24 December, 2012

(Another Year) When The World Didn't End

“If a man has talent and can't use it, he's failed. If he uses only half of it, he has partly failed. If he uses the whole of it, he has succeeded, and won a satisfaction and triumph few men ever know.” - Thomas Wolfe

Don't grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form. - Rumi

You'd think that after spending nearly a year ruminating that I'd prefer to spend the holiday season doing something else. Alas, the season and all it's insidious psychological programming have such a deep toe hold in my brain -- even still - that I find myself pondering all that's occurred since December 24, 2011.

This time last year I was hurdling blind and in denial towards the end of decade long relationship , and I was living in Mount Carroll, Illinois, a place for which I carry a deep love and affection and which, I like to think, carries some fond feelings for me (the Scrooges, Grinches, and snotty-nosed bitches not withstanding). A year ago today in particular, I was buried under what had become an annual/perpetual dark mood that even Cindy Loo Who couldn't have broken through. Following what had become something of a tradition the then eventually-to-be-exwife (now ex-wife in full standing), we neither put up a tree nor spent much on celebrating Christmas. The Kid was spending the holiday on the East Coast; thanks to a series of financial setbacks, we had neither the money nor transportation reliable enough to visit family. And that had always been a sticking point anyway, since it was always a toss between which set of eventually to be ex-laws we were going to grace with our presence.

[Our last holiday sojourn happened in December 2009, right after moving from the Valley of the Sun to The Northern Tundra. Not only did we almost die between blizzard conditions and a random automotive problem that made the car die if it dropped below 60 mph, but the now ex-wife in full standing had to bear an intense interrogation from my brother's wife regarding her [my ex's] feelings about being married to a man (me) who wasn't earning a regular Ward Cleaver style paycheck. Both events, in varying degrees, inclined us both to stay away in order to avoid the eventual argument.]

This year, I've done a lot of traveling, a lot of looking and ruminating and writing. I've started playing guitar again. I've grown out my beard. I'm happy to say that I'm happy and seeing someone who is also, for the most part, happy. I've tried to do some good this year; I've also made mistakes, and if I have... either intentionally or unintentionally hurt anyone or myself, I ask your pardon and hope there's enough forgiveness to go around. I rediscovered my faith in people and occasionally caught a hint of the inner workings of the universe.

Maybe it's because I'm going to be turning 40 in a few months, or maybe I've realized just how much of ... well... EVERYTHING... is a luxury, but I finally figured out that I have spent nearly every Christmas of my adult life focusing on what is absent rather than what is present. I mourned my father's death for over a decade. I stewed over my daughter not being with me. I made the people around me miserable, made people feel like less when I should have made them feel like more, and dressed up my misery as cynical insight.

I ask pardon for that, too.

Merry Whatever the Hell You Call This Holiday. Be happy. Be thankful, since chances are good that if you're able to read this, you have shelter, and warmth. I hope you're around people who love you and who you love.



Location:Cincinnati, OH

20 December, 2012

Worthy Acres (Draft 1)

With such a name, your birth surely
carried a promise that could only
have been formed by a mother’s love
and by a father’s hope for the future. Or,

were you named after some long lauded dead ancestor:
some uncle of a moonshining grandfather,
the good son that raised tobacco,
that went bald fretting over the price of corn?

Whether you came to manhood behind the woodshed
With some precious preacher’s daughter
or in a Paris Brothel waiting for a deployment order
that never came, there may be no left alive who can recall; but

it will have to be enough that,
with such a prodigious name,
yours is listed in marble among others
that are also not yet all that too far from memory.

Location:Cincinnati, OH

12 December, 2012

Habitat For Humanity, Part 2

The church sanctuary reminded me of my old middle school gymnasium: high ceiling, stage, backboards at the long ends of the space, hardwood floor. Rows of chairs instead of pews. Also on the walls -- banners depicting preferred values like Compassion, Faith, Devotion rather than celebrating past years of sports championships. In fact, the word "sanctuary" was never used to describe the space. My Dear Sweet Ma called it a "multi-purpose room."

[This is the younger face of the old Protestant church, of course... the non-Catholic version of Buddy Christ (for those of you who are Dogma fans.) The move towards the attempt to be tragically hip started in the early 1990's when it suddenly occurred to churchy folk that their grandkids weren't connecting with that Old Time Religion and were, instead, plugging into video games and other technological demons... probably because of those Satanic role playing games their older cousins played in the 1980's, or the back-masked subliminal messages on heavy metal records in the 1970's.]

And while I don't buy into the new packaging, or into the central premise of Christianity, I have come to understand that while I reject the metaphor that religion... with it's many political foibles, flaws, and unnecessary tragedies... is humanity's attempt to explain things we don't yet understand, and to describe subjective experiences that cannot be empirically studied and smacks of something more than coincidence.

I also believe that the good work of the world can happen where ever the intention to do good exists along with the will to take action.

So I can tolerate a little religiosity. Right?

I showed up the second day because the first day had gone fairly well. Eight or ten of us cut, piled, and organized the lumber to build to house frames.

[Ok. I hauled lumber and let other, more experienced people handle the power tools. But still... I did sweat some. Really.

The morning of the build I showed up not knowing what to expect. The church had advertised the Habitat project for anyone in the area to come help, so I figured there would be anywhere from eight or ten people to maybe 100 or so. There ended up being around 160 people... an increase from the previous year. After I signed up and filled out a brief and scantily worded medical release, I wandered into the sanctuary, -- I mean the multi-purpose room -- where I was to wait for further instructions.

As people gathered I thought about the last time I sat in a church. More specifically, I thought about going to church when I was a kid, and how seriously I took the whole endeavor. There had been a time when the move towards tragic coolness would have appealed to me. That, in part, is the reason I'm skeptical of such marketing attempts. But I am willing to accept that while I am not especially religious, that there are people who are that have good intentions and want to do good things. Every mindset has it's kooks, crazies, and wingnuts. And there's very little to confuse about helping to build a house for people who don't have one.


At some point the minister, Bart, took to the stage. In his opening remarks, he told us that while the purpose of our being there was to build two house frames, that our focus should be to bring glory to God.

I tend to ignore the rhetoric, but it I have to confess that similar statements have vexed me for some time. Christians glorify their god because that, along with baptism, is how you prove your faith. And while there's quite the division over whether faith requires works ... and for some sects, whether the humanity of Jesus is even important... it always struck me that whatever the metaphysical nature of the thing referred to as God, Allah, Zeus, Shiva as well as a thousand other names from as many cultural constructs) happens to be, I find it hard to believe that it/he/she/they NEED us to adulate all over it/him/her/them.

Then again,I have to remember that the only intentions I can control are my own. And even that is a struggle at times.

What I liked about the experience was that at the end of the day, the frames for two houses were built. Whether this winter proves to be a cold one, a wet one, or a warm and mild one, the fact remains that two families have homes to protect them from it. And while I may not have wielded any power tools....and while I may be the most ineffectual mock carpenter around... I felt like I was doing a little of the good work of the world.

And so I'll close the blog with a question that sums up not only my views on Christianity, but organized religion in general:

Do you think that Jesus, ever once, would have rather someone ask him the proper way to build a door jam?

Location:Willow Creek, KY United States

05 December, 2012

Repeal Day Landscape

The world is seen best with natural light.
All the lines are crisp and clean first thing
in the morning: blue winter sky seeping in
through half open blinds, all sleepy houses,
the outstretched limbs of trees stripped naked,
leaving no protection for the squirrels scurrying
for winter stores in the lingering autumn.
Yuletide is coming. Christmas decorations adorn
the more festive houses on the block,
and the mall Santas are checking their beards
against altars to Rockwellian archetypes.
The garbage men have not yet arrived.
Possums and office workers have scurried
underground and away. It’s still too early
for all but the most dedicated daytime drunks
and commerce continues unhindered
in spite of the unemployment rate.
Crumbling blue collar houses cast deep shadows
in relief against the December blue sky,
etching themselves between the cracks in the street
the city never has the political will to repair.
All the starlings have gathered, taken final counts
and are waiting for the first real northern wind
so they can stretch their wings out
and be carried away the way children are told
all prophets and holy men are carried away
in the whoosh of a wind before the arrival
of the cold dark days in which every errant ray
of sunshine is a savior, Spring is a freshly planted messiah
rooted deep in the moist earth
and fed by homeless saints at midnight
when all the good folk are tucked safe
and dreaming of permanent sunshine.

*Image by Amanda L. Hay

Location:Louisville, KY

29 November, 2012

Pre-December in River City

The dog has finally stopped whining
and the cat is upstairs resting.
Mid-morning Sunday, sounds of the street
filtering through closed window blinds.
A morning chill takes the soothing temptation away
from my second cup of coffee. I am cold, I think.
I should drink more water so I can stay warm.

The tone and shade of the light seeping in is a snitch,
tells me the sun is still shining. My fingers feel the cold,
like they have since the year I lived in New Orleans
where there is no winter – just a damning
and permanent tropical spring.

The neighbor’s chickens in the dirt alley behind the house
pay no attention to presence or absence
of the season’s waning sun.
Winter is creeping down the river,
spreading through the tectonic root structure
carried on choppy currents atop unusually low water levels.
The last birds of the year are amassing,
sending out their acrobatic messages to each other
and to the four winds, calling out
for weather updates and last minute
flight trajectory alterations due to climate change.

After spending years studying the seasonal patterns of birds,
I am learning to smell the air and to feel the subtle shift,
looking to see the signs and slight indications
that will send them off in an anti-gravitational mass.

The seasons of a man’s life should be so fluid—

fluid as that moment between breathes
when, with wings outstretched
like a hundred thousand christs
they will take flight without any concern
about their place in larger order
or if their wings are as grand as their brother’s
and no question as to whether there is a perch
awaiting them after they are exhausted
from a thousand mile flight
dragging the weight of the summer sun behind.


27 November, 2012

Singularity and the Freewheeling Critter: Ray Kurzweil at the Kentucky Author Forum

My view is that consciousness, the seat of “personalness,” is the ultimate reality, and is also scientifically impenetrable. -- Ray Kurzweil

Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves. -- Albert Einstein

Although I haven't read much of Ray Kurzweil's work, I was familiar with him. He famously declared, via the title of a much lauded and much criticized book that "The Singularity is Near." His many accomplishments have been overshadowed somewhat by his status as a futurist -- which, in an age where people still seek certainty and the surest way forward in order to avoid scuffing their shoes, makes him fill the Edgar Cayce/Nostradamus role whether he ever meant too or not.

Singularity,as Kurzweil defines it, is the point where technological evolution and human biological development merge. Pragmatically,this would mean that instead of needing a hand held computer to communicate,play Angry Birds, and search Google, humans would have access to these capabilities via extra-biological implants.

His predictions take certain things into account, of course, like all predictions. No matter how much you attempt to claim the cloak of objectivity (which, to be fair, Kurzweil doesn't seem to) those ol' a priori arguments never go away. While he acknowledges that there will be moral and ethical implications that need to be addressed he ... at least conversationally (I need to read his work to be more sure of this) seems to assume that with greater access to information that humanity will be able to handle the lines that will inevitably be blurred -- indeed, lines that are already being blurred, such as our cultural concepts of privacy, and the ever raging concern over intellectual and creative property rights

which just an extension of the same ownership by Divine edict obsession that the early Europeans settlers carried with them.

He also dismisses the notion that these technological extensions of self could become intellectual and critical crutches. I thought of a comment by a student at Arizona State University; the student claimed there was no need to remember certain things -- like state capitals or the year the Civil War ended, for example -- because Google was so accessible.

And NO, I'm not saying that rote memorization has anything to do with being intelligent. But it DOES exercise the brain, make it work in ways it wouldn't normally. And having access to certain pieces of information without technological extensions could come in handy. Say, when the WiFI goes out, or if you're somewhere where there ISN'T ANY WIFI.

I did appreciate his vexation about language, though. He called it humanity's first invention, but acknowledged the problematic nature of language...in that it can describe and reflect but that there's always a risk of something being lost in the translation. Language is necessarily reductive and inherently culturally biased. We're still grasping at language to adequately describe aspects of the human experience that can't be empirically studied. Kurzweil says this is tied to our individual "personalness" which is "scientifically impenetrable."

That's how I define the purpose and function of poetry, and of the arts in general, actually. Poetry (and art in general) is the attempt to reflect, describe, explain, or be critical of individual and collective experience. Science has it's uses, though. And I enjoy finding the mystic buried in the empirical. This gives me hope that we might stumble as a culture onto the truths that lie at the heart of existence, that we might be able to see them without interpretation and without ego.

But it would still be helpful to simply know that Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota.

26 November, 2012

Intermezzo: Seen and Unseen

Ain't no privacy in a digital birdcage. - me, in a facebook comment

What is human life? The first third a good time, and rest remembering about it. - Mark Twain

A slow and thoughtful Monday morning here in Louisville. I had the chance this weekend to see Ron Whitehead perform, along with some other amazing poets and musicians, at the Haymarket Whiskey Bar. Having followed his work for several years, it was a pleasure to see him live, particularly as he was celebrating his birthday. Before that, I was up in Cincinnati enjoying the holiday with Amanda and My Dear Sweet Ma, waiting through the procession of commericals and commercialization that is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade to see my niece perform as one of entirely to many dancers inspired by Lady Gaga. (She was the most talented one. I'm sure you saw her if you were watching.)

If you weren't watching, don't worry. I'm sure it will be a FB meme before too too long.

Memes, of course, are what passes for information transfer in the Cyber Age. There is no promise of objectivity, no guarantee of veracity. It's simply information that is thrown at the consumer/product

... because that's what we are, if'n you haven't taken a break from Cyber Monday to notice. We're the consumer and we are consumed. There's a certain symmetry to it, don't you think...

at which time it is then left to the target/consumer/product to determine whether it's reliable, whether it's a rumor made fact by repetition, or just one more Cat Playing the Keyboard or 2 Girls One Cup.

If this sounds like freedom to you, you might want to take a big whiff. It sure smells like something else.

The meme that hit this morning, of course... at least, the one I noticed... was another run of the reaction against Facebook's longstanding policy of mining member data to the blackmarketeers of the apocalypse that sell us everything from thong underwear to survivalist dry rations.

Given that a significant amount of my life is posted for the reading pleasure of the deus machina (for which Facebook is only the intermediary) and the half a baker's dozen of you Dear and Faithful Readers who kindly keep track of exploits and insploits*, I do take notice and am aware that social media -- and Facebook in particular -- is nothing more than a method for the corporamatons* that dictate much of what we have decided is reality to mine us for consumer preferences in everything from dental floss to politicians, from light bulbs to religious and ideological beliefs.

If you still believe that the internet is freespace and anything goes just because you can find your personal preference for porn and corn chips with the click of a mouse or a tap on the tablet, you're not paying attention.

The good news is that it's probably only folks my age or older who still have a notion of what privacy is that aren't aware of this. The bad news is that those who are aware of it run the risk of getting used to it so much that it doesn't bother them.
* from The Parsons Dictionary of Oft Used Words and Phrases, Desk Edition.
insploits, noun. Events that occur when not in physical motion that nonethless exist. Including but not limited to: dreams, visions, meditations, thoughts, outer body experieneces, astral travel, and drunken epiphanies.
corporamatons, noun. a profiteering and parasitic conglomerate that has neither brain nor soul but is not aware of the former's or concerned about the latter's absence.

20 November, 2012

A Baboon On The Road / In The Late Urbane Autumn (Draft)

A rain soaked wind is stripping the last dead leaves
off the tree the way a man disrobes an old lover.
Been here before. Only time being the difference
in the feel of the goose bumps under stealthy fingertips.
The season has lingered longer than anticipated.
The road unfurls in front of my feet,
each step forming cracked slabs of diabolical concrete.
Cars roll by the post-harvest draconian landscape.
All the agribusiness machines are doing their duty
and the fields are being stripped and deserted until Spring.
My ears resonate with the symphony of the wind,
the timpani of traffic on the road,
the rumbling bass of commerce on the IC and E rushing by
unimpeded by the presence of one
who does not accept the finality of the tune.

15 miles from anywhere,
wandering this post-glacial geography stretched in all directions
punctuated by the occasional home or barn or silo.
I am stretched, too. Stretched thin like the soles of my shoes,
like the undarned socks encasing my aching feet. Echoes
of the machines of harvest carry like bitter dew drops
on this corpse of a season, call to me from distant
unfallowed fields. I hold onto the hope
that if I listen carefully enough
there will be an encrypted message for me
in the slight hum emanating from the cellular phone tower
just up the road.

The overlords have no updates for me today.

All year, the seasons have been chasing me; now
there is no trace of them
though I sometimes catch a trace of them
hiding in the tall grass and tangled weeds.

Every time a train passes, I think about walking closer to the track
hunting for young poke leaves to chew on
or maybe save to eat later when I will be near a fire
and a pot of water. (I have no idea when that will be.)

And then my mind turns to Eastern Kentucky,
to the cabin where I spent winters huddled
wrapped blankets and the scent of black walnut
in the iron belly stove,
and the stars
and the stars that shone brightly
that lit the way that led me to this place,
put my feet upon this path.

is gone now, swept into the geography of memory,
like every other place my foot has been
and I have learned
there is no point in blaming anyone
for the whim the universe takes
as it rights itself
in spite of the imbalance of so many footsteps
upon the Earth.

Early in the morning I catch a hint of autumn in the air.
It is fragrant. It is a fine old perfume
made from the choicest elements in creation.
And though I have not yet stumbled on the proper name
or who I should thank I extend my gratitude nonetheless
and hope for luck and for the rain to hold off
a little while longer.

19 November, 2012

Intermezzo: Don't Mourn (Joe Hill and the Slow Enlightenment)

Now the boss the law is stretching /Bulls and pimps he's fetching/And they are a fine collection/ As only Jesus knows. -- Joe Hill, Where the Fraser River Flows

97 years ago today the state of Utah assassinated Joe Hill by firing squad after a kangaroo conviction for the murder of Salt Lake City grocer John Morrison and his son. According to legend, his final word was "Fire!"

I use the term assassinate deliberately. The evidence against Hill was flimsy, and the only reason they bothered with the firing squad was because the first bullet intended to silence him without the bother of a public trial didn't do its job.

After, according to the legend, Joe's ashes were sent to every state in the union-- except for the state of Utah, at Joe's request; he didn't want his remains to ever exist in the same state that murdered him.

Those of you familiar with his legacy know that his final exhortation to
his fellow Wobblies was not to waste time mourning for him, but to organize. Joe Hill believed that an organized and honest union was the only thing keeping working people from being exploited by organized capital -- those who get rich by mooching off the sweat of others than by their own work.

Today isn't the only day Joe Hill crosses my mind, of course. I enjoy the music he left behind -- those old Wobbly standards, many of them written to parody religious hymns -- and I thought about him quite a bit when I was Out and About earlier this year. I wrote earlier in the year about Cletus the Dog Man, who I met in Rapid City South Dakota; he was one of many I ran into or saw or overheard who were simply out looking for work. Most of them had no interest in leaving the place they thought of as home. But they felt like they had no choice.

That's part of the impossible situation created by those who have political power and influence in order to keep those of us who really have the power from ever being able to exercise it. If there's no work where you live, you're supposed to have the guts to pack and go find it -- as long as you have the gas money or ability to travel, of course. And if you can't do that, well, you're shit out of luck. The Michelle Bachmans and the Rand Pauls of the world would say that maybe God doesn't want you to have a job.

And don't forget the other caveat: if you DO travel around looking for work, don't travel by bus, because that means you're white and/ or ghetto trash and automatically a homicidal maniac and rapist.

Or, as I was mistaken for twice, Mexican.

In other words: work and pray,live on hay, you'll eat pie in the sweet by an by.

I do appreciate Joe's sense of humor. Though fewer people know the hymns, the parody is still a good one, and the satire is apt. The 21st Century is shaping up to be a repeat of history we've already lived but seemed to have learned nothing from.

Good thing I'm learning to play guitar again. There are plenty of songs that still need to be sung, and plenty of stories and poems,too. We're not done yet.

16 November, 2012

O Losantiville, Don't You Cry For Me(Verse 2): Quality Control \ Habitat for Humanity Part 1

True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but realizing our kinship with all beings. - Pema Chondron

Anyone who lives in or around Cincinnati knows instinctively it is a problematic city; and its history, from what I've begun to read, bears this out. The geography is perpetually under erasure: the various visions and monied specials interests have managed to twist the place so much it has to struggle to hold onto the remaining bits of unique character it has left.

But Cincinnati is where I am. At least for the time being. And while I wasn't planning on wintering in the Ohio Valley, there are worse places to end up than in the company of family and friends, in the shadow of a city whose geography is familiar and whose peripatetic combination of culture and anti-culture (think about what Gene Roddenberry said about what happens when you mix matter and anti-matter) long ago made an imprint of my soul.

And while Losantiville may not have been my first choice of winter havens, the fact is my only real plan was to go south, down around Port Charlotte, and spend the winter pushing up sea shells with my toes.

This may be the universe's response to my arrogance at trying to take a vacation.

One of the things that fell into my lap was an opportunity to work on a Habitat for Humanity house through the church My Dear Sweet Ma attends. Not being much of a church goer myself, I have, over the years, had a fairly volatile relationship with churches and with organized religion in general. When explaining my position I often say that I have rejected the metaphor for God that I was raised on, and finding no other that explains, describes, or satisfies, I resort to talking about the universe. (When speaking or writing about the larger mysteries, it's important to rely on language that is both specific enough to offer detail but vague enough to allow for new insight.) I'd heard of Habitat for Humanity, of course. And I liked the idea of pitching in to help someone have shelter that needed it.

The church is located about 5 minutes from where my mom lives, and they were warned of my arrival. I went Friday afternoon -- work was to begin at 2pm and I arrived a few minutes early -- to help cut and stack the wood in preparation for the actual work the following day. The weather forecast for the entire weekend was sunny with temperatures in the mid to high 60's. I stayed away from the power tools, opting to do the leg work of moving the woodI saw this as primarily a common sense move. While it's true that my Grandpa Dunn was a carpenter, and a fine one at that,it's also true that I'm not. Of all the genes that could have passed on, the one that didn't was the one that could have made me NOT a klutz and NOT inclined to hit my own -- or, gawd help them if they happen to be in the way, someone else's -- fingers. But to be fair, I haven't had much practice either.

At least, that's what I told myself.

Everyone I met and talked to was polite. It's large church, and for all any of them knew, I could have been a member; none of the people I met knew my Dear Sweet Ma, though they claimed to have some recollection of the surname. After some initial cutting and after more folks showed up, I ended up working with a nice guy named Jim. We were, according to the project leader Dave from Crossroads Missions out of Louisville, "Quality Control." Jim and made sure that everyone else was cutting enough of the different sizes of wood and that they were stacked in the right place. I ended up doing that particular job because no one else wanted it,and I suspect that Jim ended up in it for the very same reason. It's not difficult to figure. The other men wanted to be around the power tools and the women there didn't want to be relegated to a seemingly less strenuous job.

I didn't mind, though; I have learned not to define my gender identity by the seeming manliness of my job. One guy in particular seemed to enjoy the fact that he was doing something more manly than either Jim or me... especially since Dave, the project leader said when he was trying to find volunteers for Quality Control --

"I need a couple of women to carry this clipboard and just make sure the men are cutting enough of everything and putting them in the right place."

Every time this guy, who was entirely too young to be as bald as he was to be that pleased with himself, would bring some wood over he'd smirk and ask if he'd done it right. But he was wearing a shirt that identified him as affiliated with Turpin High School, so I took into account that he was probably not ever encouraged to have manners.

The work got done, though, right around sunset. Since I didn't hurt myself or anyone else on Friday, I decided to go ahead show up again on Saturday.

13 November, 2012

Chicago Intermezzo 3: Roger and Me

Persons who have been homeless carry within them a certain philosophy of life which makes them apprehensive about ownership. - Jerzy Kosinski

He approached me as I entered the food area at the Harrison Street Station in Chicago. He complimented my jacket and asked where I got it.

"I been wanting a jacket like that," he said. Then he shrugged. I told him I'd had it a while and that it served me well. He nodded, shrugged and again, and shuffled off.

The slow painful gait was one I understood. He moved like a man whose feet were swollen and had been giving him trouble. On the heavy side with  sandy gray hair. Ash colored complexion, like he hadn't had a decent meal in a while... or, at any rate, with any regularity. The smell of rotten onion emanating from him caused people to break in front of him. Sometimes when people walk through a crowd -- it was midday, high traffic time -- the crowd with swallow them, ingest them, make them disappear. But there was no making Roger disappear. The wide swath he cut through the crowd of people waiting for buses to here and there and everywhere was visible and took more than a few seconds to disappear.

My bus wasn't scheduled to leave until 3:30 in the morning. 14 hours to wait. I'd had longer waits, and at least I wasn't going to get the bum's rush this time... though I kept my ticket handy and accessible in case the rent-a-cop (who couldn't carry a live firearm but was allowed a club-sized flashlight and a can of mace) and the off-duty Chicago cop(who did have a live firearm) decided to do a random ticket check. I bought a cup of watered down chili and coffee, sat down and ate it slowly, and read Walt Whitman. After I finished, I made my way over to the waiting area and found a seat, letting my m mind wander.

Roger came over and sat down not far from me. People started to move away almost immediately. He asked where I was going. We talked about different places we'd been. Roger had been out for several months, mostly in Illinois and Michigan. He was waiting for a bus -- his wasn't going to leave until 6 in the morning-- that would take him to Grand Rapids. Roger said there was a job rehabilitation program up there. That a friend of his went through the program and had found regular work. He told me he'd had trouble holding down a job.

"But I was on those meds," he said, shaking his head and pointing to his right temple. "Those things make me not right. In the head.

He was surprised to hear I didn't draw a crazy check. I can only assume it was the beard.

Not everyone had moved away at that point. But when he hoisted his foot up on the bench and removed his shoe... he wasn't wearing any socks... the remaining few moved away. Roger was sitting on my right. To my left, a young mother and her daughter, who was around four years old, were busy trying pack clothes from old shopping bags into two small suitcases. They were the kind sold at the depot at an exorbitant price. I could tell the mother wasn't happy about having to transfer; I can only assume that one of the ticket agents informed her she had too much to carry on and it was too loosely packed to go under the bus. The little girl was having more fun, playing extreme wack-a-mole with her clothes in an attempt to make room in one of the suitcases for her stuffed animals.

Once Roger took his shoes off, the mother rushed through the repacking job, tried to fold up the the shopping bags -- the little girl had a good time tearing one of them into pieces -- and hurried off, leaving a semi-smushed loaf of bread.

Roger's feet and legs were swollen and covered with a red, flaky rash. He complained of the itching, how he'd gone to the emergency room and they didn't really help him. After asking a few questions, I thought maybe he'd picked up a bad case of scabies; he said he picked up whatever it was in shower at a men's shelter.

"Do you think she's coming back for that bread?"

"Oh,I doubt it."

He asked if I wanted it. I told him I wasn't interested in it. He hemmed and hawed about it, talked about his feet. Talked about Grand Rapids. He asked if I thought it was a good idea for him to go there. I told him it sounded fine, as long as he had shelter for the winter. He asked what I thought he should do about his feet. I didn't know what to tell him,but I suggested calamine lotion for the itch. He talked about being a truck driver and working at a meat packing plant. One eye was always on the loaf of bread. A few times he asked if I would hand it to him and then changed his mind.

My legs were getting stiff and I wanted to move around, so I told Roger I was stepping out for a smoke. When I finished, I found a piece of floor in front of the gate, stretched out, and took a nap. When I woke up, Roger came over and talked to until it was time for me to board the bus. I told him to take care of himself, stay warm. We shook hands. Roger smiled and stood a little straighter. The rent-a-cop and off duty pig eyed me, but didn't comment.

07 November, 2012

Chicago Intermezzo 2: First World Problems, Part 1 (Juan of the World)

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that is that,
But do not use the rotted names. 
                                                       -- Wallace Stevens
from www.worldarchitecture.org

The area of downtown Chicago around Union Station turns into a ghost town after one in the morning. And when you're pushed out into the night when Union Station closes -- at one in the morning -- there are few options for places to go. The bus stop shelters are already taken, and the nearest 24 hour anything is a Dunkin Donuts manned by a grouchy old man of Middle Eastern descent with a cell phone ear bud that he talks into all night while listening to gangster rap. None of those things are issues alone. But when those are combined with a clear contempt for customers and an even clearer contempt for anyone trying to find a place  to wait out the night, any other option is preferable.

Of course, there's the Day's Inn on the corner of Canal and Harrison; but rooms there start out at $159.00 a night (not including the city tax rate on hotels).

My other option, and the best one I could come up with since there was a threat of rain, was further down on Harrison Avenue; and it was one I am very familiar with: The Greyhound Bus Station. Since I didn't have a ticket, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I got booted. Experience told me that overnight they do ticket checks to make sure that everyone there actually belongs there. Union Station opened again at 5 in the morning, and I knew better than to think I could get away with staying at the bus station all night no matter how much I moved around.

At 3 in the morning, the announcement I didn't want to hear rang out over the intercom: ticket check. The security guard and off-duty cop were making their way around, looking at everyone's tickets. It was time for me to go. Although it was little comfort, I was not the only one ejected into the night; but I was the only one that didn't have an idea of where to go. The handful of people who exited the station at the same time I did clearly had ideas on where to go and wasted no time in getting there. They dispersed and disappeared into the darkness. As I turned the corner at Harrison and Canal, a cold spitting rain started to fall.

I made it to Union Station's main entrance before the rain got too heavy. There were already a few people in front of the station, waiting for it to open, but I was able to find some shelter from the weather huddled behind a cement doorway under the overhang. It was almost 3:30. If I was lucky, a custodian would unlock the doors maybe ten minutes before 5. Any other options meant exposing myself to the weather and potentially losing a spot that, even if I had to stay on my feet, was, at least, shelter.  So I stayed put.

With that part of Chi-town still being a ghost town at 3:30 in the morning, I leaned against the doorway, my back to the wind and rain, and allowed myself to close my eyes and enjoy the relative quiet ...

which was broken by the sound of a truck (sans muffler), the tumbling open of rusty door hinge and the shuffle and tumble of fast food wrappers, the clinking of bottles, some muttered conversation, and a quick slam of the door. The truck sped off before the intoxicated idjit realized Union Station was closed.

I quickly discovered why when he did his best attempt at a sober stride up to the door, reached out to open as if he expected it to swing wide open to greet him, only to be denied.

"What? Not open? How can it not be open? This IS the train station, right?"

He looks around, waiting for one of the three of us huddling out of the weather to answer.


I nod, hoping mainly that stating the obvious will shut him up.

"And it's CLOSED?"

Again, I nod.

When'll it open?" He sets down a bottle of beer that he'd been hiding in one of the inside coats of his pocket. I raise my right hand, palm open and mutter "5." Then I nod towards the very visible signs on the inside doors indicating the station's hours.

He immediately got his cell phone out and called someone. Having no luck, he muttered something in broken Spanish and punched in another number.

"Oye!" He said when someone answered. He went on to explain mostly in English that the station was closed. Whoever he talked to was clearly not impressed.

"What you mean, you're not picking me up?!"

Apparently not. He hung up, cussing in two slurred, broken languages. He dialed a few more numbers, to no avail. Finally, someone picked up. But she would have none of him either. I say she because first he tried sweet talking her, and he didn't even blink when the bottle of booze at his feet exploded from being shaken and placed heavily on the sidewalk.  The sweet talk quickly faded, though -- I got the feeling she had been the recipient of his "Baby please..." before -- and when he could not use game to talk her into driving downtown from West Elgin to pick his drunk ass up, he tried another tact.

He offered her jewelry.

Yes, really.

Personally, I'm shocked she didn't wet her panties right there and promise to chauffeur him around all of Chicago and collar counties wearing a thong.

When his phone battery died, he dropped it on the ground, stomped on it, and walked out into Canal Street, hoping to catch one of the taxis that had been driving by and slowing down a bit hoping for an easy fare at the end of shift.  Naturally, when he was trying to actually hail one, they would have none of it. He even managed to stop two of them by narrowly avoiding getting ran over. Neither of them would have anything to do with his too-hyper-to-just-be-drunk ass.

Maybe he should have promised them jewelry.

Then he yelled "FUCK IT!" and threw the rest of his hidden bottles of booze into the street. The shattering glass and murdered booze echoed in the night. After that he ran a block towards Harrison, hoping to catch another taxi. On his way back towards Union Station, he nearly ran into yet another taxi that narrowly avoided hitting him. I was surprised ... and relieved... when this driver, who was clearly desperate for a fare, agreed to take him off into the night. It was 4 in the morning. The rain stopped and I could feel the first inkling of moonset and sunrise in the temperature of the wind and a faint change in the color behind the clouds.

02 November, 2012

Carlinville Intermezzo: The Story Of R

The train station in Carlinville, Illinois is nothing more than a ventilated brick box. Cement floor, a single bench, no heat for the winter and not even a fan for warmer weather. I got there around 11:30 in the morning. The train to Chicago wasn't going to arrive until 3:30 that afternoon. The sky was cloudy, the temperature cold, and it was spitting a particularly unforgiving rain that made me grateful for I didn't have to walk the miles from Litchfield.

Nothing about Carlinville impressed me enough to get wet wandering around to explore it. I noticed one clearly No-Tell-Motel on the way into town. (The sign listed a price differential between single and double beds, and the ambiance suggested that there should have also been a price differential for hourly and nightly rates.) I also took note of several bars, none of which looked trustworthy enough to carry my pack into. Other than the rail, which rolled by a deserted grain elevator, there was very little left to describe. Like every other town that grew up along Route 66, it was impacted by completion of the I-55 corridor. And it was clearly impacted again by changes in the railroad industry.

I was alone in the brick box for about 20 minutes before he hurried in and asked if I had a cigarette. And if I was slightly inclined to dig deeper into Carlinville -- named, according to an optimistically written Wikipedia page, after a former Governor -- talking to R would have changed my mind.

He assured me that if I was looking to get laid, that all I had to do was walk down the street.

"Ah," I said. "So they're trying to fish outside of the gene pool?"

"Gene pool. Yeah, man You got that right!"

A man on the run from something has a distinct body language. Jerky movements. Disheveled look. Given the mostly pale demographic of the town and -- except for the Indians who worked in the hotels and the Mexicans who did the service industry grunt work -- R stuck out simply because he was black.

After I was unable to give him a cigarette, he asked where I was going and where I'd come from. So I gave him the quick and dirty version. Hearing that I walked from Staunton to Litchfield elicited a wide-eyed shake of the head.

"Why'd you do that?"

"I had to get here."

"You didn't have a car?"

"If I had a car, I wouldn't need to catch a train."

That seemed to satisfy him for the most part. It also gave him a door to prove the current events of his life more interesting than mine.

R was not from Carlinville. He was from Springfield, Illinois, but came there via St. Louis. And he did it for a girl. The part that seemed to surprise him, even though he was standing in a brick box train depot waiting for the train that would take him back to Springfield with his few possessions in a 33 gallon garbage bag, was that it didn't work out.

"She's a white girl," he said. "And she's... you know... not thick." He repeated this several times throughout the story, as if he was trying to convince himself that it should have, and for those very reasons.

The story unfolded something like this: he met the woman he was trying to escape the day after he got out of jail. R explained that yes, "It was drug related stuff," but that he had cleaned up his act since and was no longer doing whatever it was that got him locked up. But, he admitted that, upon his release, he was on the hunt for the one thing he couldn't get while he was incarcerated. And it just so happened that he got call from a former cellie who had a girlfriend who had a friend.

"I was looking for a one night stand," R maintained. "But it didn't turn into that."

Upon his release, R had been sent to a half-way house to ensure that his rehabilitation would take. After one night with this girl -- whose name, I have to admit, I don't remember -- she took it upon herself to harass his Parole Officer and the Missouri State Department of Corrections to secure his release from the half-way house so that he could move in with her. When calling St. Louis didn't help, R, said, she drove from Carlinville to St. Louis five days a week in order to visit him and track down the dodgy P.O. Naturally, the development seemed to work to his advantage, so he didn't argue. And while he never uttered the word, the confluence of events must have seemed to him, at the time, serendipitous. And when his parole officer secured his release from the half-way house... making it clear that his only reason was to get the woman off his back... R thought he'd stumbled onto the love of his life.

His first indication that something was amiss was when he showed up in Carlinville and discovered that not only did his true love have two kids -- from two different fathers -- and that both of them were medicated for educational and developmental issues, but that she also lived with her sister, her sister's flavor of the week, and HER two kids.

To hear him tell it, his one true love did nothing except sleep all day, eat ice cream and want to fuck. She didn't want to deal with her kids. She didn't want to deal with her sister's kids. Apparently the sugar she ingested while watching Maury Povich was only to be used in the pursuit of more ice cream and sex.

To hear him tell it, she screwed him raw. And in every way possible. And when he was too exhausted to get it up "I'm not as young as I used be, you know" she would insist that he do something else to fill her appetites. And then she expected him to take care of the kids, who wouldn't listen to him. And then she expected him to make her a sandwich. And then clean up the house. And then go buy her some ice cream.

I was waiting for him to admit to something involving a ball gag and a french maid's outfit.

Instead, he told me about changing the sheets on the bed.

Apparently, there was a day when his own true love actually left the house -- for reasons he didn't explain -- and he took it upon himself to change out the sheets on the bed. She had told him he could find clean sheets in a Santa Claus bag in the hall closet. He found the bag and starting digging through pillow cases and sundry unmatched soft goods until he stumbled upon something that wasn't so -- soft.

Actually there were several.

"I'm telling you," he said, "the bitch could open a dildo flea market!"

He found out later, however, that not all the dildos were for her. Apparently she was hoping that R's time in prison made him a more amenable catcher to a stiff pitch.

R would have none of it.

And while he didn't say directly, the eventual decline of the relationship -- he reiterated several times that he was in love with her but "The bitch is crazy, and those ain't my kids!" -- began with his discovery of the toys and his denial of her strap-on passion.

Even love has it's limits.

30 October, 2012

O Losantiville, Don't You Cry For Me: Asynchronous/ 2 Poems From the Road

I am open to the guidance of synchronicity and do not let expectations hinder my path. - The Dalai Lama

I woke up this morning to snow -- a light dusting on rooftops and car windshields that's lingering even though the snow turned into a cold rain. I woke up mindful of loved ones up and down the east coast, and mindful of the people I don't know who, even when the weather is fine, have trouble finding shelter. I'm mindful of people like Roger, who I met in the Chicago Greyhound Station and who I will write about in an upcoming post.

While my time in Cincinnati hasn't been bad, and it's taking me longer to scratch up money for the travel fund than I would like, I have been busy trying to find the good work of the world to do while I am here. I'm making some progress in that regard, and I'll write about that as it presents itself.

 Central to the ideas laid out from the onset of this blog, nearly 10 months ago, is the belief that philosophy without application is a mental puzzle, a brain teaser, and nothing more.  It's easy to say among similarly thinking friends that you need to put up or shut up. But it becomes a different discussion when you start preaching to someone besides the choir.

What this means for me is that I have to dig in, while I'm here, and find a way to positively impact the world around me, even if that means contradicting some expectation or another. Yes, I'm looking for teaching work -- and writing gigs. Teaching is part of the good work of the world, but there are other things. I'm still looking for other things to do. And from what I can see, I don't have far to look.

Not by a long shot.

Whitman By Moonlight, The Crossing St. Frank, Plus 2

On Monday, November 5th, I will be adding a new chapbook, Whitman By Moonlight. This one will be for sale or for trade or in exchange for donations to the travel fund. I still have copies of The Crossing of St. Frank.

If you're more of an ebook reader, you can now purchase St. Frank on amazon.com for Kindle:

2 Poems From The Road (Not in the chapbook!)

Shadow of Our Fathers

Downhill side street
leading to the cemetery on Boot Hill.
This place is watched over by it's dead
and the dead do not care care
that the living are waiting to roll them over
and move in.

Do not let the city fathers know, and
do not tell the church matrons either.
The sewing circles and kaffeeklatsches already
have a notion; and they are dangerous enough.
They whisper among themselves with eyes cast towards the ground.

Old men rooted on coffee shop stools know, too.
They grumble back and forth between news reports
that blame the President for the drought
and gastric rumblings they dare not blame on the cook.
There is talk of jack-booted thugs trying to nationalize the granaries,
but only from the agribusiness barons.
The dead do not care – so we necromance ours upon them.
Just one more layer of make-up on the corpse
so we can tell one another “He looks asleep.”

It is true then: the dead do not watch us
though we try and see through their dried eye husks
and tell ourselves the vision is crystal clear
as the fog wraps around Boot Hill
temporarily saving the dead from our intentions.

Three Days in Litchfield

Feet bleeding through my socks
the smell of fir and field grass
and new morning dew
pressed into my skin
with lavender scented Epsom salts.
Bone sore, from the top of my neck
to the tips of my toes,
bobbling like and old man
locked in a cheap motel –
waiting for some signal from the weather
hoping money doesn't run dry
like this past summer's rain.
The television for a companion
Gideon's book for recrimination
and Whitman for salvation.
The plumbing is good.
The bed is bug free.
There is rain coming
and the Carlinville train
is 10 miles away.

25 October, 2012

O Losantiville, Don't You Cry For Me- Intermezzo: By Way Of An Introduction

So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears. - Mumford and Sons, The Cave

We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another. -Lucretius

Even in my moments of deep solitude, I am keenly aware of the fact that I am not alone. Maybe the only way to understand the difference between alone and lonely is to have experienced both and until you have the discussion is purely theoretical. Being Out there have been times when I felt absolutely lonely; but I have never really felt alone. I'm lucky in this regard, because I am fortunate enough to have friends who tolerate me and loved ones who tolerate me even more.

I rarely write about the angels who have taken it upon themselves to look in on me from time to time, who worry for my well-being but who understand that I will do what I will regardless of how little common sense it seems to have. As a matter of fact, I've been accused, more than once, of not having a lick of common sense at all.  If anything, I am occasionally plagued by a certain blindness which looks an awful lot like naivete or an over-abundant faith in my own ability. Mostly though, I recognize that even the most assiduously laid plans are flawed.

When I set out in January and took to carrying my home on my back like any good turtle does, I did it in part with the realization that while I maintained the same obligation of CHOICE that I also was letting go of a lot of a priori notions, ideas people take for granted, in order to follow what I can only describe as THE WHIM OF THE UNIVERSE -- because I have long rejected the metaphor of the white bearded Almighty sitting on a cloud and because I realize that no matter how much good a person tries to do in the world, shit falls on the just and the unjust alike. Which is to say: while I believe that some of the good we do in the world may come back to us, and I do think any negative energy we put out into the world attracts negative people and negative events,

I reject the notion of "visualization" a la The Secret which has somehow managed to be labeled as self-help. 

Yes, we are responsible for our actions and their impacts.

Yes, it's important to be active and to be aware of our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. (Half of this begins with language... not only the words we use to communicate, but those words we use when we are thinking to ourselves.)

But if you decide to "visualize" yourself driving a Mercedes Benz, you will not necessarily end up driving said high end automobile. If you haven't figured that out yet, go listen to Janis Joplin. Even she knew better.


And since we're on the subject of metaphors -- and with the understanding that all lines that are drawn in the sand are arbitrary -- let offer the one that, for now, offers some explanation of how I go about things.

Probably of no surprise to anyone who knows me, I tend to think in musical terms.

For more time than I cared to admit, life felt out of rhythm. I felt it. I think my now ex-wife felt it, too. When I set out in January, in as much as I was leaving a life that had ceased to work towards the growth of either me or my then wife, I was also searching for an appropriate rhythm.

Not someone else's that sounded good. Not one that was unnatural for me or ran contrary to my soul. I went in search of rhythm that was mine, my own, and no one else's. You can insert here the metaphor of "the path" as well. And as Joseph Campbell pointed out, if you can see the path in front of you it isn't of your making. The same goes with finding an appropriate rhythm. If you take on someone else's just because you like it or even because it makes sense, that doesn't mean it's the one you ought to be humming.

Ah... but back to the angels. And no. I don't mean the winged messengers of Gawd Almighty. I mean those folks who do the good work of the world, who care about others, and who find ways to show it. In my case, I have been visited/helped by more angels than I can possibly justify deserving. \

People I meet along the way, who have made a permanent impression on my mind, and on my heart.

People who have helped me without having a good reason, other than being simply good folk.

People who love me in spite of maybe not understanding me.

One of those angels, for example -- one I have not written about much -- gave me a heads up about the taxi service that saved me a long rainy walk from Litchfield to Carlinville.

View Larger Map

Sometimes, in spite of my (albeit humble) confidence in my ability when I'm out, the universe gives me a hand. In this case, is was in the form of someone who ... not wanting me to sleep out in the rain because it would have taken me much longer than the estimated 5.5 hours to walk 15 miles and I would have had to seek shelter somewhere in between... pointed me in the direction of a questionable but effective cab company that, for the cost of $24 and a lingering sensation that I was about to be become the victim of a team of sadistic rural serial killers, would drive me there.

Along the same route I would have probably walked.

You know who you are, angel. Thank you. You are proof that the universe can, indeed, be kind.

23 October, 2012

O Losantiville, Don't You Cry For Me (2nd Chorus)

Cincinnati presents an odd spectacle. A town which seems to want to get built too quickly to have things done in order.  -- Alexis de Tocqueville (1831)

I'm digging in the dirt
To find the places I got hurt
Open up the places I got hurt. -- Peter Gabriel (1992)

Once upon a time... maybe.
With my southbound trip delayed until I can rebuild the travel fund, I find myself back in Cincinnati, the land of flying pigs, tragic professional sports, a lagging and parasitic corporate mindset, arguably the worst alternative weekly paper in the country next to The River Cities Reader (yes, I mean YOU, CityBeat)and a shrinking population. Ah, yes, Losantiville... the city along the Ohio River that has alternately fed and starved my creative soul for as long as I can remember. Long a city full of unkept promises, of high ideals muddied by the low character of its leadership, and certainly the most prototypcially American of all cities in it's sense of exceptionalism, it's classism, it's blatant attempts at historical revision at the expense of the truth, and it's adherence to the tenets of organized capital that have sucked the marrow of the body politic near dry, Cincinnati has been writing it's death warrant for years.  

Not deliberately, of course, and not with any of the effort befitting a full blown conspiracy. The problem has never been that people don't WANT the city to succeed. The problem has always been that there are conflicting visions of what success means, and a certain, maybe cultural intransigence on the part of people when it comes to working together. One of the major problems is that there's a seemingly collective mindset so outdated that it's beyond quaint. It's beyond sentimental. It's beyond nostalgia. As a matter of fact, it's nostalgia -- coupled with a Holocaust deniers ability to rewrite the past -- that plagues the place.

But, I'm here. This is where the universe sees fit to deposit me, rather than someplace warmer with a beach, a warm sun, comfortable tidal waters, and large doses of tropical booze. And since I'm here, I might as well do something useful.  Because in spite of the fact that I have always been and continue to be critical of the Ohio Valley in general, of Cincinnati in particular, and of the corporate mindset that has always, it seems, held sway*, I still feel a connection to this place.

Not one that I would label as "home," exactly. Not the same sense of connection I have with Mount Carroll or for Eastern Kentucky. And it's nothing like  the complete ambivalence bordering on contempt that I have for Bethel, the town where I grew up. Cincinnati is the name of the shadow I grew under, the name of my first urban experience, the name of the place I ran to when I first needed to run.

But I have never been a city person. 

Growing up in a small town, even one as helplessly myopic and hopelessly shortsighted as Bethel, does make a person a bit more... stoic. The only place that it seems necessary to hurry is in a city, where life happens entirely too fast sometimes and everyone acts as if they are going to miss something if they stop long enough to enjoy the moment they are in.

Being back here, though, I feel a sense of obligation to the place that I am still trying sate. That means digging in, finding a way to contribute to something. Something meaningful. Something useful. Freelance journalism. Teaching, maybe. Yes, that's right. I'm looking into teaching and tutoring as a way to rebuild the travel fund. And I'm looking into other ways I can dig in.

Stay tuned.

I'm also taking the time begin work on a book expanding on the things I've been writing about in this blog, and to put together another chapbook, tentatively named Whitman By Moonlight.

*There were only two reasons why people chose to settle and found communities on this continent: religious/spiritual/philosophical compulsion (attempts at Utopian or theocratic societies) or commercial ones. Towns and cities tend to grow and die along the lines of commerce. If you don't believe me, take a drive along Route 66. Then drive the same distance on an interstate. The shift from Main Street to the interstate exit/entrance ramp is profound. It was the same when commerce was done primarily along the railroads and river transport. 

10 October, 2012

Oh Losantiville, Don't You Cry For Me / A Kid With No Ace In The Hole

And the Senator, while insisting he was not intoxicated, could not explain his nudity. - quote from opening credits to WKRP IN CINCINNATI

Chicago sounds rough to the maker of verse. One comfort we have -- Cincinnati sounds worse. - Oliver Wendell Holmes

My curve through the corn belt blew through the money I had managed to save up working in Mount Carroll. Southern Illinois is a stretched and beautiful landscape, much of which is lost when you stick to the I-55 corridor. If I had been a stray dog instead of a wandering human, I would have had no problem finding shelter; there are as many animal shelters/rescues as there is corn... but no motels or hotels in Mount Olive, Benld, or Gillespie. There's one in Staunton, 4 miles to the south of Mount Olive, and several in Litchfield off the I-55 exit ramp. No shelters for poor weary travelers that far south. Some friendly folks, like Stacey, who gave me a ride from Crawdaddy's Bar in downtown Mount Olive to the Union Miner's Cemetery, and the nice Indian woman -- whose name may or may not have been Patel -- at the America's Best Value Inn in Litchfield who let me check in early.

Beyond that, human kindness in Southern Illinois was as abundant as the free soup.

To be fair, though, I wasn't too terribly surprised when no one picked me up along Route 66. If I didn't know me, I'd probably not pick me up, either, and I didn't mind sleeping out. Getting the cab ride to Carlinville was worth the $24, since it would have taken me  a lot longer than the 20 minute drive to walk there.  I went to Carlinville because that was the nearest public transportation that could carry me into Chicago, and from there I would be able to make my way anywhere.

Options? Well, the travel fund was getting near to sucked dry... a situation I could do very little about at the moment. Yes, I have some folks I can call on, but I don't like to do that until there's no option. At that point I was still thinking I'd make it down to Albuquerque to read, but I wasn't seeing how I could do a whole lot of anything given the fact that three days in Litchfield, trying to get my feet back to their version of normal -- which was a slight derivation of my original plan, which had been to walk from Mount Olive up Route 4 through Benld and Gillespie into Carlinville (which I changed at the last minute finding nothing resembling cheap accommodations anywhere northbound EXCEPT Litchfield) -- had left me with limited options.

I decided, then to head to Cincinnati, and try figure out what to do next from there.

No matter what issues I have with the city, it's one whose skyline always stirs as much feelings of home as feelings of disconnectedness.  Cincinnati is a town fraught with nostalgia -- that same odd malignant strain infecting Southern Illinois along Route 66 -- that sense that nostalgia and blind longing have replaced memory, have replaced history. Monuments to our honored dead -- those whose lives and whose deaths we, as a society, are singularly uncomfortable with, like Mother Jones and the Union martyrs, like the Blackhawk Monument in Kent, Illinois  -- offer little but a series of spiritual Meccas along trails we have long since forgotten, trails where we have left pieces of ourselves and haven't begun to go back and pick them back up. There are bread crumbs out there: little pieces of who we are, who we should be, who we are capable of being, and we have not as a culture decided it's time to go and find those parts of ourselves we've lost in the process of insisting ourselves into a mock-historical narrative defined by Manifest Destiny. Cincinnati is a city at odds with itself, and for very specific reasons.

Like Mount Carroll and probably everywhere else in America, the various visions of the future and dueling identities are at odds with one another. A corporate stronghold, a staunch and conservative political perspective that exists along with a shrinking population (People are leaving because there are no jobs.) and a self-defeating attitude of isolation and self-enforced segregation (along class, race, political, ideological, and dogmatic lines).  People who don't know where to look could mistake Cincinnati as a city without real culture.

They'd be wrong.

The problem with Cincinnati isn't that there isn't culture. And I don't mean the stuff that attracts the black tie crowd, though some people think that's all there is to culture. There's always been a vibrant arts community here. But it's one that tends to either be excluded or exclude itself from any real conversations about the character and personality of the city. There's some damn fine writers, musicians, and artists here. But when the city's only alternative press barely gives a nod to anything and acts insulted and offended when their apathy and unwarranted snobbery is pointed out to them, and they still don't bother to write about what goes on here unless it's playing at the playhouse downtown or at US Bank arena -- it's very little surprise that the musicians, writers, and artists respond in kind to a city that only loves them when they can fit into the corporate culture that's choking the soul out of this place.

Yes, City Beat. I'm talking about you.

So I rode the train back to Cincinnati. There are only one train route that comes through the Queen City. The Cardinal, which runs south through Saint Louis, down into Texas, and north up to New York. The southbound train stops at 1:27 in the morning. The northbound stops at 3:14 in the morning.

I'm here for the time being, visiting family and hoping to see friends and pondering how to best get back out on the road. I'm even pondering trying to pick up work for  few months... gawd forbid.

07 October, 2012

Crossing the Madison Street Bridge in Chicago at Midnight

I'm not so used to cities at night anymore.
The vast silence of steel and false night lights
gleaming in the darkness –

some apocalyptic dystopia
some photographic negative
of minutes spent scurrying
in the name of family, of god, of country
and credit rating.

Not so used to tall shadows created by dead things
that themselves are shadows – monolithic memento moris
leftover from forgotten dreams of some
Victorian Age notion of progress built
out of 20th Century materials
to become the icons of the new millennium.

Not so used to feeling crowded in on a deserted street,
These shadows, they have eyes

and they are always watching
and they are always waiting.

I don't know what it is they are waiting for
or why they insist on watching –

maybe they are waiting for my death,
watching for that opportune moment to pick my bones clean
like road kill on Old Route 66.

There are no questions here.
No one asks where it is I am going or
where it is I have come from.
My presence goes unnoticed.
There are no familiar faces in this city
upon which I might call on this chilly night
beg a couch and a few swallows of wine,
some warmth and conversation, trading tales
and the sweet lies that make of a man's daily life.

There are no doors open to me here.
Only a 24 hour chain donut shop –
and even then,
I must be careful not to offend
the impatient Middle Eastern man
who works the counter
blaring gangster rap.
Crossing the Madison Street bridge at midnight,
light reflecting in ripples on the waves
passing bus rumbles and shakes the bridge
creating ripples in the Earth
that cannot be erased
unto the last generation.

Street construction does not slow the steady rot underneath everything
man's hands have made.

I am not used to it. I find myself begging
for stars and for the breathing shadows
of more natural landscapes.

Nearing my 40th year I have begun to see
what it is I need. And it's not
any of the things I have been told.
Punch drunk clarity comes at almost two in the morning
sitting in a donut shop
as the city sinks into it's own arms
like a last call drunk.

Walk the streets, pedestrians disappearing into other shadows,
into older shadows. My own shadow, fractured as if
through a dark kaleidescope, four or five times –
A Schrödinger's puzzle.
I consider the possibility that they're following mw
intending to do me harm.

But I choose to dismiss this as paranoid delusion:
my shadows could never harm me
since it would hurt them in the long run.

I stop short of reminding myself that people do that very thing
all the time.

When I was young, I ran away to the city.
I craved the vibration, the cement, the anonymity.

Now I want to breathe big
and fill my eyes wide with green spaces,
acres of sky ascending and dissipating into nothing
into energy, into the cosmos, into stars, and into the ripple of planets
in Einstein's giant gravity blanket.

Now I want to walk in large strides
and I want to talk in large strides
and I want to traverse it all,
even the most inaccessible places.
Now I crave a western expanse.
Now I crave the Appalachian hills.
Now I crave rolling prairie
and nights re-splendid with a thousand million stars.

Now I crave a world in which
a man might breathe and live and love
and find solace in things that grow,
peace in warm fire,
among the songs and company of friends.

My soul speaks, sings out to this place.
It is waiting for the song to return.

I want to believe in all that is grand.
I want to believe in all that is beauty.
There is energy and beauty, where there are people scratching,
bumping into one another on the street, rubbing against the sidewalk,
opening and closing doors – in the same way atoms bounce,
and in the same way that neutrons bounce and bump.

There is a pulse where people are singing.
There is a pulse where a woman takes down her hair.

My soul speaks, sings out to the this place
because there is a rhythm under the cacophony
and some folks call it human.

My soul speaks, sings out to this place.
It is still waiting for an answer.

I want to believe in beauty
in spite of what my culture tells me –
and I am finally beginning to understand
that all that's beautiful
and all that's ugly
begins in me
like it begins in you.

02 October, 2012

Cornbelt Intermezzo - Union Miner's Cemetery/ 15 Miles to Litchfield

That's the problem with politics. Everybody's cock-blocking everybody else! Cock-blocking! - Overheard at Crawdaddy's Bar in Mount Olive, IL

This is what happens when a lack of planning works out exactly as planned. - Me, aloud to no one, around mile 10

Going to Mount Olive is one of the few excursions I've taken this year where I actually wanted to go somewhere to see some specific thing. In this case, the Union Miner's Cemetery, and the Mother Jones/ Union Martyrs Monument. That I'd want to go see it shouldn't surprise anyone who knows my love of history -- of stories in general, especially the forgotten or overlooked ones -- or my politics. A few of those same people would also point out that I haven't, as a habit, liked to visit cemeteries; but, since it IS October, and since I probably won't get to celebrate All Hallow's Eve with all the ghosts and ghoulies, I need to get my cemetery time in.

It's not that I don't think we need to respect our hallowed dead. Quite the contrary. I think they deserve something more than a monument or a headstone.

Standing in front of the Union Miner's Memorial, I was struck by two things:

  1. Our pitifully short collective memory, and
  2. my own need to be useful.

Before I left Mount Carroll this time, when I would talk to people about going to Mount Olive to see Mother Jones' grave, I was saddened by how hardly anyone knew who I was talking about.  A master agitator, and a one woman army who spent most of her adult life working to ensure that workers got a fair shake. She once helped settle a strike in favor of a local miner's union in Pennsylvania by getting all the wives together and rattling pans and pots. The sound scared the mules, which frightened the scabs brought in to help break the strike by taking their jobs.

Some of the other people memorialized on the monument died in the Battle of Virden -- another one of those ... eh... undiscussed bits of history... probably because the larger narrative of Manifest Destiny is muddied by those stories that can't be poured into a rose-colored Little House on the Prairie mold.

Speaking of colored -- another thing that's rarely discussed when race relations are the topic is how coal and mineral mine owners intentionally used black labor from the south as scabs -- this encouraged sometimes prevalent bigotry among union members and gave them a new target... when they should have been going after the bosses instead.

Soaking in these stories so I can learn more about them and pass them on is central to why I do what I do. The itchy foot leads the way, to a certain extent; it certainly isn't all some deep and burning mission that drives me out of comfortable surroundings and the company of friends and loved ones.

And while some would -- and have -- told me it all sounds so idyllic, the truth is that sometimes it's not. As a matter of fact, I might even go as far as to say that more than occasionally  tramping around on bus, on train, on foot, and on the good grace of friends who happen to be going in that particular direction has it's share of difficulty.

While I am safely ensconced in a still-too-highly-priced-but cheaper-than-Super 8 motel, last night I slept outside. Lucky for me, I had my Mexican blanket (hmmm... I'm detecting a theme) and my sleeping pad... which is awesome, by the way. It's not sturdy enough not to end up with holes from sticks and twigs, but it does a great job of keeping the cold ground not so cold. Luckily the weather was working in my favor, too. It got a little cold after 1 in the morning, but no frost and no rain.

I was on foot from Mount Olive to Litchfield up Route 66. I'd walked from Staunton, the nearest motel Northwest of Mount Olive, in order to visit the monument. That was a nice stretch of the legs -- just over 4 miles. From Mount Olive to Litchfield -- the next nearest place with a motel other than backtracking to Staunton -- was, according to available digital intelligence and map coordination,  just over 9 miles.

While I do like to walk, and I'm not afraid to hoof it over a fair distance, even I knew that was more than I had walked in a single stretch. EVER. I'm probably not in the shape I ought to be in. And on top of that, my feet have been in rebellion against for as long as I can remember. I adjust to the sometimes perpetual pain by walking a little slower than the average gait. So right there, I knew the estimated 3.5 hours allotted to make the walk was going to be longer.

Much, much longer.

Another complication was Route 66 itself. Large segments of it aren't marked, and there a difference between Route 66 and "Old Route 66" (which was used until the "new" one was finished in 1940.)  As a matter of fact, all of southern Illinois -- the rural part, at any rate -- lacks signage. I understand that there probably weren't signs telling drivers how far away the next town was back when people drove state highways. But why now?

Oh, right. Nostalgia. Well, I can tell you that along Route 66 there's more nostalgia than anything else. And that includes a cheap bowl of soup.

My pace slows considerably as my lousy feet and out of shape leg muscles sent waves of pain up through my body. As the sun was going down, it became clear that I wasn't going to make it to Litchfield to sleep... which had been my plan. So I found a place off the side of the road, across the ditch and over a small embankment, behind a medium sized fir tree. Brush and small trees on the other side, down the slope, to a creek and, on the other side of that train tracks.

The sun sank quickly and the sky was over cast. Breezy, but not cold. Luckily, the embankment protected me from the wind as well as from view; I didn't want to start a fire because I didn't want to draw attention to myself.

Other than the crickets serenading me to sleep, the only other neighbor of note was a deer. I think it was a deer, anyway. Something was sitting in the brush a stones throw down the embankment from me. It sounded like deer, and I was perfectly willing to believe it was.

The world has a rhythm. Wind through the dying leaves. Crickets and the rustling of deer in the brush. At one point I thought I heard it start to rain, but quickly realized it wasn't rain. It was dew. Intermittently, trains rolled by and added to the song. traffic eventually trickled down and then stopped altogether. The wind died down. Silence. Solace.

Around 9:30 the clouds broke a little and the moon shone through, like a lazy, watchful eye. By midnight they had all but dissipated. The moon was so bright I could read by it. some stars were visible, too. I was tired, lonely, but I didn't feel alone. And I knew I was going to be okay.

I broke camp at first light and kept on towards Litchfield, finally making it, and managing to get checked in a motel for the night.

Of course, I have a 17 mile hike up Route 66 to Carlinville, where the nearest Amtrak station is. And I hear it's supposed to frost soon -- if not tonight, then tomorrow night. I probably should have planned this better, but it's been worthwhile, too.

If you happen to know someone who's driving between Litchfield and Carlinville, send them my direction. I could use a lift. To be honest, I'm probably stuck at least tonight, and probably tomorrow night. And in spite of my frugality -- I only spend money on liquids and housing -- I'm burning through my travel funds faster than I had hoped.

01 October, 2012

Southern Jaunt: Budget 10 Ghost Town

Live, Travel, Adventure, Bless, and don't be sorry. -- Jack Kerouac 

Live to tell the story; but make it interesting. - Me

I miss the days when Super 8 didn't think they were a respectable motel chain; somewhere just above Motel 6 -- who left the light on to scare the cockroaches back into the walls -- and a notch or two below the HoJo attached to  the mildly sleazy bar with the giant pickled egg jar no one dare open.

My intent was to stay in Mount Olive at the only motel listed on any website anywhere... a Budget 10 motel. My standards, you understand, are on the low side. Even after the onslaught of bed bugs at the Lewis and Clark Inn (Billings, Montana) I try and stay away from nationally recognized chains or anyplace that might think highly enough of itself to include more than one functioning light source, a shower curtain, and a television with a busted volume button that conveniently only shows programming on one, regionally based religious programming station.

Alas, upon finding Mt. Olive -- my almost arbitrarily picked starting point for this jaunt -- I found a small town that Google Maps was, not surprisingly, trying to overlook. Historic Route 66... in these parts, IL 138 ... goes straight through town. My ride -- Carroll County artist and all around cool chick Heather Houzenga was kind enough to give me ride on her way to St. Louis.  She drove through the center of town ... which I plan on writing more about in another entry, since I'm going to be spending a large chunk of my day there tomorrow... and, finding no other motel except for what could have only been the Budget 10, which was located right off the exit from IL-55 south to IL 138 (Route 66)... she drove me back and waited to make sure I had a room.

Good thing she waited. The motel was deserted. The cobwebs had cobwebs on them, and those cobwebs were deserted.

You know there's something wrong with a place when even the spiders vacate.

I walked up to the restaurant  which was open, to inquire as to whether the place was, in fact, open and merely disgustingly dirty (Again... not a deal breaker) or the scene of some grizzly serial murders resulting in the most popular chili in any restaurant in down state Illinois. I walked in to see an old man on the right, seated alone at a table for four, sniffing at something at the end of his fork I hoped was steak. There was a girl behind the counter who eyed me with a small amount of suspicion. To my left, there was a couple at a another table, drinking coffee and talking to the other waitress, who paid me no attention at all.

After disrupting the nothing at all that was going on, I was told the nearest hotel was in Staunton, one exit up on IL-55. It was a Super 8.

The problem with Super 8 is that they've decided to be... well... hoity toity.

I appreciated an in room coffee pot like the next caffeinated guy. I suppose it's useful to have a microwave... for the processed food I avoid buying out on the road... and a refrigerator ... for the left overs I never have. Now, don't get me wrong. I don't MIND these things. I merely object that I have to pay more than I'd like just because there isn't one no-tell motel, or available shelter.

Add to that the fact that, upon checking in, my identity was questioned because apparently the zip code listed on my replacement driver's license is for some town in Mexico.

Yes. Really. A short motel manager of Indian descent named Patel -- insisted that the zip code he punched in was for a town in Mexico.

Never mind that when I transpose "61053" to "60153" I still get another town in Illinois. Never mind that when I looked up Mexican zip codes, there aren't any that resemble "61053" at all.  And never mind that this is the THIRD time that my pale, German/Irish mug has somehow been confused with one of Mexican descent.

I'm not particularly offended. But Mexicans might be.

Ah, hell. Viva la revolucion! Viva Mexico!

[Thanks for reading. Being back out on the road, the travel fund could use some shekels. If you like the blog, like me, or would rather me not come crash at your house, please donate.  Take care.]