Cheat Lake ’93

The plastic basins sit in the sink. I would say “kitchen sink” but there is only one sink, spring-fed, in the cabin my father and uncle built with their friends on the first backwater of the Cheat Lake in West Virginia almost 50 years ago. The basins are now used to soak crusted egg off the white plastic plates with their pea green and yellow floral design. The plates, like the colored glass lamp hanging over the table and the embroidery of mushrooms on the wall, are relics of 70’s beer and cigarette bacchanals, before us kids, when the place was still called “Mecca South”.

The basins, however, date from the early 90’s, and before they were used to soak breakfast dishes they were used to collect my father’s excess bodily fluids, mostly bloody phlegm, as I recall, brought up by long bouts of a painful, hacking cough.

They came from Ruby Memorial Hospital, and are still, 24 years later, the easily identifiable (at least to anyone who has spent a lot of time in hospitals) hospital pink that they were in 1993. My memory of my father’s facial features has faded more- much more- than the color of these plastic basins.

The pink is very tasteful, actually, which surprises me when I go back to the family place once every year or two and re-discover them. One of my aunts built a house on the property and lives there year-round now, and the past few years my cousins have been bringing their small children for impromptu family reunions. I always find the basins still here and notice again that the pink is not a bubble-gum pepto-bismol pink but rather a dusky, purplish-pink, somewhere between blush and bruise.

That summer, the summer of ’93, my father was hospitalized for a month (or a little more? or a little less?) with a septic knee infection (I think this is what it was? All I really knew at the time was that the knee was the size of a grapefruit, and it was very serious). My older brother was in Mexico visiting Aunt Julie and Tio José, and my mother, panicked and doing a less expert job of hiding it than she generally did, mostly stayed at the hospital. That left me largely at the cabin with a dumb Brittany Spaniel named Calvin and a field mouse-obsessed orange tabby tomcat named Popcorn, listening to the same mixtape cassette (Duran Duran, U2, SWV), or top 40 country music on the radio, eating toasted and buttered english muffins when I got hungry.  I also learned how to meditate by following the instructions in a worn paperback called “Yoga Meditation”  which I had purchased at the used bookstore in Morgantown. The cover had a photo of a lady in a white leotard with long blonde hair sitting in lotus position with a tall candlestick burning in front of her.

I would walk the narrow path hacked into a ridge of the steep hillside, following the shoreline of the backwater below, until I got to what I had designated as my meditation spot; a boulder protruding out over the long drop to the lake, with a small, quiet stream running beside it. I would sit cross-legged, close my eyes most (but not all) of the way, count and concentrate on my in-breaths and out-breaths, and try to notice my thoughts as they came up and dismiss them, like blowing a soap bubble out towards the lake, watching it drift and pop. My favorite type of meditation was 360 degree listening meditation. I focused on individual sounds, and then gradually learned to notice them together, to be aware of the spontaneous symphonic qualities of sound. The stream running close by on my left, stillness as it fell over the ledge and the splash on the rocks below as it continued on it’s way down to the lake. Wind in the thick,  bright green foliage all around me. A cricket somewhere behind me. a distant jet-ski’s roar and stop. An outboard motor idling as someone pulled into a shady fishing cove on the opposite bank. loud laughter from the Graziani’s dock, echoing over the backwater. The hum of a plane overhead. By the time I was back at the cabin, changed into my bathing suit, and wading, then diving into the cool, sun-dazzled green water of Cheat Lake, my mind was often nearly empty. It may not be an accurate recollection, but I do not recall feeling lonely or scared.

At some point, after maybe two weeks or so, Grandma came down from Pittsburgh to stay at the cabin with me. She brought white bread, chipped ham, mayo and iceburg lettuce. She brought milk and Frosted Flakes. She brought a semblance of normalcy, and a flurry of activity. To every day, it’s project. We hiked up to the bright, sunny pastures at the top of the property to pick blackberries. Grandma with a kerchief tied over her silver hair. We tried our hand at fishing from the dock. We collected firewood. We built a “handicapped ramp” up to the front porch of the cabin out of clay that I dug out of the lake by the bucketful and large flat stones that I dug up all up and down the shoreline, and hauled up the path in a little red Flyer wagon. Grandma explained that the ramp was because my father was going to get out of the hospital and come back here, but would have no flexibility in the knee, and would certainly be using a walker or a cane, if not a wheelchair. I see now that my grandmother conceived of this project as a way of occupying my time and distracting me, as a way of giving me some structure (little did she know I had done fine without it), and to give me Optimism writ large, as a concrete thing I could feel and hold, even build myself, one stone, one handful of wet clay at a time.

Optimism was sort of a moot point for me, though. It really did not seem conceivable to me that my father would die. When I was near him I was enormously, inarticulately concerned with his suffering. I felt his suffering physically, in my own knobby, twiggy wisp of an almost-pubescent body. But at that time his death, his inevitable death, for a full-blown AIDS patient in 1993 had virtually no hope of survival, simply was not real to me. His death belonged to the realm of impossible- I should say impermissible– things, and so did not concern and pre-occupy me as it has off and on in all the years since it did occur.

When Grandma drove down to West Virginia from Pittsburgh and hiked in to the cabin with groceries, straining to haul her petite body over fallen trees that blocked the path, she may have brought, tucked in with the groceries, a fashion magazine. I can’t remember, but it strikes me as likely, because both my mother and my grandmother bought me fashion magazines as a form of reward or comfort. My mother always gave me the hulking behemoth September issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Grandma may have brought me the July, or the new August Vogue.

Decades later, it is with the eyes of an aesthete, a now confirmed devotée of Fashion (studied at Parsons, apprenticed to a bespoke tailor, etcetera), as well as for many years a practicing visual artist (Junior year of college painting in a Paris Atelier, etcetera) that I see the darkish pink of these hospital spittoons in the sink. I think, “I would like a linen dress in that color. A cashmere tunic with big pockets and a scoop neck. Silk lounge pants. Suede high-top sneakers.”

I am well aware of what they are and how they came to be here. He did insist on leaving the hospital, despite the doctor’s warnings that it would kill him. As my mother never tires of reminding me, I get my stubborn, bullheaded streak, as well as my temper, from him. My father came back to the cabin on an old pontoon boat, ferried in by loyal, deeply good, gutter-talking, chain-smoking, large, loud-laughing mountain neighbors who had known him since he was a child and loved him. He used the ramp that Grandma and I had built. He was not well and I distinctly remember him, after having insisted on going out sailing and getting caught in a storm (that stubborn streak again- Death be not proud!), lying on the sofa under an electric blanket and a couple other blankets, shivering, irritable. I lay down beside him, put my arm and leg over him, and lay my head on his bony, caved-in chest, determined to give him whatever warmth I had.

We returned to Boston when the scent of Fall was on the air, just in time for the start of school. He survived for almost two more years after that summer; an incredible feat considering that he had no functioning immune system of his own at that point, only a sister who was a blood match, and who was willing to have white blood cells sucked out of her body and pumped into his body to buy him a little more time.

Sometimes I think any normal family would get rid of those pink plastic basins. But then I realize that “normal” doesn’t mean anything. There is no “normal family”, just as there is no “normal person”, no “normal life”.

 

 

castles like this

Fingernail pulled down                                                                                                   the side of a bookshelf                                                                                               There isn’t enough time                                                                                                              to tour the place                                                                                                                  My kind of people                                                                                                                can’t feel at ease                                                                                                               in castles like this                                                                                                                and I don’t know                                                                                                        where your kind of                                                                                                                 people                                                                                                                                   feel at ease

the future

Remember the first time you opened your eyes inside an ocean wave?

Do you remember what dim expanse your eyes beheld in that moment, and how they smarted?

That was the future. The past, as well. You have seen all Time and known it.

But that was so long ago.

 

 

*painting by Cynthia Estep

End Times report 2/9/17

So much has happened since I last weighed in on the state of the world that I hardly know where to begin. Plus, you are all glued to your array of information sources, just as I am, juggling words and images in your brain, shifting from panic to numbness to moments of sweet forgetting. You know how bad it is. Here in Berkeley the rain is coming down like mother nature is trying to cleanse the earth of the foul stench of moral rot. It’s not working. At the beginning of the week we saw the confirmation of Betsy Devos as secretary of education after Senate Democrats actually did their damn job and stayed up all night fighting tooth and nail against it. Not because they’re saints, mind you. Because they want to get re-elected and they know that the huge majority of Americans send their children to public schools and are much more aware of and impassioned over the handling of public education than almost any other issue. Yes, the constituency is quite aware that Devos is a woman who seems to have no appreciation for education, learning, and literacy as good things in and of themselves. Nor does she have any grasp on the role public education can play in creating some socio-economic mobility, some possibility for the realization of big dreams for children who are not born to wealth, as she was, and who do not have access to financial resources. She wants to privatize public education. Which means you can get a voucher for 7000 dollars a year (that’s taxpayer dollars that have been siphoned off from their previous allocation to support and improve Public schools) to send your kid to a private or parochial school. The only problem is most private and parochial schools annual tuition, even for kindergarten, is 15 grand or more. So if you don’t happen to have 8-13 thousand dollars a year lying around (according to multiple recent studies, including this one in Forbes, most Americans can’t come up with 500 dollars in an emergency, no less 8,000 every year) you are shit out of luck. Your kid is going to be one of those shunted off to a public school system that’s been catastrophically defunded. Considering how difficult it is to deliver anything resembling a quality education in the U.S public school system with the current levels of under-funding, over-crowing, teacher shortages, underpaid and overworked teachers and staff, etcetera, it is difficult to imagine the Devos plan leading to anything other than public schools that are little more than holding pens (read: Prisons) for the very poorest of children and teenagers. And even these public schools will be privatized, the way prisons are now. You see where I’m going with this. The whole thing is basically a neat way of transforming our public schools into an expansion of the for-profit prison system. The public schools will become for-profit prisons for poor, mostly black-and brown children and teenagers. And it’s an even better business model than the for-profit prisons, because they don’t even have to do anything wrong (aside from being born poor) to be there! there’s no need to criminalize particular behaviors, substances, ways of dressing, etcetera. These children are forced to be the prison population simply because they’re poor and their families can’t buy them out of it. Furthermore, most families rely on public schools to be the only free child care that exists in our country, enabling the parents to go to work. The dream of pulling those beautiful little people out and taking them for a hike and teaching them to read the best books and ask questions and think critically under the big blue sky is just that- a dream that could only be reality for those priveleged enough to not need to go to work to put food on the table every day. And last but not least, delinquency/failure to attend school can lead to interventions either from DSS or from law enforcement, which leads to those other hells of the foster system and the prison system.  Now if this is not sophisticated coercion, I don’t know what is. Isn’t it disgustingly clever? I’d like to think that Betsy Devos is stupid and doesn’t realize the massive profit potential of privatizing public schools, but the functioning part of my brain is sure that she has holdings in private prison companies and whoever manages her portfolio has made her fully aware of how much money can be made by turning the public schools of this country into for-profit private prisons for poor children. I imagine many of the contractors behind the private prison industry are standing in the wings, eager to step in and place their bids as this new business opportunity opens to them.

As I said in my Post ‘Don’t Tread on Us’:The collective contributions of the good, dutiful, obedient American taxpayer add up to a huge pot of money. After all, there’s a lot of us. It is infuriating to those who want to play with or pocket some of this money (and are used to getting what they want) that we’ve managed to keep their hands off it for so long.”

That, my friends, is the beating heart of the drive to privatize all that is public. It has driven them crazy for too long that they haven’t been permitted to put their hands in this money. Privatizing is just inserting a middle-man who will take a cut for himself and his share-holders (of which Devos is sure to be one), and who in so doing will pull even more of the meager resources allocated to poor families away from them and into some Cayman Islands account far out of the reach of the IRS.

Then there’s the confirmation as A.G of Jefferson Sessions, one of the most KKK-loving, black vote suppressing, power-abusing, white supremacist motherfuckers to ever be refused a seat in the federal judiciary of the United States due to the aforementioned KKK-protecting, suppressing of the black vote etc.

The day this man became the head of the Federal Justice Department should be regarded as a day of national tragedy, shame, and sorrow. To think that we will need to fight AGAINST the USJD to secure equal protection under the law- to secure JUSTICE- for all our people. Whew. Excuse my language, but that is fucked up. We are living in some dark and twisted times when Jeff Sessions is Attorney General. It’s so mind-bogglingly messed up and infuriating that I can’t even be articulate about it.

And to top it all off, 45 has another executive order coming through today or tomorrow, which is worth taking a look at. It’s just a couple pages, so you can really read the fine print. The thing to focus on (I think), is the huge discretion given to the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, notorious racist and supporter of white supremacist terrorist groups in this country, to determine what constitutes an insupportable level of resistance to “local law enforcement”, and to alter the criminal codes in order to “protect local law enforcement” from what he feels is an undue amount of resistance, lack of compliance, lack of cooperation etcetera. That sounds to me like drastically expanded criminalization of protests, marches, and resistance activism generally. In particular resistance to White Supremacy in this administration (such as, I dunno, the Justice Department halting it’s investigations into local PDs all over the country murdering unarmed black people with impunity?) We are about to see the new COINTELPRO. We are about to see Black Lives Matter surveilled and brutally attacked the way the Black Panthers were in the 70’s. This Executive Order is just one of the things- this designation of authority to the racist A.G – that might just make it all “legal”. We must remain vigilant and be prepared to fight. If you’re Black, start thinking of yourself as a warrior (you probably already do)- if you’re White, start thinking of yourself as a human shield, and get good and comfortable with the idea of putting your body on the line to do all we can to protect our Black family. There will be no sitting this one out.

Oh, just one more thing. Every Authoritarian regime needs a propaganda arm, and 45 took care of that (or at least laid the groundwork) with his stealthy, Putin-esque re-structuring of the Voice Of America. This one is gonna be a slow burner, folks, but the importance of an entirely regime-controlled broadcasting arm has never been a thing to scoff at, from Hitler to Pinochet from Rwanda to North Korea to the USSR to Putin’s Russia, so it’s probably a good idea for all of us to pay attention to this. Hats off to Rachel Maddow and her team at MSNBC for this invaluable piece of real reporting.

 

Also, just in case these assholes are over there, making a file on me- put this in there, will ya?

 

 

*painting by Hans Memling, 1470

 

 

Codromaght/unedited notes on Irishness from a 2009 notebook

What I wanted from Ann in her kitchen in Dorchester the day before yesterday was a blessing, and miraculously, it was procured. For the first time I can remember she seemed to think I had turned out alright: I turned out to be someone you could talk to, someone who could understand, who it hadn’t all been lost on, who didn’t need to be condescended to and who didn’t require a translation of the basics. What’s more I think she saw how much like her I’ve turned out to be (for she raised me, I’m hers); she who has been learning all her life, an ocean between her and the land of her birth, working, and when necessary working through pain. I think she knows that I am, in my way, a person of enormous faith.                                                                                                                                          Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death…

-My Irish Soul-

“Look, I know it’s stupid, but I’m funny like that. I like my space. Crazy, I know, but what can you do? I think it’s because everyone at home asks so many bloody questions. Where were you? Until when? Who were you with? And the great bloody existential conundrum of course; Just who do you think you are? ” – Joseph O’Connor

Codromaght- equality

(ontological parity…)

“The Irish have a shrewd knowledge of the world and a strange reluctance to cope with it”- Sean O’Faolain

Thomas Addis Emmet + the United Irish Uprising of 1798 (My Scots-Irish Ancestors?…)

“The Irish were distinguished by qualities which tend to make men interesting rather than prosperous” – Moynihan

“I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually” – Moynihan at JFK’s funeral

Mo cuisle- my blue-eyed darling- my lost lover- my blood… (Brendan, Liam, Brian…)

Derry- Point of departure for all my Irish Ancestors, Catholic (Dad’s side) and Protestant (Mom’s side). The Irish word for “Oak Grove”. Land of Cuchulain. The place where Columcille once prayed. Bloody Sunday. The burning Bogside. Wild Donegal to the West, Scotland to the East. Southeast to Belfast, Dublin, Wales and England…

Uisce fe talamh- Water under the ground. A consciousness of Race and place formed by history and circumstance whereby one grows up knowing things without realizing from where.

“Life is not lived until it is understood as a tragedy” -W.B Yeats

in Irish karma, too much success is only a prelude to catastrophe-

“Death makes life meaningless unless life achieves a form that Death can’t alter” -Seamus Deane

 

 

The Border Campaign

by Seamus Heaney

Soot-streaks down the courthouse wall, a hole                                                                         smashed in the roof, the rafters in the rain                                                                                        still smouldering:                                                                                                                                         When I heard the word “attack”                                                                                                                   in St. Columb’s College in nineteen fifty-six                                                                                              it left me winded, left nothing between me                                                                                           and the sky that moved beyond my boarder’s dormer                                                                      the way it would have moved the morning after                                                                                    savagery in Heriot, its reflection placid                                                                                                        in those waterlogged huge paw marks Grendel left                                                                               on the boreen to the marsh.

All that was written                                                                                                     and to come I was part of then,                                                                                                                      at one with clan chiefs galloping down paths                                                                                              to gaze at the talon Beowulf had nailed                                                                                                  high on the gable, the sky still moving grandly.                                                                                  Every nail and claw-spike, every spur                                                                                                        and hackle and hand-barb on that heathen brute                                                                                was like a steel prong in the morning dew.

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times

The steaming pile of excrement we find ourselves living in- little more than a gore-circus, if you read the fine print, which unfortunately I haven’t been able to quit doing yet- leaves me no choice but to write some things down. If for no other reason than to externalize this internal pain I suffer from withstanding a constant barrage of garbage, subterfuge and horrible premeditated violence. It won’t matter if nobody reads what I write- And on that point, I promise the next (really the first) post will be about Jean Baudrillard’s In the shadow of the silent majorities, the implosion of empires, and the breakdown of the social. It will be a fine way to shove off a lonely  little boat on a sea of sludge.