JUST ANOTHER CROAKING FROG

Do most people think before they speak? I sure don’t. Whatever comes out of my mouth is a complete surprise to me. The same goes for my writing. My fingers do the talking and I’m just along for the ride. Sometimes I can type more quickly than I can read, so it’s all news to me.

You might call this a gift, but it could as easily be seen as a curse. What one person calls “inspiration” another might deem “delusion” or “compulsion.” I can just see me in court saying “your Honor, I had no idea what I was typing.”

Nobody reads anymore, and for people like me that’s a good thing. My literary output joins the stream of detritus that flows day and night without pause through social media platforms. I tend to favor offbeat subject matter. Routine politics bores me, but the chance that Joan Rivers is still alive or Hillary is an alien seems reasonable to me. I mean, really, who knows for sure?

How can you be charged with a premeditated crime if you never plan anything ahead of time? Non compos mentis is my alibi. I’m just another frog in the pond, croaking away on the chance that another frog is listening.

MUCH ADO ABOUT CLARA

FIFTEEN AND IN LOVE WITH LIFE

Clara was a sleepy girl, often timid, and mainly waiting for someone to want her. She could not imagine why a boy or man would desire her, but knew that in the natural order of things these things happened all the time, so she had a chance. Once he wanted her, it would be nothing at all for her to want him back. Find him would take some time, but once he was found, that would be the end of the search.

She practiced being pleasant at all times, and feigning interest in even the most pompous of bores. She could look you right in the eye and tune you out, thinking about something else entirely. Even nodding in the right places came naturally, as a sort of musical rhythm thing. Talk talk talk nod. All the while she would maintain eye contact, but through the gift of inattention, not see or hear a thing being said.

She had also mastered the art of repeating the last word you said, as if contemplating the deeper meaning of it.

Her only exercise regimen was swimming, but as regimens go, that was the best. Hard to injure yourself swimming. Despite her lack of rigor or ambition, she found that she became better at it over time, and it was an excellent way to develop her body physically. Inside she was a poet, but on the outside, an athlete.

Fifteen was an exciting age to be alive. Everything was changing so quickly! Like many her age, she was in love with love itself. Romantic love, love of Beauty, God, Animals, Nature, and on occasion, all mankind. One night she stayed up all night just to see what it would be like. When winter turned to spring and then summer, she took it personally. A June morning could be so full of portent and meaning it was like being punched in the stomach. She gasped for breath at all the beauty, drowning in sensory overload.

When one of her classmates was discovered to have super glued her upper lip back to make it look fuller, Clara understood. It took a visit to the doctor to have it unglued. Some snickered, but Clara considered it a courageous act, a nervy experiment. You do what you have to do to feel fully alive. Nothing to be ashamed of there.

Sometimes at night when she found it difficult to fall asleep, she entertained a waking dream, a long fantasy about her and a group of friends washed up on a tropical island. There were two cute boys and some awful girls who the boys avoided because they were both in love with Clara. It didn’t matter how long it took to finally fall asleep, because the long, delicious fantasy in which Clara wondered which boy’s love to accept made the interval between hitting the sack and falling asleep a pleasurable one.

Clara’s Mother’s Diary

I’m worried about Clara. Half the time it’s like she’s on another planet. There’s no getting through to her. I asked the school nurse if she thought Clara might be on drugs but she said “no, she’s just fifteen.” I don’t think all fifteen-year-old girls are walking around in a daze, but maybe many of them are and I’m not close enough to them to see it.

I’ve asked her father to talk to her, but he says he can’t see the problem. He’s not around as much as I am, and when he comes home from work he just wants to watch television and relax. He and Clara watch TV together, but they don’t talk. I feel like I’m the only one who sees a problem here. Am I over-reacting?

Chad’s Diary

Clara smiled at me today, but then walked right past and started talking to some girls in our class. I thought I was going to faint when she looked right at me and smiled. She’s already beautiful, but when she smiles she’s even more so. She’s like a goddess! A superstar! And to think she smiled at me!

She wasn’t always this way. Last year, when we were fourteen, she wasn’t anything special. Like many of us, skinny and awkward. Of course, she had braces until halfway through the school year, and those make anybody look dorky.

Now she has grown into a mature woman, a powerful person who could be a movie star if she wanted. Clara has more going for than all the other girls in this school combined.

Natalie’s Letter to the School Nurse

Dear Miss Brooks. By now you are probably aware of Clara, the snob who pretends she is God’s gift to our school and the world in general. We other girls in her class see right through her little act, but the boys have been completely taken in by her and think she’s some kind of movie star. For the sake of our school and the children involved, please do something. I’m sure you can get Principal Stevens to listen to you, and if he wants to have a meeting with us, we’d be glad to.

Yours,

Natalie, Schuman, 10th grade A student

PRINCIPAL STEVENSONS’ REPLY

Dear Miss Schuman:

I spoke with your teacher Miss Brooks and in our conversation together we were unable to ascertain the exact nature of what offense you think Miss Englert is guilty. You say she is a “phony” and “all the boys have been taken in by her…little act,” but I am unaware of any violation of our school code of conduct this may entail.

While it is normal for girls in your age group to form “cliques” or groups of friends who are often tight-knit and critical of other cliques, this situation you describe demands neither disciplinary action nor medical intervention. So I think we will simply watch and wait for further developments.

John Stevenson

Principal

Chad’s Diary

I haven’t been able to sleep much. The last two nights I tossed and turned thinking about Clara. When I did dream, I dreamed about her, only she was not doing what I wanted her to do. She was ignoring me. She even laughed at my attempts to tell her why I care so much about her, and worship the ground she walks on. Is this normal? Do I need to be medicated?

I thought about talking to the school nurse because maybe she wouldn’t tell my parents. She also knows Clara and that might help her understand what I’m going through.

Chad’s Parents Respond to a Note From the School Nurse

Thank you for telling us about your visit with our son Chad. We want to make sure we’re not over-reacting, and we certainly don’t want to ignore this distress Chad is enduring. We will respect your wishes not to tell Chad that we’ve talked to you, or know that he sought your help.

This Clara girl seems to be a real character. She’s like a tornado roaring through the lives of her classmates. I suppose there’s nothing any of us can do to change her behavior, but we must say that it’s quite difficult for us to stand by helplessly watching our son suffer, and we’ve spoken to the parents of Natalie Schuman about what the other girls think of Clara. Again, we don’t want to make a bad situation worse or put fuel on the fire.

Clara Talks With the School Nurse

What’s everybody freaking out about? I don’t get it. I’m just being me, minding my own business, and people are going crazy to my right and to my left. Don’t they have any real problems they can deal with? I mean, get a life, people!

DEAD YET?

“Surely you can see him, hiding behind that bush. That big bush, near the wall. He’s looking back at us through binoculars. You can see the lens reflections when he scans the scene. There!”

Alton agreed that he could see the man hiding in the bushes.

“He thinks he has hope of escape, but he doesn’t. No hope at all.”

Alton didn’t know whether to be happy or sad that the man had no hope of escape. For that meant that he, Alton had no hope either.

“What’s the matter, you feeling sorry for that guy?”

“He’s just a kid. A teenager.”

“He’s one of them. They breed like rabbits. Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.”

Alton nodded, knowing that nothing he could say would change the man’s mind in the least.

They brought him in with a guided probe, and after the initial shock the man/boy offered no resistance. They tied his hands and feet with plastic tape and called in his location for the retrieval van. There was no hurry to pick him up. He had already stopped breathing.

When they got back to the barracks, Alton went to his bunk to be alone. He was realizing that his chances of escape were much lower than he had previously assumed. No one knew what happened to boys who suddenly weren’t around anymore, but there was a chance they hadn’t escaped, but were simply killed, or taken away in the middle of the night to some other place even more horrible than this one.

Before the mass conscription occurred, a lot of Alton’s friends and peers were enrolled in school. They weren’t exactly working hard, but they were occasionally applying themselves to their studies. All that came to a sudden end after the Easter Rising. The schools emptied overnight. Camps like this one took their place, constructed on vacant land that had once been the locations of factories which had closed many years ago. Nothing was made here any more. The only enterprise was the trading of services, health care, sex, market investing.

Alton had hoped to be a music teacher with a sideline in concert performing on the piano. There wasn’t a great deal of money to be made in this his chosen career, but it was something he was good at and enjoyed. Forced conscription ended all that. Now, just six months later, music seemed folly. Who cared about anything that didn’t result in profit or death?

TOO HOT

Somewhere near the Equator

It’s too hot to think. The rains come in relentless succession, a break of a few hours and then the sky darkens again. There’s no thunder or lightening, just a downpour, followed by hours of sprinkling. No wonder everything is so green.

All the food has spoiled. Even the rice has sprouted and the white beans have turned black.

There’s something odd about being hungry when you’re surrounded by fertility. Every other creature is well fed. Snakes, bugs, birds. And I’m getting thinner by the minute.

Not that losing weight is something I shouldn’t be doing. I admit it, I’m fat. Another few weeks of this and I’ll have to change my self image. I’ll surely have to change my pants and belt. Believe it or not, they sell American used clothes here. When Goodwill gives up on selling their donated clothing, they pack it into bales and ship it overseas to third-world countries like this. Most of the pants are too big in the waist and long in the leg for the locals. I’ve been buying good-quality canvas pants for less than a dollar for as long as I’ve been here. Seven years this month.

How was I to know that the government would turn against us? They used to welcome foreign retirees. Now they’re hunting us, tracking us down like arthritic prey. Losing weight has been a blessing for my knees. Suddenly, I’m spry as a fifteen-year-old. If this keeps up, I may take up jogging. Running for my life has been great training.

I used to have a lot of friends, all ex-pats like myself. We’d meet for coffee every morning and stay at the table for hours, complaining, bragging, scheming. Now there’s nothing to complain or brag about. We’ve all lost everything, and our only plans would involve getting back to somewhere safe. Or maybe I should say “safer.” I’m not sure anyplace is safe anymore.

Nobody wants migrants, unless they’re very rich. Even then, the host government will find some way to extract as much of that wealth as possible. When visa on arrival disappeared, I should have seen that as an omen. The next step down is for your home country to confiscate your passport. Your bank freezes your credit and ATM cards. Suddenly you’re nobody.

All these measures are justified as “security.” They’re only fighting terrorism, right?

Nobody wants poor people around, especially if they’re foreign poor people. It’s hard enough to tolerate your own citizens languishing in poverty, but some other countries’ citizens is more than you can take. Dirty, smelly, needy humans with nothing to offer. There are too many of them. They breed rapidly and harbor disease.

I’m not poor. In fact, thanks to my social security pension I’m better off than the vast majority of the local populace. But that’s not enough for the super rich who are in charge of this country. They want to court the super rich from other countries so they can have their impoverished country all to themselves.

I was thinking about my 401K account back in the States when the snake bit me. It was green and as big as a garden hose. It quickly bit me above the right ankle and then slithered away. It hurt, and I was startled by how suddenly it happened. I had not been expecting this. I guess I’m lucky it didn’t bite me again, or return to coil itself around my body and suffocate me, but then maybe it wasn’t that kind of snake.

I knew something was badly wrong when I began to lose all feeling below the knee. The numbness then spread above the knee, halfway up the thigh. I found that I could not easily walk, with the affected leg pretty much useless for propulsion. I looked around for a branch to use as a cane and found one that although too short, helped a little. Where should I go? I recall seeing a building a few minutes ago, behind me on the road in here. Maybe they could help me.

By the time I got back to the main road, the numbness had been replaced by searing pain and at least the illusion of heat. I became deeply frightened. Maybe this was it. All she wrote.

I lay down in the road, hoping that anyone driving by would see me before they ran over me. Suddenly I was very sleepy. I would close my eyes and rest a bit. When I had napped for a while, I would formulate a plan…

I woke up riding in the back of a truck. We were driving fast and there was a girl in the back of the truck with me, making sure I didn’t bounce out of the truck, because it sure seemed like we were hitting a lot of bumps. Suddenly we stopped in front of a building. Was it a clinic? I sure hoped so.

It was a clinic, but a very rudimentary one. There was no doctor on call, just a middle-aged woman who looked tired and a bit malnourished. She examined the wound and, after splashing it with alcohol, cut a large X with a scalpel. That hurt even more than the bite. She began to use a large hypodermic syringe with no needle to suck blood from the wound. Lots of blood. I either fainted or fell asleep.

When I awoke, I was in a room with another patient. He was an old local man who looked like he had no where else to go. Come to think of it, neither did I. I got the impression he had been here for weeks and was used to staring off at nothing in particular. Since he made no attempt to communicate with me, I reciprocated. Maybe someone articulate or in charge would enter the room. I waited.

Night fell and no one came. I fell asleep again, and woke having the urge to pee. Since I could not get my leg to work, I decided it would be too dangerous to try to get out of bed by myself. So I wet myself and went back to sleep. That was actually harder than you would think. Years of conditioning had to be overcome to allow me to let go and empty my bladder.

The next day I heard loud voices outside. Soldiers or police came into our room and started speaking to us in angry voices. I don’t know if my roommate could understand them, but I sure couldn’t. They probably assumed we were halfwits and left after a few minutes. Then, almost miraculously, two women came in and started the long process of cleaning us up and getting us out of bed. The smell made me think my companion had overcome his fears of fouling his own bed a while ago.

We were being made ready for discharge, but nobody had yet told us where to go or how to get there. It was obvious that neither of us could walk. We were taken outside. The day was warm but not yet overly hot. Two men on motorcycles pulled up and motioned for us to climb on back. Neither of us could easily do so, but with the help of the women, I was able to. I wrapped my arms around the driver, terrified of falling off. We sped away. I don’t know what happened to the other vehicle or my roommate, but I hope he made it away safely.

We rode down a sand road in between banana trees. Coconut palms lined the main road, but where we were, it was simply banana trees and some sort of fruit tree, maybe mango. I got the impression we were heading towards a city, for the number of buildings gradually increased, as did traffic. We arrived at a gas station that also seemed to be a bus stop. My driver consulted with some men and bought me a bus ticket, which he gave to me with a shy smile. I smiled back and thanked him. Then he helped me find a spot on a bench, which previously had held a man who seemed to not mind being forced to squat on the ground so I could sit in his place. I waited, wondering where we were headed. Hopefully a place without snakes.

When it rains this much, there are always more mosquitoes than you think are possible. Even if people try to spray poisons, it merely makes the blood suckers laugh. They will get you eventually, giving you what they gave your closest neighbor. Dengue, drug-resistant Malaria, Zika, Japanese Encephalitis…well, the list goes on if you’re interested in knowing all the ways you could succumb to mankind’s most ferocious enemy.

When dusk falls, the swarms of mosquitoes become clouds. A person can actually disappear inside one. I’ve seen it. Imagine a fog that sucks your blood! The man who I displaced on the bench smiled and handed me a handful of small mushrooms. He motioned that I should eat them. I hesitated, then thought, why the hell not and did. They didn’t have much a flavor. Someone else offered me a sip of water from a bottle. I took him up on that offer, as well.

Twenty minutes later the bus arrived. When I stood to begin the tedious process of climbing into it, three people helped me and I was inside in an instant! Never before have I felt such gratitude, such generalized love for all mankind. It was then that I wondered if the mushroom hadn’t kicked in.

Psychedelic or not, the journey was delightful. Four hours of crawling along muddy roads, dodging potholes and watching the setting sun through streaked windows became an amusement park ride! Just when I began to tire of the experience, we stopped and everyone got off.

Not only did I not have any idea of where we were, I had no money. Even if there were a hotel, how would I pay for a room? It was then that I heard someone call my name.

“Mr. Coffey? Mr. Daniel Coffey?”

“Present and accounted for, sir!” I replied, grinning madly and saluting like a crazed boy scout.

“I’m Jeffers Peterson from the Coca Cola Corporation. We’re glad to see you made it. If you’d missed this bus, the next one might not run for a week. Damn rains.”

“How did you know I was coming?”

“Four years ago in Sri Lanka you entered a contest. “Why I prefer regular Coke to the new Coke Light.” We were impressed by your essay and we used your photo in a billboard campaign that was quite successful. So when we heard you were in Surinam we got ahold of your management and swung a deal. Now we’d like to do it again, only this time with the new coffee flavored Coke. You can either praise it or find it lacking. Doesn’t matter. Either way we’re confident sales will rise.”

“As far as I know, no one knows I’m here. You say this is Surinam? I thought it was Sarawak.”

“You can’t hide from the Internet. Google knows where you are within a meter or so, any time of day or night. You look tired. Let me take you to your hotel.”

Smart Coca Cola Executive. I was more than tired. I was completely depleted. We stopped at a drug store to buy me a proper cane. The stump I had picked up in the forest was too short and covered with a green fungus. At the hotel I drank two liter bottles of water first thing and then asked for four more, which they promptly gave me. Then I fell asleep for long enough that it was the middle of the next day when I awoke.

It always surprises me how many Muslims there are in the world. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, but most people don’t know that. They think of the Middle East when they think of Islam. Here, the streets were full of women in burkas and men is dish dashes, which always remind me of nightshirts.

I was impressed by how white everyone’s teeth were. I felt utterly and completely alone and yet totally comfortable with that. I am most at home when I’m nowhere at all.

Now that I was pleasantly refreshed and my leg was almost healed from the snake bite, I felt a new sense of gratitude. It turned out that I was not a lost soul, nor forgotten by the world entirely. My friend from Coca Cola showed up around dinner time and suggested we dine together at an air-conditioned restaurant with cloth table cloths, perhaps the only one in the city. Surely it was no place I would have ventured on my own.

It turned out he had a business proposal for me.

I represented a class and age group of soft-drink customers they would like to woo. True, we were not their main audience, but an important one. There were still a lot of us baby-boomers around. While we no longer drank a quart a day, we could still be counted on to drink a quart of some soft drink per week.

They had gone so far as to test focus groups of people over sixty-five, and despite the fact that there are many more choices for soft-drink brands and flavors than there were say, sixty years ago, Coca-Cola still tested at the top of the range. Even Alzheimer’s patients prefer Coke.

They were considering an ad campaign. Previous slogans had been The Real Thing and Coke is It. Now they were contemplating Coke Is You. There was some concern this last slogan would confuse Alzheimer’s patients, but statistically, they were still a small slice of the pie.

A Tragic Joke

KEN HOLDS NOTHING BACK

Everything is either suction or pressure. There is nothing else. Oh sure, they want you to believe it’s more complicated than that, but that’s just mind games they’ve created to trick you into surrendering your power and reason. I’d ought to know, I used to be a college professor. Though I never wrote my dissertation, I completed all the course work for a doctorate. But those are bitter memories, and I want to move onward and upward, toward the light of freedom in the present moment.

Suction draws us backwards, and pressure propels us forward. Sometimes you need both, other times only one. Hence the spiral, the form that describes all movement that’s not zigging or zagging. The famous Fibonacci sequence is but one form of spiral. The Golden Rectangle, the Pentagram of Opposite Resonance, the Four Sequences of Adequate Compensation, the Center of Nothing and Everything…these are the tools that should be taught in our schools from day one! But how many know of them?

Sometimes I feel like I should take drastic action, like one of those guys who barricades himself in a government office and claims to have a bomb strapped to his waist. If not me, who? If not now, when? If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

If I think it through, I can see that nothing more will come from such actions than me losing what little freedom I have left. I’ll be institutionalized, a kindly nurse handing me my pills every morning and watching carefully that I take them. “Open up,” she coos after I swallow, and then examines my mouth with a flashlight.

Some nights I lie awake and think I hear a humming sound coming from my window. Could it be a flying saucer hovering nearby? No, it’s simply the neighbor’s air conditioner. How I wish that it were a saucer, coming to take me home. Back to where I really belong, and have always belonged. This life of mine is a tragic mistake, a sick joke.

Something’s got to give, right? Maybe not. Maybe nothing changes for the better. Maybe the future is just more of the same, only gradually worse. If that’s the case, I don’t want to hang around. Maybe I should buy one of those AR-15 rifles they sell at Wal-Mart and go down in a blaze of glory. Come and get me coppers! Top of the world, Ma!

The thing I like about Wal-Mart is that nobody’s any better than anybody else. It’s a level playing field. We’re all just Wal-Mart shoppers. The people that work there are nobody special. You’ll find a sixty year-old man who used to own the hardware store in town that was put out of business after Wal-Mart came and undercut with lower prices on the only items that were making him any money. After his store failed, which had been in business for three generations, he went to work for Wal-Mart, making minimum wage, and being supervised by a nineteen-year-old management trainee who didn’t know anything about hardware, or how to fix things. It’s the perfect metaphor for America. And here I am, who paid graduate school tuition and almost broke even by teaching undergraduate introductory courses to nineteen-year-olds who had the attention span of gnats, sitting at the snack bar, wondering why I’m still sucking air.

Wal-Mart is all of us. It’s the greeter who hands us our cart and wears a blue name badge that reads “Hi, I’m Carl!” Carl would rather be here than sitting in front of the TV at home, watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island. Besides, he’s already seen every episode twice.

I’m too intelligent to watch TV. It doesn’t hold my attention. TV shows are made for people at the mental age of twelve. If you have the mental age of a seven or eight-year-old, then you might find TV show challenging and somewhat profound. If you can actually read and write, you’re out of luck. As TV star Carol Burnett once said in reply to those who criticize the low level of TV, “Television is for shut-ins, for people in nursing homes and hospitals. If you’re not in that group, then why aren’t you out doing something productive with your health and intelligence?”

She did all right for herself. I’d like to think I still have time to break through whatever has been holding me back. I was not put here by mistake. There is a plan for me, though it’s unfolding so slowly I haven’t been able to notice, much less learn much about it.

Is it cold in here or is it just me? I’m covered in goose bumps. One moment I’m freezing, the next I’m sweating buckets. I’m worried that it’s a electromagnetic ray they’re beaming from satellites. It’s the way they brought down the World Trade Center in 9/11. Dustification. Doctor Judy Wood. Read about it. The people who jumped out the windows were in agony from the ray. We’ve had this technology since the 1990’s. I don’t know why they would be targeting me, but then there are a lot of things a guy like me isn’t privy to. I don’t travel in the right circles.

Things Take Time

You don’t know me and chances are you don’t want to. Why would you want to open yourself up to that much sadness, that much delusion? The fact that I’m convinced I am the Last Messiah, the one that has come to usher in the Final Days and bring mankind home to the Promised Land only tends to alienate me from others. People think I’m bragging. I’m not blowing my own horn, rather I’m calling you home!

It’s been a frustrating journey so far. I received my calling when I was thirty-three, and now I’m fifty-eight. For twenty five years I’ve been banging my head against a wall. By now I have a permanent headache that no pill could possibly assuage. People tell me I’m deluded. I reply, “yes, but I’m much more than that! Delusion is only one of my gifts. I can also imitate many songbirds by whistling, and do a credible version of the voices of many cartoon characters, mostly in the Hannah-Barbera family. The Mel Blanc voices of the Warner Brothers cartoons are beyond me. As a mimic, I’m strictly second rate.

And yes, I am currently homeless, living in a pile of cardboard on the perimeter of a little-used suburban park. None of this is anything to be ashamed about. My time is coming. My glory is yet to be revealed. I must admit, it’s hard to wait. I am often quite sad, but try my best to cultivate gratitude for the gifts I’ve already been given.

If not me, who? If not now, when? It would be pure arrogance for me to conclude that a cosmic error has been made. Things take time.

But I have no time to waste. I’m on an important mission, a mission from God. I depend on Him to assure my success, to handle all the details, to defeat my enemies. Who are my enemies, you ask? Let’s start with the police. Vicious thugs, all of them. Racist sadists.

The simple fact that my skin is brown opens me to their cruelty. I am a target, which is why I keep moving, because it’s harder to hit a moving target than a stationary one. I will move to a different park tomorrow, and up into the bushes of Griffith park itself next week. Birds have nests, the foxes have dens, but I have no where to lay my head.

Or, I could say that I can lay my head wherever I like, because I demand no minimum of comfort to do so. This is real freedom. To not depend on anything in order to do what you want is real freedom and power. I don’t need to feel loved to feel good about myself. I don’t need things to come without effort in order to enjoy doing them. The ease, comfort or swiftness of a journey does not dictate its value.

I travel when and where I like, and don’t expect anyone else to give me permission to do so or pay my way. I’m not on an expense account. If I decide to relocate to Alaska, I can be there in a few weeks, maybe even sooner. Fortunately, I feel no compelling need to do so, but knowing I have the ability to relocate makes staying where I am feel like a choice, rather than a sentence.

Oh, and I’m a woman. Did I forget to mention that? People don’t expect women to take charge of their own destiny. Most men get ahead by conforming to social norms and those who fail to are in prison. Most women are waiting for a man to tell them what to do or take care of them, and a great percentage of them end up in therapy. People have a hard time wrapping their minds around a female messiah. Even today, the notion of following a woman’s guidance is abhorrent to many men and women.

My tendency is to find a man to blame, and that’s every bit as unhealthy as waiting for one to give me permission or rescue me. In fact, it may even be sicker, because fault-finding can easily be disguised as being proactive when it’s really just codependency. I’ll never forget what a sweet old lady told me at my first Al Anon meeting. “Honey, keep the focus on yourself.”

Today, Donald Trump is the great distraction. How can we spare any time or thought for ourselves when he’s barging around like a bull in a china shop, wrecking everything? Maybe when this is over, there will be a zombie crisis, or a massive die off in some unfortunate place emitting streams of refugees that have to be resisted and condemned to a slow death. It could get worse. In fact, it probably will.

I’m lucky I only have to take care of myself. Thirty and forty years ago I had young children at home. Life was much more arduous. Now my biggest problem is boredom. When I’m bored I dabble in addictive behaviors. You can never get enough of what you don’t need. I have to remind myself of that five times a day.

Certain people harbor resentments for many years and find their lives twisted and deformed by them. It takes a great deal of effort for them to see their part. Far easier to see how Fate has dealt them a bad hand and blame bad luck. If only I had been recognized for my genius, I wouldn’t be this bitter old loser today.

I wouldn’t be living in this nondescript Midwestern suburb of a city that never mattered much to anyone. My windows would not open onto a view of a Wal-Mart parking lot. One of those new Wal-Marts, the enormous ones, that contain a grocery store larger than most sand-alone supermarkets.

Even here, I have managed to make a few friends.

I have a friend who might easily be described as “embittered.” He’s a former college professor who was denied tenure and forced to leave after almost a decade of teaching. By the time he thought about starting a new career, it was too late. At least that’s the conclusion he drew. Too late for him. Today he lives in a furnished room and eats his meals in church basements. Although not exactly homeless, he acts like a homeless person, and is quick to point out the sins of those who have done better than he.

Don’t get him started on higher education or politics. Instead, try to get him to talk about the arts, or travel, or the beauty of different women in different places. I would have thought he would have relocated to a third-world country and enjoyed a simple life on social security, but he’s so angry about the fact that he was forced to pay into Medicare for his entire working life and then wouldn’t be able to access that coverage if he lived abroad, that he won’t budge. He would rather nurse a grudge than risk an adventure.

We meet for coffee in the park, having bought take out coffee from a fast-food restaurant that gives a senior discount. I’d rather not find myself cooped up in a coffee shop with him for I know what he thinks of younger people, men with man buns hunched over their laptops, tattooed women on their cellphones. He scowls so hard it’s almost audible, even when he’s not saying anything.

One pleasant autumn afternoon we were sitting on a park bench. Children were playing nearby, and I found the sound of their voices soothing. Ken, that’s his name, said their laughter and shouts made his skin crawl.

“Aren’t those kids supposed to be in school?” he asked.

“They’re too young. That’s a playground.”

“If it’s not whinos playing chess and peeing in the bushes, it’s these damn toddlers crying for mama.”

“I mostly hear laughter.”

“You’re filtering out the essential ugliness around you. That’s smart. Adaptation. Some of us aren’t so good at adapting.”

“Ken, you’re not the grump you pretend to be. You’re just tired and discouraged, and that’s understandable. You’ve got to find some way to rejoin the human race in order to snap out of this funk.”

“I was trying to remember the last time I was full of hope. I think it was a spring morning in 1970. I was interested in this girl and she seemed interested in me. School would be ending soon and I had the whole summer to look forward to.”

“So then what happened?”

“She went back where she came from and married her boyfriend. I got a summer job washing dishes at Howard Johnson’s. Got drunk every night and was sick every morning.”

“Things didn’t work out the way you had hoped.”

“Back then I didn’t waste a lot of time hoping for anything. I guess I sort of expected things would come together for me, but I didn’t have much in the way of plans. I couldn’t help any of my dreams to come true, because I didn’t have a clue about what to do most of the time. Most of the time I was in a fog.”

“And now?”

“Now it’s all of the time.” He sucked hard on his cigarette. Ken is the last person I know who still smokes. When it comes to tobacco, he’s not toying around. “Wonder whatever happened to that girl. Her name was Sandy. Sandy something. Education major. Maybe she married well and never had to teach.”

Eventually, I was able to steer our conversation around to something more upbeat, but I realized that this was probably indicative of the way things were going for him and for our friendship. Eventually, I would reach a point where I would conclude that it was no longer worth it to expose myself to so much negativity.

Back when I was still employed, I had workplace associates who were a mixed lot. Some bright, some dull beyond belief. What set them apart from people like Ken and the other people I say hello to on the street is that these people had somewhere to go every day. They had a reasonable expectation that life was not steady decline. Now that I’m retired, or self-employed, or whatever I want to call it, the people I routinely encounter have nothing to do and nowhere to do it. They are simply hanging out.

The circumstances in which I find myself are created by me. If I want more friends with which I will possibly have more in common, then I have to take action to make them. If I don’t, I’ll have a convenient excuse which I can use to deny my responsibility in my own happiness, but I’m no longer that easily fooled. My problems don’t come from outside myself. They never did, but I wasn’t hip to that fact until recently.

I just wish I had something of offer that other people were willing to pay for. Something to sell. A talent, a craft, some sort of knowledge that would set me apart.

URBAN WART

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I have found a place in the heart of this decayed city that is quiet, full of promise, wide-open and all mine. Well, I don’t actually own the property deed, but I live here free of charge. Even though I’m surrounded by ruined buildings and debris-strewn vacant lots, they simply serve as a fence to maintain my privacy.

The last inhabitants of the remaining buildings were heroin addicts, junkies looking for some place to shoot up. Their plastic syringes and rusted needles remain. Stained mattresses that have been soaked in bodily fluids and now sprout fresh blooms of black and green mold which are punctured by shards of glass. Vandals have broken all the windows. There is nothing of value in those places to be salvaged.

I have built my own home, a shack made from lumber I have dragged from the periphery. Because my little half-acre fronts onto no road, I am never troubled by visitors. Sometimes a dog will venture onto my homestead, but once he sees there is no one here, he turns back to civilization. My shack is very small and I spend as little time in there as possible. I don’t keep food, so there’s no reason for any creature to break in.

It turns out I don’t need to wash my clothes, because the world is overflowing with used clothing that is given away for free at certain sites. Charities are overwhelmed with the vast amount of cheap clothing tossed away by Americans every week. Rather than label and sort it, they either give it away locally or pack it into huge bales of compressed and highly wrinkled clothing which they put on cargo ships and take overseas. There it is sold for low prices to the poor.

It is quiet here most of the day and all of the night. Sometimes I like to imagine that I am at Ground Zero after an atomic blast. Large portions of Detroit and most of East St. Louis resemble this. There are hundreds of square blocks in Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis that come close. Instead of a nuclear weapon, they were brought down by racism. The problem is very real, but nobody wants to admit to be racist themselves, and when asked to attribute such urban decay to simple racial discrimination, most would rather obfuscate, stating that it’s a complex problem with multiple sources and therefore multiple solutions.

This city, and I’m not really sure of which city it is, for it’s just another urban/suburban fungus that once showed promise it could not keep. The main feature of my neighborhood is a giant Wal-Mart, one of those new ones that seems like a tumor growing out of an enormous parking lot. A few bland apartment complexes lurk nearby, but other than these developments, there is nothing to call a place. No place at all.

But it’s racism, pure and simple that reduced large parts of our cities to rubble. However, when you have no neighbors, it’s hard to imagine racism playing such a big part. I feel more like Robinson Crusoe than James Baldwin. When I’m not sitting in a coffee shop pecking away at my laptop, or cruising church basements look for a free lunch, I’m weeding my garden, which is too big to tend. All this free land got me going crazy with my hoe. My rows are thirty meters long! Carrots, beets and lettuce. I’ve got plans for green beans, but have to come up with a trellis. Don’t want to attract too much attention in case anyone is looking behind the ruined houses and through the vacant lots.

Beans are actually quite lovely and flower at some point in their growth cycle. Maybe I’ll find something ugly to place in front of them, so that no one will become charmed by their beauty. First they’ll come around to look at my beans, next thing I know they’ll be robbing me of the little I have. I don’t have much, but I’d rather not have them take it. My drawing supplies. My sketchbook. It’s hard enough to keep it dry in my haphazard shack with the sometimes leaky roof.

I keep the little money I have on me at all times. I no longer have a phone, computer or camera. Everyone else has those things and they’re constantly using them, so the world is not suffering for my lack of selfies or social media posts. It took me a while to wean myself off that illusion of connection, and now that I’m free of it, I’m not tempted to go back.

Am I lonely living alone in a vacant lot? Not in the least. If I want companionship, all I have to do is walk a few blocks. Even in inner-city America we have coffee shops. Of course, if you’re black they may ask you to leave after a few minutes, because even up North, it’s still America.

I’m white. People don’t lock they’re car doors when I approach stopped traffic. I noticed that when a black man my age and size did the same, you could hear the car door locks pop shut like popcorn. Pop pop pop! I’m told I sometimes could pass for a hobo. Something about my clothes, hair, the way I seem to have just crawled out from bed. I could also pass as a college professor from a liberal arts school where they let you create your own major field of study. Lesbian pottery.

I remember what it was like to try to pretend to be someone I’m not. For years I sought to fit in to places that didn’t want me and where I would have been miserable if they’d made the mistake of hiring me. Thank God those days are behind me.