On a Lithium Kiss

He walked to the door, his wife following behind him. He turned and they kissed. He knew it would be the last one they would have. He looked back at her again while walking to the car. She smiled and waved looking pretty framed in the doorway in her bright apron. She was uninvolved.

At the lab he entered the chamber. The metal tube was a close fit. Just tall enough. He was scrunched in until his naked body became nearly cylindrical. The technicians stood ready and when the room was cleared, the machinery began running until the tube was no longer in this galaxy.

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Auto Autonomous

Buck 1934 wPlymouthA thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men…our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” Herman Melville

The introduction of self-driving cars may transfigure American culture in unsettling ways we have not seen in the last half century. Driving skills are generations deep now in the United States. Learned from our fathers, mothers or other adults, we have naturally adopted the memes of our family, friends and other drivers. Our driving style, now mutli-generational, is an integral part of our American upbringing and reflects not only our personality but even more so our culture. Each human active in a driving society fits into a cultural spectrum with their particular style and habits that earns him some degree of admiration or discredit.

Every national culture has its unique driving personality reflecting a basic nature of that society. It defines appropriate road behavior, reflected in the degree of aggression, tolerance and courtesy. Yelling, gesturing and frequent horn blowing are normal in many Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures. While I was riding in a taxi in Vietnam, the driver glanced a cyclist knocking him to the pavement. The reaction of the driver was to laugh while continuing on his way and checking out the cyclist in the rear view mirror. I was appalled.

We constantly evaluate other drivers by comparing our ‘superior’ abilities to their shortcomings. “Jersey driver” was a common criticism of irregular or discourteous drivers in Pennsylvania regardless of the state shown on the car’s license plate. Our individual driving style changes to reflect our state of mind. We hurry by driving fast and running yellow lights or cruise leasurly enjoying the music on the sound system while taking in the scenery. We feel the road, the cross wind blowing, choose when to dim our headlights or use turn signals. Driving, like more obvious social activities, involves us in consequential experience and community.

Every day millions of us command deadly weapons that are as potent as any gun. During our routine commute we generally exercise our conditioned discipline to respect the lives and property of others. We give way to bicycles and pedestrians. We signal our intent or turn or change lanes to avoid killing unknown innocents and ourselves. It is a subconscious reality in our lives, a prime directive we accept that shapes our cultural personality both behind the wheel and in broader social contexts. In the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall, a favorite scene of mine has a boyish Christoprher Walken telling Woody about his dark fantasy of driving at night and intentionally steering his car into oncoming headlights. This is a choice he knows he has but one that he has never acted upon. He has an unsettling need to affirm this power and by not acting on this fantasy he acknowledges his desire to continue living in this physical world.

Though routine and almost unknowingly, everyday we make hundreds of decisions through a maze of roads and traffic signals to get to our workplaces and to again return to our homes. Every turn is a choice that we can make or not. Watching the road, avoiding obstacles and potholes, tree limbs or dead animals makes us participants in a larger world. Somewhere in our minds we must know that at any moment we can choose to not make that turn, to break out of the pack and drive toward the horizon to a new place and maybe a new life. Our automobiles serve both as the tumbrel to our daily grind and our cruise ship of escape. It is a tool of dull necessity and a means to discovery and pleasurable distraction.

Driving puts us in a community of shared cultural values, expectations and manners. It was once common for drivers to flash their headlights at oncoming drivers to warn them they were approaching a police radar trap. We likewise would be criticized if we failed to demonstrate the courtesy or skills expected. We acknowledge all cars on the road with the same prerogative, rightfully having equal access. We yield to the first arrival at stop sign intersections, regardless of the race or gender of the driver, age, cost or condition of the vehicle. We understand and accept that these rules are best for us all. Driving has become the practiced egalitarianism intended by our founding fathers. “All cars are created equal.” In Russia the wealthy in their expensive cars will fragrantly hog the road and ignore speed restrictions and traffic signals.

Routinely wielding such high tech weapons of horsepower and mass gives us real authority in our media-driven world that increasingly tends to control our thoughts and actions. If we are shuttled to work in an autonomous machine, we will be less a participant, less an individual in our community and less active in making choices and exercising control in our lives. The feeling of being unacknowledged cogs in the great gears of civilization will be further promoted. Though the stress and drudge of commuting will be automated, we may ultimately feel less significant.

To give up this community, this cultural personality, this routine daily accomplishment, could be disastrous to the American psyche. We will be physically safer on the road. We may feel freer having that time to read, watch videos or imbibe in drink and drugs. Becoming solitary passive passengers will create more isolation and less community than even a bus or train ride provides. This could increase national malaise and feelings of helplessness leading to increased despondency or depression. We may find ourselves requiring yet more self-medication as robotic driving will make us more isolated and psychologically vulnerable.

Owning a gun gives some, no doubt, an exaggerated feeling of empowerment. Might driving a car or pickup truck as well give a similar sense of control? I am not a Luddite. I do not wish to stop technological progress. I only believe we should think about the consequences of such change and how we might culturally adapt to this new environment. Yet I expect we will happily and unwittingly give up this therapeutic sense of community, identity and control and rather believe that a life of unfettered ease best fulfills us.

Yet maybe this all matters little anymore. Maybe the age of the automobile is already ended. Maybe the automobile has already reached the utilitarian regard of a washing machine. Supplanted by the smartphone, maybe our significant community now lives in ‘the cloud’ and our individuality is realized and satisfactorily expressed through digital social media and customized apps. But how egalitarian is cyberspace? What are our responsibilities in that community? How does that on-line etiquette shape our broader culture?

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Moths

I watch at my kitchen window
the feet and pale bellies of numerous moths 
on the window screen

These have come from the night
to be mesmerized by my fluorescent light
as I wash the dishes.

What addictive magic is in the light
that can so hold their attention 
while a substantial part of their short lives passes?

What might other moths be doing now,
the successful moths, the Bill Gates moths? 
Building cocoons, reproducing, eating?

Might these wastrels squander their courtship and childbearing hours 
unwittingly eliminating this proclivity from their collective genes
sparing future generations this hapless fate?

With the dishes finished I leave these questions unanswered
and retire to the living room for my TV time until bed.
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Deity

Photo-Lisa DalyHaving washed the dishes of my evening meal
In the sink an ant I notice
Attempting to scale the cliffs of steel 
His efforts without progress 

Gaining not in his attempts
He rested his body segmented
Best efforts thwarted he was spent
Like mine his ambition frustrated   

The dishes stored, my chores complete 
I draped for him my towel
Furnished a ready path replete
Unaware, he waited now

He stirred not, as yet faint hearted
Immobilized by his mind empirical 
“Your Red Sea you'll find is parted
Soon shall ye know true miracle.” 

Once embarked with ease he climbed
From out his watery tomb
I know not what his mind surmised  
His solace I assume

From out despair to kind deliverance
His mandibles mouthed a prayer
I answered “To your kin acclaim this God of Ants
And I shall keep them in my care”
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The Nature of Nature

Lisa Daly

Lisa Daly

They drove along Route 17. Once there were the three. They hadn’t seen each other for years. There was a casual estrangement. The funeral brought the two together. It made sense to share the ride. There wasn’t much talk. A bit of expected political commentary. How this president is undoing all the good that Obama did for the country. How he is isolating us from the rest of the world with his belligerence and militarism and ‘defense of capitalism’. There was a stretch where the highway ran next to the river.

“Remember we used to swim in that river.”

“Yes we did.” he recalled not really quite believing it. It seemed a dream today.

“Not along here, further south away from the road.” Her voice was still deep and gravelly. His face was covered with a grandfatherly white beard.

It was about the job then. They were welfare workers. Both wanted to help the poor. But the bureaucracy vacuumed up their hours and days and energy. Doing good for humanity was lost to incomprehensible regulations, endless paperwork and self-serving bosses. Swimming after work was a necessary relief they found that year.

“It was your idea I think. We would wade to where it was deep enough to sit on the bottom with the water up to our necks. And we would sit there suspended, weightless and talk until dark about life and ideas and dreams.” She smoked cigarettes and was a Buddhist and he was nothing. A Christian molting his beliefs. “You had a child from a previous something.”

“He is grown now and living in Washington” Romantically inharmonious they were stuck in contiguous professional situations both found mutually untenable. He had a girlfriend in Lewisberg.

“Are you still practicing Buddhism?”

“Yes I have a shrine in my house. Are you still with Susan?”

“No that did not last long after that. I still have that coconut with the ugly face that you made for me. It is in a box in the attic. I never liked women who smoked.”

“It was more than that”.

“Yes it was, I suppose.”

“You were out of the army. I never understood how someone could be a soldier. There was no physical attraction, but we were still close for a time.” The end of that summer was when he quit with the state and went back to school.

“I want to sit next to you now and pull you close for the ride. But these seats. Car engineers design seats now to keep people apart. They can make an autonomous car and companion cup holders but they won’t let people to sit together in the front seat. We buckle ourselves in to be safe but can’t be close like in the old movies. If I could only be a coffee cup I would sit close to you now.”

“I have always liked coffee”

Ahead the road changed to a commercial stretch of chain stores and fast food. The river had left the roadside. It meandered off through some green field or wood. A quick visit to the highway was enough for it. It realized it belonged somewhere else. It was the nature of nature. She had never liked men with beards.

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Dubious Nirvana

PhuBai 36s

I went back and did it again this time trying to remember for the record – we, traveling near the big construction machines with the boy, my friend egging on the salesman and ….

It is dangerous enough being a soldier in a war zone yet we spent nearly everyday stoned. Maybe it is a way to defy death while trying to live fully in uncertain circumstance. The war is denied. The outcome is meaningless to us anyway. Our own futures do not exist, so the moment is everything.

We are children of wealth and privilege on a two day pass tramping heedlessly through an ancient culture steeped in traditions and sacred practice. Unaware, we dance our comic, insensible dance of the naiveté. But only on the surface leaving nothing lasting behind. Even the enemy soldiers must have wondered at our foolishness. On this particular day we wander in this insular fog of inbred consumer culture and chemicals, exploring the neighborhood of a rural Asian town where we seek temporary distraction, as a child might with a new toy. Though we wear the fatigue uniforms of the latest occupying army, we carry no weapons (only officers are issued sidearms).

Construction machines are working in the block where a Burger King is today. Then it was a large muddy lot with soot belching machinery and construction laborers moving around in ways we could not comprehend. I want to take pictures for a friend back at home but I have forgotten my camera. We decide to walk to a nearby motor pool garage. My friend, Dean, knew someone there who he wanted to see. We push aside the large doors. Inside it is a geometric cave, high ceilinged, empty. Not just one large empty space but rooms all connected, without a trace of human occupation. Inviting exploration I want to go inside and see more, but Dean, not finding his friend, wants to leave. I think of taking a picture but I have forgotten my camera. Outside we see a woman washing clothes near the street corner. She is bent over a tub scrubbing. She does not speak to us or even pauses in her work to look at us. But her young son seems captivated by our foreign presence.

I failed to pay her any attention the first time. She is so ordinary and drab, her black peasant pants and buttoned white shirt, straight black hair pulled back and tied. But I am here this time just to notice and remember more, so I carefully study her face in profile as she works. I take a few mental photos. In the medium shot she appears fatigued and worn but in the closeup I discern the pores in her skin, her complexion is soft, feminine. Both conditions being equally present yet moving in opposite directions like slow trains of time passing on parallel tracks. The boy addresses her and they talk briefly. She apparently acquiesces to his request, allowing him to follow along with us. I like to believe that though a common language is lacking, she perceives our guileless and agreeable stoner demeanor and finds us harmless, though unconventional companions for the boy.

There is a lightly forested public square beyond the construction site. We leave the street corner and skirt the park, the boy tagging along. The three of us wander around this peaceful public space. The boy in tan shorts is shirtless and shoeless. His exposed skin is tanned deep brown and his hair is cut close. At times he walks apart from us bouncing a flimsy stick on the ground. We both like him and agree that he is cool, somehow charmed and special. He is mostly just a kid though, with his kid distractions and capricious variability. So there seems about him an air of vulnerability. I suppose this is universal about children but I realize some risk is necessary to allow him (or any boy) to fulfill his potential.

A local man approaches us and converses in very good English. He is dressed in western clothes like a salesman back home would wear. Shirt, tie and jacket, but ill fit, worn and a bit too large on his skinny body. He carries a briefcase. He speaks enthusiastically about an American movie he had seen called Johnny Guitar. Dean keeps asking him if he can get us drugs and he repeatedly denies it. Instead he talks about this movie which he thinks we surely have seen. I doubt that this movie is real. Finally we are ready to go and he opens his briefcase. It is full of glass jars each containing a selection of black market drugs. Dean is immediately drawn to the largest jar holding pink marshmallow like balls slowly floating inside. The man tries to dissuade him but Dean is insistent and finally the man relents and sells him one.

With the transaction complete, we begin down a twin pathed dirt road heading away from town. Dean is a few paces ahead of me and the boy. I notice a pink cloud rising above Dean’s head. It spreads until its vapor looks like a wordless comic strip balloon. With a display of great competence, Dean turns his face skyward and magically inhales the cloud into his mouth, just like a movie running backward. It is an impressive display of his talent and competence involving drug consumption. He has shown similar aptitude before, as if he possesses an innate working proficiency around recreational substances no matter how unique or exotic. He always is a natural master when recreational drugs are involved.

Dean is soon excessively happy and energized. It seems as if this is the first time he has known joy. We walk until we find an old chiseled granite block just off the roadway and Dean climbs on top of it and sits lotus style while talking in happy incomprehensible gibberish. “Call me The Buddha.” is one phrase I understand. While talking he fidgets with his lighter, flicking it open and closed, until he lights it as if he is going to fire off a joint but he has nothing there to light. Instead he holds the flame near his mouth and moves the lighter back and forth. He continues smiling while the flame curls around his upper lip. I panic thinking he is surely burning himself but he gives no indication of pain. I look to see if his lip is swelling but I cannot see anything. It seems he is proving to us his attainment of some higher level of existence and his no longer being in our physical world.

Whatever Dean is doing I know I can watch this display no more. I must have flagged down a ride for I remember being on the back of a motorcycle. It is just become night and the driver stops along this rural road to rest and he lays the bike on it’s side. We are far away from any traffic, artificial light or noise. The driver lights a cigarette, squats near the front of his reclined motorcycle and smokes silently. I just now notice that this is an unusually long motorcycle, almost twice the length of a normal bike. Old and beat, painted black where it is not chipped, dented or rusted. It may be a French Automoto. Though I have a curiosity about this detail and I have no intention of returning to find out.

When he finishes his cigarette I ask to drive. It is dark now. He is doubtful but conciliatory about it, though showing concern about my cycling skills. I go to lift the bike and find it is heavier then I had expected. I feel awkward and out of practice but once going I can adequately manage the machine. The headlight proves quite inadequate giving very poor illumination ahead. Yet I am able to adapt, at least psychologically, to this lack of forward vision which demands endless compensatory adjustment to passed events. Moving forward into darkness impels a necessary attitude of optimism and self confidence. I find that as this technique is successfully gained it produces a thrilling compulsion to go even faster.

Upon my return from that initial deployment, I had consciously decided to isolate that experience from the rest of my life. Though I have been home for many years, I am still not insulated from that time and place. Like the first, these subsequent hypnopompic visits are not of my control, though they have been arriving with less frequency. Another like this may be my final excursion. If so, I will try and take good notes and maybe remember my camera.

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Nascent Discoveries

nacent d v3

From the sidewalk I looked in through the store window before noticing the open inviting door. A modest wooden sign above identified it as Nascent Discoveries. “This must be new.” I thought, and went in to check it out. It was amazing inside. The walls were completely covered with layered adornment, colorful drapes, posters, wooden, medal and ceramic objects, all an odd, seeming haphazard collection yet of a select vision expressing someone’s whimsical sensibilities. Large potted plants were all around and a sultry smell of incense wafted in the air. A man demurely approached me stopping at a comfortable distance. He was short but not slight, fit and athletic looking with fashionable hair. His arm tattoos were partially revealed by his doubled up gingham sleeves. He had a painful looking metallic tunnel in his earlobe. His professional presence was that of humble restraint though I suspected he harbored a suppressed playfulness about him.

IMG_1038

With a slight bow and eyes looking downward at the floor, he spoke in a quiet voice, “Here at Nascent we firmly believe in….” he paused, distracted by a dead leaf laying on the floor near a jade plant. He stooped to pick it up and repeated “We firmly believe in…” but as he spoke he moved away absent mindedly to behind the counter where I assumed there was a trash can. After dropping the leaf he again remembered what he was saying and continued “We firmly believe in …” and again he seemed to loose his train of thought. I finally said “The Environment?” at this he looked at me seemingly pleased then diverted his eyes saying “Yes. Please freely enjoy our space and look around for something of interest.”

Feeling welcome I comfortably wondered through the store. Belying its eclectic casualness, it was thoughtfully organized with shelving neatly displaying used vinyl records on one side and used CD’s on the other. In the center there was a rack of Nascent T shirts containing exotic designs and colors. I discovered a secluded overstuffed chair with headphones and a CD player on the arm. It was inviting but I instead continued browsing the collected array of stuff on display. A sign in psychedelic letters stated “Everything is for Sale”. I wondered if that sign was for sale.

I took notice when a young couple came into the store. I watched as the proprietor approached them, having a chance now to study his technique. It was apparent that he adapted an Asian modesty and politeness. Although his voice was muted, I heard him speaking to them and I understood enough to know that he was again giving them the requisite greeting he had just given to me. I saw him bend to the floor to retrieve a pencil he had been holding. Then I heard the male customer with a more forceful voice interject “Retail Experience.” The proprietor dropped his gaze and said, “Yes.” I was dumbstruck. “That was not the right answer,” I thought. Then I began to comprehend the scheme. This distracted forgetfulness was an intentional ruse to get the customers to reveal their own priorities. I now understood that I had blown my chance to respond with a disarming response and regretted that I had given such a dopey, predictable answer. If I had only known I might have contrived a much cooler answer like “obvious hipness” or “baiting the customer”.

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