Saturday, May 16, 2009
A Scot by birth, I have many fond memories of that beautiful country from my childhood. On one return visit I had the opportunity to revisit two places holding a special place in my biography, one was the home I remember and the other was the residence of my maternal grandparents. In both places, a wall is at issue.
My father was a stone mason in Scotland but for a time he worked in my grandfather's fruit and flower shop in a small town called Galston in Ayrshire. There he drove a van to the surrounding farms selling fresh fruit; and both he and my mother worked in the shop arranging wreaths, selling flowers, fruit, and confections. While we lived in Galston, we had a townhouse just a few blocks from the shop. Galston was not a large town and a few blocks from the shop in just about any direction would have taken you past its limits; at any rate, I wasn't too aware of that particular fact as a child.
The first wall in question is a wall my father built at the back our our lot in Galston. It took him about a week of working on it after his job at the shop, as I dimly recall, to build this wall. It served to close off the back of our property to the road that gave rear access to the houses and also to the large flower field owned by a man named Pollock; it also served to keep me and my sister in the yard, which was probably the reason for building it. It was built with red brick and the newness of the brick and wall were accentuated by the newly painted green gate and the light joints of gray mortar. From the back road, our house stood out with a newly constructed brick wall and from the inside the towering wall proved a formidable barrier to escape. The lock was too high for me to reach and it was extremely difficult for me to climb over; but then I discovered a gap in the hedge we had in common with our next door neighbors, the Gemmels.
The other wall was also one that my father built but he built it to border the front yard of Jonadab, my grandfather's house in Cardross, Dunbartonshire. The circumstances of the building of this wall were that my uncle George had bet one of his friends that my dad could build it in a weekend, which he did but not without a great amount of toil, effort, and family dissension. Again, the wall was a grand edifice and graced the old house well.
Owing to the fact that both of these places held special memories for me, they were definitely on my list of sites to see when I returned for a visit a few years ago. Eager with anticipation and flooded with nostalgia I walked up Brewland Street in Galston and around to the back road; much had changed; Pollock's flower field was now filled with houses, the dirt road was paved, and the houses didn't look quite so bright. I scanned the edge of the road as I walked in the direction of my old house, looking for the red brick wall that towered above the hedges, knowing it would be the identifier of my old residence. "Hmmm the new owners must have taken it down," I thought as I continued down the road. I got to the area in the road where I believed our house should be and stopped, looking at each house carefully only to discover that there was a house with a brick wall, but the wall was barely waist high.
The day soon came on our holiday when we made the northwest drive from Hamilton up to Cardross in Dunbartonshire. Let me note here that the Dunbartonshire of my childhood has since been split into east and west and that my visit to Cardross is included in West Dunbartonshire--a change not subject to perception. The road pretty much follows the River Clyde as it winds its way to the sea, starting near Leadhills, which is southeast of Hamilton, and bordering the orchards of Lanark. The estuary of the Clyde has the port of Greenock on the west and directly across from it on the east is the small town of Cardross. When I was growing up most of the houses in Cardross had names, not numbers; and Jonadab was my grandfather's house.
We came in from the south on the A814, a narrow two-lane road that continues into Helensburgh, where I love to get my favorite ice cream treat, a double nouget, and easily found Jonadab on the left just beyond Barr's Crescent and Darleith Rd on the right. It didn't look as clean or grand as it did when we were staying there before leaving to come to America; indeed, the wall was even shorter than the one in Galston.
I was saddened; I could make up stories about the Galston wall having been torn down by new owners but the new next door neighbor turned out to be an old family friend with whom we enjoyed a drink in her garden and she assured me it was the same wall. However, I couldn't even make up stories about Jonadab because it was clear from the architecture that, apart from the visitation of ruin by time, it, too, was the same wall.
Here were two walls and one mason; the first erected in response to love and the other in response to hubris. The first was able to assume the proportion needed to see its duty through and then shrink in size to a more moderate dimension once its charge had been fulfilled; the other, crumbled in disrepair as though the skilled hands of the mason crafted a timely demise into the wall itself as payment for abandoning love in favor of pride.
Both these walls were built by my father; and both fell into compliance with the law that says "love never faileth" and that makes them walls-in-law.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
The term "neurosis" flashed brightly across the night sky of the American culture in the late '50s and into the '60s; a comet whose tail illuminated every ilk of ill that could possibly befall the stressed out suburbanite reeling from "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses" syndrome. As a word, it seems to relate to the nervous system, but as a concept it encapsulates all the traits that triggered the emergence of the "hip" generation, now known as "hippies." Among the grocery list of ailments that this word captures is the term "phobia," which means "fears." But these are not just any old fears; nope, they are very special and coddled fears; indeed, they are fears that, in many cases, arose within us between the ages of 5 and 7 and we have carried them secretly since then. According to their discoverer, our reluctance to face a certain natural fact causes us to displace that reluctance onto something else; this "something else" is termed the phobic object. If we encounter that object in our day-to-day routines, we fear it in a kind of irrational way; not because it actually poses an immense physical threat to us but, owing to the leverage it has, having been so deeply seated in our consciousness, it casts a much larger shadow than should be warranted by its physical presence. This brief background should help us with the following.
About two days earlier from May 11, 2009 a sports reporter was giving her live report after a hockey game when she suddenly screamed and jumped off camera. She continued jumping around and screaming "Oh, my God, it's a rat; Oh my God, it's a rat; Oh my God, Oh my God." She was visibly agitated despite the fact that it was live TV (I caught the replay the next day). There had been a rat running across the ice right at her feet and had caught her completely unawares; however, the great lengths to which she went to protest its presence betray the fact that something other than a surprise was afoot. Now, to be sure, the presence of a rat on ice is, in itself, somewhat surprising; maybe it was an Eskirat just out trying to find food to take back to its ratgloo or even just out for a leisurely skate; there was no word as to whether the rat was dressed in hockey colors, had a stick, or even a whistle (on the off-chance that it was a referrat).
These telltale signs identify this situation as one involving a phobia: 1) it is very unlikely that the rat could have wrestled the reporter to the ice or even checked her against the wall; 2) none of her protestations actually described any danger because the fear loomed so large in her own mind that she assumed that the danger was clear, present, and obvious to the others standing around (the cameraman, the sound crew, etc.); 3) the appeal to deity was a stark admission of helplessness and also a confession of a self-created, but denied, danger. We always fear that which we, ourselves, have created but whose existence we deny because it is our denial that gives it a power we cannot vanquish.
In our unrefined psyche, we are, mostly, a ganglion of fears; some rising to the level of neuroses, others just nuisances. The reporter I used as my subject seemingly evinced an irrational fear of rats on ice but it could have been spiders or the number 13 (triskaidekaphobia). What is important is not that we have fear nor even what it is that we are afraid of; what is really important is that the presence of fear is a barometer of the level of self-denial in which we engage. The struggle required to get to the center of consciousness where there is no self-denial is rigorous and strenuous; but well worth the trip. I don't want to give away the surprise by telling you what you'll find there, but as a clue let me just say the "I" you find will not be in the third person.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
The vest said it all; it was orange, didn't seem to fit, and appeared plastic. By now you know I'm either talking about the new version of "chain gangs" parading the side of the highway and down the medians or the service personnel in residential communities--well, it's the latter. There's two or three of them working the sidewalks between the wall of our residential community and the public road and they all seem to be dancing to the same song on their ipods...not...no ipods here. Yet...they do all seem to swing their 'chinery to a common beat and walk a similar gait. There's one in particular who is arrayed in sunglasses, jeans, a long-sleeved blue and gray plaid shirt, and, of course, the requisite vest. The dangling cigarette is also a key give-away as is the few days growth of facial hair. I'm driving out the gate past them and almost seem to get a whiff of...should I just say someone hard at work? Good thing I've got the windows up.
I'm afforded a moment or two for observation before darting out into traffic and I notice that I'm particularly happy I came upon them this week; because if I had noticed them on the week we were supposed to make friends with them, then...well...'nuf said. But what was it about them that is keeping us apart, these workers and me? I don't think it's any one thing; rather, I think it's an awareness of a "vibe"...yes...it's a 60's word...but it has ought nine meaning. The vibe in question is really more of a behavioristic smoothy whipped up out of elements of personal hygiene, bodily comportment, fashion sense, and the appearance of sentience. Usually I guage the possibility of friendship with a person on a sliding scale marked off in likely things in common; starting at the bottom with the most obvious things like gender, standing upright, and having an opposable thumb. There's actually one of these fellows--I don't see him working the weed whacker today--with whom I imagine that I might, in point of fact, be able to have a conversation--and, incidentally, he does have an ipod-like device that he listens to. Hmmm, I wonder; do you think ipods are a phenotype? At any rate, they seem right at home whacking on the side of the road and raising up a lot of dust; their comfortableness with gasoline fumes and engines slung over their shoulders is somewhat disconcerting; and the jaunty angle of the cigarette consigns them immediately to the category and likeness of depression-era workers...at least, as they are often portrayed.
Have they been driven to this by turns in the economy? Are they really quite decent fellows, every one? Do they perceive the subtlety in language that makes for repartee and are they aware of the inner workings of their own consciousness? Do they have "thing" consciousness or have they grown beyond that to ideas or, further still, to ideals; dare I even mention Spirit or, at the very least, Truth, Goodness or Beauty? In the end, I suppose we all have to admit that there is something wonderful about a nation that has made a place for every stratum of growth in human development, a place where you can gain full self-actualization by starting at the bottom and touching all the bases until you get home; you see, in my summers during college I used to do the work these men are doing today.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Is it really in the eye of the beholder, this thing we call beauty; this category in which we subsume so diverse a jumble of things as ideas, ideals, bodies, clothes, and no end of clutter with which we populate the vacant shelves and corners of our homes? At the level of things, the only difference between us and the individual pushing a grocery cart down the street laden with "worldly treasures" is the relative value of the treasures--a value that is discerned and decreed only by the collectors and those who agree with them. Much catches our eye, whether the eye of the mind or of the body, and, thereby, captures our attention. There are the "beautiful people," the "perfect lives," to some mathematicians there is even beauty in proofs and certain numbers, and the beauty, in every case, is blindingly and seductively intoxicating; and here is where I lay our scene.
What do we find when we tear the mask off the beautiful smile, the handsome face, the strong young body? Those features are safe from our grasp because we are kept aloof by the beauty itself. And dare we approach the sharp mind and studious intellect that so easily rises above the pedestrian concerns weighing down our own common minds? We see the light in that mind and it's brilliance dazzles us; we are content to simply call it beautiful, admiring from afar. Nor can we escape the very filigree in which these lustrous precious gems are set, the social context and standing of this prince. No, we dare not forget this, the most obvious and sought after of all the beauties, the rank and class of such distinction as to set one immediately apart from "the people," the "hoi poloi," the commoners.The looks, the ability, the social standing are all beautiful; beautiful, that is, until, in a moment of horror, the mask is ripped off and we see the rotting entrails that lie beneath this disarmingly charming comportment. The glory of this outer form is not indicted by its putrefaction; but such beauty might lure us hence and there we would contaminate our own attempts to live the life that Light ordained. These dangers hide behind the mask of beauty, they are insidious threads knit tightly in a cloak of mostly truth, and lend themselves quite easily to have their good so often evil spoken of. These beauties are not all so odious, but that is just the point; we must always be on our guard around "beauty," "goodness," and "truth," to make sure we are safe and that we do not fall prey to those foul parasites that burrow there within the very flesh of these ideals to lurk in secret guise until they throttle us when we are found alone and unsuspecting. Indeed, they will come upon us, seeking our services and promising pay for just those skills in which we take the greatest pride; their "beauty" will distract us, their "goodness" will disarm us, their "truth" will then confuse us and in the darkness we will meet our end, taken in by a handsome 23 year old medical student, engaged to a beautiful girl and from a very good family.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
It had been put up to suggest a greeting card, opening away from the passersby on a major thoroughfare and it said, bluntly, "FOR SALE" in block red letters. The sign itself was dirty, dingy, and dinged; the weeds at its foot had grown to obscure the telephone number and mud was splattered on the name of the company offering it for sale. This was no storefront offering; indeed, this vacant lot has been "for sale" for my entire duration in Florida, a hurricane dodging, heat stroke avoiding, four years. But why? Not "why is it for sale?" rather, "why hasn't it sold?"
For most of the four years the lot stood entirely vacant, except, of course, for the sign; and that had changed only recently to reflect a change in the company offering it. The lot, now, looked bleak, appropriately identified with that sense of desolation one only feels in the underpasses of super highways and their forgotten medians. It was filled with large empty spools colored in municipal yellow, with matching empty flatbed trailers and trucks with tanks and hoses. These were arrayed on either side of the drive into the lot, which appeared to have been graded recently, stripping what green there was by virtue of the weeds and leaving only mounds of sand. Again, why had this not sold?
Granted, the lot was not putting its best foot forward; but I saw a large house with spanish tiles on the roof situated just behind the beautiful palms and at a gentle angle to the driveway entrance. The lucious greenery, now dusty with the nearby traffic, was manicured, well-watered, and punctuated with flowering beds of perennials. I could see, just beyond some of the palms closer to the house, the shaded pool at the foot of the garden surrounded again by blossoming plants and brightly colored pool furniture adorning a tasteful gazebo. There were two luxury cars in the driveway and, as I was watching, a smaller, violet colored, sports car drove up and two teenagers jumped out yelling "Mom." All in all, the scene was beautiful and, my imagination notwithstanding, was well worthy of the most serious consideration.
The traffic sped by, I looked longingly at the elegant, gracious architectural style of the house, inhaled a deep breath of the fragrant air enclouding it, drove the short block home and gift-wrapped the experience, attaching a card reading: WAG #8.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
It didn't take me long to discover why I was there, of all places; I saw the reason immediately.
I had long ago learned to trust my inner leadings and promptings, whether to action or speculation; and today proved, once again, the unerring efficiency with which these feelings synthesized the infinite data of the world into a focus of feeling in my solar plexus, driving me here on Easter morning.
I took up a position where I could observe unobserved. True to my training, I quickly checked off in my mind the distinguishing features I was taught to look for: Asian, check; hair often pulled back in a tight knot, check; black shirt or t-shirt with "Singapore" written under the device--wings with the head of a lion facing to its right, suggesting the head of an owl when viewed from a distance, check; tan trousers or shorts, check; and, most importantly, the data link device, check and double check.
There were, not surprisingly, other suspicious signs, too. The agent wore sunglasses while inside and he had on brown sneakers... brown?...c'mon... gimme a break. When I saw that I wished I was in the Guise Division and I could have popped him right then and there. (The GD's have ISA-Immediate Sanction Authority-as per a recent memo sent on Good Friday straight from the Director.) He also had an unknown narcotic mixture at the ready. I looked around...it was easy to see why they chose this place. In addition to the free flow of narcotics, I saw literature on off shore travel, safe-haven investing, guns, and military tactics. After this cursory glance, my subject took his DLD (data link device) and made a manual entry; I quickly checked my watch and the glow on the face indicated to me that a high frequency data exchange was in progress. Once finished, he quickly gathered up his things and left; on his way, no doubt, to the execution of his assignment--an assignment whose nefarious aspects I am not at liberty to discuss. I knew what he was hiding so I quickly surmised my situation, dashed off my own notes and transmitted them to the requisite repository, where the published account will effectively neutralize any action presumed. He wont get far.
As he walked away and got into his car, an unobtrusive brown Hundai, clearly in need of a paint job, there was something in his gait that caught my attention. "Wait...I know that guy," I heard myself think; "he's...no...he looks too young...but it's probably his son." If I was right, this was the son of Lee Kim, an associate from a job I held briefly just after college. Lee was in the managerial team that had oversight of the project I was working on for a big wirehouse on Wall Street. He didn't have direct oversight of my work, which meant we got along famously; but he was forced out over rumors of corporate espionage not long after I got there. This made alot of sense to me, now; my assignment is being paid for by that company. "I wonder if they're still investigating Kim," I caught myself thinking. "Could be," I replied, "after all, the company headqarters is only a few blocks from here."
I took further account of the place I was in, the narcotics, the literature, and this clearly subversive character. I wondered if it could survive if it didn't cater to this element; Barnes & Noble...what were they thinking?
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
"Just fine as frog hair. . . .And if you know about frog hair, then you know how fine that is."
After that, they walked out of my range of hearing, leaving me alone to muse the mysteries and meaning of the frog hair metaphor. And, don't ya know, as soon as I could, I just hopped right to it. The initiator was male and the "feel" (read sound) of his question struck me as more than passing interest but not so much as suitor-esque. The answerer was female and gave a response that was playful, bordering on whimsical, but, with the follow-up remark that she offered, showed an interest in continuing the conversation. Thus, the first speaker was showing a more than casual interest and the second speaker was promoting a more than accurate dis-interest. I couldn't discern color of hair and eyes or any other bodily features since the characters were hidden from view behind one of the clinic's drawn curtains; however, and I don't really know how to explain this without appealing to social types already sedimented in my stock of knowledge, but I got the distinct impression that the male was a little taller than the female. The timbre of each voice fell in a range of compatibility, leading me to believe that they were close to the same size and there might have been some kind of mutual interest between them; they did, after all, walk off together.
My imaginings went wild. What if:"Fine as frog hair? Where did you get THAT?"
"You ha'nt ever caught a frog and felt its silky hair?"
"N-o-o; and I don't believe they even have hair."
"Down where I come from, you can git a tiny little comb for combin' frog hair at the country store right there down the road from our house 'bout a half a mile."
"Uh-huh...and why would anyone buy such a comb?
"Why to make the finest little fishin' line to use on your tad pole."