Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Harsh Light of Day

See Part 1: A Fire in the Desert

My grandfather was a force to be reckoned with. He saw himself as a light in the desert at night, trying to show people the way. There is no doubt that wherever he went, he left an impression - but not everyone got the same impression. People have always told me that "perception is reality," but what do you do when the harsh light of day shows that your perception does not match reality? What do you trust?

Grandpa always trusted his perception - even if it was at the expense of what others called reality. I was enthralled by the power of his storytelling, but I quickly learned not to repeat or echo back the parts of the stories that I found most entertaining, because I had a tendency to pick up on those colorful bits of embellishment that he added for emphasis - things that weren't exactly factual, but made the story feel true - and that would earn me a rebuke from Grandma (for lying about what Grandpa had said) or from Grandpa (for missing the point of what he was trying to tell me).

His engaging tall tales about growing up in the South and his ever-evolving stories about his exploits serving in the Navy during World War II were, if not factually precise, intended as morality plays. His more immediate stories of bringing Salvation to random strangers he met during his day-to-day wanderings were, if not verifiable, meant to show the wickedness and unreliability of the world. And of course, when he told a story from the Bible, that was unquestionable - even if his version didn't exactly match the infallible text. The thread running through all of it was Jesus; every story, every tale, every anecdote was, at its core, about how much better the World would be if it would just listen to Jesus (as related by Grandpa, of course).

Sometime in the dim, early reaches of my memory, Grandpa had an nasty fall. He was working as a building inspector in downtown Phoenix and fell off of a building he had been climbing. His knees were destroyed, and he spent a great deal of the rest of his life in and out of the VA hospital for various surgeries to repair or replace his joints. It happened that one of his visits occurred during my junior year of high school and coincided with a new knee replacement at the hospital where my girlfriend's neighbor worked as a nurse.

As was expected, when Grandpa came home from the hospital he began to regale us excitedly about what a blessing it had been for him to be the instrument of the Lord in that place; how he had prayed with all of the nurses and Saved them all - reinforcing his perception that there was a Higher Purpose to his suffering, and that Jesus was using his pain to win souls.

But when I asked my girlfriend's neighbor, the nurse, about Grandpa's story, she told a slightly different version. "Oh, yeah," she said, "I remember Mr. Clark. He wouldn't let us change his bedpan or give him any meds until we prayed with him. I accepted Jesus eight times, just so I could finish my rounds."

Clearly, perception differed from reality in the harsh light of day.

As a youngster, I took Grandpa at face value and in every literal way possible. Being young, I didn't question much of what I was told by trusted sources, like Grandpa. The other adults in my life all reinforced what he taught me, though in hindsight, there were a lot of signs that I didn't pick up on that should have told me how disturbed they were by some of his attitudes about things like race and politics. But for the sake of Jesus, they never openly contradicted what he said and I came to perceive a reality where everything was rooted in a concept of Jesus that matched Grandpa's perception.

I took my perception of reality to school with me, and this is where the conflict arose.

My classmates bore the brunt of my evangelical fervor. Most tried to ignore me, but some of them would engage in heated arguments about evolution, the evils of pop culture, religion, politics, or whatever came up. I argued with atheist kids, with Mormons (the Southern Baptist's natural enemy), or with "normal" kids who just found my constant judgment to be annoying. When my behavior became so disruptive that my parents felt moved to transfer me (and my sister) to a private Christian school, we all expected things to get better simply by removing me from influences of the Rest of the World. But even though the atheist kids were no longer there, I still found fault in the various "non-denominational" Christians who surrounded me.

To my mind, their failure as Christians to live up to my expectations was even worse than the failure of non-Christians to perceive my version of reality, and I felt it was my duty to shine a light on their darkness. It was that sense of duty combined with my perception of their failure to fit with my concept of the rules that drove me, at times, to violent protest.

Several years ago, my son exhibited similar behavioral problems. He has since been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Looking back, I have to wonder if my struggles to relate in these social situations were due to a condition of my own. As hard as it is today to explain autism, it would have been impossible to diagnose when I was a kid, let alone treat as a medical condition. Whatever was driving me - undiagnosed Asperger's or just religious zealotry - even the administrators at our Christian school and the leaders in our church couldn't put up with that kind of excessive behavior. I was outraged that they didn't take my side - after all, I perceived that I was fighting the Good Fight. For a long time, I followed Grandpa's pattern of blaming the backsliders and hypocrites for conspiring against me - but in the harsh light of day, I was forced to recognize that just because I perceived certain things to be true, no one else was obligated to see things my way.

Eventually, I came to understand that no one's perception controlled what was real. However hard I believed, however deeply I needed to believe it, the world stubbornly refused to change to fit my perception. And somewhere in there I shifted from being someone who took the stories and tried to fit the facts to support them to being someone who asked questions and followed the evidence until the facts made sense.

I started trying to perceive reality as it was - not the way a lonely kid who grew up in the desert wanted it to be, and not the way a kid who looked up to his Grandfather was told to see it. And once I started holding my own perceptions accountable, I was on a collision course with Grandpa's.

There was never a single incident or argument that I could point to as The Moment when things turned. I couldn't bring myself to openly contradict him. Even though I still loved dinosaurs and space, and his claims about those things were clearly wrong, I felt like I was supposed to just let him say what he wanted about those things and let it go. If I even hinted at contradicting his version of reality, I would earn a lecture about respecting my elders.

I think it was music that sparked the real rift.

I have always loved music. To me, music was a language that didn't depend on meaning. I gave it meaning. It brought me joy, but that joy always came from inside me - and in that sense, the music that I loved was a part of me. I attributed the joy to Jesus - as a young evangelical kid is taught to do - and I remember showing Grandpa the music I was into; mainly pieces of the budding evangelical tribal culture of the 1980s.

I had a number of LPs and cassettes by people like the Gaithers and the Continental Singers. The Continentals had a touring production of their musical about Joseph called The Dreamer, which was supposed to correct the "errors" of the more popular (and secular!) Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. A school friend introduced me to guys like Steve Taylor and Carman, who mocked the secular world while they parodied the pop music of the time. I remember expecting Grandpa to be proud of me for sticking it to the World, and for staying true to Jesus while embracing something that made me feel as alive as music did.  

Instead, I got a lecture about how Satan used the secret messages of those African tribal drums to infect good, honest Christian culture. I was shocked, though having seen some of his rants about "hippies" - sparked by TV ads for the annual Easter showing of Jesus Christ Superstar on the local independent station - I should not have been. This was different from his attack on dinosaurs and astronauts. Those were just childhood dreams, but music was more visceral. When he attacked the music, Grandpa was attacking an essential piece of my heart. It was as deeply personal as if he were criticizing me for having hazel eyes and made even less sense to me than attacking me for having hair that was slightly longer than he thought appropriate.

This was too much for me. This was really the first time that I recognized that everything anyone did or said, no matter how well intentioned they were, could be twisted into some theoretical schism with Jesus's Word (as understood by Grandpa) or some plot by Satan to distract us from that Word. It had nothing to do with reality; it was a wrestling match between perceptions, and I realized that it was a game that nobody won. Ever.

That was really when I dug in and began to trust my own judgment over his.

I don't remember the rest of that discussion about music, but I remember standing up for myself.  I remember throwing Matthew 7:1-3 at him, which didn't go over well. And after that, even though I had been saved in the church and even though I believed just as hard as he did, I was now a backslider in his perception, and I needed to be Saved... properly.

The comments were ever-present. He never came out swinging, but Grandpa had a talent for saying things that were framed innocently while being designed to be provocative.  I could either ignore them (and he made it clear that this meant tacitly agreeing with him) or challenge them (which was the fight he wanted). I had to learn to let go, and find my own way.

By the time I enlisted in the Air Force, I had taken the first steps toward leaving the evangelical tribal culture behind. I had learned to take Grandpa's stories - including things that he didn't think of as "stories" - in the spirit intended. He saw his actions as an expression of love; he wanted me to go to heaven and to be happy. Early on, I think he saw the possibility that I might become a preacher myself, and carry on his quest to save the World (even if the World just wanted to get the bedpans changed and go home). Later, I think he just wanted to steer me away from what he perceived as dangers - whether they were actually dangerous or not.

When he found out I was joining the military, he was proud, and he pulled me aside to tell me about his experiences. He warned me of the "traps" he had fallen into as a serviceman in the U.S. merchant marines; his cocaine and heroin habits (which I had never heard him mention before) on top of his drinking and smoking (which I had). He told me how he had been singing in a night club on shore leave in Italy, and had been approached by a U.S. Army Major who wanted to recruit him to sing in his USO band - but that Major, one Glenn Miller, had disappeared in Africa before the transfer papers went through. Needless to say, the details he told me didn't add up with official accounts, but I understood by then that they were true enough for stories, and that he was really telling me he loved me.

Grandpa passed away in 2002, about a year after I returned to Arizona from serving overseas in the Air Force with my young family. I had known his health was declining for a while, so as soon as we returned to the States, we visited Grandma and Grandpa in their RV, which was hooked up on the San Carlos Apache Reservation outside of Peridot, AZ. I had told my wife about him, naturally, and she was almost terrified to meet him. She knew he had strong opinions about tattoos and how a wife should behave, and she didn't want to be resented by anyone in my family. But when they finally met, Grandpa was overwhelmingly sweet. He complimented her tattoo, and dandled the baby on his knee (which had recently been replaced again) while recounting his adventures on a Liberty ship taking lend-lease materiel to Murmansk through a German submarine convoy in 1941.

We had a wonderful (if short and hot) visit. Kate was relieved that Grandpa hadn't criticized her or tried to Save her - but she wondered why he kept calling her "Karen." The explanation for the name slips and the apparent change of character was horrible and simple: Alzheimer's. He had been suffering from the slow decline of Alzheimer's related dementia for years.

It is a horrific thing that a disease like this can alter your perceptions without you knowing it. The more we learn about the human brain, the more we understand that it is a delicate marvel and how easily it can be deceived. We have evolved to look for patterns, which can either be a problem solving blessing, or can mislead us with phenomena like pareidolia. We learn more all the time about how memory works (or doesn't) and how unreliable we are as eyewitnesses. There are so many reasons why, in the harsh light of day, I had to reject Grandpa's perceptions - but Alzheimer's magnified the problem because there is no way of knowing how many years it worked in him, chewing away at his memories and altering his perceptions. I have no way of knowing how much of his life was driven by a disease.

Perception is reality. It's only your reality, though. It's the only reality you ever know, even though you can never trust it. You must question everything, test it against evidence that doesn't depend on your perception, and be willing to alter your perception to match actual reality. When it comes to others, be patient; we aren't always in control of what we can see. I think we are all trying to do the best we can, and we cling to whatever we think we can trust. Try not to waste your precious time together being angry that we aren't seeing the same things the same way.

While it's impossible to know how much the disease had to do with altering his basic character, I choose to see the sweet man we said goodbye to as the real Grandpa. I choose to perceive him in the best possible light - warts and all, flaws proudly on display.

After all, a fire in the desert may cast shadows at night that disappear in the harsh light of day; but without it, the night can get very cold.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Fire in the Desert

This is a true story, though it may not be factual. I've been told that the Devil is in the details; but I've also been told that God is in the details. Either way, whatever the facts may have been, however I may have misheard or mis-remembered the details, this is the story I know. You may have your own - feel free to write it down.

The preacher roamed the wilderness of the desert Southwest for 50 years in a series of new and used recreational vehicles, his wife by his side, always seeking receptive souls to bring to the Lord. He raised a son who went to Vietnam and two daughters - all three raised sons of their own. He built houses, sank wells, raised chickens and rabbits, saved souls, started churches - and moved on, always moved on.

He was a big man with a big voice, a broad smile, a ready laugh, and a proverbial fire in his belly. He once joked that this was why he ate so much when he visited us. His hair, what was left of it by the time I knew him, was usually a close-cropped white stubble that seemed to grow wild and wispy over night. I thought of him as a bald man, but he always claimed to need a haircut.

"Grandpa," I would exclaim, "You're bald! Why do you need a haircut?"

And his laugh would boom, and he would start to relate to me a tale about Jesus telling all men to keep their hair off their collar, not like those... but Grandma would usually swoop in with the clippers and a towel, and hurry him off to our patio for a trim before he could get much further.

He traded camper vans up for RVs, traded the RVs up for pickups with fifth-wheels, and traded the trailers up for mobile homes on an acre of property before deciding he had tied himself down with too many possessions and scaled back down again. No matter where he lived, you would find Grandma with her box of mementos, her organ, their dog, and her quiet hope that some day they would find the right home.

One thing about desert life is its innate mobility. Plants' roots never run deep - they run shallow and broad. Animals may dig in and hide during the heat of the day, but they know to stay on the move if they want to find shade and water. And one place Grandpa could always find some shade and water was under the tree in our driveway.

When Grandma and Grandpa showed up, it was almost always a surprise to us kids. Mom learned not to give us any warning that they were coming to visit, or we would stake out the couch by the big picture window and drive each other crazy with anticipation, shrieking "They're here! They're here!" at every puff of dust on the washboard that was 89th Avenue.

And they would finally roll in, pulling up under the skinny poplar tree where Grandpa would jack, level and brace whatever mobile domicile they were currently living in, and hook up water and electric. He'd run a hose from the sewer line to the poplar tree, and remind us kids that if we used their toilet, only to "run water" in it. When we were little, he'd explicitly tell us, "Only pee-pee and wee-wee in there! No poop-poop!" and we would giggle at the naughty nonsense words and repeat them daringly until we remembered that Grandma was waiting inside.

Most of the time, we could take turns sleeping over in the Camper; no matter what the actual vehicle was, it was always "the Camper" to us. Our favorites were the cab-over motor-homes with their inevitable forward and side windows. I'd fill every spare inch with Star Wars men, posting guards at the corners and locking imprisoned rebels in the cup holders. My sister would pasture her My Little Ponies on and around the dining table. Meanwhile, the grown ups would stay inside with sweating glasses of sweet sun tea, talking about trade-in values, equity, and whatever else grown ups discuss when the kids are out of ear shot.

None of these visits ever lasted long enough for my sister or I, but mom and dad seemed to uncoil a little bit whenever the clouds of dust would follow the caravan du jour down the road toward their next stop - usually my cousin's house a few miles away. Looking back, I can see how my dad, who was always happiest building and tinkering with his handy projects around the property, might have looked forward to not having his father-in-law offering advise on how to build and tinker better. And since they were mom's parents, I could see how maybe there were lingering childhood issues that every family has that made her feel progressively less in control of her own home until the visits were over.

They never said anything to us about it, because they would never say an unkind word about anyone to us. But I think now that maybe the mornings after Grandma and Grandpa drove off after each visit might have been the mornings that mom's old Beatles, Monkees, and Lovin' Spoonful records came out for a spin - replacing Kate Smith's "How Great Thou Art" and Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets" which had seen more prominence the previous few days.

Whatever the adults' issues may have been, I remember treasuring the stories Grandpa told us. If Grandma left him alone with us for any length of time, we would prod and pester him to tell us stories about growing up in Kentucky and Alabama, and when he did, we would sit around him, raptly hanging on every word. This happened most often on Sunday afternoons, after church and the big chicken dinner that mom and Grandma would prepare. I remember sitting close to him, despite the inescapable odors of dust and sweat that plague a man who spends long days driving Arizona back roads. I remember feeling full of chicken and listening to him tell adventurous stories about the things that his brothers got up to, or cautionary tales of drinkers and smokers who ended up badly.

My personal favorite was a memorable tale about the time a young Grandpa had found a perfectly good hat floating on a vat of sheep dip when he took a shortcut through the stock yards. He wore it proudly down the main street, only to have a woman run screaming out of her house, calling the police and demanding that he show her where he found it. When the police dragged a pole through the vat of sheep dip, they found the woman's husband - dead and drowned. He had evidently wandered through the stock yards after a night of heavy drinking and fallen in. Sometimes, when he ended the story, Grandpa would tell us that the woman let him keep the hat - and he would point at his sun-bleached ball cap with the enormous grin of a champion spinner of tall tales.

Grandma was never comfortable with Grandpa's insistence on filling our heads with nonsense, so he would frequently placate her by telling us Bible stories. I know he was incredibly proud that I became such a prolific reader of the Bible, largely because I loved hearing him tell those stories. He always stuck to the standard, relatively kid-friendly stories of Daniel and the Lion's Den or Jesus Walking on the Water; I had to find the Death of Jezebel and the story of what Jael did to General Sisera on my own.

I always figured the Bible stories came naturally to him because Grandpa was a preacher. At least, he would talk about being a preacher; and once or twice, he was invited to give a sermon at our church. In school, when our religion class covered the revival movement of the 1860s, I knew exactly what they were talking about when they described the hellfire & brimstone of the tent revivals, largely because of the impression that my Grandfather made on me from the pulpit. He lit up in front of a congregation, and his oratory would grow olive branches and wind its way along the corners of our plain, unadorned sanctuary turning our little Southern Baptist church into a cathedral - or a great tent, depending on how you view these things.

It didn't occur to me until I was much older to ask why Grandpa, if he was such a grand and wonderful preacher, didn't have a church of his own. By then, I was old enough to recognize how uncomfortable that question made everyone, so I dropped it. I figured out on my own that there is a big difference between being a "preacher" and being a "pastor"; it's rather the same difference between being a revolutionary and running a government after the revolution is over. Following the lead of the adults around me, I accepted Grandpa for what he was; but by that point, I was old enough for Grandpa to begin to show concern about me - and my sister, and my cousins - and our resolve in the Lord, and I began to develop a more nuanced conception why it might be hard to stay in a church (or a house?) with someone who wanted to Save you so badly that they applied a deep scrutiny to every belief.

His preaching was never something that was criticized or questioned in our house. We all supported each other in our dreams and endeavors, after all. But I do remember the occasional incident; times when Grandpa would go out for a gallon of milk, and come back hours later relating how he had spied a young man "with an earring" who had clearly needed to hear the Word of Jesus. Or he would leave Grandma with us while he went "visiting" - coming home late in the evening, bursting with energy and planning to move back to Phoenix and start a revival that would sweep the city!

Even when he did "find a church home," it never seemed to last. There would be excitement; property would be purchased or rented, and funds raised. Ground would be broken, and promises would be made. But eventually, almost never longer than six weeks along, the enterprise would evaporate and Grandma and Grandpa would pack up and drive off disconsolately, shaking their heads, and sadly bemoaning a general lack of faith and unwillingness to hear the Word of the Lord.

I was probably twelve, and at the height of my own religious fervor, when he pointedly asked me about my haircut. I never liked having my hair cut; dad usually did it himself. He used two ancient devices to accomplish this: a rebuilt electric clipper that sparked and clattered like something Thomas Edison might have used on an elephant to show how dangerous electricity was, and a pair of dull trimming shears that seemed to pull out as many hairs as they cut. Being uninterested in either electrocution or plucking, I usually made such a stink about haircuts that dad and I would uneasily circle each other for about a week before he would pounce, sit me on a stool out in our garage, and remove as many offending follicles as he could before the noise started to worry the neighbors.

Grandpa seemed to have some odd ideas about me, though, based on the shaggy state of my coiffure. I didn't understand much of what he was saying - I thought my loafers were kind of heavy, actually - but once I got him to state his insinuation clearly, I was horrified. What did my hair have to do with .... THAT? And once I got over the shock, I asked him how, if Jesus had long hair, it could be related to such a Very Bad Thing?  Was Jesus like that?

This conversation did not go well.

Eventually, mom intervened and sorted all of this out, but it was very confusing to me at the time. After all, you have to understand that I had been saved at age 11, and I was going for some kind of record at age 12 of being more "faithful" than anyone else I knew - faithful, of course, meaning that I was a Reagan-supporting, Republican, pro-life, Dr. James Dobson listener with a passion for shouting down the atheists and backsliders that surrounded me at school. For Grandpa to think otherwise based on my unwillingness to submit to my dad's infrequent torture sessions was appalling.

We had a similarly odd conversation a couple of years later, when Grandpa expected that I might be taking an interest in girls. Obviously satisfied with my orientation, he wanted to caution me about the dangers of "mixing a brown horse and a white horse," to which I replied, "No, Grandpa, that's how you get an Appaloosa - and Appaloosas are AWESOME!"

That conversation also did not go well.

I eventually picked up on several notions that Grandpa harbored in his heart along with his extensive knowledge of Bible stories and personal morality tales. When I got older and read about the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater, and started seeing "conservative" radio and TV hosts gaining popularity in the early 1990s, I recognized many of the ideas that Grandpa had tried to teach me over the years. I remembered how when I was 9 and deeply into dinosaurs, he waited until we were alone in the living room to tell me that Satan had placed their bones in the ground to confuse scientists and to test our faith. I remembered that when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, he reminded me that the space program was just man's foolish attempt to build another Tower of Babel, and that the explosion was God's way of reminding us to stay focused on Jesus.

I remember asking the other adults about some of this stuff, and no one seemed to want to discuss any of it. Grandma would deny that Grandpa had ever said such things, and mom would just steer me onto other topics until I forgot (mostly) about my disappointment.

At the time, though, I hadn't explored any of this very deeply. To me, Grandpa was simply one of the most colorful and admirable people I knew. On balance, he made me feel loved more than judged, and he was clearly proud of me. Maybe his stories exaggerated some details, and maybe some of his beliefs about science were on the questionable side, but he instilled an appreciation for narrative and a love of words that I still cherish. He showed me the beautiful and awkward relationship between fiction and truth.

After I left home on my grand adventures, I didn't see any of the family often, but mom kept me updated on how everyone was doing. And as I went out into the world, some the most deeply rooted ideas I took with me came from the big, bald man who always needed a haircut, and who gave me the gift of stories.

Next week: The Harsh Light of Day

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Death and Heroes

In 2008, one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, took his own life.

I was hurt and angry when I found out; I was also a little scared. This was someone whose work and words I found inspiring and encouraging, and yet he had come to the conclusion that his best option was to opt out. I was just at the beginning of what would turn into several years of private struggles with my own set of adversities, and I was taking his death as something of a warning - that from the outside, you can't tell what someone else's limits are, and that ultimately, we are all alone with our most intimate enemy.

To deal with how I felt, and to process what I was learning about Wallace's private hell and depression in general, I wrote a song called "Get Me Home" (apologies for the demo quality):
"I appreciate the love you give me
But it's not enough
Because it's up to me to get me home."
In the last few years, I've watched other people who you might or might not consider public figures talk about their depression; The Bloggess, Wil Wheaton, and one of my favorites (because I relate so closely to many of her experiences) Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half. They probably aren't what the average person would recognize as "celebrities," but they are brave people who don't hide their pain or their joy; and they want what I want right now: they want you to be alright.

Robin Williams was a celebrity. But like these other folks, and like me, that's not what was important about him. To me, his bravery and honesty, his fear and his unabashed embrace of joy were the things that were important about him. I never met him, and he certainly didn't know who I was, but as I watch the world - the TV, radio, internet, all of my friends and family - react to his loss, I see everyone sharing their favorite moments from his career. Those moments are the evidence of those qualities.

There are the cynics among you who will scoff at another well-off famous person who couldn't handle their too-good life; if that's what you need to feel safe, go ahead and scoff. But for the rest of us - those who are hurting and looking at ourselves and our own struggles with life, I'd like to share one of my favorite moments.

Watch this 5 minute clip from the 1991 Terry Gilliam movie "The Fisher King" and if you haven't seen this film before, pay attention. Then come back here.

When Robin Williams burst exuberantly onto my TV when I was just a kid, he embodied madness. I loved it, because he was putting what I felt inside all the time on display; he was being accepted for being the person that everyone around me told me not to be. He was an epiphany. Even when his jokes didn't work or his character voices fell flat, he still charged brashly out in front of everyone and didn't hold back - and that set me free.

And even at the time, anyone watching him knew - KNEW, without being told - that his life at that time was a drug-fueled piece of performance art. Later, when we saw his Live at the Met performance, he confirmed that. Even though it was a performance, it was honest. You knew he was scared, but instead of hiding from that fear, he turned it into a huge, defiant farce. And many of us watched him work through the self-destructive side of that life and build something better. If you paid attention to his career at all, you gradually realized that while everything he did was a performance, none of it was "fake" - that was why we loved him, even when he was in a colossal piece of crap (looking at you, Popeye).
It was always him up there on the stage running around behaving like a clown, inspiring students and Vietnam soldiers, winning back Neverland, trying to help out Aladdin or trying to love Nathan Lane. Even if you didn't get it or love it, you couldn't deny that he was trying to give you a brilliant gift.

I realized early on that he and I had a lot in common.

That scene in the Fisher King captures this essence. That scene is all about how we perform and put up defenses against getting too close or getting hurt. It says everything that needs to be said about him. His performance - every performance - was a raw display of a man who did not care about the facade he was building. He just loved. Everything he did spoke of that. And he was scared. Everything he did - every joke, every goofy face, every raw, vulnerable moment of quiet showed that he was both terrified and amazed by the world.

As am I.  As are you, if you let yourself feel it.

If you watched that Fisher King clip, but haven't seen the whole film, I'm going to give you a small spoiler. At the end there, when you are seeing him through the window, and he steps to the side, you see his image split into two by the bevel in the glass - that next moment is when his character, Perry, is attacked by "The Red Knight" - the external embodiment of Perry's fear and trauma. It's a confusing and brutal moment of cinema.  When I heard about his death and started seeing my friends and family posting about how surprised they were that Robin Williams of all people would take his own life, that moment is what I thought of. And I wasn't surprised at all.

Because all of us have a "Red Knight". All of us are terrified of this mad, amazing world. Even the brave clowns who dance through the madness are afraid of it. And it can jump out at you from the shadows at the moment when you think you should be your happiest. Your most intimate enemy is always hovering just out of sight.

So I will take two lessons from the life and death of Robin Williams. I will BE joyful, because the world is beautiful and full of love and joy; and I will BE afraid, because it is also dangerous. But I won't let fear of the danger keep me from feeling the joy. I don't let it stop me from loving; and I won't let anyone else pretend that there isn't love and beauty all around just because it feels safer to skip over the scary parts.

And if you need me to, I will help you in any way I can. You may not appreciate how I do it, but I will love you, I will share my amazement with you, and I will sound forth as many barbaric YAWPs as the situation calls for.  (However, unlike Perry, I DO drink coffee.)

The brutally beautiful and honest truth is that it will always be up to you to get you home.  But you're not the only one traveling, and you don't have to fight the Red Knight by yourself.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Stage Fright

Sara shook out her hands, and did some stretches, trying to convince herself that the cold was all in her mind.  Actually, it was all in her stomach.  She felt frozen in her core, and a flush crept up her neck and ears…

She clapped her hands over her eyes and started her breathing exercises.  They not only calmed her, but led into her vocal warm-up.  When she was ready, she stepped into the studio.

Her instrument was on a stand in center of the green stage area, a half-sphere in which she would perform for the world… if they cared to watch.  The dark half of the sphere contained the audio and video pickups, and a large panel would indicate how many subscribers had called up her singing, 3D image on their entertainment centers.  She pushed the thought away.  “Just you in the sphere,” she chanted.  She forbade herself to wonder if anyone would even login for the recital; she had no sponsors or marketing bots to speak of.  It was just word of blog.

Then she picked up the ancient guitar and strapped it on.  The thing dated back to a time when electrons had powered the planet.  It was easy enough to learn to play, but most folks didn’t put their real hands on things any more if they could help it.  Sara relished the bite of wire on fingertip and the ring of real acoustic sound in her ear.

Scales done, warm-up over, she stood in the center, facing out.  Moment of truth time.

She strummed the ancient chords, and began singing the ancient words with her eyes shut.

And when she opened them, she saw the lights indicating the audience… like a million small flames in the dark, winking on one by one.


What did I just read?  Explanations and excuses can be found at this link.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Prissy and Prudence

When I was born, my parents were expecting a daughter and they had a name picked out: Priscilla Jane. Thankfully, my anatomy and their adherence to cultural convention saved me from that fate. By the time my sister came along, though, mom and dad had planned ahead with TWO names (just in case), and this time Priscilla didn't make the cut. So, in the 1980s, when we had the opportunity to adopt a little black toy poodle, mom finally got to use the name on someone who couldn't complain about it.

Prissy joined our household despite the disgust and disdain of our other four-legged resident, a tortoise-shell cat named Prudence. Prudence had dealt with a canine cohabitant before, but Prissy was nothing like our old dog, Maverick. Where Maverick was an affable and good-natured mutt who had welcomed the little kitten into the family several years before (probably establishing a bit of that Alpha dog mystique), while Prissy was  an aptly named intruder on territory that Prudence had come to consider her own.

It didn't help that my sister and I treated Prissy like a celebrity. Competing for her affections, we each tried to coax her to sleep in our respective rooms, and fought over the honor of "taking care of" the dog. Now that I'm older, I realize that Prissy probably didn't appreciate the "stable" that my horse-crazy sister built for her out of Lincoln Logs, and I'm sure she had similar misgivings about my attempts to turn her into the Rancor in my homemade cardboard reproduction of Jabba the Hutt's palace.
This is not a toy poodle.
I suppose it's a credit to Prissy that she didn't let all of the attention go to her head. Or maybe not, since there wasn't much in her head to begin with. She put up with our attempts to relate to her, but she mainly wandered the house doing her own thing. Prudence,being a cat, was at first rather aloof about the whole dog thing. After some sparks struck during their first few meetings, she elected to pretend that there was no dog in her house, and for a while they got along splendidly by not interacting.

This began to change when mom decided to try breeding Prissy. We didn't have papers proving anything, but Prissy was supposed to be a pure poodle, and one of mom's friends had a boy toy (poodle) named Pepper - so they decided to try their hand at animal husbandry. We borrowed Pepper for a week or so when mom predicted Prissy would be "in heat" - and despite the fact that Pepper was a lot younger and smaller than Prissy, apparently magic happened.

Looking back, this was probably where I learned about sexual reproduction, but being both Southern Baptist and born with our family's sense of humor, I don't think I learned about it in as direct and matter-of-fact a manner as I might have under other circumstances. I would hear the adults plotting out Prissy's cycle, and I remember asking what "in heat" meant; I think they told me that was the time in a month when Prissy could have puppies. Since the week came and went with no puppies, I didn't really get the connection until much later.

The connection I did make was with Prissy's array of "gentleman callers" - all of the male dogs in our remote stretch of barely settled desert could smell her, and they would come parading by our house at all hours. Terriers, Shepherds, setters, and a few dodgy looking characters who might not have been entirely domesticated would find their way through our fence and onto our porch, where they would curl up and wait for a glimpse of the source of the alluring scent that was pulling them to our door.

For several years, as I recall, there was an uneasy monthly ritual that surrounded leaving our house.  We had to check the door before opening it to leave, and if it was too crowded on the porch, we would sneak out the side- or back-door. Dad tried patching places in the fence where they were getting in, but there were always a few eager diggers around the neighborhood. Even when the fence held, they would just gather at the gate, waiting to dart in when we tried to get our car out.

The most patient and brazen of these horny intruders was a basset my mom nicknamed "Frederick B. Moose." He was implacable. He would place himself stolidly to one side or the other of the road, and wait for Dad or Mom to go chasing his bolder rivals off. Then he would grunt into motion and trudge his way towards our door. Once inside the fence, he was impossible to dislodge.  Mom and Dad each tried to drag him out by the collar on more than one occasion, just to have him go limp and flop in the dirt. Gravity seemed to favor his bulk. Once, Mom even tried out her new canister of pepper spray (no relation to Prissy's actual beau), catching Fred full in the face. He simply snorfed, shook his head, and pressed on like an aroused avalanche of saggy meat.

But as I said, Pepper was the winner in this genetic contest, and after only a couple of failed attempts, a litter quickened within the womb of Priscilla Jane Poodle. I distinctly remember the smell in my parents' bathroom after the puppies were born. It was vital and terrifying, and of course very gross. I think there were five pups, though I really only remember two of them; the two that my sister named "Bob" and "Nancy", after my dad's parents. We managed to place most of the puppies right away, but Bob stayed with us longest. He went on our summer camping trip with us, and we were pretty attached to him by the time Mom finally found him a home of his own.

Between the bother, expense, and disappointed children - not to mention the uninspiring profit margin - that was pretty much the end of Prissy's career as a breed... mare? ...and her next big adventure involved getting fixed. You can imagine that this provoked a number of questions with illuminating answers about biology, too.

During all of these various adventures and upheavals, Prudence suffered on the periphery. She avoided the puppies, the noise, the amorous packs of gentleman callers, and pretty much everyone in the house while still trying to maintain a semblance of ownership over as much of the domain as she could.

I remember asking if Prudence would ever have kittens, and I think Mom dodged the question at first.  But eventually I learned that Prudence had been the world's worst mother. Apparently, she would sneak off (as cats will do...loudly, just under one's window) and return home with a belly full of joy and erratic behavior, only to sneak off again and deposit her litter in some remote corner of our property. Not knowing what to do next, Prudence would then leave the new kittens wherever they dropped and forget about them. Mom told of finding feeble, nearly dead kittens under bushes, in the tool shed, and even in the attic. She spoke tearfully of trying to save them and find them homes - only to have them succumb to the initial neglect and rejection of their mother.

The last straw was the day my Mom's mom came over and went out on the back patio to play the battered old piano that Dad had found somewhere. It was out of tune, of course, but one section of the keyboard seemed to be muted, and when the adults peered inside the machine they found six little kitten skeletons tangled in the hammer mechanism. The sentence for this crime: uterus removal.

Still, despite the cold, remorseless evil clearly dwelling in her soul, Prudence was a pleasant enough companion. I lost the battle for Prissy's affection early on; she didn't like coming up the stairs to my hot and messy room, and besides, she was too deeply devoted to Mom to leave her side. But Prudence would roam the house more widely, and she seemed to favor places that were Prissy-free, so I would sometimes wake up with her curled up peacefully on the foot of my bed. Of course, being a cat, it was just as likely I would wake up with her standing on my chest, working up a hairball, or that I would catch her skulking into one of the closets in my room to leave unpleasant little treats that I would then have to clean up. 

While the bulk of their time was spent studiously ignoring each other, as Prissy and Prudence got older, they began to take pleasure in annoying each other. Prissy, while never a big thinker, learned that Prudence liked to nap in certain places, and the dog began adjusting her navigational patterns so that she could appear as close as possible to the snoozing cat and nonchalantly poke her with her snout. The first few times I saw this happen, Prudence would launch herself up as if she'd been lanced with a hot needle, and backflip awkwardly over the arm of the couch in an amazing display of cat-fu. Once she popped herself nearly straight up and over the back of the couch in an amazing arc, and when she didn't come back out right away, we peaked behind it to see her sitting regally, contemplating the wall under the big picture window as if that had been where she was sitting all along.

Gradually, Prudence learned to sleep more shallowly, and became quite alert to any movement near her napping spots. As the shock of canine nose nudges decreased, she tried ignoring her nemesis, patiently not reacting to the prodding. But that only emboldened Prissy, and if she got away with the first few pokes, she would start adding a bark or two to her attack until Prudence had had enough and responded with either a rousing chase/fight around the living room, or a hasty exit from the house altogether.

Being more alert than the dog, though, Prudence could mount surprise attacks with very little notice.  I got to see her in action one afternoon when I was changing the laundry. I spotted Prudence coming inside from what was probably an enjoyable morning of murdering birds and lizards; she was sauntering aimlessly across the family room, but when she reached the door to the main hallway, she reared back comically (like a cat version of Oliver Hardy) and darted into the kitchen instead. A few seconds later, Prissy came towards the kitchen from the hallway, clearly heading for her water bowl.

As she came around the corner, Prudence sprang out like a furry, clawed Jack in the Box, and bopped Prissy on the nose. Prissy yelped in surprise, and immediately gave chase. Prudence led her around the legs of the dining room table, back through the kitchen, and up the hallway to my sister's room.  My sister's bed was a pedestal-style waterbed, with cast iron headboard and footboard, and her lacy bedspread hung down to create a neat 1-foot-square runway all the way around the bed. By the time I got to the room, cat and dog had both slipped under the bedspread, and were doing laps around the bed at top speed.

Prudence, being slightly quicker, and a lot smarter, timed her exit perfectly. She reached the corner of the bed, and instead of continuing around the racetrack to the left, she made a right ...just as she passed the post of the foot board. Prissy did not manage to make the same turn.


By the time the dazed poodle regained her senses enough to extract herself from the tangle of lacy bedspread, and could walk in a straight line, Prudence was well out of reach on top of Mom's armoire, cleaning herself innocently, as if she had been there all day.

At some point, Dad had installed flaps in the doors so the animals could let themselves in or out as they pleased. From the kitchen, there was one door out into the garage, and another across the garage exiting to the side yard. This was generally convenient for everyone, but it did create several prime ambush points. I probably don't need to spell out the details - suffice to say the cat was an expert at hiding where the dog would least expect it, and she had the patience to wait for the most opportune moment.

Eventually, my sister and I grew accustomed to this game, and we all got used to seeing Prudence saunter to some corner, nook, or cranny and just sit for hours, so we often didn't realize what she was up to until the trap was sprung and the chasing was over. For her part, Prissy had figured out that she needed to be on guard when going in or out through any of the door flaps. Even when Prudence was nowhere to be seen, Prissy would nudge the door two or three times before actually pushing through - and a few times, she actually worked herself into a paranoid fury, barking at the swinging flap and smacking it with a paw or her snout before deciding the cat was really elsewhere.

One morning, as I lingered over my bowl of cereal, I noticed something moving out the corner of my eye. In the entryway, Mom had several bags of empty cereal boxes that were piled up, waiting to be sorted. She was an avid coupon-collector, and always had brown grocery bags full of boxes with barcodes, coupons, promotional games, etc. Prudence's black tail was extended out from between two of the bags - furred out with anticipation and twitching manically.  On my way to the sink, I peeked between the bags, and saw that her attention was fixed on the door flap.  Glancing over my shoulder, I could see that Prissy was out in the side yard, and headed for the door to come inside.

I didn't think about what I did next. I just casually leaned down and said, in a normal speaking voice, "Boo."

The cat's reaction was a thing of beauty. If I could take my camera phones back in time to capture one moment in the highest definition possible, that would have been the moment. Prudence's legs pushed her up, farther up in the air than I had ever seen her go, and her body went rigid, with all four of her legs as fully extended as they could get. She somehow rotated in this completely stiffened state, like a taxidermist's model of a cat, white-eyed and staring at me in absolute terror as her body followed a parabola across the tiny foyer. She landed - nothing but net - tail first into one of the grocery bags full of discarded cardboard, and disappeared from view.

At that moment, Prissy poked a tentative nose through the door flap and gave a questioning "woof" - coincidentally, right at the bag where the terrorized cat had only just come to rest. This is the part that I would have wanted on film, because I swear that cat passed through the side of that bag at the molecular level. The bag was not torn, but Prudence, trailing a confetti of UPC symbols and scraps of paper, streaked out of the entryway at an altitude of between three and six inches, and we didn't see her for two days.

So, when I jump out at you from nowhere and can't stop laughing while you mutter angrily and try to put your skin back on, please don't take it personally.  I got the taste for this from my cat.

Monday, August 4, 2014


Convict Fenton pedaled, cursing under his breath, and cycled on.  He wasn’t upset; it was his pastime on the Bike.  Convicts didn’t rate streaming media, so they made due.  Some sang, but Fent’s blue litany kept him sane.  Kept him from wondering how long he had left.

After his first year in the GenPen – Federal Electro-Generation Penitentiary – he’d hit 10% and realized at that rate, he’d be in for another decade.  Pitching the Deal, his lawyer had given him rosy estimates about serving time in kilowatt-hours instead of years.  Fent hadn’t known enough science to spot the over-inflated estimates.  He hadn’t caught the “up to” caveats built into the Deal, either.  Bikes could generate “up to” 100 kwh each day… at full tension and a consistently high rpm.  It would help if bike maintenance was a company priority.

But it wasn’t.  And counting watts made the time drag on, so he didn’t do it.  They’d let him out when he was done.

Fent pedaled and cursed until cool-down kicked in.  He dismounted, and stepped through the security door.  When the lights showed green, he pushed through to the shower room, and the guy on the other side, coming in to relieve him, was shunted in with the Bike to start pedaling.

Stretched out, showered, and thumbed into his cell, Fent slipped into his VR harness.  Time to animate some avatars for the Man.  He went through most of the standards in a given night.  Orc, pimp, zombie, terrorist; he shot, sliced, or mauled his way through his shift, crawled out of the harness to sleep, and went back to the Bike.

One day, he thought, they’ll let me out.  But he thought it less frequently every day.

Convict Fenton pedaled, cursing under his breath, and cycled on.


What did I just read?  Explanations and excuses can be found at this link.