What Ayahuasca is Like

The ayahuasca root

The ayahuasca looked like sludge.  I was afraid to smell it.  I’d never done any kind of mind-altering drugs, and I knew ayahuasca would be an intense initiation into hallucinogenics.  I felt somewhat comforted by the shaman’s presence.  He was experienced with this and there to guide me.  In Ecuador, despite the government’s harsh stance on drugs (ask any of the foreigners stuck in jail for a few years for possession of pot), ayahuasca is legal when taken with a shaman.

Don Alfonso scooped a larger bowl for himself.  “Be careful that you dream the right dream, or your dream may become a nightmare,” he said.  He studied me then began to laugh.  “Do you know why you’re here?”

I started to suspect that he, like myself, was a little drunk.  “Do you know why I’m here?” I asked.

“You are searching for something.  It was not chance that your aunt brought the picture of the Cayramashi.  Tonight, I’m going to find it.  We’ll find it together,” he said.  “The Cayramashi carries the wisdom of a hundred great shamans’ minds.  I always dreamed a visitor from far away would lead me to it.”  He drank his bowl.

Being alone with the shaman underneath his cabin amidst a chorus of a million singing insects inspired a faith in the mystical journey that’s hard to describe.  Perhaps it’s kind of like how listening to Mozart’s Mass in C minor in a Renaissance cathedral can draw spirituality out of the most hardened atheist.  I closed my eyes and gulped it as fast as I could, spilling some onto my Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville t-shirt.

“Ask the yaje a question.”

The only question I had at the moment was when am I going to vomit.  I knew that ayahuasca could be dangerous and that vomiting was necessary to clear the worst toxins from your system.  Immediately, the drink felt indigestible.  I slumped over.  Across from me, the shaman closed his eyes and leaned back, satisfied as if savoring a fine Cabernet.  I tried to stand and pace the room, but my legs felt wobbly.  I sat back down and waited.  After about fifteen minutes, the shaman strolled over to a bush, and vomited in fiery heaves.  But his bowl had been bigger than mine, so perhaps the sickness had come more quickly for him.  He returned to his seated position across from me and fixed his eyes on mine.

I relaxed and took in the sounds of the jungle and concentrated on controlling my breathing.  I wanted to be calm.  Upon closing my eyes, the blackness in my mind was filled with brilliant colors shooting off like fireworks.  Each sound blossomed into shapes of varying animals.  I saw the vibrant outlines of monkeys, snakes, insects, birds, and jaguars.  They would vanish almost as quickly as they appeared.  At times it was so overwhelming I grew dizzy and opened my eyes.  In the visible world outside my mind, the shadows around me came alive, nothing creepy or psychedelic, just alive.  When I closed my eyes again, the shapes reappeared, but I discovered if I narrowed my focus to just one sound in the jungle, everything would go black.

“Why have I not gotten sick?” I asked.

“Don’t fight it.  Let the ayahuasca escape your body.”

“I’m trying!”

“You can’t make it happen.  Let it happen.”

I returned to my images and let a lazy smile curl onto my face.  Everything was going to be okay if I surrendered myself to the jungle, to the ayahuasca, and to the world.  Soon after, the toxins began their flight from my body; I walked to a bush and vomited.  When I returned, the shaman was aglow, not literally, but aglow is the best way I can describe it.  It was as if I could see his emotions, his kindness, his curiosity.  It was an amazing feeling, being that connected.

“Fly with me,” Don Alfonso said when I returned.

Truth be told, I didn’t see the images the shaman saw when he departed on his journey, though I wanted to.  Besides the fireworks display in my mind, there was nothing else.  “Where are we going?” I asked, still playing along.

“Follow me down the river,” he said.  The shaman described the terrain on our travels, but I could only imagine navigating over the brown river and soaring over kapok trees.

I don’t remember when he put out the fire underneath the pot.  I don’t remember when I lay on my back.  The world’s transformation before my eyes was so gradual and seamless that I never suspected the departure from my former universe of precision and reality to the shaman’s world of spiritual fantasy.  Concentrating on his voice made the crude but colorful outlines of animals disappear.  But when he asked, “Do you see the great red tree below?” I opened my eyes and saw it below me.

“Sure,” I answered.  I was soaring high above the trees and darkness had turned to daylight.  I didn’t see my wings; I was more like a particle of air floating through space.  The shaman was a man yet a bird with his colorful feathers.  All of this seemed absolutely normal.  And I did see the red tree.  It seemed as if it had been transported from a New England autumn to the jungle.

He swooped down to the earth and I followed, but when I reached the ground, I had difficulty moving.  I found myself inching towards the red tree.  Now, the shaman was a leaping from tree to tree.  Without speaking, he urged me to follow him.

“Why can’t I move?” I asked.  “Why can’t I fly anymore?”  An incredible weight was stopping me.

“Hey!” a voice called out.

I looked to my side and saw a turtle next to me—not at my feet, but next to me.  His head seemed enormous.

“You can’t go that way,” it said.

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t belong in there.  Our home is outside the jungle.  Besides, the anaconda blocks the only path.”

A giant anaconda was rolled up in a coil, apparently sleeping.  A swarm of vicious flies hovered over its muscular body.  I looked around for the shaman, but he was gone.

“Then I’ll go over it,” I said.

The turtle laughed.  “You can’t get over it.”

I crept up to the snake.  Just as I prepared to crawl over him, he whipped out his tongue and flicked it rapidly.  Then, with amazing quickness, he uncoiled his head and came at me with his fangs.  I pulled back and suddenly found myself in a cave.  I could hear the anaconda’s voice.

“You shouldn’t have gone down this path.  Why are you so foolish?” He waited for me to answer, but I didn’t want to give away my hiding spot by speaking. So I remained silent.  The anaconda laughed.  “You think you can hide safely under that shell?  I can flip you over, pull you out, and devour you.”

I felt his head start to burrow beside me.  I quickly dug myself into a hole making it impossible for him to get under me to flip me over.

“He laughed again.  “What a hole you’re in now!  You can’t stay there forever.  Eventually you’ll have to come out.”

A flash of light swept briefly before my eyes.  And then again.  First it was a flash of red.  Then a flash of green.  The colors were iridescent and beautiful.  Finally darkness was lifted completely and I was again face to face with the anaconda.  His gaze, however, was skyward.  I looked up at the brilliant colors blazing through the sky.  It was the Cayramashi.  My spirits were lifted and I wanted to be with its beauty.  My shell was in its talons.  It flew on into the jungle.  I had a surge of energy.  I rose to my feet and leapt over the anaconda before he could react.  I raced through the forest with amazing speed.  I was a jaguar.  I jumped over fallen trees and burst through dense foliage as easily as a bird flies through a cloud.  The Cayramashi was overhead, appearing and disappearing behind the leaves of the trees.

Finally, the Cayramashi came to a stop and perched itself high on a hill.  I tried to follow but the hill was slippery and steep.  I couldn’t gain enough traction to climb.  High above, the shaman sat next to the Cayramashi, but neither he nor the bird offered any help.  “Patience,” he said.

Then an explosion blasted through the forest.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Hunters.”

I heard another shot.  Closer.  I panicked.  “What are they hunting?”

“Probably jaguars.”

I looked for a place to run.  Another shot rang out, this one closer.  My eyes opened.  “What was that?”

The shaman was sitting across from me.  A candle lay burning between us.  “Hunters.  Don’t worry.  They’re on the other side of the river.”

“What are they hunting?”

“Jaguars, probably.”

“Did I already ask you that?”

“Don’t worry about it.  Sleep.”

I put my hands on my head and felt my hair, and my forehead, and my nose, and my ears.  I lay back down on the ground and closed my eyes.  The jungle noise once again filled my ears and fading glitters of light poked through the blackness in my mind until I fell asleep.

Dodgeballery

(A sensical poem inspired by Jabberwocky)

‘Twas bleak and my slimy foes
Did gain throughout the game
So flimsy were my teammates’ throws
At last, only I remained.

“Beware the dodgeballs and run!
Don’t lose your fight and make the catch!
Watch out for Eric Anderson—
He’ll try to finish out the match!”

I took the red ball in hand
One against five I fought.
And while my ousted teammates cheered
One—two—three balls I caught.

One against two is how it stood
And Anderson with eyes of flame
Came charging over the shiny wood
And snarled, hissed, and aimed.

One-two, one-two I ducked and threw—
My red ball made a smack.
I had hit his head so hard and firm
He landed squarely on his back.

Finally, it was one on one
And my teammates cheered with joy:
“Way to play!  Hooray Hooray!
You’re the miracle dodgeball boy”

‘Twas bleak yet my slimy foes
Did fall before my aim.
But so flimsy was my final throw
It was caught —I’d lost the game.

Distracted Writing at a Coffee Shop

I was working on a novel filled with shady characters when a guitar/piano duet entered the coffee shop followed by their adoring fan.

She comes to support the two guys who are playing background music at a coffee shop at a volume so low you can only hear it if you’re sitting within five feet of them.  The guitar player is lightly finger-strumming on a nylon guitar and bobs his head in syncopation with the beat as if he’s feelin’ it even as the customers are barely hearin’ it.  The piano player tickles the treble, white keys while ignoring the black ones.  His left hand is dead in his lap.  Bashful musicians.  She sits and eats a sandwich.  Taps her feet to the staggered rhythm.  Sways to the beat.  Smiles.  Silently snaps her fingers in approval when a song finishes.  She is the only one listening or paying attention.  But she doesn’t feel awkward about it.  She is completely invested.  The guitar player text messages someone between songs while the piano player plays arpeggios.  When there’s a lull, she texts as well.  The piano player falsettos some Richard Marx and she laughs a cozy laugh, the kind that causes the shoulders to scrunch inward and the eyes to squint.  Next song she sighs, looks down in reflection for just a moment as if to regather her enthusiasm, then resumes her swaying for a little bit.  After this song she snaps with only one finger.  She’s fading, staring off into nothing, but still engages the guys with supportive smiles.  They’re why she’s here.  But she is the brightest star in the coffee shop.

 

Houdini Nation

An acquaintance of mine recently came back from a medical mission in the Dominican Republic.  What caught his eye and what he wished to impress upon me was the abundance of poverty and squalor.  “But how are the people?” I asked.

“Surprisingly, they seem pretty happy,” he said.  “But they wouldn’t be so happy if they knew of all the things they didn’t have.”  Funny that this comment was coming from a man who drinks himself into oblivion at least twice a week to escape his loveless marriage and angry clients.

I’m not going set out to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness.  That argument has been made and pounded into our brains through literature, television, movies, and our own anecdotal experiences.  What I am curious about is why, when we live in such an advantaged society, we feel such discontent and a need to escape.  This need and revolt against the self has less to do with class than it has to do with being American.

You could say escape is part of who we are.  Most of us descend from people who fled their homelands for a better life in America.  When confronted with problems, like Huck Finn, our first instinct is to get away.  In fact, much of our culture is about getting away: going away to college, moving out after graduation, taking that transfer for the better job.  But whereas it once was external forces that prompted us into action, now we are escaping from ourselves.

We find escape from the confines of our marriages through affairs, escape from the stress of our jobs or joblessness through drugs and alcohol, escape from mundane drudgery through our virtual lives, escape from obligation through resignation.  We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that we can tolerate anything because relief has always been so instantly accessible.  Too bad relief is only temporary.

What the enlightenment taught us was an ability to look inward for strength, but this reliance on looking within has made us culturally narcissistic.  Consider some of the clinical characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder:

-The individual has a grandiose sense of self-importance

-The individual is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success

-The individual believes he or she is special and unique

-The individual requires excessive admiration

-The individual has a sense of entitlement

-The individual is interpersonally exploitive

-The individual lacks empathy

-The individual believes that others are envious of him or her

-The individual shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Not only does this characterize our brand of patriotism where national interest is front-center, but also our own practice of directing our life’s purpose towards serving the self.  Is that how we define success?  By the fruit of our careers?  By sexual fulfillment?  By attaining enviable status within our communities?  It’s our own version of the Greek areté, or all-around excellence.  Unfortunately, we are poor judges of the things that make us happy.  We become paralyzed by the duality of the mind, and have a tough time reconciling our narcissistic tendencies with our Christian virtues of humility, empathy, and charity.  Steinbeck nailed it on the head through his character Doc in Cannery Row.

“It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Just as a nation divided against itself cannot stand, an individual divided against himself cannot stand either.  We teeter on the brink of insanity, balancing opposite extremes.  The political polarization in our country actually reflects quite accurately the “schism of the soul” we are experiencing as individuals.

Generally speaking, we are a nation governed by a conservative conscience that is just an annoying voice set against our liberal vices.  We are outraged at the split-second sight of a female nipple on network television, yet we are the world’s biggest consumer of porn.  We condemn affairs and premarital sex but have our own.  We detest drunk drivers yet we frequently drink and drive.  We are walking contradictions.  It’s no wonder we’d want to get away from ourselves.

It’s like we live each day with so much regret for who we are and the things we have failed to do or the things we have done.  We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that happiness is one wish, one dollar, or one lover away.  What if instead of looking forward to what we hope could be, we looked around and reflected on what we have?  During my travels of through South America, while I did see a lot of poverty, I also found a lot of happy people.  It was refreshing.  The one thing they had in common was a tie to each other.  Family.  Community.  In our Houdini nation of escape artists, we are becoming lonelier.  In the end, isn’t that what we fear most?  In the end, will we realize, as Christian told Jack in the final episode of Lost, that “the most…important part of your life, was the time that you spent with these people…You needed all of them, and they needed you.”

A Contemplation on Daniel Lee’s Nightlife

Click the picture to visit Daniel Lee’s website

NIGHTLIFE

She sits on a table at the far end of the bar,

legs crossed,

her feline eyes—passively sympathetic—pouring into mine,

while the fuse between her fingertips expires.

Only she finds me,

me, the animal trapped on the other side of the divide,

awaiting slaughter

While they avoid my eyes.

They with their cocktails and coffees

            the bear with a tigress in his lap

(he, protecting? or she, shielding?)

the monkey in the middle

impassioned in a terror that never presses too close

the boorish man,

watching my passing as if it were a 30-second ad

the long-faced lady in the red gown

Banished from the ball for pulling her own carriage

the sexy snake seducing her mirror,

Yes, the whore,

the horrified, the perverted

all watching something I cannot see

except she

in the green

at the end,

helpless,

yet watching me

in the end.

Hail Mary Holy Day

A Sunday score

  strangers rise en masse

  pulled from their seats

  agape in spontaneous inspiration

  connecting hands

  celebrating

  with devoted fervor

  idols of the gridiron

A communal moment

  a moment divine

  a glorious time

  with a singular purpose

  resolute and unquestioned

And God

  the distant spectator

  always on one side

  or the other

  depending on who wins

The End of the World

El fin del mundo

On the road—in the buses, in the hostels, on the trails—we all have our Lonely Planets as our guide.  Most of us have backpacks that have been repaired multiple times.  We carry some of our indulgences whether they’re our music on our ipods, a box of our favorite chocolates, or a paperback book.  Some of us pack our memories and our dreams like bundles of laundry, only removing them every week or two until they get tossed back and buried under the heap.

I awoke early this morning, anxious to get a jump on hiking opportunities.  When I opened the door, the wind bit into my skin and a light snow fell, so I hurried across the courtyard toward the communal showers desperately hoping there would be hot water today.  I was in luck.  The warm water felt great, and I grimaced at the thought of going outside again.  Today was my last full day in Tierra del Fuego and I wanted to make the most of it.  I found a cheap flight that leaves tomorrow and makes a stopover in El Calafate before continuing on to Buenos Aires.

The manager of the hostel, who has grown to like me despite an angry outburst from my compatriot and former roommate, suggested I go to the national park, and she arranged for a shuttle to take me and a few other guests first thing in the morning.  There were no other guests in the cab.  When I arrived at the park, there were no guests at the park besides the campers who huddled together in their tents.  I was alone.  Most people did what you should do on a day with forty-mile-an-hour winds and subfreezing temperatures.  A few curious rabbits seemed amused by my presence.

There wasn’t enough snow to stick to the ground, but there was enough moisture on the lush, bent grass to soak through my tennis shoes.  But my luck had not faded.  The snow had kept away the crowds, and less than an hour into my hike, the clouds drifted away and the sun appeared.  It was perfect weather, and I was alone to enjoy its beauty.  Beautiful channels and lakes scattered over the landscape like footprints.  The scenery was dreamy with soft, pressed grass, snow-blanketed mountain tops, dwarflike trees, and countless patches of white orchids.  There is no better meditation than to be alone in nature’s glory, and I soaked it in for all it was worth.  By the time I reached the lookout point at Lapataia Bay, I was joined by a few dozen Japanese tourists in bright orange jackets who had been bused to this point at the end of Route 3.  They were all eventual passengers of the cruise ship docked at the port.  The jackets had been an added extra with the purchase of their fare.

I found a secluded spot to eat the lunch I had packed, a ham and cheese sandwich, my specialty according to my cousin Ana.  Even the most basic foods taste better in a perfect setting, and I savored each bite with unrestrained delight before moving on my way.  Beyond a grove of trees in another secluded area I discovered a familiar family—my Argentinean roommates.  They each greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and wide smiles, even the daughter.

“Would you like to hike with us?” asked the mother.  “We keep getting lost.”

We had rarely crossed paths in the room.  They were asleep when I returned to the room with Kate last night and I was up before them this morning, but out in the wilderness, it was as if we were lifelong friends.  I got them back on track and we walked and talked, climbing hills and tracing lakes.  Besides introductions, I had hardly used my Spanish since leaving Montevideo and talking to the mother and son gave me a great chance to practice.  The daughter, however, either raced far ahead or lingered way behind but wouldn’t join in the conversation.  Her reticence concerned me and I strode ahead to catch her.  “How are you enjoying the hike?”

She barely acknowledged me and gave me only a fleeting glimpse of her eyes.  Then I understood why she had shied away in previous encounters.  “I can’t hear,” she said pointing to her ears.  Her speech was rough but I understood well enough.

No problema,” I said.  “No hablo bien.”

This time she read my lips and laughed.  From then on she was more at ease.  After the park, we shared a taxi back to town and the mother invited me to join them on a catamaran in the Beagle Channel.  The boat had three levels and we chose a booth on the middle.  While we were still moored to the dock, the two teenagers explored the upper and lower levels.  My mind filled with expansive empty space.  I leaned my head against the window and gazed out at the shore as we finally drifted away.

End of the world, beginning of everything

A dark morning had turned into a perfect day.

Rainbow over the Beagle Channel

In Ushuaia

Midnight in Ushuaia

WE ARRIVED in Ushuaia last night at 10:30 pm, but the sun remained hovering midway up the sky.  The bus came to its final stop by the pier near several medium-sized vessels that were dwarfed by an Antarctica-bound cruise ship.  As we got off the bus a crowd of salesmen swarmed us with offers to stay at one of their hotels or hostels, but I had already made a reservation the day I left Montevideo.  An Israeli girl I had been talking to since the ferry across the Strait of Magellan jumped at one of those offers and before I knew it, she and her uncle and brother were in a van, out of my life and into my memories.  The other passengers dispersed leaving me alone with my overstuffed pack and a crude map of Ushuaia.  In Ushuaia the wind blows only from the south and the diminutive trees bow in penitence.  And if light could blow in the wind, here it does.  It blows into you.  It blows through you.  It fills you.

I followed the road listed on the map and climbed a steep hill, but the road ended at a cliff before I reached my hostel.  Playing in the streets were a couple of kids (What is bedtime in a land that never darkens?) whom I could have asked for directions, but I felt confident in my ability to find my destination.  I turned on a street then onto another paved road whose incline was so severe I thought any wind from the opposite direction would send me tumbling down several blocks before depositing me in the water.  But the wind was at my back pushing me onward, and eventually I discovered the road restarted atop the cliff.  My back ached by the time I reached the hostel, but my body and mind were confused as if I had jumped time zones.   All I wanted to do was sleep in a bed.

I was assigned a room with a mother traveling with her fifteen year-old daughter and seventeen year-old son.  Two other pairs of unmade bunk beds appeared occupied with clothing strewn over the sheets, so I threw my bag onto the top bunk above the teenage boy.  I introduced myself in Spanish, and as it turned out, the family in my room was from Argentina—Mar de Plata—and Spanish was the only language they knew.  Oddly, they seemed to be the foreigners.  I spoke with the mother and son, but the daughter shied away and hid herself under her covers.  Had I interrupted an important conversation or was my presence making her uncomfortable?  She didn’t even introduce herself but instead allowed her mother to do it for her.  Ultimately, I retreated into my thin, stiff pillow and fell asleep before the midnight sun’s final light receded.

I slept until eleven o’clock this morning and the Argentinean family had already left for their day’s excursion, but two young women were sleeping on the bunks on the opposite wall near the door.  A wild night possibly?  Their faces had that contorted look that showed how they fell into their bed last night is where they remained until the morning.  By the time I returned from taking a shower in the communal bathroom across the courtyard, the two were stirring.  We performed our Spanish introductions before settling into English.  Lauren was a British university girl on holiday and Julie was a young professional from New York.  They had a reasonable explanation for their wild night: they were celebrating Lauren’s birthday.

“It’s my birthday today,” I told them.

“Happy birthday,” said Lauren, “but I don’t think we can do another night like last night.  We’ll go to lunch with you though.”

We walked into town for lunch, but it was a hurried affair as Julie had an early afternoon plane to catch back to Buenos Aires and then on to New York City.    She was also insistent on visiting a shop to buy a “fin del mundo” t-shirt, so we went shopping afterward.  How it could be so hard to buy a t-shirt, I don’t know, but nothing satisfied Julie.  She was so tightly wound that any minute it seemed as if she’d spin out of control.  Her excuse was a guy.  She was not the first of many solo female travelers I’d encountered whose response to a bad breakup with a boyfriend was a trip to a place as far away as possible.

“So if a guy tells you he doesn’t love you anymore and moves out and never returns your phone calls, do you think it’s over?” Julie asked.  “We were so good together.  Four years!  That’s what I gave him before he pulled this on me.”  She stuffed her new t-shirts into her luggage.  “I just hate putting all those years to waste.  For nothing!”

“You enjoyed your relationship then?” I asked her.

“Yeah.”

“You have good memories?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, keep those good memories and move on before they turn bad.”

She scowled at me.  “I took this trip to put him out of my head.  But I can’t.”

“How long have you been away?”

“Ten days.”

“You should stay.”  I told her.  “Give yourself at least a month.  You’ve already made it this far.”

“I can’t.  I have to work.”

“Quit.  Relax.  Believe me.  You need to.”

She dropped her eyes as if in prayer.  “I know.  I should.  I should stay.”

It is here in Ushuaia, the precipice of our hemisphere, where the road ends, you pause, then turn around and start again.

Freedom’s Just Another Word

Consider Bob.  Bob wakes up at six a.m. when his alarm goes off.  He doesn’t want to wake up.  He stayed up all night playing poker.  He was up a hundred bucks at the beginning but ended the night with pretty much the same amount he brought to the table.  Kind of the story of his whole life.  It’s the price to pay for friendship.  His wife will later accuse him of being greedy and trying to win it all, but there’s no way she’ll ever understand the social taboo of winning your friends’ money then leaving without sharing a few drinks.   They would deride him for putting money over friendship, as if money had nothing to do with poker night.  The point is, he’s pretty bitter about not being a hundred dollars richer, and now the alarm is hammering into his head.  He has a choice.  He can go back to sleep and miss work, or he can get up and get ready.  Or he can take the middle rode and hit snooze, making a sacrifice with each press of that oversized button: first the breakfast, then the coffee, then the relaxing shower, then the careful shave. And if his flailing arm becomes so automatic in its slap of the snooze that he’s not even consciously aware of it until it’s 7:25 and he has to be at work at 8, then he might have to skip the shower and shave altogether and opt for a greasy swipe of deodorant instead.  Today he gets up on time as if he’s a puppet of obligation.

By 7:30 he’s on the road.  It takes him longer than he thinks to get out of his neighborhood because there’s only one way in and one way out.  But since he’s moving at the speed limit he doesn’t get the absurdity that even though the main road passes directly behind his property, it takes him seven minutes to exit the neighborhood, loop around the block, and make it to the main road.  While another access point to the main road would open his neighborhood up to thru traffic, that’s the last thing he needs when he has two kids who like to play outside.  Once he meets the main road, rush hour traffic is a bitch.  There are no shortcuts.  Apparently, others don’t like thru traffic through their neighborhoods either.  The city planners are idiots, he thinks.  And does every mom need to spoil her kids by driving them to school instead of making them ride on the buses, which are running half empty?  He convinces himself that if he lets that red Mazda cut in front of him, that that is going to make the difference on whether he is late or not.  He squeezes the gap, but damn that bitch to hell, she cuts in front of him anyway.  Everyone seems to be conspiring against him to make him late.

Didactic aside.  The truth of the matter is that commute times to and from work have been consistently about 30 minutes on average for the last 4000 years, as if that’s the threshold to which humans can endure without going insane.  Once, Prehistoric Joe probably thought it would be much easier to live right next to the river, but after one good flood washed away their clubs and hides and especially after the subsequent tongue lashing from Prehistoric Jane, Joe knew better than to settle so closely to their water supply.  Even Roman planners built their cities with a 30-minute commute in mind.   The outskirts of a Roman city could not be more than 30 minutes away from the center.  As we move faster our cities have grown bigger.   When that interchange Bob and three hundred other angry motorists complain about is completed, it will only facilitate more growth in the area and traffic will swell once again.  The half hour commute is here to stay, but we won’t tell this to Bob.

He gets to work, which, even though it makes him stressed by the end of the day, isn’t that traumatizing in the grand scheme of things.  He likes to flirt with Wendy.  Of course, his wife wouldn’t approve, but it’s not like she (his wife) can see him.  He’s a free man when he’s at work, unless he slaps Wendy on the butt, which he’s really itching to do, but he’s worried doing that might get a sexual harassment claim levied at him.  Damn those frivolous lawsuits and feminist laws that prevent him from just being a man.  Once a year, he and every other employee at the office have to attend sexual harassment awareness meetings and sign off that they’ve read the information pamphlet carefully and promise to abide by company procedure or else face disciplinary action or even termination.  Rules, rules, and more rules encroach on his freedom to reach out and meet that sumptuous tush.

Meanwhile, Wendy is the first of three generations of female workers in her family to be able to go to work free from the abuse and degrading behavior of her male coworkers.  She’s not a liberal feminist and hates when people label her as such.  Nevertheless, she goes home angry that her boss can be so hardheaded and that she’s been passed over for a promotion when she’s clearly more qualified.  She knows the real business, as far as the internal politics is concerned, goes on after work when the men hit up the neighborhood bar and share a few drinks before going home.  She’s never invited…anymore.  She was invited once, but since she’s not a drinker, she ordered a lemonade.  The others teased her before settling into an uncomfortable period of awkwardness where they weren’t willing to relax and talk until she took a swig of some real stuff.  A co-worker tried to buy her a shot.  She politely pushed it away, and he reacted as if she’d just slapped his momma on the face.  Damn social entrapments.  But she’s an independent woman, thirty-five, and still in her entry-level job.  Today on her way home, it’s Rush hour—Rush Limbaugh.  He’s making her angry—in a good way, she thinks.  She’s being enlightened.  She works her ass off and these socialists in power want to give her hard-earned money to people too lazy to work.  Her husband calls just as the show is getting interesting.

“Hey, hon.  I’m just getting off of work, but I’m going to stop at the supermarket before I get home.  How was your day?” he asks.

“Fine,” she answers, as if she could say anything else.  She’d like to tell him how crappy her day was—he’s her husband for God’s sake—but the times that she’s tried this, he’s slowly retreated into a secret tunnel inside that cave that is phone silence.  Neither of them feels free to ask anything that might penetrate their wall of security.  She can’t ask him where the money goes, because he might take it that she doesn’t trust him.  They don’t trust that the other can handle inquiring questions without becoming defensive.  So, they don’t talk anymore.  Really talk.  To each other, they’re just safety belts that come into use only in case of an accident.  One day, unless an accident saves it, their marriage will collapse on itself.  Maybe she secretly hopes for this.  Bob at work seems to be interested in her.  “Damn those lazy socialists!” she yells after she hangs up the phone.  She’s almost home when she remembers that she’s out of dog food and she’s mad at herself for not telling her husband to pick up some at the store.  Whatever.  Let them eat steak, she thinks, but Steve her husband will volunteer to go back to the store and buy some food, making her feel guiltier in the process.  She turns around and detours to the pet store.

Steve returns from the supermarket, and his wife is still not at home.  Did she go drinking with the guys again?  He went to a company party once and saw how Bob looked at her.  Is something going on?  Is she with him?  He can’t stand the thought.  At first he’s saddened, then he’s angered.  He calls her again, but she doesn’t answer.  Since he lost his career job when his company went belly-up, he’s been working at the Shoe Palace selling ladies’ shoes.  Doesn’t pay well.  Better hours though.  But he senses Wendy’s resentment at their lower lot in life.  He’s tried to be a better husband.  More helpful.  But the truth is she’s the breadwinner, and that’s just not acceptable to his family, especially his brothers who tease him mercilessly.  He’s also ashamed when they go out with her friends from the office.   He feels small.  Each day that he tries to be a little more helpful to his wife, he feels a little more empty and depressed.  This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.  “The man is the head of the household,” his pastor said, but he sure doesn’t feel like it.  What else can he do?  Where is she?  That slut.  Oh, the love of my life, he thinks. We were happy once, right?  Stupid banks.  Stupid financial crisis.  Stupid deregulation.  Why doesn’t Wendy see that it was the Republicans that caused this?  She’s so cold-hearted and fixed in her ways.  Maybe Bob’s a Republican and is in to that free trade crap.  Free trade my ass.  It had a lot of costs.  Opened the doors to cheaper imports costing American jobs, my job.  Why doesn’t she answer the phone?  He’s feeling desperate.  He was going to cook dinner, but now he doesn’t feel like it.  He goes to his bedroom, but their happy wedding pictures on the wall make him feel even more depressed.  He goes into the bathroom.  Locks the door.  Here, he’s free.

A moral?  In our day-to-day lives we are free—and responsible—to make choices and accept the consequence of these choices.  We isolate ourselves in protected neighborhoods.  We hide in the anonymity of our cars where we feel free to unleash our anger.  While we are bound by some rules that are intended to protect the freedom of others, we are free to attack these rules as being to loose…or too strict.  We are free to tangle ourselves in our own abstract fantasies until we become victims of our own minds.  We are free to blame the government, though it has always struck me as odd that in one string of thought we can view the government as hopelessly dysfunctional yet still believe that this same government has the ability to manipulate our lives as if it were their personal agenda to make us miserable.   We are free to let our own fears and suspicions get the better of us even after we experience time and again that the cost of distrust is greater than the pain of betrayal.  Yet, we also are free to choose the things that will fulfill our lives.  We are free to consider that perhaps the things that anger us most are the things that really affect us the least.  Or we can stay angry.  We are free to embrace humanity, including our faults and missteps, instead of running from it.  We are free to perceive the world as we wish.

We are free to enslave ourselves.

We are free to escape.

Why I Don’t Hate Casey Anthony

“What do you think of the Casey Anthony case?” the barista asked me while I waited for my pineapple smoothie.

“I feel bad for her.”

Inside the tiny coffee shop, heads turned and jaws dropped. The barista seemed stunned. “You’re the only person I’ve talked to that feels this way, and I’ve talked to a ton of people about this.”

Perhaps it’s the writer in me that keeps my harsher emotions at bay. In fiction, for characters to be believable, they have to behave a certain way and are not allowed to defy the logic of their being. I have a deep sympathy for these villains who are unable to escape their own limitations. But Casey Anthony is not a fictional character, yet I wonder why it should be unnatural to feel bad for a woman who may or may not have killed her child. Even if she committed a heinous act, isn’t she a fellow human being. If religion does not beg us to care for all men, doesn’t civilization? Do we not feel compassion for those who slip and fall? I have heard my church pastor say that there is no man or woman so lost to be undeserving of our love. Do we begin to qualify this statement? It’s the same reason we don’t hate those who hate us or try to harm us. We may disapprove of one’s actions or disagree with one’s opinions, but to hate? Hatred has a way, once you let it in, of making itself comfortable and spreading like a virus, manifesting on the surface as anger and fear.

The gushing vitriol towards Casey Anthony is what is more unsettling to me than anything and reflects something about who we are as a country. We have become a country that lusts for opportunities to exact revenge, revenge against terrorists, revenge against ex-spouses, revenge against former employers, revenge against the utility or cable companies, revenge against opposing political parties. People will cite the “eye for an eye” aphorism, but it’s this type of thinking that we exchanged for what we call civilization. What if Casey Anthony were your sister, the one you grew up with playing with Barbie dolls or My Little Ponies? Or what if she were the next-door neighbor who helped you move in? We don’t know who she was nor can we determine the angle of reflection that shapes her perceptions of the world. We have a limited portrait, two-dimensional, painted largely by the media, of a woman whose entire life is now defined by one event. No man or woman is without redeemable qualities. No one but her knows if she feels pain or remorse. Something led her astray in life, but shouldn’t we be trying to steer her back on a path more agreeable to a civilized society? Hating her does not accomplish this. Neither does banishing her. For that matter, neither does forgiving her (forgiving only allows us to get back on the right path). And revenge doesn’t undo what was done. The best we can do is forget and move on…and allow her to move on.

If, however, we should insist on being angry, shouldn’t our anger be directed at the judicial system? Should we now condemn our founders’ ideal that it’s better to let nine guilty men go free than to send one innocent man to prison? Do we really want to reconsider this philosophy? I get a sense that as a society we already have. I think there are many now who would argue that it’s better to send nine innocent men to prison than to let one stinkin’, son-of-a-bitch, no-good criminal go free. It is reflected in our tendency to get the evildoers out of sight, out of mind, even if there is some collateral damage along the way. It is reflected in our urge to wipe Afghanistan off the map after we were attacked, even though it was a relatively small group that wanted to do us harm. It is reflected in our suspicions towards Hispanic minorities who might be here illegally. It is reflected in our attitudes toward criminals in general. In 1950, roughly 70 percent of the population believed the role of prisons was to correct behavior while 30 percent believed it was to punish. In a recent poll, those numbers have flipped.

We are dangerously veering away from what it means to be civilized. We are more concerned with forging a unanimity of opinion than welcoming opposing views not just for the purpose of debate but for deeper illumination. We live in an op-ed world where the news is no longer the news but endless commentary passed onto us as news. We are told what to think, how to feel. Instead, we should treat each suggestion with suspicion and ask questions. At one time, we had to guess at the opinions of our news anchors, but now their alliances are firm and conspicuous. And now, since we can broadcast our opinions on social media and message boards, it is no longer just the media stoking the flames of fear and hatred; we are cultivating our own mobs!

And here I am doing the same thing, using social media to opine with no authority to do so. But as a writer of fiction, I am feeling boldly uninhibited, which tends to happen to people who dance along the line dividing fantasy and fact. When I write, I feel obligated to explore deep inside the core of characters, extracting enviable qualities that are sometimes embedded within a coarse rind. I think a writer must willing to turn a villain into a hero or to find the darkened heart within a pleasant man because to do otherwise would be to imprison characters and to shield them from the life-shaping encounters with chance. I do this also because I am acutely aware of my own defects. I am defined by my limitations. Anytime I have a gut reaction, I check it with skepticism. I don’t believe any writer is so arrogant as to refrain from doubting every word set to paper, so our work is a result of wrestling with ideas and philosophies that never quite get resolved. As Anton Chekhov once said, a writer’s responsibility is to offer questions, not to answer them. The only point I feel I can definitively make is that it’s difficult if not impossible to be definitive about anything. It’s why writers often linger in shadows where forms are without absolute color or contour, and it’s why I resist my primal urge to hate Casey Anthony.