Saturday, January 21, 2012

(three portraits: journals)

The man was tired of his journals.  He was weary- that’s probably a more accurate word- of looking at the old cardboard boxes of journals stacked up in the corner every time he went down to the cellar to bring up another armload of canned or pre-packaged foods.  Canned and other pre-packaged foods were the main things keeping he and his elderly father alive, at least in the short term.  Canned chili, canned porridge, canned pasta, canned juice, canned bread, canned granola, canned fish, canned milk, canned vegetables- father and son lived far, far away from other people.  They wouldn’t have known how to communicate or connect with them very well anyway, at least in the middle or long or ultimate sense of the term. In the short term, however, brief and polite words to strangers were the all-important social and spiritual lubricants- even these ill and useless gentlemen living out in the middle of nowhere retained remnants of a conventional middle-class American upbringing. There was a small town called Agency, population 7061, about a 45 minute walk from their wilderness outpost.  Sometimes at night the father would murmur these words to himself:  “Other people are living a mere 45 minutes away.  People like my son and I, alleged human beings properly so-called, are living a mere 45 minutes away.  If we hear on the radio that the world order is finally and thankfully crumbling- not just the rumors that we’ve all become accustomed to over time but the final and irreversible and undeniable endgame, underway and in progress- well, we can get on our bikes and cycle into Agency for a final look at so-called human civilization…”  
The son, in the next room, would overhear these strange words and start murmuring also.  But he lacked the same historical sense and would invariably veer off into wildly uninformed speculation.  (Lucky’s monologue in Godot might be an appropriate reference here. I’m not sure.)  The father-figure, if he then in his turn overheard, would smile and shake his head sadly, gazing over intermittently at the thin wall separating their rooms. Was it contact with society or the opposite that had instigated his son’s mental imbalances?  For a long time he had urged the boy to consider planting and tending a garden, but the boy wouldn’t listen.  Why, the rascal just wouldn’t listen!  The boy didn’t seem to care the slightest bit about nature!  He didn't seem to give a rat's ass about the degraded state of the biosphere!  He walled himself away with tattered sketchpads and novels before disappearing into what seemed to be a textbook case of "disassociative fugue."  When he finally "came back" he attempted to record his lack of experience and memory, but it was not very successful and he descended into yet another textbook case, this time more along the lines of "suicidal depression."  The details often vary from person to person but the operating principle is usually the same.  (Emile Durkheim’s monster might be an appropriate reference here.  I’m not sure.)  When the crisis finally abated or at least, as it were, "stabilized", his father cleared his throat and calmly announced that he would no longer be urging him to reconsider the garden, which the son thought was humorous because he had never considered the thing in the first place.  He devoted the next several decades to transcribing his fingerprints at roughly thirteen times their original size onto giant sheets of graph paper constructed by taping a lot of smaller pieces together.  Then, after using nothing more than a simple #2 wooden pencil, he blurred them slightly, and then transcribed them again, each time at a microscopically different angle or orientation.  A layering or collage effect of thousands, maybe even millions, of fingerprints.  This fine art was in due course folded up, stored away, and gradually, along with the journals, began to build up in the cellar. 

Much to his father’s surprise and delight he began wandering, one fine day, out into what he, the son, kept calling “uncharted wilderness.”  His father was pretty sure the phrase was dripping with irony and even outright contempt, but jesus h. christ-  anything to get the fellow out of the house!  He cycled into town and bought himself a small set of colored pencils in the school supplies aisle of the super-cool locally owned and operated food/clothing/hardware/electronics mart and began that very afternoon making sketches of plants alongside bodies of water.  Does it come as any surprise to hear that these sketches also began to pile up in the cellar?  He later attempted to establish an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse entity at the far, far edge of their property.  Absolutely crazy but true.  There was a dilapidated storage shed there that was empty and serving no discernible purpose.  He tacked some flyers up on the mart's community bulletin board but again, would it come as any surprise that there was no overwhelming response?  I'm asking this as a serious question.  When the few people who did respond asked him about his credentials and his experience in working with children and their sometimes mentally unstable parents, all he managed to produce were his plant sketches, fingerprint collages, and dissociative fugue recollection experiments.  This created a sense of disappointment for all parties concerned, and as a result the man disappeared again for a number of years.  This time it was deemed a case of out-and-out vagabondage and upon his return around the age of 49 he could or would not give out any relevant details.  But just to be entirely transparent about this- he didn't give out any irrelevant details either.  No details, basically.  No real words or commentary at all.  He quietly settled back into life at the outpost with his now frail and elderly father and there was never again any mention of nature, gardens, sketches, fine art, the endgame, or pedagogy.  He ate canned foods, like good old papa,  and spent enormous amounts of time on the internet.  When asked about his intentions, he mumbled something about wanting to make up for "lost" time.  Just like one of his literary heroes- yes- another corked room dweller off "in search of lost time."  And if it was indeed the “era of interconnection”- well, he needed to make some serious changes.  Deep and immediate changes, no less, beginning with the transition from paper-based journal to blog.  The electronic medium might more readily allow him to "share" his thoughts with an "audience."  These are of course completely loaded terms- gunpowder terms, I've heard them called on occasion- but we'll let it go for the time being.  I can't have this portrait getting bogged down with endless technological jargon!                         
But every time he went down to the cellar he couldn't help noticing the old and now-irrelevant notepads and paper-bound journals, and these encounters wearied him, heavily.  God, they wearied him.  Weighed on him.  Heavy boulders.  Heavy and impersonal glaciers.  They served no actual purpose.  They reminded him of a period of his life that he did not consider successful.  They were stored in cardboard boxes so old and dilapidated that the boxes themselves were, in honesty, serving no clear purpose either.  For all he could tell this unsightly and unruly mass of pulped wood was all dissolving together, in unison, like any other weathering down or decompositional process of nature.  The boxes and the journals had in fact become indistinguishable.   Anything stored or logged in or retrieved from them from this point hereafter would almost certainly take on a certain air of terrifying and immediate irrelevance.  ("Obsolescence" is another word you sometimes hear in portraits or discussions like this one.)  The even more terrifying thought then occurred to him that maybe they had all been irrelevant from the very first day.  Not just the journals and boxes but the human being or beings keeping the journals and boxes.  "Melancholy" and "desperate" are other adjectives that might have some relevance here.  Who knows? Some people like to use their cardboard boxes until they have literally faded to dust.  
Apparently there was an era when human beings really liked to "communicate", if that’s still even a word, and would go to all sorts of trouble just for the pleasure of doing it.  They would, the legends tell us, simply go online and stream video.  They would, believe it or not, pick up what was then known as a "smart phone" and before anyone really knows how or why it is possible, communication or something very much like it is, for all intents and purposes, automatically happening.  Words are cascading forth directly from the machine's inscrutable innards and networks and being cascaded just as directly back into the machine's inscrutable innards and networks.  People would buy or create some sort of "journal", some sort of loose or bound "collection of pages", and then, without a trace of guilt, hesitation, or panic, just charge right on ahead with their writings and doodlings- communication with the “self”, as it were, private time alone with the “self", insights and secrets whispered back and forth within this tangle of images and words termed the “self."   A journal of mirrors, apparently.  The antiquated concept of “paging the self”, of politely requesting that “self” come to the front desk or customer services.  Gaurds will be waiting there with weapons and handcuffs, and if you don’t have something resembling a reasonable alibi, you will be hauled off to a dark place and asked dark questions about your increasing involvement with the forces of ubiquitous darkness.  There is a long history of undercover journalists being dragged off to such shadowy fates.  They said they were going to run just a couple of trivial errands and are simply never heard from again.  Even a paid online search bears no fruit.  Can you believe that?  A paid online search bears no fruit!   It’s like something out of a dream.  A dream, which, if it was titled, might run something like this:  People Who, Even At Tremendous Risk To Themselves, Like To Communicate, And Will Go To Any Length Whatsoever To See That It Is Done With Integrity.  They go out into the world and take photographs and sometimes stream digital video.  There are actual helmets or "headpieces" you can buy now that are stuffed with all the relevant communication technologies- a comprehensively networked system that now allows for instant visual, aural, and a certain amount of tactile access.  Goggles and earpieces replete with speakers and screens responsive to the slightest neurological cues.  And satellite monitoring systems that are able to lay the entire environment right out there in front of you- any environment on earth, and increasingly in deep space as well.  It's all right there in the goggles!  It's all being recorded!  You can hear it all right there in the earpiece!  You can switch back and forth between realities at the speed of thought and desire!  The whole world is layed out for you!  The whole world is laid out by and because of you!  Doubtless there are hundreds of others logged onto your goggle stream at this very moment- look away from the computer, go downstairs for a snack, get on your bike and cycle down to the lakefront- if you're wearing your helmet there are probably thousands if not millions of people along for the ride!  And I, for one, have an extremely hard time condemning them!  There are countless, perhaps even infinite visual forms, have you noticed that?  Have the other human beings noticed that?  Many of them very beautiful, many of them very provocative, many of them absolutely ephemeral and meaningless!  It makes sense to capture them on paper and film while we can!  There will almost assuredly be no other physical record!  Most people eventually end up throwing away their old letters and diaries, and if they don’t, chances are that they will be thrown out for them after they have passed from this life!  People want to hold onto some sense of permanence knowing full well that there is no viable permanence, and a few poor souls go mad every year as a result of this cognitive dissonance!  The bookstores and newsstands are full of the accounts of successful professionals who have allegedly side-stepped this looming insanity, but only because of a deeper and better camouflaged form of insanity!  
The standard advice usually runs something like this:  “Son or daughter, niece or nephew, young person, doddering old person, whatever- seeking permanence is a guaranteed one-way, fourth-class ticket to absolute madness, so keep a journal only if it is absolutely essential.  Be sure to keep very close track of the constant flux of human experience,  particularly the so-called ‘self-conception’ or ‘soul-stuff’.  At the end of the year, ‘bury’ the journal in an underground vault.  ‘Look back at it’ every decade or so to see how much you’ve ‘changed.’  Whatever you think is important today might not be very important tomorrow.  Remember that, son.  Promise me you'll at least try and remember that.  If you ever notice yourself referring to a so-called ‘wealth of human or earthly experience,’ know that you have successfully reached the end- or wait- is it the beginning? of the proverbial 'line' and can finally go to bed satisfied and hopefully enjoy a night of sound sleep.  Beginnings and ends are usually relative anyways, son.  People will still deposit your journals in landfills several weeks after your death but at least you’ll have had the satisfaction of visualizing the experience beforehand.  In the olden days monks often kept human skulls lying around on their desks.  Apparently it served as a useful and invigorating reminder.”
“Thanks a lot, dad.  I'll try to keep all that in the way... Gary is coming by to pick me up tomorrow around 5 am- we'll probably be gone for a month at the most-"
"No problem, son- you get out there and enjoy yourselves." 
"Aw, don't worry 'bout that, dad-"
"Hey- I never said I was worried!"

People were always avoiding opportunities to go and visit the unhealthy, unclean, unfriendly, and unemployed men out at their hideaway.  The middle-aged man and the old man.  There were no young people or women.  I'm really sorry.  It would make for a much more colorful portrait but I feel as though I have to work with the lamentable facts as they are.  If it's any consolation, there was a small, fur-covered animal who answered, when he felt like it, to the single name Clay- arguably a feline of some sort- who prowled about the premises and outpost at night.  Even when invitations were sent out to friends and associates over the wireless internet to come and enjoy tasty foodstuffs direct from a can or sealed packet, these so-called friends and associates were somehow able to come up with other viable dining alternatives.  Every time.  No big deal.  Isn't it all just a series of vague gestures, anyways?  You gesture something vague in my direction and eventually I’ll gesture back in some way, just as vaguely or more so.  Not gesturing back is also a gesture, of course-  perhaps one of the clearest and most under-appreciated of all.  It doesn’t leave open as many potentially warped interpretations.  The same with reading and writing.  The same with laughing and crying.  The same with dreaming and waking.  The same with succeeding and failing.  At a certain point the man realized he would probably just go ahead and dump the journals directly into the river.  He was tired of looking at them.  They served no actual purpose.  If he had been interested in that form of communicating for awhile, and he most certainly had- why, there are even photographs of him from that period writing merrily away under the oak trees- well, it seemed safe to assume that that time had most likely come to a semi-dignified close.  The middle-aged man felt relieved.  There was a large empty space finally opening up before him, he sensed.  He sat for several hours on the front porch, entirely motionless,  like a character straight out of Faulkner gazing off into what might be termed a “vast seeming emptiness.”  Other people preferred the word “distance”, others still “marrow-deep nothingness”, but it all came down to the same thing or at least something amazingly similar:  a mere 45 minutes of simply walking away from the evidence.   A method of recording experience.  A way to isolate certain memories so as to more effectively execute present day strategies.  People see their creepy outpost in the distance and are glad to be living within the safe city limits of Agency.  A good and reliable town.  Why, it even has its own page on the internet!  There’s a video store, the aforementioned all-purpose mart, a homeless shelter, a bakery, a saloon, a radio station, a small theater company and a barbershop quartet that performs on most national holidays.  These old codgers perform out in public, in spiffy three-piece suits and top hats, at random, unannounced times and locations.  People preferred it that way for some reason.  Maybe they just like being surprised- some folks do.  Father and son, but usually just son, now that the old man was so feeble, stocked up on canned goods whenever they or he passed thru the town proper.  And yet- and my guess is that as a reader you have probably already noticed this- there’s no defensible reason to keep dwelling on their means of bodily nourishment, is there?  No, I don't think there is.  I apologize.  It's not germane to this portrait.  And another thing that just now occurred to me as I'm typing this- just because the son was tired of always seeing the same shoddy old boxes of journals is no reason to keep urging other people not to write down or type their own mindless, baseless, and senseless reflections!  What as asshole I must have sounded like when I implied that a minute ago!  C’mon, dude!  Chill out!  None of us here are voluntarily living in an old-fashioned, carnivalesque hall of mirrors!  But if it appears that way from time to time we organize protests and facebook communities and actively raise our collective virtual voice boxes against that sick and sordid phenomenon!  We raise our fists and voices with incredible gusto!  You've noticed that?  As a general rule, we only want to be degraded in the ways that we actively and intentionally choose-  so many societal issues come down to this basic matter of choice- this or that person’s right and desire to choose-  for the love of god, let’s insist on it!  Let’s insist on it, shall we?  Let’s state or even bellow out the plain, unvarnished truth:  OUR LIVES HAVE FINALLY TAKEN ON MEANING, AND WE'VE TRIED, TO THE BEST OF OUR ABILITIES, TO RECORD ALL OF THESE THINGS IN OUR ONLINE OR PAPER-BASED DIARIES!!!   No reason to back out prematurely!  People will always find reasons to go on communicating!  It makes a lot of sense in a small town like Agency.  Sometimes of course we take the easy way out and decide to just bowl a few games on a Saturday.  For a small fee they rent out special shoes to the general public.  That’s us!  People just like you and I can spend the better part of a day rolling a dense black sphere back and forth over a waxed strip of parquet- intently, purposefully, pensively, all the while making small cryptic marks on the score-sheet which sometimes ends up looking a lot like some of the paintings hanging up in the little art gallery adjoining the all-purpose mart.   Dude- listen- it doesn’t matter that much if other people look back and misunderstand!   Keeping score in one’s head is not recommended by nature, the legends inform us- but christ almighty, the legends have already been wrong about so many things!  They attempt with all manner of ancient and interlocking methods and pictograms to gaze stonily out, as if across an interminable wasteland, for just about everyone and everything that appears one fine day along the bloody, blistered, shell-shocked, and picturesquely windswept horizon.  Blood and other bodily juices.  Oh yes.  Those other key juices definitely deserve to be mentioned.  Fish and snakes and turtles swim quietly along thru the river.  They will most likely eat up some of the decomposed paper.  The dissolved ink will blacken their insides and then hopefully stream out along with the rest of their solid and liquid biological waste.  The man had always hoped to be a part of some natural ecosystem before his time on earth ran out like an hourglass.  It looked like he was finally going to get his unique opportunity.

Around 4 o’clock in the morning he drove a borrowed car down to the bridge and pulled over and parked the rickety vehicle at the side of the road.  He went around back, to the trunk, and began unloading and dropping the boxes, one by one, directly into the river below.  Nobody drove past while he was doing this, and no watercraft passed under the bridge.  The man was completely alone- with the exception, naturally, of the various animals.  They weren’t surprised or concerned, though.  Not at all.  They had seen this kind of thing many, many times over the years.  A person just gets tired of having his or her old journals lying around!  Is that so hard to understand, people?  "Weary" is of course a better word but I'm just gonna let it go for the moment-  I can't let this portrait get bogged down with every little word-quibble that comes bubbling up to the surface!  For a split second he or she wants to that the right term? craft, carve out or even envision a future.  He or she or it would like to one day write or record something more poignant or meaningful.  How's that?  Maybe even something more along the lines of a fantasy. Sure, the photographic memory will supersede us all in the end, but in the meantime it was fun, you have to admit it, to go downtown and roll a few games at the Agency Arcade, Grill, & Lanes.  The kind of writing we do in there isn’t so different from fine art or literature, right?  I mean, aren’t we just jotting down how we happen to feel at the moment?  Isn't that what the greats do, more or less?   Describe their thoughts and performances and the thoughts and performances of some of the people around them?  The canned goods keep us strong and healthy, focused and alert, toned and eager, poised on the brink of some solid civic achievment.  Gazing out at the unknown person- looks to be about forty-five, male, bad teeth, a little bit of a paunch, mousy cardigan, t-shirt, jeans, converse all-stars, an incipient beard that looks to be not so much a calculated attempt to look cool as much as simple neglect, simple laziness-  he's working at a bowling alley for cryin' out loud- standing behind the shoe-rental counter, seemingly taking an interest in our semi-private endeavor, hoping that today we bowl better than we ever have before in our lives!  Some of the space cadet teenagers bowling in the two lanes beside us slap palms or "high-five" in the hearty old-fashioned manner when one of them scores particularly high or the opposing team scores particularly low.  The clatter and din is almost soothing.  Clatter and din is just the way of the world now.  At the end of the evening, we turn down the ride that is offered us and quietly walk back to the creepy wilderness outpost.  The father-figure in this portrait has already gone on ahead and opened for himself a small can of pre-prepared new orleans-style gumbo.  Apparently this means any dish into which random food items are senselessly tossed.  The son will have to eat on his own.  Like it or not, he will have to make his own private selection.  But now at least when he goes down to the cellar there is a nice open empty space in the corner, where the journals had sat fossilizing for the better part of three decades.  He tells himself that he was right-on during those early and innocent years to imagine his secret efforts eventually serving some sort of actual purpose.  Just look- an open space where before there had been only a full space!  Smiling, he places a folding chair there and beckons Clay, the aging and uncategorizable feline, to jump up onto his lap.  Clay doesn't respond right way, but that's pretty much par for the course, so the man just sits there for several minutes, enjoying the vast, quiet expanse all around him.  Eventually Clay makes some sort of uncategorizable sound, saunters over, and jumps up into the subject of this portrait's lap, paws around for a minute, and then nestles in and starts purring.  All of them are accustomed to eating their food direct from a can.  They usually don’t even go to the trouble of pouring it into some larger vessel.  They read the words that are printed on the label and eventually decide that it’s literature.  The photographs of the food on the packaging are probably more satisfying than the actual preserved matter inside.