Screens, the New Plague

Screens. The New Plague

“Screens, Screens, everywhere there’s Screens, breaking up the scenery and blocking out my mind”………with a post-prescient nod to The Five Man Electrical Band and their 1971 hit, “Signs”.

I’m guilty. Let’s get this out of the way and off the table right up front. I spend too much time “connected”; Facebook, Texts, Emails, Google, I’m down with most of them but am resisting the Tweet, Ping and many of the instant gratification apps I could be indulging in.

I’m working on it. I’m working my steps.

But the phenomenon is so pervasive, so distracting, so consuming, that I see a new generation of addiction clinic models already thinking about how to profit off the detoxing of Americans from their Screens. Can it be far away that horrific accidents, caused by texting, are proven to be crimes and effective defense lawyers begin promulgating “by reason of text addiction” as a viable defense strategy?

I just came from attending the US Conference on AIDS in San Diego. An amazing amalgam of providers, professionals, experienced Legends living with HIV, and earnest, engaged, people of all stripes and persuasions urgently fighting the good fight. I know we all came to edify, to connect, to learn from each other’s experiences and to open our minds to new theories, treatments, and strategies we can put into our own personal toolboxes when we return home.

USCA14 did an admirable job of organization, garnering sponsors, experts, and the newly minted volunteer enthusiasts into a 4-day fest of concentrated energy and engagement.

Except.

In the organizers forethoughtfulness, they invented an app……….a Facebook for the USAC14 attendees, complete with a point-fueled contest for the people who posted the most; the most updates, the most photos, the most likes, the most comments, etc. Incentivizing the app was really not necessary. We are all already rats in the maze so the adoption rate was instantaneous and complete.

The result.

Where I came expecting to meet and greet and garner; new friends, new information, new attitudes, what I found was table after breakout after plenary session packed, every seat taken, eager minds supposedly waiting to be infused with a new energy and fresh knowledge, but instead of personal engagement, they were ALL hunched over their screens. The chatting, the texting, the posting , the planning of their next move after this room they were currently in was endemic and infectious, a word I don’t use lightly at an AIDS conference.

The almost total lack of eye contact and personal interaction beyond perfunctory greetings was stunning in its completeness. Every table where I sat during the elaborate, sponsored, plenary sessions; these functions complete with truly engaging speakers telling their personal stories and even wild and professional dance performances was exactly the same. It was Vegas Light and quite entertaining and even informative yet almost to a person, everyone was on their Screens. Looking around, other tables, it was exactly the same. The dull, bluish glow actually gave the attendees an odd, filmy, alien quality. 1,300 people and I’d say 1,100 Screens. Their network must be truly muscular.

Every breakout was the same, people chatting with others not in the room or even with some IN the same room; planning dinner, the next session, the bathroom locations, anything to remain connected. The Screens dinged and flashed and buzzed in an almost constant cacophony, sounding for all the world like new age mosquitos……..and the urge to swat them was just as strong.

If I ruled the world.

I could not help but think of the time and thought and effort put forth by all of those who were leading these sessions, urgently wanting to get their point of view actually heard, to prompt discussions, solicit engagement and feedback, formulate new paths forward. Were I them, I would wonder if I was even noticed no less heard. Were I them, I would confiscate all phones at the start and return them at the finish.

If I ruled the world.

I know the arguments. They fall across generational lines. Funny enough, one of my major focuses here at the conference and back at home is fostering conversations between the disparate generations so that the decades of hard-fought experience we elders (called Legends at USCA14) are in possession of might be translated into actionable facts for the next generations below us to put into practical use and not simply to exist as documentary facts found on archived film and video clips or tall tales from the crypt-like carcasses of we aging activists.

The younger among us claim that this IS the way they learn; to connect, constantly;

“It actually helps my concentration to be on my phone”
“I use my pad as my toolbox to education”
“We all use our phones and pads constantly, it’s the way the world does it now”

I try to listen without prejudice, I really do. And yes, I am of another generation, several others as a matter of fact but I am not exactly a dinosaur….quite yet. As I said at the start, I, too, am guilty of too much connectivity. I jumped right onto the conference app. It was Facebook-familiar, easy, quick. I wanted to feel part of the gang, meet the other interesting people I knew were swarming about me all wanting for the same interactions as I.

But instead of “meeting” people face to face, shaking hands, looking them in the eye, feeling the sincerity of their soul reflected through the energy of our interactions I saw, quite quickly, that I was tumbling down the same Facebook funnel that I fight against in the “real word”.

“T shirts for the people who post 1,100 points worth of content”
“100 point a check in”
“500 points a photo”

Really? This is what millions of dollars of effort and thousands of miles worth of plane tickets and travel come down to? Points? T shirt contests?

And I cannot stress enough what I found missing.

Eye Contact.

I seriously felt that I was interrupting some vital communication when I sought to approach someone in a crowd of people that I wanted to meet; as if barging in to shake their hand and say I admired them or their work or to ask them a question would be taking them away from some other, amorphous and obviously more important conversation that was happening elsewhere in their head and on their screen. They were miles, or maybe just millimeters, away from where I stood before them.

I know from my years of planning and attending just such conferences that companies, associations, and organizations pay a lot of hard-fought money to send their representatives to these events to personally engage their compatriots. The purpose; to bring home new contacts, new business, new ideas.

I cannot calculate who I missed or how many I missed but I know I did miss out, I feel it, I felt it, even as it was occurring…or not occurring, as it were. I pulled back on the posting, the following, the picture taking. I left my phone turned off while I was at the convention proper. I made the effort to reach out, inject myself into conversations, introduce myself to my seat-mates at sessions, stroll to breakouts with new acquaintances, but I have to say it took work, a lot of work, a lot more work than it should have at a venue that was set up to promote just this sort of personal engagement.

Habits are hard to break.

They have to be recognized as harmful, first of all. We know texting while driving is harmful. I know I can’t even talk hands-free without a major loss of concentration because I’m thinking about the person and the conversation I’m having rather than who’s driving next to me and who’s stopping short way up the road in front of me. But we are all conditioned; by advertising, by our friends, by our cars, by our desire to connect and be part of the next, newest technology. Where would Apple be without its devotees?

I also know I’m fighting an uphill and a losing battle even as I put pen to paper (speaking of old school, gone technologies) but I refuse to go gently into the good night without at least a modicum of a fight.

It seems to me that we who invented the Alternative Generation back in the 60’s have fallen prey to its promoter, Timothy Leary’s raison d’etre and are much to our own chagrin and shame, victims of its battle cry:

“Turn on, Tune In…………..Drop Out”

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Carry Them Lightly

Carry Them Lightly

By:  Robby Sherwin

A national conference on HIV and AIDS is an exhilarating, sobering, energizing, and humbling experience. At my very first one, right now, this week, I feel like a vestal virgin set for sacrifice amongst an army of warriors who work, tirelessly, for the cause that has inspired generations of activism, engagement, outreach, artwork, and so much more.

I was there at the beginning. San Francisco, 1982, GRID. Having already been in The City for years and, behaving like every other hormonally charged young gay man there in those heady days and nights, I feared yet assumed that I was already doomed. As the numbers of cases grew and the horrifying symptoms began to make their presence known in public, the fear became palpable. The dread and doom seemed to be a living entity and in many ways it was. As we began to twirl out of the discos and into a slow motion dance of death, we quickly learned to bear the weight of the world upon our backs along with the shame of the lesions that festered on faces and torsos.

The world felt leaden.

Suddenly, the afternoon gusts of wistful fog slipping over Twin Peaks and snuggling Sutro Tower like a bathhouse towel, took on an ominous, grey, sodden quality, infusing the minds and moods with dread and doom.

The Bay Area Reporter (B.A.R.) began to cover story after somber saga of the wildfire-advance of this new, what? Plague? That was the word. And it was not just us. It was turning up simultaneously in New York, Los Angeles, and any other metropolitan area that had attracted a quorum of queers seeking some sense of relief from the hatred and oppression that they, we, had been weaned on and warped with all of our youths.

It really, really, felt like it was directed, personal, evil. It appeared to be aimed at the very heart of our hearts….and bodies. How could we NOT think of conspiracies? With the likes of Anita Bryant and Pat Robertson and Strom Thurmond spouting vitriol and poison on every news cast it was not a far stretch for us to be tempted into thinking that someone, powerful and crafty and self-righteously sure, was brewing up a batch of ill simply to eliminate or at the very least silence our growing cries for equality and justice.

And then the dying began.

Where one day, the staggering days of the living dead were walkering up Castro suddenly, without a word or a goodbye….they were gone. Their obits began to populate the pages of the B.A.R. weekly. The shops and the businesses began to post the pages on their windows. It became wallpaper. The reports from across the country were equally as bad. The gloom grew. The fear seeped into our DNA and like a train wreck on the evening news, we could not look away, we dared not look away or we may be, would be, next. Every cough, sniffle, sneeze, ache and pain, was cause for an adrenaline shot of panic. Every shower became a jail-house intake inspection, frantically searching for lesions yet desperately hoping against hope that we would not find one and still, somehow knowing that someday, any day now, we would.

And then the funerals came.

Like a mudslide of mayhem they reigned down on everyone we knew. They were for everyone we knew. The sadness, the crushing despair, the stillness in our souls rioted with the fear and anger in our hearts until our chests would explode. We could not cry any harder, mourn any more, soothe any softer. We all died a thousand tiny deaths over and over and over again.

It changes you. Forever.

Quilts came, people continued to leave. The B.A.R. became as thick as the New York Times…all obits. We scanned every issue; dreading the inevitability of the pictures we would find and staggering back with the stunned shock when they would, always, appear. Those smiling faces of our loves, our lives, our futures…..gone.

And then my most personal horror unfolded. My very best friend, John, sickened before my eyes. I was powerless, profaned, and impotent in the face of this onslaught of unspeakability.

At the start of the horror, we had talked, often, of this inevitability; how we knew our time would come, how we would be there for each other, help each other not to suffer, to die with dignity, clean out each other’s porn stashes before our families could find them…the really practical bones of ending a life far too soon.

As he weakened, his lover passing first, his mother, my friend as well, came to live with him and care him through the end; a passage no mother nor any young man, should have to do. I flew into town from San Diego where I had been for several years now. I was stunned. His 6’4” frame, the same as mine, was now shrunk to 100 lbs. He was my worst nightmare, my mirror on myself. I carried him to the bathroom tending to him as I would my 4yo nephew. He was scarcely speaking. Doris, his mother, was 70 years old and exhausted. I sent her out to the hairdresser and shopping, a treat for her, but I was taking over for the day with a very specific mission in mind.

It was time.

As I sat gently with John, quietly talking about our lives and loves and inner-most longings, I moved the moment towards what I knew I had to do; I had to offer the ending that we had so often spoken about, promised to each other, swore we would be there for, an ultimate gift of grace.

As I gently broached the topic; “John, is it time? I feel as though I am here for a reason and you are suffering. We have always promised to be honest and present and I’m here, now, to help you if you think you’re ready, whatever you need from me, I’m here”

He mustered everything he had in him and swung his body away from me, angrily, purposefully, looking at something, anything, but me. Seething.

He never spoke to or looked at me again. He died while I was in the air on a business trip to Chicago 3 days later. I cry, still, as I write this. It was almost 30 years ago. The inimitable will to live…amazing.

An artist friend had me to dinner not long after. We leafed through bin after bin of his amazing Japanese style Haiku drawings and feasted on a carefully crafted Asian meal. After dinner, as I rose to help with the clearing up, he spoke instantly; “Your only responsibility for dinner is to go and choose any piece of work you have seen tonight that strikes you”

Without pause if quickly leafed back through the stacks and found a piece that had thunderstruck me earlier. It was a simple Haiku: ‘

Who

Are

You

This

Time

John and I had so often spoken of past and future lives, our paths in this temporal world, our places in each other’s past lives. He was a scholar of religion at Berkeley and we sought out universal truths and ethereal questions. We had solemnly sworn that whoever left this plane first would come back with a sign , something, anything, to let the other know that we had arrived, safely and with joy, and were awaiting the reunion to come. It was exactly my question for him.

Who are you this time?

This piece has hung next to my bed these past 3 decades. I think about John every day. I ask him who he is…..this time.

Recently, I had my beloved tattoo artist, Sage, transfer this work onto my calf. It is lovingly brushed on in so light an ink style that everyone who sees it asks; “Is that done with a marker? Is it real? Is it temporary?”

At the USCA14 conference I met a wondrous soul, Tez Anderson. He has co-founded an terrific organization, Let’s Kick ASS, for long term AIDS survivors that works to combat the emotional and physical toll these past decades have wrung from us. What amazing work. As we spoke of life and loss and memory and forward motion Tez said something that changed me, forever. In speaking of those we had loved and lost he said:

“We must carry them lightly”

And now, forevermore as I move onward into the future I never thought I’d have, I know that as I do with my tattoo, I will carry the memories of those I have lost lightly, in honor and joy at the time we had together, and purposely lighten the weight I have imposed on myself in order to be fully present and alive, right now.

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You’ve Got Mail

You’ve Got Mail

 Surprise, it’s not Avon Calling, it’s AARP knocking.   Or rather, slipping insidiously into our mailboxes, as if on some predetermined cue card, letting us know that we have reached that dubious Rubicon of Rage, the Half Century mark.

How the hell did this happen? Our first reaction is to toss, and toss again, and to keep tossing these now quickeningly frequent missives; as if by ignoring them we can halt the inexorable progression of our lives.

But we are in a netherworld from which the view is unclear, in either direction. We hate looking back, it reminds us what is now lost to us, past, fled too quickly into the realms of myth and mystery. To look forward is more than frightening as well; who among us relishes our increasing age and infirmity and the indignities that we have seen befall our parents and grandparents as they aged-out, before our eyes, into oblivion.

When we were young, if we grew tired of our rented flat we would go in search of another………we moved…….…we upgraded………we expanded. When the view from where we were faded into familiarity, we simply moved on, in search of the better, the more, the new, the best.

As we grew older and planted some tenuous roots, we owned our first homes. As we outgrew them either physically or emotionally, we again looked around, saw what struck our next fancy, and moved forward, up, bigger, more.…..….again; as Jackson Browne so melodically told us; “…moving further on…..”

Now we are settled, adult, kids gone, big houses in the past, our needs are simpler, our space and needs less demanding. We have right-sized ourselves as social construct dictates we should at our age. We have what we need and we need less than what we have, undoubtedly.

And then, along comes AARP telling us to re-invent ourselves; Life Re-imagined, that’s their new jaunty push for the over 50 set that we now fall in amongst.

But here’s the catch.

Our bodies now betray our mind’s ability to do that reinvention that we are so desperately seeking to attain. We have worked all our lives to get to a point where we can take a deep breath, look around the wide world and see what percolates up for a new adventure, a next career, a mindful entertainment. We have the time, the resources, the aching will…………but we also are busy carting around our aching bodies which protest and reject us at every turn as we fitfully start out on each of the new paths that appear before us. Looking entirely enticing and alluring, yet requiring a greater degree of energy than we had previously remembered, each alteration of course now is more demanding and requires greater outputs of both the physical and mental faculties.

I cry False Advertising.

What we really need is to absorb the lessons AARP so fervently wants us to learn in our dotage when we are still young and able-bodied enough to put them to good use. Youth is wasted on the young; a truer axiom was never uttered.

What is needed is a forward-looking class taught by a backward-leaning teacher. Someone to instill in the energetic young of today’s world of possibilities the pause that they need to take to imagine their lives as they stretch out in front of them. Teach possibilities. Teach potentials. Teach realities. Teach truth.

How many of us are having exactly the same conversations at every dinner party and with every friend of a certain age………that age being our age?

 

My hip is bad

My foot is killing me

My back is shot

My………….fill in the failing body part……..sucks

It is the ultimate irony that now that we have the time and the interest, we don’t have the physical stamina to tackle all those fascinating and fun things that have waited out there tantalizingly tempting us for decades. If our kids used this type of an excuse in grade school we would never, ever, have believed them. Shirkers. Lay-abouts. Lazy. We’d have decried their boredom.

And so, with a resignment only garnered from experience, we gird our loins, hitch up our braces and elastic bands and buckles, and stumble forward keeping care to not really stumble or there’s a hip replacement in our near future. In reality, those hips have probably already been replaced, more than once, and because they’re “like new” our other parts, whether through jealousy or simple re-alignment related realities, groan and protest and flare and inflame for their fair share of the Medicare dollars that they feel they deserve and for which we, their unwilling foils, spend our days making appointments; for doctors, physician’s assistants (doctors-light), MRIs,

“Do you have any metal objects implanted in your body?”

“Have you looked at my medical file? The one that fills a full gig of memory on your computer? Just key in ‘XRay’ and see what pops up. Don’t ask me that again, Tammy, I talk to you………every other week.”

physical therapists. And that’s just the traditional medical milieu.

Let us not give short shrift to the massage therapists, yoga instructors, Reike practitioners, psychic alignment shamans, crystal healers, and copper band Internet hawkers. They too, take up a significant amount of our time, money, and quite frankly, the verve that I was planning on devoting to hiking the Appalachian Trail, skydiving the wine country and swimming with sharks…….oh wait……I may have that last one covered…….Insurance Companies may be equatable here. But I digress.

As a youthful student, I used to relish “calling in dead” for a class or a shift and cutting out to sail, beach, or play. As a less-than-youthful senior, I decry when I have to, for medical reasons mostly, call off one of the many volunteer gigs I have committed to. It riles me no end that my body betrays my intentions to a degree that I find beyond irritating, infuriating.

You know you have reached “an age” when you automatically check the “yes, I’d like the travel insurance” with that ticket purchase because, more than once already, you’ve had to avail yourself of the hassle-ridden, change my flight adventure…and paid through the nose for the privilege of doing it. Suddenly, $25.00 seems a very reasonable price to pay to not have to worry when that broken ankle or unexpected gall bladder op impinges on a perfectly plotted and planned holiday.

And whose carry-on contains more prescriptions than prophylactics? When did “Don’t leave home without it?” come to mean Imodium AND Ex-Lax?

When did carefree become careful?

I believe AARP has that answered.

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It’s Only Teenage…..Wasteland

“Don’t cry
Don’t raise your eyes…….

It’s only teenage wasteland”

                                                                                                The Who

 

I was always told (by my mother, mind you) that I was the perfect child. Quiet, polite, never cried.

What a crock. Revisionist history, at best.

That may have been true for my early years. Very early years……and, in truth, I was probably more shell-shocked and triangulated between the “Battling Bickerson’s” who were my less comedic and more ambitiously angry parents than any specter of Spock respectability. I actively chose to behave in order to call less attention to myself and thereby deflect at least some of the reasons that I believed, in my small childlike worldview, were the fuel for their caustic combustibility.

But once I outsized my mother, bypassed my father, and grew into somewhat my own self, I looked around and it was the late 1960’s. Now nothing like the 60’s had ever happened in this world….or any world…..before. Bell Bottoms, Beatles, and Bongs. Who knew what this magical mystery stir of a stew could brew.…..in the culture……in the kids……in me?

Oh, and lest we forget. There was this little blot of behavioral modification called LSD. We’ll call that a MODifier, as smash up between the cultural zeitgeist of the moment and the throwback, stick-figure, sentence structure diagram-matics of our elementary school youth.

As it happened, I was coming of age at the crossroads of America’s coming together, 25 miles from Washington, D.C. We had just weathered Cuba, Castro, and Civil Rights and everyone’s collective cultural nerves were fraught and frenetically on edge.

Now 10 years earlier, life had been a different animal. That animal would be my elder sister.

Her life back then in the darker ages was programmed, plotted…….perfected. Her dates were chaperoned, her major was chosen (Art) and her husband was selected….and married…the week she graduated from college, a doctor.   Perfect.

I was to become a different creature altogether.

Looking in the rearview, it’s easy to see that my parents, 40 year olds when I was born (a rarity in the early 1950’s) were more than likely tired. Tired of fighting each other, tired of working hard to accomplish their version of the American Dream, tired at the thought that they had a teenager on their hands and a social revolution at their feet. Rear views are great……for perspective, but they don’t keep you on any semblance of a straight line in terms of forward motion.

I don’t remember where I went wrong, really.

I know that the flock of feral kids I was nesting with out in our country fox holes got in our fair share of kid-like trouble, usually suspected but rarely actually caught. Blowing up mailboxes, filling pools with printer’s ink from school, “borrowing” parental cars for late-night race-abouts, smoking in the barn, drinking purloined booze, all the normal, fairly innocuous preteen trouble.

I think it was probably about the time that we all hit legal, that magical 16th birthday. We had all learned to drive on the farm at ridiculously early ages; tractors, trucks, anything farm related were fair game. We drove from the house down the actual road (more lane than road but still……to us) to the barn and anywhere else we could grudgingly justify to our parents as necessary, the neighbor’s barn, the end of the road to chase some steer…whatever excuse that might serve to pass parental justification muster and get our feet on the gas pedals of our imagined lives.

But now, suddenly, we had the actual keys to the Country Squire.

During the day, we were in semi-servitude to the parents, removing from them the daily grind of shuttling the younger ones to and from school, piano lessons, 4-H, and to be fair, we practically leapt an ANY excuse to get away from the radar range of our mother’s sixth senses. Disclaimer: all children smaller than us survived to adulthood although most are still bound, by filial fiat, to silence as to what was witnessed on these surreptitious outings. To this day, when we gather and start to tell tales, the Mother Unit plugs her ears and cries, “Is this something I don’t want to hear?”

Come nightfall though, all bets were off and all things were possible. It was a fifteen mile drive to the District Line and thus to Morris Miller’s Liquor Store, where, puffed up and trying to look at least 17, we wheedled and cajoled likely suspects (anyone who really did look 18) into buying us beer and trading product for cash out back in the lot……..a precursor of drug deals to come now that I think about it.

It was then a rush back out to our familiar country haunts, miles and miles of dark, deserted, rural heaven where, for the rest of our Freedom Rider evenings, we would careen and carouse with no supervision…….or sense. Most of us survived.

There were the standard 2.5 horrific car crashes per year amongst our rather smaller school crowd, an occasional fatality. We paused on the accelerator, briefly. But soon enough, the invincibility and hormones that are youth overtook us again and, once more, all that was in the rearview.

Out tale today is of the softer side of rebellion. Angst-light as it were.

The time was 1969-70. I was a misfit senior in high school so still living at home, barely. Just as the world was seemingly exploding from every seam around us, so too, was I. Ready to fly, or flee. Freedom flapped its feathered wings around in my chest and sent my heart on flights of fancy that only imagination and a steady dose of hallucinatory drugs could quell.

I had a friend, Peter, a year older and already out of the nest enough to have a good job with the phone company, working evenings on the main-frame. He’d get off duty around midnight. He drove a souped-up Dodge. He could buy beer. Trapped in the prison of my parent’s making it was simply too tempting.

Since mobile phones or even pagers were non-existent, all plans had to be carefully formulated hours and days ahead, times coordinated, rendezvous set. Peter would cruise down the lane in front of my house once, his grumbling muffleristic growl unmistakable to my waiting ear. I was lying, dressed, silent, in bed, covers up to my chin just in case of a bed-check, yet with every fiber of me being taught, lion-like, fully dressed and ready to spring. After the second pass, he would pull ¼ mile down the lane and wait, rumbling softly in the distance but not enough to put parental alerts on point.

And then I would set in motion The Great Escape.

I should add here that all old homes in the country in those pre-fire-extinguished decades had a plan, hounded into all of us since birth. If there was ever a fire, and they did happen, just enough to friends and neighbors to have become more than just rural lore, we had our instructions. Incase of said fire, that coiled and knotted bundle of rope that was stashed under your bed, the one tightly attached to the bottom leg of the bedstead, was to be flung, post-haste, out the nearest window of your room and you were to do your best Boy Scout rope-shimmy down to safety.

Well, duh.

This fact will play out in a bit.

My father’s snoring could wake the dead. My mother’s room was, therefore, on the other end of the house….the quiet end….from mine. I could, with a minimum of caution and carrying my shoes in my hand, slip down the stairs, out the kitchen door to the basement stairs. Once there, I merely had to bribe the dog with a biscuit and she became, for the moment, my slobbering accomplice, wagging me out the lowest basement door into the dark, midnight world that beckoned. Shoes back on, I would slip, unheard, out of the yard and into the waiting getaway car, driver at the ready, and we would roar off into the night.

Now in reality, we did little of anything substantive on these midnight prowls other than consume huge amounts of Schlitz, smoke packs of cigs, and put mile upon useless mile on Peter’s Dodge. We talked trouble, constantly, imagined our lives embellished with Bondish touches and sexy women and exotic places and yet, in truth, we circled the same dusty, country, roads we had grown up riding on our horses only now we used a different sort of horsepower and had a vastly more extended range.

Yaaaawn. Did we really lose that many nights of sleep just to daydream in the dark?

Back at lockdown, the parentals had their morning routine down to a science. I knew my father arose at 10 minutes before 5am every day. And so, the night’s beer and smoke allotment consumed, my driver would drop me once again down the lane and I would light out across the yard once more…well stagger actually, now, but here the story gets messy.

Maggie, the furry ball of protective fluff that resided in the basement stairwell at night, was not as amenable to me coming back IN the door as she was with my taking leave of it. The barking was ferocious. Even the neighbors would waken and so comes into play the aforementioned fire escape rope. Upon departure, I has not flung but gently lowered it out my bedroom window and down to the ground below the dining room bay window below. And there it had swayed, silently, waiting its turn in my nightly dramatic adventures.

I simply had to……..very quietly……slightly hard to do when boozy and brazen intersect……….climb up the rope in the reverse of it’s intended use, pull it in after me, and put it and me under and into the bed for a couple hours of much needed sleep.

This worked amazingly well, mostly. Until.

One Spring morning when the light was early and the father was late there came a moment. The moment. The time when I fully realized I had to leave the nest, sooner rather than later, and not by means of a fire-rope.

The father burst forth into my room, a really obnoxiously rude habit he had thrust upon my entire childhood, banging doors, shouting me awake and to action. Just bullishly belligerent. I hated mornings for years because of him. But on this particular day, he simply opened my door, strode into my room and kicked my bed until I stirred awake.

What’s this? I thought.

A firm yet stern “Get up and come with me” was issued.

Now I was never one to actual care what my father said, did, or thought. Really. Never had. But on this day something about the undertone in his voice was menacing enough to alert my inner “Oh Shit” alarm and I did as I was told.

Following him down the stairs, the fog of the night before fled quickly into my mental recesses and my mind went into over-dive trying to think what I had done, of late, that I was about to pay the price for. Did he find my pot stash…..again? Had I left my cigarette butts on the lawn under the bushes where I secret-smoked?

Out the front door we marched, around the side of the house, under my bedroom window. There, striding up the wall like a bad game of Twister, was a perfect set of muddy footprints, looking for all the world like someone had moon-walked up the dining room wall straight into my bedroom window.

It had rained the night before.

“You had better get the hose and wash them off before your mother gets up.”

Nothing more was ever said….at least about this particular incident.

It really was only the beginning of teenage wasteland.

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Conched Out

Conched Out

 Or

 “A Question of Balance”

                                        The Moody Blues

 

I’ve been doing a LOT of reading by Key West authors, about Key West authors, about Key’s history, anything I can find Keys-ian.

It became apparent early on that, in my humble opinion (IMHO), in order to become a writer of note, any note, one must spend more than an ordinate amount of time living and writing in Key West. Something in the air (salt?), something in the water (rum?), something in the people (crazy?), insidiously seeps into one’s DNA and is regurgitated out through the mental notes one puts to paper.

It’s a secret that I’m not sure most people who aren’t Conchs even realize and, having made that statement, I’m not sure even Conchs would be viscerally aware enough of their surroundings, no less those worlds hidden between the covers of books, to put one rum punch with another rum punch and come up with anything other than a night out on Duval.

But when you really look at the extraordinary amount of literature that has been birthed here on this spit of coral and shell it’s rather intimidating literary ground to peruse.

Hemingway wrote “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (I know, mountains and snow here on an island 16ft above sea level….go figure), “To Have and Have Not”, “The Green Hills of Africa” (I sense a trend of Island Fever making one image anyplace other than Bone Island to be), among others.

Tennessee Williams wrote “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “The Glass Menagerie”, and “A Streetcar Named Desire” while living at 1431 Duncan St. in Key West.

And then penmanship parade continues:

Tom Corcoran

Jimmy Buffet

David and Lynn Kaufelt

Rosalind Brackenbury

And on…and on….lining up in a row like the hummock-humped mangrove keys dotting the cerulean waters, jewels on a strand, linking Key West to the rest of the supposed real world, the Other America.

And so the compulsion began in me, worming its way into my core and eating its way back out again. The blog topics, which come upon me suddenly, when they do arrive, and expurgate themselves neatly into print, began to multiply like chickens in the streets around town. It gradually dawned on me that there IS something here that makes the arts of self-expression bloom in some urgent, tropical, fugue-like state. A fever of the fonts.

Go with it.

Encourage it.

Grow with it.

Everything grows like fungus here as it is, why not my particular penned papers?

And so I came, and came, and came again to this 2 by 4 island (miles that is), waiting for the inspirations to inundate me. The urges were definitely there. The air, the water, the rum, elixirs of erudition, building blocks of bards; sometimes vibrant and clarified like the scarlet-splashed sunrises of winter and other times, muddy and torpid and grey-green like the sunsets after another intolerably humid and humbling summer day.

I’d like to believe that in summer, the greats of past residence, having not the benefit of air conditioning, sat at their desks, still, quiet, meditative in the heat, working only their mental muscles and their drinking arms. From the vantage point of todays’ creature comforts, how could they do anything else? But then not knowing that such chilled lives were possible, I suppose they soldiered on, sweating and fanning and praying for the afternoon cloud ruptures that momentarily soak us in something other than perspiration and desperation.

It’s not the heat…….it’s the stupidity. True dat.

One cedes any semblance of normal, human, cleanliness and standards quite rapidly here in the summer. As an inveterate over-packer, even I have come away cured by a summer in Key West. Having worn nothing but a ragged pair of board shorts, a tank top and some flip flops since the day I arrived I feel like a tacky version of a Jimmy Buffet ballad. Why put on clean when wet and soggy is where it’s at? Wash your hair? Nah, the sweat will act as gel in a matter of moments…who will know? Deodorant? A pathetic waste of money and here, it actually seems very eco-unfriendly to purchase all that aluminum zirconium tricholorohydrex glycine just to leech it out in the first nano-seconds of walking to your bike? Really…save a zirconium, whatever that is.

But back to writing, and wronging, and balance in the Keys.

Balance, an interesting concept in life, in nature, in behavior.

I’m finding the longer I’m here and the more often I return I’m gaining a greater sense and respect for balance and the effort it takes to live a truly balanced life in Key West. Temptation abounds. Friendships quicken and flourish like the Poinciana trees, vibrant, startling in their vivacity and flimsy as quicksilver in their ability to adhere to what, on the mainland, would be a buildable foundation of a life- long relationship. On Key West, they might last only as long as the bills in your wallet that fund the next round. Buyer beware has never been more apt.

As an aging cynic and a true loyalist where friends are concerned, it has been an interesting lesson for me to develop my mañana in regards to relationships and behavioral protocol here in the Keys. A dinner invitation? You give some thought as to who is coming, what they like, what the day might bring; you say 7:30ish. You shop, you chop, you marinate; you lay the table, you open a bottle, those who are already living/staying in the house begin to drink, you wait………………when the collective growl of stomachs reaches a fever pitch or the amount of alcohol consumed exceeds the daily recommended dosage on the Motrin label you eat, regardless of who has appeared or not appeared. The intended guest may never arrive, or call, or be seen again.

No worries, mon.

Like a hybrid of Canadian and Caribbean. Nice, but no real commitment.

After the meal, it’s “cooled” from 95 down to 91 and you’ve helped equalize your internal temperature by the addition of copious amounts of human coolant in the form of cocktails so heading into town seems only right and righteous since it’s the one time of the day or night when the sun is not scorching the pavement and melting your zories into the soles of your feet. Besides, what’s one more drink?

I’ll tell you what one more drink is.

It’s 10 more drinks in Key’s Time. There is an odd decimal shift that no one tells you about when you arrive. You only discover it morning’s later (or, occasionally days) when you crawl out of bed and wonder “What happened to………..my day………my head………my clothes?” Flashes of the earlier part of the evening flicker across the brainpan, that fantastic Creole lesbian singer at the Green Parrot (was that one set or two?) (do they have video I could check?) (fuck it, who cares?), was the Lazy Gecko next…..or last……would I remember what was last? Was there a strip club in there somewhere? How did we get home? Was I making out in public……….again? Was it someone I know? Does anyone care?

And therein lies the truth of the Islands. No one cares. About anything. Behavior, protocol, propriety, propinquity……..nada. You are only as good or as bad as your last known memory, or that of those whom you were with….and theirs is almost always faultier than yours so there is, indeed, safety in numbers. Numbers of bars, numbers of drinks, numbers of “friends”, numbers of cab companies. I think that is the ultimate tattoo to have here, actually…the cab company on your ass so when you find yourself dropping trou in public as you undoubtedly will sometime before 4am, your disclaimer can say it for you when you no longer can mouth the words; “If you can read this, call Key West Taxi”. Where you tattoo your address is up to you.

And so, as Maureen McGovern warbled once upon the 70’s, “There’s Got To Be A Mourning After”. Or more succinctly, an afternoon after. Few true Duval Crawlers know what a morning is.

It’s interesting, as a writer, my best time is the morning. As a human, my best time is the morning, always has been. Maybe that’s why I’m not a partier. Maybe that’s why my tattoos tend to the philosophic and not the practical (see above). As a writer I’m an observationist.

And so, back to balance.

While I’d love to hold up my end of the rum punch raunch-spectrum, as an opponent of not missing my mornings, my dignity or my clothing, I have balance, albeit discovered through a bit of trial…..and error, balance is firmly in place…now. There was that one day, a light lesson in too much fun and too great a price.

What could be more island-like than brunch with your step-aunt-in-law and her husband, recent Key West transplants, albeit from Orlando so consider the source? Creole sandwiches and Tangerine-Wheat beer, safe enough. Employee discount applied, no one pays retail here if you can remotely still pronounce the word “local”

Then it was on to a drag strip club at 2pm for electronic trivia and cocktails, suggested by Luna (the perfect bartender name), Grapefruit Vodka and Soda with a squeeze of Key Lime. Perfect! Except. That little “local” thing that keeps crawling around the bar in the form of poker chips saying “The Next Round Is On Me”. Friends arrive, more rounds arrive with them, texts come in, more friends arrive; “I’m going to get a beard trim at a friend’s and dip in their pool, be right back”.

Common sense, which I had when I arrived on this island, has left the building. I trim, I dip, and we both go back to the club! More drinks arrive. About 5pm I say “I need to go now, what do I owe?” “For what?” My questioning look is met with obstination all around….”Well they bought the first round and they bought the next and………”. I tip well and stagger back to the bike, which I walk home.

The rest of the night is a wash. Balance averted…….to be regained after some sleep.

Missing the next morning really pisses me off, not to mention there’s nothing worse than a hangover in the tropics. The glistening, clean, shvitzing of a healthy body expelling moisture in the warmth of the sun turns into a toxic waste-dump of flop-sweat after a night under the town; a heady mixture of leftover garlic fries, Captain Morgan, and whatever was in that last round of shooters, all mingled with the less than effervescent soupçon of cigarette smoke that oozes from every fibrous pore of your clothing.

The key to balance to is to remember. Remember the head-pounding, stomach-turning morning after, remember that long walk home pushing the bike because you can’t trust yourself to even ride that without serious bodily harm, remember the sheets in the morning after being too drunk to shower before bed, remember that barback-as-cologne residue that lingered in your nose hairs all day, tainting everything you tried to keep down.

And forget how much fun you really had, ceding your soul to the Demon Rum, the price you pay is not worth the cost of admission.

And here is where writing comes into play, at least for me. It is the key to my personal form of balancing act. If I can faithfully recount at least one horrifying encounter with all things sybarite, then I stand a very good chance of not repeating them again, anytime too soon. Age has engaged the balance beam in my life. It frequently does. The restrictions on body and soul that age implements are nature’s unique form of life preserver, a balance for us in the choppy waters of life’s water-slides into temptation.

So just because they invent a wine decanter that appears to magically balance your booze….don’t believe everything you read, even from me.

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Spring, Awakening

Spring, Awakening

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At the start of the lane, nestled up against an impervious wall of stately, swooping, cedars, pops a Star Magnolia, brilliantly in bloom with blushing hot-pinkish abandon, shameless in her self promotion yet innocent as the fresh breath of dew that lingers on her petals. Shocking, tempting one to snip and pluck and try and capture her radiance indoors in a crystal vase but, in the end, you simply gaze in wonder and walk past, smiling at the small conceits of the season that lure us onward, knowing that the tulip temptations and iridescent iris cannot be far behind her.

The soft, soggy, sponge of Spring. Quietly alive with the heavy dense of fog, mist, and morning.

A terrarium of a landscape with giant, moss-coated logs, upright, quite alive, but seemingly decaying into themselves with the very effort of trying, once again, to come back to life and leaf. Trees; still, but with the fore-shadow of their future loamy selves, redolent with decay, food and shelter for creatures who, even now, lurk about their bases, seeking their very forefathers for home and hearth, waiting for the next member of the tribe to succumb to the gravity of the grave and lie, motionless but ever-so-slowly crumbling into the earth yet, at once, teeming with the new colonies of life they will feed and nurture.

Fronds upon unfurling fronds, acres of ferns. They awake like sleep-nourished children, poking their fuzzy heads out of their leafy beds, every shade of veridescence from the palest chartreuse to the vermillion; verdant, each throbbing with life about to burst. The larger the fern to come, the richer the shade of awakening . A hierarchy of carbon-capturing awareness. With names like maidenhair, leather-leaf, sword, and cinnamon, they evoke food and swagger and tender imagery from the first sightings. With their constant companions, the mosses, they are the lushest of carpets upon which all wooded creatures feast and frolic. Nature as interior designer has no equal……nor any flaw.

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Through a (Look)ing Glass, Darkly

 

Through the (Looking) Glass, Darkly

With my apologies to both Lewis Carroll and the Bible

“The Right’s Strange New Hero-Gavin Newsom”

That was the headline in the Huffington Post that caught my eye, as it was supposed to do. A minor, momentary, tremor coursed through me; had Gavin done something stupid and the Republicans latched onto it? Was my Hero in Human Form straying from what I perceive to be his laudable life-goals in some unimaginably bizarre turn of the screw?

HuffPost was huffing….and posting, what all media outlets seem to be required to do in today’s laser-quick, responsive-attuned, feedback frenzied milieu they all must exist in.

The “click” is the fix they are after.

I clicked. I read. I read some more.

Only then did the truth and fact of Jon Ward’s in depth profile of Gavin Newsom come into clear focus. Gavin was safe upon the pedestal where I needed him to be.

But the phenomenon of that random “click”……that tremor……that instantaneous recoil of the trigger finger to click-on-through was what has recently struck me as the problem.

Every writer needs an editor, at least one, maybe many more in some cases. And I would suppose editors; on-line publication editors in particular, assist with titles more than most. It’s all about the “clicks”. Those pesky EMMA-tracked clicks, and opens, and non-opens, and trends, and troughs, that are carefully scrutinized by denizens in the dark to process the soylent green currency that all business and hence all editors and by extrapolation, all writers, need to live.

But are we as a society, as a world, as humans, ceding our ability to think to something I call the Clickitization of Culture?

I worry that our swirling miasma of a world, often seeming to circle the drain of some giant, sucking, vortex, will be swallowed alive without a whimper into the black hole of the daily 24 hour news cycle and vanish from the radar screens of attentive, intellectual, reality.

Unless it’s picked up by the Clickosphere where suddenly, like primitive protoplasm that once laboriously crawled and inched into life forms hither-to-fore unheard of, these scorching, sarcastic, judgmental, new lives that they will take on become loud, screeding, must-be-heard-NOW entities that are again, clickitized into amplified and noxious forms of their previous, just formed amoebic selves.

As Alice in Wonderland once said, “How quickly things come and go in this place”.

It would seem that Lewis Carroll’s almost 200 year old wisdom is more true today than even when he was au courant and, today, his characters are so much more immediately resonant.

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” How true, Queen of Hearts.

Jon Ward quotes Newsom; “Top-down, bureaucratic, hierarchical government [is] choking our democracy,” Newsom writes in his new book Citizenville: “We need to allow people to bypass government … to look to themselves for solving problems rather than asking the government to do things for them. “Government is the ultimate monopoly,” he writes at another point. “And monopolies, as any economist will tell you, often breed complacency and a lack of innovation.”

Yes its “rightish” sounding and thus frenzied fodder for the Rights to feast upon but it’s really more “right-mindish sounding” in this writer’s mind. A conundrum not unlike the Caterpillar’s;

“How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another.”

From one click to another we are never sure what we are going to be…….next. We have a new fungibily of nature that allows us to run through the stages of metamorphosis at lightning speed without ever being truly exposed to the actual forces of nature that are needed to gently, yet firmly, mold new life forms.

Click. I’m different.

Click. I used to think that. Now I think this. All this change without the twinned forces of Darwinism and Fresh Air.

Alice asks the Cheshire Cat:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends on where you want to get to.” replies said Cat.

Says Alice in return “I don’t much care…”

Aha. The crux of the matter.

We, having ceded the parts of our brains that reason things thorough to conclusions that suit us, fit us, feel correct to us, to the one-click-wonderment of today’s media solutions “don’t much care” and, as such, are creatures wandering in a wonderland without a lot of innate directional sense….or sense of any kind.

Cheshire once more; “If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there”

Jon Ward again; “In Montgomery County, Maryland, just north of D.C., chief innovation officer Dan Hoffman said that the overwhelmingly Democratic county government has empowered him to put as much of its data into an “open data portal” and “see if someone builds an app for it.” Newsom’s critique of government’s failures and weaknesses dovetails with the narrative that some on the right are crafting to critique the Democratic Party and spark a revival of the moribund GOP. A loose coalition of thinkers — including Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs magazine, and Alex Castellanos, a veteran political consultant working on rebranding the GOP — have been busy promoting the idea of “reform conservatism.”

So the ultimate Democratic county opens their books and that’s suddenly such a radical idea that it becomes a Republican one? And isn’t “reform conservatism” going to be just another tool in the hatchet-wielding Cheney/Rumsfeldians quiver, used solely to sway the popular vote and, in the end, give the government back the power that frankly, both parties (whomever is in power at the time) want?

Back to Ward: “Levin and Castellanos, in particular, are each working independently to craft a way of talking about conservatism that can change perceptions of the right, even among those Americans who don’t pay close attention to politics. It’s a significant ingredient in the GOP’s hopes for resurgence. Their argument is that liberalism is a top-down, antiquated approach to modern governance. Devolving decision-making power and authority to local institutions is a better way, they say, to approach a technology-driven world that is increasingly complex, diverse and bottom-up.”

Not that Levin and Castellanos are wrong but the premise of their argument seems highly suspect to this writer because of the wellspring from which it flows; the editor of National Affairs and a “veteran political consultant working on rebranding the GOP”. At least Newsom, with his multi-generational foundations as a free thinker (his way-out-front and unapologetic support for gay marriage, AIDS research, and other social issues of note) comes to the fray with some actual experience running a sometimes garrulous but always-endearing city. These other guys are agendized at the outset.

Those of us who read, think, and struggle through the noisome ideology of today’s political realities to try and get to the actual facts would, if we’re honest with at least ourselves, agree that we, too, think the Tea Party has a point or two and that, heaven forbid, even the occasional Republican has moments of true humane clarity. But because of the one-click wonder of our digitized world we are not inclined to express our thoughts as anything other than a quick, click-through, survey that only continues to reinforce the instantaneous and ephemeral quality of our news and by extension, our newsmakers.

Clickitization. Quick, register that opinion and move on to the next throbbing headline so that we don’t fall behind in our mad, collective, rush to stay ahead.

Jon Ward; “Conservatives like Gingrich and Castellanos see Newsom as a prophetic voice who is ahead of the curve, whose ideas could help the Democrats if the party is wise enough to listen to him.”

In truth, Gingrich and his ilk see Gavin Newsom as a tool. One that, if they can’t convert him to carrying an “R” beside his name on the next ballot, at least they can coopt his message and make it their own and then bask in some sort of republicanish glow that they hope he will allow them to bathe in as he moves his own message forward. And move Mr. Newsom will. He has the right stuff.

Jon Ward: “The Democratic Party that Republicans need to fear is one led by Gavin Newsom,” Castellanos said in an email. “He’s the trifecta: a business guy who understands jobs and growth, thinks government ought to stay out of people’s bedrooms and also gets that old, top-heavy, model-T government isn’t often agile enough to tackle today’s complex social problems.”

Mock Turtle here: “Well, I never heard it before, but it sounds uncommon nonsense.”

Jon Ward; “Is there a bullshit translator?” Colbert asked Newsom. “What is ‘capacity’? What do you mean? Every one of these things could be carved on a stone and put in someone’s garden. You mean governmental bandwidth so that all of us can hyperlink our engagement to democracy? See? I can make this shit up, too.”

Far be it from me to….in this piece….take on Stephan Colbert as a source of actual news. That’s too tough a steak to chew on in one article but it does serve my point up with at least a serrated knife with which to slice it. Since when did comedians become the arbiters of actual news? The smarmy sarcasm that these comedic cabals spit out is merely another symptom of our general lack of ability, desire, and frankly access to digestible protein sources. Real News?

No, thanks.

I’ll click on comedian.

When asked if he wants government to be smaller, Newsom said he did not. “No, effective. Just effective,” he said. And Democrats, he added, “have the moral authority to drive those reforms,” while Republicans do not.

And this is where the rubber meets the Republican. Newsom is a Democrat with a Capital “D”. His lineage in that arena beats the Faux-Brahmin Bushes in theirs as well as any other comers. When he says “effective, not smaller”, he is truly espousing what all Big “D” Democrats believe, we are a large and quarrelsome country full of bloviating banter and rancorous rhetoric and we need the government to act as Camp Counselor to keep the playing field fair and make sure no one goes home to their family with a bloody nose from the play yard bullies that seem to always bray the loudest.

“Government doesn’t have to come up with new killer features on its own,” he writes. “It has to step aside and let others come up with them.”

Newsom comes from the original “County Seat” of collaboratism. Born and raised in San Francisco, a city that has always, of necessity, had to compromise to even exist and just up the road from Palo Alto where the building of empires upon borrowed ideas is the norm.

So how to deal with the madness of the new modemization?

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

I’ll stick with the Queen of Hearts.

OFF WITH THEIR HEAD(lines)!

 

Robby Sherwin is a writer who splits his time between Portland, OR and Key West. His roaming mind bounces off topics from politics to family. His past and future musings may be found on pdxwiz.wordpress.com

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