No Country for Old Men or Anyone Actually

I would like to think the world is safe and ordered place; that bridges don’t collapse, Egyptians don’t riot and scorpions don’t crawl into shoes. I would like to think that people are kind, that nobody would steal a cooling pie off a window sill or loot antiquities from ancient Greece.

This past week all of my utopian dreams were utterly crushed by KNOWLEDGE and EXPERIENCE. More than crestfallen, I would say for the first time in my life I was completely DISILLUSIONED.

Finally I understood what the Buddhists mean by suffering and loss and samsara. People are awful, judgmental, cowardly irrational monsters! Some of them are murderers even! Bears are not cuddly and petable! Hurricanes do not just swirl around innocently over the sea! You can’t just reach into a hollow tree and pull out a handful of honeycomb!

I don’t think we can see the repercussions of our actions nor see how the drift of the tide is carrying us down shore.

So I wanted to share with you the nine disturbing things that I witnessed in the past seven days that I’m afraid have changed me ineluctably. Forever.

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This sketch by Edward Gorey perfectly captures my thoughts and feelings this week.

1. Yesterday on the UNM campus, I saw a student walking towards me in normal street clothes and a huge floral prairie bonnet ripped straight out of Little House on the Prairie. On closer inspection and after eavesdropping on her and her companion, I realized she was Chinese. First I worried about cultural appropriation, but soon realized that wasn’t an issue. Than I worried that prairie bonnets were en vogue in China and soon there would be millions of young Chinese wandering about Shanghai in the ugliest hat in millinery history. Most of all I realized that our global culture of exchange is engendering horrible consequences that we never could have foreseen. What is happening to traditional Chinese culture?  What is happening to us?

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2) On Saturday this bear and I went to the county fair. I thought we were friends. I bought him a blue balloon with sparkly white stars on it. Turns out at the end of the night he admitted he wanted to kill and eat me. He also accused me of cheating at Whac-a-Mole by using both hands. I didn’t really think of it as cheating. Okay, well, why did you eat 90% of our cheese fries, when we were supposed to be sharing? I retorted. Then I asked for my balloon back and he went BERSERK. This is how I learned there’s just too many differences between people and bears to forge any sustainable kind of relationship.

Okay, that’s not true. Dave just took a picture of me and this stuffed bear outside of a shop in Telluride. But the point is my story could be read as an allegory about people and their hidden vicious natures when their stabilizing paradigms are under attack (symbolized by the balloon). Or as a more literal cautionary tale about interspecies “friendships.”

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3. Like I said, Dave and I went to Telluride last weekend. I posed under a sign that read “Your Civil Liberties Are Safe in Telluride” because I thought…of course they are, of course our civil liberties are safe in Telluride! It was like posing in front of something just as indisputable and obvious…like the place where the four corners of four states meet. But then I wondered…what if this sign was meant ironically? Sort of tongue in cheek? What if there’s something about my civil liberties that I don’t know about…like they’re NOT safe? What even were my civil liberties? I wasn’t sure. Maybe I should go read the Bill of Rights to find out. Or maybe the constitution. I found that thought depressing because legal documents are so boring. So I tried to name my civil liberties while counting on my fingers. There was that one about freedom of the press. Also bearing arms. And not being a slave. Could it be that I was censored, disarmed and enslaved without knowing it? Also freedom of religion. What was happening there? And wasn’t there one about a fair trial? Would I be tried unfairly for a future crime that I would someday commit or not commit? It struck me as Kafka-esque. Then I understood something else. Kafka was not just writing fanciful fables! He was writing social commentaries!!! That’s what my English professors were trying to tell me all along!

4). On the way back from Telluride we listened to No Country for Old Men, the unabridged novel by Cormac McCarthy on CD. Basically it’s a story about civilizational decline, postmodernism, the Vietnam War and a psychopath who abides by his own rigid (a)moral code. His (a)moral code goes something like this…if I said I was going to kill you, then I have to kill you, even if it’s inconvenient for me or no longer expedient or a moot sort of situation. So in that sense he has integrity. But it was integrity about KILLING PEOPLE.

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Dave says the novel became a movie that was filmed in Albuquerque and starred Javiar Bardem as the killer Anton Chigurh. What if Javiar Bardem tries to come kill me? I asked him. Dave said, Javiar Bardem was just playing Anton Chigurh, he isn’t actually Anton Chigurh and I don’t think he’s in Albuquerque anymore. I was confused until Dave explained that movies aren’t real and actors are just pretending to be characters…”acting” like other people without “being” other people. So that was also disillusioning.

5). Back in the 1870’s Saratoga Springs, New York was the spot to see and be seen. It’s where all of the rich people went to watch horses races, smoke Havana cigars, dress like the Empress Eugenie in flat “pork pie hats” and poplin jackets, and consort with other rich and fashionable people. But then out of the blue, suddenly NEWPORT became the destination for affluent leisure. As a result, certain young girls like the fictional Virginia St. George had very few dancing partners in Saratoga!  How is this fair?!!!

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6). I learned last weekend that there is a dessert, an oblong doughnut thingy called a bear claw. Never mind that (as I had just learned) bear claws are commonly used to maim and kill people.

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Here are some more appropriately named doughnuts.

7) I researched Ayurveda this week for an article in Edible Santa Fe. I didn’t know there was so much crazy crap going on in my digestive tract. There’s this inner fire called agni that digests your food. And this black sludge called ama that amasses when your food is digested improperly. There’s this really old language called Sanskrit that I’ll never be able to read. And there are people wandering around out there who call themselves “gheegans.” They’re vegans who eat no animal products EXCEPT for ghee, a clarified butter from the Indian subcontinent. They say all of the dairy is cooked out of it. I don’t know how I feel about this…Yes I do. Depressed. It makes me feel kind of depressed. Is it so easy to take dairy out of dairy products? What then is left?

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8) I’ve been reading this story I’ve been writing called Demon Summer. It’s a horror story set in 1816 in Switzerland and it turns out to be very scary. The scariest thing is that I can pull these scenarios out of my own head, from some very dark, unplumbed depth I didn’t really know was there.

9) Yesterday, my daughter asked me for a glass of water to “dip my tortweea in.” That’s what she calls tortillas–tortweeas. I watched her sit there at the kitchen table, dunking a whole wheat tortilla into her water glass and eating it. Then she tore it up and let it sink to the bottom of the glass where she proceeded to drink her “tortweea water.”

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So I think you can see why for the first time ever this week I understood the phrase “to bury one’s head in the sand.” This week I finally pulled my head out, brushed the sand from my eyes and saw a wasteland of trampled dreams, ugly hats and grotesque behaviors. I saw that this world is but a “veil of tears,” And when people say the glass is half full, they mean it’s half full of TEARS.

Have any of you ever had a week like this? Share your pain and disillusionment here.

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Demon Summer (Working Title): A Work In Progress

Well, it rained some, so,I guess I better write a gothic masterpiece.

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“The drear. The watery, ashy drear.” That’s what some lady at the Haut Lapin in Interlaken had said while pointing outside. No, not just some lady. It was Madame Verenz, the cross-eyed dowager in the soiled gloves. It was the crossed eyes that made this pronouncement, and all Madame Verenz’s  pronouncements, so unsettling:

THIS PUDDING IS TOO FIRM.

THE KEY DOES NOT TURN.

THE LAKE IS UNSWIMMABLE.

This particular exclamation about the drear, she directed at Stanislov Most, as he waited for his valises to be loaded into the carriage, turning to him in an ivory flurry of lace ruffs and eye whites, her right index finger pressing into the window glass.

Stan excused himself as nimbly as possible after the frisson of shock had subsided. This was his first encounter with the Madame Verenz, though other guests had warned him of her presence and her habit of sneaking up on people. Esotropia, Stanislav thought. She suffers from esotropia. That was a fancy way to say she was cross-eyed.

It seemed an inauspicious beginning to his summer stay–the incident with Madame Verenz– that he couldn’t shake on the ride from Haut Lapin to Lake Brinz– the squeak of her gloved finger on the glass; the uncannyness of her remark (for just that morning he had written in his diary the words “watery, ashy drear”!); those eyes that seemed to gravitate towards each other like opposing magnets, all swum up against the falling rain that battered his carriage.

What a horrible face! Stan exclaimed.I hope never to see it again!” (He pronounced it ahGAYNE.) But it was the summer of 1816 and there was much more that he was to see that he would wish he hadn’t.

***

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Stan deposited his valises along the only dry strip of the front porch untouched by rain. He shivered in his traveling clothes, and fumbled for the cold brass key in his pocket. The balustrades were streaming with water, a marais was forming on the front lawn, a moldering smell was creeping from the seams of the house. Upon touching the key, shocked by its cold sting, Stan, too, began sniveling. The key was too cold. Unnaturally cold…icy cold. How could such a thing be explained?

It was inexplicable!

He opened the door and smelt the damage before he saw it. All of the wool carpets were wet, cloying, reeking of livestock, as if the house was crammed floor to ceiling with damp sheep. Stan, not prone to squeamishness after his six (yes six!) years of anatomy school, was immediately overcome by the stench. It wrapped around him, crawled up his nose, filled his mouth with barn flavors.

Of sheep. The stench of sheep!

Whether we can assign wet wool the same powers of chloroform is doubtful but it rendered such powerful effect upon Stanislav Most, that the first thing he did upon arriving at his summer home on Lake Brinz was faint dead away.

***

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Then Stan awakened. Not like Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.” More like he just opened his eyes. It was not without effort. His eyelids felt sticky, heavy, almost sutured shut. Indeed they were sutured shut! With a very fine thread, finer than a human hair, akin to spider silk in diameter and feel. “I do believe a spider did make embellishments upon me!” Stan cried.

When his vision cleared, when he literally wiped the cobwebs from  his eyes, there it was–a leggy, dark and beastly creature on his chest. “I know you,” he slurred. He had seen this spider before as a child near the foot of his bed, approaching over the goose down duvet. It’s bulbous body, with a sheen like horse hair was unforgettable.

It never reached him all those years ago, for he kicked his legs as if he had been entangled in seaweed underwater and ran to his Mummy without even the candlestick in his hand. The household staff had conducted a thorough search of the room and had found no spider.

For the next six nights, he cuddled in his mummy’s bosom and thought of cream clotting. It was a thing he did to soothe himself…a bowl of cream growing ever more clumpy, clumpier and clumpier. Such images were of no use now, here in the present tense with the exact same spider. The spider lifted a leg. He was drawing nigh!

***

The spider lifted one leg, and then another. There were eight of them in all to lift. So it lifted them. Without rhyme or reason. Randomly lifting this leg or that.

Stan watched as the spider advanced in just this way. Until it was right over his Adam’s Apple. He meant to scream but he had forgotten how.

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There was something..what was it…something you were supposed to do. Open your mouth. Yes, that was the first thing. Make a loud sound on one pitch and sustain it. Yes, that was the next thing.

But now the spider was over his mouth. If he opened his mouth, the spider would fall into his mouth! So screaming, which seemed like such a good idea a second ago, was now out of the question.

That’s when Stan had the idea to use his hands! Use his hands to swat off the spider! Of course! Why hadn’t he thought of it sooner!

So he did. But when he flicked at the spider the spider stuck to his hand.

Stan jumped to his feet. The spider, the size of his palm, but on the opposite side, stuck like sealing wax, didn’t move.

It was the most terrible feeling, a sort of adhesive, black hooking into his skin, the spider on his hand. It felt like something more than another creature…it felt like evil.

Stan searched wildly around until his eyes landed on a hatchet in the corner. “It’s time,” thought Stan. “It’s time to chop off my hand!”

***

I Know What You Did Last Non-Summer of 1816

In 1815, a chain of volcanic eruptions including the stratospheric Mt. Tambora, rendered a “sulfate aerosol veil” over much of the northern hemisphere. The effects lingered into the next year as late frosts, cold fronts, inexorable damp and rain drove nail after nail into the coffin of the summer of 1816. After massive crop failures, rampant starvation and one ruined picnic after another, 1816 was deemed The Year Without a Summer.*
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In the midst of the gloom, near the rain-pounded shores of Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori holed up in Byron’s villa and wrote drafts of three great horror stories–Frankenstein, Darkness, and The Vampyre, respectively.

I would like to write an EQUALLY GREAT piece of gothic literature in the rain. How will I do it? By writing in the rain! And making it really, really, really well-written. Moonsoon season is upon us so I hope to get at least four pages down this summer.

I will post my work in progress in a new post.

Expect marshmallows trampled underfoot (the flower not the s’mores ingredient) and beating hearts in Mason jars. Expect flash floods and floral wallpaper ungluing itself. Get ready for a character named Stan, short for something Slavic and much more insidious. Expect chandeliers that burn with darkness instead of light and mysterious animals whose fur only reflects the invisible part of the color spectrum.
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All of this will be set in the summer of 1816. And it will be VERY scary. VERY damp and also pretty funereal.

So come back to Spartan Holiday when it’s raining. In New Mexico. You might need to check the regional forecast. Okay, you should really check back the day after it rains, because I can’t publish it while I’m writing it.

I promise you will have never been so frightened by a guy named Stan… grinding marshmallow flowers… with the heel of his boots… in the moor.

Until then, be thankful for summer. It’s not a foregone conclusion.

* All of the tephra in the atmosphere did, however, make for some pretty bitchin’ sunsets.