February 2008

In case you’re wondering whether there’s someone out there who still supports Bush, I ran across a couple of them the other night. I did not engage with them. They’ve suffered enough, even if they’ve caused most of their suffering themselves.

I was coming out of a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. I walked a couple doors down past this bar, the kind that attracts a lot of working-class, military types. A man and a woman were talking about current events, foreign policy, the war, whatever.

Even these hardcore right-wingers are having to come up with new ways to convince themselves that their side is right. They used a rationalization I’ve heard used a few times before – that there’s a lot of stuff going on that our government can’t tell us about. “There’s a lot of covert shit going on,” the man said.

Sure, okay. I could say that that didn’t stop Bush (and when I say Bush, I mean that in the royal sense) from blowing the cover of a secret agent, but we’ll leave that alone for now. Let’s move on.

For the sake of argument, let’s say there’s good covert shit and there’s bad covert shit. I don’t happen to believe that shit myself. I think that if we stopped doing overt shit, we wouldn’t have to do all this covert shit to try to undo the overt shit. Out in the open or behind closed doors, all shit smells like shit. Two shits don’t make a Tootsie Roll, if you get my meaning.

Then again, shit helps the flowers grow, right? Well, that’s kind of what T.S. Eliot said. Either way, do you trust Bush to know the difference between good shit and bad shit?

Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. Bath, England: Scarborough House. 1982.

Sex in History was a bestseller for Tannahill back in the 1980s, translated into 11 languages. I totally missed it, even though I was a sexually obsessed twentysomething in that decade. I found this cracked, fading, lonely copy on the shelves at my library. I took pity on it and brought it home for a few weeks. Here’s a snippet from page 104, on Athenian prostitutes:

There were streetwalkers, too, with a novel soliciting technique that worked well on unpaved surfaces. One streetwalker’s sandal has survived the centuries. Studded in reverse on the sole is a message that would print itself on the roadway for the next passerby to read. The message, of course, is “Follow me.”

For a computer addict like me, even this Web site can’t convince me to pull the plug.

April 1984. The University of Maryland kicked me out about a year ago. I dropped out of Montgomery College a month ago.

My 20th birthday is on the 14th. I have a blowout. A band plays in my living room. My friend disappears. I find him a little while later in my sister’s old bed with some girl he met from work. I pull them out of the bed. I think she splits. He spends the rest of the evening on the microphone, until my parents come downstairs and ask him to stop.

The girl I was seeing at the time brings her main man, which bums me out. He gives me a Skör bar as a present. The card that goes with it says, “I hope you ‘Skör’ tonight.” I didn’t, but I had a good time anyway. Somebody smashed a guitar on the living room rug. I was picking pieces of it out of the fiber for several weeks.

Later that month, I join Government Issue. I play my first show with them in Georgetown. I think it was the Hall of Nations, in May. A few weeks later we do a short tour up through Connecticut.

Dates and places are hazy, but I remember sleeping in a van in the Bowery in 90-degree heat; hanging out at somebody’s squat in Alphabet City where there was no electricity and some of the stairs were missing; and playing and recording at CBGBs. That week or so we spent in New York is a story in itself.

Then on to Connecticut. I remember doing an interview with some guy named Spazz Jeff, who had a fanzine. We all tried to be funny, but I don’t think it really worked, at least not on my end. I was an arrogant little shit back then, or at least I could be at times.

We crashed at the home of one of the guys in the Vatican Commandos, who really, really wanted us to know how the band got its name. I think it must have been Jim Spadaccini. He’s the earnest-looking guy in the photo on this page. As I recall, our host was very genial, but also very serious. As I recall, none of us were especially interested in that story, but if I had known at the time that Moby was in that band, I might have been impressed, because, you see, I was a snob.

I also remember some squat, beefy guy talking to me outside a show about how his band was getting a reputation as the best speed-metal band in Connecticut. The guy was so goofy—and real—that I couldn’t help but like him.

Seems like the two big, new things of 1984 were microwaves and MTV. Not that either of them were new; that’s just when I first started noticing them. As it turns out, microwave technology had been commercially available for more than 30 years before people started talking about “nuking” their food. I though new Coke came out in 1984, but Wikipedia says it was 1985.

Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters

I first heard about H.P. Lovecraft when I was reading the classified ads in the back of the Washington City Paper, at least 20 years ago. Somebody was looking for science-fiction writers, but they didn’t want people who just liked Star Trek; they wanted stuff more along the lines of H.P. Lovecraft.

I looked at that name and thought, “Hmm, that sounds interesting. Wonder what’s so special about him?” No, actually, being in my early twenties, what I thought was, “I need to be as cool and hip as possible. I need to find out who this Lovecraft guy is, and then I’ll act like I always knew who he was, so I’ll be in the know and my social status will increase exponentially.”

So I said to myself, “I’ll have to check that out.” That meant I wasn’t going to do anything. My natural laziness has overcome my tendency toward pretentiousness many a time. I promptly forgot about HPL and probably never thought about him again for the next 20 years, until a couple summers ago, when I was helping the Maynard Public Library weed out books that no one had checked out in the past two years. I came across Lord, and I thought, “Lovecraft, Lovecraft . . . Where have I heard that name before?” I tossed dozens of books in big brown dumpsters that fall, but this one I saved. I’ll be damned if I know why.

Since there seem to be a couple people out there who’ve taken an interest in my jottings on Theobald (Lovecraft’s name for himself), I’ve included some below. Unless you see something in quotes, these are my interpretations of HPL’s observations. In the spirit of the amateur press movement that gave Lovecraft a reason to live, I invite you to disagree strenuously with these interpretations, or whatever you want to do.

p. 54 – beginnings of postmodernism? “Our philosophy is all childishly subjective—we imagine that the welfare of our race is the paramount consideration, when as a matter of fact the very existence of the race may be an obstacle to the predestined course of the aggregated universes of infinity.”

Morality – “False, loose pleasures are not happiness at all, and are invariably compensated for by misery, the certain result of wide deviation from the normal.”

Happiness—last sentence: “In short, most of us have no hope of happiness, nor should we waste our energy in striving for it, since it is all but unattainable.”

p. 55, 2nd graf—Goes to hear a speaker urging temperance. Experiences horror, fascination at common folk: “ . . . scarcely less interesting than the speaker were the dregs of humanity who clustered about him.”

Priggishness—“ . . . even in the open air, the stench of whiskey was appalling.”

p. 56—2nd graf—more on postmodern leanings: “In your world, man is the center of everything . . .”

p. 57—chastises someone for viewing man through a simplistic dichotomy of selfishness v. selflessness, leaving out the population that simply wants to know thing as they are, not as one would like them to be

long discourse on truth—if truth does not matter, then neither does the dichotomy mentioned above

p. 58 – has a strange dream, but doesn’t think it really happened. “I recognize a distinction between dream life and real life, between appearances and actualities.”

—not interested in good or bad, just in what is

p. 59 religion—sees no proof of a mind and will like his own at work running the universe. Does not believe in an entity that would take particular interest in Earth above all other planets

p. 60 morality—the science of reconciling humans to the forces surrounding them; religion deifies and personifies those forces. Other than that, religion and morality have nothing in common. “I am intensely moral and intensely irreligious.”

morality predated Christianity and is superior to it—morality is not the essence of religion

honest thinkers seek explanations for what they see; the church promotes untruths, explanations that cannot withstand close scrutiny

p. 61 “Life is a comedy of vain desire . . . those who strive are clowns.” – the mighty and the meek both kick the bucket—it makes no difference what you accomplish—helped him deal with feelings of failure.
—a boy winning at marbles is equal to Octavius at Actium (sounds a little like Kundera on Hitler)

p. 62 despite failure, he didn’t become cynical—not exactly. He decided to help people instead. “What matter if none hear of my labours, or if those labours touch only the afflicted and the mediocre?”

Something like empathy, even if there is still a good-sized dash of condescension in the mix.

(Karen Horney talks about this too, why we torture ourselves striving for greatness when most of us will never achieve it; how we should aim to maximize our talents and abilities instead of trying to fit some popular conception of success and achievement.)

Cautions against participation, urges detachment. I can’t agree with that. That seems to conflict with his belief in the previous entry that we should know things as they really are. I don’t like a lot of the things I see going on around me. I had a lot of preconceived notions about how life in Boston would be before I moved here. I have seen nearly even one of those expectations dashed, and for a while there, I wasn’t sure if I could handle just how far from the ideal life had taken me. My sense of disappointment nearly pushed me from a lifelong neurosis into a full-on psychosis, until I decided it was healthier to accept things as I knew them to be all along. I now realize that the Clash never ruled the world; neither will the Replacements reunite to share power with Howard Dean, the Archies and Peter Tork; neither will I have 12 wives who will wait on me hand and foot, with an ever-shifting cast of “guest” wives thrown in keep things interesting. That last delusion has particular staying power, I must say.

I also realize that it may be a long time before more than 30 people visit this blog in one day consistently, and an even longer time before I get a story published, much less finished.

63—first appearance of the n-word, used as casually as if he were talking about restaurants, as in, “We have quite a few restaurants here.”

63-64—starts harping on the superiority of the “Teutonic” race, ticking off a list of people with or without Teutonic blood

64-65—knows his poetry stinks. Blames it on being a sickly kid who missed a lot of school and devoured the family library collection of Pope, Addison and Dryden. Calls himself “ . . . a relic of Queen Anne’s age.”

66—warns all “bards” to be themselves. Henry James said the same thing (was it in The Art of the Novel?)

Grateful for compliments on Dagon. Tells what inspired it.

69—discovers Lord Dunsany, 1919.

71—1936: still likes Dunsany, but more measured, less wide-eyed in his appreciation. Individual works may seem weak, he says, but taken together, they transport the reader to a different place and time.

72—more on Dunsany: cosmic disillusion, desperate effort to retain fragments of wonder

bad dreams: “night-gaunts”

dreams of gravedigging

76—worries that turning dreams into stories is a form of plagiarism. I had similar qualms myself at one point. Actually, I worry that all my dreams are just regurgitated TV shows. What’s worse, now when I shut my eyes, I see Web sites scrolling up a screen.

77—another dream; sounds like Frankenstein or Re-animator; post-Civil War

78—dream explained: he had just read Frankenstein and Ambrose Bierce

another dream: a monster from outer space lands in Providence (maybe the Farrelly Brothers can do that one)

81—1st mention of Nyarlathotep as a nightmare

82-83—says he’s never been in love

83-84—mother goes to stay with sister after contracting illness

writing releases nervous energy

84—mother dies. He shows no emotion but cannot sleep or work.

305.235 Adolescence

I slapped the following post up here a couple weeks ago, in my continuing (and probably pointless) quest to make sense of my past — in this instance, junior high. I wanted to append this foreword, or preface, or whatever the hell this is, in light of a shocking discovery: This morning, I found some slides in a box in my attic dated Febrary 1979, which I apparently took at my junior high school. Holy crap, these slides are as terrifying as they are amazing. The slides include: an open locker with junk spilling out of it; a cool dude surrounded by girls; and our cool, liberal, super-motivated science teacher who nobody really liked.

I often find myself saying, “If I only knew then what I know now,” the implication being “ooh, all the fun I could have.” (In junior high and high school, I think there were people my age who knew then what I know now, and probably more.) If time travel ever becomes reality, it will present us with the ethical dilemma of whether we should travel back in time, armed with the knowledge of what’s going to happen and intent on using that knowledge to our advantage.

Thinking about this likely impossibility for too long fills me with regret. A variation on this theme, “If I only knew now what I’ll learn later,” fills me with anxiety. Best not to think about that one for too long, either. However, a second variation, “If I could only remember what I knew then,” holds some promise for constructive thought and action, rather than mere selfish pleasure and profit. This variation also offers the added benefit of being possible, if only partly so. Anyone really interested in trying ought to be able to recover some knowledge of how things were at a given point in time, and may even acquire some new knowledge of the past.

One caveat: memories don’t arrive on schedule, at least not on our schedule. Whatever entity it is that holds on to them doles them out in dribs and drabs, or in huge gushing bursts; at irregular intervals or as regular as a traffic light – however it wants to do it. The receiver of this knowledge has no control over how or when it comes.

I will try to keep these considerations in mind as I work on a story I’ve been kicking around. Called “Life in Eighth Grade” or “Repeating the Eighth Grade,” it revolves around a night in the life of Peter Bilirakis, a writer at a newsletter publishing company. After working until nearly midnight, he accidentally sends an obscene email to his boss instead of to a friend. He offers a lame explanation in a follow-up email. Furious for having to work so late, furious at himself for his stupid mistake and feeling like his world is crashing down around him, Peter gets in his car and heads home, trying to forget what has just happened. In a hurry to get home, Peter speeds down the interstate at nearly 100 mph. Exhausted, he falls asleep at the wheel and drifts into the median strip, where his car flips over several times before landing upside-down.

As he hangs there unconscious, Peter dreams that he is in an office where a streetwise and world-weary black man sits at a desk, chewing a toothpick and studying a piece of paper in his hands. The man looks up and says, “So, you must be Peter BI-LI-RAK-IS. What kind of a name is that?” Peter tells him it’s Greek. The man tells Peter to “take a seat, my Greek friend.”

As he sits, Peter asks the man what his name is, where he is and what he’s doing there. The man tells Peter that he’s Peter’s guardian angel, and that his name is Jamal Blakely. Peter cracks an annoying joke: “Oh, it’s Jamal the night visitor!” Jamal says, “Ooh, you’re a funny man, Peter! A funny, funny man!” Then Jamal pulls another piece of paper out of a desk drawer, printouts of the photographs Peter sent his boss. Jamal studies the photographs. “Mmm! Nice, Peter! Real nice! I’ll bet your boss must’ve loved these!”

Peter grows quiet. Jamal tells Peter he has a choice: spend eternity in Hell or junior high school. Peter asks if that means all three years. Jamal says no, just one year, forever and ever. Peter asks why anyone would choose to spend eternity in Hell. Jamal says that, at least with Hell, people know what they’ll be getting. “Hell sucks, but there’s no ups and downs – just downs. And there’s nothing worse than a down after you’ve been up.”

Peter says he sees Jamal’s point, but he’s still interested in hearing about the other offer. He wonders who will choose which year of junior high he’ll have to relive through all eternity. Jamal opens his desk drawer again and pulls out a deck of cards. He tells Peter that the two of them will have to play one hand of blackjack. If Peter wins, he chooses the year; if Peter loses, Jamal chooses.

Peter complains that blackjack with just two players won’t be very interesting. He also wonders why Jamal only has one deck. Jamal is shocked at Peter’s effrontery. He reminds Peter of his choices. Peter relents, telling to Jamal to “just deal the cards.”

“All right, we got ourselves a playah!” Jamal says. “Mr. Bi-li-ra-kis, steppin’ up!” Jamal shuffles the deck, Peter cuts it, and Jamal deals. (The actual play of the cards isn’t that important, except that no 7s, 8s or 9s ever show up.) Peter loses, and so does Jamal. Peter thinks this means they have played to a draw, but Jamal reminds him that blackjack rules consider players with busted hands losers even if the dealer also has a busted hand.

He tells Peter it’s time to go. Peter gets nervous and asks if there’s any other way. “You can’t stay here forever, Peter, but I’ll give you one last chance.” Jamal draw three cards from the bottom of the deck. He holds them up, with the Bicycle design facing Peter. “This is it, Peter. All the marbles. Pick a card, buddy.” Peter hesitates, then picks the one on the left. He turns it around. It’s the eight of hearts.

Sweating, nervous and wide-eyed, Peter asks Jamal what the card means. “What do you think it means, Peter? You’re going back to the eighth grade!” Jamal reaches back in the drawer, pulls out a clipboard with a contract on it and a pen. He hands them to Peter.

“What do you want me to do with these?” Peter asks.

“Stop acting like an idiot, Peter. Just sign the damn thing and get out my face!”

Peter looks over the form, scrawls his name at the bottom, and jumps up. He yells, “I can’t do this,” before running to the door. When he opens it and steps through, he finds himself back in his steamy, filthy junior high locker room, in his bony eighth-grade body.

It’s nice to see that traffic is up on this here Web site, but sometimes I gotta wonder at the routes folks took to get here. I’m talking about search phrases. “Old crap” is certainly an interesting choice, but the phrase-of-the-week award has to go to “what girls think about penis.”

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