Friday, September 30, 2011

Nymphomagic Electroshock

The ice cracks and weeps
black running veins in the road
and it’s warmer, sure,
but this is the worst
time in Alaska

the melt-off will take
weeks, maybe
until the end of
May to clear out
from the yard and

October’s dogshit emerges
from the gray stink of
April meltwater and damned
if it isn’t just dirty-ugly, the
dirty ice, dirty snow
and what grass that
shows is as

brown as the
dogshit not one of these
stupid moose-humpers feels
obliged to pick up
when they walk their

and it was at this time of
year called “Breakup” (no shit) that
I was feeling every second of my
41 years walking out to
get the mail and

I looked
the street and
there was this
blonde child
of about
18 or so

her blonde hair
flowing over
the collar of her
puffy blue jacket like
molten life everlasting

when saw me 

seeing her she
waved and
smiled so large
her teeth 
smiled with her

most unnerving
of all was
the creeping

she meant it.

Throughout the
long breakup season
I treasured her
starshine slap
letting it

sustain me though a
fitful drowse of summer
and the sad breakaway from
Alaska that happened that

Fall, when I drove
my family across Alaska
into Canada, through forest
and city and canyon and

settled for a while across
the sound from Seattle, among
some of the most hideous and
warped humanoids I ever

saw in a climate that
was too bleak to be

It was two months longer
than the longest year before the
Navy ordered us cross-
country to Virginia.

It was in Sioux Falls, South
Dakota, a frozen gray fogbound
sinus of a morning after a day of
winding around the Black Hills and

Mount Rushmore and a sunset chase on
the prairie with my wife and children by
the rest stop before the long straight
deadly dull night drive into a
cigarette-stenched hotel room

We were so glad to be out
of our smelly hotel room for a
free waffle breakfast even though
it looked as if we’d have to fit

ourselves in among a girl’s
high school basketball team on
their way to play a game in

a long way south but
that’s what they do here.

No, this wasn’t at all like
the last time, this time the
smile-blast was buckshot with
meaning as I

motioned her to
go on ahead of me to
the waffle iron and
up went the corners

of an otherwise
undistinguished mouth
and I stood 

dazzled, as she
told me without
speaking “It’s all
right, Daddy, I’m still
waking up but for
this I love you so
very much and
so I grant you

“while denying the
vampiric old
slug within you
which would like 
nothing more than 
to rub its soft naked 
decay against my taut 
springtime warmth for 
the sake of affirming 
its value as something
which somehow hasn’t 
died yet, instead

“I affirm and
celebrate the
innocence you so
mistakenly mourn for
gone in everyone, 
especially older teenage 
girls like me and even
(believe it!) yourself.”

and with the
revealing light of
her smile, a wild
fresh wind
blowing, as
the Great
so aptly put it,
breathing life
into so many things
I didn’t know
still breathed
though now I

wonder, did I
have to go all
the way to Alaska and
South Dakota to
experience this or was
it just a matter of
being such a
cranky old Daddy in
form, appearance and
(sometimes) function that
these rare Girls
couldn’t help but

I never knew such
guileless and sweet-for
sweet’s sake Girls growing
up in South Carolina, they

were as much out for
something as I was,
circling predators competing
for the biggest chunks of meat
from one another

and I presumed that
was the way it was

from Mobile to
New York City I saw
nothing so much as
to suggest an

so I count myself
lucky for being
where I was and
for what I have

even if I sometimes 

think that the good 
things that keep you 
going are sometimes 
the worst

enabling more
useless struggle against
a decidedly unpleasant
inevitable, still

years after that
first smile among the
rotting ice and  
thawing turds and

thousands of
miles removed from
the basketball
player standing

out amongst her
blandly chattering
teammates with a
singular flex of

I still get a
lift from these
visions and (oh
hell yes) I

live for the
of one

maybe from the
pretty young
nurse as I lie

right before
the final

I could die
richer than

From the forthcoming collection Nymphomagic Electroshock and Other Middle-Aged Complaints.
Copyright © 2004, 2017 by Lawrence Roy Aiken.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Toughest Writers Against the Toughest Holiday

There are things even the bravest and best among us will not face. 

I don’t care how tough you are.

It’s big enough to hurt you.

He had a soft spot for cats, so there’s that.
Consider Charles Bukowski. The last of the Great American poets along the lines, if not the precise subject matter, of Robinson Jeffers and James Dickey, Bukowski is probably best known today for writing the loosely autobiographical 1987 movie Barfly. Among his vast body of work—thousands of pages of poems, stories and essays—Bukowski wrote about his Depression-era childhood and his abusive father. He wrote about discovering alcohol and the city library as avenues of physical and psychic escape. By way of describing the complete experience of Life As It Is Lived, Bukowski made passing mentions of his bowel movements and how he would invariably vomit before reading his poetry before audiences.

The one subject he avoided was Christmas.

Bukowski recalled his father beating him with a razor strop in the bathroom doorway. He spoke of being chased over fences by bullies. He wrote of the rains that kept everyone indoors for days at a time in the spring.

Never once does Bukowski recall a boy’s happy anticipation built from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve.

Amid Bukowski’s many thousands of pages you will find one of two passing complaints about the “forced jollity” of Christmas. Bukowski devoted all of one poem to an adult memory of writing with the radio on during Christmas Eve, the sound of an ambulance signifying how life’s usual tragedies didn’t stop for O Holy Night. There are a couple of other adult memories that show up in his novel Women.

Growing up poor and abused, this is just another party you
weren’t invited to.
Yet for all of Bukowski’s memories of childhood—from appetite-killing family dinners to his father’s gratuitous alpha-dog violence against him and his mother, from having the severe acne on his teenage face drilled to the poverty he saw warping the families of other children he knew in 1930s Los Angeles—never once does Bukowski recall opening presents on Christmas morning. As unflinching as Bukowski was in describing the most hateful and cringe-inducing scenes he’d endured throughout his life, he wasn’t going anywhere near those memories.

No Red Ryder BB guns for Charles Bukowski.

For that matter, no Christmas sweaters for Hemingway. His mother was stone crazy and one can imagine what A Very Hemingway Christmas with her was like. Imagine is all you can do, because among Hemingway’s thousands of pages, encompassing locales from Spain to Africa, from Italy to Cuba, I cannot recall once reading a description of a Hemingway character participating in a Christmas scene.

There are more Great American Cat People Writers than there
are those who spare any space at all for Christmas.
Of course, he might just have found the whole thing beneath him. Unmanly, even, the domain of children not old enough to drink liquor for breakfast and fish for trout. Certainly not for men who speak abruptly with their women and think often about the war.

I’m only speculating, of course. Honestly, it’s not like I expect everyone to burst out singing “Joy to the World” or anything like that.

My contention is that Christmas season involves one full month, maybe more, depending upon how Thanksgiving lines up in November. It is the major touchstone for the entire year, the penultimate celebration before New Year’s Eve and the start of New Things. You can’t sleep through it and pretend it isn’t happening. Christmas commands everyone’s attention—except America’s best writers. Even the British seemed to give up on it after Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

Of course, there are the complainers. They can be fun to read, and why not? The best of them recognize the same things we do: the syrupy-sticky-awful music running ad nauseam in the stores immediately after Halloween, the crass commercialism, etc.

There’s a lot to hate about Christmas the way it is prosecuted in these United States. The shameless buy-something-because-fourth-quarter-earnings-drive-the-economy message we get from our “news” media, for one. I’m not arguing any of that.

In regards to Bukowski and others whose childhoods are something best put behind them, I also understand how Christmas is ruined for some people. I’m just saying there’s no reason to throw Christmas out with the filthy bathwater of our pasts.

I say these things as someone who has had Christmas ruined for him at age seventeen, who wasted the seasons throughout his 20s with nothing more than a bottle of gin and a bud of weed to get him through, I can bear witness: Christmas cleans up real nice once you decide you’re tired of getting beaten up by it.

This is not surrender. This is you declaring a different level of engagement. One that requires another kind of fight from you.

There is no better answer for a bad childhood, or against the hateful sham our Mammon-worshipping culture has made of the season than to create a Christmas that is good and true. A Christmas that reflects who we are and what we aspire to do. Or should aspire to do, assuming aspiration itself isn’t as dead for you as Christmas.

If it is, that’s okay. It’s all part of the package. A gift bigger than any box, yet accessible to all who are open to receive it.
Build your own Christmas. Let the right ghosts in.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Post-Apocalypse as Process: Reviewing EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart

EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart
Paperback, 368 pp. With an Introduction by Connie Willis,
Del Rey 2006. (Originally published 1949)

Cover of original Random House 1949 edition.
Love, love, love that old pulp paperback cover art
even if it doesn’t match up with the text inside,
which it most certainly doesn’t here.

I’ve been a fan of post-apocalypse fiction since childhood so it surprised me to discover this 1949 novel at this late date. Given its age I note that many have dared call it “classic,” though that tends to bring me back to the question as to why I hadn’t heard of the book until now.  

Granted, George R. Stewart‘s Earth Abides isn’t perfect, and the negative reviews on Amazon raise strong points I’ll need to address as I go along. For now I wish to invite you, Dear Reader, to bask in the amazing outside-the-box thinking that produces an End of the World scenario so unlike the one expected by a reading public barely four years removed from the radioactive fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What takes down humanity is neither fire nor ice, but disease.

Sadly, this is an original conceit only in the context of Harry S. Truman’s post-atomic America. In 1912 Jack London wrote a story called “The Scarlet Plague, in which a mysterious disease wipes out 99% of humanity, leaving everyone else to form tribes by way of survival.

Having re-read “The Scarlet Plague” I also can’t help feeling that London had the clearer view, that the survivors and their descendants will find themselves ruled by the most ruthless and clever of the remaining alpha males, and that technology will be rapidly re-adopted once those alphas realize how technology (in this case, gunpowder) can be used to terrorize and subjugate other tribes. 

George R. Stewart, however, as befits a man who wrote notable books about the life-cycles of storms and wildfires, is fascinated by Process. It is Stewart’s fascination, and the thinking he applies to it, that makes Earth Abides such an absorbing and worthwhile read. 

The story opens with a brief, italicized passage fulfilling the role of Greek chorus, filling in the metaphorical forest for the reader that our main character can’t see for his own personal and physical limitations. In this case it’s the so-classic-it’s-clich├ęd Final Broadcast from the U.S. government letting us know that It’s Over. The feds are telling the surviving military personnel to report to the authorities in the states they’re in but it’s a reasonable (and accurate) assumption that there are no more state governments, and no remaining military to report.

There’s no time to dwell on this though because right after that our main character introduces himself while getting bitten by a rattlesnake on a morning hike.

Our man Isherwood Williams, hereafter known as “Ish,” is a graduate student of anthropology who’s holed up in a cabin in the woods while what Ish later calls The Great Disaster burns through the human population of Earth. Lest you think it’s the cabin in the woods trope that saves our hero, it’s made clear that the virus is airborne and that even the most isolated pockets of humanity are affected. In what is probably the lamest narrative device Stewart employs, it is the rattlesnake bite that saves Ish, while natural immunity saves the few others he meets later. Ish passes the time in a convenient venom-vs.-mystery-plague delirium while civilization sickens and dies.

Speaking of narrative devices, Stewart’s handling of them in this novel are what puts Earth Abides above a lot of novels, and not just those of post-apocalyptic flavor. If the rattlesnake venom as plague-denier is eye-rollingly cheesetastic, Stewart’s other tricks to move the narrative along are inspired. For instance, a lesser writer (i.e., every other writer) would have made much of the rattlesnake bite and used it to complicate the part at every dull turn a complication seemed called for. That does not happen here. Ish recovers, and though the bite is mentioned every now and again, it’s not a factor in plot development.

The same goes for Ish’s awakening, his discovery of the disaster, and subsequent road trip across America to seek out survivors. A road trip across America, with maybe one stop to work out a major conflict with an antagonist and his tribe, would have formed the entire narrative arc of most books. Although Stewart took at least three cross-country road trips in the pre-Interstate days, the first in 1924 when such adventures were an almost unimaginable novelty, he doesn’t let Ish linger over as the journey as much as you would expect. Ish drives out from his San Francisco bay area digs, meets some people, gets as far as New York City, and comes back, meeting a few more people along the way. Some thought is given to the changes in the landscape, to the chances of various survivors he meets, to the evolving ecology now that man’s domesticated animals are loose on the land and the other animals are free from the threat of the gun. 

Even the botany of de-populated America is considered. I found these passages engrossing, but a common gripe in other reviews of Earth Abides is the time spent on Ish’s observations of the land and what kind of people it will take to build a new civilization as opposed to merely surviving. Fair enough: if you’re into the disaster-as-backdrop-for-compelling-human-drama trope that cripples current genre television offerings like The Walking Dead and Falling Skies, then you will not like Earth Abides. Stewart brings you as much human drama as he feels he must, but again, the fascination with this book is Stewart’s own fascination with the Process: how the way things are might become the way things will be once a new variable is injected into the equation — or something else is taken away.

As that goes, I found Stewart’s musings through Ish (a flawed and often irritating character, I’ll grant) a welcome antidote to Alan Weisman’s 2007 non-fiction book The World Without Us, in which the world is imagined if humans simply disappeared, rapture-style. Weisman let his aversion to offending religious fundamentalists and other right-wing pathological cases like climate-change deniers skew his speculations on a post-human Earth. His let’s-all-get-along parlor-liberal timorousness stunk up the entire book, ultimately killing its credibility.

Not only does Stewart most emphatically not suffer such cowardice, he goes out of his way to tweak the bigots and the fools — in 1949, no less, just one year after Democrats like Ronald Reagan had defected to the Republican Party because Harry Truman had had the nerve to order the racial integration of the armed services. Shortly after Ish meets the Eve to his Adam, a woman named only Em (think “M” for Mother, as in “Mother of Nations,” which is how Ish often thinks of her), Em points out to Ish the “blue in the half-moons” in her cuticles, indicating she’s a...a...well, she apparently managed to pass, back in the day. Em confesses guilt for not mentioning her background to Ish, even as she feels duty-bound to have his children in the childless waste. Ish’s response is a stiff middle finger to the Dixiecrats:

Oh, darling,” he said, “everything is smashed and New York lies empty from Spuyten Duyvil to the Battery, and there’s no government in Washington. The senators and the judges and the governors are all dead and rotten, and the Jew-baiters and the Negro-baiters along with them. We’re just two poor people picking at the leavings of civilization for our lives, not knowing whether it’s to be the ants or the rats or something else will get us. Maybe a thousand years from now people can afford the luxury of wondering and worrying about that kind of thing again. But I doubt it. And now there are just the two of us here, or maybe three, now.

To behold such courage in 1949 against the don’t-wish-to-offend gutlessness of 2007’s The World Without Us makes me wonder if we haven’t gone backward. 

Then Stewart gets even bolder. Consider this passage, in which Em calls bullshit on the notion that a child-killing epidemic among the Tribe (as the group that builds around Ish and Em call themselves) might be God’s vengeance for a perceived transgression:

“All I know is we did what we thought best. If there is a God who made us and we did wrong before His eyes—as George says—at least we did wrong only because we were as God made us, and I do not think that He should set traps. Oh, you should know better than George! Let us not bring all that back into the world again—the angry God, the mean God—the one who does not tell us the rules of the game, and then strikes us when we break them. Let’s not bring Him back! Not you, too!”

A lot happens in the 345 pages that comprise the actual text of the novel. Characters go and come, even those you expect to be around forever, but the ever-expanding tribe of Ish and Em, as with the Earth, abideth. There are setbacks. Still, more incidents that would blossom into page-killing melodrama in other books are resolved with breathtaking efficiency. Stewart’s mastery of avoiding such rabbit holes was what impressed me more than anything else in the book, more than Stewart’s open scorn of reactionary politics and superstition.

We get more of the italicized Greek chorus, though those passages rarely go on for more than a page, if that much. Years go by. We see the roads disappear beneath the creeping plants. We see the houses crumble from disrepair. We see Process. I found it refreshing that Ish and his crew often talk about things yet never get around to doing them—natural human inertia is taken into account in a way I’ve never seen before in novels.

Still, there’s plenty to argue with. As some reviewers have pointed out, canned goods would spoil quicker than one thinks, and the gasoline would be useless well before 20 years is up. Also, Ish and Em’s people are downright lazy. I say this as the laziest person I know—even I would be willing to sacrifice a day or three at a time if it meant keeping the water and electricity running.

I was also puzzled and disappointed by the way the Tribe handled education among their young people. Despite the premium Ish places on imagination and vision it doesn’t occur to Ish to adapt his curriculum and the way it is taught to the needs of the children of a post-apocalyptic society. I can’t help wondering if this, along with the letting-go of indoor plumbing and electric light, wasn’t deliberately serving Stewart’s need to see humanity go back to a simpler, quieter, more pastoral state, the tribes too spread out to engender conflict and war.

Again, I can’t help thinking that Jack London understood human nature better. A tribe like Ish and Em’s would be a stark exception, and in grave danger of the rule.

Yet for all of the faults which become more and more apparent as I think through what I just read, I’m still pleased—hell, entertained—to see such a mind as Stewart’s at work. Earth Abides is not a perfect post-apocalypse novel but it’s a damned fine book nonetheless. 

A postscript: Stewart cites the cause of his xenocidal catastrophe as the natural result of a population expanding into its tipping point—and tipping. Birds do it, bees do it, we all do it until a corrective plague or famine puts the populations back to barely viable numbers. Sometimes it means eventual and outright extinction. We see this in nature. It’s part of the Process.

There were 2.4 billion humans on the planet in 1950, the year after Earth Abides was first published. In 2011 we have an estimated 7 billion, with more and more coming every day.

Just sayin’. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Unstuck in Time with One Fluffy Freak and a Handsome Couple of Freak Chasers

Movies I Saw Over the Weekend, 8-9 April 2011

I didn’t know we had nudie channels in our satellite TV package but there she was in the pool, big brown nipples like cartoon eyes to the sky, helped along on her backstroke by a guy with his head between her legs. Curiously, the bald spot on the guy’s head intensified the sleaze factor.

It turns out this scene is playing on a TV in a limousine, where a young Kevin Spacey is attempting to seduce a plain, square-jawed thing with big, fluffy, wet-finger-in-the-socket hair. Appalled, the girl demands to be let out of the car. Naturally, it’s raining, and naturally her humiliation is exacerbated by another car splashing a puddle behind her on the other side of the median. Somehow she makes it to her lousy cubicle-farm gig (are there any good ones?) where her hateful boss (is there any other kind?) snarls, “You’re late.”

Okay, I get it! It’s Working Girl. I haven’t seen Melanie Griffith in ages and I can’t say I’ve missed her. The hair blown up and away from her face in this film accentuates her masculine-shaped head. Then there’s that horrifying scene in which Griffith is dressing for some function in front of gal-pal Joan Cusack. Griffith sports a black bra and a network of garters which emphasize what a vast and weirdly oblong backside she has to match her large and oblong head.

The limo porn scene was playing as I walked into the bedroom where my wife was watching this. We traded banter over the hideous Big ‘80s Hair on the ladies, and that’s all there is to really talk about except there’s a respectable gaggle of name (or soon to become name) actors in this movie, and that there’s an unsettling amount of T & A for a movie that’s ultimately about working-class female empowerment.

It’s not even good T & A, either. As part of the Initial Nigh-Catastrophic Put-Down necessary to such Rise of the Underdog stories Griffith walks in on her boyfriend (hey, Alec Baldwin, so young, so thin) with some skinny thing riding on top of him. The breasts on this poor creature looked like the flaps of skin left behind after a drastic weight loss. The effect was more “eew” than “ooh” when they jiggled. Then again, at least she had a normal-shaped head.

I walked out, then for some reason came back just in time for the Horror of the Garters scene. I left again and therefore missed Sigourney Weaver playing Mean Old Woman to Melanie Griffith’s Good-Hearted Girl Just Trying to Get Ahead. I did note when I walked back in for the final scene that Griffith is wearing a much more flattering hairstyle. Apparently a large part of the moral of the story is, if you want to be taken seriously as an adult, don’t dress and style your hair like some silly peasant dance-club tramp circa 1988. Who knew?

We do love our moral-to-the-story, even from a director who never misses an opportunity to show some skin. What I wonder is, did Mike Nichols put all that nudity in at the behest of producers who figured it would gratify the poor suffering boys taking their dates to this ostensible chick flick, or did he just get off on ordering young actresses to remove their clothes?

The correct answer is, of course, who cares? The good news is you can see butt-nekkid wimmin on Fox Movie Channel. The bad news is you had to watch this tawdry ‘80s relic to see any last Saturday night.

*  *  *

On BBC America Sunday night I fast-forwarded ten years to a decade I actually miss. There were a couple of grins and groans at the outdated tech — the cell phone with the monochrome screen, the big fat CRT monitor on the desk — but I’ll take the ‘90s over the ‘80s any time, and not just because the technology and fashion are closer to what I’m used to now. The 90s were a happier, greatly less ridiculous time, especially once we got past the deep recession that haunted the first couple of years.

Therefore I found nothing so ironic as The X Files: Fight the Future, a movie about global paranoia in an age when there was absolutely nothing to be paranoid about. It was all charming make-believe back then, and lots of fun, besides.

Oh, the goosebumps when I heard Mark Snow’s synthesized whistling-past-the-graveyard theme! It’s all of four notes, but you know what’s coming. That is, you’d know if you’d watched The X Files from September 1993 until May 1998, when it was the most exciting show on television. 

Unfortunately, if you hadn’t seen the show you’d have a hard time following the movie. You’d find yourself wondering why it’s so significant that a certain mismatched trio is the first thing the hero sees when he wakes up in the hospital after being shot. You wouldn’t know that the wrinkly-faced guy with the cigarette is Cancer Man, though you might guess he’s something of a nemesis. Hell, even I’d forgotten the name of the group of powerful elites who had negotiated with the aliens to hand over Earth’s human population as slaves. It’s been that long, and the point is made: the movie is too dependent on episodes of the old TV series to stand by itself.

As someone I knew at the time said, the show’s creators should have just let everything be after the movie. He was right. Lead actor David Duchovny turned diva and demanded that the TV show’s shooting location move from Vancouver to Los Angeles, starting with the sixth season. Sunny L.A. canceled the show’s spooky vibe Vancouver’s rain and gloom had so effortlessly provided. Worse, the show’s writers were either changed out, or had forgotten how to write.

While the first five years of The X Files had many notable episodes, I couldn’t describe one show of the sixth season to you. By season seven Duchovny had himself written out of the show by way of an alien abductions, as Gillian Anderson had done during her pregnancy a few years earlier. From that point on The X Files went from unmemorable to unwatchable, so I didn’t. The end came three seasons too late in 2001 with a busy, not-sure-what-happened-here finale that I did watch, but couldn’t say much about, except it was made extra-special clear that Cancer Man got killed.

Fight the Future (which doesn’t show in the opening credits, by the way, just The X Files) was everything X Files was at its peak. It was great when I saw it during the summer of 1998, and though I’d forgotten bits of the mythology, it still looked pretty good when I saw it Sunday. Gillian Anderson sure as hell looked good, anyway, and I still can’t get over how X Files’ creator Chris Carter had to fight for Anderson’s casting as Scully, as Fox studio execs thought her not pretty enough for a television lead actress.

One of these has top billing in a “sexy comedy” with Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford. 
The other isn’t pretty enough to play the lead in a TV show. I need a drink.

Like Griffith, you don’t see Gillian Anderson anymore. In a neat switch, it was Anderson who had to be talked away from her London home to do the second X Files movie, 2008’s I Want to Believe, while Duchovny is already begging to do a third movie. Every movie Duchovny was in following the first X Files movie bombed, and, sadly, the second X Files movie was no exception. The hell of it is, I Want to Believe wasn’t bad. If anything was to blame, it was the last three seasons of X Files that happened after Fight the Future. People forgot who Special Agents Mulder and Scully were, and why they cared.

I remember, though. Even now, the melancholy of good times gone forever still lingers. One would like to think our fictional friends are still out there, still mixing in matters ectoplasmic and extraterrestrial, but it’s impossible to suspend disbelief. The horror and paranoia are just too real these days.