Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Piano Lessons

Like a lot of kids from my generation, I took piano lessons while growing up. My mom was a big fan of Liberace, and since he was a popular pianist, she thought I would benefit from seeing his performance at the Warwick Musical Theatre, a theater in the round. We were in the balcony, but the stage revolved, and every one of Lee's outfits either sparkled, shined or lit up. My parents were lucky that I didn't turn gay due to my early exposure to Liberace, but -- as we all know -- being gay isn't a choice. Just like those who believe it is an option, have no choice but to believe the way the do.

As I have stated before, even though I grew up on a farm, I was not much of a farm boy. I didn't enjoy fishing or hunting. I preferred to fill sketchbooks and watch movies. I was inherently shy, and I didn't get my driver's license until I was twenty-one. That's four years as an airman in North Dakota without ever having to drive a maintenance truck in subzero weather. When I had first joined the air force, I had to be cleared for a top secret clearance. They really did send someone out to interview my neighbors and people that knew me. One of my dad's tenants told the investigator that she thought I was gay. I guess -- like Billy Bibbit -- I should have been out "bird-doggin' chicks and bangin' beaver!" Instead, I went steady with Rosie Palm and her five sisters until I was out of the service. 

I may not have been a farm boy, but I was and am a nature boy to my core. Most days growing up, I would spend at least two hours every day in the fields and woods behind our farm. I would enter the woods through the Great Cedar Swamp and purposely get lost, so I could have some adventure finding my way out again. Often times I was happy finding a stand of beech trees with their bark like young elephant skin, or a pine grove with it's cozy shaded interior. 

I was quiet, introspective and unable to find my way in this world more suited for the loud and the crass. I've always felt that there was less of that edgy atmosphere out here on the west coast, particularly up here in Cascadia. That laid-back outlook is changing here too. We're not immune to the increasing overall malaise and sense of aimlessness that is infecting the world at large. I feel for that young boy, wandering through the woods, trying to find some purpose to his existence. He's still trying to find purchase on these cliffs of insanity. 


Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit and Liberace as himself

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Billy Jack vs. The Wolf Man



I’ve always been a film buff, from a childhood fascination with horror movies to my teen years of seeing classics and foreign films at the Avon Theatre in Providence, RI. Even now, we have movie nights on Saturdays, and I watch something with my son Justin. I’ve shown him “The Champ” with Wallace Beery, and recently we watched “Westworld” together.

Maybe three or four years I showed my son “The Wolf Man,” starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Silly me, I figured that a black and white werewolf movie from 1941 wouldn’t have the power to scare him much. It was probably more effective than these current flashy movies, filled with digital effects. For a while, Justin said he wouldn’t forgive me for showing him “The Wolf Man.” He asked me if Lon Chaney was still alive. When I replied in the negative, he said, “I would punk him if he was still alive.”

My dad and I never connected over movies. He was too concerned with moral values and bad words. I remember way back when, he took my brother and me to see “Billy Jack” at a local theater. “Billy Jack” was one of those typical successful movies from the 1970’s, starring an anti-hero. Billy Jack, played by Tom Laughlin. Billy Jack was a pacifist who spread his beliefs through the repeated use of the roundhouse kick. I just loved that character.

After leaving the theater, we had the requisite conversation about the movie we just saw, I was stating how much I liked it, when my father started to criticize it due to the cursing. I replied, “That’s stupid.” He reached across and slapped me hard across the face. I still feel the sting over forty years later. I remember glancing back at my brother and seeing his look of shock. After that resounding slap my dad said, “Don’t you ever call me stupid again.”

Maybe I was wrong for calling his criticism stupid. I hadn’t meant that he was stupid, although at that moment, I realized that my father and I would always be worlds apart. From then on I usually asked my mom to accompany to a movie, because she was more open-minded compared to my dad. My parents certainly had a hang up with curse words. I remember showing them the entry in the dictionary for the word “fart,” and their response was, “I don’t care if it’s in the dictionary, we still don’t want you using it.” Instead, we were to use the term “breaking wind.”

My parents never said the word “damn.” It was “darn” or “Gosh darn it all.” Never crap. Even if my dad hit his thumb with the hammer, he would exclaim, “Son of a B!” I thought this odd that words carried so much (negative) power in my family. My son is well aware of curse words, including the “F” word. He’s smart enough to know that there are certain words that are not appropriate for children to use. If I happen to put on a song with cursing, Justin will say, “Daddy. You’ve got to take this off. There’s too much swearing.”

Showing my son The Wolf Man gave an opportunity to talk about death and fear. My son is very perceptive and he recognized that the Larry Talbot character was a good man, but afflicted with a disease which turned him into a vicious werewolf. He saw the character wrestle with the knowledge that he may actually be the murderous wolf man that everyone is hunting.

Back to Billy Jack. I should point out that my dad did not seem upset in the least that his young sons had just witnessed one of the characters being raped on screen, or the Billy Jack chose to solve all his problems using violence. It was the goddamn curse words that irked him. Why is that? Why do we live in a society that mindlessly condones entertainment violence (or violence as entertainment) and yet pulls the cord on offensive words and worse yet, lovemaking? 

We live in a world that also uses violence to solve problems. This society also seems to have a problem with certain words and is obviously hung up on sex when public breastfeeding is taboo, and some loving relationships are deemed sinful. ("Love the sinner, hate the sin.") We all project our pain onto others, and not having the roundhouse kick available to us, we wrestle with our conscience, like Larry Talbot, strapped to a chair, trying desperately to resist his primal urges.  We need to drop our weapons, and give ourselves a warm hug and then start passing that hug around the world.

Tom Laughin as Billy Jack
Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot, aka The Wolf Man

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Acceptance Speech

I continue to struggle, as I'm sure most of us do. Life will throw you curve balls, water balloons, and for a loop. It's the scariest roller coaster ride that I've ever been on, that's for sure. Change is inevitable, but self-change is a big friggin' wrestling match. If I was who I set out to be, I would be living the quiet life, in a log cabin amidst that wilderness north of here. But I have continued to trod the path that I've always been on.

Each month at the bookstore, where I'm employed, I have to choose a pick that will be my featured staff pick. For the month of October, I chose Bug in a Vacuum by Mélanie Watt. An errant house fly gets inadvertently sucked into the vacuum cleaner. It's a scary and strange place. The fly goes through the five stages of grief -- denial, bargaining, anger, despair and eventually acceptance. Most of the time I am still in the anger stage. I would love to leap over despair and go directly to acceptance, but there is no wavering from my path.

As I've gotten older...and older, I've begun to realize that many of my dreams and desires -- those innocent childhood fantasies -- are going to end up in the dustbin of time, unfilled. Ever since I was sixteen, I've wanted to live rustically in Alaska, but apparently I only had the motivation to get as far as Seattle. Seattle has been good to me though. My past in Massachusetts still seems feel the dark chapters in my life. 

I often wonder if acceptance and surrender are the same things, because I feel ready to wave the white flag. No checkered flag for me! Just let me take my pit stop, and practice some mindfulness, because this society is making me ill. I have to constantly remind myself that moral values exist only in the meager minds of humans. Outside of our delusions, there is no right or wrong, or pressure to succeed. We create our own mental prisons.

I want to be a happy animal, who is satisfied with the necessities in life, like food, water and shelter. Love is also a great necessity, but it's not free for the taking. Love is a struggle. Love is acceptance. Love is letting go, and seeing where this river takes me. I need more joy, or rather I need to feel the joy that is already available to me.

So, to quote something Willa from Cafe Vios said to me recently, "We're all just a bug in a vacuum." I often still find myself flying blindly into the limits of the vacuum bag, figuring that I can find a way out, rather than than accepting my lot in life, and learning to enjoy the little things. The way will open itself up to me eventually without any help from GPS, thank you very much. 

An illustration from Bug in a Vacuum by Mélanie Watt