Change Day

Sometimes, when all I’m hoping for is the oblivion of sleep, into my mind come memories that bring to mind a story about Tolstoy.  He told his brother to sit in a corner from which he was not allowed  to move until he could avoid thinking about a white bear for five minutes.  He was finally freed from this obligation because from that point forward, he could think of nothing but white bears, and Tolstoy finally had to release him.  My own torment is recurring memories of the worst cruelties, deliberate or accidental, that I have witnessed during my long life.  I can’t remember how this got started, or how it was grooved in so deeply.  I won’t list those memories lest my poison be duplicated in your mind.

I have finally learned, when this happens, to replace those horrible thoughts with my imagining of five young raccoons playing in a tree.  They are gleeful, chasing one another around the tree trunk.  They are altogether in the moment: purely existential .  This image allows me to find my blissful escape.

The story is also an example of the curse and blessing of imagination.  Would we be better off if we simply had hardly any ability to imagine?  The idea’s not worth spending a lot of time on, I suppose, since it involves pointless speculation.  Anyhow, I see it (imagination) as arriving, along with language and other useful stuff, when a (convoluted) cerebral cortex provided us with some excess capacity.  If we reached an earlier end because we lacked foresight, would it be a worthy tradeoff because of all the worry, and the regret, it had cost us in the meantime?

Jesus said, “take no thought for the morrow.”  Another one of his ideas that was impractical.  Can’t be done.  (Try it, and some equivalent of Tolstoy’s white bear will immediately appear.)  He was the idea man.  It’s up to us to be the pragmatists, to separate the wheat from the chaff as he liked to say.  I actually very much liked the compassionate part of him:  “Treasure the little children.  Be kind to people.  Don’t be so judgmental.  Don’t be greedy.  Give away your surplus.”  Don’t forget, that was 2,000 years ago.  He was an advanced member of his species for back then.  If he had lived until now, all the while working on his character development, I’ll bet he would have helped even more along the way.  “Stop treating the women like cows.  Acknowledge your slaves’, and everyone else’s, right to a fair chance to become what they are able to become.”  And now, “If you can’t stop obsessing about Bible verses, burn the damn thing.  Stop beating up homosexuals.  Stop with the self-deception.  In short, figure out what it means to grow up, and go there.”

When he resembles a modern-day Rabid Babdist, or gets off into his schizo supernaturalism, that’s chaff – the part that needs burning off. By the way, I have repeatedly pointed out to “Christian” fundamentalists, when I still had some contact with them, something that seems undeniable to me.  If any are reading this now (doubtful), they should stick their fingers in their ears and shout LA LA LA LA LA as loudly as possible, just for a minute.  Ready?  Go.

Jesus was a communist.  Nice guy, but screwy.

OK, as you were.  I can cite numerous chapters and verses – normally their forte.  But I’m sure you’ve noticed:  The doctrines of the doctrinaire are covered with an impermeable Teflon coat.  Impermeable even to their own usual ammunition – chapter and verse.  Another idea he had sounds right, and is in fact, universally praised. But it doesn’t withstand scrutiny – the Golden Rule.  Muslims have a similar rule.  Jews too.  It’s in its corollary where the trouble comes.  The idea about turning the other cheek – repeatedly!  You’d soon find yourself slapped silly.  Well, I’m not up for that, and neither is anybody else.  The reason it worked for a short time for Gandhi and MLK is that they were appealing to a big part of their societies that was already (sort of) civilized, to assert control over those who were less so.  You can think, yourself, of a hundred places even today where following it would lead directly to awful slaughter.

The real world demands the Bronze Rule.  Bronze isn’t as shiny as gold.  But it’s not as soft either.  It’s pretty tough.  The Rule actually starts the same – be nice to everybody.  If they’re nasty in return, though, comes the rub:  Smack them between the eyes – hard.  In the natural world, this is called reciprocal altruism.  Game theory indicates how it must have evolved.  The Golden Rule doesn’t exist in nature.  (If it had it would have been called “altruism for dummies,” and would rapidly have become extinct.)

Long before I had a name for the idea, or even understood it, I was led instinctively to try it to defend myself.  I had discovered a sad thing about human nature.  I was then, and still am, a nice person.  Most people never see another part of me:  the part that resembles the snake on the Revolutionary War flag, who says “Don’t tread on me.”  Unspoken:  “I will bite you.  You won’t like it.”  (I was to use that slogan, six years after the event I will describe here, in successfully defending myself against an Army court martial for insubordination.)  When someone decides to return nasty for nice (because he think nice guys must be saps), I lose my temper, and try to tear him a new ass hole, no holds barred.  Try not to form a mental picture of this:  I do it with my mouth.  I am especially well-equipped for this – I have a deep understanding of the human, and an outstanding ability with the language.

I insist that I am to be excused for noticing these abilities.  I began life in a very deep pit.  When I discovered that nobody I knew (at that point, the Rabid Babdists) actually had any idea what they were talking about, even though they said it with complete assurance, I decided I was going to have to figure things out for myself; and that to avoid deceiving myself as badly as I had been deceived by others, I had to demand of myself brutal honesty – about my defects, but also my virtues.  (Fundamentalists are amazingly adept at the three bad habits of the mind that I have come to detest:  rationalization, self-deception, and failing to sufficiently imagine the consequences of their nasty proposals – for instance, hell.)  I did emerge from the pit.  The fact that my siblings did not gives me no bragging rights, though.  Their handicaps were varied, but greater in each case than my own; and my advantages were greater as well.

I need to describe the pit, I think, even though this will be a recap of what I’ve written elsewhere:

My mother was schizophrenic, and had been twice taken away to the Elgin State Insane Asylum.  (They didn’t have euphemisms like “mental health” then.)  She had received “shock treatments,” and I could tell from her brief, evasive answers that she had been somehow deeply humiliated, so I felt that too, for her.  When I was small I could already tell that she would never be able to protect us from anything.

My father was the town drunk.  We lived in the town, a Chicago suburb, over the Chinese hand laundry, and our summer playground was the downtown streets.  I have seen him in the town, drunk, his glasses broken, nose cut, blood streaming down his face, with Clark Scurrah, the town cop, helping him get home.  I was eight when he was taken for the second time to Manteno State “to dry out,” and we were taken to a Catholic orphanage 75 miles away in Freeport – which might as well have been in Alaska, since we had never owned a car.  We got out when he died, when I was ten.  My oldest brother and my sister, then 16 and 15, were offered the chance to return to the orphanage after the funeral.  They went.

I found descriptions in Wikipedia of the two institutions, in the forties when my parents were in and out of them, written by former members of the staffs.  Their memories may be tainted by now, but the places sounded like two similar versions of Bedlam:  the urine smell, stained walls and floors, psychotic shrieking through the night… medieval, brutal concepts of treatment… I imagined that the sheer terror of returning might have caused my mother to feign sanity if she could, and my father to momentarily achieve sobriety.


 You can get “Weep for Jamie” for your ring tone.  (Madness already.  A song for insanity, bleating from your cell phone.)  Read the lyrics.  Glimpse the horror of madness from the inside as Paul Stuckey, its author, was somehow able to do.  Weep and pray.  Weep and pray.  (There will be no answer.  I am truly sorry.)  I think my parents lived in this land.  I try to imagine having all my five children taken beyond my reach because I have been judged incompetent.  Their shame, because of the contempt with which they were regarded, because of their appearance, their behavior, and their living in squalor; and then, losing their children.

The other side of Jamie’s door is aching loneliness.
One, two, three, four.
She dances with the ancient fears,
with porcelain smiles and wetless tears.

Weep for Jamie –
for the bones that tear at her flesh inside.
Weep for Jamie –
She lives in the land where her father died.

Don’t try to answer her helpless call;
She can’t hear your words; she hears nothing at all.
With no tomorrow promised by today,
She’s the child of emptiness, and yesterday.

I’ll sing you one, of a song without an end;
I’ll sing you two, of a tree that cannot bend;
I’ll sing you three, of a womb that never filled,
Of the fourth deepest wound, and the love that it killed

Now, I can weep for my parents, as I could not when they died.  For them death must have been a grace.  Now, I understand a little.  Just a little, I know, but it may be as close as I’ll ever get.  This is a human flaw, but perhaps a necessary flaw, if we are to survive.  Oh, oh, oh, oh

I find my tears are for more – something vast and ineffable, that I will never comprehend.  Maybe this is my own small madness.  I feel deep exhaustion for having dug in this earth here.

And should I apologize, for startling even myself by suddenly tumbling into this maudlin world?  I will not.  Everything is necessary.


 A lot of other stuff happened to me before I went to work on the midnight shift in the Wheaton post office when I was 18 – a predatory pedophile named John Traber, an uninsured house that burned, visceral fear of the mortal cold that was our companion all winter, my mother leaving when I was 16 – while I was blindly groping, trying to find my way.  But those early years were the most mortifying.  I remember people looking at me with undisguised contempt.  I’ll never forget it.  Some people will show that, when they know no one is watching: a shameful, reptilian hatred of the helpless.

I was still totally naive about some things – well, about girls!  But in a  deep sense I had indeed become an Old Soul.

Philip Larkin* can have the last word:  “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.  They may not mean to, but they do.”  That could be my parents’ epitaph:  “They didn’t mean to do it.  But they did.”  (The rest of that poem is well worth the read.  You could look it up!)

* Larkin was no guttersnipe.  He would have been England’s poet laureate, except that he turned it down.

The pst office job was more than I had dreamed of before then, because of the size of the paycheck.  I know how silly that must sound, but it was so.  My earlier environment had been religious – a Baptist church, and work in a local publisher of Sunday School literature.  I had recently and rapidly become skeptical of those religious, but I was indeed still a goody-two-shoes.  I was entering a tight group of six guys who worked all night, alone together, and had a very cynical attitude about their townload of religious fanatics – Wheaton, the Rome of Fundamentalism, whose college was Billy Graham’s alma mater.

What I was subjected to initially was nothing as respectable as hazing.  It was simply nastiness, in which my co-workers encouraged one another.  “I bet you wouldn’t say ‘shit’ if you had a mouthful.”  This was true.  I thought a lot about it afterwards, of course.  But it was meant to hurt, and it did.  “Wanna see a picture of my sister?”  Eagerly:  “Sure!”  So Charlie flops out a Playboy centerfold.  See the boy turn pink.

I was pretty meek about it.  I knew it was meant to sting, but I sort of understood why they would be annoyed at someone like me.  For one thing, I had already read some Steinbeck, Dickens, and Frost by then, and was getting an idea about very different points of view.  On my own hook I had begun to feel contempt for that same religious stink that they were mocking in me.  And I was very interested in pictures of naked girls – it’s just that until then I’d been extremely furtive about looking at them on the rare occasions when I found them!

We sat in a row, on stools facing our mail cases.  Just as in an orchestra there’s a “first trumpet” position, our row had a “first stool”!  A fat old guy in suspenders occupied this preeminent spot, by virtue of his seniority and his intimate familiarity with the nuances of the “city scheme” according to whose rules we sorted the mail for the carriers who would arrive in the morning.  We called him Bud.  His bulb did not shine very brightly among us.

I suppose he wanted to be a player in this game of putting down the sissy, and because he was an old timer he knew something none of the others would know.  One night he said loudly, “I knew your old man.  He was the town drunk.”

There.  He had breached my flimsy, newly-built defenses; but my civilized veneer also slipped – and fell.

You should understand that I had spent a huge amount of time by then trying to interpret what I could from that uninterrupted string of calamities that was my childhood.  I had come to realize that I didn’t feel the need, desire, or obligation to defend anyone in my family, who were by then scattered to the four winds.  (My father was eight years dead.)  I also knew that Bud had just said something that he believed would inflict a terrible further wound in me.  This was different from what the others had done.  He had no reason to doubt that his thrust might go undefended deep into my guts, and hurt me terribly.

But I was suddenly enraged beyond all reason.  Possessed.  The meekness left me.  It was as though a spring had been coiled relentlessly in me for 18 years, and Bud had pulled its trigger.  It was poised to unfurl itself violently.

I went to stand beside his stool and stared at him for a good while.  I examined him from top to bottom while I thought.  He sensed at that moment, I think, that a new tune had begun to play.  A game he did not know was already underway, and he was going to get hurt.  In his enthusiasm to sting me, he had made a mistake.

“So, Harold.”  I had never heard anyone call him Harold.  (It means “heroic leader.”)  Quite simply, I wanted to tear his guts out.  He continued sorting letters – faster.  “Yeah, my father was the town drunk.  He’s dead, you know.  It turns out that I don’t feel responsible for who he was.  Here’s my idea:  I’ll be responsible for who I am, and you be responsible for who you are.  I have some suggestions for you about that.  You should lose weight.  It’s bad for you to be so fat, and besides, you look ridiculous waddling around here in your suspenders.  You look like Tweedle Dum.

“And does May have to clean up after you when you shit yourself?  I know you do.  I can smell it sometimes by morning.  Probably you don’t have tight control of your anal sphincter, because you’re getting old.  I think it would help if you drank less coffee.”  A wickedness of my own.

Harold had not spoken.  But he now had his new ass hole.  I returned to my stool to resume sorting letters, but thinking furiously.  I had made only a short speech, but there was a sea change in our little group.

The world changes.  Six years later I invited Bud and May to my wedding.  They came, and brought a gift.  This pleased me.

The others came to like me, and I them.  They discovered that I pulled my weight, and was reliable.  As I had not essentially changed, they had simply had to abandon their initial bias, and look.  As I was to discover repeatedly for the rest of my life, the emotional pain that each of us had felt to varying degrees that night had been unnecessary, the meanness misguided and needlessly destructive.

I carried my intellect, my highly volatile emotions, and my language skills into the rest of my life, and walked through more infernos, as everyone has who has managed to get old. I have since fallen three times into a frightening, perilous abyss of despair.  But on that day in the post office my life perceptibly changed.  A small roadside bomb had detonated, and knocked my life into a slightly different trajectory.  I found some dignity, and my integrity, and grew fiercely protective of them, maybe because for eighteen years I had lived life without them.  They were for me pearls of great price.  Once I was in possession of them, I never surrendered them.

 I am old now, and must be somewhere near my end; and reviewing my life, I am content; possessed, certainly, of a well-honed sense of irony.  Years ago Barb Melton told me, in the way of a confession and an apology, that, because of my stories about my life, she had thought me a compulsive liar; but she had just met someone who had known my family!  People who know me now may think me capricious, cavalier, a little vulgar occasionally, and an apostate.  Two acquaintances separately accused me just recently of being naive, because I have grown unusually benevolent and trusting, and make a lot of jokes.  “Well…” I think, “I could tell you some stories…”


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