From the Suburban Jungle
to the Mountaintop at 10,000 feet:
right back down the hill.
From the end of the world
to your town, basically ...
By Douglas McDaniel
There was that bulgy woman's face, my ex mother-in-law, screaming at me, "Heathen! Heathen! Why don't you read something good for you, like the Bible? Not those stupidheads you call heroes. They are all screwed up, all of them." Her face is big and red, blood-dimmed authoritarian swimming pool from God's forsaken lake a fire.
A flood of my life's decisions, mainly the bad ones, ping pong though my head. If I'd only done this, resisted my ego on that, had gotten real on the other. And now this, this fat face in a blond mop of over-the-hill hair, screaming at me about reading Salman Rushdie. Instead of the Bible. Well, let's see, I'd be in an entirely different place, for sure, if I'd been reading the Bible. In fact, I usually do, in one way or the other, from year to year, except maybe I'd use it like the I-Ching, let pages open themselves, in hopes they might speak to me. Maybe I'd be married still, in Phoenix, living in the suburbs, like a squirrel counting his nuts for the winter, and still listening to this blather from this charismatic miscreant, in my own home, no less.
In less time than it took for the U.S. Marines to find Noriega in Panama, I grabbed my soon-to-be-first-ex-mother in law by the arm and shoulder and wedged her out my front living room door. Once the lock was secured, as she tried to force her way back in, I went back to reading Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses." Or tried to as my hands shook from the adrenalin rush.
Really, it's a hilarious book.
And if I've reacted incorrectly, in this case, to the cruel joke that is that soon-to-be-former life as long as 10 years ago, well then, to leap from a burning train to roll on the hard, hard surface of this terrible terrain is no better or worse. I believe I'm much closer to the pool of the living, and much saner than those who are supposedly rational. What was that Barry Goldwater saying, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." The only freedom and liberty we ever really get in this world----and that's the way it's always been----is what we can hack for ourselves. Usually, if not always, at a considerable cost.
For example, just the other night----as I fast-forward my dear readers back to Telluride, Colorado----I met an incredible woman, many times more intellectually gifted than most of us could ever hope to be, who was incredible in the sense that she had managed to find a way out of the trap of her life's circumstances. Incredibly damaged, she was, the victim of a life-long pattern of sexual abuse since the age of 12 or 13.
"You know," she finally said, hmmm, maybe an hour after I'd wept when she listed all of the men who had sexually abused her: Her grandfather, her father, a priest, a high-school teacher, "I wouldn't walk down a back alley or a bad street at night, because they always teach you to be home and safe. But these were all people I was supposed to trust."
From the age of 13 on, each trusted male abused that very trust. A hell of eternal return she lived with each new family situation, which is the way we usually end up, whatever the reason, within our life cycles. The male of the species had a way of picking her out of a crowd, and then, let the perversity begin…
A lifting energy pulls through me like a tide. It's a weird sensation of apparent chaos revealing itself as truth. One must be very quiet, perfectly still almost, to begin to feel it, then see it. Freedom is there, beyond the desolation, in the blue smoke that rises from the ashes. If Glasnost Lost is paradise lost, then maybe the real paradise is found in the land of remembering.
Now I'm back in the desert, with my notes mean't for poems written in a green, nine-and-a-half by six-inch notebook. Perhaps if I'd left my thoughts unrecorded in that spring season, I would have never realized the unspeakable loneliness I felt in my marriage. My future X knew it, which is why she eventually burned the notebook in the backyard barbecue. She was, like her charismatic Christian mother, the living microcosm of an authoritarian regime. A real reactionary. A rage-a-holic.
In my college days at the University of Arizona, I believed that it was pointless to be a poet. A poet was no longer dangerous to any society. The highest compliment that could be paid to a writer was to be burned at the stake or censored or sent to the Gulag. His ideas would run against the prevailing current, and the government would have no choice but to try to silence him, thus martyring him for future readers, and thus, the world would be moved further along. But it was hard to see how it could be thus in a technological, democratic, pop-culture driven society. I couldn't make the connection. How could I know that the dissatisfaction as revealed in that notebook would, in fact, ignite a revolution in my small Web of life, and then set me free onto the road to Mythville?
What did I have to be dissatisfied about? I had a wife, three kids, a crazy dog, a professional career in journalism that basically kept us more than just afloat. Barely, yes, but floating all the same. The boom was over, after all. The prosperity my mother and father had enjoyed and striven for held little promise as we walked a slow march into a new century. On that spring day several years ago, it finally broke loose. I looked at the words in my notebook and wondered why they were so dark. My tone seemed to be that of a prisoner who lived in a state of constant contradiction against my very nature. The result: a secret self working beneath the autocratic empire in the bedroom.
I remember being afraid to go home. The long straight city streets leading through the scatterbrained signage of Phoenix hinted at an ugliness of the suburban southwest. Fast food joints, convenience stores, strips malls and every now and then rows of track homes crossed the eyes. At each stoplight, there was back pain, the endless shifting of the truck's gears, and the anxious pressure of being surrounded by the city, of what kind of moods awaited me at home.
I pulled into the driveway and sighed. There were a few boards piled on the front lawn that my son had fashioned into a jumping ramp for skateboards, and a few new dents in the garage door from the past weekend's tossing the baseball around. I opened the door and there was my son, twittering on the nobs of a video game while he lay on the couch. He barely moved and there was a small beeping sound from his hand-held machine. Not expecting a reaction from my arrival, I moved toward the entertainment center console, checking for any mail. There were a few bills, an ominous looking certified letter from the IRS, assorted junk mail, and a couple of packages, no doubt new compact disks to be to reviewed for the rock magazine. I opened the first package immediately, pulling out something post-punk, or, maybe retro. Immediately aware of its unsuitable nature for my censorious wife's scanning eyes, I threw it in the cabinet, putting it beneath a slew of other CDs that would get my attention later that night. I opened the other package, a jazz disc, which would be hard to say anything about since it wouldn't contain any offensive lyrics to hail as the new bad boys of rock. I threw it on top of the pile in the cabinet as well and gave a pause to Iggy Pop.
A decision was brewing inside, moving from the back of the mind to the front. All of those things I'd ever wished for myself had never actually been considered. I sleepwalked into my adult years, reacting to the merely formal expectations of finding a girl, making a marriage, the constant question of whether to have children. One would not call it an expectation, it seemed to happen naturally, as if I were an actor in a play in which the lines had been written from a dependable author who had the essence of life down to a biological science. Survival is everything, ya know, perpetuating the DNA, for what reason I know not why.
So that day in my mid 30s, the course I'd led found me drifting. I sat on the couch, twittered on some poetry, then reaching for the headphones for loud music. The music is by the seminal L.A. punk band, X, the sound of late century central city sprawl in flames. My eyes are closed as I lay on the couch, hoping to find a few moments of disengagement. I marvel at the dichotomy of the male and female voices from both heaven and hell. Then, I'm stunned back to the suburbs by my wife, who is poking me. Her expression has that stormy, bleary eye contact of someone who is ready for a fight. She began one of her usual discourses on my behavior, what she often refers to as Short Attention Span Theater.
"You seem so frantic," she says, her hands on her hips, looking down. "At one time you show up, start reading a book, and then I look up again, and you are on your way out the door, sneaking a joint. Now look at your lazy ass. I've got things to do around the house, you know. I need help."
She has her dishwater blond hair up in a Bam Bam bush on top of her head, wearing a jeans skirt and tennis shoes, very much in her work detachment mode. Soon she would be strutting around the house, slamming cabinet doors and making everyone sure it was busy time in that passive aggressive way. You know: the kind of gal who saw no problem with running the vacuum cleaner into the wee hours of the night.
"You're shifty. Your stuck in sand, sinking in sand, or maybe just trying to avoid sinking in sand," she says. "Look at this place," she thumbs one of the books he's left half opened on couch. "How many books can one person read at once, anyway?
"Sometimes you seem so quiet, and then you are talking so fast it's like you are some drug. Why can't you relax, why can't you stop worrying about where you will be next. You just want to hang out in bars and smoke. I mean, why go all of the way to a public place to spend your time alone, if that's what you are really doing?"
I could see where this was leading. I could see that look in her eye, the bulldog that couldn't let go of those ever-tightening categories of perpetual blame. Angrier words were exchanged, neither side listening, and somehow I managed to leave, though at some cost, her haven taken my notebook and holding it up, scouring, her face with a challenging smile, as if to indicate, "Ah ha, I've got it," as she took it and left the room.
Within a week I'd left her. The notebook had been read then fricasseed, and then an attempt had been made to restore the notebook for legal purposes. Then she tried to run me over with her car. Then, having taken to the streets of Phoenix in the need of disguising my locations, I bounced around like a wannabe TV show fugitive, trying to arrange lawyers, new living digs, dealing with a capably diabolical X, and, the possibility that my soon to be ex wife might try to find me and kill me. At work they called me "McGyver" because I was always looking for alternative exits to my surroundings. There were the urgings of my mother in law, who spoke in tongues and filibustered my future X into devious ways of attacking me. There were ugly late-night phone calls and cruel, teasing seductions. Before long, there would be the assault at the office, the restraining orders, the use of the children as hostages in the marriage, but more than anything else, my own descent into the maze of adulterated windows and doors in an exploration of my private novelty gene.
Spencer was a crazy family dog, most definitely also the beholder of the novelty gene.
On the day the he first landed in the suburbs of Phoenix, when I was just a boy, maybe 15, the heat was 120 degrees and the back yard we'd put him was a one-acre field of white hot dust. The next day, hail stones the size of Hope diamonds pelted puffs of dust onto the white-hot ground as Spencer, despite the hellfire from the sky, chased around the yard, pouncing on each poof. I remember the steam rising on the sand. Next, a freak tornado tore through our neighborhood, and the only thing in its path, mainly, or house, was left intact.
Spencer was a runner, though. This was before he learned things about the neighborhood on mid-night sneak outs. Before he'd gone through the rancheria of back yards, golf courses, the river park basin, the very edges of the desert. Well before he'd caused a fight with the family across the street. Well before the subdivision was made safe from the last horny toad lizard, well before my father ran over that same neighbor's pet snake, which had escaped, in the driveway: Long before the paradisical and counter-intuitive creation dream of Phoenix, city of the great Sonoran Desert. As a mongrel beagle, Spencer couldn't be trained, thus keeping him the place of the long line of pets that drove my father to distraction.
"Her boy, her Spencer," he'd say. "Sit, roll, dammit, do something!"
I'd sit and watch this comedy, a young teen in the suburbs, up in a willow. I was always up in trees, come to think of it. Despite the call, all Spencer could do was run up and down the fence, occasionally poking his nose through holes in the ground beneath. Spencer was a barker, too, howling at all hours, never seeming to run out of energy. Spencer had the novelty gene. Or perhaps he'd just learned it from my family.
Spencer was a real bastard.
So Spencer and I had the novelty gene, and on the day the tornado came, I saw it in the window. Dust was blowing all around, but I saw it there, bigger than the black and white version in the Wizard of Oz. I ran outside. I remember pinpricks of dust hitting my face and my mother screaming at me to get into the house. I leaned into the wind. The tornado high in my view, I saw it tear a roof off a house down the street, and went back inside, satisfied that my scouting report through the window was correct. We barricaded ourselves in the hallway. God knows what was running through my father's mind because his father's family had been killed by a tornado in West Texas. God knows what's in a dog's mind when the sky had been turned upside down. All that I know is after the winds died down, after our new saplings were pulled out of the ground, after it seemed liked the wind picked up our back yard and deposited it somewhere west of our neighborhood, Spencer was gone.
We looked for him for a week. First we walked past the demolished homes in the area, marveling at their bombed-out look. As a 10-year-old boy, the inconvenience this caused to our neighbors was hardly a factor. It seemed fun out there, fun to be a searcher in bombed-out Phoenix, the subdivision seriously in decline due to the storm. Worst hit were the people down the street, who we had a running feud with because they were always the ones who called to get Spencer picked up by the animal control officer. Once, when we'd returned from a sailing trip to San Diego, Spencer was missing from the back yard. I knew immediately what had happened. I rushed across the street, being a hot-headed 15-year-old, and started yelling at the neighbor, Rosey McAllister, who was dead drunk when she answered the door. "You give my dog back," I shouted. "You have no right." They, of course, did have a right. Leash laws mandated by the homeowners' committee being fairly clear. When Spencer was recovered from the animal shelter, he continued to pursue his novelty exploits, eventually getting to the point that he could leap the height of our wood fence in the backyard. Had to be six feet. It was only a matter of time, at least he had the potential, to jump the fence. Then the storm came and we had to resolve ourselves to the image of Spencer spinning away into the clouds. These were happy days for my father.
A few days later I had my first psychic experience. It was during a baseball game. Bats and balls and the hopes of being a professional baseball player being my only real concern. That and the skinny blond girl who was watching the game in the bleachers. We were behind, maybe by a few runs. We were up to bat. I sat on the bench, and I had this feeling come over me, that heaviness from within. I thought that perhaps I was feeling ill. It was then thought I saw the whole thing before, one, two, three batters ahead -- I knew that each one would reach base and I visualized my bat hitting a line drive to right field and our team winning the game. That's exactly what happened. When it was my turn to bat, I half-consciously lined the ball to right, just as I pictured it, willed it, in my brain. I was buried by my teammates, and after the game that skinny blonde girl gave me my first kiss. My braces, unfortunately, cutting her lip pretty good.
When we came home, Spencer was at our doorstep. We could only wonder about the tales he could tell, flying over Phoenix and out into the desert.