Looking Forward to Further Foreboding

All the seers say the same.
The Tarot Tower looms tenaciously
as will o’ wisps hover wistfully
outside windows closed to hope.

A broken timepiece holds dread
in a cedar closet as days to come
fall silent and the pulse thunders
in unbearable auditory recruitment.

An ominous prophecy has planted
seeds of anxiety germinating till
terror blooms in full flower
in a fecund garden of trepidation.

But the hardy defy the odds,
for what else can be done?
They don their hats, step into
open air and wish you well.

Make Hay and Haul It Away

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You need at least three people: one to drive the truck, one to throw the bales up on the trailer, and one to stack the bales on the trailer. That was me. I mean, that was I. I was the one who stacked the bales.
You had to stack them so that the bales on the edge of the trailer were raised on the outer edge and sloping toward the centre. Once you had a good stack of hay going, it shouldn’t be tilting out in peril of falling back to the pasture. If you stacked them right, you could rest pretty easy, and it made a pretty pattern, too, if you like that sort of thing.
So that’s what we did. It was a pretty small load, I guess, as we only had a pickup truck and a double-axle trailer, not even a gooseneck. I think it was about 32 bales or something in that ballpark. Everything seemed okay, so we settled up and pulled out on Farm Road 942 to take the hay up to the lease further west on 942. To go east to west on 942, you have to cross Highway 59, which is five lanes: two northbound, two southbound, and a chicken lane in the centre. To follow 942 from east to west, you had to turn north on 59 at the caution light into the chicken lane, go a little ways, and then take another left to continue west on the farm road.
As you might have guessed, as we turned right on 59 and started to pull into the chicken lane, the load shifted somehow. I don’t know if the springs sagged a little or we hit a pothole, or what, but I don’t think I stacked the load the wrong way, so I really don’t feel like taking the blame for it. Still, the load shifted and about half of it fell on the highway, and we had to get out there and pick it up.
I wasn’t any too excited about doing that. A couple of years earlier, I was crossing at that very place, by that very caution light on my dirt bike when a car hit me, a 12-year-old boy riding a dirt bike illegally across Highway 59 at dusk. I survived that crash all right, as you can tell, but I still have little flashbacks every time I turn onto 942 right up to this day.
Still, you do what you have to do, and we cleaned up the mess pretty good, and I think we added a couple of ropes to the sides to help hold the bales a little closer to home and then made our way to the cow lease, which was only a couple of miles up the road. All’s well that ends well, I guess, but I always keep a couple of extra straps on hand when carrying any kind of load on a truck or trailer. Every time you see a load dropped on the road, I can guarantee you that the last words someone said before setting off was, “Let’s go. That ain’t going nowhere.”

Poem: A Day for Gratitude (and Greed)

In a hushed and reverent tone
he asked us to bow our heads
in gratitude for those who sacrificed
so much for our prosperity.

We took a moment to remember
those who lost their lives and
their land to the invaders
euphemistically known as settlers.

We whispered muted prayers
of thanks to those who lost
their lives and liberty to traders
paradoxically called masters.

We mumbled appreciation
for those who acquired
resources from abroad while
posing as freedom fighters.

We thanked Providence for all
the blood shed on our behalf.
We raised our heads with ravenous
relief and set tooth to bone.

Broken Dreams on the Moscow, Camden and San Augustine Railroad

One interesting fact about the Moscow, Camden and San Augustine Railroad short line in East Texas is that it never did go to San Augustine. For whatever reason, it never went further than Moscow (pronounced moss-COW), which was only seven miles from Camden. That line was built specifically for carrying timber from the Camden sawmill, but it also carried passengers all the way up to 1973, which was about when I last rode it. By then, it only took passengers on excursion runs from Camden to Moscow and back.

The last time I rode it, I was about 12, and there was a young mother sitting across from me with children who must have been four or five. I remember her saying, “Come on, kids, if we keep a look out, we might see a cow.” That was funny to me at the time, but I now see how smart it was. Those kids were certainly going to see some cows and not much else, unless a horse came into view, because there was nothing else out there but trees and cow pastures.

This clever mother guaranteed that her children would not be disappointed all while keeping expectations fairly low, and I can report that we did see plenty of cows that day. Hereford and Angus, I think they were. I think we also had the bonus pleasure of seeing a farmer on a tractor, so those kids had a great day out.

Other than cows, I think we only saw abandoned houses. Camden was a company town, but the W.T. Carter & Bro. lumber company moved all the workers to Corrigan a few years earlier. In its heyday, the population of Camden was only a few hundred people. We made definite plans to return to those old houses to see what treasures or secrets the previous owners had left behind, expensive jewels, perhaps, or (more interesting to a child) diaries and letters confessing to crimes and misdemeanours. For whatever reason, we never thought much of ghosts in a metaphysical sense, but the idea of past lives lingering in these empty buildings was palpable.

All we ever found in any of those houses was broken bottles and forgotten dreams.

Poem: Champagne and Sunflowers

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In Galveston, Texas, you can’t always tell
the millionaires from the homeless, so
savvy businesses don’t assume the
slovenly won’t spend.

All the same,
The Sunflower Cafe is for
the relatively well-heeled,
serving a quiet Sunday brunch
for the sophisticated,
the students and professors,
the artists and seafarers.

So, see, the hostess was
always going to be polite
to the disheveled and slightly
drunk man who stooped up to
the doorstep on a Sunday morning
to ask If they were serving alcohol.

“Yes, sir,” she smiled,
“We have mimosas today.”

“Mimosa? What’s that?”

“It’s champagne with orange juice.”

“Champagne and orange juice! What the Hell?”

And with that, he shuffled off shaking his head
with more than a tinge of judgment for
the poor fools who knew what to do with
neither champagne nor orange juice.

Gender diversity and social collapse

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I don’t think gender issues should be so complicated. If it isn’t in someone’s nature to conform to the rigid gender stereotypes imposed on children from birth, that person is trans, but certainly no one is obligated to adopt that label for themselves. And we wound’t have any conflict about it if we just let people live their lives according to their own nature and desires.

Those who are great leaders should lead. Those who are nurturers should nurture. Those who want to wear makeup should be encouraged to do so. Those who enjoy wearing dresses and skirts should be able to go on enjoying those. And people who enjoy wearing suits should be sequestered in office blocks in the central areas of major municipalities where they won’t interfere with the rest of our lives.

We could have food and entertainment shipped in to them so they never have to leave. They could even have fitness equipment on site to keep them relatively healthy. In order to keep them from resenting life in a prison, we would call it a campus, reminding them of all the fun they had in their fraternities and sororities. We’ll make them think living in a high-rise prison is a perk of their merit, their innate superiority. They can dream of colonising Mars. We will sing and dance and love and laugh with merriment till the cows come home.

Panpsychism, Halloween, and Rockin’ Bones

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I’m getting a little creeped out by all these discussions of panpsychism so near Halloween. I keep imagining my self, that conscious thing I call me, being a composite of billions of conscious particles that form this flawed and striving awareness who suffers through the trials of material existence. I then imagine my death, inadequately defined by current bioethical standards, and the concurrent self-awareness of all those same particles. Surely they are aware of the transition. Surely they are aware that the body is slowly releasing them to a more generalised universal awareness. The bones, of course, are the last to go. These particles have always had the strongest attraction, the most rigid bond. They only take their leave reluctantly, in obedience to fire, perhaps, or millennia of attrition. Only when release is completely unavoidable will they depart and join the infinite chorus of self-less bliss.

Faulkner’s and My Racist Past

I’m currently reading Faulkner’s A Light in August, and I’m not sure I will ever finish it. It is a difficult read, of course, because it is Faulkner, and his writing is challenging in the best of circumstances, but it is also difficult because of the violence, sexual abuse and unmitigated racism. The entire fabric of the narrative is woven from the common threads of racism and misogyny, and I was cut from this cloth of southern bigotry. I’ve spent most of my life trying to unravel that fabric and create a new narrative from the threads of compassion and universal human dignity, but it’s hard to destroy what you can’t see.

For the most part, the principle characters in the novel are white. I say for the most part because one character suspects and is suspected of having at least “one drop” of mixed-race heritage. He and all the other characters use the n-word prodigiously, and violence simmers just below the surface even in the times when it is not erupting, which is far too often. Just beneath the racial violence is misogyny and violence against women. At the root of it all, of course, is the abysmal treatment of children. This is a critical story, if you have the stomach for it, and we should all have the stomach for it.

Some might think this is a grotesque exaggeration of white culture or some throw-back to days long since passed, The language and attitudes of these characters will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the American south, especially the rural south. [I should add here that I don’t for one minute think the rest of the country is or ever was free from racism, but I speak here only of my and Faulkner’s context.] In this setting, violence, or the threat of violence, pervades every living space and every waking moment. And it is meted out with a righteous religious fervour.

We currently live in a time when the overt, unabashed and unapologetic racism of Faulkner’s story is gaining acceptance in the public sphere. I had hoped we had put such times behind us. Perhaps it is good that we’ve dropped the facade of political correctness and pulled the veil off the danger lurking beneath.

It makes me think back to an earlier time (it was the 1980s) when I had a particularly upsetting encounter with this bald-faced style of racism, and it came, of course, from my own family. I was in my 20s then, and I tried to fulfil family obligations when possible. Wanting to keep the remains of his family together, my grandfather would host family reunions from time to time, and he insisted that we all attend, because nothing was more important than family.

This reunion would be my last, though. Before the food was set out and served, the family was sitting around in lawn chairs just passing the time. The weather should have provided enough fodder for mindless chat, but their minds turned to their own suffering, which was caused (they thought) by having to work with people who were not white. Even worse (they thought) was the fact that their colleagues demanded minimum levels of respect and human decency.

As you already realise, they described these people using the n-word in every sentence, and sometimes used it more than once in a single sentence. The hatred flowed like water from the tap. They said many upsetting things, but the sentence that still echos in my mind said, “We got us a bunch of sensitive (this word was drawn out for emphasis) _________. It’s bad enough we have to work with __________. Now they don’t even want to be called __________.”

I left. My wife and children and I all got in the car and left. Later, I was scolded by family members. They told me family was paramount, and that we all have to accept family unconditionally. Blood is thicker than water, and all that. The problem, which I knew at the time, is that this demand for unconditional love and acceptance only goes one way.

Would they embrace a family member who was not Christian? Not straight? A vegetarian? Gender nonconforming? Not white? I can assure you they would not. While demanding unconditional love and acceptance, they offered only hatred and judgment for anyone who veered from their vision of a “good” person.

I remember a conversation with my grandmother where she described how nice and helpful some of the local boys were. I tried to explain to her that I was the target of their bullying. I tried to tell her they were only nice to members of their own group. I tried to explain that they were violent toward outsiders. They were violent toward me. It turns out my family thought I was the one who needed to change, but I never did.

Memoir: Lonnie and Matrimonial Complexity

Like me, my Uncle Lonnie (great-uncle, actually) married an English woman. He met her when he was stationed in England during the second world war. I always heard the story that he married an English woman, she flew over to Texas and then high-tailed it back to England in short order. I always assumed she found the conditions in Polk County somewhat lacking for a woman of good taste, because conditions around there were a little Southern Gothic, to be sure.

I’ve recently found that many memories of my family are based on false assumptions I made when I was too young for the adults to tell me the whole truth. So to be safe, I asked my mother if I had the story straight. First of all, Mom said I was at their wedding, which means it was after 1960. I had always assumed it was the late 40s or early 50s in the years immediately after the war.

While I had assumed the wife wasn’t happy in Texas, Mom said the problem, as she remembered it, was that Lonnie’s Texas girlfriend was none too happy when his new English wife showed up, and made things uncomfortable for everyone.

So, I had to ask a followup question. “His Texas girlfriend? Did he have another one besides Aunt Jewel?” No, that’s the one, Mom assured me. She also added a bit of additional information: the English wife, I wish I knew her name, had “medical problems” related to sex. This was all so upsetting that my Aunt Edith took her to the doctor and let her stay with her and my Uncle JC for awhile before she returned to England. Apparently, the rest of the family was appalled by the way he had treated his wife.

My own memories of Uncle Lonnie are fairly benign. He owned an ice cream stand just outside of Livingston and a general store a few miles down the road. Jewel, previously mentioned, lived in a house next to the store with her children and ran the store. I only remember her being kind and patient. I never knew any of her children.

When Lonnie would smile, you’d get a glint off his gold tooth, and he smiled a good bit. My memory is a bit sketchy, as it would be, but on one occasion, I remember his bending down, smiling and either giving me quarter for ice cream or just telling me to tell “Aunt Jewel” it was okay for us to have some ice cream. It may well be a phantom of my imagination, but I remember his saying, “Here, take this quarter to Aunt Jewel and tell her I said to give you some ice cream.”

You know, it may have been a Coke or candy or something, but I left with something. When I got back to my grandmother, she asked where I’d gotten my treat. I told her, “Aunt Jewel gave it to me,” and she went white and said, “That woman is not your aunt, and I’ll not have you calling her that in my house!” I never forgot the lesson, but I also didn’t understand it till years later.

About the only other thing I can tell you about Lonnie is that he was reputed to be quite a miser. He never really looked like he had a dime to his name, but owned quite a bit of property in Polk County, and he was the only person I ever knew personally who owned an industrial-sized backhoe, though I don’t remember a time it was ever out of the shed he built for it. When he died, some people had quite a bit of anticipation about where his money would go, but I don’t know how that turned out. I can only share that it didn’t go to me.

Poem: The Unimagined Perils of Fire Pokers

“Did you put another log on the fire?”

As innocent as it was naive, the question
Intended no harm, no trespass
On the rigid boundaries of masculinity.

She didn’t have the image of Wittgenstein
Fending off rivals with a raised poker
In the halls of exalted moral science.

It didn’t throw her thoughts to a
Defensive Popper creating an instant,
Contemporary, and universal moral rule:

“Never put a poker in another man’s fire.”

[Note on poetic license: This doesn’t accurately describe what happened between Wittgenstein and Popper. A more accurate description is here. ]