On Labor Day

Midnight.

For the sake of old times and also as a birthday gift to myself, I just ordered three little volumes of poetry from the Library of America. Vitally, one of them is of Walt Whitman, who wrote the bible of American poetry with Leaves of Grass in 1855. I also picked Poe plus an anthology of Civil War poetry.

I had a gruesome dream tonight about my poverty, having no car and shuffling around the neighborhood like some kind of hobo. I dreamed that a couple of guys were going to beat the shit out of me just for sport. It’s like what happened to Robin Williams in The Fisher King. He winds up in the hospital, but then Jeff Bridges goes and steals his “Holy Grail” from a rich residence and puts it in his hands.

It was a movie I watched on the recommendation of a friend two decades ago. We’ve lost touch long since, yet I still remember him and something that happened on Labor Day weekend that year. Namely, I started drinking again, but I may never know exactly why. If I knew, then would it guarantee that I’d never relapse again?

No Human Power

Six thirty at night.

I got on Amazon and ordered a CBT workbook to help myself with anxiety. The biggest problem I’ve been having is with mind reading, trying to second guess situations and people. But the only way to know the thoughts of others is to ask them to their face. It’s pretty stupid to weave a web of fantasy around people you know, or to dramatize your own life, maybe glorify it to heroic proportions. I may be divided on this perspective because I like existential philosophy so much. But it comes down to what is realistic, and really, life for most humans is quite ordinary and modest, not over the top with hubris and superhuman powers. Sometimes the need to empower yourself is so strong that life feels like a tremendous dare, a heroic struggle against overwhelming odds. So we produce brainchildren as Richard Wright produced Bigger Thomas, a larger than life martyr for racial and social justice. I suppose my blog has been something like this, but for mental health. And for this fact I feel a bit penitent and apologetic.

Maybe true strength consists in vulnerability, though I’m not yet persuaded of that. Does something take over when you surrender control? I think of Gandalf saying that even Gollum had a role to fulfill in the War of the Ring. It was a purpose bigger than Gollum himself, one that included all of them… Perhaps everyone is a pawn in a sociological game the horizon of which is past our understanding.

Essences

Seven o’clock at night.

My energy level is pretty low right now. I just had a nap in the sunshine from the window. I remembered having delusions of people looking like apes, as with Darwin, when I had my initial episode of the illness. A strange experience. It makes you consider what about humanity gives it its particular distinction. This question goes back as far as human history. Aristotle: man is a rational animal, also a political animal. But by the time you get to Rousseau in the eighteenth century, it is rather the feelings of the heart that define humankind apart from other animals. Somewhere I have a copy of his novel La Nouvelle Heloise. It wasn’t so much raw emotion that Rousseau praised as very fine sentimentality, as I recall from the introduction… But then I consider my dog Aesop, who obviously has intellect as well as feeling. It seems to me that humans are only different from animals in quantities of the same attributes, and not by virtue of some magical essence like logic or sentiment— or a moral thing like altruism or generosity. Yet it seems Loren Eiseley says the opposite of this. To be sure, I should read the whole book and then give my thoughts on it.

It Isn’t Just Me

Five thirty.

I had a good morning, but after twelve o’clock my mood went downhill and I felt uncertain and unstable. I have doubts about playing the bass guitar anymore or doing anything at all with music. I don’t know what I want to do besides write. Above all, I feel quite rudderless the more I realize that my mother is really gone. I’ve set my course for sobriety, whatever this entails for my mental state and however lonely it makes me. It’s hard to seize the day when the day is so slippery. It’d be cool to be a master strategist, planning every move like a chess player— like my brother. He always kicked my ass at chess and every kind of game. My own method was defensive and passive, simply reacting to action.

The other thing to consider is that my brother was rather unkind. People like to believe that kindness counts for something. We wish for good to be rewarded and badness punished. But it’s difficult to say whether the cosmos has those values. Five years ago I began reading An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. The novel deals with just that question, and you wonder throughout the story if crime is punished or not. Will the protagonist get away with manslaughter? And is it more than a coin toss which way it goes? Which outcome are we pulling for?

But I didn’t get very far in that book.

It feels like we live in an amoral culture today. The Machiavelli approach to life is not worth it to me, I guess. I certainly hope that the meek get the heaven they deserve.

“Death defying, mutilated / Armies gather near / Crawling out of dirty holes / Their morals disappear.”

Once and Future

Eleven ten.

Lose one, gain one. I looked for an old copy of Stephen Crane but could find it nowhere in the house, so I concluded that I gave it away to a friend and later forgot it. In the process of searching, I found an Ian Fleming book I thought was lost. From Russia with Love was a novel I read forty years ago in the summer, and then my mother decided to reread it as well. After that, she revisited the whole series of James Bond, leaving me in the dust. The last Fleming I finished was Diamonds Are Forever, just as I was starting high school.

How interesting if I could tap the psychology of myself when I was 15 years old. At the time I lacked the words to identify my feelings and thoughts, though I know I was growing more sensitive and perhaps a bit depressed moving into high school. I think I was ambivalent regarding music, because it was a huge relief to drop the school band program as a junior. Now I don’t remember how that came about or whose decision it was. I believe maybe it was mine, but my mother disapproved strongly. My health dictated something else. She cried when the doctor said I had mononucleosis. He kept me out of school for five weeks and put me on horse pills of erythromycin. Mom felt so badly that she made me oatmeal several times daily. I played a lot of Phoenix on my Atari setup, which messed with my vision. A girl from school called me on the phone a few times. I felt awkward and didn’t know what to say.

My phase of Edgar Rice Burroughs ended after tenth grade; I never finished Tarzan and the Madman, the 23rd in the series. I didn’t feel like a hero anymore. Life became more complicated than good guys and bad guys. The heroes themselves could show weakness and melancholy, or perhaps I was the one who changed. My reading changed to match my self concept. Eventually the hero thing dissolved totally.

Still it would be cool to have another peek at From Russia with Love. I had a wonderful time during the summer when I first read it. My friends and I played Rush tunes in Pleasant Hill, and we were really pretty good. For a time I felt I was on top of the world. I guess disappointment is inevitable but you have to get up again sooner or later. Sometimes it’s later.

Modern Valjean

Quarter after seven.

I just saw a rough looking guy stop his car on my street and get out to steal trash from our bins. He’s probably phishing for personal information he can get from discarded mail. For a moment I felt unsafe as he walked back to his vehicle, furtively glancing around for witnesses. It’s a rather weird start to the day. Now I think about criminal minds and other kinds of dishonesty so foreign to my nature. I used to be treated like a criminal for alcoholism, but was that fair to us? But today I don’t know any people who abuse alcohol. It’s going out of fashion, perhaps. My family, so I believed, used to accuse me of leeching off the system, which wasn’t fair at all. It may be true that no human being is without sin, yet justice must be measured out in a rational way or else it’s chaos. Roger, the retired cop, has just opened his garage door. I could run over to tell him what happened, but stealing garbage is a petty thing. Maybe I’m only paranoid again. We live in bizarre, desperate times. Kind of like Jean Valjean but not as honest.

Eight forty.

Les Miserables is the kind of book that is an accomplishment just to have read. I got halfway through it and stopped dead, but with a little inspiration I could pick it up again. I could do that even today. It raises questions of what is justice and how do we know what is right— and according to whom? Sometimes a suspension of the ethical is called for to serve the divine truth… 

From My Grandmother

Scuffy the Tugboat

Actions speak louder than words. On one hand I invest my money in my home to make it a comfortable place and on the other I spout nonsense about playing in a rock band. What does this tell you about me? Where does the voice saying I should do rock and roll come from? It comes from a sense of duty, from a conscience put there by other people; but it doesn’t come from my own soul. If it did, then I’d invest in a car to be mobile, and I’d risk danger to live the rock and roll dream. My soul is probably wiser than that. Even if security is boring, it probably guarantees a longer lifespan. It boils down to a philosophical question: is it better to burn out or fade away? Though I used to do self destructive things, I attribute it to my mother’s influence on me, and my grief upon her death. 

All of this reminds me of a children’s book called Scuffy the Tugboat that my grandmother gave me when I was six years old. The little boat gets away from his owner into dangerous situations on the high water. But eventually he goes home and is content with floating in the bathtub, safe and sound. And by the way, my grandmother was a very different person from my mother who loved The Beatles.

One more observation: what is a probable guarantee? 

96 Degrees

Eight o’clock.

It’s going to be very hot outside today by local standards. This afternoon I will hang out by the air conditioner. On my way to the store I stopped and talked with Harry for a few minutes. He’s 94 years old and still driving his pickup truck to Burger King to meet his friends for a little palaver. His daughter lives around the corner and visits him once a week. Also his son from Salem drives down every month or so to see him. It makes you wonder what is the secret to a long lifespan, unless it’s just heredity, and maybe playing it safe. Discretion is the better part of valor… At the market, Thomas was rather subdued and low key, probably anticipating a hot day. He didn’t talk much, maybe to conserve his energy. The azure sky is beautiful to look at, but today it means a summer scorcher. If there’s a time and a place for everything, then today is good for hunkering down with the air conditioning if you have it. I will kill some time reading my Eiseley book, which I’m beginning to understand better. A naturalist thinks differently from a philosopher or a critic. Generally he describes things rather than analyzing them in order not to do them harm. My brother explained to me that John Muir did the same kind of thing. Nowadays I often speculate what he’s up to. The best way to know is to pick up the phone…

Wild Goose Chase

Quarter of two.

It’s a beautiful summer afternoon, perfect for a little walk to the store. For the past couple of mornings I’ve read essays by Loren Eiseley from a book of his stuff. In all of his meditations on natural history he sees humanity as unique and self contained, and every species for him is likewise idiographic, more or less. Human beings are alone in being thinking creatures, he says; never before and never again will there be anything like us. I guess my (amateur) view is nominalistic. It’s not like nature had an essential cookie cutter for the species of humankind. Nothing mystical is involved in our emergence on the world stage, though many people will disagree with that. There are different kinds of biologists. A simply sequential evolution makes more sense to me than something with a design or purpose, maybe a great plan for human beings. I think it’s strange to believe in a nature with essences or immaterial forms. This idea goes back to the Greeks, but apparently it survives to more recent thinking about evolution. A turtle is not the same thing as a chicken, or a chicken as a fish, etc etc. Yet embryos across species appear much the same. How much did people know about genetics in the Fifties? Probably I’m reading the wrong book…

A Cold Heart

Quarter after ten at night.

I kept having dream thoughts about the Tarzan series, particularly whether the short stories fit into the first or second book, but of course they belong with the first one. I can’t settle on what books to read. A student told me once that there are no new ideas, only new ways of expressing them. His focus was the form more than the content, while mine was mostly the reverse of that. For this reason I was better cut out for philosophy than literature.

I was curious to sample the writings of Eiseley yesterday, but I think as a scientist he’s not so good. I don’t know. Is the best science atheistic, excluding religious ideas, or is some overlap okay? I know my brother’s opinion on this. His universe is deterministic with no Deus ex machina. He’s a purist that way. Maybe I have no business talking about him. In his mind, we are no longer brothers. He denies our relatedness, so why should I care about him anymore? It just seems very cold and hardhearted of him. Maybe I’m the bigger man for respecting him?

Well what the heck, it’s only family, and what does my brother know?