general. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle prized it more than justice. “When men are friends, they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality”.

For all the loss we’ve suffered from the absence of folk heroes from Belushi to Ledger to Hoffman and now Williams, just maybe, if boys who become men were not conditioned to exemplify the god damn Marlboro man, and not mocked for our friendships, and thus had friendships to turn to like women do; well you know the rest.

So, next time you think to criticize men for being selfish and putting themselves first; remember we have to keep ourselves emotionally safe; if we hump too much emotional gear we’ll fall out and be unable to protect the tribe. We’re not being cold, aloof, narcissistic or afraid of intimacy, nor do we lack empathy and compassion for your miseries and needs; we’re not being selfish. We put ourselves first and support our male protective shell as survival apparatus because men carry that aforementioned burden, that, and we know; we’re all we’ve got.

Morphine Dreams

I slept with that old Devil again

last night

she crept in round midnight

cuddled right up, spooning me

she’s hot on the outside

steamy

all fuzzy velvet on those sharp red horns

but her breath

dank and fowl

and smelling like sulfur

comes from her insides.

She took her best shot

She’s use to winning

and all fighters know

the hardest opponent to beat

is the one that hasn’t yet learned

how to lose.

She tagged me with her greatest hits

had me seeing stuff

hearing stuff

crazy stuff

scary stuff

and when she felt confident she had me

she stoked up one of my Camels

took a hit and passed it to me.

I had a drag

then rolled over so she could

see my smile as I

extinguished the hot tip

on my tongue

we listened to it sizzle.

What God never tells you

is he’s scared of that old Devil

for two reasons

one; she knows what he knows

that he may win up here

but down there

is her spot

and he ain’t never been to Hell

and it’s the unknown

that scares us all the most

two; he’s a thousand years from being hard

when he survived his

travail in the desert

on that Cross

now he’s just another

pudgy, soft white man

who wouldn’t last ten minutes

in Hell.

What the devil didn’t know

about me

is  I’ve been back and forth

through six

kinds of Hell

and she’s only been though the one

she’s a one trick pony

and like an amateur boxer

she punched herself out

in the first round

while I was still fresh

well into my second wind

I could have had my way with her then

and she wanted us to mate

you know how women are attracted to power

but I’m only walking around

talking and jiving’ with you now

in this moment in time

because I know when to quit

know a bridge too far

when I see it.

So, as the sun rose

she beat her retreat

like a vanquished Vampire feeding on me

no more

she left, without my soul

but like all women

had to have the last words

and being a gentleman

I gave them to her.

As she put her head over her shoulder

and mouthed the words

“I’ll be back”

I went mute

and just gave her

my best

“so what”

Italian shrug.

 

Armor of Innocence

He could tell by the way her face lit up each time she smiled which was often that there was joy and passion and a lust for life still pulsing inside her battered heart. This occurred with each breath out as if it were the face she showed the world. Yet with each breath in as her face relaxed he saw the miles of bad road she’d traveled set deep inside the crevices around her gentle mouth. He thought the rhythmic in and out breathing that changed her face was the war she was fighting with herself just like some of the hold outs he knew who had yet to give up on that youthful hope of innocence.

In his youth he sought the faces in the crowd that met his as they passed on the street with a knowing grin as if they shared a universal secret that it would all, despite the wounds, come right; to share the opening wonder of tomorrow. But he avoided most of the faces he saw now since he always saw in them the resignation masks of having given up on innocence; some had buried it altogether; while a rare few held on and hid the innocence behind a self-made barricade of armor built over years and decades of living in war zones crafted in battles of hearts and minds.

Back in his days of wonderment when he met those joyful faces searching for challenge in every moment from fellow travelers not concerned with where they had been but with where we were all going were all but gone now save the few exceptions and he wistfully wondered if he’d ever see that kind of camaraderie again. We were all fresh and clean and crisp of heart then and now all of us were like used cars. Was that ultimate aphrodisiac reserved only for youth? Was it true that with each piece of knowledge we lost a piece of innocence never to be recaptured again? He left her there in the rain and he thought about this as he drove back from where he’d come; avoiding the faces in the crowd.

 

Prerogative

Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”Henry Kissinger

I haven’t seen snow in 50 years. So when at 18 degrees, the coldest day so far this year, billions of no two look-alike kaleidoscopic flakes dusted the beauty that is rural northern Wisconsin in a whiter than white patina, I couldn’t wait to get out in it and pilot my rocket ride atop the surreal magic carpet blanket; slip sliding away.

I donned the gear I covet and have had lying in wait for just such an occasion; LL Bean arctic trek boots good to 25 below, wool mad bomber hat, snowmobile gloves and thermal long john’s; and displayed myself to my mom. While striking my best runway pose I delivered to her the iconic Will Smith line from “Men in Black. “You know the difference between me and them Mom”? What,  she answered half amused and half chagrined. Grinning I stated; “I make this look good”.

She playfully chastises me for being arrogant and pompous since she comes from a generation that felt showing off was bad form and dangerous since in her opinion one never tells others what they have; I suppose the theory goes, because they’ll try to take it from you. She also thinks I’m nuts to carry around the kind of bankroll I’m known for since “someone might try and steal it”. I always say cocky; “let them try, I need the exercise”. But her half secret smile uncovered the truth that she was pleased and proud down to the ground that I have evolved with a positive view of myself.

I was being immodest and only half serious since I’m aware of the wages of hubris. Actually I have mixed feelings about healthy self-esteem; like my x-landlord driving over a cliff; in my new Ferrari. I was engaging in humor for her benefit; cracking wise to transport her to a good mood to meet up with her 90th birthday; now just two weeks away. In truth I believe it’s a fine line between wholesome confidence and coming off as a horse’s ass; or worse, believing my hype.

I like to turn the big screen TV to CNN with the sound off and watch lots of iteration from frantic anchors; bloviating and gesticulating wildly for emphasis (they could be saying Nuke the Gay Whales for all I know) as the radio croon quality rock music. It’s strangely soothing while I work out at the gym seeking inspiration for my next Post. The provocatively named fiscal cliff seems to be the fool’s gold distraction candy theses days, just behind the tabloid rich fodder of four star generals and their mistresses, having relegated Benghazi to the back bench issue of the hour. Sex, it seems, captivates the Id more than death.

Personally I hope we power over that imaginary abyss like the Roadrunner cartoon at 100 MPH and hit with a comic SPLAT since it makes no difference to me and probably to you as well unless you’re still a trapped wage slave engaged in the game, which I am not, being one of Romney’s desultory and vilified 47% moochers. I’m not a NASCAR fan but like most I rarely turn away from a spectacular crash. The  immediate craze and mystery of pussy-gate, surrounding well scrubbed straight-laced military ego maniacs sporting un-cool fruit salad displays on their chests while they plummet from their prized perches; undone by unseemly peccadilloes and laid bare by unchecked hubris; is a story as old as the Greek tragedies.

Ego is a good thing, despite the doctrine of the terminally politically correct with the assumption that humility is the proper stance for those in power, and without it civilization would have been impossible.  So, I reject such nonsense and often answer charges directed at me from well-meaning comrades who chastise me for my rejection of this virtue; counseling me to be humble. I often answer with this retort; “those humble probably have a lot to be humble about”. In my view self-esteem is essential for dispelling the hesitating disease of self-doubt. Humility is a grand emotion in great men like Gandhi and King; but I’m far from either.

My guess is we’ll discover the affluent volunteer social secretary enabler groupie massaging the egos of the country’s status hungry iconic brass was nothing more than a highly placed madam pimp for the knuckle dragging military dictators. Men in power have always been able to charisma their way into liaisons with high-priced call girls ala Elliott Spitzer and the other fallen elite; especially those sporting uniforms that the girls find sexy. Achieving master of the universe props in any field of endeavor has always gifted the fortunate with the opportunity to procure sex, and damn near anything else of pleasure, no matter how unattractive they are otherwise.

It was Honest Abe, a recent pop culture fascination thanks to Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, who famously opined Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”; and its an axiom I’m particularly enamored with. Power without character is heroin and most of society’s ills can be traced back to every man jack of us susceptible to intoxication with it and more times than not, as a result; coming off the rails.

It’s the Elvis, Michael Jackson syndrome; that phenomenon that makes habitual praise and glorifying worship turn us obsessive, irrational and addicted. The antidote to succumbing to untoward adoration is surrounding ourselves with those we knew before we achieved this negatively transforming personality sickness. The first thing some do once they’ve achieved prominence is to jettison anyone who reminds them of who they were when they were climbing the ladder and there lay the poison.

One of my favorite songwriters summed it up succinctly when he wrote “when everybody loves you; that’s just about as fucked up as you can be”. So if we ever catch the golden ring; best to keep those around who knew us before we became entitled. Because once astride the tiger; we may find it difficult to dismount.