Sunday, December 31, 2006
They tore down the murder-suicide house yesterday.
A doctor and his wife lived there. He grew older, unable to practice medicine, so he sold his clinic. She suffered from Alzheimer’s. He took care of her. He developed cancer. Knowing the end was near for him, and that his wife could not take care of herself, he sealed up the doors of the three-car garage, fired up the old Cadillac and took that last glorious land-yacht cruise down Eternity Highway. I wonder what tunes they were playing on the 8-track…
I was surprised at how quickly the heavy machinery was able to level a large, two-story ranch house almost 4,000 square feet in size. It was a tear-down. It reminded me of the tear-downs near my apartment here in upstate New York. Last spring bulldozers, backhoes, and other machinery including a woodchipper came in and razed three small houses and a large tree. They built a Walgreen’s in their place.
It was rather ironic that the murder-suicide house was being demolished just as my dad and I were walking down to the base of the hill to the edge of the property where my parents' and the murder-suicide house yard conjoined – ironic because my parents had encouraged me to buy the house and property when it came on the market. My parents wanted me to live near them again.
The pale yellow wooden siding lay in a heap. I wondered what they would do with the tan bricks and if they salvaged the fixtures first. Was it a two-stage process? Did they dismantle the interior first? Then did they come in with the heavy equipment? Piles of dirt, sheetrock, wood, and tangle metal lay in piles on the ground. My memories hovered just above them - memories of riding my bicycle down what used to be a blacktop road, watching the new construction. Once upon a time, their house was new construction.
I remember when the house was built. It was sometime in the late sixties when I was in grade school and my friend Lisa lived near the murder-suicide-to-be house. We would access it through my backyard, almost a full acre of park-like lawn, trees, and flowers. My parents had fallen in love with the lot, even though they were not as thrilled with the house, which they complained was too small, cramped, and had no storage. Our house was a 2,500 square foot well-built French Provencial-inflected one-story ranch in a very nice part of Norman, a quiet college town 17 miles south of Oklahoma City.
Norman has always been a place of teardowns. First, they were farms. In fact, the murder-suicide house was built on a small farm. I still remember the fields where they planted cotton and sorghum. It really wasn’t so long ago. The early tear-downs were all about sprawl. Now, the tear-downs are about running out of room.
Since the early farm tear-downs, Norman’s population has more than tripled, and the economy, which used to be reliant on the state university and the state mental hospital, has diversified. In fact, with its proximity to a good telecommunications infrastructure, I-35, and a regional hub airport, many people live in the middle of the continent, but their businesses radiate out across the United States. Central Oklahoma is convenient, and with the exception of spectacular tornadoes, the weather is mild.
But, Norman has a space problem, even though it’s in the heart of Oklahoma, on flat prairie. To the south and west is the South Canadian River, and with its mile-wide streambed (it’s a braided stream that has changed courses many times), which creates a natural limit. It was the river that Nicole Kidman crossed in Far and Away, the film version of the Oklahoma Land Rush. Even though it still floods, people want to live as close to it as possible. There are trees there (along with water moccasins and mosquitoes).
As a result, the land is worth considerably more than the surface structures. Usually, the houses are much older, but this one was in really bad shape and the lot was very unique. Did the new owner even know it had been the site of a murder-suicide?
The house had stood vacant for a few years until it sold. I guess that’s not too unusual. When my neighbor, Lil, died in her home at age 93, the house was unoccupied for at two years. I supposed it had to go through probate court. Who knows. It’s hard to say. Perhaps it’s a case that no one knows quite what to do. My parents have a summer hunting lodge in Vermont that has been unoccupied for about that amount of time.
Again, it’s the same situation. The house holds more memories. It is an alternative self, a supposedly time-impervious body that can be remodeled and refurbished easily. It is a body into which certain things are emplaced. The house’s body engages one’s emotions perhaps more intensely than even photographs - the ghosts are spatially liberated. They run through the halls, the back yard, and they bring with them vibrant, super-saturated visions of the way things were, or the way you remember them to have been, which can be actually quite different.
Seeing the tear-down in progress is an uncomfortable experience. You find your mind moving forward and backward at the same time, embroidering something that you’re not quite sure what to do with. To say the tear-down becomes a metaphor is true enough, but it is more than that.
The tear-down is a real place, that has two spatial dimensions -- before and after. The “before” is a body. Once torn down, the body is non-material, but a body all the same. It has an architectural signature it leaves behind -- and it will probably never be erased, as long as people thought the place had significance. Think of the Aztec and Incan structures that were razed to make way for the ornate cathedrals of the Spanish invaders. The architectural signature is still there.
The “after” has a spatial dimension which intertwines with human destiny. The spatial realities are that it becomes a space upon which to create or project fictive memories and to construct a scenario of “what might have been.” In the cases where there were true human tragedies that required the teardown (the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Center, a place of a murder-suicide), the ghosts of happier times are even more poignantly highlighted.
Before the tear-down, the houses went through a time of extreme neglect. In fact, one can almost see the tear-downs in the making in the exurbs or revitalized suburbs. Ironically, many of the tear-downs were, in their heyday, upscale and symbols of realized (or at least partially realized) dreams. Then, they hit upon years of declining fortunes -- either due to age and Alzheimers, or abandonment. The doctor’s spacious yellow ranch house whose yard adjoined my parents’ used to be a rather imposing presence.
Then, after years of neglect culminating ultimately in tragedy, the yellow two-story became shabby. Prosperity skulked off in tatters.
The teardown made way for constructed selves, and the spatial narrative of the American Dream.
Saturday, September 30, 2006
Greetings, I’m Edgar Allan Poe. This is what I have to say about my life and my life’s work…. History has betrayed me. People think I was drug fiend, an alcoholic, a laudanum-addled madman. That is simply untrue. I am a man of extremes. My mind explores the limits. I am interested in the limits of the irrational as well as the limits of the rational. If you accept that about me, you will be able to understand my writing, and you will see how I blend the two extremes together. So, if you read my detective novels, you see a rational, logical, deductive individual confronted by crimes of passion, and by irrational, bizarre forces. The rational and the irrational come together, and the blend fascinates and disturbs.
I exist at the confluence of two streams of thought and influence. On the one hand, I am the aesthetic extension of the opium-addicted poet in the British writer DeQuincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I come from the gothic tradition of Ann Radcliffe and Sheridan LeFanu, who wrote highly popular gothic tales of vampyres, mad monks, and ghoulish forces. I also echo the romanticism of German authors such as Goethe and E. T. A. Hoffmann. Hoffmann's tales mesh the fantastic with the real world, and they admit the possibility that our consciousness transcends the body, and that there are states of mind that explore boundary regions between madness and sanity, life and death.
On the other hand, I am known as the father of the detective novel. I am a scientist of the human mind, and of human motivation. I observe signs, symbols, and patterns, and I seek to place events in logical sequences, and to locate them within their causal chains. I was writing my fiction at the same time that Charles Darwin was developing his theory of natural selection. Natural selection, as you know, is process that is fundamentally based on cause and effect. If the climate is cold, the species with thick fur coats will survive. The species evolves in response to causal forces and environmental triggers. My detective, Auguste Dupin, who appears in "The Murders of the Rue Morgue," "The Purloined Letter," and "The Mystery of Marie Roget," uses deductive logic. He is a careful observer of evidence and he avoids the emotional excesses that one finds percolating through my gothic tales and my poems.
If you think about it, it is not surprising that I am caught in cross-currents of divergent thinking. I am the dark counter to the bright, optimistic mainstream approach to life that came to be known as an American vision. While the Americans around me gloried in the feats of engineering such as the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, which would provide a passage through waterways from New York City to the Great Lakes, and they spoke of "Manifest Destiny," which suggested that it was the Europeans' destiny to find America and to "civilize" it, I wondered where those technologies would really take us. I am a classicist at heart, and I studied work in its original Greek and Latin. There was something about the culturally philistine jocularity of the expansionists that troubled me. We assume our travels are to a destination of our liking. I question that assumption when I find myself traveling roads constructed in the service of conquest.
The American writers I meet in Baltimore, New York, and in Boston often trouble me. They adhere to a new philosophy of life, an aesthetic code, a philosophy which seems too good to be true. They are transcendentalists. They believe in a "self-reliant" neo-platonism. What do I mean by that? They pull themselves up to heaven, to unity with God and the heavens, by their own bootstraps. When I read the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson (especially his essay, "Circles"), Henry David Thoreau, or Walt Whitman, I recoil. Their boundlessness, their enthusiastic belief in interconnectedness, and their self-assured belief that mix, merge, and become all of humanity, strike me as distressingly invasive. Emerson thinks he envelopes and that he includes all of humanity when he thinks about himself and the world. To the contrary, I think he invades and engulfs. His energy is, to me, essentially violating and transgressive (but masked as virtue). Emerson frightens me. Manifest Destiny seems to somehow emerge from a transcendentalist ideal, and seems morally wrong to me. My characters live the antithesis of boundlessness. They experience the dark side of expansion. They have been engulfed, possessed, and controlled by forces larger than themselves. In my American psyche, I counter the cheery optimism that the Erie Canal and Westward Expansion engender with zombies, ghosts, demonic forces, and people possessed by the spirits of houses and the past.
I am known for things I was never guilty of. My real vices are less well-known. I was expelled from college for unpaid gambling debts. I enlisted in the military, did well and was promoted. But later, I was dishonorably discharged from West Point. Even my death has been used against me. No one really knows how or why I died. It remains a mystery. And yet, posterity has it that I died from extreme intemperance. That was just not true.
Perhaps the most telling passages in Sylvia Plath's journals from 1957 revolve around her deep need to write. Plath writes “the central need of my nature [is] to be articulate” ... “if I am not writing ... my imagination stops, blocks up, chokes me” “I will write until I begin to speak my deep self” (p. 286)
Plath, who is best-known for her poetry and short novel, The Bell Jar, and for her suicide, which was followed by attempts by her husband, Ted Hughes, to suppress the publication of some work, rearrange others. Long vilified by her admirers as the true cause of Plath’s suicide, one finds a different story in her journals.
In the voluminous writings, one gains insight into a maddeningly perfectionistic soul, whose conflicts with her mother and ideas about the father who died when she was young, are dealt with in agonizing detail. One sees first that Plath is brilliant and her ways of thinking are unconventional.
Her life and times make her very existence problematic – what is she to do as a young woman, locked by societal constraints into profound conflicts of interest? She writes herself alive. Perhaps that is what is most valuable in the journals – the absolute affirmation that it is, in fact, possible to “write oneself alive.”
My Life & My Work – a fictive imagining of what Sylvia might say if we could speak with her beyond the grave…
I’m not sure that I expected everything to be so final when I stuffed towels in the gap between the door and the floor, sealed the windows, and then opened the gas from the oven. It was a cold, winter day in 1963. London was dreary. My husband, Ted Hughes, had left me, and I had expressed the fear I would starve. I felt destitute – emotionally, financially, intellectually. There seemed to be no other solution. If you ask me, that is my answer to why I committed suicide when it seemed I had everything in the world to live for – two young children, a finely honed intelligence, extremely compelling fiction and poetry. True enough, no one had read the most powerful of my poems – they were to be published in a collection entitled Ariel, which would appear in 1965, two years after my death. My novel, The Bell Jar, which would later be a best-seller, was still published under a pseudonym.
Part of me probably expected to be rescued. After all, that is what happened in my first suicide attempt one strange, terrible summer when I was found unconscious in the crawl space in my mother’s home. And, coming back from the almost-dead is what I chronicled in my despairing, rage-filled poem, “Lady Lazarus.”
I certainly did not expect my final days to be analyzed, and I did not think I’d become the patron saint of a whole cross-section of young girls and women – usually highly intelligent, yet insecure, artistic perfectionists and honor students whose mothers never dreamed their darling good little girls were suffering so much inside.
Further, I became the iconic standard-bearer for feminists who claimed my work exemplified what it meant to be an intelligent, ambitious, and creative woman in the 1950s. Yet others focused on my depression, and suggested that I could have lived longer if Prozac had been available in 1963.
And yet, those were not my preoccupations. My life has been animated and illuminated by a deep-seated need to write, and to makes sense of my world by writing.
Instead of focusing on the subtle craft of my work, or the gallows humor that percolates through The Bell Jar, readers tend to focus on family dynamics, sexual politics, and ideology. How uninteresting. They get it wrong. I think it’s quite ironic that literary critics have made much of my father, and the fact that he was a German immigrant and a keeper of bees. In a way, I don’t blame them. After all, I did use him as the subject of my poems.
But, to say that I really thought my father was a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer seems really simplistic and reductive. My poem, “Daddy,” is not autobiographical. Some say I exploited the Holocaust to create poetry. I do not agree with them.
My poem is autobiographical in an emotional sense. I was seeking to capture the horror of Nazis, and of harsh, rigid mindsets. I state that men dominate women in society. But, more than simply stating that fact, I communicate the rage, the reactive anger, the despair, that accompanies the feeling of being cut off, psychologically annihilated, nullified. My poem is a painful excursion into a mindset and an emotional place. Sadly, it has been appropriated by others who use it in the service of their personal ideology.
Actually, the intensity of my writing makes it attractive for many people to use me to express their own inarticulated griefs, fears, and desires.
My father, his German heritage, the bees, and his early death (his abandonment of me) became a very convenient metaphor for the way our society treats women.
It hurts when men abandon me. I know, intellectually, that my father did not choose to abandon me. After all, he died. But my husband, who abandoned me for another woman, did make that choice. He actively chose to abandon me. I can’t make sense of it. No, not true -- I can make sense of it – but only if I write.
One could say many of my poems are about patriarchy, or male dominance. However, I think that we really need to look more closely. Our oppressors are often ourselves. My poem is also about how I respond to all the structures of society that make me fearful.
This is a fictive imagining of the voice, vision, and message of Sylvia Plath, if she were to send a message today...
Thursday, September 21, 2006
|Erie Canal Lock 7: Susan watches the massive hydraulic doors open to allow a boat to travel up the Mohawk River. Of course, this becomes a metaphor for all kinds of passage. Susan thinks of the River Styx. Others think of water-skiing. She thinks of our American history, literature, Ovid, From Nohow to Nowhere (Elting Morison), river journeys, Mark Twain, folk tunes. It's all about passage -- and perhaps transformation... (filmed by Dave Feiden)|
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
I have resisted seeing Flight 93 or Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, even though I am assured that there is no maudlin sentimentality in either one. I guess I’m sort of waiting for the ultimate catharsis. I’m waiting for the Spielberg version. Eventually, someone will entice him to create the ultimate film that goes for the emotional jugular vein. He will pack the film with so much loss, abandonment, sad-eyed children, dead mothers, dead fathers, and sad, brave survivors that the viewers will feel drained for a week.
Now, that’s entertainment.
I went to Fahrenheit 911 mainly because Michael asked me to. It was appealing to me because it essentially deconstructed the hyper-patriotic response to the hijackings of September 11, 2001, and suggested that Americans have been zombified by propaganda and that our elected officials are kleptocrats.
According to Amy Biancolli of the Houston Chronicle, Oliver Stone has created a film about patriotism, optimism, and human courage.
Sorry. That’s not appealing to me at this moment in time. It makes me feel exhausted. I guess I’m not wanting to be fanned into a frenzy of anger or hate or sadness or fear.
It might be interesting to watch a film that attempts to put 911 in the background. Bickering with one’s spouse, deciding what to wear, fretting over car repairs could be put in front, and the attacks to the back. But, it would undoubtedly be a failed attempt. The colossal nature of the event just torpedoes all attempts to create a story.
The “meanings” of 911 overshadow any attempt at a story.
There are a few inescapable “meanings” of 9-11 that insert themselves into any narrative that has any contact at all with the event.
A few of the Meanings (with capital M) are:
1. 9-11 ushered in a whole new world, with a new consciousness. We, as Americans, are vulnerable in ways we never imagined before.
2. After 9-11, life could never be “ordinary” again.
3. 9-11 showed New Yorkers how kind, generous, self-sacrificing, and patient they are, despite generally held beliefs to the contrary.
4. 9-11 brought us together as a nation, but then divided us into “red” and “blue.”
5. Homeland Security. We didn’t try hard enough before 9-11.
The list could go on and on. Right now, I’m at Starbucks, and I’m listening to Gang of Four. It brings back memories of the summer of 1981 in Colorado where I attended Field Camp outside Canon City. It was near Florence and Phantom Canyon. I shared a cabin with three other female geology students. I had brought a big boom box and a stack of cassette tapes I had recorded from vinyl. They were all my favorites, primarily “New Wave” – between the Split Enz and The Buggles, I loved listening to “Anthrax.”
I remember that summer through the small things, the tiny details. Thankfully, there was nothing overwhelming. The tragedy of the summer occurred when a skyway collapsed at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency. I had spend a week at the Hyatt in San Francisco and I remember wondering about the stability of the glass elevator in an earthquake.
It’s pretty much impossible to construct an emotionally meaningful story from the Big Events of one’s life. The “Meanings” just overwhelm the narrative. The Big Events impose their big, hairy narratives and you’re stuck – “like a beetle on its back / my love is like anthrax” – that’s from Gang of Four’s “Anthrax.”
If I were to do a movie on 9-11, I think I’d try to focus in on the non-9-11 elements. The night before 9-11, for example, I was trying to convince myself that it was okay to barge into a house I was sure was being used as a horticulture center.
On the eve of 9-11, I drove my 1989 white Honda Accord to the house where Michael's friend Evan lived before he went to military school outside Tulsa. His mom had gotten a job in Houston and had a choice – go with her, or stay in Norman, then finish high school at the military school. He moved. The house was empty. The house, a three-bedroom house on Camden Drive was located near Norman High School off Berry Road. As we approached it, I could tell it was completely dark, as though the electricity had been turned off.
I was not too interested in going there, but Michael had promised Evan he would check on it.
“What are you supposed to check?” I asked. Michael was not listening.
We parked in the driveway and walked up the sidewalk badly in need of weed-eating. “What are we supposed to do?” I asked.
Michael indicated that he was supposed to check on things, and to make sure no one was living there. “What if they are?” I asked.
No answer. Instead, Michael fell very quiet. “Mom. Let’s go.” There was an urgency in his voice I had not heard before.
We walked quickly back to the Honda and drove off. “What was that about?”
“I think someone was there,” he said. I had the flash-thought that Evan ’s house had been appropriated by homeless teenagers or those who decided to use it for their “commerce” or “horticulture” of sorts. Specifically, I could imagine bedrooms filled with mushrooms and closets with gro-lights and monster marijuana plants.
I never found out. The next morning was 9-11. Evan did not come back to Norman. He ended up going from the military school to Afghanistan. Then, he did come back. Unfortunately, the war was very hard on him. It was shocking to think that a person could already be on disability at age 18 or 19.
And, already I feel the “Meaning” of 9-11 starting to overtake this narrative.
Five years. It is a key marker moment. I’ll do my best to keep from slipping into the over-deterministic world of the 9-11 narrative that imposes its unwieldy and bulky presence into everything it touches.
Saturday, September 02, 2006
|Lock 7 on the Mohawk River on the Erie Canal inspires Susan to think of themes in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. (filmed by Dave Feiden)|
Saturday, August 19, 2006
When I was a teen-ager in Norman, Oklahoma, there was a long-standing unsolved murder. It was something straight out of Friday, the 13th or any other movie where illicit sexuality is promptly punished with a chainsaw, and where unnatural desire is slashed with a big phallic knife. Two Norman High School students -- juniors, I believe - had parked at the very end of Main Street in the low-lying floodplain, Ten Mile Flats, on the edge of the South Canadian River.
It was an isolated spot at a bend in the river, near a sandy bank. It was a part of a point bar, I believe. Weeping willows, mimosas, persimmons, and cottonwoods created a secluded, park-like Lover's Lane in the heart of the prairie.
Apparently, they were parked there at sunset, when a member of the Norman police force pulled up. He expected to find two young adults who would be defensive and who would have plenty of excuses for why they happened to be parked there, and why they happened to be partially clothed.
Instead, the officer found a grisly scene. Blood was everywhere. The girl and her boyfriend had died due to extreme trauma and multiple stab wounds.
For years, the rumor was that the killer was a "dirty cop" -- a police officer with "peeping Tom" proclivities, but no one was ever indicted or even accused. The case stayed open, and then it finally chilled out. It was a "cold case" - an unsolved mystery that had never achieved closure.
When closure finally came, it was uncomfortable, awkward, and unsatisfying. A former police officer who had left the Norman police force was arrested in Colorado for exposing himself to young teen-age girls. Someone made the connection and requested a DNA analysis.
So, although the story was officially written, with a beginning, middle, and an ending, it was not a positive experience. One still had the feeling that there was something more, and that not all the loose ends in the story were ever tied up.
The forced ending, the "too neat" closure brought to mind urban legends. In a certain way, urban legends are constructions and extrapolations of closure. They start with closure and then work backward to make the events align to have the desired outcome.
Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are not examples of forced closure. Instead, they have false closure.
Fairy tales, fables, and other morality tales have imposed closure. The ending has to fit a very well-defined and well-known set of values and roles in a particular society.
What does narrative closure do for the reader? What is the function of narrative closure?
In many ways, narrative closure helps combat what I like to call "ambiguity anxiety." The reality that closure is almost always a false construct is interesting. It means that everyone is aware, at least on a subconscious level, that the nice, neat ending is false. It is a lie. And yet, the kinds of tales that have the kind of closure we've been talking about are almost always considered "truth" or "wisdom" discourse.
When we think that didactic tales and all the narratives with forced, false, or imposed closure are actually false, it's a little sad. Who wants to admit that we live out our lives knowing that we are deliberately embracing false consciousness?
But, perhaps that's exactly where the jouissance or plaisir is manufactured. Perhaps that's the profound meaning of it all. We know that we are -- at least for a nano-second -- self-aware and in control of the narrative we impose on ourselves. For a flash of jouissance or plaisir, we feel alive, joyous unity, with our own false consciousness. We thrill with omnipotence (or at least the knowledge of what omnipotence might mean) -- we have, for an instant, completely controlled the meaning and the reality of our lives.
But, is the imposed closure of the morality tale effective?
The fact that the two young teenagers were killed on the edge of a river did nothing in terms of changing behavior in Norman, Oklahoma. Kids continued to park in the tree-lined shadows of the edge of the river in the middle of a flat, trackless prairie.
As a cautionary tale, the event served to propose a series of actions and to create a causal chain.
As a tale of morality, of crime and punishment, the story did nothing to change behaviors. In fact, it enchanted the place and imbued it with danger and in doing so, it deepened the magic and the mystery. By uniting sexuality and death, youth and blood, Lover's Lane became, in the dark of night, ineffable.
There was not much to say after the trial, when the headlines and the photos were laid out across the front page of The Norman Transcript.
I drove home from the courthouse, where I had been filing an oil and gas lease, and fighting traffic as people left the packed courtroom. When I arrived home, my mother was pulling weeds out of her flower garden that bloomed with bright pink, gold, red, and purple zinnias and snapdragons.
"They were saying the guy they found guilty was claiming to be innocent right up to the very end," I said.
"He probably believed it," she said.
"How?" I asked.
"It was the only way he could get closure in his life," she said.
"Oh, of course," I said, but I didn't really agree. I don't think he actually wanted closure. Instead, he probably wanted the ineffable, inarticulate horror of bringing the horrors of one's imagination into the realm of flesh and blood.
I never parked at Ten Mile Flats. I was shy. I was unpopular in high school. And yet, on some level, I realized that the tragedy of youthful lovers dying in the pursuit of unity was somehow generative to the community as a whole. We did not throw virgins into a cenote or pull still-beating hearts up to the Sun God in a way that anyone was willing to admit.
Instead, we had our psycho killers who punished youthful sexuality. They died so the community could live.
Now, that's narrative closure.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
|Snippet by photographer Dave Feiden. Susan has a few deep thoughts on limestone, travertine, and stalactites with fanciful names like "Elephant's Tusk" and "Rip Van Winkle's Dream." Filmed in Thacher's Park near Altamont, New York, at the Heidelberg Escarpment. |
Saturday, August 12, 2006
When the young teen-ager, Elizabeth Smart, had the misfortune of being spirited away in the middle of the night from her Salt Lake City home in by what was, at the time, an unknown abductor, the nation erupted in wild speculation. Beyond the justifiable fear of abduction by a serial pedophile rapist, tabloids and serious journals alike erupted in lurid depictions of lurking polygamists who were always scouting for additional candidates for their communities. It was, after all, Utah, and the home of Mormons, whose history of sanctioned polygamy, is a source of embarrassment for some, titillation for outsiders.
In a terrible case of "no good deed goes unpunished," a homeless man for whom the Smarts felt sympathy and employed in order to help him, kidnapped Elizabeth and forced her to become his second "wife" in his own self-designed variant of a polygamous apocalyptic cult.
In the way the story was depicted, and Elizabeth Smart's miraculous return, thanks to her sister's observations, it became fairly evident that non-Mormon America continued to be morbidly fascinated by the idea of polygamists in Utah, even though the Mormon church will not tolerate polygamy of any kind.
The truth is, the American public desperately wants polygamy to exist.
If polygamy (or the lurking polygamist) does not exist in fact, the tabloids twist the stories to make them conform to a convenient a narrative that features insatiable males, nubile virgins, and complicit older "wives."
What is this about? What does polygamy represent?
Polygamy posits the existence of desire, but this is not any ordinary desire. This is a Big, Behemoth Desire that can never quite be sated. It is desire with a physical manifestation, one that envelopes and engulfs first one women, and then another and another. It is male libido, unchained.
Polygamy is limitless desire, limitless potential, and limitless satisfaction. The cynic might connect polygamy with consumer behavior. If so, perhaps the following statement is true: Polygamy IS America.
Here are the necessary elements of the representation of polygamy that has been proposed:
1. The male of the species is capable of boundless desire.
2. The female, through an act of will, is capable of infinite accommodation (this is the willing middle wife, the willing female participant).
3. That infinite accommodation is the key to deep satisfaction, and that there is some sort of meaning in the satisfaction.
4. That boundlessness, both of desire and in accommodation, expand one's possibilities. They expand "the Real." They expand the size of one's emotional world. By means of desire, something the size of a ping-pong ball blows up to a beach ball.
5. That what the world views as passivity is not passivity at all. Envisioning accommodation is an effective empowering strategy for women. It is perhaps even more powerful than the male's boundless desire. Why?
Well, in point of fact, more people will recognize and acknowledge accommodation than boundless desire. They realize that to accommodate is harder than to simply want (and take). Plus, the taking is not possible without a least some sort of accommodation (willing or unwilling). Accommodation is the air that fills the deflated beach ball.
Even though the accommodator is rewarded by society, it's not a role I would willingly assume. After all, it's painful having to be as self-sacrificing as one has to be in order to achieve infinite accommodation.
Boundless desire means boundless promise. It also means that the male is permitted to engulf others and to impose his needs and desires. Perhaps there is some scenario in which this could be healthy, but for the life of me, I can't think of it. Although it seems to be a great life, it is not as fabulous as it seems. After all, boundlessness, burgeoning desire, and engulfment with impunity are the building blocks of hubris.
As we know, hubris always leads to a fall. Hubris is the key element in tragedy.
I don't know if I ever told you this, but when I was in junior high, I joined the pep club. We existed to support the cheerleaders, who in turn, provided "pep" and motivation to the football team. We were a uniformed girl choir, the secular channelers of divine energy. In my orange sweater, black box-pleated skirt, white knee-highs, and saddle oxfords, I adhered to the ideal of absolute solidarity and absolute uniformity. I took gymnastics, and besides engaging in anorexic behavior, bleaching my hair, and baking under a sun lamp, I had fantasies of becoming a cheerleader or a member of the pom squad. I was not unattractive, and my family did not lack for resources. I, however, had absolutely no self confidence. That clearly doomed me, although yes, I was a true purveyor of pep.
I ended up quitting the pep club. I hated having to go to football and basketball games, and I did not like having to feign cheerfully blithe joie-de-vivre in the face that no one wanted to talk to me.
High school was even more alienating than junior high. I did not even think of joining the pep club, even though their uniforms were cuter than the junior high issue. Back in junior high, what we wore was a bold, citrus-colored variant of a private girls' school uniform. Cheerleaders were needle-thin, tan, and whose moms took them shopping at The Webb, where they would buy designer shoes and bags. Spring Break meant Cancun or skiing in Colorado.
For me, Spring Break meant going with the Spanish Club to Mexico, summer meant camp in Texas, swim team, piano, and August in Vermont. I shopped with my mother who was extremely generous and always bought me whatever I wanted, or shopped alone with money from the allowance I received from my father. In theory, I could have fit in with the pep club crowd, but I lacked the self confidence. I looked the part, my family lived in the "right" neighborhood, but I felt freakish and weird.
Thinking of oneself as the "outsider within" means that a person starts to feel himself or herself to be "different." There are a number of implications. One is that it engenders narcissism. The other is that is could push narcissism to messianism. Is perceiving oneself as an "outsider within" the first step to becoming a mad messiah? I don't know. It's worth investigating.
In feminist thought, being the "outsider within" is assumed to be more objective than those who describe a situation from being completely outside it, or from the vantage point of a person who is completely inside.
In theory, I could have written a juicy expose, a view from the inner sanctum of the pep club / cheerleaders workout rooms. Or, I could have made a movie with me as the Lindsey Lohan character in Mean Girls (dir. Mark Waters, 2004), or one of the Heathers in Heathers (dir. Michael Lehmann, 1989).
However, if I look at the underlying assumption that marginalization springs from definable "difference," I'm aware that there may be a problem. It may be flawed. In other words, a person typified by difference and thus marginalized may not have access to "truth" or "insight." They may simply distort and it may or may not reflect anything about the group or the artifact (literature, film, painting, etc.)
Ethics and politics always mediate the relationship between perceptor and perception. What I was perceiving was mediated by the times. Watergate was still fresh in everyone's minds, and cynicism toward the government was at an all-time high. Disenchantment, futurelessness, and stagflation counterposed the aggressive optimism of cheerleaders. My father, who was writing a book on the coming collapse of the dollar, runaway inflation, and imminent chaos in the cities, had decided to build a summer home in Vermont that did not rely on electricity or public supplies of water or gas. He hired me to type up the manuscript. In the meantime, he prospered as a petroleum and mining geologist at a time of embargoes and high commodities prices.
Was I really a good candidate for a narrator? Could I have been a good "outsider within?" "Standpoint theory" hinges on a few assumptions. The primary assumption is that the narcissism of the "outsider within" is not so overwhelming as to create complete solipsism. In order to survive both the apocalyptic economic prophecies of my dad and my completely extinguished self-esteem? I took refuge in my fantasy world, which was, by definition, highly idiosyncratic, highly narcissistic.
Actually, if one thinks about it, true identification is not possible without at least a basic level of narcissism. Narcissism suggests that one is able to conceive of an individuated self.
Of course, the deeply-held hope is that there is some sort of value in the vision of the "outsider within."
The "outsider within:"
a) exists within a definable group.
The Norman West Jr. High school pep club. We were wildcats. (I think.)
b) is truly marginalized (in fact, or in one's imagination).
I did not fully participate in the activities of the pep club because I had no real friends. In fact, the other girls would not really talk to me. I never quite figured out why. I assumed it was because I was fat, ugly, and a complete loser. In fact, I was pretty ordinary.
c) can articulate opinions or interpretations that are not the same as those generally expressed.
I tried to keep those to myself. I failed. No wonder I was ostracized.
d) believes that the opinions and articulations have value because they are different, precisely due to the fact of being different.
I may not have thought so, but society certainly might have thought so. What were my fantasies at age 14 or 15? I wanted to be a concert harpsichordist. I listened to the sonatas of Antonio Scarlatti at every possible moment. I fantasized about winning medals and making "A" times at swim meets. I wanted to build my own harpsichord. I imagined myself in the Spanish court as Scarlatti composed passionate sonatas for the Spanish princess who employed him. At the same time, I imagined myself painting, sketching, and traveling to exotic locations where I would learn languages, then return to New York City, where I had an office in a glass building and I wore elegant outfits. Alternatively, I would go to a small village in South America where I would be a missionary (for a week or so).
e) accepts that there is value in one's difference (this necessitates that a baseline of human dignity).
What was the difference? I refused to experiment with drugs. I never smoked pot, drank alcohol, or smoked cigarettes. In this way, I was different than the majority of my peers. At the same time, I tried to diet. I wanted to be desirable. I wanted to be desired. I spent most of my life in daydreams instead of learning social skills. Did that matter? Did it make me truly different? Who knows. It certainly made me different within the pep club. I did not spend much time learning cheers or socializing with other girls. I was afraid to have them come to my house, where my mother was a wild card presence. I could never predict how she would be, or what condition the house would be in. She suffered from thyroid disease, but no one knew it at that time. All I knew was that I was embarrassed, even though she always bought me the most expensive clothes of anyone I knew, and I always had the nicest musical equipment, sports equipment, school supplies.
The other members of the group have to recognize the vision as containing points that are common to the shared experience of all.
There is where we may or may not have a point of convergence. Perhaps it does not really matter. Perhaps what is most important is the action of perceiving oneself as "different" and then going through the mental exercise of the "standpoint" and positioning oneself outside one's self-identified group, and then, attempting to view the behaviors, values, and attitudes from a "bestranged" perspective.
Make it new. Make it real. Do the two go hand in hand?
In my mind, being a part of the pom squad never moved much beyond a fleeting impulse. I never gave it enough serious thought to actually take tangible steps in the world of real phenomena. It was nothing like my foray into the pep club. In that case, I really did join the group, and there were measurable points of difference. I never quite had a sense of the narrative the successful members -- the cheerleaders and the pep club members -- constructed for themselves for their lives, which included their families. All I had were my fragmentary narratives, my fantasies, and my desires to escape.
Perhaps that is the first requirement of the "outsider within" -- that is, the desire to escape a dominant group consciousness that threatens to overwhelm one's sense of having an individuated self. Hence, the narcissistic response…
I was the pom squad wannabe fantasizing about building my own harpsichord and playing Scarlatti in such a way that anyone listening would be instantly propelled into a state of enchantment.
Perhaps that sense of magic never goes away. When we need refuge, we retreat. We become the "outsider within" -- safe from engulfment, safe from the threat of harm by members of the dominant group.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
I sat at the edge of a long metal table, noise-cancelling headphones over my ears, khaki blouse neatly pressed, sleeves rolled with perfect cuffs, khaki slacks knife-pleated, briefcase with laptop at my side, iPod in my hand, pda and smartphone in my pocket.
The metal building was quiet except for the clang and roar of air conditioning and the deafening yet reassuring sound of the AH-64 Apache helicopters zipping in and out of the desert locales referenced by coordinates rather than their gutteral and sometimes unpronounceable names.
I had locked the doors, although it was possibly against regulations. No one had informed me of regulations since, strictly speaking, I was a visitor. I had no actual reason to be here, except that a few individuals in positions in authority had told me they needed my perspective. They needed it quickly, desperately, without hesitation.
It was time for me to leave. Unfortunately, I would be relaying some awkward news back to my friends. I was trying to decide the best way to do it. Usually, the best approach was to empixelate it in a jpeg file, usually an image of flowers or mountains, or better, a smiling family, a graduation, a wedding, or something equally innocuous.
Alternatively, I could simply let the bad news reveal itself. By that time, I would be long gone.
The door rattled. The lock clicked open. A small, compactly built man entered. He was wearing a navy blue knit polo shirt, olive drab canvas pants. His hair was gray, his eyes dirty ice cubes. Either he was an officer in civilian clothing, or a contractor with clearance. Even though I was across the room, I could tell the whites of his eyes were dingy and gray. As he approached, I was aware that he exuded a scent highly evocative of mothballs. Hair sprouted from his ears. Despite the fact that he was, on the whole, an inutterably unattractive man, it was clear that he did not think so. He thought he was hot.
His bearing was smug, self-satisfied. As he approached me, his lips rolled involuntarily, like the lips of a large and unhealthy koi. I was reminded of half-dead ornamental foot-long goldfish I saw in a Nairobi office pond. Like them, his skin seemed slippery and vaguely fungal.
"Why was the door locked?" he asked. "That's strange."
He looked at me.
"Not so strange," I said. "After all, this is supposed to be secure."
"Have we met?" he asked.
He did not know I knew he had no business being in the air-conditioned metal building in the middle of a small desert forward operating base, next to a small airstrip and row of hardened tents containing spare parts.
I knew what was stored at this location. I also knew that his presence here in the prefabricated metal building meant that he suspected something and had come in to sneak around, to forage for information.
"I don't think we've met," I told him. "I'm leaving tonight. I'm getting out - we had to make an emergency landing. They said they'd have the repairs done by tonight."
"What are doing?" he asked.
"Nothing. Well. Something. I'm listening to my iPod and trying to sleep." He could see my old iPod mini propped up on the desk. It was the old pink brushed aluminum model. In my mind, it looked frivolous against my khakis.
He sat down. "I'm looking for Lt. Col. Branderwine. Someone said he was in here."
It was a lie. Lt. Col Branderwine had left two days ago.
He did not know I knew someone had been sending Branderwine threatening notes and that the notes had not yet demanded anything, but hinted that someone knew what had been going on, and what was stored here besides helicopter parts.
In my opinion, it was a zero-sum game. Contrary to popular belief, knowing people's secrets was not money in the bank. Instead, having too much information made one vulnerable and at risk of making fatal mistakes.
He gave me a fat-lipped self-satisfied smile. Then, he folded his arms across his flabby chest and smiled again with "cat who ate the canary" satisfaction on his face. I felt my energy drain away. He sucked away all the life force in the room.
I looked at the floor. Then I lifted my eyes and looked him straight in the eyes. He had no way of knowing who I was. And, he had no way of knowing I knew who he was and what he was up to.
He was the Extortionist.
Saturday, July 22, 2006
The evening breeze held a hint of autumn although it was mid-July and the afternoon thunderstorms that growled through central Florida had already drenched us as we ran across the parking lot to the Nike Factory Store.
“This is why you can’t run outside here,” he said. “You’ll get struck by lightning.”
The sky was impossibly dark and yet the curls that framed his head glimmered as though illuminated by a ray of pure sunlight. The coppery shine made him seem cherubic in the way of Botticelli or early Caravaggio.
Then, as suddenly as it had burst onto the scene, the storm was over. By that time, we were in the car and were slowly approaching Eula Park. Young couples happily paddled across the lake in shiny white boats the shape of swans.
We did not tarry in the more commercialized side of the lake. I needed to show him something before I had to return to the location in the desert ten time zones away.
“Do you detect anything unusual about these swans?” I asked him. We stood on a small bridge that crossed to a shady memorial to freedom fighters and philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Mohatmas Gandhi, Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar – all were represented by a bust mounted on a pedestal and bronzed descriptions.
“These guys make me sick,” I commented. “I realize the world recognizes them as liberators who threw off the tyranny of a colonial oppressor. To me, they simply introduced a new kind of tyranny – the need to sacrifice the young for the aspirations of the old and the rich.”
He was not listening. He was gazing upon the black swans that were paddling upon the surface of the water, their orange-red beaks exactly the same shade as a south Florida sunset.
Or, alternatively, their beaks reflected the blood-red moon of impending apocalypse.
But, it was not worth thinking along those lines.
I looked at him – his gray-green eyes were filled with tears.
“They are not alive. There are no brain waves coming from the swans.” He looked at me. He was absolutely cherubic, although his face exhibited the hewn planes of a Lincoln (albeit beardless and wartless) or a Mother Theresa (albeit a different gender).
“Yes. I wanted to know if you could tell.” I looked at the black swan couple, rapt in each other’s presence. This was utter devotion. Of course they were dead. It was what I had suspected. It was the Medic's work. He had rotated here between desert deployments. He had been thinking and experimenting. Now I knew. I knew it all too well.
Could living, sentient beings with the power of choice, of unrestrained volition, be capable of such steadfast devotion?
Of course not.
When synapses fire correctly, there is as much negative energy as positive. Eventually, the charges balance each other. But, the balance is achieved over time, and is detectable only when the measurements are arithmetically smoothed.
Neural networks could create models of balance and they could begin to depict in graphical form what it means. But, without almost infinite iterations, it was hard to imagine what else could with quite the same elegance.
But, I digress.
The Angel’s eyes were filled to an impossible depth with tears.
“You understand, then, why I need your help,” I said to him.
A couple clearly in love, holding hands, smiling serenely churned by us in their large swan-shaped paddleboat.
The black swans disappeared under the bridge.
At that instant, the sun reappeared and illuminated the Angel’s curls, resulting in a soft halo. I felt uncomfortable, unclean, unforgiven.
“I don’t know if I can,” he said slowly, softly, as he took my hand.
And then I was the one with an infinitely deep lake of tears in her eyes.
Sunday, July 16, 2006
I knew, within my heart of hearts, that there was nothing I could do. So, I would continue to run. Run and run and run.
Funny, I am lying flat on the ground, unable to move.
Last night, the full moon had hard edges like strange chocolates gone ashy with age and oxidation. A puff of smoke. A cotton ball floating over the horizon. The sweetness drizzled into my eyes. Abjection, always sovereign, when melancholy is the reigning aesthetic.
Under the smile, hyacinths bloom and goldfish swim in circles. Logic. The radio song becomes an anthem after it reverberates relentlessly even when one tries to forget.
Three weeks ago, small brass chimes moved as the breeze took identity and reversed it. Nothing was as I thought it would be. I could not begin to tell you how and why I got here. And now that I'm here, I'm helpless. Phrases, snippets. Language tiresome Venetian blinds, the slats intercalate the dark with something else. The delusional call it illumination.
Daylight should be a simple concept. A blue or brown hue, like solitude, like memorizing the trivial, letting the larger go.
The small things remembered will save your life.
At least that's what they say.
My nostrils are filled with the fresh thick odor of dirt, dry oak, rain, fresh-cut grass. It's something else. Savage simulacrum of unity.
In the blink of an eye, time moved forward. After spending so much time alone, I realized I had been hiding, not running. I was sleepwalking through life.
Funny, I am lying flat on the ground, unable to move.
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Hardship is only purifying if it is temporary.
The people who lived in the Medic's old neighborhood reminded me of plastic army men. Not healthy, fighting ones, but something else. I thought of the time my brother put two dozen green plastic army action figures in a pan, and then positioned the pan squarely over a low gas flame on my grandmother's old stove, just to see what might happen. It was a low flame, and the action figures did not ignite with a flash, or start smoking. Instead, they became soft, twisted, doubled over. Some even bubbled a bit. All changed colors. Some became dark olive, others oozed pure pigment, which left the heads as white as death, but the hands dripping thick charcoal muck. I could not stand to watch.
Today, the Medic told me of the dog who was left chained in the back yard during the heat of the day, a hard, hot day in July. A big dog, brought low by suffering, he whimpered, whined. Even though the neighbors heard him, they did nothing. The dog died in the middle of a scorched field; his water bowl contained water, but it was too hot to drink. When I heard the story, my stomach hurt. I did not know whether to cry, be sick, or simply attempt to steel my nerves and make my face a mask.
The Medic's father was a Marine. What he learned in the jungles of 'Nam served him very well in this ragged patch of urban sprawl that never quite shows up on anyone's map. Sneak through the jungle. Hit the vill'. Trust no one. Take what you want, but destroy half of it, just to test it to make sure it does not have a live grenade in it or ground-up glass. Laugh when they die. They tried to kill you, but they failed. Of course they failed. You're an armor-plated mother. You're armor-plated. You're armor.
That's what you say when you're hit. That's what you say when you're down.
That's what the Medic was trying to teach the dog.
Unfortunately, death set in before the lesson was fully learned.
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
I met the Medic on a dark, strange night in late June. We were flying through a thunderstorm as we approached the airport in the last few moments of our flight from Chicago to Albany, New York.
He was seated in the same row but across the aisle. For some reason, I had captured his attention. He looked at me, and he seemed surprised to have been distracted by another passenger.
I lost myself in the music I was listening to. Listening to my favorite chill-out tunes I could remain passive as the plane lurched, dropped, dipped, and pulled my stomach into knots. We were on a 51-passenger Embraer regional jet. It was a little powerhouse, which was some relief. It was still a rough ride.
He had looked at me again. Something in his eyes drew me in. There were dark whirlpools in the night. The downward pull had no ending point, nor did it have a beginning. This was the apotheosis of raw fear, despair, and desire. I felt myself starting to crave.
He spoke Spanish. Don’t ask me how I knew. No words were exchanged.
Once on the ground, I followed him as he disembarked. Walking quickly, I approached him, came within a few feet. Sensing me, he turned. His eyes burned. Dark charcoal with glowing red pinpoints of light in the center. It was looking into a laser-site on an automatic weapon. My stomach lurched again, my knees trembled.
His pupils could not be red. That was impossible.
“Que vuelo. Que suerte que llegamos vivos. What a flight. Lucky we got here alive.”
“Y asi somos? Are we?” His lips parted in a smile. Lips full. His hips were narrow. Slender face. A haunted shadow crossed his face, and with flash-knowledge I realized he suffered from tremendous nightmares. He leaned toward me. My heart raced in response.
Walking wordlessly, we made our way toward the baggage claim area.
“I’m staying at the Hilton in Saratoga Springs. Would you have time to join me? For coffee? A drink?”
It is far. Saratoga Springs is a good 40 miles away. I live in the other direction. I don’t know him. It is stormy. Horse races. High-tech and nano-tech. Mafia. Horse breeders. Genetic engineering.
“The storm,” I said. I gestured toward the glass windows through which we could see droplets cascading against the glass. Lightning flashed blue-white illumination. Signs flapped in the gale-force winds.
“Come with me.”
Changing the subject was not a very skillful way to mask my emotions, but I tried it anyway.
“I can’t believe we made it through that storm.”
“How do you know that we actually made it? Do you know without a shadow of a doubt that we did?”
My bag circled on the carousel and glided toward me.
“Here is my card,” I said. I was trying to deflect the searing, sizzling heat. “My phone. Work.”
We walked toward the automatic doors to the covered sidewalk and walkway to the parking garage. We parted. He ran toward a taxi and I bolted down the walkway as the slashing rain soaked me nonetheless.
The night was not kind to me. Still on time stuck somewhere between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean, I awakened at 3 a.m. There was nothing to do but go to the office at 4:45 a.m. Pale light. Steam, fog rising from the river, with moisture and condensate gripping the car before it lost the battle and slid down the metal door.
Mid-morning. Phone rings. Come with me to Cincinnati.
I can’t. But I can meet you for dinner.
Good. We can talk about it.
Storms rolled in again that afternoon. His flight was delayed yet again.
“Come with me.”
We were in a small bar on the side of a new chain hotel popular with business travelers needing free high-speed internet and a shuttle to the airport.
“Buy a ticket. Come with me.”
He ordered a pinot grigio. I order the same. The owner of the establishment looked over at us. The skin of her face was crumpled crepe paper.
He passed his hand over mine, but did not touch my skin. I could see sparks flare gently like fireflies on a clear, hot summer night.
Beads of condensate formed on the side of the chilled glass of wine. The pinot grigio was pale like sunlight in winter. I tried not to think of winter in this place – the darkness, the cold, the sense of being buried alive, not in comforting dirt, but in a chill, dank vault.
“The rivers are over their banks,” said a woman somewhere in the bar.
We finished our glasses of wine. He held his hand over mine, and I felt the electricity that stuns like contact with a force field or an electric fence.
“Come with me.”
From the bar, we made our way down a dark corridor. Doors clicked behind us and were on a landing.
“I want you. I’ve never felt this way about a woman. I want you. Now.”
My chest was pounding.
My head, shattering as though electrodes are on my temples. Conducting gel liquefying, streaming, sizzling.
I blinked my eyes.
The memory will come back when it is time.
The medic touches my lips with his. They are dry, cool, strangely elastic, like an IV bag or medical tubing. I feel a shiver. I wonder what the origin could be. I can’t believe that something could affect me like this. What could it be?
I know. I know very well. It is The Medic.
Saturday, June 10, 2006
the eroded edge of a drowned volcano
I passed by a pond
swimming with dreams
pigmented flashes of light and dark
muscle under the scales
that should have been feathers
if only for 3 or 4 seconds of pure longing --
with you in my shadows
my fears, my failures
confined to grim swimming
except when we leap
teaming with dreams
in a drowned volcano
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
The small, mixed-breed dogs lay on the rough wooden table, spread out evenly as though prepared for enshrouding and burial.
The night had the bluish-black cast of the hand-carved and hand-buffed ebony I had seen in a marketplace on the outskirts of
“What are you doing with them? Do you really have to experiment on dogs?” I asked the Medic.
The laboratory smelled vaguely of roses, with overtones of pungent chrysanthemum. The weather outside was violent. Lightning illuminated the skies in unpredictable flashes, and the glow cast along the walls and on the Medic’s face was an unhealthy greenish gray.
The crash of thunder, the blank, unadorned walls made me shiver. I avoided looking into the mirror.
“I’m surprised that it is raining like this in the middle of the desert,” I remarked.
“What makes you think you’re still in the desert?” asked the Medic. “You were asleep for a long time. It often happens like that. You sleep for three days straight. Something deep in your psyche tells you you’re safe. You’re out of the kill zone.”
The Medic laughed and placed electrodes on the dogs' skulls. I half-expected giant black thread and stitched-together limbs, a shaved underbelly. High-pitched giggles accompanied sparks. The electrodes were rubbed with conducting gel.
Lightning flashed. As the equipment sputtered and surged with the electricity, I trembled. The dogs twitched and whimpered despite their deep sedation.
“What do you have them sedated with?” I asked.
“Something that should feel very familiar to you,” he replied.
The Medic peeled off the electrodes, then placed them on my temples. Then, he held the back of the chair and waited. The growl of thunder presaged more lightning strikes. The storm was not retreating. Another cell was approaching.
A flash in the corner of my eye, the sizzle of conducting gel, the smell of singed hair, flesh: I could see it was bringing us both a half a click closer to where we needed to be. When the flash finally came, though, I realized the Medic had no faith in what he was doing. He was doing it anyway, even though he knew it was profoundly immoral because the sacrifice and pain were for something that probably would not work.
The dogs slowly shook themselves awake.
The dogs seemed strangely relaxed. I, in contrast, battled the tongue that threatened to plunge itself down my throat. I was unable to do anything about the waves of paralyzing pain except to remind myself that it could not last forever. I would either die or the electrically-stimulated convulsions would end. I fought to inhale and to take in sufficient oxygen to keep my chest rising and falling.
The scars from the electrode burns would probably never completely fade. Neither would the shock that occurred upon opening my eyes, and seeing the Medic’s greenish-gray skin turn a bit more olive. A mirror, strategically placed, gave me the ability to see if the rubbery, olive-gray cheeks and neck still had enough elasticity to keep from splitting open with each new surge of electricity. With effort, I forced one eye open and gazed deeply into the mirror which seemed to tremble and sway.
The trembling intensified, resulting in something akin to a convulsion, while a warm, clotted liquid -- vomit or blood - surged from my throat onto the floor. The mirror swayed above the Medic. The Medic was alone in the laboratory. I was not there any more, or was I? A greenish-gray face appeared in the mirror.
I was looking at myself.
Friday, May 19, 2006
The Premise: A woman is sick of the stench of rotting flesh. She lost the love of her life to a roadside explosive. Enough is enough. She can't stand any more. So, she teams up with an insane medic who has found a way to animate the dead by pumping stem cells into them. The only problem - how do you produce enough stem cells to fabricate an army of the walking, but not talking UNDEAD? It's not easy, and could be expensive.
Hoggicarton, Inc. is willing to pay, though. They are providing security and it's costing them a lot to pay the ransoms, life insurance, body armor, not to mention crazy per diems. Buying zombies would require a one-time expenditure. It is even better than drones and satellites -- after all, the spare parts are readily available (lots of dead people), and it's easy to repair them. All you do is hook them up to an IV and pump them full of pink gel. That's what the stem cells look like when in solution.
So, it's easy enough to see where her deranged passion takes her. She ends up with a trunk of money and an obligation to bring back the goods. Not only is she motivated by her desire to stop the carnage, she is also motivated by the fact that the people who are paying will kill her if she does not perform.
The medic's eyes had the reflectionless depth of one who has seen too much death and suffering, and at some point he drew a line in the blood-soaked sand and refused to cross over, ever, any more, under any circumstances.
I was glad it was hot here in the desert near Doha. My tears ran in the in the same rivulets as my sweat.
I didn't want to go back inside. The prefabricated structure looked like a trailer that would be swept away in a tornado in a southern Plains state in the U.S. Here, it looked faded by the sun. The large red crescent moon on the side had been scoured by the sand, its message as well as its medical mission torn away by the environment.
It was cold as ice inside. The soles of my feet were burning even though I wore thick-soled boots against the rough surface and possible sand scorpions. Still, I did not want to go back inside. It was cold in there.
It was as cold as one would expect a morgue to be.
"What happened? How did you make your discovery?" I asked.
His eyes came back into focus. It was not as reassuring as it should have been. I knew something had crossed over, and it would be necessary to listen to him quietly, without making sudden gestures and without showing the reactions of grief and revulsion that I most certainly would have.
"If one looks at the real purpose of war, it's pretty evident that it's just a way to accelerate the consumption of manufactured goods," said the medic.
He had a name. I refused to use it. As in Kafka's "In a Penal Colony," it was easier to simply refer to him as his role. So, from that point on, I decided to simply refer to him as the Medic.
Ironically, he could have served as a surrogate for the love of my life, whom I had lost to this nauseating carnage where waves of heat radiated up in giant hallucinatory metallic flashes.
It was easier to maintain a sense of thick numbness if I did not feel. The absence of names, the absence of attachment helped me in that regard.
"If you evaluate the American Civil War, you can see it was probably one of the best of its ilk," continued the Medic. Yes. It was brilliant. The North, by pretending to want unity, actually did not care. They were able to sell all the goods they could possibly make, as well as keep the trade routes between New York and Europe busy with war-driven commerce.
"War is good for keeping the unmanageable elements of society out of the picture, or at least cooperating in the hopes of 'victory,'" he continued.
"Hey, don't you think you're being cynical?" I asked. "War is about valor, honor, and defending the honor of the Queen. It is a privilege to participate in the sacred gift, the honorable sacrifice."
The Medic looked at me. His eyes were watery and distant. At that moment, I knew that both of us used words as subterfuge and our appearance as a decoy. What we felt transcended words and superficial appearance.
"If you break it down, you can accelerate the consumption of goods by accelerating life cycles," he continued.
"Does it work where there is disease?" I asked.
"Oh, yes. Absolutely," he said. "It makes it easier to bully, coerce, or simply dupe people out of their money and their property."
"The best approach is to accelerate the consumption of manufactured items. War works."
"Unfortunately, human beings have to get involved," I said.
"Why not robot wars?" he asked.
"Like Terminator or a 50s sci-fi film?" I asked.
"It would work, except it would miss a huge piece of the equation, which is perfectly illustrated by suicide bombers," he said.
"And what might that be?" I asked. The wind rattled something and it buzzed like a rattlesnake.
"The goal is to create the largest gap possible with modernity. One needs to find a way to symbolize the heart (that bleeds when it is blown up) in conflict against the Machine."
I thought about what he was saying. To me, it was a ghastly theater that simply did not need to be enacted.
"The anti-modernity thing is a completely pointless charade. It's propaganda of the deed. I am not interested in their antiquated philosophies. I simply want to get the humans out. Let it be a war of the inanimate."
The Medic continued to explain that he had a plan to help replace the living with something else - something inanimate. He wanted to fill the battlefields with robots and decoys, but it was important not to let anyone know. Otherwise, some evil scientist somewhere would come up with a way to wage war that was even more sickening.
The Medic took off his cover and wiped sweat from his forehead with what appeared to be a babywipe he kept in a square plastic packet in his blouse pocket.
The sun was sinking in the west. The buzz of machinery reminded me again of rattlesnakes. My heart sank. I knew that something terrible was going on, but I was not able to protect myself from it. Instead, I was drawn toward it, even though I knew, in my heart of hearts, that it was fundamentally evil, even as the thing it was designed to counter was evil.
Fight evil with evil.
Nothing new in that, I reflected. It was the way of the world. The skill lay in trotting out the newest version of evil and convincing the "useful idiots," the consuming masses, that what they instinctively recoiled against was not evil at all, but constituted a test of their virtue.
I shuddered. I wondered if I was, in fact, part of that profound evil. I missed him too much. It hurt. It made me irrational. It made me willing to consider unspeakable acts. If only it had been me. If only …
The Medic's eyes glowed in the dark.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
The skinless hand reached up toward my neck. It started to squeeze. I felt my tongue swell. The contractions continued. They were hard. They were premature. Foreboding nothing by terror and misery, I dreaded the moment of actual childbirth.
When it happened, I was suffused by nausea; not the normal nausea that accompanies extreme pain, but the nausea that accompanies extreme grief.
With one flesh-ripping contraction, the bag of wet tissue forced its way out of me. I felt something's tongue on my ear. I heard the thick, foul promises, the torpid wad of dreams.
I looked down. Half-expecting a birth-cry, I was not at all expecting what I saw. The sac fell open. Dry dust, ash, and the char from burned hair whoofed up, making a miniature mushroom cloud of unspeakable stench.
And then I heard something I would never forget, for as long as I might live. It was the bone-clatter; the clatter of dry bones falling to the floor as my body expelled what it could in the childbirth process. Marimbas. Steel drums. Soft castanets.
The skeleton was terribly deformed, but one could still see what it was.
The most horrible thing, besides the deformity, was the fact that it was completely dry. The sac itself was wet, but inside was a landscape as dry as the inside of a mechanically inflated balloon.
And then, I hemorrhaged blood and a clear fluid that looked like glycerine, but smelled vaguely like mint.
Sunday, May 14, 2006
It was definitely a down-market kind of place. Outside, the architecture had a frayed sort of Baja California mission-inspired elegance. Inside it was seedy. The felt was ripped on the pool table in the large entryway, and the beer they sold was cheap yet cold. I would not have realized it was a brothel as well, except for the look of alarm on the women's faces when I walked in. It was on a back street far from the tourist areas of Cabo San Lucas, far from "El Squid Roe," Cabo-Wabo, Carlos and Charlies, and all the places where newlyweds smoothed cocoa butter balm on their sunburns, and women soothed themselves with a cool papaya and shea butter masque while having their bodies abraded smooth with ginger and lime scented salt scrubs.
They were seeking life. I was not. I was seeking death - not my own, but the portable shreds and scraps that could infuse one's veins with life.
This was far from the upscale spas and clubs. It smelled vaguely of Clorox. I heard the scrape and swoosh of a broom on a tile floor, as I felt eyes bore through my heart. My knees felt rubbery, and my abdomen ached in sympathy with what I knew the majority of the women here would eventually have to endure, if they had not already.
"Can I help you?"
Give them faulty condoms. Make sure they become pregnant. Force them to terminate their pregnancies. Collect the stem cells. Collect the fetal tissue. Collect the placenta. Collect whatever you can of new life. Take that incipient life, that vital fluid. Bag it.
"I don't know. I am looking for my husband." I let my voice trail off, hoping it would be a technique that would be effective at disguising the fact that I was not altogether sure of myself. I wasn't sure if I wanted to go through with this.
Somewhere in Costa Rica, a tropical pit viper with a head the size of a small child's hand would coil itself tightly and buzz its "cascabeles;" the frantic shatter-buzz of its rattles a conditioned response to both danger and predatory urge.
She looked at me with a blend of compassion and ennui.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Yes," I responded. The smell of spearmint. Gray-green flesh. Char was better. A soldier vomiting in the corner. The smell of blood. The smell of burned blood. The scream of a man burning alive.
The sound of the love of my life.
I started weeping, tears violent and unrelenting. My chest constricted. My breath came in ugly gasps and wheezes. My heart melted and remelted, reconstituting itself every time the grief surged anew.
She, of course, misunderstood my reaction. She attributed it to spousal infidelity. When I thought of that, I almost laughed, despite the profound disconcertedness of my own consciousness.
You never know how it will shake out, do you? Yeah, you have to laugh. Then fight the nausea. It's all about the future, pre-destiny or the way human knowledge is spliced, diced, and pushed into a preset ideology.
The blue mist came. There were images I preferred to push from my mind. It was best to never think of them. No one likes to think of one's memory as being damaged. Perhaps the damage was confined to the soul.
The pink gel held out a promise. Pink like the little cylindrical chunk of rubber on the end of a pencil. Erasing and healing errors, even the mortal ones.
"I'm not sure," I said to the woman wearing a tight cotton "wife-beater" t-shirt and a tight metallic gold skirt. Her high heels were reminiscent of the platform sandals of the 1970s. Her hoop earrings and gold chain had peace symbol charms. Overall, it was a vaguely retro hippie look, and it suited her. Incongruously, she wore a pink fake fur shoulder bag emblazoned with dice. It was cute in an oddly Japanese "harajuku" way.
"Si, senora," she said. Her eyes looked vaguely sad. Perhaps I was just projecting.
"Thank you," I said and walked slowly out the door.
Friday, May 12, 2006
“What am I supposed to do with $400,000 in cash, give or take a couple ten thousand or so?”
The blue mist, the smell of spearmint. The taste of wet metal in my mouth. It had the flavor of greed and fear.
The question disturbed me. I realized I was afraid to seek answers. I decided to call my father. But after I dialed the number, I realized that someone was probably monitoring or at least tracking my calls. I may have put my dad at risk. Someone might show up at his door and demand that he hand over the monies they had some how “lost” in Los Cabos, Mexico, and which were somehow delivered in a carbon copy of a suitcase owned by an innocuous tourist who happened to be staying at the Westin Regina, halfway between San Jose El Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, right on the ocean. I hung up before it finished the first ring.
I looked down from my balcony to the beach. Surf sprayed on the rocks.
The ultimate irony was that I knew the answer. I had known it for years. In fact, I had been actively seeking it. Now I was afraid.
The beaches were posted with “DO NOT SWIM – DANGEROUS RIP TIDES” and the hotel’s swimming pools were positioned so that when you lowered yourself into the glistening warmish waters, you heard the surf and you imagined yourself in the sea itself.
The skies were blue. My eyes were equally so.
But, this was not a good time for blue skies. Typhoons, though rare, could hit the southern part of the
The caves belched magnesium-infused waters. I imagined tangles of snakes – the way diamondback rattlesnakes weave themselves into a ball in their dens in the carbonate caves of southern
“They call it a MATA BUEY,” he said. Inside the glass terrarium, an enormous black and tan snake lay motionless. Its triangular head was the size of a small child’s fist. The scales were dry. The eyes were classic pit viper.
“Bull-killer?” I asked. My voice was weak. His eyes were a celestial blue. I felt my knees tremble as his voice resonated somewhere in my chest. I suddenly understood how and why an old queen would do anything at all to keep the lovely, yet venomous young man in her clutches.
He was close to me. I could sense his heart pounding in his chest. His face, however, looked calm, even indifferent. I knew he was dissembling.
The snake about about 8 feet long. At its widest point, it had the thickness of a small child’s calf.
I knew what was expected of me. I was resisting. My life was in danger as long as anyone knew I had seen the cash. If I jettisoned the Burberry plaid carryon luggage, someone would find it. Someone would know it was once in my room and that I had touched it.
If I returned it, claiming an error, the people I returned it to would pocket it and claim I never gave it to them.
If I did what I knew was expected of me, I would be passing through a cold, dark toll booth to oblivion.
Bags of pink gel. The color of the matabuey’s smooth, pink throat. The venom dripping lightly from one delicate fang.
Something resembling a tongue or a plump boll of cotton yawned as the snake’s jaws opened. With its mouth fully open, I could imagine it swallowing a tennis ball, or, more likely, a rat, a rabbit, even a baby coyote. (photo on http://www.matabuey.com)
Clear plastic containers of pink gel. Substances are glistening, clearer than flesh, and certainly more enlightening. Our light illuminated what it could. An IV pole. A smooth rush of gurney wheels.
Tears sizzled like venom on my cheeks.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
My sixth sense kicked in. I leaned toward the balcony, all the while, realizing I was not alone. A clammy, cold hand on my arm – and there I was: hot, lightly coated with sweat.
“I thought you were dead,” I gasped.
“I am,” he said. A blue mist rose up. It smelled of spearmint and marigolds.
The ocean crashed in its customary, troublesome way, a dozen surfers cutting the curls in formation, one after another. The sun setting, then re-setting itself. Shadows flitted across the moon. The face I saw reflected there was not reassuring. The lips I saw were upturning, mimicking a smile yet in reality exposing an existential truth in a frightening leer, and they were all too familiar - the lips, the smile, and the existential truth.
His hand was cold metal. Beads of perspiration skittered about like mercury dropped from above. Mad silver hematitic globules tumbled in the deep center of my mind until my inner eye shone like polished chrome under the brightest, most evil false promise, most tantalizing of full moons.
You are the hard edge of my consciousness. You are the soft lips of my heart. You are the love of my life who goes away the instant I break myself from my dream and open my eyes. I hate you for that. You always go away. When will you realize it hurts me?
The eyes were liquid mercury. The pupils were swimming, now drowning in pinpoints of darkness.
Scent of marigolds, mint shifting down to tones of lilac and burned geranium.
Blue haze. My eyes swimming in tears. Sharp crystals stabbing the place behind my eyes where tears forget to originate.
“I thought you were dead,” I repeated.
“Yes.” His voice was rough gravel. “Of course. You killed me.”
Thigh muscles responded by tensing, and the small of my back trembling, heart surging hard. My face, however, was another story.
I knew I had to defend myself.
Pivoting quickly on my thin spike heels, I grabbed the nearest loose thing within reach. It was a length of iron rebar used to reinforce concrete. It had been left behind by workers.
As hard as I could, I plunged it into the middle of the hideous liquid metal eye that refused to stop staring at me. The expanse of metal met no resistance. The horror. No bounds. I felt vomit surge into the back of my throat. In spite of the nausea, I pulled the metal out of his eye, held it over my head, flexed my biceps and cracked it down on his head with all the strength I could muster. His slimy green-gray skin split open. It had a sickening sheen, and ungodly luster.
“Go away,” I said. I did not recognize my own voice. “Stay away. Just stay far, far away.”
“I can’t,” he said. The large pores of his face opened up, while the skin took on the appearance of putty. He had not even flinched when I hit him as hard as I could with my piece of iron.
“You could at least have the decency to hit me with your body. You could at least respect me enough to touch me,” he said. “You bitch.”
Tears streamed down my face.
He laughed. The voice was somewhere between a rasp and a laugh; he held his hand to his head as though he suffered from the kind of paralyzing grief that takes one to the outer bounds of decency, not to mention life.
“You won’t touch me. You wouldn’t dare,” he said. “If you did, it would take us back to the beginning.”
Cold mercury, so heavy a liquid that it penetrates the pores, invades the skin, blood vessels, and leaves unfortunate ones utterly mad. The heart paralysis was almost instantaneous. My lungs and throat filled with cold, sticky, sour honey.
With difficulty, I inhaled. My voice was thick with mucous. The whispers were obscene.
“You killed me.”
“You’ve got it backwards.”
His eyes receded. They were cold, silver marbles. I collapsed on the floor. The moon and its awkward, smirking leer swirled around the blue fog.
The last thing I remembered was the scent of carnations.
I awakened to the pink glow of dawn. I was in the bed next to the sheer curtains in front of the French doors that opened to a balcony overlooking the
With a start, I sat bolt upright in my bed. I remembered.
I looked down. Next to my bed was another shoebox filled with $100 bills.