nowhere, man

I’ve been watching a show about the Sixties on CNN called The Sixties. You have to admit the title really zeroes in on the central premise of the documentary series. I couldn’t have thought of a better name myself. Let me enlighten you how network executives come up with these profound, mind-expanding titles. They don’t believe their feeble brained viewership can transmit a thought-provoking show’s title to other potential feeble brained viewers without their brains spontaneously bursting into flames. There’s simply too much neurological activity teetering on the edge of disaster, and too much untapped brain matter to be responsible for.

Therefore, if you’re telling someone that the name of a show you like is called The Sixties, the other person doesn’t have to think about much else, exactly what the networks are hoping for. When airing “serious” historical content, network executives want you to think you are thinking when in fact all you’re doing is absorbing what they want you to think.

But if you tell a person the name of a show you like about the Sixties is called, oh, just off the top of my head, Somethings Happening Here, you force the other person to ask what the show is about, because in all likelihood they’ve never heard of Buffalo Springfield.  Then you have to answer that it’s a documentary about the Sixties. That’s just two fucking unnecessary steps too many. You risk losing that prospective viewer forever in an avalanche of information. That’s a chance those genius network executives just can’t take.

This particular episode of The Sixties had to do with The Bay of Pigs. I can’t help but think that if you’re going to stage a nightmare scenario in which fat, pig-headed, sloppy, filthy greedy superpowers bring the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, where better to stage it than in a part of the world called The Bay of Pigs?

It’s hard to believe how the U.S. expected 300 mostly Cuban expatriates to take down Cuba armed with little more than Swiss Army knives. Film footage showed CIA training camps with these “soldiers” performing calisthenics and learning fighting techniques. All very impressive, of course, until they got to Cuba. Not exactly reminiscent of Hitler marching through Poland.

Obviously, nobody knew what they were doing. I think that’s a fair assessment of any conflict between superpowers that nearly snuff the world, don’t you? During a two-year span the world went from relative peace to, “I hope there’s color TV in heaven.” Khrushchev kept threatening to destroy us while Kennedy kept lying about how evenly matched militarily the countries were, when in fact America had an 11 to 1 missile advantage. Khrushchev tested an atomic bomb just to scare us. We responded by teaching our kids to duck underneath school desks. Yep, a school desk. The last resort if all else fails. An indestructible plan. And don’t forget, kids, to interlock those fingers behind your necks for added protection. In the event a nuclear missile explodes at your school, and in the unlikely event your desk should become compromised, your fingers will magically turn to steel preventing your necks from being crushed.

It’s easy to look back and shake our heads at all this. But we really were frightened to death, and we really thought a few extra stored cans of pork and beans would help us ride it out when the shit hit the fan. Which I suppose, if you ate enough pork and beans, would literally be the case cramped up in your musty, hot, fall-out shelter. That is, if you had electricity. Or a fan.

You might as well conclude that all governments are inept. It’s becoming exceedingly more difficult to persuade even a child of seven otherwise. If you went to Vegas and put your entire fortune on one assertion being truer than the other- either governments are inept or governments are skillful- where are you laying your money?

In the end, as we all know, nothing happened, like in The Wizard of Oz. It was only a bad dream. Khrushchev got out of the tub and took his toy boats with him. There’s no place like home. “You must be joking me! You thought I was actually going to try something? You Americans have very funny sense of humor! Your country cannot take joke! I was just pretending, perhaps a little bit bored! Ha Ha!”

The U.S. promised not to invade Cuba and eased their military presence in Europe. The Soviet Union packed up their missiles and sent them back in the U.S.S.R. You don’t know how lucky you are. Boy. Was it really luck, or was it the grandest, most dangerous game of Chicken ever played? Treaties were signed, hands were shaken, photographs taken. I don’t think babies were kissed. Relieved faces across the globe happily went back to their normal, ill-informed lives, thanking their respective gods to be blessed with such strong leaders who had the wisdom to put humanity first, slightly ahead of vaporizing our only home.

In America, Kennedy, who had done little right during the crisis except allowing Khrushchev enough time to lose his nerve, flushed with the temporary fragrance of victory, suddenly had the time to take a deep breath and look around. He saw Vietnam.  Which also happens to be the subject of another The Sixties episode. Turns out the drama played out in that theater was far more than a bad dream. Oh, and we’ll also learn about another Communist tumor that had to be removed from the face of the earth. As we’d find out decades later, that tumor was benign as well. Jeez, no wonder the early sixties spawned the hippy generation, yet another The Sixties episode (How do they come up with all these ideas for shows?).  There we’ll be entertained with actual footage showing how we clubbed the heads of people who protested our clubbing of foreign heads around the world. All you need is love.

invisible

It was back in high school when I noticed the difference. All the seniors, all the cool ones anyway, hung out under the senior tree, the gathering spot for those who were going places. I was going nowhere. I knew this from the moment I entered high school and got a strong whiff of what my future held; stifling conformity, doing work I had no interest in for the benefit of others, yielding to the wishes of what society had in mind for me, and speaking your mind when you knew damn well no one cared what its contents were.

Happily, those days are behind me. I had fun during my high school years, but it had absolutely nothing to do with high school. I just didn’t have the desire to make something of my life, whatever that meant. When I recall roaming Hollywood, Santa Monica, downtown, and elsewhere in Southern California going to concerts an inner peace comes over me that’s irreplaceable. It was the best liberal education I could have received… and I gave it to myself.

But back to the senior tree. Day after day the seniors stood underneath and around it, behaving like morons while scheming plans for success, or what adults had taught them success was. Belief systems were crystallized in conjunction with these plans, systems that were unalterable or impenetrable. It felt like I was living in a foreign land. All this preparation for the endless financial grind ahead made me queasy. I didn’t belong in that world. I understood I was going to have to work in some menial labor-intensive fashion, and I was okay with it. We all work to make other’s rich, if we’re not working for ourselves. At that point in life, I became aware that writing would be my release. It would make my particular ‘endless grind’ easier to swallow.

I missed as much school as possible, graduating by two credits. That decision proved to be the reigning accomplishment of my high school career.

Years later I find myself living in the Shenandoah Valley. The solitude has been life-changing, except for one thing. As I’ve matured, I’ve seen that the senior tree has shape-shifted into a dragon living in my neighbor’s garage. It goes something like this:

I’m walking through my neighborhood. It’s a delicate, cool morning with a touch of heat. Spring colors are dazzling the eyes. About a block from home a regular looking Joe type says hi.

“How’s it going?” I say.

“Good. Did you know I’ve got a fire-breathing dragon in my garage?”

Instead of wishing him to have a nice day, I make the mistake of engaging him in dialog. I’m making an effort to be part of the human species, so in order to do that, I need to speak to them from time to time. “Interesting. Can I have a look?”

He takes out his keys and presses a button, and the garage door goes up. There’s plenty to look at, but no dragon in sight.

“Where is it?” I ask, greatly anticipating his response.

“It’s right over there,” he says, pointing toward the door leading to the kitchen. “I forgot to tell you he’s an invisible dragon.”

If that’s the case, I tell him, let’s spread flour on the floor to see if we can get footprints.

“That would work,” he says sounding disappointed, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

“Well then, we’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.”

The man shakes his head. “His fire is heatless.”

I’m getting annoyed, and almost turn to go home. But I’m stupid, at times, and press on. I point to the shelves on the wall. “I see you’ve got spray paint. Let’s spray around the door area and make him visible.

“He lacks any material constitution. The paint won’t stick.”

“I think I left my oven on,” I say, walking briskly to the safety of my front door. On the way I laugh. What’s the difference between an invisible, immaterial, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?

This post is based on a parable by Carl Sagan

time- a definition

On August 19th, 1898, George Gordon of Bristol rode his bicycle past Highbury Chapel, Cotham. A policeman spotted him, calling out that he should ‘light up,’ meaning in those days activating some sort of attached lamp for safety purposes.

The time was 8:15 in the evening. Local law dictated all cyclists carry a lighted lamp during the period between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise, Greenwich Time. On this night, sunset in Greenwich had occurred at 7:13 pm. According to the policeman, Gordon had been caught riding illegally for a full two minutes.

Gordon dismounted his bicycle and objected, saying the sun set ten minutes later in Bristol than in Greenwich. So, by law, he had until 8:23 to get home unlighted, plenty of time since he lived only a minute away. After a warning not to mount his machine and ride off, Gordon did exactly that, saying in his appeal, “I refused to be dictated to and got on my machine to ride home. The constable came after me and called on me to dismount. I could easily have ridden off, but did not wish to produce a scene, so got off, gave my name and address, and again got up, after being again reminded that I was repeating the offense.”

The justices of the city of Bristol found Gordon guilty, saying that naturally anyone could benefit by having “a readily ascertained time of lighting up.” Justice Channell declared that sunset is not “a period of time,” but a physical fact. “According to the decision of the justices, as it stands, a man on an unlighted bicycle may be looking at the sun in the heavens, and yet be liable to be convicted of the offense of not having his lamp lighted an hour after sunrise.”

Time has come today.”- The Chambers Brothers

When we say that what has become is become, and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become and that the non-existent is non-existent- all these are inaccurate modes of expression. But perhaps this whole subject will be more suitably discussed on some other occasion.”- Plato

Not by me it won’t.

in a black box

You’re seated in a crowded movie theater. You, and every other person in that space has entered into an unwritten contract, agreeing to certain rules guaranteeing a pleasant experience for everyone. No talking, smoking, cell phone noise, or alcohol consumption for starters. If a young child cries or misbehaves, adults remove the child from the theater. No shouting, “the butler did it!” moments before the butler does it.

Opening the door upon arrival and entering the theater lobby, the immediate whiff of buttery popcorn floods your nostrils. You abandon all common sense regarding health concerns, giving yourself a temporary hall pass from whatever fad diet you happen to be screwing up. After all, we’re at the movies. Consuming terrible food is in the contract.

There is something more fundamental, much more essential, to the unwritten contract than these simple applications. It involves the willingness to abandon the expectation for cinematic complexity; plot, character development, the expert co-habitation of sound and image to heighten emotion. We relinquish all of it when we purchase our ticket. Since Hollywood movies are really the only movies that matter, we toss hope aside for a deeply creative shared encounter with other people in favor of the all-too-typical story-line and syrupy ending.

We are content with this contact. It works. The filmmakers do not ask too much from our brains, and we can relax knowing no extraordinary mental exertion is expected of us. We need a place to not think about our lives, a cool, dark, comforting place we can focus on the lives of people who aren’t real. Feel their unreal emotions, pain, and happiness. Laugh at their silly stupidity. To know, even for a short time, the joy of being a likable criminal, or how cleansing it can be to exact murderous revenge. We can trick ourselves into knowing what it must have been like living in the past, or what it might mean to live in the future, even though it’s impossible knowing those things. The word for all this is escapism. For two hours, all we ask is that no one ask a thing from us except to feed us crap and let our fantasies shift into overdrive.

We leave the theater and step reluctantly into glaring sunlight. Our pedestrian day-to-day existence is once again lit for us. We squint, perhaps using our hand to shield our eyes from re-entering reality. We try to reflect on what we have just seen to prolong life in the world we’d just left, hoping to live in it as long as possible. Maybe we talk among friends and family to see if they identified as favorably with the fantasy as we did. But it’s no use. The brightness is overwhelming, and we go back home.