Sunday, July 29, 2007

Campfire stories

The French writer Michel Houllenbecq writes that at age 47 the only time he doesn’t feel depressed is when his dick is inside a woman. I don’t know when 47 officially became the new 50 but I know how he feels. I too pretty much constantly feel that hollow, empty feeling in my chest. Is that depression or just what it feels like to be heartless? I’ve never been sure.

As I mentioned in a recent article, I went on a trip to the mountains to complete work on a literary project. I’m writing an eight volume critical examination of the Studio Ghibli pictures but have had a difficult time getting started. I don’t think I told you that I would have to take my two sons along. Unfortunately, they proved to be very distracting, especially Jim Bob. For those of you who don’t know, I have three children, two boys and a girl. For the purpose of the internets I refer to them as Jim, Jane and John Bob, or the Bobs for short.

Although the distractions kept me from getting much writing done, I did make significant progress. I managed to solve the riddle of No Face, which made me feel better for a minute or two. I may be 47 but I’m not as dead yet as Houllenbecq. When I had my little insight about No Face, I felt as good as when I have my dick in a woman. Well, maybe not that good, but I didn’t feel bad for a few minutes. No hollowness. No absence in my chest. It was nice to lose that feeling and replace it with something substantive.

In case you haven’t seen Spirited Away, the No Face character first appears as an enigmatic spirit, then he’s standing in the rain, so the girl, Sin, invites him into the bathhouse. No Face becomes angry when Sin doesn’t accept his gifts. He becomes ravenous and eats everything in sight, even some other spirits, all the while dispensing copious amounts of gold to the toadies who run the bathhouse. Eventually Sin gets him to chuck up everything he ate, then tricks him out of the bathhouse and he becomes normal again. I understand him now, she explains. The bathhouse makes him crazy.

I could never figure out the meaning of all that. Finally, in the mountains, I realized that No Face was a metaphor for the failing artist. He comes to the city, tries to give away his work, but nobody he respects will take it, so he gets angry and over-indulges, becomes a ravenous consumer on a monumental binge. The only solution is to get out of the city. The city makes us crazy. Miyazaki uses No Face to make a powerful statement about the nature of art.

I thought getting out of the city would have the same effect on me, but the problems with Jim Bob drove me to distraction. He complained about everything - the packing, the drive, the stopping, the shopping, setting up the camp, the bugs, the food, the heat of the hikes, the cold of the swims, the smell of the toilets, the music of the campers next to us. It was non stop. He made me crazy. Or more accurately, kept me crazy.

John Bob was fine though. He is the good boy, never complains about anything. I often wonder how two brothers born so close together could be so different. The obvious explanation is that we wanted John Bob. Jim Bob was just an accident. Of course we tried to show him all the same love and affection as we do the good kids. But it seems that they can sense when they are not wanted. Even in the womb where they begin plotting the ways in which they will torture you. I wished, and not for the first time, that we would have aborted him. It was strange that we didn’t. We aren’t one of those anti-abortion wacko couples. We’ve certainly destroyed more than our fair share of fetuses. We don’t actually enjoy having abortions, but I have to admit that I do somehow find them fulfilling. I suspect that the Aztecs must have felt much the same way, albeit in their much more primitive fashion, when they sacrificed warriors to their Gods. Of course I’m against human sacrifice, or any kind of religion, but as a metaphor I can see it. We sacrifice these little gobs of goo, these squishy proofs of evolution, to the great God of secular humanism and we are repaid with free time and significantly more discretionary income. But unlike the Aztecs we are not superstitious. We do not believe that our acts of not-yet-human sacrifice will ensure that the sun comes up in the morning. Quite the contrary, we realize that the fact we sacrifice the little buggers and the sun still comes up in the morning is more proof that there are no gods. More proof that if we are to find heaven it will have to be here on earth. And as Houllenbecq teaches, heaven is not so hard to find. Dick in woman, just one example. Breakthroughs on the fourteen volume Studio Ghibli project, yet one more.

But now I’m here in the mountains sitting under a waterfall in a cold mountain stream on a hot summer day, happy and at peace. Poor Houllenbecq should get out more in nature. He’d find that there are more spirit lifting situations than dick in woman.

We headed straight for this swimming hole after checking into the campground and setting up the tents. The swimming hole is just a short drive down a winding mountain road and then a treacherous hike down the side of a cliff. I immediately noticed a big difference since last time we were here. The swimming hole is full of Mexicans. They have taken over the lower part of the valley. Their grills are smoking. Corridos are blasting from cheap boom boxes. Kids are screaming. Young girls are primping in their tight outfits. Chubby moms are stirring big pots of bubbling beans and swatting flies. Old guys drink beer and shoot the shit. Young tattooed guys are drinking lots of beer. Everyone just tosses their trash on the ground and leaves it where it lays. These are not the educated middle class Mexicans you find in the restaurants. These are the field hands.

The whites, who used to hang out in the lower valley where the Mexicans now are have migrated up to the top of the waterfall where they only have to look down on the Mexicans, not sit next to them. The whites drink beer but they do not cook out. Except for a few old guys like myself with kids, the family aspect isn’t there. They are just white kids in their late teens and ealry twenties drinking beer and getting stoned. One guy even has a gas mask bong. Haven’t seen one of those in action for a long time. These kids have a lot in common with their Mexican counterparts below. They too are working class, though their jobs are in the shade. They too drink lots of beer, though they pick up their trash. They too cover their bodies in tattoos, though with the Mexicans it’s only the guys. They too smoke cigarettes and listen to crappy music on a boom box, ruining the glorious silence of the mountain stream. It just makes me more depressed.

Many of the white guys look like marines, like little fascists, future brown shirts, I can’t help thinking. They have huge muscles painted with violent cartoons, close crpopped hair, and assertive jaws. They obviously spend a lot of time in the weight room. Why do these guys want flaming ghouls, dripping blood, fire and dragons, long knives and other violent imagery tattooed on their bodies? Aside from demonstrating an acute sickness of the soul, their body art is so unoriginal. What is it in our culture that makes kids want to look like that? Professional wrestling? Violent video games? Comic books? Scenes from Iraq? Are they taking steroids? Yes, no question about it, they are.

Anyway, I’m not here as a social critic. At this point all I care about is getting under the waterfall and that’s my immediate plan. But Jim Bob jumps in the water, swims out to the deep part of the pool, and sinks. Somewhat reluctantly, I go pull him out. He cries, and cries, and won’t stop crying. John Bob hops in and immediately makes friends with some Mexican kids. They splash around and have a good time. I just want to get my head under the waterfall but Jim Bob won’t shut up. He makes me feel so fucking depressed. Eventually, I just say fuck him and swim out to be in paradise with my waterfall and it feels good. But I’m unable to lose myself totally in the moment for more than a few seconds. I keep half an eye on Jim Bob. He’s still crying. I duck my head under the waterfall and keep it there as long as I can. Then I move my body back and forth under it, getting a deep, healing massage. Then I look up and John Bob is gone from the rock. I catch a glimpse of him sinking again in the deep end and have to go pull him out again. The next time, I tell him, I’ll let you drown. More crying. It just doesn’t stop. I take a few pictures, but the light is all wrong and my heart isn’t in it.

Meanwhile, one of the white chicks has gotten into a fight with her boyfriend. After a lot of drama she comes down and takes a swim in the pool. After floating and kicking around for awhile in the water she starts flirting with one of the Mexican guys. Her boyfriend up top is looking very uncomfortable. She starts touching the Mexican. The boyfriend and a couple of his friend start moving in that direction. I feel that familiar sense of despair hit me like a punch in the gut.

Time to go, boys, I say and we pack up and start moving up the trail. It looked like the situation could turn ugly and I didn’t want to have any part of it. And I was probably right about that. Two days later I heard that a Mexican laborer had been murdered near that very same swimming hole. It was a sensational story. He had been decapitated and after a week they had still not found his head. Some prominent local kids were suspected, but it sounded like the investigation wasn’t getting going to get very far. We went back to that swimming hole late in the week and already there were stories. All the locals were packing up as sunset approached. They told us that the ghost of the Mexican kid was haunting the creek at night, looking for his head. You could be sure he wouldn’t rest until they found it and justice was done. That would be the story anyway. Small towns are like that.

The next day was cold and rainy. You never know from one hour to the next what the weather will do in those mountains. So instead of hiking and swimming, I took the boys for a scenic drive and looked for things to photograph. Jim Bob, of course, was fidgety, and he complained constantly, and he cried a lot. We stopped at a diner for lunch. I ate an omelette and fell into gut-wrenching despair. Since it was too cold to get under a waterfall, no woman was available to put my dick in, and I had hit the wall on the Studio Ghibli project, I went back to alcohol to numb the pain. I had a beer with the omelette, then another. We stopped by the liquor store and I rewarded myself with a bottle of 10-year-old Laphroaig. I was hoping for the quarter cask, but what can you expect when you are out in the hills? Then I went to the market, bought some beanie weenies and a six pack that I iced down in the cooler.

By then it was late afternoon and the rain had broken by the time we got back to the campsite. I built a fire and laid into the scotch while the two Bobs went down to play by the stream. John Bob is very good at catching animals. In practically no time he had caught a bull frog, two toads, a couple snails, and a translucent orange lizard. He built a little zoo out of some cardboard he found in the trunk and they contented themselves with poking the animals and watching them move. I put on a pot of beans to cook and went off for a little walk in the woods. Again I felt the overwhelming despair recede as I enjoyed the quiet and solitude. Everything smelled so fresh after the rain and the trickling water in the stream was very relaxing. I took a few long swigs from my flask and despite the pleasant chill in the air felt myself overflow with warmth for the forest and all living things, especially the kids. I thought about how I had been in such a foul mood lately and criticized them constantly, especially Jim Bob. I realized that I need to apologize, to make amends, and to use the rest of the trip to bond with them. When I got back to the camp John Bob was crying. Jim Bob had taken his animals and thrown them into the pot of beans. He’s tortured and dismembered them first. He had even gouged the eyes out of the lizard. But I was in a good mood so I restrained myself from yelling at Jim Bob and comforted John Bob. There there, I said, you can catch more animals. Then I noticed that he had poured my bottle of scotch into the pot and a couple of the beers as well. My anger was so instant and overwhelming that I felt dizzy and darting lights seemed to play in my field of vision. I picked up the pot of boiling reptiles and started to throw it at Jim Bob but caught myself before I scalded the boy. Damn you to hell boy I screamed and threw the concoction in the fire instead. The whiskey made the flames shoot high up in the night and the reptiles crackled and smoked. How could you do something like that? I wanted to hit him, really hit him, but again I restrained myself. My wife and I have strong moral values and have never hit the children. I wasn’t going to condemn my soul over a bottle of 10-year-old scotch. Still, the night was ruined. We cooked the remaining hot dogs on sticks and I finished off the little beer that was left. It started raining again and we all went to bed mad.

The cold and the rain lasted another day. I awoke in a state of excruciating despair and we drove down the mountain to explore one of the tourist villages. The last time we were there two years ago the town had been booming. New restaurants, art galleries and fancy boutiques had recently opened all along the main drag. Now they were mostly shuttered. Everywhere we went the locals treated us like dirt. It reminded me of going to a concert where the once popular band failed to sell many tickets and they take their frustration out on the audience that actually did come through for them. I don’t deny that they’ve got a lot to be pissed off about. Service jobs are all there are around here, they are hard to come by and they don’t pay squat. Nobody makes things anymore. A few people commute fifty miles to work in factories in the nearest small city, but most of those factories have closed and shipped their jobs overseas and the ones that remain cut wages and benefits. With the price of gas so high and the cost of daycare, it’s hardly worth the effort. Serving the rich fucks from the city is about all they’ve got left and not as many of us are visiting as the chamber of commerce promised. It only makes sense that they would feel resentment. They see the rich fucks in their mansions and SUV’s casually spending money as if it’s just so many leaves of grass and they ask themselves exactly what did those people do that made them so much better? Everything in the culture tells them that they get what the deserve. Did they deserve being born in a small town to working class parents? Did they deserve having their decent jobs shipped off to China so that the rich could get richer? Do they deserve making $6 an hour while the fucks they grovel for make 200 time that? Are they really that worthless? They ask themselves. At least subconsiouslly. Well yes, society tells them. They are that worthless. Everyone is not special. Some people just don’t have what it takes. The marketplace tells them what they are worth just as the slave auctions in days of yore pegged the true value of the slaves of yore. Or is it nothing a little job training won’t fix? Job training for jobs that don’t exist? Did they deserve being born to parents of lesser means? Did they deserve the lame ass education they got? That’s a question they ask themselves but they fail to ask the relevant questions on the flip side? Do the rich fucks deserve what they’ve got? Do their children and grand children who didn’t do squat for their money? Do they deserve that compounded interest on the principal in their trust fund? Do they deserve that stock price windfall they got while sitting on their asses in that fine Italian leather? Do they deserve those legacy spots in the finest schools? Just what exactly did these people do to deserve their lives besides being born lucky? Not fucking much, that’s what. So what can the local losers do? Get out and get an education? Yea, theoretically and a few will, but the rest can only take it out on outsiders like myself. I doubt if that rudeness makes them happy, not even for a moment. It’s not like having the proverbial dick in the proverbial woman, or vice versa. Deepening the despair in others is not the answer.

I understand where they're coming from, but still, the hostility drags me down to the lowest levels of despair. That plus Jim Bob will not stop whining. Those things and I fill up the tank and it costs me fifty fucking dollars, over three bucks a gallon, and I have an economy car. So I head back up into the hills. I don’t know where I’m going. I take this turn, then that turn, then another turn. Whatever looks interesting. Then I see a sign that says Arboretum five miles. I like arboretums. I take the turn. But what I see on that road makes me sick. This little road smack in the middle of such economic devastation is lined with mansions. And they are ostentatious fucking mansions. Most of them are built like castles. They even have rook-like towers, apparently designed and built by the same architect. Makes me want to puke. It does.

The last bit before the arboretum turns out to be very steep and all the switch backs make Jim Bob sick and he pukes all over the back seat. That’s exactly what I need at that point. But finally we arrive and it’s a beautiful place, situated in a circular valley surrounded by enigmatic mountains. My spirits lift at the prospect of some peace and quiet in such incredible natural beauty. There is a parking lot with a little information center and maps for visitors. No one is there, but I pick up a map and plot where we want to go.

The walk through the woods looks nice, but it’s a little confusing. I’m not sure which trail is the right one. I take the wider trail and come to a house. An old woman is gardening near the edge of the woods. Is this the forest trail, I ask. No, you’re trespassing. Sorry, I say, we’re just looking for the forest trail. It’s back that way, she says nastily. Get off of my property or I’ll call the police.

Right, I say. Sorry, we were just visiting the arboretum. There should be a sign. But then I look around. I see her house, which is practically a mansion. I look at her. She’s all got up in the latest gardening fashion -- the khaki, the rubber boots, the cotton gloves, the gleaming sharp shears. I can almost smell the dirt under her fingernails. It’s probably imported from France. I can’t believe this rich bitch is being so nasty. What the fuck is her problem? I know what her problem is. A sense of entitlement all out of proportion to her value as a human being. The goddamned filthy rich. We go back to the car and start driving back to the camp. I’m so angry that I totally forget about the arboretum and I drive aimlessly among the mansions.. Then a plan begins to form. I’m going back at night and show the old bitch what’s what. I wait till after midnight then put the sleeping kids and the car and drive back there. I do donuts around the old bitch’s garden. I see her fucking flowers spitting up to the sky in the rearview and I feel good. Much better than having my dick in a woman, which isn’t anywhere near as rare, and even better than losing track of my mind under a cold mountain waterfall. But she comes screaming out of the house in a Victorian grandma-style white night gown, her grey hair disheveled and I feel the familiar drill in the gut.

But enough is enough. The old hag’s going to call the police and I need to get off the mountain before the cops block the way. I haul ass down the steep part and almost shit my pants when I see the old woman in the middle of the road shaking her tiny fist at me. I swerve and narrowly avoid her, then there she is again at the next switchback. The old bitch is running down a steep trail and beating me to the spot. How can she do that? I see her again on the next switchback and I run smack into her. There’s a loud thwank and she goes flying over the cliff. Man, I think, I am totally fucked. Now I have a real reason to be horribly depressed. Then there she is again, right in the middle of the road at the next switchback. I stop the car and we get out. I hold the Bobs close to me. We’ve obviously entered some kind of twilight zone. Might as well stop fighting it.

What do you want, I ask. One of your sons, she replies. Which one. Which one is damned, she asks. We all look at Jim Bob. And smile.

Soon we’re back on our way. Too bad about Jim Bob, says John Bob. Yep, I say. Too bad. But I don’t feel bad. It’s like a great weight has been lifted.

The next day I feel a tingle of regret so we drive back up to the arboretum. We find the trail through the woods, but when we get to the old lady’s place, the garden is just a bunch of weeds and the house is a ruin. We kick around the property and find an old cemetery. Among the graves we find one for Baby James Robert, born and died in 1865. Wow, says John Bob. Wow, I agree, half expecting the headless Mexican kid to wander by.

Anyway, the rest of the trip was great, at least from the perspective you get from being under a cold mountain waterfall. Coming back to the city sucked and, as you might imagine, my wife was initially pissed off about the loss of Jim Bob. But she calmed down and it’s been a lot more peaceful without him. The black cloud of despair and depression that engulfed our little family for so long has lifted. Now it’s back to work.