Wednesday, January 29, 2014

my pete seeger story

Like every hippie on the east coast I have my Pete Seeger story. Back in the late 80s I worked at a health food store in Woodstock. There were a number of old personalities that flitted around the place often enough to become nodding acquaintances if not friends. Ed Sanders was one. Arlo Guthrie was another.

One day as I was working the register Arlo came in with an older gentleman, although he must have only been in his late 60s at the time. They bought a couple coffees--we were renowned locally in that age before coffee shops for our organic coffee--and were in the middle of conversation. But both had the grace to acknowledge me when they got to the register. Pete gave me that dazzling smile he always had and Arlo grinned.

I said, "That coffee's especially good today." Pete said, "Oh?" I said, "I made it myself. Nature's magic." Arlo said, "This is, um, Bob, in'tit?" I said yes and reached over to shake Pete's hand. It was gnarled and big and warm.

I said, "Actually, Pete, we met once before." He said, "Oh? Oh sure, you were on the sloop, weren't you?"

He meant his sloop, the Clearwater. I had, indeed, done a day's volunteer turn on it.

I nodded and he said, "A few years out now, wasn't it?" "About two," I said. Pete said, "You know, no one thought we would do much of anything with that old boat but with a little belief and hope we made a difference. Remember that, Bob. You can always make a difference."

He said a few more things but I don't remember much what they were. And I'm greatly condensing what I've written above. Arlo said a few things in there, too.

None of that is important. Here's what makes it a Pete Seeger story. I've met considerably fewer people in half the lifetime Pete lived and I can't keep straight someone I've met a few days ago from someone I met decades ago. Pete didn't remember me. Thousands, tens of thousands, of guys who looked like me and who didn't shuffled across the Clearwater's deck. It was no great prognostication in that town where someone wearing tie dye was probably concerned about the environment and that close to the Hudson River who suggested he'd met the most famous local environmentalist before had probably done so on the deck of his ship. But for a moment Pete made me believe I'd made an impression on him, that he'd remembered me, and that I was important enough to impart a little wisdom to.

But most tellingly, it was true that I was important enough for him to interrupt his conversation with his friend and spend a minute and a half talking with. That, even more than the nickel's worth of advice he gave me, is what I took from him. That everybody, even the guy you were giving fifty cents to for coffee, had an innate dignity deserving acknowledgement. A smile. A few words. A handshake and a chuckle. That's a lesson I like to think I pass on to everyone I meet. That they're worth my time.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

one thing at a time

At times I plan ahead for mental emergencies, not knowing that's what I'm doing. Such a one was my naming and descriptor a week ago for a February 23 sermon: 

Beer, and Thank You: Someone said that the hardest thing to complete is any project that involves sticking with it long after the hoped-for result has disappeared. In simpler words, once we lose hope, we lose interest. But it’s also true that, as Jefferson Smith once said, “The lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.”  Join [us] for a shot in the arm for whatever ails you in fighting the good fight.
It comes of reading a column by Gabrielle Giffords concerning both her rehabilitation and the efforts she and her husband have made in support of restrictions on gun availability whose national defeats since the Newtown massacre make the efforts seem hopeless.

I have depression and the dim light of winter always exacerbates it. That I live in the midwest, where I had always grown up despising, and on the rim in the midwest where there are few opportunities for work or the arts or companionship, manages to slip my depression a Viagra. So it is good that I am forced for the next month to consider more closely my own statement that I am fighting the good fight. As I've taken as my mantra the past few years, "One thing at a time."

Here's a video from someone we lost last year to keep us on the road:

If my man Lou can get beyond that mullet we can get beyond this.

Friday, January 10, 2014

I have come to know my place

I've experienced depression for many years. Like a lot of people, I did a lot of self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, and I kind of liked that. But I discovered that I was a poster boy for the wonders of Prozac and have been on some form of antidepressent for nearly 20 years. I've never felt suicidal (although a good argument could be made that I have been self-destructive) or whatever term there is for the desire just to remain in bed. I have no trouble moving around and getting my day going, although sometimes it's hard to understand to what purpose. My depression leaves me angry more often than not, sometimes with myself but usually with society.

All this is to say that, when it comes to depression, I'm not un-self-cognizant. It took me a long time to recognize a need for help, and even longer to accept it. I'm not proud of my tendency toward do-it-myselfism, but realize it's a battle I fight continuously.

On Wednesday I had a counseling appointment with a new counselor I started with late last year. Before and after I left for the appointment I took out my aggression that had been building for months on the three dogs I love most, hitting one with a book, pushing another down the stairs, and kicking the third. I was devastated by this behavior and am so ashamed of myself that if I was suicidal I might consider it. None of them was hurt, although all three looked surprised, which is of course being hurt, and like an abuser I tried to make up for my behavior immediately. But it didn't do any good for how I felt about what I'd done.

This is not to make too big a thing of it. I know every animal lover has done something in her thoughtless moments that he regrets and I know that this is really no different. But one thing I've prided myself about is the immeasurable love I have for my animals. But my depression makes them fair game, I know, and my wife just a few weeks ago said she was sometimes anxious about leaving me alone with the animals in winter, knowing that I could take my anger out on them. I told myself if that happened I needed to make a serious change.

So here is the change I'm making.

It's really not a big thing, more a recognition of something in front of me all along. For decades I have tried to be something better than I am, socially and economically. I have gotten several degrees and trainings--I hold two masters and a master of fine arts, and I've trained as a chaplain and a minister. I was a college teacher for a decade and a part-time minister for another decade.

But those are middle class ambitions and I didn't come from that. I am a lower-class prole straight out of Orwell who lucked into those positions and now, in the current employment market, cannot find a way to make lightning strike twice. The market may not be right but it is what we live with and I have come to hear it loud and clear: it does not want me to make my way as a professional. I must make it as a minimum-wage employee.

I have gotten above myself and have been suitably punished for it.

As a result, I renounce my desires to be a minister or chaplain, as I more or less gave up my desire to be a teacher any longer, and starting Monday I will look for any full-time job within ten miles I can find. Keep in mind where I live, deep out on the rim: the best I could hope for around here is work as a machinist and I don't have that kind of training.

Is this a reaction to both my depression and my acting in a way I'm ashamed of? Perhaps. Probably. But I feel lighter as a result of making this decision. For the first time in a long while I feel less like a victim of economic forces and more like someone who's accepted his fate.

This doesn't mean I intend to give up ministering, as I haven't really given up teaching. I've just given up the hope anyone will pay me a living wage doing it. I've come to recognize my place, and it's behind a broom or a cash register, not a lectern or an altar.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

it's the little, safe things

I have caught myself, despite my better intentions, falling quite in like with a little-known television series that my local public station plays in the 20 minute spot between other series. It's called The Cafe and the premise is that...well, you can just as easily read this Wikipedia post about it. And perhaps understand what it is that attracts me by this short scene:

I enjoy it, but what's more important to me is the small, homely (in the sense of something that is comforting and small as one's experience of home) artistic endeavors I come to appreciate especially during the winter.

These run the gamut from comic strips

to recent music

to music from my childhood

to very, very stupid TV shows.

I think what it is is that they're little things. Small examples of tameness that manuever under my defenses and tickle something that, otherwise, I'm loathe to admit: I like consistency and safety. And wailing harmonicas.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Here's to bright colors!

The night didn't bring any real coolness, but at least it took the edge off the heat. From about six or seven the company split up into little groups...Semyon and I occupied the large balcony on the second floor. It was cozy in there; with its comfortable wicker furniture, the breeze blows through--the perfect place for hot weather.
"Number one," said Semyon, taking a bottle of Smirnovskaya vodka our of a plastic bag with an advertisement for "Dannon kids'" yogurt.
"Do you recommend that?" I asked doubtfully. I didn't regard myself as a great specialist on vodka.
"I've been drinking it for more than a hundred years. And it used to be far worse than it is now, believe me."
He took two plain glasses out of the bag, a two-liter jar with little pickles floating in brine under its flat tin lid, and a large container of sauerkraut...Semyon deftly twisted the cap off the bottle and poured us half a glass each. His bag had been standing on the veranda all day, but the vodka was still cold.
"To good health?" I suggested.
"Too soon for that. To us."
I drank the half-glass without even shuddering and was amazed to discover that vodka could taste good after the heat of a summer day, not only after a winter frost.
Semyon chuckled.
"There was one time this foreigner I knew invited me to go around to his place," he began.
"A long time ago?" I asked, playing along.
"Not really, last year. He invited me around so I could teach him how to drink Russian-style. He was staying in the Penta hotel. So I picked up a casual girlfriend of mine and her brother--he was just back from prison camp, with nowhere to go--and off we went."
I imagined what the group must have looked like and shook my head.
"And they let you in?"
"You used magic?"
"No, my foreign friend used money. He'd laid in plenty of vodka and snacks; we started drinking on April thirtieth and finished on May second. We didn't let the maids in and we never turned the television off."
Looking at Semyon in his crumpled, Russian-made check shirt, scruffy Turkish jeans, and battered Czech sandals, I could easily imagine him drinking beer poured out of a three-liter metal keg. But it was hard to imagine him in the Penta.
"You monsters," I said in horror.
"Why? My friend was very pleased. He said now he understood what real Russian drunkeness was all about."
"What is it about?"
"It's about waking up in the morning with everything around you looking gray. Gray sky, gray sun, gray city, gray people, gray thoughts. And the only way out is to have another drink. Then you feel better. Then the colors come back."
Semyon poured the vodka again--this time filling the glasses a bit less full. Then he thought about it and filled them right up to the top.
"Let's drink, my man. Here's to not having to drink in order to see the blue sky, the yellow sun, and all the colors of the city. Let's drink to that. We go in and out of the Twilight, and we see that the other side of the world isn't what everyone else thinks it is. But then, there's probably more than one other side. Here's to bright colors!"

I am a great fan of Russian writing. I almost always read it in the winter, primarily because their stoic, controlled fury way of looking at life corresponds with how I look at it in the depths of snow and ice and cold. I especially like Russian genre writing. I've read my Tolstoy and Pasternak and Doestoyevsky and Turgenev and Soltzinitsin and Bulgakov and Nabokov, my Akmahtova and  Brodsky, my Mandelstam and Mayakovsky, my Yevtushenko and Pushkin and Ratushinskaya and Tsvaeteva. (I have a collection of Babel stories I haven't cracked open yet.)

But I think what I appreciate even more is Russian genre writing. I read Gary Shtyngart's farce The Russian Debutante's Handbook this last year and the science fictions Mir: A Novel of Virtual Reality by Alexander Besher a few years ago and much Stanislaw Lem in the 70s (I remember Solaris best), and I am finishing Nightwatch by Sergei Lukyanenko today. I often have issues with translation with most of them, as genre seems to require the least capable translators, so that their phrases often fall flat ("A hero! Oh, what great heroes we all are! Clean hands, hearts of gold, feet that have never stepped in shit. Have you forgotten the woman who was taken out of here? And the crying children, have you forgotten them? They're not Dark Ones. They're ordinary people, the ones we promised to protect. How long do we spend on getting the balance right for every operation we plan? I may curse our ananlysts every moment of the day, but why are they all gray-haired by the age of fifty?"), odd combinations of formal and informal inflection, wordiness and pithiness, strained analogies and quick cultural asides. Nightwatch is no different. Andrew Bromfield, who does not fit the role of writing hack, nonetheless does not seem very comfortable moving between the relaxed writing that I presume Lukyanenko can do well (and Bromfield displays in better moments: "The only movement was the trembling of the blue and red spots in the windows--the TVs were switched on everywhere. It had become a habit already, when you were afraid, when you were suffering--switch on the TV and watch absolutely anything, from the shopping network to the news.").

But decades ago I told myself I would find something worthwhile in everything I would ever spend reading to the point that for years I typed those passages out on index cards and taped them to my kitchen door. I have discovered the same in Nightwatch.
"There's one thing you've got to understand, Anton," said the magician, crunching on a pickle. "You should have realized it ages ago, but you've been tucked away with those machines of yours. Our Light may be big and bright, but it's made up of lots and lots of little truths...Anton, I'll tell you what the problem is. You're a young guy, you join the Watch, and you're delighted with yourself. At last the whole world is divided up into black and white! Your dream for humanity has come true; now you can tell who's good and who's bad. So get this. That's not the way it is. Not at all. Once we all used to be together. The Dark Ones and the Light Ones. We used to sit around our campfire in the cave and look through the Twilight to see where the nearest pasture was with a woolly mammoth grazing on it, sing and dance, shoot sparks out of our fingers, zap the other tribes with fireballs. And let's say there were two brothers, both Others. Maybe when the first one when into the Twilight he was feeling well-fed; maybe he'd just made love for the first time. But for the other one it was different. Some green bamboo had given him a bellyache; his woman had turned him down because she claimed she had a headache and was tired from scraping animal skins. And that's how it started. One leads everyone to the mammoth and he's satisfied. The other demands a piece of the trunk and the chief's daughter into the bargain. That's how we got divided up into Dark Ones and Light Ones, into good and evil. Pretty basic stuff, isn't it? It's what we teach all the little Other children. But who ever told you it had all stopped?"
Semyon leaned toward me so abruptly that his chair cracked.
"That's the way it was, it still is, and it always will be. Forever, Antoshka. There isn't any end to it...Do you have a truth of your own, Anton? Tell me, do you? Are you certain of it? Then believe in it...Believe in it and fight for it. If you have enough courage. If the idea doesn't make you shudder. What's bad about Dark freedom is not just that it's freedom from others. That's another explanation for little children. Dark freedom is first and foremost freedom from yourself, from your own conscience and your own soul. The moment you can't feel any pain in your chest--call for help. Only by then it'll be too late."
He paused the reach into the plastic bag and took out another bottle of vodka. He sighed:
"Number two. I have a feeling we're not going to get drunk after all. We won't make it."