Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Culinary Advice and Brain Rebooting

In the Mission breezeway this morning waiting for breakfast, I found myself next to two white boys who inhabited that indeterminate age I've come to recognize among street people which ranges somewhere between 26 and 66.  A denizen of this walking dead alley might look exactly the same at any point between the brackets depending on the convergent effects of intoxicants, sunlight, other forms of radiation, depression, and poor choice of reading matter.   They were snarling and whining about all the newbies who come into the Mission and demonstrate in embarrassing debacles and gaucheries their pathetic failure to learn the ropes, dig the scene, fit in or otherwise contribute something productive to homeless/Mission life. They were an odd couple, one a hardened, combat gear-festooned and gravely-voiced gutter rat, the other a high-voiced person of indeterminate sex.  I mean, he was staying in the Men's Mission, but still.   Listen in:

White boy one:  These fucking newbies, they don't know how to eat breakfast.

White boy two:  Fucking tell me about it.  It's a disgrace, absolutely calamitous, doll.

WBI: It's frozen waffles today. [sharpens knife]

WBII:  Oh.  Oh!  Oh dear . . . My, my, my, my . . .

WBI:  They never learn.  Oh, God!  I feel like cutting something.  Anything!

WBII: You've got to admit it's sort of endearing when the little darlings first try out the utensils.  They just don't realize how soft and bendy they're going to be.  You can't cut anything but cream of wheat with those forks!

WBI:  You gotta turn the fucking fork over and use the gouge and slash with the handle!

WBII: I agree, but some finesse does work its way into the technique after a bit.  Oh, I don't know if I can watch!  All those new pumpkins came in last night.  You can have my waffles this morning, doll.  Ramon's shooting the rest of me tonight.  Wait till you see my portFOHlio! [giggles]

At this point they were interrupted by a giant bald black man in sunglasses, leather and chains [there are lots of giant bald black men in leather, so settle down] we'll call Mike.

Mike:  Give those motherfucking waffles to me, white boy.  I can swallow them in one gulp.  Don't need no motherfucking technique.  Use my heroic gullet.

WBII: Oh, dear.  I don't think I've ever seen anything like that.

Mike:  And you ain't never seen nothing like my purple polka dot doo rag.

WBII:  No, I've never seen anything like that, either.

Mike:  You've never seen an earthquake, but you feel the effects. [big, scary smile]

Later, in the special ed class I had for the day, I sat at a kidney table with a group of at-risk-special-needs-kiddies and tried my best to get them to shuffle into chronological order cards imprinted with bright pictures of sequenced tasks like getting dressed or noticing it's raining outside and obtaining an umbrella. This is where the real heartbreak comes in ( Forget compassion for the homeless whether it's their fault or not. I've no interest in homeless advocacy. It's soooo boring. This is where your pity and passion and energy belong, Okay? More on this later).

Since I was only there for a day, and had no information about their deficits and afflictions other than vague labels--Joey is mildly autistic, Bethany has anger issues and has bitten in the past, Tanisha's got a strange home life, and possibly fetal alcohol syndrome, etc. I can do no more than smile, be mildly stern, and put them through the paces. It's grim, exhausting work but it's got to be done, even if most of these kids--wrecked by the genetic lottery and their worthless, FAT! stupid-by-personal-choice, FAT! (even if we don't believe in free will we can still hold them responsible, and stupid is just stupid, and FAT! is always different from plain fat, and is your fault, that's all) ambulatory-fungi-butt-crack-parading-cheetoes-chomping-parolee-leaking-boil-and-pustule-FAT! parents--never make it. It's not the teachers' fault, not the textbooks, not the test format, not the administrators, not the curriculum, and not the unit on rain forests that you and your wack-a-loon church friends think is really all about Wicca and paganism and global warming panic to prevent Jesus from coming but is really about beauty and unbearable sadness. It's the parents.

A large girl named Stacy was particularly somnolent, refusing to answer any queries or share. Her shaggy head kept sagging down.

"I wouldn't worry about it," a bright, hyper active snapper named Cambie said to me. "We've tried everything with her to wake her up."

"Can you think of anything new, Cambie?"

"A unicorn might do it," said Cambie.

"Do you know where we can find one?"

"Sure," she answered and pointed at Stacy. "Inside her head. There's a whole herd of them sleeping. We just have to wake them up."

"How do we do that?"

She scrunched her face up, thinking. "We could stuff some oats in her ears."

Problem solved.

Monday, May 28, 2012

You Must Remember This

Very short Memorial Day post here.  Yes, please do remember everything you're obliged to remember this day, but also remember this:  school children can't really help being the silly alien twittery things they are most of the time, but sagging, sorry adults like you and me have no excuses left.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Baby I'm a Rich Man, Part Two

I never learn.  My subtle sleuthing and careful, innocently insinuating queries into last night's stabbing don't stand a chance against against one of the Missions most potent demons, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. 

"It was life blood, deep life blood.  Red, black and purple all at once.  Like his deep down soul was pumping out of him."

I'm sitting against the brick facade of the Women and Family Shelter, watching the last of the evening chow line disappear into the dark breezeway of the Men's Rescue Mission across the street, waiting with Lee and a few others for chapel time.   Lee usually sits in complete silence behind tiny round dark lenses, reading the paper and listening to baseball through his ear buds while eating pastry or cake with his own fork.

On the pavement in front of me a purplish black stain spreads from near my outstretched feet to the edge of an empty sidewalk tree socket full of dirt and weeds.

"That's the stain right there.  Right there by your feet, youngster."

This is about the 6th time Lee has pointed out the stain to me in the last 15 minutes.  I've asked him no questions.  I know a couple things for sure.   The first is that Lee will keep pointing out the stain to me at regular intervals in the next 45 minutes until we have join the chapel line.   The second is that if I don't decide to excuse myself from this spot and find something else to do, Lee will batter me with the same account of the stabbing at least 15 more times.  I have to weigh this prospect against the chance that he'll add something new to the gruesome tale.

I like Lee a good bit.  He's great fun with movie trivia, old "Twilight Zone" episodes, and "Planet of the Apes," and he's the only person I've met here whose heard of Stanley Kubrick.  He doesn't seem to read anything but the paper, but if you tried to characterize him by cliche', calling him a wise old black gent, for example, he might sputter out something like "Don't drink from that shallow well, you no-nothing cocksucker.  When you have you a fine metaphor or a proverb come back and we'll do some business."

But he gets stuck, apparently afflicted with OCD rigidity.  I've got a touch of that myself.  It manifests during arguments, and can be quelled completely with Prozac, but I don't like the side effects.   Lee doesn't seem to be frustrated or struggling like many OCD victims.  He's absolutely placid, even languid in his yarning.  His repetitions aren't menacing, just tiring.

"You saw the two guys around here many times," he tells me.  "You just don't remember, probably.   They came and went, always coming back dirty and having to sleep in chapel on them filthy green scabies gonorrhea mats, then when they got bumped upstairs they always had a new bunk.   Like you when you was always leaving to go stay at the Motel 6 wasting your hard-earned cash."

"How do you know I did that?"  It's been an ongoing problem.  I get sick of the Mission, which is mostly mind-numbing tedium and Bible drool, except for incredible jackpot runs of eccentricity and mayhem (more about this below), and when I can't sleep on friends' couches or visit my sister, I go to motels, which can be expensive.  Factor in the occasional beer binge and it piles up.  I've been having trouble saving money from my day job. 

He doesn't answer (This is maddening also, because he's playing out another cliche', the silent inscrutable sage, and I hate fucking cliche's, even though they can be a great shorthand tool.  Last word on this for now: Read Martin Amis's The War Against Cliche').  "They were those short and tall Mexican boys, just like friends out of a comic book.   Or that Mice and Men . . . Steenbeck, Steinbeck, whatever.  One tall, like about six foot five and the other one almost a midget, four foot something."

"I think I know the ones you mean."

"Course you do.  Anyway, they began a slap and tickle fight over some money--I heard one of them mention a hundred dollars--then it went to thumping fists, then so fast! So . . . FUCKING FAST!  that little one had something sharp out.  I think it might have been half of a scissors sharpened real razor sharp and pointed 'cause it went in deep.[Here he pauses; it's exactly the same narrative I heard repeated many times that day and into the night until lights out]  I could hear it go in, just like he was sticking a potato or jabbing a grapefruit.   And every time he jabbed it in his arm would swing back almost to my belly, right where you sitting.  That's your usual spot, book man.  Lemme see something."

He leans toward me and skims his hand over my abdomen, almost touching it, then moves it away slowly, mentally measuring.  "You and me got about the same size pudge pot.  Probably wouldn't have cut you.  Pastries, heh, heh, HEH!"

He sits back.  "I couldn't get up.  And what they always say is true.  Time slows down.  I looked across the street and there about ten Disciples standing in a line right there by the fence.  What was happening there is something I've seen many times.  They've seen so much bullshit and crazy violence on the street and prison and this place is so boring and they're just like a bunch of cows and it looks like a movie.  Just like watching a movie!  So they're all frozen, too.

"That little guy had done it before.  He was a fast devil.  And he was thinking, too.  Went way down low to get the tall guy's legs.  Wanted to cut the tendons and nerves.  Bring him down then stick him in the chest.  And he would have succeeded!  But the big one pushed him away real hard against that fire plug there and they stood looking at each other for a second and the big one just smiled, couldn't believe his good buddy stabbed him or didn't know he'd been stabbed and the pain hadn't started yet . . . just like they say when a shark chomps on someone the victim don't feel no pain first off.   And his pants only looked like somebody splashed them with a soda or something. 

But then the gusher came, a big pump!  It was life blood.  Red, Purple, and Black all at once.  Life blood, from deep.  It came from DEEP!  It was RICH, THICK, RICH BLOOD!"

"Disciples finally got unfrozen and moved their asses.  Everybody was jumping around.  The big guy went down.  He never made a sound, not the whole time from the start until the ambulance left.   The police came.  They jumped around.  Really!  A little policeman was hopping up and down and turning left and right in the air!  You know how people do that when they're scared?

"The midget already ran off.   You saw the cops catch him catch him out in the field, didn't you?"

"Yeah."[Actually, all I saw when I first approached the Mission was a cop car parked next to the NO TRESPASSING sign in the middle of the rock and dirt moonscape, and I thought I was going to be arrested for vagrancy.  It's all about me.]

"Ambulance took close to twenty minutes to get here!  Twenty minutes!  Poor guy's eyes was fluttering and showing white and everybody jumping around like fools.  Chaplain came out and jumped around. Everybody jumped.  Ambulance finally got here, strapped on a pressure band and took him away.  Nobody knows whether he's alive yet.

He pauses, then grins at me.  "And you get to have the bloodstain right there in your spot!  You're a lucky man."

I look from the purple-black bloodstain to the empty tree socket where Connie, the Mission's village idiot, burned a dead Christmas tree a few months ago.  Directly behind me on the wall over my head is a brick cross exactly mirrored by its twin across the street on the facade of the Men's Mission.   This is when the Mission's weirdness squeezes down into reality via something I'll call, for simplicity's sake, because it's really indescribable, Concentrated Compacted Controlled Chaos, or 4C for short.  If you tried to stage this stuff, put it in a novel or screenplay, no one would accept it in a quick minute. 

The entire time Lee has been talking, Connie has been practicing dance moves on the sidewalk, dressed in a black hoodie and and a checkered sport coat, his head and forehead wrapped in a necktie printed with happy farm animals.  His socks are bright orange.  His pants look like baby blue spandex.   He looks like a deranged Fred Astaire Ninja by way of the Muppet workshop. 

I survey the entire scene, and especially my blood stain, with rare satisfaction.  "Baby, I'm a rich man."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Baby I'm a Rich Man

Last night we had us a good old Mission stabbing.   We ain't had one in a spell, but nothing brings the folks together like a stabbing.  Everybody come out--5 police cars, crime scene van, fire truck, journalists, photographers, whores, a pair of college cutie twins come for to volunteer in the chow line, and all the boys had out their cells shooting video and telling kinfolk near and far about the bloody violence we all gathered for.  A good, honest community spirit was in the air.  Lots of rolling papers made the rounds, the Friday pizza truck come by even though the cops was crowding the street.  As stabbings go, it was a real humdinger . . .

. . .Okay, I was going to start with a lugubrious, ruminative paragraph, exquisitely poised and balanced, on the way violence springs up among us, but this blog needs a tonal tune-up, so don't hold the tiny post for today against me while I tinker a bit.

Last night we really did have a stabbing, apparently two guys having an argument about money.  One jabbed the other about 10 times in the leg, puncturing an artery.  20 disciples tied a tourniquet.  It happened right in front of the place where I usually sit against the wall and read before being admitted to chapel.  I wasn't there, missed the whole thing damned thing!  I saw the blood stain behind the yellow police tape.

Now it's important to understand that in this milieu one doesn't just run up to your friends and acquaintances and ask "What's happening?  Gosh, fellows, what's the scoop?  Give me the straight dope, pals!"   Every dig for information must done with the utmost sidling obliquity, even when trying to find out what's being served for breakfast.  Direct questions are out.   So now I've got to do some serious eavesdropping and misdirection to find out what I want to know.  None of which has anything to to with the who, what, where, and why of the stabbing.    See you later.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Till Human Voices Wake Us

Last night my bunk mates and I shared dreams for some unknown reason.  About a half hour before lights out, Smallville, a mountainous parolee about 6 feet tall and so wide he needs special care in chapel, began telling us about a dream he'd had in prison(he explained his nickname to me, something people almost never do: "See, I got that nickname because sometimes when you're describing a person it's funny if you call them the opposite thing.  Helps you remember because it's not the same, it's different."  "That makes good sense," I said).

"Certain type of dream always ends the same way.  I was still locked up when I had it.  I was waiting for a bus.  That's crazy because I was locked up so what would I be doing waiting for a bus?  Anyway, I was waiting for that bus and it pulled up and it was one of those really old-type buses you can still see sometimes out on the street, know the ones I mean?  I was the only passenger and the bus driver was the hottest blond you can think of.  Hotter than a loaded .44.   I she turned around when we stopped and smiled, and I started walking toward her then the dream changed--know how that happens? and we were under the sea like the bus was a submarine only the bus was full of water and we were swimming around in it and she was a mermaid like that Darryl Hannah movie or like "The Little Mermaid," except now she didn't have no clothes on at all.  Don't ask me nothing about below the waist, she was a mermaid that's all I know.  Then we were on the beach and rolling around in the waves and stuff and I was just about to kiss her when I woke up!"

"Yeah," said Lee, an older gent who reads lots of different newspapers in actual paper editions.  "I had a dream like that once.  I was going to visit my brother at his car wash, except he never had no car wash, he worked in a hardware store in Detroit and did some dealing and died before his time.  Anyway, I was walking through the forest to my brother's car wash and the car wash was in Yellowstone National Park.  I knew it was Yellowstone because there were big signs everywhere.  When I got to the car wash it was one of those self-serve car washes and you all thinking I'm crazy because it was in the forest but all these people were there washing their cars and you couldn't hardly see the sky because of all the trees.   Then my brother told me to start waxing a pick-up truck but there was this woman way up in a tree calling for help.  Barely pick her out way up there.  So my brother told me to get on the ladder in the back of the truck.  So I did and he turned on the radio and Marvin Gaye started singing "Sexual Healing" and the ladder was going up and up with me on it.  When I got way up there I could see she was a hot little red head white girl with freckles and about 38 sized titties but she was wearing a negligee.  She leaned over and started to whisper something in my ear but then the ladder started bending way over backward and I woke up!  Know how you wake up jumping or startled and your heart's really pounding?"

"Yeah."  "Oh, that's all messed up."  "Sure."

Smallville looked at me and said how about you neighbor?  Ever had a dream like that?"

"Yeah," said.  "Once when my marriage was really on the way down and my wife was out at some bar I was lying on the living room floor watching TV and I must have fallen asleep, because suddenly I was paralyzed.  You know when you're sort of half-asleep and you sort of want to wake up but you can't move?"

"Oh, yeah that's a fucked up situation," said Lee.  "I've had that happen."

"Sleep paralysis,"  I said.  "Anyway I'm lying there starting to panic because I can't move and can't wake up and a polar bear walked into the room and starting licking my face!  An arctic polar bear!  It was as real as anything I've ever experienced!   I couldn't move but then suddenly I relaxed because the bear turned into Julie Newmar in her Catwoman suit from the old Batman show, know the one I mean?   And she started purring and talking to me in that kitty voice she used.  I was about to kiss her and I woke up and it was just the cat licking my face!"

"That's a pretty crazy-ass dream," said Smallville.  "But it wasn't really the same as ours because it had a polar bear and a cat in it, and that's pretty weird."

"It had Julie Newmar in leather, youngster," said Lee.  "You too young to know that shit." 

"It ain't the same because he was kissing a cat when he woke up.  And the whole dream was animals." 

"Well," I began, "I wasn't kissing the cat, it was licking me . . ."

"You had a fish woman in your dream," said Lee.

"It was a mermaid."

"Same thing."

 I realized it was no use for me to add anything else.  The conversation moved on to baseball, then Marvin Gaye's death and other celebrities killed by guns.


Sometime back in the late 1960s or early 70s pioneering prankster musician Frank Zappa was interviewed on the Joe Pyne talk show.  Pyne had a reputation as a sour, caustic interviewer whose scorched earth attitude was attributed by some to his bitterness over having a wooden leg.  When Zappa sat down on stage, Pyne launched his assault:

Pyne:  I guess your long hair makes you a girl, huh?

Zappa: I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.

Stunners like that can't be planned; they go beyond ad libbing to another sphere.   Teaching kids and sleeping/eating with felons is often a one-two that knocks me into a deeply weird head space.

One morning, oh my brothers, your friend and humble narrator sat down to break his fast with his famished brethren and was greeted by the following menu:

--Biscuits and Gravy with No Meat, I said NO MEAT!
--Malto Meal  Sweetened with Extra Sweet Sugar
--Peaches in Homer Simpson Heavy, So Very, Very Heavy, Syrup
--Unlimited Pina Colada Yogurt as long as that Punk Ass Bitch Geraldo Don't Sneak in the Back     Door Load up his Overcoat
--Unlimited Discard Grocery Pastry Table Privileges
--Unlimited Water.


"This shit all carbs."
"Carbohydrates.  Sugar.  Diabetes.  Obesity. Hog-osity."
"Biscuits and Gravy is good, down-home-stick-to-your-ribs food."
"It's trash.  All trash."
"They don't care about us, here."
"They giving you free food."
"Then why you shoveling it down?"
"Man gotta eat."
"Not by bread alone."
"It ain't bread."
"Same chemical composition."
"Put hot sauce over all this stuff." 
"Hot sauce ain't protein.  In that Jim Jones Jonestown cult they got them to drink the Kool-Aid by wearing down their judgement and free will and shit with low-protein gruel."
"This Malto Meal is just like Gruel."
"Seconds line gonna start."
[Someone in a mock, haughty, falsetto English Accent]  "Please, sir?  May I have some more?"

A brisk 30 minute walk takes me to an elementary school where I lead a group of 6th graders into the classroom.  I've been with them all week, and this is my last day.  They're an unusually well-behaved and well-nourished group of kids for this rotten, blasted part of town.  All week I've been amusing them with silly voices, imitations, accents, and a different goofy walk for each day of the week.  I begin by demonstrating Pomp and Circumstance Graduation Walk because today is Friday and we are parting.  

All week I've been using an Irish accent to call Ryann O' Cyrus's name, a lovely child with silky waist-length brown hair and a face like angel.  I hesitate over picking a student for some task involving a trip to another room.   Finally, I say, "I like girls for jobs like this better.  More responsible.  Ryann, take this note to Ms. Gill."

You've got to understand that Ryann with two N's is a popular name for girls in the upscale north Fresno schools.  Plus all that hair.   Plus the Cyrus part of the name made me think of  Miley and Hannah Montana.  But all week I've been directing the phony Actors' Equity Irish accent with its overtones of wistful longing at  a boy.   After the giggles and snickers and explanations, I apologize:

"I'm so sorry, Ryann.  I don't see well, I'm supposed to be wearing glasses but they make me look like a total nerd and I was only looking out the corner of my eye."

"It's okay," says male Ryann.

"Really," I babble, "I just thought your long hair made you a girl."

"And I thought your big fat head meant you lived on Mount Rushmore."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Before Light Itself

The engulfing sense of women at the Mission emerges from their absence.  Aside from ragged prostitutes,  visits from female gospel choirs, and a rare woman speaker, the Mission is a place for males.  Men on probation visit their wives and companions during the day, and talk of women, both coarse and reverent, swirls and darts though conversation, but at night, in the tomb-like dormitory after lights-out, the 120 men who lie on the bunks seem, in those rare moments when snores and groans cease, like figures of wax or wood arranged for something patiently watching.  Awake I sense a staring face both motherly and harsh, a presence that enfolds yet chills. 

"This is the Lord's house," we are constantly told.  "Can't you feel his blinding light of love shining down on you, brothers?"

"Amen!  Oh, dear God, Amen!"

"Praise the light!  Praise the Lord!" 

"Shine on, Baby Jesus, shine on!"

While a fair bunch of the men are dangerously bored and just want the fucking service over so they can shower and flop, I'm always struck by the weirdness of a room full of men jittering and screeching about a possibly fictional character, or one hidden behind too many stacked and marked-up transparencies to be seen (The nearly universal metaphor for the historical Christ hidden behind successive, stained glass windows of legend contains a built-in reverence that precludes the possibility of finding nothing there).  Yes, it's a brotherly love and passion, but it's somehow looney-tunes.

I am not a Christian.  The religious forms of the present leave me unmoved.  The closest I can come to a sense of the supernatural or divine is an elusive, intermittent sense--perhaps delusional--that the universe is trying to tell us something if we open our eyes wide enough and find ample silence.  Only then can the absurd, the grotesque, the sadly funny, the hilariously sad emerge in moments when the cosmos seems to stutter or skip or freeze up, then restart having changed itself and changed you.  I cannot pray; I can only watch and listen.

One congregation that frequents the Mission drags about on its various errands what they call a "life-sized" and "true to reality" cross.  The discount come-on language invites--nay, pleads--for the addition of phrases like "suitable for parties!" "easy to use!" and "rent for your next rally!" It's actually a couple of boards nailed together held upright by an X-mas-type stand and which looks like it might be used by an inbred hillbilly trapper/cannibal to display furs and skins.  In short, it's pretty goddamn funny.  I'm not the only one who laughs when the thing makes its warped and splintery appearance. 

It's this cartoony, 1980s-style video and cheap special effects element that too often pushes Christianity into the kitchy, slapstick realm.  The original series ended long ago, it seems, leaving only spin-offs and the animated show that embarrasses even die-hard fans.  And the commercials!  Last night the preacher man for the evening tried to get us chanting, "How do you spell relief? J! E! S! U! S!"  For me this televisual quality breaks through even--and especially--in religious ceremony at its most soaring and solemn.

But I'm going to be set straight on all that, according to most of the fiery sermons (Don't give me any crap about liberal, nuanced, sophisticated theology, and don't even suggest that fundamentalist mosh-pits like the Mission are the exception).  I once asked my Mission friend Joseph, a rotund and maniacally funny Mexican tummler with a voice like a Jewish comedian, if he believed in a literal hell. 

"Who among us knows?" he said, stroking his goatee.  "Certainly not me.  But God has something special in store for you when you shed the mortal coil, my agnostic friend."

"What's that?"

"You're going to Jersey."

(Actually, any preacher who dares utter a syllable about the Lake of Fire needs to get schooled by James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man contains a sermon on the Bad Place that can turn you pale as a cave fish for a month.)

Even Satan constantly gets a clownish makeover, like some fanboy dolt who doesn't understand that haunted houses only come once a year.   An air of adolescent hijinks and leering hangs over much of Christianity . . . but in the Mission, after the pastor or lame-ass worship band leaves and the men trudge upstairs to wait naked and reeking for the showers, then stack themselves in the metal bunks for an hour or so of talk, goatish laughter, and scheming before the lights snuff out and silence edges in, I think I know whose house this really is, who watches over these men-- myself included--who seem to have reached the low lands where the endgame starts.  Before time, before any word was spoken, before light itself, there was blackness, kala, first creation, whose feminine form is terrible Kali, Goddess of Death and Destruction.

Powerless and weakly flailing, sex drifting inexorably out of range, many of the men are obsessed with comic superheroes, and time before lights out is often filled with energetic conversations and dissections of their heroes' powers, Achilles heels, costumes, and utilities.  Spiderman and Superman dominate, of course, and the X-Men, with their neato trading card spread of mutant abilities and kiddie land angst ignite acetylene torch arguments over history, alliances, and betrayals.  And for those who've been able to afford it or find a bootleg copy (easy--see the guy in bunk #32, if he's there and you say exactly the right thing in the right way) The Avengers has been a gusher of a wetdream.  Debates about what would happen if you pitted one hero against another are required. 

Let's be clear about this: no band of brothers and sisters released from the Marvel or DC holding pens stands a ragged chance against Mother Kali, her consort Shiva, the cosmic dancer and destroyer (note that blue-skinned, goggle-eyed, red-tongued Kali is often depicted standing on the body of Shiva) and, just for good measure to trumpet laughter at the carnage, the Elephant god, Ganesha. Kali herself could do the job, especially with the puny males.   And if we need a little extra help, some interpretations of Hinduism claim 330 million gods total we can maybe hook up with. 

Now things are getting just a bit silly here, but in religion outlandish is the only destination.  It's all no sillier than the versions of Jesus that popped up in the 60s and 70s--Jesus the laughing clown, Jesus the peaceful hippie, Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the trickster, and the ever-popular Rotary Club Jesus.  Just as when Marvel pits Iron Man (actually Robert Downey Jr, America's favorite rehab story) against Thor, a god with a boomerang hammer, and nobody cries foul,  I claim exemption from blasphemy if I pit Mission Jesus against pop cult Kali and imagine a smack down. 

Let's not dwell on the result.   Back to lights out in the Mission and my 119 or so broken brothers lying in our hard metal racks.  It's easy to imagine that we are prone in the hold of a end-of-time junkyard starship traveling through the necropolis of the cosmos.     Once optimists hoped we might live in an oscillating universe, one that slowed its expansion, fell back in on itself in a crushing singularity, then exploded anew, Shiva beginning the dance again.   But the picture painted by modern physics is different.  Scientists like Lawrence Krauss cheerfully urge upon us a universe that sprang from a quantum nothingness (whatever that might be), and is headed with ever-increasing speed toward nothing again.  Everything between is punctuation.   I can little more than feel the truth of this.  Some modern cults have tried to tame dread Kali and worship her as a kindly Earth goddess who might be right at home on Planet Oprah.   But I know better.   We are headed for a berth in the nursery of the black one, supreme mistress, preparing ourselves as time, space, and words fail--before light itself flickers again--for her enfolding, terrible love.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Homeless Teacher's Amazon Sample Book Review Corner

Because most non-fiction books published today, and even lots of novels, are simply bloated, feculent, and endless restatements of an initial theme or "main idea" (remember picking that out in high school or the SAT?) presented in the preface, introduction, or first chapter, I've decided to offer a valuable service by reviewing Amazon Kindle Samples, which are almost always the first 5% or so of the book (I hasten to add that my harsh judgement of many books as repetitive may not apply to the works mentioned in this post, but I can't know that since I only read the samples).  If you check in on my blog often enough, (hint) you won't even have to read the samples of what might be good books. 

In today's "rush rush" society and for the homeless person "on the go," Kindle Samples are the ideal solution for the multitasking demands of this crazy old spinning ball we call Planet Earth!  Not to mention they're free.  The following review refers to samples I read today on the bus traveling to a 3rd grade sub job, during recess, lunch, and an hour-long National Geographic video on Volcanoes that was pretty good (kids love lava) and a nice filler-gift from the teacher.  Ready? Let's go!

The Hunt for KSM, by Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer was recommended by my attorney and concerns the pursuit and capture of the 9/11 mastermind Kalid Sheikh Mohammed.  Best parts: A massive CIA/Pakistani raid on a house to capture a high-level terrorist known as Abu Zubaydah, and the FBI's Keystone Cops-like attempt to muscle on on the CIA and fingerprint Zubaydah before he's loaded onto a plane.  At one point they actually drop the still-living, bullet-mangled terrorist onto the tarmac where he writhes in agony.  Main Idea:  The CIA and the FBI clashed a lot and hated each other while hunting terrorists.   Also, the FBI seem to be resentful bunglers.

Among the Creationists by Jason Rosenhouse.  Jason is a math professor who has an excellent blog called EvolutionBlog. Baffled by the persistent and widespread opposition to evolution in America, he spent a year or so attending as many creationist conferences as possible and talking to as many evolution opponents as he could handle.  Best part: Jason stands in line at Subway with about 100 creationists on break for lunch and gets into a theological/philosophical/scientific wrangle with some Christians, one of whom grabs his hands and claims him for Jesus.   Main idea:  Creationists are insular, breathtakingly ignorant of science, trapped in circular reasoning regarding the truth of the Bible, but are basically nice, well-intentioned people.  Also, they are wrong. 

Free Will by Sam Harris.  Okay, I'm cheating a bit here because this is actually a short Kindle "Single" (about 40 pages) that you have to pay a couple bucks for, but the brevity, compression, and blinding clarity of neuroscientist Harris's assault on the idea of free will makes it just about worth it.  Best part: the argument that a seemingly bleak deterministic view of human nature actually generates more compassion and good works, once you accept the Main Idea: Not only do we not have free will, we are mistaken in our traditional subjective sense that we have free will.  Also, you can't say you could have done otherwise than eat the whole pizza, because there's no way to test this counterfactual empirically.

The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.  Davidson is a neuroscientist who claims to have discovered via 30 years of brain-research 6 dimensions of Emotional Style.  They are Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self-Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention.  He claims also that the ordinary fellow wouldn't have thought of these things if not for his research.  Best part: He promises his book will show you how to change your Emotional Style and transform your wretched life.  Main Idea: Understanding Emotional Style and how its Six Dimensions are encoded in the brain is the key to success and happiness.  Also, nobody would ever know these things without this book.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch.  I plan to read the rest of this book because it seems honest and because of the Main Idea(s):  The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind program was/is an inhuman and inhumane elevation of standardized testing to a end in itself, and charter schools are generally a bad idea.  Also, it's bracing to read a book by someone who once held opinions opposite to those expressed here and who agrees with me. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Very Connie Christmas

I've written before about one of the most intriguing Mission characters, Connie, here and here, and today I'd like to reflect a bit on the near mystical, saintly, and finally baffling aura that surrounds this man-child, he of the rambling chapel testimonies that seem an edgy flight from Jesus;  the muddled, pantheistic love of nature and animals that informs most of his conversation; and the remarkable yellow-golden Dairy Queen whip of hair twirling above his puzzled eyes and brow, its height unaffected by washing or weather.

One cold January morning in breakfast line, Connie began singing a bizarre medley of songs--folk, hymns, TV themes, and Julie Andrews Sound of Music stuff.  Any time Connie does something odd, loud or intrusive, the reaction from the Disciples and the Guests is somewhat mixed--plenty of "Shut the fuck up, Connie," or "Damn that boy to hell"--but he has an overwhelming number of cheerleaders and supporters who revere him and, I'm sure, would pound anyone who touched him through the concrete and desecrate the death site in horrid ways.  He is, indeed, an untouchable.  How such characters attain this station without natural charisma or conscious effort defies easy analysis.

That morning Connie sang the songs in a slightly slurred tenor, hitting all the right notes, but he barely knew any of the lyrics, only identifying fragments.  He started with "Darling Clementine."  "Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling, Clementine, rah, rah, rah, rah, ree, ree, ree, rah, rah, rah, roh, roh, roh, roh, reeeeeee ..."  Each missing syllable was filled by a menu choice from "rah's" "ree's" "roh's" and "reer's." 

"Rah, Rah, Skip to my Lou . . . Rah, Rah . . .Skip to my Lou . . ." 

Comments began: "Sing that song, Connie!"  "Belt that shit out, baby!"

"The hills are alive, with the sound of music. . .ree, ree, ree, rah, ree, ree, rho, ree, ree, roh,  raaaaaaah!!!"

He managed to get though "These are a Few of My Favorite Things" without ever  mentioning a concrete object like whiskers on kittens or brown paper packages tied up with string.

"Connie, man, you supposed to be talking about raindrops and bunnies and Hostess Cupcakes and shit."  "Shut that boy up!"  "Keep it going, Connie!  Sing those goddamned songs!"

We were also treated to "Yankee Doodle," "This Land is Your Land," and what I think was the theme to TV's "Family Ties."

Connie is one of those Mission characters who mysteriously disappear for a night or two--where he stays or sleeps is a mystery--then returns, usually with new behaviors or props like some rubber Sesame Street finger puppets.   One freezing night in January we were all sitting or standing in line waiting upon the capricious largess of the Disciples, who were taking an unusually long time setting up, getting ready for the tedious check in procedures--examination of T.B. cards, occasional breathalyzer tests for the suspiciously unsteady or trembling, and the usual arguments and execrations.

Then something very odd happened.  Actually, it was a Mission thing, which is like no other thing under the sun.   First a group of three well-known whores--Janie, Stella, and Delilah--walked by on the sidewalk, but tonight, instead of their usual uniforms of tossed-together thrift-punk-S&M-combat-Hello, Kitty-junk, they wore long school-marmish dresses right out of "Little House on the Prairie."  They looked exactly like obediant wives on their way to a polygamous Christian cult meeting.  Everyone goggled for a second.

"Hey, ladies!  What the? . . ."  "Where you ladies going?"  "What's the occasion?"  "What you got under those dresses?"   "How come you won't tell us where you going?"  "Lemme come!"  Lemme come inside you, baby!"

They glided away.  A few men made a half-hearted attempt to trail them, but petered out, as if sensing some weird force field or power surge building.

Then, rolling slowly and silently down the street from the North came a three-wheeled motorized handicapped vehicle piloted by an obese character with a black stocking cap. With a pair of ropes he towed another large fellow in a hospital wheel chair who was eating a sandwich.  Trotting on either side of this goofy transport were two small white dogs, leashes knotted to the tow ropes, tiny legs nibbling at the asphalt.  

Instantly some wag down the line from me shouted, "On Donnor! on Cupid! on Comet! and Blitzen!" 

Everyone roared and chimed in with things like "You late, Santa!"  "What did you bring me?"  "I needs a new beanie" "I need some pussy!"  

They rolled on, following the path of the three transfigured whores.

Across the street, in front of the Women and Family Shelter, a familiar figure appeared, dragging what looked like a large piece of shrubbery behind him.  It was Connie, of course, who had reappeared now after one of his absences.  He was singing "Oh Christmas Tree! Oh Christmas tree! Rah, Rah, Rah, Ree, Rah, Rah, Rah, Reeeeeeee!"   As he warbled out the familiar carol, he began jamming the trunk of the dead, dried out remains of a tiny Christmas tree into the soil of an empty sidewalk socket where a living tree had once stood.  The tree was exactly like Charlie Brown's pathetic thing that bent over double under the weight of a single ornament.   After a few moments of digging and patting and heaping, Connie managed to get the tree upright. 

"Connie, you late!  Christmas over!"   "Feliz Navidad! you fucking pendejo!"

Connie sang one final iteration of "Oh Christmas Tree!" After a brief silence, he conjured a lighter, snapped the flame into being, and jabbed the dry needles.  The tree blazed.  Sparks flew upward.  Connie walked off the sidewalk, perhaps a bit drunkenly, and tottered off toward the South. 

The guests bleated and bellowed.  The Disciples hurtled down the entrance way steps and unleashed the powerful hose they use each morning to blast the sidewalk clear of contraband and vomit.   Neither the police nor the fire department made an appearance.
Several Disciples took off after Connie.

There wasn't anything else to do but go to chapel for some loud Christian rock ("My best friend was born in a manger!  I said a manger, Yeah!!!")  Rumors of a 30 day suspension or expulsion for Connie made the rounds.   But a few days later, standing in line in the breezeway for breakfast,  I heard a familiar voice discoursing with demented and earnest fixity on the habits of the Venus Flytrap.  It was a good day.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Can These Bones Live?

"Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.

"Thus saith the the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live." --Ezekiel 37. 4-5  KJV, Holy Bible.

Here, for your reading delectation, is a composite description of a fourth grade class's field trip to the La Brea Tar Pits in L.A.  While I didn't go on the field trip, I had the honor of helping them organize and edit their reports:

"The La Brea tar pits are very large and thousands of years old with thousands of ice age mammal bones of mammals that got stuck in the tar.  Tar is actually asphalt mixed with old woods.  It is like street or blacktop.  My dad said we had tar on the roof of our house and I thought that was very weird and scary. 

"In the tar are thousands of bones like dire wolves (they hunted in packs), long-toothed lions, and electric mammoths.  If you were a predator with really big teeth you might think you were BAD but you would not think you were so BAD if you got sucked down into the tar, now would you?  For example, the dire wolfs got greedy trying to eat animals already stuck in the tar so they got stuck too!  This is called ironic.

"There is no evidence of man living in L.A. 11,000 years ago with the other creatures.  There were no buildings, or celebrities like Brad Pit or Lady Gaga just mammals, but humans like Justin Bieber are mammals too.   I wish all bullies could get sucked down into the tar pits.

"My favorite thing at the tar pits was the bar thing they let you pull on to see how hard it was to get out of all that tar.  Then I got worried when the scientist in the museum said that Fresno where we lived has lots of asphalt.  What if it melted and we all got sucked down with our skeleton hands sticking up out of the blacktop?

"The thing I'll never forget is when we all started dancing like crazy outside the museum because a hobo was playing the banjo.  It took the teachers a long time to get us into the bus.

"So don't fall into a tar pit!  See ya!"

After the reports were mostly finished, we had some time to kill before recess, so I winged it by asking the kids, "Does anyone have anything they want to say about bones or skeletons or dead animals?"  Hands flew up.  

"There was a dead dog behind our house in the field but someone took it away before you could see the skeleton."

"That was probably animal control or the health department," I said.

"I was a skeleton for Halloween"

"Halloween is evil," said Jerry, a Jesus Camp kid.

"You are evil, stupid."  (At this point I was supposed to step into stern, well-organized and controlled teacher mode, but sometimes you have to sense when the surreal is coming and just let it flow).

A tiny, bespectacled girl named Alicia asked, "Mr. H?  Why did God make our skeletons so scary?"

"Well. . ."  At this point what was I supposed to do?  Convert into kid's language concepts like fear of death, Thanatos, the Day of the Dead in Mexico, the sublime, the death drive, etc?   I found myself saying the following:

"I don't think skeletons are scary.  Your body has to have an under structure, like a frame in a building.  So whoever planned our bodies had a good idea.  And skeletons can be funny or exciting.  Did you guys ever see a movie called Jason and the Argonauts?   No?  Did you know that the xylophone is the official music of the skeleton?"  Now I was babbling.

"What are you talking about?"

"You'll understand when you're older."

Tiny Alicia said, "I had a dream that my skeleton jumped out of me and was chasing me around."

"Like Peter Pan's shadow?" 

"I'm really scared of my skeleton inside me," continued Alicia.

"I don't think you have a skeleton, honey," I said.

"Why not?"

"Because you're a Gummy Bear!" 

This got big laughs (sometimes my only goal for the day, I admit), a smile from Alicia and the other kids' insistence that they too were Gummy Bears.  This led to a discussion of the relative merits of various Gummy animals--worms, fish, sharks, etc.--and of course a boy named Trevor came up with Gummy skeletons, but the other kids shouted him down, saying there was no such thing. 

Somehow we segued into a discussion of the most disgusting imaginary flavors of ice cream we could think of, with just about everyone eager to contribute:  Mud ice cream, Booger ice cream, Broken Glass ice cream, Dandruff ice cream, Vomit ice cream, Baby food ice cream, B.O. ice cream, Cockroach ice cream . . . You get the idea.

Then it was time for recess, and I made my voice as sinister and sepulchral as possible saying, "Be careful out there on that hot, hot, asphalt playground, dear ones!"  

American education is a great, on-going experiment, one I'm proud to be a part of.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Untethered Galactic Nomads

"He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.

"Even the youths shall faint and be weary and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."-- Isaiah 40.29-31, KJV, Holy Bible.

Don't go getting all misty on me just because I'm beginning with a bible quote I happen to like; nor should you get apprehensive when I tell you a metaphor is aborning.  

I've been reading lots lately about extra-solar planets (planets outside our own solar system orbiting other stars) that our burgeoning technology is allowing us to discover, mostly gas-giants like our own Jupiter or even bigger.   But something amazing, even terrifying,  has emerged from data dispensed by telescopes like Kepler.   Our own galaxy may harbor as many as 100 billion planets that drift free, alone, and bereft of any solar warmth.   These balls of rock and life-potential gas--carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen--were apparently knocked out of solar orbits by early chaotic solar system formation, or perhaps by cometary encounters, or even random scuffles with bigger planetary bullies that bumped them right out the stellar playground.

So these frozen balls (100 billion in our own galaxy; how many more traveling in billions of cosmic archipelagos beyond the Milky Way?) drift in isolation and near absolute zero temperature.  Such loneliness is difficult to imagine.  Is it inconceivable that in some far, unimaginable future one of these untethered nomads might become ensnared in the gravity of an alien sun--blue/white blazing or friendly yellow like our own?   This could happen:  The frigid earth-sized mass enters orbit through no effort of its own, begins a long, hissing thaw, gasses bubble, chemicals combine, replicators form, the conditions for new life begin to percolate--quietly and soothingly, like a tea kettle on a wretched dark night.

So could one of the denizens of the Mission and the street I see daily--heavily and hideously tattooed from ankle to skull top, mortally tired, lonely and leathery,  hunch-backed by age 29, talking in a weird,  speedy prison patois, incapable of completing a coherent thought or discoursing on anything but the new execrable Avengers movie--frozen galactic nomads,  indeed--could one of these men find the solar environment that will transform him, thaw him, give him his wings?   Maybe, but don't bet on it, baby.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sir Arthur and the Reserved Section

Paul Theroux writes in his most recent travel book of a visit he paid to Sir Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction icon and co-creator of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Stanley Kubrick.  When he met Sir Arthur in his Sri Lankan fort-like home--surrounded by ten-foot walls--Clarke was wearing a T-shirt that said I invented the satellite and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.  Not strictly true--others worked on the details, but he did publish the first suggestion that geostationary satellites would one day revolutionize communication.   Lots of SF novels, including Clarke's,  have scenes in which people interact and conference while never leaving their homes and offices.  In Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun, the inhabitants of an entire planet never meet physically, only in carefully crafted simulations.  One doesn't need to be a visionary to see some prescience at work in these somewhat dusty tales. (I love it when old science fiction books get the future spectacularly wrong, as in Clifford Simak's City, in which the "personal family airplane" leads to the demise of cities, because everyone goes buzzing off into the unspoiled country).

Good SF writers like Clarke have always admitted that predicting the future is a tricky business, and someone--probably several people--asserted that the best SF is really about the present seen through a set of quirky imaginative filters.  Even the keenest observer of technology and trends can stumble badly.  I was floored when seemingly overnight just about every other grade-school kid plus my night school college students began bringing cell phones to class with them.  Suddenly, everyone was staring into their palms like Narcissus into thousands of reflections.

"My mom calls me every half-hour," one 2nd grade girl told me solemnly.  Or "I have permission 'cause of my asthma." And "I need it because there might be an emergency." "What did they do in the old days before cell phones?" I asked.  "They got inside phone booths or rode horses or told the policeman."  (Fill me in on this: do policemen walk "beats" anymore?  And try explaining to a group of youngsters what 'dialing a number" on a phone meant just a few years ago.)

Shamefully, I first learned what a GPS (Global Positioning System) device was from a group of 3rd graders who told me tales of parents chasing them down at Billy's, an evil child who enjoyed torturing small animals with a monstrous device created with several 12 volt batteries.  Apparently feuding parents do things like microwave teddy bears to destroy the tracking chip when they want to take the contested kid to a Metallica concert.

Often a substitute teacher is called upon to perform outlandish duties like put on a silly paper hat to celebrate a newly-invented holiday or use a hand puppet to warn kids about bullying.  A more common duty involves handing out certificates of achievement--perfect attendance, good citizenship, etc.--at awards assemblies in the cafeteria.  One day I was struck by the fact that some busy-body had set aside a group of tables with folded cards reading "Reserved."  These were for the proud parents, there to see Junior get his gold-stickered, fancy-looking certificate for "Most improved reading."  On the best of these occasions, only a scattering of parents show up, but today was a cringe-making failure: only about five relatives showed up, some were clearly not parents but aunts or grandmothers, and the whole thing was mocked by the carefully placed "reserved" cards.  Still, I did my best to be a confident, Academy Awards-style M.C.-- shaking hands with the winners and making the occasional corny joke.

That night at the Mission I was taken aback by a roped-off section of chairs (actually it was coarse brown twine and some clumsily hand-lettered signs reading "Reserved section!  Don't sit here unless you are a reserve."  I puzzled over this: Reserve military? A visiting gospel choir?  Then I noticed all the wires and surge protectors scattered about the section.  At the beginning of worship it was announced that charging of leg-strap GPS monitors had gotten out of hand and was shorting out lights all over the mission.   So now charging was to take place only during chapel (I immediately thought of divine power surging into the ankles of these miscreants, most of whom are sex offenders) and only in the reserved section.  I felt oddly ostracised, even though I've never had a brush with the law, and my sexual proclivities are tame and boring.

I wondered, of course, what Sir Arthur would have made of this scene, these sad, scary men locked into a indoor/outdoor maze by exquisitely accurate eyes in the sky that make it impossible to even pass within a few hundred yards of a K-12 school without getting sucker punched by the police ("It fucking pisses me off, man!" I heard someone yell one day. "I'm really good with kids!  I've always wanted to work with them!") 

Observing weird, unpredictable consequences of technology is part of the fun of being alive today. This is a game being played in dozens of published books--some good, others tree-killers-- with titles like "Sugar," "The Pencil" and "Toenail clippers."  It's a speculative game you can play yourself if you're bored, and who's to say you're wrong: "If canned tuna hadn't been invented, we never would have taken showers, only baths, and only once a week." Or "Neckties were originally devised as a way of strangling your enemy in an argument."  Gee whiz!  Who'd a thunk it?

In the transparent society emerging daily in the form of micro cameras and nano-spies implanted under our skin, the world is indeed becoming one, as Sir Arthur used to put it, but in a mean and grungy form never imagined by those optimistic SF writers I loved as a kid.  Are you a garage "inventor" with patents pending?  Be afraid--very afraid--of what people do with your revolutionary device.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Better than a Japanese Monster Movie from the 1950s

Hey there,  science/evolution fans and enemies of biblical literalists who would destroy American science education.  Check out Abbie Smith vs. Steve Kern  , a debate between a bona fide scientist working daily to figure out how HIV works and how we might actually defeat it (she seems confident that we will ), and a real-life young-earth biblical creationist and pastor, who has political clout (!!!) in Oklahoma along with his wife, Sally Kern.

Abbie Smith is a graduate student at University of Oklahoma studying ERVs, or endogenous retrovirus--bits of viral RNA that got inserted accidentally into the human genome eons ago and have profound applications for modern medical science--possibly curing previously intractable diseases.   They are also a vivid marker--like the human genome retro-viral insertion error in the exact same chromosome spot in chimpanzees--of an unmistakable 6 million-year-old common ancestor we share with the chimps.  We didn't "evolve from monkeys," dummies.  We and the monkeys and apes split off  from our old relatives and went out into the big wide world to seek our fortunes.   We also have convergent lines of evidence pointing to kinship with all other organisms--gorillas, sharks, dinosaurs, mushrooms-- from fossils, physiology, behavioral models, molecular evidence, etc.  It's all "really cool" as Abbie says in her charming way.

Abbie is a pretty, dark-haired woman with huge eyes who looks surprised and pleased to be alive at this moment in history.   This serves her well when contrasted to pastor Kern, who looks alternately bored and baffled by Abbie's command of science and appears smacked in the face with a snow shovel whenever she makes a cogent point.   Abbie, hilariously, seems to be having a hard time not melting and quivering whenever Kern makes one of his earnest, stern, and utterly clueless references to biblical "kinds" and "micro" versus "macro" evolution.   Professional evolutionary biologists make no such distinction.  When they look at a horse, for example, they know they are seeing a snapshot of a creature that's had unimaginable amounts of time to become what it is and probably has lots more to become something else.   It also had a common ancient ancestor with other hoofed animals.   But a horse isn't a "kind," in the biblical sense.

Hardly a month goes by without some gob shite school board or state legislature trying to get religion into the classroom.  You'd think the Dover trial in 2005 would have ended all this.   The war between the leaden literal minded and the ironic consciousness is eternal must be fought until the death, or at least until dinner time. 

Kids deserve better, and thank somebody or something Abbie Smith is alive.   Tune in and also check out her blog ERV (much of which is too specialized for me, but still funny and informative).  Also check out ScienceBlogs, of which her blog is one of many fabulously smart and smart-alecky productions yucking it up there daily.  Go to it, and tell the smart kids--the ones not eating hot Cheetos and watching Japanese cartoons.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Being True to Your Truly True Self

One of the perks of my double life as nocturnal, reeking resident of the Rescue Mission and my daytime superhero gig as sub teacher is that I can walk into the average Starbucks and look, in my khakis and dress or polo shirt--my standard teaching uniform--like a reasonably non-threatening fellow.  Sure, I might be reading Burroughs, Ballard, or some other purveyor of the perverse, but no one seems to give me second glance.  Besides, I have an iPod and actually order coffee instead of water and don't spend inordinate time in the restroom and emerge looking as if I'd taken a shower.

 Another perk:  I get to eavesdrop and spy on groups of well-heeled adults with bluetooths and iPads gather at tables clutching identical binders and slim paperback books emblazoned with praise from today's media mavens: New York Times, Vogue, and Al Gore.   These books always feature words and phrases  in the title like "healing" "quantum" "becoming" "power" "rapport" "revelation" "at the end of this age,"  and my favorite, "paradigm."  These people have the same vacuous smiles and loud, deeply unhappy laughter and have clearly paid money for seminars purporting to offer "The Secret," like a recent and particularly odious book did to the tune of millions--both to people who could afford the book as stocking stuffers and to people who failed to pay their power bills to buy the slimy little thing.

Here's another question I constantly ask myself as I watch kids at play--screeching in preadolescent ecstasy--how did we get from all this innocent energy and enthusiasm to meth, coke, booze, shows like "Cops" and "American Idol," nicotine addictions, were-wolves beating wives and step kids, computer thievery from people with no real tech skills, and general howling mayhem here at the beginning of the new millennium?

Then again, how did we get from the Enlightenment, Voltaire, Beethoven, Charles Darwin, and Einstein to impeccably dressed denizens of cafes and bistros who think Deepak Chopra, Sylvia Brown and Oprah are great shakes?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Addicted to the Divine

I've written before about feeble-minded Connie of the high hair and his love of animals and mission testimonials.  Stories of Jesus preventing the bus from leaving 10 seconds early, thus preventing a meeting with the jacked-up-crystal meth dealer parole officer and another six months in prison are a staple, along with the usual saved-from-bad-strychnine-laced-drugs-that-evil Mr. Rockstone-sold-you-or-getting-exactly-the-right-spot-in-line-at-the-courthouse-to-avoid-county-lockup-for-traffic-violations-that-your-ex-bitch-old-lady-racked-up . . . all these testimonies are right up the Savior's alley.  His timing is dead-on.

But we all know by now what to expect when Connie bounds forward at testimony call:  a fickle combination of jeers, leers (In spite of the hair, he's a comely lad), cheers, and uneasy herd-shuffling and cattle-sick eye-rolling from the Disciples.   Tonight the pastor from 1st Baptist (oh, who cares what these churches call themselves; they might as well give themselves caste marks or tattoos consisting of a number and color, and a rub-on tattoo from the Dollar Store for Jebus' sake!) touches Connie lightly on the shoulder and whispers something inaudible as Connie edges toward the mike.  

"Remember," says Pastor Mike (they're all named Pastor Mike, Frank, Daniel, or if a member of Christian motorcycle gang, Pastor Race), addressing us all.  Jesus is what we want to be addicted to.  That white light and the thread of blood--Amen!"

"Amen!" chorus about 47.24% of the guests. 

"Oh, Amen!  Booze, alcohol, beer, wine, even your aunt's egg nog, Listerine--I've done it all.   Then there's the rock.  I smoked it for 30 years!  But I'm free, now, brothers, free!  Amen?"


Pastor Mike gestures toward Connie for him to begin. "What's Jesus got you addicted to these days, son?"

 "Well, I'm sure Jesus . . . I've been told to say something about Jesus . . . he's out there somewhere . . . I guess he doesn't wear a cape it's a robe with magic powers . . ."

One of Connie's pals in the audience chides, "I told you to stop with the magic stuff.  It ain't no magic!  Black or White.  It's Jesus!  YOU ADDICTED TO THE LORD ALMIGHTY!"

Connie's testimony becomes even more incoherent, veering between rain forests, "and his love of animals even though they have smaller brains and don't seem as smart as the rest of us.  Take the octopus, for instance". . .   You can sense preparations to take him gently off stage.

But suddenly he's fixed us with a clear-eyed passionate statement:  "The good people down at the center have been helping me with my reading skills . . .and . . . "I'M HOOKED ON PHONICS!  I'M HOOKED ON PHONICS!  I'M HOOKED ON PHONICS!'  He performs a kind of loose-limbed jig.  "I'M HOOKED ON PHONICS! . . .

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Crank (Wacko) Science and Grade School Kids

Leave aside for now the legions of garage inventor  loons-- those with a smidgen of education and a shaky command of science jargon--who are always claiming to have invented an invisibility cloak, telekinesis brain-augmenter, anti gravity and perpetual motion machines, and water-powered personal helicopters and vacuum cleaners.  Real physicists and biologists look forward to the daily mail bag with a mixture of dread and giddy anticipation:  the spill of mail both snail and digital always reveals a bunch of pasty folk with engineering or nutrition certificates who've used "quantum" principles and their own "divine light circuits" and "bio-angel control fields" to allow "silent command" of that busty girl behind the donut counter who won't give them the time of day.

Every now and then a reasonably distinguished scientist will publish a book that seems on the surface to be a staid, rational work purporting to the explain life, the universe, and our ultimate destiny as sentient meat-beings on a dust ball orbiting an undistinguished yellow sun in the cosmic doldrums where no respectable alien would buy a home or send their kids to school.  Two recent hilarious examples are Frank Tipler's Physics of Immortality, and Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near.  Both of these goombahs think future technology is racing exponentially toward an inconceivable explosion/implosion or something that will very soon allow things like downloading of human consciousness into digital mediums and the ultimate resurrection of the dead--meaning your awful cousin Jocko who used to chase you with his boogers is waiting for you billions of years ahead.  No escape, compadre.

There is also a scattering of think tanks around the world working with little success so far on invisibility,  personal anti gravity machines, and other such wish-fulfillment fantasies. (My favorite thing in the otherwise forgettable movie Mystery Men was the Invisible Boy, a hero who could become invisible to fight evil--but only when no one was looking at him.)  Good luck to these guys, who seem less deluded and more tech-savvy than others. 

However, to all of the above I say:  Look no further than a 3rd grade classroom to find powers far surpassing any hoped for in the wildest flights of scientific or SF fancy.   The most attentive teacher will be astonished to find children with names like Galaxy, Stardust, Joseph, Mary, and Nabisco (real, I swear it!) with teleportation abilities that allow them to be at the reading station one microsecond and found digging a hole far away on the kickball field the next.  The same applies to their instantaneous control of objects like pencils and scissors--they vanish into wormholes opened by the adepts--and paper cut-out squares of alphabet letters which will variously be found pasted to the high ceilings ("How the hell did you get it up there! Show me!") or stuffed down John-John, the Runny-Nosed Kid's pants or pasted all over the class mascot, a large rubber octopus named Big Mama.  "And where did all the Girl Scout cookies go!!!?" "How did you get all that candy!!!?" Government cabals and ultra-secret spy orgs:  start sending out your minions with contracts and pay perks.

Contrast to the wandering or temporally settled homeless who,  having no special powers other than scary stares, nostril-clearing smells, and flailing blows, must hoard their possessions and procure them through mundane means.  They must also do things like spend huge percentages of their lives securing their possessions:  tying up walking shoes each night to bed poles, using knots of Gordian complexity on packs, satchels and even plastic bags;  some folk have so many mini-locks attached to their outside packs they sound like Santa's sleigh hovering along at ground level.

My dear, deceased friend Matt from Texas (check out his posthumous novel, Hook Man Speaks), had everyone beat with his invention of the 4th dimensional portal.  Math geeks like Rudy Rucker, eat your heart out.   I met Matt at a writing program in Baton Rouge where we had several classes together and drank a lot of coffee and beer.  Matt read every new novel published, attended all new films, even bad ones, three or four times, read all newspapers and journals, enjoyed Broadway musicals, and still found time to watch all new TV shows.  In his spare (spare!) time he charmed, wined and dined the lassies, took time out for long lunches with friends, donated time to helping me with various writing projects.   

How did he do it?  He spent weeks or months in a 4th dimensional space that allowed him to accomplish gargantuan amounts of work, never age or tire, then descend to our dirty, arduous plane, rarin' to go.  He left voluminous papers, mostly his entertaining and inventive fiction employing folktales and bits of magical whimsy, but sometimes I fantasize that buried within that stuff or crated away--think the end of Citizen Kane--is a machine or set of blueprints that will allow its finder the power to remake the world.  Better that a basically decent fellow like Matt probably burned the whole lot.  Think of the damage the next Saddam Hussein could inflict if he got his paws on it.