Reason Not the Need: In Praise of Vagueness

One more time, I’m going to cheat a little by pasting into this space part of an intro I wrote over the weekend for a section of my collected poems.  The introductions are getting almost as long as the stuff they’re supposed to explain!

That my introduction to this final section is proving far and away the most difficult to write may, to a cynic, indict the essential fraud of all history: the more distant a sequence of events becomes, the tidier its description grows. An alternative explanation may be that, since this period ends only because it cannot extend beyond the present moment, it has the most artificial and arbitrary of endings—not a true terminus imposed by real change; and yet another perspective might be that I’m becoming more confused as I get older.

For my money, the last explanation is the most valid. I seem to have lived much of my life in reverse, so a curious failure to find the tranquility of acquired wisdom in my silver years fits the puzzle perfectly. If I was more gloomy as a young man, I also dwelt deeper in the isolation of a very concentrated and (I will admit now) comforting gloom. Now that I have found ways to push back against the world somewhat, I feel less exiled and nullified—but I also see the challenges to civilized life growing much more complex (largely because we who face them appear to be growing more simple-minded). I am less disposed now, as well, to withdraw into that old self-imposed exile and more inclined to get impatient or disgusted. I expect to see more effort made—effort to understand, to reevaluate, to prepare for necessary action, to act at the ripe moment—since I myself was able to grind a not-so-bad life out of very unpromising circumstances; yet what I observe, instead, is an escalating flight to “plug-in drugs” and “virtual reality” as well as to the more conventional hallucinogens and “artificial paradises” (in Baudelaire’s phrase) so popular in my youth.

I have a good head-start on being an angry old man. I am not a Luddite; yet I am deeply distressed, not so much that young people don’t know what a Luddite is (I didn’t, either, at their age)—but that they don’t care to find out, will recur to some handheld “device” if forced to find out, and will have forgotten what they found out five minutes later. Hell, the device is still there! “Why don’t you get your own, if you have a question, and leave me alone?”

The profits that the private sector harvests from such high-tech addiction have finally and fully merged with the manipulative designs of the public sector upon e-voters of the future, their I-Brains and I-Tastes determined by the paternalistically “helpful” software of I-nfo and E-ntertainment. Nobody seems to care; everybody seems to be happy. Corporations have more money, politicians have more power, and citizen voter-drones have more leisurely escapism (all the way to the slaughterhouse). I’m sounding now like some Sixties radical—the type whose self-serving antinomian protests I deplored as a young man and even referenced in some of my first poems. Have I again clumsily shifted gears into reverse: am I becoming more “liberal” in my old age, contrary to the cliché? Or has the true basis of liberalitas—the insistence on individual liberty—that was caricatured in Sixties hedonism become the critical issue of our onward-and-upward, “accept digital centralization or die” version of progress?

Within such anguish, George Shirley was born. Under this pseudonym, I composed many of my final poems for Praesidium. The name was drawn from the South Carolinian branch of our family tree. I imagined in George a polite but mildly jaundice-eyed country gentleman who, as a matter of strict principle, hated to offend—but who found a broader body of reverend principles impelling him to mount a resistance against the annihilation of liberal (read “freely speaking and thinking”) society. The lover of the soil and the gentle things she produced had a tincture of the rebel in him, and he wasn’t above sneaking the mare from his weathered barn for a night raid on the depot. As my poetically encrypted attacks under this guise grew more and more narrowly indexed to political trends, in fact, I became more and more puzzled and uneasy. One late edition of the journal quasi-apologized, “If George Shirley’s poetry continues to become more political, it can only be because politics continues to intrude upon our private lives.”

I’m not sure that the prominent appearance of natural images in the midst of so much diatribe is an accident or an oddity. I have always felt a vital need of nature, just as I need oxygen and water. Yet for George (and for me through George), nature isn’t identical with oxygen and water: one doesn’t protest the escalating mechanization of the times, that is, because one’s all-important health may stand in jeopardy. The motive there is not negligible… but the real benefit of nature to life that doesn’t perish (i.e., that doesn’t need oxygen and water) is its purposelessness. The woodpecker I hear outside my window just now could drop dead this instant without disrupting the smooth operation of the cosmos. In that regard, he is like art—like my poetry, I hope: he is marginal, an outlier. As we strive ever more vigorously and effectively to make everything around us contribute to an identified goal or objective (and in what other endeavor do we show any vigor and efficiency at all?), we draw ever closer to fusion with robots. Many of us consciously hail this impending union as Nirvana rather than a marriage made in Hell: that’s how dumb we’ve already become. A few of us “cling to green” (since we’ve destroyed the open-endedness of art, reducing it to an evolutionary history of the oppressed) because something in us persists in crying out for an exit, a window on airy infinity… but our political handlers are quick to exploit that longing. We must vote for them, they warn, if the moon isn’t to fall; and we must contribute more of our squalid salary to their newly formed, state-of-the-art Bureau of Lunar Salvation.

My cousin George fully comprehends what crap this all is. Hence the more he turns his wry smile upon our “saviors”, the more he turns away from any hope offered by this world and heeds the woodpecker. And the woodpecker’s message? I think it’s this: “Live not in life but through life. Seek in everything that you are at the moment—in every circumstance that defines your current parameters—a voice transcending specific need or use. Always seek in what you see more than what’s visible just now.”

There Are No Lines in the Sand During a Sandstorm

I continue to read a lot about the desperate situation in Germany.  Without any specific intent, I’ve blundered into adding both Thilo Sarrazin and Peter Helmes to my daily reading.  The former makes the very strong case that recent waves of (mostly Turkish) “refugees” are doomed to undermine German culture without profiting from the German educational system.  Their own cultural conditioning both denies to women any extended exposure to book-learning and disdains in men any preoccupation with it.  The latter, as a columnist, provides a more “on the ground” view of the decline.  For instance, I read a Helmes piece this past week that described how a courtroom in Mannheim was mobbed by dozens of young “guest workers” (during prime working hours on a weekday) who shouted down witnesses and threatened the testifying victim.  Such scenes are now a fixture in parts of Germany.

Something in me wants to join the chorus of voices insisting that Islam is irredeemable: that the Koran explicitly prescribes violence against infidels, that Muslims have always practiced aggression upon their neighbors, and that the innate human decency in many individual believers is overridden by a cultic conditioning that treats members of rival faiths as sub-human.  Perhaps Kipling was right: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

At the same time… well, what exactly is the priceless German education system teaching these days?  Helmes has chronicled many a time the ascent of the “Green/Red” coalition to strangle-hold control over public-school curricula.  An initiative to indoctrinate elementary-school children into the “joys of sex”, with heavy brainwash in favor of the notion that gender is entirely fluid, clearly aims at undermining the nuclear family and paving the way for Big Brother to become everybody’s universal daddy.  One has to suppose that Germany’s Muslim community isn’t too happy about this.  If Muslim schoolboys are calling their teachers whores and punching on male instructors… can one say they’re utterly, one-hundred-percent unjustified?  The “teachers”, after all, are doing the work of pimps. Where is the invertebrate Christian community, in any of its denominational forms, during these troubled times that require people of principle to stand up?

You can draw analogies between Germany’s predicament and ours as you see fit.  The parallels are far from precise; Mexico’s Catholic “guest workers”, for instance, are scarcely as alienated from their host nation’s culture as Europe’s “refugee” horde.  The moral meltdown of Western civilization, on the other hand, hasn’t been cooled or stalled by the Atlantic’s waters.  The behavior of tens of thousands of “pink pussyhats” in public spaces last weekend inspired in me a disgust to which no words are adequate, and would simply not have been believed by our grandparents—by mine or yours, no matter who you are.  The epochal moment when human beings consider their genitalia to be the major determinant of their identity has always been a downward-turning indicator for a society’s survival, and no sane adult can suppose that it argues for a strong-willed, independent spirit. The self-governance of a mature will and subjugation to hormones are of two irreconcilable houses.

I honestly don’t know where to turn for truth or support any more, other than within; but as for political parties or religious denominations or educational cohorts… none of it seems to mean anything.  I wrote the other day in a different context that the greatest damage wrought upon us by the 9/11 attacks was what did NOT change the next day… or month, or year.  Our “culture wars” had come to a head as the millennial calendar turned over, and we were poised to “have it out” in some definitive fashion, I think.  Then we were all drawn together as one in defense of “our way of life”… and we failed to notice in time that we no longer shared a way of life.

Now half of us appear passionately to believe that something Donald Trump might have said or might have thought is an imminent threat to Earth’s preserving her orbit and must be punished with fire and sword.  The other half rightly identify the maniacal overreach of CNN/Pelosi-style charges—but respond reactively by embracing any proposition that the Oval Office decides to float on a given day.  I’m not suggesting that the two sides are equivalent.  Lunacy is lunacy, and barbarity is barbarity. You shouldn’t go spitting on your teacher even if she is encouraging your little sister to join “study groups” formed to finger themselves and one another.  Common sense exists, truth and right exist, and manners ought to exist.

We can’t orient ourselves to these morally magnetized polarities, however, if our exclusive attention is paid to those who have steered away from them.  You don’t necessarily put yourself on the right course just by avoiding the zigzags of the drunken pilot beside you.  This “Make America Great Again” stuff… just which America would that be?  The one that has given us Hollywood?  The one whose citizens never read a book because they’re too busy texting and “sexting”?  The one whose book-bred class will not allow Orthodox Jew Ben Shapiro to speak on campus because “he’s a Nazi”?!  Or maybe the one, Mr. Trump, that considers confiscation of private property through Eminent Domain a worthy notion if it “creates jobs”?

I don’t know.  I just don’t know.

Fear: Age’s Constant Bedfellow

For the most part, I’ve learned to settle Fear down as I prepare for bed.  She’s always there under the blanket beside me, but I can usually manage to dope her up well enough that I avoid insomnia.  Melatonin doesn’t particularly help, since it assists a good sleep only after one drops off.  My evening meditation probably helps a little, since it forces things to withdraw into perspective.  I reiterate my devotion to the God of transcending goodness who has no terminal objectives in this world—the God who doesn’t go crazy if every disease isn’t cured, every child fed, and every weather event mellowed out; the God for whom we do not HAVE to accomplish this, that, or the other, or all is lost; the true God.  He doesn’t tell me that none of my family will die tomorrow, as some people claim of their supernatural wizard; but He assures me that what is truly alive in us doesn’t die when our bodies wear out amid the swirl of “things that must be done”.

Still, the compromise with Fear is none too stable.  I’m not a mystic living on a Himalayan mountaintop: I’m an aging man nearing retirement with a son trying to start a career a thousand miles away.  I worry about closing down my 501c3, which hasn’t enough money to operate and has become a millstone about my neck: I worry because the government documents necessary to terminate it seem to shift with each website I visit, and because I can’t afford a lawyer.  I worry because the home my wife and I are building four states away has veered way outside its budget thanks to county regulations and is way behind schedule thanks to incompetent, uninterested employees at Georgia Power.  I worry that the maneuvers I had to make in order to extract my son’s inherited investments from the corporations selected by his uncle may involve all kinds of penalty; and I worry that the kid can’t seem to sell an old car in Denver because local government requires so much paperwork and so many fees to produce a Colorado title in his name.  I don’t really worry about Social Security.  I’ve long since reconciled myself to the probability that nothing will remain for me there in a few short years.

One way and another, it strikes me that government at some level underlies virtually all of my worries.  It’s intractable, arbitrary, incomprehensible, and very jealous of the power it enjoys over us.  I hate living like a medieval peasant farmer just waiting to see what Visigoth or baron will come riding out of the forest next—for whether he speaks my language or some alien tongue, he’ll be waving a sword, and he’ll want my cow.

I’m a white male.  I’m one of those who is supposed to have been born and raised in coddling privilege.  I wonder if the incendiary Marxist/feminist professors who would like to see my kind shipped out to death camps ever see Fear sharing their bed when they gripe about my taxes not paying for their pills and condoms.  They don’t have children, so there’s no source of worry from that quarter.  They have cushy tenured jobs, so they seldom worry about next year’s contract; and if they participate in any extra-curricular organization, you can bet that it’s well funded and has a fleet of attorneys on staff.  They don’t live on my planet.

Others who hate “my kind” because they see me as tapping into what’s rightfully theirs… do they have to lull Fear to sleep the day before they collect a government check?  Do they worry that they may not have enough weed in the cookie jar to get through the week?  If they don’t even have a driver’s license—and if their city forbids law enforcement from “harassing” them—then I don’t suppose they would fret over buying or selling a car without papers.

Being “privileged” sure does wear a man down.  I don’t think I can stand the “royal treatment” much longer.  My strange bedfellow is a light sleeper.

The Electronic Thumbs-Down Operates With a Lightning Trigger-Finger

I was shocked to receive notice last week that a book I have self-published through Amazon, Hitting Secrets From Baseball’s Graveyard, has been nominated for the 2018 Larry Ritter Award.  I hardly see how anyone can even have heard of the book, since it wasn’t distributed through a major publisher.  Maybe somebody at the Society for American Baseball Research simply Googled the word “deadball” (since the award goes to the year’s best book about the early twentieth century’s so-called Deadball Era) and came up with a short list.  It would have to be short.  Almost nobody cares about the subject!

Nevertheless, I was riding pretty high for a while… for about six hours, to be exact.  Then I logged onto Amazon to order the volumes that the judges would require—and I found that the first online review had been posted.  A meager two stars.  I had to read the review at that point, even though I scrupulously avoid all reviews when I can.  This one had fallen directly across my path, and I couldn’t suppress a craving to know what had rubbed its author the wrong way.

I still don’t know, honestly.  The post claimed that my title and press release were completely misleading—that the book was only about me and my son, and that it presented us both as brilliant baseball material that should have ended up in the Hall of Fame.  In short, my book was just an exercise in incredibly self-indulgent egotism. Not a word did this caustic critic spare to Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie, Sam Crawford, Fred Clarke, Babe Ruth… to any of at least two dozen figures who were analyzed quite minutely in my hundred thousand words.  The thumbnail thumbs-down could only be referenced to three or four chapters in the short introductory section; and even there, I found it almost incoherent.

The first chapters had explained that the inevitable guinea pig in my method was myself, since I could ask no young person successfully playing the game right now to throw all his conditioning out the window and experiment with radically different techniques; and I’d added that a balsa wood plane in a wind tunnel can assist the designing of a Space Shuttle, lest anyone imagine that I considered myself more than a scrap of kindling.  This initial testing on tiny prototypes is standard engineering procedure (unless you’re a Soviet rocket scientist, in which case you just build the whole thing to scale from scratch and see how many bodies rain to earth).

As for my son, he was mentioned only in the context of my arguing how severely hampered young people are by a coaching system that refuses to acknowledge the past and arrogantly assumes (along with the rest of our society) that latest is best.  I was especially irritated that he was tossed onto the target range.  The imputation of egotism to me might have been a simple misreading (I did, after all, refer to “my brilliant career”—a phrase whose irony was cliché in my day, but surely lost to kids who are mystified by the reference in “the emperor’s new clothes”).  To garble the part of the presentation where my son figured, however, began to look like willful distortion to me.  And to think that this person, having skipped about 85% of the book, felt licensed to publish such things before prospective buyers!

Frankly, I don’t know how I got two stars from him.  The final line of his “review” almost seemed faintly penitent… which further leads me to believe that he had a personal axe to grind.

I have suspicions about this person’s identity—and I’m certainly not going to counter-attack, even though his “revenge” may cost me sales, because he may feel that I began the battle by challenging the way he and his buddies play the game.  If my suspicions are correct, I actually feel badly for him, because he’s not getting the deeper message: poor coaching probably cut him off from his potential at least as much as it did my son.

In any case, I’m very used to baseball insiders—and academic insiders, and really every kind of insider—treating honest, curious inquiry with contempt.  “You don’t know what’s going on here, idiot!  Go back to your side of the line.  You have no idea!”  (Professors send the same message in more syllables.)

The broader moral to this tale, it seems to me, has much to do with our electronic age of quick information and hair-trigger eagerness to voice an opinion.  I remember a parting of the ways with Alipac’s William Gheen in spring of 2016 because, in his expert opinion, Heidi Cruz’s having once worked for Goldman Sachs completely disqualified her husband Ted from seeking the presidential nomination.  Same magnification of a virtual irrelevancy; same ready imputation of sordid motives where there was no objective evidence; same cocksureness in the conclusion’s propriety.  Don’t slow down, don’t look deeper.  You know this one’s an egotist, that one’s a narcissist (two very popular words whose street definition simply equates with “jerk”).  You know because you’re worldly-wise, and nobody pulls any wool over YOUR eyes!  “I see what you’re doing there!  I see what you’re up to!  You’re just working your own angle, dude!”

Yes, twenty-first century Mass Man, you are far too bright for me!  Now, why don’t you move on to your next election, your next book, and leave me to stagger about in the dark looking for the audience of yesteryear?

A Professor’s Life at a “Christian” College: Assume Nothing!

Once again, very pressed for time, I’ve decided to excerpt from the introduction I’ve just written to some of my past scribbles collected into an anthology.  Will try to be more original next time!

The Greeks called the period of life when a man reached his thirties the acme, or peak. Perhaps I continued to be a late bloomer. In retrospect, it certainly seems to me that I might have awakened to a few unpleasant facts of existence a little sooner.

Foremost among these would have been the truth about the professorial lifestyle. At the beginning of these “acme” years, my unstable professional situation had put my small family into something near survival mode.  I resigned the last tenure-track position that I would ever occupy for numerous reasons, some having to do with how far scattered our extended families had become as I dragged my wife about in search of employment “with a future”; but the ignition point of my resignation, as I’ve never denied to myself or anyone else, was a boss who constantly laid traps for me after carefully removing her fingerprints from the set-up. This went on from Day One, for five years. I had been hired against her will, and her “beef” had soon become pretty obvious. She had to her credit neither a Ph.D. nor a single “significant publication” (as it’s known in the biz). Ever hoping that I would stumble into one of her finely crafted snares, therefore, and have to depart in disgrace, trailing behind me my offensive résumé of publications, she didn’t so much transform life into hell as sabotage my moments of enjoyment with perpetual anxiety about where my front foot was about to fall.

Our first son was born as this period began—the happiest day of my life; and, if the reader will pardon me for taxing credibility, it was only after the general display of interest in and congratulation to my newly expanded family roused her tireless envy that the Boss decided she, too, must have a child. Any eclipse of her place in full sunlight was intolerable. Her own son was duly born (almost as if on command) within a couple of years, she collected her laurels and applause… and then she consigned the child’s rearing to her milquetoast husband and returned to addressing higher rungs of the career ladder. After my departure, I’m told that she addressed them very successfully.

All of this took place in the context of a “Christian” school.  If I devote what may seem an inordinate amount of space to such events, it’s because I would have you accept that they took a very heavy toll on my morale. I probably should have laughed them off… but the priceless endowment of a forgetful, dismissive heart was left out of the package that holds my character traits. There were less shocking incidents, of course—and a lot of them: for instance, the dean who seriously proposed to me that I could fight “grade inflation” in my classes by giving A’s all semester long (thus ensuring good student-evaluations) and then bring the inverted numerical pyramid crashing down at the last moment with a killer final exam worth half the term’s total. Those words were really spoken… and many others in the same genre, always behind closed doors. The fraudulent masks of piety and prayer that covered daily business, month in, month out, made of my life away from home an unending transit through a haunted house.  I’m not entirely ashamed that I couldn’t endure a diet of rotten meat served with honey for twenty years, as did a few genuinely decent people around me in this institution; yet something in me, I’ll admit, wishes that I had owned a stronger stomach.

True, I had a devoted wife—and now a child—to stabilize the weaving hallucinations beyond our doorstep. That should have been enough, some would say. Traditionally, that was supposed to be enough (though I never actually saw it work for anyone in my father’s generation). I’m afraid that the reverse may be true: that the lies you live when you exit your driveway will come slithering through your energy-efficient windows to infect the whole household….

How Does a True Conservative Stay Out of Holes?

If I have to read or listen to one more commentary about Trump’s coprologism for corrupt, impoverished Third World nations, I’m going to eject something malodorous from the other end of my digestive tract.

I’ll say this much, though, about the so-called conservative contempt for living close to nature: it isn’t conservative at all, and it has made my own alliance with the political Right very unstable at times.  Face it.  There’s a very vocal strain in “conservatism” that wants to burn energy and build highways the way any normal person would relish describing in front of a snowflake how he killed a squirrel.  (Squirrels eat baby birds, by the way, dearie: that’s why mockingbirds hate them.)  In other words, certain self-styled conservatives are reactive.  They say and do things because they know the other side will be ticked off.  Rush Limbaugh leaps to mind.  How many times has he discussed smoking his cigars, turning on all the lights in his mansion, and driving about in a gas-guzzler just for the joy of making his political adversaries change their diapers?

Now, I don’t know if the president made the specific comment attributed to him or not.  I know, however, that many who have sprung to his defense leave me feeling a little skittish with their implied judgment that life without cell phones and Netflix must be hell on earth.  The ancient Stoics viewed a man as free and true to his natural purpose to the extent that he could eliminate his ties to material needs and assert the superiority of his will.  I have always deeply admired that perspective.  To my mind, it comes very close to describing the essence of manliness (a word which literally translates the Latin virtus).  That’s one reason, by the way, why I have never found it very masculine for men to go chasing addictively after women: that is, if they can’t control themselves, then they deserve to be considered something more on the level of a dog pulled on an invisible leash behind any pooch in heat who wanders through the neighborhood.

Part of the independent life is being able to supply most or all of your needs for food, shelter, and defense.  There was a time when certain parts of what we call the Third World were very good at such self-sufficiency.  True, most of those places have since been transformed into hellholes; but they have been so courtesy of the USSR, the PRC, and—yes—sometimes the USA piping sophisticated weapons into the region and enabling (unintentionally or otherwise) tinpot dictators to subjugate their populace.  I am NOT willing to brand such spots the anal sphincters of the globe just because farmers have to use their hoes manually and don’t have iPhones in their pockets.

Any real conservative, on the contrary, would be very concerned about the inroads that frivolous high-tech is making into the lives of our children.  When a teenager plunges into deep depression and withdrawal syndrome just because he or she is deprived of Internet for a week, then we should not be proud of the new kind of dependency we have permitted to corrupt a once-independent citizenry, even if it “creates jobs”.  If said teenager were truly using the device to become better informed about the world, then a case might almost be made for the addiction… but remember where this ramble of mine started: in a news cycle that hasn’t for a week been able to let go of one badboy comment uttered in a supposedly private conference.  Meanwhile, China is sentencing a blogger to twenty years in prison and water has been incontrovertibly discovered on Mars—but who has time for that?

We don’t need more jobs: we need more nut-bearing trees, more hands that can turn sun and rain into potatoes, more minds that understand how to get an egg from the chicken to the table: that would be a conservative’s view.  But no, let’s all just keep piling into our own urban hellholes.  That’s the approach, by the way, which is drawing all the Third Worlders here—and the loss of traditional skills and social structures in their own homelands is what’s driving them to emigrate.

Depression: Part Two

Looking back on my youth, I realize that I frequently fought through bouts of what would now be designated depression.  There were times when I wanted my life to end; and there were one of two times when I wanted it very much not to end, but was almost terrified that I would be unable to keep myself from pulling the plug.  I never asked for anyone’s help at any such moment, partly due to pride, to shame… perhaps mostly that.  But I also think I was aware that any meaningful, durable solution would have to come from my own wrestling with the invisible tormentor.  No one could wage that battle for me.

Of course, we now know (italics of irony) that depression has no ratiocinative component: it’s just a hormonal imbalance. Silly me! Thinking never causes anything or resolves anything. We’re just bags of DNA and enzymes.

Not too long ago, I was treated to a round of contemptuous hoots from several coeds when I made an off-hand, jocular reference to suicide in class.  One would have thought that I had drawn an obscene cartoon about Muhammad on the wall of a mosque while worship was in progress.  Today’s young souls “in jeopardy”, from where I stand, are indeed rather wimpy in their approach to the subject.  Above all, I should say that they want to be noticed.  They want their issues of depression and suicide to be taken very, very, VERY seriously… because when they feel down, it’s a result of their being non-entities among their peer group—and the world’s appropriate response must be instantly and utterly to stop everything else and notice their crisis, thus remedying the potentially fatal attack of negligence.

I can’t help harboring a certain callousness here.  By the grace of God, I managed to crawl through Hell and back when I was the same age as these drama queens, and my isolation was several exponents more intense than theirs.  No one cried for me, and I sought no one’s tears.  In fact, being noticed in such a state would have disgusted me—with myself most of all, but perhaps a little with the Good Samaritan who offered consolation.  I’m not saying that my sentiments were healthy ones; I’m saying that I cannot recognize the youth that I was then in the young people I see today.

Something else I might note along the same lines: my distress was fundamentally rooted in the collapse of every traditional value—courage, honor, honesty, self-sacrifice, humility—that I observed proceeding apace all around me.  Romantic love and torrid sexual adventures were indistinguishable; attention to personal grooming lest one inflict discomfort on one’s neighbors was considered a sell-out to bourgeois hypocrisy; plangent insistence that one’s selfish needs be served did not seem to stir any accompanying sense of shame.  I could see no open path to being a young man of honor and principle in the era of Woodstock, reefers, and shack-ups.

In contrast, I see today’s vulnerable youth as hitting rock-bottom when they fail to catch onto the coattails of some bypassing trend.  For a while, having too few friends on Facebook—or getting lit up by one of them in a posted comment—was clear grounds for hara kiri.  Maybe it still is… but my hunch is that the angst has largely shifted to “social media” venues like Instagram about which I know nothing.  The problem now isn’t that there are no more Mohicans and the ways of a past you worshiped are all desecrated; it’s that you can’t acquire enough feathers in time to join the latest tribe.

Suicide is suicide: no wanton waste of a life is ever trivial.  But at least the battle I fought was one to exist as an honest, adult human in an evolving world of counterfeit, vulgarity, and even bestiality.  I don’t see these distressed kids around me as being in the least concerned about claiming an identity in God as the toxic swill of the world soils their shoes: they simply seem to want to be Bubble Number 89 in the malodorous froth.

And, yeah, that gets me depressed, to this very day and hour.  If you can’t even have the dignity and sense to feel blue about something worth worrying about, then you’re not evidence of a social trajectory that would inspire optimism in a thoughtful person.

Depression: Part One

I do this sometimes: i get busy on a project and then decide to paste some of it into a blog instead of writing a new column.  Below is a bit from the intro I’ve been reworking for a collection including every poem I’ve published over the past forty years.  It becomes a kind of commentary on depression.  I’ll try to pursue that particular topic further next time.

The Coelacanth poems may have been partially composed, in some cases, when I was still a teenager.  Certainly I was in my mid-twenties when I pulled everything together to publish through a “vanity press”—having very correctly concluded that no “respectable” organ of the Muse at that time (the Seventies and Eighties) would let the leprous hand of such work touch its celestial hem.  Let me explain.

I had a “very young youth”, in that I didn’t reach maturity for years—or at all—in the fashion common among my peer group, especially those who went on to “elite” universities.  Everyone was experimenting in those days, early and often: experimenting with sex, with drugs, with haircuts and haberdashery.  I had already staked my claim to oddballism well before high school.  My family’s means were limited; many of my classmates had streets and museums named after their clan.  I was quiet and given to daydreaming; these were the years of spilling your guts in “sensitivity groups” and “letting it all hang out”.  High school and then college brought all of my environment’s unreconciled vectors into open collision.  I became an incredibly unworldly lad adrift in the most worldly generation, perhaps, yet known to man (if “worldliness” may be understood as liberation from the traditional and from a default-value restraint once called “decency”).

Most peculiar of all, this unenviable position made me extraordinarily mature in strangely isolated, incoherent ways.  I acquired a sense of wry irony that wouldn’t quit.  How could I not have?  The “liberated revolutionaries” all around me swept up the vast majority of college students my age into a lockstep march toward counter-conformist conformity.  If one did not revolt in just their fashion, one was tarred as “the other” and shunned as fatally infectious.  Some of the shunning, to be sure, was more on the order of benign condescension or amused pity. I recall being confronted now and then by a more affable footsoldier of The Movement about the poverty of a life such as mine, so sadly lacking in a “rich diversity of experiences”; and I further recall answering (or thinking the answer—for I was usually too shy to speak it), “To be twenty-one and not jaded by dead-end experiences is not only an experience unknown to you, but one from which you have now sealed yourself forever.”  That, had it been said, would have been well said.

What I could not or would not speak found its way straight into my writing. A fierce spirit of independence (perhaps the fiercer for its self-suppression in social circumstances) is not difficult to make out in these poems of my twenties—that and, again, the wry misanthropy of the wounded young soul who doesn’t look for things to get any better.  What has shocked me occasionally as I have transcribed the dozen Coelacanth scribbles (for we hadn’t so much as the first floppy disk back then) is the undercurrent of real despair: sometimes a complete tergiversation on the brotherhood of man (as in “The Tiger”), sometimes a religious mysticism that longs only for deserts (“The Prophet”).  The somewhat melodramatic prose introductions to each section seem to me a rear-guard action intended to generalize and elevate some of the panic into a calm, even serene moralism… but a wild scent lingers between those lines, as in the verses. Young people, we should always remember, are dynamos of energy without clear direction. If offered no wise guidance by their elders (and never did Elder Authority abrogate its shepherding duties more shamefully than in the Seventies), they are highly susceptible to self-destruction.

Fortunately, the Gospel of Matthew became a literary sun that I orbited (the rest of the Bible much less so—for it is in Matthew that the drama of persecuted innocence shines through with the greatest fervor).   I managed to stay away from the cults that often consumed castaways in my situation.  To this day, I clearly remember a very simpatica young woman with whom I conversed lengthily as denimed, tee-shirted undergraduate drones trooped past us on Austin’s teeming campus (at the foot of the building from which Charles Whitman had gunned down two dozen people in his lunacy).  She left me a pamphlet.  A friend later sniffed it over and announced with a smirk, “She’s a Moonie!”  I must have had that look of “potential charismatic recruit” about me… for some chanting Hare Krishnas also made a gift to me in an airport (perhaps during that very year) of a lavish volume whose Sanskrit I have just begun translating in this, my silver twilight.  No, I didn’t fall into step with any of them… but I hope that God has touched them gently and led them to a safe haven.

“Proud to Be an American”: What Does This Mean in 2018?

I’ve been trying to establish a Twitter presence, on the advice of a marketer with whom I shared concerns about a couple of my microscopic business ventures.  Every day I try to grind out something pithy… and every day I watch the Twitterverse volley snarky remarks about Ivanka and Oprah back and forth over my head.  This ain’t working for me.  It’s like expecting a mastodon to do The Worm in the endzone.

A hot topic the other day seemed to be whether one should—or dare—be proud to be an American.  The ever-hypersensitive Mika apparently tweeted something about her friends being “viscerally embarrassed” to acknowledge their American citizenship in Paris.  I logged a response about my father-in-law’s having told me once that no one was ever allowed to enter Paris on furlough after the Liberation without a buddy—that too many fascist-sympathizers were abroad and looking for targets.  I added that the French Jews could never have been rounded up for deportation without local help: Hitler hadn’t the troops to spare for such duty.

My point, of course, was that Parisians hardly have a right to criticize anybody’s national affiliation… but the chatter just continued: “I was in Paris last summer, and I had no trouble being a proud American,” etc., etc.

On the one hand, I personally am probably not all that proud of my nationality.  I was born here.  So what?  I try to find other things in life in which to take pride than accidents of birth.  Should I be proud to be Caucasian or male?

I was once proud that my nation lived by a document that allotted rights to men and women on the basis of their being creatures endowed with freedom by God whose society left them alone to fail, to learn, and to grow… but I’m not at all proud that my nation has largely turned its back on that most precious element of its heritage.

I’m not proud, either, that one may not so much as begin a conversation about the sanctity, say, of Abraham Lincoln.  One may not call into question certain “facts” about the Civil War, observing that 95 percent of Confederate soldiers didn’t own a slave, that the South harbored more Abolitionist societies than the North until John Brown started stirring up murderous chaos, that Lincoln only emancipated slaves in the South—and there only to enlist them forcibly as cannon fodder for his very unpopular war (protests against which he squelched by suspending habeas corpus).  No, can’t go there.  Matters of history, especially when they’re tinged with matters of race, are a Twitter-ready toggle up/toggle down in this land of the free.  Either you drink the Kool-Aid, or you’re a liar and a racist.  I’m not proud of my association with a society that exacts such lynch-mob thinking of its citizens.

On the other hand, as I edge my way through the 2015 serial now on Netflix, The Fighting Season, I feel a certain pride that our military is halfway around the world helping people to resist the outright hooliganism—cynically swathed in religion—which is the Taliban.  I have no problem with our vaporizing these butchers, just as I would have no problem with our leaving Mexican pandilleros for the vultures whenever we find them straying across our border.  Men who behead women for visiting a hairdresser or enslave young girls in prostitution have already acted as their own judge and jury, as I see it, and only need an executioner.  The Mikas of the world are all for cutting them enough slack to brutalize more children, as long as they stay away from the gated neighborhoods of the elite.  Most Americans, however, would say, “You had your chance, and you chose the sword.  Now die by it.”

I’m not “viscerally embarrassed” that my countrymen do not sit impotently on the sidelines and do nothing but snipe at would-be intercessors.  Situations like those in Afghanistan are immensely complex, and a case could certainly be made that our well-intentioned presence will end up making things worse; but the French were raping Vietnam for her natural resources while we were trying to halt the creep of totalitarian Maoist communism, and I’ve no doubt that any interest they might take in Central Asia would be of a similar quality.

Of course, what this is really all about is the incessant disparagement of everything wrought by Western culture—by Christianity, by capitalism, by applied science and technology, by republican governments—ongoing in our grade schools and universities.  It long ago leaked into the news and entertainment media, and it is growing ever more observable in a know-nothing generation of youth addicted to “smartphones”.  No one who’s read my stuff faithfully for a year would think of charging me with being uncritical of organized Christianity, unbridled capitalism, or unexamined technical innovation… but there comes a point when one finally wants to say to the spoiled brats inhabiting artificial reality, “Just shut up, will you?  Mistakes are what happen when you get off your butt and try to do something.  People like you never make mistakes.”

I’m not going to wrap myself in the Stars and Stripes… but I get it.  In this increasingly dumbed-down, either/or, “with us or against us” society of ours, I completely get it.

Women and “Objectification”: Is the Object Moving Up or Down?

The young actress who played Ben Hur’s sister always made something melt inside me.  She was also Jimmy Stewart’s leading lady in the gritty western, The Man From Laramie.  Her name was Cathy O’Donnell… or, I should say, her real name was Ann Steely: probably also Irish, but post-war Hollywood didn’t like to leave any ambiguity in the subliminal messaging of its noms d’écran.  (Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Tony Curtis… Felicia Farr, and of course Marilyn… you knew they were all slated for stardom with their fake soubriquets, even if they didn’t necessarily get there.)  Born in Alabama, of all places, and educated in Oklahoma (of all places), O’Donnell had a suspiciously brief career, perhaps being overtaken early by symptoms of the cancer that would allow her a mere forty-six years on earth.  She left no children.  Her husband, director Robert Wyler, was twenty-three years her senior.  Nine months later, he also died of cancer.  By 2018 standards, I suppose we must conclude that the co-director of The Children’s Hour was a child-molester.

But then, by 2018 standards, I am also strictly forbidden to melt at the sight of this innocent girl-next-door, with her incredibly poignant brown eyes and simple smile.  I’m “objectifying” her: I’m forcing her to represent to me virtues like gentleness, shyness, compassion, sincerity, and—yes, most toxic of all—an innocent naïveté.  I’m not being fair to Cathy as subject.  The real Cathy (i.e., Ann) may have been a guzzling, swearing, rip-roaring party animal who stuffed one male conquest after another in her Tinseltown curio cabinet.  How crass of me to shut her off from these possibilities, simply on the basis of an angelic face!  (And I believe she once played a character named Angel.)

Yet men do such things, I’m convinced, because we must.  No, it isn’t strictly fair—but it’s also not something we can resist.  The female face for us is invincibly evocative of abstract character traits.  The Greeks and Romans even designated most abstract qualities with nouns of the feminine gender.  Women show men how high the bar is set, where the boundaries lie.  Men are loners: women are social beings.  Men cannot bear children: women have visceral bonds of several kinds with their offspring.  Men live closer to the abyss of isolation and nullity.  Women are their beacon, their oasis, their green island—their portal of readmission back into the family of humanity.  That’s way marriages are public occasions: they signal to the community that a man has found his way in from the cold limbo of wandering rogues and outcasts to become a husband, a father, and a neighbor.

Again, I realize that everything I’ve just written is hopelessly outdated.  I realize, even, that words such as these win one permanent exile today from elite circles in academe, government, and haute culture.  I accept that.  In fact, I’m trying to put distance between myself and all such places as fast as I can.  But like a Parthian horseman firing arrows over his shoulder, I would leave these few words of advice behind me for the Never Objectify Us crowd.

First of all, the “putting on a pedestal” objectification of which I wrote above is really the very opposite of what feminists complain about now; and yet, the crude objectification of today is what feminists invited after thoroughly denouncing every visible trace of the chivalrous instinct.  Men of yesteryear elevated the female to a semi-divine status—and again, I hasten to acknowledge that this doesn’t create the basis of sound, lasting relationships in many cases.  Ariosto’s unhappy knight Orlando goes mad when forced to recognize that his plaster saint Angelica isn’t remotely an angel (far less so, I’ll bet, than Cathy O’Donnell).  But the response of the Sixties feminist to suffocation within sainthood was to demand for women the freedom to behave like the lowest kind of male: to have one affair after another, to be liberated of any inconvenient consequences (such as pregnancy), and to construct a life around such egotistical goals as career advancement. By the way, what words do we use for a male who puts his career before everything and everyone?

Once the new message was broadly transmitted, Mesdames, why did you expect men not to adjust their leaps to a ground-level bar?  Why be surprised that they now viewed you as tasty morsels on the dessert tray?  Hadn’t you just been conditioning yourselves to view them the same way?  The “object” to which you reduced yourselves was only made more graphic and less mistakable as cleavages lowered, denim molded buttocks like shrink-wrap, and female language became ever more coarse and aggressive.

Now you don’t like so much what “liberation” has wrought.  You want men to recover a bit of chivalry—just a tad, enough to keep their hands off and their tongues (along with other body parts) inwardly secured.  But you’ve let the genie out of the bottle, and he’s not eager to resume residence in its narrow confines.

What you need to understand and accept is that human beings always invite snap judgments from other human beings based on appearance and deportment.  These judgments can be modified, but they will never be suppressed: they’re part of having a functional brain.  A Middle Eastern man in flowing garb makes airline passengers feel uneasy at first glance.  A shaggy fellow in soiled rags makes the pace of passers-by accelerate on a sidewalk.  A woman in a pink vagina-hat isn’t likely to be asked on a date by a young man hoping to settle down and start a family.

And, yes, of all these stereotypes, the ones attaching to females are the most ineradicable in males.  I’m betting that women have similar stereotypes that they apply to males, as well… but they’re probably not as severe and embedded.  That’s one thing we males love about women: they’re more forgiving and less rigidly categorical than we are!  You of the new female phalanx, however, have indeed become very like us.  There’s no slack in your assessments.  You have it all figured out in an instant—and then the problem shifts to everyone else for not meeting your standards.  How very male of you, in the least pleasant sense!

When I see one of our day’s “hot chicks” posing for some feeding frenzy of paparazzi at a garish Tinseltown gala, her epidermis caked in reflective make-up, her gaze glassy and without character, and her artificially enhanced bust challenging lenses to stay in focus, I sometimes think of faces like Cathy O’Donnell’s… and then I realize what immense losses the culture wars have inflicted upon us.