Something Like a Journal Entry
In all my previous lives, never was I from a superpower country. Never was I in Babylon, Assyria or Vilcabamba. Never did I possess a mystical allegiance to the Ming Dynasty, the Middle Kingdom, the British Empire. Never was I a Roman, Hittite or Inca. I did not march with Alexander, Hannibal, Charlemagne or Napoleon. I did not know Cleopatra, Theodora or Victoria.
I do not know how I got to be an American, here, now.
I am miscast.
But I am American and likely so in my bones and blood and not given, not when alone, to bandwagon criticisms, political and moral excoriations, left or right. Yet, I am befuddled by my country. Some days, I think she is the perpetrator of evil acts around the world. And she is. On other days, days I don’t read the paper, turn on the computer, converse with strident morons in bars, days like last summer’s slow drive across Kansas back roads, it is different.
The two-lane road was arrow-straight and jiggling in the hundred-degree heat up and down swales and vales of endless human-grown green. Cicada heaven it was, if you had brains enough to have the windows down, and every twenty, thirty miles was a town you rolled through at idle speed, and somewhere along there I was following a yellow VW Bug with the vanity plate DUSTRY, and when she pulled into a crossroads root beer stand, I followed. She was blonde and lovely, somewhat like a hawk, and had her sullen son with her, fourteen, small and acne angry. We sat up each on separate picnic tables for a bit of the breeze moving across half of the whole wide world’s corn beneath a blinding blue sky cantilevered far over the horizon. The root beer had in it micro-crystals of ice and you had to think civilization wasn’t all a mistake. Across the parking lot was an abandoned clock repair shop, the only other building for miles, and I commented on that, wondered at it, and she said this and that, as did I, commenting on her vanity license plate. Her father, he said, had long wanted to name his first born Destry, after the the hero of the Jimmy Stewart movie, and when out she came a girl, birthed in the farmhouse, her father said, “Destry,” and her mother said, “You ain’t naming my little girl no Destry.” She preferred Dusty, after the singer, Dusty Springfield.
You silently take her in, the woman Dustry, her life out here, where everything is either personal or it’s a thousand miles away, over a hundred horizons, and you think “What else is there any truer?” and you have thoughts about this, and then you’re gone, out on the big land, rolling away, and it’s a little bit sad, the distances the American prairie puts between us, but it’s a true thing too and better than champagne, any champagne, for the savoring.
No matter what we do to it, the land, there’s three million square miles of it. It’s there, ours and us. We are the slag heaps of our might and neglect just as we are, too, the home-dotted valleys of a tenuous perfection. But more we are the land between our poetic moments, those millions and millions of awful acres without which we’re Luxemburg, a country whose mosaic is wall-to-wall postcards, fifty or sixty of therm, and nothing else.
I made the west coast, Susan’s place, and for the price of a stone wall was given two months to write and nothing else but to eat all her leftovers, nap, smoke outside, drink some. You don’t know friendship until you’ve had one that’s lasted thirty-two years, all of it in America, and still don’t knock before entering, even after a trip of ten years and two thousand miles, still don’t measure your words before speaking.
And there are days like today, rain days. I go for hot bagels and Somalian coffees, black, earthy, strong. I read the whole of the newspaper. I read between the lines, try to see the living people and the whole of their lives behind the stories. I read the obituaries, do the same there. I pay special attention to the veterans. I read to see if they fought in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf. There was a guy in there today who fought at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. I think about that. What was his experience, what were his thoughts. Did he remember them truthfully? Or were they translated by what he wished were true, by what’s he’s absorbed from movies and books and culture, that he came from a great and free country whose intentions were noble?
Philosophers used to take very seriously their debates on what’s good, what’s evil. The good philosophers had a hard time with absolutes, but they’re a nitpicking, fussy lot, and it’s amazing, to read them, to wonder how they ever got through breakfast and out the door to get any work done at all. Still, they did, and if there’s a consensus among them, the Western ones, it’s that a given act may be considered “good” if it produces more benefit to mankind than it does harm to specific individuals. Some are strictly utilitarian in their definitions here, some are metaphysical, some ontological, and so on, but I’ll argue for the veracity of my summation of their ethos. Not so often, though, is it the other way around. You don’t hear the moral argument that what is good and grand for an individual, even if it diminishes the commonalities of mankind, is the way to measure. Even Ayn Rand libertarians justify their philosophy with claims that mankind would be better off without altruism.
I am not good with good and evil, right and wrong, what’s better for me, what’s better for mankind, if there is a difference, but it’s the argument that gets me. I’d like some day for a philosopher to say the hell with mankind, I’ll build my ethos from there.
But you don’t hear that.
I’m some of a dilettante in these matters. My evenings have never been spent in musty study by fireplace, a thousand leather tomes for me to put in my contemplating pipe, but I know some and don’t know that any philosopher, not one of note, ever said that, but among the people, we once had the language for it, but we’ve lost that, the language of ecstasy. Ask me what’s been lost in America and I’ll not tell of rights and opportunity and egalitarianism, a healthy middle class and quality schools. I’ll say a meanness has crept in, a narrowing. We have lost the language for other, for ecstasy.
In 1990, I took the first vacation of my adult life, first round-trip ticket ever I had bought. This was with Kathleen—Looney Tunes I called her. She’d come from a Bronx childhood worse than Sybil’s, a ruined, mad mother, abusive foster care, one after another, asylums, so on, but she had a will to be a good person. She knew, had learned like an anthropologist, the things to do, the words to say to be a good mother, a good wife and friend and lover, but those parts of her were all fucked up inside. I’d come home, those first years we were together, from long days chisel-cutting stone, my first years as an apprentice stonemason, and I’d sit at the kitchen table in our small white house in an old green valley, some distance up from above Albany. We had two kids, three dogs and a cat, fish, too, and two ruby finches in a bamboo cage. In my work clothes, I’d have a beer at the table and watch her at the stove, a little tremble going through her, a thing she could not express and would not express and dare not express, and I’d know that soon, the next day,or the next, at eight o’clock on the street by the carpet store, I should meet another walking her dog, sniffing for larks in old America. When I got my journeyman card, 1990, I took with her, Kathleen, skittish in the forest of her mind, the first vacation of my adult life, first round-trip ticket ever I had bought, to New Orleans.
I took her to all the old places from my decadent years, my degenerate years, but my enthusiasm for the places and people didn’t match her experience of them. Nor mine either. I was a union bricklayer on a round-trip vacation, wasn’t on the same page as the hippies, drunks, addicts, pensioners, scam artists, real artists, thieves, others out of step with America. We cut short my plans and had our coffees at the Cafe du Monde on Decatur Street, ate those drops of deep-fried dough covered in powdered sugar, drank, I think, in every bar in the French Quarter, caused a ruckus or two, and one night, in a tropical, torrential downpour, we danced in the street laughing because it was raining so purely hard, like two inches in a half hour, ridiculous. You could hardly keep your eyes open in it. But we danced like we were drunk, if we weren’t, just us two on a Bourbon Street all to ourselves and never wanted the rain to stop.
A few years later, I took another, Doris Biddlebop, not her real name, The Evil One I’d come to call her, to New Orleans. I’d told her that when a woman I was getting going with was getting to be that thing for which we hadn’t a good word, my significant other, I’d take her to New Orleans, to my New Orleans, and see how we were there, how she was with the place, the people, how I was with her, if I was guarded, intent on a role, performing, if it left in my mouth the aftertaste of cloying.
She said that it was a test. I said it was test, but didn’t take her to my old haunts. They and them likely didn’t exist like they had. Certainly they didn’t. Nor did I. The Evil One and I ate at the usual places, drank too, swam after midnight in the hotel’s rooftop pool under glass, played golf, the mornings she wasn’t too hungover. Our last night there, I took her to Bourbon Street, asked her what she thought of New Orleans. She said it was smaller and dirtier than she had thought it would be, and I said I guessed it was, with her, a Yankee blue blood if ever there was, though that was okay. With Doris it was. We strolled the carnival street and drank rum hurricanes and had whatever we had no matter what we said. We passed a bright-lit costume shop, and she said she wanted a boa, a cheap gaudy boa, a souvenir. I came out with three, just so the color’d have a chance at being right, and she squealed at them, their absurdity, the kitsch, whatever. She put them on, all three, and made a few struts to the street’s middle and extended a boa-wrapped arm this way, extended her other arm that. She was dancing, parading, and looked back at me and tossed off her top, and, three boas shimmering, she was conga-stepping alone and beautifully, erotic and untouchable.
In all my previous lives, never was I at Woodstock, or in Paris in the Twenties, or with Emerson, Thoreau, Lowell, Fuller, et al, in Concord. Never was I in Vienna or Arles or Samuel Johnson’s London. Never did I possess a mystical allegiance to the Impressionists or the Moderns or the Enlightenment. Never was I a scholar or poet or lyre-playing troubadour. I did not know Hemingway or Whitman or Cotton Mather, either.
I am miscast here, among you, with your worries and assumptions, your desicrying language.
I am an opium Bulgar,
come pillaging from ancient Kazakh,
to take a Moldavian cunt down into Thrace,
to live nine hundred years,
as a Yampol peasant,
but am come American now, half ogre, half ghost, voyager and voyeur,
to wander here as through the dream of a previous life, searching for omens and augurs, signs and portends.
It is, what we are, all going away. I can tell you that. For all our fiddling and fixing, fidgety over mankind, our diets, the diet of others, the diet of cows, our cities and seasides and farms and badlands will be without us, our monuments without meaning. Our rivers will be empty of what we know, our skies tuneful with unfamiliar song and screech.
What has been for the hundred years past, for the thousand, maybe ten thousand, maybe more, it is coming to end and doing so this year, or the next, or a thousand more, or ten thousand, but coming to an end anyway. There will be a day when there will be none of what we know as man. There will be none of his beasts or works or words, and of all the questions ever he asked, none will have been answered, and of it all, what alone could truthfully be said is that across the stage of us, on this land, once danced beauty.