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This is my intent in writing panegyrics.
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Come in under the shadow of this red rock.

T.S. Eliot didn’t write that about Joshua Atkins, of course. But it reminds me of him. In my mind’s eye, Josh is a red man, red hair, red beard, a great red rock.

Josh is a large man, quiet, but with marvelously expressive sinuses. He snorts much, and as you spend time with him, you soon learn to distinguish between an amused snort and an aggravated snort. It’s a valuable indicator to his mood.

Josh is the single most sarcastic person I know. This is up against some serious competition, but Josh takes the title. Josh can roll his eyes in the dark. If Josh had given the Gettysburg Address, the war would have ended that day, because both sides would have felt too silly to go on. Even as I write this, I can hear in my mind’s ear the cadences of his sarcasm, his slipping from one particular mode of sarcasm to another as his rhetoric demands, forming an awe-inspiring mosaic of snarkiness. It’s a beautiful thing.

Josh is one of the few people with whom I have lived for any length of time. There were two occasions I shared a home with Josh: in college, my senior year, at the Writers’ House, and the summer of 1998, when Josh lived with my wife & I while getting established in Boston.

The year in the Writers House was my senior year and Josh’s junior, and it was the best year for either of us at Allegheny. The house was a warm place—not physically, let me tell you, but personally. The four of us enjoyed being together. It had the feel of a group home. The last day, after we had graduated, we returned to the house to find Josh gone. He hadn’t been able to bear the thought of saying goodbye, and had left a heartfelt note taped to the TV. I understood why he did that, because it was months before I could look at that note without crying.

The second time was right at the end of my stint in library school. On the night of my very last class, that night of glorious freedom, he was there to welcome me home. We watched France win the ’98 World Cup together. It was a marvelous summer, having him sleep on the couch, like we were back in college again.

By August, he’d found a job and a place of his own, but we still saw him frequently. For years he was in our gaming group. He was in my wedding party; I was in his.

Josh is a man of taste and astute critical eye. He has a deep love of comics books, able to peer through the great mounds of detritus produced by the industry and come up with those titles worth the reading. He is a devout hockey fan, once an expert to be consulted on minor-league Pittsburgh teams.

If I were ever in a real struggle, with enemies arrayed against me, I would want Josh by my side, and I know he would be. I can hear him even now: “We’ll get those assholes.” He would be sarcastic, smirking, unimpressed by any enemy. I can rely on the shelter of his red rock. Josh is ballast to right the world.

Stewey, Dewey, Hewey and Mooey, the Christmas elf marketing & design team, sat around the conference table, staring with equal suspicion at their cups of coffee and each other.

“All right, ‘fess up.  Who thought it would be funny to put a dead lemming in the Keurig machine?” said Dewey

The door slammed open. Santa entered the room.  “Ho, ho, ho.  Merry Christmas,” he said as he hooked up his laptop and fired up Powerpoint. The first slide flashed on the exposed ice-brick walls.  A red line was marked “Requests.”  It was in decline.  A blue line was marked “Complaints.” It was in steep ascent.
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At the Sunday School, the children had divided up into pairs to examine the brain of a dead person

(A dead person from the Bible? Despite the dream framing this as a Sunday School lesson, there was not anything really Sunday Schoolish about it)

After they were done, the teacher went around the room and asked each child with whom, from all of history, they would like to speak. And each child said a name in turn.

It was the last child’s turn. And they said “Myself.”

The teacher was confused. “No, no, why yourself? That doesn’t make any sense. You can talk to yourself anytime.”

The child replied: “If I could talk to myself, I could see my excuses and mistakes and delusions, from an objective point of view. Just for one hour, I would like to talk to myself as stranger. I could learn more from that than from anyone else.”

The dream moved on. It didn’t end there. This was only one segment. But it did stick out.

Quite a long time ago, I did my senior thesis on the era of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In the thick of it, I would find myself making up little songs, such as this one, about the first of Japan’s unifiers Oda Nobunaga, to the tune of Phish’s “Golgi Apparatus.”

I look into the Sansom book
just to check my saga (saga!)
I look into Azuchi times,
I see Oda Nobunaga

But Oda, oh, woe to you
You can’t even rule Honshu
Oda, Oda, Oda, Oda, Odaaaaaaaaa

They call him daimyo-man
’cause he told them to
If you served the Oda clan,
you’d do it too

But Oda, oh, woe to you
You can’t even rule Honshu
Oda, Oda, Oda, Oda, Odaaaaaaaaa

I SAW YOU
With the shogun’s head in your lap
I SAW YOU
With the shoguns’s head in your lap!
I SAW YOU

Run through Japan,
Get to the can,
Couldn’t get it wrong,
So I’ll have to-

Look into the Sansom book
just to check my saga
I look into Azuchi times,
I see Oda Nobunaga

But Oda, oh, woe to you
You can’t even rule Honshu
Oda, Oda, Oda, Oda, Odaaaaaaaaa

 

 

(Written AD MMVIII, 232nd year of American Independence. George W. Bush, President of the Republic, and gasoline at four dollars the gallon.)

The night after Peak Oil, I met Nixon by the Union Station Metro stop. He was wearing a dust-tinged blue suit and trying to hail a cab.

“I’ve got to get down to the Mall,” he was mumbling when I found him. “I can calm the situation. I reach out to people. I reached out to those goddamned war protestors, but they were too bitter. I can’t stand bitter people. Where the hell is a goddamned taxi?”

“There aren’t any more taxis, Dick. There’s no more oil.”

“What? Those damned Saudis won’t cough up more oil? Goddammit, we’ll send in the Marines and take it from them!”

“Dick, the Saudis are dead. They sent us all their oil and they died.”

“Hmm. Well, let’s walk then.”

Elsewhere the District of Columbia was burning, but near the river the only sign of destruction was the smell on the May breeze. It was a fine twilight, and America was out strolling around, meeting and greeting while they still could.

We passed Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and Roy Cohn walking down North Capitol arm in arm, passing a bottle of Wild Turkey back and forth. “Hey, Dick!” Roy shouted, but Nixon pretended not to see him.

Jeanette Rankin sat on a bench on D Street, chanting softly: “In the year that Roosevelt started his third term, I saw the glory of the Lord in the House Chamber. The hem of his robe filled the hall and the singing of the seraphim shook the Speaker’s desk. Then one of the angels took the Speaker’s gavel and touched it to my lips…”

“She was a traitor, you know,” Nixon whispered in my ear.

“I’m not so sure about that, Dick.”

Around C Street we hit a crowd and had to push our way through. The closer we came to the Capitol, the thicker it got, until eventually it resolved itself into a line. We walked down to see why they were there.

Outside the Capitol sat Aimee Semple McPherson, under a California palm tree, and she was as Deborah. She wore a white robe and she sang. We saw then that the line was composed of those that had grievances against the United States of America, come to ask justice from the prophetess of the Lord. Waiting there were Creeks and Filipinos, slaves and internees, Guatemalans and Onondagas, anarchists and union organizers, Mexicans and Narragansetts and Hmong and countless others. They presented their petitions and she sang back the sentences.

King Philip, not far from the front of the line, saw us and raised his burden: he was carrying the head of Custer by its long golden locks. As we watched, he drew a Bowie knife and scalped the head in one stroke. The skull fell to the ground; the bloody skin on the hair formed itself into a mouth, which cried out, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great.”

We hustled along.

Nearby was a party of Timorese, who had already received their recompense: they were tarring and feathering Henry Kissinger. Nixon wanted to go help, but I was telling him that it wasn’t really our place when a little Lakota boy ran out from under the palm and kicked us each in the shin, hard.

“What was that for?” I yelped, hopping.

“Wakan Tanka has given it to me to kick every white man once,” the little boy replied.

Then he did it again, in the other shin.

“Hey, you already got us!” I said.

“Wakan Tanka is ever generous, wasichu!” he shouted as he scampered away.

“That little bastard,” Nixon grumbled. “Those ungrateful sons of bitches! They’re lucky we ever gave them-“ Before he could rant further, a black-and-white cocker spaniel ran out from the line and dashed after the little boy.

“Checkers!” Nixon shouted. “Checkers! Here, boy! Here!” He began to tremble. “That dog-the girls loved him. They’d get up early to walk him before school. They treated him with such kindness. My precious girls. Checkers, come back! Come back!”

“Dick-“

My mother and my daughters were the only people who ever loved me!

“Dick, get a hold of yourself! You were President of the United States, for pete’s sake!”

With those words he inflated like a life raft and squared his shoulders. “Quite right, and this is too important a night to waste complaining. Low energy level, I think. Can we duck over to the White House and grab a plate of cottage cheese and ketchup? That always hits the spot.”

“There’s no more food, Dick. The food turned out to be made of oil, and we used all the oil. There’s no cottage cheese or ketchup.”

He seemed not to believe me. “Well, it’s a hell of a note when a man can’t get a nice plate of cottage cheese with ketchup.”

Out in the middle of Constitution Ave. sat a Piper Cub, and working on the engine was Howard Hughes. Now it seemed that everyone had found a little of their youth that evening, but the change was most startling with him. No more fingernails, no more germfear; he was black-haired and laughing. He looked strong enough to lay every starlet in the world, then fly them all home on the same enormous plane.

“Turn it over,” he shouted, and the plane made a coughing noise. I noticed Barry Goldwater was sitting in the cockpit.

“I’m sorry, Howard, but there’s no more avgas,” I said.

“Bullshit!” he replied.

“I’m afraid it’s so.”

“No, bullshit,” he said, patting the fuselage. “She’s got a tankful of methane from buffalo chips. No oil shortage is going to keep me on the ground!”

The engine roared to life. Howard jumped in beside Barry and they soared aloft down the mall.

“He was crazy, you know,” Nixon whispered in my ear.

“Be quiet, Dick,” I said.

As we moved farther down the Mall, we found people dancing. A crude stage had been erected, a generator found, and James Brown was putting on a show. The hardest working man in showbiz was not going to let Armageddon slow him down, not with his flexibility returned. He was twisting his way through an extended version of “Say it Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud” when he spotted us.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “Richard Milhous Nixon, Presidentoftheunitedstates! I wantcha give it up, give it up, give it up for him!”

The people cheered for us, because the man on stage told them. Dick smiled and waved back, but I could tell how uncomfortable he was, and it got worse a moment later, when a blur came from the crowd around the stage and slammed right into him.

“Dick!” shouted the blur, Hunter S. Thompson. “You magnificent asshole! This is the only way it could end!” Thompson dropped his two tequila bottles, grabbed Nixon’s head with both hands, and kissed him full on the lips. He held Dick there, struggling, for three breaths, then let go, and raced cackling towards the Capitol.

“Pothead!” Nixon shouted after him.

I pulled Dick away and we continued past the Smithsonian. The nation’s attic had been looted. All the windows were broken. Even as we watched we saw people hauling away bits of the Spirit of St Louis, and Dillinger’s penis.

“Thus falls the rabble,” sneered a man nearby, wearing a pickelhaube and hoisting a beer stein. I recognized him as H.L. Mencken, but was distracted by the structure against which he leaned: a concession stand. A large banner overhead read ICE CREAM 5¢ , but a smaller hand-lettered sign under it said WE’RE OUT. I was disappointed, for I was sore hungry, and I guess you could tell, because John Chapman came up to me. He handed me a Swedenborgian tract with one hand and an apple with the other.

“Thank you kindly,” I said. He smiled and walked west.

At last we came to the Washington Monument. Curiously, there was a ladder propped against it, a golden ladder, very wide, that seemed to go to the top. At the base of that ladder waited a man in a wheelchair and a woman wearing a fur stole.

“Dick!” said the woman. “How marvelous to see you again. Who would have ever thought it would end this way?”

“Er, hello, Mrs. Roosevelt,” Dick muttered.

“Have you met my husband?”

FDR shook both our hands. My fingers ached from his grip. “Good to see you, men. It’s a big night. You’ll want to go on up,” he said.

We approached the ladder.

“She was a communist, you know,” Nixon whispered in my ear.

“Dick, would you shut up?” I said.

We began to climb. As we did, I could see far, further than I should have. The district was aflame in all directions, northwest and northeast and southeast, but–beyond that. Boston sat choked in cobwebs. The spires of New York leaned, collapsed against each other. To the south Atlanta rotted like a flyblown peach.

A quarter of the way up, we found a platform. There another couple waited for us: the Father of his Country, and his wife. Martha greeted us with the soul of Southern hospitality. George gave us both Masonic handshakes and gestured us upward. “Son of the Republic, look and learn,” he told us.

We kept climbing.

Even further I could see. The canyons of Chicago were filled with animal skulls, billions of pigs and cows. In St Louis the Father of Waters went unvexed through the streets; in New Orleans the French Quarter was the home of the eel and crab. Dallas thirsted to nothingness. Denver lay snowbound past the tops of skyscrapers.

As we approached another platform, we heard a sound. A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud weeping. Mary Todd was crying for her sons, all six hundred thousand of them; she refused to be comforted, for they were dead. When we stood before her, with Father Abraham at her side, Nixon, too, began to weep. He collapsed into Lincoln’s arms and cried like a little boy. Lincoln said something to him–I couldn’t hear, it was too low.

Then Father Abraham turned to me, and I could not look him in the face; I was too ashamed. Instead I let my eyes rest on his kindly whiskers. He said nothing to me. He put his hand on my shoulder, a gentle hand, and gestured me up the ladder.

We climbed. Somehow I could see clear across the mountains, across the continent. The last earthquake had found the Late Great State of California. In San Francisco the dead lay in their victorians; in Los Angeles in their bungalows. The Central Valley was now the Central Sea. To the north, Seattle mouldered under the mud of Mount Rainier. With the very last rung, I caught a glimpse of the edge of the world. The queen’s flag waved once more over Oahu, and in Nome non-natives were being pushed at gunpoint into the freezing sea.

My foot touched aluminum.

A cold breeze blew at the peak. It was hard to keep my balance and a long way to fall. A skinny man with an enormous forehead sat there, making something at a portable workbench, softly singing, “If You Could Hie To Kolob.”

“Hello, Philo,” I said.

He looked up, startled. “Oh, hello. Pardon me, I’m just finishing this prototype. I was working in the lab, or at home, or someplace, and I had the most marvelous idea: what if there were a button that, if pressed, would bring An End to the United States, all at once?”

“That’s pretty nifty, Philo,” I said nervously. “I don’t suppose you ran it past the stake president, just to make sure there’s no doctrinal problems?”

“I tried to. The phone was busy. I’m sure it’s OK.”

He was connecting wires within a rectangular oak box about as long as his forearm. On one end was a single brown Bakelite button.

As he worked the world fell away, and we were surrounded by Americans, 232 years of Americans, 401 years of Americans, 50,000 years of Americans. They were waiting for Philo to finish his invention. Beyond them was One, the Judge, watching.

Philo slapped shut the box, and nodded.

“I guess that’s it, then,” I said. “Dick, you get the last word on the United States of America.”

Nixon puffed up again, like a tom turkey on the prowl, swept his arms out and started, “On this historic occasion, we must of course… that is to say… we… our forefathers… America… throughout our proud history… .”

His arms sank and his jowls sagged under the weight of memory.

“We… our country… .”

He paused. And finally said:

“We always wanted to be–better than we were.”

“That’ll do,” I said, and started to cry. “Philo, push the button.” Which he did.