When all the Jacks have found their trades

The idler is, contrary to most dullards’ ideas, not a pathetic slacker with his bum potted in the couch nervily flicking channels of thought of “Should I, Should I not.” He’s, to paraphrase Henry Miller, deliciously detached from the constraints of civilization but fully engaged in daily life.

He is mixing the mandarin and the demotic. Seeking emancipation rather than freedom. And as Henry Miller wrote: “From the time you wake up until the moment you go to bed it’s all a lie, all a sham and a swindle.” And he is fucking dead on, smack dab on the erogenous zone that we all wish we could feel.

I love how Miller (yes, him again, because he is to my slowpoke mind, the American flâneur) wrote this about being idle, or better yet, at the pulse of life: “A beautiful nap this afternoon that put velvet between my vertebrae.” Ahhh.

Work is the opposite of creation, which is simply play, or as Amis writes, literature is “reason at play.” And I play , every day, at least, at being omnipotent, creating a tiny world of words where others can also play.

Writers are the great tricksters, the idlers who always find time to have a thought solidify into a word and a word sensuously couple with a thought, and only when I am writing can I create this place where the rituals are my own, not someone else’s artifice in the “monkey world of human values.”

I abhor the Protestant work ethic that values hard work at another’s expense over the salvation of your own soul. I prefer a pagan work ethic, which is: let the civilized build there new worlds while you hide out in the wilds, making a conscious living with few possession beyond love, honesty, truth, and beauty, purposefully sitting still while everything around you goes to rack and ruin, because when civilization is busy destroying itself on the illusion of progress, you can actually go about living without the need of a backdrop because the heart needs no sounding board to beat.

And I certainly want to do more of this: “Listen to the sound of your own psychic bowel.” I really have to read the Self. I think he and I might share the same vintage.

Now I shall end with Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Ah yes, the mob who considers themselves above the idler may want to seriously consider their paltry place in this ever-changing world. What they think of as success was brewed out of failure, and as heady as they get, the quicker they’ll get addicted to the spirit of the self, megalomaniacs drowning in their own vomit.

Only if you fail can you succeed. Those who simply succeed are riding a nonexistent wave to a desert island. I’d rather ride the turbulent wave of failure that comes crashing down on the bounty of solitude. And I think that solitude, considered by many as failure, is the triumph of humanity. I want to live apart but be in deeper with life than the six-foot hole we all end up in.

His Master’s Voice

Do you ever miss gramophones? Or maybe I should say, did you ever do Miss Gramophone? Because if you did, she’s just called at my office and left two very young LPs who are in need of a good needling.

The last gramophone I had was left behind on the beaches of Normandy. It was D-Day. The sand was littered with corpses and 45s. Thinking back I wished I’d gone with the First Airborne and got dropped over Arnhem. I mean, Operation Market Garden sounded wonderful. I hadn’t visited a market in years and there were legumes that I needed. But I was able to keep my gramophone dry and free of sand by shoving it in a body bag and dragging it across the beautiful sands — well, they would have been if the Krauts had stopped shelling.

It was a lovely sunny day and some of the Yanks had even brought bikinis. When I’d finally made it to a nice sand dune, I took out my shovel and spade and constructed a moat. That, I thought, would stop Das Boot.

Then I lovingly placed my priceless copy of the Little Sparrow down, lifted the needle, and Piaf filled the air with sorrow. It helped the boys on the beaches. Then I set up my espresso machine, strung up some radio-active ions, let off some grenades, shot off a few rounds of my mortar, emptied my cartridge — as well as my bladder, it had been a long trip from Dover — and put up a sign: “All welcome. Will not discriminate against any nationality. German also spoken here. Come one, come all. But if you must, do it behind the bunkers.”

Then it was Edith all night long until the flares went up and the generals arrived to make sure there was enough killing being done. Our little party ended soon after. But I got the Purple Heart for bravery in the face of fire. And the generals all got their body counts. And some even got as far as Pointe du Hoc, but had to turn back because someone had seriously neglected to polish their brass.

Trust me, it never happened like this in the history books. But only because I took the fifth out for drinks and they all forgot what really happened and made up the real story.

Do you know there are days when I wish I had the power to move to a remote peak somewhere in Scotland, let the wind get under my kilt, sharpen my dirk, and then head to the local newsagents where I will act out Macbeth to every paying customer. But the proprietor will call out his three grimalkins and they’ll scream at me, “Thane of Glamis, ain’t yea ever heard of the Royal Academy?”

I will pretend not to hear the Weird Sisters — and they are weird, I tell you: one is dressed like Mary Queen of Scots, the other like Little Po Peep, and the third like the Damsel in Distress, on account of the ladder in her tights — by idly thumbing through the top shelf of the magazine shelf until I have located a prop.

Which, in this case is Maxim. I will hold it up and declare: “Not all who wander are lost. Some are merely in need of a good distraction.” Then the shop’s bell will jingle and in will come a load of rowdy kids who to my horror are reading Ian Rankin. I will shout: “My dearest love, Duncan comes here to-night.” To which the kids will give me a queer look and call me a fag and then buy their sweeties homemade fudge.

When an old lady with hair like a hayloft, a nose like a pitchfork, and a mouth like a horse ambles in to buy some rashers, I’ll cry, “Fair is foul and foul is fair, but put back that bacon, it’s rancid!” The old lady will give me sixpence, twiddle my sporran, and then hold up the joint with a pair of very nasty darning needles.

When I next try to impress an out-of-work shipbuilder from Dundee, he’ll reply, “Where’s the thane of Cawdor? We coursed him at the heels, and had a purpose.” Which will really upset me since that’s the other play. (Although, Duncan will insist it’s Macbeth and that I don’t know my Yorick from my own dumb skull.) At which point I’ll make him wail, “Bonny tweed, I’ve been kneed in the groin by a lowlander.”

Now the proprietor will have enough. He’ll hang a sign in the window saying “Intermission. Back in 20 mins” and we’ll all go into his backroom for a cuppa with Tom O’Shanter, who I don’t understand until he says: “Thou would be found, deep drown’d in Doon,/ Or catch’d wi warlocks in the mirk,/ By Alloway’s auld, haunted kirk.”

And then I’d reply, “Yes, I’m a thespian. and I’m doing a little impromptu theatre and picking up my groceries at the same time.” and Tom will say, “You’re a winnock-bunker in the east.”

Here’s a proven cure for a cold: Either the Flight of the Valkyries or Tristan and Isolde. They will definitely lift your spirits. Or you could follow an old Irish remedy my gran gave to me. Which is: put 2 spuds in soft cushions in front of the TV. Allow them to heat up from the radioactive waves. Meanwhile, prepare some butter by warming it gently between your thighs. Then when it’s runny, gently carry it over to the spuds by using an electrician. (Caveat: It’s dangerous to play with live wires.) Place the spuds on the ailing bit of you and then douse with melted butter. But make sure the door is fully closed, the curtains drawn shut, and your trousers neatly folded over the chair and pointing away from the keyhole.

Dig the New Breed

I didn’t move to Maine for the music. Musically, I spent too many long nights in the company of the late John Peel to ever have someone label me a hipster. My music collection ranges from the dregs of the musical barrel to libations of the finest kind. In a note, I have diverse tastes. If my listening experience could be sketched, it would be a very modern bridge arched with ribbed spandrels but still in command of a classical style. So I’m not knocking the Maine music scene. I’m just not that interested unless something like a stray glockenspiel finds its way into the mix or some balladeer sings to me in the syntax of debauch — sans culottes.

The music I find here is silence. What musicians hear between the notes — that perfect space. Well, maybe not perfect, but honest. It’s not easy to locate, though. And it’s damned impossible to duplicate. It requires a studied idleness and a preoccupation with the fleeting now. Yes, sure, the future promises not only the art of noise but it also lures with a painless hook of silence. Even the past can offer the same, only its silence is more that of the mausoleum. The silence of the moment is alive. And sometimes it’s less the absence of sound than an acute concentration. In music it would that strange quiver in ambient music. Or the short, hot spat of punk guitar before it turned into the pantomime it is today. Or even the stylish verve of glam rock. Or the Paleolithic beat of drum machines in electronica.

It could easily be present in the chirrups of crickets in late August, though. Or the soft whoosh of a flame slowly turning to ash yesterday’s newspapers. It could be the loon’s doleful cry as if he were alone with the night on the River Styx and not Penobscot Bay. It could even be the way the wind soughs as if each tree were the quavering bars of a master’s requiem.

Maine offers silence. It’s like the molecular has room to roam here. The silent activity of atoms we know to exist but which we cannot see with the naked eye. That’s what Maine can offer in a heartbeat or a protracted stay. Although I do believe that it is harder to connect to if you only sojourn here. True you can get your earful of loons and water lapping under moonlight, the immense quiet and cool of a dark wood with a summer sun blazing at its zenith above, or the vast blue of the sea stretching on like another soul.

Memorable moments. But for the Maine silence to actually penetrate and sink in, you’ve got to listen to it for much longer. Hell, I’m not hearing half as I imagine I can of the strange peacefulness most of us rarely encounter except at a wake. But I’m also sure that a certain amount of creativity and even luck and most definitely a good hunger for loafing can cure you of the long haul to wisdom. Because even a longtime resident can be deaf to that silence. You can’t take it for granted. It must be sought. Orchestrated out of the big audio dynamite that is modern living.

And then there are moments of silence that are like fossils, impressions that mold us. An audio tree bifurcating in the mind and hung with crystal-clear memories of each and every moment spent with silence. For me, it’s a time around twilight. My daughter and I wandering a pebbly beach. The only sounds the slow roll of surf and the harried cry of gulls. Behind the dark pines, the sun’s vermillion halo. We are wadding in the water, following the antics of two hermit crabs, a domineering mother and her enfant terrible struggling in the tide. We are not saying anything to each other. Just observing.

It’s a rare silence, that, diamond sharp and yet mellow, too. And I am not even aware of the tranquility until I am scrambling back up the beach, my daughter’s hand in mine, the twilight dwindling with each step, the starfish littering this quiet stretch of shoreline like fallen stars. But the frangible tension is shattered as voices, cars, TVs, and all the other intrusions wash over us. And only then do I stare back to the place where we were and wonder if I imagined it all. Look back like Orpheus to make absolutely sure. Then it’s gone.

So that’s the music of Maine. Not trendy, not current, not hyped, not all the rage, vogue, or trendsetting. Simply and honestly ephemeral. And it will make you feel like you are digging the new breed well before the hipsters have even heard a single note.

He played the euphonium

Dear Sweet Georgia Brown,

Meet me in Arkansas. I’m done with Miss Idaho and her spuds. And I’m over the navel of Miss Orange from Florida. And you can stop fretting over Miss Maine’s balsam. And dry your tears, I no longer even think about Miss Dakota’s badlands. And the redwood twins from California don’t excite me any more — although Mrs Washington’s apple is still sweet, but I promise to have chucked the core by the time I reach Miss Wyoming’s ranch. And I’ve nibbled enough of Miss Iowa’s corn to get me to Miss Nebraska’s husk. But don’t worry sweetie, they have nothing compared to your peaches and pecans. And don’t even utter one word about Miss Vermont’s cheese. I’ve been over her since I tasted Miss Ohio’s rigged ballot. If only Miss Colorado didn’t have such slopes….But I digress. (And you can blame Miss Louisiana and her swamps and Miss Kentucky and her grass. Such things make me forget my own heart.) But it’s yours now and Miss South Carolina’s going to have to patch it up with Miss North Carolina. And it’s good-bye Miss Texas — her horns were too long anyway. And so long to Miss New York who took too many liberties. I’m coming south, darling. I’m heading your way — with one slight detour on the way. I’ve heard things about Miss Virginia that I must discover for myself before we wed. My fondest love always, The Last King of Scotland.

I read a fascinating article about the 911 Truth movement. I can admit to not being enthralled by conspiracy theories, a lot of it is total bunkum and it’s amateurish sleuthing and nauseous hyperbole and cultish in its demands of the individual to stop thinking independently but as a collective.

But the movement makes some damn well reasoned points and its questioning is the spark that struck me. And the people interviewed in the article didn’t sound like wackos. Came across as sane to me and unafraid to ask the questions I imagine have been nagging a good number of the population who aren’t plugged into the default mode of patriotism. And as the article suggests, it’s good to see a growing number of people in the U.S. ditching the laziness that has captured the hearts and souls of so many. And who knows if it doesn’t just spin off into hooey preachers and brimstone prophets. But right now, they are raising some civil discussion about a subject that’s cloaked in a lot of secrecy.

Hell, why did the towers look like they imploded? And why was the administration reluctant to cooperate with the 911 Commission? And what the fuck was going on with bin Laden and the CIA who trained him to knock off Commies? And why wasn’t the air force activated sooner to knock the planes out? And how the fuck did plane fuel destroy those towers? Is it possible?

There really are lots of questions about 911 and why haven’t they been answered? Why has it been forgotten about in this miasma of patriotism and the plague on your house if you dissent against the government as though you are a hidden cell of destruction rather than a concerned citizen with nothing more than a desire for truth and discourse.

Still, I can’t bring myself to to get so caught up in all of this. The secrecy of governments is historical. I think they’ve always feared telling the populace the truths because they just couldn’t handle it. Must have started in the feudal times when the lord went out on his nightly rounds fucking whatever vassal’s wife he liked, the Jus primae noctis. Duplicity and politics goes together like the bloody truth that animals get slaughtered so that we can get the ache out of our bellies.

The one thing I take away from that article is that I’m not one to automatically just quash and debunk and scoff at any idea until I’ve given it a rented room in my brain; where I’ll seduce it to see if it really has the goods or if it’s just faking it.

Some mortification — and then an aperitif

Today I felt that heat that ends up cooking one’s flesh into a rarebit of smugness. It’s called the Swells, I believe, and it’s delectable to have once in a while.

If other writers engage me in any way, it’s to force me to write better and better. I think that if a person ever wishes to be a good writer, then he or she must take risks with themselves and with language. I feel that it’s so important to learn the craft, but then it’s just as important to let it slide away and chart new territory as if words are landmarks for knowing the self more completely.

Have you ever considered that your bed is where the biggest dramas unfold? Not only is an individual born in a bed, but he or she dies there, too. That’s why I like to sleep late. And tuck myself in at night and dream away. As soon as I wake, I know the vexations of the world will be after me.

That’s why I like where sleep can take the soul while the beast’s zonked.

Jesus, I’ve woken from some nightly adventures and have almost broken into song at the masochism of myself. Or been driven to rapture by the bevy of beauties that are achingly close to my table where I am typing away. Or risen in bed and cried myself back to sleep at the thought of myself passing like some shadow, some vapor, forgotten by the world so quickly. Cold ashes and a little headstone on a windblown hill in Wales. And still the world will go on without me. Flowers will bloom; raptors will devour young chicks; the last fish will get caught in a huge net; wind will blow viruses to and fro; ants will scurry with the last grime of dirt; people will consume themselves; cloned babies will mewl in unison; the world will revolve in its bathos of stars, and I will be no more. Fuck, even grass will grow as if nothing of me ever happened. It’s too existential. And it’s nature’s final last laugh. It’s grand trump.

I’d say the bed is the closest anybody who isn’t a writer gets to being a storyteller. And some of the most enjoyable narratives of our lives are played out in our beds. I think governments could censor everything — but never the bed. The bed is the last bastion against tyranny. It is the stronghold of imagination. It is the birthing ground of hope. It is where I do my best sleeping.

I’m reading a remarkable book by Xavier de Maistre at the moment. The book is A Journey Around My Room. Maistre wrote it after being confined to his room for forty-two days because he got into a dual with another soldier. (The book was written in 1795.) And it’s a combination of a metaphysical journey into the heart of life as well as a lyrical description about the wonders a small space like one’s own room can divulge, if we take the time to look and reflect. He’s a cheeky writer, too. Goes off on tangents and treats his manservant badly but then spends paragraphs admonishing himself and portraying the man (who is a dullard) as a saint.

In the Bedroom

If Maine had its own Sphinx, that riddle about what walks about on three legs in the evening wouldn’t flummox a soul here. What I’m saying is, demographically, the place I call home is getting older. Don’t ask me how I know. Although I suspect the grizzled hairs around my temples have something to do with it.

Such facts could be disheartening if you’re young, because it, well, cuts to the marrow of your youth exposing that hastily written note tacked to your consciousness that reads: “Hi, it’s me, the Grim Reaper. Just wanted you to know I’m here.” But I just read an article on the BBC that should put a bounce into everyone’s mortality. It appears that going into one’s dotage does not prevent older Americans from enjoying an active sex life.

What I hastily — since time is passing — conclude from these optimistic results is that the Pine Tree State is not heading to the land of senescent without a fuss. The survey further showed that of those who were sexually active, most were having sex at least two or three times a month. If that news alone isn’t enough to make Gen X minimize their porn sites, then this next bit of information should make the MP3 Generation reflect on whether their scantily clad photos should be posted to MySpace.

Apparently, half of the people surveyed up to age 75 freely admitted that they had oral sex. And about half of the men and a quarter of the women said they masturbated, regardless of whether they had a sexual partner.

The brothel creeper Sebastian Horsley, libertine, dandy, and raconteur, couldn’t do much better even if he tried. (And trust me, he has. You only have to read his book Dandy in the Underworld.)

So Maine may be graying on top, but it’s far from an old-timer below.

Now for the rest of us it hardly seems fair to boast about the number of times we overtake our elderly citizens going the snail’s pace on the road, or fuming when they fill the boat ramp with their Old Town kayaks and then struggle with them to the water as if they were the coffins of dearly departed loved ones, or even roll our eyes when we see a couple all dressed up in the latest spandex, wheezing over their carbon-framed bikes.

It’s all a damn ploy.

Now all somebody needs to do is change that sign to read: “Maine, the Way Sex Should Be.”

Kicked in the Head by a Mule

Where I grew up in Wales, my family lived next door to a man who had been kicked in the head by a mule. He had been an artillerist with the Desert Rats in Africa when the beast of burden nailed him. He was never quite right after that. Whenever I encountered him in the side alley that ran parallel to our back street, he would be standing there like the Colossus of Wales, arms akimbo, his face hidden under the dark brim of a hat that had seen better days. He never uttered a word. Just stared. I was running before you could say, “Hoch, hoch, Mein Gott, what a bloody rotten lot are the ragtime infantry.”

I recall this memory because it has a strange bearing on my decision to live in Maine. No, I’m not saying that the sterile offspring of a horse and a donkey has clopped me in the noggin. And neither have I emptied a large caliber gun of hot shells. But I’ve been struck.

I think that to actively engage with the place you live, you have to be slightly off-kilter. It takes more than the weekly run to the grocery store or the reading of a magazine or the occasional fetish for lobster followed by a lighthouse binge. You’ve got to bring deviled-eggs to the picnic. In other words, you’ve got to have a decidedly unconventional character. And why?

Well, let’s take my next-door neighbor from Wales as an anecdote. Day after day in the lion-dust gold of hot sand, he was shoving shells. Risking his life to blow up the Desert Fox’s Afrika Corps. Then he gets kicked in the head. Shipped off home to Old Blighty where he spends the rest of his days putting the fear of God into me in a back alley.

His life changed, you see. Because of a stray hoof, my neighbor got another chance at life. Sure some of it had the texture of a photo still from Young Frankenstein and the man’s mental faculties gave me the impression of a steam locomotive in the age of nuclear reactors, but, still, the curmudgeon was alive and not pushing up the daisies or, to have my idiom geographically correct, African ocotillo.

Being struck by Maine isn’t that dissimilar. Except it is a chord in the deep chambers of the heart that are struck, not the head. Maybe it’s sentimental, romantic, or even risible, but what made me easily uproot from the Midwest and travel here was aberrant behavior, a sense of the reckless. I think that a decision to move somewhere, anywhere, begins in a liminal place; an emotional state that takes an obsessive desire so that it gets fulfilled. For me, I needed a place that in a way resembled my homeland of Wales but was also not its doppelganger. A place that was welcoming of those who feel they don’t belong but have a need to be somewhere where they fit in, however awkwardly.

It was a whim, really. Not premeditated with comparisons about the cost of living or income or all the other trappings of practicality. Just a deep inhaling of the idea that life is elsewhere. And so Maine is. It’s elsewhere. It’s on the periphery of all the other locales that lure inhabitants but where the expectations live up perfectly to the reality and apex at dull.

So I must thank that tetchy mule. Thank that old codger who got kicked in the head and scared me at every opportunity. Without them, I’d never have come to the realization that to live well may mean to take risks and make decisions that others might deride.