This is the first song from my music CD, “Out Of This World”
This is the first song from my music CD, “Out Of This World”
“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.
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
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!
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.
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.
I made the move with Fox into the RV at a moment of crisis in my life. I was beginning to be consumed by debt. It was sustainable, but in a few years it might overwhelm me if I didn’t take action.
One morning I woke up, did some simple addition and concluded that I was thirty seven thousand dollars in credit card debt. I still had six thousand to go on my car loan, so that made a debt load of forty three thousand dollars. How could this happen? I’m legally single and without dependents. I own no stocks, bonds, properties or other convertible assets. I am a man utterly without collateral. So, my question “how did this happen?” is a rhetorical utterance, because I know how it happened. I spent more than I earned. It’s that simple. If we see this happening on a larger scale, as an entire society goes bankrupt, the same basic laws apply. The only difference between me as an individual and our society is that society, represented by The Government, can print money. The newly printed money is really toy money, but it buys a smidgen of time because it’s backed up by history, prestige, momentum and the memory of immense wealth. It may be a few years before anyone notices that United States dollars look like little orange, blue and yellow pieces of paper about three inches long and two inches wide.
I got my first credit card when I was forty-five years old. I had managed to live outside the consumer cycle for all that time, by being either a hippie or a bum. I was a hippie bum when that envelope arrived in the mail, the one that said, “You have already been approved.” I thought it was a joke, I laughed. Who would give me a credit card?
I like being approved. I thrive on approval. This Visa Card provided me with a credit limit of two hundred dollars, at an interest rate of twenty three point nine nine percent. Of course, a credit card is not really about its interest rate. Credit cards are a barge full of tricky charges, most of which are confined to the small print. The two most lethal words in the English language, “Adjustable Rate,” are stated or implied somewhere in that print. There are annual fees, late fees, cash advance fees, all around Desperate Ignorance fees. You’re dumb, and you’re desperate, so we’ll charge you a fee.
I didn’t know any of this at the time. I was living in an in-law unit behind a house in San Geronimo Valley. The area is an enclave of hippies, new age healers, artists, crafts-people and bums hiding out.
I was excited about having two hundred dollars credit. My therapist approved. Having a credit card was a mark of responsibility; it meant I was turning into a mature adult, integrating myself into mainstream society. Provided, of course, that I kept up my payments. How much trouble could I get into, with a two hundred dollar limit?
I didn’t know, at the time, that paying minimum on a credit card means that any amount, no matter how trivial, will take your next ten incarnations to pay off, or about six hundred years. Fortunately, credit companies don’t track future incarnations. Instead, they sue debtor’s spouses or any relative available for the unpaid sum. Eventually, our corporate-controlled government will pass laws allowing credit banks to force you to work off your debt. You will pass your days working in a cubicle in South Dakota, making collection calls for the bank and living in dorms with twenty-four beds to a room. Lunch will be a choice between bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Spam or Macaroni and cheese are the menu for dinner. There WILL be movies every night, hell, we got plenty of movies. Disney will have the exclusive contract to provide Credit Default Camps with DVDs.
I racked up my two hundred dollar debt in one day. I bought a car. That was the kind of car I got in those days. I used a courtesy check from the card company (special interest rate of 29.9 percent) and bought an’82 Honda Civic. It turned out to be a good car. The starter was broken, so the car had to be hot-wired every time I wanted to drive. The gas tank had a crack halfway down its side. Anything over six gallons sent a flammable trickle of gasoline through this crack. I could never put more than five gallons in the tank. I had to be very careful about that. I got full disclosure from the seller about the vehicle’s problems. “Watch out how much gas you put in,” he told me. “Five gallons tops and keep track of what you got left in the tank when you fill. Best thing is to just get three and half. I had a friend with the same problem, and he blew himself up.”
I got great mileage from that little beige go-cart. Five gallons was a hundred twenty miles, easy. It was a bargain, it was a reliable vehicle.
I paid my monthly minimum on time, every month. In about six months, the card company notified me that my limit had been raised to five hundred dollars. Fantastic! I bought a set of tires for the car.
I was living as a free-lance anything: janitor, painter, carpet cleaner. I worked as a flower delivery driver. I survived by the seat of my pants.
My monthly card payments were fifteen dollars. Not a problem, I always put a check in the mail at the last possible minute. I was always on time.
The card company raised my limit to a thousand dollars. It felt good, it meant that Visa trusted me.
I wanted to become a professional photographer. I bought my first digital camera. The payments went up to about twenty eight dollars a month.
Then I got another envelope in the mail. This one was from MasterCharge. “You have already been approved!”
Nice! They were offering me twenty five hundred dollars credit at a rate of sixteen point four percent. It was a Gold Card. I wondered about these metallic cards. Gold, Silver, Platinum. I wondered if there were cards for people on different economic rungs. Cards with metals both common and uncommon. A Uranium Card for nuclear physicists, with radioactive interest rates and loan half-lives that take millions of years to pay off. An Iron Card for weight lifters. The rates just go up and down, up and down. Heavy Metal Cards, shaped like guitars, for rock and rollers. Lithium cards for manic-depressives, with rates that plunge and soar and plunge again.
I believe that credit banks operate with a fundamental yet covert philosophy. It’s called the We Don’t Give A Shit If You Pay Us Back Principle. By the time you have gone through the agonies of ballooning credit balances, of paying monthly minimums on seven different cards, of borrowing from one card to pay another, of paying late fees, overcharge fees, balance transfer fees and been suckered into “credit insurance” programs that protect you from being unable to pay your credit card bills, you have put so much money into the pockets of Citibank and Chase that even if you default, they’ve made a profit of twelve thousand percent, which more than offsets your default, when it comes.
In U.S. Dependencies like Guam, Saipan and Puerto Rico, Congress will enact loopholes in anti-usury laws, allowing Citibank to be what it really is: a loan shark. Rates of a hundred percent, payable next week or they send a goon to break your finger. What’s the “vig”, Louie?
Since I was unable to get credit, that is, low interest bank credit for a legitimate business loan, I used my cards to start my digital photography business. The problem was that my business took ten years to get going, and after five years I was paying almost six hundred dollars a month just to maintain the minimum payments on all those cards.
This was like taking six crisp one hundred dollar bills out of my wallet and setting a match to them. That money was gone, it would not reduce my debt, it would not purchase anything. It was gone. Wasted. At this point my repayment would take twenty six thousand years, or nine hundred future incarnations.
I was having a good spell in my business. I was enjoying some cash flow. I was always rescued by a last minute thing, a portrait session, a wedding, a house to paint, sale of a print or two. Somehow, I was able to keep up with these incredible payments. I made some large payments, bringing my balance down. That’s when the next round of offers came in: “You Have Already Been Approved!”
Wow. Capital One allowed me five thousand dollars in credit at a rate of eleven point nine percent. I took it! I needed a more sophisticated camera and some portrait lights.
Pretty soon I was running five credit cards and I lost track of my total debt. I guess I lost track on purpose, so that I could live in denial.
I was the ideal customer for credit card banks. I racked up a lot of credit yet made minimum payments, on time. There is no better earner for a bank than a consumer like me. They don’t want me to pay off my loan, heavens no! They want to gradually load me up on debt, drag me down into the depths of high interest compound rates and keep me there for the rest of my life.
The thrill began to wear off. For a while, I actually defined wealth as the amount of one’s credit. If I had a few hundred grand in credit, I was in pretty good shape, wasn’t I? Aren’t we defined by our debt? I saw my world as a kind of spending party. Need a new printer? Cool, I‘ve got credit. I’ll keep making the minimum payments. I always do.
I’ll admit it was fun. I had a great time. I am a compulsive person. I will always be a compulsive person. In this, I am not much different from the average American. We are all compulsive. We are made compulsive by the continual stimulus of commercial images of glamorous exciting products.
I never considered bankruptcy. I held the almighty Credit Rating in such awe that I would do nothing to besmirch it. Meanwhile, I became more and more miserable, as my anxieties focused on making the monthly minimum payments and seeing my income going into the fire. Get out the matches, dude, time to burn some more hundred-dollar bills. I began to feel as though I were carrying a mountain on my back. I knew that I would never get rid of this mountain, that the rest of my life would be spent holding up this Sisyphian mass as it grew larger and larger.
This wasn’t fun any more. My outlook changed in a single week. One day, I simply looked at my situation. Within another few days I was there; I was prepared to file for bankruptcy.
It occurred to me that the almighty Credit Rating is a hoax. People go in fear of losing points on their credit rating. People obsess on the difference between six fifty and seven hundred. The terror of losing points on one’s credit rating is a ubiquitous American terror. It rides invisibly on people’s shoulders like a pair of wooden stocks, like a medieval torture device. Companies thrive on milking people’s obsession with their credit score. Go to freecreditreport dot com and find out your score. You’ll learn that your free credit report isn’t free. It’s a lure to sell credit monitoring services. For a monthly fee a consumer can track his or her credit rating and get even more obsessive.
Every American can get a free credit report once a year. That’s the law. You won’t get it at freecreditreport dot com. You’ll just get more crazy.
Radio stations are flooded with commercials for get rich quick instructional CDs, books and videos. Every time I hear the word “free” on the radio I laugh and I visualize gullible wannabe entrepreneurs panting to exploit this amazing opportunity. I’ve always had a maxim regarding American marketing techniques. It’s simple: contempt sells. Marketers view the American consumer as a stupid, gullible and very hungry five year old child with a fist full of money that it would rather spend on toys than on necessities. This toddler justifies spending money on toys because it believes that at some point in the future it’ll somehow make a lot of money, and THEN it will pay for the necessities. Meanwhile it’s having too much fun. Don’t worry. It’ll figure out a scheme to get rich without working very hard.
Thousands of commercials promise the consumer an income of five to ten thousand dollars a month by investing in the stock market. Best of all, the CD is free! Or how about this? Make money using the internet! You don’t have to buy inventory, you don’t have to store inventory, all you have to do is sell stuff on Ebay that you don’t even have! Let your computer do your work for you. Earn money while you sleep! And best of all, the CD explaining how to pull off this miracle is FREE! Wow, (the radio voice says) now I can quit my day job, and pretty soon I’ll own two houses!
Hey, wait, what about Real Estate?! There’s a book telling me how to earn a fortune buying up foreclosed properties. The introductory CD is Free! The word free should be spelled eff arr dollar sign dollar sign. FR$$.
The people making money on these programs are the people selling the book or CD. If the program worked so well, why would these entrepreneurs spawn thousands of competitors?
Let me admit that, initially, my new philosophy, my ‘credit score is a hoax’ pose was a bit of bravado. I was still scared. What if one of us got sick? What if I wanted a new car? What if Fox and I decide to upgrade to a better motorhome? What if what if what if?
I’ll relieve you of the suspense right now. My bankruptcy was a complete success. The first thing that happened was that car dealers showered me with offers. It’s the standard procedure after a bankruptcy. There are business entities whose most lucrative product is helping bankrupts re-establish their credit. Car dealers are foremost among these entities. All kinds of people wanted to help me re-establish my credit. Offers poured in. The first few months, the offers were terrible. The credit cards were loaded with sign-up fees and yearly fees, and the interest rates would shame any loan shark. I got those “You have already been approved” deals all the time. After a few months the offers settled down, became more like the offers I got before I went bankrupt. I accepted one card: no sign up fee, no yearly fee, interest at eleven percent. I keep that one credit card, and I stay below two thousand dollars in total debt. I make large monthly payments when my balance gets too high. Every offer that comes along goes into the wastebasket. I have one credit card. Two thousand dollar limit. Period.
Wait a minute, wait a minute! I have to confess something. I wrote that last paragraph before gas prices hit the roof. It’s getting tougher to function and make ends meet. I sort of broke my rule. I haven’t exceeded my limit. I did, however, take on another credit card. That card is sitting in my wallet like a radioactive pellet, just waiting to leak through and contaminate my world. It scares the hell out of me, while at the same time it comforts me. Its purpose is to backdrop serious emergencies. I haven’t used it. I don’t want to use it. I pray that nothing happens to force me to use it. I just pray and pray.
My attitudes have changed. I don’t spend money just to have something I want, like a new printer. My camera gear is getting old. That’s the way it will have to be. I can’t afford the latest, neatest gear.
What I’m saying is that it’s almost impossible to escape the world of credit cards. They keep coming back like the Terminator’s metal arm.
Have I mentioned that I feel like I’m really getting screwed? Have I just come out and said it in so many words?
I feel choked with anger. I am so frustrated that I need a pitcher of margaritas or a bottle of Vicodin. (I am, of course, exaggerating dramatically for effect here. I’m not an alkie or a dope fiend, no no no.) There are a hundred rip offs dipping into my pocket every day. There are dozens of virtually undetectable drains on my income. This isn’t a free country! It’s a very expensive country.
In the last decade I have found myself trapped by invincible shackles. I have hit the wall of middle age. I have just enough medical and chronic pain conditions to place me at the very center of the health insurance vortex. I have no choice but to be a consumer. I am now the victim of medical blackmail. Insurance and drugs are so expensive; they dominate every aspect of my life. Why? How can one blood pressure pill cost four dollars? It costs pennies to make. We all know that. The Big Pharm companies scream “Research and Development! Marketing! How can we invent those orphan drugs that will help a few thousand people and conspicuously demonstrate our compassion? Our expenses are staggering!”
There there, Big Pharm, don’t cry. Poor Pfizer, you’ve worked so hard to ensure that our aging males can have erections. Don’t sulk in a corner, Glaxo. We know how much you love us. Your efforts have controlled our cholesterol, have saved our lives time and again! Your executives deserve those boats and planes, they’ve earned those vacations at hotels in Dubai that look like flying saucers and cost four thousand dollars a night. They deserve the call girls and the Bugati sports cars, the Rolex watches and the gated estates overlooking the beach at St. Moritz. They’ve worked hard for our benefit.
I often fantasize about what I could do if I didn’t spend half my income every year on health insurance and prescription co-payments. I wouldn’t be living in constant anxiety. I might be able to save enough money to have another RV journey and have some fun. I might be able to get my car fixed. I could repair that weird flub flub sound it makes in the right front wheel. I could afford my dog’s dental work, the removal of those extra teeth that are going to become a nightmare in three or four years.
I’m old enough to remember a time when health care wasn’t everyone’s ball and chain. I remember when a factory worker could support a family and mom could stay home and pay some attention to the kids. I remember when people didn’t endure sour stomachs and panic attacks thinking about their credit card debt. I remember when my dad made enough money from his small business to provide a decent middle class standard of living for his family. I’m old enough to remember the way things shifted so suddenly in the late seventies and early eighties. No one had ever heard of HMOs. Then, suddenly, they were everywhere. Our big industries, like steel and auto manufacture were under assault by the Japanese.
De-regulate everything! We have to compete with a free hand!
I’m not an economist or a political scientist, I don’t understand how our society was co-opted and undermined by an inferno of greed. I only know that a corrupt and devious corporate cruelty has turned middle class people into paupers and terrified debtors.
Dammit, I’m angry!
To further amplify my vulnerability, I have taken yet another credit card. I spent up to the limit on the last one after my car broke down. I needed brakes, a catalytic converter and a new clutch.
My debt has climbed to about three thousand dollars, and I’m paying about a hundred dollars a month. I can live with that. The debt stopped climbing a year ago. I’ve kept pace with my payments; I occasionally pay the bill down by a few dollars. This is familiar territory me. I understand the game, and the futile squirming that I must suffer to keep afloat because I’m not much of a money person. I’m an artist-person, woe is me. I am aware that more millions of people are now living the same way. The economy has gotten bad and there are many new recruits to the kind of life I’ve always lived. I have a certain amount of psychological armor against this insecurity. It doesn’t bother me so much. I know that a lot of people, new to poverty and crushing debt, are quaking with anxiety and dread. I’m sad about those people.
A few days ago I was getting into my car in a large parking lot. I was approached by a well dressed woman. “Excuse, me, sir,” she asked with apparent reluctance. “I’ve had a bit of trouble and I…”
I didn’t force her to end her pitch. She was begging. I held up my hand and said, “Sure, no problem, I have a couple bucks worth of change. I’ve been through hard times myself.”
She relaxed, her shoulders came down from around her ears. She wasn’t a funky street person holding a sign at a busy intersection. She looked like a soccer mom with two kids. This was my first encounter with a more upscale type of beggar. Looks can deceive. She might be the forerunner of a new type of beggar, the housewife-Oxycontin scammer. I don’t care. If she needs money for drugs, let her buy drugs. I’d prefer that she find treatment but if she’s willing to beg drug money in a Safeway parking lot that means she’s NOT willing to be a hooker, not yet.
Some stop-light panhandlers have a dog. Some sit in wheelchairs. There are busy intersections claimed as territory by beggars. Their signs are variations of the same message. “Anything will help.” If the person is able-bodied the sign might say “Will work for food.” I hold no animus towards them. They stand for hours in a noisy place clogged with car fumes and endure a thousand humiliations. I could tell that the well-dressed woman in her early thirties was not used to this kind of activity. The look on her face was shattering. She was humiliated but she tried to appear as if this was just a momentary blip, like she had left her wallet at home and had run out of gas. She was going to beg just this once, it wasn’t a thing she would do tomorrow and the day after that. I saw her move on to the next person and the next. They recoiled, they refused. She kept on, walking gently up to people with an “Excuse me, sir, I’m in a bit of trouble…Excuse me ma’am ”. I don’t care if she spent the money for booze or drugs. I never care about that. Begging is a profession that has always been with the human community. I’ve begged and panhandled. I lived at the bottom tier of society for years. I know how difficult is the work of begging.
Yesterday I was in another parking lot, just coming from Raley’s with two plastic bags of food. It was five-ish, getting dark. A woman approached me wearing a white down jacket and slacks. Her hair was well kept, her makeup was in place.
“Excuse me, sir” she began and again I held up my hand. “No problem,”
I said, “I have a couple bucks worth of change.”
As I dug through my bag, I asked her a question.
“How many hours a day do you do this?”
“All day. I’ve been here since eight this morning. My feet are killing me. I’m done in an hour. Eight to six,” she laughed bitterly, “it’s a full time job.”
“What are people like?” I wondered. “Do they help you?”
She leaned back against a car, taking the weight off her feet. The bright blue light of the mercury vapor lamps made it easy to see her face. She didn’t look like an addict. She looked like a thirty five year old woman trapped in the grip of circumstances beyond her control. She’s divorced. Her ex-husband’s vanished, not paying child support. She’s three months behind on the rent. Laid off from her job after twelve years of loyal service to the firm. Unemployment benefits are running out. Can’t find a job anywhere. She’s desperate and she wants her kids to have the things they’ve always had. Karate lessons. A music teacher. Little by little she’s lost the ability to provide, and must make some hard choices.
So…panhandling in supermarket parking lots becomes an option, a desperate option that she takes with greatest reluctance.
“About one person in ten is nice.” she replied. “You can’t believe the abuse I get out here. ‘What’s the matter with you?’” she imitated a shrill pitiless voice, “‘Go get a job like a decent person. Shame on you!’ Women are the worst, especially the ones of a certain age, over forty five, fifty. I don’t bother with the twenty-somethings. They’re just overgrown high school kids, they tell me to go fuck myself. Excuse my language. And you know what? I stand up for myself. I tell them they don’t know what’s going on in my life, they’re not qualified to judge me.”
She paused as some unpleasant image washed across her mind.
“Some of the men,” she said, “some of the men, are…you know…they think I’m a hooker. They say the most disgusting things. I’ve got a radar for that type now, it works pretty well…what would you call that, ‘Jerk-dar?’”
“Maybe ‘ass-illoscope’” I quipped, not sure she would get the pun, if she knew the term ‘Oscilloscope’.
“Perfect!” She got the pun. “What about ‘asshole-ascope’.”
“Better, even better!” I affirmed. “There you go!”
Her eyes shifted. A woman carrying groceries was loading her car just down the row. She needed to get back to work.
“Thank you,” she said with sincerity. “I have to make every minute count.”
“Go on,” I said, “Go back to work.”
She had to push herself away from the car. She was bone tired. She didn’t know whether her next approach would end in kindness or invective. Her eyes thanked me for treating her like a human being.
With each passing week I expect to see more of these parking lot beggars.
Begging is one of the hardest jobs in the world.
This has everything to do with the move of Fox and me from house to motor home. We were not forced to move out of the house. True, It got too expensive. We saw our resources diminishing and a future where our age was going up as our income was going down. We saw an economy edging towards bankruptcy and we wanted OUT as quickly as possible, we wanted a way to reduce our earthly footprint.
We WANTED to live in a motor home! After the trip in Yertle, the epic voyage to Arches National Park, the idea became more and more appealing. We didn’t know whether or not it would work out. It was a tremendous risk.
Declaring bankruptcy was also a tremendous risk. What if “they” came and took away our motor home? It was half in my name and half in Fox’s. What if “they” took my camera, my computer, my car? I didn’t know they wouldn’t. I asked several lawyer friends of mine, and they assured me that such things would not happen. I had no real assets. My possessions were exempt. I would be fine.
In spite of these reassurances, Fox and I spent a nervous couple of months.
In 2005 there was a major change in the laws regarding bankruptcy. These changes tended to favor the card companies. A bill was passed called The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. I love that: Consumer Protection Act. The ostensible purpose of this act was to prevent people from racking up a lot of debt with the intention of going bankrupt after spending oodles of the bank’s money. How is this protecting consumers? Give me a break. How many people do you know that are exploiting credit card companies with the intention of defaulting? One, two, a hundred? How many have you heard about? Is it so common that an act of congress is required to protect us from these unscrupulous spenders? The real motive behind this Act is that the banks foresee a flood of bankruptcies looming in the near future. They want to be ready for this tsunami of debt, they want to get their rich butts to higher ground so that when the bankruptcies mount into the millions, they will be safe and capable of forcing debtors into losing the pants they wear, the shoes they walk in. I can see it now, America. People walking around in blankets.
I hired a good lawyer. She was a little hobbit of a woman who wore thick glasses and neat business suits. I had the feeling that in court she was a cyclone, that her antagonists quaked in terror when she opened her briefcase. She charged one fee, two thousand dollars, in advance. She always let me know what was happening, she communicated with me regularly, instructed me in what to do and what not to do.
One of the stipulations of the new law is that debtors must pass two courses in money management and credit awareness. To this effect, a host of companies have arisen to cater to the expanding market of bankruptcy cases. The whole shebang is done online, and it costs about three hundred dollars. The debtor must first pass a credit counseling course. The material in this course is not difficult. The test is a multiple-choice quiz with some pretty silly questions.
The questions go like this: “What is the correct way to use credit cards?”
Answer One: To buy cool things like cell phones, shoes and car accessories.
Answer Two: To finance trips to Hawaii and Disneyland.
Answer Three: To be used as an occasional aid to pay emergency expenses when cash is short.
Question: What is the best way to manage one’s credit account?
Answer One: Put off paying to the last minute.
Answer Two: Build up a lot of debt and make minimum payments.
Answer Three: Pay off debt as it arises, maintaining the lowest possible balance.
These courses are designed for the average American genius. It’s a case of having questions reveal more than the answers. What kind of people find these questions challenging? My god, are we in trouble, here in America? Is this what we’ve become? Consumer morons?
I am the American economy in microcosm. I was encouraged, no, I was seduced, into borrowing beyond my means. Who am I? I am poor! I don’t feel poor, I live a great life, but on paper, I am poor. Why would banks lend me money? Yes, I am responsible for my debt. My greed is at fault. No question.
I was a frustrated man with no money being treated to the most sophisticated sales technique on the planet. Borrow this money! We’re offering it to you, it’s easy, just apply online and we’ll have your credit approved in five minutes.
Got it almost paid off? Here, we’ll lend you some more. We approve of you! You’re a good person! We like you! Here’s five grand. You can pay it off any time you want, just make sure you meet your minimum and we’ll get along great. No one will call you, no letters will arrive. Gee, you know what? Our records show that you have five credit cards, and owe a total of twenty thousand dollars. That makes you a good credit risk! You wouldn’t have all these cards and owe all this money unless banks trusted you. Here, another ten grand in credit. Fine! Pay us back when you can!
The credit counseling companies who advertise so heavily on radio and television are flourishing. They will help you pay down your debt! In fact, there are reputable companies and disreputable companies. The business is predicated on the simple fact that many credit banks are willing to let you pay off forty percent of your loan at a reduced monthly rate. This is a fact. Almost all of your card debt can be drastically reduced. The counseling agency is there to do the paperwork, run interference for you, comfort you in your distress. That’s what the honest companies do. The dishonest ones will have you send your payments directly to them. They will take your money and do nothing. They will not pay your creditors. They will reassure you that all these harassing phone calls that have begun are normal. Wait a couple of months and they’ll die down. Don’t worry, sir, the man with the generic foreign accent on the phone says, don’t worry this is the normal procedure. We have negotiated your credit to ten percent of what it was. We are paying your creditors, and in eighteen months you will be free of debt! Isn’t that wonderful?
I called one of these crooks. He wanted to start the program right away. “I can sign you up right now, you can stop worrying about the letters and the phone calls.”
“How does it work?” I ask.
“It’s simple, “ he replies, “you just make one monthly payment to our office and we’ll take care of the rest.”
“That sounds easy enough,” I say.
“Great, then you’re ready to start,” responds the man.
“Don’t you need my application, some paperwork?” I question.
“Oh no, that’s not necessary, just give me your phone number, social security number and address and we’ll get started on the paperwork right away.”
“Uhhh…I think I’ll wait on that.” I hung up very quickly. I felt as if I had avoided a rattlesnake bite.
I never got any letters or phone calls. I made every monthly minimum payment until my lawyer filed the papers. Within three months, all my creditors had been notified, and there was no point in calling me or harassing me.
I took, and passed, the two courses, via the internet. I filled out a lot of paperwork. I waited some months while my lawyer did whatever it was that she did.
Then my hearing date was scheduled. I was going to walk into a room where it was possible that representatives of all my creditors would confront me with my irresponsible behavior, accuse me of being a crook, question me about purchases I had made three months before I filed for bankruptcy. Why did you buy this lens in August? When did you decide you were going to file for Chapter Eleven? Did you know you were going to file when you bought this lens? How many assets did you transfer in the year before you filed? What are you concealing from us?
Waiting outside the courtroom I was nervous. My lawyer toddled up, looking harmlessly fierce, like a rabbit with giant fangs. “Just answer the questions,” she advised. “Don’t add anything, don’t talk too much. It’ll be fine.”
The doors opened and I entered the hearing room. Five or six other cases were on the docket, so I sat in a folding chair with my fellow bankrupts, while three trustees sat behind a semi-circular dais. A tape recorder was turned on.
The trustees didn’t look like monsters. They looked kind of nice.
My case was first on the docket. The blonde trustee swore me in. Then she asked me two questions.
“Do you understand the implications of your filing Chapter Eleven?”
“Yes, I do, ma’am.”
“Have you been truthful with the trustee in your documentation?”
“Yes I have, ma’am.”
“Thank you very much, you will be notified of your bankruptcy within sixty days.”
That was it. I walked out of the courtroom a free man. It was a very happy day in my life. I could return to my cozy motor home and tell Fox that it was over. Nobody was going to take anything away from us. Except my forty three thousand dollars in debt.
America is, after all, a wonderful country. The system needs a little tweaking, but it is a wonderful country.
The Road Has Eyes: A Relationship, An RV and A Wild Ride
I’m using a promotional service to market my book, “The Road Has Eyes”. I was asked to write a brief intro about the book and then to answer any five of the twenty five questions posed by the book promoter’s daughter. I was charmed by the very concept. So, below, is my response to this interesting request.
This book is a travel-adventure memoir. Some of things that happen in the book seem impossible but they actually happened. My wife is part Apache, a Medicine Woman and healer. Being in her company seems to provoke an element of the weird and the miraculous.
Ten years ago we were living in a rented cottage in Marin County, California. The monthly bill was incredibly expensive. We were dropping $2500 a month for a one bedroom house. It was a nice house, I’ll admit. It was out in the woods, it was quiet and the deck gave a view of the night sky. It was a very pleasant place, but we were going broke maintaining that life style.
We had bought a little pop-up trailer to tow behind our Jeep. We made our first trip to Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. This is where the book starts, with the statement “How could you be so stupid?”
In spite of making incredibly dumb rookie mistakes, we were bitten by the camping bug. Soon we were driving a thirty year old RV. Our adventures in that broken-down camper, which we named Yertle, form a big part of the book. It was during a second trip to Arches that we met a couple who were living full time in a Class A Motor Coach. Living full time in an RV? Was that possible? Sure it was! Bit by bit we acquired RV experience until we got ourselves out of that $2500 a month hobbit house and bought a 38 foot Class A Motor Home. We’re still living in this RV. It has saved us vast amounts of money and has provided backgrounds for a variety of adventures.
That, dear readers, is the book, “The Road Has Eyes: A Relationship, An RV and a Wild Ride.”
Below are the five questions I answered for my young interviewer.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
The most surprising thing I learned in creating my books was that I could do it. I could actually write books. They have mass, structure, character, dialogue, action and they make sense. The first book I wrote was absurdly juvenile, yet I completed the story. It was a big story, about three hundred pages worth of story.
There is a phenomenon that I call the “Where Did That Come From?” syndrome. My imagination is like an extensive cave system where I don’t know what’s around the next turn. I’ve learned that if I unleash my imagination, it’s bigger than I expected it to be. It’s an inner process that takes practice. The more I use my imagination, the more fertile it becomes. I am always surprised at what emerges from my own mind. I’ve learned to rely on my faculties as a resource that always comes through with the resolution I’ve been seeking. Warning: imagination can turn against you. Creative people can be led by their imaginations down some ugly corridors. So, take care of your mental and emotional health. Surround yourself with friends, people you can talk to.
Apart from writing and reading, what are your other hobbies or interests?
I’ve got several great passions. I love playing and composing music. I’m a drummer, keyboard player and songwriter. I’ve recorded one CD called “Out Of This World”. Most of it is on Youtube at http://bit.ly/1AUhHVG . I’m deeply involved in photography. I have an obsessive love of astronomy, the night sky and the leading edge of scientific investigation into the nature of the universe. You can see my photography at https://500px.com/artsdigiphoto. Writers need to have a wide range of interests. I study history, anthropology, politics, archaeology, all kinds of things. You never know what you might need in some future plot or world-building project. Turn your mind into a giant filing cabinet loaded with facts on many subjects. Of course, you can always turn to the Internet if you need to do research. The Internet is a wonderful tool for writers!
How do you define success as an author?
I would like to have enough readers that they would talk to each other about my books, and correspond with me. I would enjoy feedback about my writing, especially as I have been completely obscure for so many years. Success would simply be what is called “buzz”, that is having my work capture the interest of a few thousand people (though I wouldn’t mind a few million). I believe that my books are original and convey strong emotion. I write with emotions that may lie buried deep within the psyche. It’s my way of bringing to light the emotions that the reader may have experienced without knowing it. I would feel successful if readers responded to me about their emotional experiences in reading my work. I want my work to be useful, entertaining and inspiring. If I could make a living writing? Of course. That too would feel like success.
What do you think makes a good story?
The basic architecture of narrative implies conflict. Usually the conflict is one between good and evil. A compelling story needs to embroil the reader emotionally in the outcome of this battle. A story is only as good as its villain. The energy of a story comes from putting a lovable or heroic personality in jeopardy. The danger, the jeopardy, is supplied by an antagonist, a villain. A really good story has characters who are complex, flawed or just plain crazy. Villains often are more certain of themselves than are heroes. Their purposes are not tainted by doubt. They have a solid ideology or philosophy that they seek to impose on the hero’s world. I often look to history for inspiration in writing my stories. One of my favorite historical events is The Battle Of Stalingrad during World War Two. It serves as a model for many story situations. Imagine that the Good Guys have fought valiantly, used every ounce of courage and resource to stave off defeat. Yet, in spite of their effort, they teeter on the brink of annihilation. We can call this “the last ditch”. The heroic team has one final effort in them; they are teetering on the edge of defeat. They don’t know that their enemy has been weakened by the sturdiness of their resistance. They fling themselves into this last ditch effort. To their surprise, the enemy collapses. It seems miraculous, but it’s no miracle. It’s the outcome of the effort that our protagonists have sustained. It’s an EARNED victory. That’s important. The term DEUS EX MACHINA translates as “God’s Mechanism” or “the hand of God”. In other words, a miracle happens, God acts from on high and sees to it that the good guys win. God provides a storm, a fuel shortage, or a sudden epidemic of the flu, to weaken the enemy. There’s an emotional let-down when the writer must resort to Deus Ex Machina. A good story has a logical outcome that derives from true heroic effort.
Let’s break it back down to the basics: A story is generally a representation of the conflict between good and evil. Characters are avatars for one or another of these principles. The evil character is arrogant because of an iron-clad belief that he/she is working for the right idea. Arrogance is a source of energy. It makes the villain more dangerous. Good stories generally proceed by placing the protagonist in increasingly dangerous situations. The hero escapes danger by a combination of intelligence and physical prowess. Sometimes strength of character plays a major role in the hero’s victory. One way or another a successful story provides emotional release for the reader by having the hero overcome the villain and seeing that justice is served.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is, in fact, simple. Good fights evil. What keeps a story interesting are the false leads, red herrings (or misplaced suspicions) and last ditch efforts. The more the characters resemble actual human beings, the better the story. A hero isn’t just fighting an external danger. A hero is fighting internal flaws, personal weaknesses of character. A convincing hero is one who triumphs on the inner battlefield of the Self. A hero’s soul becomes more virtuous as a result of the internal conflict that has been waged in the course of the story.
Who do your stories appeal to?
My work appeals to creative people. I’m always exploring the process of making Art. My work appeals to the intellectually curious, the spiritually adventurous, the psychologically perplexed. Let’s call my audience Seekers, or Sensitives. I like readers who are honest, smart and confused. I write psychologically, as if my basic position in life is one in which I’m wondering how I got the way I am. How did I get to this state? How did I get into trouble and how am I going to get out of it? I write to expose the emotional pain that I’ve experienced. There’s a process of healing that happens when I live through my characters. Even when I write Science Fiction my characters are working through childhood trauma.
It’s said that in one’s dreams one is ALL of the characters. I think the same thing is true in fiction. We would not be able to portray evil with authenticity unless we had that experience in our own selves. All of my characters emerge from myself. My evil characters partake of aspects of my own personality.
I joked once that my audience is comprised of anyone who has either been to or wants to go to a Burning Man event. It really wasn’t much of a joke. I was serious. Though Burning Man represents an extreme phenomenon in our culture, it is filled with people committed to experimentation and the exploration of art and consciousness. Those are my readers!
The following excerpt is from my book CONFESSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN. It is one of those creative moments when my passion for jazz and my passion for writing merge. I hope that I can spread some light on the value of jazz so that it need not be a form of music that is virtually ignored.. It isn’t the stuff of giant boom boxes that get worn on your head so you look like you’ve just survived an altercation with an assistant manager at Costco.
Question: are there still Boom Boxes or have those morphed into Boom Automobiles so you can sit inside your sonic vengeance rather than wearing it on your head?
1967: The Zoot Prestige Trio At The Esquire Lounge
The Esquire Lounge is an archetypal venue: a pure urban jazz club, on the ‘circuit’, right down on Euclid Avenue between the steel mills to the west and Western Reserve University to the east. The club’s sign has martini glasses jiggling in neon pink and green. Every time Aaron sees it, he senses that some day it will be a priceless artifact in a museum, “Esquire Lounge” and its dancing long-stemmed martini glasses being studied by serious observers of semiotics and folk art.
Zoot and the boys have f inished a week’s engagement at the Jazzland Grill in Columbus. The drive to Cleveland is a little over two hours. It is a perfect example of Zoot’s genius for scheduling gigs in different cities yet avoiding the road fatigue that can turn a musician’s life into a nightmare.
Before checking into the hotel, before doing anything, Zoot wants to see old friends and examine the new soundboard at the Esquire. The gig is going to be recorded for Blue Note Records. Rumors are flying in the jazz world that the new band is something special, that Zoot has found a pair of “monsters”, as they are called, to back him up as he plays his distinctive bop’n’blues style. For Aaron and Tyrone, it is their debut. Downbeat Magazine is going to review the record, it will be written up by critics like Leonard Feather and Nat Hentoff.
It’s big. It’s important. The album is going to be called “Hot Sax”.
Zoot enters the club majestically, placing his feet on the carpet as if he is dancing, doing his lanky walk, all his joints subtly undulating.
“What’s up, buttercup?,” he inqures of the man sitting on a stool behind the bar. There are five or six people in the club, nursing drinks and chatting quietly. Two women spread white cotton tablecloths below the bandstand.
“Zoot motherfucking Prestige!” says the club’s proprietor, “What is happenin’?” He puts out his cigarette and comes sailing from behind the bar, a tall fat man with a medium afro. He does a series of finger snaps and arcane handshakes with Zoot, then embraces him with a huge laugh.
Aaron knows these sounds and gestures; they are the greeting rituals of adult black males. They are tunes of loose laughter, arms and hands swinging wide and making noisy contact. The words mean little. The tones of understanding and recognition are everything. He tried, for a while, to imitate this hip black language. He feels ridiculous. What kind of spectacle must he be? A “white Negro”. What’s that nasty term? A “Wigger”? Does he want to be a slang term? Wait, let’s not forget the Jew. What is he? A Nigyid? A Yidgro? Oh God, he’s a Yigger! No, he will speak the way he speaks, act the way he acts, just as he is.
Zoot does quick introductions. The club’s owner is Hilton Stubbs. When Aaron is introduced, Stubbs looks at him coldly. Then, as if Aaron doesn’t exist, Stubbs points to him and inquires of Zoot, “What is this?”
Zoot bristles. “What do you mean, ‘what is this?’, motherfucker. This is my drummer.”
“This is a white kid from Shaker Heights, man, this won’t go down.”
“Hilton, you don’t know shit.” Zoot extends a protective arm around Aaron’s shoulders. “You wanna cancel the gig?” Zoot picks up his saxophone case. “I can tell Blue Note we ain’t playin’ here. I’ll go talk to Alvin at Loose End and I’ll have my ass another gig.”
“Naw, shit man, I won’t do that; but I don’t believe no white kid can play drums with Zoot Prestige and sound like the real deal.”
“Why don’t you talk to him like he’s here in front of you, fool?”
Stubbs looks at Aaron. “Hmmmph.” He lights a cigarette languidly, sizing Aaron up. “I never seen Zoot Prestige with a bad drummer. You can’t be more than fucking twenty years old, kid. What do you know about soul?”
Aaron shrugs. “Gig starts at nine. You’ll find out.”
At that moment, several other people come from the back of the club, see Zoot and the greeting rituals are repeated. Aaron is ignored or treated to a cold stare, a lingering gaze of contempt and then a dismissive de-focusing of the eyes, as if he has simply vanished. Traveling with Zoot on the circuit, he has gotten a lot of racist attitude. He lets it bounce off him. He knows that later things will be different.
The equipment has to be unloaded and set up. There is already a Hammond organ and a Leslie speaker on the stage. Tyrone helps Aaron with the drums. At half past five, the recording crew arrives, hauling in a big Ampex eight track recorder in a wheeled case. Aaron is miked just above his head and in front of his bass drum. Zoot gets a single mike, Tyrone gets two, and two mikes are placed at strategic points on the stage. By six thirty the instruments are assembled and a sound check completed. The band and the recording crew order a few slabs of the Esquire’s legendary barbecue and drink a few beers.
Zoot leads his band to the Hotel Onyx, next door, where they check in. Zoot has a room. Tyrone and Aaron share a room. They shower, shave, lay on their respective beds and relax.
Aaron falls asleep. At eight o clock, Tyrone shakes him awake. He has a familiar, crazed look on his face, as if he’s about to do something naughty.
“Hey man, check this out.” Tyrone holds two sugar cubes in his palm. They resemble pistils at the center of the long mocha petals of his fingers. Tyrone’s digits are like the tentacles of a carnivorous plant.
Aaron sits up. Outside the window of the room, a neon sign is going bing! bop! bing! bop! Rooms! Hotel Onyx! Rooms! Hotel Onyx!
“Aw shit, what is that?’’ Aaron rubs his face, yawns.
“Hee hee. Owsley acid. The purest.” Tyrone is full of mad mischief. His eyes seem to melt and harden like molten glass. Aaron loves him, loves his playing, loves his daring. He is virtually illiterate, dropped out of school in the fourth grade, but he is a thinker, a philosopher, a musical intellect.
“Owsley acid. It’s always Owsley acid. How do you know it isn’t bathtub PCP? With all the shit I just went through being white, you want me to take a psychedelic and play a gig?”
“I am Tyrone Terry, man, THE Tyrone Terry. Nobody twacks bullshit dope on me. I will kill them with my lethal B flat. What the fuck, man, it’s not like you aint done it before. Here.” He hands a cube to Aaron, then sucks the remaining cube into his mouth. His cheeks dent inward so that the goatee on his chin goes down like a sword blade. Behind his glasses his eyes are like the fires of a kiln. Aaron eats the cube with a tiny twist of fear. He knows taking a psychedelic is like going for a ride on a tiger’s back. It ccan connect him to the primal power; or it can turn on him and eat him alive. He will risk it.
Having made this commitment, Aaron now has other preparations to make. He wishes he hadn’t eaten the barbecue. It sits in his guts like a greasy snake. No matter, he will sweat it off. He sits in a quiet corner of the room, putting himself into lotus position. There is a terror of annihilation in him, residue from other psychedelic experiences. He has learned to let go of himself, has even learned to function, to play music, to walk around in the ‘ordinary’ world of people. It is the initial phases of the drug rush that are the most difficult. Suddenly, one finds oneself….utterly….without significance, lost in a vastness beyond vastness, so that the personality of Aaron Kantro is some kind of silly joke. It is this silly joke that Aaron has learned to dismiss with a figurative wave of his hand. What does it matter if I matter? Move forward into the risk, take the grotesque with the beautiful, take it all. Inhale and exhale universes with each breath.
Aaron hears Tyrone settle down beside him. Yoga is something Aaron has imparted to his friend, only to discover that Tyrone has a natural ability to settle into a deep silence. He is, perhaps, less intellectually encumbered. Whatever the reason, Tyrone is a natural yogi, he meditates and conjures mind exercises of stunning imagination.
Zoot will come to fetch them at quarter to nine. The young men must don their tuxedoes. The drug is working, beginning as they meditate, stretching their imagery into an immense hall in which they can hear one another’s thoughts like echoes from walls of a cave.
“We got a gig,” Aaron reminds Tyrone as he uncurls his legs. Tyrone opens his eyes slowly, and they are like search lights being uncovered, a mighty glow emits from their orbs. Pulling themselves into the mundane world, the musical brothers dress and look at their reflections in the mirror, giggling. “Be cool, be cool, “ Tyrone admonishes, sinking his head between his shoulders as if to mimic stealth. “The Zoot will be wise to this, and he won’t be happy if we’re melting.”
“Promise I won’t melt,” Aaron confirms. He is serious, he knows he has a responsibility to his mentor to behave and play like a professional jazz musician.
Zoot enters the room, sits in the one easy chair and lets both legs splay over the chair’s arm rest.. He brings out his little pouch and crumples some weed into the corncob pipe. He examines his compatriots with an air of suspicion, but he has seen this before and has a measure of faith in his sidemen.
“Dudes look good,” he sayes. “Feelin alright? Tight? Outtasight?”
“Just fine, Zoot. Lookin’ forward to it, “ Tyrone replies. Aaron nods agreement.
Zoot eyes his sidemen speculatively. “Gonna get cosmological on me? Gonna do Coltrane riffs?” This is one of Zoot’s cautionary admonitions. He loves John Coltrane but knows his bread and butter, knows what the patrons of the Esquire Club have come to hear: stompin’ blues shoutin bop-till-you-drop tenor saxophone organ trio music.
“Don’t you trust us, Zoot? We know the gig.” Aaron’s hands are rattling complex drum patterns on his kneecap. Warming up.
“There’s something about you two, tonight. You’re glittering a little bit.” It is impossible to tell whether or not he winks, because when he wants to, Zoot can wink but not wink. Aaron suspects he has winked. The saxophonist lights the pipe and inhales. Then he loads it again and passes it to Aaron. “I will righteously appreciate some discipline from you young monsters. Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on here. This ain’t speculative fiction. This is the Kingdom of Funktonics. Aaron, you gotta stay inside the groove and let these Black Nationalist motherfuckers know you can play some shit.”
“We will play some shit,” Tyrone affirms, making it sound like a solemn oath. Aaron repeats it. “We will play some shit.”
Each of them has the requisite two hits of weed, enacting the pre-set ritual that is as much a part of their working life as their instruments and their PA system. They head down the long stairs with its purple carpeting, into the foyer with its thousands of tiny hexagonal tiles and green trim. Euclid avenue is a parade of horsepower vanity. Caddies, Continentals and Grand Prix convertibles gurgle toward the traffic lights. A bit of rain has fallen and the smell of wet pavement and gasoline fumes mingle in the air. Reflections from neon lights bounce up from the sidewalks. Aaron inhales and marvels at the wild beauty of the world.
They walk around to the kitchen entrance of the club. Zoot gives a signal to Hilton Stubbs. The proprietor nods and goes to the bandstand. It is a good house. The tables are taken. The bar is already two rows deep. The recording engineers are perched at their boards like alchemists over tables of potions and unguents
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Stubbs says into the microphone. “The Club Esquire is honored to present the reigning Master of Funk, the Prestigious One, The Zoot with the roots and his smokin’ recruits, the one and only…… Zoot….. Pres…..tige!”
They come through the swinging door and make their procession to the bandstand. When the applause and whistles die down, Zoot looks at Tyrone and Aaron, snaps his fingers and counts off a blistering tempo for “All the Things You Are”. They are off! Tyrone’s organ vamps behind Zoot’s solo like butter rolling down a split yam. Aaron is crisp as a new hundred dollar bill. The stick in his right hand comes down on the ride cymbal almost lazily; just enough behind the beat to give it tension, to make that indefinable suspense that is the elusive quality of swing. He pop pops with his left hand on the snare, talking to Zoot’s cadences. It is a glory. It is jazz.
They play Monk’s tune, “Well You Needn”t. Then, to slow things down, Zoot calls for “Angel Eyes”. That’s when the LSD begins working at its full intensity. Tyrone plays the dark moody chords of the song. Its story is that of an urban barroom drama, of souls sliding toward damnation but gripping their humanity with ferocious desperation. When Tyrone’s solo comes, he lands on one of those blue tones that the organ can sustain forever, while his right hand trills and trills pure funkiness. It is musical laughter. Aaron’s smile grows larger than his face, a Cheshire Cat grin where the rest of him disappears into the curling lips and glowing teeth. Zoot rocks his horn and arches his back. The audience is screaming approval. The walls start to melt. Hilton Stubbs looks like a goat or a devil, behind the bar, smiling so that his gold tooth flashes across the room. Tyrone glances at Aaron, wicked sly wit oozing from his eyes.
Stay inside, Aaron mentally signala. Don’t get crazy. Tyrone nods. Don’t worry; I can get crazy and still stay inside. They are IT. They are tradition. They are milking all the conventions, all the known things of jazz. Tyrone arpeggioes to get to the head of the tune. It is like ocean waves, surf rolling in perfect cylinders toward the shore. Zoot hears the cue and they restate the brooding melodrama of Angel Eyes. The tune ends in a splash of cymbals, organ and saxophone. Perfect.
Zoot knows what’s happening but says nothing. As long as they play well he will let it slide. He can’t sit on these two young horses. He can go with them, out to the boundary. If he feels them slipping off, he will give them the infamous Zoot Stare. If he can keep them right there, right at the boundary but still within the vocabulary, the vocabulary itself will become the realm of exploration.
It works. It works all night. At one moment, Aaron takes a drum solo and feels his arms multiply, feels as if four right hands and four left hands are striking and bouncing off the drums with incredible speed. He is a Hindu God, he is eight-armed Ganesh, the elephant god, the lord of Jupiter. He rolls and crackles and flames but keeps it together, never gets abstract, hits the One, the downbeat, right where he is supposed to.
There isn’t anyone in the room who is wondering if Aaron can play drums. There isn’t anyone in the room who is thinking about black or white, soul or without soul, paid dues, ain’t paid dues, hipness or squareness.
There is only the miracle of music.
In Praise of T-shirts
This morning I put on my T-shirt backwards twice. Twice! As with all t-shirts, one must hunt for the label to get a sense of direction. The label tells me which way goes front and which way goes back. I found the label, turned the shirt appropriately and slipped it over my head. It was backwards. So I took it off, found the label again, turned the shirt around and put it on. It was still backwards.
On the third try I checked the positions of the armholes, unfolded the garment carefully and held it in front of my body. The label was in the back. I slipped it over my head and bingo! I had it right side front.
I mixed up oatmeal for me and Fox and put it in the microwave. When I turned on the microwave it made a very strange sound that caused me to duck and get out of the way of whatever radiation it might be spewing. I tried it a couple of times, cautiously, before concluding that this twelve year old microwave oven was kaput.
We live in an RV and microwave cooking is a necessity. Our three burner propane stove top is fine for making coffee but that’s about all we do with it.
My day was starting on a bad note. T-shirts willfully misbehave in my hands. The microwave sings “Hello Dolly” but doesn’t cook a damn thing. It’s an Over The Range oven, which means that it’s a special item, requiring precise dimensions to fit properly into its niche.
I’ll need another three hundred bucks in addition to the two hundred I just spent at the vet on our puppy. He has staph infections in his ears. We got him to the vet just in time to prevent the infection from running out of control.
I had to email my uncle and ask for a hundred dollars. I ask him for money maybe once a year. I hate it. I’m in middle age and I have to ask my uncle for money. My uncle’s not rich. He’s just richer than I am.
When I was young and even more stupid than I am now, I thought college was for pussies. I was a REAL artist, I would learn my techniques by doing, not by studying. I didn’t anticipate that being a REAL artist was the queue for poor deluded Sensitives who spend their lives being contractors for someone else’s building firm. I became a real artist. But I made a slight miscalculation along the way, and failed to put some money away for my old age.
I look at my life and wonder which one of the bad decisions led me to this ridiculous situation. I have an ENORMOUS body of work to be proud of. Music, photography, poetry, fiction, essays. I’ve recently published three e-books. I haven’t figured out how to sell them but I’ll stand on top of the RV and yell the titles of the books until I get arrested. Maybe I’ll do it naked. “The Gods Of The Gift!” “Confessions Of An Honest Man!” Come on, people, buy my books! “The Road Has Eyes!” They’re on Amazon, they’re on Smashwords and Snoblit and BookNook and PageVandal. “The Gods Of The Gift!” WWW. that’s doubyou dubyoudubyou roschbooks dot com!
Uh oh. The cops are coming.
My father liked to play with words. He was a great punster. His humor was dry as salt, so dry that it wasn’t even funny unless you were another person obsessed with words.Like me.
I like to call Facebook…un…Basefook. Dad wrote books, too. In his eighties he wrote books on American History, just to have something to do. They were very dry, very boring, but that wasn’t the point. His command of facts, and his memory, were awesome. He didn’t know how to connect the facts into the emotional architecture of a story. His History Of The American Presidency is unreadable. I asked him if he used the internet for research. “Not much”, he answered. Which meant that he knew, in his memory, who ran for Vice President with Franklin Pierce, and how the campaign unfolded, who betrayed whom, what the dirty tricks were about..all of that! He was a walking encyclopedia. Dad passed at age 93 this last October. He was a good dad, though I had to convince him of that during his last week on earth. He blamed himself for not seeing what my mother had been up to. He SHOULD have seen, but it was the 60’s and no one knew about dysfunctional families, child abuse, all that stuff that has emerged in the last fifty years. I like to think that I did my father justice in the character of Max Kantro in my novel, “Confessions of An Honest Man”. He was a man of his times confronting a family mess of bi-polar disease, sadism and terrible depression. There was no tool box for him to use!
The pic shows dad, his beloved second wife, me and my beloved wife.
About “Confessions Of An Honest Man”
Old School. That’s what this is, this book about a dysfunctional family that begins in 1957 and carries the reader through to the present day. I started this book in 1976. In ’78 I made a splash by winning Best Short Story Award from Playboy Magazine. I signed with an agent and there was a lot of interest in this book. I had lunches with my editor in New York City. It was classic author-stuff, from another era. I had an opportunity but I wasn’t ripe, the book wasn’t ripe and I didn’t finish it until 2014. I had to do some living before I could write the stories in this book.
I’ve drawn a lot of autobiographical material into this narrative. I was the kind of kid that Aaron Kantro is in these pages. I was still in grade school when I first heard jazz on a recording by Louis Armstrong. Can you imagine a twelve year old closeting himself in his bedroom and listening to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane? Can you imagine that today, or fifty years ago? This is a precocious lonely child. He doesn’t fit in well with his class mates. He gets bullied but he doesn’t cringe easily, doesn’t give in.
Aaron’s mother, Esther, is horrified. She regards any deviation from her plans as personal attacks. Her sons will become professionals. They will be doctors or lawyers. Her daughters will marry socially prominent men of wealth and have two or three grandchildren apiece. She gets, instead, a dreamy musician who listens to what is called, in Yiddish,”Scvhatze music”. She is convinced that her oldest son will become a bum playing at Bar Mitzvahs and her younger son…well…he’s crazy, he goes into trances and hurts people and then he can’t remember what he’s done. Esther’s dreams are fueled by a pathological insecurity that develops into full-blown Manic Depression, today’s bi-polar disorder. On top of her clinical disturbances, Esther is flat-out mean. She’s sadistic and clever.
This is starting to sound a little depressing. I promise you, it’s not. The book has darkness, of course. But it tracks the development of two creative children who get no support. They need determination and strength to follow their dreams. The other two children are interesting in their monstrousness, their violence and greed. By splitting the four children into two teams I’ve created a laboratory, showing the corrosive effects of parental abuse. The outcomes depend on the child’s innate moral nature. Aaron and Sarah survive and become productive only through enormous courage and tenacity.
This is the Kantro family. A father, a mother and four kids. Two of the kids are sweet and two of them are monsters. Max knows that something is wrong in his family. It is the 60’s and he has few tools available. He’s trying, but it’s hard to maneuver through the family’s emotional problems. There’s always trouble. Aaron may be experimenting with drugs. Somehow that’s not so bad as Mark’s propensity to collect weapons and lurk on the outskirts of thuggish mayhem. The world has yet to fill with more sophisticated knowledge. There are few books to be had about family dynamics. Eating disorders are unknown. When Sarah dives into Bulimia, she hasn’t a clue, nor does anyone else, about this compulsive behavior. It’s a total mystery and the only option is to put her in a mental hospital for a month or two.
In “Confessions Of An Honest Man” we travel the Hero’s Journey with Aaron. He’s brave enough to defy his mother. He goes to New York City at the fresh age of sixteen. He’s searching for his jazz hero, the legendary Avian Coulter.
He finds Avian. The man is Avant Garde, a polarizing figure in the jazz world. He’s also an addict. Avian takes Aaron under his broken wings and turns him in the direction he needs to go. He introduces Aaron to the successful blues n’ bop saxophonist, Zoot Prestige. Aaron needs to play Black, Aaron needs to be in Chitlin’ Circuit clubs in Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis. Avian trusts his friend Zoot more than he trusts himself. Zoot will watch over Aaron and keep him from getting into too much trouble. The gigs with the Zoot Prestige Trio are wonderfully goofy.
This is a fairly large book and it goes a lot of places. We meet Jimi Hendrix and we fight the Soviet Army with the Mujahiddin in the Eighties. Read the book. F’god’s sake, it’s $2.99. Then leave a review. Every author needs reviews. Thanks for being here.