Two Meditative Poems

Buds aplenty 4089 copy

The Gatekeeper

 

I have been knocking at this gate

my whole life,

knocking, knocking, so long

that my knuckles have worn

a hole through the wood,

and sometimes, if I stand

just right, I can see bits of light

coming from the other side.

I am afraid to put my eye

to the hole I have made by my knocking.

It is like looking

directly into the sun.

So I step back and keep knocking

making the entrance a little larger

with each knock,

with each prayer for understanding,

with each thirst

for what lies beyond the gate,

beyond this world.

I must wait respectfully

for the gatekeeper

to answer my summons,

though the temptation to batter

through the hole I have made is strong.

I would risk blindness,

risk incineration

in the world beyond the gate,

if I did not already hear

the footsteps of the gatekeeper.

 

Sylvestri Creek Falls nov 2002

 

 

Something

 

 

Something

imagined us into existence.

That something was

very scientific,

very loving, very wild,

very mathematical,

very chaotic,

very purposeful,

very explosively given to

extravagance and elegance,

profusion and color,

yet so gentle that It knew

exactly how much to breathe

into the fire of life

without burning us all to cinders.

Imagined into existence,

we are here, duty bound

to imagine ourselves back to

that Something,

whose nature must take imagination

as the earth takes wind

for the circulation of its ideas.

I will imagine myself back into

the bosom of that Something

that made me

as a wind-wisp,

as a pink cloud from the most glory-stained

sunset, imaginable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Car Disasters of 2016 or Bad Fortune Cookies

breakdown

            I was driving sixty miles an hour on Southbound 101 when the car abruptly died.  It was my nightmare fantasy come true.  My heretofore trusty ’98 Jeep just  stopped.  The radio went off, all the gauges slid to zero and I realized that I was coasting to a halt in a busy freeway lane.  I tried to restart the car.  I had no lights, no nothing.  I couldn’t even put on the emergency blinkers. 

            I was terrified.  Vehicles were hurtling towards me at sixty and seventy miles per hour and they had no clue that I was dead in the right lane.  All it would take would be one dreamy driver to plow into me and I would be both cause and outcome of a multi-car  possibly fatal accident.  Should I get out and run for it?  Should I wait here?  I didn’t know.  It seemed more honorable to stay with the car, to go down with the ship.

            A Highway Patrol car materialized behind me, its lights flashing.  I was pleased, for the first time in my life, to see Law Enforcement flashing its lights at me. The officer walked briskly to my front window.  He gestured to me to roll down the window. 

            Problem is, I can’t roll down the window.  The Jeep’s driver’s side window doesn’t work.  I had to pop open the door to hear the man’s voice.  Embarassing?  And maybe illegal?

            “Put it in Neutral, sir.  I’m going to push you to the shoulder.”

            Thank god thank god the gear shift works.  It works kind of funny, like there’s only one gear.  The lever slides up and down without stopping.  Oh god I hope this Jeep is not stuck in gear.  The CHP officer squares off behind me and bumps my fender with his big front pusher bar.  The car moves!  Oh! 

            There’s another CHP car about two hundred yards upstream from us, slowing traffic by weaving across the freeway.  I get to the shoulder and the officer appears again.  He shouts at the closed widow.  He thinks I’m a moron. “Have you got Triple A, sir?”

            “I do.  I do. I do.” I feel like I’m getting married.  “I do I do”, I stutter, my nerves shattered, my forehead bathed in perspiration. 

            “Call ’em right now.  What’s wrong with your vehicle, sir?”

            “I don’t know, it’s been running fine and then, suddenly, whammo! Dead.  D-
A-I-D…dead!”

            “If this vehicle is still here in two hours it will be impounded.  Do NOT exit the vehicle unless supervised by your tow driver.  Stay in your vehicle!  You’re lucky I don’t write you a ticket for reckless driving.  I’m feeling benevolent today. Today’s my lecture day.  If this was tomorrow I’d write you up for twenty different violations.”  I’m listening to this through the open crack of my driver’s side door and the opened rear window, and all the other open windows except the one next to me that doesn’t open any more.  I’m praying the policeman doesn’t notice the passenger side front mirror, because it’s taped on with duct tape and is not glass but a piece of reflective plastic whose images are distorted  beyond recognition at any speed.

            I call Triple A and wait for the tow truck.  I get texts every few minutes relaying the progress of my rescuer.  “Recovery Vehicle has departed current location at.etc. etc……ETA 45 min.”  When the tow truck arrives it conveys me to Bowens Automotive Repair, a garage that I picked at random off the internet.  The mechanic does his tests and I absorb the diagnosis: My alternator is shot.  The car needs a new alternator.  Price tag: Five Hundred Dollars.

            I have no choice.  I call my partner to pick me up and drive me home in the other car.

            The Other Car.  The ’96 White Chevy Blazer.  It was once a luxury car.  Leather seats.  Key fob operated remote lock/unlock.  We haven’t driven it in four years because it doesn’t start.  I would presume its got a dead battery but I swapped another battery into the car and it still didn’t start.  So, maybe a blown starter motor?  Bad solenoid, frayed ground wire, failure to make contact somewhere within the fiendish complexities of its electrical jungle.

            The Jeep has always been our go-to car.  I haven’t had the money to repair the Blazer. But now I must buy a new battery.  If there’s something else wrong with the Blazer  I’m wasting my money but I follow this handy rule:  If the car doesn’t start, and the battery doesn’t charge, replace the battery.  Maybe the swapped battery was dead, too. 

            The moment of battery replacement is fraught with tension.  Will it, won’t it…start?  I connect the new battery, turn the key in the ignition and….hallelujah!  It starts right away.  Oh, what a relief.

            I drive the Blazer to work the next day.  We’ve been using the Blazer as a storage bin.  Its rear is filled with linens, dishes, books, tools, all kinds of stuff  loaded up to the line of sight in the rear view mirror.  If we put any more stuff in there, I won’t be able to see what’s behind me.

            I drive to work.  I work.  I prepare to drive home.

            The driver’s side tire is flat.

            Shit!  Where’s the spare?  Is it underneath all that storage?

            No.  It’s under the chassis, riding beneath the rear wheels.  The problem is that the tools for jacking and removing lug nuts is underneath the dishes, the linens, the books.

            And there’s a trick to getting the spare to come free, a trick that I don’t know. I’ve been using a sledge hammer to whack at the wing nut that constrains the spare.  I whack it and the nut turns but it’s not un-threading.  It’s not coming free.

            I begin to unload the stored goods in the cargo compartment.  Maybe there’s a special tool, something to help me understand the spare tire conundrum.

            A motorist rolls up beside me in the parking lot.  He’s driving a Blazer.

            “Are you stumped by the spare tire riddle?” he asks.

            “Totally stumped.” I admit, raising my shoulders.  The back of my t-shirt and pants are black with asphalt and tar.  I don’t know this, yet.  I can’t see it.

            The Good Samaritan emerges, opens his rear hatch and pulls a variety of jack stuff from a compartment.

            “If you take this to a pro tire shop they won’t know what to do either.  It’s the great Blazer Spare Tire Riddle.”  It turns out there’s a hidden slot next to the license plate.  When my new friend inserts a blade-style tool into the magic slot it turns a cog and the spare tire DESCENDS on a cable until it hits the ground and I slip it off the wing nut.  There is no thread.  There is just this clever but now-obscure arrangement.

            Flat tire off; spare tire on.  Drive to the tire place.  Spend $120 to replace the spare.  Okay, the car runs.  As I drive, I see the one thing THAT I MOST DO NOT WANT TO SEE.   The dreaded SERVICE ENGINE SOON light comes on.

            I hate those lights!  Hate em!  They utterly destroy my peace of mind.  They are the manifestation of worry on the Material Plane.  As we all know, The Material Plane is dominated by concerns for automotive hygiene.  If you don’t got transpo,  you don’t got shit.

            I try driving the Jeep.  I’m too scared by the friggin’ SERVICE ENGINE SOON light on the Blazer.

            The Jeep takes me to work the following day.  I detour through Novato and prepare to drive to Petaluma.  I’m going “the back way” because north-bound 101 is a parking lot.  It’s always a parking lot from 3 to 7 P.M. five days a week.  What is this insane life we live?  Why do we spend four hours a day sitting in automobiles?

I’m heading for South Novato Boulevard when a giant cloud of steam erupts from under the hood.  GIANT CLOUD OF STEAM!  NOT GOOD.  NOT GOOD.


blowin steam

            I pull into the parking lot of the last shopping center before I embark on twenty miles of rural winding roads.  I buy a jug of coolant and I fill the Jeep’s reservoir with the gooey green stuff.  I wait twenty minutes and I attempt the drive home.  The Jeep runs, somewhat jerkily, and I spend the next forty minutes of back-road driving in a state of profound alarm. 

            I make it.  I’m home. 

            I know a little bit about cars.  That kind of volcanic eruption of steam can indicate a water pump has gone bad, or the thermostat has failed, or the radiator is toast.  Or all of the above.

            My neighbor, Mike, knows about cars.  “I’ll change your thermostat,” he says cheerfully.  Mike is attending AA meetings and has just got his thirty day chip.  That’s not an issue for me.  It just adds to the air of tension: Mike struggling to stay away from drink.  His wife has quit smoking and is on Day 27.  My neighbors are deeper in poverty than we are.  No wonder Mike eagerly volunteers to change my thermostat.  Mike is all over the place helping people. 

            I purchase a thermostat.  Mike replaces the old one in about ninety minutes.  He doesn’t want to charge me.  I give him fifty dollars.  The new thermostat works, the Jeep stays cool.

            I didn’t want to mention this before but it just happens that the Blazer’s registration is due in a week and I know, for a fact, that SERVICE ENGINE SOON means that it will not pass the smog check.

            Fuck.

            Nonetheless, I feel safer driving the Blazer and I take it to work the next day.

As I’m coming home on North Petaluma Boulevard I hear a sound like a very large and joltingly loud motorcycle cruising up on my driver’s side.  Wow!  That’s loud!  I look to my left and I see no motorcycle.  There’s no traffic at all.  But the Blazer is crunching and flubbling.  It sounds like a propellor blade being demolished by a potato masher.  The Blazer is behaving as if it has the hiccups.  No question: another tire is flat.

            I get over on the shoulder to inspect the damage.  Holy Shit!  The tire is literally shredded, it’s nothing but four inch strips of rubber hanging from a punctured black matrix of nameless stuff.

            Call Triple A.  Second time in three days.  An hour later the big yellow truck pulls up.   A toothless rail-thin old guy gets out, grinning happily, and tells me that my tires are sun-damaged.  They’ve been sitting for too long and the heat has soaked the oils out of the rubber. They’re all about to blow at any second. I need to instruct the tow truck man how to get the tricky spare out from under the Blazer.  Once the tire is changed I drive straight to the tire place and get four more new tires.  That is, after I’ve cued the guys at American Tire Co. about the Great Blazer Spare Tire Riddle.

            There are days when nothing goes right.  When to touch a machine is to wreck it.  Or when one makes an error due to a lapse of attention that causes a ten foot fall off someone’s deck into a bed of blackberry bushes.  I’m having one of those days.  I put on the coffee.  It’s a stove-top espresso maker.  I wait for the boil, wait and wait.  I smell something burning.  Uh oh!  I take a pot holder and lift the coffee maker.  Oh man!  Oh man oh man! I forgot to put water in the bottom part of the Vigano stove top coffee maker.  Now the rubber gasket has melted and scorched the threads and the coffee maker is a casualty of Morning Mind Mush.  In spite of the damage, my partner is greatly reassured.  My error is comforting to her.  She thinks she’s “losing it”.  Now she knows she’s not the only one who’s “losing it”.

            I must locate a smog shop, a Star Certified Service Center, one of those in cahoots with the smog-fighting money-sucking bureaucracy of the DMV.  I pay for the smog test.  The Blazer fails.  How much, I ask, will it cost to fix it so that it passes the rigorous standards of our state’s air-quality guardians?

            The Blazer needs a tune-up, a forward oxygen sensor, a rearward oxygen sensor and a catalytic converter.”That would be about nine hundred and fifty dollars,” answers the mechanic, whose name, Kelvin, is stitched onto his dark blue jump suit.  Kelvin’s wife/receptionist is named Tran.  They’re Vietnamese.  

            How many times have I said “shit” or “fuck” in the last three days?

            “Kelvin,” I ask, “is there some kind of discount for the poor and the elderly?”  I have been poor my whole life.  The ‘elderly’ part occurred while I wasn’t watching, about three years ago, when my left hip began to feel as if a strong man was applying pressure to it with a vice grip.

            There is, in fact, a program for the poor and the elderly to pay $500 towards smog repair.  I get the papers downloaded and send in the application.  A week later the grant arrives.  Five hundred of that nine hundred fifty dollars will be paid for.  Hell yeah!

            The smog repair takes two days.  I wait eagerly for Kelvin’s call.  At last the phone rings.  “You passed your smog test,” says Kelvin.  I’m so happy!  I’m thrilled.

I had needed a victory, any victory, a small victory, whatever, I’ll take it.

            “But there is a problem, I’m afraid,” says Kelvin, and my heart takes up residence at the ends of my toes.  I can feel my pulse down there, bumpity bump, pulsing up through my toenails.

            “A…uh…problem?”  Fuck!  Shit!

            “I think your water pump is about gone.”

            “You think, you THINK.  Is it gone or isn’t it?”

            “I don’t know.  There was a pool of coolant under your car when I came in this morning.”

            How much does he want to repair the water pump?  Well, you see, one should also replace the thermostat when one replaces the water pump.

            HOW MUCH?

            Four hundred seventy eight dollars.

            Stop everything!  HOLD THE PRESSES!

            I’m not stupid.  I check online and a water pump plus a thermostat costs about sixty bucks.  My neighbor, my pal my buddy Mike will do any automotive task for fifty dollars, gladly.  The work boosts his self esteem and it keeps him out of his RV and away from his jonesing wife.

            The Material World is a challenging place.  Our current model, this 21st century science fiction hip-hop deodorant-peddling appearance-worshiping stage set is peculiarly complex, is like a cross-word puzzle without a solution.  No one wins in the Material World.  All endings are bad endings.  If I’m lucky I will die quickly and without indignity.  If I’m lucky.  Meanwhile, as I wait for the denouement of my life, I must endure and meet the challenges thrust into my face by the invisible spirits of Destiny.

            Is the cup half full, partially full, partially empty, or totally empty?  The Highway Patrol Cop did not write me up.  The guy in the Blazer showed up as if dropped from Heaven.  I got a five hundred dollar grant from the DMV. The battery in the Blazer started the car.  The Jeep still runs.

            The cup is the cup.  Whatever’s in it is what I’ve got.  I may as well accept that fact.  It’s all those things, partially full, partially empty.  Life is blessed and sublime and life can be unspeakably vile.

            While I’m at it, I should check my credit rating.  I might want to purchase a recent model used car.

The Fish In The Water

fish-and-umbrella-and-rain

 

 

            We’re just like the fish; we don’t know what water is. But the element in which we swim, the element that is impossible for us to recognize, is stress.

            You may think you know you’re stressed.   This isn’t the kind of stress I’m talking about. We have become denizens of a culture that is actually a Torture Machine. It drives us insane by presenting demands so complex as to be impossible to achieve.   Every day, it issues orders to our nervous systems. Turn your left blinker. Pay your insurance premium. Pick up your kids’ school uniforms. Don’t forget the doctor’s appointment. Where’d you put the McFarland file? Where are the paper clips? Why is this milk sour? Now I have to return it to the store. Screw it; not worth my time, flush it down the sink. Are the dogs’ vaccinations up to date?  Do I have the receipts for my tax audit?

            Why am I always left with the feeling that I’ve forgotten to do a homework assignment? Who is this screaming at me, right next to my ear so that it hurts?

          The Occupy Wall Street people are scurvy hippies. Our government is letting corporations steal on a massive scale.   My bank account only exists long enough for the auto-payments to hit, and it’s gone and I’ve got nothing left to spend.

            I think I’m going crazy. I don’t have any sexual desire at all. The last time I felt truly alive was….when? Have I ever felt truly alive? I truly don’t think so.

          There’s nothing to look forward to. My old age will merely be a time when insurance machines squeeze the remaining dollars from my estate, leaving my kids with nothing. Zero. The globe is warming up. It’s true.   The waters are creeping on shore, slowly. The future is a tsunami.

            OUR SOCIETY IS A TORTURE MACHINE, so complex that it takes a genius to maneuver its daily routine. It tortures by its relentless pressure. We don’t need Stalin or Hitler. We have modern life in Amerika. See that guy with the cardboard sign sitting at the parking lot exit? “Will work for food.”   He isn’t a pathetic loser. He’s you or me or someone we know who just cracked under the pressure and opted to sit in the TIME OUT box in front of everyone.   He couldn’t take the complexity any more. Now he’s doing better. He has a shoe box where his money piles up. He’s doing better than I am! Could I take sitting in the TIME OUT box in front of everyone? I don’t think so. I’m not tough enough.

            Life has always been complex, but not like this…Hunting, gathering, fighting off raiders, that was easy stuff compared to this.   The modern Torture Machine can’t be dodged. Your assignment is late!   Punishment will be swift and merciless!   Your interest will rise, your credit will be cut.

            The injustice of it! I’m choking on injustice. I can’t breathe! Give me a cigarette. Where are all these voices coming from? Let me turn off the radio. The off switch doesn’t work. The voices are coming from my pocket. It’s my Z-Phone. Its off switch doesn’t work either. The argument continues, shouting everywhere, lies compound in blatant and shameless huckstering. Everything is a trick.   Even the tricks we know to be tricks conceal more subtle tricks. Those Black Lives Matter types are going to burn down Los Angeles in a giant riot.   Quick, we’d better launch a pre-emptive pogrom, mow them down before they find out where we’ve stashed the money.

            The fish don’t recognize the sea. The people don’t recognize the element that dominates our lives. I will coin a term for it: Phobagonovia.   Phobe-ago-NOVE-ee-yah. It causes us to curl up inside our homes with the giant TV playing football games and scripted “reality” shows where people are abused by their in-laws. Phobagonovia. We are afraid of new experiences. The Torture Machine has implanted this condition in our nervous systems. We are afraid of relating to one another openly, of crying in front of strangers, of expressing feelings easily, of hugging or kissing spontaneously, lest we be inappropriate, our strait jacket is “Appropriate”, we haven’t a clue how to dance in a circle while deeply in love with members of a clan, to sing ancient songs, to sit around a fire feeling wonderful under the stars. That doesn’t mean we want to go backwards. We want to invent new communities. We are dying of Phobagonovia. Our neck ties are cutting off our breath. Our high heels are warping our skeletons. The future is over. Rush Limbaugh will be reborn as a talking pig that can only sputter nonsense. The people of his remote village will laugh at him holding their sides with mirth. They will postpone the time to eat him. He’s so strange that people come from villages far away to throw him pieces of rubbish. His time will come, at last.

            When the chief takes the first bite, he will spit it out.

            “We laughed too long,” he will say.   “This fat talking pig tastes like shit.”

A Review of “So You Think You Can Dance”

“What’s wrong with kids today?”

            This lament has been uttered by every generation  since Adam and Eve discovered they were pregnant a second time.

            So….what IS wrong with kids these days?

           They feel as if they have no future.  The last few extant generations simply don’t.  Futures come in handy when you feel as though the world will be unrecognizable before you’ve grown up. 

As a child of The Mushroom Cloud I know what that feels like, that amputation of the future. It made me really angry.  My friends and I were more likely to commit petty crimes and indulge in drugs.  Without a future, why bother?  Why work hard in school?  Why cultivate disciplines, interests, social connections?  The oceans are rising and will drown your block or your whole neighborhood.  The coolest animals will be extinct.  No elephants, no polar bears.  What kind of future is that?

            Then I discovered a TV show called “So You Think You Can Dance”.  You can knock me over with what these kids are doing!  Their bodies must be INCREDIBLY strong and flexible.  These kids are doing the impossible!  Has the human race mutated?  Do we have extra joints, super-human muscle memory? Who ARE these people?

            They’re just kids.  Their secret is that they found a passion, something that interested them so much that they said “fuck it” to the absence of the future and decided to live for this thing called Dance.  It was better than being a thug.  Thugs are mean, WAY mean and being mean doesn’t feel very good.  Not as good as practicing B-moves, Krumping, flapping, sapping, tapping, robot-twitching, water-waving, learning your body’s capabilities and stretching them further, further, further!

            This is IT!  Sometimes it’s called ART.  Don’t be embarrassed by the word ART.  It’s cool to do ART.  It’s okay.  Even if it’s gay it doesn’t matter.  Nobody cares about gay any more.  You can be gay, you can change from man to woman or woman to man, nobody cares!  If you want to know where it is, where the cutting edge in creativity can be found these days you can see it on “So You Think You Can Dance”.  The judges aren’t scary.  They aren’t there to cut you down.  They want to show you The Future.  Word up, Bro.  There IS a future.  Nobody can stop it.  It takes some work.  Everything good takes work. Making a future is hard work.  It’s not like it used to be, when the Future was going to happen no matter what.  Now it takes a little faith and a lot of work, but it’s there: you… DO…Have…A…Future.  Do you want it to kick you in the nuts or do you want to dance with it?

            When has anyone given a shit about choreoraphy?  Are you kidding?  Corey-who?  Shazam!  Choreographers are the composers of Dance.  They arrange the time-space-music continuum in which Dance exists.  On the TV show they are not only given credit, they are like stars!  Now I know the work of Tice Diorio, Mia Michaels, Sonya Tayeh, “Nappytab”, Stacey Tookey and Travis Wall.  Choreographers come from the elder population of dancers.  They still dance but they are the keepers of the flame, the mentors of the young dancers who are living the dreams.

            I’m not sure there is any more difficult art form than what is now appearing as Dance.  It’s not enough to specialize.  You can’t be a ballroom dancer, a hip-hopper or a Broadway hoofer.  One of the messages of So You Think You Can Dance is that you must be trained in ALL the dance styles.  Choreographers wont’ hire you if you don’t know all the styles of dance. Choreographers are the Gate Keepers, the bosses, the ones who hire dancers.  Get tight with the choreographers who work at SYTYCD and you will be employed for years to come. In time, you will become a choreographer.

            The most amazing thing about the dance numbers on this show is their purity.  We’re not seeing arrangements for pop superstars.  We’re not seeing choreography for Taylor Swift or Michael Jackson (RIP).  These dance routines are created for the television audience.  For US!  Sometimes magic happens on that stage.  Those of you who watch the show know what I mean.  In ten years time this show has lifted the art of Dance so that each season is more amazing than the last.  The mutations continue.  Evolution is visible year to year.  Dancers get more flexible, their muscle memories become more detailed, malleable, imprintable.  This happens in front of our eyes.  Sure, it’s a TV contest show aimed at a teenage demographic.  That’s how things work.  Consider the difference between the egregious karaoke of American Idol and the drama and high art of So You Think You Can Dance.  Big difference, yeah?

            Big big difference.

 

Letter From The Afterlife Of A Terrorist Bomber

911

I thought I would be in Paradise

but I am in unspeakable hell.

The fire, the fire!

I thought it would only burn for a second,

but it keeps burning!

I thought I would lose consciousness

and wake up in heaven,

but I am stuck now for an eternity

in agony!

The screams of the innocent dying

are like poisoned darts,

lancing the exposed nerves of my inmost soul.

The tears of the bereaved in their hundreds and thousands

rain upon me like acid.

And the worst hell of all is my regret,

my infinite regret,

that I was so stupid, so gullible, so callous,

so easily swayed by insipid argument,

so readily moved to escape my depressing life

by casting it upon others.

I was so sure my mother would be proud

of her son, The Martyr, The Shaheed.

But she screams and tears the hair from her head

until she is half bald and looks like a plucked chicken.

The mothers of all the children I murdered were nothing

to me, they were not human, until now.

The fire, the fire!   The jet fuel

sears me for ten thousand years!

The screams and the grief that blame me, rightly,

crush me under a million tons of leaden metal and concrete!

Allah, Allah, I was not merciful, I was not compassionate,

and now when I call to you I see the grit of your robe

as you turn away from me.

I thought I would awake in Paradise.

What a dreadful mistake I have made!

 

A Good Villain Energizes Your Story

 

 

 

 

Nothing infuses energy into a story like a powerful and grotesque villain.  If you ardently hate a villain in a book you’re reading or a story you’re viewing then you’re hooked!  You’ve invested emotion in the battle between good and evil, you’re waiting for justice to be served.

            These wicked characters must get under your skin.  They have to arouse a visceral sense of repulsion and fear, the way spiders and snakes evoke primitive terror, the way decaying fecal ooze repels the senses.  Villains are difficult to write because we instinctively recoil from the dark sides of life and the more grotesque aspects of our selves.   That dark side, that shadow, is the only place from which a truly compelling villain can emerge.  We can’t  tear off evil like a number at the grocery meat counter.

            “Number Twenty Two!”

            “Here I am.  Let’s see.  What have you got that’s horrible and scary?”

            A good example of a well written villain came in the film CYRUS.  The cast consisted of John C. Reilly, Marissa Tomei, Katherine Keener and Jonah Hill.

 

 
Jonah Hill as Cyrus

            The emotional engine of the story comes from the dark portrayal of Cyrus by Jonah Hill.  Cyrus is twenty two years old.   He  lives with his mother, played by Marissa Tomei.  Their relationship is what the shrinks call “enmeshed”.  Mother/child/husband/wife/lover and beloved, all have become confused.  Cyrus wants to be with his mother forever.  She’s his best friend, his only friend and he expands his presence to fill her life nearly to the exclusion of other men.

            Nearly.

            John C. Reilly, playing a decent shlub  named John, meets Molly (Tomei) at a party.  In the usual sequence of events, John starts dating Molly and soon enough  comes to her house, where he meets Cyrus.

            Like many evil characters, Cyrus is a charmer.  He exudes a disarming “honesty”, he’s well schooled in modern therapy-talk.

            Let us pause and consider this concept, Evil.  What is it?

            I’ve parsed my own definition of evil to a simple formula: Evil is the inflicting of pain to avoid pain. This inflicting is often done in the name of Good, i.e. Hitler was saving Germany and the Aryan race from humiliation and contamination.  I exclude those beings who enjoy causing pain because it’s their nature.  Such creatures exist but not for the purpose of this essay. 

            Cyrus is going to destroy the relationship between John and Molly.  He’s a smart, tubby man-child who can easily read John’s psychological roadmap.  This gives him power.  He also gets power from his mother’s uncritical support of his efforts.

             Evil characters have malice and they have power.  Many of them are concealed behind a facade of charm or apparently benign goodwill.

            Evil people are trying to wriggle out from under a burden of pain by forcing others to experience pain.  What is the pain that Cyrus wishes to avoid?  He doesn’t seem to have any friends.  He isn’t engaged with a community of his peers.  He creates techno music on a bank of keyboards and electronics.  The music quickly devolves into sterile monotony.   Cyrus is a twenty two year old loser,  a lonely fat kid.  That’s pain enough.  If we follow the formula that evil is pain inflicted on others to mute the suffering of the self, we find Cyrus’ motivation.  He will obstruct any of Molly’s efforts to be happy.  If she’s happy, she will elude his possession.  She might become attached to another man.

            John quickly understands the game that is being played.  It’s impossible to carry this information to Molly.  She won’t believe him.  Cyrus is too clever.  Cyrus quietly stands behind Molly in a hallway as she talks with John about their burgeoning relationship.  Cyrus faces John while showing cardboard signs over the back of his mother’s head.  Cyrus has printed phrases of malice and contempt.  “You don’t have a chance.”  “I’ll get you.”   “You’re out of your league.”

            This is the moment in the film where I truly grew to hate Cyrus and to fear for John.  This is where the bad guy engaged my emotional investment in the film’s outcome.  Cyrus’ mask slips and he shows a chilling blankness, as if John is simply beneath consideration.  John may be a shlub but he’s a decent shlub and he steps up, steps up to the dragon, willing to fight for Molly.  That’s the narrative counterpoint to hating the villain.  It offers an opportunity for the hero to draw upon courage he doesn’t know he has.  Hate the villain, love the hero. It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

            Unless we’re writing comic books or cartoons, it’s not so simple.  Each of us is a composite personality.  Our inner child is really a little car filled with squabbling midgets.  The steering wheel passes from hand to hand, the brakes are fought over, the car veers crazily.

            A villain takes advantage of the muddle of human nature by having a clear point of focus.  A fixation, an obsession, a purpose.  This purpose empowers the villain at the expense of ordinary people.  Bad guys know who they are and why they act.  In many narratives the hero struggles with doubt and obscurity of motivation.  His struggle isn’t just with the villain;  it’s with his own confusion.  When he sees clearly, when he knows what he wants, he obtains the weapons he needs.

            All through this essay I’ve been thinking of two characters: Adolph Hitler and South Park cartoon nasty Eric Cartman.  Hitler annihilated millions; Cartman is a fictional character in a television show.  Yet they have attributes in common.

            My emotions regarding Hitler are an historical abstraction.  He’s become a universal symbol of evil.  Cartman, on the other hand, keeps my guts in an uproar.   I HATE the fucker, I loathe him!  It’s a very personal engagement.

            The lessons of Cartman are numerous.  All of his actions are manipulations.  He is completely without sincerity.  He’s a bigot.   There is no minority group who escapes his ire. When he’s told that white people have become a minority group, he simply doesn’t hear the message.  This may be Cartman’s greatest signifier: his inability to hear anything with which he disagrees.  Intellectual and moral deafness is a widespread symptom of evil.  Cartman, and villains in general, like to blame other people for their own emotional discomfort.  This profound moral choice, to blame others,  is a basic step into the world of evil.  When writing a villainous character, it’s useful to give him someone to blame. Give him a scapegoat.     

            A villain can’t be frightful without power.  It may be supernatural power, political power, military power, physical power, but a villain cannot elicit fear, revulsion and anger without significant power.  It’s the abuse of power that sparks the reader’s anger.  Most of us see power as a privilege that entails responsibility.

We get angry when power is used for gratification of the ego and the appetites.

            Cartman’s power comes from several sources.  He’s clever, inventive, without moral scruple and completely selfish.  His mother gives him everything he wants because it’s easier that way.  Cartman is a fatherless boy.  His mother always takes the lazy way out; she gives in to her son’s demands.  If I take South Park as a microcosm, a model for the larger society in which we live, Cartman’s mother represents economic power.  She makes him rich in comparison to the other kids.  He has all the latest toys, the best video games and a total lack of supervision.

            To further amplify Cartman’s power he has a follower: Butters.  This sweet but witless innocent will go along with any outrageous scheme Cartman dreams up. Cartman generates momentum.  While Stan, Kyle or Kenny may have qualms about Cartman’s ideas, Butters is always there to support him.  The plan, the idea, the scheme always seems to run away with itself before it can be thought through.  Its consequences are never anticipated.  The only brakes on Cartman’s destructive power are the other boys’ common sense and lack of malice.  In the end, Cartman always brings himself to destruction, but he will never admit defeat.  In some people this is an admirable trait.  In Cartman, it’s merely irritating.

            In Hitler it cost millions of lives.  If Cartman were a real adult person he would be a frightful monster.  Think what Hitler and Cartman have in common.  Scapegoats.  Blame.  Moral and intellectual deafness.  Unwillingness to take responsibility for errors in judgment.  A will that generates great momentum,  and attracts followers who are willing to obey without question.

            In the episode called “Breast Cancer Show Ever” Cartman takes a schoolyard beating by a mere girl, by Wendy Testaburger.  She played the righteous avenger when Cartman mocked breast cancer and persisted in telling hurtful jokes on the subject of breasts.  When she established the time for the duel, when Cartman realized that Wendy was serious, he tried to buy her off.  She would have none of it.  In spite of the fact that Cartman was pounded to a bloody mess, he twisted events in his mind so that he won the fight, that he was still “Cool”, or “Kewl” in the eyes of his compatriots.  Kyle and Stan told Cartman “You suck, you’ve always sucked.  We hate you.”  Cartman can’t hear these declarations.  He is still Kewl.

            This amazing deafness made me want to jump through the screen and pound the fat twerp to a pulp.  My emotions were completely engaged.  When a writer can raise the emotional stakes to such a pitch, that writer has succeeded in creating a compelling villain.

            I have used a silly villain in a silly cartoon show to highlight the power of a villain to propel a good story.  Ignore Cartman at your own risk.  He’s a first class little asshole.

            People ignored and dismissed Hitler as a buffoon.  We know what happened to those people.  Monstrous villains  have arisen throughout history.  We are writers;  we deal in fiction.  The  most frightening villains in fiction draw resonance from history’s tyrants.  Lazy writers may imitate these tyrants in their narratives.  Good writers draw villains out through themselves, knowing that each of us is capable of monstrosity.