Sunday, April 28, 2013

Stoned Me to My Soul

Casting Stones

My building super, José (who likes to find rocks, polish them, and paint little scenes on them, which he then places in my co-op's "garden," such as it is), had seemed distracted lately. The other morning, I was talking to Frannie the crossing guard, when I learned that José’s dog, Pun, short for Punisher—a squat little bug-eyed sweetie of a pup who stood as lookout when José was in the trash alley collecting my co-op’s garbage and recycling—died this past week; he'd been suffering and would not survive another day, so José had to have him put down. Pun had begun coughing up blood, I learned, and José suspected rat poison.

“People here are trying to get rid of the cats,” he told me when I saw him, referring to the dozen or so feral cats in the neighborhood.

“You mean the ones that kill all the RATS, so you don’t need rat poison?” I asked.

“People are idiots,” José replied. And what else is there to say?

When I related this story at work, a colleague said, “Well, cats also kill birds, and people don’t like that.” I could only gape. So killing the CATS with rat poison, a poison being eaten by dogs and other animals, is now supposed to be okay so we save birds, which are natural prey for cats?

When did we become these people?

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

—T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

Miss O' has been blind-sided during the past few weeks by many of the several natural shocks that flesh is heir to. The bombing at the Boston Marathon this month, to take one huge example, brought up big questions of violence in our culture. Philosopher Steven Pinker’s latest book (recommended by many of my smart and peace-loving friends), The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues (in just over 800 pages) that humans are in fact less violent now than in the whole history of humans on the planet. And while that may be true, I fear we may have crested. Bring out the bombers.

So the bombers, of course, are Muslim. Islamic extremists who hate America. They made some Al Quaeda-style bombs using plans they found on the Internet, had one unlicensed gun in their possession, and were unutterably evil, and also stupid in their execution. America is outraged. But then it gets weird, like a video game: Boston is on lockdown! FEAR is the way to go, even as we say, “Americans will not be terrorized.” Now, say the authorities, give us your liberties.

Who doesn't see her point? Thanks, Yasira.

John Cassidy of The New Yorker wonders this week: “What If the Tsarnaevs Had Been the ‘Boston Shooters’?” It’s a good read, and not a long one. Go ahead. Click.

I know, I know. “Miss O’, you and your gun obsession. ”

Shooting off my mouth. Stick to your guns. Fire off a response. Firing with both barrels. Hit me with your best shot. You’re a pistol. Nobody’s putting a gun to your head. Shoot from the hip. Look for the smoking gun. It’s a shotgun wedding. Point blank. Right between the eyes.  Fire away. Dodged a bullet. Keep your head down. Under the gun. Off like a shot.

You’re killing me here.

The metaphor of the gun runs deep in the language of our culture. Blood sports have also changed the language, making violence a casual part of any conversation.

Straight from the shoulder. A one-two punch. A left to the jaw. Sucker punch. A fat lip. Brass knuckles. A kick in the head.

Hunt it down. Bag it.

Tackle a project. Pin it down. Hit it out of the park.

You’ll have to drag me kicking and screaming.

No pain, no gain.

What do our games and sports say about us? Surely baseball is the most civilized, but it frankly bores the shit out of me. I can watch golf longer than I can watch baseball, but don’t tell my friend Jean. Video games began when I was in middle school, with Atari, and I saw the addictions my brothers formed, but those games are much creepier now. Remember PacMan? Yeah, well now the eating involves bloody heads. I've heard. (My friend Greg Ayers wrote a play called Rated M for Mature, which I personally think needs to be seen by every parent in the goddamned United States of America. It was in the Encores section of New York’s Fringe Festival in 2012, and I hope the play goes on to a swell community theater life. Because THAT is the perfect audience for that play.) But what I'm seeing around me is a culture of systemic torture, punishment, revenge, and cruelty. Bullying is making a huge comeback, protecting rapists over the raped, and gun owners over gun violence victims. And your Miss O' fears it may become worse than anything that has come before. Because what IF the Boston Bombers had done it with AR-15s instead?

And while I'm here, if ONE MORE mud-dumb cracker (thanks, George) tells me that more deaths are prevented by guns than are caused by guns: 

My cousin Bill in Iowa likes to trot out the "analogy" of
Guns : Gun Deaths :: Forks : Obesity.
If you don't see why this analogy is stupid, you are an idiot
and there is simply no hope for it.
Here's a better analogy:
Guns : Gun Deaths :: Cigarettes : Lung Cancer.
Asshole. I say that with love.

Of late, I am most creeped out by a video game called “Call of Duty,” a worldwide gamer game now. This Afghanistan War-inspired, assault-rifle toting, grenade exploding video game is in the hands of small children and teens and “grown” men who play against each other all over the world via a network. Even my eight-year-old nephew (unbeknownst to his parents) has played it—at a neighbor’s house with a kid who is essentially raising himself (my brother learned) because his parents are too busy drinking. This “friend” is a disrespectful little shit of a kid, with tremendous charisma, a future murderer of America in the making. Needless to say my little nephew won’t be sleeping over again. (So  as my brother hears his son asking “Why not?”, we realize that the adult response of “Because I said,” which was so exasperating to hear when we were kids, suddenly makes a lot of sense.) (My friend Greg Ayers's play is called Rated M for Mature. Go see it, or better yet, PRODUCE it, at a community theater near you. And soon.)

And lest you think that Miss O’ is without compassion for such kids as the little shit: My parents, Bernie and Lynne, were the parents on the block who gave every kid a chance. All manner of abused or neglected kids on Alabama Avenue or Alaska Road or Arkansas Court could find temporary refuge in the home governed by a mom who said, “You may not open the refrigerator without asking me,” and “Go outside,” and “Put that back.” Limitations are such a relief to these kids. My dad would let them help him with yard work or building a tree house, trying to show them the value of a job well done, and who doesn't love a little child labor? However, their parents and older siblings would put the younger ones up to thieving, which is how the O’Hara kids often lost all their piggy bank money, Lynne’s father’s topaz ring (the only item of her dad's she had), countless cups of quarters, to say nothing of many packs of Lynne’s Salem cigarettes. These robberies often ended with my mom saying, “Marvin/Stephan/ Yvonne/Ruby/et. al., you are no longer welcome in our home. I’m sorry about it, but you cannot be trusted.” Lynne was firm but loving. And the kids obeyed and often seemed to feel actual shame. It’s one sign of hope, but many of these kids’ stories did not end well (and end many did, all too soon).

The episode that really was the peak of these attempts to, you know, be good to people, occurred the night that Mary from next door came to our house asking if she could wait in our living room while the police questioned her mother. (I was around 13 at that time, or maybe in high school.) I can see Mary now, an ample, shapely body making her look far older than her 15 years, dressed in a tank top and jeans, her hair in pink curlers. She went out to what we called the playroom (an addition to the house) as we all sat down to dinner. The next thing we knew, a bull horn was sounding, “Mary Smith, come out with your hands up!” and when we all looked out our windows, our entire house was surrounded by Virginia State Police wearing bulletproof vests, guns aimed to kill. Lynne (and not my dad, which sounds funny, but my mom was once a military officer and my dad was only enlisted, so that’s just how we handled crises in our family) got up quickly and calmly, and went out to the playroom and put her arm around Mary and said, “Honey, you’re just going to have to go out there.” My mom called out the window, “She’s coming, don’t shoot,” and Mary was frisked and cuffed. My mom walked back in, we all sat down at the table, picked up our forks, looked at each other, and started laughing. Just another night at the O'Haras'. (Apparently, we learned, Mary was wanted in Richmond for prostitution and murder. We read by chance in a local paper, months later, that she had been killed. Eventually the crime-addled Smith family moved out, but every family who has lived in that house since has been a dicey lot.)

Christ on a Crutch

Whatever their sins, the murdering, child-molesting, and thieving Smiths were devout Christians, making them heaven-bound, as opposed to the hell-bent, pagan O’Hara clan. I am troubled, obviously, by religious devotion (though not at all by honest spiritual seeking), but more than that, I’ve long been troubled by crucifixes. They’ve always creeped me out. I learned early in my life not to voice this concern as I gazed to the front of Holy Blessed Lady Mother Queen of Saints of the Angels Cathedral Church and Wine Bar during the occasional tours and services I attended. In her dotage, Miss O’ does enjoy the occasional service, but I see it as a theatrical experience, as one might enjoy watching the reenacting of rituals that should have long since been replaced, reimagined. I think of all those Sunday mornings that all of those devoted people in the pews are not out planting food or cleaning parks—but perhaps this sacred space is how they replenish, and who am I to judge? I go to Broadway matinees.

But back to the crucifix: A few years back, I finally realized why I am repelled by it, and why it took me so long to understand this is beyond me. Whether the full-on crucifix or the simple cross, it became clear that an entire system of belief has been founded on a reverence for a person being tortured to death. A crucified person, I learned, dies of suffocation as the lungs gradually collapse. It can take days to die on it. It’s perplexing that of all the things Jesus taught—love thy neighbor as thyself, turn the other cheek, let him who is without sin cast the first stone—the symbol of worship is the torture device that killed him. (The son of my friend JC wrote a song about Elvis’s toilet, called “The One He Died Upon,” to spoof this cult of the cross.) It’s not as if this image has taught us anything about love and kindness. What about, say, using the simple uncast stone as a symbol? Stones are everywhere, lots of varieties, they cost nothing, and they are nice to rub and meditate on. You can carry one in your pocket, which is how the (discarded) Apostle Thomas says he was taught to view religious devotion by Jesus himself: God is in your pocket. But then, if that word got out, what of the role of a church? a pope? all those well-paid intermediaries who salivate over the collection plates? And what becomes of the teachings amidst all these golden crosses?

As if in answer to these questions, I went for Sunday worship to Broadway last week with my friend Richard to see a play called The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, starring the formidable Fiona Shaw; and whatever director Deborah Warner’s failings of staging (and they are myriad and massive—the show is all spoken on “one note” (of anger) that lulled this listener to sleep with its relentlessness; a needlessly distracting bunch of stuff on the stage which held more weight than the words, which should hardly be the point), the message of the drama was clear: As a tormented Mother Mary rails against what the apostles and followers of Christ turned Jesus the man into, and herself into, she makes a startling revelation in the final moment: Stripped naked, cradling an empty cloth robe, she says, simply, “It was not worth it.” (Several in the audience gasped.) Symbolism on the stage—a golden tree (of life?) and the object in Mary’s hand (an apple)—would seem to suggest that the biting of the fruit in the Garden of Eden, which is to say that eating from the Tree of Knowledge (the origin of which tree is forever a mystery), was also “not worth it.” What the play questions is pain and suffering as a lifestyle: Is any endeavor ever worth that amount of pain?

Take your punishment. Just desserts. Off with his head. String him up. I will cut you. What makes you think I won’t cut a bitch?

What I’m after is why we’re all so fucking violent in this, the 21st Century on Earth. Why are we a culture of torture and punishment? Why do we celebrate the punishers? (I have to tell you, I include cancer in this indictment: We celebrate cancer survivors, but we don't really get at the corporate-owned causes of the cancers, or the extortionist costs of cancer cures and drugs, do we? Every pink-ribboned walk for breast cancer looks like a fun party, and it makes me more than a little queasy. It's like "Go, Cancer!" though I know that is in no way the intention.)

In his blog, Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche, John Fleming (Professor Emeritus from Princeton and my Chaucer teacher at Bread Loaf in 1994), wrote his own piece on peace this week, which I just now read. I sense a theme in the air for all of us, from many of us bloggers. Himself a devout Christian, he has this to say about God in our time (in reference to a concert of songs heard at The Cloisters in New York City):

God metaphorically “fighting” on behalf of mankind is a lovely if startling poetic idea.  Men literally fighting on behalf of God, on the other hand, has been an utter and dismal historical disaster.  It is long since time that the idea be junked. 

When I move through this idea, in political terms, the idea of our country (which is to say, our government, for these should be synonymous in a democratic republic, whatever the Republicans think—yes, I mean YOU, Gov. Rick “I Want to Secede” Perry, and do by all means ask for federal assistance in the wake of the explosion of a private fertilizer plant you have boasted as not needing silly state regulations or inspections) “fighting” for its citizens—for clean air and water, for jobs, for safety, for health care, for education, for protection of the vulnerable—is, too, a “lovely if startling poetic idea” (for Liberals, at least, in the U.S.), but the idea of citizens fighting on behalf of the country—in bloody foreign wars, in gun shoot-outs, in lockdowns of cities, in the accepted presence of armed military personnel walking the streets of New York City (acts favored by Republicans)—is a dismal picture of a (perhaps) necessary past, a (surely) creepy present, and an (obviously) unimaginative future which Miss O’ has no wish nor want to be part of.

This cartoon by Jack Ohman made Gov. Rick Perry really, really mad.
See, Rick Perry does not believe in safety regulations. He says that deregulation is "good for business."
The cartoon is what is called "satire," and it's wasted on him, because
he finds it, get this, "disrespectful" of the dead.
(In Your Moment of Irony, today: The U.S. government tracks all sales of fertilizer,
 in case, you know, people try to make bombs with it.
It's currently illegal in the U.S. for any agency to track the sales of GUNS.

El Purgatorio Without Possibility of Parole

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”
—Franz Kafka, The Trial

The great Russian and Soviet theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested under Stalin for creating experimental theater. He was seen as an enemy of the state for this. Take that in. (Kafka, too, knew whereof he spoke.) Taken to prison in 1939 after a celebrated international career, Meyerhold was tortured by compliant officers for almost a year for his "offense." Miss O' believes this should still piss you off in America in 2013.

"[Vsevolod Meyerhold] was sentenced to death by firing squad on 2 February 1940, and executed the next day. The Soviet government cleared him of all charges in 1955, during the first wave of de-Stalinization." (Source: Wikipedia)

I saw an op-ed in the New York Times last week by a prisoner in Guantanamo ( or “Gitmo,” as the feds who’ve never fought in actual combat nor ever served time in prison nor ever been picked up without charges because they were non-White, like to call it). The (uncharged) prisoner's name is Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel. He has a name, you see, an identify. Family, skills, dreams. Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel is a man who cannot awaken from a nightmare, who has realized he will never be allowed out for the rest of his life. Even President Obama does not have the power or will to close this utterly un-Constitutional prison, and if he doesn’t care, I wonder who the fuck does, because this is just beyond horrifying at this point.

Moqbel writes of his imprisonment:

I could have been home years ago — no one seriously thinks I am a threat — but still I am here. Years ago the military said I was a “guard” for Osama bin Laden, but this was nonsense, like something out of the American movies I used to watch. They don’t even seem to believe it anymore. But they don’t seem to care how long I sit here, either.

And of his hunger strike, begun because no one, not even Obama, will help him (because people in power, such as my friend Patty’s brother, who works at the Pentagon, think these guys have a “great life” there (his criteria: they were "well fed" and "putting on weight")—much the way former First Lady Barbara Bush thought the victims of Katrina were “better off” (being raped) in the Superdome than being in their own “poor” homes), Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel writes:

I am still being force-fed. Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I’m sleeping.

And finally, these men have utterly given up all hope, not unlike the American veteran of the Iraq war, Tomas Young, who has chosen to die because the pain from his injuries is so unbearable:

And there is no end in sight to our imprisonment. Denying ourselves food and risking death every day is the choice we have made.

This statement is not so different from a soldier's, really. The prisoner’s theme is that he and many others like him prefer to die by starvation rather than sit by and watch their lives—a life more absurd and awful than Kafka’s story “The Trial,” and that story—and if you haven’t read it, fill that gap—seems like the ultimate insanity, but nobody in authority seems troubled by this atrocity of Bush, who is, he says of himself, “a content man,” and fuck him, by the way—waste away in this hell, and he is frankly bitter that the military in charge want him, all of them, for some reason, to remain alive, going so far as to tie him to a chair and force feed him.

“It would have been so pointless to kill himself that, even if he had wanted to, the pointlessness would have made him unable.”
Franz Kafka, The Trial

Our government has driven decent men, U.S. citizens, to feel that death is preferable to this American-made purgatory on Earth. Hey, Mssrs. Bush and now Obama, how does this make you feel? It makes me feel like shit.

Why Do You Hate Me?

When I read Moqbel's op-ed, I grew sick, and yet the idea of being “tied to a chair and force-fed” brought to mind other images entirely. The things I thought of, after these prisoners, were America’s corporate-run prisons (guaranteed by the government to be 70% full at all times—wonder why all those black men get “disappeared”?); our sterile and mean business culture; and then, curiously, America’s school children and the standardized tests and skills-based curricula that are slowly sucking their innermost souls and the souls of their teachers.

A gun to their heads. 

Does ANYONE like cubicles? taking tests in an auditorium? being hauled in and locked in a cell for something you didn't do? ANYONE? Why in the name of fuck do we LIVE like this?

By the time Miss O’ left teaching in the state of Virginia, as she’s mentioned many times, her high school sophomores would have to pass six (6) state standardized tests out of eight (8) they would take by their senior year (rather than what used to be one (1), on reading and literacy) in order to graduate. (The Guidance Counselors in public schools, by the way, spend literally all of their counseling time giving these tests, arranging the retakes and makeup tests, mailing these tests back to the graders, distributing the scores, and somewhere in there they schedule classes, thereby relieving them of the ONE REASON they got into the profession of being GUIDANCE COUNSELORS). By the end of sophomore year, too many of my students had made the decision to drop out (which meant the stress of being truant for two years until they could legally quit), because it was clear that they would never pass six tests. Were these kids stupid? No. Were the tests badly written, over-long, picayune, and stupid? Yes. I looked at a few of these tests in my time, and even your Miss O’ would never have passed even the Language Arts one with a big score. I wish I were kidding. (See previous blogs for examples.)

As Miss O’ has said time and time again: If I am teaching the standards set forth by the school, county, state, and/or nation; if my activities, assignments, instruction, and assessments demonstrate this—all of which any assistant principal can see in my curriculum notebooks, lesson planner, test and exam copies, and graded lessons—and the student passes my class, WHY MUST SHE OR HE PASS A TEST WRITTEN BY A LOW-BID TEST VENDOR IN MILWAUKEE?

Miss O’ often feels that she, too, is being force-fed—media talking points, Congressional stupidity, Facebook inanityand therefore tortured. Then, too, a few weeks ago she looked at her own social network “wall” and wondered, “Am I force-feeding my ‘friends’ my own way of seeing the world? Are my posts from Think Progress and TruthOut and Upworthy and TED and Daily Kos and the rest, even with my commentary and ‘read if you want’ back pedaling, little more than force-feeding? Are the comments back to these posts by right-wingers and gunslingers a kind of Gitmo prisoner sort of retaliation for the tyranny of my posts?” Miss O’ herself then went on a hunger strike of sorts and made a decision to stop engaging as much on Facebook, and also to stop posting as frequently. Emerging from the gloom of her own awareness, she now sees why so many people post pictures of kitties and videos of cats riding Roombas. They haven’t been charged with any crimes. They do not sit in Congress and shit on the American people. They are not even activists. It’s so restful.

And one then begins to think, why not let the Koch Brothers and Paul Ryan and Rand Paul just take it all? Why not let them test kids to death, and deny health care to the elderly, hastening their deaths, and reduce the poor to shreds, dissolve the middle class, strip women of their rights, and continue the torture in Gitmo, and celebrate the “library” of George W. Bush?  Why not let them destroy the entire nation for their own uses? Just legalize our pot and keep the beer in our coolers, and take the whole fucking LOT.

Put a gun to our heads.

Nail our hands to the cross.

No pain, no gain.

Miss O’, however, likes to say, “No pain, no pain.” Unlike the corporate torturers and politico punishers and haters of all things in nature, human or otherwise, Miss O’ prefers peace, joy, dancing, good work, fresh ideas, imaginative enterprises, kindness, fellowship, and pesticide-free vegetables.

Everybody Must Get Stoned

Do you remember the old folktale, “Stone Soup”? The one about the people in a small village who are on the brink of starvation, and so terrified are they of anyone stealing their last turnip or carrot, they have locked themselves into their homes to suffer safely? One day a Magic Man wanders into the village square carrying a Magic Stone in his pocket. The stone, he announces, is capable of making the most delicious soup imaginable. He describes the soup so tantalizingly and loudly, that the people come out to listen. “If only I had a giant pot,” he coaxes, “and a fire,” he supposes, “and some water,” he wonders, and such is this man's charisma, the desperate people begin to capitulate and sacrifice this one’s pot, the last of that one’s firewood, and they find a flint, and someone makes a trip to the well. The Magic Man drops the stone into the giant, fired-up pot and begins to stir. He tastes. “It’s really quite delicious,” he says, “but maybe it needs salt. Does anyone have any?” Someone admits to having some. And then it turns out the soup could also use a turnip, a carrot, some cabbage, a potato, an onion, a beet, you get the idea. And as each of these starving people becomes willing to spare the last food item in the larder, and bring it all together over the fire, the magic of the “stone” creates a nourishing feast for the community to share in. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, you see. And no one put a gun to their heads to make this miracle occur. Ideas did it. Imagination created it. Need made it. Risk ensued, and everybody got a meal and learned how to make more of them.

I have lived by the story of “Stone Soup” for as long as I can remember. I was probably in second or third grade when I heard it. Miss O’ also knows that for every person who loves “Stone Soup” there is another who loves Eat My Lead and Atlas Shrugged. To each his Ayn, I guess.

What I'm saying is, I’m done with nailing my hands to the cross of causes. It’s hard to get fired up all the time, shooting off my mouth and causing a bloodbath in the Comments section, and still function with anything like a sense of humor.

Then I see this: 

"Last night at the Bush Library" from Democratic Underground

So we need to look hard at our brutish culture and resist taking up arms against the sea of troubles; and I while I think we need to change our big world religious symbol from the torturous crucifix to the uncast stone, sometimes we as a society do have to weigh the rock in our hand, by which I do NOT mean preparing to fling Shirley Jackson's random "Lottery"rock at an innocent (as has happened at Guantanamo), but instead responsibly aim a goddamned righteous, justified (court-appointed or artful) STONE at real criminals. Not out of revenge, but out of love for our fellow men who have been wronged.

A rock of ages. Old time rock ’n’ roll. Like a rolling stone. 

Snatch the stone from my hand. How does it feel?


  1. Holy wow. Love your blog. So much to process…and that's a good thing. :)

    1. Thanks for reading and encouraging me, Ryan. And for your cuchifritos.