Just Checking In

OK, so I know it’s been a while. But again, no one is reading this, so no big deal.

As for today, I am feeling restless, so thought I would submit an entry, blog-like, rather than the usual planned essay.

Today is September 12, one day after September 11. Last week, we had a great excitement as one Terry Jones (not the Monty Python Terry Jones), leader of a Christian church of sorts down in Gainesville, FL, finally hit a hot button that got him the media attention he so desperately craves.

Apparently this guy, whose church’s basic Christian tenet is that Islam is evil, has been trying to get the attention of the media for several years, announcing this or that plan for his church designed to foment ire and street violence among the worlds Muslims. Problem was, nobody was paying any attention to him and his crackpot pronouncements.

But this time, he got it right. He announced “International Burn a Koran Day” and sent out a release saying his church was going to burn Korans on September 11 as a way of “getting their message out” about Islam.

Cue media frenzy. Admittedly, it was a slow news week. So slow, apparently, that all anyone talked about – apart from someone named Snookie – was this guy and his whacko church.

In the end, and under pressure from Barack Obama and General Petraeus and the whole gang, Jones announced that, on second thought, they would not burn Korans on September 11.

Whew! Close one.

Now, you may or may not consider it ironic that at least two people were killed in street protests in Afghanistan which anticipated the non-event. But I for one would hate to be the guy who died while demonstrating my opposition to an outrage that never actually occurred.

But anyway, speaking of religious nuts, we had our own little weird celebration here on the plains a couple of weeks ago, right down the street from my house.

We were heading out on Saturday morning to the farmer’s market to get some good tomatoes. That time of year, you know. But we got over on the main street, and were surprised to encounter a huge throng of folks lining the sidewalks near the Lutheran church, holding signs, chanting and all the rest. Turns out the main group – hundreds of them – were actually counter-protestors who were there to face down the crazies from the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas. These folks like to protest at the funerals of soldiers who’ve died in our of our imperial wars. Their reasoning is that the soldiers are dying because God is visiting retribution on our country for – are you ready? – its tolerance of homosexuality, apparently the vilest of sins. So they show up at the funerals with big signs that say “God Hates Fags” or “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” .

That’s their thing.

On this day, in fact just after we passed through on our way to the farmer’s market (my wife gave them a thumbs down, and I gave the Westboro folks a version of a “thumbs up”, which involved a different finger) another event occurred. A veteran drove down the same street and unleashed a barrage of bear repellant – basically mace – from the window of his pickup truck, aimed at the Westboro protestors.

The gay-hating protestors, though, are not rookies at being broadly despised. They had their signs at the ready. They maneuvered them in front of their faces and avoided getting maced. The counter-protestors, probably less experienced at this sort of thing, got the brunt of it. Several ended up in the hospital.

It is surely so that God works in mysterious ways.

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It’s 2010 – Now Shovel!

Another new year, fresh like a just-opened jar of peanut butter with that pristine swirl it feels so good to dig your knife into.

Oh I could talk about how this marks the first year out of the “0” years and what we might call them now that they’re gone – the “aughts,” or the “naughts”,  or the suckiest decade since the 1930s if we’re being honest.

Or I could, blogger-like, conjure up some best-of-the-decade lists, for movies or records or porn stars or something.

Or I could lament, in full middle-aged fashion, the sheer lack of originality and freshness in all things media-rich, the repetition of styles and endless remakes of vintage culture  – the sequels and prequels and boxed sets – a sure sign that the one so lamenting is himself not so fresh anymore. (“If you are tired of London you are tired of life.” )

Or I could remark, as a side note, on the failed Christmas underwear bomber. But perhaps what’s more interesting is that this attempted terror attack is, according to the media, merely a side note. This may be the year we warm up to terror as the English and the Israelis have – relegating it to the ordinary risks of life, as it should be, rather than the sole focus of the government’s efforts (hello – jobs?). Me – I’m much more convinced I will die not in a conflagration of Islamist vengeance but at the hands of a sober, inexperienced and wholly disinterested teenage driver staring at a cell phone.

Mark those words – I’ve seen it in a vision.

Instead, though, I’ll just talk about the weather. Because it’s the most remarkable thing about this year so far. At least around here.

It began in mid-December. We were all feeling fine about the news from the meteorologists that it would be a mild winter. But before winter had a chance to get here and be mild, we had about 11 inches of snow dumped on us.

Mild snow, I guess. And mild zero-degree temperatures. And mild fatal car wrecks.

Then, a couple of weeks later on Christmas eve, an old-fashioned, Laura Ingalls Wilder type blizzard rolled in. Whiteout conditions, and another twelve inches of snow. We had to eat the horses.

OK, we didn’t eat the horses. I wanted to, but there was plenty of peanut butter.

Nobody moved – Christmas was effectively cancelled (a small bright spot) – the city froze solid for a few days while everyone either looked out the window and marveled or – we the unlucky ones – were marveled at as we lifted endless shovels full, tried to find a place to put the four-foot snow drifts that had collected in the driveway. Turned our faces from the biting crystals as we blew them aside and the North wind blew them back at us.

As the gutters filled with pounds and pounds of ice, a solid wall of it gushing a freeze-frame cascade of watery stalactites.

I had to buy a roof rake and actually shovel the snow off the roof. It’s just not natural.

But hey, we’re plains folk. We’re hardy, or so I’m told. So we got the job done, got the walks shoveled and the roofs raked, and the cars unstuck and the snow blower gassed up again.

Because here it is next week, and the forecast is for snow, snow, and snow.

Here on the plains.

I Have Nothing to Say

You know, sometimes there’s just nothing to say. I have been, for the last couple of years, as they say, largely “silent” as a writer. Some claim writer’s block. I, on the other hand, claim it not. It’s different. It’s more as if, with the great cacophony of opinions swirling around the – I can’t say it – blogosphere, the prospect of adding one’s lonely voice to that tiresome, bloated chorus is just a little bit demoralizing.

Or a lot. I don’t know. But this is what I do.

Suffice to say, I am crawling back to the surface like some college boy tossed into the pool at the 3 a.m. mark of the frat party. Why? Because, oddly, I must. I have no excuse for it. I have been working on some fiction, which I believe I’ll start stapling out on this board for anyone who may be interested. And I’ve got matches – matches for sale.

Seriously – I have felt like some primordial mud pit long crusted over but with an insistent bubbling magma beneath – some of which must surface, and form some strange new organism, while other channels must stay submerged, flowing forever beneath the surface. So it is.

I won’t say my mood is good, but it’s not too bad. There is, again, a kind of pacific stability to my life – it is the peace I crave in order to hear myself in the quiet, and also the peace I abhor because, let’s face it, life is not a study hall.

I mean, dude.

There’s so much to say, I have no excuse for not saying it. So here we go. I was reading over the old entries here today, one day after I pulled the switch and registered supergiantsquid.com as my own personal domain*. So here’s my pledge to you, dear possibly non-existent public: I will take up the mantle of explaining life inside this mortal coil once again, and try to make public sense of this world – the one we drop into, like a baby set adrift in the rushes.

But we can leave all that behind.

October

I awoke to the first cold Monday morning today. The bed, with its pillow-top mattress and down comforter, seemed mighty preferable to the cold floor, dark hallways and…work. How many personal days do I have left…?

The day brightened up as I got some hot coffee in me and made it to the car–I mean it literally did. The slanty sun himself came up over the city as I crested the highway North, the first time I’ve seen it do that in months. And it did not disappoint. A hazy red gumball, a Japanese flag. Later on, a small V of geese, black in silhouette, passed overhead, heading down the Missouri to wherever they are going. A fog monster glided up over the stubble field they crossed, trying to act threatening as the sun burned its edges into feathery wisps of cold smoke.

I do love October. Yesterday I spent all morning cleaning windows, to let that strong October sun in the house, perhaps also an unconscious attempt to head off that snowbound feeling before it starts. In the afternoon I walked a golf course alone, cheating and cursing myself into a pretty good score. My calves are sore now, remembering all those uphill par fours.

The day before we took our annual pilgrimage to Nebraska City, home of Arbor Day and Arbor Lodge, which is now a state park. The Lodge, on 160 acres (bought from Uncle Sam at ten cents per), was originally a four-room frame house built in the 19th century–the first one, they say, West of Nebraska City and East of the Rockies. Through several generations and additions it ended up as the impressive mansion home of J. Sterling Morton, secretary of agriculture and founder of the Morton salt company as well as Arbor Day itself. There’s a fantastic carriage house with various period carriages from the 1880s to about 1910, bought on a whim when Morton could snatch them up for a song (cars, you know). There’s also a working apple orchard and many varieties of trees planted throughout the estate. There’s also some new commercial crap they’ve built to increase the tourist factor–I think they call it “Tree Adventure”–but we always avoid that area of of the park.

We had lunch at Johnny’s Corner Cafe in downtown Nebraska City, where I had the massive hot beef sandwich, famous in three states. We bought some nice Fujis and come cherry cider at an old orchard outside of town.

As I walked the grounds of Arbor Lodge with my little family that afternoon, full of roast beef and mashed potatoes, I was able to capture for a little while a bit of that unattached contentment that is so rare, and so valuable. As my daughter swung on my arm and we walked up the rutted carriage path to the house, she scattering squirrels and us laughing at her, the sun friendly on us and not too warm, the clouds like big scoops of mashed potatoes themselves and the sky that curious October blue, the moment lapsed into one of perfect ease. For those few minutes, absolutely nothing else was on my mind, nothing nagged at my attention. I was, the day was, we were–it all was, and always will be nothing more nor less. Time unconstrained, simply lived.

That night the crescent moon lulled low among silvery clouds, the clouds being their unique October selves. Friends came by for dinner, I built a little fire outside and drank a couple of beers with my friend, feeling the chill of the air and the warmth of the flames and the conversation. He told me about his garage sale, and of course we talked about music and life.

It was continuing to be a good day.

Memory Speaks

Black Elk said: “Certain things among the shadows of a man’s life do not have to be remembered – they remember themselves.” He was right. If we’re lucky, we have both memories of good times and memories of important milestones at our command. But whether we’re lucky or not, certain memories come back of their own accord, whether beckoned or not. Many of mine in that category were first lived in a dream place, a middle place, and they come calling with some frequency.

I don’t really know why.

When I was in college, my now-wife and I lived in a nice apartment that happened to be located in the g-h-e-t-t-o with a capital “G”.

One of those sentinels of bygone days, a stalwart stone inner-city middle-class apartment House with solid brick balconies and spacious rooms, French doors, built-in bookshelves, etc. In fact, my own mother had lived in the same building with her parents as a teenager. (I didn’t know this when we looked at the place, but I maintain some strange feeling made me want to live there–call it a feeling of home. I had had no interest in moving, but when we saw this place, I immediately wanted it.)

We had the top floor, and the entry door locked, and it was cheap and our old Greek landlord was a saint, so we were good with it.

One day a couple of girls with…interesting wardrobes…moved in to the apartment below us. I learned later they were sisters, and both worked as strippers at a local club. They were both very nice looking in a surgically enhanced, tacky, over-reaching sort of way.

They moved in with a lot of expensive, brand-new furniture, then completely re-carpeted the place at their own expense. They both drove brand-new cars.

After a few weeks, I noticed they were having “parties” very regularly, lasting to about 3 a.m. It seemed only men attended these parties.

Yep, they were ho’s. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t actually live there. It was just their “business” address.

Anyway, while wondering what to do about it, I noticed one winter evening, coming home around 1:00 a.m. or so, that one of the girl’s new Mitsubishi convertible was parked outside with the engine running. I could tell because it was winter, and the exhaust was visible in the cold.

I went to bed and forgot about it.

When I got up the next day, I looked out my dining room window and noticed the car was still running. What’s more, just then some cops pulled up and started rummaging through it, opening the trunk and such.

I decided to be neighborly and go down there and tell them about it.

I had never spoken to them–we kept different schedules, to say the least. I went down the flight to their place and knocked on the door. I heard considerable shuffling and nervous voices, then a strained “Just a minute” from one of them.

She opened the door a bit, a sheet wrapped around her naked body, her blond shaggy hair all over the place, visibly wired or whacked out on something.

“Hey. I just wanted to tell you your car is out there in the alley, and…”

She interrupted–“My CAR!? Is it RUNNING?”

A bit surprised, I said, “Well, yeah, it is running, and–”

–“Are the COPS IN IT?” Sort of screaming, like we’re arguing even though we’re not.

“Well, yeah, the cops are going through it.”

“Ahhhaaaaayyyy!!!” She screamed in a sort of primal angst-ridding, rolled her eyes back and slammed the door.

Well, I thought, I guess she already knows.

They were gone a few weeks later. I heard the dark haired one had died, or was she murdered?

This was just one of the tamer episodes we had at that place. I would never want to go back, but I do miss the color and unpredictability of the old neighborhood sometimes.

Heat

The late Summer heat has settled in, and we do battle with it as we do the snow and ice when in winter’s coldest grip. The day divides into the early morning hours and evening–when it’s possible to walk the dog, mow the lawn, or play a game of golf–and the midday stretch, when we resign ourselves to that curious summer version of cabin fever, gazing out the windows at a formidable landscape as we listen to the hum of the air conditioner and wonder how they stood it out here in those first sod-busting years.

I remarked the other day on a rabbit, sitting in the near garden looking as rabbits always do whether winter, spring, summer or fall. All business, he sat still as stone and stared with his right side eye at me, while he surveyed God knows what with the one on the left side. Over 102 out there, and he remains at ease, not the least bit concerned, or at least appearing so. Is he hot? Is he saying to himself, “Damn, it’s hot out here?” No, because all he knows is “out here.” In the evening he will crawl into his warren, somewhere in my yard, and be cooler, though not cool. For now he watches, and waits, nothing but rabbit in late summer.

We time these days by the sprinkler. When did we last drag them out, when do we need to do it again? Is it really going to rain this time, or will it just be more sound and fury, a few stingy droplets on the sidewalk? Do I detect a brown patch? They come out of nowhere, despoiling an otherwise resplendent lawn and garden that grew without effort in April and June. This indifferent and unrelenting sun–it tries the living like the barker at a dance marathon. We have only so much stamina and patience for drudgery and sameness, for dull bright days of pounding sun and sizzling streets and sticky car seats.

But we know, like that rabbit knows his warren, of those evening times, and those morning times. In the morning the air is weighted with dew, it’s visible, it softens the landscape, and you can taste it. The mourning doves and robins and cardinals and sparrows all take advantage, and they look at you knowingly–“This is the time, eh?” they seem to say with that look. (Where do they go at midday?) At twilight the fireflies come into the yard by the hundreds this year, bobbing about slowly, clumsily, awkwardly looking for a date in the cool grass. Will-o’-the-wisps. As the yard darkens their glow increases, eventually becoming the defining pattern out there, always changing and chaotic with stop-and-go flickers of fade-in, fade-out motion. The summer’s night fire dance–its amusing repost to the day’s oppressive stillness.

And we dream the autumn will come, as we dream of spring’s first mud and tight budding in the depths of winter. We dream of cool breezes on skin warmed by the October sun, of swirling golden leaves and long walks in light jackets, the comfort of a temperate time. We know it will come, which makes today’s long sojourn between morning and evening something we can smile about. It will come, and we’ll forget the heat of long days, watch the moon come out like a huge clock face, and cherish that time until the first sprightly frosts of winter rekindle the cold fire of longing for change.

War Between Worlds

Last night we left my daughter at Girl Scout camp, then stopped off at a thrift store and picked up a few UFO conspiracy books that we will give to a friend of mine, then we went to the cinema to view the destruction of the East Coast by tripods from space.

It was a renewing experience.

First, I’ll say that War of the Worlds was one of the most riveting, compelling movies I’ve seen in a while, and certainly the best of its (questionable) genre. For comparison purposes, I found Independence Day to be a steaming load of crap, ditto Deep Impact and all the rest of the “End of the World” epics that have been produced of late.

In fact, I find the genre somewhat ridiculously gratuitous, in that it feeds an unhealthy fascination with our own mutual assured destruction–whatever the metaphor being employed.

I believe War of the Worlds fundamentally different and groundbreaking in its treatment of the idea of worldwide terror. Here’s why.

1. Immediacy and the individual as witness to events: Rather than be dismayed, as some have been,  at the linearity of the storyline, I felt the choice to tell the complete tale from the point of view of the Everyman was a brilliant one for the subject matter. The as-yet unattainable goal of these movies has been to make us feel “we are there,” to identify with the characters that are going through this nearly unimaginable horror. Yet past directors gave us, to a man, the incredibly tired pastiche of “stock” characters, each “dealing” with the situation in their own way. (The young woman with a child, the brave soldier, the down-and-out guy with a heart of gold, the scientist who “knows,” etc.) But in the space of two hours, with the destruction of the earth to also address, it’s difficult–impossible, actually–to fully develop 12 characters anyone can believe in or, more importantly, care about. It’s hard enough to do in a regular movie, which can devote most of its time to this task.

What Spielberg did was focus the timeline and the action like a laser on Cruise’s character. He is in virtually every scene, and every event is seen from his point of view. This immediacy creates as much “reality” as can be had in a completely implausible situation. True, Cruise’s “nature” or personality is not deeply explored–but that too has its purpose, in helping allow us to imbue him with whatever qualities we require of our own personal “everyman.” His is in part the blank slate on which we write our emotions. He is compelling in how he reacts, how he survives, how he evolves into a survivor and a preserver, not in “who he is”, which the director wisely leaves aside in favor of telling the story. This is a morality play, not a character study.

2. Plausibility: Let’s keep in mind the whole thing is a fantasy. None of it would happen. We found ourselves discussing a lot of this–why the aliens would go to all the trouble of planting the tripods a million years ago rather than taking over Earth right away; how they would know where future major population areas would be; why, if they are so advanced, they did not do an environmental study on possible contagions before “dropping in” with their full invasion force, etc. But this movie is by no means about plausibility–who thought it “likely” that terrorists would fly jet liners into the World Trade Center before it happened? Not me. So we are offered events that “come out of nowhere,” just as the real attacks have come, and events whose purpose we cannot immediately discern, just as we did not immediately comprehend why anyone would want to destroy the WTC and Washington. And here–here–is where the director triumphs. Note the first scenes of this film. Rather than the hour or so of terminally boring exposition that these films tend toward (to “build suspense” which never gets built), Spielberg instead presents a quick introduction to the main characters (for basic dramatis personnae purposes), then immediately throws the situation into chaos. If we think of the terror allegory, this is exactly how it happens. We did not have a “buildup” to 9-11, or Bali, or Madrid, or the Chechen massacres–or London. They happened out of the blue, caught us off guard, with our pants down. As Cruise stands there gaping, impotent, in the face of the world literally cracking up under his feet, I stood there with him, in my memories, agape at the cracking up of my own world.

And though some might deem it hammy, I thought the emergence of the tripods from “below,” rather than raining fire from above as usual, was a nice touch. Enhancing the metaphor on terror, society was literally being attacked by the “seeds” of terror come to fruit, seeds that had been planted long before.

3. On terror. Spielberg hammers the idea of terror, of the shock and unreality of it, right home, quite amazingly I thought. When Cruise finally shakes off his initial shock and realizes he must leave–leave now–he goes to his friend’s car repair shop and proceeds to take possession of the only working vehicle in the city. As his friend stammers about how he’s got a business to run, it’s not my car, the guy’s gonna come back, etc., Cruise repeatedly screams at him to “Get in, get in, get in the car!” His friend is fixed in the static world of normalcy, of past-present-future, of dependency. Only Cruise has realized that that world is instantly gone, that only the immediate peril matters. The parallels to reactions to terrorism are quite nicely evoked–I saw so many who simply shrugged on 9-11–on that very day–and said, “Oh well, I don’t live in New York.” I heard  people laughing about it. They did not see that the world as they knew it had just ended, that their world would now be shadowed by the pall of terror–forever.

People too young to remember, or too cocky to admit the truth to themselves, may claim that terror cannot change their world, a la John Lennon. They are wrong, wrong, wrong. It has changed their world whether they recognize it or not. This is not to say, “Everybody panic.” Far from it. It just states the fact of it, that local insulation will not change global reality.

This brings up the other major theme of this movie, one I think others of its type have squeamishly avoided or sidestepped. The car becomes the metaphor for escape, and of course it becomes an object of envy. With respect to the way humans conduct themselves during “real” world-shattering events, the way the car is handled in the movie speaks to the darker side of our natures. Rather than everyone “pitching in” to fight the bad guys, when people finally realize that there is a good chance they will be exterminated, their community spirit goes right out the window. It becomes, literally, every man for himself. It should not have seemed over the top when Cruise pulls a gun on the crowd, gets a gun to his head, he and his son get beaten to a pulp by the panicked crowd, over possession of the vehicle. And when the gun-wielding carjacker is himself blown away by another, in cold blood, this should not be a surprise. As Art Spiegelman’s father says in his Holocaust allegory Maus–“Friends–huh, put you all in a room with no food for a couple of weeks, and you’ll see how many friends you have.” In these scenes, Spielberg evokes the real horror of such terror that strips people of their humanity and turns them against one another–against their own better natures–in a desperate bid for survival. In this way Spielberg invokes visions of another movie he made about world-shattering wars of aggression and terror.

Yet–the notion of kill or be killed to survive one more day is also undercut by the action. Spielberg cannot resist his trademark bid for humanity for humanity’s sake. As noted, the man who takes the car at gunpoint is himself gunned down–he sacrificed his humanity in vain. And note that Cruise finally kills Tim Robbins’ character in his own bid for survival–but is immediately afterwards found by the tripods and captured anyway. It was a waste. To kill another who threatens you is one thing, but to kill only because you fear that person’s existence might threaten your safety–that is one step too far, and not coincidentally is the step that the U.S. (and Britain) have wrongly taken in their paranoid reaction to terror.

About the end – this was indeed a bit hard to swallow. But I took it, like most of this film, metaphorically. I was mostly surprised at the survival of the son, who if I recall was last seen walking into a wall of flames. But note that there is no dialogue–it is a surreal scene. No one speaks, no one interacts, except for Rachel to yell, “Mommy!” They are all “there” as human beings, but–grant me this–not necessarily alive. The “family” has been preserved–the family of man–though some have died. To me, this is the message of this scene. Sacrifice, in the name of preserving who we are–we are families, by the way, not nations or races or religions–does preserve us, even if we die. It preserves our essence, our souls, if not our flesh.

4. Film-making. In the end, what most impressed me about this film was the flawlessness of the cinematography, effects, sets, pacing, editing and all-around film-making. This is one beautiful apocalypse. The tripods are gracefully, terrifyingly menacing, like omnipotent archangels of death from on high. Their prowess in killing, their pitiless wielding of that prowess, quite evocative of the bafflingly inhuman, murderous efficiency of terror cults–or imperialist armies, if you like. Their foghorn of death is rattlingly disturbing each time it sounds, a sickly send-up of Gabriel’s horn. The foggy, ashen landscapes cut by the searching lights of the tripods are beautiful, awe-inspiring in their grandeur. The destruction is so real, it was not hard to imagine I was watching a documentary. Understand, I like to work at suspending disbelief – if the director is trying, I’ll help out all I can with my imagination. But I felt I had no work to do at all. I felt as if I were watching real events unfold, in real time. No ”movie” cuts to this little house or that Oval Office scene, no attempt to provide a “world afire” vision encompassing the globe and every possible reaction–just the immediate surroundings of one man, whose immediate surroundings keep getting more and more surreal, more dreamlike, more hopeless with every scene, and his reactions. But because I follow him into this world, progress with him into horror, I find it believable no matter how bizarre it gets.

The film is not perfect, not a film for the ages, perhaps not even great. But it’s good. It’s a film for now, for us, to help us examine how we perceive our world now, in its new wrapper. As someone on the radio said the other day, “We all live in Jerusalem now.” We all will live with exploding buses, exploding people, every day now. Safety, always an illusion, will become even harder to conjure up. We will have a permanent spot, in the back of our minds, reserved for the horror when it comes again.

And it will come again.