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So Much Diversion

Why do so many people feel they need for so much diversion? From what exactly do they need to be diverted? Is reality really so grim that we can’t face it head-on? Would we simply die of boredom or ennui if there were no competing, light narrative to distract us from the grim facts?

Maybe so. That would explain why nothing of substance seems to make it through the popular culture filters. Why do we still perform the music of Bach and Chopin hundreds of years after their deaths? Nothing has taken their place in terms of profundity and quality.

It’s obvious that the world is going downhill and quickly. Our rapid descent knows no precedence. There have been wars, famines, droughts and natural catastophes galore, but after a brief period of recovery, progress has continued. Not so now.

Now people are growing stupider by the hour and proud of it. Facts are scorned, while opinions of any kind are lauded. Opinions with no factual backing are celebrated and used as a basis for rapid action. Let’s tear down the careful work of centuries with a wave of one hand. Why? Why not? I’m of the opinion it’s a good idea, that’s why!

CELEBRITY PLASTIC SURGERY TRANSFORMATIONS

LET’S GO STEADY, ARNOLD STANG, 1945
Wally Cox, 1953

Debby Reynolds wanted to look like Joan Rivers in the worst way, so she went under the knife at the Plastic Surgeon to the Stars clinic on Rodeo Drive, and emerged looking just like Burt Reynolds. Such are the risks inherent in trying to hire someone to accomplish what Mother Nature couldn’t.

Arnold Stang was friends with Wally Cox who had once been Marlon Brando’s roommate when both were struggling actors in New York. Wally had once played a plastic surgeon in a TV drama on Playhouse 90, and after a night of heavy drinking, Arnold persuaded Wally to take a scalpel and turn him into Marlon Brando.

When Arnold looked into the mirror the next morning, he was amazed. Marlon Brando was looking back at him. It wasn’t just Marlon Brando but a younger, better-looking Brando. Wally joined AA the next day, vowing to never pick up a scalpel again.

Donna Reed wanted to look like Eddie Van Halen, and ended up the spitting image of Florence Henderson, who then took her to court for identity theft and lost. The judge had just been on an elevator with two Sigourney Weavers and found the experience life-affirming. Case dismissed.

My Big, Fat, Pointless Vocation

fiction

I’ve been under the impression that they’re going to let me out soon, any day now, but each day that goes by I find that’s not the case. The administrators and supervisors who could or should know, avoid me when they see me in the hallways.

When they brought me here, they lavished me with praise. I was the kind of young man they wanted. My vocation was immediately apparent. It would be an insult to God and a grave mistake for me to squander such an opportunity to serve Him.

As time went on, their enthusiasm waned. I was no longer the idea candidate. Other boys came and went, but I remained, having been thoroughly charmed by their appraisal of my gifts. Boys like me were the reason this place existed. I was their walking mission statement.

My original mentor, Father Pretorious, a kindly old man with rheumy eyes and a long gray beard never gave up on me, but after he died, it was sort of like I ceased to exist. I was now more of a ghost than he. My name was rarely mentioned in our institutional newsletter. True, I still taught classes, but my name did not appear in the course directory. The instructor for the sections I ended up teaching was listed only as “staff.”

They’ve cut back on food, both in variety and portion size. I’m always a little bit hungry, which makes me edgy and nervous. My old well-fed self was lethargic and complacent compared to the new skinny me, the one that dreams about donuts and ice cream.

Ours is no longer a religious institution. For a while we were a “benevolent society” but now we’re not even that. We’re just a vocational school, the kind for people who don’t plan on attending college. Shoe repair is no longer a popular line of study, but writing cellphone apps and graphic design are in demand.

We all wear the same uniform, dark blue pants and matching shirt that make us look like warehouse workers or bus drivers. Even the women wear pants. No hint of style or glamor, no opportunity for self-expression. We are all the same. Drones.

They have given me a group of younger boys, pre-teens, whom I mentor. We all wear hush puppies, soft, effeminate shoes with crepe soles, as well as polyester shirts that cause our underarm odor to fester and increase in potency. Since my superiors chose these garments, I know they are deliberately trying to ensure our lack of success with women. None of this is accidental. We have been given copies of old Superman comics to study and hopefully incorporate into our lifestyle. I was instructed to encourage us to emulate Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen, the cub reporter with no ego and little “on the ball.” We are well-intentioned yet impotent just like Jimmy.

We had a “rap session” in the “dugout” one night, and some of the boys thought we would do better to model ourselves on Jughead of the Archie comics, or Mayard G Krebs from the Dobie Gillis TV show. But I sensed danger. My superiors would be threatened by such eccentricity, such quirkiness. Jimmy Olsen was a safe conformist, while Maynard G. Krebs was a unpredictable beatnick. This school had no use for rebels of any kind.

We were recently brought to a conference room in the administration wing and told that our program had proved so successful that we were being sent abroad, to share the secrets of our success with orphans in Borneo. Since none of us knew how to find Borneo on the map, we were shown a brief travelogue produced by Lowell Thomas in the 1950’s. It looks like the kind of place where people wear bones in their noses. The boys looked uneasy. I tried to smile and project confidence.

“How many orphans do they have in Borneo?” I asked, just to appear proactive.

“A lot. Tens of thousands. Nobody there feels they can adequately support their children, so they hand them over for adoption as soon as they can walk.”

The boys looked at me with increasing concern. By now I was grinning like an idiot.

They had us pack and await further instructions. Within a few hours we were in a van heading toward the airport, within a day and a half we were on the tarmac at the Sarawak International airport, waiting for another van to take us to the orphanage. By now our cheap, permanent press shirts were drenched with sweat, or Hush Puppy soles melting into the hot asphalt. No longer smiling, I was simply making a brave face. Like Magellan or Cortez, my first job was to project authority and confidence.

Borneo was completely unlike Central Missouri. It was, first of all, hot. Hotter and muggier than the hottest July day back where we came from. The bugs were very large, the size of sparrows. Hardly anyone spoke English. We were taken to a dormitory on an institute of some kind, but the place seemed to be closed for the season. The swimming pool had been drained. The lawns were unkempt. The building itself smelled like phenol, a disinfectant used in some parts of the world instead of chlorine.

Each of us was assigned a very large room. Back at the school, we had slept twelve to a room in a dormitory, but here we were astounded to find such luxury. Each room had its own bathroom, again something that seemed incredible compared to the shower down the hall we had endured for years. The bathrooms contained a large porcelain covered copper bathtub, big enough for three people. On the other hand, there was no “hot” water tap. Maybe in this climate, hot water would have been a punishment instead of a luxury.

As the days dragged on, we waited for instructions. What was expected of us? Our meals were announced by a bell rung at 8, 12 and 5. There was a library full of dusty books written in Indonesian. Other than that, when it came to entertainment we were on our own. A crew of cleaning women attended to our wing, but they would not look any of us in the eye, and slumped over in an attempt to make themselves even smaller than they were when one of us passed by.

Finally, after five days, we were invited to meet the Head Master in the Main Lounge, and were taken by an open-air bus to another building. The moment we entered through the automatic sliding doors we were delighted to be greeted by air-conditioning. It is only after deprivation that we really appreciate what we’ve taken for granted.

The Head Master was a very tall man with an extremely bushy head of snow-white hair. He seemed alternately nice and scary. He spoke English with a strange accent, maybe Dutch. He spoke for an hour, and I don’t think I was alone in not getting much out of it. Maybe we were too jet lagged, or maybe he simply wasn’t making sense. Either way, it didn’t seem to matter. We were here. It was hot. Those were the facts.

Later on, I was to find that our job was to educate a class or orang-outangs who had been taught elementary English. As difficult as this was to comprehend much less believe, it turned out to be fact. This is why we had been brought here. Great effort had been made to take these apes from the wild and teach them to speak at the level of the average eight-year-old. Our employers had hopes of getting at least some of them to graduate from University.

It turns out that they had been giving the apes high doses of LSD since they were babies, then forcing them to watch English-language movies on YouTube. If they watched an entire film, they were allowed to eat. Pretty soon the group had seen every talking picture in the public domain made. Some could even pull off vocal impressions of Edward G Robinson, Cagney and Jimmy Stewart. Our Christmas show featured two orang-outangs bringing to life the famous scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” where George Bailey tells Mister Potter that he doesn’t want the job he’s been offered, and calls Potter a “a warped, frustrated old man.” You haven’t lived until you’ve seen an auburn-haired orang-outang doing a Jimmy Stewart impression deliver that speech.

Some of the apes progressed faster than the others. They asked me if I could help them form a poetry study group. They wanted to start with Milton and progress on through the Victorian poet Tennyson. I did my best to give them some background on Milton, his blindness, and his becoming England’s first poet Laureate. They were impressed by the scope and complexity of Paradise Lost. I asked them why they ignored Wordsworth and Coleridge. They shrugged and said they found them mediocre at best. For two months we slowly read through as much of Paradise Lost as we could. They especially liked Satan’s comment “I would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

Tennyson really caught their imagination with Idylls of the King. They ended up liking him more than Milton, and were enraptured by the many images evoked by the Arthurian legend. They wept when Arthur bade his loyal friend Sir Bedivere throw the sword back into the lake and then depart. The brightest ape said that Arthur’s line “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of” gave him goosebumps.

The apes were curious about world travel. How does Malaysia compare to Vietnam? They had heard that Thailand discriminates against apes, and that they would simply be imprisoned in a zoo instead of accepted into a University. The brightest ape wants to receive a doctorate and become a professor. I tried to encourage him, because affirmative action would allow him to garner a tenure-track faculty position, even though as a white male I had never been able to do so in the twenty-five years I applied for such jobs.

I asked the apes if they were lonely, if they missed their fellow apes. They could not understand my question. “What would anyone miss about apes?” they asked. “We have already experience everything there is to know about apes.” I told them about my feelings of homesickness after moving across the world.

They laughed and said “But the opportunities here are so much more important than the momentary discomfort you might feel after arrival.” I had to admit they were making sense.

It turned out that the apes were immune to religion. The idea of making up facts in order to satisfy emotional urges seemed laughable to them. I began to think they were smarter than us. Much smarter.

So when I was called back to Missouri as a punishment for encouraging our students to think for themselves, I was puzzled. Hadn’t they known about the great intelligence of the orang-outangs when they brought my group to Indonesia? Maybe not. Perhaps they had assumed they were primitive apes covered in red fur who could become an attraction at an Ozark petting zoo.

After Boreno, I found Missouri horribly depressing. Back at our school, smug men in crew cuts lectured me on patriotism and laughed at my artistic and literary pretensions. It was good old boy central, white male anti-intellectuals who ran everything and intended to keep it that way. It was their way or the highway.

The boys in my care had been reassigned to a Christian mission in Sarawak, and were forbidden to communicate with me. Although I am not being held prisoner here, I will not leave until I have formed a plan of action.

First I have to find some shoes. Something more durable than these damn hush puppies.

Waiting for the Saucer

It’s after midnight but they still haven’t arrived. I’m getting sleepy but am determined to stay awake until the saucer lands. They cautioned me it won’t make a sound, but I might feel a rush of wind and smell ozone. The ship itself won’t be terribly bright, just a burnt orange glow. If you’re looking right at it you’d see it, but then why would you be looking in my yard in the middle of the night?

So far I’m the only one in my family who takes this seriously. I’ve been packed and ready to go for days now. My wife is unsympathetic. The kids can’t get bothered. Fine, let them stay. I’ve been ready for a change ever since I retired five years ago. There’s nothing I want here. Nothing at all.

The other retired guys all meet for coffee at the local supermarket coffee shop at six a.m. If they’d open the doors at five half of them would be there at that time. They talk about politics and sports. Their wives take a several table, but there aren’t as many of them as there are of us. I don’t know what the women talk about. Probably us.

The fact is, we’d all be thrilled if aliens really were taking an interest in us and wanted to take us away. Only I seem to have the faith. The others may follow as their hollow lives become even emptier. I have no interest in converting them to my faith. What’s in it for me? Where I’m going, I don’t need more friends from back home. They never did much for me in the past. No, I’m looking forward to transformation, to becoming somebody else entirely.

What will it be like to wake up my first morning on another world? Will be there one sun or two? Will the vegetation be completely different or just exotic? Will women find me attractive? Will I be attracted to them? Do they even have men and women, or do they lay eggs or give birth through a hole in their sides?

I’m sure it will be way different, but I find that prospect exciting. Anything but more of this same old same old. I figure if the saucer doesn’t land, I can always move across the world to some place like Mongolia or Tasmania. Things might be different enough there to stave off boredom for a few more years.

A few hours passed and the saucer landed. All that waiting made the landing itself seem anticlimactic. Once I was inside, we took off and were far away from Earth within a matter of minutes. For the first time in a long time, I began to relax and enjoy myself.

The saucer’s interior was decorated in 1960’s Bachelor Pad. Men with van Dyke beards smoked pipes. Women in capri pants, their hair in long pony tails lounged about, examining LP record album covers. There was an elaborate Hi-Fi sound system, though it was in mono, as there was only one speaker. We were listening to Miles Davis’ Kinda Cool. A man started reciting an improvised poem. A woman sang scat. I expected to see Hugh Hefner appear wearing a silk dressing gown and an ascot.

A bald and bearded professor type came over and started talking to me about music theory. He was explaining the concept of the Circle of Fifths in harmony, and how that could be applied in unusual time signatures, like 12/8. I pretended to understand what he was talking about, and nodded my head as he elaborated each point. Someone was burning incense. I thought I caught a whiff of ganja.

This was far from the sterile world I had come to expect thanks to all the movies I’d seen set in space ships. Maybe I would be able to fit in. I guess I had assumed that whoever these aliens were, they wouldn’t be much like us. At least from what I’d seen so far, I had to conclude I was wrong.

The women became more friendly towards me as our voyage continued. They seemed to find me “interesting.” As much as I enjoyed our conversations, I never gained much insight into their specific personalities. They were just pretty women with pony tails, being flirty in sort of a Junior High way.

I guess we were headed somewhere far away, for we were en route at least a week before we landed. I had hoped for a planet that was lush and verdant, sunny and full of fresh air. Instead, we emerged into a series of dimly-lit tunnels. As we were walking I asked the professor where these tunnels lead. “To other tunnels,” was his reply.

The first few days they took me to an institute of some kind, maybe a research university, where after a brief physical examination, they simply asked me questions. How did Bach’s music differ from Chopin’s? What was the radio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference? What is plutonium? Do most compounds exist in more than one state? How many apply to water? What was the first network situation comedy filmed instead of shot live? Where was it filmed? Why were so many early television shows based in New York?

I knew the answers to most of the questions they asked. Whether or not this impressed them I couldn’t tell, because they simply moved on to the next question. After three days of this, I was tired and told them so. I wanted to be shown their planet. This request confused them. “But this is our planet,” the replied.

So this was it. They lived in bunkers underground. And I thought my options were bleak back home.

I asked them what they did for fun. The replied they watched a lot of our television shows, but since the speed of light was only a measly 186,000 miles a second, they only now were getting the shows we had broadcast in 1957. They asked me who I preferred among newscasters, Douglas Edwards, Walter Cronkite or that new duo, Huntley and Brinkley.

I told them I was homesick and asked when the next saucer would leave headed back toward my home. They laughed nervously. I told them I was serious. They said they’d ask, but there was a big universe out there and they couldn’t guarantee the timing would suit me.

In the meantime, we could try collaborating on a TV show. In our interviews, I had mentioned that my earliest memories of being delighted by creativity and wit came from watching Steve Allen on the Tonight Show. I told them I had always hoped I could have a show like that, and improvise as effortlessly as Steve Allen had. They proposed that we do such a show, and went so far as to buy me some over-sized glasses that resembled those worn by Mister Allen and Roy Orbison, for that matter. I would interview a bevy of pony-tailed starlets with names like Gigi, Gidget and Brigette, as well as some bearded hipsters named Dirk, Bret and Clay. We could talk about upcoming movies and hit records we were excited about, even though there were no such products. I’m not sure they even had television on this planet, but they did have a way of storing our performances.

They gave me a piano onstage which I could pretend to play, while they piped in Bill Evans performing in his unique style.

We made five, one-hour shows, and I became more and more comfortable playing the role of TV talk-show host. In the course of my conversation with these faux starlets and stars, I learned:

That the surface of this planet was a radioactive wasteland, the result of an unfortunate nuclear war that took place years ago.

That the forms my hosts had assumed for my sake came from their study of our planet, but in actuality they were a green, bubbling foam that rose a few inches when it got excited and then settled down to being a slimy carpet.

That they couldn’t guarantee me that upon return I would find the Earth at the same era it was when I left. Time was a slippery thing across great distance. Celestial navigation was both an art and a science. Fortunately, my memories were equally likely to become foggy and vague, and if we did return at a different time, it would be sort of like an alcoholic coming out of a blackout and having to buy a newspaper to find out the date.

But I was willing to risk it all just to get home.

Happiness is a Choice

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their mind to be. This was said by Abraham Lincoln, a major depressive who had good cause for grief, but slogged along until someone put a bullet in his head at the age of 56.

We’d rather believe that conditions outside us determine our emotional state. Nothing could be further from the truth. “If only I had…then I’d be happy” statements abound, especially in a world saturated with commerce and advertising.

Again, it’s a lie, although a convenient one. It spawns all sorts of spending and getting, grasping and discarding, hours of longing and days of remorse.

There’s a period Freud called “latency” which occurs just before adolescence kicks in. Children in this blissful state are not yet preoccupied with being popular or attractive. They are no longer babies, yet not yet teenagers. Their bodies have not yet begun to grow in surprising spurts, and by the most part they aren’t awkward. Even though they don’t know it, they are going through a very lucky period that, unfortunately, doesn’t last long.

Apparently, Abraham Lincoln was renowned for his ugliness. He was often compared to an ape. It doesn’t seem he let that fact overly discourage him. It must have taken a certain amount of self-esteem to successfully run for President.

Hopefully, he made up his mind to be as happy as he wanted to be in the time he had. He was a damn good writer. Wrote the Gettysburg address on the back of an envelope on his way to the event. At the actual ceremony, almost nobody heard him give his short speech, for Stephen Douglas who went on before him had spoken for more than an hour, and the crowd was exhausted. In fact, a lot of people didn’t even realize Lincoln was speaking, as there were no public address sound systems at the time. It was only when the newspapers printed his speech the following day that it attracted attention.

Ready to Go Again

fiction

OK, so I’m ready to start working again. I got everything fixed that was broken. I’m rested and able to concentrate again. It’s been a while since that was the case, but I remember what it feels like to have use of all my faculties. People who think there’s something interesting about insanity have never been insane. Those of us who have been there and back know there’s nothing more frustrating than trying to get somewhere by fighting delusion.

We take the ability to think for granted until that ability disappears and is replaced by the ability to make stuff up in order to fill the void left when reason ran for cover. It’s a war, and both sides lose. Nobody comes out on top. As both commanding officer and foot soldier, I know what it’s like to wait for reinforcements that never arrive. Surrendering to the winning side seems like a good idea until you realize there are no victors, only casualties. The General has shit himself and the infantry refuses to leave the foxhole.

There can be no victors in such a situation. Suicide seems like an option. Having fought the good fight, bowing out gracefully could be see as courage. When you find yourself looking down at a hundred foot drop, a voice in your head whispers “jump.” So far I have resisted these voices and they’re strident demands. I sometimes worry that I will become too weak to do so.

My doctors devised a special magnetic cap for me to wear that brings me some comfort. It is basically an a rubber shower cap with disc magnets glued to the outside. The thirty dime-sized discs are powerful enough to reach through my skull and into my brain. If I wear a hat, it’s barely noticeable. I can also use a wig to hide the magnetic cap. I find that when I wear it I am able to think clearly and remain calm. I am able to focus.

Without it, I can be fine for a while but then I spiral down into anxiety and paranoia. The voices in my head become louder, more demanding, and critical of everyone I meet. They invite me to think that I am being denied the honors and comforts due me, that I can’t trust anyone to wish me well, and that my main role in this life is to point out what’s wrong with others. This is no recipe for peace of mind. It does not lead to a contented life.

In some places and at some times they called my condition an “artistic temperament.” Some wind up being praised for their sensitivity, and are called “geniuses.” Others of us wind up institutionalized, given a diagnosis and labeled that way for the rest of our lives. It all depends on the luck of the draw. If your artistic temperament threatens someone in a position of power, that person will find a way to have you diagnosed and diminished. Maybe that’s why I am where I am today.

I am a prophet, a poet, a priest. I see what others cannot. Even with my eyes closed, the images come, sometimes with astounding clarity.