Saturday, January 21, 2012

(three portraits: unusual nicknames)

             He was known in the community by several unusual nicknames.  This portrait is going to be about some of those nicknames and I hope that’s enough to hold your interest, unflagging or otherwise.  There are many other fun and revealing angles by which I could have and might still one day approach him as a subject, but this time it’s the nicknames-  it’ll be our shared prism for the next couple of minutes.    
We spent “time” walking up and down the local sandy expanse.  We spent “money” just to travel to the faraway sandy expanse.  He wanted so badly to live in a rugged forested area, but alas, there was no such area.  No matter how much he wished and prayed and dreamed and protested about it, there was no such area remaining.  There were not even remnants.  
Somebody commissioned a survey.  This was important.  Yes.  This was very very important. 
It made a lot of sense that we would eventually attempt to communicate.  Some of the people played board games and we tried to support them thru periodic displays of enthusiasm, but they could usually tell it was a little bit forced on our part.  Regarding their own part, well...that will just have to remain as one of the perennial mysteries. 
Sometimes they requested, rather bluntly, that we go elsewhere and cook up our own recreation.  If we couldn’t or wouldn’t demonstrate sincere enthusiasm for their games played on cardboard, well- maybe it would be better if we just parted ways for awhile. 
And we did so.  Yes, we did so.  Our little gang picnicked and lampooned each other under the interstate overpass.  Jack was responsible for the foodstuffs.  He was super-talented when it came to procuring the foodstuffs.   Mary was responsible for all of the reading, writing, and artist’s materials.  Tony was our musician-  he had a good ear for harmony; he had a weird feel for rhythm; he had a love of chaos and dissonance; he owned the following instruments:  ukulele, clarinet, cello, violin, and accordion.   And Shane, as it turned out, bless his soul- had no particular purpose.  At the last minute, we invited the man with the unusual nicknames to join us and he didn’t hesitate for a second.  “I enjoy spending time under the bridge” he informed us-  “I’ve been doing that sort of thing ever since I was a very small child.  I really liked building forts out of sticks and leaves and blankets and stuff.  I would hide away in there for hours.  A few times I even got permission to hide away for several days and nights in a row...strange, sure, no question about it…” 
Some people knew him as simply “Cal” or “The Rejuvenator” or “The Squid” or the “River Man” or “The Person Who Periodically Sinks Down Or Plummets Into Exasperating States Of Black-Death Style Depression.”  
People were weary of hearing it and other people were weary of saying it, but it kept showing up all the same.  There was a real noticeable lack of creative intensity.  The old models had been left out on the showroom floor for too long, and people were just passing by.  The old models were not passing muster.  Another one of his unorthodox monikers, related to the sinking and plummeting one, was “The Person Who Oftentimes Disappears For Weeks And Even Months At A Time Into A Rancid And Murderous Sea Of Depression, Remorse, Self-Loathing, And Nihilism.” 
Greg, one of our more eccentric and occasionally unstable community members, came up with the following one day when we were down in the basement canning apples and apricots:  “The Person Who Seems To Have Decided That If Life Itself Is In Fact Some Sort Of Blessing Or Gift, Well, It Is A Highly Questionable, Double-Sided Sort Of Blessing Or Gift- The Sort Of Gift That Is Most Likely Given With Ulterior Motives.  Conversely, Or Perhaps A Better Term Would Be Simultaneously, If Life Itself Is In Fact Some Sort Of Burden Or Punishment, Well, It Is Also A Highly Questionable, Highly Duplicitous Type Of Burden Or Punishment.  Different People Come Down On This Distinction In As Many Different Ways As There Are Words To Describe It, With As Many Different Looks, Gestures, Shrugs, And Tones Of Voice As There Are To Convey It.”  
Holy Toledo! I hear you mutter or cry?  Well, I muttered the same exact thing when I first heard this string of absolute nonsense.  Where or why or how the crazy fellow ever came up with such a long-winded nickname is not immediately clear.  Nor is it clear in the middle or long term.  Some people have suggested he was under the influence of mind-altering chemicals- others just assume that he had an extraordinary amount of free time on his hands.  In any case, it didn’t catch on.  Greg’s precious coinage floundered and disappeared into a thick fog of oblivion.  I have fished it out only because this portrait, as stated above, is grounded firmly on and in and by the man’s unusual nicknames, and I felt that this one would sort of help prove my point. 
We started a wood-carvers’s collective and I think that this deserves to be gently acknowledged. 
We wandered around the local green space at all hours of night. 
If an authority figure decides to shine a high powered beam of light into my eyes I will simply melt him with silence, a faint smile, calm, and indifference, and then reconstitute him, gradually, with certain improvements, for the sake of the larger society.  Let this be my contribution if contribution there must be.
  The survival supplies I procure when I head out into the wilderness are not necessarily the ones that friends and family appreciate or support.  I have been instructed, more than once, to go back to wherever it is that I came from.  It is a litigious civilization.  People want more than anything to simply voice their opinions.  The words and phrases flow thru the ether, reach the ear or the eye, tickle the brain, tickle the fancy, tickle the funny bone hopefully, and if there’s any discernible sense to them they are eventually turned into actual nourishment.  Believe it or not, people need and sometimes desire actual nourishment!
This concept regarding the person collapsed inert on the pavement or asphalt gets bandied about so much in part because it always seems to be happening.  The warm meat breathes in and out. The frostbite gradually eats into the bone.  Thousands of people pass by the crouched and gnarled form on the sidewalk every morning and evening, like clockwork.  They just want to voice their opinions!  They want to engage the community!

OK.  This is the part of the portrait where I reveal some pretty dicey and uncomfortable things regarding our hero, the man with unusual nicknames:  sometimes he talked about ants or spiders running loose in his brain, going wherever they damn well pleased, spinning and building and tunneling thru whichever piece of gray matter happened to suit them that morning or evening.  He attended public lectures.  He sat in the very back row.  I don’t think there’s anything terribly sick or subversive about a preference like that, by the way.  Somebody assumes a position at what I assume we are calling a lectern or podium and launches into what some curator or programming director once assumed was something worthwhile, inventive, and daring. 
I heard explosions outside the window.  A creature emerged from the sewer.   The man with unusual nicknames was also very forthright about what he described as a “series of lenses” that were often placed squarely in front of his eyeballs thru no particular wish or will or design of his own.  They were simply placed and secured there, he said, rather suddenly, for no discernible reason or purpose.  The man assured us over and over that he was perfectly content to gaze out on the world with his own un-altered vision, although apparently this only happened for a couple of moments each day. True enough, he did wear glasses, but that was a different visual situation entirely.  The wire-rimmed spectacles dealt primarily with images playing about on the surface.    This so-called “series of lenses” he was constantly talking about  (way more than any of us really cared to hear about, by the way) had to do with underlying connections, you see, underlying motives, conditions, and meanings.  Typically Freudian- which also just happened to be another one of his nicknames!  He sported a paste-on white beard on occasion, wore black glasses, smoked cigarillos sometimes- all in all had some pretty colorful insights and theories.  I can’t get into all of them here.  Who knows- it might have made for some fairly interesting reading. 
He and another one of the local eccentrics named Tim could often be found walking together for hours up and down Montrose Beach, engaged in some sort of analysis or bleary-eyed elucidation of Pink Floyd lyrics and iconography- for instance, the cover art of Ummagumma, or Pigs on the Wing Parts I and II- are they really two parts to a whole or separate universes unto themselves?  Did Roger really commit suicide and then, with magic potions, bring himself back from the dead?  Was Arnold Layne's hobby really that strange?  "Jesus, Jesus, what's it all about?  Trying to clout these little ingrates into shape.  When I was their age, all the lights went out!!!  There was no time to whine and mope about!!!   And even now part of me flies over Dresden at Angel's One-Five.  Though they'll never fathom it behind my sarcasm desperate memories lie.  Sweetheart, sweetheart, are you fast asleep?  Good.  Cause that's the only time that I can really speak to you..." and so on.   Did Roger ever end up having electroshock therapy?  Did Syd eventually decide for himself that enough was enough?  Most of these questions, even today in the digital era, are simply unknowable, undecidable, inscrutable, terrifying-  Tim and the man with unusual nicknames would eventually be reduced to utter and uninterruptable silence, at which point they would just start listening to the lap of shell fragments and water on sand, the drone of helicopters and airplane engines overhead, the shrieks of children at play, the intermittent tinkle of bells from the snow-cone vendor’s bike mounted treasure chest of delights.  They would continue on for several more minutes staring wordlessly out into space, and then part ways, at the beach house, with a curt glance and handshake that implied they were both willing to start the dialogue up again in the relatively near future. 
      Apparently this “series of lenses” caused the man with unusual nicknames a substantial amount of confusion and sometimes even something along the lines of mistaken or mis-appropriated identity.  He told us that the rapid changing or switching or even combining of lenses had, over the years, led him to many stark and sometimes tragic mis-interpretations.  The only thing that had saved him, he assured us, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, was the mere knowledge or awareness that the lenses were actually there, operating and shifting around via a logic and incentive all of their own.  Couldn’t say, couldn’t think, couldn’t avoid or attract or deny, but at least he knew he was almost certainly not seeing things as they actually were.  Does this mean he distrusted his own experience?  Distrusted his own personal context, milieu, and identity?  Why, it most certainly did!  No question about it!  Everything was always up for grabs at all times! This gave him a sort of halting, uncertain, and awkward manner when it came to those highly specialized regions of human behavior known as “conversing” and “socializing.” 
He would sometimes walk into a crowded or semi-crowded or semi-vacant room or yard or place or whatever where there were a number of different conversations in progress- highly intelligent and informed conversations, most of the time, by the way- and decide, within a matter of seconds, that there was absolutely nothing he could contribute to or benefit from in regards to the interchanges.  Not that he saw life strictly thru the sometimes distorting lenses of raw contribution and benefit, but these elements, it must be admitted, are considered by many to be highly significant.  You’ll hear phrases now and then along the lines of “go out and make some sort of fun and much-needed contribution to people who need it” or “get out there and benefit from the collective experience and wisdom of the ages.”  When people expressed curiosity, which they very seldom bothered to do, the man would usually refer to his year abroad studying sand castles along the southeastern rim of Australia.  Children had a sort of ingenuity that most adults had lost or forgotten somewhere along the proverbial line.  Lines leading, in certain cases, to- as much as it pains me to say it- utterly hollow existences.  He took quite a few digital photographs.  He chalked it all up to your basic learning experience.
      Sometimes the man with unusual nicknames would wake up relatively early in the morning and instead of readying himself for a day of sustained and straightforward activity, he would continue to lie in his bed, breathing in and out, the curtains closed, the doors bolted, the electronic devices unplugged or uncharged, pretending that it was still extremely deep in the night, and instead of being in the middle of a major metropolitan area, continue pretending that he had pitched some sort of tent out in the desert or wilderness.  In his imagination, there were no other people for miles around.  Breathing in, and then out- well, c'mon- it’s the traditional sequence!  In this little fantasy world of our hero’s, there was no discernible sign of humanity.  Only raw and unregenerate nature- floodplains, deltas, sagebrush, coral, petrified wood, animals, insects, birds, microbes, ferns, clover, sandbanks, dust, hollow logs, dew, fossils, etc-  he pretended that he was completely outside the realm of human civilization and that there were absolutely no urgent tasks that needed to be undertaken for now-  for anyone, anything, anywhere, anytime- existence simply trembling, self-sufficiently, on the edge of a razor. 
Of course it goes without saying that in a situation like this the man was hovering, almost willfully, behind one of the many distorting “series of lenses,” and perhaps, in a manner of speaking, was even polishing one so as to make out more of the fine, outlying detail of this unadulterated, inhuman, and admittedly illusory wilderness.  Sand castles have their charm, no doubt about it, but so do the empty places on the globe lacking in all raw material. 
Another of his nicknames, this one coined by Len, the ballroom dancing fanatic, was “The Person Who Seems To Have Accepted His Flawed And Stultifying Psychological Condition Even Though It Clearly Keeps Him At A Considerable Distance From Objective Reality, Truth, Societal Relations, Etc.”  Never before had I heard a nickname that included the abbreviation “etc” embedded within it but I have learned over the years that there is “always a first time for everything”- probably the same way that our hero learned that he could chalk just about anything up as a "learning experience."  Phrases such as these can really help out in a pinch!
Legend has it that Len's basic itinerary was conjured up back in the days when pioneers were always heading out into vast, uncharted swaths of absolute emptiness, and desperate for some kind vigorous entertainment/exercise to help them fall asleep after a long day of life-threatening adventure.  Len, by the way, carried his books and food around in an old and none too sanitary burlap bag or sack or enclosure  When he was tired, he rested.  When he was excited, he stopped resting and vented the excitement in whichever way seemed appropriate.  Some people have said that he was jealous of the man’s year of study abroad in Australia-  even when we assured him that the man had done nothing beyond gazing at and occasionally photographing the creations of anonymous children.  
      I am once again about ready to touch upon something very delicate, but the portrait demands it- I’m sorry.  My obligation to you, the serious reader, forces me to risk alienating some of the less serious readers.  Certain people outside the community who shall remain nameless for now had at times wondered aloud if the man with unusual nicknames might not have some sort of bona-fide, scientifically proven psychological problem or barrier.  That comment several paragraphs back about ants and spiders running around loose in his skull was and still is not always received well in certain sectors of polite human society.  People would and do hear a remark like that and gradually, so as not to attract any overt attention, imperceptibly perhaps to the casual onlooker, begin moving in the general direction of the exits, the corridors, the elevators, the off-ramps-  they might also suddenly look down and consult suddenly important information or data on their handheld devices and in effect check out of the situation entirely-  if the man wants to make insane, unstable comments out loud to no one in particular, why, he is perfectly entitled to do so-  I, however, am not required to devote full attention.  (This is a much more discreet and contemporary way of sidling over to an exit or off-ramp.)        
Sometimes the day would have already progressed well into the afternoon hours and our hero would still not have decided on any particular life-plan or strategy.  That's a really sad commentary on his lack of momentum, I feel.  He would walk over to the window and push the curtains 3 or 4 inches aside and peer out thru the crack at what was clearly a major metropolitan area.  This whole fantasy about untamed and unsullied nature was clearly the result of his “illness” or one of his “series of lenses.”  Even if he had known in his heart that the whole thing was a fiction, still, he had deliberately and stubbornly hovered there.  It was not a question of lacking the proper template or craft- by no means-  he had spent a little bit of time in actual wilderness over the years- and now the dull roar of the city coming in thru his window was deafeningdeadening… leaden... lessening… mesmerizing… bewildering… the man did everything he could to block or camouflage the confusion, but it was clearly the prevailing and most likely semi-permanent state of affairs.  Gosh- urban madness always seems to get its way in the long run!  
He gazed out at the traffic, the buildings, the pavements, the peoples.  It was clear that many of them had settled on some kind of life plan or strategy, at least for that day- well, ok, at least for that hour- but wait a minute, even that's not entirely right- what's the time unit I'm looking for here?  There was a lot of moving about.  There were a lot of urgent and ongoing conversations in progress.  Some of them were being filmed or recorded for the sake of “posterity”- those super-lucky human beings and animals that get to appear in the next few generations!  How eager they will be to learn all about our fantastic life plans and strategies!  We will instruct them so carefully in the lifeways of progressive civilization!   Wilderness will become one of their most cherished legends and myths.  People will sit around their computers if computers haven’t already been built into their headpieces or hands by then, gazing into the fading embers of a very specific type of animal-consciousness, and tell each other stories about these once-magic places called forests and river valleys and glaciers. 
      The man with unusual nicknames sat down at his table.  No matter where he fixed his gaze, something was being distorted.  He closed his eyes for several minutes and clicked his teeth gently together 4 or 5 times.  “Oh great” he thought.  “Another nickname:  ‘The Man Who Closes His Eyes For Several Minutes And Clicks His Teeth Together For No Conceivable Reason’- Holy Toledo!  I should become some kind of entrepreneur.”  He began idly thumbing thru the phone book and thought of a funny ad he’d once seen down in the subway-  it was a photograph of a well-thumbed yellow pages with the caption “The Original Self Help Manual.”  The man decided to become a professional nickname-maker right then and there.  He put on an old suit and tie he had been keeping boxed up under his bunk.  He gathered up a few important belongings and hoisted the enclosure up onto his back.  Turning off the light and leaving 10,000 extra helpings of food and water for his pet animal, Marcus- he took one parting glance at the embers before walking out into the afternoon glare.