Nietzsche and His Pain Named Dog, #52essays2017

I have given a name to my pain and call it “dog.” It is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog–and I can scold it and vent my bad mood on it, as others do with their dogs, servants, and wives. –Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

I first heard this Nietzsche quote while I was sewing–yes, I like to sew and listen to philosophy books as well as novels! It was a quote that caused me to stop my electronic reader and sew quietly for a while. Then I read it and reread it with more and more attention and finally, a poem popped out! Although it needed another month or two of embellishments and revisions, it felt complete, like it was destined to be a thing, from the very beginning.

The poem “A Pain Named Dog” is one of the few I’ve written that I keep coming back to and it seems to keep resonating. I usually tell people that I stole the central conceit from Nietzsche, and I hope that sometimes It gets people to read The Gay Science, but who knows? It’s just a book of aphorisms, so spending time with one of the aphorisms is perhaps as good as flipping through them all.

I presented it last summer at the School for Poetic Computation as a part of my lecture I called “Nietzsche in a nutshell,” and it resonated with the students who were reading works on writing disability, including Nussbaum’s great book Frontiers of Justice, which I write about more in Exploding Stigma.

In The Gay Science, written after a period of illness, Nietzsche illustrates what Nussbaum has to say about the generality of humans entering into and out of disability/dependence throughout their lives. Nietzsche makes embodiedness a central tenet of his philosophy, and pain a necessary component of that embodiedness. His relationship to pain, namely treating his pain as if it were a dog to be trained and disciplined, turns pain from a thing that he submits to into a thing that submits to him.

Perhaps then it makes sense that “A Pain Named Dog” turned out to be the first poem I read out loud in public since I’d lost the ability to read normal print around the age of twelve. For decades I was ashamed of my inability to read with my eyes, and embarrassed that I could no longer read out loud. I was really good when I was a kid.

Finally I hit upon using my little electronic reader’s earbud as a Cyrano, whispering my own words into my ear. That tiny fix made it possible for me to enter fully into a writerly life, and it was not new technology but a kind of paradigm shift in my mind about what reading was. Though I’d been listening to electronic books for decades, I somehow did not make the leap of understanding it to make possible my own presentation of words.

 

A Pain Named Dog

I have given a name to my pain

And call it Dog.

I can tell it to sit, lay down,

Roll over, play dead.

I scold it and shame it

And pretend it’s my bitch

And though it worries my carcass

And growls and shits,

It gives me a leg up. On profundity.

 

I have given a name to my beauty

And call it Snake.

I observe it wind my hand

Delicate as flowers ferocious as fangs

I tell it, PULSE DANGER.

            SWALLOW BLIND MICE.

And though its little murders do not ripple

The still-water universe

It’s all about ego. Feeling groovy.

 

I have given a name to my anger

And call it Cockroach

I fatten it with booze and candy

It waxes petty and cruel

I chase it to squash it

Curse its very existence

But because it incites war

In the bowels of men

It does me some good. Keeps them in check.

 

I have given a name to my disease

And call it Devil

Sad Devil. Mean-spirited

Jealous and cruel.

I know the Fiend called Devil

Is the Blindness called Life

Still I shout HUZZAH

With the rest.

It appeases. Why not?

 

I have given a name to my sadness

And call it God

I tell it YOU ARE DEAD.

Long live you?

I command SIT STAY ROLL OVER

            At least fucking PLAY DEAD

And though it is just as obtrusive and entertaining

Shameless as any other god,

There are others. I pray.

*First published at The Kitchen Poet and reprinted at Eunoia Review*

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Where They Lie, A New Orleans Story

 

John sat on his stoop smoking and staring across the street to the neighborhood cemetery. It was small and neglected, not much like the well-manicured parks where the New Orleans tourists flocked. With their wrought-iron gates, famous dead people, plastic flowers, and marble, they were not as haunting as this shabby place. One could not forget death here. Although there were some tombs in the grand old-world style, with winged sentinels standing atop peaked roofs, there were many more crude wooden boxes, crumbling brick mounds and sad toppling crosses. The fence surrounding the Greene Street Cemetery merely suggested security. Garbage more clearly marked the border between the houses of the living and the dead.

A groundskeeper was mowing the same patch of grass for a good ten minutes and John thought that he could do a better job of it. As the guy stopped to smoke, John realized what a perfect job it would be for him. He could just roll out of bed and get to work and it would be during the day so he could easily keep his shift at the Abbey. He could definitely use the money. As a kid in Maine, John had worked in a graveyard for two summers. He liked the work. Mowing lawns allowed his mind to wander aimlessly while his body toiled in the heat.

John walked over to the guy, who had mowed right around a busted garbage bag, bottles and papers spilling out of it.

”hey man. You know if they’re hiring here?” John asked him.

“Can’t say.”

“You know who I can ask?”

“Mrs. Twyman’s the boss, but she ain’t here today. Might be Old Spec can help you.”

“Old Spec?”

“Yeah. Old Spec Samson’s buried every body in this park for at least thirty years.” He smiled slyly. “Knows ‘em all personally.”

“Hmm, then who’s Mrs. Twyman?”

“She’s in charge of all the uptown cemeteries. That’s her office right over there,” he said gesturing.

“Thanks man,” said John, thinking it looked an unlikely shack.

The guy called after him. ”Think Old Spec’s over there on the other side of the park.”

John followed the pointing finger. In that corner stood his favorite tomb, an enormous cement platform looked after by an angel with a demon-beautiful face who seemed to pray for strength to keep the dead put. John liked to lie on the cool expanse at night and watch the clouds fly by between the angel and the moon. One night he had fallen asleep and awoke with a start to find the heaven sent beast looking down at him, its stone eyes questioning his being there.

John almost reached his angel when he saw a tall thin black man walking towards him. He was a little stooped, and held a shovel in his right hand like a staff.

“Mr. Samson?”

Old Spec turned his head towards him and stopped. John walked over and held out his hand, but the gesture was ignored and he dropped it. “Uh, I was wondering if you guys needed any help around here.”

“Help?”

“Yeah, I’m looking for a job.”

“You want to work here.”

“Yes sir. Do you have any openings?” asked John, feeling ridiculous and not knowing why.

“Why do you want to work here?” Old Spec asked without looking at him.

“Well, I live right across the street, and. . .”

“You thought it’d be mighty easy to just roll out of bed and dig a couple graves,” Said Old Spec, seeming to lose any trace of interest he might have had in this stranger.

“Yeah, I thought it would be convenient, but I also thought you might have need for a good worker.”

“What made you think so?”

John regretted his words, but decided to go ahead and be honest, the way things were going it couldn’t hurt. Besides, it sounded like Old Spec Samson was not even the one who would hire him. It was the woman in the office he had to win over.

“I’ve noticed that most of the guys working over here are slackers. They take all day to mow one patch of grass, and don’t even pick up the garbage that’s all over the place.”

“So you think you could do a better job?”

”I know I could do a better job.”

“Mrs. Twyman ain’t here today. In any case, she’ll not see you until you fill out the paperwork. If you’re serious you’ll go to City Hall, fill out the paperwork and bring it back to her tomorrow,” Old Spec said, turning his back on John.

John looked at his watch. He had time. He retraced his steps and saw the guy he had first talked to, smoking another cigarette.

“Find him?”

”Yeah,” John said, pulling out a smoke. He lit it and asked, “How long you been working here?”

“Been working this park for two years. Pretty easy job.”

“Seems like that old guy could be tough.”

“Old Spec? He ain’t any fun that’s for sure, but he don’t order me around unless there’s something to bury. Most times he just wanders about the park and don’t say a word. It’s like I ain’t even here.”

“Hmm. Well thanks.” John said and walked away.

“Arright.” The guy said and started his mower.

John walked over to his house and up the three steps. He picked up the coffee mug and downed the last sip. He took it and the newspaper inside. He lived by himself in a shotgun. The first room was bare. A couch and books were in the second room, then a short hall and bathroom, then the room with the bed and stereo, and last the kitchen with its leaky refrigerator and cockroaches.

He laid the newspaper down on the table and put the mug in the sink. He put on a clean shirt and walked back into the light. He locked the door, checked the mailbox, and put on his helmet. He got on his motorcycle and headed downtown.

At City Hall he found the office closed though, according to the hours on the door, it should have been open. He stepped out for another smoke, and when he returned the door was ajar. A man sat at the front desk. John asked him what papers he needed to fill out for a job at the Greene Street Cemetery. The man eyed him suspiciously then sifted through forms. He handed a thick application to John and told him to fill it out and bring it to Mrs. Twyman.

John took the application to Cauldy’s, and drank another cup of coffee while deciphering bureaucracy. When he was finished, he realized that he should get something to eat. He put the application in his backpack and did not think about it until the next morning.

* * *

John woke up late. It was already noon. Mrs. Twyman would be unimpressed. He gulped coffee with a cigarette and stepped out of his house into another bright muggy day.

He walked across the street to the one room office. He knocked, and a woman’s voice said to come in.

”You are looking to work here?” asked the grey-haired lady from behind her desk and stacks of papers.

”Uh, yes I am.”

”You came by yesterday. Did you complete the paperwork?” she asked holding out her hand.

”Yes, here it is.”

Mrs. Twyman took the application, and looked it over without saying anything. John stood, feeling awkward.

“So you’ve worked in a cemetery before. Have you buried bodies?”

“I dug some graves, but I mostly mowed.”

“Often it happens that, after a good rain, the bodies resurface. Mostly there are just a couple of bones to rebury, but occasionally decomposing bodies must be dealt with. Would you have a problem with that?”

John could not quite imagine it. He figured he would find out when it happened. “No I think I’d be okay with that.”

“You think so? All right then Mr. Conrad. Mr. Samson informs me that you believe yourself to be a hard worker. He also said that you thought the groundskeepers we employ at the present do not do a very thorough job. I cannot argue with you there. So although I have my reservations, I will give you a try. You have another job, is that correct, working at a nightclub?”

”Yes I work at Abbey Bar on Decatur one night a week, but it won’t interfere with my schedule here.”

“Just so long as you show up on time, Mr. Conrad. Find your way to the shed for eight o’clock Monday morning.” She eyed John over her papers a moment and then said, “Good afternoon,” and looked back down.

John hesitated at the door. ”Thank you,” he said and walked out and across the street to his house. He sat on the stoop. He smoked and gazed at the cemetery. He thought he caught a glimpse of Old Spec Samson walking slowly through the rows of tombs. John considered him. He did not seem interested in John at all yesterday, so why had he spoken to Mrs. Twyman about him, and apparently even recommend that she hire him? He doubted the few words exchanged in her office would have convinced her. He supposed they were both tired of seeing the cemetery looking like a mess and were desperate to find somebody who was willing to work. He was not convinced. John thought the lawnmower guy would follow orders if they were given him. John shrugged and went inside. He would begin work on Monday and perhaps things would become clear or perhaps not. In any case, he had a second job, and it was, as far as he was concerned, pretty ideal.

* * *

The weekend passed uneventfully.   John worked on Friday and had a few shift drinks. After he went on to the Hide Out and saw some people he knew. He ended up drunk. The sky was just getting light when he rode to the Verdi Mart for breakfast. Riding back uptown, he was quite sober and tired. He slept and read all day Saturday and went out again that night. Sunday was the same as Saturday only with the Sunday paper as a bonus.

He went to bed early but could not fall asleep. Staying out sometimes well past sunrise had become the norm for him in New Orleans. He could not remember the last time he went to bed before two, and it had been much longer since he had anywhere to be at eight in the morning.

He fell asleep at about three and woke up to a buzzing alarm, a buzzing head, and the remnants of a disquieting dream: He had gone down the steps into a dark pond and was caught up by the serenity of the deep still waters, as if they could pull him under forever.

By the time he got dressed, drank a quick cup of coffee, smoked a cigarette, and walked across the street, the dream and its effects were gone.

As he approached the cemetery, he saw the lawn mower guy loafing around the shed. The shed was right next to the office and was even more run down. “Hey.” said John.

“Got yourself a job, huh? Guess we’ll be working together. Name’s Virgil.” He put out his hand.

“Looks like it.” John smiled and shook hands. “I’m John. Just then Old Spec Samson appeared. He stepped out from between two stone tombs and turned onto the dirt road that cut through the middle of the cemetery. Shovel in hand, he walked slowly past them to the shed and unlocked it.

”Morning sir,” said Virgil.

“Hello Mr. Samson,” said John.

“Good morning,” Old Spec said absently. ”The two of you mow this morning. After lunch, meet me in the south east corner with your shovels.” He turned and walked away.

“See? What I tell you? He don’t say nothing he don’t have to.”

“Hmm, well I guess I’ll start over there.”

Virgil looked at him, sizing him up. John did not think Virgil would understand his eagerness to work hard. One of the reasons John wanted this job was to simply expend energy. Explaining this to Virgil would be like explaining a low-fat diet to a famine-stricken man. John did not have a precise understanding of it himself, but he knew he wanted to tire himself out.

He pulled a mower out of the shed and headed off towards what he figured was northwest. He began by picking up trash then started mowing. Along the fence, the grass was tall and full of weeds. John suspected it hadn’t been mowed in years. He returned to the shed and got a weed whacker. He worked steadily and saw no one. As the sun rose, he sweated, so that his shirt was drenched and his face was dripping. He mowed in straight lines whenever he could. Back and forth, he contemplated his lines. He planned his attacks on the weeds and grass. He felt the motor tremble his whole body. He pondered forming blisters and his muscles working. The smell of fresh cut grass swept memories in and out of his mind like the tide of a bay. Memories rolled back and forth with the weed whacker, back and forth with the lawnmower. They washed over his conscious mind and were carelessly wiped away along with the beads of sweat on his upper lip and forehead. When something snapped him out of his reverie – a car, bird, or yell from across the street—he would be made aware that he had been thinking, but it was lost to him or meaningless now.

John was considering how much he had done and how much there was yet to do when he saw Virgil coming towards him. “It’s lunchtime Tarzan.   We got an hour before we dig for Old Spec.”

“Yeah? Is it noon already?”

“Straight-up.   Come on.”

They walked to the corner store. At the counter, John realized he was hungry. Since summer, he hadn’t had much of an appetite, but right now he was really hungry. It felt good. John followed Virgil’s lead in ordering two cheeseburgers dressed. They stepped outside and sat on the stoop next door.

Virgil evidently lived in the neighborhood and had a greeting and a smile for all. Often the people stopped to chat with him.

After he finished eating, John pulled out a smoke and lit his and Virgil’s. “Is Old Spec from around here too?”

”Old Spec’s been working here since I was a kid and before I was born even. He knows where every body in that park is. Don’t know what else he does but bury and rebury. He don’t help out with the look of the place.”

“Hmm, seems that way.”

“Where you from?”

“I grew up in Maine but I moved here from San Francisco.”

“California? My cousin lives out there. Like to visit some time. What brought you out here?”

“Seemed like a fun place. I guess I move around a lot, and this was my next stop.”

“Strange you moving all the way out here to work in a place like this.”

”Yeah, I didn’t plan on it, but it’s alright.” He lit another smoke and stared across the street.

“It’s a hot one,” said Virgil.

“Mm hmm,” agreed John. The stones of the cemetery glowed with heat. The sun was out full force, and the air was thick with moisture. He had been warned about summers in New Orleans and had joked that it would be like sex all the time. It is in a way. But come summer after a hot spring, it becomes stinky, sticky and overbearing.

Back at the cemetery, each grabbed a shovel from the shed. John followed Virgil to where Old Spec stood. He did not look at them, but as soon as they stopped in front of him he turned towards them and said, “These bones need reburying.”

John looked down at the grave and saw what looked to be a forearm. Where it lay, half buried, he could imagine the rest of the skeleton lying in its entirety under the earth, like sometimes you can see the shadowed part of a new moon.

Old Spec stood by as they pulled the bones. The skeleton was by no means complete and in no formation. They finished pulling them out, then started digging. They dug six feet down, placed the bones back in no particular order, and threw dirt over the top. They worked without talking.

When they finished, Old Spec moved about ten feet away and stood at the foot of another misshapen grave. This was the section of the cemetery where the concrete box was a luxury item, as was the headstone. Here the typical grave was a crude wooden box set in the ground, marked with a slanted wooden cross, transitory testimony. Almost all the boxes were cockeyed, one end sticking up out of the ground a couple of feet, the other end buried. In places, the grass was chest high, the weeds thick and sturdy. John and Virgil walked over to Old Spec, who inclined his head indicating another bone. They repeated their actions. By the time they were done, the old man was nowhere to be seen.

“Get used to it,” Virgil said. “Like this all summer. We bury them and the rain pulls them back up.”

John went home tired, sore, and starving. There was nothing to eat, so he ordered a pizza and lay down. He was woken before he knew he was asleep by the pizza boy, and ate the whole thing while reading the paper. He smoked and did not even think about going out. He did not think, and slept more soundly than he had in a long time.

* * *

Tuesday morning his alarm woke him right up, but he lay in bed for a while, feeling his sore muscles. He made coffee, smoked, then walked across the street to the cemetery. The day was dark, thick with clouds and wetness, pregnant with the storm to come. He got to the shed without seeing anyone. The door was open so he took out his mower. He returned to yesterday’s work and surveyed what he had done. It really wasn’t much. He started up again, and worked hard while the thunder rolled in the distance and dark clouds flew passed bright patches of sunlight.

Suddenly it rained on top of him, heavy and without mercy. Soon he could not see for the drops in his eyes and the mist. He continued mowing until the motor died. He paused and felt the muddy earth shift beneath him. As when standing on a beach one feels the tied receding pulling with it the feet out to sea, he felt the mud, as if it too were under the domination of the moon, pull him in. Slow and firm and heavy, the mud and the earth and the moon sucked him into their obscure and sodden depths. When he understood the pull, he drew his feet out, and walked, slowly and with effort, to the shed.

He felt a little disoriented when he saw his angel above him. Had he passed her earlier? Had she always been a girl? She stood, her figure wrapped in droplets bouncing, her face indistinct through the downpour. He stood still and stared, but not for long. He felt the mud’s determination to suck him into its mire.

Back at the shed, he found Virgil. “Thought maybe you’d gone home for the rain.”

“No,” said John, “I don’t mind the rain, but the mower does.”

”I don’t mind the rain neither. It’s the mud that gets me. Sometimes it feels like they’re pulling you down with ‘em.”

John was watching Virgil who wore a strange smile, when Old Spec Samson appeared in his periphery. ”You go to lunch. Can’t be nothing done now. There will be plenty to do later.” His thin silhouette melted back into the watery light.

John and Virgil sat in a cramped booth in a dark diner and ordered sausage po-boys. They drank coffee and smoked till the rain stopped. The sun brought the steam and the summer brightness. Back at the cemetery, Old Spec waited.

John and Virgil took up their shovels and the three moved through the stone sepulchers with peaked roof seraphim to the uncovered boxes.

Old Spec would bow his head in the direction of a bone or two. John and Virgil would pull them and dig, uncovering more as they moved down. Then there would be nothing. Deeper still, they placed the bones and covered them.

It was odd how some bones resurfaced and others were pulled down all the way, not to be encountered again, even at six feet. John imagined that the bones would continue to resurface until they were sucked down and accepted into the bowels of earth, far under the crust, into the molten foundry of the world, to be reworked into something quite new and inhuman.

The afternoon passed. John went home exhausted and mindless. He ate, read, smoked, drank a beer, though it didn’t taste as rewarding as he anticipated, and finally he slept.

* * *

He awoke with the sensation of having dreamed many dreams, but they left only vague uneasy impressions. He smoked, drank coffee and crossed the street to the cemetery.

He spent the day mowing. He cleaned up a good chunk and went home tired, sweaty, and satisfied. But that night it stormed violently. Great booms drawn out into rumbling shook his little house. He lay on his couch with the lights off and

Looked out the window waiting for lightning.

He thought about the bones that would have to be reburied. It was unsettling. Those people, while on earth alive and whole, reduced to a few bones. Is that it? Life then disintegration? He found it impossible to conceive of a soul flying up to Heaven or being thrust down into Hell. No such thing as a soul? Perhaps he existed as an individual only because of his body? As he fell asleep, he was convinced that the cold black annihilation of existence was far more terrifying than any fiery torture offered by Hell.

* * *

It was difficult for John to wake up on Thursday. He hit the snooze button again and again. No time for coffee. He lit a cigarette as he walked into the cemetery.

He spent the morning mowing. The afternoon he and Virgil followed Old Spec Samson from grave to grave, reburying. At the last grave, he saw no bones, but smelled decay, and his stomach churned. He remembered Mrs. Twyman’s words, and knew that there would be rotting flesh on these bones.

The face appeared a death mask. The spots and patches of mold and worms composed the body. Blues and greens and black and brown mingled together in a putrefying human shape. The stench was overwhelming, and John shut his mind to it all. After it was over, he did not think of it. It was like a nightmare that flies away to nest in the unconscious.

John decided to go out that night. Over dinner, he flirted with the waitress. Then marched straight to the Hide Out, determined to get wasted and laid.

He did not think about the cemetery. He did not think about the decay. He thought only of the booted legs, the belted waists, the gartered thighs, and the wrapped breasts parading by. He settled on a girl with long blond hair and a phenomenal body in white vinyl. She seemed a little self-conscious in her sex appeal, probably because she was young, but he was drunk, and he wanted her, so he moved in.

He felt at once that he would have an easy time of it. Soon enough, in a flash, he saw them having sex and waited, flirting patiently, until it happened.

* * *

Friday morning he crawled out of her bed with nausea and a headache, grabbed his clothes on, and fled to work. He was late, but nobody was there to notice. He worked slowly and painfully throughout the morning. He went home at lunch and fell asleep without eating. He woke up with a start and ran back to work, but again no one was around, and he was thankful. He went to his corner and finished his day without speaking a word. He had seen Virgil down the road a bit and waved, but he did not make a move to talk and Virgil let him be.

That night was his shift at the Abbey. Before work, he ate dinner and drank a few beers while he went through his mail. There were the usual bills along with a postcard from his buddy Denny in Brooklyn. John had planned to stay in New Orleans for another year, but he was beginning to get bored. The biting humor of New York City would be refreshing after the slow sensual stupidity of New Orleans.

He started his shift half drunk and kept drinking. The blond from the night before showed up, but she was not in vinyl. She attempted flirting and he tried to be nice. His longing for her body tonight weighed against his longing for solitude in the morning. In the end, he got drunk and sloppy as he worked and she fled, leaving him sick and sad and tired.

After he closed the bar, he wanted to go home, but felt compelled to move on. He walked down to the Hide Out. He hoped to find her again, but she wasn’t there, so he drank another drink and tried to catch the eye of a beautiful red head, but had neither the focusing power nor the charm to do it. He finally left, got on his bike and did not remember driving home.

* * *

Saturday he spent reading and sleeping. He thought about very little, and was sure that he was not in the mood to go out, but when midnight rolled around, he became restless and rode downtown. He saw the beautiful redhead and flirted. They joked about themselves and their lifestyle. She was a happy boozer too. She had moved here from Seattle, and they made fun of the fog and the cold of the West Coast. He thought that they might go home together, but they both got too drunk to manipulate the situation in the right direction.

Sunday he worked on his bike, then rode to the levy. On his way home, he grabbed a forty-ouncer and a frozen pizza. Finally, he fell asleep.

In the dream, he was waist deep in the dark pond. His angel, walking slowly on the surface of the water, held something glinting and dangerous in her hand. He tried to get away. He moved towards the steps that led out of the pond, knowing that if she reached him she would pull him under forever. Her demon-beautiful face was serene and determined, and he awoke, powerless to stop her.

It was predawn night. He turned on the light and smoked. The dream and the cemetery with its rotting flesh haunted him. Suddenly he thought he might not be up to this job.

* * *

When morning proper came, he went to work and mowed. On his way to the shed at the end of the day, John passed his angel. Her demon-beautiful face, darkened by the sun behind, stared out above him. He remembered his dream, and saw that she might well walk on water.

John went home, read the paper and ate. Later he rode to Checkpoint Charlies. His friend’s band was playing. The show was fun and there were a lot of familiar faces. He drove home sober. Vaguely lonely.

* * *

He woke up before his alarm. He lay in bed smoking. He contemplated not going to work. He figured that he did need the money, so he decided to count on a day like the one before. The possibility of mowing all day comforted, but when he stepped onto his porch he saw the black clouds, felt the thick air, and knew that before long it would be storming.

He went into the shed and greeted Virgil. ”Hey.”

“How you doing?”

“Been better.”

“Job getting to you already?”

“Mm,” John affirmed.

“Yeah it does.   You’ll get used to it.”

“Yeah, I guess I will.”

”Maybe you won’t neither.   Who’s to say?”

John looked after Virgil as he walked down the little dirt road, then he walked in the opposite direction to where he had chosen to work. John mowed until the rain fell. By the time he made it back to the shed, it was as if he had jumped into a pool. He wanted to go home, and thought that he would try to find Old Spec in order to ask if it would be okay.

He walked outside the shed and peered into the water. The old man would probably be coming back soon, but he decided to look for him rather than wait. Before long, he found himself on the other side of the cemetery. Through the rain, he saw the fuzzy silhouette of the tall thin stooped old man. He was standing head cocked atop a tomb, one arm crooked, shovel in hand. John walked towards him, thinking that at any moment the old man would see him, but he didn’t. He moved closer to Old Spec, who seemed to be listening. The din of the torrent was deafening.

John stood directly in front of Old Spec and looked into his eyes. The eyes stared directly at him, but saw nothing. With a creeping sensation of horror and understanding a thought seized him, tugged at his throat and was released in a yell. ”You’re blind!”

Old Spec Samson started slightly and then waved him away. He was definitely listening to something. Or somebody.

Sluggishly John’s mind clicked over the events of the past week. A vision of the old man leading himself and Virgil through the cemetery straight to the risen remains. He always knew where they were. John looked at the old man who was hearing. . . what? The question lodged in his throat with the bile.

He bent over and vomited out the mud, the bones, the putrefying flesh, the alcohol, the sex. All the vile events of his life. When he was finished, the old man was gone, and so, because there was nobody to ask, he screamed his question to the swirling wind and the heavy rain, the swaying trees and the still seraphim, ”How does he find them?”

* * *

Wrapped in rain, tended by his angel, John sat for a long time. He imagined the bones and the decomposing flesh talking to the old blind man, leading him with his staff to the spot where they lie. Perhaps they scream at him until they are reburied. Maybe six feet of dirt merely quiets the screams to low moans. John shuttered to think that these dead piles of bones and flesh would not be silenced until they reached the fiery foundry and were obliterated.

He left the next morning for his new home in New York City, taking with him only what fit in his backpack on his bike. He drove out of New Orleans and left behind what he would not carry. The states flew by, and at each state line he dropped a bone, a bit of flesh. He tossed aside the seraphim, and even his angel. He drove away his past and was thankful he could move.

Every so often he thought of the old blind man, walking amongst the people he buried. The dead are very predictable. One does not need eyes to find them. He wished he had never met Old Spec Samson and tried hard to forget what he had learned. John knew now that he had a soul. His soul, like   all the others, was destined to fall apart and rot with the body, crying for mercy until the good earth gave it the nonexistence it longed for.

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Flaubert’s Rule for Artists: Be Regular? Settled? Ordinary as a Bourgeois? Essay 28 of #52essays2017

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” –Gustave Flaubert

I first encountered this quote a few weeks back in my Catapult Advanced Writing Workshop with the amazing R.O. Kwon. I liked it and it felt right. Having no set schedule as a writer makes it very hard to allow for the indulgences of friends with location-specific jobs–when you have to show up somewhere, for pay, you do, painful as it may be. But when you wake up destroyed by life and world events and have some stuff to write with tomorrow deadlines, you may be inclined to pull the blankets over your head. In addition, I’ve found that mad debauchery in one’s youth is helpful for expanding one’s mind, or having a certain amount of savvy vis a vis the underbellies of things, but in the days of aging, merely distracts from the difficult job of putting stories and articles together.

This quote of Flaubert seemed to me a perfect invocation of moderation for art’s sake, but when I shared it with Alabaster, he said, “Didn’t Flaubert die of syphilis?”

And I was like, “Did he?” and promptly busted out the Flaubert Wikipedia page in which I read:

“Flaubert was very open about his sexual activities with prostitutes in his writings on his travels. He suspected that a chancre on his penis was from a Maronite or a Turkish girl. He also engaged in intercourse with male prostitutes in Beirut and Egypt; in one of his letters, he describes a “pockmarked young rascal wearing a white turban.”

Gustave Flaubert photographic portrait by Nadar.At first glance, I took this to indicate a lack of order, at least of the sexual variety, and suspected that Flaubert’s quote was more a prescription of how he would like to live than a description of how he did. But as I used to tell my NYU students, Wikipedia is a start not an end in research, so I got ahold of some books.

The first and very beautiful was The George Sand-Gustave Flaubert Letters, in which the two friends and “troubadours” write to each other about the quotidian, art, politics, family, death, disillutionment, hope, and their love and admiration for one another, despite their differences. Throughout, it’s clear that in his later years, of which these letters are representative, Flaubert was a self-imposed recluse. In 1867, his friend grows suspicious of his solitude:

“And the novel, is it getting on? Your courage has not declined? Solitude does not weigh on you? I really think that it is not absolute, and that somewhere there is a sweetheart who comes and goes, or who lives near there. But there is something of the anchorite in your life just the same, …”

To which he responds:

“…no ‘lovely lady’ comes to see me. Lovely ladies have occupied my mind a good deal, but have taken up very little of my time. Applying the term anchorite to me is perhaps a juster comparison than you think.

I pass entire weeks without exchanging a word with a human being, and at the end of the week it is not possible for me to recall a single day nor any event whatsoever. I see my mother and my niece on Sundays, and that is all. My only company consists of a band of rats in the garret, which make an infernal racket above my head, when the water does not roar or the wind blow. The nights are black as ink, and a silence surrounds me comparable to that of the desert. Sensitiveness is increased immeasurably in such a setting. I have palpitations of the heart for nothing.

All that results from our charming profession.”

Ah yes, I can relate! (Except for the rats, and of course, I have a lovely companion in Alabaster.)

George Sand photographic portrait by Nadar, 1864.Alas, the quote in question did not originate in that book of intimate and useful letters. Though the quote seems to be repeated ad infinitum on the internet , I couldn’t find its context. More tantalizingly, I could find other translations that made me want to see the French for myself, for example:

“Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”

What? Fierce? I think I like fierceness even more than violence.

Then there’s the matter of the omitted “like the bourgeois,” which occasionally creeps in. More often, the English translations ignored the reference to the class of people that Flaubert, under most circumstances, disparaged, although he himself was a member. In Flaubert, a biography by Michel Winock, I read:

“His hatred for his era settled on the bourgeoisie, which in his eyes embodied the debasement of mind, mores, and taste. This criticism reveals some contradictions because Flaubert himself belonged to this class; but for him, the bourgeois was first and foremost the modern man made stupid by utilitarianism, bloated with preconceptions, deserted by grace, and impervious to Beauty.”

In Winock’s biography I discovered that, not only is the bourgeois ignored, but orderly is not the thing at all, but ordinariness, which seems to me much worse! Here’s the translation in Flaubert:

“Be settled in your life and as ordinary as the bourgeois, in order to be fierce and original in your works.”

With this biography I also finally got a date 1876, just a few years before Flaubert’s early death. The date and a few words that I thought I could assume in French helped me find the original. So here we go, Flaubert’s “rule for artists” (“une règle pour les artistes”), en français, written in an 1876 letter to Madame Tennant:

“soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.”

Gertrude Tennant, ne. Collier. met Flaubert when they were young and flirtatious. Later in life, when this letter was written, Flaubert was 55, George Sand was no longer among the living, and Gertrude was 57, a mother fretting about her adult children, in particular her son. Consolation regarding that son prompted Flaubert to offer the famous quote.

According to her Wikipedia page, Gertrude Tennant helped to edit Flaubert’s correspondence, the very correspondence in which she is memorialized. It makes me a little sad and wistful for the letter writing that brings these long-dead people to me with such intimacy. They seem the very essence of a life. Our written correspondence is rarely so detailed anymore. People are generally put out by long emails.

That said, I do not lament email, the internet, Facebook or even Twitter. They all lend themselves to the propagation of electronic texts. And, as I’ve written before, and will continue to celebrate, the digitization of words has given me access to truckloads of ephemera and substance too. It is an amazing time to be a blind reader, a blind writer, who is able, with a little diligence, to sniff out the original of a quote that so many sighted people were content merely to reiterate.

*This is #28 of #52essays2017. Read #27, about Helen Keller’s opinion of Trump HERE*

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I Have A Fellow Feeling For Trump. He Seems As Blind As I Am, Essay 27 of #52essays2017

Helen Keller startled vaudeville audiences from 1920 to 1924 with her lefty politics. According to Dorothy Herrmann’s biography, Keller’s answers to current events questions from the audience such as “What do you think of President Harding?” had planned zingers such as “I have a fellow feeling for him. He seems as blind as I am.” For my title, I take the liberty of substituting Trump for Harding, who was arguably one of our worst presidents, although he was popular at the time–his corruption being not fully revealed until after his mid-term death.

When Keller and I use “blind” to describe a man undeserving of power and ignorant of the common good–Trump or Harding–we mean, “I’d rather have no sight than no sense.”

Because Keller named, according to Herrmann, Eugene Debs (who ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket five times) as her “favorite hero in real life,” I feel confident in saying she would have supported Bernie Sanders, but, as a suffragette, I believe she would have rallied behind Hillary Clinton, and I think it’s safe to assume that she would have been pretty freaked out by the idea of Trump running, let alone winning, the presidency.

Besides the fact that she was one of the founding members of the NAACP, and an advocate for people with disabilities, she was very outspoken about workers’ rights and often linked the blind greed of capitalism to the ills of the common man.

“Amazing that hands which produce nothing should be exalted and jeweled with authority!” she writes in the first essay in her 1913 collection Out of the Dark, and continues:

“Is it not unjust that the hands of the world are not subject to the will of the workers, but are driven by the blind force of Necessity to obey the will of the few? And who are these few? They are themselves the slaves of the Market and the victims of Necessity.”

I would argue that Trumps blindness, and the blindness he infects others with, is fundamentally a capitalist one. He is unable to see beyond his own needs and accomplishments. In other words, his point of view is restricted by ego and greed, which leads him to outrageous and offensive statements.

During his debacle with the Khan family, Trump was accused of sacrificing “nothing and no one,” to which he responded ludicrously, “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.”

This stubborn assertion that working hard to line one’s own coffers is somehow equivalent to sacrifice, exemplifies his unwillingness or inability to see beyond himself. When he says avoiding paying taxes is “smart,” I believe he knows he’s being caddy and playing to the soundbite hungry, but when he, seemingly in all earnestness, confuses “building great structures” with sacrificing one’s life or losing one’s child, we are looking at a very profound blindness indeed.

*A draft of this essay was originally written in October 2016, before the election. It was never published. The recent horror in Nevada caused me to dig up all my old Trump writings. I offer it as #27 of #52essays2017. Read #26 about Rosemary HERE. Or for more Trump fun, read my essay on Machiavelli HERE*

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There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance, Essay 26 of #52essays2017, With Recipes!

Ophelia, 1894.Ophelia, as her wits unwind, uses the language of flowers to express what her modesty as a young maid won’t let her say directly. She says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember,” to her brother Laertes, perhaps as a stand-in for the lost Hamlet.

Rosemary has long been renowned for its stimulating effects on the brain, and modern science seems to be catching on. I remember well a roommate in Santa Cruz who burned rosemary sprigs to keep her awake. I did not like that roommate much–she was too cocky by halves–but she was the first to try to teach me the language of flowers, a lesson I’m now happy to learn.

Speaking of The Language of Flowers, a gritty and lovely novel by Vanessa Diffenbaugh with that title features a bouquet of flowers that includes rosemary–one of the hero’s first personalized creations:

“She watched me work, arranging the white lilac around the roses until the red was no longer visible. I wound sprigs of rosemary—which I had learned at the library could mean commitment as well as remembrance—around the stems like a ribbon. The rosemary was young and supple, and did not break when I tied it in a knot. I added a white ribbon for support and wrapped the whole thing in brown paper.”

“‘First emotions of love, true love, and commitment,'” says Victoria to her customer, who will indeed find that elusive state of being.

**

Rosemary’s name comes from the Latin “dew of the sea” because it thrives in the salty air of the Mediterranean. “I will never forget the first time I saw it growing wild in the Calanques of Marseille,” writes Cathy Skipper in her Hydrosols Certificate Course, “right next to the sea. It was so majestic, strong and wild, being blown by the salty wind, its hard, gnarled roots holding on to the sand and rocks, and this is when I really understood its name.”

In case you’ve only seen rosemary in a grocery store, here’s a description of the plant from Wanda Sellar’s The Directory of Essential Oils: “The woody stem grows to about three feet and supports dark green linear leaves and bees go wild for the bluish/ lilac flowers.” Rosmarinus officinalis has long been regarded as a healing and holy herb. Sellar writes, “Traces of Rosemary have been found in Egyptian tombs, and indeed the Greeks and Romans saw it as a symbol of regeneration as well. They held it to be a sacred plant, giving comfort to the living and peace to the dead.”

In fact, the practice of burning Rosemary in French hospital wards persisted through the 19th century, “ironically being abandoned at about the same time that modern research proved its antiseptic properties,” writes Patricia Davis in her Aromatherapy A-Z. She continues, “Because of its strong antiseptic action, rosemary can delay or prevent putrefaction in meat, but we shall never know whether it was first used in cooking for the flavor or to preserve meat in distant times, when there was no refrigeration or other means of keeping cooked meat fresh in a hot climate.” In other words, look no further for an explanation of the ubiquitous rosemary chicken. As with all the traditional culinary herbs, rosemary’s use-value extends beyond flavoring.

I recently purchased a rosemary hydrosol from Aromatics International and a splash tastes delicious with my vodka, but that is always the test with me isn’t it? Indeed, flavoring my vodka, and water, with natural substances is a bit of an obsession, and it really helps to reprogram the taste buds from decades of fake flavors. It worries me sometimes that the same artificial flavors used to make “watermelon” and “green apple” Jolly Ranchers also flavor vodka–it should be illegal–gone the way of candy cigarettes!

Many essential oils, such as orange, lemon, peppermint, and cinnamon, are precisely what flavored common food products such as candy before chemistry discovered it was cheaper and easier to make them in a lab. Using chemical constituents plucked out of natural substances or created whole-cloth using chemical formulas, are the “natural and artificial flavors” you find on so many labels.

Rosemary sprig cocktail.But it’s easy enough to pack your food and drink with real flavor punches. A lot
of cocktail enthusiasts will use an herb like rosemary infused into a simple syrup. As I mentioned in my idiosyncratic review of The Botanist Gin, the Bible around our place (our virtual place I should say because we are at present vagabonds) is The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart. In it she writes, “Almost any botanical ingredient, from lemon peel to rhubarb to rosemary, can be infused into a simple syrup. This is an easy way to showcase seasonal produce and add a twist to a basic cocktail recipe. Here’s her infused syrup recipe for your convenience:

*Infused Simple Syrup*

2 cups herbs, flowers, fruit, or spices

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

1 ounce vodka (optional)

Combine all the ingredients except the vodka in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Let the mixture cool, and pour through a fine mesh strainer. If you are using the vodka, you can add it now to act as a preservative, and keep refrigerated. It will be good for two to three weeks in the fridge, longer in the freezer.

**

I personally like to keep my sweets as sweets and my booze relatively uncluttered with added sugar, since alcohol is basically sugar anyway, so I forgo simple syrup in favor of essential oils and hydrosols. That said, I do do bitters even though they often contain some sugar or honey, because the flavor punch in a drop or two minimizes the sweetness. On the other hand, this recipe from Brad Thomas Parsons book Bitters makes my mouth water, and might make me change my mind about froofy cocktails.

*Do You Believe In Miracles*

Makes 1 drink

1 1/2 ounces vodka, preferably P3 Placid or 46 Peaks

3/4 ounce Clear Creek Douglas fir eau de vie

1/4 ounce Honey Syrup

¼ ounce Rosemary Syrup

2 dashes Scrappy’s lavender bitters

2 drops or 4 spritzes Rosemary Tincture

Garnish: rosemary sprig

Combine the vodka, Douglas fir eau de vie, honey and rosemary syrups, and bitters in a cocktail shaker filled with ice, and shake until chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and, using an eyedropper or atomizer, place 2 drops or 4 spritzes of the rosemary tincture on the surface of the drink. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

**

Though modern capitalism dictates that we buy a different product for every small need, it is the premise of Distill My Heart that botanicals inspire various disciplines. Tinctures are a perfect example. They have their roots and applications in medicine and booze, beauty and perfume. You can buy them in a health food store or make them yourself with minimal effort and expense. All you need is a little patience. Here’s a typical recipe, again from Bitters:

*ROSEMARY TINCTURE*

Makes 1 cup

1/4 cup fresh rosemary needles

1 cup high-proof (80 to 100 proof) vodka or Everclear

Using a mortar and pestle, crush the rosemary needles. Place them in a glass jar and cover the needles with the vodka. Cover the jar and shake gently. Store in a cool, dark place. The alcohol will turn green as it leaches the oils from the rosemary. Shake and taste the infusion daily. When the tincture reaches your desired intensity, anywhere from a few days to two weeks, strain the solution through cheesecloth and, using a funnel, pour into small eyedropper bottles or an atomizer.

**

Yes Organic Face and Body Remedy Oil.Rosemary is known as the aesthetician’s friend, as it penetrates to the middle layers of the skin, and is a strong antioxidant. You may have seen this term once or twice in recent years, and wondered as I did the meaning of antioxidant. We all know we want them, but what the heck are they? Something about free radicals, right? And in this case, free radicals are not good, which is too bad, because I like to think of myself as a free radical. Anyhoo, here’s the best I can do with my limited scientific leanings:

Antioxidants are molecules that can prevent the oxidation of other molecules, and oxidation, according to Wikipedia is a chain reaction that can produce free radicals that can damage cells.

My best friend Indigo, a licensed aesthetician and owner of Yes Organic Boutique, uses Spanish Rosemary in her amazing Face & Body Remedy Oil.

The precedent for rosemary in beauty products is a long one. Perhaps its most famous expression is in the famous Hungary Water used as a face wash by the 14th-century aging Queen of Hungary to restore her youthful appearance. Other ingredients were supposedly Lemon, Rose, Neroli, Melissa and Peppermint. My rosemary hydrosol also goes into a simple facewash with aloe vera gel.

Rosemary was an ingredient in the original Eau de Cologne developed by the Italian perfumer Farina, who took up residence in Germany and subsequently developed the fresh and light scent that took 18th-century Europe by storm. As a demonstration how closely linked are perfume and booze, I leave you with this recipe inspired by cologne and created by the artist turned scientist bartender, Tony Conigliaro, which can be found in his book The Cocktail Lab. It is named for the town’s German spelling:

*Köln Aromatics*

Yield: 20 g (3/4 ounce)

INGREDIENTS 20 g (3/4 oz.) pure alcohol

21 microliters of bitter orange oil

2 microliters of neroli oil

6 microliters of petit grain oil

3 microliters of rosemary essence

63 microliters of rose water

2 microliters of sandalwood oil

20 microliters of lemon

Cologne bottle (Rosoli Flacon), 1811.For this perfume-inspired recipe, you will need pipettes–you can buy disposable
ones on Amazon or pretty much anywhere you can buy essential oils, which makes it easy to switch out between essential oils. In dealing with such small measurements of strong aromatics, every bit counts, so you don’t want to muddle the aromas in the pipette, or worse, in your essential oil containers. The recipe is simple but like the above tincture recipe, takes some time to mature. After you put the alcohol into a small glass jar or eyedropper bottle, add the oils and essences. I personally would add the rosewater last, maybe even after a shake, to make sure the oils are incorporated into the alcohol, as water and oil do not mix. Besides being a magical beverage, alcohol has the amazing property of mixing with oil-based liquids as well as water-based ones, which is the reason it works so well in perfumery. When all the ingredients are in the vessel, seal it and shake gently. Leave in a cool dark place for 3 weeks. Open and sniff, but not too much, as you do not want all the beautiful volatile aromatics to escape up your nose! Drop into martinis, especially made with a London dry type gin. Conigliaro says to garnish with a cleaned lemon leaf, which sounds lovely, if you happen to have a lemon tree handy. Otherwise, perhaps an orange or lemon zest will do.

*This is #26 of #52essays2017. Read #25, about my odd relationship to Machiavelli and listen to the gutter & spine song inspired by one of his more twisted passages HERE*

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Machiavelli: From Grad School to the Stage to Bullying Trump, Essay 25 of #52essays2017

Sometimes I feel like I confuse friends and family with my chameleon approach to life, but in my own mind, grad school led me to the stage which led me back to the page, where I started so long ago before the eye disease. I’d like to think that my changeability stems from the need to adapt and adjust to the winds of time and the caprices of Fortune. As Machiavelli says in The Prince, “a prince will be fortunate who adjusts his behavior to the temper of the times, and on the other hand will be unfortunate when his behavior is not well attuned to the times.”

I taught Machiavelli many times in a course called Conversations of the West, offered by NYU as part of their core curriculum for non-humanities students to help broaden their perspective as they stepped into their lucrative boxes as doctors and lawyers and business executives–cue Little Boxes.

Teaching Conversations of the West was a team effort led by professors all over the humanities–from the German department to philosophy, history to English, and each professor inflected the course in his or her own way. Even the English professors, with whom I taught each had their own version based on their academic leanings. I should say though, that the first part of the course was more similar–everyone had to do The Odyssey, The Aeneid, some selections from the Old and New Testaments, something by Plato, and a Greek tragedy. So there was flexibility–in the many times I was a TA for this course, we always read Genesis, but sometimes we read Oedipus and other times Antigone, sometimes Phaedrus and other times Credo. The second half of the semester would be completely up to the professor, so long as it continued to dialogue with the ancients. I taught the Renaissance flavored class most often, the Eighteenth Century several times and once, in a perverse twist of fate, the Medieval, but always with English professors because that was my department.

My favorite flavor was taught by Professor Ernest Gilman, and it is from him that I stole my reading of Machiavelli that became the song D’Orca–in a process similar to that of the origins of Sludge. Written with my buddy David and first performed with our band gutter & spine, I later adapted it for solo performance with my loop pedal.

 

 

Here’s the passage from which I lifted the lyrics:

“The next point is worthy of special note, and of imitation by others; I don’t want to pass lightly over it. When the duke took over the Romagna, he found it had been controlled by impotent masters, who instead of ruling their subjects had plundered them, and had given them more reason for strife than unity, so that the whole province was full of robbers, feuds, and lawlessness of every description. To establish peace and reduce the land to obedience, he decided good government was needed; and he named Messer Remirro de Orco, a cruel and vigorous man, to whom he gave absolute powers. In short order this man pacified and unified the whole district, winning thereby great renown. But then the duke decided such excessive authority was no longer necessary, and feared it might become odious; so he set up a civil court in the middle of the province, with an excellent judge and a representative from each city. And because he knew that the recent harshness had generated some hatred, in order to clear the minds of the people and gain them over to his cause completely, he determined to make plain that whatever cruelty had occurred had come, not from him, but from the brutal character of the minister. Taking a proper occasion, therefore, he had him placed on the public square of Cesena one morning, in two pieces, with a piece of wood beside him and a bloody knife.8 The ferocity of this scene left the people at once stunned and satisfied.” –Chapter VII

godin performing dorco @ penny’s open mic 6 15 2010

In other words, the very excellent almost-prince and son of a pope Cesare Borgia uses a real bastard named Messer Remirro De Orco to do his dirty work in stamping out some intractable towns and then, realizing that de Orco has left some pissed off Italians in his wake, he turns around and… well just listen to the song…

The song is also influenced by another brutal passage from The Prince, in which Machiavelli offers some words of advice regarding what a virtuous (manly) prince ought to do with that bitch Fortuna:

“I conclude, then, that so long as Fortune varies and men stand still, they will prosper while they suit the times, and fail when they do not. But I do feel this: that it is better to be rash than timid, for Fortune is a woman, and the man who wants to hold her down must beat and bully her. We see that she yields more often to men of this stripe than to those who come coldly toward her. Like a woman, too, she is always a friend of the young, because they are less timid, more brutal, and take charge of her more recklessly.” –From Chapter XXV

It is sad to me that, the political climate being what it is today, I must hesitate here to stress the fact that this is a metaphor. That brutalizing women, or creating a climate where women may be brutalized, should be, by now, safely tucked away in our society’s embarrassing and brutal youth.

In any case, this is a metaphor, about the need to bend circumstances to our will and not be bent by them. Substitute women for men in these lines, and any old name–let’s go with Trump–for Fortune, and we’ll get a pill that might taste more palatable:

“I conclude, then, that so long as Trump varies and women stand still, they will prosper while they suit the times, and fail when they do not. But I do feel this: that it is better to be rash than timid, for Trump is a Man, and the woman who wants to hold him down must beat and bully him. We see that he yields more often to women of this stripe than to those who come coldly toward him. Like a man, too, he is always a friend of the young, because they are less timid, more brutal, and take charge of him more recklessly.”

 

*This is #25 of #52essays2017. Read my previous essay, about my adventures in the writing life HERE*

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Touching Egypt: Art Accessibility

*Recently Artsy reached out and reminded me of this article (written last August) and the importance of art accessibility. Also, I should note that things are continually improving, as exemplified by my friend Claire Kearney-Volpe who offered a Co-Lab through the NYU Accessibility Project, to help Cooper Hewitt bring art accessibility to their design museum*

“You can’t touch the artifact!” said a female voice in an urgent museum whisper. In fact we’d been directed to the pieces in The Met’s Egyptian collection that are touchable by blind patrons by another museum guard, who clearly had great love of his job generally, and this aspect of it in particular. He shushed his alarmed colleague and explained to her about art accessibility. You’d think all the guards working the Egyptian wing would be informed of this unique aspect, or at least that they would have looked at the exhibits they were guarding over and learned what the signs clearly state, but people don’t read.

My boyfriend Alabaster told me that several people stood staring aghast during the course of our tour, and that one woman nearly screamed when she saw me with my hands on a sarcophagus until her husband pointed out the braille title card and the printed sign explaining that the object may be touched by BLIND PATRONS ONLY to enhance their museum experience.

You may be jealous and confused, but don’t be! Out of the approximately 26,000 artifacts in the Egyptian collection, only a handful may be touched. The rest must be explained verbally, which is just not the same thing.

I have been on several “sense” tours at NYC museums over the years and, while I appreciate the impulse, it often feels like they are phoning them in in order to check the accessibility box. Take for example a sense tour at The Met wherein our tour guide described almost every object as “very colorful.” Or the time at MOMA, when, at the top of a tour of Soundings, an exhibit of contemporary sound art–perfect for blind people right?–we found ourselves sitting on portable stools in front of a silent piece–the only silent piece of the exhibit–with a tour guide who, in an effort to encourage us to commune with the art, sat on the floor with her back to us and began to meditate.

I haven’t a very long fuse for the unbearable and soon I was fuming, not the least because I could hear the happy buzzing and whirring and chattering of a dozen or so other pieces–and as you may have noticed I like soundscapes a lot! Still, I felt somehow guilty for not appreciating the effort, so instead of having a tantrum, I handed my headset to the tour coordinator, claiming a terrible back spasm, and Alabaster and I got out of there to enjoy the museum in our own way.

He described in great detail some of his favorites–Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian –and I was able to ask questions when I didn’t understand. Even though I used to see and can readily access visual memories, I find it difficult to assemble descriptions into an art object visible to my mind’s eye. But, with great effort, enthusiasm and empathy on the side of the describer, and intense and artistic concentration on the side of the listener, it can happen that a heretofore-unseen object can manifest in the mind’s eye and occupy mental space as vividly as any object once-seen. As with all translations, this one is not perfect but it is wonderful.

Friends of ours with a similar dynamic–Caroline (visually impaired) and David (sighted)–went to Paris and were delighted to find that all museums were free for blind people. It made so much sense that this should be the case, since, really to get anything out of the museum experience, only a few objects can be described and integrated at a given visit. There are no cursory glances for blind people. All must be savored and chewed slowly if it’s to make any impact, and so what might take a sighted museum-goer a single trip to see, could take several for a blind person and her trusty describer.

Godin presents crushed lockers at the Whitney MuseumBack in the states, it never hurts to ask about art accessibility. At the Whitney, we were pleasantly surprised when, upon asking if there’s a discount for blind patrons, we received the good news that it would be free for me–whether this was policy or not was unclear, but it was nonetheless welcome and, in addition to having a fine time talking through the art, with many articulate gestures on the one hand and far-flung questions and analogies on the other, we apparently attracted attention. More than once, Alabaster caught strangers filming or photographing us.

Which brings us back to our Met tour on Saturday in which I was able to touch Ancient Egypt. It was really cool to feel the mane of the lion goddess, and squeeze the nose of a king’s sarcophagus, but my favorite part of the tour, and the reason it far surpassed the tour the Met organized a couple years back of the very same objects, was spending time reading the hieroglyphs with the help of our personal Egyptologist (and voiceover artist extraordinaire), Lloyd Floyd.

Before we learned which artifacts I could touch, we started the tour at a colossus where Lloyd Floyd described the pharaoh’s many titles, spelled out in hieroglyphs, and I found it difficult to concentrate, but later, with my hands on the hieroglyphs, the meanings that he explained corresponded to a sense impression–just as you, my dear sighted reader, may take information in through your sense of sight while listening to information regarding that description.

I realized how incredibly enlightening it was to hear what the signs meant when I was not splitting my brains trying to keep the image just described in my head at the same time as incorporating information about the object described. In other words, incorporating two abstract concepts into my poor pickled brain at the same time is exponentially harder than incorporating one abstract and one concrete–or in this case granite!

That’s not to say that, as mentioned above, it is not wonderful to receive a description of an art object, but it takes a long time, and when the description of what is seen comes at you alongside esoteric context, the brain easily boggles! However, with my hand on the hieroglyph my ear became very attentive. Besides, feeling the shapes and being able to participate in the discussion of whether the thing under my fingers, and their gaze, represented, as the archaeologists claim, a horned viper or, as our senses suggested, a slug, was a precious moment, not to be underestimated.

Not all museum pieces are made of virtually indestructible granite, but there are other ways of creating environments of art accessibility. Through models and replicas and many other ingenious tactile analogies as described in an article at Art Beyond Sight. Mentioned in that article is a brief warning to be careful not to make the experiences segregated:

“Some museums offer visitors in-depth tactile investigation of selected works, Godin experiences art accessibility at The Metfrequently in an alternate space. It is crucial that this not become a “segregated” program, but rather a supplementary educational approach to gallery programming.”

I agree with this, and believe the experience of others to my even being in a museum makes the whole experience educational in a multi-faceted and fun way–nothing like freaking out sighted people on a Saturday afternoon at The Met!

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Submitting: A Day in the Life of A Blind Writer, Essay 24 of #52essays2017

Black Static cover.Yesterday I sent off a story–a rather sick and twisted tale that has disturbed the dreams of more than one workshop companion–to a reputable UK horror magazine using Submittable. If you’re not a writer, Submittable may be new to you, but if you are a writer, you can hardly avoid it these days. Submittable is the online hub of submitting work for journals, magazines, even fellowships. I’ve used it many times and have always been so happy and grateful that it exists.

Submitting electronically makes it possible for writers who are blind to participate in the vital, if often painful, act of submitting work without sighted help.

So, while submitting “Beautiful Limbs” to Black Static yesterday, I was aghast to find that, according to my screen reader, there was no button to choose a file or browse for one. In other words, I suddenly could not attach my story. And for those non-screen reader users, buttons are usually pretty accessible. I cursed and then asked Alabaster to mouse click the damn thing for me, and took it from there–the “submit” button was still accessible.

Then, as is becoming my habit, I wrote a note to the tech support at Submittable telling them about the problem and offering to help test any changes, a typical example of how I reach out in the face of such difficulties:

Hello,

I am a blind writer and have used Submittable many times for submitting in the past (and also as a member of the editorial review board for Newtown Literary), and today is the first time I’ve not been able to attach a file. My sighted partner had to click the “choose file” button, which did not appear to my screen reader Jaws in Firefox, though the “submit” button showed up fine. Usually such buttons are no problem at all…

Please let me know if I can be of any further service, and feel free to have your developers reach out with any questions, or if they would like me to test anything out for them.

Sincerely,

Leona

Happily, Submittable is awesome and I received an email within a couple hours:

Hello Leona,

Thank you for letting us know. We’ll get this fixed asap. I’ve also let our development team know about your kind offer to help them test the system. I’ll be back in touch when I get word of a fix.

Thanks again! Best,

Laurie

Although I always offer to help developers test their systems, I’ve only received a taker once before, and that from the premiere screen writing software Final Draft, with whom I’m working as a beta tester, which is super. It’s just kind of sad that most of the time developers do not take me up on my offer. Why not? Hubris? That’s my guess until some one of them explains it otherwise….

I try really hard not to get frustrated by these encounters with lack of accessibility in the writing community, but it’s hard.

I recently filled out an extensive application for the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship, where several of the menus–age, gender, race, etc.–were not accessible, another frustrating case, as combo boxes and drop-down menus are usually very accessible. So I let Submittable tech support know, and asked Alabaster to take care of these, as the deadline was strict, and there was no time to wait around for a fix.

I also had him choose “Other” in the race box, so that I could type in, “I feel it is important to state that although I am white, I experience many challenges because of my blindness.” Disability is rarely included in statements of diversity, though I think that is changing.

Because the Emerging voices Fellowship is meant to help out traditionally unheard voices, I was able to press the issue further, into the short answers. For example, to the question “Explain why you think you are locked out of the literary establishment,” I wrote:

I have a degenerative eye disease, which means that I’ve occupied pretty much every notch on the sight blindness continuum, but oddly, as my sight has decreased, the technology that gives me access to new books, journals, electronic submissions–in short all the things that are vital to a budding writing career–has flourished. Still, there’s a long way to go. even in this application, there are a few dropdown menus that are not accessible and for which I will need help before submitting. I run into such difficulties often, and I try to let web developers know, but if I picked every accessibility fight, I would hardly have time to write. Thus, in a very practical way, I have been, and often still am, locked out of the literary establishment.

Tin House cover.Up until very recently, it was virtually impossible for me to gain access in a timely fashion to contemporary literature. This is part of the reason that I stuck close to the Early Modern Period in graduate school. Through my twenties and thirties, almost nothing was available to me, and now I am surprised when I cannot get ahold of a new book. This is wonderful, but I feel I have a lot of catching up to do with regards contemporary literature.

Even now, there is snobbery in the literary community regarding eBooks, which are accessible books. Happily, more and more prestigious journals–“Tin House,” “Ploughshares,” “Granta“–are available as Kindle books, but others, such as “Glimmer Train,” are not. The point was driven home in a “Publishers Weekly” article, “Bill Henderson Marks 40 Years of the Pushcart Prize.” In it, the founding editor explains why there will not be a digital version of the acclaimed anthology. “’In the future, anyone can read it without using a battery”,'” which indicates a naïve understanding of readers and a complete disregard for accessibility. This illustrates how, even though the technology exists, there is an ideology that keeps myself and other print disabled people locked out of the literary establishment.

In a Catapult workshop I am currently in, we read “Cremains” by Sam Lipsyte, and though I enjoyed the story, my appreciation of the writing was tempered by the portrayal of Hilda, the blind character, who is fantastically stereotyped and badly drawn–I don’t know any blind people who can’t do their own dishes for example. Of course, as writers we will all be mistaken in our portrayals of the other, but until some corrective is offered in the form of blind people taking some control of their literary image, mythology, and metaphorics, not to mention the mundane bits of life that the sighted cannot know experientially, the stories will remain terribly lopsided both in terms of number and authenticity.

*This is essay 24 of #52essays2017. Read #23 “She Doesn’t Look Blind to Me” The Blind Actor Phenomenon, where I talk about challenges facing the blind actor*

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