By Popular Demand: “Beware, Peter, The Ides of March…”

Mar 22

Appropriately enough the year was 1984. I was fourteen years old and in tenth grade. In many ways, this year was definitive for me-it was, in fact, one of the worst years of my life. It seemed that no matter what I did, or where I turned some new disaster lurked to engulf me. Without going into too much detail, my parents got divorced, my mother came down with a serious illness and was hospitalized in Atlanta. I was left to my own devices and held it together as best I could. My biggest concerns were making sure my older sister’s coke-head friends didn’t steal too much of my food and money, and finding a way to get to school (I admit I could have taken the bus, but I thought I was too cool for that). Needless to say, such experiences, combined with the natural mental latitudes of adolescence, made me wild and woolly-a kid loosely adopted by the Downtown Athens community like some feral mascot. The more traditional institutions were less accommodating, and as I seemed hell-bent on crashing and burning, most of the folks I knew from church or school just stood back and watched.  

Up to that point, the crazed anger I felt at a system that had failed me in a vast manner expressed itself in typical teen-age nihilistic self-destruction. There was no higher calling to the extreme rebellion I felt welling up inside of me with beautiful, elemental fury. Little did I suspect, incident and cause would be laid up at my feet.

It was the Ides of March. I was downtown with some friends, drinking a beer and getting ready to go see a band play. At that time Athens had a local TV station that aired live footage. The TV crew was going around asking folks what they were planning to do on the Ides of March. It just so happened that my English class was reading Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, so of course, the play gave me what I thought were great ideas for a clever answer. The TV crew came to our table and asked my friends and I what our plans were, and I burst out with an exclamation that we should do to Reagan what was done to Caesar…although I must admit, I didn’t express myself too eloquently. Instead, it was just teen-age me saying dumb teen-age things. I was pretty pleased with myself at the time, very sure that no one could top what I said. I don’t really remember the rest of the evening-presumably, I hung out, saw a band play and probably tried to meet college girls.

I forgot about what I said-didn’t think there was too much to ponder on, really. A few weeks passed uneventfully. I played around with theater when I was in High School-the production at the time was Jesus Christ Superstar. One day, practice let out early and my mother showed up (she wasn’t in the hospital yet). Usually she picked me up late, and practice let out early-so this meant she was realy early. And that meant, of course, that I was in trouble. The thing was, I couldn’t for the life of me think of what it could be.

It turned out that, whatever the problem was, there were men at the house who wanted to talk to me-and my mother couldn’t tell me about what. That was particularly chilling-as my mother was my only real advocate. I racked my brains for what it could all be about this time.

Two men waited for me in my own house. One was a fat guy with a broken arm-local law enforcement. The other was a poster child for the SS: gigantic, dressed in a dark suit and tie, square jaw, perfectly combed blond hair and blue eyes. He asked me if I was who I was and then told me to take a seat-again, this was in my own home. It turned out he was FBI and they were investigating me. They had seen the film footage where I made my comical remarks about the Ides of March.  Remarks, I would like to reiterate, that were obviously made in jest. This from a local show in a small town on a Friday night on a station that no one (or almost no one, it would seem) watched. I was too shocked to be scared-the situation was surreal, like watching myself in some weird indie movie.

What I said was against the law. What about freedom of speech? Well, apparently, that’s open to interpretation. Technically, because of legislation enacted during the Kennedy administration, I was on the wrong side of the law-again. A lot of people today have lionized Reagan and his era as some sort of Golden Age. It’s their answer to the Kennedy Camelot. Well, let me tell you, it wasn’t that great. The nation was reeling from recession, the Cold War was stepped up so that WWIII and subsequent nuclear Armageddon seemed inevitable. All the environmental concerns I was raised in during my 1970s’s childhood were tossed out the window. Callow materialism gripped the land-the hippies had grown up to sell insurance and bought their kids designer clothes.

Here I was, a fourteen year old boy, trying to hold his own in the world, and the FBI decided I was enough of a threat to national security that I was worth investigating. They said the reason it took them so long to find me (two weeks or so) was because they assumed I was in college. After that, they looked through local High School year books and there I was-positively identified by a school teacher that was trying to date my mother. They knew who I was, where I lived, who my associates were. They took photos of me: my front and my profile. They gave me a hand-writing test. I was on record. Nothing else came pursuant; fortunately, I lived in the US and so a black bag wasn’t put over my head and I wasn’t dragged off into anonymous oblivion for insulting El Presidente.

When they left it took awhile for me to realize no real prosecution was going to take place. A colossal sense of relief fell on me as I felt that for the first time in recent memory, I was given a break. My father called and asked me what I’d done now. Nothing. I’d done nothing. Except open my stupid teen-age mouth and say stupid teen-age things. And to my surprise, Big Brother really was watching.

Years later, the US government talked its citizenry into going to war with the nation of Iraq. They did so with fraudulent evidence and deliberate fabrication of the facts. As a result, thousands died (20% of the casualties were children, by the way) and millions were displaced. Illicit spying on Americans by their own government was engaged-a person I know even said “as long as you’re not doing anything, what do you care?” Under the excuse of war, kidnapping and torture were also employed by a government that people assume is responsiblebecause they assume it is accountable. Countries are destroyed and private corporations are given contracts to re-build them. The cost of oil triples. Health care sky-rockets. The free press is just another business interested in profits. And the pockets of one percent or so of the population are lined with yet more gold.

Sometimes, I look back at myself when I was fourteen-1984. It was one of the most formative years of my life. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: “Those who are willing to sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither.”

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The Last Chapter of My Second Book

Mar 21

Chapter Thirty

            The Party is a little boring tonight. It’s one of those dazes when, the people are there, there is plenty of alcohol and other things, decent music is playing. But it’s still boring, and everyone there is just there and they’re not really sure why.

            I check my cell-phone. Nope, no calls.

            Jerry is dressed in some sort of fur-coat and sips on champagne while a guest-someone that looks human but I understand is actually a robot-regales him with a story. I’m not sure what it is with Jerry and Visitors lately, I guess it’s his thing at the moment. When the Visitor walks off, Jerry glances my way. His face is inscrutable, eyes beneath mirror lens shades. He nods imperceptibly, it is okay to approach.

            “Selena, my dear. I’m so glad you’ve returned from your-should I call it an adventure? It sounds so banal.”

            I smirk. “Adventures are for the petty bourgeoisie Jerry. They need to have uncomplicated stories with happy endings.”

            “So true.  So true. But,” he sips his champagne. “we’re not so sentimental are we?”

            “Oh no, not at all.” I reply and sip my own drink, a gin and tonic. We look at each other silently for a few seconds. “Jerry?”


            “Can I ask you a question?”

            “Certainly, my dear. What troubles you to ask?”

            “Well, the Visitor, the Blue Rose that turned out to be Roses, the Design you sent me to-did you do all of that, knowing what would happen? Were you trying to help those people in that other world?”

            Jerry sniffs, my directness is a breach of his etiquette. I knew that, but my desire to know the answer was greater than my social inhibitions. He places a hand on my shoulder and takes another drink-a deep one this time. “You see my Party? It’s boring tonight-it can’t always be good. Everyone is lagging and serious. But at other times, the Party is full of noise, life and playful madness. I told you once that my Party sustained this world, that as long as the Party lasts, this world will remain.” He pauses. “But, there are some worlds where my Party has been interrupted, where I am no longer there to throw the Party, and the poor souls there will never know the joy of being in or excluded from it. I think that’s a terrible shame, don’t you? People shouldn’t be deprived of me. So I needed to arrange things more to my liking. And there you have it. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I need to refill my glass.” And with that, he glides away.

            I check my cell again, no calls.

            Emma approaches me, a little excited despite the boredom. The guys have been giving her a lot of attention. I can see why-her new outfit is tight leather, a short jacket, stiletto heels. Her long hair is in a ponytail. The trademark Union Jack is a patch on the jacket. “I’m glad I came! This is fun!” she says.

            I smile. “I’m surprised you did.” Jerry let her in, saying it was the least he could do, considering he shot her full of rounds and almost killed her.

            “Ahh. I need to know the lay of the land, Selena.” Emma says. “But, um, you ready to go? I can see you want to leave and I’m not about to stay here by myself.”

            “Yeah. I got what I needed. Let’s go home.”

            We bike back to Virginia Highlands. I bought the bungalow from Heather’s dad. I didn’t want to-but I needed a place for us all to stay and I was already there and he wanted to dump the property as soon as possible. I’ll need to hit Jerry up for another job soon, but I can worry about that later.

            I can hear Monty Python before we enter the house. Oh brother, I’ll be so glad when he gets off this kick.

            Midi is sitting on the couch, chuckling at the TV and sipping on some wine. The cell-phone is next to him on the arm-rest. Just in case. I’m sure we’re safe, but better to play it safe. He hasn’t fully recovered, and neither of us knows how long that will take.

            “How was the Party?” Midi asks.

            “Boring.” I answer, and join him on the couch.

            “I think I have something to do.” Emma says with a wry smile on her face, and disappears to her room.

            I lean on Midi, and he puts an arm around me. The scent of coriander fills me, as my head cradles against his neck.

            “Midi, I have something to ask you.” I say.

            “Yes?” he responds.

            “Can we watch something else?”

            Midi laughs. “Of course.”


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You Still Can’t Hurt Them When They Do That…

Mar 14

“You still can’t hurt them when they do that.” I still remember the words twenty years after I first heard them. I was sitting at a bonfire with my friend Brent. He was reading some prose he wrote in a style heavily influenced by James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” One day, Brent was out and about, and he saw two turtles copulating underneath some powerlines. Observing the shelled creatures engaged in reptilian coitus, Brent was struck by the fact that during such an intimate, vulnerable act, the turtles were still fully armored against harm. The proem was one of his best, and always raised a lot of laughter.

Brent and I held regular drum circles in the woods behind his house. We’d light up a bonfire, imbibe heavily and beat on drums. Sometimes we’d read poetry or compose stuff spontaneously. We’d dance around the fire. There was even a sweat-lodge. People came and went, and while we banged on drums it felt like we were somehow whelming a higher order of change into our lives, like demented teen-age shamans.

Brent was a big dude, and looked like a hippied out Clark Kent/Superman: large frame, black hair, square jaw, and glasses set on a beard, tie-dye shirt, sandals and a face that looked out onto other places. Once, when we were hanging out, Brent up and decided he was going to run for a mile. I laughed at him and didn’t think he could be serious. He didn’t work out regularly and considering the lifestyle we led at the time, a full blown mile run seems a little out of the question. Good as his word, Brent went and ran the mile. Without stopping and like it was no big deal. Brent was a brilliant guy, and could rattle off long chains of esoteric information. Sometimes, it was a little elliptical, long strands of well-thought out and convoluted insights hung together for you to see, if you could follow him.

Despite Brent’s good looks, intellect and very gentle nature, he wasn’t all that good with the ladies. Often, women would approach-initially interested by his appearance, maybe by the life he led. Then, once they spoke to him for awhile, they usually left well enough alone. At the time, it mystified me. But not only was Brent untroubled by it-he just didn’t seem to care.

I dated a lot of women in my pre-monogamous days. Taking them to see Brent was a sort of litmus test, based on their reaction to him, I could tell a lot about who they were. Brent certainly never failed to impress. On one occasion, he introduced me and my then girlfriend to Joseph Campbell. It was one episode out of a series, The Power of Myth on Bill Moyer’s Enlightened America. She and I watched the whole thing, mesmerized by the wisdom dispensed so casually by Mr. Campbell. One hour can change your life as they say. That sort of thing happened a lot at Brent’s.

People go through phases. Sometimes we’d meet at the drum circle often. Sometimes, we’d go for months hardly seeing each other. Then, we’d pick up where we left off, as if no time intervened. Student life, the life of young people, is like that. Brent would have his episodes. He would get obsessive about astrology, about reincarnation. He wanted to grasp the meaning of his life, as if it could have hard, cold reasons wrung out of it, like old water from a dishrag. Brent’s mother killed herself when he was younger. Taking in the fate of the parents, the child sees themselves as destined to repeat in some fashion the actions of their forebears. The child is the parent of the man. Brent usually only mentioned it when we were drinking heavily, but the self-service death his mother gave to him set an opening, legitimized a way out that said it was okay to bail. She did.

Brent started to claim that he was the reincarnation of a man from Mars. His soul had come here from the doomed civilization of the Fourth Planet and this explained a lot about things…I tried to talk sense into him, and when it became apparent this wasn’t going to happen, just sat and listened. I watched him unravel. Brent drank more and more. He switched from beer and liquor to robotussin. I started to avoid him at the bars. Men do that, we distance ourselves, give out the space that is needed when it is, and then-if you’re a real friend-are still there when the room isn’t required anymore. My last memory of him is watching him stumble to a trashcan outside (I was in a Euro-style pub in Athens called The Globe) and puke his brains out.

Two weeks before Christmas, a mutual friend told me that Brent was dead. He killed himself-carbon monixide run by a tube from the exhaust pipe of his car. He’d been dead for awhile and I’d just found out. The sensibilities of today reel at this-but this was a time before email or cellphones. News-personal news-traveled slow. If no one told you, there was no way to know. My friend was dead. Gone on to whatever awaits us all afterwards. I never saw the bonfire again. I never drummed again either.

We all go through phases. I didn’t keep up with Brent because I was muddled in my own life. Within a few months I ended a serious relationship, dropped out of college and wandered through my life for next few years. Brent’s death was another part of it-darkness was closing in on me, at long last.

That night I held it in at the Christmas party for as long as I could. At some point, when no one was paying attention, I stumbled out. I walked home. My house on Boulevard had a large back yard, cleared of all its trees. I went out back. A cold night, shot through with a dim haze of light pollution. The sky was indigo and only a few stars were visible. There was no toast, no salute, no rationalization that this senseless act was somehow alright with me. I never discussed it with anyone. No one could possibly have anything of value to say to me about it. Brent was dead. He was dead and it was like the whole time we both knew he was destined to go out that way. Somehow, we both knew I was going to bear witness to his ending.

When someone leaves us  perhaps the hardest thing to cope with is the most obvious. They aren’t there anymore. They don’t come by to visit. They don’t call to say hello. Whatever you did together was over-it wasn’t going to be done again. Whatever you talked about together was over-there are going to be no more conversations. All that we have left are the memories. But what was left of Brent? Who is going to remember anything more than fragments of some strange, quasi-shamanic guy who tragically took his own life in the early 1990’s? The man who was into Joseph Campbell, who dug magic and mysticism, drummed all night, wrote automatic verse? That night, I looked at what the Egyptians call the Ikkhemmu Seku-The Stars That Never Fail. The stars are eternal. It’s why they’re etched all over the tombs inside of the pyramids. The only thing that can live on, here in the temporal world, are memories. Memories persist. Thus, I resolved not to forget. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t forget Brent, his life and death wouldn’t pass event less into the night of time, meaningless and forgotten. I’d find a way to eulogize him, to commemorate so other people would know at least a little about him.

A young man walks briskly up a hill on a cloudy day. The sky is coin-gray, monotone and the air is thick with an unborn rain. He crosses a break in the tree-line, a section clear-cut to make way for miles and miles of powerlines. They stretch from tower to tower as far as he can see in either direction, strange dolmens that will be wondered at in ages to come. He nearly continues his hike, when he pauses. There, in the grass only a few feet away, small against the broad expanse, two turtles perform the latest in a series of actions that hearken back for millions of years.

“You still can’t hurt them when they do that.” the young man notes, mystified. He observes for long moments. Then, satisfied with what he has seen, he continues on his way.

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Near Death…

Mar 01

I’ve heard many people comment on death and what happens-or doesn’t happen-afterwards. I suppose everyone has an opinion, but it seems to me that the words of those who have come close or crossed over should count for more than suppositions laid by folks who never left the armchair, so to speak. I’ve had a number of near death experiences-enough that I can pick out my favorites and enumerate them:

I took a film class during the winter quarter of my sophomore year in college. Part of the requirements for the class was that we attend foreign film night at the university movie theater-which was every Sunday. This was a happy condition and I got to see a lot of great films from all over the world. The only drawback was that I had no car and had to ride my bike. Usually, this was no big deal. Athens, Georgia, where I went to school, is a small town and getting around on a bike wasn’t really difficult. If anything, it was nice supplementary exercise to work off calories from the vast quantities of beer I consumed.

That said, the films were at night, and I had to bike home in the cold-not fun. One Sunday,  Pedro Almodovar’s Matador played. My first exposure to this wonderful director’s films. Aptly enough, the film dealt with death-at least in some sense. After the movie, I hopped on my bike and began to pedal home. I made may way up the steep hill that went from the student center (which housed the theater), past the library to north campus and the way home. At that time, I was extremely asthmatic (it went away later, a tale for another day)-and perhaps it was the combination of cold air, the bike ride…I’m not sure. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. Gasping for air, I fell off my bike and collapsed on the ground. No one came to my aid. It was winter on a Sunday night. There was no one around.

Struggling to breathe is terrifying at first-but then, as asphyxiation sets in, it gets more relaxed. “This is it,” I thought. I laid on cold asphalt. Above me, the indigo sky was vast, full of the stars that never fail. I was going to die, cold and alone. It was okay. It didn’t feel too bad. It wouldn’t have surprised me if I went out that way. I felt myself rising up, as though I was no longer observing the night, but amid it. But then, something pushed me, gently, back down. It was like being lowered…and there I was on the ground and I could breathe again. Not tempting fate, I pushed my bike the rest of the way up  the hill and waited until on level ground to pedal home.

I had a spiritual teacher once who told me that in the near future I would have an experience that would leave me at a loss for words. She was a little enigmatic and while I thought it sounded cool, I didn’t really think anything too crazy would happen. Sometimes, when meditation is deep enough, death can result. There are probably a number of reasons why this is-perhaps the individual is at a point where they are prepared to give up their current incarnation, or they have gone too far to the other side and can’t come back; of course, the reasons may be more complex, personal and beyond our understanding.

While in deep meditation, I reached a space where events went beyond my own intentions. As in shamanic experiences I’ve read about, my body seemed to fly apart. I was going through the portal of death! And rather than feel the fear or dismay that I expected, I felt elation. All my life I had heard and read mystically inclined folks say “this is all an illusion”-referring to the temporal, physical universe. It’s sort of de rigeur, and a phrase that is repeated so much I got tired of hearing it. Yeah, yeah, it’s all an illusion. Whatever. Upon my experience, I found-to my surprise-they were totally right. It is all an illusion. The true, spiritual reality that informs the physical lays behind everything. It was like waking up-and I mean that literally. I thought: “It wasn’t real! It was a dream! Just a bad dream! Thank God!”  There aren’t words to describe the relief I felt. Have you ever had a dream where you were back in high school, never graduated, had to take a test on a subject you hate for which you never studied? That was how it was. This life, this physical incarnation, is the test I had to take that I never studied for. But it was just a bad dream! A goddamn dream! I woke up. I never told my master what happened-she probably knew, anyway. But she was spot on.

Nearly two years ago I almost died. I had a life-threatening health condition and was hospitalized for two days. This was different than the other times. There could be no willing surrender to the inevitable. I have three children. I couldn’t leave them. With a strength and a resolve that is born from the love a parent has for their sons and daughters, I fought my way through. I would not die. I would not pass through the doors. Not yet. It was the longest 48 hours of my life. When my wife picked me up-the entire experience, alone in the twilight and shadow of the hospital , seemed surreal, another dream. And when I was outside…there was a blue sky, the sun on my back. Birds, trees. People milled about, talking, meeting, doing their thing. I observed in silent wonder. Later, I was happily reunited with my family, my friends.

I’ll never forget that singular moment: blue sky, sun on my back.

Death is the silence, the meditation. Life is the sound, the action. The same golden thread is woven through them.

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