Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Beans, T-shirts, and Pile-Ups

Cornbread cooked in my skillet. ©2016 MW.
From time to time I find myself in a mood in which nothing is a static & stagnant point but the tail feathers of an arrowed vector shooting off toward some good point in the sky, and oddly enough that's how I feel right now. I just took a break from writing some simple software that will do some basic rewriting of a text—I've always loved what computer programmers call Natural Language Processing (or NLP)—and I watched The Searchers, an old John Wayne movie directed by John Ford. Several months ago I read an inspiring review that suggested there was a lot going on beneath all the shooting, the Indian wars, and the swing of John Wayne's fist, but I didn't see that tonight in my first viewing. Maybe it will come to me, but tomorrow I will hunt down some articles to find what exactly makes The Searchers special. I know, for one thing, that Wayne's character has a gypsy soul. At the beginning of the movie, it took him three years beyond the end of the Civil War to finally come to the only place he might call home, and even then people are uneasy around him, as if his face might be on a wanted poster somewhere. Even after years of searching for a niece kidnapped by Comanches—the movie foreshadows Little Big Man in many ways—he holds back from going through the door of the reunited household. Instead he stays outside to wander off on another adventure or perhaps just to walk the face of the Earth like Kane. We see that insinuation of criminality applied to him again at the end of the movie for a case that was clearly self-defense, but his eager readiness to do the right thing leads to the charge being swept under the carpet. The Searchers emerged from 1956 Hollywood, right smack dab in the middle of the Hollywood blacklisting and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a Hollywood witch-hunting organization, for which Wayne served four one-year terms as president, and which acted as a strange West Coast bedfellow of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington.

From my point of view, which most people would consider as just left of Trotsky, any of the many all-American names associated with the Alliance­—Gary Cooper, Walt Disney, Clark Gable and his hunting buddy director Victor Fleming, Ronald Reagan, among many others—are like heroes who turn out to have a Nazi past. Given the pre-war fascist leanings of Henry Ford, Joseph P. Kennedy, and Charles Lindbergh, thinking of Hollywood's ultra-American good guys as cryptofascists is not as hyperbolic as it seems. Yet I identify with the wanderlust of Wayne's character in The Searchers.

In fact I identify with the wanderlust so much that I've long thought it would be interesting to drive a truck around America for a year or two, and I got so far as being interviewed and accepting an arrangement that would have trained me and gotten me my commercial driving license (or CDL). This would also have made me a little income, which is a lot more than I'm making now. But my brother said that if I took this job, he would put my mother in a nursing home because he doesn't think she's capable of staying here in this house by herself. I responded to that idea in a text message:

She would me devastated if you put her in a nursing home. She wouldn't be able to sleep her own schedule. She wouldn't have her own TV. She wouldn't like the food. There'd be all these people to contend with. It'd kill her.
So even though my family sees me as a parasite living in my mother's house, they do acknowledge that my departure would be an event of such proportion that they would essentially have to lock my mother up. I told my brother that they have me in a damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don't situation: if I stay here, I'm stealing food and money (as if there is money left after paying bills). If I leave, I'm the disloyal son abandoning her in her hour of need. So once again the universe has burned my bridges and left me with nothing to do but write. I have always clung to the saying, "Follow your art and the money will follow," but it takes so long.

When I was a teenager, a friend in the amateur astronomy club to which I belonged shared his computer account at the university with me—personal computers and widespread computer access were a decade away—so I taught myself to program. My family said I was wasting the taxpayers' money. That was absurd reasoning because the programming skills that I gained from that experience launched a 25-year career, and whatever money I wasted back then, the taxpayers made back a hundred fold. But economics are a minor detail compared to the way that belittling damages a child's or adolescent's psyche. I don't blame them for what I am now or for my mistakes, but that's only because I know that when a cowboy gets out of his pickup and puts on a suit, he's still spitting Skoal, carrying a gun, and voting for a dog-eat-dog society.

I don't remember whether it was in Claude Lanzmann's extensive documentary, Shoah, or in a book by Elie Wiesel or Viktor Frankl, but somewhere I learned that at Auschwitz, people were herded through what the Germans called "The Funnel." Along the way they experienced the stripping away of all possessions down to nudity—like the liberation or torture by angels mistaken for demons in the Meister Eckhart quote—in an ever narrowing run of corridors that reached a dead-end at the shower. And when the gas pellets came clunking down that short run of pipe from the roof, people so rushed the tightly-sealed door that they formed a half-pyramid of bodies there, and it was the duty of the workers, who soon enough would find themselves on the other side of the door, to pull this tangle of dead humanity apart so that it could be fed to the ovens. 

That horrible but striking image of that half-pyramid of corpses against the door is the perfect metaphor for the economic ideal of Conservative Americans. As a child I don't believe in death strongly enough to conceive that I will die, but at some mid-point, perhaps a mid-life crisis, perhaps sooner, I become aware of my mortality, and in the Conservative economic game, I put the bumper sticker, "He who dies with the most toys wins," on my car, which stylishly extends my fine suit into a metal container with conditioned sound and air for the freeway. Road rage, for example, is just my stepping on someone's head as I climb the pyramid of bodies at the door. Nobody gets through the door, and nobody gets out of here alive. So I try to come out on top.

I am seeing the fruition of the door-pyramid economy. In the richest country in the world, the wealth is so hoarded among the elite that veterans receive only superficial care at the hands of apathetic bureaucrats; hunger and poverty abound; the police militarize to preserve the status quo as the populace begins to stir in the early tremors of a revolution. Instead of pulling our society together in a large comfortable middle class—and this has been done in places like Japan and South Korea and, to a slightly lesser extent in Western Europe, so it is possible in America—the US deliberately fosters a tentative middle class and a growing lower class. This economic model correlates adversely with the quality of life: just as Japan has a peaceful society, the US has a violent society with a murder rate one hundred times greater than Japan's, and rates of crime and incarceration to go with it. The US locks up one percent of its population, more numerically and per capita than any other country in the world. It has poorer mental and physical health. It has atrocious high school drop-out rates.

I digress. I'm just identifying some of the tendencies toward conservatism in my own family that I had to outgrow. An understanding of Conservative selfishness—what Ayn Rand called a virtue—is the Cliff Notes for my family drama.

It's now 5:47 a.m. At 4 a.m. I boiled water and poured it over pinto beans to soak in the slow cooker. I have buttermilk in the fridge, and I plan to use a cup of it to make cornbread. So supper tomorrow night: beans and cornbread. Come eat.

The Trystero muted post horn from
Thomas Pynchon's
The Crying of Lot 49.
Over the weekend I decided I wanted a T-shirt with the muted trumpet from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 on the chest. Over the past ten years, the internet has expanded to become not just a network of information but a network of things. So I can find out anything, and I can find anything. My finding the trumpet led to the finding of a Web site where I can upload images or text, and the site will print your designs on any of an assortment of objects ranging from T-shirts to coffee cups and from phone cases to notebook covers.

After I ordered my trumpet shirt, I wanted to play with this marvelous new toy, so I created an account and uploaded the calligraphic rendering of the Chinese symbol for mountain () that I use as a logo. The mountain logo looks great on a black T-shirt. I did this because I have always loved the character—I'm nostalgic about it because it is the first Chinese character I learned—and I also wanted to see how the system worked. The logo also connotes positive things from the I Ching that I like. 

Tshirt Model
Model wearing my Mountain Logo T-shirt.
The site let me choose on what sort of products I wanted the logo available, and I nixed a lot of the women's clothing because much of it is white, and white with splashes of blood red, particularly when the logo isn't visible as a unified symbol but wrapping around the back, might make someone look as though they had just miscarried, but the scarf looked pretty neat. I realize that I'm several light years away from the sort of following that evolves into a cult of personality where people say, "Oh, I want to wear Mason West's logo!" The idea seems absurd, and I don't see people ever following me or perceiving me in that way, no matter how successful I might become. However, the logo isn't just about me. The bold strokes of a broad brush forge a strong rendering of a powerful character. In the cycle of trigrams within the I Ching, the mountain represents the sitting down to meditate, which is the step just before the subject achieves a pure yin response to the circumstance of beginning something new: openness is the very first step toward eventual mastery and the power of yang in whatever process I'm working on. So there you go: snatch one of these T-shirts for the I Ching meaning or because you just like the strong image of a mountain, which is visible in the character. Of course if you're motivated just to support me but don't need a T-shirt, I also have a Patreon page.

So someday this phase of caregiving will end. I might not be in the mood to drive a truck then, but I would like to teach for a year or two in China. I'd also like to wander around Latin America if that's possible without getting bushwhacked by all the drug-runners employed to bring product to the US. My blog now is the work of a curious mind in a sedentary or even an agoraphobic body. Yet most of the bloggers I read and vloggers I watch are either traveling or enjoying a long sojourn away from their origins. Sooner or later, I'm taking this show on the road.

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