Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Twinkies 2012

Audio mp3 file / podcast

The end of time happened for Twinkies in November 2012, and I took it as a harbinger of larger and gooier apocalypses to come.

It’s sad that Hostess bakeries went bankrupt. How many of my childhood and teenage memories revolve around Hostess Zingers, Cupcakes, and the Little Debbie crème-filled oatmeal cookies?

The packaging was perfect. With logos and designs virtually unchanged from the 60s, it was almost impossible to look at the food packaging without having flash memories of earlier times. They had a Mother Goose, "And the Dish ran away with the Spoon" feeling; cupcakes with toothpick legs in motion, and little cakes with tiny stick arms.

The pastries themselves upped the kitsch ante, with their sweet, jarring frostings and heavy, bland, spongy cakes. I loved them. But, I bear in mind I also had a wall-sized DayGlo poster of Snoopy doing a happy dance on the wall in my room at my family's cabin in Vermont.

Like all "good" kitsch, Hostess products were all about consumer culture. But, I wasn't worried about that as a 16-year-old swimmer on the swim team (all heart and no talent), I stopped by Sterr’s grocery store after school and to buy myself a satisfying snack to eat on the way home before practice.  Zingers and Vienna sausages were perfect. My mother, the organic food purist, would have been horrified.  I liked the way you could peel the frosting from Zingers and cupcakes and roll it up to make a coiled tube frosting confection you could pop in your mouth for pure sweet joy. You could even coil the frosting around the Vienna sausage. Yum? Yuk? You decide.

Twinkies 2012. It coincides the end of time with the Mayan calendar.  Love the sound of it: Twinkies Twenty-Twelve…. But… what’s going on?

Ding-Dong, Apocalypse Calling.  (Okay, that was too cute.)

But seriously, Twinkies should be apocalypse-proof.

After all, didn’t someone put a box of Twinkies in a time capsule, and when they opened it a year later, the contents were completely intact? That may be an urban legend. I don’t know.

People like to blame the obesity epidemic on Twinkies. But, Twinkies were around in the 1930s, and there was no obesity epidemic then, at least not in Depression and post WWII-era America.

Plus, Twinkies aficionados have complained for a few years now about the “miniaturization” of Hostess products, which makes me think it was a failed Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle solution to the public health crisis. “You may eat what you want! It’s all about portion control!” I can imagine her burbling in her 1950s cheerio voice and “well, of course, BooBoo, you can do it!” attitude.

If Twinkies have shrunk from the size of a Coney Island hot dog bun, to roughly the equivalent of the teeny-tiny bread wrapper for a Vienna sausage, well, that’s just sad.

With their petite size, Twinkies should be getting awards for their role in the fight against obesity.

The same goes for Little Debbie.  While individually wrapped cookies have gone gourmet, and weigh in at around a half-pound apiece, and their nutrition label suggests that there are 6 – 8 servings per cookie, Little Debbie classics – the crème-filled oatmeal cookies – have miniaturized. Once the size of a McDonald’s quarter-pounder hamburger pattie, the cookies are now somewhat larger than old-school silver dollars.

For me, it’s criminal that a “vegan” peanut butter cookie would be considered “good” for you with 1200 calories per cookie (but you’re supposed to break it into 6 equal chunks and share with your buddies – who does that?  No one, of course.), while Little Debbie is cast as “junk food” perhaps even bearing trans-fat (which it does not have). No one mentions that a Little Debbie cookie “miniature” weighs in at less than a hundred calories.

The vegan snack is infinitely worse for you than a Little Debbie oatmeal crème cookie, and even a pair of Twinkies.

But, well, perception matters more than reality, so here we are.

The message is that Baby Boomer comfort food is bankrupt. By extension, are Baby Boomers themselves bankrupt? Not fiscally, but morally, ethically, and stylistically?

I’m not sure I’d go that far. After all, Twinkies are the great equalizer, the great democratizer.

If anything, I’d say that the demise of Twinkies suggests the demise of the tools of democratization and inclusion. After all, everyone loved Twinkies. Or, at least they did around 20 years ago.

The Twinkies (miniaturized as they are) and Twinkies alternatives we’re stuck with now are socially and politically divisive: either you buy your snack food at a vegan Whole Foods-type upscale establishment, and pay $5 or so for a single snack, or you go to the other end of the spectrum, and go to Dollar Days stores to buy a expiration date-crowding box of snacks featuring misspelled labeling and deliberately obfuscating ingredient lists, along with goofy graphics and a creepy suspicion that the snacks are sweet due to propylene glycol, and not high-quality cane sugar or even corn syrup…

I don’t know why or how Hostess leadership blew it, but I have to say that I’m not happy with them.

My feeling is that this apocalypse could have been averted.

That simple conviction makes me think that most, perhaps even all, commercial apocalypses could have been (or can be) avoided.

That said, I have been just tragically too riddled with nostalgic grief to work through my shock-paralysis. I failed to do what I should have, and scoop up all the Twinkies I could at Homeland, the employee-owned grocery store that now occupies the land where the family-owned Sterr’s used to combine grocery store with a comfort-food deli, bakery, and, when the season was upon us, Christmas trees and Santa’s Workshop.

What do we do now?

For once in my life, I don’t have the slightest idea. Is it possible to rescue a brand that rests on little more than nostalgia these days? And, is it possible to rescue a brand that has great sales, but just too much overhead, thanks to generous pensions, labor contracts, and transportation arrangements?

This is the time to share your thoughts. Do it before it’s too late.

The end of time has not established itself as an absolute – at least not now…

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bluebird No More

audio file / podcast

The fall that Rod Stewart’s top-40 hit, "Maggie May," hit the airwaves was the same autumn season that marked the beginning of an inexplicable sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and an overwhelming sense of dread, mixed with a kind of transfixed paralysis: Lot’s wife in the process of looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah, slowly (or not so slowly) transformed into a pillar of salt.  That’s what you get, when you look back, right?

But, I do not recall looking back at anything.  What was there to look back at with any sense of longing? I had loved being a Bluebird, with our crisp white short-sleeve shirts, navy blue button down cotton vests, and red neckscarves.  I chose being a Bluebird over being a Brownie simply based on the uniform. It made me feel happy and cheerful, and I loved the days when all of us wore our uniforms to school, then raced to the home of the mom whose turn it was to come up with activities for restless, curious, and easily enthused (and saddened) little girls.

During my mom’s tour of duty (about six weeks, as I recall), we went craft crazy, fashioning puffy pompoms of yarn, stringing beads, painting coasters and hot plate holders. When it was Mrs. Collier’s turn, we made plaster casts of animal tracks left behind in sand and clay.  I was intrigued by an especially big canine paw print, which I not so secretly hoped was from Bigfoot. Perhaps it was – now there is an annual Bigfoot Festival just a 50 or so miles from were we made those plaster casts.

I played my favorite pop songs on the record player (45 rpm) we had in the formal living room in front of the massive Victorian armoire, beige carpet, watered silk wallpaper, dark carved overstuffed sofa with watered tapestry.  I loved “Jingle Jump” (that came with a mini hula hoop for your ankle and a ball on a string that you could rotate and jump over … I know I’m not doing a very good job describing it), Georgy Girl, My Favorite Things (from The Sound of Music), and Minuet in G by Bach, Sonatina by Clementi, and other pieces I was working on after school for my biweekly piano lessons with Mrs. Crow, and then Mrs. Hunecke.

Fly, fly, fly, little Bluebird! Bluebirds and the concept of being a Bluebird shaped my sense of self. We lived on the edge of farmland and a long, snaky creek, and birds chirped day and night. I had a light blue cloisonné Bluebird pin that I always affixed to my vest, and a cute little tie ring for my neckscarf. When I wore my navy blue skirt, navy blue knee socks, and little saddle-Oxfords, I felt very snappy and well put together. It was satisfying to see the other members of my unruly, noisy little flock – we chirped, hopped around, and poked around for cookies and snacks.

The times were not as innocent as all that, though. After all, we were in the throes of the Cold War. Did anyone notice that our red scarves were more or less equivalent to those worn by Soviet Union’s Young Pioneers? I am sure my mother did not see they irony. She was a big Goldwater fan, and a John Birch Society member. My sense was that group was proto-Tea Party and intensely against a command economy, and a surveillance society that cohered only when a critical mass of the citizenry regularly ratted out each other, and where mental hospitals were charged with drugging and lobotomizing the “enemies of the state” (non-conformists). Ironically, we lived in Norman, Oklahoma, where the top two employers were the flagship state university (The University of Oklahoma) and the flagship mental hospital (Central State).

My mother, whose depression would engulf her in a few years, right about the time she lost her mother, perhaps never saw the parallels, or if she did, she viewed it as proof positive that we were the “heads” side of the coin; the positive side of the binary relationship that placed one side (ours) as shiny truth-warriors, and the other side (theirs) as chthonic robotic tools, crushing to the human spirit.  Years later, after seeming to have conquered her depression, my mother sat on the edge of the sofa, listening to televangelists and tapes of Bible studies. She filled notebook after notebook with longhand notes. After she passed away, I tried to find the notebooks, hoping for pure gold that I could transcribe and publish as a book of daily devotions, a legacy of sorts. I envisioned something like the notebooks of a mystic, say, Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe. It was not to be, however. Sadly, the few notebooks I was able to salvage had nothing in them but hand-written copies of Bible verses, repeated, over and over with no accompanying thoughts or insights…

The experience of reading my mother’s notebooks (page after page of absolute emptiness) was exactly the same as the one of talking to my mom and looking into her eyes – it was like looking through glass bricks and seeing a distorted set of color blocks and contortions that echoed the human experience. You knew there was a person there, and you could see the big, bold gestures, but it was hard to connect through so much intervening glass and air. 

West Junior High School was not Monroe Elementary. For the 14-year-old, it was a different universe. Girls at school had stopped being nice to each other somewhere in the second nine weeks of the sixth grade, just after Thanksgiving and sometime when Santa’s workshops started to appear in the local department stores and shopping centers.  if I did so, I am sure I would feel a bit of sadness. It would be the last year that the girls I went to school with were nice to each other.

The leaves had changed color early that fall. I was second chair in the first violin section of West Junior High orchestra, and I took two private lessons per week – one with Mrs. Keith, whose husband was something of a local celebrity at the University of Oklahoma, and one with Mrs. Powers, whose son had an explosives fetish and ended up being a brilliant geophysicist working on the North Slope in Alaska, and who herself, changed directions entirely, and flung to the side her career as a music educator and orchestra teacher in the Norman Public School system and decided to return to school to become a registered nurse.

Was she? No. She had to deal with the consequences of having been an impractical idealist, and being foolish enough to think that one’s violin prowess would mesh well with the exigencies of middle class life, and being a divorced mom of three feisty sons.

I loved taking lessons from both Mrs. Powers and Mrs. Keith. Their personalities were utterly different, as were the pieces they assigned me to learn.

Mrs. Keith was delicate and refined in a “faculty wife” kind of way. Mrs. Powers was thin, but in a wiry, un-made-up, scrappy survivalist sort of way. I was never convinced that either could play their instruments more competently than their students, but I have to say I love the way that Mrs. Keith’s technique chilled me with the ravishing tones and the perfect pitch, not to mention intense coloratura. Mrs. Powers was more utilitarian – no drama in her interpretations of the classics. Her performance and delivery screamed “I’m practical!” “I’m utilitarian and proud of it!” – technically proficient, her interpretations were divine on some level, but it was hard to engage the affect enough to make her listeners passionate, riveted, filled with raw desire for music produced by wire, horsehair, and thick, hot rosin.

But, I’m digressing, obviously in order to avoid the painful subject of my own raw, inflamed, chapped, and incapable of gripping anything with any sort of fervor at all.

I want to tell you about the passion(s) that everyone feels.

There is the passion for life, the passion for chrysanthemums in the fall, and for seeing under the surface, and into the great, deep heart of memory. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Frankenfood and the Skunk Whisperer

Audio file / podcast

I stopped at the midpoint of the stretch of Turner Turnpike from Oklahoma City to Tulsa, drawn to convenience store, diesel, parking spots, and a big McDonald’s. I used to drive straight through, but getting up at 4 am to make it to the office by 7:30 am was never as easy as I thought it would be. I liked to tell myself it was better than returning the night before – better to have a relaxing evening and set the alarm for 3:45 am.

It was a colossal lie.

And, it wasn’t the first I had told myself. I am a master of self-deception and conflict avoidance. My early-morning thoughts are not happy thoughts.

But was it? On this particular morning, I was mulling over a series of articles I had just read: “The Wheat You Eat Is Not Your Grandmother’s Grain.”

Monsanto took a bacteria gene that kills insects and spliced it into potatoes, corn, and cotton.
DNA from fish has been spliced into strawberry plants.
Winter flounder genes have been spliced into tomatoes to make them resistant to the cold.
Wheat is “monster wheat” and even contains tiger DNA?

Tiger DNA?

So. What’s the conclusion??

I conclude that there is nothing left to eat. We must avoid meats, dairy products, and fish due to antibiotics and growth hormones.

When confronted with this dilemma, a friend of mine retorted, not missing a beat, “That’s why I stick to fried foods.”

Corn syrup, candy, fast foods, and other convenience items are in reality petrochemical products.

Well. It’s not all bad. People are worried about the impact of extreme longevity on the Social Security fund. With all this tampering, I don’t think we have anything to worry about.

Today, during a lunchtime walk I encountered a young woman – in her early thirties, I would guess – who passed me in her motorized wheelchair. She was missing both feet. They had been amputated above the ankles. She was obese, so I concluded she suffered from diabetes.

When I was 19, I flew out to Reno, Nevada, after having completed my first year of college (chemical engineering), and I relaxed by driving around to intriguing historical spots. Virginia City’s mansions appealed to me, as did an old fort outside Carson City.

In the gift store, I purchased the “Pioneer Woman’s Recipe Book.”  It contained recipes for food that early settlers were likely to eat. The ingredients were amazingly limited: lard, salt pork, corn meal, baking soda, flour, sugar, salt, dried beans. They also drank water from wells that contained arsenic.

It amazed me that anyone lived past the age of 10 or 12.

I guess they got a lot of exercise.

Pulling up to the E-Z Go Convenience store, I stretched a bit as I walked in and made a beeline for coffee. I contemplated the chemicals likely to be in the water, and I added a bit of cappuccino (pure corn sweetener poison). I regarded the “grillers” rolling on a hot dog / taquito / breakfast roll hot plate. I congratulated myself for having never even tried one of the glistening meat & fat tubes, and then picked up a miniature pumpkin pie. How much pumpkin did it really have? It was some sort of guar gum and flavoring concoction. Yum. Satisfying.

Just one more thing to feel apocalyptic about…

I made my way back to my car, coffee cup in hand. A pickup truck pulling something that looked like a modified horse trailer caught my eye. It had dramatic styling – a huge spray-painted skunk and the words, The Skunk! Whisperer.

Skunk.  Skunk Whisperer.

The sign gave rise to mental images of a guy coaxing a skunk out from the crawl space of someone’s old Craftsman house, or gently scooping up skunk pups from their plush little nest in someone’s tool shed.

What do skunks eat?  What eats skunks?  And, are they safe to eat? Why not splice a rose with skunk DNA?

If there are any non-tampered-with items in our habitat that we can eat, I think the list is pretty short. In Oklahoma, here are the things you can eat with some assurance that it has not been genetically modified:

Venomous snakes:  copperheads, water moccasins, rattlesnakes (Western Diamondback and Pygmy)
Armadillos (although now somewhat scarce, and largely leprous)
Weeds and wildflowers (away from yards and fields):  purple vetch, black-eyed susans, virginia creeper, dandelions, johnson grass, mistletoe, sumac, poison ivy, poison oak.
Tree leaves and nuts: pecans, acorns, mimosas, redbud flowers, catalpa flowers and bean pods, mimosa poms and seed pods.
Most of these items are probably toxis (aka “medicinal”)

I read the stories about genetic modification and the adulteration of our food supply right after listening to Jerry Sandusky and his wife excoriate all the people who testified against him. They were greedy. They wanted to get at Penn State’s riches. They were in it for their own gain.

It was intriguing. What if it had been – like some claim that the U.S. moon landing was – a huge conspiracy?? How, exactly would that work? How could everyone pull it off – a stunt which would require pretty dramatic and emotionally draining acting as well as lurid story-telling. I guess it can be done – think of all the people who became convinced they had been abducted by aliens. Think of the individuals who had false recall of having been abused… (turned out to be the power of suggestion)…

The flaw in the story is … what triggered it? Why would someone invent such a story – and such an elaborate one with so many victims? It had to start somewhere – why start THAT story?

Sigh. Don’t worry about it. Just pull your chair up to the computer and take notes as you stream “Swamp People: The ‘Swamps-Giving’ Episode.”

Every last one of us needs to know how to make “turtle etouffee” and “horny toad fritters” or “jackrabbit sausage.”

Yum. And now, just let me get back to my coffee and mini pumpkin pie from the EZ-Go.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Subterranean Bistro: Shales, Oil & Gas, and the Metro


 The sign outside and the racks of bottles – vin blanc et vin rouge – lying on their sides suggest that this is a wine bar, but in truth, I’ve never seen anyone drinking wine. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen – it just means that it’s not generally what this crowd does at noon, the only time I’ve eaten here, except one time in the distant past – late 1990s – with a person I met in conjunction with a group of Azerbaijanis who were eager to learn the latest seismic techniques that would help them characterize the reservoirs lying beneath the Caspian Sea.

I remember a rather forgettable dinner meal.
Let’s be honest. Obviously I forgot the whole thing.

Lunch at the Metro is never forgettable. It’s a secret garden, an English or French country house with lovely windows, wooden floors, and flowers.

If Chef Gordon Ramsay of “Kitchen Nightmares” were to visit, I’m sure he’d find the fresh cut long-stem roses in vases and the intimate tables to be extravagant, even anachronistic.

Chef Ramsay would insist on “banquette seating” as a trendy, revitalizing touch. It would defeat the very essence of what I perceive The Metro to be about, which is intimacy and conversation. Yes, banquette seating will increase capacity by 40%, but at what cost?

I was disappointed during the last visit that the menu had changed. The Metro is not about change. It is about tradition. No longer present was “The Cellar” salad – I guess no one even knows what or where “The Cellar” restaurant was. It used to be downtown in the basement of the Hightower Building (coincidentally, where my dad had an office during the 1960s). I remember having lunch with him in 1971, right after Christmas. I was in the 7th grade in my first year at West Junior High, and I desperately wanted to have "cute" items to fit in. (I guess nothing changes with respect to wanting to be in the "cool" crowd -- it may be worse now than before ...)  At any rate, I had received $250 for Christmas, and I was eager to spend the money in after-Christmas sales at John A. Brown Department Store, the upscale department store located in downtown Oklahoma City, with, later, anchors at malls and even an elegant little store on Campus Corner at the University of Oklahoma.

You’d walk in and be greeted immediately by exotic and expensive perfumes – the only thing that comes even slightly close to is a duty-free store in the international terminals of large airports. I remember Estee Lauder, Givenchy, Dior, Chanel in the air at a John A. Brown store.

It was exciting beyond belief. I was 13 years old, in junior high, and eager to have a “fashion forward” presence. I would not be hostage to the upscale stores that catered to the youth – stores on Main Street, where the streets were still brick, and the buildings had elegant, bank-like facades. I could move beyond Sooner Tots ‘n’ Teens and Bonnie’s Dress Shop, and buy the brands I had read about in Seventeen magazine, and Glamour, which I purchased the instant they appeared on the magazine racks at the Safeway grocery store at the Hollywood Shopping Center.

I was also convinced that I could be a fashion designer, and perhaps even a model. I was much too short. However, my new doctor (not a pediatrician) had informed my mother that I had an underactive thyroid and that I should be around 5 ft 11 inches, maybe even a full 6 feet, not the 5 ft 6 inches I had achieved by age 13.

The fact that, at 13-1/2 years of age, I seemed nowhere near puberty was another indication of a basic endocrine malfunction, said the doctor, who later went on to specialize in endocrinology.

My mother, who, unbeknownst to my dad, could go almost an entire week in her bed, neck and head wrapped with old cloth diapers smeared with the eye-watering Ben-Gay ointment designed to assuage some sort of generalized pain (the agony of existence, I can to realize), was against my doing anything at all to restore my endocrine balance.

I could sense the deep-seated schadenfreude; the rivalry to best me, no matter what it took. She was 5 ft 8 inches. It was good that her daughter stalled out at something under that. She was, as it was absolutely self-evident, much more elegant and self-regulated. At 5ft 8 inches, 105 pounds, she evoked the sense of Jackie O or Twiggy – never her lumpen-proletariat daughter. It was like being Joan Crawford’s daughter. No coat-hanger, though. Just a wooden ruler.


The Metro’s heavy wooden and leaded glass doors do not rattle the building when they slam shut, which is something to respect, considering the life and times of Oklahoma City.


The memory of dinner at the metro is coming back – at least the surreal conversation – an executive of a local company telling me his marriage was failing because his wife had announced to him that she was no longer attracted to men, and all I could think of was how he must have driven her to it, or, more likely, the whole thing was a sad, self-serving prevarication…

Who really cares about attraction and its vagaries?  It’s all A Midsummer Night’s Dream to me. You don’t really have a choice in the matter … it’s just how / where when the pansy juice hits your eyes and who you first lay eyes on…

And what can I say? Intrusive thoughts of the summer I took a seminar on Shakespeare… I took my young son with me to Shakespeare in the Park. It was just a few miles north of the Metro. I believe those magical evenings in the park shaped his way of a thinking and viewing the world, but no one quite realized it at the time… I certainly was not conscious of it. Similarly, when I was that age, my dad would take me out to drilling wells, and let me look at the samples under black light, drop dropperfuls of toluene to see the oil “cut” and “stream” from the pore spaces. He would also let me drop dilute HCl on limestone to see it bubble and hear the sizzle like the old ZOTS candies the foamed and splattered in one’s mouth … the baking soda / vinegar sizzle being something I enjoyed.

The things you find in cuttings – always unexpected. Upon first glance they seem like gravel for a Barbie doll house, or the gravel you'd put on the bottom of a fish tank… most of it is gray because that’s the color of the fissile shales that fall into the well. They are called “cavings” and they are brittle. At that time no one really paid much attention to the shales. In the ground, they were source rocks and seals, which is to say tat they had oil content, but not enough maturation had taken place, and you could not really recover them.

When I became a geologist, I was enchanted by the shales… they seemed so filled with promise (also known as oil and gas … hydrocarbons… I was like everyone who saw them – for me they were Siren rocks – seductive and yet ultimately deadly. If you yielded to the temptation to set pipe, you’d find you’d invested your very lifeblood trying to perf, frac, acidize, and produce from a formation that would do little more than withhold the goods. If it gave up anything at all, you’d pay, boy, yes … you’d pay.

But why not pay a prince’s ransom for a dream? And the unwillingness to pay a price is the best way I can think of to make your dreams totally and permanently dry up. The mirage of vision can only be transformed into reality by means of risk and risk-taking. Is that how it is?

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

My Personal Mission: Read Mine, Develop Your Own

My mission is to encourage creativity in all walks of life in order to build bridges and help solve what seemed, in the past, to be intractable problems in human relations, technology, economics, politics, and in one’s sense of self and destiny. Creativity, coupled with action and hard work, can, with luck and perseverance, open doors and expand access to education, economic life, and social groups, in order to strengthen one’s ability to have a purposeful, enfranchised, examined, and courageous life.

How do I actualize my mission and vision?
Tactic One:  List and Describe Core Values

Creativity:  I like the way that thinking creatively requires the willingness to put unexpected things together, and to look at a set of things, circumstances, or concepts from multiple perspectives.  Sometimes it’s necessary to explore biases and blind spots in order to avoid confusing the status quo with the truly creative, or simply using new ways to reinforce old biases. Creativity, in the ultimate sense of the word, should be generative and life-supporting, as well as psychologically freeing.

Perseverance:  I value staying with a project until it’s done. If the project is on the wrong path, I think it is perfectly acceptable to drop it. Nevertheless, the ability to envision the outcome, and to stick with it, is something I have always respected.

Teamwork:  Working alone is efficient, at least for awhile. Teams are better. They bring energy, diverse perspectives, and multiple skillsets to a challenge, task, or problem. Being in a team is also vital for feeling enfranchised and that you have a sense of belonging.

Connecting the Previously Unconnected:  I like the idea of taking two or three things that never worked together and seeing how they might connect. It’s a great way to approach problems, and can lead to breakthroughs of engineering. It’s also a great way to energize a team or group problem-solving group – there are usually moments of absurdity and humor that encourage the open exchange of ideas and create a supportive, non-punitive atmosphere.

Tactic Two:  Describe the World as It Is Now, Describe Potential Vision for the Future (key example of this tactic: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech)

I see the world as a place where, despite the eternal self-fashioning and energizing transformations of technology, commerce, and human invention, the majority of the world’s peoples still behave as though they were approaching end times, “slouching toward Bethlehem” (as in the great Yeats poem, “The Second Coming”), and they interpret the events and activities around them as signs of decline, rather than opportunities for creative, energizing, empowering growth.

The fear-driven mind finds apocalypse in the random words, signs, and acts that surround it. For the fear-driven mind, the future is a predetermined horrorscape of chaos, equivocation, and snarling despair. The end is predicted to be ugly and inescapable, and there is no way to protect oneself from it.

The hope-driven mind may find apocalypse to be in our future, but instead of suffering and horror, the vision and hope-driven mind finds generative patterns, and pathways to growth. The end of the world signals Dionysian transformation, a necessary death phase that one goes through in order to be reborn, revitalized, regenerated. The vision-driven mind may have a mystical inclination, and the “dark night of the soul” is the test of faith that ushers in a state of union, of intuitive knowledge, of the achievement of great things.

I would like to work toward a future that allows individuals to find a balance between their fear-driven and hope-driven minds, and which provides a strategy for overcoming short-term, immediate anxieties by recognizing that working through the negative emotions is a necessary part of growth, and simply seeking to avoid pain will mean that one will remain in pain because no major changes have been made.

In the future, I would like to see a world where people understand that they may transform themselves, and that the barriers that once existed can be eliminated. It may take some time, cooperation, and willingness to learn another language, computer skills, philosophy, or higher-order math. It might also require one to examine one’s own internal resistances to change, and to read works of literature and creative non-fiction in order to understand the mindsets of others vis-à-vis one’s own.

The young child born into cold, hard streets of despair and abandonment has the same future as the young scion of a social media billionaire. It’s not enough to scoff and say that they share the same ultimate destiny, to die and be forgotten. It’s imperative to nurture the spark of life and imagination that drives one person to reach a hand out to another, without expectations or preconceptions, but simply to invite another to go on a journey together. The journey will strange, unpredictable, and yet infinitely worthwhile.

I’m reminded of “Woyaya” by the South African song written by Osibisa, performed by Art Garfunkel in the early 1970s:
We are going
Heaven knows where we are going
We ‘ll know we’re there…

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Spectacle of the Cat

The “Spectacle of the Cat.” Is that what you get when you cross Christopher Smart (Jubilate Agno – “my cat Jeofrey”) and Guy DeBord (“Society of the Spectacle”)?

Or, the Cat with Spectacles?

I have to say that I am a big fan of spectacles, productions, and shows of all sorts. I’ve seen my share of tourist spectacles in the form of “indigenous” dances, and I love it when they devolve into a quest for some essential element – the primal, the core, the essential concept of being and beingness that informs that whys and the “how we knows” of our postmodern selves … 

the fact that we’re convinced that we can only know ourselves when some we are able to see ourselves in some sort of mirror. In other words, our inner worlds become externalized and placed into some sort of visual metaphor for the mélange of conflicting feelings and ideas that we have and live with.

I can’t think of a single culture that does not have its own “star-crossed lovers” Romeo and Juliet tradition. In Guam, there was the cliff where two lovers whose families refused to accept them leapt to their deaths. Azerbaijan has its story of the Muslim youth and the Christian maiden (from Georgia), whose forbidden love is realized, but then quickly transforms itself into a tragedy of the highest order. The spectacle is not the love, but the condition of thwartedness. The satisfying denouement is not the glorious transcendent union, but the desperate suicides of the two lovers who (mistakenly, of course) think they’ve been rejected by the other…

After you see enough of those star-crossed lover / suicide narratives, you start to consider the possibility that Freud was unjustly neglected … not for his libido and dreams stuff, but for his “thanatos” issues – the “death drive” that represent the flip side of procreative, generative, libidinal drive.

And, death does not mean death at all, but Dionysus.  I appreciate Nietzsche in this case: oblivion that slides slowly (or even quickly) into obliterated self, recovered self, and absolute, glorious rebirth. 

Suicide is never a final waltz of dancing bears and oblivion.

No, no, no.

After all, we’re not talking reportage. Instead, we’re considering the narratives that flow from a culture, which embark upon a quest to find a way to express the most intense feelings, the most extreme conditions of existential anxiety, of doubt, fear, longing, and a need to become … to merge, metamorphose, to assume the identity of one’s deepest desires.

That’s what it’s all about.

And, I’m a bit ashamed to admit what I am, what I’ve become. In my eagerness to explore different ways of looking at the world, I’ve become incapable of maintaining a consistent sense of who or what I am in the world. “The centre does not hold” and I’m in Yeats’s “Second Coming,” “turning and turning in the widening gyre” ... If I myself am not that “rough beast” that represents the ultimate end of time, the transformation, the end of the world as we know it, then at least I’m the rough beast’s proxy.

Death does not mean death in this elaborate equation.

Death means a phase change. It means transformation. It means that, when it’s time, (and that time comes for everyone sooner or later – for my mother, it came just over two years ago) -- walking through the open door that promises you a way to unchain yourself from the voices that tell you that you just don’t measure up. In my mother’s case, that final walk was horrific. I was not there – I was at a workshop in Golden, Colorado on the Colorado School of Mines campus – but my dad was, and he remains traumatized to this day.

So, I’m not talking about the real thing. I’m talking about the mythical, metaphorical “death,” which means radical, dramatic change. It means transformation at cell level, well-nigh irreversible.

I’ve taken to sleeping on the futon-sofa in the spare upstairs bedroom that has nothing in it but a carved oak armoire and a cherry secretary desk with a flat screen monitor through which I can watch DVDs or the cable television provided by my homeowner’s association (bundled with other services covered by my monthly HOA dues).

Let me tell you, I’m not one who was seemingly “born for” our times.  No way. If anything, I hate these scary, uncertain times, and the realization that no matter how trivial or inconsequential the perk, there seem to be thousands who would cheerfully drag out the daggers and fight for every job that pops up on job boards in our global workplace and marketplace – even if it costs more to work than to stay at home, and it takes a great deal out of us to “civilize and sterilized” ourselves in order to conform to fluorescent-lit surveillance cubes that most of us call a workplace these days.

What is the alternative? Many of us could live simply, and choose to chill out on the patio, breathe deeply, have time to think about life and the eternal verities.

But then, not working means feeling outside society, and disenfranchised in a rather major way.

And when I awaken at 3:30 am after a long, dismal night of nightmares and creeping, sad knowledge that I’m alone with my thoughts, it occurs to me that it’s much easier to live in a place where consciousness and too much self-awareness are reined in by trivial, busywork coupled with draconian punishment for missing deadlines and failing to live up to expectations.

Keeping fear alive is a great way to block out the tough questions about life, life’s stages, and what it all means (and if meaningfulness matters at all)…

Sometimes, though, questions have a way of surfacing, no matter what we do to keep them submerged. At that point, it’s good to pull out the spectacle – either attend or participate in one. My vote goes to participating – if you are playing a role and are absorbed in creating a dramatic enactment of something, you are more likely to feel comfortable about yourself because you are a part of something that is larger than life, and larger than yourself.

The best example might be Disney. If you are a “cast member,” you’re role-playing in a large spectacle, and your individual beingness is subsumed and transformed into a collective one: the show.

It’s a gorgeous, brilliant concept: not only do you have the opportunity to train your mind on something other than your quotidian worries and pesky intrusive thoughts, you’re also able to achieve a sense of unity. Some writers such as William James (Varieties of Religious Experience) and Evelyn Underhill (Mysticism) might call that a mystical experience. I know I would.

So, returning to the original, triggering thought that precipitated this little “Sunday drive” of the mind, let’s regard Christopher Smart’s cat, Jeoffrey: 

For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in. (Smart, Jubilate Agno,

And then let’s combine it with our media, Internet-driven sense of spectacle, and the possibility that we’re voyeurs of our own lives. Where is the power? What is the power? I’d say that it resides within one’s capacity to create visions – to envision.


Either you think--or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night

Friday, October 05, 2012

Farmer Eaten by His Own Hogs


The news report said the farmer had given his hogs pet names and that he truly loved them. And then they attacked and ate him.

At 800 pounds each, the hogs, Molly and Dolly, were special. The farmer was proud of them, and he said he felt a special bond with them.

That statement made my mind go in directions I preferred to avoid. The mental images were too much.

That’s life for you.

Question: What was his reason for feeding the hogs so they weighed more than twice as much as they should have? What did he profit from having such a “hog spectacle” of a morbidly obese set of twin girl hogs??


A change of direction:
You’ll never have to worry. You’ll never have to hide. You’re loved, you’re cherished, you’re a person whose very footsteps glitter and shine with moondust and dreams.

That’s the way it is.


This year’s State Fair fried food competition, “State Fare,” went to Deep-Fried Bacon & Praline Ice Cream. I guess it was better than last year’s winner and this year’s “also ran” deep-fried butter, but what do I know?

The Tulsa World website showed a long line of fair-goers dressed in fair-going garb: long t-shirts, running shoes or sandals, baggy shorts, smartphones in hand, either texting or talking.

“Bacon goes with everything. That’s my general motto,” said the winner. “Actually, Spam is even better. I was going to enter Deep-Fried Spam & Raisin Jam Ice Cream, but I couldn’t get enough Spam, thanks to a strike at the Spam plant. Plus, the raisin jam people said they’d sue if we used their product in a “State Fair Spectacle” as they put it. They accused me of deliberate, malicious harm to their brand, and their corporate attorney, a fat woman named Quaryn, called me a rascally “tort-feaser.”

Tort. Yes, it’s the latest 4-letter word. Let’s not ask what body part it corresponds to.


Bend your knees. Flex your thighs. Reach for it with your arm, your shoulder, your whole body. Stretch, reach, stretch again and just never, never, never take your eyes off the ball. Turn your body to the net, don’t forget your footwork, don’t let your grip slip out of continental. When your racquet makes contact, be sure to exhale – don’t hold your breath. Then – gasp – inhale.  Deeply.

The art of the overhead.


The State Fair “Fried Fare” winner was surprised when not everyone was equally smitten by his concoction.

“I don’t get it. If they think I’m a little outside the lines, or “outré” as my French maman used to say, I’d like to refer them to the Great State of Hawaii.  Behind every slab of sliced pineapple and burnt “brulee” pure cane sugar is a can of Spam, carefully peeled open with that bent-wire metal key you find at the base of the can which fits into the flap of metal on the side and slowly peels open as you turn it around and around…”

The reporter looked both repulsed and intrigued. It was a typical reaction: duality revealed as a pretty much inescapable response to technological modernity.

You could eat Spam with a fork, and you could, conceivably squeeze it out of a tube directly into your mouth like the “potted meat” my grandmother loved to whip up with herbs and chopped crisp vegetables to then spread on wheat berry bread onto which she then layered sliced beefsteak tomatoes, romaine lettuce, sliced green olives, and fig jam.

It’s a soft target. How can you not use Spam to mock modernity?

And, then, there’s this: Spam as iconographic semiotic signifier mirroring the colonialization of the imagination.


It’s dark this morning. The lights from the 1920s-vintage refinery flicker and shine in the waters of the Arkansas River.

There has been an emission of some sort. I smell sulfur in the air. It penetrates my patio doors and window, even though they’re closed and I’m on the 14th floor, probably 2 or 3 miles away, as the crow (or pigeon) flies.

I breathe deeply. I think of you. Breathing this stuff is dangerous.


In Hawaii, anyone who eats Spam is one who has been subjugated by alien invasive cultures, even as the same culture claims they’ve appropriated (hence dominated) the cultural artifacts (the “meat”)…

And yes, it’s a kind of “cargo cult” ? How could it be anything but that?

And, well, Spam has been appropriated as something as quirky as a Cargo Cult… the twin-engine plane spews its cargo…

So, again, anyone who eats Spam is one who has been subjugated by an invasive culture.

But is it so simple?

I hope so.

I love cargo cults. Cans of Spam raining from the skies, along with bars of chocolates – it’s a wonder to behold if you’re on an isolated atoll or island in the South Pacific and you are living during WWII. It’s especially nice if what rains from the sky is a blood-meat product…

“There is power, power, power in the blood” Lewis E. Jones, 1899. “Wonder-working power…”

Intrusive thought: How many times have the words of that famous hymn been misappropriated??

George W. Bush used those words in a campaign speech. George W. was, while governor, like many governors of Texas, very unwilling to pardon death row prisoners, even when there was grave doubt as to their guilt, even when confessions had been coerced and beaten out of them, and “eye witnesses” were venal jailhouse snitches.

Oh but that’s another story…


The hog farmer was eaten by his own hogs.

Are the people ever eaten by their own elected officials?

Are they the hogs?  What are we?


When the hog farmer was buried, the Westboro Baptist Church turned out in full force, a departure from their usual cruel abuse of the families and loved ones of fallen service members.

They had crocheted banners which looked all the world like spider webs, and illustrations from Charlotte’s Web:

In all caps:


Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Norman Is My Glue Trap

Audio / Podcast

Norman, Oklahoma, is my personal glue trap.

Others would say La Brea tar pit, but I’m not feeling grandiose enough to put myself in the league of woolly mammoths or Pleistocene cave goats or sabre-toothed tigers – the food chain (I almost typed “fool chain”) captured as a tableaux vivant somewhere in what is now part of the most-trafficked section of Los Angeles.

I’m not sure why no one has thought to juxtapose the Ice Age drama of hungry animals trapped in tar and, unable to move, witnessing themselves frozen forever as either predator or prey, with Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” where human beings are similarly mired in flagrante delicto, pitchforks in hand, eyes open in horror or scrunched shut.

The woolly mammoths were never eaten by the sabre-toothed tigers.
The tigers did not attack.

All died by the same hand: starvation or dehydration, unless they drowned in the tarry stuff. The hot tar bubbled up like water in a lovely artesian well, but gripped and suffocated (and ultimately preserved) all who strayed into the warm, gluey depths.

What’s our personal tar pit? Bosch would suggest “desire” – the Pleistocene Ice Age climate change drama would suggest “hunger” (sort of the same thing, but de-sexualized).

I’m not sure what I think.

I was once asked to be a  “loaned executive” for the United Way. It was when I worked for Kerr-McGee Corporation in downtown Oklahoma City. I was flattered, but in reality, they had to go pretty far down on the totem pole to find me. I was not an executive. In fact, I did not even qualify for entrance into Kerr-McGee’s “Executive Dining Room.”  I was working as a business writer in Corporate Communications, later to ascend to international operations analysis for Kerr-McGee Chemical, which was something of a miracle because I was a more or less unemployable geologist, not a communications specialist, although I did have a number of English courses under my belt, as well as being 3 hours away from a master’s degree in Economics. So, I did have “business” somewhere in my kit bag, as well as “writer.”  I was 29 years old.

For six weeks, I reported to the downtown Oklahoma City YMCA where I had a desk in what amounted to a kind of “bull pen” – no cubes, just a sea of old, horrible desks.

I always parked in the same place and walked into the Downtown “Y” and took the rickety elevator (or the dark, sweat-smelling stairs) to my desk on the 5th floor.

Sometimes I had to make my way through a small gauntlet of protesters outside the Federal Building. It was the Murrah Building, and it was a few years before the bombing, but of course, no one knew that its time was limited. I will say that there was definitely not anything to act as any kind of barrier between the street and the front entrance.

That was where I went to get my passport. I also went there for some other reason, but now I’ve forgotten, or put it out of my head. I hate standing in lines, especially long ones that terminate with a stone-faced federal employee.

The entire building smelled of mold and chlorine, and although I could, ostensibly, use the pool and the facilities, the 20-yard pool that was chock-full of churning, wind-milling downtown worker swimmers, filled me with fear and loathing. I had swum competitively for 10 years, and, while not very good, I had managed to letter for my high school, and I did win ribbons and medaled at the Oklahoma Summer Junior Olympics.

I listened to a lot of Jars of Clay, Smiths, Pet Shop Boys, and Nine Inch Nails. I had not yet discovered the Heart Sutra, and my idea of staying in the moment or disciplining my mind was to work myself into the deepest, darkest emotional frenzy I could. The descent was giddying at first, but there was definitely no euphoria at being at the cold, fetid bottom of slick-walled well. 

No way out.

In the end, my team won the award and a plaque for the highest number of donations. My motto was “No Tactic Is Too Low,” which meant I spent a lot of time calling corporate headquarters and local branch managers, whom I attempted to bribe with lots of free publicity. It usually worked. It helped that they were usually well aware of the carnage of the oil bust, which was still going on, with no signs of ending any time soon. Oklahoma City was rapidly depopulating.

On the surface, I know I seemed upbeat and perky. In reality, I was having a hard time with it all. Every time I had to show the film that featured learning-challenged kids, and then the song “A Place for Us” I would turn the other way, my eyes waterfalls of tears. Every time I had to lead tours at the Red Cross, and the “donor bone” center, I would start to faint when they described the process, the “harvesting” of donor bone from the cadaver (the donor), and the machines that processed the bone.

It happened more than once. I would be in the donor bone center, and the American Red Cross representative would be cheerfully discussing the amazingly positive advances (technology), and then they’d fire up the Donor Bone Cleaning Machine, and I would – every time! – begin to faint. I cringed, felt a sympathetic response in the long bones (arms, legs), and then watch as the world went black except for a pinpoint of light…

The only way to arm myself against fainting was to go outside where I could not hear the sound of the “soylent green” machines – the loud whirring and sucking sounds of the bones being prepared for shipping and implanting.

Thankfully, I could turn and run (or at least drive) away.

The same could not be said for the mice in my desk. I came in one late afternoon, wrung out from fighting traffic, and I pulled out stationery to write a thank you letter for one of the companies that had agreed to let me make a “There’s a Place for Us” presentation, when I noticed the edge was chewed, and there was a bit of what appeared to be urine and mice or hamster droppings.

The YMCA, as you probably guessed already, was later destroyed in the OKC bombing of the Murrah Building and it was crawling with mice and other vermin.

There was an easy solution for that, said the local branch manager of Norris Office Solutions (cleaning, updating, pest control).  He handed me a couple of glue traps.

“Just peel off the lids and stick the glue trays in your desk drawer, or wherever you expect them to walk before they get on your valuable papers.”  I poked the glue lightly with my index finger.  Ick. Sticky.

The glue traps worked. The next time I returned from a couple of United Way “A Place for Us” presentations, fellow “loaned executives” were huddled around my desk, voices bright with shock, mixed with pity and horror.

“Susan! There is a MOUSE and he is DYING in your desk!!” Marquesa had big blonde 80s hair, and I never liked her anyway. She was the only one of the group that was even more shameless than I was at extorting companies into returning the United Way pledge envelopes filled with employee pledges.

Yes, a small mouse was indeed writhing in the glue, unable to wrench free. The end came quickly when he put his face in it, so death came in a matter of minutes rather than days.

If he had been big rattus norwegicus, with a foot-long shiny bald tail, I am sure he would have engendered no sympathy. The tiny little mouse, however, did.

And, as I return to Norman yet again, and I stand up to my knees in emotional glue, I wonder if I’m a tiny “cute” mouse, or a disgusting rattus norwegicus. I know what I consider myself to be. I also wonder if it will take days, weeks, years, or if I’ll stick my snout right into the psychological goo, and it will be the end of it.

I hear the whir and glug-glugging of the donor bone machine.

Oh. No, not yet, I guess. Thankfully, I’m asleep.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jesus Is Lord Truckstop

Audio File / Podcast

“You’re not going to find any garages open on Labor Day.”

The guy at Pilot Truckstop off I-40 on the east edge of Amarillo and just south of the airport was polite but glum.

I was glummer.

Three nights before, in the dead of night, I watched as one by one each major system in my car failed, finally leaving me on the side of the road with not even enough battery power to flash the emergency lights.

Coyote. Armadillo. Rattlesnakes soaking up heat on the still-warm asphalt, then squished by a fast-moving semi on the short-cut-without-weigh-stations to Denver.  I could have been road kill, too, except for miracle of miracles – I could get a cell signal.

It was a brush with death and I knew it.  Now my “check engine” light was on, and the last thing I wanted was to be caught on the side of the road again – this time with 105 degree heat and no cell signal.

I formulated plans. If I could not find a mechanic to see what was wrong with my car, I’d rent a car at the airport, then drive it to Oklahoma, and then I’d return next weekend to collect the car (or trade it in for something).

“There is the “Jesus Is Lord” truckstop two miles back east on the way to Oklahoma City. They have a mechanic who works on just about anything.”

“Great! Maybe he works on holidays,” I said.


The “Jesus Is Lord Truckstop” was a 70s time capsule that had not withstood the ravages of 115 degree summers and 5 degree winters. The asphalt was cracked, and you had to pay in advance for gas. At first I wondered if it were open. While the Pilot Truckstop had been an anthill of activity, the Jesus Is Lord truckstop had only one car in the parking lot, and a woman wearing pants and a dark t-shirt smoking next to the back door.

I parked carefully and approached the building. The windows had been covered with white butcher paper, each one with a different Bible verse.

I John 1:5: This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

Three nights ago, the prairie had been horribly dark, except for the full, full moon. The moon was full again the next night. They called it a “blue moon,” but I did not bother to find out what “blue moon” meant.

Darkness is what has defined me year after year. Not that anyone else really sees it. It’s just my entire consciousness is all about detecting the darkness as it threatens to encroach, and then, anticipating its crushing blow, proactively going to battle with the darkness.

What I did not realize is that it made me dark. 

How so? Well, all I had to do was to listen to my inner voice to see just how far the darkness had taken me over.

“Susan. You’re doing well right now. At least that’s how it looks on the surface. It’s all an illusion, though. We both know that we’re on the edge of a collapse. That would be okay, but, thanks to your performance in the past, everyone expects you to perform at the same level, plus 10 or 15 percent. How are you going to pull it off? You can’t. So. Run NOW before it’s too late, and before you’re utterly humiliated and laughed at—or, worse – reviled.”

It would be nice to blame the oil bust of the 1980s and say that’s what pushed me to darkness.
But, I would say that it started long before that. I remember changing majors after receiving the Outstanding Freshman in Chemical Engineering award. It was all about fear and being convinced that I would fail – thus being humiliated. I often wonder what might have happened if I had continued… I was working in membrane ultrafiltration … could I have been a part of a solution to water problems?

Affordable desalination? Purifying produced water to the point that it could recharge aquifers, be released to surface impoundments, and even be bottled / sold as potable water?

If we could find out how to desalinate affordably enough, we could transform Africa. I’ll never forget speaking with a young mother in Mozambique who had spent most of the afternoon hauling dirty water from a distant pond in order to provide water for her family for a few days. I am quite sure that they did not waste their valuable firewood to boil the water.

My fears have pushed me to the dark side.

There is no doubt, I’ve been there for years, but the last 10 have been, in a word, BLANK. They have been filled with pressure and the need to formulate one, two, twenty contingency plans. Most of those plans were not worth the paper they were written on, especially since they required me to do whatever twitched with life, no matter how absurdly out of synch with my interests and expertise they might be.

But here I was at the Jesus Is Lord truckstop in Amarillo, Texas. I am smiling. There are tears in my eyes. Does anyone see how lonely I am? How the last years have been a blur of 24-7 work, with the soothing and preoccupying metamorphosis of technology as my only constant companion.

I pushed open the door and was greeted by row after row of merchandise, as well as a small snack area and grill. This truckstop had all the requisite elements of a full-fledged truckstop, but it was on a shoestring. There was something rather touching about the effort that was made.

“Dennis is at the auto parts store, but he’ll be back soon,” said the cashier.

I pulled my MacBook Air from my car, returned to the café section of the truckstop and started to work on a few articles that were behind deadline.

Anything to keep my mind off the very real possibility of being stranded here or in the middle of dry, drought-stricken, middle-of-nowhere depopulated Texas and Oklahoma.

A leathery-faced guy with a long ponytail and a bandanna, wearing jeans and a workshirt came into the restaurant. I jumped up, extended a hand, and introduced myself. He went out to my car. I popped my hood, and he left briefly to retrieve tools.

“You’re fine.  Just a bit low on coolant,” he said. “What happened is that your battery was so dead that the electrical systems shut down. The computer was not reset – and, it records things, but does not actually control anything. You’ll be okay a soon as you get an oil change.”

We talked for a few minutes and, for some inexplicable reason, I felt an intense wave of emotion.

I walked slowly back to the grill area of the truckstop.

Young employee with fashion-forward glasses and ear plugs walked up.

“Dennis is our chaplain,” he said.

I glanced again at the butcher paper in the windows:

I John 1:5: This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
Flash of light in the dark road I had been traveling for years – at least 20 years, if I am honest with myself.

Wasn’t it about time to change the tapes I played in my head? Wasn’t it time to stop scaring myself with apocalypse, and look simply at the reality that our creator is light – pure, hot, clear light. There is absolutely no darkness – no fear, no self-reprisals, no self-harming, no self-punishing.

I had a lot to think about on the long road back home.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Trevor, This Is What Happened in Amarillo

podcast / mp3 file

About 300 miles into the trip, I noted with annoyance that my air conditioner, which had been breaking down about once every two weeks all summer  (and of course, the one summer when the temperature was over 110 degrees F for a solid week) had started to feel a bit warmish. It was 10 pm, a cloudless night, with a glaring full moon.

Pantex, the nuclear bomb manufacturing facility lay just a few miles behind me, and I was quickly approaching Amarillo. To ease my frustration, I focused on the audio book I was listening too – a tawdry novel about rogue CIA agents. It was not something I would buy, but Dr. Collier, our family dentist and former president of the Oklahoma dental association, and now long retired, lent it to my dad. Both Dr. Collier and my dad lost their sight. My dad lost his temporarily due to complications from glaucoma surgery. I think Dr. Collier lost his eyesight due to diabetes. I don’t know. He did not seem to fit the profile. He was tall and lean, and I always think of diabetics as having lifestyle challenges: a hankering for Indian tacos, Taco Bell drivethru fare, and 1,000-calorie frappucinos from Starbucks.

I always admired Dr. Collier. He was very successful as a dentistd yet he was always modest, and his small three-bedroom ranch-style house, while respectable, never called attention to itself. I was rather glad that my dad was not listening to the audiobook Dr. Collier lent him. I think it would embarrass my dad. It reminded me of a movie from 1967 – the year the movie ratings were introduced and Hollywood officially embraced sex and violence.

I cracked the window and felt the flow of warm, dry Panhandle air. My first job after I graduated from college with a B.S. in geology was in Amarillo. I was a petroleum geologist for Diamond Shamrock, and I had a lovely office, a great salary, and a brand new Audi 5000 Turbo, which I had purchased with profits from my little business. I bought oil and gas leases on prospects that seemed to be likely to have oil and gas production, and then I would sell the prospect (geology plus leases) for a profit. I retained an overriding royalty interest. Fun fact: some are still producing  --  25 years later. Granted, the checks are small – but now that the price of oil is relatively high, they’re not bad – $500 or so.

Amarillo always gives me a deep, expansive feeling.

The drive to Dumas is a little edgier – no cell signal for most of it, thanks to the arroyos and other rugged terrain features near the North Canadian River. Highway 87 can be very nerve-wracking – it’s a kind of weigh-station-free zone for truckers headed to Denver from Dallas. So – it’s not uncommon to see semis going side-by-side 80 mph – heaven help the ordinary mortals driving boring Toyotas and GMC SUVs.  One year seemed to be “Coyote Tragedy” year – so sad to see so many coyotes on the side of the road, as dead as an armadillo.

Little did I know that I would join the fallen coyotes, and I would be nervous suddenly about my reawakened mortality. Oh my. You’d think I’d welcome the experience especially since I like to fly, fly, fly into another consciousness, the one I like to call my Panhandle Consciousness, where I blend my mind and my heart with the dominant ethos – that of Mexican-origin Spanish speakers, and then the cool wonderful culture of the yuppie second generation – ambitious, yet with a heart. That resonates with me.

But, I did not enjoy the experience of watching as, one by one, every system light came on, while the lights started to dim, the CD player skipped, and it became very hard to steer the car.

My car is a 2004 Subaru Outback. I bought it after I had moved from Oklahoma to Guilderland, New York (near Albany), and I felt very nervous about relying on my Volkswagen Passat, which was being repaired after having been in a catastrophic accident that should have killed me, but did not. My Volkswagen Passat was a 5-speed, and I was not too adept at changing gears. The accident occurred as I was heading home after work. It seemed like a destiny thing. There is no way that I would have been able to handle the Passat in upstate New York. Too many hills, too much ice. I needed something more maneuverable. I found that very thing in NY as I surveyed the parking lots of malls, supermarkets, convenience stores, and office complexes, to see what most people drove Hands down, it was a Subaru Outback. So, that’s what I pursued. My mom and dad were happy to help me negotiate in Norman – and, I’m glad they did. Subarus in Oklahoma sold for roughly $4,000 less than in upstate New York. Call it supply and demand. I called it a relief.

As you can see, I don’t really want to tell you what happened in Amarillo. It makes me cringe.

Okay. To get back to the story --as I approached Amarillo, the lights indicating problems started to flash – battery, power steering, anti-lock brakes, the different lights, etc.

What should I do? I thought of a relaxing weekend in Amarillo at a good hotel near the airport.

Long story short: 12 miles south of Dumas, the car came to a complete halt. It was not pleasant. It was dark and lonely. There was a miracle moment, though: my cell phone worked. I was able to get a signal in an area that usually has nothing. So – I was able to call and be rescued. 

I’ve been forced to look in the mirror and examine my patterns – thinking and behavior. It has not been easy. I am a chronic self-doubter and a runner.  It is no coincidence that I did my dissertation on the apocalyptic narrative.  I’m riddled with doom and gloom and prognostications of mass death. It is very exhausting.

When you were doing a lot of hiking in the Nevada mountains, did you ever worry about car trouble?  Breakdowns?

This is an abrupt end, but this is to be continued. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Iraq, American Soldiers in Iraq, Werewolves of Paraguay and War: El Luison

"The wild dogs of Najaf, Iraq, ate well this week." Those were the words I heard on Fox News Channel just before I went to sleep as I followed different accounts of what American troops experienced in Iraq. Now it is sometime past 3 am and something is breathing next to my bed - an animal presence. I look over and see three black dogs looking up at me. Something is warm and hovering just over my body, something is pinning the duvet cover down around my legs. I feel my temperature rise, and I am filled with strange longings mixed with dread. With a start, I awaken completely.

For audio, please click here & start at the 4:00 minute mark.

I'm not quite awake, but I'm not asleep. It is night. I am not sure of the time, or even of the place. I've been traveling a lot lately, and it's not unusual to wander around for a few seconds in that space between wakefulness and sleep and not quite know where I am. That does not bother me. What does bother me is the sense that there is something in the room with me. Red glowing pinpoints of light. Is it a smoke detector? The sound of the fan partially masks the sound of soft exhalations.

I'm in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow territory, but I'm not familiar with any werewolf tales around here. Is there a folk tale or myth that describes what I've just experienced? If there is, I'm not familiar with it, at least not where I live, a couple of blocks away from the "20 Mall" with a Dunkin Donuts, Price Chopper, Blockbuster, two local banks, Subway, Magic Wok, Eckerd, and an open 24-hours CVS pharmacy. I'm in the U.S., but I'm suddenly thinking of the small, poor, landlocked and largely unknown country of Paraguay.

In Paraguay, folklore met urban legend in Sombras en la Noche, an X-Files-inspired television series that was making a big splash in November 1996, when I arrived in Asuncion, the capital, for the first time, in order to give a few lectures on American film and literature and to start investigating Paraguayan women's literature. One of the members of the audience came up and introduced himself to me as Carlos Tarvajal, a Uruguayan film director working in Paraguay. He screened several of the episodes for me at the Universidad Catolica in Asuncion, and I was instantly fascinated. From a U.S. standpoint, Sombras en la Noche was a pretty low-budget affair, with hand-held cameras and film that looked more like something shot for a reality television show. Actually, come to think of it, it was a precursor of reality television, or a cousin of Cops, since it purported to document things that really happened in rural Paraguay.

The most popular episodes had to do with a small town plagued by a luison, a werewolf-type creature, but many times more ghastly. Drawn from indigenous Guarani folklore, the luison is a hideous wild dog-like creature with razor-sharp teeth and red, glowing eyes that feeds on cadavers it takes out of crypts and tombs in the cemetery. Even worse, after feeding on the flesh of the dead, it turns its eyes on the living, and feeds on them as well. The luison devours the soul of the living, and thus toys with one's fate. The luison lives among the townspeople as a normal human being during the day. However, one a full moon, he reverts to his beastly form, leaves his home, and begins feeding in the cemeteries.

To fully understand how and why Paraguayans consider the luison to be the most horrible of the creatures of the forest, night, and dreams, it is helpful to have a basic familiarity with Paraguayan folkloric creatures. The indigenous peoples of Paraguay are the Guarani, who lived in the forests, jungles around Iguazu Falls, and chaparral (the "chaco") region in what is now Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Their influence has remained, and in fact, Paraguayans have two official languages: Guarani and Spanish. The Guarani language is similar to Anglo-Saxons in that it creates nouns and adjectives by combining concrete nouns. Abstract concepts are related to concrete examples, which create a very metaphorical (and thus poetic) language. States of being are often expressed in terms of transformation, where an individual undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes a creature. For example, animals of the forest are thought to be able to metamorphose into a physically altered state which often corresponds to their inner condition.

What makes the luison much more ghastly than the average werewolf is how the myth became reanimated and changed with the devastating Chaco War, fought for three horrible years (1932-1935) between Bolivia and Paraguay in the arid, semi-desert Gran Chaco. Although Paraguay won the war on paper, the cost in human life was staggering. Fought in the inhospitable lands where there are numerous tropical diseases, poisonous plants, snakes, scorpions, insects, and animals, stinging thornbrush, quebracho, and absolutely no potable surface water, the suffering of soldiers on both sides was grisly. There was no way to bury the dead, which rose to a total of 100,000 by the end. Many died of malaria, thirst, heat exhaustion, and infection. Both nations were desperately poor, and could not afford to get adequate supplies to the troops. As the commands of both sides made suicidal decisions, the wild dogs came out at night and fed on the bodies of the dead and dying. More nightmarish than seeing one's dead comrade be eaten by a wild dog, was to see a wounded fellow-soldier being gnawed alive. The luison had returned, with a monstrous intensity. When the surviving soldiers returned home, they returned with stories of luisons. As poverty, hunger, economic collapse and war stress set in, more died of tropical diseases. Buried in the above-ground crypts in glass cases, it was easy to imagine a wild dog with supernatural strength, razor teeth and the ability to shape-shift. I could see the luison tearing the flesh of loved ones, and the preying upon the hopes and dreams of the living.

"It was a way to explain post-traumatic stress syndrome," explained Luisa Moreno, a Paraguayan writer familiar with Guarani traditions, whose short stories and poems written in both Guarani and Spanish incorporated folklore. In addition, she had spent two years investigating the sad state of public mental health care in Paraguay. "Instead of saying that he was suffering from depression, or having a psychotic break, you can just say that the luison stole his soul."

It was not hard to believe. It was a good way to save face in the villages, particularly when it was fairly hard to disguise the weird behavior, the propensity to roam around at night, to scream at shadows, hear voices, howl at the moon, weep at nothing, sleep in cemeteries.

I had not thought of luisons for several years, until August 2004 and the bloody battle of Najaf, Iraq, fought in and around crypts and above-ground tombs holding the bodies of the Muslim faithful.

"The wild dogs of Najaf, Iraq, ate well this week." That's what a young Marine told a reporter covering Najaf. Photographs showed exhausted Marines sleeping in the dark shadows of crypts and tombs.

The Iraqi insurgents, who did not have the ability to recover their dead, dying, and wounded, left them in the streets where they fell. The Marines said that wild dogs fed on them, gnawing off arms and feet. The dogs even lurked in the shadows as they were finally able to bring their dead out of the street. Did the Iraqis have werewolf or luisons in their folklore or mythologies? If so, certainly those beliefs would be resuscitated in this nightmarish slice of hell.

"The stench of death is overpowering," said one Marine sergeant. I wondered what would happen, sometime in the future, if the smell of death would trigger flashbacks, horrible memories. I remember attending a wake in Asuncion for a young man killed in a car accident almost a year to the day that his older brother had been killed in an accident. Ordinarily, the bodies are buried within a day, but it was Semana Santa and no one could find his father, who was somewhere in Argentina. No one wanted to bury the poor man's only remaining child without his knowing, so there was the mother awake now for three days straight, her voice hoarse with weeping, kneeling at the side of her son, and Tia, kneeling also and chanting the rosary, tears dried on her face. I went to pay my respects and was shocked at the odor. Despite the meat-locker chill of the funeral home and the banks and banks of carnations, gladioli, lilies, and other flowers, nothing could disguise the smell of putrifying human flesh. Even now, when I smell something similar, I am immediately transported to that scene, and I can't control the flood of thoughts and memories.

There were wild dogs in the streets of Asuncion. Not many, that's true, but they were definitely there. One little black, skinny one was hiding in an open storm drain. He looked hungry and I tossed him a chunk of chipa guazu, a bagel-shaped Paraguayan corn and cheese bread cooked in earthen ovens and delivered to street vendors during the early dawn hours. A big piece spilled out of my bag. The dog scooped up the small piece and then darted to the bigger piece next to my leg. He brushed against my ankle, causing me to jump in surprise.

"Don't ever pet a wild dog," said Tia. "They carry diseases and other bad things." There was something in her voice that caught my attention and made me think of the luisons. Don't pet a wild dog. It could be a luison, a descendant of one of those tragic and doomed Chaco soldiers, destined to roam the streets and howl as it scavenged scraps and realized that no one, just absolutely no one would ever pet it. It could turn on you. It could bite you. And, it could steal your soul.

Late at night, when the memories flood my mind and my heart, sometimes the only way I can deal with it is to drive, drive, drive under the full moon or go to the gym the instant it opens at 5 am and run on the treadmill until the anxiety subsides. Why do I feel this way? How do I account for it? Do I say that I was brushed by a luison?

And when the young Marines battle the demons invoked by smells, sounds, and images, what will they do? How will they account for it?

Just say they were brushed by a luison. Everyone will understand. And then, pray, pray, pray for them to get their souls back.

(this first appeared in E-Learning Queen in a slightly different form)