essay

The TV is on late at night, playing through the darkness of the house, playing with my sleep. A new war dawns over and over and over on the screen. An explosion thousands of miles away illuminates the living room. I press the mute button. Why listen to the noise, when peace for me can be accomplished by simple silence?

Immense sums have been invested to camouflage our soldiers against the new death, which is the same as the old death, but not to armor them against the enemy’s ubiquitous homegrown ingenuity. A simple gaze across history shows that the number of boys who are allowed to become men is limited by old men, who pretend to know nothing about it. For reasons of equality this population reduction now includes women, and those eliminated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq arrive in my living room on C-17 transports, or so I am told by a reporter, since they only descend to earth after midnight, in deep secrecy.

Our fighters have been cautioned to stifle expressions of pleasure in successful killings, because a war without emotion is held to be clean and just and good. We are better than the enemy, for whom the act of mass murder yields a collective religious exaltation. Do the victims care? Shoot me kindly, shoot me for a righteous ideology, or don’t shoot me at all.

The human body is less aerodynamic than a potato: a potato is ejected from a mud house that has just been shattered on TV by an American rocket, a house that was somebody’s world: not a big fat American world, but somebody’s world.

“We got that sucker big time!” escapes from the soldier who called in the air strike. None of the body parts, bits of a radio, plastic tubs and buckets, nor a thin mattress land in the darkness of my house, but the debris collects somewhere in that bottomless pit called television, where hundreds of thousands of dead bodies go. It’s the New Hades.

The dog lies with her head on the pillow. She watches a video loop that leads up to the destruction of a tank whose price is unknown to those of us who paid for it. Fated to die a thousand deaths on the news channels of the world, its passengers shared stifled fear and stale cheese whiz without humor mere moments ago.  Did they suspect that the old men of the Meddling West, sent them to redistribute resources that do not belong to us, including our children’s futures? At the moment of their obliteration, will they understand that the men who run the show in Washington, D.C., don’t have the skill to decide what necktie to wear to a press conference? Will it dawn on these baby ducks in warrior wear, that the old males who have sent them to wander aimlessly in the world’s ideological vortices, don’t give a fuck what happens to them?

Americans are hampered by religious instruction that has never actually been clear to them. “Thou shalt not kill,” is not, and never was, a universal call to disarmament and nonviolence. God simply reserves murder, especially mass murder, for himself. In modern legal terms, the taking of life belongs to The State. The State is composed of old men, who are the true gods on earth.

Citizen shoppers interviewed at a mall send support to our dead troops. They say, Thank-you for killing bad people of a different religion who live somewhere on a map that is utterly blank to us; thank-you for dying so that we no longer must fear dangers that do not exist.

Fighter jets land in my living room, as if the carpet is the deck of a spacious aircraft carrier, docked under a blue sky, somewhere in America. Kids tie yellow ribbons to a chain-link fence, as did the youth of Rome and Carthage. We insist that lies protect children, but when and how do we switch from telling lies to telling the truth that war is neither necessary nor praiseworthy? The trick of war is to produce suffering on a level that is unendurable for civilians and enemy soldiers alike, and to keep it up until the other side gives up, but inevitably, we end up doing this unendurable thing to ourselves.

A WWII veteran dredges for anecdotes that will please the media. Weighed down by the knickknacks of war that oppress his sunken chest, the old man mumbles that the Good War years were the best of his life. Nostalgia penetrates the ether like honeysuckle scent, and I know I’m being told that today’s ruinous war will be remembered with deep affection by future television production companies. “We got those slant-eyed suckers big time!” the old soldier tells America. He adds that the shock from bombs falling near his foxhole burst his eardrums; that bullets from a Japanese fighter that strafed their foxhole made his buddy’s body dance like a rag doll; that a third buddy survived, but spent the rest of his life rotting in a VA psycho ward, very far off camera.

The war was wonderful,” the old man says. “My memories help me to sleep.”

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Essay / “War Helps Me to Sleep”

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AUGUST provides that sliding feeling, down into winter. This year it’s a sly slope. It’s hot, so hot, the climate changing, revving up like a global fireball. The afternoon heat is a drug that drags the eyelids shut; the body is heavy and limp, the brain cooked and confused. The garden is sad and lovely, the sedums happy, the bachelor buttons itchy, dry, gone to seed, stems cracking, bending, blown to the ground by the nuclear winds of the sun. The wild prickly pear made their big play back in June. At rest now, they snore behind their barbs, their fat pads safe from every agent except my shovel. Divide and conquer: jab at joints, pull drapes of hairy roots from the sand; dump in the trash can. Relinquish the yellow summer corpses to their destiny as nutrients for next year. The garden is lovely but sad. Summer slides away into a few paradisial hours of fall and then winter crashes down like scenery struck from a stage, the curtain dropped, color gone, the land colorless.

AUGUST is the time of weeds. A sci-fi end-of-the-world month, quiet beyond normal, normally quiet, our town is not much more than a roadside stop in the wilderness. There are two wildernesses here, two dimensions of The West. The desert is nature’s wild child, the other wilderness belongs to man. My house is barely a house, furnishing  a hot shower, a cooking stove and electric lights. It’s an old lady camp, with laundry burning on the line, burnt dry, smelling of ozone: purified. The dog creates an animal rhythm in my house. It’s a barefoot house, both winter and summer. My feet love my house.

August, Paleolithic

August, 3 million B.C.E.

 

Wild Brain / Prose Poetry

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essay, Everyday Wyoming, Geology / Earth / Nature, Journal, Journal Wyoming, Photography

Telemarketeer (circa 1997)

“Wyoming never was anyone’s destination.” Guzman

In my now-and-then capacity as a telemarketer for the local newspaper, I have been addressed as Sir, Son, Ma’m, Dear, and Dude. The confusion produced by my telephone voice began when I was about ten years old, the result of an innocent quirk of nature (an alto voice) that caused my mother so much embarrassment that she directed me to speak in a higher, more feminine voice, insisting that if I did so, the change would become permanent. Her idiotic suggestion did not win my compliance, and to this day, the people I ring up on behalf of the local newspaper call me Sir, Son, Ma’am, or Dude and I let them think whatever they wish.

As TV journalists like to say, “the vast majority” of copies of the weekly consumer flyer designated The Guide are delivered to residents within the only two towns in our county. Of the 30,000 copies printed each week, 350 must be mailed to outlying households, a service for which the United States Postal Service charges the publishers $125.00 per week. The postal authorities have decided that we (that’s me) must obtain the names of 8,000 people who will admit that they wish to receive The Guide, otherwise the Postal Service will no longer permit the 350 copies to be mailed at bulk rate.

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About Our County (not the entire state, just our county)

Imagine an area the size of Massachusetts. Remove the vegetation, the thriving cities and towns, the ethnic culture, the restaurants, the shopping, the seafood, the numerous institutions of research and higher learning, the cultural arts, professional sports teams, and all but 35,000 of its people. Add bitter alkaline soil, a uniformly high and lifeless plateau (average altitude 6,100′) and precipitation on a par with the Mongolian Steppe.

True, a river does flow through the area like the Nile crosses Egypt, but without delivering a single bucket of fertile sediment. Too barren for cattle, Pronghorn, coyote, and rabbit compose a tentative fauna. Hordes of sheep are trucked in during February because the vast public lands mean they can be rotated to a different grazing patch every two to three days. I wrote a poem one day while honking my way through a confused mass of mutton that was blocking the road.

The sheep have returned; white lice in Paradise.

Over the brief time that I’ve lived in Wyoming, contact with my neighbors has for the most part been via the phone calls I make on behalf of the newspaper’s ongoing survey. When someone answers the phone I say, “This is The Buckaroo Guide calling to verify that you still wish to receive The Guide.” The usual response is uh, or uh-huh, both of which mean yes, so I quickly confirm the address as it appears in the phone book. Good enough, but in an extraordinary number of instances, the phone number does not belong to the person listed in the phone book. This invalidates the response, and I must ask the person to reveal his or her correct address and identity. Shockingly, he or she invariably complies. The percentage of disconnected numbers is also high: area jobs depend on oil and gas production and coal and trona (baking soda) mining, industries that guarantee a transient population.

About half the respondents don’t recognize the free paper as The Guide, so I prompt them with, “The free Tuesday paper, the shopper’s guide, you know, the one that has the TV listings inside?” Everyone gets it then, although a few say, “Oh! That thing I find in my bushes every Tuesday.” Which is true. An alarming number of residents fear that we intend to take it away from them or that we will start charging for it. One woman said, “Well, if it’s a bother, I guess you can stop bringing it.” Another meekly replied, “No, I don’t want it anymore – is that OK?”

Some say positive things such as, “We love that little paper.” “I sure do need that TV Guide,” and “Don’t leave me without the grocery store coupons.” A teenager responded wryly, “My mother and her husband aren’t here. Call back.” Stereotypical husbands must “ask the wife.” “I’m not in a decision-making position in this house,” admitted one.

“My wife just got laid off and I’m kinda gettin’ that way too.” What this had to do with receiving a free paper, I’m not sure. I worry about folks who contrive to make me decide whether to say “yes” or “no” for them, and about a man who shouted, “Come over for a soft drink, a cup of coffee, and Ritz crackers.”

A high percentage of those who wish to stop delivery cite failing eyesight or blindness. “I always have the TV on, why do I need a TV guide?” an elderly gentleman asked. Despair overcomes me whenever I intrude on what imagine to be a tiny human black hole at the center of a room-sized galaxy, surviving on energy sucked from an excruciatingly loud television set, with the furnace set on Hell, and in the company of a sole surviving houseplant that was packed into potting soil in 1952, its one withered leaf gasping for the CO2 that the old human can no longer supply in sufficient quantity.

The phone book is crammed with names that are new to me: Likwartz, Labuda, Bodyfelt, Copyak, Bozovich, Blazovich, Chewning, Bilyeu, Crnich, Cukale, Delanneoy, Depoyster, Fagnant, Holopeter, Jauregui, Jelouchan, Lovercheck, Manhard, Warpness, and more. Between 1850 and 1950, this corner of Wyoming attracted an international ensemble of men looking for the worst work on earth; mining, logging and the UPPR railroad. Alas, names are the only lasting evidence of a diverse cultural heritage, which is not surprising in an environment that defeats human effort and paralyzes the psyche.

A friend who grew up in a coal camp north of town contends that by the 1950’s, everyone had become the same. “Everybody just looked and sounded the same,” he said. “Bleak, beaten up, defeated.”

I continue to jot down amazing names: LaDonna LaCroix, Season Lower, Ty Harder,  Larry Hell, Numa Grubb, Jack Leathers, Bert Mexican, Edwardo Wardo, Osmo Ranta, Clint Chick, Caddy Cackler, Fyrn Coon, Rhett Coy, Theron Dye, Deena & Alle Jo Butters, Kamber Bink Backman, Wanda Hodo, Hushlen Cochrun, Tex Jasperson, Cyma Cudney, Bubb Buh. And the surnames – Uncapher, Sweat, Warpness, Chitica, Laundra, Tonette.

Another melancholy evening as a telemarketer: one phone exchange took off on a sad energy of its own. I don’t recall what set the woman off, but she said that as a young bride, she had agreed to follow her husband into the Colorado mountains for a three-month try at a mining job. The pair stayed to raise four kids before moving to Wyoming.

“Eighteen years in Colorado, eighteen here,” she said. A symmetrical life at least. Her husband still works as a miner and drives a “twelve-mile-long dirt road with 291 ditches” to work and back, which worries her. “I can’t believe that my life is all gone,” she sighed.  “After eighteen years we still don’t know anyone in this town,” she lamented. Me neither; my rubber dingy ran aground here a short two years ago and I’ve been busy getting to know the landscape.

“We’re sorry, you have reached a marriage that has been disconnected or is no longer in service.” No longer connected are Duke + Sandra; Don + Darla; Eldon + LaRie; Cactus + Tammy; Amber + Travis; Hava + Holly; Jay + Dee Dee.

It could be 1955 outside the newspaper office, except that this was an exciting town back then. Editions of the newspaper from that time are characterized by enthusiasm and pride; by advertisements for roadhouses, dance halls, and social clubs that catered to every interest, age and hobby. There were restaurants and stores. A full plate of gossip and local news kept people connected. Flipping through the newspaper archives makes me wish I had wandered here a half century ago. Today’s main street is a dreary alignment of gas stations, concrete block motels, and tire and auto body shops, punctuated by weedy lots and businesses that stick to the Interstate interchange at either end of town like cultural antibodies guaranteed to fight off growth and prosperity.

Journal / Telemarketeer

Aside
essay, Everyday Wyoming

Two yard sales are located conveniently uphill (and upscale) from my house, in a neighborhood of brick houses with attached garages that have real doors. My neighbor’s house has a two-car garage, but they have hung blue tarps over the entrances instead of doors. Some bright entrepreneur ought to print tarps that look like garage doors.

The tables at the first yard sale were piled with baby clothes and Made in China knickknacks; of no interest to me, but across the street, attached to a fence, was a sign for Free Puppies.

I forgot about pots and pans and Christmas ornaments, dodged traffic to cross to the house where black and white pups were being held prisoner inside a large cardboard box. A pup, only a pup, I thought, lifting a tiny male and drawing him to my chest. A fragment of nature, one more extra mouth, and on the scale of things, unimportant in this big world. But he was a wisp of something innocent and beautiful in my arms, against my chest, in this crummy world.

Poor me, enraptured by his puppy smell, attached to him instantly with the glue of the heart’s nucleus, his soft little body, all white with black speckles, in my arms, to stay, so instead of kitchen towels, rusty planters, or used garden tools, I came home with IT and the resident canines were furious.

The Invincible Madams

The Invincible Madams

The puppy was thoroughly, indecently sniffed by my two females, who barked at the speckled boy as if he were a snake that had dared to slither onto the kitchen floor. Miss Piss the Elder, refused to share even a small space with him and left the room as soon as he crawled within six feet of her, but eventually she returned to watch the abomination through the doorway. The younger aunty was a bit more congenial, watching the invader from close up, but she jumped into the air with a yelp whenever his little nose reached out to touch hers. Number three (counting me) in the household, she is not about to yield one pat of attention to a spotted pup.

Apparently there is some doggy time limit within which an “invader” is expected to disappear: the ladies began hyperventilating in my direction, demanding that I evict the object that had trespassed into their home, although they were doing a fine job of it themselves, confining him within a tiny space on the floor with astonishingly meaningful growls and bared teeth.

Poor little pup – transported from the safety of the litter; helpless, and yet bold enough to face a beast whose head loomed like the Gorgon over his small body. Nature has sent him into the world immune to the poking noses and bared teeth, the cacophony of rejection. He is determined to be embraced by the tyrannical madams. Why do they not relent??  The two ladies didn’t care how much I wanted that tiny speckled boy to join our home. Why should they?

After hours of expressing their indomitable will, I had to confess that I was unwilling to have my days and nights made into snarling hell, and to break the aunties’ hearts by disrupting our satisfying triad. The house is quiet again and the dogs doze in the yard. Do they dream of the speckled boy? Have they encoded a shared myth of the time they repelled a repugnant outsider, forced on them by their beloved, but fickle, mistress? Has my flagrant disloyalty hurt their loyal hearts? Having forcefully reminded me of the duties of leadership, I returned the speckled beast to where I found him. I will be forgiven. They are dogs and could do no less.

The pup’s scent lingers here and there on my jacket, on the edge of the water bowl, on the kitchen floor. I strip off my clothes and toss them into the washer. His smell must be washed away, for my benefit, as well as theirs.

Journal / Unwelcome Spotted Dog

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IMG_0641altfb WP

To write about Wyoming, you must write about the wind, about what you can know through your skin. Objects that can be seen may lie one-hundred miles away, but the wind touches you, raising dust and sand to the level of your attention and forces you to inhale the earth  itself.

This place is all erosion; the proof of this can be seen at the passage into night when the hills, especially where they fall to the river, are pulled taught by the angled sunlight like a well-made bed. In lending shape to the land, late-formed shadows expand the awareness of size.

This place is all size; the truth of this can be seen in the smallness of man’s works, in a town broken into small golden pixels beneath a line of rocky noses, isolated by canyons that began as veins where water flows.

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essay, Journal Wyoming

To write about Wyoming, you must write about the wind

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Me

Who I was Supposed to be.

The Dreaded VBS

My cousin Bette hated her curly red hair, but her mother and the other females of the family told her that her hair was beautiful and that she’d love it after she grew up, but they lied. Women lie constantly because they think doing so will make their children feel better. My mother was the only one who wasn’t lying. She loved Bette’s impossible hair, but regretted having given birth to my fence-straight bob. The lie didn’t stop Bette from shrieking and whimpering whenever my aunt yanked a comb through her Orphan Annie halo, or whacked her with the hair brush, a stroke of love which was supposed to stop her tears. The result was that Bette’s adult life was wasted in a sad quest to have someone else’s hair.

My cousin’s hair had nothing to do with an unexpected event that changed my life, except that it occurred during our yearly visit to my mother’s relatives. I don’t recall the version of Christianity her family followed out of the thousands of micro brews available. My uncle was a little Scotch bastard, so they may have been Presbyterians. Fortunately for the rest of us, he  disappeared on Sundays in his black and red Mercury convertible to play golf.  It would have been like him to demand that the family go to church while he drank scotch at the country club bar. My relatives’ place of worship didn’t hand out ‘Get-out-of-Hell-Free’ cards for a weekly donation, and the congregation didn’t stand, kneel, or sing much. In lieu of wine, grape juice was passed through the pews in small paper cups like the ones dentists used to provide, followed by trays of white bread croutons. My mother, who was a fan of high religious frou-frou, was scandalized. How could materials available in any grocery store be expected to turn into the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ? From her I learned that if one is dressing God’s play, one had better provide quality props.

My mother was paid to sing at weddings and other church-hosted events before she married my father, a vocation that exposed her to a range of worship styles. Based on this early market research, she chose to ally our family with the Episcopalians, who dressed well and sang the beautiful songs that she liked to sing, plus she got to share coffee and donut holes with exceedingly prosperous people, a ritual that helped her to push aside her childhood poverty for a few minutes. My mother never questioned the church’s edict that women must cover their heads in the sanctuary; poverty and abuse had prepared her to accept shame. She and the other women did subvert the prejudice by turning the ban into a fashion hobby. I liked her multitude of fancy hats, regardless of the complex sociology involved.

“Wear the Donald Duck hat,” I would say when she couldn’t decide which one to wear and we were late. Dad, the engineer, believed that Newton’s laws were as applicable to human psychology as to aircraft design, so instead of wasting energy opposing  mother’s inertia, he sat at the kitchen table like a big dog waiting to be taken for a walk. The famous Donald Duck hat was shaped like a pancake with a projection in front that resembled a duck’s bill. My mother adopted my nickname for the hat, which pleased me. Too often she took offhand comments to be criticism. My mother badly needed to lighten up.

I might have developed into an acceptable American had my mother heeded my plea for lenience regarding Vacation Bible School that summer. “School? It’s supposed to be summer vacation.”

“Your cousin Bette is going, so you are going.” My mother had noticed a reluctant streak that appeared whenever I was asked to participate in group activities like Brownie Scouts or school plays. What would be next, a boycott of beauty pageants? The previous year she had shoved me in front of the cameras, and shockingly, I became the local Kiwanis Club’s Miss Peanut. When shown my idiotic picture in the newspaper I seethed with embarrassment: had my parents been aware of such things, they would have recognized that their female child was the reincarnation of a stodgy old Roman whose core directive was gravitas, but they weren’t. The thought that I might fail to socialize in the accepted feminine way caused my mother to push back sporadically, while my father encouraged the trend, probably because she made him wait for everything. My mother recognized that she had given birth to a child that she didn’t like and it made her furious.

Bette’s older sister, who was soon to depart into an embarrassing adult life as the wife of a bigamist Venezuelan deep sea diver, dropped us off at the church, where we were seated with other kids our age at a table set on the lawn. Adult supervisors handed each of us a blue felt board and paper cutouts of Jesus and several loose sheep. Jesus had those spooky Sunday School eyes that look nowhere and everywhere, letting kids know that like Santa Claus, he knows if you’ve been good or bad. The sheep gazed upward with unmistakable religious fervor. It was just too obvious.

Spooky Jesus

Spooky Jesus

The adults instructed us to press the paper figures to the fabric until they stuck. I looked to my cousin and the other children, expecting one of them to ask why we were doing this, but they were busy making decisions: should Jesus float high above the flock or should he take an egalitarian stance among them? I tilted my board to study the symbolic problem. An errant breeze caught the paper cut outs, which fluttered momentarily, then fell onto the grass. Cousin Bette and another girl began to shriek. “Look what you did! You let Jesus touch the ground.”

“Hurry! Hurry! Pick him up.” they screeched, as if the three second rule applied to images of deities.

“Stop shouting,” I told my cousin. “It’s just a piece of paper.”

“No it is not!” she screamed. “It’s Jesus and you let him touch the ground and you are in big trouble!”

“God is gonna punish you,” gasped the other girl, who apparently expected a bolt of lightning or other crude Biblical barbarity to take me out in front of her very eyes.

A bad feeling passed through me, a feeling that would become familiar; a sinking feeling, as if a scary universe had been substituted for the familiar one. In this other universe grape juice and crackers turned into blood and 2000 year-old human flesh was eaten – ordinary people volunteered to be cannibals, and this was supposed to make them happy. The discovery that religion wasn’t a harmless piece of theatre made me question the motives of adults. Everything they presented as absolute truth was suddenly open to discussion. Bette and the other children had been taught that pieces of paper had the power to hurt them.  What was worse, they believed that a small girl deserved to be punished because the wind blew a picture of a man onto the ground.

How I Became a Renegade

Aside
essay, Journal, Words to live by:

I finally know something about most of the people and places that eventually produced me. I found a family, but only by skipping my parents’ generation.

I was the only member of my family interested in tracing genealogical history. My father kept his ancestry secret, except to say that he hated Germans; his mother was German, and he hated her. This was irrational: He was German. And why hate an entire nation of people just because you hate your mother?

My Welsh ancestors experienced the takeover of Britain by my Anglo-Saxon - Dane ancestors

My Welsh ancestors experienced the takeover of Britain by my Anglo-Saxon – Dane ancestors

My mother’s family were poor Welsh people who had come across the sea in stinking little ships like millions of other immigrants around 1890-1900, in order to escape the coal mines and British oppression. My grandfather found work pulling giant sheets of tin off rollers in a mill 12 hours a day. It wrecked his health and the family was still poor thanks to greedy and brutal factory owners who saw immigrants as cheap exploitable labor (like Americans see distant populations in poor and totalitarian countries today.) The old Welsh ladies couldn’t remember much of life in the ‘Old Country’ and didn’t seem interested in genealogy at all. Life began when they stepped off the boat in Baltimore.

My father’s mother’s ancestors weren’t difficult to find. A ship of Bavarians and other Germans arrived in Patterson, New Jersey in 1854. A young man and woman met on board and married. He worked for the Erie Railroad, then moved on to railroads in Ohio. She produced ten sons who all lived to adulthood and became railroaders. My father’s mother descended from this line of successful people. Why would my father be ashamed of his ancestors? His father’s family was another story; misinformation,  wrong leads, veiled secrets, a blank page three generations back. Three males: a father and two sons “farmed out” as indentured servants to separate farm families. My father’s misrepresentation of his father’s line as suspicious and untraceable threw me off as he intended.

ErieRailroad201303

Our surname is not common, and only one distant family turned up as a possibility: Germans who helped establish Germantown, PA, but had Anglicized their name. This couldn’t be the bunch of riff-raff my father alluded to! I worked forward from that end and found that indeed, our line was connected, but apparently ‘we’ were less successful descendants that moved to Ohio from Pennsylvania; a common result of land division. But there was nothing to be ashamed of – these were hard-working pacifist farmers that typified the American story.

I’m currently tracing a sliver of ancestry that I had ignored: It turns out I’m partly Anglo-Saxon after all.

An old saying: Keep a bad man on your side.

An old saying: Keep a bad man on your side.

Saturday in Wyoming / Discovering my Ancestors

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